Friday, January 29, 2010

Hula Dancers in Heaven

Uncle Willy thought funerals were a silly waste of time. “When I die,” he was fond of saying, “just put me in big baggie and set me out with Wednesday’s trash.” But Momma had insisted on a proper burial.

Little Julie Cahill wriggled in the pew like live bait on a hook. “Sit still!” Momma scolded her, giving her thin leg a swat.

Julie couldn’t. The air conditioning had broken down and now the chapel was growing oppressive. Perspiration trickled down the shallow gutter of her spine. “It’s hotter than the hubs of Hades,” thought Julie, using one of Great Uncle Willy’s favorite phrases. She didn’t know what a hub was, but felt Hades described the chapel real well.

From behind the pulpit, Pastor DeWitt’s heavy voice swung like a pendulum, rocking the congregation into further lethargy. Glancing about the steamy room, Julie noticed several people had nodded off, while the rest furiously fanned themselves with memorial programs.

“Momma, isn’t it nice so many people are paying their respects to Uncle Willy?” Julie whispered.

“Hmmmpf. They’re only here so they can pay their respects to the memorial luncheon,” Momma hissed. “Now hush up!”

Pressing her lips into a thin line, Julie stared at the aluminum casket. It looked like a big tin can. She could imagine Uncle Willy looking around inside and saying, “What am I? Pork-n-Beans?” The thought of him suddenly brought her close to tears. The roly-poly old heart of gold was really gone. There would be no more funny Willy words and no more bone-crunching bear hugs.

She doubted Momma would miss him. She said he drank too much, called him a hopeless dreamer. But Julie had loved his Crayola dreams. She remembered last week when he sailed through the front door, wearing a rubber band smile and waving a fist full of brochures. “Hey Jules, your Uncle Willy’s goin’ to Hawaii!”

He hula danced over to Julie, lifted her up and plopped her down next to him on the sofa. He spoke excitedly about a paradise with sapphire seas and brown-skinned island girls, the color of coconuts. His breath smelled like cough medicine.

“That’s where I’m goin’ first,” he said, stabbing a crooked finger at a photo of a crescent beach, fringed with palm trees. “I’m gonna plant my toes in that warm sand and wait for the sea to come kiss my feet.”

Uncle Willy never did get to Hawaii. In fact, his feet never got farther than Ernie’s Bar. He was stiff as a rake before someone noticed him, face down in a bowl of beer nuts.

Poor Uncle Willy. Julie sniffled and began to weep. As she wiped her nose with the back of her hand, her mother tapped her shoulder and handed her a Kleenex. Julie
thought she glimpsed a hint of tenderness in Momma’s bone dry eyes.

Her mother hasn’t cried—or laughed her beautiful laugh—since Daddy left town with a flame-haired waitress. It frightened Julie to see her once gentle momma became granite-faced and darkly moody, like a thundercloud in an apron. Uncle Willy reassured her that Momma still loved her. “Her heart’s harder than a tick’s back, Jules, because that’s her way of protecting herself after the powerful hurt your daddy done her. It’s only temporary…she’ll mend.” Willy gave her a bear hug and promised that with prayers and a little time, Momma’s heart would be “soft as a beagle’s ear”.

There would be no more Willy bear hugs to sustain her as she waited for “beagles’ ears” and the sweet music of her mother’s laughter.

Someone sniffled beside her. Julie noticed Momma’s eyes were now rimmed with black, gritty smudges.

She touched her mother’s thin, rough hand.

Momma yanked her hand away and used it to spank the air in front of her flushed face. “Lord, I’m thirsty! Hope this temperature ain’t an indication of which direction old Willy is going.”

“Momma, he can’t have sinned good enough to pass muster with the dev—“

“Hush, child!” She gave Julie’s leg a pinch.

Julie rubbed her tender thigh and thought, “It’s going to be a humpty-dumpty day.”
“Let us pray,” commanded Pastor DeWitt.

