Thursday, March 31, 2016

Cakewalk

Mom said, "Wear something nice, and go down to Ms. Jerrell's. She won a cake at the cakewalk
last night at the fall festival; and she just called and asked if you could come share it with her."
"She won a cake?" I asked.
I walked three times the night before, handing over a ticket a walk, fifty cents a ticket. Tinny music played in my ears as I stepped carefully around the circle. Every time they called a number, I checked the paper feet I'd landed on...no luck.
Ms. Jerrell was a retired first grade teacher. She was my mom's first grade teacher, over at the same school where she'd won the cake. Mom said she had no idea Ms. Jerrell's age. Her last year in the classroom had been my mom's first. My mom remembered her fondly.
"She was a good teacher," Mom said.
Now, Ms. Jerrell lived alone at the other end of the street. I had walked past her house hundreds of times. If I saw her in the garden or on the little covered porch, I always called out a friendly hello; but I had never been inside.
I knocked on the door and waited. I'm not sure what I expected...bright colors, picture books, a rocking chair.
I heard Ms. Jerrell fumbling with the lock on the door. When she opened it, I realized she was barely a head taller than I was; and I was only 8-years-old.
"Come in. Come in," she said. She stepped aside and waved me over the threshold.
"Congratulations on your cake," I told her politely. "It's so nice of you to share with me."
"Oh. It's too much cake for one" she said.
She shuffled off to the kitchen. I surveyed Ms. Jerrell's parlor. Dolls and cross-stitched pillows covered every chair cushion. I sat down on the black bench in front of the old Baldwin piano.
"May I play a song, Ms. Jerrell?" I called after her.
"Oh yes. Please play a song for us," she said.
I played a song...maybe one I knew by heart; but more than likely, I fumbled through the wilted sheet music perched above the keys. I'm sure I missed a sharp or two. An audience of China dolls watched, wide-eyed, from the chintz-covered armchair. My dusty fingers itched to pick them up; but I dared not disturb them.
While I plunked around on the loose keys, Ms. Jerrell clinked about in the kitchen.
"Bravo!" She exclaimed, appearing suddenly in the arched doorway, shuffling a bit in her scuffs.
"The cake is ready," she said, smiling broadly.
I followed her through an unused dining room to a round table, wedged in a kitchen corner. I could see a tangle of bare rose bushes through the glass panes in the back door.
Ms. Jerrell sliced through layers of chocolate and, with a shaky hand, served me first. We ate our cake from china dessert plates. Ms. Jerrell forgot to fill my milk glass; but I wouldn't have mentioned it for the world. The cake was moist, anyway; so it didn't matter.
"You must be very lucky, Ms. Jerrell," I said. "This cake is delicious. It must have been the best one to win."
We talked about school; and I'm sure I told her about the maps we were making, using dried beans and rice and yarn. I'm sure we talked about Ramona Quimby and cursive writing.
I ate a whole slice; and seconds when she offered.
When it was time to go, I stood awkwardly under the covered porch.
"Thanks again, Ms. Jerrell," I said. "I had a lovely time." I sounded like a girl from a book, I thought. If Ms. Jerrell noticed, she didn't seem to mind.
"Thank you," she said, "for a lovely visit."
I turned to go. I was the lucky one. Ms. Jerrell had taught hundreds of children over the years; and yet I was the child she chose to celebrate her winning cake. I could still taste the rich, fudgy frosting. I was not sure why I felt so sad as I walked home.

The Slice of Life Writing Challenge has not a been a cakewalk; but without it, I may not have sorted through my memories for this slice about a winning cake. I may not have remembered this story about the teacher who taught my mom to read. 
No, this March challenge has not been a cakewalk. Some days, I found myself walking round and round, hoping to be lucky enough to come up with a decent idea. Sometimes, I worried that my slices were too dry or too plain. It has not been a cakewalk; but it has been something worth celebrating. I have loved offering slices to all the readers who have graciously visited Galley Street; and I have loved being invited to share a slice with all the writers whose blogs I've visited.
"Bravo!" I say.
It's so nice of you to share with me.
"Thank you...for a lovely visit."
I was the lucky one.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Hare

This week is our spring break. I thought it would never arrive. I felt like the hare, from "The Tortoise and the Hare." I was going so fast; but I needed to "lie down by the wayside and rest." I was getting nowhere. We had three snow days in a row this year, in mid-February; but then we MADE UP the three snow days BEFORE our spring break, using those little built-in days off that would have made the long stretch from mid-February to the end of March more bearable. Teachers, kids, administrators...we were all WORN OUT by the time spring break finally arrived.
For weeks, I dreamed of this week. I built it up in my mind. It was going to be the BEST WEEK EVER.
Our family didn't have plans...so no frantic packing or traveling. The boys had no sporting events...so no uniforms to wash. We could just relax and enjoy our time off; we could actually enjoy a much-needed break this spring break.
Easter weekend was busy...with guests and Easter festivities; so I figured that spring break would start yesterday, on Tuesday.
I started the day yesterday by going car shopping with my husband (who is an administrator in our school district; and therefore also on spring break). Our older son, now a licensed driver, is ready to inherit my husband's faithful Honda Pilot. My husband is now on the lookout for a vehicle. I never know what to do in this situation. If I enthusiastically encourage my husband to buy a car, it could turn out to be a lemon. That's exactly what happened the last time I insisted on buying a certain type of car. It turned out to be a lemon. I realized that fact when I was driving to work and ALL the warning lights on the dash came on AT THE SAME TIME. That's how bad it was. Since then, I try to withhold most of my opinions about our family cars. My husband does a good job researching automobiles and finding good deals; but he is the tortoise. For hares like me, car shopping with him can become taxing. I want to run ahead, hopping from dealership to dealership; and when the going gets tough, I want to curl up in the warm car (that we already own) and read a book while he plods along slowly and steadily.
When we returned from a long morning of car shopping (without a car), my husband (who loves to work even on spring break) decided we should cut back the ornamental grasses in the landscaping in front of the house. Usually, he does not include me in these gardening jobs because I am TERRIBLE with any kind of plant. My older son was recuperating from strep throat, though, and my younger son had plans with a friend; so my husband needed an assistant.
I was a few minutes into my assignment when I became thoroughly convinced that the homeowners before us must have used a landscaping service. Otherwise, they would have done away with those ornamental grasses. I don't even know what they're called; but they are more trouble than they are worth. They grow in little mounds that have to be cut back every spring. There are exactly 115 (?!?) little mounds. In order to cut them back properly, I had to use these super-small gardening clippers, barely bigger than my teacher scissors. It was like cutting the hair of 115 chia pets. I unpacked my angry eyes about two chia pets into the job. I couldn't reach all the little mounds unless I crawled around in the mulch. After hours of crawling around, trimming that crazy grass, I was ready to go back to work.
When I FINALLY finished cutting back the mounds of grass, I decided I'd better finish off the day with an even more daunting task...finding our missing towels. I'm notorious for bagging up piles of dirty clothes and stowing them in the storage room temporarily (a very hare-like thing to do). I do this if we are having unexpected company and I don't want the company to see the dirty laundry spilling out of just about every room in the house. Apparently, I bagged up most of our towels a few unexpected visitors ago; and now I can't find the towels. We have been using beach towels.
I dug around in the storage room for a while...no sign of the towels.
Feeling defeated, I washed, dried, and folded all the beach towels.
I felt as if the BEST SPRING BREAK EVER was slipping right through my blistered fingers. If I didn't change things up soon, my spring break days would be as lost as our bath towels.
* * *
Today was a new day; and I was determined to enjoy it. My older son was feeling better; so he and my husband decided to play golf. My younger son decided to spend the day at the basketball court.
This is what I did (quick as a rabbit).
First, I spent $220. 98 at the local bookstore, using a purchase order that the librarian asked me to spend as a favor for her (more like the most wonderful gift for me). Although the books belong to our school library, I will get to read some of them before they are shelved.
Then, I met my best friend for lunch. After lunch, I helped her try on glasses. Unlike me, she has never had to wear glasses before; so she said she needed my opinion. We had a great time trying on different frames. I'm due for a new pair soon; so I got her opinion, too. The sales associate asked how the two of us knew each other. I said, "We've been friends forever!" The sales associate congratulated us. Congratulations are in order when you've been best friends for 28 years!
Finally, I ran in to Target to buy my favorite Make-a-Size paper towels. I ventured back to the clearance aisle, knowing I would find Easter candy. However, I convinced myself that I WOULD NOT buy any candy UNLESS they had my very favorite Cadbury white chocolate mini eggs...and they had ONE BAG LEFT.
Now I am home. I admit that I am the hare, high-strung, plunging head-long into work and life...then conking out before I reach the finish line. But today, on the second day of my spring break, I am on the couch, eating white chocolate Easter eggs; and I have been captured by Kathy Appelt's new novel Maybe a Fox.  I am finally taking a break on spring break, and it's everything I'd hopped (I mean hoped) it would be.  


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"Chim Chim Cher-ee"

My mom grew up in a neighborhood called Orchard Heights, several houses perched around a hill. In winter, it was like living on a wedding cake. My grandparents' house sat on the middle tier. In spring, when the dogwoods were in bloom, it was a terraced garden; and I was a ladybug, climbing concrete steps and rolling down green slopes. Even the clothesline hung at an angle.
My grandma had a flowered umbrella.

