Girl Seeking Happiness

Destiny, by J.W. Waterhouse, 1900

Destiny, by J.W. Waterhouse, 1900

“Be grateful for all you have, Francesca!” Her mother called out but she didn’t acknowledge her, just bounded up two steps at a time. “Then maybe you’ll be in a better mood!”

She was always tossing off platitudes like that–“Easy Does It”, “Count Your Blessings”, “One Day at a Time.” Well, easy for her to say all of them. She didn’t have to go to middle school, anymore. She didn’t have to sit behind Carys Morgan and inhale the nauseating scent of lime and coconuts for the entire duration of Social Studies. Or study the structure of a cell until she felt her brain would fall out. Her mother had gotten through all that because she was smart and gorgeous even then. Dad confirmed that many times. Frannie thought their own teen-age years must seem like a distant dream, pleasant but nothing to waste another thought on.

What did adults think about except money, work and their children’s achievements or lack thereof? Frannie didn’t want to know. It was enough that they offered opinions, the wisdom of the ages and random advice without being asked.

Well, her father thought about business, which was consulting on antique musical instruments. Her mother thought about paintings and such. She worked at an auction house so it was all technically work and money. Who bid what, how a price was driven up, what appreciated and depreciated. And what a magnificent still life came in the door today via someone’s great-aunt, now deceased.

Why did she have to use her full name when making a point? Frannie slammed her bedroom door, then opened it.

“Sorry, it closed hard!” she shouted but tried to sound apologetic. Then shut it firmly again.

Frannie sat on her bed, head against the wall, books to one side. She could see her reflection and the print of a painting above her in the dresser mirror. Smiled in her best cover girl pose. No use. She’d never be one, in fact didn’t even care about being one, she was just supposed to care, so why pretend it mattered that she had a crooked front tooth? Short hair like a terrier’s just after it had been shampooed. An odd streak below her left ear that was a birthmark despite her mother telling her it was “a variation in your light olive pigmentation, just a little smudge.” It was her way of saying, “You are unique, which is better.”

Better than what? When did uniqueness cross over into weirdness? Since the world put such a high value on appearance–her mother’s work taught her that much–Frannie might be doomed.

She used to think her name might save her: Francesca. It sounded like it belonged to someone important, someone who knew what to determine and utter at any given time, someone exotic and approachable who was capable–with  only a look–of keeping Anthony Giles in one place, preferably her front door. But it got changed to Frannie years ago, back in first grade when no one could say it quite right. Names mattered. Carys–how unusual was that?– made sure people said hers right so they did. She was the most popular girl in eighth grade. Despite being rather slow on the uptake, she ruled with a smile and fierce dance moves. Frannie’s best friend, Dana, had once known her well and now Carys never even talked to her.

Chiming sounds interrupted her litany of aggravating things. The ratty little mobile Frannie had made as a kid turned in a breeze that slipped through a partly opened window. Made of multi-colored paper stars, some now bent and torn, and tiny golden metal bells, it caught the afternoon light and flashed it onto her walls and face as it slowly turned this way and that. It made faint shimmery notes that soothed her whenever it was in motion. This alone seemed a good reason to hang onto it.

In the driveway below her a dented old Mazda Miata came to a squealing stop. She got up and peered through her curtains. It was Jordan, her brother, aka Spideyman. As he got out it became apparent why he earned such a nickname. Each long, thin appendage emerged from the little vehicle with deft swiftness. When he finally stood it was a surprise, as he wasn’t overly tall, but compact and wiry. He popped up with all the energy he usually displayed, as if he was solar and moon powered, unable to run out of fuel.

“Hey Frangelica! What up?”

She threw open the window sash. “Hey Spideyman! Quit calling me a liqueur! I looked it up!”

“Yeah, really? If you’re a nut, you’re a nut. Not so bad to be called a hazelnut liqueur! But I think you should know that the real thing is called Frangelico, not Frangelica.”

She made a face at him and closed the sash, then watched him cross the street to pick up an envelope from the pavement. Jordan read it, took it to the house opposite theirs and knocked on the door. Old Mrs. Hale took it and patted his arm a few times. He circled back to their house. When Jordan saw her, he stopped a moment and shook his head as if he had just remembered something, then entered the house.

Frannie heard the murmur of her mother and brother talking, then laughter. Their good humor made her feel more sour. She felt guilty about her envy but really, Jordan had all the luck, soon to graduate, going somewhere decent to college, getting on with his life.

A sharp knock on the door.

“Go away, Spideyman.”

“I have a message,” he said, lowering his voice to sound official, important. “A message from a distant power.”

She got up and let him in, then put up her palm. “That’s far enough.”

“Hey, it’s not too bad in here. I almost like it. A little too tidy for me.”

He pointed to the print of “Destiny” by J.W. Waterhouse that hung over her.

“Yes? What?”

“I forgot about that. Mom gave it to you right after, uh, four years ago…when you saw it in the museum…”

“Jordan, what did you want?”

“Oh, right, I was supposed to tell you that Anthony Giles might break up with his girlfriend. I know his sister.”

She involuntarily gulped but hoped it wasn’t apparent. “What does that have to do with me?”

Jordan rested his lean weight against the wall and sighed. “You like this dude? Right? Tara said to tell you because he mentioned your name the other day and she was sitting nearby. She recognized it because Tara and I are friends, remember?”

Frannie sat down on the edge of her bed. “Sure I do, but what does it mean?”

“I’m not the one to ask. It was obviously favorable so she said to pass it on to you.” He walked out then came back. “I’d watch out if I were you; she says he’s sort of suave for fourteen. And by the way, their mother is really sick with something, I can’t remember what. Tara didn’t go into it. Tough, huh.” His gaze swept her room then he grinned at her. “He’ll have to step up his game. He isn’t likely as smart as you are, Francesca-jello.”

“Jordy-boy!”

Frannie picked up one of her paperbacks and tossed it at him. He closed the door in the nick of time, the book sliding down and landing with a soft thump.

