Hubert’s Dance

(Some of you will recognize this as “Hubert’s Waltz.” And you are right! I’ve revised it to some extent, owning it more fully as part of my story. My cousin continues to be an interesting man. I do not know that I have ever met any other human so comfortable in his or her own skin. I regret not knowing Hubert better. Too young to realize knowing the person and knowing the person through others’ stories are not the same. Too young to know it’s best to have both. Thus, my homage to Hubert through this story. I hope you enjoy it. I hope he would have.)

Hubert’s Dance

Part 1

“This road we’re on, this is graded. A good dirt road. Around here that means this is a city road because county roads are paved. It really is a good road, not too many bumps and it’s practically straight, only a couple of easy curves!”

Mom always explains what we see. Sometimes it helps me see more.

I’d asked earlier why we were going so slow. I wisely didn’t say it the way I thought it! Turns out, Mom wasn’t worried about speeding on dirt. She didn’t want folks thinking we were rude Californians. Thus, the turtle’s slow and steady speed. I’m not sure what Mom was worried about, though. The air was so heavy it weighed the dust down like a playground bully. Nothing stirred—not even insects could be heard.

I’d heard about humidity, and I’d lived in the South before. But I sure didn’t remember being able to see the air. It shimmers, by the way, just like in the movies. Beautiful. Feels opposite, though. I was just a girl when I lived in Texas and Missouri. Maybe little kids don’t notice the humidity. I’ve heard many adults say so.

Something happens when we hit ten. From there on out, it’s double digits or more. Once we have to use two digits to say our age, we notice things more. Good and bad. Shimmery air. And air thick and sticky like honey. Yards green as emeralds, gifts from the marriage of air and water. Skin never quite dry, always dewy fresh.

“Barbara Sue, it won’t help a damn thing for you to keep griping about how hot it is! Why don’t you look around you at all the beauty. I swear you’d miss an elephant you’re so busy complaining!”

Apparently, I’d said some or all of that aloud. Gotta be more careful about that! The edge on Mom’s voice was serious. She’d sliced right through the thickness, her words slamming into my ears. I knew she was miserable, too. She was sweating, and Mom never sweat. While I didn’t like it, I shut up.

She was right. We’d left California in a drought—everything brown except the pine trees and even those looked droopy. Here in Slapstone, Arkansas everything was green except the bushes next to the road—they had been conquered by the dust.

We were going to visit Mamaw. I’m still not real clear on how we’re related to her. I think she was married to someone’s great-grandpa. But maybe not. We hadn’t seen her in more than ten years. I was a baby last time she’d seen me. Mom said that Mamaw had cancer so us kids probably wouldn’t get to see her.

“You two would be too much for her,” Mom assured us.

I was glad because I imagined a shriveled, old woman barely making a dent in the feather bed. I didn’t want to have to hug someone so close to being a corpse. I didn’t say anything about this to Mom because I knew a series of lectures would follow. She’d remind me of our belief in God and how I shouldn’t be afraid of death.

She’d forget the stories she told me about taking dead people to the morgue when she worked at the hospital in Southern California. The one about her and another nurse discovering they were locked in the morgue when the corpse sat up—yes! That one is funny! Mom’s great at telling it! I was fine with funny story about corpses, fine with watching scary movies with my aunt. And I knew I might as well be fine with hearing Mom’s stories of her visits to Mamaw’s.

That’s how I knew Mamaw had a feather bed. That was one of Mom’s favorite stories. She told me lots of times that we had visited Mamaw when I was a baby. Mom, Mamaw, and I slept together in the feather bed, made by Mamaw and stuffed with feathers from her own geese. Mamaw told everybody in town she slept between her granddaughter and her great-granddaughter.

Mom said, “I was so embarrassed! You must remember, I was only eighteen years old, and the thought of everyone knowing I’d slept with my grandmother…well, it was awful. I kept telling Mamaw to quit telling everybody. But she just laughed.”

Then Mom laughed, every time, and said, “Oh, the silly things that embarrass us when we’re young!”

All of Mom’s stories have morals, and she just has to tell me what they are in case I don’t get it. Maybe in another life she was Aesop. I always wondered how Mamaw–or anyone–harvests geese feathers. Those creatures are vicious! Can’t see them giving up their feathers without a fight.

I figured I’d been quiet long enough for her to forget I’d been complaining, so I asked, “Mom, how come Mamaw lives so far out of town? If she’s sick, shouldn’t she be closer to town so somebody could take care of her?”

“Mamaw wants to stay in her own home. After all, she’s lived there for most of her ninety years. Besides, she’s not alone—Hubert lives with her.”

“Who’s Hubert?”

“Hubert’s one of Mamaw’s sons.”

#cousins #family #names #oralhistory #familystories #Arkansas #California

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“Lance,” another excerpt of my novel, Corner Woman

(I’d like to thank you for reading this excerpt, particularly because this is a first draft. I am interested in reader responses: How do you feel about the characters so far, the woman and this man, Lance? What are you curious about? Etc…)

Lance declared in his courtly voice, “My dear woman, the vagabond life is not for all. Circumstance beckons many. Only those who embrace the calling should stay.”

I waited for Lance to continue. His answers are never tiny. He’s what Uncle Troy Lee called long-winded. When I was a girl, I couldn’t understand how a wind could be long. I understood “wind.” Loved it. Could bring to mind all kinds of images of “wind”: ponytail blowing while I stood still as a stone; flowers nodding as I passed, as if to say hello; leaves singing in the trees, their shadows dancing on the ground. But when Uncle Troy Lee added “long” to it, I was lost.

Chuckling, he explained, “Oh! Sweet One! Long winded is like the new Pastor at church. We’re all just sittin there wonderin when he’s agonna shut the hell up! Wait a sec and I’ll read you the dictionary definition.”

He stepped to the desk, reached to the upper shelf, pulled the dictionary down, and looked the word up. He held the book so I could read along. He always did stuff like that. I always liked it.

“Says here that longwinded means: talking at tedious length. What do you think?”

“Oh. Um. What’s “tedious” mean?”

I truly didn’t know the meanin of the word. But I might’ve asked anyway. Uncle Troy Lee gets excited like a boy huntin pirate treasure. He says the dictionary is full of treasure. Our whole family knows Uncle Troy Lee is the one to go to with word questions. He swears there’s almost no diggin needed to uncover dictionary treasure. I like to see his eyes spark and dance when he’s off on the word hunt. The diggin might not leave callouses. Sure does take as much time as diggin fence posts, though.

After we found the treasure that is “tedious,” I understood long-winded better.

“That does sound like the new Pastor. My butt fell asleep last time. Made it real hard to walk when Mama and Daddy said it was time to go.”

Uncle Troy Lee tilted his head back like he was tossing his laugh straight up to the sun. Just like when he’s huntin word treasure, he’s All-In. Mama and Daddy work hard. And they laugh sometimes. But they do it like grown-ups—keep somethin hidden like a dollar they don’t want anybody knowin they have. Uncle Troy Lee’s like Kyle runnin to the goal: Full tilt like a human could outrun the wind. Beat it to the finish line.

And best of all, Uncle Troy Lee thought I was a champion laugh-maker. He called me “witty.” I liked that.

“Damn, child! You are a hoot! And yes, you got it, Girl!”

It dawned on me that I’d drifted away on my Memory Lane visit like I was takin a Sunday drive. Usually had plenty of time for a trip when Lance is talkin. But there was only silence like the world got wrapped in cotton while I was with Uncle Troy Lee. I felt out of time with the world. How could it be that Lance stopped at three tiny statements? If words were water, Lance would be Niagara Falls.

“Lance, are you okay?”

“Whatever do you mean by that query? Are you asking if I’m ill? Or are you asking something else?”

Asking Lance questions is an act of bravery. He has made clear that questions must be posed in the correct form. Delivered in the correct manner. Most of us don’t have a clue what the form or manner are. We’ve talked about it. None of us will ask him to explain.

Before Lance will answer a question, he examines it from every angle. He goes at the chore with the passion of a new lover. He delivers his verdict like a divorce court attorney who just found hidden money. He even made Kangaroo Phyllis cry last week! Hell! Phyllis is quick to punch anyone. Doesn’t seem to need a reason. Usually knocks em out, too. Seeing her cry made her a lot less scary! I had no idea she could cry. Good to know her tear ducts work.

Roger is sure like money-in-your-pocket that Lance is extra gentle with me and my questions. I don’t care what Roger says. Lance ain’t tender with anyone. Seems to me, the grilling is the same for everyone. Different meat. Same flame.

Taking a deep breath I say, “Your health. I’m asking if your health is okay.”

“Now that I understand our topic, I’m led to inquire as to why you are asking after my health?”

“Well, I begin to wonder that myself! You seem fine now. It’s just that a few minutes ago you responded to a rude man with just three statements, three short ones.”

“I fail to understand your point. Since I’m not obtuse, I conclude the error is on your end. Please rephrase for clarity.”

“What? Oh! For Pete’s sake! Every other time I’ve heard one a them try to say somethin, you are right there. Puttin ‘em in their place. And today you go with three baby sentences and you’re done. Like all those words you know evaporated. What happened? Why the difference?”

