THE SHOES MAKE THE MAN

Wearing a pungent moth ball suit, a vintage wide tie, and sporting a narrow-brimmed plaid fedora, the gentleman leaned against the reception hall doorway. Worn, scuffed and old, his shoes clearly had been obtained from a specialty catalog for extra-small feet, crafted from dreadfully fake crocodile leather—the shoes, not the feet.

crocodile-shoes

“I detest weddings,” he said. “I’m here at yours because you’ve married my nephew, although for the life of me I don’t know why you’d want to.” His face broke into a grin, revealing creases on his forehead and laugh lines at the corners of his bright eyes, endearing himself to me forever. Here stood a man who’d obviously had his share of worries over things he could not control, yet a delightful individual who knew well how to laugh and smile.

Thirteen years later, his wife died. As soon as I heard through the family grapevine how lonely and depressed he was, I thought of my mother. She was perfect for him. Both widowed and sixty-five, the same religion, each as stubborn as the other—Gretchen and Enos Kimball married on June 8, 1980.

wedding-cake

After their honeymoon, I helped Mom place Enos’ clothes on hangers. I’d never seen so many dress suits in one place except at Sears and Roebuck’s. Mom wrinkled her nose, mumbled something about every man needing a good woman, wondered aloud if he’d ever had his suits cleaned, and she promptly confiscated a few items for a much-needed trip to the dry cleaners.

My eyebrows rose with delight as we opened a large cardboard box of capped toe burgundy oxfords, ebony wing-tips and chocolate loafers with tassels. He even owned one nice pair of sleek, black leather dress boots that zipped up just above the ankle. In a smaller box we found several pair of over-the-shoe rubbers and wooden shoe forms to keep his collection in perfect condition.

Mom sighed. “I suppose there’s nothing we can do about all of these shoes.” She placed each pair on a shoe rack and slid the smaller box onto the shelf at the top of the closet. “Mercy! Look at this atrocious pair,” she gasped.

They were the crocodiles! I grabbed them and held them to my heart as you would a treasured family heirloom. “He wore these to my wedding! That’s the first thing I noticed about him that day.” Mom snorted and said that on their wedding day if, after walking up the aisle, she’d seen them on his feet, she’d have turned and run away!

A couple of weeks after the bride and groom had settled into married life, the crocodiles found a home right beside Enos’ recliner, patiently waiting for him to go for the mail, bring in groceries or rev up the lawnmower. Obviously his favorite pair, and my dear mother never said a word about them.

They’d been married sixteen years when Mom’s chemotherapy treatments began. My husband and I lived next door, so twice each day for ten months I followed the narrow path between our houses with their meals. She’d lost her appetite, so Enos created ways to make sure she was nourished. She was his main concern, and her main concern was for Enos. How would he manage alone if she didn’t make it? I told her I’d take care of him.

I eased my car into their driveway and he slid into the passenger seat. After we’d selected her casket and the orange and pink tropical flower arrangements, Enos thanked me for playing Cupid. “Every day was a new adventure with your mother in my life,” he said. I told him I’d promised to look after him. He nodded his approval and relaxed just a little. For the next seven years, I walked over every evening with a well-balanced meal or he’d mosey across the yard to our house for dinner with us.

One late afternoon, I took a pot of chili over and sat across from him at the table to chat. He spoke in complete sentences, but they made no sense. I thought he’d had a stroke and I called an ambulance. Brain cancer—according to the doctor. Exactly one month later, I found myself selecting a suit and accessories for the funeral home. After eyeing the alligator shoes, the funeral director kindly told me they wouldn’t be necessary. Good, I thought. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to them anyway.

Standing next to his casket, I was amazed at how young he looked, not at all his eighty-nine years. Did anyone else suspect that his feet were adorned with only black dress socks but no shoes? I’d placed them on the floor of my closet, in plain view, so that I could visit them every day while selecting my own wardrobe, and each day thereafter I relished the memories of the unique and remarkable man I’d chosen as my step-father.

Today, I slip my bare feet into those unforgettable shoes as far as they will go, and I write this story. As my toes explore the hard, cool insides, for a brief moment I am Enos, a man who knows that shoes are merely an accessory. They only hold the feet; what matters is what holds our hearts.

Enos Kimball with his great-grandson, Jackson Coe

enos-and-jackson

Posted in Carl Sagan said what? | 4 Comments

TASTY SUMMER READS BLOG HOP

MY BOOK COVER

Marian Allen, a good friend and one of my very favorite writers, as well as a fellow member of The Southern Indiana Writers’ Group, invited me to participate in a “Tasty Summer Reads Blog Hop”, and I took the challenge because I like food. I mean, who doesn’t?

Here are the Random Tasty Questions:

1) When writing, are you a snacker? If so sweet or salty?

I’m not so much a snacker as I am a drinker. Coffee with lots of real cream is my first choice. I custom-designed a coffee mug with the book cover photo of my latest publication, The Know-it-all Girl, on each side. I imbibe from that particular vessel to call to mind my accomplishment: writing and publishing the crazy story of my life! I also customized a mug with a much loved photograph of San Antonio’s River Walk, and I select that one when I’m editing the novel, River Walk Chameleon, if only to remind myself that the story is nearly ready for publication and while it’s taken me many years to achieve it, my goal is now in sight. To summarize:  I am inspired while writing, not by the “food” in the container, but by the presentation—the visual on the vessel itself.