I loved that umbrella; but I never dared use it in the rain. It was much too pretty, covered with blue and purple blossoms, a little gold chain dangling from the shiny black handle.
No, that umbrella was meant for more, I thought.
One spring day, I stood on the top stoop, outside Grandma's front door. Hands on my skinny hips, I surveyed the world beneath me. Aunt Marie, my Grandpa's sister, lived next door. A cinder block wall, crumbling in places, kept Grandma's yard from spilling onto Aunt Marie's. I skipped down the curving steps, stopping to jump flat-footed from the last step to the gravel driveway.
I turned and tested the breeze, holding my face up to the sky, eyes closed.
Today was the day.
I ran back up the steps and into the house, and I took that beautiful umbrella.
I was more cautious now, knowing my idea might not seem like a good one...to Grandma especially. She preferred I keep my feet on the ground and all my bones in one piece.
I made sure no one was watching from the picture window. What a picture that would have been! I unsnapped the umbrella's belt and released the handspring. The flowered umbrella bloomed in all its glory.

I wished I had a blue coat with white piping. I longed for a black hat with flowers pinned to the brim. If only Grandma had a sturdy carpetbag, I thought regretfully. I clutched the umbrella with my bare hand, pretending it was clad in a white cotton glove. I touched my throat and adjusted an invisible red bow tie. Then I stepped up, bravely, onto the highest point of the cinder block wall. The wall was pitched forward, toward Aunt Marie's; but I figured that would help with my launch.
I hummed "A Spoonful of Sugar;" because, in my excitement, it was the only song I could remember.
Then, in a Mary Poppins moment, I stepped right off the cinder block wall.
I hit the ground with my heels first; scraping up two long grooves of green grass. My behind hit next, pounding the hill so hard that the last of my breath leapt out my lungs, through my open mouth, and mingled with the breeze that had failed to lift me skyward. My crooked teeth, bottoms and tops, smacked together so hard, they felt bruised. I skidded a few feet, grabbing tufts of onion grass with my free hand. When gravity finally settled around me, I checked the ribs of the umbrella first, and then my own. Nothing broken. I did my best to wipe the grass stains off my jeans; and I used my shaking fingers to spread the clumps of dirt and grass back into the raw places I had furrowed out of Aunt Marie's yard.
Satisfied that I'd done my best to cover my tracks, I pressed in the top spring of the umbrella and slid the runner back in place. I clapped mud from my palms and smoothed the flowered fabric so I could snap the umbrella belt.
Defeated, but still delighted, I trudged around the short end of the wall. Maybe I needed a windier day, I thought...or a better song even...or a carpetbag. Yes, any one of those might have made the difference.
"Chim chim-in-ey, chim chim-in-ey
chim chim cher-ee
a sweep is as lucky, as lucky can be."
(lyrics from Chim Chim Cher-ee, composed by Robert and Richard Sherman)



Monday, March 28, 2016

Hearts of Stone

I taught fifth graders for seven years. Fifth grade teachers monitored recess. Twenty-five minutes a day, as long as the temperature was above freezing and the weather was dry, we watched kids be kids.
Most students loved recess, but some did not.
All the running and chasing and choosing teams did not appeal to some of my fifth graders. Some of them would rather sit quietly than run. Some did not run fast enough to give chase; and some knew that when teams were chosen, they would be chosen last...or not at all.
The last year I taught fifth grade, the year before we moved to a new town, the year before I moved to a new school where I would teach seventh graders, I had several students who did not enjoy recess.
I watched and worried as they staked out various obscure spots on the playground.
If she was lucky enough, she'd make it out first to the swing set and claim a swing where she would drag her feet and study the ground. If he thought he'd go unnoticed, he'd sit under the covered archway, near the cafeteria doors, and scratch the pavement with a sharp stick.
One boy, though, lingered near the teachers' bench. We talked to him, tried to draw him in. Did he want our attention, to be included in our conversation? After a cursory word or two, he'd venture back out to the perimeter of our area. The teachers' bench was surrounded with landscaping stones; and this little boy would stand on the edge, dragging the toe of his shoe through the rocks.
Day after day, he stood and watched the other children play.
One day, watching him out of the corner of my eye, I decided to try something different.
"I collect heart-shaped rocks," I said, loud enough for him to hear. The second the words came out of my mouth, they were true. Suddenly, I was a collector of heart-shaped rocks.
"I'd love to have some for my collection," I said, "and I'll bet there are all kinds of heart-shaped rocks hidden in these stones."
The student edged closer. He was looking at the rocks carefully now, really seeing them.
After a few moments, I noticed him reach down. He walked over to me.
"What about this one, Mrs. Sheroan?" he asked, holding out a rock. If I turned my head just so, it looked a little bit like a heart.
"That will be perfect for my collection," I said. "Thank you!"
I carried the rock in after recess and set it on top of my computer.
The next day, he added a few more to my collection. Word spread. The day after that, the boy who usually sat under the archway joined him. The two didn't really talk to each other; but they talked to me. They found rocks shaped like dinosaurs, and rocks shaped like parallelograms, and rocks that kind of looked like crescent moons. They also found rocks shaped like hearts...lots and lots of heart-shaped rocks.
On days she couldn't get to the swings on time, the girl from the swing sets joined in. Before long, I had a cairn of heart-shaped rocks on my desk...my favorite, one with a shallow fissure down the middle...a broken heart for my collection.
By the end of the year, I had heart-shaped rocks as paper weights, and heart-shaped rocks lining the window sill, and several glass containers brimming with hearts of stone.
I remember thinking, as I cleaned out my classroom, preparing for the big move.
"What should I do with this collection?"
I remember asking myself that question, but I have no recollection of what I did.
I don't remember throwing the rocks away...surely I would not have thrown them away; but I don't remember boxing them up either. I had so many things to box and pack and move.
I like to think that I carried all those rocks back to the teachers' bench. I like to think that I scattered them there, a second chance for other kids, in years to come, who would not love recess. I like to think that I did not leave the rocks in a pile...a pile of discarded hearts; but the truth is, I don't remember.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Album

Yes, that's me.
Age 14 months,
sitting on Grandma's chenille bedspread,
smiling at my Easter basket,
holding a chocolate rabbit by the ears.

I'm the one in the yellow gingham dress.
Granny made it for me.
Yellow is my favorite color.
I was 6, wearing a carnation wrist corsage.
My dad bought it at the florist's on Saturday
and kept it in the fridge overnight...
so it wouldn't wilt.
My knee socks are startling white.
If you look close enough, you'll see
my fingertips...still rainbow colored
from dying eggs the day before.
See me, holding the handle of my basket
with two hands?
I wanted to run and find some eggs;
but I was worried about scuffing my new shoes.

No, I wasn't happy that day.
I was 13 in that one.
See the Easter dress, blue and white stripes,
thin red plastic belt?
It seemed fine when I tried it on;
but on Easter Sunday, I knew I looked
like I worked in a seafood restaurant.
I did not smile for the picture
even though Mom said,
"Don't look so mad."
I couldn't wait to get to Grandma's,
change into jeans and a sweatshirt,
eat ham and homemade rolls,
and stretch out on her living room carpet
to watch my sister and cousin play hundreds
of hands of UNO.

I'm right there, 16 years old,
sitting on the back bumper
of the white pick-up truck.
That's Papaw, standing beside me.
He and I worked for hours,
writing rhymes for clues.
Papaw wanted to have
a scavenger hunt for Easter.
He said I was the best at poems.
He hid a hundred dollar bill
in a plastic egg;
and then the grown-ups
ran down Galley Street,
trying to find it first.
My poems led them here and there,
while all us kids, and Papaw,
watched and laughed.

That's me - right there...
the one dressed like Mary Magdalene.
Age 19, home from college
for spring break.
My dad, the preacher, asked me
to get up before daylight
and help with sunrise service.
I didn't mind.
I loved sunrise service...
so peaceful, so solemn.
My sister's friend
volunteered to be Jesus.
It was so early he forgot his lines
and stood there for the longest time,
looking terrified.
I couldn't help myself.
I was overcome.
I laughed so hard my shoulders shook.
From a distance it looked like crying.
I felt awful;
but dad said not to worry,
no one noticed.
It all worked out fine in the end.