She lay down with feet pointed at the headboard and stared at the Waterhouse print. She wasn’t going to think too much of the message. Anthony had girls lined up at his locker half the time. He might not have said anything worth repeating to Tara. He might not be all that interesting to know once if you got inside his head. It might be like something you want for months and months and then when you finally save up and get it, it loses its appeal. Or maybe Anthony was going to be someone who made a good difference in her life, and she, his. She felt so overdue.

It was admittedly notable that Jordan was looking out for her. Even had stopped by her room to talk face-to-face. Frannie admired him more than she admitted. He aced calculus. Was a natural artist, to their parents’ unending joy. And he could bike twenty-two miles up the mountain without killing himself. But most of all, he didn’t try to make Frannie’s life too miserable. He might not pay much attention, but he often had a few words to exchange with her. He had a life ahead that was more exciting than hers, she was pretty sure. He wanted to be a physical therapist but also to travel around Europe on his bike. She’d miss him, old Spideyman.

What was her destiny? Like the girl’s in the painting, to always bid someone (likely warriors, in her case) farewell as they took off on a ship, airplane (like her dad and mom) or bike (Jordan)? (But was the engimatic girl celebrating something? Conspiring? She was studying someone–or was she looking out a window, wondering about one long gone?)

How long would her own life be idling away? Or would she figure out where she wanted to go and find her way there before long? It worried her often, that she didn’t know yet what she wanted. That she loved paintings like her mom but also the idea of an unusual business like her dad’s. Being independent, no one directing her all the time would be good, no matter what. Right now she liked science most despite sweating over it.

But wait a minute. Frannie backed up to her brother’s visit. Anthony had mentioned her name. And his mother was sick. She saw his sunny face in her mind, closed her eyes, then looked at her Waterhouse print again. Okay, no excitement allowed yet. She might write him a note. Tell him she’s around if he wanted to talk; her own had had breast cancer four years ago and it was overwhelming at first, even devastating. But they had gotten through it, a step at a time. It was like her mom was walking a tightrope and everyone was waiting (yet also feeling their own way across) to see if she would make it to the other side safely or lose her balance. Yeah, she could tell Anthony that you figure out how to get through things. If he wanted to know.

The aroma of potatoes and onions sneaked into her room. Frannie felt an easing up of things, her testy mood dissolving, thoughts lightening and making space for more. She stretched arms and legs, hummed a favorite song as she sat up. Stood and headed to her closet where she rooted around in the bottom under a battered shoe box and a mound of old purses. Her fingers found her plain black journal. She took it back to bed and positioned her pillows behind her head. Unhooked her best pen from a page, flattened the hardbound book on her lap and started to write on paper smooth as silk.

My voluntary non-list of gratitude:

JW Waterhouse’s paintings
Mom and dad, who make me look at myself in different ways
Jordan, who makes me laugh even when I want to be mad
Mrs. Tell, fourth grade teacher who hung my star and bell mobile above her desk for one whole week
My mobile; I still love it (make another to hang with it?)
Anthony, or at least the thought of Anthony
My mom being cancer-free for now
Carys, for not being my friend, as I will always like Dana while Carys does not appreciate her
My name: Francesa. Because it’s a grand name to grow into someday– I’ll know when I can fully claim it, ask others to use it
Christmas. Because it’s a beautiful time of year. And we will all be here together.

“Fraanniee! Dinnertime!”

She closed her book and put it back under the box and purses, then opened her door. The handful of bright bells jingled in the draft. Frannie turned to regard their homeliness and cheer, then felt an impulse to wave at the mystery girl in “Destiny”–was she going on a journey, too, or had she arrived already? Had she been happy?– so did just that, then hurried downstairs. The girl on her wall would be right there, as she had been for years, when she returned.

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short short stories, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Solace of Laundry

 

washhouse-294621__180

I pass by a warmly lit coffee house and there they are: patrons hunched over mugs and paper cups, small circles developing as more seek company and relief. They’re at outdoor tables, staying acceptably dry under the building’s awnings. People stand, as well, chatting and sipping. They’re wearing light jackets or sweaters, even shirts. It’s Oregon, after all. It’s a heartening tableau, but I am not so much a coffee drinker these days, and headed home for tea.

The brisk rain descends, visibly angled lines of water crashing onto cars and sidewalks and against my windows. It gathers in rivulets and mini-ponds. The light is bleak, limpid, a waning grey beneath a sky overcome by dense clouds. It’s winter, at last, and though some of the country this far north experience the dangers and wonders of snow, Oregon is made of near-ceaseless rain. Woe to the visitor who comes in the flowering of roses and dry summered days and breeze-sweetened nights, who fell in love with verdant hills and mountains, rivers gleaming. It seems a ruse enticed them. But it is the rain that makes our landscape bountiful, even enchanted. And rain that drives folks to cafes, restaurants and bars more than usual.

I appreciate a homey scenario, especially when it involves good music broadcast and a book. Or a friend with whom to while away an hour. But come winter you’ll find me home more often after errands and a decent daily walk. The cold corners me even in this temperate place. I sometimes harbor wistful yearnings of the five or six months of dry hiking trails–most notably when I am on a treadmill in the cheerless recesses of my local gym. I plan more outings to museums, galleries, libraries; attend more concerts; seek more coffee and tea times with friends; watch more movies and so on.

Yet home calls me more than anything as myriad rains envelop city and countryside. I notice with surprise what needs to be fixed, organized, cleaned. It is the ordinariness that interests me, the repetitive nature of such everyday tasks that promise both industry and repose. Since the arts dominate my internal and external experience, I am either working on something or musing about it. There needs to be a pause, a break from demanding imagination. Since I prefer being physically active while seeking meditation, you might wonder how that can be accomplished.

Laundry.

Yes, the drudgery for us all, the task we deem necessary if dull, perhaps even onerous to some. I gather up piles based on color and fabric needs, make small mounds on the floor and pour liquid detergent into the rumbling tub of the washer. As it fills, I play music as always. Today it has been Yo Yo Ma, the renowned cellist playing Ennio Morricone’s great film compositions–a classical and popular mixture, just right. I drink vanilla chamomile tea as I prepare. The heat is up; my fleece vest is donned. The rain has ceased for a short period and I wonder if I should walk. But the laundry will be done, piece by piece, around and between other tasks.

