The ghostly toll collector (in hot pink)

Yesterday on my drive home from work, a young girl stepped out into the middle of the road and held her arms out at both sides like kids do when they’re playing toll collector on the stairs or in bathroom doorways to torture siblings. This road is not a highway by any stretch but is busy enough that you don’t cross the street to get your mail at night without telling your family you love them first.

The girl looked about 6 years old, but she might have been 5 or 7. She was wearing a hot pink snowsuit and knit hat. Her eyes lit with power when I stopped my car several feet in front of her. I thought about honking the horn, but it felt rude even though I honk at deer when they do the same thing.

The girl finally stepped back into what I assume was her yard and I rolled down my window and said “You know, you can’t stand in the road like that. Someone might hit you.”

Her eyes got big but not in a particularly scared way. She did not look at me but turned and walked back towards what I assume was her house, which is next to the one with the orange fish mailbox that someone inexplicably painted half black.

Later when I told my husband about the girl in the road, he said “Maybe she was a ghost.”

This hadn’t occurred to me or my daughters, probably because ghosts usually don’t wear hot pink snowsuits. He then said in his spooky voice, “It was five years ago today that a horrible accident happened just up the road…

This is one of the reasons we’re still married. It’s a real asset to be able to spin your spouse’s mundane stories into ghostly tales or anything halfway interesting.

He also had my back years ago when I took a photo of the front of our house and noticed a ghost hovering in the corner. We were living in the Poconos at the time and I got so excited about snow in October that I scurried out in my pajamas to snap a picture. It turned out to be a very long winter and I’ve never gotten that excited over a little snow on the roof since, but anyway, I showed Joe the picture of the ghost and he squinted for awhile and said “Oh yeah, you mean the reflection of Saddam Hussein in the window?”

I looked at the picture again. “No. I mean the gaunt looking figure holding a sickle in the lower right corner.”

He squinted again and said “Hmm.”

Years later the people behind Ghosthunters had a magazine and I emailed the photo to them. They featured it on a page called Evidence Bag.

One of the Ghosthunters – I believe it was Steve – wrote that it might be a ghost but was probably not and next time I should try taking it with a digital camera to be sure it wasn’t a glitch in the development process. 1) I had taken it with a digital camera and 2) How was I supposed to know when and where a gaunt figure with a sickle might be hanging around waiting to be photographed? The more I thought about it, the easier it seemed to just move.

On the drive in this morning, I will look for footprints in the snow by where I saw the little girl. Even if I see footprints, how can I be sure they don’t belong to deer or raccoons or tiny elven men.

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Double vision

I thought I’d done a good job of disguising it with a scarf, but my grandmother informed me yesterday that I’d gained weight.

“I know,” I said. “You told me that last time you saw me.”

“I did?” she asked, genuinely surprised.

“You did. You don’t need to tell anyone they gained weight,” I added. “They already know.”

“I’ll remember not to tell you anymore,” she said, somewhat chastened.

“We’ll see,” I said.

I didn’t tell her that I’ve been back at the gym lately. I didn’t tell her I joined a cycling class which meets twice a week in the dark and how one of the instructors yells WOOOoooo during the hard parts, which are pretty much every other minute. It’s not that I’m afraid I won’t stick with it, but I have seen myself lose and regain weight before. She has too.

She deftly changed the subject to my brother’s weight gain, though his was self-reported since she hasn’t seen him in awhile. Later I realized this most likely came up after she’d told him how much weight I’d gained and felt a fresh wave of disappointment that a pretty scarf only goes so far.

“My problem is these things that keep growing on my skin,” my grandmother continued. She then told a brief but troubling story about an elderly friend who grew “a long stick” from her nose. Kids, if you’re reading, life has exciting things in store for you too.

“How’s your cat doing?” I asked, afraid of what she might bring up next.

The cat is not really hers, but does anyone really own a cat? She has been letting this cat into her house to eat and nap, although never overnight, for over a year.

When I visited at Christmas, she had me put a litter box in her basement. “It’s too cold for her to sleep outside,” she explained, which was true, however 1) this cat is a boy, and 2) he already has a place to sleep: at her neighbor’s house, where he lives.