(A poem inspired by Gary Soto's "Ode to Family Photographs")






Saturday, March 26, 2016

Golden Egg

During college, I was a member of the Baptist Student Union. On weekends, we traveled to small churches in our state to help with their youth groups. Being a preacher's daughter, I knew sometimes youth ministers needed help motivating their middle school and high school students, coming up with fresh ideas that would keep their youth involved at church and out of trouble elsewhere.
I had fun, helping with weekend retreats, leading lock-ins, preparing Bible studies for small groups.
One spring weekend, my friends and I from the BSU carpooled to a small church in a neighboring county, each of us armed with an Easter basket filled with empty plastic eggs. We had more eggs in a shopping bag; and several more baskets stacked in the trunk.
The youth minister met us at the front door of the church and led us to the multipurpose room. We arrived early, before the youth group members, in order to hide the eggs. One egg was covered with golden glitter. I watched as our director, Amy, hid the golden egg. I knew it would be difficult to find.
No sooner had we hidden the last plastic egg, the middle school and high school kids began to arrive.
After a few get-to-know-you games, Amy announced that we were having an egg hunt. A few of the older youth group members groaned. One girl rolled her eyes. They thought they were too old for an egg hunt.
Amy explained that the eggs were empty...no candy inside. Now even more students seemed to disengage. Why would they try to find empty plastic eggs?
I felt a little nervous. We were losing our audience. Tough crowd.
Amy forged on. She was only 22; but she had a measure of confidence that could only have been Heaven sent.
Ignoring the teenagers' crossed arms and bored expressions, Amy instructed us to hand each participant a basket. Then she announced to the group, "In just a minute, I'm going to yell 'Go!' and you all are going to try to find as many eggs as you can in order to WIN THIS GAME. Each egg has a point value, which is written on this piece of paper I have folded in my hand. I won't reveal the points for each egg until AFTER the hunt. You need to know, there is ONLY ONE GOLDEN EGG!"
I'm not sure if it was her enthusiasm or the mention of a golden egg or the appeal to their competitive natures or an actual miracle, but most of the disinterested teenagers perked up a little.
By the time Amy shouted, "Go!," most of the kids were hurrying around the multipurpose room.
Some grabbed every egg they saw, piling their basket with a rainbow of plastic. Others were more selective, going after only certain colors...interesting strategy; but several kids ran right past colorful eggs that were in plain sight. At first, I thought maybe they had somehow missed the eggs; but then I realized, they were focused only on finding the golden egg. Their goal had become specific...win the game with the golden egg.
Of course, one youth group member did, eventually, find the golden egg, holding it high over his head triumphantly. The hunt continued for a few more minutes while other participants half-heartedly gathered the rest of the plastic eggs. After all, the coveted golden egg, had already been found. Amy gathered the youth group members back in a loose circle around her. Those of us from the BSU mingled in.
"Great job!" Amy said, enthusiastically. We all applauded.
"Take a look at your eggs while I read the points values," she said. She unfolded the paper in her hand.
"Pink eggs are worth two points!"
"Awwww!"  - this from one kid who had collected mostly pink eggs.
"Green eggs are worth five points!"
"Orange eggs - 10 points!" A couple of kids with orange eggs in their baskets high-fived each other.
"Blue eggs are worth 15 points!"
Amy continued to announce colors and point values. The kid with the golden egg looked smug. It was the only egg in his basket.
"And...finally...," Amy said, "Drumroll please..." We all slapped the tiled floor in an exaggerated drumroll, "the GOLDEN EGG is worth...NEGATIVE 500 POINTS!"
The kid who found the golden egg was holding the egg in his hand, a smile frozen on his face. Stunned silence filled the room.
This game had not turned out how anyone had planned. I was worried for Amy.
The kid with the golden egg didn't look stunned anymore; he looked angry.
Amy didn't miss a beat.
Other kids in the room were now recounting their eggs. A few asked Amy to read off the points again. Their yellow, and pink, and blue eggs now seemed worth counting.
The kid with the golden egg just stood there.
Amy walked over and gently took the golden egg. She stood beside the kid who found it. She held the egg in front of her.
"How many of you tried hard to find this egg?" Amy asked. Most of the kids raised their hands.
"I see that some of you only have a few eggs in your  basket even though there were plenty of eggs hidden in this room. Do you only have a few eggs because you mainly wanted this one - this golden egg?" More kids sheepishly conceded that yes, in fact, they thought that was the only egg worth finding.
The boy who had found the egg looked a little less upset.
"I bet most of you thought that the golden egg would be worth more points than any other egg. Is that correct?" the kids nodded.
"And someone found it...even though I thought I hid it pretty well." The kid who had found the egg was still standing beside her. She patted his shoulder. He stood taller. He was part of the lesson now.
"Of course you thought this egg would be worth more points than all the others. It was the only one of its kind - the golden egg," she paused for a moment.
"Life is like that," she continued. "We think certain things are of great value because everyone thinks those things are valuable; so we rush around, blind to other important, valuable things around us...searching for that golden egg that's just out of reach. Don't get tricked by the glitter," Amy advised. "Don't spend your lives looking frantically for wealth or fame or power...the fanciest car, the biggest house, the most money or glory or glitz. Don't spend all your time and energy going after those things that everyone else wants, that everyone else deems to be most valuable."
Everyone was quiet. Some of the kids were looking at Amy. Some were looking at the eggs in their baskets.
Amy's voice was quiet but clear, "Don't let that golden egg be the only thing in your basket when the game is over," she said. We finished the day with several other games, then loaded the eggs and baskets back into the trunk and headed back to campus.
Twenty-eight years later, I still remember Amy's words...the lesson about the golden egg. I stop and think, every now and then, especially when my basket feels empty. Am I running right past kindness and leaving joy and love hidden in plain sight? Am I overlooking important things around me while I look for the golden egg?

Friday, March 25, 2016

Listening to the Story

I have been reading Jennifer A. Nielsen's A Night Divided, a gripping tale of Gerta, a girl whose family is divided by the Berlin Wall. I became a Nielsen fan after reading The False Prince; and I was very excited when I realized our school librarian had ordered A Night Divided.
I have not been disappointed. Gerta's story has prompted me to read more about the Berlin Wall, the history behind it, what the people of East Berlin experienced, how the people in West Berlin were affected by it.
Great writing does that...prompts the reader to dig a little deeper, wonder more, ask questions that may or may not be answered.
I was several chapters into the book when I flipped to the back to read Nielsen's acknowledgments. I do that sometimes...well, all the time.
I read every word. I wanted to know exactly how many individuals and groups Nielsen credited with creating Gerta's story. Who did she thank? Who was in her corner? Who pulled Nielsen through when she felt stuck?
This is what I read:
"There was nothing logical about my decision to write this book. The timing was too tight, I was already contracted for a different trilogy, and, as was pointed out to me more than once, I wasn't a historical writer.
But Gerta was insistent, constantly interrupting my thoughts..."
I sat there for a moment; and then I reread Nielsen's words. Jennifer A. Nielsen, a published author, living the writer's life, still had to contend with that voice in her ear...pointing out that she wasn't that kind of writer. Really? I read it again.
And Gerta...her character, was in her corner, fighting for the story to be told. I was fascinated. I read the paragraph to my students. I share books with them often; but I don't always share with them a paragraph from the author's acknowledgments. Maybe I should do that more often...maybe always.
"Did you hear that?" I asked. "Did you notice how Ms. Nielsen had to NOT listen to the voices telling her she couldn't do this, that she was not a historical writer? What if she had given in...we wouldn't have this great book! We wouldn't know this character. Thank goodness Ms. Nielsen listened to the story...the story that needed to be told!"
* * *
I can't tune the negativity out sometimes. Those voices...
"Other work is more important."
"You don't really have time for this."
"You'll never get anything published."
"The market's too saturated."
"Who would want to read that?"
Sometimes, I'm ashamed to admit, I listen. I don't write.
But this month, I tried extra hard to listen to the story...and then the next story...and the next. I listened to the stories; and I wrote them. Some days, I had to hold my ears to shut out the words that would stop me. Some days, I could barely hear the story whispering; but sometimes, those stories roared!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Winstonville

I was eight years old.
I sat on a salvaged park bench
behind Winston's house.
The bench was broken
and leaned to the left.
The paint was chipped.
Maroon flakes stuck to my jeans.
I had a notebook
on my lap.
Blank pages grew damp
in the dewy air.
I clutched my pencil
and watched
and listened.
My membership card,
paid for with birthday money,
was a laminated square
in my back pocket.
Winston said,
if I sat long enough,
I might see a deer
or a raccoon
or, at the very least,
a nervous squirrel
scrabbling up a tree trunk.
Winston said
it was practically a nature preserve.
Hmmm...
a good place for writers,
I thought.
Winston said:
members only, though;
so I handed over my birthday money.
Winston was in eighth grade.
Next day,
he gave me my card.
My name was typed.
The lamination still warm.
I waited and waited
on that bench,
straining my eyes into the underbrush
for any sign of nature...
a ladybug
an ant
an earthworm.
My expectations diminished...
My birthday money a memory...
Finally,
when the smell
of Kentucky Fried Chicken
from the restaurant over the hill
grew too strong to bear
I headed home.
No words to describe
Winstonville...
just an empty notebook,
a growling stomach,
and a lifelong membership
to a broken park bench
in Winston's backyard.



Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Lori's Lighthouse

Galley Street was a place where things were made.
Great Granny made chicken and dumplings.
Papaw Ance made a garden grow.
Aunt Nina made Christmas decorations.
Papaw Hillard made doll-sized cradles and high chairs for me and my sister and cousin.
Uncle Bill made picture frames.
To borrow a modern term, it was a maker's space, alright. That street fairly buzzed with busy hands. On any given day you might see someone sewing or baking or harvesting or hammering.
I was a maker on Galley Street.
I made plans.
Galley Street, perched on the river bank, was shaded by the mountains.
I made plans to live in full sun.
I planned to write stories one day...far away from Galley Street. After all, I reasoned, writers needed to learn new things; and I knew everything there was to know about Galley Street.
I knew where to find the apple picker Papaw Ance used to grab the green apples from high up in the limbs of his favorite trees. I knew where the calico cat hid her kittens behind the cinder blocks in Great Granny's cellar. I knew how to shut the screen door just right to keep the blue tailed lizards out of the house.
I made myself a promise on Galley Street, a promise that I would write stories one day, not overlooking the river with the mountains peering over my shoulder. I made plans to live in a lighthouse and look out the highest window at the waves rolling in.
I told Granny Faye about my plans.
She never said, "Don't leave us."
She never said, "Why not stay?"
She never said, "All your best stories will come from Galley Street."
Instead, Granny made something.
She made a quilt that told a story about a brown-haired girl from the mountains who moved to the ocean and lived in a lighthouse. She made me hopeful. She made me happy.
Galley Street was a place where things were made.
This is the quilt that Granny made for me.