My coffee mugRiverwalk mug

2) Are you an outliner or someone who writes by the seat of their pants? And are they real pants or jammies?

If I’m working on a novel, an outline is usually something I will sketch out in the beginning, but shortly after that, the seat of my pants takes over and I later discover the outline hiding under a stack of papers. Sometimes I’ve followed it and sometimes I haven’t, but the results are exactly what I’d been going for. I once had my own bookkeeping business, working out of my home office, and I found the routine of not having to get dressed for work, and no morning rush-hour traffic exhilarating! If what you’re doing works, why change it? So I write early in the mornings in my jammies.

3) When cooking, do you follow a recipe or do you wing it?

I have a stack of recipes about a mile high. Look in my filing cabinet and you will find an organized Recipe File with separate folders stuffed with magazine and online print-outs from A to Z—Appetizers to Zen Dog Snacks

One important thing every writer should keep in mind: People. Eat. Food. Include all five senses in your stories, poems and novels. Smell the Hungarian stew; roll coconut flan and crème brulee around in the roof of your mouth; capture the sounds of clinking silverware and crystal champagne flute toasts. Your readers will thank you and develop a craving for your next book.

4) What is next for you after this book?

After River Walk Chameleon goes live (RWC contains recipes for Cucumber Lassi and Gazpacho from a fictional first-floor restaurant), there is a YA novel on the table about Toby Torres, a middle-schooler who accidently conjures Grandma’s ghost. Grandma shares an old Butterscotch pie family recipe.

I am especially pleased to be working as a writing coach for a gentleman who is constructing his memoirs in Spanish. While interviewing him recently in San Juan, Puerto Rico, he introduced me to the Piñones, a quaint area with colorful kiosks on both sides of winding streets, serving local fast food. We stopped at Donde Olga, where we ordered Alcapurrias—fried ground beef filled fritters from the Caribbean made from a mixture of grated yautia (taro root) and green banana; and Bacalaitos Fritos—codfish dipped heavily in a flour-based batter and deep fried. Puerto Rico is definitely in my future travel plans!

5) Last question…on a level of one being slightly naughty and ten being whoo hoo steamy, how would you rate your book?

The Know-it-all Girl is rated “PG”, for it is the transparent story of my life as a Jehovah’s Witness, starting as a child and growing into womanhood, jumping through hoops of a tight-boundaried religion, and finding freedom only when I take religion out of the of “how to be a human” equation. While it is a transparent story, it isn’t a steamy one, although it could have been. I chose to write it with delicacy and self-respect, to make the book suitable for all audiences. But just wait for the movie version if you want steamy. Wait for it . . .

Me and my coffee mug

Sample from The Know-it-all Girl

After my first few attempts at fixing our evening meals, Jim grumbled saying this was not the way supper was supposed to be. It should consist of one meat and two vegetables.

I tapped a fingernail on his Melamine plate. “Well, there’s your fried pork chop next to a baked potato, and here’s your lettuce salad.”

“That’s not two vegetables.”

“What would you call it, then?”

“It’s one vegetable and a salad. A green salad is not a vegetable—it’s a salad,” Jim said. “My mother could tell you that. Why can’t you make mashed potatoes like hers?”

I picked up Jim’s knife and fork and sliced the potato entirely into two halves. I put one half on either side of the pork chop. “There you go—two vegetables!”

“We’ve had baked potatoes three nights in a row.” He threw both potato halves into the pink waste can, slammed out of the trailer and spun gravel as he rocketed his yellow Rambler out of its parking space. I could only imagine the neighbors, peeking through their glass louvers, knowing the newlyweds in the little pink trailer were at it again. (Yes, its exterior was pink, as well.)

The next day I emptied the trash and found a paper sack from Crider’s Drive In. Gosh darn it . . . he went out for a double Crider Burger and fries—my favorite!

RECIPE FROM “THE KNOW-IT-ALL GIRL”   TUNA CASSEROLE

At eighteen, I knew only how to make a mean pie crust and tuna casserole, which is why my new husband, Jim, complained about the variety, or lack of, on his dinner table back in 1966. I made tuna casserole at least once each week. Jim hated it. I loved it.

Add a medium-sized package of dried, curly noodles into salted,boiling water and cook until done. Drain noodles and set aside. In an oven-proof skillet, melt 1/2 stick of real butter, add a green pepper which has been cut into small pieces and an onion which has been chopped up into equally small pieces. Saute until soft, but not browned. Add a can of Cream of Mushroom soup and one or two small cans of tuna, preferably the kind that is canned in olive oil, after draining the oil. Add one large can of chopped tomatoes with the liquid. Stir thoroughly. Add the cooked noodles and stir into the previous mixture. Add salt and pepper to your taste, along with a teaspoon of dried thyme, and stir once again. Sprinkle a cup or two of crushed Saltine crackers on top.

Bake at 350 degrees for one-half hour, or until the mixture bubbles and is heated through. Allow to cool for five minutes, then dish it out and enjoy. A pre-teen can make this with no problem, and that’s exactly when I learned to make tuna casserole, thinking it would serve me for the rest of my life. Which it has!