What is it about washing clothing that pleases me? We have too many; it takes more time than reasonable. I place items into the frothy water that have been carried by us through days and nights, protecting and adorning and now soiled, rumpled and unappealing. I close the lid and the familiar swishswish becomes part of the accompaniment of my morning. I read articles on a writer and a human rights activist, then start kitchen clean up. The washer’s steady laboring underscores the lush strings of Morricone as I move about.

I find myself thinking of this post. How winter activities used to be dictated by snow and all that brings: ice skating at the neighborhood park, crazy fun tobogganing at City Forest, icicles like crystal daggers embellishing windows, cozy igloos carved from snowbanks created by snowplows. It was wonderful to be young in mid-Michigan. But now it is better to be here, molded and informed by December rains.

The laundry requires drying but not outside on clothes lines, flapping in damp wind. I must load it into the dryer and get it spinning. I cast about for another chore, dusting surfaces so they shine as the music swells. Time passes as I busy myself, let my mind wander. And then it  begins to still as the dryer’s thump and tumble pull from me random or nagging thoughts. This emptying leaves me quiet inside, at ease, softened by presence of rain and dryer. The cello now like a dream in the background. As I remove dry clothes and begin to fold a peace in the living room that began as superficial has now seeped into my being and deepened. It is meditation in its most ordinary form, attending to this moment, this work.

I note small blessings from my place on the sofa: the rain coming and going, its rhythm a score for winter season; the baseboard heaters crackling, rendering chill air warm; my hands doing work without thinking, every joint pliable; the clothing my husband and I use and enjoy now freshened. The laundry’s heat seeps into my lap and fingers. I hold a sage green towel close a moment so warmth transfers to face and arms and chest, then put it around my shoulders. Close my eyes. I am content. The neat, clean stacks are carried to their respective storage places.

Doing laundry can make my day better. This is not easy to admit, coming from a woman whose natural response to most domestic duties tends to be reluctance–if not downright irritation. But it is work that is regular, concrete, a project that yields tangible, timely results. It depends on me to get it properly accomplished; no one else has authority. It is a service to my spouse as well as myself, providing revived attire for the coming days. Sometimes it feels like an act of love when he has an emergency need, say, business travel within six hours. Its methodical nature is soothing.

And perhaps there is something else, a memory surfacing now.

My mother is calling me to slide dirty clothing down the laundry shoot and meet her in the basement. Her hands swiftly sort and toss into the machine as I watch, then follow suit. Her softly inflected voice inquires about my day, offers her thoughts on everything from the dinner plan to a friend she met at the store to my poems or a concert coming up that several of us kids will play in. She examines a loose hemline. She rubs a stain with a bar of Fels Naptha until it fades. When the clothes are washed and dried, I put them in a wicker basket and lug it upstairs. I can hear mom at the sewing machine repairing the hem. Outside the snow momentarily blinds me; sunlight reflects off its glittery blanket of white. The house is still, warm, filled with books, music, leftover smells of breakfast as wind shakes the treetops. The bundle of my laundry I have completed is soft and warm against my thinness as I carry it upstairs to my shared bedroom. On the way, I pass mom and she smiles at me.

Sometime this winter when the day is bone-rattling cold or you feel dim as the greyness that greets you at your door, consider the worth of  laundry. Get a load ready and toss it on the machine, make a cup of coffee or tea to accompany the solitude and your work. Have a house full of family? Seek their assistance. Talk over your plans, your lives. Consider what you have to be grateful about: enough clothing, shelter and heat. The health and independence to do your own laundry and perhaps others’. Perhaps a chance to listen to music or healing quiet as the dryer turns and delivers renewed goods, that nubby, favorite sweater, those new navy slacks, that sock that is delivered to you an orphan. With all the terrors of the world and the frailties of our own humanness to ponder and worry over, clean laundry is a boon, a tiny pleasure. A reminder of possible order and shared commonness. An offering of solace when other parts of living may seem bereft of much good sense.

Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, non-fiction, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mrs. Snow’s Way to Paradise

Photo by Bill Owens

Photo by Bill Owens

We had everything and it was all for sale. Most all the time. You think I joke? I was the witness who recorded it all with my Kodak, and if you looked over my meticulous records from back then, you’d see the hundreds of pictures I organized in one year time spans are precise close-ups. In full color. They’re starting to mildew in the battered file cabinets in my basement, part of my inheritance. I can’t for the life of me figure out why I should have kept them but after dad’s funeral my brother brought them here, protesting that our old house looked better without six rusting cabinets. Every last piece of junk had been taken to the dump or auctioned off. We gave proceeds to charity as dad wished. But since we were to share the house sale profit, I decided to get on board and took the cabinets.

That was some time ago. I have thought of it again because I’m moving. Paring down.

I kept records from about age eleven to age fifteen. There were various bits and pieces, big and small, carried in and out of the house before and after that. But by my mid-teens I had boys and softball on my mind, and I was starting to fantasize about escaping. Dad decided I should take photographs because I was always horsing around with my camera. Dad thought I had an interest when, really, I didn’t. Not at first. But it was the only way to spend personal time with him. We went on tri-county jaunts as he picked over the throwaways in other people’s garages, barns and back yards. Whenever I had time I’d help document his purchases or trades. The pictures helped a lot, he said.

We lived in a two-story colonial style house with a three car garage. Dad was a doctor, an osteopath, and mom worried about him while she raised Gene and me, Krista. He kept hours that most doctors wouldn’t so he could have long week-ends to wander city and countryside in search of the next big find. It might be a five dollar tool kit manufactured for kids in 1940 or a cracked bed frame made of prime cherry. I never could figure out what he was looking for exactly. I always asked as we got going in his special ancient truck.

“Well, it depends on what they’ve got, then what I can find. Then it depends on the haggling. I might come down to destiny, in a way.”

I had my freckled forearm on the rolled-down window, hand catching and being pushed by the burning Texas breeze. I’d check him out to see if he was feeling optimistic about fate or not that day. I could read his face; it was a good look that time.