“Well, I’ll tell ya, Little One. It’s like this: How do you explain to someone who asks, “How did you end up here?”? Just how the fuck do you do that? The question just pisses me the fuck off! Even the kind intentions of genuine people do not mask the punishing, blame-making, bullying kind of Social Darwinism within the question. The question symbolizes much which I hate about American society. About MY society.”

“What, you ask? Well, fuck, I’ll tell ya! The question frames preconceived ideas about worthiness, about how we define “human.” For example, if we accept a definition—subconsciously or consciously—of “worthy” as “acceptable to mainstream to society,” we immediately define many people as “unworthy.” The homeless woman whose breath made you want to retch is “unacceptable to mainstream society.” Thus, she is “unworthy!” Most people do not see this kind of obvious example, so the subtle examples remain invisible to this short-sighted group. Most unfortuitously, this is a fuckin large group! They’re the motherfuckin majority!”

Lance continued, warming to his subject, “This definition of “worthy” works well to absolve us of all responsibility to our fellow humans. After all, they, too, knew the definition of “acceptable” and “worthy.” They chose to step outside the bounds of polite society, of mainstream society! This is America. They have the freedom to choose. And to live with that choice! They did choose, right?”

As is often the case when Lance warms to a subject, he gets louder and louder. He stands on anything he can find, a rock, lamppost base, sidewalk. When he gets goin’, he reminds me of a cross between a revival preacher and an old fashioned elixir salesman: He kinda persuades you, but there’s just somethin that doesn’t feel quite right.

Lance took a breath before continuing his tirade.

“And when we hear that, if we have had any kind of decent liberal arts education at all, we hear Spencer’s Social Darwinism finding it’s 21st Century voice. We with acute hearing can also feel with our stereocilia. The hair cells in the ears of acute hearers trigger the rods and cones in the eyes to look more closely. Thus, many are keenly aware of the shadowy, other time danger of the echo of Social Darwinism. That time when Nietzsche took the global prize for Most Misunderstood Man. That time when the perverted “Golden Rule” that is Social Darwinism collided with the twisted “Uber Man” offered by Hitler’s perversion of Nietzsche. Yes. Even the lousiest of schools manages to teach a fair semblance of at least some of the truth of this atrocity. The widespread effort emphasizes that for the global community there is a limit to the evil that will be tolerated by the world at large.”

“Ah! I can fuckin hear you formulating a smug fuckin question. Think you’ve got me hoisted on my own petard, so to speak. But nope.”

“Because we as a community are clear enough on the concept of limiting the amount of evil we will tolerate, we cannot turn our collective backs on the underlying social structures that support the growth of the very evil we work to limit. Doing so, which is what we do, leaves us in a circle of pain with an occasional new group taking a turn at being punished.”

“We are willfully blind. We are Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. And that just pisses me the fuck off!”

In an attempt to show his audience, and I mean “audience.” Must have about twenty people standing around now. Lance tries to show us he will eventually be finished. Some of the folks who’ve stopped to listen shuffle their feet in hesitation. Their faces show an expectation. Perhaps this tall, thin man with the wild beard, the unruly wavy hair falling down his back, perhaps this man was the new messiah. He kinda looks like old pics of Jesus. The ones in those Bible story books.

Except Lance’s eyes do not look like calm blue seas, though. Lance’s face looks like a thunderstorm. Lightning flashes from his blue eyes. Sometimes I think it’s true that Lance’s eyes burn folks like lightning. Must be why some folks stop, jump as if burned, then flee. Lightning strike!

Lance puts on a good show. Jumpin up on a picnic bench like it’s a stage. Pacing up and down, punctuating his statements with hand gestures. Exclamation points are made with both hands pointing skyward. Folks’ll pay for a show. We are there to harvest the crop Lance has planted. Share with him later, when he’s through being the crazed fount of wisdom.

“So that’s why I have such a fuckin hard time answering the how’d-you-end-up-here shit questions. In the beginning, I attempted explaining the series of events that led to the street corner. After the third fucking insulting questioner let me know an answer was not required or appreciated, I changed my response.”

“Then it was, “I’m happy to tell ya if ya have the time.”

“Felt like there was a true choice to be made then. If the question is asked again, the choice is “time.” If some noncommittal noises are made, the choice is “no time.” Either way, everyone involved knows what’s going on. Respectful.”

“Guess I was wrong on that as well. Fuck me. Offering the choice was interpreted by many to mean they should tell me how I arrived at my current spot in life. I heard some astounding bits of insight, wisdom, and real storefront Christianity. Shit.”

“The kind folks who stopped to share with me that I was using my education incorrectly were usually dressed nicely. Their belief in the rightness of telling a complete stranger how to live shows their socio-economic status. The ones who felt the need to introduce themselves as Christian usually had something Biblical to say.”

“You’re a well-spoken man. You are obviously educated. Surely, you are not going to allow pride to stand in your way. Surely, you see how the Lord is leading you to lower your sights, to swallow your sinful pride and accept what you probably call a “menial job.” Pride goeth before a fall. You’d do well to remember that.”

“Always a man who says, “I betcha got fired for talkin so fuckin smart to the boss. They don’t like that, ya know?”

“And when the guy is done—every one of them—he always snorts a laugh-like sound, then coughs up a big loogie, which he spits like a period on his sentence. I don’t know if I’m supposed to acknowledge this loogie with one of my own like an adult version of the spit-handshakes we used on the playground to signify an oath or agreement. Because I do agree. Most folks who are called “boss,” or who think of themselves in that way, do not want their people, aka employees, to do the thinkin’. Nope. Most bosses want obedience. Quiet, drama-free obedience.”

“Perhaps I like most the people who say, “You sound smart enough to figure out how to get yourself out of this situation.”

“These folks may be the most honest. Perhaps I say that because this group is the most diverse, which indicates, to my mind, fewer stereotypes littering their lives. Or maybe it’s just fewer unexamined ones. Members of this group usually talk to me if we’re standing, trapped on the same corner by the arbitrary signal lights. And they look at me when we speak. I appreciate that they try not wrinkle their noses at my smell. I accept it as an act of respect. Conversely, I also appreciate the members of this group—usually male members— who will flat out tell me about myself.”

“Damn! Dude, you gotta aim better when you’re pissin’. As one dude to another, we know it ain’t about home or no home. Get a better grip on yourself.”

“Such blunt statements, my dear, testify to my humanity. And to theirs. These gentlemen see me as another human, another male of the species.”

I wondered for awhile why he didn’t just do as they suggested. Aim better. Maybe their statements do like he says—show they see Lance as human. I understand why he mentions it. That really can make your day! But they’re also telling him that he smells. He probably does. Like most of us out here, Lance tries not to notice his own aroma. Doing so just makes for such a bad day.

Little Grannie’s Kitchen Love

I posted an excerpt (the beginning) of this story last week. Here’s the entire story. Hope you enjoy it.

I stood in the box-shaped cut-out, facing the cash register. The day had been busy—customers thicker than mosquitos in a swamp. I no longer smiled. Couldn’t say “hi” to another customer if my job depended on it. I knew I’d reached the end of an order when I saw the black rubber divider. Of course, that was also the beginning of the next order. Last time I’d looked there were still hours left on my shift

I saw the box of vanilla pudding first. About five items later I rang up the box of vanilla wafers. In the blink of a sprite’s eye, I was a girl of 12 sitting in Little Grannie’s kitchen, watching in fascination as she whipped together her famous banana pudding. Heard again Grandpa’s voice call from the living room, wondering if the deliciousness was ready yet. My voice brought be back from that happy memory.

“Someone’s makin banana puddin!”

I looked up to see a short, chubby woman with softly curled white hair wearing wire rimmed glasses, smiling in surprise. She reminded me of Santa’s wife.

“You know about banana puddin?” She asked in surprise.

“Oh yes! Little Grannie, my great grandmother, always made it for me. Her banana pudding was the best ever! It’s been a long time since I tasted it.”

I really missed Little Grannie and hoped I didn’t sound too homesick.

“Well, you’ll have to come over and have some of mine. It may not be as good as your Grannie’s, but it’ll tide you over til you see your Grannie again.”

It was hard to tell who was more surprised by the invitation—me or my customer. As I stood there trying to decide how to say no without hurting her feelings, I heard myself accept the invitation.

“Well, since you’re gonna come for dinner, I should introduce myself. My name’s Mrs. Shaw, Mrs. Robert Shaw. Glad to meet you!”

I grinned in response and pointed toward my name tag as I introduced myself. By the end of the order, we’d settled on a day and time. I had address and directions in hand. Mrs. Shaw left the store grinning like a grandmother anticipating a family dinner.

I was smiling until I looked at my hand. There was Mrs. Shaw’s neat handwriting.

“What the hell was I thinking? Fuck. I can hear it now. This will be yet another example that I don’t think, that I have no common sense, that it’s a wonder a girl as smart as me is so damn stupid. Yeah. Yeah. Heard it all before. Shit. What if they’re all right? How the hell am I going to tell them I just made a lunch date with a woman I’ve never seen before all because she can make banana pudding? Sounds really stupid when I say it like that. Fuck. I can hear it now:

“What were you thinking?!?”