This is the message she stitched on the back.


 


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Fish Tale

Once
I bought two goldfish
at a dime store
downtown.
They lived
in a glass bowl
on my dresser...
for a while.
Then,
I set them free.
We lived on Spring Street.
The spring,
in my backyard,
did not bubble.
It seeped...
from underground,
into the pool
of mossy stones
someone built
long before I was born.
The goldfish were tired,
I guessed,
of swimming in dizzy circles.
They needed
fall leaves floating
like little boats
above them,
and lightning bugs
blinking overhead.
They needed
to be serenaded
by a bullfrog quartet.
They needed
to feel ripples caused
by dragonfly wings...
and see raindrops
make dimples
in the water.
I knew this;
so I knelt on the stone wall
and tilted their bowl...
careful, careful...
and they slipped over the lip
into the spring
where they grew
and grew...
twice as long
as the length of my hand.
I visited,
putting my face
near the surface.
Their orange tails
waved lazily.
Freedom
suited them
just fine.


Monday, March 21, 2016

So Close, and Yet So Far

I ran errands for Granny. Sometimes she needed me to take a bowl of her green beans, covered in foil, to my Uncle Ronnie next door; or she might even ask if I cared to run a roll of masking tape to Aunt Nina two houses down.
I never minded running errands during daylight hours; but when dusk opened its fist and stretched its long gray fingers across Galley Street, my heart stuck in my throat. I had to call up the bravest part of myself in order to make the trip.
I didn't want Granny to know I was too scared to be helpful; so I said sure I could do it.
"I'll do whatever you need, Granny!"
She handed over whatever knick knack I was supposed to deliver.
"Could you watch me from the door?" I asked.
"Of course I can!" she said.
I had my suspicions that Granny went on about her business inside once I'd waded out of the yellow porch light that puddled up just past the concrete driveway. I had a long way to go alone, darkness gathering as fast as dust in the corners.
Once I hit the road, I trained my eyes on the tracks that Papaw's backhoe had made years ago when they first laid the blacktop. In the dim light of early evening, I imagined the parallel imprints were slats on a bridge...a swinging bridge. Clutching my prize in hand tight enough to still my nerves but not tight enough to ruin it, I made my way, one foot in front of the other.
I was in the bayou now...no longer a mountain girl. If I squinted my eyes just so, I could almost make out the olive hump of an alligator's head, swimming in the swamp I imagined I was crossing.
Right in front of Uncle Ronnie's porch, I leapt off the bridge, right before it snapped, the ropes crushed in the jaws of the angry gator. I landed, both feet flat on the cool summer grass and ran headlong down the hill to my uncle's door. I was breathless when Aunt Betty answered.
* * *
I took the back way to Granny's, jumping the drainage ditch like a hurdler and practically flew up the steps that led to Granny's driveway.
There she stood, just inside the screen door, silhouetted by light from the front hall.
I caught a deep breath. Maybe she had waited, while I acted out yet another death-defying adventure. Regardless, she was there now, watching from the door...just like she promised.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Lighter

Last week, we asked questions...all kinds of questions. We've been collecting Snapple caps this year; and finally we had a chance to use them. Every student grabbed a cap, read the fact on the inside, and brainstormed a list of questions. Then we partnered with our shoulder buddies, swapped caps, and asked more questions. We declared our class a "No Answer Zone" for the day and simply enjoyed asking questions that led to more questions and better questions and more intriguing questions.
We were swallowing questions whole and chewing them up and rolling them around in our heads like marbles in a maze; and then we were laughing about some of our questions and honoring some questions with total silence...awed by the power of the question itself. We felt free...not pressured to answer, just prompted to wonder.
Then, someone read Snapple "Real Fact, #98."
"When the moon is directly overhead, you weigh slightly less."


Someone asked, "How can that be true?"
Someone else said, "Can you feel the difference?"
And then, a hand raised, "Can I answer?" he said, hesitantly.
He is moving this weekend...back to Chicago. He's only been at our school a couple of weeks, so bright, so friendly. He has not been with us long enough for us to get to know him, just long enough for us to welcome him. At home, he speaks Spanish; at school, English. In Chicago, he says they have family and friends. They came here, he said, to find work.
"But it was worse...for work, I mean," he had explained to me earlier in the day when the guidance office called to tell me he was withdrawing. "We have to go back...for work."
"I understand," I told him.
Now, with all eyes on him, in a No Answer Zone, he waits to share what he knows.
"Of course!" I said. "Answer. Please answer!"
"It's gravity...it's all about gravity," he said. His eyes were shining. "When you are standing exactly under the moon, it lifts you...ummm," he searched for the word he was looking for. "It lifts you...slightly."
That night, I walked outside and down the street to the corner. I looked up. The moon was directly overhead. I lifted my heels a little. I lifted my arms a little. I hoped the neighbors were not watching. I stood there, staring at the moon for a long time.
I thought about my new student...moving back to Chicago after such a short time with us. I thought what a heavy burden he carries...the only one in his family who speaks English, moving often, trying hard at every school, reaching out, trying to understand, trying to be understood, listening, sharing, making friends, leaving them.
I thought about him, standing directly under the moon...back home, where his teachers know him, where he is near friends and family again.
I felt lighter, slightly lighter.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Spirit Wear Coordinator

I am the spirit wear coordinator for my sons' high school soccer team.
My husband volunteered me for the position. He said he did it because he knew I had experience. I have coordinated spirit wear in the past for my younger son's middle school lacrosse team. I'm pretty sure he volunteered me as spirit wear coordinator because I did not go with him to the meeting when parent volunteers were signing up; and the expectation was that at least one parent of each player was expected to step up in a big way. He stepped me up...in a big way.
Hundreds of sweat shirts, t-shirts, shorts, caps, and boonie hats later, I am still coordinating spirit wear. It's a very difficult position to abandon. Can I quit a volunteer job?
In order to coordinate spirit wear, I am required to work with a screen printing company to come up with new designs each year for the players and the fans. It's not as easy as it sounds.
I am now working with my third (!?!) screen printing company. I try to buy locally; so I forged an early loyalty to a fairly large company in the neighboring county. Then, after two years of providing the company with more than $5,000 in business, they charged me a $13 shipping charge for a $35 golf shirt. I thought it was a billing error. It wasn't. At first I was surprised; then I was offended. Then, after a few email correspondences, I decided not to do business with them anymore. I had been loyal; but they were not. It really hurt my feelings.
"Are you in a fight with the t-shirt guy?" my husband asked, obviously worried. Heaven forbid I step down from spirit wear coordinator. My husband might have to take my place. I knew what he was thinking.
"I'm not in a fight," I explained. "The fight's over. I'm moving on."
Next, I turned to a screen printing company located on our state university campus...just down the road from our high school. The manager was a college student. He had a laid back approach to business. He was very "chill." I'm not very chill. Spirit wear coordinators have deadlines, you know.
I hoped his calm demeanor would rub off on me. When 68 shirts were delivered for the end-of-the-year banquet with "record to appear here" printed on the back of the shirt where THE RECORD was supposed to appear, I realized his chill approach had not rubbed off. Fortunately, the too-cool manager simply put in an overnight order to redo the shirts. I now have 68 messed up long-sleeved tees in a storage box in my garage. We parted ways on good terms at least. He asked me, in a casual way, what I planned to do with the ruined shirts. I told him I was going to buy a t-shirt cannon and blast them at the fans to encourage school spirit. Maybe kids would be too hyped up over the cannon to notice the mistake on the back of the shirts.
"Yeah...," he said. "That's a plan."
So far, my current screen printer has successfully filled an order of t-shirts for my middle school student council members; and he is working on a shirt for my middle school book club. The text says, "I'd rather be reading," and features an open book with a heart on the page. I'm pretty excited about this new partnership; but I dare not get too excited.
Coordinating spirit wear is not for the faint of heart...nor is it for the pushover. Nor is it, apparently, for any other parent but me...
I will be coordinating spirit wear for at least three more years. My younger son is a freshman. While he plays JV soccer, he also plays lacrosse. A senior's parent coordinates spirit wear for high school lacrosse. I have a feeling I might be filling her shoes after this year...especially if my husband goes to the volunteer sign up meeting.

Friday, March 18, 2016

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman!