Posted in It's All About Me! | 3 Comments

GOING AROUND IN CIRCLES

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Going In Circles

It has been my goal to post on this blog once per month. That’s been all fine and good unless something monumental happens. And during the month of July, monumental happened. This post has nothing to do with Going Home and living life over gain, the main topic of this blog, but I feel compelled to write it just the same.

The day was Monday, July 1, 2013. Thirty-one days ago, and I’ve been going around in circles ever since. My son Jordan and his wife Arianna had a closing in Iowa City for the sale of their first home, and they were all packed and ready to start their journey to Knoxville, Tennessee for the closing the next day of their second home. We were all excited about that! I knew they would be arriving late to spend the night with us, and they would be hungry and tired, so I headed into New Albany to the grocery store around 10 o’clock in the morning to pick up a few healthy supplies. First, though, I had a craving for White Castle hamburgers, which happens almost every month, so I stopped there first. I dined in the front seat of my car, a little 2003 Toyota Echo. I’d had the car for two years and really loved that little car. What a gas saver it was! And the best thing about it was that it had belonged to my Aunt Sarah. I named my Toyota Sarah, in fact. After the luxurious White Castle breakfast, I drove into town, and headed up State Street to the Kroger Store. I’d pick up what I needed, run a couple of other errands I’d been putting off, and planned to make it home by noon. I thought.

Nearing Kroger, I approached Elm which is a one-way street that serves as an exit ramp at the beginning, from I-64W out of Louisville. To make a long story even longer, a 2003 Dodge Caravan 7 passenger van (with nine passengers in it!) ran the red light and Ker-Pow my Toyota was toast. Two witnesses to the accident were going the opposite direction from me, and they saw the accident in its entirety. One of them was a police officer, and it’s always good to have an officer of the law actually witness an accident. The other man ran to my car and opened my door. I was so grateful for him, because I knew I was in trouble and couldn’t function alone. During the impact, I felt and saw myself and my car going in circles. It was like a slow-motion ride, only fast. When my car came to a stop, I had ended up on Elm Street from my original location on State Street. My vehicle was blasted on the front, both sides, and even a tail light was broken, so go figure how that happened. When I opened my eyes, I saw a bright light. Not heaven, no, I think it was sunshine. My glasses were in the street, so I couldn’t focus, but my head had banged and bumped  against the inside of the car, causing a concussion.  That’s described as when the brain is treated like scrambled eggs. I still was seeing circles, and couldn’t possible walk, even if I could get out of the car, which I didn’t. The ambulance came lickety-split and I was put on a board in a neck brace. No, the board wasn’t in a neck brace. My neck was in that. You see, I still can’t think straight. That’s what concussions do to you. I am improving, however, and it’s been 30 days now. What we used to call Whiplash is now referred to as severe cervical sprain/strain. So with just a few cuts and bruises, that was my diagnosis along with the brain concussion. These are labels I am using to the largest advantage to get out of doing housework. My husband told me to milk it for all it was worth. So I did.

I had a CT Scan of the neck and was given some very effective medications, and was sent home after a few hours. When Jordan and Arianna arrived, I didn’t even get to take a peek at them, I was so banged up. On the days that followed I couldn’t stop my brain from going back and reliving the accident in great detail, over and over. I remember thinking it was funny that when I realized I was about to be slammed, my first thought was, Oh no, she’s going to hit me. And the next thought was, I really don’t have time for this. I have GOT to make it to Kroger! This is going to ruin my day.

This was my first accident. I hope there is never another one. I was really lucky; I’d worn clean underwear, in case anyone wonders, but it didn’t matter because the injuries were all above my shoulders. Oh well, my mother would’ve been proud.  I’ve changed since the accident. And I’m not referring to underwear. I’m referring to behavior—I’m a little paranoid now when I’m out driving. The first time I drove to the hairdresser, two miles from my home, I held my breath nearly the entire ride! I go out only when absolutely necessary, and I am even more of a defensive driver than I was before. I keep my cell phone in my purse, and nothing else loose lying about because it could get thrown out of the car or could hit a passenger while flying around. I knew this before, but I thought nothing would ever happen to me. Right. Anyway, I guess you could say I’m preparing for the worst, but it’s better to be prepared. I’m sure after another month or two passes, I’ll be just as reckless as I was before with all of my “stuff” in the front seat next to me: books, phone, grocery lists, etc.

2

My car was totaled and I have no idea what to replace it with. I got new glasses because my other ones broke. I think I’ve milked this thing to the max, and to my husband’s satisfaction, but I’ve been having ocular migraines, and can’t spend more than ten minutes at a time on the computer. So my ten minutes is up. I know this is poorly written, but I am doing my best. Surely I’ll be able to think straight again. Some days my neck hurts terribly, and other days it doesn’t hurt at all. Weird. Like I said, I know how lucky I am. I’m so glad to be alive.

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Posted in SO . . . THIS HAPPENED | 4 Comments

STUCKEY’S BACK IN THE DAY-1958

Billboards

“Another damn Stuckey’s. That kid’s pissed at every one of ‘em from Indianapolis to Chattanooga,” Blackie says. “If she was a dog, she’d be marking her territory.”