“Well, maybe you’ll hit the jackpot.”

He smiled lazily, a gold cap catching the sunshine. “You never can tell. We have to loosely define ‘jackpot’, Kris. A handsome old hand-painted sign might be better than a mirror with a gold-plated frame. My treasure, your cast-off. That’s the fun of the hunt.”

I daydreamed as he drove, but as we approached a dirt driveway that wound alongside a creek, he let the truck idle. He stuck his head out to get a better look, clapping his palm on his hat as a breeze gusted. He always wore a weathered Panama hat when we were out and about and made me wear one, too, to help keep skin cancer at bay. Dad was like that, always advocating for the welfare of youth and happy longevity of adult patients. But when it came to junk, he had less sense.

I saw what he spotted: a rusting but sturdy blue bicycle and an assortment of round metal tubs and an oblong trough. I could imagine what mom would say if he brought that trough home. The very thought of where his finds had been and what they had been used for distressed her no end.

Dad got out and made a beeline for the trough.

“Someone could plant flowers in this and decorate a back yard, don’t you think? In good shape. Just needs thorough washing. And how about these tubs? Three of them all different sizes. More potential–storage, water containers for creatures, plantings, just paint and decorate them.”

I thought: water what? A horse in the city? A thirsty skunk?

That’s when the woman came out, her hands jammed into baggy grey sweater pockets. She looked about my dad’s age, attractive with a high ponytail and ruddy cheeks. But she didn’t look that congenial at first. I didn’t see a No Trespassing sign.

She put hand to eyes to block out the high noon glare.”You looking for somethin’?”

Dad hopped out of the truck, offered his bony hand. She didn’t offer hers but saw me and nodded.

“Jud Jenkins, Dr. Jenkins. I’m always looking for something good to buy. You selling any of this?”

As soon as they hear he’s a doctor, they tend to get friendlier. You can almost make out money signs in their eyes as they try to mask their interest. But not this one.

“Do you see a For Sale sign? That would mean Rex is formally in business.” She chuckled but it wasn’t cheery, more like heh heh.

“Well, no, can’t say I do. But you have them sitting out here by the roadside, so I thought…why not stop and see?”

“We have an overflow is all. We have a huge shed, looked like a pole barn once, and these didn’t fit so Rex, he stacks things up where he sees fit until he takes them to the junkyard. Or wherever. Because I sure can’t have his mess in the front yard, no sir.” She took her hand down and squinted at him as she stepped closer toward me. “I guess you and your daughter are trolling, right? Hoping for a few bites? How come you’re not out with your friends, dear? No boyfriend yet?” She laughed out loud this time and it was refreshing rather than irritating. It made her whole face change from mildly stormy to carefree. “No sir, I’m not selling a thing.”

“Afternoon.” A man, turned out to be Rex, emerged from a sparse line of scrubby trees. “Help you with something?”

He walked right to my dad, big man with a congenial air. The woman sauntered over to me. We watched a moment as the two, Rex substantial and my dad rail thin, shook hands in that hearty, welcoming way that says they’re members of the same club, strangers no more.

“Well, there goes an hour or two of your time, darlin’. The two fools will find plenty to yak about. Want some iced tea?”

I asked my dad if I could go to the house with her and he nodded, barely looking up.

Her porch was open, large. In need of some wood replacement. Sheltering. I settled on a rocker and she brought out two sweat-beaded glasses. When she sat down we both drank fast and noisy. She waited until I had something to say, which was a change. Adults usually wanted to dominate conversation, ask things you didn’t want to answer.

“You got a nice place out here, ma’am. I wish we had a quiet porch like this one. A pretty creek.”

She pushed wispy brunette bangs from her eyes. “I agree. It’s a good spot. It was worth marrying Rex just to enjoy this house! It needs fixing up but what doesn’t? He has the worst portion in life, working three jobs, and me just checking people in at the motel down the road on week-ends.” She took a smaller sip.” How come your dad buys junk when he’s a doctor? Surely unusual!”

My eyebrows shot up involuntarily. Being direct seemed her forte. “Oh, you know, he likes to collect stuff. Then sell it for fun.”

“Gather and hoard, you mean. Maybe cash in occasionally. I bet he has things stuffed everywhere just like Rex.”

“Well…not quite. Mom wouldn’t allow it to creep into our main living areas. That’s her domain, she says.”

The woman slumped a little, head leaning on the chair back. “So, she’s like me that way. Have to fight for and protect our space. For peace of mind.”

That struck me. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Mom was getting overrun with dad’s collections and interests. I felt she was impatient with something pretty harmless. Not that it couldn’t be an embarrassment to me, too, but he kept certain doors closed. Dad was happy with his hobby, just like mom was happy going to the gym, reading a romance book a week and having her friends over for bridge or canasta on Thursday nights. But they fought about it off and on.

“My manners, gosh, I’m Delia Snow.”

“Krista. Kris.”

“Your mother and I are certainly not much alike, I’m sure you see that. But we do have this in common: we can’t persuade our husbands that the way to paradise is clean and simple. It’s a good motto for me. Clean and simple…”

Delia Snow was going weird on me, talking about paradise when I was getting comfortable. But I wanted to be polite to someone so different and interesting.

“How’s that again?”

“Paradise. It’s having things tidy, pared down, really livable in my sweet house. My brain is less cluttered that way. But it’s also keeping things straight, simple in all ways. Knowing what counts. It sure works for me.”

“Huh, yeah, she’d agree with that, maybe. But she does have a lot of dresses and shoes in her walk-in closet.”

“Imagine that! Her own closet. Well, we gather what we like the most. I have plants, it’s a little manicured jungle in there, but other than that, only what we need. He fills up the shed because he seems to like nearly everything. I know he hides things in the trees out back. Tries to drag home more. Sometimes I put down my foot. Oftentimes not.”

She made a whistling sound as she exhaled. We got quiet, rested in heat laced with shadowy coolness. I wondered about the jungle in her house, what sort of plants she grew and if she had any children. Could I be bold, too? Then Dad and Rex were ambling back to the house, talking as if they were the best of friends.

