Sunday, June 28, 2009


Jehovah's Witnesses materialized on our front porch one blazing hot summer day, while my mother was sick. I glimpsed them through the screen door, framed by a gravel road and cotton fields. Pamphlets in hand, God on their side, they inquired after my mother's salvation.

"Mother," I yelled toward her bedroom. "It's the Jehovah's Witnesses, asking if you're saved." After days of sickness, her voice came back suddenly strong, "Send them in."

The Witnesses had no inkling they were about to face an uncommon spiritual adversary.

My mother, pale and weak from the double assault of a migraine and back trouble, propped herself up on pillows. The two women and a man filed into the small room, standing respectfully at the foot of the formidable old oak bed that had belonged to my maternal grandmother. Pink began to seep into my mother's face. I peered around the edge of the doorway, wary but excited. The Witnesses were too confident. This was going to be good.

The visitors hurled the opening salvo, asking my mother whether she understood that their religion was the true way to salvation. My mother belongs to a Church of Christ in rural Alabama. There's an old joke about that church. The pope passes away and is welcomed at the Pearly Gates by Jesus. The pontiff asks what is the austere little white structure way off by itself. "Shhhh," says Jesus. "That's the Church of Christ. They think they're the only ones up here."

My mother countered the Witnesses' tactical mistake with biblical verses supporting her beliefs about the "one true church." That her church members do not follow any man's beliefs or accounts, but model their lives after Christ. And that the Bible is the only text for a Christian. Period.

Then the combatants locked horns over the Bible. Scripture verses flew in the room like racks of arrows. Some careening and crashing with an avalanche of noise, others falling in distant silence.

My mother felt disdain for the Witnesses' New World Translation, since they brought the matter up. She was civil. No amount of interpreting about contents and explanations about inserts could change that fact for her. When the Witnesses quoted one Bible verse, she quoted three. When they summarized an entire New Testament book, she brought up a raft of others, followed by words said to have come directly from Jesus himself.

My understanding of the arguments was hazy. I was a child caught up in the excitement of the encounter. I kept thinking of the words "when two or more are gathered together..." But this wasn't a worship session. This was an epic. My mother, ailing, warring against three in-perfect-health Witnesses looming over her bedside.

My mother had lived her beliefs, carefully studied the Bible, attended church every time the doors were open. Her scholarship was not casual. She had been on track to become valedictorian of her high school graduating class. Extremely shy, she was horrified of making the primary speech, so she purposefully messed up final tests so she could finish with the second highest grades. She should have gone to college, studied the math and science she excelled in, but there was no money. Her brothers paid for six months of secretarial college.

She worked for years for a man who was barely literate. But his correspondence showed no sign of this. Because it was written by her.

She put up with his condescension. And put her faith first in all things. With her intelligence, unshakable faith and refusal to be talked down to, in her own home no less, she did battle that day. I had been in houses of friends where Witnesses had stayed for hours, extracted promises of church attendance, contributions even. But they stayed no more than 15 minutes at my house.

That's because the Witnesses understood after a few minutes that they never had a chance. They put up a token fight. Then shaken to their doctrinal foundations, wished my mother well and quickly filed out the front door.

Rejuvenated, my mother rose from her sick bed, bathed and began tidying up, working in the kitchen. She hummed and sang old gospel hymns, her usual routine.

I'm not sure of it, but I can well imagine one of them. "Up from the grave he arose; with a mighty triumph o'er his foes..."

Friday, June 26, 2009


In Venice, they asked me to join them at their table. She ordered. Fernet-Branca. I had never heard of that Italian spirit. The waiter brought the liquid in a slender glass, thick, black with a tinge of green. A digestive, she said. I caught a whiff of pine.

She was tiny, ethereal, with exquisite clothes and wire-rimmed spectacles. Spiky black hair. He was not her physical counterpart -- gruff, ill-fitting suit on his bulky body. Earth bound. He could not take his eyes off her.

I asked about the Fernet-Branca. She warned me -- I wasn't likely to care for the taste.

Even though the spirit is made in Italy, it was not always available. So she carried a small bottle with her. At night after the conference meetings, she would pull the container from her bag and pour the thick liquid into a dainty glass at the hotel table, canal-side outside the hotel. Sip. Stare into the languid night of Venice, which had been cleared of tourists for the meetings. Her long brown cigarette glowing red near her cheek.