While some people prayed for Willy’s soul and others prayed for a quick end to the soggy service, Julie prayed God would soften Momma’s heart so she could laugh again. Then she glanced at the casket and smiled. Bowing her head, Julie prayed, “Lord, let there be hula dancers in heaven. Amen.”

To be continued

Monday, January 18, 2010

Snores and S'Mores

“I hear a bear!” shouts a voice in the next tent.

Screams pierce the night. Young girls shrieking their lungs raw, having the time of their life. There are no bears in these woods and my Scouts know it. They’re just following standard operating procedure; next they’ll let loose about the homicidal maniac who prowls the woods with a bloody hook for a hand.

No amount of yelling is going to get me out of my LL Bean, hypoallergenic, mummy-style, portable bed of nails. As a seasoned veteran of many Girl Scout campouts, I know that the only danger in these woods lurks in the vivid little minds of my Scouts.

“He’s out there!” someone declares with breathy drama, “He’s close, I can smell him!” More shrieks and giggles.

I’ve recently developed a theory that the amount of yakking and yelling after ‘lights out’ is directly proportional to the number of s’mores consumed. And judging from the pile of empty marshmallow bags and Hershey wrappers, this was going to be a boisterous night.

Oh well, I don’t come on these trips expecting much rest. Even after the girls finally crash, the nocturnal creatures pick up where my Scouts left off. All night long, winged insects buzz around my nose prospecting for blood, owls keep asking me “Who?”, and squirrels drop acorns the size of bowling balls on my tent.

None of this seems to be bothering my parent volunteer who is sawing zzz’s through a green plank three short feet away. Good thing she drank that thimble of NyQuil (at least, that’s what she said it was) because she would be in full cardiac arrest if she saw that granddaddy longlegs crawling up her sleeping bag. God bless her. Few mothers are willing to jeopardize their French manicures by going on a wilderness adventure with their daughters.

This campout has gone pretty much as usual. Colleen fell into the creek, Libby squirted bug spray in her eye, and I lost my Oakley sunglasses down the latrine. I briefly considered going after them with the fire tongs but fortunately came to my senses.

Another ear splitting scream. No wonder the bear population is dwindling in Connecticut. They refused to put up with this racket and fled north. I pull my sleeping bag up over my ears and breathe in a heady perfume of bug repellant, campfire smoke, and sweat.

Scrunch. Scrunch.

Uh oh. Scouts on the loose. I hope it’s a trip to the latrine and not camper hijinks inspired by Disney’s The Parent Trap.

“Mrs. Barnes?” I recognize the voice and peek out from my sleeping bag. Two flashlights shine into my eyes and out the back of my head.
“Sorry about the last scream, Katie rolled over on my—“

“That’s okay, Sarah. Who’s that with you?”

One of the flashlights moves towards me and someone wearing crampon-compatible, heavy-tread hiking boots steps on my leg.

“Oops! Sorry, Mom.” Sharp knees crush my chest and I feel a sticky kiss on my cheek. “I love you, Mommy,” whispers my daughter, “ This has been the bestest campout ever! ”

“I love you too, sweetie.” We hug.

The flashlights leave and I lay there listening to the overture of Tannhauser, which my tent mate is snoring with appropriate Wagnerian gusto.

This is generally the time I start wallowing in self-pity, wishing I could be home sipping wine and watching old movies with my husband. But for the first time, I feel I’m right where I want to be. I guess I’ve finally realized that bug bites, backaches and latrines are a small price to pay for one sticky kiss.

The snoring is receding. Strange. I feel heavy and light at the same time—like I’m floating in a sandbag suit. Surely I can’t be falling asleep--I never sleep at Girl Scout campouts. Maybe I was bitten by a tsetse fly and am slipping into an acidotic coma. A wonderfully…restful…coma.