They have an unspoken agreement whereby my grandmother feeds the neighbor’s cat and they don’t call the police on her. According to her, they have a lot of cats. She’s not sure if they just turn up or if the neighbor brings them home to replace cats other people borrow.

This cat, the one my grandmother borrows, is pretty great. She calls him Tiger, which is a funny name for a girl cat and still not his real name. When you put your hand out to pet Tiger, he rises on hind legs to meet you halfway. Something about him standing upright makes me easily picture him in trousers and a waistcoat. He seems like a wise angel sent to keep my grandmother company.

Grandmother and “Tiger” during warmer days

The other day my grandmother said she saw Tiger in the neighbor’s driveway when she was going to get her mail. She called out and walked towards him but he scampered off when she got close, which surprised my grandmother despite this being totally catlike behavior.

Once my grandmother got back inside, she found Tiger sleeping soundly on the couch, right where she’d left him.

“He looked exactly like my Tiger. Now I know where to find another cat if anything happens to him,” she said, sounding quite pleased with herself.

Breaking news from the National Christmas Center

Unlike The Pond’s Institute, The National Christmas Center is a real place. You don’t need a fancy undergraduate degree in skin rejuvenation to get in, though you do have to pay $12.50. Trust me when I say it’s well worth it, especially since The National Christmas Center will close its doors forever on January 7.

When I heard it was closing, I knew we had to go one last time. I wondered if it would feel anticlimactic or disappointing. Was it as magical as I’d remembered? I am happy or sad to report I feel new levels of anticipatory grief, which is maybe not surprising since Christmas is built around anticipation and nostalgia.

I had to describe nostalgia to my nine-year old daughter because she didn’t understand what it was. My teenaged daughter understands it and has for some time, so maybe it first occurs naturally between the ages of 9-13. It becomes a sweet, sad burden we alternate between trying to ditch at every turn and cuddling to sleep at night.

I viewed a lot of our final visit to The National Christmas Center through the screen of my phone. I know this is sad, but I wanted to preserve every last wax curmudgeon and animatronic weasel. One day I will hopefully have grandchildren and we will hover around a screen so I can show them pictures of their mother making a non-camera ready face around the Belsnickel exhibit.

(Unlike Santa Claus and Krampus, Belsnickel can go either way depending on whether the child was good or bad. He carries cakes and candies in his pockets, but also birch switches. I’ve been thinking about him lately when I look at my childrens’ wish lists.)

One thing about nostalgia is no two people wear it the same. It also fits us differently over time. I used to be more nostalgic for things I never experienced. This is why a place like The National Christmas Center appealed in the first place.

One room is set up to look like a Woolworth’s from the 1950s, two decades before I was born. I never owned a wind-up monkey or menacing marionette. For awhile I used to buy toys from my own childhood on eBay to feed nostalgia. Then I realized I could go to antique malls and take pictures on my phone and it would bring as much satisfaction and require less storage. This is around the time I started becoming nostalgic for people and places.

Photo credit: Joe

In my late 30s, I began having terrible pangs of loss for grandparents and other family members who were long gone. Still, the nostalgia wasn’t always personal. I missed spinning the lazy susan on my grandparent’s kitchen table and how it was always sticky from spilled sugar and King’s syrup. I missed the big rock in their front yard that I used to sit on for what felt like hours for no other reason than it was there. Did I miss the rock or my grandparents? How well did I know them anyway?

The next phase of nostalgia involved scanning a box of slides from my dad’s side of the family. My husband’s family had another box of slides, so we combined them for a bulk rate and to confuse whomever scanned them.

My family’s slides captured the wholesome ’50s with Gee Whiz smiles and party dresses. Joe’s family slides were early ’70s in every sense and included what looked like ragtag pirates but were actually hippies on a sailboat. His parents were hippies. I swear I never realized until I saw those slides. I’d be more jealous but my grandparents once hosted a luau in their Baltimore row home, as well as a series of odd costume parties. I have the baffling photos to prove it.