“I married Rex ten years ago. I didn’t expect he’d have all this mess. But he has such a good way about him….”

As if he’d heard her, he lifted his hand; she returned the gesture.

“Gotta take the great with the nutty, Kris.” She got up. “Aw, you’re too young to worry! Let’s find out what they got themselves into or out of!”

I hated to leave and followed her. We enjoyed the men’s account of things, hung out on the porch a little longer with fresh iced teas, swapped pleasantries. We might have been lifelong neighbors though we lived in different parts of the county. An exceptional surprise for me.

“I’d so rather check out your shed, Rex Snow, but I have an appointment in an hour, unusual for Friday afternoon.”

He was disappointed, anyone could see that. They shared a couple more trade secrets, then that was it. Dad and I said our farewells.

Delia was waving at me as we turned onto the rutted road. I felt a little sad and asked dad if we’d ever return.

He shrugged. “You never know, my girl. Always looking for something good.” He wiped sweat off his neck and frowned. “His prices were actually a tad high. Tough time settling.”

Dad had gotten the tubs, that nasty trough and near-useable bicycle. I took pictures of them from a couple different angles. They looked almost arty in the weeds. He didn’t tell me what he paid. I didn’t care. We were done which meant I could do whatever I wanted with the rest of my day. He’d want to have a garage sale Saturday and would ask me or Gene to help out. It was Gene’s turn if I could talk him into it. But he was the least tolerant of dad’s ways.

On the ride back stinging wind whipped my hair and I hung onto my hat. No AC, a drawback to his sturdy truck. I recalled what Delia said about her and mom. How they were similar. Mom would’ve had a laugh over that so I wasn’t going to tell her. Delia had something mom didn’t. She seemed to know how to live with Rex’s junk lust. It gave me an inkling of hope for my parents. I worried all the time that mom was going to leave dad, take us with her. He made good money and he was the best dad we could have, overall. But she thought he had a few screws loose, were getting looser with time. Why else would he have to collect all that, waste money on trash, cram full our basement and garage? I didn’t know. As long as he didn’t stack stuff out by the pool… okay, sometimes it got to me. But it could be fun. Like meeting Mrs. Snow. (I loved her name both ways; she was so unlike people I knew.) I wanted to see what dad would do with the trough, if he’d sell it. Maybe I was more like him than I admitted. I didn’t know yet which way I was headed. But things had started to feel more claustrophobic. It could’ve been my parents and his stuff. Or just me.

Several years later, after mom left and just as dad was getting sick, I thought of the Snows again. If Rex was still collecting and Delia was keeping things simple and clean indoors, tending her mini-jungle. I drove out Redstone Road, surprised to note it was only fifteen miles from home. I couldn’t find their private dirt road at first, the weeds were so tall, but then I saw a tiny old and dented trailer just off the road, the sort that only one or two people can fit in to sleep. There was a For Sale sign on it.

I turned into their drive. Hesitated. The skimpy trees had grown so tall, the road so narrow. I felt guilty, like a trespasser or a long gone cousin who had failed to stop by. I could barely see the porch at the end. I backed out and took off.

I didn’t want to get out of the truck, find someone else there. Or worse, one of them still there, the other gone, whichever way it might have turned out. I wanted to remember Delia and me on the porch, talking like we knew each other, waiting for my dad and her husband to brag about who got the best deal. Then all four of us– me drinking sweet tea with the grown-ups. It had seemed good and right, like life was supposed to be about taking chances and maybe meeting up with destiny. About making friends wherever you roamed. That woman made things excellent for me a couple of lazy hours when I was almost fifteen.

I’ve decided. I’m getting rid of the old pictures and files. The crazy collections, the valuable and worthless junk are gone now. There’s no reason to keep moldering records of what has gone before me, what has been exchanged. Sold or trashed. I know what was gained and lost. I was there. In the end, dad enjoyed everything he discovered. And I had far more than I realized. Even a little spot of paradise. At least, it was for me.

 

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Christmas: Enough, Too Much or More?

christmas-wreath-229080_1280

Lush, beribboned wreaths. Scents of wintry chill, fresh and bright. Twinkling lights on each neighborhood’s porches, bushes and trees. The flash and dash of shops and holiday markets that entice eye and wallet. Signs and symbols of Advent in churches that beckon newcomers and comfort old-timers, reassuring to many of us. There are delectable candies and traditional cookies to make, gifts to list and obtain, decorative touches to add to your home and the city’s gigantic, brightly adorned tree to “oooh” and “ahhh” over. Decor ranges from snowy miniature villages to garish metallic or pop culture-goofy ornaments to hang along the top of your bay window or stoop.

What is not to like about all this? As December dawns, I have always proclaimed that I am primed for the holiday season so let’s get on with it. But, in fact, I have mixed feelings about Christmas. Maybe it’s that a few decades have passed and my children now have children of their own. Three of five live far away and are ensconced in independent lifestyles, their careers. And even the grandchildren are not so small, not perhaps as open to everything I may plan. Still, though I miss them, my family has less to do with what’s on my mind than my own musings.

I had an experience last week at a deli counter. A woman was waiting for her order to be prepared. She taped at the window where the meats were displayed.

“It’s marvelous, that head cheese. How about you? You like it?”

I thought I heard a hint of challenge in her voice. I guess I made a face, but then I quickly smiled at her. “Oh, not really for me.”

“Your face said it all–just how I would look if you asked me how I feel about Christmas. I absolutely hate it.”

“Well,” I said,”to each their own, right?”

“Naw, I want everyone to be just like me,” she stated adamantly.

I suspected she was being funny. When I glanced at her, she was scowling, trying to not look at me.

I hoped she’d lighten up a bit.”Well, with my character defects, I wouldn’t want everyone to be like me!”

She glared at me, taking in who I was for the first time. Slowly. Head to foot. “Goodbye,” she said loudly as if it was a declaration she had to deliver. And then she turned on her heel and left.

“Have a good one!” I softly called after her.