Yawn. As I drift into the open arms of Morpheus, I can’t help thinking my dear daughter was right. This has been the “bestest” campout ever. Only next year—no s’mores!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Methuselah's Mother

“What’s that thing on your neck, mom?” asked my teenage daughter.

I put on my glasses and looked in a mirror. There, nestled on the folds of my formerly swan-like neck, was a liver spot. No doubt about it, I was on the train to Wrinkle Town.

I fingered the crevasses at the corners of my eyes and wondered who came up with the term “crow’s feet”. Why not “dove’s feet”? Why feet at all? I preferred to think of them as “smile lines”—being the joyful soul that I am.

And why “liver spot”? What’s that brown splotch got to do with my liver? I detest liver. I don’t want it on my plate and certainly not on my neck. I’ve heard them referred to as “age spots”, which I suppose is more accurate, but hardly more appealing. Why not call them “sage spots”? Play up the older-means-wiser angle. Whether true or not, I need to believe there is something good about growing old.

Aging isn’t easy living in a youth-obsessed society where our cultural creed is “young= good, old=bad”. Senior citizens are called “geezers” or “blue-haired curmudgeons” and are generally kept out of sight, except for those “old coots” on TV extolling the virtues of motorized chairs. HD TV isn’t kind to the elderly.

Cataracts, hearing aids, nursing homes that smelled like cabbage and decay—this was my future. I wanted to wail and gnash my teeth. Instead I prayed. “Dear Lord, why?”

Miraculously, I remembered a verse from Isaiah 46:4 –“Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you.” It’s reassuring to know that God will sustain me in Wrinkle Town and beyond; but do I have to go looking like Methuselah’s mother?

As I calculated the cost of getting lazered, lipoed and lifted, I suddenly remembered faces I’d seen, skin stretched so tight they resembled snare drums. And those old facelifts, with sagging cheeks that look like coats slipping off a hanger. Is that what I really wanted? A kind of youth that is temporary at most, superficial at best? Old guts are old guts. Underneath artificially smooth skin are thickening arteries, thinning bones and polyps.

Polyps…not a good thought. Stay calm. Don’t worry. Fretting will furrow your brow like a John Deere Tractor. Help me, Lord. I suddenly recalled what that “geezer” Moses wrote in Psalm 90—“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” I got it. My number of tomorrows is shrinking, so I better greet each morning with profound gratitude. What I needed was an attitude makeover. After all, the only real solution to aging is death. Shudder. But what about that “heart of wisdom”? Does older really mean wiser?

It can. Maybe God allows the infirmities of old age because it forces us to slow down, giving us more time to reflect on Him and His word. What we lose in physical power, we can gain in spiritual strength. Some of the strongest prayer warriors at church are elderly. They are also more joyful and fun than most of my contemporaries. They have skin like armadillos but a youthful spirit.

Perhaps that’s the secret of staying young—cultivating a child-like ability to delight in everything, to indulge in a little silliness and to laugh at life’s absurdities. A good belly laugh is better than collagen. Time might steal our senses; like hearing, sight and smell. But it won’t take our sense of humor unless we let it. When a pair of eyes sparkles in good humor and fun, no one notices the “smile lines” or “sage spots”.

“Thanks, Lord. You never let me down. I know I can face the shadowy future without fear now…although it helps to remove the glasses before looking in the mirror,” I said, squinting at my reflection.

My daughter patted me on the shoulder, and smirked. “You look pretty good for an eighty-year-old.”

Pointing at her face, I asked, “What’s that thing on your forehead?”

She looked in the mirror and shrieked, “Oh NO! A pimple. It’s friggin’ huge! This is a major calamity. What am I gonna do? I can’t go out like this. I’m a freak, a freak!” She ran down the hallway. “Will somebody just shoot me?!” she declared and slammed her bedroom door behind her.

Youth is definitely overrated.

Thursday, January 14, 2010



Love is like a pair of socks,
You must have two that match,
Love is like a virus
That the weak of heart will catch.