When my younger son, Will, was in 1st grade, his teacher stopped by my 5th grade classroom one day after school.
"Will's been complaining about his vision," she said. "He asked if he could sit closer to the board."
"Really?" I asked, dumbfounded. "The pediatrician checked his vision at his annual check-up; and he was able to read the eye chart perfectly."
"Hmmm...I just don't know what to think," his teacher said. "Something seems a little off about it; but I thought I'd tell you. What do you want me to do?"
"Keep his seat near the front of the room for now; and I'll talk to the school nurse on Monday. I think she has an eye chart in her office."
That evening, I asked my husband if he had noticed Will squinting at the television set. He hadn't. I told my husband what Will's teacher had said. We asked Will.
"Why did you ask Mrs. Warner to move you to the front of the room?" my husband asked.
"I can't see the words on the board," he said. "I need glasses."
"Do you have trouble seeing anything else?" I asked, "Like the words in the book you're reading or the TV set?"
"Yes," he said. "I need glasses."
On Monday, I shared our concerns with the school nurse.
"I'll be shocked if he needs glasses," I said. "The doctor just checked his eyes at the beginning of the school year; but I have had glasses since third grade...so maybe I missed something. I'll feel terrible if he needs glasses and I had no idea."
The nurse said not to worry, that she would call Will down to her office and see if he was able to read the eye chart.
"Can he read well enough to identify all the letters?" she asked.
"Oh yes," I said. "That shouldn't be a problem at all."
That afternoon, she reported to my husband (who was the assistant principal at our school), that Will had failed his vision test.
"She said he failed it 'extravagantly.' He missed every single letter," my husband said. "Then, the nurse said she pulled out the eye chart with pictures on it; and he failed that, too. He couldn't recognize one single picture. She said she had never had someone fail it so completely. She said it was almost like he was faking it..."
Faking it!?! I did not think my baby boy would fake nearsightedness...would he? In the back of my mind, I was aware that he and his brother had been watching Superman recently. Superman was Will's hero. Clark Kent wore glasses. Would Will fake nearsightedness in order to look more like Clark Kent? This was the child who had asked for super powers the previous Christmas.
The next day, I called my eye doctor and set up an appointment for Will.
I was so worried.
On the day of his appointment, I explained to the optometrist my concerns about Will's eyes; and I told her about his fascination with Superman.
"I know just what to do," she assured me.
She helped Will hop up onto the examination chair; and then she projected the vision chart on the opposite wall.
I watched as Will called an E an F, a B a P, a V a W, an M an N... He would pause and quirk his mouth to the side a little and tilt his head. Was he struggling to see? He never squinted. Then it dawned on me...Will was not pausing to try to see the letter, he was pausing to think of a letter that looked similar to the letter he was seeing!
"Hmmm..." the optometrist said. "Let me try something."
She stepped out of the room and returned with a pair of child-sized glasses. She slipped them onto Will's face. His eyes lit up.
"Can you read the eye chart now, Will?" she asked.
"Yes I can!" he said, enthusiastically, and he proceeded to read every letter perfectly.
"Well, Will," the doctor said, "you may need glasses one day; but you don't need them right now."
She patiently removed the glasses with the prescriptionless lenses from Will's eyes.
I was mortified.
"Thanks for your help," I said. "I'm so sorry we wasted your time."
"No problem," she smiled sympathetically and insisted that I not even stop at the receptionist's desk. She was not going to charge me for the eye exam.
Will and I headed to the car. He stopped and crossed his arms over his chest. He was confused.
"I saw better with the glasses on," he said, adamently. "I'm not leaving until I get some glasses like Clark Kent." There it was.
"You are most definitely leaving...without the glasses," I said.
"I am very upset with you," I told him, once he was buckled into his car seat. "You told a lie to Mrs. Warner, and to me, and to Daddy, and to the school nurse, and now to the eye doctor. You lied about your eyesight!"
I could see him in the rearview mirror. He looked very sad. I hoped it was because he realized how dishonest he had been; but I was pretty it was because he was so disappointed about leaving without his glasses. He was still trying to figure out how the doctor had outsmarted him. I felt a twinge of sorrow for him. He had not gotten super powers from Santa; and now all his careful plans for Clark Kent glasses had been foiled.
It wasn't until years later, Halloween of his 8th grade year, that Will, still with 20/20 vision had a chance to be Clark Kent. He looked just like him.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Love, With a Side of Tomato Soup

When I was 11,
my mom helped in the church nursery;
so she knew all the pre-school kids and babies.
When a little guy showed up on the church bus
one Sunday night,
all by himself,
wearing a Superman t-shirt
but no coat in January,
my mom made some phone calls.

A couple days later,
my sister and I made room
for a brown-eyed three-year-old
(who loved matchbox cars)
and a blue-eyed 2nd grader
(his big sister).

Their dad was on active duty,
and their mom walked out.
Their aunt, who had her own kids to feed,
had squeezed them into her place;
but with no money to spare,
everyone felt crowded and hungry.

Mom to the rescue...
dad agreed.
If we could help, it was the least we could do.
We weren't rich;
but we had room.

Mom said,
"I have an idea.
Why don't you girls walk home for lunch...
for a few days at least?"
Our school was a block away.
We walked home for lunch every day...
for three months;
until the kids' dad came home from the army.

I didn't think about how much money
mom saved
by fixing lunch at home.
I just remember walking into our kitchen,
at noon
on a school day.
It felt strange.
No kids yelling.
No trays clanking...
just my mom, and someone else's little boy,
waiting for us...
with a hot lunch on the kitchen counter.

Each of us pulled up a bar stool...
my sister, his sister, and me.
For three months, for lunch,
we ate love...
shaped like grilled cheese sandwiches.

(Thank you, Mom, and happy birthday!)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Traitor

I remember our Boys versus Girls War during 2nd grade. One of my best friends was a boy, Ray, leader of the boys' troops in fact; so I agreed to be a spy for the enemy...infiltrating the girls' side easily because of my reputation as a trustworthy rule follower. After school, I would relay the girls' attack plans to my friend on the guys' side. I felt bad about it; but Ray and I had been friends since kindergarten. I couldn't turn my back on him; and yet, because I was a girl, I was drafted into the female troops, like it or not.
I justified my role as a traitor because Laura, leader of the girl warriors, was brutal. She'd stomp the boys' feet with her cowboy boots. She was fast and merciless, her thick ponytail swinging as she raced from boy to boy, mashing their toes with a crunch of her heel. I trailed after the girls, at the back of the pack, cringing inwardly as Laura vanquished the enemy, one foot at a time...leaving boys hopping in her wake.
As much as I disapproved of her battle tactics, she was an impressive leader. Sometimes, she pretended to ride a wild mustang bareback into the fray. She was so convincing, bending slightly at the waist, wind whipping her ponytail behind her, using one hand to smack the horse's invisible flank. She gave a war whoop; and, shrugging at one another, the rest of us galloped awkwardly after her.
The boys parted and scattered.
No matter how carefully I relayed the girls' plans for the next day's attack, the boys could never best Laura. Save for her, we were a sorry troop. None of the rest of us could really stomach all the foot stomping; and most of us wore canvas Keds, anyway,...not cowboy boots.
Eventually, the girls won the war despite my role as turncoat. The boys surrendered, tired of bruised toes. They needed us in order to have two full kickball teams.
As fierce as she was in battle, Laura was surprisingly ready to concede. I guess she'd grown tired of all the easy victories. Laura never found out that I was the mole; and for that I was grateful. Though my loyalties, obviously, were with my good friend Ray, I couldn't help admiring Laura's bold and brassy ways. I did not want to stomp and shove and run and glare; but I wouldn't have minded feeling a fraction as powerful as she looked, dashing fearlessly toward her enemy on the back of a horse only she could see.



Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Know the Signs

Last week, I passed a radar sign trailer...one of those large digital display boards posted on a two-wheeled trailer, set up on the shoulder of the road. Usually, these radar sign trailers are set up to provide information about upcoming road closures, road work ahead, or even to clock the speed of oncoming cars. Not this sign. This sign read: "Are you ready for severe weather?"
It was alarming.
I always try to be ready for severe weather.
When I was a kid, I was terrified of tornadoes. As soon as the local TV weatherman issued a tornado watch, meaning that "conditions are favorable" for a tornado, I went downstairs to the tornado shelter I had constructed. I could not convince my parents to join me.
"It'll be fine," dad said. "It's just a watch, not a warning."
"But, dad, conditions are favorable. FAVORABLE!" How could my dad not understand that "favorable" meant the atmosphere itself wanted a twister.
I used scare tactics to make my little sister join me.
In the tiny hall outside the downstairs bath, I had stashed all my tornado shelter supplies...radio, blankets, pillows (to sleep on, but also to cover our heads with if needed), 'Nilla Wafers, flashlights with extra batteries, a big stack of books, and some stuffed animals.
During most tornado watches, we stayed there for the better part of an hour...or until my sister got bored and dared to go back upstairs.
At school, I was the best at duck and cover. I could curl my usually inflexible little bones into the tightest ball, covering my head protectively with my arms. During the drill, I was so still and quiet that I barely breathed. I felt stiff afterward. I liked to think that I looked like a tiny, weather-aware statue...a textbook example of exactly what to do in a weather emergency.
I felt as if my teachers did not take the drill seriously enough; and I worried unreasonably about the possibility of a tornado touching down on our playground during recess. I remember actually coming up with a tornado plan for outside and convincing one of my friends to practice the drill with me.
"You have to be aware of the signs," I told her, scanning the blue sky overhead. "The sky will look kind of greenish; and we may hear a sound like a locomotive."
Looking back, it was a horrible plan that involved my friend and me shaking the foundations of all the playground equipment until we found the sturdiest. In the event of a tornado, we would grab hold of the base of the jungle gym and hang on for dear life.
***
Last week, I was so exhausted, that I slept through a storm...for the first time in my life.
I did not stay awake like I usually do, the ghostly glow of the TV filling the bedroom, sound on mute as I strain to see the counties in the watch area scrolling across the bottom of the screen. I did not hear the emergency broadcast warning on my phone. I did not hear the thunder rumbling, the wind roaring, or the rain pelting the window. I slept through a storm.
When I woke up the next morning, I actually felt guilty about it.
A couple days later, I drove past the radar sign trailer.
"Are you ready for severe weather?" it seemed to be asking me...personally.
I wondered if I should circle around and read the sign again. I had never seen one of those signs with that type of message. Maybe it was a message just for me. I was losing my edge, clearly, in the area of tornado-preparedness. I decided against circling back. If the sign really did say, "Are you ready for severe weather?," then I would have wasted several precious minutes in a busy day. If it didn't say that, well then...
Let's just say, I will be back to my usual hyper-aware weather vigilance next time there's a storm in the area. After all, I know it's important to be aware of the signs...er, well...the sign, that is.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Onomatopoeia


In my ears
and on the walls
Kerflunk and skitter
as a pencil falls
 
Screech and squeal
a chair on tile
A whispered giggle
that makes me smile
 
The electrified current
of a humming light
The whistle of pages
ever so slight
 
The kissing squelch
of rubber soles
The pop of the hole punch
punching holes
 
A snapping trio
of binder rings
A zipping jacket
that practically sings
 
A quiet day?
Nearly never...
'cause learning
is a loud endeavor!



Sunday, March 13, 2016

Seventeen Years Ago Today


Seventeen years ago today, I asked the young, smiling nurse, "Where is the doctor?"
My doctor was old and wise; and I felt it was necessary to have someone with experience in the room. Everyone suddenly seemed so childlike. Where were the people who knew what they were doing? Where was someone, anyone, who had done this before? My mom and dad were on their way; but they had a long drive ahead.
"The doctor will be here when you're ready," the smiling nurse assured me.
"I'm ready now," I said.
"Not yet," she said.
My husband paced. He was 28; but he looked like a freckle-faced boy. Neither of us had a clue about how our lives would change. A few hours before, he had raced through red lights on my order. We were trying to get to the hospital after a 90-minute drive from his mother's house. When my contractions started, we had been visiting her for the weekend.
All the way down the parkway, our dog, a feisty Cairn Terrier, insisted on sitting on what little lap I had left...her nose smudging the glove box on the passenger side.
"We have to take her home first!" I said. "We can't leave her in the car for hours!"
My husband swerved into our neighborhood and left the driver's side door open while he rushed onto the  porch stoop. The wriggling dog in his left arm, he fumbled with the keys. Every second seemed like an hour at least.
Finally, he was back in the car, and we were zipping across the empty, early-morning streets.
When we arrived at the hospital maternity ward, they got us settled in our room. My husband said to the nurse, "Is this it...the real deal, I mean? The baby's not supposed to be born for a few weeks. Should we just go back home?"
What was he saying...go back home? I stared at him.
Fortunately, the nurse smiled her cheery smile.
"Oh no," she said. "This is it. No need to go back home for a while. This baby will be here today!"
She was young, but clearly very smart...a child prodigy, I thought.
Finally, the doctor arrived...just in time to catch the baby after I'd done all the work.
Jack, only 5 lbs, 14 oz, was capable of making everything seem perfect from the moment we saw him. Like his storybook predecessor, he could sell the cow for magic beans; and it would all work out in the end.
Now, 17 years later, he celebrates his birthday. We crowd around him, much like we did on the day he was born. Does he look happy? Yes; Jack always seems happy, if for no other reason, then simply to make those around him smile. We could not be one tiny bit prouder of the young man he has become. Our Jack, born 17 years ago this very day...a dragon-slaying, beanstalk climbing, giant-tricking, clever, clever boy with wisdom beyond his years.
On the day he was born, I remember feeling desperate for someone to arrive...to show up in my hospital room and signify that everything would turn out okay...my parents (why were they driving so slowly?); my husband (did he really need to leave my side for a second?); the doctor (where in the world was the doctor)?
Then Jack arrived, giving a friendly shout out to the world. They handed him to me; and I knew right away...this was the someone I'd been waiting for. He had arrived...a shining example of the best of all of us, with a wise and happy face and ten fingers and ten toes. We all crowded around him; and he made us smile.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Hero of the Day

we have photos
I'm sure
of that vacation
an August in the 1980s
me - sunburnt miserable
even the ferry captain felt bad
waved me over
let me steer the boat
ocean breezes
combed hair from my braid
salty mist curled it
the island...a sugary thumbprint
in the distance
grey-green waves, fringed with foam,
kneaded the shoreline
it's too rough for us
mom said
shell at your own risk
a faded warning at the dock
stuck in her mind
we wanted something whole
though
a whelk, a cone, an auger
we didn't know or care
just something big enough
to be a paperweight or bookend
a reminder of the sea
to take home to the mountains
dad rolled up his long shorts
and waded in
his feet gripped the rough
rocky sea floor
we trailed beside him
on dry, hot sand
cheering him on
there's one, my sister squealed
a large shell swirled past his white shin
got it, dad said
triumphant
dad, who did not love the beach,
battled waves for an hour
dad, who longed for a fishing pole,
the pop-up camper,
still lake waters, a cool breeze
instead, shells weighing down
his drenched pockets
he dipped his hand beneath the water
then in one swift motion
caught a conch shell,
pink and white and swirly perfect...
he held it high above his head
the hero of the day







Friday, March 11, 2016

Someone Has Been Sitting In My Chair

A substitute teacher is teaching my class today. She is a Mama Bear like me. In fact, her daughter is a student at our school. She has subbed for me before; and when I returned, everything was in its place. Students reported all went well. I imagine things will go as planned today.
Two years ago, a former collegiate basketball player, Mr. S., who happened to be 6'9," subbed in my classroom. He was just out of college. The children knew him from the year before when he played for our state university. They were excited about my absence.
"Will he give us his autograph?" one student asked.
"I'm not sure," I said. My feelings were a little hurt. Usually, they were sad to see me go.
The night before he subbed, I left my plans and class rosters, all labeled and organized neatly, on my school-issued teacher desk. Then I dusted around the computer and document camera on my antique wooden desk, adjacent to my teacher's desk. I loved that antique desk and its matching wooden rolling chair, both gifts from my husband. I vacuumed up the lint off the carpet in the reading area and tidied up the bulging bookshelves.
Before locking the classroom door, I tucked my wooden rolling chair, warm cherry wood gleaming, under the desk.
I wrote a note, in cursive, on the white board, "Behave for Mr. S.! I'll miss you!"
Then I locked the door and left. It was Thursday evening.
Monday morning, I unlocked the classroom, wondering vaguely how Friday had gone. My note on the white board was still there. Beside it, someone had drawn a smiley face with a pink marker.
I turned on the lights and slipped out of my jacket, hanging it on the peg behind the dividing screen that closed off the storage area.
"So far, so good," I thought, noticing that the students' chairs were up on the desks like always; and the floors were mostly clean...a broken pencil here, a curl of perforated notebook paper there. Shavings from the pencil sharpener had spilled over on the floor, but that was pretty typical.
Then I saw it...my wooden chair...my antique, wooden chair...the one that was just right, not too hard, not too soft...was broken in pieces. The cherry spindles along the back were cracked in half; and the rounded top part of the chair was hanging from one splintered arm. I gasped. Someone had been sitting in my chair; and he broke it all to bits.
"Oh my," I whispered, gingerly gathering up the loose pieces of the chair. I reminded myself that accidents happen.
By the time the children arrived for class, I had regained my composure. This was not the time to act like Baby Bear.
"Mr. S. broke your chair," one of the children stated the obvious.
"I noticed," I said, shrugging nonchalantly. "I'll get it fixed."
"He was too tall for it," another child explained. "He sat down, and leaned back, and the whole thing tipped and...well, you can see the rest for yourself." He waved at the busted chair.
"Was he okay?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah. He's tough."
"Good," I said. I was glad he was okay. I imagined it was quite a start to the day. Poor guy. Twelve-year-olds are not always kind when grown-ups experience an embarrassing moment.
During my planning period, I rolled what was left of my chair to the custodian's office. Felix, our custodian, looked worried. He said he'd do his best.
"I guess that chair is for a shorter teacher," he said, "like yourself." He offered me a plastic rolling chair with a padded seat and no arm rests.
A few mornings later, I was pleasantly surprised to find my chair, a little battered and scarred and smelling faintly of wood glue, back in place by my antique desk.
It's a good thing I don't sit down much during the school day since some loose splinters snag my sweaters; but the chair is back where it belongs...mostly good as new. She might be old-fashioned and only useful for a short teacher, like myself; but she's a pretty tough old gal.
The chair will be fine today. My sub is my size exactly.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