“Have you taken leave of your senses?!? You DO NOT accept dinner invitations from complete strangers!”

How do I explain? There was something about Mrs. Shaw, something safe. Familiar. I felt like she and Little Grannie would be friends. I just knew this would be okay. I just couldn’t explain how I knew it.

My family says I’m a bundle of contrasts—seventeen going on ten going on thirty, too chatty for my own good, too smart to have good sense. I’m just “too much” or “too little” of everything. Any claims from me that they’re being unfair makes my family trot out the same old examples of how right they are.

Like when Frank’s Dad said I could have some of his home-cured olives. I am a picky eater, so trying—and liking—the olives left me feeling pretty adventurous! So pleased with myself in fact, that when Frank offered me a fresh olive a few days later, I did not even hesitate. Sadly, that olive was fresh off the tree—not fresh from the curing vat. My mouth was sucked dry like Sylvester the Cat’s in those old Warner Bros cartoons. Frank ran off laughing. As I rinsed my mouth, I promised myself I’d never fall for that damn trick again. But twice more in as many days, Frank’s promise of honesty won me over. Yep. Tasted two more fresh olives. Fresh off the tree.

And, of course, Frank told everyone what the hell he’d been able to talk me into! I gave Frank props for the trick. But damn! I was so embarrassed.

And somehow someone in the family always mentioned my Chevy Luv truck as some kind of “gold standard” example of my “ditziness.” I guess it may have been weird to buy a truck I couldn’t drive very well. But the car salesman, when he wasn’t trying to grab both my C-cup breasts with one of his normal-size hands, showed me how to shift gears and use the clutch. He promised me that I’d catch on in no time. And that if I didn’t, I could bring the truck back. And he was sweet enough to toss in three tires because I pointed out that the ones on the used truck were nearly as bald as his mechanic.

I sorta get why Mom and Dad shook their heads like two old chickens worried about me being someone’s fried dinner. Seems to me they could’ve at least noticed the smart things I did. Three tires thrown in. No extra charge. Learning to drive that truck was trickier than the groping car salesman said. Took longer, too. But I did learn. I know there were more than a couple folks in our town of 9,000 who were real happy when I quit holding up traffic while I searched for a gear.

My face was usually pink when I talked about or explained my driving adventures. But I still think I made a good choice with that truck. My parents keep making a big deal out of me buying the truck. To hear them talk, you’d think no one else ever does the stuff I do. I think they should probably get out more.

I was in some ways proud of myself for questioning my acceptance of Mrs. Shaw’s dinner invitation. I’m pretty sure what topped my list of worries would have been laughed at by my parents. I was most worried about being able to keep the conversation going. I was good at keeping up a friendly conversation with folks going through my line at the grocery store. But for an entire meal? Could I do that? With strangers?

Then I remembered every horror story I had ever heard about girls who picked up hitchhikers, girls who got into cars with strangers, girls who talked to strangers, girls who looked at strangers. Those girls ended up on the six o’clock news—murder victims. Those girls were raped, beaten, stabbed, shot, poisoned, sold into slavery. Mom and Dad had been adamant I not become one of those girls. According to the parents, I was too smart to fall into that trap, they had told me so many times.

And I had just agreed to go to a stranger’s home for a meal. I was pretty sure Mom and Dad were once again going to be disappointed. I imagined them being interviewed for the evening news, shaking their heads sadly as they explained:

“We warned her and warned her. She was just too smart to have any sense.”

Of course, I wondered if Mrs. Shaw’s cherub-cheeks were hiding a serial-killer’s heart. Maybe she wanted me to come for dinner because she was going to poison me, laugh while watching me die. Then again, Mom and Dad see bogeymen behind every bush. Last Friday night, Shelly parked on the side of the house then came to the door to get me. Girls’ night! Dad opened the door, saw a van—immediately thought “love machine”—and sent Mom to ask/demand/yell things at me. Took so long to calm my parents down, we girls’ night was almost ruined. I wish the parents would listen to their own words! I am smart enough to take care of myself.

There was something soothing, calming about Mrs. Shaw. Even just our chit-chat at the grocery store was like talking with Little Grannie. I could picture Grannie and Mrs. Shaw being friends, sharing recipes, talking about their grandchildren, calling each other “Sister Opal” and “Sister Mabel” like Grannie had always done with her friends at church. I just knew that any lady who could make me feel so comfortable, who reminded me so much of Grannie just could not be a murderous poisoner in cahoots with slavers.

But I knew I wouldn’t be able to explain all that to my parents. Maybe I couldn’t explain it to anyone. I just knew Mrs. Shaw was the woman I saw. No thick public mask on her face. I knew it like a Christian knows her soul is safe even when she cheats on her boyfriend. It was just a deep, down truth: Mrs. Shaw and her husband would not harm me.

And even though I knew this truth of the Shaw’s goodness, I could not stop worrying about ending up as one of those murdered, TV news girls. Maybe this is why my parents refer to me as “air head” sometimes: “Her head has more than its share of air. Damn gullible girl believes every damn thing she’s told.”

So I called Mrs. Shaw and asked if I could bring a friend with me to dinner. Mrs. Shaw quickly, happily said yes.

I breathed a sigh of relief. After all, murderers do not let you bring a friend with you for dinner! Dawn had agreed to go with me. A sigh of relief escaped my lips as I relaxed into the truth of safety in numbers. Surely this moment will be the one that earns me an “atta girl” pat on the back from my parents: I was courteous in accepting the invitation. And I was mature enough to realize there could be some danger. Then as a responsible adult, I found a solution to a potential problem.

After handling all that, I could finally think about the dinner. I knew banana pudding would be served. That one dessert dish was all I knew. Dawn coming along with me was a life-saver. She was good at talking with people. I did not want to be the one they talked about later—the bad dinner guest. My confidence was always bolstered when I was with a friend. Knowing the conversation wasn’t just all on me took the stress away like a balloon freed from a toddler’s hand.

My super secret relief, though, was with Dawn along I probably wouldn’t get lost. Dawn grew up around here and has a good sense of direction. Unlike me. I hated to admit that I could barely find my way out of my own neighborhood.

I did ask for directions yesterday when I tried to get back home from Ruby’s. There are just too many dirt roads around here. I tried and tried to find street signs. Maybe they don’t use them in Arkansas like they do in California. I still don’t understand how anyone can be expected to know where they’re at or where they’re going when it’s a game of hide-and-seek to find a street sign.

And directions from the chaw-chompin’ fella on the porch didn’t help much: “Well, if y’all’ll turn right at the old stump—you know the one in front of the old Curtis place—y’all will be durn near at the house you’re lookin for.”

I explained that I wasn’t from here, didn’t ever know the Curtis’ so don’t know where their old place is. And that meant I could drive right on by that old stump. I must’ve said it right. Mr. Chaw-Chompin’ tried to help me with other directions, and he didn’t sound mad.

“Oh. Beg pardon. Thought you was someone else. You shore do look like one a Missy Lee’s girls. Well, near to the old Curtis place is the Post Office. Just turn right when ya see it. Cain’t miss it, now—sticks out like a heifer in a bullpen.”

Well, that was helpful. I drove slowly, looking carefully for the Post Office. Never saw it. So I missed my turn. Discovered that bit of truth when I arrived in Bald Knob, about thirty miles away from Batesville, where I lived.

I should’ve known I’d miss the damned Post Office. Every time I hear “Cain’t miss it,” I do just that! I just hate when people tell me that ‘cause it’s like a guarantee that I will!

Really, how am I supposed to know what a heifer looks like anyway? Or a bull for that matter? Do bulls have horns? I’ve been chased by both—I think. Cows just look like cows! Scary farm animals.

The day of the dinner arrived. Mrs. Shaw provided excellent directions, which made Dawn’s navigator job even easier. So we were in a good mood when we arrived at the Shaw’s home. The spring weather was perfect. The picturesque beauty of the Ozarks dressed in her autumn finery was complemented by the spring palette of the region. The surprise of a blooming dogwood in the midst of Arkansas pines still makes me gasp. The icicle-making cold of winter was a memory, and the humidity of summer was at least two months away.

As we pulled into the Shaw’s driveway, Dawn and I both gasped. Before us was the quintessential setting of a Currier and Ives photograph. The old oak shading the entire front yard was perfect, as if God had just created it. Again I noticed how front yards here in Arkansas had no relation to California’s carefully manicured, small squares of grass that lined the blocks like longsuffering pets. Mr. and Mrs. Shaw had a half-acre front yard with the oak tree set like a gem in the rear center, providing perfect shade for the wrap-around front porch of the house. Rose bushes decorated the front of the house. Delicate wildflowers hugged the base of the oak tree like children hugging their mother’s skirt. And green grass rolled from the street to the house as welcoming as any red carpet.

“Wow. Did you see that tree?”

“Have to be blind to miss that giant! My Mama sure would be jealous of those rose bushes,” replied Dawn.

“Yeah. Mine, too!”

Mrs. Shaw emerged from the back door as Dawn and I were closing the doors of my truck. I smiled, going through the back door was a good sign, like we were family. Only company would be brought into the home through the front—more formal. This was like an omen, a sign from heaven above that this dinner would be like the many, many family dinners with Little Grannie and Big Grandpa. Those family dinners are treasures locked forever in my heart, offering warmth during cold times.

I gave Little Grannie her nickname because she was such a small woman—barely five feet tall, sometimes chubby but usually slender. She was such a powerful force in our family. Each of her grandchildren is still sure they’re the favorite. And each of them is still right about that. Little Grannie found the jewels in each of them, treasured her grandchildren as if they were the jewels. The same was true for all of the great-grandchildren, of which I am the eldest. We had also lived with Grannie and Grandpa sometimes when my brother and I were little. So I knew—still know—they were two of the finest people to ever walk the planet. And like all the great grandchildren, I still know I was their favorite.

Our family dinners were times of lively talk, jokes shared, teasing, hugs, and laughter. I thought of the shared laughter, the clink of silverware on plates, and the chatter as the sounds of love. Food and drink were offered like hugs and kisses—the abundance of the food an appetizing metaphor for the love of family. I knew—without knowing how—that Little Grannie and Big Grandpa had given our family a priceless gift by showing us all how to enjoy a family meal.

Mrs. Shaw grinned, hugged us both when we got to the door. I felt a whisper of Grannie’s hug in Mrs. Shaw’s—so much so that I had to blink away tears.

Mrs. Shaw brought us into a large, farm style kitchen. The hardwood floor echoed our steps as if greeting us. The far wall was covered with cupboards—separated by the sink and expanse of counter, to the left a large gas stove stood like a sentinel. The double oven hinted at the thousands of meals cooked and warmed within. Mrs. Shaw waved toward the stove as she explained that it had been her mother’s. I looked at the stove as if it were an archaeological find that might share its history with me. The refrigerator was more modern—and large. A window over the kitchen sink showed the rolling farmland behind the house. On the opposite wall more cupboards and a pantry flanked another large window. Cheerful curtains, yellow as buttercups, billowed in the soft breeze coming through the open windows.

And in the center of the room was a wooden table. The table appeared to be made of one continuous slab of wood, about three inches thick. Again, Mrs. Shaw told us the table had been her mother’s, and her mother’s before. More than a century of use had polished the table to a welcoming golden brown. The table was set for four. A vase of flowers in the center was surrounded by a baked ham; a bowl of steaming candied yams; a bowl of potato salad; a tossed green salad; a basket of homemade rolls; a platter of crudités, olives, and cherry tomatoes; a jar of pickled okra; jars of pickles—sweet, bread and butter, and dill—a bowl of mashed potatoes with accompanying gravy boat; and of course, some roasted turkey. I thought I heard the table groan under the weight of the food.

“Hope you brought your appetite!” smiled Mrs. Shaw. “Mr. Shaw will be in directly—washin’ up right now.”

“Wow! This looks and smells like Thanksgiving!”

“Am I glad I skipped breakfast!” uttered Dawn.

“Barbara, I don’t want you thinkin’ that I forgot your banana puddin’,” said Mrs. Shaw. “I put the desserts on this small table here so we’d have room to sit and eat.”

“Desserts? There is more than one dessert?? Mrs. Shaw you remind me so much of my Grannie!”

Before I could think my way out of it, I grabbed Mrs. Shaw in a hug. I couldn’t see Mrs. Shaw’s smile, but Dawn did. She told me later about Mrs. Shaw’s grin.

“I keep tellin’ you, Barb. When you do that stuff—suddenly just hug a person—you kinda light up the room. Your face is so open, so full of love, like a kid who has found Santa. I think you have yourself another Grannie. And girl! You won Mr. Shaw as a friend forever. It was like a damn Hallmark card in that kitchen: You hugging Mrs. Shaw. She smiling like an angelic Mrs. Santa. And Mr. Shaw stopped in his tracks by the smile on his wife’s face. Yep. He’s gonna love anyone can make his wife look that damn happy.”

I had to hug Mrs. Shaw. Just had to. I was in her kitchen, but I was surrounded by memories of Little Grannie smiling, showing me the German chocolate cake made specially for me, showing the banana puddin’, the beans and cornbread, the fried chicken dinner. I had always known that each dish was filled with Grannie’s love, that while some cooks used salt and pepper and other spices, Grannie’s use of these things was more magical, more special.

I heard again Grannie’s voice as she said, “Promise me you’ll always remember Grannie loves you. No matter what happens, no matter what may come, Grannie always and always loves you.”

I had not seen Grannie in a year—a long time. Mrs. Shaw’s presence, her hug, her voice, her short stature—so like Grannie’s that I had to hug her. I felt like Little Grannie just might feel this hug even though she was a couple thousand miles away.

Letting go of Mrs. Shaw, I said, “I’m glad I skipped breakfast, too!”

Dawn and I were introduced to Mr. Shaw, who reminded me of my uncle—only quieter. Mr. Shaw gently teased Dawn and me, making us both feel at home. We sat around the table and bowed our heads to offer thanks for such a feast. Then the eating began.

I happily piled ham, yams, potatoes and gravy, and rolls onto my plate. I successfully avoided the potato salad by having seconds of mashed potatoes. One look at the potato salad was all I needed. Mrs. Shaw was another lover of mayonnaise. I was surrounded by them. I hate mayonnaise. Truly hate it. I can barely tolerate the smell without puking.

This was the other dilemma I worried about! I am a picky, picky eater. My family regularly complains and teases me about it. If my pickiness could have been “corrected,” it would have already happened. I had learned years before how to have seconds of a dish or two as a way of avoiding one that my taste buds would refuse.

“Barbara, have you ever tasted pickled okra?”

Mrs. Shaw was holding out the jar of home-canned pickled okra. I could find no polite way of refusing.

I tried taking only one. Mrs. Shaw protested.

“That way if you like it, you already have another bite. And if you don’t like it, well, what’s one small piece of okra?”

Mrs. Shaw looked so hopeful, I just couldn’t refuse. I was quite proud of myself, too. I not only put two of those pickled okra on my plate, I ate one. The odor of vinegar assaulted my nose like the Macy’s perfume counter on a sale day. The overpowering smell telegraphed the Emergency! Emergency! Signal to my taste buds. Thus, they were prepared for the abundance of vinegar. My tongue was not, however, ready for the slimy texture. I closed my mouth, to prevent the pre-vomit saliva-release from escaping down my chin. Surprisingly, closing my mouth squished the slimy okra, causing part of it to squirt out of its skin and right down my throat. The slimy skin sat where it landed, on the back of my tongue. And continued to release its vinegary-ooze. The okra, so well-lubed, was resting in my stomach. The slimy trail left in its wake, infused as it was with vinegar, forced me to guzzle sweet tea as never before.

I hoped my facial expression didn’t show the horrors happening in my mouth! I wanted nothing more than to take my napkin and wipe my tongue with it. But that would probably be noticeable. I didn’t want to hurt Mrs. Shaw’s feelings either. I’m sure her pickled okra is quite delicious. Maybe I’m just allergic. All I was certain of was that nothing that slimy should ever be in a person’s mouth! Ever!

Sweet tea was the antidote! A tall, ice-cold glass of it cleansed my palette. The murmurs of conversation were comforting. The kitchen curtains moved in the delicate breeze as if they, too, were enjoying the post-meal conversation.

“Mrs. Shaw, I just have to taste your banana puddin’ before I am too filled up!”

Mrs. Shaw grinned and said, “Oh we’ll fix you girls up leftovers to take with you! But yes, I agree. It’s time for dessert.”

“Everything looks so yummy! I’d love to be able to taste each dessert. But I only have room for one—and it just has to be the banana puddin’!”

“Oh my dear, I knew you’d say that!” chuckled Mrs. Shaw. “But don’t fret. Y’all will be takin’ home some of everything. Mr. Shaw and I can’t eat all this food, and it is just the two of us now.”

“You are just so kind! I will enjoy every bite you send with me.”

“Yes, Mrs. Shaw, thank y’all so much,” Dawn said. “Mama and Daddy’ll be happy to get a taste of my leftovers. Don’t know as I’ll be able to share more than that with them, though! This food is just too good to share!”

Mrs. Shaw smiled and chattered away while she was dishing up the dessert. But she held her breath as I took my first bite.

“Oh! Mrs. Shaw. Your banana pudding is so much like my Grannie’s that I just about can’t believe it!”

Mrs. Shaw grinned and unashamedly wiped tears from her eyes.

“Barbara, I have never in my life been given a bigger or better compliment. I am happier than ten kinds of preachers at a revival to know that you like my banana puddin’!”

I felt a lump in my throat and tears stinging my eyes. I became aware that all four of us were quiet—quiet like a church. I looked at Dawn, hoping she would break the silence. But Dawn just smiled at me and shook her head. I understood that the moment was mine—mine and Mrs. Shaw’s—and that Dawn and Mr. Shaw were waiting to see how it played out.