He is talking about me! I keep my eyes closed and lay perfectly still.

“Watch your mouth,” Mama demands. “You’ll wake her up.” Mama doesn’t hide her distaste for Eli Black, a tall, white-haired, down-on-his-luck alcoholic, who works with my dad in a smelly, old machine shop. Blackie wears his worn out gray work uniform even on weekends and he smells like chewing tobacco. The only thing good about him is when I ask for candy, he magically pulls a Clark bar out of his pocket. He’s lived with us for five months and my parents jumped for joy when he asked them drive to Miami and leave him there.

“Sorry ma’am. How much longer d’ya figure it’ll take till we get there, Bud?” Blackie asks my dad, who is behind the wheel. (Geez! I’m not even allowed to say, “Are we there yet?”)

“Depends on how many Stuckey’s there are between here and there,” Daddy says. “I guarantee she’ll want to stop at most of them.”

“Good thing you and Louise got the new Ford wagon. If we’re lucky, she’ll sleep the rest of the night in the back and we’ll pass a few of ‘em up.”

“Don’t count on it,” Daddy says with a chuckle.

“She watches those billboards like a hawk,” Mama explains. “Counts the miles ahead till the next one, then figures what time we’ll get there. She’s pretty good at math for a child her age. Right about the time we’re close, she claims she has to pee. What can you do?”

I squint with one eye and see the moonlight reflecting a self-satisfied expression off Mama’s face. I’m curled up in the back seat under a quilt; my arms wrapped around Bella, who is soft and stuffed, and my head is on Mama’s lap. The trip seems interminable to me. I’ve listened to their boring jabber for eight hours and napped briefly to escape. What else can I do? The only relief I get is when we stop for breaks, and Stuckey’s is the only fun place to stretch my legs.

We have traveled the Dixie Highway all the way from Indiana through Kentucky and into Tennessee. When we stop for gas, three cute guys in coffee-colored uniforms fill the tank, squeegee our windshield, smile and say, “Y’all come back!”

Up front, Daddy and Blackie take turns driving, while Mama and I sit in the back of our new, white Ford station wagon with no air conditioning or seatbelts. My sweaty legs stick to the red vinyl seats. Sometimes we lower the back seat and stretch out a little, but you have to be a contortionist to get comfortable, what with the green Coleman cooler and matching set of brown Samsonite, packed for the two-week trip.

Blackie loves country music, and the further south we travel that’s all I hear on the radio. Hank Williams’ song, Your Cheatin’ Heart, is forever embossed in my brain. I brought along my transistor radio with an earphone for one ear, but the southern radio stations don’t play rock and roll. I am ten years old and picky about my music.

Stuckey's interior

I always feel a thrill when we pull up to a Stuckey’s; each time is like the first! The windows are large, and, if I stand on my tiptoes, I can peer in from the outside and see through the whole store. Through the door, Mama and I always head straight for the ladies room, especially since I’d insisted I had to go. I love to read the stall door messages.  Tracey Was Here 1-30-58 and Alice +Jim= 4-Ever.

Then, on my own for a while, I traverse the aisles, pick up trinkets, check prices, then put them down again. I’ve never seen such really neat stuff.

“Hey Mama, look at this!” I call from two aisles over. It’s a four-inch tall Hawaiian beauty with a green fringe skirt and lei, doing the hula wiggle when I touch her. One of my favorites is the buttocks-shaped ashtray with instructions to ‘put your butts here’ painted on it. I always feel a little naughty for looking at that display. Ah, then there are the spoon rests and plaques for a woman’s kitchen: “No Matter Where I Serve My Guests, They Always Like My Kitchen Best.” Kitchens belong to women, and men dare not enter, nor should women stray far. I beg Mama to buy one of those plaques, but she won’t hear of it. Our kitchen is too small for the three of us, let alone any guests we might have over for dinner.

Two entire shelves are devoted to salt and pepper sets. I stand there, mesmerized by the matching outhouses, pigs, cows, half nude women, Florida oranges . . . “one hole on top for pepper and three for salt,” my mother instructs, preparing her daughter for when she will have a kitchen of her own. Such a variety of junk, a whole new world opens up to me at Stuckey’s.

I never fail to find something I want, but I can’t always have it. Like that little prancing dog, doing circles, yapping incessantly until his batteries go dead. Daddy rarely says “No” but the yapping dog is where he draws the line. One thing I always count on—he says yes to candy. It’s difficult to decide between the pecan log with its soft nougat center and crunchy pecan cover, or the maple pecan pralines that melt in my mouth like a spoon full of refined sugar. I select a box of salt-water taffy, and Mama and I chomp on pastel treats for a couple hundred miles down the road, while I stuff both backseat ashtrays full of waxed-paper wrappers.

We never leave the place empty-handed. There is always some little treasure I end up getting. A little plastic box with Mexican jumping beans (I take them apart to see how they work), a Georgia key chain, and don’t ask me why I want that, or a plastic ice cube with a fly in it.

I don’t know exactly how many stops we make on that trip, but we drive down the Atlantic coastline to Miami, drop Blackie off in a greasy fried chicken café and head home up the Gulf Coast. This is our first family vacation to Florida, and I guess there are at least a dozen Stuckey’s we grace with our presence. Every time we stop to eat, I drop that plastic ice cube into Daddy’s water and he always pretends to be horrified.

Most of my travel souvenirs come from Stuckey’s, with the exception of a small stuffed alligator and an Indian doll from the Seminole Reservation in the Everglades. Then there is the jar of red dirt, Georgia clay, which I bring home because I’ve never seen red dirt before. I insisted my parents pull off to the side of the road and collect some for me. They really seem to find it difficult to say no to my little dimpled

I grow up, marry and have a family; my kids grow up and move away. Both parents pass away. I get a divorce and am on my own. Time passes. We know it does. We know it will. We don’t usually measure it without a reminder. Recently, on a road trip to Florida alone, I listen to a book on tape, then some Barry Manilow, and I even carry on a conversation with myself in an attempt to escape boredom. When I cross the Kentucky-Tennessee border, I stop for gas. I use a self-serve pump since there are no attendants in uniform rushing to care for my every need. In my own defense, I think my mind is already in Florida even though my body is in Tennessee, and I forget to replace the gas cap. A mile or so down the road I notice the opened gas door in my side-view mirror, so I return to the station but can’t find the cap. Back on the road, irritated with my carelessness, I smile at the pleasant memory of my childhood. I had been surrounded then by people who did nearly everything for me, and I hadn’t the need to be responsible at all.

Stuckey's sign

Up ahead a billboard catches my eye; there is a Stuckey’s five miles down the road! My inner child claims she has to pee. I don’t believe her, but what can I do? It may be the aqua roofs that cause the feeling. Aqua represents water, and water . . . well I’ll leave it at that.

Aqua Roof

I pull into the parking lot and up to the curb. I can easily see through the large windows to the inside, don’t have to tiptoe anymore. I open the door and go in. It looks the same as I remember; it could have been one of the same stores from years ago for all I know. I visit the ladies room, and while the graffiti hasn’t changed much, it isn’t as clean as before.

I walk up and down the aisles, picking up trinkets, checking prices, putting them down again. I look at T-shirts and fireworks, all kinds of cheap souvenirs. Stuckey’s is not a place known for its art and beauty, yet I allow my eyes to absorb the wonderful interior of the place as, at that moment, the aesthetic value of my childhood returns.

I close my eyes. I smell disinfectant. Modern day, sterile smells. The sounds, however, are those from the past. Children select their candy treats; mothers slide metal hangers over circular rods, searching for the T-shirt value of their vacation. “Get over here, Jimmy, and stand still while I hold this up to you. I can’t bring it back to Tennessee if it doesn’t fit you when we get to the beach.” When the family checks out, I expect a “Have a nice day” from the sales clerk who was all of twenty years old. But he surprises me with “Y’all come back!” Now that’s a sound from the past.

“Do you have any Mexican jumping beans?” I inquire of him.

He looks puzzled. “No, ma’am.”

Why does he call me ma’am? “I guess they’re outlawed now due to cruelty to bugs or something,” I joke.

Puzzled again, he smiles politely. Poor kid, he was born thirty years too late.

I study the candy selection. Pecan logs are only three for a dollar, but I don’t buy anything. I have learned to say no to myself even though my parents never figured out how to do it. My adventure back in time takes no more than fifteen minutes, but it will be enough to calm me and keep me smiling for days. As I head back toward my car, I stop halfway there and think, oh, why not? and hurry back inside to buy a set of pink flamingo salt and peppers.  I never leave a Stuckey’s empty-handed.

S&P Pelicans

Posted in It's All About Me! | 1 Comment

The End of May Was Only the Beginning of My Summers

May 31, 2013  Memorial Day weekend a few days ago brought family fun, and as usual the 500 Mile Race on television, accompanied by an annual reminder of this story, originally published in an anthology called “Most Wanted” a few years back. I’m resurrecting it here this year:

THE HAMMOCK by Joanna Foreman

In my musty, mothballed canvas cocoon I sway, suspended between giant black walnut trees, my eyes tightly closed. Dark green leaves rustle high above, a chorus of whippoorwills and woodpeckers, mourning doves and katydids, and crows crying Caw, Caw, welcome back little girl. I dangle one leg in the unpolluted May breeze. It is not yet noon.

Inside the dusty kitchen of our summer cottage, my parents fuss and sweat as they eliminate caked mud left behind by spring floods. To my left, I hear Brandywine Creek tumbling over rocks and fallen branches, as she says, “Hurry, hurry, they’ve discovered our fury.” You’d better run away, I reprimand Brandywine, as she hastens to hide herself from my mother’s wrath.

To my right is our horseshoe court, where tonight I will gaze through the campfire’s vapor to a clink, clang, whoosh and a thud, followed by boisterous shouts from aunts and uncles as Mommy pitches a dead ringer, her scoffing challenge to the rest of them to just go ahead and try to beat last summer’s champion.

Beyond the horseshoe court, milk cows graze among us as though they own the entire farm. Their silent presence is broken only by their snorts and grassy snack-chomping and the occasional plop-plop of a cow pie. They are happy cows, and I am a happy girl.

My eyes are still closed, but I have it all memorized from summers past. Behind me sits the Bowman cottage—a little round trailer with a covered patio where adults drink Millers and play cards way past dark at homemade wooden tables. Inside, it has the odor of aged wood paneling mixed with old people’s breath. I hang out over there because of Butch, a boy and a friend, but not a boyfriend, you understand. Butch will eat nothing but peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. Once I offered him a quarter to eat tuna, or bologna, just anything but peanut butter, but he wouldn’t. He says it’s the only thing that hits that spot in his tummy. Butch Bowman finds the best hiding places in hide-n-seek, and last year he chased me with a little black snake and scared me so badly I made him play Barbie dolls with me for one solid hour. I listen for the sound of their car; they should be here soon.

Beyond their trailer the creek meanders with a winding trail alongside, scattered with cabanas. Not much farther now and I spy, in my mind, The Root Tree. Tangled inside and out, roots rise a foot above ground from times when high water feasted on rich topsoil then washed it downstream to disgorge it in our cabin. During long family walks, we kids will run ahead to play on the roots until our parents catch up, and finally lose their patience. “Come on—keep up,” they will plead, so we’ll scramble under the electric fence and spend a sunny afternoon fishing at The Pit, a hole so deep we aren’t ever allowed to swim in it. We suspect it goes all the way to China.

I open my eyes now and, sure enough, everything is just as I remember. Straight ahead, our simple, two-room cottage enjoys its one-hundred-year lease on a multi-acre dairy farm. The concrete patio Daddy poured last year shows, fresh and clean, the handprints of my cousins and me. Daddy has pulled our new white ’58 Ford station wagon up close behind the cabin, and he removes the block of ice we bought at the icehouse down on the winding blacktop road in Boggstown. By the time I opened the farm-gate entrance into the campground, the ice had already begun to melt, so when I rode in on the open tailgate, my new white shorts got wet, dang it! (I’m allowed to say that.) Daddy puts the frozen chunk in the bottom of the musty old fridge and we’re set for Memorial Day weekend.

How does country air smell? Fresh, like our sheets after my mother collects them from the clothesline. Of lilacs and peonies, of mint and rosemary. I fill my lungs with the bouquet of this Indiana camp, and I’m home again. Another Hoosier summer awaits; days of endless fun, and skies so dark at night you can see into the next galaxy.

Daddy says I am his princess when I help him prime the pump with creek water, and we will shout “HIP HIP HOORAY” when the Shelby County Health Department says it’s safe to drink from the icy cold well. We trace with our fingers the initials carved by my cousin Marsha and me into the concrete at the base of the pump: “JF MT”

A princess in a canvas throne, I swing the day away while they mop the cabin’s gray linoleum floor and scrape its meager furnishings. Only on occasion do I step up on a concrete block to survey adult progress. I peek through the old and dark, foul-smelling screens. I could help them, but I don’t. Well, when we first arrived I did tote a dead mouse out by his tail and watched him bob up and down as the current took him to his everlasting resting place. But for now the cottage reeks, and I fear I may faint, so in my hammock I remain. Each spring, high water brings the creek bank ever closer to our cottage, leaving a nasty mess inside. Dang, dang, double dang, I say. Always in May, we wonder if we will find our cottage lying upside down in the creek, having succumbed to Brandywine’s savagery.

I ask why they exert themselves so. “We’re making memories, Sweetie, don’t you know?”

Time now for Daddy’s beer break, so he joins me in the hammock. He beckons Nopi, my English setter, and her head bobs happily as she paddles across the creek. Daddy waves to Mommy as she cleans the outhouse. (Isn’t that the way it usually goes?

I shall not clean toilets when I grow up.) Nopi scampers up close to us and ferociously shakes off her creek water. Dang it, Nopi!

My Dad and I make plans to fish and squirrel hunt together this summer. I ride my bicycle without training wheels now, so I will attach bushy squirrel tails onto its handlebars, and they will flutter as I traverse Stratford Avenue’s sidewalks back home in the city. My girlfriends’ eyes will fill with wonder, for they have only plastic streamers. I will once again be a surgeon and remove eyeballs from cut-off fish heads. I will serve them to Mommy on a paper plate, and she will scream, “Ooey, Gooey, Accumpooey!” just like last year, and I will laugh my head off. I will dance around the cabin with a new upside-down mop upon which Mommy has drawn a face, and I will have fashioned its thick, white strands of hair into braids, tying their ends with satin yellow ribbons. What shall I name her this year, my imaginary friend?

Mommy stands over us now with a rake in her hand and tries to look insulted. She asks gruffly, “Where have all my helpers gone?” Daddy offers lame excuses and coaxes her to relax. “Hold the phone, Josephine,” he says with such a handsome grin. She leans over to kiss him and makes a big show of getting beer on her lips. “Oh yucky,” she feigns.

We wait for our guests: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and their dogs. How fine it is for everyone to have someone to play with, even Nopi.