I was relieved I hadn’t lost my composure but hoped she might be less angry about whatever had made her so dour. That maybe she would give less venom to the next person. I doubt I impacted her other than to further persuade her that people who liked Christmas and didn’t like head cheese were a blight. But I thought about her as I shopped, wished her well. I wondered how many persons feel like she does, and that led me to think about my own holiday spirit.

Well, sometimes I haven’t liked this season so much, either. I am not always certain what all the fuss adds up to in the end. And as an avid participant as well as a Christian I need to understand my viewpoint better.

Many, if not most, would agree that Christmas is too commercial– even as overspending continues. I was not wilting in midnight lines for Black Friday, nor do I dart out for every phenomenal sale advertised. My preparations are simple and limited although my husband would probably say otherwise. Perhaps I have changed my attitude some since not working. I recall spending a lot of hectic hours worrying about and purchasing far more than a couple presents for fifteen to twenty people. The coffers are more empty now but it still matters to me that each person has something he or she has a real interest in or needs. I really want to give but I don’t go overboard. I have waited a bit this time. Today I have started this year’s Gift List; my love labors have only begun.

And yet. I am wondering what this Christmas will be, and how I can experience it, even shape it into something finer, sweeter. Simpler. My conflicting responses are entwined with family but also my ever-shifting perspective of the Season as I age.

I have never fully understood why there is such a materialistic celebration, especially when Jesus was apparently born closer to June. I also realize it is an offshoot of the pagan event of winter solstice. Saint Nick came much later, leaving gifts for poor village children. It’s true the Bible has clear reports of fanfare when Jesus was born in that crowded, dirty manger. The Star of Bethlehem was magnificent, even blinding people with its powerful light. The wise men travelled long and far to bring the baby precious gifts of incense, frankincense and myrrh as they welcomed and lauded him. Angels came and hovered close. Shepherds gathered with their own prayerful homage. It was something to behold. I am certain, and I regret I wasn’t there to see, to hear, to  know.

Meanwhile, I am wondering what we–those of us who celebrate Christmas–are looking for in the here and now. Yes, we celebrate the arrival of Christ into our world if we are believers. Traditionally, we send greetings to others that include peace, joy, hope, thanksgiving. We feel the transition, seek soul renewal as the year draws to a close and a new one begins, according to our calendar. And we just want to share fun times. Maybe all that is enough, is what we are yearning for. This has certainly not been another grand slam of a year when it comes to world accord, or financial security, health and safety for far, far too many.

But enjoyment counts wherever we can get it. There are events we attend yearly, with new thrown it. I have on my calendar a Scandinavian Festival, not because it is my family heritage but because we like its music, food and unusual gifts. There is the yearly Festival of Lights at a monastery’s grounds. The pathways are lined with lights of imaginative designs, surprisingly gaudy at times, and also a retelling the story of Jesus’ birth. There is near-constant seasona music, mostly sacred, performed. There’s a manger full of creatures for kids to pet. We attend concerts of choral or instrumental music. There is an old, uninhabited mansion open to the public that we visit, admiring sumptuous decorations in each well-appointed room. And holiday markets abound, places to wander on foot, to mingle with humanity, to examine exquisite or whimsical handcrafts.

Just writing about all this makes me want to get out there and do things. They are traditions of a lighter sort. My daily habit and church services bring me to studies and readings, prayers and hymns. I sing with emotion and at Christmas I can be easily overwhelmed with the ineffable glory of God. Even if the infant Jesus wasn’t likely born in December….

So why am I pausing to re-evaluate things? What more do I want or need? We give time and money to people in greater need. My spiritual faith doesn’t change from season to season. My family is ever near to me, within the realm of a good hug for those who reside nearby. For those not here there are phone calls or Skype. Miss them, yes, but they do have their lives; sometimes they can’t fly here.

I then consider the past year. There have been trials to ponder, to endure with others. The changes have been significant for children as they changed jobs, moved to different states, got married, uncoupled (sounds so benign when it is, in fact, hard), started over. One family member has been drawn into street life and I worry if this day or night will be dangerous, too much for that vulnerable youth. A person to whom I long ago was married to has terminal cancer; the two adored children we had together suffer with him. I am sorrowful for them all. I have a fine friend whose life is being shortened by hepatitis C. And the memory of a dear family member who ended his life one early December comes to me with an agony of tears as I write.

I see how it is. Deep within are rivulets of sadness as well as a mighty current of faith. Even joy, a requisite for living well in my estimation. I approach the Christmas season with gratitude but also with prayers for sharing the everlasting potency of tenderness. For a clarifying renewal. I ask for change that steadfast love and honest work can initiate.

My tiny revelation is so simple. I am just another human being who wants more opportunity to rejoice and hold loved ones close. A life built with compassion. Well-being or the chance to heal if possible. Reasonable safety in a world riddled with threats we are never given relief from in the media. Mercy for those who have done harm to me and others. And forgiveness of my own undetectable or glaring failures to live the life I know I must. This more than anything: may I create more good and correct within me that which doesn’t measure up.

We found a wonderful, even ethereal tree and sheep farm last year; it is now our newest tradition. This weekend our son and his family will join us as we search for and cut down two hearty pine trees. We will secure them in my son’s truck and drive slowly home through the misty hills. We’ll decorate them, drink mugs of hot, tasty tea, eat sweets. Put on Christmas music at last and sing out on every silly or holy song. “White Christmas” as sung by Bing Crosby, I admit, is a long time favorite. The movie, too.

That I will join with others to celebrate the birth of Christ goes without saying. I’ll put aside my questions about his birth date or how that might affect my pensive inquiries for awhile. Being Christian enlivens my intellect and broadens my spirit. So I will be found at the candlelight service, raising my candle with others to flood the darkness with the glow of all those tiny flames, my soul singing.

This is what I need in my Christmas season–the sharing of hopeful experiences. The gathering together, breaking bread. Reflecting on where I have been and being open to the future, whatever may come. Living will never stop being hurtful or bewildering or demanding. It seems to come with this earthly territory, certainly if you also care to be immersed in surprises and wonders. It’s that variety I hold in high regard. We each have the choice to determine what matters each day, including Christmas. Make that choice, then allow it to be so. I’m keeping my small prayer rolling for better times, despite any dire reports of the odds. Sometimes the only thing that matters is to believe, then act as if your hopes can and will come to fruition. For my world and for yours. Ours.