She filled me in on the Fernet-Branca. It was the only topic I heard her talk much about. The full list of ingredients supposedly has never been divulged. But some are known -- myrrh, chamomile, cardamon, aloe and saffron.

The drink was "all natural" because of the herbs and spices, she said. The spirit was developed as a health elixir, purported to be a tonic for all manner of illnesses back when.

As we sat, he continued to work. He chased delegation members after hours for extra stories, quotes, anything. It was the only way to do his particular job, he said. In between, he tried to check in with her, the delicate beauty he had seemed so unlikely to find.

He did not keep her.

One night, I heard later, he woke up deep in the night to find her in a compromising position with a man they had been keeping company with that evening. He threw her out. A scant few years later, he died suddenly, far too early, far from home.

She was wrong about me. Visiting Italy for the first time, engulfed in the magic of Venice, I loved the taste of Fernet-Branca.

I'm not much of a drinker now. Wedding toasts, maybe, a taste on New Year's Eve if the champagne is really good. But I do keep a bottle of Fernet-Branca, in the back of a tiny cabinet.

Once in a great while, the mood strikes. I pull out the bottle. I pour a small amount into a tiny crystal liquer glass, the only one left unbroken from my first marriage. I take it to the porch and sit. And like her, I stare into the night. I pull the scent of pine into my nostrils. Sip. And I remember.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rattling the Chains

There is a saying that southerners do not hide the eccentric or mentally ill when visitors arrive. They bring them down to the parlor and show them off.

My mother's attitude was even more nonchalant. She did not acknowledge mental issues unless they, say, reached murderous proportions. I suppose. I say that because at one point my sister and I had a daycare provider who periodically would need to leave to spend time at the state's mental institution.

I can't imagine that kind of thing happening in today's overprotective, litigious society. And the truth is, not only did my sister and I emerge unscathed. Our lives were richer for the experience.

D. was from "up North." Her family built a house not far from us in that stretch of former cotton fields that converted into a close-knit neighborhood during the nation's mid-century space race. They were really from Indiana, but native children didn't understand fine geographical distinctions.

My sister and I were thrilled to hear that the new people had girls our age. We waited for the workmen to leave and slipped into the shell of a home and poked around. I remember sweeping up debris, tidying bedroom spaces, imagining our new friends. Once a station wagon pulled into the unpoured driveway and I had to jump out of the stepless back of the home and hide in the sagebrush.

The new family pretended they hadn't seen a little girl running from the house. They talked about how pin neat it was inside, how the construction workers were the cleanest they'd ever encountered, all the sweeping up they'd being doing after themselves every day. And what do you know, they'd even left a little bouquet of goldenrod in a Coke bottle. All said in loud voices addressed to the golden sage in the back of the house where I hid, red-faced.

After the family moved in, my mother went back to work and my mother hired D. to watch my sister and me after school and during the summer. My sister and I, with D's four girls, became the gang of six. They taught us how to skate on the pond behind their house on the few winter days the water was frozen enough to hold our weight. We showed them blackberries and plums in the wild, just waiting to be gathered in big vats.

We played Batman and Robin, Flash Gordon, Witch games. Swam in small plastic pools and endlessly waited for turns on the Slip and Slide. My sister and I were thrilled to get to eat things my mother never served, like hot dogs and canned soup, washed down with green Kool Aid. Then, D. would send us to the country store to buy snacks. She had fallen in love with eating Goo Goo Clusters in between chain-smoking while watching her soap operas, cooled by a round squat fan I'd never seen before, called a hassock.

By summer's end, all of us, the six girls, were nut brown.

D. was always a yell-y fidgety type from the get-go, although harmless, she was the background noise. But she started gathering us in a circle to recite the previous night or weekend's drama. Bad things had started to happen. Her husband was working nights. And now "someone" was showing up outside the bedroom window. In the darkest part of the night.

She thought neighborhood boys were responsible at first, looking for mischief. She would yell, shine flashlights, go outside and demand they show themselves. But they never did. Because eventually she realized something much more sinister was actually appearing at night.

We sat cross-legged, eyes huge, mouths round. Waiting. Six girls, most of us not yet in puberty.

The thing, whatever, whoever it was, had started rattling huge chains outside the window, she said, the type used on boats. All night long. Hunched low into her soft chair, chain-smoking, she had stopped eating except for the Goo Goos. Her eyes were dark, darting. She couldn't stop talking about this horrible menace that parked itself outside her bedroom every single night and rattled chains through the dark hours.

Before long, she had gone. She was several hours away in the state's huge mental institution, for a bit of a rest, we were told.

When she came back, she was cheerful, happy, and her oldest daughter had taken over the household responsibilities. The girls were very careful of their mother, quick to defend against any perceived criticism or slight.

I was young, ignorant, insufferably curious. I actually asked her whether it was true that patients at the institution howled at the moon as another kid had told me while she was gone.

Her children recoiled in horror. But D. laughed. She was happy to clear up this misconception. Once again, we gathered around her in a circle and she talked about her days at the hospital. The routines, the doctors, the therapy, the other patients. The rest she got. That's all she needed. She was tired and just needed some rest.

And that was that.

Soon after, I started writing short stories whenever I had school assignments I didn't particularly want to do. Building forts with popsicle sticks was a particularly onerous task to me. So I would conjure a wagonload of pioneers heading West during a particular period and write about it instead, which always secured an "A" for me.

Other times, I would write about gothic themes. Something dire was usually waiting for the unlucky narrators, a thing so horrible that it could not be named. Although I'm told he no longer tortures the elderly D., this thing, this ghostly figure carries huge chains he rattles outside bedroom windows. In one form or another, it is D's "unspeakable horror."

The figure's ability to terrify is largely sheathed now. But he is lodged in an imagination that comes alive when I most need it -- vibrant, powerful, in technicolor. The colors of a young life that in some important ways was lived fully, without fear, and without censure.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Love Letter to Grandfathers

"I never met my grandfather
I wish I had
Sometimes I think he is watching me."

My son wrote that poem at age 6. His teacher, a veteran instructor who was never one to gush, had tears in her eyes when she handed it to me. He was writing about my father that day, but it could have been about his other grandfather too.

I understood the sentiment. The poem was an emblem of one of the bonds my husband, son and I share. We never met our grandfathers. They all had passed on when we were born.

In fact, my husband touched me more than I could express when we heard some people giving lofty speeches about the historic figures in the past they would like to sit down with given the opportunity. Lincoln, Jefferson, Lee and Grant, Freud, philosophers and poets.

My husband said he wouldn't have to think about that question. He would ask for a few minutes with one grandfather. He wouldn't be picky, someone else could choose which one.

So with Father's Day advertisements plastered all over the airwaves and elsewhere, we feel blessed to have known our fathers, certainly. And our mothers are powering along in the 90s category.

But we also think about those grandfathers we didn't get to know, wonder about the exact shade of the blue in their eyes, who had the curly hair I was born with, and a laugh that takes hold of the body unexpected, shaking us to the core, like mine does and my son's. What were their voices like? Did one of my husband's grandfathers have that deep voice? Did my son's grandfather have the off-the-wall sense of humor I've never found in anyone but my husband?

And the truth is, when you complain about the old geezers and maybe neglect them a little, we envy you. We are the ones who laugh at their corny old jokes in the grocery store lines and don't mind when they take too long to conduct their transactions.

If you feel they are too much, maybe, if you have something else you would rather do on this Father's Day, then send them to us. We'll be waiting, with a nice cake, a glass of cheer, open hearts, and all the time in the world, to just listen.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Moveable Tea

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past." Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby

If you see me carrying my "moveable tea," be aware I'm not alone. You probably won't see them, but I will be accompanied by two ghostly figures from my past, a genteel couple from the Deep South -- Ellis and Vannie.

They are the embodiment of the fact that even our smallest actions are informed by the past.

I was reminded of this the other night when I brought tea to a parent meeting. The mother of my son's friend said she was impressed, that I had thought of every little detail related to serving tea, hot and cold. And she was right.

I brewed organic darjeeling tea leaves with spring water and placed it in carafes, rinsed out with hot water, to seal in the heat. Even though I like my tea plain (why gild the lily?) I sliced lemon, poured milk into a small container, fine sugar into another. I resisted the urge to make sugar syrup, I would save this particular piece de resistance for another time. Spoons.

But the iced tea I made with tea bags, Lipton, it just tastes better cold. Spring water, again, heated slowly in the sun in a glass jar for a smooth taste. Ice. Tongs. Glass ice bucket. All carefully placed in appropriate insulated bags for the trip. That night I did not include finger sandwiches, tea bread and sweets because that wasn't my assignment. But all go into the "moveable tea" when appropriate.

"You really know how to do this," said the mother.

Yes, I do.

Years ago, when I arrived in Washington, D.C. from Alabama, I was quite unexpectedly bereft. I had spent years plotting my escape to the bright lights, big city. And I'd gotten my wish. But I missed my childhood friends -- especially the best and most honest person I know, J., who I had known since we were 5. Who happily played loving Mary to my feisty Laura (Little House on the Prairie) for untold hours out by the woods that cradled both our homes.

And why had I moved so far from my college familiar K., who could turn a dry cleaners trip into a high adventure. Why did I think I could leave behind our rowdy mountain compound horseback rides, followed by the rejuvenating communion of a silent row on the pond. The precious company of my little sister and her husband, who I had known since he was a bashful little boy. So many things I had casually tossed aside.

And then I found Ellis and Vannie. Or they found me.

Straight out of a storybook, this warm, beautiful couple from Montgomery, AL, famous for their southern hospitality, lived near me in a big beautiful corner rowhouse on Capitol Hill. Their yard burst with flowers and greenery tended by Ellis, a political operative who became a successful self-taught artist in his later years. They entertained regularly. Everyone was invited. They especially loved other southerners.

They told stories about their rich past. They had a clothing shop in Montgomery where Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald came everyday while recovering from a nervous breakdown in her hometown. Each day, she came in and bought just one snow-white linen handkerchief. Nothing more. Vannie would get a rare sad look on her face, "You know, Scott just ruined that girl."

And Hank Williams. Ellis had known the country music legend as a poor boy, shining shoes for pennies on the street. Then as a famous singer, he had to come into Ellis' shop one day and cut off his spendy wife's accounts. Embarrassed, he paid off what she owed and then said, "We're not married anymore. That's it."

I had no idea how many things I would learn from this couple. I'm still learning from them. Ellis was a chameleon. He had several careers due to a voracious appetite for life. He was quiet because he loved to listen to others talk. But he had a wonderful quality that I couldn't define until Vannie took me aside one day and explained it, laughing as always, her long straight blonde hair swinging around her shoulders.

"Ellis has a twinkle, you know," she said in her inimitable deep, slow drawl. A twinkle is a look in a person's eye that signals a playful personality, someone who is so curious about life and people that he or she finds it impossible to judge annoying personality quirks that can be so off-putting for many. You can see it right away. The physical aspect is a sparkle, a little glow, a glimmer, if you will.

Under their tutelage, I learned to look for and find the twinkle, which comes in people of all sizes, shapes, ages and colors. I never know when one will appear. When it does, it makes my day.

Over the years, Ellis and Vannie got old. The entertaining stopped. They couldn't go out. So I came up with the idea of the moveable tea. Via trial and error, I baked this and that and stored things and carried them over and kept at it until I managed to make it work.

They were honored. They were tired and sick. But for the short time that they were able to attend the moveable tea invented in their honor, the twinkle was back. And it extended to everyone in the room. This happened several times before before they passed away, a mere weeks apart.

So when the calls go out for volunteers to do this and that, I raise my hand and suggest various versions of the moveable tea. With practiced hands, I pull it together, wheel it in and start setting up.

And as that happens, a grand, beautiful blonde is holding up a long elegant hand with an emerald ring on one finger, the one reflecting the color of her eyes. She is laughing and pointing out the young woman who looks just like Zelda, before Scott "ruined" her. And Ellis is staring at a vase of flowers tumbling from a vase, possibly to paint later. And I see the vase is beside a quiet man surveying the room, eyes catching the light with a certain familiar sparkle.

And for no reason that anyone present can see, I am laughing too, with my old friends in a great room filled to the brim with paintings, flowers and old school southern charm. They are gone, that grand couple, but I carry them with me still.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

An Exotic Trip

One day, the older brother I worshipped suggested I go outside and dig a hole to China. So I gave it my best shot.

I believed him. I always believed him. So I got a shovel, dragged it to the lower lot next to our house and started to dig. I wanted it to be true. To go somewhere, especially an exotic place, one with cute outfits if my paperdolls from around the world were accurate representations. To be anywhere but that farming village in the deep South where I grew up.

My brother came out of the house, which had only recently stood in the middle of cotton fields. He watched me dig. He was straight-faced, confirming again that yes, I could dig my way to China if I continued to spade shovels of dirt long enough. It kept me out of his hair, gave him a reprieve from my incessant tattling, which I had started in retaliation because he had ditched me for friends of his own age and gender.

I remember being thrilled, working feverishly, yelling to anyone who happened by on the dirt and gravel road out front, "Hey, I'm digging my way to China! My brother told me all about it!"

Some of his friends eventually rolled up on bicycles, languidly twirling long green stems of grass from their teeth and lips, practicing for the cigarettes they would soon be trying out if not already. They smirked while giving me tips, then chipped in with digging help.

Eventually, my father came out, drawn by the growing commotion on his land. I remember informing him of my mission, that M. had divulged the secret to me. The hole was fairly deep at that point, only my shoulders and head were above ground. I can see him starting to laugh, his hands resting on his squared hips, legs wide, the confident stance of a man who had been an athlete and a soldier.

But he didn't dash the dream, squelch the effort, the fire in my eyes, arms and belly.

Instead, he enjoyed himself. He stood and chatted as the audience slowly grew for this peculiar mission -- a little girl of no more than nine, propelled by an older brother's mischief.

He supervised the site for safety, guarding against impromptu cave-ins and my younger sister's attempts to charge the hole. As the soft night stole over us, fireflies glowed against the ever darkening woods nearby. And still I kept on with my trance-like digging. My father's deep voice boomed, giving meandering lectures on the history of China and its leaders, communism, his dislike of all Chinese food (not that he'd ever tasted any).

Eventually, I gave up for the night, exhausted, covered head to toe in north Alabama's tenacious red clay, adding to my impossible laundry load carried by my mother, who understood my impulses. After all, she was still a tomboy too. And I went back to the hole the next day.

I don't remember how long I kept it up. But the digging went on for some time, definitely over a week. And then the rain started. It rained, poured, storms pounded the earth. I remember standing at the kitchen window, in despair, watching my China route fill with water. I couldn't see, but I knew. With that kind of biblical deluge, everything was filling up.

My brother, the heartless one who had started it all, joked that I would need to save my allowance for a submarine to make it to China.

The rain finally ended. I trudged through the mud to the hole. My father had built a wooden cover for it by then, to save animals and small children from falling in.

I pulled off the hatch. The hole was filled with muddy brown water. Literally full.

I was distraught.

The next thing I knew, a fake Indian war cry tore through the air, along with the metallic shriek of bicycle brakes. Jackie Ray! The neighborhood hoodlum boy, a bit younger than me, but a hurricane force of a boy. He had been desperate to get involved with the dig and I had absolutely refused. The dig was far too serious for the likes of Jackie Ray. He would have ruined the whole thing.

As I stood, frozen, Jackie Ray threw down his bike, tore off his shirt and jumped feet first with a huge splash and another war whoop into the hole to China. Which at that point was a big mud hole. Full of muddy brown water.

Filled with righteous fury, I yelled, demanded, "YOU GET YOURSELF OUT OF THAT HOLE RIGHT NOW JACKIE RAY!" He was completely oblivious. Jackie Ray, who was pretty much an abandoned little boy living with reluctant elderly relatives down in the woods, was having the time of his life. I stormed off. And met my father coming toward the hole to China. With a camera.

He was laughing so hard he could barely take the picture. But he managed. And that is what remains today of the hole to China, decades later. A faded photograph of a beaming stocky boy with a crewcut, in a mudhole. Smiling ear to ear. Laughing, full of joy.

As was the man behind the camera taking the picture.