Starstruck

I saw George Clooney tonight...on my way to get my hair cut. Granted, if I had actually seen the real George Clooney on my way to get my hair cut, I would have been mortified. My hair has grown extraordinarily fast the past six weeks; which means my gray roots were embarrassingly visible despite the fact that I have "dusted" them with WOW gray concealer every morning for two weeks. The whole process has added an extra 15 minutes to my usually brief morning beauty (and I use that word loosely) routine. I had that much of a skunk stripe to hide.
Why should I care if George Clooney sees that I have gray hair? George Clooney has gray hair.
George Clooney was propped up by the curb, against a trash can. It was drizzling outside. His gray hair looked very handsome...distinguished even.
It always rains on the day I get my hair cut, ensuring that my hair looks great for the 10 minutes it takes for the hairstylist to remove the cape, swipe my credit card, and schedule my next appointment. After that, it's all downhill. My hair gets wet and frizzy on my way from the salon to the car. The next day, I can NEVER get my hair to look as nice as the stylist made it look the day before.
"It's raining," the hairstylist says knowingly. She has been cutting and coloring my hair for years.
"Of course it is," I say. I don't tell her that I just saw George Clooney. I think about it while I wait for the color to set.
Someone must have grown tired of George Clooney, and his gray hair, and his debonair smile. Someone must have loved him once...enough to buy a huge poster of his face...enough to have the poster framed and hang the poster in her apartment.
But now the framed poster of George Clooney is propped up against a trash can, by the curb, in the rain, about a block from my hair salon.
I decide I have spent way too much time thinking about George Clooney...kicked to the curb. I wasted the time I usually spend reading gossip magazines about beautiful people like George Clooney...while the rain drums against the roof. I must clear my head of poor, rejected George Clooney, or I will not be able to fully enjoy my 10 fleeting minutes of beautiful hair.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Morning Madness

"Morning is an important time of day, because how you spend your morning can often tell you what kind of day you are going to have." — Lemony Snicket
My mornings are hectic. I've tried waking up at various times, preparing lunches, outfits, and book bags the night before; but regardless of my careful plans, something always goes wrong in the morning. My blow dryer only burns out, filling the bathroom with the smell of burnt hair, IN THE MORNING when my hair is still wet. My sons only realize they must take the all-white (insert soccer or lacrosse here) uniform (the mud-splattered one that is still in the dirty clothes basket) to school that day IN THE MORNING. I remember, IN THE MORNING, that I parked the car on near-empty the night before and must make time to stop at the gas station on my way to work. The dog only rolls in something vile smelling on her MORNING walk.
This morning, I had to be at school even earlier than usual; and I had to stop at Chick-Fil-A on my way to work in order to pick up a platter of chicken mini biscuits for student council breakfast. I ordered the platter yesterday; but, of course, since it was MORNING, the platter was not ready. I waited impatiently by the register. How long did it take to throw some tiny breakfast sandwiches together? They had had 24 hours notice. I paced in place, rocking from one foot to the other. It did not make time go by any faster. To distract myself, I watched other people going about their morning.
An older gentleman sat at a booth, enjoying his breakfast while reading the newspaper. I heard a member of the wait staff call him by name. He regularly had time to eat a leisurely breakfast at Chick-Fil-A? I felt overcome with jealousy.
A husband and wife stood at the condiment counter, helping themselves to coffee creamers. The napkin dispenser was empty. Neither of them thumped the top of the obviously empty dispenser nor did they whip around frantically, searching for someone, anyone, to hand them a paper towel. Instead, they waited patiently for an available cashier and asked politely for some extra napkins. Why weren't they rushing? I was filled with admiration.
So it wasn't just mornings in general, I thought to myself, when, several minutes later, I was hustling out of Chick-Fil-A, balancing a tray of chicken sandwiches. I had only moments to get to school before student council members would be waiting at my door unsupervised. Some people actually had relaxing mornings. I marveled at the thought.
"That should be my goal," I whispered wistfully, as I whipped into a parking space and ran full-speed into the building, sloshing coffee on my sweater in the process.
Forget about travel or a second career, "I will have a calm and peaceful MORNING...when I retire."

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sack Lunch

My older son is a picky eater; and although my younger son is not particular when it comes to food, I have always packed their lunches...since the day each boy started kindergarten. When they were in elementary school, they carried nylon Land's End lunch bags with their initials embroidered on the front. Jack's lunch bag was red; and Will's was blue. The front of the lunch bags had mesh pockets where, at the end of the day, I would sometimes find the little notes I'd included in their lunch that morning..."You'll do great on the spelling test!", "Here's what Daddy looked like when he was your age (along with a photo copy of their freckle-faced, red-haired dad)!", "I'm so proud of you." Although the notes were crumpled and stained with ketchup, I was happy to know that the boys had saved the notes instead of tossing them out with the empty Ziploc sandwich bags and juice boxes.
The summer before middle school, an older friend advised Jack to leave his Land's End bag at home and carry his lunch in a brown paper sack.
"Are you sure, Jack?" I asked. "Your red lunch bag keeps your food colder and holds more stuff."
"I'm sure," Jack said.
We found large-sized lunch bags at the grocery store; and, for the past six years, I have been packing brown bags full to the brim with lunches for my boys to take to middle school and now high school. I still add a note every now and then. Sometimes, when I'm putting clothes in the washing machine, I find the notes folded up in their jeans' pockets.
What will I do, I wonder, when they are away at college?
I will send care packages, of course; but that will not be the same as packing favorite sandwiches, and green grapes, and a surprise candy bar in those brown paper sacks. It won't be the same as imagining my boys opening their lunch bags at school on a good or bad or regular day and, in the middle of a crowded cafeteria, finding a little bit of home on the table in front of them.
Over the years, those lunch bags have carried a whole lot of love.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sick Day

Some of my students do not feel well today.
The school nurse tells me a stomach bug is going around. I make a mental note to swipe the desks with Clorox wipes.
One student asks if she can call home this morning. Her face is pale.
"Of course," I tell her.
"What's hurting?"
"Everything," she says.
She calls home, and her grandfather promises to pick her up. I know her family. I am sure her grandma will have a soft pillow and blanket on the couch, ready for her when she gets home. Perhaps her grandma will set a folding tray next to the couch, with a glass of crushed ice and Sprite and a red and white striped straw. The TV remote control or a favorite book will be on the folding tray.
Her grandma will take her temperature even though the school nurse has already done so, reporting to the grandfather that it was 100 degrees exactly. Her grandma will take it again, just to be sure. She will give her liquid Tylenol, even though the girl is old enough to try to swallow a tablet. Why make a difficult day any harder?
Later today, if the girl feels up to it, her grandma will make her clear soup or cherry Jell-O. The house will be quiet. Her grandfather's cool hand will press against her forehead while she's sleeping, checking to see if the temperature has gone down. Her grandma will tuck the blanket around her shoulders.
After the girl calls home, the rest of us watch as she gathers her folders, her jacket, her lunchbox.
"Feel better!" I say.
We feel bad that she is sick; but some kids, I know, would trade places with her in a heartbeat. One student, across the room, looks equally pale. He lays his head on his folded arms.
He doesn't even ask to call home.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Mulch for Sale

We'll deliver to your door
if you buy 10 bags or more

Though I'm not usually the begging sort
high school lacrosse is a costly sport...

Before you say "No thanks" to me
I'll remind you of my generosity

"I'm on a diet!" I wanted to shout
But I bought Tagalongs from your girl scout

I subscribed to magazines last summer
to fund band camp for your snare drummer

You sold me more wrapping paper than I could use
 to pay for the golf teams' new golf shoes

Big donations for twin cheerleaders
Read-a-thon sponsor for avid readers

Bake sales for the high school talent show
car wash tickets and cookie dough

Your garden will look like a new creation
when I deliver the mulch bought with your donation

I appreciate your order, I hope you know...
I've gotta run...I still have 99 bags to go.









Saturday, March 5, 2016

Unprepared

During the course of each school day, 105 students make their way in and out of my class; and on any given day, many of them are unprepared.
"Find any pencils lately?" they ask. They know we are at the point in the school year where we are running low on the pre-sharpened pencils I bought at the beginning of the year with school supply money. Now, I keep my eyes to the tiles, rescuing dropped and abandoned pencils I find in the hall. I doctor them up with a hand-held sharpener and a neon pink cap eraser. I hand over a rescued pencil, stifling a heavy sigh.
"Does anyone have lined paper?"
"May I use your scissors?"
"I left my binder in my locker."
"Is it okay if I bring the vocabulary homework in tomorrow? It's on my kitchen counter."
"Could I call my mom and ask her to sign my permission slip?"
"Could I use some crayons?"
I dole out a shocking amount of free school supplies.
Despite the temptation to lecture, I usually just hand over the tape or black Sharpie or my own personal pouch of colored pencils. My students are, after all, only 12-years-old; and any harsh words from me would only postpone (even longer) the work that needs to be done.
They know, though, that I am disappointed by their lack of preparation. My lips form a thin straight line instead of a smile; and my eyebrows arch into question marks...questioning their irresponsibility.
I send them a silent reprimand; and though I don't say a word, I might as well shout. "It's a school day. You've been to school hundreds of days. You know what you need to bring to school!"
* * *
This morning, I woke up early, thinking I had plenty of time to straighten the house, drink a cup of coffee, walk the dog, wash a couple loads of towels, run through the cash machine, and still have time to drive my 14-year-old son to his out-of-town lacrosse game. I even thought I had plenty of time to write my slice before we headed out. I sat down on the couch and reached for the laptop, pausing to check for messages on my cell phone. That's when I realized I had misread the schedule. The game was twice as far away as I had thought. I launched into panic mode. Fortunately, I had already walked and fed the dog. The towels would have to wait. My son loaded his lacrosse bag into the back of the car, I hit reverse, and we leaped out of the garage. My son put the field address into the GPS; and I crossed my fingers that we had enough gas to get us there.
We arrived at the field just in time for my son to hop out and hurry over to the team for warm-ups. The rain started as soon as he got out of the car. Wasn't it supposed to be warmer today? I had not had time to check the weather. On the way out of the house, I had grabbed my short winter jacket (the one without the hood)  instead of my long, puffy winter coat.
After parking, I climbed out of the driver's seat. It felt really chilly, and the wind was blowing. I rummaged through the back seat while misty rain frizzed up my hair. I found my raincoat (thank goodness!), balled up in the back floorboard, and I put it on over my winter jacket. I looked and felt all bunched up; but at least I had a hood now. A pair of thin, fleece mittens were stashed in the glove box; one was ripped at the wrist, but they would have to do. The shell for my older son's ski jacket was in the trunk, along with an old picnic blanket. I gathered it all up, hoping to make do. It was raining harder now; and the weather app on my phone confirmed my suspicions. It was only 40 degrees! Since there had been no time for the cash machine, I was relieved to find four dollars in the zippered part of my wallet and four quarters in the console...just enough for the price of admission, but not enough to buy hot chocolate at the concession stand.
I was facing a miserable hour and a half.
Of course, my comfy stadium seat was folded neatly on top of the thick stadium blanket...back home in our garage.
I spread out my picnic blanket on the hard bleachers and wrapped my son's ski coat around my legs. I'd left home in my lightweight Adidas running shoes; and without my rain boots, the hem of my jeans was soaked through. My thick socks were at home in my sock drawer; and the short socks I had on didn't even cover my ankles.
I was unprepared. I had been irresponsible. I looked and felt like a sorry excuse for a fan.
Over the years, I had attended hundreds of spring sporting events. I knew what I needed; but today I didn't have it when I needed it.
Sitting there, hunkered over in the cold, a steady rain dripping off the hood of my raincoat (the sports umbrella was in my husband's car), I thought of all the little faces who had looked at me with hopeful eyes, holding out their hands to borrow pencils and pens and paper and paperclips. I vowed that if my feet thawed out by Monday, I would hand over whatever they needed with a smile and a wink and a little one shoulder hug.
"We all forget what we need sometimes," I might say encouragingly. "Don't let it get you down."