IMG_2705

Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Three for Good Measure

Staten Island-photo by Christine Osinski

Staten Island-photo by Christine Osinski

 

Duncan’s View of Things

If anyone saw us three together now they wouldn’t believe who we were once. I wouldn’t, either. It wasn’t meant to be any more than a summer of something to do. At least that was it for me. I had just moved into the mobile home park, Oaks Division, sounded like I lived in the suburbs. Nobody was under fifty, all with grey hair and sad, sour faces. Except dad and me, of course. He said it was only temporary, we’d be out of there and into a good place in two shakes of a stick but you know how it is. He had issues with work and people. He liked playing the dogs or horses, that’s how he made and lost thousands, so he’d try to get jobs at the racetrack. Convenient. It went like that for a few months, him with the poor animals, and me trying to make it at another school. Sometimes we both lasted a year. I didn’t expect anything else.

I did attend every day even though I had to catch a bus. I liked learning new things, primarily math, and meeting new kids. I bet you thought different, me being sort of transient. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First thing we found a beat up bike tossed on a corner. Dad fixed the bent parts and I patched up the tires. I took off early on week-ends, before the streets got too busy and cars honked like I was nuts to be cruising along minding my business. That’s when I ran into Tracee and Jolynn.

I didn’t even know these facts yet, but they were at Jolynn’s place. She lived with Grandma Jess, big as the worn-out ranch house and good with her hands. She made amazing bacon, potato and cheese pies for the diner and baby clothes for a children’s shop. Jolynn had a love-hate thing with her. I could tell right off when I skidded to a stop by the girls. Grandma Jess was yelling at Jolynn and she yelled right back.

“I’m not doing the washing again! I just did it yesterday and the day before and today I’m hanging with Trace! And now here’s a new boy coming over so I have to check him out.”

Grandma Jess stuck her head out the window, then waddled outdoors.

“Jolynn, that’s one less thing for you, missy. Next time you want a favor, count me missing!”

She looked me over, said hello.

“Grandma Jess, later!” Jolynn shooed her and the big woman moved on while waving at me.

I returned Jolynn’s hard stare. If she’d been a big guy I’d have narrowed my eyes at her, walked over, puffed up my chest. Instead, I leaned on my handlebars. Little did I know.

“Hey. What’re you up to?” I said.

Tracee shook her long hair off her face. “We’re not waiting for you, that’s for sure.”

The way she laughed didn’t convince me. She had a bright look that said she was interested in everybody who came by and maybe she’d talk to me more. Jolynn still didn’t speak, just looked at me as she scratched her elbow, maybe a major bug bite. I came closer.

“Close enough, Rooster.” She didn’t bat an eye.

“Rooster? My red hair? That’s a new one!” I grinned to see if she’d ease up a little.

“That’s your name if I like you. Rooster. If I don’t, I’ll call you…what’s your name, kid?”

“Rooster might be better than my real name! But I’m no kid at thirteen.”

Jolynn perked up. “Oh, what would that name be?”

“Duncan.”

“Two good ones! We can call you Dunc or Rooster!”

It was like I’d made the cut by having ridiculous names to call out.

“When did you enter our turf?”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen you around all summer. Are you here to stay or just to rent a cabin on the lake?” Tracee came forward and cocked her head.

“I wish. A fancy cabin, sure thing.”

Her eyes were shining like two violet diamonds. I told my dad that later and he laughed, said I was going to end up a poet if I didn’t watch myself. But they were. She had something special. I didn’t mind being closer.

“Trace, either you back up or I’ll go inside. I’m not all about this dude until we know what’s what.”

Jolynn then gave me her thorough once-over. I felt like my skin was peeled, but she was interesting in an irritating, clever way.

“Okay, Jo, but he seems okay by me. He’s got copper hair, he’s friendlier than most boys and he’s nicer by far. So far.”

There I sat on my bike, yet they acted like I wasn’t there. I was about to forget it. I was at nobody’s mercy, certainly not girls’. I put my foot on the pedal and started off fast.

A long, shrill whistle came flying after me. I stopped and looked over my shoulder. Jolynn was gesturing at me to come back. I half-turned around. No one was going to whistle at me and have me running back. I crossed my arms, tensed my jaw and waited. I didn’t want to look mean but I did want to look like I was my own man. Friendly, yes, but not a doormat.

The girls waited a few seconds, then they looked at each other and walked over like they were approaching an ice cream stand and it was time to test a new flavor.

“If you wait a minute, we’ll get our bikes and show you around,” Tracee said.

“And you’ll fill in some blanks, right, Rooster?”

We were twelve and thirteen. There were more blanks and answers ahead. If I had known what they were, I might have kept on riding and missed all the mad fun. But I didn’t and twenty-five years later here we are, back again. A splashy celebration of three kids who made good on oddly auspicious connections. Then made their way out. Way out.

Tracee’s View of Things

I knew he was from down the road. I had seen him once before, riding his bike at sunset, his arms straight out from his sides. He was coasting and looking at trees and maybe those vibrant colors in the late August sky. It was unusually warm, the colors extra rich. He didn’t see me. I was walking with our Irish Setter right after I had had a fight with Jolynn. Again. She could act like a grown up sometimes, playing big boss, and no one could contradict her even if she was wrong. I accepted it sometimes, sometimes not; I had known her all my life. Grandma Jess was brave to take her in at age three and do everything her mother should have done. That my own mom tried to do and failed at, at least fifty percent of the time. It was all about work for her and after-hours socializing. But she tried to love me, praised me sometimes. Both counted, I guess.

Maybe I felt the missing-parent hole in Dunc, too, that first glance at him. That he had some trouble. That life was a breeze if you pretended hard that it was. I was very good at that; I possessed an imagination that wouldn’t quit. Before long, though, I saw he was the real thing, an optimist. He looked at life with the expectation that it would be better tomorrow, whether or not it panned out. I had to coax myself along, played the role of cute girl, smart but primarily cheery. Trained myself to look at things with an open mind so as not to miss the best moments. Dunc, he liked being alive naturally. And that was impressive to Jolynn and me.