If a man could have his wishes
I think that he would find,
That he’d double all his troubles
And quickly loose his mind.


Beat your child once a day,
Do it just because;
You might not always know just why,


It’s an interesting thing
When you meet a stranger,
How he might bring you friendship
Or terrible danger.


By believing all you read,
And believing all you hear,
And trusting just your feelings,
Then all you’ll feel is fear.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Antique Dealer

(This is more of a character study).

She enters the room, holding a white cloth and a cup of black coffee. Her boots clip-clop on the wide pine floorboards as she scurries around, sipping her coffee, pushing the rag across a mahogany desk, over the top of Chippendale chairs, and up the side of a highboy chest. She takes another sip and dust off a bookshelf. Her movements are quick and vigorous for a woman in her seventies. She’s built short and square, like a diehard battery, but her face is heavily lined and surprisingly tired, despite her apparent energy. She puts her rag down and straightens a set of McGuffey readers, then drains her cup and clip-clops out of the room, leaving the soiled rag on the shelf.

It’s eleven o’clock, time to open the shop. She wonders if she should bother. It’s raining outside so things will be slow, especially since those blasted Baltimore Ravens are doing well. It annoys her that her antique business is at the mercy of Mother Nature and the NFL. She pours another cup of coffee and fingers the silver cylinder that hangs from a chain around her neck. It contains nitroglycerin. She’s worn it since her heart attack and surgery fifteen years ago. She’s rarely needed it—not even when she found the rat snake in the upstairs toilet. Of course, had anyone walked in and seen her screaming bloody murder with her pants down, her ticker would have stopped then and there.

Actually, it’s the heartburn that bothers her most, so she always keeps a package of Tums in her pocket. The ten cups of coffee each day doesn’t help. Her daughter, a nurse, is constantly carping on her to quit. But she needs the coffee to keep going—to fight off fatigue. She’s afraid of fatigue, of being too tired to care about her shop, about everything. She started the business ten years ago because she loved antiques and wanted to keep busy. When cancer took her husband and their savings, it was the shop that kept her independent and from becoming a burden. She would rather be dead than be a burden to her kids. Although lately, this labor of love seemed to be more labor than love.

She hears a car drive up. Customers. She brushes lint off her dark sweater, pats her stiff, grey hair and stands by the front door, hands jammed in her pants pockets, fiddling with the Tums. She hates her hands—years of refinishing furniture has left them spotty and cracked. She gets semi-regular manicures, but keeps breaking fingernails moving furniture. Her daughter doesn’t know she moves furniture.

A couple enters. Browsers, she thinks, disappointed. Get a wife or a husband alone and they’re more likely to buy. “Welcome to Ashley’s Antiques. Have you ever been here before? No? Well, I have four rooms of antiques on this floor and four more upstairs. Let me know if I can help you find anything.”

She retreats to her coffee cup. She doesn’t want to hang about like a vulture. If these people know antiques, they’ll know her prices are good. She doesn’t have astronomical mark-ups like some of the other snooty dealers. She wants her furniture to turnover quickly, make room for fresh merchandise; then people come back often. She hates sitting around so why should her furniture.

The customers need a key to inspect a satinwood armoire. She opens a desk drawer and sifts through the jumble of sales receipts, business cards, upholstery tacks and doll heads. She finds the key and takes it to them, but this time she stays and tells them about the piece, tells them to run their hand over the wood, to look inside the lower drawers, behind the armoire, underneath, to see and feel the quality of the piece. As she talks, her green eyes glitter behind the thick wide lens of her glasses. Her hands come out of her pocket, pointing, motioning, moving like a conductor’s. The couple buys the armoire.

She smiles to herself, savoring the sale, remembering how much she loves her work.

In the Dog House

The breeze was fat with tantalizing aromas; woodland creatures scuttling about, waiting to be chased, but I ignored them. I strolled wearily around the yard, melancholia weighed upon me like a mantel of cement. I was about to anoint an azalea when I caught scent of my neighbor, Molly.