About the moment I was going to panic, I felt Little Grannie’s presence, whispering love and encouragement. More than anything else, I wanted Mrs. Shaw to understand what a gift she had given with this simple dessert. The mix of bananas, vanilla wafers, and pudding was more than food. It was the essence of all those family dinners—the love, the teasing, the chatter—in one bowl.

And for the first time I began to understand why Little Grannie, Tall Grannie, Aunt Betty, Mom—why they all worked so hard to cook family dinners even when they were tired from their week at work. The food was more than sustenance to keep bodies healthy and whole. To fry a chicken, roast a turkey, bake a ham, steam green beans, or fry okra allowed them—the women of my life—a chance to please their family, gave them yet another way to show their love. The “hums” of satisfaction that became the chorus of dinner time were sweet music to these strong women. Little Grannie had taught them all, had shared with them all her love of caring for her family.

I quit blinking away my tears because there were too many. I let them fall quietly down my face as I smiled at Mrs. Shaw.

“Mrs. Shaw it’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen my Grannie, and I miss her like stars miss the moon on a cloudy night. This dinner, your dinner, makes me feel like Grannie’s right here beside me. Your kitchen is filled with love like my Grannie’s kitchen. And I have to tell ya—this banana puddin’ is second only to Grannie’s!”

Mr. Shaw chuckled as he said, “Well, Mrs. Shaw, seems you have whipped up more than a good spread today!”

Mrs. Shaw and I, still gently hugging each other, smiled quietly, letting the laughter and conversation of the other two wash over us like sunshine.

As the leftovers were packed up for Dawn and me and the good-byes were said, I felt again the sting of happy tears.

“Mrs. Shaw I just can’t thank you enough for this lovely day. Y’all have given me so much more than loads of yummy food. You gave me my Little Grannie for a day.”

#bananapudding #familydinner #food #grandparents #adulthood #love #friendship #kindness #wisewomen

Little Grannie’s Kitchen Love

This is an excerpt of a short story. I hope you enjoy it.

I stood in the box-shaped cut-out, facing the cash register. The day had been busy—customers thicker than mosquitos in a swamp. I no longer smiled. Couldn’t say “hi” to another customer if my job depended on it. I knew I’d reached the end of an order when I saw the black rubber divider. Of course, that was also the beginning of the next order. Last time I’d looked there were still hours left on my shift.

I saw the box of vanilla pudding first. About five items later I rang up the box of vanilla wafers. In the blink of a sprite’s eye, I was a girl of 12 sitting in Little Grannie’s kitchen, watching in fascination as she whipped together her famous banana pudding. Heard again Grandpa’s voice call from the living room, wondering if the deliciousness was ready yet. My voice brought be back from that happy memory.

“Someone’s makin banana puddin!”

I looked up to see a short, chubby woman with softly curled white hair wearing wire rimmed glasses, smiling in surprise. She reminded me of Santa’s wife.

“You know about banana puddin?” She asked in surprise.

“Oh yes! Little Grannie, my great grandmother, always made it for me. Her banana pudding was the best ever! It’s been a long time since I tasted it.”

I really missed Little Grannie and hoped I didn’t sound too homesick.

“Well, you’ll have to come over and have some of mine. It may not be as good as your Grannie’s, but it’ll tide you over til you see your Grannie again.”

It was hard to tell who was more surprised by the invitation—me or my customer. As I stood there trying to decide how to say no without hurting her feelings, I heard myself accept the invitation.

“Well, since you’re gonna come for dinner, I should introduce myself. My name’s Mrs. Shaw, Mrs. Sam Shaw. Glad to meet you!”

I grinned in response and pointed toward my name tag as I introduced myself. By the end of the order, we’d settled on a day and time. I had address and directions in hand. Mrs. Shaw left the store grinning like a grandmother anticipating a family dinner.

I was smiling until I looked at my hand, saw Mrs. Shaw’s neat handwriting.

“What the hell was I thinking? Fuck. I can hear it now. This will be yet another example of how I don’t think, how I have no common sense, that it’s a wonder a girl as smart as me is so damn stupid. Yeah. Yeah. Heard it all before. Shit. What if they’re all right? How the hell am I going to tell them I just made a lunch date with a woman I’ve never seen before all because she can make banana pudding? Sounds really stupid when I say it like that. Fuck. I can hear it now:

“What were you thinking?!?”

“Have you taken leave of your senses?!? You DO NOT accept dinner invitations from complete strangers!”

How do I explain? There was something about Mrs. Shaw, something safe. Familiar. I felt like she and Little Grannie would be friends. I just knew this would be okay. I just couldn’t explain how I knew it.

My family says I’m a bundle of contrasts—seventeen going on ten going on thirty, too chatty for my own good, too smart to have good sense. I’m just “too much” or “too little” of everything. Any claims from me that they’re being unfair makes my family trot out the same old examples of how right they are.

Like when Frank’s Dad said I could have some of his home-cured olives. I am a picky eater, trying—and liking—the olives left me feeling pretty adventurous! So pleased with myself in fact, that when Frank offered me a fresh olive a few days later, I did not even hesitate. Sadly, that olive was fresh off the tree—not fresh from the curing vat. My mouth was sucked dry like Sylvester the Cat’s in those old Warner Bros cartoons. Frank ran off laughing. As I rinsed my mouth, I promised myself I’d never fall for that damn trick again. But twice more in as many days Frank’s promise of honesty won me over. Yep. Tasted two more fresh olives. Fresh off the tree.

And, of course, Frank told everyone what the hell he’d been able to talk me into! I gave Frank props for the trick. But damn! I was so embarrassed.

Somehow my Chevy Luv truck was always mentioned by someone. I guess it may have been weird to buy a truck I couldn’t drive very well. But the car salesman, when he wasn’t trying to grab both my breasts with one of his normal-size hands, showed me how to shift gears and use the clutch. He promised me that I’d catch on in no time. And that if I didn’t, I could bring the truck back. And he was sweet enough to toss in three tires because I pointed out that the ones on the used truck were nearly as bald as his mechanic.

I sorta get why Mom and Dad shook their heads like two old chickens worried about being dinner. Seems to me they could’ve at least noticed the smart things I did. Three tires thrown in. No extra charge. Learning to drive that truck was trickier than the groping car salesman said. Took longer, too. But I did learn. I know there were more than a couple folks in our town of 9,000 who were real happy when I quit holding up traffic while I searched for a gear.

My face was usually pink when I talked about or explained my driving adventures. But I still think I made a good choice with that truck. My parents keep making a big deal out of me buying the truck. To hear them talk, you’d think no one else ever does the stuff I do. I think they should probably get out more

I was in some ways proud of myself for questioning my acceptance of Mrs. Shaw’s dinner invitation. Embarrassing to admit, but I was most worried about being able to keep the conversation going. I can chit-chat pretty good for a few minutes. I was good at keeping up a friendly conversation with folks going through my line at the grocery store. But for an entire meal?

Then I remembered every horror story I had ever heard about girls who picked up hitchhikers, girls who got into cars with strangers, girls who talked to strangers. Those girls ended up on the six o’clock news—murder victims. Those girls were raped, beaten, stabbed, shot, poisoned, sold into slavery. Mom and Dad had been adamant I not become one of those girls. According to the parents, I was too smart to fall into that trap, they had told me so many times.

And I had just agreed to go to a stranger’s home for a meal. I was pretty sure Mom and Dad were once again going to be disappointed. I imagined them being interviewed for the evening news after my body was discovered, shaking their heads sadly as they explained.

“We warned her and warned her. She was just too smart to have any sense.”

#bananapudding #homecooking #strangers #teenager #friends #grannylove

Short story: Driving with Aunt Cledith

As Mom and I got into the car, I wondered again who names the towns out here in Arkansas. I was headed to Aunt Cledith and Uncle GW’s place for the weekend. They live in Slapstone. Lots of colorful town and county names out here! Maybe the town and county names are finalized after sampling the moonshine I keep hearing about. I keep thinking I’ve gone through some kind of time warp or worm hole or some other science fiction time travel mechanism. I thought moonshine was a thing of the past—something that gangsters like Ma Barker and her Boys were involved in. But nope. Moonshine is being made, sold, drunk—right now—in the 1970s.

Town names are mysterious, and not just in Arkansas. I thought Salida, California sounded pretty until someone told me “salida” means “exit” in Spanish. Why would people name their town “exit”? Did they think drivers would see the signs on the highway and feel commanded to “exit”—maybe spend some money in Salida after leaving the freeway? Maybe it’s one of those marketing strategies like my sociology teacher had talked about? Maybe that could explain Salida, California. Maybe. But Slapstone, Arkansas? I just don’t see any marketing strategy in “slapstone.” Nope. I think it really is the moonshine.

But there are other differences between California and Arkansas. Not better or worse, just different. The other day in the grocery store I actually heard a lady say “Pshaw.” I stopped dead like I’d seen money on the floor and a movie star was pointing it out to me—I was that surprised. I thought “pshaw” was just a word in novels. Never in my life had I heard someone say the word—not until I was in a grocery store in Plowshare, Arkansas. And the woman said it like it was normal—no stiffness in her voice or body—she just said it the way I say “water.”