Hippies on a shipA couple of dumbbells

I am entering a new phase of nostalgia in my 40s. The pain is unfamiliar so a bit exquisite. I am nostalgic for the things I haven’t done or that I did do but would probably still do or not do again. It is not the same as regret, but more aligned with that than anything else. I’m nostalgic for the way my teenager and I used to get along just last year, even though I know she had to grow up and often that means apart. I am sad to know the same thing will happen with my still-cuddly nine-year old. I miss the days before my husband and I had kids because I remember more time and less weight, both literal and figurative. If I could go back in time, would it feel that way? As Joe said long ago, nostalgia is a liar. This is what I remember, anyway.

The National Christmas Center will close its doors, probably forever, on January 7, 2018. They are looking for a buyer, but I can’t imagine the price. The collectible value of its contents alone must be over a million dollars, plus it brings in literally busloads of patrons in Christmas sweaters year round. Each room will be probably be divvied up and sold at auction or else a reclusive billionaire will buy it to know what it feels like to live inside Christmas’ belly. I wish I was a reclusive billionaire.

One thing I enjoy about life is how you constantly get to reinvent yourself. The older I get, the less anyone seems to care how or why I do this. Time lends a gentle cloak of invisibility, which leads to its own kind of freedom in how we remember and honor the past. I don’t mean we should make shit up or distort the facts, but why not write a short story about a billionaire recluse who sleeps in a fiberglass burrow formerly occupied by a rabbit in a striped nightshirt? A useful byproduct of nostalgia is creativity.

Some of us feel compelled to preserve and even mold the past to make some sort of sense out of it. I like to think this will help future generations do the same. They may one day pour over photos and screens or memory scans and wonder who were those hippie pirates and who took all the pictures of wax figures inside The National Christmas Center. And what does it all mean?


If you can’t make it to The National Christmas Center before it closes and aren’t a billionaire, here’s a 360 google tour. God bless the internet, every one.

The case of the missing retainer UPDATE: Case Closed

As a good detective, your first job is to secure the scene. This involves shuffling to the curb in pajamas at dawn to drag the garbage can back to the side of the house.  The aroma of litterbox looms heavily in the humid air. You are filled with hope and disgust.

You interrogate each potential witness separately. Your husband texts “I don’t have it!” The exclamation mark might normally arouse suspicion, but his alibi is airtight: he’s out of town. You get to the perpetrator/victim’s younger sibling before she’s even out of bed. No, she hasn’t seen it either. The cats both look guilty but they always look like that. Actually, the one cat looks guilty while the other probably looks hungry. You release them and they slink off to stalk the fish tank and eat a little kibble.

Your key witness is pretty sure she last wore the retainer the night before last. She isn’t sure where she was when she took it out. The hot pink case you couldn’t miss if you were blind sits on the bathroom counter ominously empty, like a missing child’s shoe found by the side of the road.

Your witness isn’t sure when and where she last saw her retainer. It might have been on her bedside table. It might have been on a placemat. You’ve been at this game long enough to know grabbing them by the collar while crying why in god’s name don’t you remember? Why?? won’t get any answers, though it might make you feel better.

When you re-read the victim’s statement, you keep going back to the part where she said I hope I didn’t throw it away in the bathroom. You didn’t get this far ignoring hunches. You can no longer ignore the garbage like the snakes in Pee-Wee Herman’s heroic pet store rescue scene. You must go in.

The garbage does not disappoint. You don’t find the retainer, but it is even more disgusting than anticipated. What even is that one thing and where did it come from? You check under the bed, in drawers the victim clearly hasn’t opened since 2011, the top of the refrigerator, the mailbox. You frisk the cats but they misinterpret and purr.

When you get to work, you fight the urge to check the garbage can beneath your desk because the only way it would be there is by teleportation or if you were in on it the whole time.

You clear the schedule for the weekend. You plan in your head how you will sift through each bag of garbage, plus the recycling bin, wearing purple kitchen gloves and a turtleneck over your nose to stifle the stench. You make a mental note to do this somewhere private so the neighbors don’t send someone by with a giant butterfly net.

You scribble notes in your steno pad: check the lego bin; strip the victim’s sheets and wash them, killing two birds with one stone; look over by the fireplace, which is where you saw a cat batting something around the other day and you assumed it was a bug but now you are not at all sure.

You are a very good detective and you will find it. A retainer doesn’t just vanish into thin air. Well, maybe that one time in 1988 when you put your own retainer on a plate for safekeeping while eating a sandwich on the back deck and then, for reasons unknown to anyone, shook the plate over the bushes and stones below. As one does.

You never got over that, obviously, but it helped make you the great detective you are today. You’ve told this cautionary tale to your daughter many times, assuming only those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. You do not recall your parents looking for it as obsessively as you did then and now, those maddeningly translucent white whales.

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Important Update: at approximately 5:12pm, you will apprehend the retainer inside a tan fleece blanket located on the victim’s bed. You will give the blanket a good shake and hear the sweetest ‘thunk’ on the carpet that you ever did hear. Knowing that you will not have to spend your Saturday sifting through garbage, you will order a celebratory pizza and cry out TGIF, MF! 

Further cause for celebration: the vexing and completely useless ability to make a retainer vanish into thin air was not passed down after all. You do, however, have another kid due to get her first retainer in less than a month, so let’s not get cocky.

Go to the show

I recently attended my first rock concert at the tender age of 43. There had been a handful of concerts in my teens and twenties, but alternative or pop and I’d missed Pink Floyd when they toured in the late eighties. I remember talking about getting tickets with my best friend, but we had no real plan or money and it’s just as well because I would have been the kid who never made it out of the parking lot. Besides, late eighties Pink Floyd got everyone but Roger Waters in the divorce, and he was the parent I’d aligned myself with.

When we heard Roger was touring again, Joe and I decided we had to go. My finger hovered over refresh in the moments leading up to presale. It was like Black Friday at Walmart, I guess, not that I’d know but I do know to get what you want and get to checkout. I had no idea what ticket prices would be, but was pretty sure $14 couldn’t be right even though that was what the ticket site listed for our section.  $14 was like 1967 prices, but with the clock ticking I either thought this is our lucky day or I’m not missing out again like in 1987 and clicked and paid $28 for two tickets. Naturally this came to nearly $100 after the usual fees, but still. Cheap.

Shortly afterwards, the concert venue sent out a smartly worded, slightly apologetic email that basically said sorry guys, those tickets were really supposed to be $146 and you must have known deep down $14 wasn’t right because we charge more than that for a soda. So anyway, we’re charging the difference to your credit cards. But here’s a voucher for free parking (a $25 value!). p.s. The person who made that very costly typo is hanging by his middle toes as we speak. 

I barely had time to tell if I was disappointed or relieved when I got another email that basically said sorry guys, remember how we said we were going to charge the difference to your credit cards? Our legal team told us we couldn’t but we weren’t going to anyway. It was a joke, haha! You can keep the free parking though because we’re laid back cool like that. 

Months passed and I occasionally peeked in at our super-cheap tickets to make sure they hadn’t vanished or been hallucinated. I have never been more excited to attend a rock concert, which would have been true even if I’d attended dozens or any before. Joe and I brushed up on our late 70s to early 80s Pink Floyd – which, totally not necessary, as I’d burned those songs deep in the brain (along with a fair amount of pot) during my formative years – and gave Waters’ new album a spin and really liked it. Spoiler alert: he has a hard on of hate for Trump. No matter where his fans fall on the political spectrum, no one seemed to take it personally at the concert.

So picture this bit of karmic comeuppance: Picture two seats on an aisle. Great! No ‘scuse me’s on your way out to visit the mens or ladies room precipitated by, based on what I observed of fellow concert goers, pretty much continuous trips up and down the stairs to purchase large beverages to drink and/or spill on my head. Now picture those aisle seats, which are angled towards the stage but front row to the aisle. To see the stage, you have to crane past all the bobbing heads traveling up and down stairs with drinks. They are still good seats though. They are reasonably close to the stage and being front row to the aisle, we get to watch a blissed out dude stop and stare up at the ceiling for a full minute. I don’t do drugs anymore, but his joy was infectious. We could see all the cool floats, art and levitating platforms Roger Waters and his team worked so hard on, plus Roger himself looking beautifully angry on the jumbotron. He’s almost 74 years old, some sort of god I think.

When Pink Floyd did their last tour as a still-together band, they erected a giant wall, brick by brick, between them and audience and then tore it down as part of the show. 1980 Roger Waters wanted to keep the wall up and play the rest of the show that way – with a physical barrier between him and his fans – and I think 2017 Roger would have done it if he’d still felt that way. The years have not softened his political views, but he’s made a kind of peace with fame and fans. He just seemed happy to be up there putting on a show. We all just ate it up.

The show closed with Comfortably Numb, which is everybody’s favorite, I know, but it’s really mine. I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience sang along except for the lady in front of us who’d turned around before the show started to ask my six-foot-five husband to stop bumping the back of her chair with his knees because it was making her nauseous, but that was only because she’d already slipped out. Comfortably Numb would have brought us together, I’m sure. You can dance to Pink Floyd. I didn’t know that before but I saw it for myself and now I’m a believer.

I wonder if I will ever go to another rock concert again. Maybe if Judas Priest comes to town, and then I won’t feel bad if I never make it past the parking lot. It’s fun making childhood dreams comes true, even when we’re a little too old to enjoy them in the same way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eight millimeter ghosts

I saw my mother for the first time in 42 years, not in a dream but in short, silent flickers across the TV screen. It is the only time I recall seeing her move, and the experience hit me harder than I was expecting.

My husband and I recently took 520 slides and 7 reels of 8mm film to a photo shop to have them converted digitally. Some of the slides had been sitting in various garages for almost 65 years. Doing something – anything – with these family artifacts felt only slightly less overwhelming after researching all the options and prices. The best advice I got was from a friend who said to just take charge and do it because no one else will as time goes by.

The slides deserve their own post and I’ll write about them later. I was most excited about getting the home movies back. While we could hold the slides up to light for a preview, the film reels were a mystery.  I remember my dad showing old home movies in our basement a few times in the mid 80s but knew there were reels I had never seen before.

The film service we used stitched all seven reels into one movie. It starts when my older brother was a baby and ends when my much younger sister was a kindergartner. It spans 17 years and clocks in at just under an hour of footage, showing restraint by the filmmaker, my dad. (There is still a disproportionate amount of crawling baby footage and kids crashing sleds into trees.) If I could get a stranger to sit and watch shaky, soundless footage of other strangers, well, first I would need a tranquilizer dart and restraints. But once they came to and watched, they would notice a chunk of time missing and a mid-season replacement. Where did the first mom go, they might wonder.

My mother is in the first half of our home movie, young and beautiful, the picture of health for most of it. She died when I was a just over a year old from Hodgkin’s Disease. I’ve seen plenty of pictures of her over the years, but getting to see her move and smile and twirl babies in her arms hit me like a sweet sucker punch. Within hours, I experienced all the emotions, from gratitude and love to sadness and even pained regret that I don’t hold a candle to her. The footage only shows her looking a little pale and puffy in what would have been her last winter. Then, of course, she’s gone.

I realized two big mistakes once we got the home movie back. The first was not asking the film service if perchance they planned to tack on a terrible public-domain soundtrack to cover all that pesky 8mm silence. I am not sure how to remove it, but my older daughter likes it and it’s growing on me.  The second big mistake was not considering that my current mom and dad might not want painful, uncomfortable reminders of the 70s alongside our reconstructed 80s family. Fortunately I was able to extract and save smaller files to break out time over more congruous periods. No one has to relive the 70s unless they want to.

Even though it was painful to watch the first time, I wanted and even needed to relive it. I have absolutely no memory of my mother and felt like I was meeting her for the first time. I felt proud to introduce her to my daughters and husband. I don’t openly talk about her with my youngest daughter because she’s still pretty little and knows my stepmother as her grandmother. I don’t want to confuse her or hurt anyone’s feelings. But kids are smart and, anyway, she did just leave stones on her grave last month. While we were watching the home movie, she asked how old I was when my mom died. I was able to point out little me in an Easter dress and too-short bangs that looked like they’d been cut by an older brother because they had been and say “that’s about when”. We were all smiles in the movie despite what had just happened off-scene.

If this seems depressing or matter-of-fact, I don’t mean either. I guess I have the weird detachment that comes from losing a parent at such a young age you don’t remember them. The found footage of her shook up and dislodged grief I didn’t know was there. Even though it hurt, it hurt in a good way.

I’m going to leave you with a short clip and my favorite part of the nearly hour-long movie of our disjointed, somewhat tragic but mostly happy lives. The opening scene is my mom holding my brother (this was before I was born), and then my great-grandmother steals the scene. She is the mother of the grandmother I always write about, by the way. My great-grandmother’s name was Magdalena and she stood maybe 4 feet 6 inches tall, even in that hat. I miss her very much (my daughters would have loved her) though she still makes me smile every time I watch this. p.s. I recommend watching it muted, though the music is oddly fitting.

WOTY – Time and Perspective

 

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two days before Christmas, can I be any luckier?
Every year for the past few, I’ve participated in Word of the Year and picked one word to focus on for a whole year. It’s like writing out a whole list of new year’s resolutions and then picking one word that best describes the characteristic needed to complete all of them. Or, maybe it’s like realizing I’ll never successfully complete all or even any resolutions, that maybe I don’t really need to, and settling for one area of general discontent to spend a little extra time and attention.

Time was my WOTY last year. I chose it originally because I got tired of looking up and noticing entire seasons had come and gone without fanfare. I was tired of losing time or feeling like I wasn’t doing very much with it. I already knew that it mattered how I spent my time and that making smarter choices consistently was key, and I figured a word like TIME hovering over me like a prison warden might help me get there. What I found was I’m still really good at ignoring things.

I didn’t think about Time much in 2016. Or so I thought. I remember thinking throughout the year that Patience, my WOTY for 2015, had been a better fit. It was gentler, definitely, less demanding and more comforting. Time demanded that I do things while Patience let me sit and rest and just think about things. Because I have a tenuous relationship with authority, I ignored the assumed demands of a word like Time and went about the year. A few times I looked up and noticed the season in progress maybe wasn’t going by quite as fast as usual, but that was about it. I was pretty sure I picked a dud WOTY.

Then December came and Mished Up wrote about her experience with her WOTY and reminded me that some years our words do more work behind the scenes.

She wrote this about her own WOTY:

It hasn’t been the most satisfactory word. I haven’t felt it working the way I have tended to feel other words.  That said, that’s not really  unusual.  Sometimes I  only see how the word worked in hindsight, as I write my year end wrap up.

That’s when I realized that’s exactly how Time felt for me.

When I wrote about spending my time more wisely one year ago, I listed a few examples. I wrote that I could read irritating status updates or a good book. I could eat junk or go for something greener. I could get out for a walk or sit and do nothing. I could keep falling down the same rabbit holes or spend face to face time with the people I love.

I can’t claim victory on all fronts. If I’d numbered and listed these things, they’d look an awful lot like new year’s resolutions, right? But I can see in hindsight that I did read an awful lot this year. I ate a lot of junk, yes, but also a lot of green and savored it more than ever. I definitely went out for a lot of walks and got back to regular runs. I spent quality time with the people I love and that, in turn, may have actually slowed down the passage of time. A second still lasts a second, but I have few regrets about how I spent mine in 2016.

The biggest change I noticed in the last year is that I no longer white knuckle through big but stressful events. Even if it was something I’d been looking forward to, like a birthday party or holiday, usually I just wanted it over and done with so I could get back to normal. Then when Thanksgiving was about a week away, I realized I was looking forward to all the preparation and cooking and visiting with family. This helped my attitude going in, for sure. When Christmas was about a week away, and even thought I wasn’t finished shopping, wrapping and baking, I realized I was really going to miss it. That hasn’t happened since I was a kid.

Now it’s time to pick a new WOTY for 2017. As with the last couple years, a month ago I wasn’t sure I’d do it again. I felt like I’d failed it and myself until I saw the ways it worked me. Patience reminded me to stop watching the clock and comparing myself to others. Time forced me to at least sometimes make it count through my actions and attention. This year I’m leaning towards Perspective because it feels like a natural extension, though I’m still not 100% it’s the right word for 2017 (another hallmark in the process of picking a WOTY).

When I say Perspective, I also mean Attitude. Two people can have the same set of circumstances and yet view them very differently. They can work the same job and have the same resources and support systems in place, and one can grumble and groan while the other kisses the ground in gratitude. I don’t guess I need to say which person I’d rather be, but most of the time I feel like the grumbler and don’t want to anymore. My hope in choosing a word like Perspective is that I’ll feel gentle reminders throughout the year that how I view something is a kind of choice and sometimes I need to work at it.

Likewise, gratitude will not always be an appropriate response. Perspective will hopefully allow space to look at situations more clearly and determine if I need to or can make certain changes instead of accepting the status quo. So I’m pretty excited about the potential for a word like Perspective.

Best wishes to anyone reading for a healthy, happy 2017. I’ve gained so much from reading posts and comments, so I want to close out the year by thanking you for reading and writing. It makes all the difference.

 

 

 

Aunt Millie – a writing prompt from Christy Anna Beguins

The piece below is something I wrote for Christy Anna Beguin’s November writing prompt. Anyone is free to join and you can find the prompts for this month and how to submit here. Any excuse to write, you know?


“She could start an argument in an empty house,” goes one Southern expression, and that about describes Aunt Millie to a tee. Once, she even wore pajamas to dinner because she couldn’t admit she had incorrectly mistaken them for a silky pantsuit. Earl and I could tell right away when we arrived to pick her up for her big birthday dinner.

“Why on earth aren’t you dressed yet?” I asked. Earl examined an invisible spot on the rug.

“This is what I’m wearing,” Millie said. “Frank sent me this beautiful silk set all the way from San Franciso.” She twirled around like that would fool anyone.

“Lands sake, Millie,” I said.  “Those are pajamas!”

Millie stopped twirling and stuck out her chin and said “You’re a fool, Dottie. Now let’s get to dinner.”

The pajamas were right pretty, cloudy pink satin with silk rosebuds at the collar. They were pajamas just the same. Millie held her head high at the Chinese restaurant and ignored stares or pretended everyone was admiring her high fashion. The embarrassment at having to eat with someone in their pajamas was almost unbearable, but at least I  had a story to tell. Millie may have been the most difficult person I knew, but she was always entertaining.

Last summer a bus filled with mental patients coming back from heaven knows where tipped right over on Millie’s front lawn. Her neighbor said one of the patients attacked the driver and he lost control, but I heard he fell asleep and given the hour, it seems more likely. When Earl and I turned on the late news, the last thing we expected to see was Millie in the background, arms waving and hair curlers askew and, come to think of it, in a familiar pink satin bathrobe her brother Frank sent over last birthday. If you’d seen the news, you might have guessed Millie tipped the bus over herself, but it turned out she was giving the officer an earful because the bus happened to crush one of her flower beds. Thank goodness no one was seriously hurt, but can you imagine her making all that fuss over flowers? Oh Millie.

Thanksgiving sure will be quiet this year without her. Her daughter, Sandra, found her the day after Halloween splayed face down near the sugar maple, a fallen ladder and rake. Mind you, all the leaves weren’t down yet, so we could only guess Millie climbed up to shake them down herself. She broke her neck and would have gone quick, the doctor said. Sandra just said “Huh” and looked at the doctor and then at Earl and me like she knew it was too soon to appear relieved.

In another lifetime, Millie was married to a sweet man named Hank who was so young then, he was really more a boy. Millie and Hank, they were quite a pair. I have a distinct memory of them walking arm in arm at the Clay County Fair, Millie’s head thrown back and her laughter not quite as braying as usual. Hank was the only one who softened Millie, but then he went off to war months before Sandra was born and never came back. I was closer to Millie’s age than Sandra’s, so I remember Millie’s heartbreak and how we hoped she’d find someone else, and then how Millie it was of her that she didn’t even try.

After Millie’s funeral, Sandra found a stack of letters from Hank while we were going through her personal belongings to see who wanted what. I joked we should burn them, that Millie would never want us reading those, but Sandra and Earl thought different and insisted I take them home for safekeeping.

I couldn’t help myself, drawn like a bug to the porch light, and that night I sat at the kitchen table and read and cried well past midnight. Hank was still doting at the start, but his last couple letters mentioned some English woman he’d met wherever he was. He was in love, apparently. His last note, dated a week before his ship went down, made reference to Millie’s “hard head and even harder heart” which is an apt description as any, but in the closing paragraph he asked her to please send more candy and gum. And I guess that’s how it was with Millie. You could never please her, but she never expected you to. All those years and we never realized it was really her putting up with us.

I told Earl about Hank’s letters and his mouth dropped but he didn’t say a word. Tomorrow we’ll use Millie’s good turkey platter and set a place for her at the table. I asked Sandra to bring a salad and not dessert since last time she brought some awful gelatin mess. Millie jabbed it with her finger so that it wobbled and shook and said “Oh look, even dessert can’t stop laughing at how ridiculous it looks.” Sandra was crestfallen but it perked me right up. Earl better not be his mopey, lost self he’s been lately. This is a holiday and no time to feel sorry for ourselves. Millie wouldn’t have wanted that.

 

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The Urn

Dear Sylvester Westerlutz,

I hope I have the right person. Your last name is a bit unusual and I found you on google. I’m trying to locate the owner of an urn I stumbled upon while fly fishing in Saddlebag Creek this week. The trout are real specimens this spring…I can’t remember them this big and feisty before. But anyway I noticed something shiny near the edge of the creek and dug out what appears to be an urn with your last name on it. And so I’m wondering if maybe you lost an urn?

Yours truly,
Frank Everhart


Dear Frank

Thank you for your letter. I’m glad to hear fishing is going well this spring. You are correct that it is my urn, though incorrect that I “lost” it. I don’t know how it wound up in Saddlebag Creek as my wife and I last saw it pretty far upstream at Sawbill Creek and that was five winters ago. First we’d meant to sprinkle the ashes in the creek, but I only brought a swiss army tool that proved useless. (Urns are very hard to open.) Then we tried to bury the urn, but the ground was pretty frozen and we hadn’t brought a shovel. I guess we weren’t thinking too clearly. Finally, in a fit of what I now recognize to be temper, I chucked my mother’s urn in the creek. It made a satisfying splash I can still hear in my head. I’m sorry you found her and have to deal with her now. She always was a difficult person. She never could just let things be.

Best,
Sylvester Westerlutz


Dear Sylvester,

I see, or at least I think I do. My own mother is still alive but I don’t think I’ll share this story with her. Or maybe I will. In any event, what shall I do with your mother? Would you like her back?

Frank


Frank,

Throwing Mom in Sawbill Creek was one of the most liberating moments of my life. Prior to that, we’d tried burying her in the backyard next to the birdbath but then the window blind flapped up in the middle of the night and scared the living daylights out of my wife. She insisted it was Mom’s way of telling us she wasn’t happy with her placement, so we moved her over by the hemlock and then it died within the year. It was such a beautiful tree too, such a shame. Then we dug her up and polished the urn and put her on the mantel and that winter the woodstove caught fire and we lost pretty much everything. You might not be able to tell, but even the urn got pretty scorched. We had finally settled with the insurance company and closed on a new place to live when we took the urn down to Sawbill. It was meant to be a final act of closure and honestly, I hadn’t thought of that moment in years. I am not at all sure what to tell you do with Mom. I wonder if you might be able to put her back. I am sorry you have to deal with this.

Sylvester


Dear Sylvester,

I decided to do what you suggested and return your mother to Saddlebag Creek. I brought along my fishing gear and did notice the trout weren’t biting quite like they were last time, though that was probably just coincidence. I dug a pocket in the mud and rocks and sunk your mother’s urn in real good. I don’t think she’ll be going anywhere. The sky had been gray but right at that moment the sun poked through and I thought that was a good sign. It started raining on the way home and I did get a flat tire, but no worries, I had a spare and anyway, it had been awhile since I’d had the practice. I should get cleaned up because it’s Purse Night at bingo and Mother doesn’t like to be kept waiting. I wish you and the wife all the best.

Yours truly,

Frank Everhart

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