The campfire will be surrounded by stories and family laughter tonight as clothes hangers walk around in the dark wearing such fashions as hot dogs and marshmallows. Crickets will chirp background music and fireflies will beg to be collected. When we finally slide into our feather beds made up with flower-fragranced linens, I’ll nuzzle my head onto an old goose-down pillow covered with blue-striped ticking, and share my little bed with a cousin more often than not, but some grown-ups will sleep in station wagons or in back seats of Chevys, for the cabin is tiny, but I never hear a complaint from anyone. Mommy will reach up to pull the chain from the overhead light.

Daddy will say, “Who darkied da hole?”

At sunrise Daddy will rattle metal spoons against metal pans and holler REVEILLE, our bugle call, just like when he was in the Navy during WWII on the USS Cliffrose. No one was allowed to sleep in then, so why should now be any different? But we don’t want to sleep our days away, because there is too much fun to be had.

Ducks quack when we feed them dried bread crusts, as we hike across the shallow end of the creek to the big, white farmhouse. The old red barn is a sacred cathedral with sweet smells of fresh cream mixed with new hay. We pay our rent to the farmer who invites us to visit anytime, and be sure to pick his field corn and search the woods for the rare morel mushrooms. Such delicacies! Mommy sautés them with butter in Grandmother’s cast iron skillet, and we close our eyes to savor each bite.

Soon black and yellow bumblebees will bore holes and build nests under the eaves, and lie in wait for weekends when little cousins will become their horrified moving targets. They never really sting us, but we believe they will because they buzz so loudly. We will push each other on the tire swing hung on neighbor Tom Riley’s sycamore, and listen to our Indy 500 broadcast in stereo sounds from AM radios all over the campground. We will leap off the tree that, years ago, fell perfectly across the deep end of the creek, and we will splash and swim and shudder when we remember that one day, long ago, a boy drowned here. We will run around barefoot and pull leeches off each other without a second thought. Just who can skip flat stones the farthest across the creek? We will climb the tallest trees, collect paw paws, and by September will have compiled an enviable variety for next year’s school leaf project.

Everyone is welcome at our cottage, and when we watch the little road leading to it, we never know whose car we will spy on Saturday mornings loaded with coolers and casseroles, cakes and cobblers. Steaks and chicken grilled on our campfire, fresh buttered corn wrapped in foil, and no matter what the vast smorgasbord, oftentimes nothing hits that spot in my tummy like a hot dog. Daddy always tells Mommy to see that I get it; Auntie makes a clucking noise with her tongue and says it’s a shame the way he spoils me, but I am sure she does not yet fully understand the princess concept. Butch Bowman always gets his peanut butter, and I know for a fact there can be no royal blood in that boy.

Mommy, Daddy and me, all in the hammock now—Daddy’s toe tickles Mommy’s ear. I’m wedged in the middle, happily suspended in this moment in time.

Is this really true? They tell me it’s possible one day, a long time from now, I will have to give up one memory of summer camp, and, if so, which one will it be?

I say I’m okay with that as long as I have a lifetime to make the decision.

Hammock with Daddy

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The Firstborn Always Gets To Be Guinea Pig!

RockNRollerCoaster2

THE FIRSTBORN ALWAYS GETS TO BE THE GUINEA PIG!

Since he recently turned 40, I’ve been reminiscing about his birth and childhood and perusing old photo albums. There we were, in Nashville, Tennessee, and Jesse was just tall enough to reach the “You Must Be This Tall To Ride this Horrible Awful Scary Roller Coaster,” otherwise known as the “Rock n Roller Coaster” in Opryland, USA. As a GREAT mother, I knew it was time for him to take his first big-people ride, and this would be it.

Sure, Jesse was tall enough to ride the rollercoaster, but just barely. I’d ridden it a few times, the Rock n Roller Coaster, and it was smooth, tame compared to most adult-sized coasters. I wasn’t scared! But he was. Well, it was time to remedy that. The kid had to grow up sometime, and that summer seemed like a good place to start.

He stood closely beside me in the queue on the hot concrete that day, and it looked like he was taking the fetal position stance. (If it appears he didn’t trust me, it’s probably because he didn’t. I don’t know why.)

It went something like this: “I don’t want you to ride it, I just want you to wait in line with me, okay?

“I don’t want to ride it,” Jesse said.

“What did I just say? You don’t have to ride it, just stand here in line with me and keep me company.”

“So . . . I don’t have to ride it?”

“That’s right. Only if you want to, and I think you might want to.”

“But, what if I don’t want to? I DON’T want to!”

“Okay, then you won’t have to. Just wait in line with me, that’s all. I promise.”

“You promise?”

“What did I just say?

This went on throughout the entire line-waiting process, and the closer we got to the top of the wooden steps up to the platform, the more I thought I’d probably throw up. What kind of a mother does this to her tiny, baby boy? He was 8, or 9, I don’t recall. I decided we’d reach the top and take the coward exit back down the steps. No problem. Then, I’d never try anything like this again. Finally, it was our turn and as the train approached I said with one, last ditch effort, “Okay here it is. Do you want to ride it?”

“Um . . . okay.”

What had he just said? “Okay?” We slid into our car; I buckled him in and lowered the bar. I told him if he’d close his eyes and yell, “Jeronimo” at the top of the first hill, and all the way down, it would make the rest of it a piece of cake. He looked at me as though I’d lost my mind. “That’s the way your grandmother always did it. Trust me. It works!” But, how could he trust me after this?

We breezed through the trees in graceful circles, round and round. When we came to a stop. I watched him to see what would happen next.

“Can we do that again?”

“Sure, we can. Let’s queue up!”

And that, folks, is how you teach your son how to have fun, even when he thinks he can’t!

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Rite of Passage

J C penney

RITE OF PASSAGE

My mother and I made a ritual of shopping when I was a child. We’d take the city bus in Indianapolis and spend hours in stores, large and small, on the Circle in downtown Indianapolis. We were intelligent ladies who’d learned early-on the value of retail therapy. We’d enjoy a break at the L. S. Ayres Tea Room, then head to Kresge’s or Woolworth’s to make our purchases, gratified at the money we’d saved. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, she was teaching me the economics of life. Now, it was up to me to do the same for my son.

He turned 40 just a few days ago, which made me think back about all of the years I’ve enjoyed him, as my firstborn of three sons:

“Twenty-five, can you believe it?,” he groaned. “I’m getting old.” To the groan, he added a grunting noise as he got out of the car at the shopping mall.

“When I was your age, I found it difficult to get out of the car, too. That’s how old I was when you were born. Which means I’m twice as old as you are now. It doesn’t get any easier at fifty!”

Jesse’s shoulders drooped, carrying the burden of a quarter-century of time with nothing to show for it. He’d often lamented since high school graduation that he didn’t have a life. Now, his eyes seemed to plead with mine for some explanation as to where time had gone. I rolled my eyes and shook my head. My son would get no sympathy from me. I knew he would find a way to make his life happen. He’d moved out on his own a year earlier and was doing okay, so far.

He’d asked me to go shopping with him for a new pair of shoes and was determined to make the purchase a big project. He confessed that he had developed a fear of shopping alone, especially clothes. Hmmm, I thought. His father had the same phobia, and I suppose I had enabled them by always doing it for them, making their clothing purchases myself. An entire year had gone by and Jesse hadn’t bought himself a thing to wear. Apparently trying to locate the proper size gave him anxiety attacks.

Jesse looked down at his feet. “Do you know what these shoes have been through?”

Such a weird question, I thought. What did he think, that his shoes might have feelings of their own? I looked at them and saw the shabbiest pair of sneakers I’ve ever seen on a person who wasn’t homeless. I realized that I couldn’t recall a time when he hadn’t owned those shoes, and I replied that, no, I had no idea what stories his shoes could tell.

He elaborated. “I went to college in these shoes; I quit college in these shoes. I worked for Dad and quit working for him in them. I wrecked both my car and my truck while wearing these shoes. I spent the night in jail with them on.” He was looking right through me as though reading off a cue card. There was no stopping him.

Out of respect for his seriousness, I attempted to suppress a smile. When he finally concluded the story of his shoes’ history, he contemplated just a while longer and added, “When you think about it, whenever anything happens to me, it’s when I’m wearing shoes.”

Like someone in the audience of a stand-up comedy routine at the moment the punch line is delivered, I howled until my sides ached. But, was he really serious? I wondered.

Jesse offered a wry smile, both pleased and confused with his cleverness. After a pause, he asked me about Hush Puppies. I said it was a good name-brand and just too comfortable for words. He bought a pair that day and he was proud of himself, and proud of the shoes he’d selected.

He took me on a weekend vacation to the Smokey Mountains the following month. We drove my white convertible with the top down through the mountains and let our hair fly in the wind. We shopped like tourists do, and he treated himself (after much encouragement from a salesclerk) to an expensive German beer stein, the first of his collection. He also bought a new pipe and tobacco which he claims to be the smoothest he’s ever had. As the weekend neared its end, I caught a glimpse of him sitting  on the balcony, his feet propped up on the railing. He alternated between sipping wheat beer from his new stein and puffing on the pipe; sipping and puffing, eyeing the view of the mountains (or maybe just looking at his new Hush Puppies). I stood by the patio door, drinking in the sight of my quiet firstborn son, someone so different from myself and yet the same in many ways.

“Mom,” Jesse sighed, “I’ve got my stein, my pipe, and my Hush Puppies. All I need now is a good woman to smack on the butt once in awhile.” Jesse grinned up at me and I knew not to take him too seriously. About the woman, that is.

Now that he has new shoes, his entire life has turned around. He goes shopping all by himself with no anxiety. He moved into a new apartment, bought his first vacuum cleaner and a blender. He has everything he needs: a TV, VCR, cookbooks and a Sony Play station. After work, he experiments with exotic recipes and occasionally calls me to tell me how they turned out. He walks to Kroger, the bank, or to K-Mart in his new shoes. Jesse lives a simple, peaceful life and he is happy. He might believe he owes it all to his new Hush Puppies.

A few days after our mountain trip, I heard from his brother that Jesse had spent the night with a woman he’d recently met. I figured his brother shared this bit of gossip with me since Jesse was not known to be a womanizer. I had a notion to call and ask him if he’d worn his shoes. I decided it wouldn’t be the appropriate thing for me to do, being his mother and all.

Besides, now that he’s all grown up, surely to heaven he has learned when to take his shoes off.

Posted in HOW TO MESS UP YOUR KIDS IN FIVE MINUTES FLAT! | 6 Comments