There she was, plodding towards me, looking like an old rug and moving just as fast. Molly is okay for a Labrador, a little cynical perhaps, but sensitive and wise in important ways.

“Hi, Molly, what’s up?” I asked with a spirited tail wag I didn’t feel.

“Not me,” she replied, flopping down beside me. “That’s better,” she said, panting softly.

“How did you get out?”

“Edna’s getting forgetful…she left the gate open.” Molly gazed at me, her brown eyes reflecting concern. “Woody, you’ve been drifting around your yard like a lost weekend. What’s the problem?”

I put my head on my paws and sighed. “Sheila—Wally’s new mate—she’s the problem. Lately he spends more time with her than me.” I moaned.

“Come on, Woodrow, don’t wallow in self-pity, better to wallow in a compost heap.” She rolled over on her back and wriggled her legs, pretending to wallow.

“Easy for you to say. Your Edna hasn’t got a mate”.

“My Edna is ancient. Got a face like a dried pig’s ear,” Molly replied, then added, “Facial hair would help.” She rolled back on her belly. “Anyway, Wally is still a young male. And being human, you can bet no one has surgically imposed celibacy upon him.” She gave me a pointed look.

I ignored it. “Yeah, but why does it have to be Sheila?” I wailed. “She smells like weed killer, Woolite, and…” I paused and then hissed, “CATS!”

Molly stiffened. “NO! Not Wally. He always struck me as rather intelligent…for a human. And besides didn’t you tell me he hated cats?”

“Perhaps he doesn’t know. Things can change…just look at Wally.” I sat up, anger energizing me. “When she comes in, I’m always kicked out. It’s my house and I feel about as welcome as pinworms.” I stood up. “Now he baths twice a day, gargles mouthwash and douses himself with citrusy aftershave. His sanitary bouquet has nearly put me off my kibble.” Rigid with hostility, I growled, “And it’s all…her…fault!”

“I’m sure it won’t last,” Molly said soothingly, trying to calm me down, unsuccessfully.

“She’s got eyes like a Siamese cat. In fact, she moves like a cat, slinky, skulking and predatory,” I snarled. “And poor Wally is her prey.”

Molly got up stiffly and looked up at me, her eyes like moist olives. “Wally is your best friend. It’s your duty to protect him.” She sniffed the air. “Woody, my dear, I’ve got a plan.” She walked towards the hedges and said, “Let’s go dig up that field mouse you been ripening.”

The candles were lit, so were they, having consumed a bottle of cheap merlot. They sat on the sofa, cooing and mewing and stroking each other’s legs. I slid in unobserved and crept under the coffee table. I laid my “gift” by her foot. I repressed the urge to bite her ankle; instead I began licking it.

“What the…” Sheila looked down and screamed. (I still shiver when I remember her face contorted with rage and disgust.) “Oh God what is that?! He’s licking me! Stop licking me! ” She jumped up and ran across the room.

I picked up the dead mouse and followed her, wagging my tail like a propeller.

“Keep that filthy dog away from me!”

“Woody’s just wants to play. The mouse is a kind of gift,” Wally said with a bemused look.

“Get that stinking, hairy beast out of here! You know I hate dogs!” To prove it, she kicked me.

I dropped the mouse and limped to the corner, whimpering pitifully. (It was an Oscar worthy performance.)

“Sheila! If you’ve hurt him, I’ll—“ Wally rushed over to console me. “Hey, boy, are you OK?”

Sheila started brushing invisible dog germs off her arms. “Listen, Wally, either that tick magnet goes or I do.”

He handed Sheila her purse.

She was being kicked out instead of me!

When the door slammed, I yipped with glee. Wally leaned over and patted me. “Sorry, fella. I guess I’ve been ignoring you lately.”

I gave him a rapturous gaze and vibrating tail, then licked his cheek. As wise old Molly would say “to err is human, to forgive is canine”.