The day we met formally Jo and I had been trying to figure out how best to maximize the time left before school. I wanted to work on art, as usual. We sometimes bought a huge poster board and then put our skills together and made a giant collage that covered my wall. Or a montage, pictures only. Or I’d make my own poems for it. She went along as she grumbled. She cut things out of magazines and I decided which was a good enough picture and figured out where to put things. Then we pasted together.

“It’s like being in school only worse because we don’t have to do it, you just make me do it,” she complained.

“If I’m going to be a designer I have to work at it the ways I can! You don’t have to help me. You can watch, give me a critique. You love to do that.”

I just laughed when she punched my shoulder.

“I’d rather be your second-class assistant than sit there and watch you cut and paste all day. I’d fall dead asleep. My vote is for swimming every morning. And we should bike out to the overlook twice a week. I want to be in shape for volleyball and basketball tryouts.”

I smirked as my hair fell forward. She always had to exercise, it was her religion; her muscular legs, proof. If something was good, you made it better by exercise. If it was bad, you made it disappear by exercise. If boring, you ran or biked or swam and everything was beautiful in a perfect dripping-sweat way. I only half-agreed, part of the time. She had to charge ahead. I needed to take my time, create.

Jo was fidgeting that minute as Dunc came up, her sneakered right toe drawing in the dirt over and over. She sent off a neighbor kid who for some reason liked to bother Jo.

“I know who he is. Saw him last week when walking at sunset.”

“You did?” he commented.

“You know everybody, Trace. But that doesn’t mean I should, too. If he’s the stupid or bothering type, I’m outta here. You can chat away.”

“Shhh, be nice!”

“That hair will for sure mark him at school. A bull’s-eye in under an hour.” She elbowed me, smirking.

“Aw, cripes,” Dunc muttered.

Jolynn could be hard. I could imagine her making rude comments in the hallways, even though she might like him. I had to keep her in line if this kid had any chance at all.

It turned out he didn’t need me to keep Jo in line. He knew a lot about getting by in life. He was smart if a little behind in English. He was so easy to talk to I didn’t even realize I was yapping until I had said too much. We learned things together, all three of us. The balancing acts in our lives tipped often but we readjusted. Drew closer. Fate, I believe, visited us that day and gave us each other.

Now we’re back home for something special. So many detours, failures, yet here we are. I had my dreams and two best friends. But who would have thought it led to this?

Jolynn’s View of Things

Rooster rode right into my yard as if he didn’t believe in private property. I knew right then that he’d be trouble but he’d be my friend, but I didn’t want to let on. I let him into our tiny circle little by little, test by test. Told him what was what and saw how he’d fit into the whole.

After we made small talk Trace and I took him up the steep trail to the lake overlook. That was the first test and he passed with flying colors. He nearly beat me. Trace was panting and yelling at us to slow down. Rooster and I reached the top of the hill and yelled, “I won!” in unison. He was riveted by the scenery.

“I beat you but nice try,” I said, admiring his being a sport about it. Enjoying the tiny sailboats below.

“Try? It was at least a tie. Wow. That’s pretty.”

He checked on Trace. Her dark hair was flying through a veil of dust as she rounded the curve and made it to the top, coughing. He acted as if he was concerned. He had no right to be concerned yet, if ever. Tracee and I went back to preschool. He had been around all of twenty minutes. But this was the usual: Trace and art and guys, me and sports, both of us sworn to sisterhood forever no matter what. Rooster would get that or get out. If I let him hang out.

I was born a tough girl, or thought so. Grandma Jess repeatedly told me I would attract what I put out. She should talk. She was both giver and taker, herself, and if you weren’t on her good side, well, love was just another bad word. But we both would fight to the death for each other. Her spirit was big, bold but basically decent. Mine wanted to be more like hers. That way I wouldn’t slip down the rabbit hole like my mother, land in a place of no return.

Trace had a good one. Her mother worked every day at a law office and made her dinners about as tasty as Grandma Jess’ and told her she loved her. But she had her secrets. Trace and I didn’t know what they all were but one was that she had a boyfriend who was over twenty years older and in a wheelchair. He had power and property and two grown kids. The town thought he was a retired judge living the life of a recluse. No one seemed to know about them but us–we followed her mother once–and Trace swore me to secrecy. But she was kind. Like Trace. That counted for more than honesty if I could have admitted it.

We each saved the other. From discouragement. From ourselves. Then we went on and lived lives bigger than we’d planned. I got a phone call: we were summoned by the mayor for a day of celebration.

We now get a newly paved street named after us. Can you imagine? Jo Duncan Trace. “Trace”, the noun, also means a path or a trail made by animals or people who passed that way. My name, then my husband’s–yes, we hit it off well, eventually–then my oldest friend’s name. Nicely done.

All three of us now turn to face the back of the mayor’s balding head and try to catch his lengthy speech. The sunshine is lighting us up as we look over the crowd. People are waving at us–the parents, too– and whistling. The mayor waits until voices have quieted so he can continue.

“The three honored here today used lessons learned over the years both here and in far-flung places. They fashioned themselves into fine examples of perseverance, driven forward by remarkable talent and the will to succeed. They have used their skills and used them for the good of others as well as their vision and goals in the movie business. They are our very own native son and daughters! It is an honor that they have become leaders in the independent film industry.”

I stifled a yawn and tried to look thrilled. Trace knocked her knee against mine, just barely, and I tapped hers back with mine. Duncan was smiling to beat all; I knew that without looking. We had, after all, come a long way. Were being honored by our hometown: Legacy in Time Studios, an independent film company, was seeing impressive profits while making very good stories. I ran the company and Duncan, my husband, kept the money flowing. Trace developed and oversaw a multitude of projects.

We make our feisty trio work. Since that day Rooster interrupted us, life became more intriguing for us all. Much better at the heart of it. That was really the whole point from the start.

 

 

 

Posted in fiction, mainstream fiction, prose, short fiction, short short stories, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment