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Life lessons US (NYC) US Travel

We didn’t need a hashtag on 9/11

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I took this photo in 1997.

#newyorkstrong would not have fit

 

Even if social media, widely available public Internet, and other similar technologies had existed,  the hashtag #newyorkstrong would have been the last thing I would have wanted to hear or see on September 11, 2001. It simply wouldn’t have fit.

#newyorkstrong would have reduced the public reaction to the attacks to gimmickry. We would have been concerned and shocked, yes; however, however we would also have been visible, “on trend.”

On September 11, 2001, gimmickry didn’t exist. Instead, gimmickry withered in the face of…

Honesty.

Desperation.

Confusion.

Rage.

Impossibility.

Ferocity.

Powerlessness.

Now, eighteen years later, the memory of 9/11 fades. The shock subsides. And perhaps I’m beginning to understand the natural and receding course of painful tragedy.


 

 

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Greece (Skopelos) Life lessons

When you learn (yet again) how much you don’t know

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The Church of Agios Michael Synadon on Skopelos

We weren’t inside this little church for more than twenty minutes, but that was long enough to be reminded yet again of my ignorance on… well, so many things. Architecture and Greek Orthodoxy are topics that come to mind, as well as the history of the 100+ public and private churches that exist in Skopelos, the little Greek town we’re residing in while my husband completes an artist residency.

We discovered one of those churches, the Church of Agios Michael Synadon, on our second night on Skopelos Island northeast of mainland Greece. The church is tightly wedged into a small neighborhood and you can easily pass right by it if you’re talking or, like my husband Mitch and me, concentrating on the steep walk down from the top of the hill to the harbor-front shops and restaurants of Skopelos Town.

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It’s easy to overlook Agios Michael Synadon unless you notice the curved apse jutting out into the stone path.

As you walk by, following the well-marked path from the hilltop, you pass the backside of the church. The apse first caught Mitch’s eye and caused us to stop and wander around the corner to the front of the church.

In fact, according to this Skopelos News blog, another detail that makes the church so notable is the stele placed just below the apse window (see the light-colored stone directly below the dark window in the picture above). A stele is a piece from an old Greek grave that dates from the second century B.C. Steles may feature carvings such as flowers and inscribed names, as this one does. 

Another detail worth noting, according to Skopelos News, are five large gray stones, remnants from Roman-era sarcophagi (coffins). There are three on the front side of the church and two on the back. They are the largest stones that you see in the pictures above.

The main front doors of the church were locked, but a door off to the side was not. We knocked and walked inside to meet a woman with shoulder-length brunette hair and dark brown eyes.

“Καλησπέρα,” the woman said, Greek for “good evening.”

“Kali-spera,” we replied and followed her into the nave, the main sanctuary. Inside, it was musty and dark, lit only by a box of candles burning on a table near the front. 

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Agios Michael Synadon was nearly dark until the woman attendant turned on this chandelier.

“You are Greek Orthodox?” the woman asked us quietly, hesitating in her choice of English words.

“No,” I replied, wondering if that would affect our visit.

She continued, “You are from where?”

“United States,” I replied. She nodded and smiled, and walked to the wall to turn on the lights. The chandelier hanging above us glowed brilliantly, illuminating the entire room filled with icons, paintings, frescoes and artwork, carved chairs and other furniture.

We walked to the front to view the icons there. Finely applied oil paints revealed brilliant cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes, typical for post-Byzantine era portraits. Several had pierced silver elements attached to the paintings, in effect creating mixed media icon artworks.

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The fresco in the dome is difficult to discern due to age and years of exposure to candle smoke.

I stood below and to the side of the chandelier and gazed up at the fresco-painted dome and then around me. There was simply too much, too many details to absorb. I didn’t even think to ask when the church was built.

I still haven’t been able to determine how old the church is, but it does resemble another church in style and materials that we stumbled upon in Skopelos known as Panagia Eleftherotria. According to Skopelos News, archaeologist Adamatios Sampson claims Panagia Eleftherotria was originally built in the 16th century.

Wanting a photo, I asked the woman if I might take one. She smiled and sighed and I wondered if I had overstepped. Surely I wasn’t the first tourist wanting to capture the beauty of this small place. But then she nodded and I took two pictures on my iPhone, taking care to silence it to avoid that annoying click.