I was pulled out of my thoughts by a horn, being honked by none other than Aunt Cledith. She was pulling in as we were trying to leave.

“Jo, where are y’all headed? Did you forget that I was comin today?” yelled Aunt Cledith from the car.

Mom chuckled as she answered, “Oh my goodness! Sometimes I think I’d forget my head if it weren’t attached! Yes, Aunt Cledith, I did forget that you said you’d carry Suzy out to your place. I am glad for the saved trip, though! I’ve got to finish putting up those peaches we got from Shorty.”

Aunt Cledith grinned. She, like most folks in my family, likes to help out. Grabbing my overnight bag from the backseat, I jumped out of the car, hugged Mom bye, and got in with Aunt Cledith. I should have known better, though. No one in my family can just drive up, say hi, and then leave. No way. First, folks have to talk a bit, as Grandpa says.

Chatting finally over, I was still waving bye as Aunt Cledith shot out of the driveway like a bullet from a gun. Mom drives fast, so I wasn’t surprised or scared by the speed. But I was about to learn the difference between “lead foot” and “crazy driver.” We careened down the street, driving in the center lane—half of the right lane and half of the left. A guy I went to high school with was driving toward us—going the speed limit. As I turned in my seat, I saw his jeep swerve into the ditch and climb back onto the street. Turning back around, I found Aunt Cledith looking at me, shaking her head.

“Kids these days drive crazy! Did you see that boy? Drove right into the ditch just like he had good sense!!! Do you know him?”

I stared at Aunt Cledith, looking for a smile or sideways look, some sign that she was teasing. But nope. She was serious. I nodded my head. And then I swore to myself that it was the last time I’d do that in the car because Aunt Cledith was looking at me for an answer when she ran the lone stop sign in town. We missed the old man in the truck by a hair. He waved to us—with his middle finger—as we flew on by.

“Aunt Cledith, are we in a hurry to get home?”

“Well, no Suzy, we aren’t. Why do you ask?”

“Oh. No reason. Just wonderin.”

“Well, I thought we’d stop in town for dinner, drop by the Piggly Wiggly for a few things, and then head on home. Is there any shoppin you need to do?”

“No ma’am. Dinner does sound good, though. Where are we goin to eat?”

“Well, there’s a new place opened up on Main Street. Thought we’d try it out.”

Then I knew she meant Slapstone when she said town cause there was no new place in Batesville—not on Main anyway. I peeked at the speedometer. Aunt Cledith was trying for a new land speed record—she must’ve been because we were going nearly ninety, and still in that special middle lane she’d carved out for us. We’d already left Batesville far behind us. At least she wouldn’t be distracted by sale signs in store windows. I was pretty certain that Aunt Cledith was like Mom—always seeing more scenery than anyone else in the car.

“You know, Suzy, the restaurant we’re goin to is owned by a cousin of ours.”

“Really? I didn’t know we had more relatives in Slapstone. I thought you and Uncle GW were the only people we were related to there.”

“Oh! my goodness, no! Suzy you are related to everyone in Slapstone!”

“Everyone? But Aunt Cledith. Well, that just isn’t possible. I can’t be related to an entire town!”

“Well, Suzy-Q—you are! By blood or marriage, you are related to everyone—and I mean EVERYONE—in Slapstone!”

I couldn’t breathe for a few seconds as Aunt Cledith’s news wrapped around me like an unwashed blanket. This just could not be true. It felt like one of those ugly Southern jokes I have heard too many tell. You know the ones—all about cousins marrying and stuff like that. If I were related to an entire town, it seemed to me that one or more of those jokes might have to be true!

“Aunt Cledith, are you teasing me?”

“No I am not! Why would I tease about family?”

I swallowed even though my mouth was dry, like swallowing clumps of sand. More than anything I wanted those jokes to be false, to be thought up by people who were jealous of Southern accents and decorative use of language, by folks Great-Great Grannie called “damn Yankees.”

“But Aunt Cledith, I mean, well, wouldn’t they have to bring in new blood every now and then? If everyone in town is related, how does anyone get married? You can’t marry someone you’re related to!”

Aunt Cledith’s laugh hopped from her mouth and careened around the car, making my ears ring as they tried to block the high-pitched cacophony. Aunt Cledith’s laugh always made me want to duck my head.

“Suzy, weren’t you listening to me? I said “blood or marriage,” Girl! Of course, the folks who are related by blood do not marry each other! Cousin Bill Dee, who owns the restaurant we’ll be eating dinner at, married a real nice girl from Cushman. Her people are originally from Texas. But since she’s married to Bill Dee now, she’s one of your relatives—by marriage!”

My face glowed as red as a ripe strawberry but hot like a jalapeno—I was that embarrassed.

“Aunt Cledith, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say our family would have cousins marrying cousins. I have just never heard of a person being related to an entire town!”

Aunt Cledith was still laughing, so hard that she began to cough. As she searched her purse for a tissue with one hand, her driving became even more frightening. We were still in the center of the highway, taking our share of the two-lane road right out of the middle. The car approaching us began to slow down. I could tell because I could hear the tires squealing as the driver hit his brakes. The driver’s eyes were wide and his head swiveled like a hoot owl’s as he continued staring at us as we passed.

That’s when I heard the siren.

I looked over my shoulder, and there behind us was a State Trooper’s car, lights flashing and siren blaring. Aunt Cledith had found the tissue and was wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes, still chuckling. She seemed unaware of the noisy cop behind us.

“Aunt Cledith, I think that Trooper wants us to pull over.”

“Oh Suzy, don’t be silly. He just wants to pull around me and is putting his siren on to let me know that.”

At fourteen, I’ve had enough grown-ups tell me not tell them how to drive because I’m just a kid—with no license. But I’ve been in the car plenty of times when Mom was pulled over for speeding. Every time a cop was behind us with lights and/or siren going, it was to pull us over. Not once was it to signal that we were going to be passed.

“Maybe that’s how Arkansas State Troopers do it,” I thought.

But then I remembered that Mom had been pulled over just last week—by a State Trooper. His lights and siren had meant the same thing that a California Highway Patrol’s meant—pull over!

I sat with my hands folded in my lap, searching for a way to convince Aunt Cledith that she should pull over. If we didn’t pull over, what would happen? Would the Trooper shoot at us? Maybe he thinks we’re criminals. Maybe criminals look like grandmothers who bake cookies each week for their grandchildren.

“Pull your car over now!” boomed a male voice.

I thought maybe it was God! But nope. The Trooper did it.

Aunt Cledith gasped like a teenage girl at a horror movie. One hand flew to her throat while the other gripped the steering wheel.

“Well my lands!” whispered Aunt Cledith.

She steered back into the lane she should have been driving in and stopped the car, putting it in “park.” She pushed the button that lowered her window and turned, ready to talk to the Trooper.

I looked over my shoulder, watching the Trooper approach the car. He was tall like my uncle—a little over six feet. He also looked young enough for me to have a crush on him, and he was quite handsome. He adjusted his gun belt and hat as he walked from his car to ours. He leaned down to speak.

“Ma’am, I’ll need to see your license and registration please.”

“David Wayne, is that you under that hat?” Aunt Cledith asked.

“Why Miz Evans, yes, ma’am it is.”

He tipped his hat in greeting. Watching him do so made me feel like I was in one of those Westerns that Dad always watches. All the men in those movies are always tipping their hats—to say “howdy,” to say “yor nice lookin,” to warn bad guys to “get outta town.” I wondered what this hat-tip meant.

Aunt Cledith surprised the Trooper then. And me.

“Well, David Wayne, I’ve half a mind to call yor Momma when I get home! Just what do you think yor about, yelling at me through that loud speaker that way! You almost made me wreck the car! And here I’ve got GW’s niece in the car with me. Just how would I explain a car accident to her folks? Huh? Well? What have you to say for yourself, Young Man?”

Because Aunt Cledith was facing Trooper David Wayne, I couldn’t look at her face and see if she was teasing. Her tone of voice reminded me of Mom’s right before I got grounded. So I felt pretty sure Aunt Cledith was serious.

Trooper David Wayne cleared his throat and said, “Miz Evans, I mean no disrespect. But do you realize you were driving in the middle of the road? That is very dangerous. And you were driving about 75 miles per hour. The speed limit on this road is 55.”

Aunt Cledith had her door open and was out before I could even breathe. She may have been older, but Aunt Cledith got out of her car faster than a kid sliding down a stair rail. Trooper David Wayne took a couple steps back, hand on his gun. I held my breath and tried to be invisible. She looked up at him, her finger in his face, as she began to talk.

“David Wayne I cannot b’lieve you would have the aw-dacity to imply that I was not driving right! I happen to know the contractor who built this here road—just as well as you do. And we both know that cantankerous old billy goat made the lanes too narrow to drive in just so’s he could make a fistful of dollars more! If I were thick headed enough to put my car any closer to the right, GW’s niece and I would be sittin in that ditch over there. And wouldn’t that be a kettle fish disaster? And to even whisper that I was speeding? SPEEDING? You know’s well as anyone that I do not drive fast! No LADY does that!”