Soon, I forgot about the whole thing. Eventually my father pushed the pile of dirt back in and we used it for a while as a barbecue pitt. But we abandoned that too. The China staging ground was later taken over by my father's excellent strawberry patch.

In time, I grew up, left home and traveled plenty. But my lifelong secret is this: I'm not sure, frankly, that my touring excitement ever quite matched the night I set out on my China dig.

All that's left of my great adventure is the picture of Jackie Ray swimming around in the hole. My mother won't let me have it, the photograph is too precious to her, to me, to all of us.

It was a silly thing, of course. But we were all there that night, fully present, vibrantly alive, engaged and happy. For a short time, we had the best of all worlds -- swept up in a child's excitement about traveling to an unknown, exotic land, while safely, thrillingly nestled in the unmatched glory of a southern summer night.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Gift

When it was all over, this blast from the past, K. was put out. She wanted a do-over, or an un-do-over in this particular circumstance. It would have been better if he had never come back into her life, ruffled her feathers, caused a stir.

The trigger in this case was a movie, "Lord of the Rings." He said he was watching the movie with his girlfriend and thought of K. and her clique, a bunch of hobbit crazy 18-year-olds. But it was K. he couldn't stop thinking about. So he called her parents' number. And as fate would have it, 30 years later, she was there that day, helping her elderly parents.

He never expected to actually talk to her. He just called to see whether someone answered. To ask how she was, to see whether she was still married, truth be told.

This call set off a series of e-mails, phone calls, small gifts of books and music CD's. He admitted he had never gotten over K. She was reluctant. She was long married, with children. He was a parent too, but long separated. Their parting had not been a happy one.

Their courtship way back then was brief, but intense. He was a dashing senior, about to graduate. She was a freshman. Flighty, beautiful, pursued by many. They were together as much as possible, and talked on the phone when they weren't. But he omitted one pertinent fact. He was engaged to be married to his hometown girl.

She found out one weekend when a friend still in high school called. The engagement had been announced in the newspaper.

K. was devastated. In the way of an 18-year-old girl who thinks she's in love for the first time.

She saw him one more time. He showed up outside her house that summer, late at night. He begged her to tell him not to marry. She refused. She wanted him to make that decision on his own. Pride. She wondered about that refusal for many years.

Until that day at her parents' house, when he called. Out of the blue. Warning sign. Not particularly contrite, even then. Ready to pick up and be friends. All those years later.

After some hesitation, K. got back on the roller coaster. Emotionally speaking. They did not see each other except for a very brief visit, once. Their affair was not physical. But it turned her life upset down.

He followed the same pattern he had as a younger man. He reeled her in with intense professions of feeling. Flooded her e-mail and voicemails with conversations and flattery. Proof, he said, of how much alike they were, of their suitability. He intimated they were fated for each other. He stopped seeing the girlfriend.

Heady stuff for a long settled middle-age woman with children who were grown and gone or just on the verge.

And then, when he had his quarry right where he had hoped, he bolted. Back to his solitude. She was hurt. Then finally relieved, set it aside. After a long silence, he surfaced but she ignored tentative attempts to communicate.

She knows now he is a hermit, really. It's not even his fault, I reminded her. A tiger doesn't change his stripes, even when he wants to. It is what it is.

I don't think K. would have actually left her life, when it got down to it. Her husband is distracted and not particularly attentive too often. But he's her family now. I think this interloper was a lesson, a last gasp, emotional fling that came along to teach her that. And for another reason she doesn't even understand. Yet.

This blast from the past wasn't really a waste of K.'s emotional capital. Because that former dashing romantic gave her a gift. He brought back a part of her that she left behind on the campus quad, that big beautiful expanse of green that went on and on, the one we thought we would walk across forever and ever.

Most of us lost a lot of ourselves from those days, during the long, hard trudges through work, parenthood, illness and losing people we loved. Through the ravages of time. K. was one of those people. Tired, going through the motions. But she's not now. Old Mr. romance is gone, he absconded again, but he left K. a present.

Her sparkle is back. Always beautiful, her blue eyes are not the only things about her that are alive with light. Yes, she is burnished by time and experience. Now she looks like she has a secret and she does. She knows from B.S. now. And she's turning heads again. It is a joy to be with her. Because she is absolutely aglow.