We then thanked the woman and the three of us walked back to where we had entered. On the white plaster walls of this side room thirty to forty small paintings, miniature icons, hung from two wires. The woman searched for the English words that suggested these paintings were created by her students. She showed us some larger paintings also tucked behind the smaller ones, which I believe she said she had painted. One Virgin Mary rendition measured approximately 24″ x 30″.

I asked her if the artwork was for sale, since the manner in which they were displayed indicated that they might be. She shook her head, and then I remembered that buying and selling wouldn’t be appropriate in a place of worship. She motioned with her hand to her side and said, “Shops,” indicating perhaps that her work was available elsewhere in town.

Finally, we asked where we could leave a donation. She led Mitch back into the sanctuary, where he placed a €5 into a brass offering box near the front of the nave. We then exited the Church of Agios Michael Synadon.

Outside, we took another few minutes to study the exterior, which was covered with a mixture of bricks, marble stones, the large sarcophagi, plus an assortment of porcelain dinner and serving plates inset as accents into the facade.

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Our souvenir from Agios Michael Synadon.

In the short span of twenty minutes at the church, there was just too much to see and honestly, I felt like an intruder… an outsider very ignorant of the traditions and rituals that this little building upholds. Maybe that’s the most valuable lesson that traveling to new places teaches us: how much we don’t know.

As we left, the woman called to my husband from the doorway of the side entrance. He walked back to her and then returned with a souvenir for each of us: a small color printout of her Virgin Mary painting.


Thanks for reading! So far during our time in Greece, we have never been treated like outsiders. On Skopelos Island, the residents seem eager to ask where you are from and always have a “Ya-sis” for you in the day or a “Kali-spera” in the evenings. Even when we visit a church we know very little about, the Greeks seem eager to inform us– if they speak English, which most do– about what we are seeing.

Please click like to show your support for my blog and feel free to follow for more posts about our time on Skopelos.

 

Categories
Greece (Skopelos) Life lessons

What dream are you trading for new hardwood flooring?

When it comes right down to it, I would rather marvel at a Greek monastery than my kitchen.

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Photo: Anthony Tran on Unsplash

The linoleum flooring in my kitchen is really old. In fact, it’s no longer white. It’s now off-white with an uneven pattern of nicks and dings that has, over the past twenty-four years, resulted in a floor that looks ugly, dirty, and tired. The linoleum, with its four-inch gray grid, was patterned to resemble white ceramic tile. And it did resemble that for the first five years, which was as long as we had originally planned for the flooring to last.

But, if you’re a homeowner, you know how that goes. Often, those initial fixtures outlast their welcome. And for us, that has especially been the case because we’ve never been in a financial position to update our flooring AND pay our bills.

Owning a ceramic studio, freelance writing, college adjunct positions, public school teaching, and an array of part-time retail stints have always managed to pay our basic expenses, but rarely anything additional. Hence, the ugly and outdated off-white linoleum.

So what does one do when one has a dream but also needs new kitchen flooring? My answer: go for the dream.

Yes, in our case, the practical solution would be to update the floor… to build value in the largest investment my husband and I have ever made. But we also know that paying for a new floor will only defer our creative goals. In other words, practicality has its limits and we have quite a dream: one month in Greece next summer.

My husband and I are travelling to Skopelos, a Greek island in the Sporades archipelago east of the mainland. Here, my husband will work a three-week residency at The Skopelos Foundation for the Arts. I, on the other hand, plan to develop a new direction in my writing while lingering on the island for an extended time.

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Photo: Dimitris Vetsikas on Pixabay

Staying anywhere for an extended time requires money, and no, we don’t have the funds right now to go, but we are saving. We have ceased eating out on Friday evenings, for example. We are putting away what we can, and plan to have the majority of our trip paid for before our departure date.

Of course, that departure will lead to a return date. Once home, when I step into our kitchen, flip the light switch, and see the same old linoleum, what thoughts will cross my mind? Will I be glad I still have that flooring because keeping it allowed me to write in a new environment and experience new cultures and people? Or will I scowl at the floor, its ugliness reminding me of what I will still have in my life: uncertainty, bills to pay, the meager income that results when both spouses teach?

Will I be grateful for the dream that we chose to chase? Yes, I think so.

In the end, I believe that one can afford what one wants to afford. And when it comes right down to it, I would rather marvel at a Greek monastery than new hardwood flooring. If I can’t have both, I’ll take the dream.


Many things have happened since I originally published this post last fall on Medium.com. My husband was offered a full-time position at a nearby university, and we are moving from our home (with its aging linoleum) later this summer after our stay in Greece. Since we’re moving into a new home, we’ll pass on upgrading to new hardwood flooring. 

Categories
Life lessons Memoir & Narratives

The day I flipped out at the social security office

Sometimes my students become really angry. I can relate.

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Photo: Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Teaching middle school is a tough gig. Kids in grades sixth through eighth grade can be loud, impulsive, and frenetic. It’s enough on some days to make me consider finding another vocation. So at the end of a long day when I’m telling myself that there is no way I’m teaching middle schoolers another year, it helps to recall that I, too, can be loud, impulsive, and frenetic.

In fact, I once was so loud, impulsive, and frenetic that someone should have reported me. Someone probably would today.  What makes my story even worse is that my meltdown occurred when I was 26, twice the age of my seventh-graders. It’s embarrassing to recall how immature and idiotic I behaved. But, hey, at least I can empathize with my students when they have their own moments of anger.

Here’s my story. It was 1992, around 4:28 on a hot Thursday afternoon a few months after my wedding day the previous April. I was at the social security office located in a Phoenix office building to fill out a form update my social security account to my new last name.

I turned the knob to open the maple hardwood door. It didn’t turn. Didn’t even budge. So I knocked. No reply. I turned the knob again. Yes, it was definitely locked. I heard the shuffling of papers inside the office. The lights were on. There were people still there and they weren’t letting me in.

I reflected on the situation. I had taken off from work early to arrive before the 4:30 closing time. If the taxpayer-supported personnel on the other side of the door didn’t answer, I grumbled, I would have to do this all over again another day.

I was incensed. I felt cheated. I made a scene. I knocked again. I asked, “Can someone let me in?” I knocked again, this time more loudly. I asked, this time a little louder, “Is anyone there? Could you please just take this form?” It was just a silly form. A piddly piece of paper. Someone just needed to take it from my hand, I thought in desperation.

And so I pounded on the door. I couldn’t think. I was out of control and I didn’t care who saw me. I got down on my hands and knees—in my dress and heels—to look under the door. I could see feet moving around inside. There were whispers. It was now 4:31, a measly minute past closing time. No response. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I would be heard.

I stood back up and continued to pound the door. The adjacent window, conveniently crafted of obscured glass, revealed shapes and shadows within.

“I know you’re in there!” I yelled, continuing to pound. “I can see you moving back and forth! Take this form so I can leave!”

But they didn’t. No one ever answered the door. So I left, angry, red-faced, and embarrassed, knowing with disgust that I would have to return to this hallway within the week.

I came back a few days later well before the closing time and quietly and politely conducted my business. I didn’t even complain about the poor service of a few days earlier, which was probably a mistake in retrospect. Then again, they would have figured out I was the loud, impulsive, and frenetic woman from earlier in the week and might have called security.

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Photo: Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Looking back now at my social security office fiasco demonstrates that anger can get the best of us… even those of us who know better than to throw a tantrum at age 26.

My past experience with such intense anger helps me to empathize with my students today.

And honestly, I’ve only witnessed one to two student meltdowns in my classroom during my years of teaching. I can usually ward off an angry episode with a quickly whispered conversation, or, for another example, an invitation to the student to leave the room to get a drink to literally cool off. Tactics such as these help to diminish the anger.

But anger does happen once in a great while and I totally understand where it comes from.

  • Sometimes students feel powerless. Been there. That’s exactly how I felt that day in that office.
  • Sometimes students feel they’re at the mercy of someone else’s priorities. Done that. At the social security office, my priority did not align with the office personnel’s at that particular moment.
  • Sometimes students yell. Check. It’s just a natural reaction when it seems no one is listening to you.
  • Sometimes they argue. Me, too. We all have ideas we want to communicate.

Yes, I can relate to the frustrations my students feel and how they express those feelings of helplessness and lack of control. In the environment of school–or any other setting where people with different priorities meet up–tensions arise and play themselves out in myriad ways… even so far as taking to the floor in your dress and heels to yell through the crack. Wait—at least my students haven’t tried that yet. Gotta give ’em credit for that.


Thanks for reading! If you found this interesting, please click “like” and feel free to leave a comment. I also write on my teaching blog called elabraveandtrue.com and Medium.com. Check out both sites for more writing. 

Categories
Life lessons Memoir & Narratives

The freedom that men enjoy (even though they may not realize it)

#MeToo is long overdue, but I still want more.

 

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Photo: Ryan Holloway on Unsplash

 

One afternoon in my early twenties, I went to a local lake. Alone. I was approached by two young men as I lay reading a book on a dock. They didn’t harass me, but our exchange was uncomfortable.

One morning about a year later, I walked through a quiet city park. Alone. I was followed and approached by a man in a car. Nearly stopping as his car cruised by me, he made deliberate eye contact, and drove on. Click here to read about that experience.

One late afternoon several months after that, I went for a run through my neighborhood. Alone. I was flashed by a man on foot. He passed by me, and I ran in the opposite direction. About a  month later, I had changed to running about an hour before dusk. One Sunday, he flashed me again from an adjacent alley as I ran by. Alone.

All of these occurrences happened many years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties. Even though they’re in my past, there’s one thing I still experience frequently: fear.

There are a handful of activities that I fear doing alone. Taking a hike is an example. Seriously, I just want to hike alone.

A few miles from our house, there’s a wilderness refuge and sometimes I just want to take off, drive the fifteen minutes north, exit off the highway, descend the tree-covered lane to the parking lot, get out of my car, and hike. Of course, my husband or one of my kids would go with me, but occasionally, I just want to go it alone.

Not safe. Not smart. You never know what could happen. You never know who you might meet – a young couple, a pair of women, a man, three men – on that trail that crosses a babbling creek, then narrows to a winding path before snaking up a steep hill to a pioneer homesite surrounded by a few gravestones.

But I don’t go. I stay home. There are some things I simply won’t do alone. If you’re a woman, you understand this. Maybe you feel it instinctively or maybe, like me, you’ve been approached, followed, watched when you were alone. If you’re a man, you may not even be aware of this freedom that you have to venture out alone.

So when I read these days about #MeToo and how women are unifying and being heard, I remember that, despite the charges, firings, and destroyed careers that signal a monumental shift is occurring for women, I still must be careful when I’m out alone.

I must always be aware of my surroundings. I must vary my routine or make arrangements to go with a friend or just cancel. I must bend myself around the bad behavior of men, most of whom are more powerful and stronger than me.

Yes, #MeToo is good, justified, and long overdue; however, I want more. I want the freedom that men enjoy. I want to go anywhere I want. Alone.


Thanks for reading. Click “like” for this post so others will find it. Anyone feelin’ like I do on this topic? Have a different view? Leave a comment and let’s talk.

Categories
Life lessons Memoir & Narratives Motherhood parenting

The Toy I Trashed: The Hot Wheels Slimecano

With lots of pieces and lots of slime, I should have known better.

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Photo: Christopher Harris | Unsplash

 

Every parent has been there. You buy that cool toy your child yearns for and within minutes you realize: BIG MISTAKE.

So, in the spirit of Christmas, I thought I would relate my own such experience with the Hot Wheels Slimecano Playset… y’know, to relive the “joy” once again and possibly save another parent from buying this behemoth. After all, even though some cursory online searching indicates this toy has been discontinued, one or two units could still be lurking out there on a dusty store shelf or in an online retailer’s inventory.

In a word, the Hot Wheels Slimecano was formidable. Introduced in 2004, this apparatus was composed of an armload of plastic pieces that snapped or otherwise fit together. My eight-year-old son had seen it advertised on TV and wanted it desperately.

All those plastic pieces were accompanied by directions that explained which parts attached to which other parts, which combined to form race tracks, slime reservoirs, ramps, and other components that, when completely assembled, resulted in an ominous and wobbly gray, brown and orange tripod-like structure down which my son could send his cars. So awesome, Mom.

Also, there was somehow a skull or dragon head involved in the design of the thing, although I don’t remember the significance of that, other than maybe it was there to advise parents in “Jolly Roger”-style of the gooey mess that was about to be made.

An unsettling slime concoction was key to the Slimecano. I don’t remember if it was a slime we made ourselves from ingredients supplied in the box, or if it was included in the package already prepared in packets, but it was there, a thick, gloppy translucent orange goop dotted with dark specks. This slime provided the magic of the toy.

For a fleeting five minutes, my son played with the Slimecano. He was mesmerized watching his car careen down the plastic track… until it hit the slime and needed to be pushed through an oozing river of the stuff and then guided around a puddle at the bottom of the track. This all happened to the same unfortunate car. After all,  the wheels on a car can only move when they are not embedded with slime. My son soon figured out that this was a toy that required him to sacrifice his least favorite car. Send that car down the Slimecano once, clog up the wheels, tire treads, and undercarriage, and voila! auto salvage in miniature.

Then came the very unmagical clean-up time. While snapping apart the Slimecano, my son discovered the entire apparatus was encrusted with the orange goo. So was the floor. And his mom’s patience. As he dismantled the game, washed off each piece, and shoved the plastic collection back into the box, we knew that the Slimecano may have just had its one and only use. The game was over and disappointment was the victor. Thanks, Hot Wheels.

So there you have it, my gift to you: a cautionary tale of the toy I trashed. Have a similar toy story in your family? Tell me about it in the comments. We can laugh about it now, can’t we?!


If you enjoyed this post, click like so others can find it. Follow my blog for more posts. Thanks for reading!

Categories
Life lessons Memoir & Narratives

Thanks, Kohl’s, for selling this shirt.

It’s nice to see clothing like this instead of that snarky shirt I wrote about recently.

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Now that’s more like it… a shirt about kindness.

 

In August, Kohl’s mailed a back-to-school catalog with a shirt on the cover displaying the words, “Shhhh! Nobody Cares!” I wrote about it in “Ten Questions for Kohl’s About This Shirt.”  I believe that snarky messages like this only send negativity into the world… and can be especially hurtful in a school setting.  I’m a middle school teacher and I know several kids who don’t need to read that their lives are unimportant.

Kohl’s tweeted to me a week or two after I published that blog post. Here’s their tweet: “Thanks for this feedback, Marilyn. We’ll be sure to pass it along to our buyers here at Kohl’s for review and future considerations.”

So when I found this “Throw kindness like confetti” shirt on a pre-Halloween mailer about a week ago, I was gratified. Yes, I know this mailer wasn’t in response to my blog post. I’m sure this flyer and the merchandise within it were all “put to bed” weeks or months ago. However, it’s nice to know that Kohl’s is aware that positive messages make the world a better place.

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Life lessons US (NYC) US Travel

It Bothers Me that Sept. 11 is Becoming “Historical” and in the Distant Past

This is a drawing my daughter made on Sept. 11, 2001, when she was six.

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My daughter understood the devastation and the loss of that day. As for myself, I have noticed a diminishing sadness when I contemplate September 11. It seems the shock has softened some for me, to be honest. I don’t notice the empty New York City skyline like I used to. When I watch an old movie with the Twin Towers in the skyline, I notice their absence, but it doesn’t catch my breath like it used to, and it bothers me that the event is becoming “historical”… in the distant past.

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From a Statue of Liberty ferry | August 1997

Of course, for those who lost loved ones on that day, it’s a different story. 2001 may still be as near to them as the last intersection they drove through. I understand that for many, September 11 lingers near.

It’s still frustrating and difficult to explain what we experienced that day to people who are either too young to remember or weren’t even born yet. I’ve been trying to explain it for the past sixteen years, but still can’t convey the sorrow and shock of that day.I suppose it’s similar for those who were alive when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was born two years before that awful event, and I’m sure many had a difficult time trying to explain that to those of my age. For me, it was just relegated to being “historical”… in the distant past.

I do talk about the September 11 attacks with my eighth-grade English Language Arts classes, and discussing it every year does keep the event in the forefront of my mind in the fall.

Every year, we watch “The Center of the World,” the last disc in the eight-DVD series “New York: The Documentary.” It’s directed by Ric Burns of Steeplechase Films. The documentary eloquently conveys the horror of the day, the response of New York City and the nation, and a recognition that, although our collective soul was irrevocably altered in the span of a few hours, the United States of America will prevail. It’s my hope that this excellent film relates better than I can that September 11 is relevant and important, not merely “historical”… in the distant past.

 

 

 

 

Categories
Life lessons Memoir & Narratives

Knowing Where A Spark Could Lead

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Photo by Yaoqi LAI on Unsplash

Tad liked to play with matches and fire.  He enjoyed other boyish pursuits, such as baseball and fishing, but he definitely had a peculiar attraction for fire. I always assumed that fires and the red-tipped sticks that started them attracted Tad chiefly because his parents had forbidden him to use them inside their modest ranch home. On the other hand, maybe his parents banned these items precisely because they knew Tad was so enamored with them in the first place. Then again, maybe they knew something I didn’t about their son.

Eventually, Tad found a way around his parents’ rule: he played with matches outside the house when they weren’t around. Whenever his parents pulled their burgundy Chevelle onto the main road to leave, he would wave to them from the driveway and they would wave back. As soon as he could see the dust rising from the gravel road through the tree row, he would gather his supplies. I didn’t understand why Tad hid this activity from his parents. After all, he wasn’t breaking the “no matches in the house” rule. Maybe he waited for them to go because he didn’t want them to worry. Maybe he waited because his father was six-and-a-half feet tall. Or maybe he knew, deep down beneath his worn flannel shirt, that he was courting danger.

When he played with fire outside, he would use the stray lid of a 55-gallon rusted steel barrel, the type of barrel that people who live beyond the city limits use to burn trash. He would light little fires on the lid, watching the sparks, feeding them tinder, twigs, and a few handfuls of hay he had gathered from the barn.

Gently and with great care, he would watch in wonder as his newborn fire developed into a child. With precisely timed puffs of breath and prodding, Tad would coach, “There you go, you can do it!”  As his creation rolled over and then sat up, he would use his hands to shield the flames from the breeze and whisper, “You got it! You got it! Go!” Finally, his baby fire would stand to the height of a toddler.

At that point, Tad had won and he would stand, hands on hips to block the wind, and stare at the flames, just stare, mesmerized by the miracle on the rusty barrel top. His eyes would fixate then, and enlarge to show his mind wandering off. I never knew where his thoughts drifted, but I suspected they went to Jennifer and the trip to Wyoming he had taken with her family a year before. He had told me several times on the way home from school about that trip.

“I wish we could go back, and that I could stand with her again on the boardwalk over those geysers,” he said. “I wish we could do that again.” Their relationship had ended after that trip, and even though I was friends with both Jennifer and Tad, I never was able to discover what exactly had gone wrong. As he stood next to the fire, staring, he would lilt to one side and the toddler fire would keep growing to the size of a kindergartner until I snapped him back to earth. All I had to say was, “Tad.”

Building a fire in the open on a barrel lid was often hard to do for one reason: the Kansas wind. Time and again, when Tad had just nursed a flame into existence, the wind, which never really stopped blowing, would gust suddenly and snuff out the growing flame. If one wasn’t prepared for this, and hadn’t readied sufficient tinder off to the side of the barrel lid, any fledgling flame would have a slim chance. If you could just get out of the wind, things would change, and that fire might prosper. On a Kansas farm, the best place to get out of the wind — but still be considered, technically,  outside the house — was the barn.

So one steamy July day at Tad’s place, the afternoon soap operas came on, and his cousin Mike, who was visiting from Nebraska, suggested we make a fire in the gravel driveway.  Apparently, the two of them had already made some fires during Mike’s week-long stay. Perhaps Mike, however, did not understand Tad’s fascination with fire.

Tad felt it was safe since his parents were gone. They had driven to town to pay the assorted bills that accumulate over the course of a month. It would be a while before they returned.

In the driveway sheltered by towering catalpa trees,  Tad hovered over his supplies as Mike and I sat off to the side, drinking root beer from sweaty bottles of Mr. Frostie. Tad sparked and lit miniature flames on the barrel lid, fighting with the wind to start his fire, coaxing the flames into small blazes barely stable enough to roast a marshmallow. He directed the flame paths with his hands, then used the side of an old cardboard box to fan some more. His eyes lit up as a meager blaze leapt into the air. The wind came up again and extinguished it. He then knelt, leaned forward, and blew again on the pile of sticks and straw at just the right moment, only to see the ensuing flame wither and die in another unexpected breeze. After thirty minutes of this, Tad gave up on the driveway setting. “Let’s do this in the barn . . . get outta the wind,” he suggested.

“That’s a bad idea, Tad,” I said. “It could catch fire.”

“It’ll be all right. I’ll watch it like I always do,” he countered.

“Let’s do it,” Mike said and that was all that Tad needed. He knelt and lifted the barrel lid from the driveway with both hands, and then, like a waiter in a fine restaurant, elevated the loaded tray above his right shoulder and walked hurriedly to the barn, leaving Mike and I to finish our root beers.

“I’m goin’ home,” I said, knowing where this could lead. Tad nodded his head, but never slowed down. Mike followed after him.

An hour later, from my bedroom, I heard the sirens. I bolted upright, tied my shoes and ran from our house, through the yard, across the county road. I stopped at the mailbox at the end of Tad’s driveway. I watched the black clouds of smoke billow against the royal blue sky, then headed toward what had been the barn.  Tad, Mike, and now a small crowd of neighbors stood, open-mouthed, wiping their brows, shaking their heads.

Mike told me that by the time the fire department had arrived, there had been nothing much to put out. “I wish I had thought to set up the hose or at least get a bucket of water ready,” he mumbled. Standing in the hot sun, we watched the huge heap of charred timber smolder and smoke. Piles of ash diminished with each gust of hot wind.

Mr. Ivy, whiskered and old, from the next section over walked up to Tad.  “What were you thinkin’, Tad?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I didn’t think it would burn like that.”

“They always say, ‘Don’t play with fire.’ You ever heard that one before, Tad?” Mr. Ivy pressed.

“Yeah, Mr. Ivy, I’ve heard that one before,” Tad said, smearing his forehead with his sweaty, dirty hand. He stood, angry and embarrassed, studying the sputtering coals. He didn’t have that far-off look in his eyes this time. Instead, he appeared to  hold fast to this one horrifying moment and the worse one to come when he would face his father returning from town.

When his parents did show up a little later, I backed away from the crowd. His father parked the Chevelle by the house and ran to the crowd and the smoky remnants of the blaze. His mother stayed at the car, put her face in her hands, turned, and walked steadily back to the house.

His father approached him, looked in shock at the fire’s remains, then turned to Tad. “What happened?”

“It got out of hand, Dad,” Tad replied.

His father looked for a long while at Tad. He said nothing, but stared deep into his son’s eyes, down to to his cheeks, chin, and back to his eyes, inspecting the product he had created. Then, with both of his long arms, he shoved all his weight against his son’s shoulders, and the boy crashed to the dusty ground. The neighbors and remaining firemen hushed their quiet conversations.

Tad, lying in the dirt, looked up at his dad, and wiped ashen tears from his eyes. His father shook his head and walked away, thrusting his hands the size of snapping turtle shells into the back pockets of his Levis. Twenty feet further, he stopped and studied the ground for a short while, and then turned and strode back to Tad.

Gazing down at him, he sighed and then said quietly, “Well, it could have been worse.” He pulled his hands from his pockets, hitched up his jeans, and knelt down, looking squarely into his son’s eyes. “Do you get it now, Tad? Does it make sense? Why you can’t just drift off to her?”

Tad nodded.

His dad held out one hand. Tad took hold, and with a heave, his father pulled him up and into his chest. Most of the neighbors had quietly slinked away, allowing a family in turmoil to right itself without their oversight. Tad and his father embraced and I realized that perhaps Tad’s father remembered what it was like to be young. To be figuring out how to keep your feet on the ground, even though your heart is a million miles away. Many naturally learn this lesson without notice; it comes easily. Others absorb it reluctantly, as the carefree days of youth give way to adult deliberation and practicality.

In the end, Tad and Mike each had to work off $18,000 to pay for the loss of the barn, the burned hay, and the hay the cattle would need for the upcoming fall and winter. At five dollars an hour, Tad kept busy for the next two years learning his lesson the hard way. There weren’t many opportunities to think about Jennifer during that time.

Categories
Life lessons Memoir & Narratives

My Friend, Sheila

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Photo by Jamie Taylor on Unsplash

When I was six years old, I had a friend named Sheila. Sheila wore dresses every day. Her favorite one was the color of a mimosa blossom. A magenta satin sash with a rhinestone placed in the center accented her waist, but also got in the way when she lifted buildings. One late summer afternoon, Sheila lifted – a full two feet off the ground – the garage behind the United Methodist Church downtown. She strained and grunted to hold it up for about five seconds before gently setting it back down.

Even though Sheila and I were good friends, no one else had ever met her.  I had spoken proudly of Sheila and her weight-lifting feats to my mother and my older sister, but they never had the pleasure of meeting her. She was my own secret, elusive – and muscular –friend.

Two months passed after she lifted the garage. School started and Halloween came around again. The Saturday before Halloween, my mother, sister, and I went to Whitson’s Grocery. As we drove down Judson in our big, red Bonneville, I saw a house I had never noticed before. I blurted out, “Sheila’s grandma lives in that house.”

My mother turned and looked at me intently. “She does?”

“Yup.”

“Which house?” she asked.

“That one. The plain one.” Peering from the back seat, I pointed to a small, white bungalow sitting squarely in an unkempt yard. The shades were pulled in the windows and an empty swing hung at one end of the porch.  I justified the home’s bland appearance. “Her grandma is really old and likes plain houses. And she uses a cane.”  My mother rubbed her forehead as she stopped at the corner and checked for oncoming cars.  I decided to press on.“We should go trick-or-treating there on Friday.”

“Well, I guess . . . we could do that,” she hesitated, and then glanced over her shoulder to my sister riding next to her in the passenger seat. My sister shook her head.

The week continued and the thought of my impending visit to Sheila’s grandmother’s house crossed my mind often. Friday arrived. We donned our hand-me-down clown and hobo costumes that we had dug out of the trunk in my mother’s sewing room.

At dusk, we followed our regular trick-or-treating route, walking door-to-door to neighbor’s houses, then driving to our friend’s houses beyond our neighborhood. As I climbed back into the car after our last stop, I reminded my mother that we still needed to visit Sheila’s grandma. “Well, let’s go before it rains,” she said.

Just then, a gust of wind rattled the leaves in the oak trees, the cool freshness of an approaching storm entered the car, and I suddenly dreaded the idea. Sheila’s grandmother was a real person, after all.  We ventured down Judson anyway, looking for the plain white bungalow in the dark. “There it is,” I said.

My mother applied the brakes, pulled over to the curb, and put the car in park.  “Make it quick.”  Thunder rumbled from east of town.

My sister and I climbed out, carrying our bright orange plastic pumpkins.  We trudged across the yard. My plastic clown mask, still wet with sweat from our last stop, dangled around my neck as we strode up the sidewalk and ascended the steps. The windows were dark, but the porch light was on. Apparently, Sheila’s grandmother did not observe Halloween. There was no jack-o-lantern. No colorful fall cut-outs taped to the windows like we had at home.

Standing on the porch, I looked down at our car to see my mother leaning over in the seat watching us. I pressed the doorbell. We waited. The house was quiet. My sister rolled her eyes, set her pumpkin down, and crossed her arms. She had had enough. “Sheila’s grandmother doesn’t live here,” she said aloud. “Come on. This is dumb. Sheila’s not even real.”

But then the porcelain knob rattled and the door opened. A woman stared blankly back at us. “Yes?”

“Trick-or-treat,” I said meekly.  My sister was silent, forcing me to follow through. Without a cane, the woman stepped toward us over the threshold, into the glare of the porch light. Her thin lips glowed an unnatural poppy red color. She wore a gray cotton house dress and her hair, stiff and dark and streaked with gray, was fashioned in a youthful flip.

“Oh, I don’t have anything to give you,” she replied in a no-nonsense way, her eyes studying our tired, well-worn costumes. She craned her neck forward, and squinted beyond us to the street to see who on earth had brought us to her home late on Halloween night.

“Oh, okay,” I said. “Well . . .  bye.” I decided not to mention her granddaughter and our unique friendship. My sister swiped her pumpkin off the porch, pivoted, and ran down the steps to the car. I followed. Behind me, I heard the woman close the door, and turn the deadbolt with a click.  I tumbled into the backseat, relief washing over me.

“She wasn’t ready for trick-or-treaters,” I said.

My mother smiled knowingly and shifted the car into drive. “You girls have plenty of candy anyway. Let’s get home and sort it out. Hot chocolate sound good?” We both nodded.

As we headed back toward home, I stirred the mound of candy in my pumpkin, feeling the crinkly foil, plastic, and paper wrappers, envisioning how much floor space it would occupy when I dumped it out later on the carpet.

It was the first and last time I ever saw the woman I called Sheila’s grandmother. Over the next month, whenever I passed by the plain white bungalow, I thought of how meeting her had allowed me to separate from Sheila. Sometime around Thanksgiving, I just told everyone that Sheila had moved to California. I haven’t heard from her since.