I was breathing again—quickly because I was doing my best not to laugh right out loud. I have one Grandmother who is forever teaching me how to be a LADY. So I thought I’d heard all of the definitions. But I was wrong. According to what Aunt Cledith was saying, being lady-like means you do not speed. I had one hand covering my mouth to stifle the giggles that were bubbling up like a brook in my throat as I tried to picture some “loose” woman, straight hair blowing in the wind, cleavage showing for all to see, and to top it off—speeding right down Main Street. Of course, all the “ladies” would stop on the sidewalk and stare and point at the female-driven speeding car, whispering among themselves “That woman is no lady!” I wondered what Aunt Cledith thought about Charlie’s Angels!

Poor Trooper David Wayne stood in front of Aunt Cledith like a school boy caught with both hands—dirty, no less—in the cookie jar and chocolate on his lips. He tried to explain to Aunt Cledith what his job was.

“Miz Evans, yes, I do know who built this road. But really Miz Evans, the lanes are standard width. You can safely drive in the lane without putting two tires in the ditch. Truly.”

Aunt Cledith cut him off before he made another sound—much less got another whole word out. The gun in his belt didn’t scare her.

“David Wayne I cannot even count how many times I’ve carried you to school and to ball games and to school dances. Now do you think yor Momma and Daddy would have let me do that if I were a bad driver? A speeder?”

Aunt Cledith, like any Mom in the middle of a lecture, went right on talking, giving him no chance to reply.

“That’s right. They wouldn’t. You spent half yor weekends at our house as you were growin up! You and our Tommy Lee were always up to somethin. And now here you stand in yor shiny uniform tryin to tell me that I am not a LADY behind the wheel! Well you’d better just think again young man!”

Aunt Cledith actually pushed his chest a little to punctuate her last sentence. I quit laughing, afraid that she was going to jail. I didn’t know if it was illegal to yell at a cop, but I was pretty sure you weren’t supposed to touch them in any way. My last giggle dissolved faster than any dried up brook.

Trooper David Wayne took his hat off, bowed his head, shook it ever so slightly in defeat and began to apologize.

“Miz Evans, yes ma’am, you’re right. Tommy and I were best buds in junior high and high school. And I thought of y’all’s home as my second one. I am truly sorry Miz Evans to have upset you like this. Please just be real careful on this road—promise me now.”

Aunt Cledith patted his arm, smiled, and said, “Well, of course I will David Wayne. I just knew there was a good reason for you to be pullin me over. And here it is. You were just lookin out for me like the good boy you are.”

She beamed with pride as she patted his arm again, urging him to call and come by for a visit real soon, promising him a piece of homemade peach pie. As he walked back to his car, Aunt Cledith reminded him to tell his Momma and Daddy hi from her.

I sat silent as Aunt Cledith got back in the car, put the car in gear, and shot down the middle of the road.

#driving #family #Arkansas #California #teenager #lawenforcement #smalltown #1970s

Elite Cussing, an excerpt of my in-progress memoir

I don’t remember the name of the classmate who taught me the “Elite Cuss Words.” I wish I did because I’m still thankful for the gift! We were in the fifth grade. I was ten years old. The tingling thrill that climbed my spine with my first whispered “fuck” deepened my love of language. Especially forbidden, four-letter words. Those words are just fun to roll around in my mouth; they bounce off my tongue, careening their way into the atmosphere. And saying these cuss words with a whisper or a yell still makes me giggle.

When my friend shared what she’d learned, all my attention was on the new cuss words. I wasted no thought on her Mom. Here in the lap and luxury of hindsight, the adult me is in awe at the quick wisdom and wit my long ago classmate’s Mom showed. She must have been quite a woman! I imagine the conversation…

“Mom, why are there so few cuss words? People are still using the same old ones. Why?”

“Well, Sweetie, I know what you mean. Can I tell you a secret?”

“A secret? Sure. I guess.”

“Well, a kind of secret. It’s one you can share with some people. You know, close friends.”

“Oh. Okay. What’s this secret?”

“Okay. Here it is: There are a few more cuss words!…It’s just that very few people know them. The other cuss words are only used by the elite group.”

“Wow! There are more? Wait. What’s “elite”? What does that mean?”

“Yes! There are more! The word “elite” means “super special.” Kind of like celebrities. Does that help?”

“Celebrities. You mean like movie stars?”

“Yes. Movie stars are an elite group. They’re super special because of their talent and skill.”

“Hmm. Okay. Um. Mom? Will you tell me the other cuss words?”

“Well, I have been thinking about sharing them with you. I thought maybe you were too young. But you are ten years old now! And I see your talents and skills growing stronger each day!”

I imagine my friend caught in the dilemma—being too old for “baby” compliments and not old enough for “grown-up” compliments. To preserve her ten-year-old dignity, she has to protest.

“Mom!”

And because my friend is also raised to be polite, she follows her mild protest with kinder words, “ I mean, thank you.”

“You’re welcome. And yeah, I’m kinda going the long way. Sorry. Okay here are the cuss words: zip, zilch, nada, nil.”

“Zip? Something? Nada? Nail?”

Mom chuckles softly as she replies, “Yeah! “Zilch” is a mouthful! Took me over a month before I could pronounce the word. And Sweetie, that bit is just between you and me, a real secret, okay?”

My friend’s big smile hugs her words, “You got it, Mom.”

Mom’s loving hand strokes the girl’s hair, a familiar gesture that comforts both.

Still smiling, “Want to try the words again: Zip. Zilch. Nada. Nil.”

“That last word isn’t “nail!” Nil?”

“Right! Here let me write it down for you. I didn’t think of it before, but it might help if you see the words.”

Laughter accompanies Mom writing the four elite cuss words on her pretty stationery. Cuss words framed with colorful spring flowers. More practice and more laughter. Mom hands the slip of paper to her daughter.”

“You’re the best Mom ever for sharing these words. Pretty cool.”

And the practice session with that girl’s loving Mom led to a profound moment on the playground. We had been hurling and tossing f-bombs at each other for days. The first whispered “fuck you” made all five of us gasp. I do not remember which of us uttered the forbidden phrase; it felt as if each of us was the speaker. One whispered “fuck” unleashed us!

Recess became a time to run, screaming “Fuck You” at the tree tops. Day two we discovered the versatility of “fuck.” We spent our entire lunch recess, the longest break in our day, discussing “motherfucker” like linguists analyzing an ancient language.

Each recess, we ran to the shade of the oaks in the center of the playground. That spot became ours by default. Most of the kids hung out near the swings and slides, which were close to the classrooms. Our shady oaks were quite a distance: across the blacktop, across the kickball area, and finally, the sanctuary of the trees. The distance from the other kids protected us from Yard Duty teachers. They probably heard echoes of “fuck” on the wind and dismissed them as misheard bird calls.

I remember looking toward my classroom from the comfort of our “fucking” circle. The building looked smaller from such a distance. Made me feel both bigger and smaller. I was comfortable in this group, most of the time. And I was still at that school, more than half-way through the school year, too. I didn’t ever let my waking-self know I thought about whether I’d finish the year wherever “here” happened to be. The thought was always there as if it had existed before I was born. There were so few years attending only one school.

But in that group, I could just be a ten year old girl, screaming my frustrations out. This group’s fucking fun with forbidden words showed me new ways to exercise control over my pent up frustrations. Learning how these words worked was never boring!

“It’s like a compound word. You know, like the ones we learned in class when we were little: classroom, headache…”

“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Miss I’m-Always-Bein-a-Teacher! Shit!”

“Well! Excuse the fuck outta me! Just tryin’ to help.”

Anyone eavesdropping on this conversation would have been appalled. And that would have thrilled us! The f-bombs we hurled at each other were like water balloons tossed at friends on hot days. When those balloons burst, we were refreshed, soaked with the alphabet, four letters at a time. And just like kids running through sprinklers in the backyard, we collapsed into giggles.

Day two was also the day we discovered the differences created just by loudly saying “fuck” in any of its variations. We had each been yelling, solo performances. A circle of giggling girls. One of the girls suggested we shout the phrase all together like cheerleaders. Unconsciously, we joined hands, standing in this circle, heads back, faces aimed at the sun as we simultaneously unleashed our voices:

“FUCK YOU MOTHERFUCKERS!!”

As my gaze returned to the playground, I was stunned. Nothing bad happened to me. Nothing bad happened when I said “fuck.” Nothing bad happened even though I had just yelled, hell screamed, “FUCK.” Obviously, none of the Yard Duty teachers had heard us. No way would any of them ignore a group of girls screaming cuss words, especially the dreaded “f-word.”

Looking around the circle, I saw echoes of my reaction. We’d been told about awful things that happened to little girls who used bad words. None of us could remember a time without the warnings. And here we stood. Whole and healthy as before we had screamed “Fuck You” at the sun.

We had stopped the world. Maybe that’s why we spent the rest of our recesses that day running and yelling “FUCK.” We were daring! We were triumphant! We were girls yelling “Fuck!”

But by the end of the day, “fuck” was losing its allure. We had stopped the world with our screaming “FUCK.” What else could this word really offer?

“Wonder why there are so few cuss words?”