Friday, March 4, 2016

Anything But Bacon

We have a Schnauzer, Jersey,...a 12 lb., two-year-old Schnauzer who, despite several sessions with a trainer, still struggles with behavior problems.
She stands on her back legs and paws my legs with her front feet, whining frantically for me to pick her up.
"Don't make eye contact with her when she does that," the trainer advises. "Eye contact from you is like a big hug to her. She thinks you are encouraging that behavior."
"Um...okay," I say, trying to go about emptying the dishwasher with the dog pawing at me and the trainer watching. I can't help thinking that Jersey looks like a little toddler reaching up for me. Maybe I have been encouraging that behavior. Usually I lift her right up to my face and give her a little snuggle. Definitely, I have been encouraging that behavior. I decide not to admit that to the trainer.
The trainer has agreed to work with us, at our house; and he wants us to go about our daily business so he can see how Jersey interacts.
"Your house always smells great," the trainer says, sitting down at the kitchen table. It's his third visit. "It always smells like bacon. I can see how a dog would be really happy here."
"Thanks," I say. Does my house always smell like bacon? I have teenaged sons; so I guess we do eat a lot of bacon. Do I smell like bacon? Now, I am not only worried about the dog's behavior, I'm also wondering if I smell like breakfast meat.
After I load the dishwasher, the trainer suggests we take Jersey for a walk.
"Brace yourself," I say. "She goes crazy when we pass another person...or dog...or squirrel." I think to myself that it's a wonder the other dogs don't bark at us...especially if we smell so strongly of bacon.
Jersey has a very high-pitched, anxious bark; and though she is not an aggressive dog, her barking makes her seem out of control. By the time I finally gave in and called the trainer, it had gotten so bad that I found myself walking Jersey at an uncharacteristically early hour each morning to avoid other dogs and owners. Even so, we almost always managed to run into someone...usually the neighbor with the perfect Golden Retriever. Jersey would bark as if her life depended on it. Her shrill voice echoing down the near-empty sidewalk.
I actually started cursing under my breath whenever I saw anyone walking in our direction. I wanted to shout.
"Please stay INSIDE until I have walked my dog! Do you really need to BE OUT HERE at 6:00 AM? You should know by now that my dog is not as PERFECT as yours. All I want is a PEACEFUL walk with my CRAZY dog before I have to go to work. Is that too much to ask?"
Instead, I appealed to my dog. "Please, please, please do not go into a barking frenzy," I would whisper to Jersey the minute I spotted the Golden Retriever prancing along peacefully in the distance. "Just ignore them. Please Jersey, ignore them. You're going to wake up the whole neighborhood. You're going to look mean; and I'm going to look stupid."
It never worked. The minute she caught a glimpse of the oncoming dog, she started her embarrassing, nonstop, ear-splitting yelp.
"She's just a little excited..." I called, waving half-heartedly, as the Golden Retriever and her superior-looking owner walked by.
* * *
Now, with the trainer's support, we head out so he can see Jersey in action.
Of course, right away, she begins her crazy barking.
"Yeah...I see what you mean," the trainer says.
He takes the leash and walks Jersey a few feet away from me. It tugs at my heart when I see her nervously glancing back in my direction.
"Do you mind looking the other way?" the trainer asks.
"Oh...of course...no problem," I say. I look in the other direction. Miraculously, Jersey and the trainer head off down the street silently. Apparently, I can't even watch her walk without causing a problem. I'm the trigger.
Although I feel hopeful for Jersey by the end of the training session, I also feel pretty bad about myself. I love that crazy dog, and I hate the fact that I seem to be the root of her misbehavior.
The trainer explains to me that I have to set some boundaries. I'm so glad my husband and sons are not home to hear this. I'd never hear the end of it. The trainer points out some specific things I need to work on.
I am no longer supposed to pick up the bone for Jersey when she drops it off the couch and barks until I reach down and hand it back to her. I am not supposed to give in when she uses her nose to push my computer off my lap or forcibly squeezes herself between me and my husband when we are sitting side by side, watching TV. I am not supposed to allow my anxiety to travel from my head, to my heart, into my hand, and down the leash to the dog. (Now how in the world am I supposed to prevent that?)
Before the trainer leaves, we set a time for the next session the following week. We also discuss possible new groomers...since Jersey has recently been banned from her previous grooming salon because of her barking.
I walk the trainer to the door, making a mental note of all the things I have to work on before the next session...walk the dog with treats in hand, require her to wait for an invitation onto the couch instead of allowing her to jump up at will, reward the positive, ignore the negative...buy some scented candles that smell like anything but bacon.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Curvy

My husband drives a Pilot, an older model, bulky, squarish, always clean inside. I drive a CRV, fondly called Curvy, squattier than the Pilot, always a bit of a mess. The floorboards are littered with crumpled tinfoil from egg sandwiches eaten en route to school, a dirty soccer sock hides out under the driver's seat, clumps of mud from lacrosse cleats cling to the backseat carpet.
She is, on a good day, disheveled. In order to spare Curvy any shame should an unexpected passenger need a ride, I bark orders at my teenaged sons.
"Quick!" I say, in a panic, "Toss the loose books, water bottles, and gum wrappers into the main back. One of you swipe up the melted Hershey kiss from inside that little compartment by the door handle. Use that old ripped t-shirt in the backseat to wipe down the dashboard."
A few weeks ago, I wrecked Curvy, dashing off half her left rearview mirror against the side of the garage. I've backed that car out thousands of times without incident; but I was running late, and my parents were visiting. I was trying to avoid bumping their vehicle when I heard the sickening crunch of the mirror glass. A lump jumped from my chest to my throat. I knew it was bad without looking. When I did look, her side mirror was hanging akimbo and my reflection was a jigsaw puzzle. For a couple weeks, I drove her around, her mirror a testament to my negligence...like sending the boys to school with bad haircuts or unsigned permission slips. I was relieved when my husband ordered a replacement part and patched Curvy up himself with a little gorilla glue. Not quite good as new, but good...a small scar marking the place where he reattached the severed mirror casing.
Curvy has not had a winter wash in a couple of winters. I feel bad for her; but with kids, and work, and life in general, her cleanliness is not a top priority. She soldiers on...through rain, slush, snow, salt. I wonder if she's embarrassed, parked in the garage beside Pilot. He seems like a take-charge type...the kind who might rub it in just a little that she's always so haphazard. He is like a pilot, well-kempt and wise...a little standoffish.
Curvy, on the other hand, is long-suffering, approachable...on hand every day, carting us without complaint to practice and the mall and church and the grocery store.
Now that my older son has his driver's license, the Pilot will soon be his car. I find some comfort in that. Pilot has proven himself a leader among cars...strong, invincible, reputable, proud. Perhaps Pilot will take issue with the fact that he will no longer warrant garage status and will be parked, instead, in the back driveway...exposed to the elements.
Curvy, humble and serviceable, will not gloat. Instead, she will rumble a sigh of regret. Pilot has been her roommate now for more than five years. Despite his authoritative air, he's been company for her. Curvy forgives his egotism.
My husband is shopping for a replacement vehicle for the Pilot...something newer, shinier, bigger, boxier...
He asks my opinion, touting mileage reports, safety reviews, color, make, model. I'm more concerned with the name.
"What about a Rogue?" I suggest. "Curvy would like sharing close quarters with a Rogue...rakish good looks, a bit of a mischief maker." My husband shakes his head and swipes his tablet.
"Umm...no," he says. He keeps looking. Whomever (I mean whatever) he chooses, I'm sure Curvy, true to form, will make the best of it.