“Yeah. I mean the cuss words everybody uses are really old. I wonder why no one has come up with new ones.”

“Yeah. That is weird!”

The next day found us a bit hungover with disappointment about the diminished glory of “fuck.” Our greetings were shy, reminiscent of our meeting on the first day of class. Morning recess brought relief, the perfect medicine to relieve our suffering.

“You know how we wondered about other cuss words? Well, I know some other cuss words. Elite ones.”

“What does that mean?”

“Yeah. And how do you know them?”

“Yeah. I mean, you didn’t know ‘em yesterday? Did you?”

“Wait a fuckin’ minute, bitches. I’ll tell you.”

And there it was. “Fuck” made it all better again. Gone was our shyness with each other. Just one of us using the word broke the spell.

And we were gonna learn Elite Cuss Words!

The end of recess found us back on the blacktop, lining up to file back into our classrooms. We smugly yelled to each other across the heads of our classmates. Wondering all the while which of the Yard Duty teachers would send us to the Principal’s office.

“You zilch nada!”

“What did you say? You nil!”

“Huh? Are you talking to me? What a zip!”

“Zip! Well! You nil zilch!”

“All y’all are zip, zilch, nadas!”

Once seated at our desks, we snuck looks at each other, trying not to giggle. Fuck zilch nada, man! We were “elite” in all caps and neon colors! Not one of the Yard Duty teachers knew these cuss words!

#cussing #girls #tenyearolds #elementaryschool #cusswords #f-word #friends #childhood #parent

No Parade Please

Today’s the day, America! The day you’ve been awaiting with either joy or terror.

America’s military goose-steps its way into history

Imagine if that were true…

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you have heard of our President’s latest wish: A parade of our military.

Some of you may be scratching your head, perhaps that lovely new balding spot that you wish would go away. You may be thinking, “Geez! What’s the big deal? Celebrating the military is a good thing. How could this be bad?”

Well, here’s how it is bad. Not “could be.” IS

Our illustrious leader wants a parade to show off America’s might. Perhaps he is the one who has been under a bolder! The entire damn planet knows the United States of America is THE militarily strong nation. But golly!gee! The one he saw in France was so fun! So pretty! And like all spoiled children, Trump cried out, “I WANT ONE OF THOSE! REALLY! I NEED ONE OF THOSE! ALL THE OTHER KIDS HAVE ONE! I WANT ONE, TOO!”

Most of the time our only protection against con artists is our ability to think! Our ability to stop and say, “Wait a minute! This sounds too good to be true!”

Many, hopefully most, of us had adults in our lives who told us if something sounded too good to be true, it most likely was. Those adults—leaders in those moments—uttered those words to help us. Perhaps they’d been taken in by a con artist, or they knew someone who had.

There is just no way that any thinking person can become aware of President Trump-ty Dumpty’s actions, inactions, and words without a feeling of dread. I continue to think this even though most of what I see and hear tells me to give up hope. Sadly, I do know thinking will not help shed light on truth if people continue to believe that “believing” is better. It’s not. We need both: thought and faith.

“Believing” is a statement of faith—necessary in our lives. But like vitamins and nutrients, balance is key. “Thinking” is the balance used with our faith. I’m unaware of any sacred text which requires a halt to thinking as a requirement for salvation or spiritual grace. If we approach adult situations with a child-like faith and no thought, we are ripe fruit for con artist harvesters.

Perhaps if we were gods we could live our lives without thought, just go with “believing.” I hear examples daily of those who avoid thinking.

  • I believe donuts are what I need.
  • I believe that woman is guilty—why I voted so on that jury. After all, I just don’t believe in this scientific nonsense. God doesn’t want us to bother in what is His business.

  • I believe that we’re s’posed to listen to our leaders and do what they say. After all, if we weren’t, God wouldn’t have put ‘em in office.

I’d love, truly love, to say that these are exaggerations—a bit of hyperbole to enhance readers’ pleasure. But nope. These are statements I’ve heard from Americans, some of whom voted for President Orange-face, and some who didn’t. These statements frighten me to my core. They should frighten you, too.

These are the idiots who will believe that a military parade will be “great for morale.” Their belief will be strong, immune to thoughts. They will not recognize their message is antithetical to American ideals. And if they do recognize it, they’ll blame the American ideal.

It is the damn opposite of what our forefathers wanted from us. Jefferson did NOT mean “educated into mindless obedience.” In honor of Jefferson, let’s pause for a moment in our downhill rush to destruction or decision. A pause will not stop us. A pause allows us to choose mindfully, not fall in with an idea like empty-headed children.

One: Many other countries have military parades. And many of the countries in that large group are USA allies. Thus, it is reasonable to understand the idea of a military parade is not, in and of itself, bad.

That was easy, right? A pause. A moment of triumph in thought. Let’s do another!

Two: Many countries DO have parades and are USA friends. But some countries that have parades are NOT our allies. Two examples leap quickly to mind: Russia and North Korea. Putin. Kim Jong-un. Aka, “Rocket Man.”

Amazing, isn’t it? Barely expended enough effort to notice, right? Let’s continue this pause for another moment, maybe two.

Three: The two countries mentioned above are familiar for most Americans. Russia is the most militarily strong of the countries in the smaller group we are looking at (has military parades and is not a USA ally). Because Russia is the “big dog” in this group, looking at it as an example is important. Russia is an influencer among many nations unfriendly to ours. North Korea is not as militarily strong as Russia, but its growing strength is cause for concern to most of the world. Thus, looking at these two countries can give us a deeper understanding of the idea of “military parade” as it applies to our nation—the United States of America.

Four: Historically, Russia and North Korea have held parades to show-off military might, sometimes coinciding with a military victory. A visiting dignitary from another nation has always been the perfect reason to have a parade—a military one or one that highlights military strength and prowess. The braggadocio lightly veiled with the pageantry of a parade has worked to pump up national pride. And to remind weaker nations to toe the line, obey or else. Never were these parades held just to celebrate the return of the living and/or mourn the absence of the dead.

Five: The United States of America has always prided itself on following its own path. Our vision of ourselves is one of leaders, pioneers unafraid to enter the unknown. Our ancestors, on the Mayflower or arriving later and/or already here, all of these people carved paths that intersected in the creation of our nation. They did not do that by following the crowd.

Amazing what really a few moments’ thought can bring! Let’s hang in for the last several moments. Yes, several. We have to dig deeper to look at information, ask questions, ponder it all, and reach a conclusion.

Six: Why, then, should we change now? What has happened in the world that leads our great nation to believe becoming a “follower” is the best choice?

Seven: Never before has the United States of America felt the need to hold a military parade to brag about our might. We’ve never had to. What the hell has changed? Do we now feel the need to ask our Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marines to dress up and march for us so we can clap for them? Seriously? Don’t these women and men have better things to do? Aren’t too many of our soldiers in dangerous places? Can we not with our intelligence, creativity, and talent find a better way of honoring our military?

Eight: Most Americans are all for honoring the women and men who serve in our military. The same is true for boosting morale. Most Americans are all for recognizing the various ways military families also serve. Our military women and men deserve recognition and thanks from us—all of us. I doubt asking them to take on extra duties to prepare for and hold a parade is the best way to do it. How many of you would see this request from your boss as a reason to feel appreciated?

Nine: We could learn from our forefathers, who were truly confident in their ability, their skill, and their new country. A few of our forefathers did not enjoy a traditional education (for their time), but they worked diligently to educate themselves. All of our forefathers were lifelong learners. Additionally, they also had deeply held religious beliefs. They THOUGHT and BELIEVED in the rightness of their actions. In part, their faith plays a role in not holding military parades. After all, God’s gifts do not need any bragging. Sacred texts like the Bible speak clearly about the importance of humility.

Ten: Thus, we have followed OUR custom for so long it has become AMERICAN tradition. Military parades in the United States of America are held to celebrate a military victory. Period.

Eleven: Traditions do need examined. Not all are worthy of keeping. But considering whether our tradition of military parades ought to be changed is NOT DONE by allowing our immature, egocentric, megalomaniacal, orange-faced President to hold one. Our illustrious President actually gave the sound byte we’re familiar with. There are no “alternative facts” at work here. “I want one.” He sounds like a seven-year-old boy demanding the same cool new toy his buddy has. He sounds like “Rocket Man.” The American version.

Twelve (conclusion): Even if you do not agree with the previous two sentences, you cannot dismiss the glaring FACT that our current President is making a u-turn away from a centuries old tradition without even asking if Americans are onboard with the idea. How can that be okay? The very idea of changing such a tradition without asking the country is antithetical to everything America stands for.

Why are we not in the streets, real and/or virtual, demanding a halt to such tyrannical behavior? What the hell is it gonna take, Americans, to wake us up? We have a structure and process through which to seek redress when our politicians let too much of their “stupid” show. Wake up!!! We have a politician in the White House who lets his “stupid” flap in the breeze daily. The neighbors are talking!

We have to take action before our country ends up like many of his former businesses—financially and/or morally bankrupt.

#militaryparade #parade #traditions #Americantraditions #criticalthinking #criticalskills