Around mid-December, when I was eleven or twelve years old, my brother who was fourteen or fifteen, skulked into our house, hunched over a wrapped present tucked under his arm, looking from side to side like a cartoon thief. He went straight to the Christmas tree, got on his knees and slid the present all the way to the back of the tree so it would be completely hidden. When he stood back up, he had a scared look on his face. “Don’t tell anybody,” he whispered. “This is from (he said her name). I don’t want dad and momma to find out about it.”
I knew who he was talking about – the girl lived a few blocks away – part of a trashy family. We knew they were trashy because Momma used this descriptive title for anyone who didn’t take care of their house, or it had unsightly trash out front. Garbage, or cars up on blocks – that was obvious, but it could be peeling paint, rotting porch steps, or a yard full of straggly weeds. This girl’s family was well-known for several of these aberrations. It was nothing personal against the girl, but the lifestyle of the family cursed her all the same.
There’s nothing like the holiday season to highlight my extreme and utter lack of focus. Ho Ho Ho!
Just this morning I went to the laundry room to get a clean cloth to wipe down a jar of my homemade Shea butter cream so I could put a label on it for a Christmas present. When I got to the laundry room I saw ten napkins that had hung overnight to dry and folded them. I went to the kitchen to make my morning tea and saw a scouter ant – that’s one of the ants the colony sends out to search for a microscopic drop of semi-sugary substance anywhere in your house so he can bring 9,000 of his friends to the feast.
I got a ladder from the garage/bonus room because when I blew on the ant he started heading toward the ceiling. Back in the kitchen I cleared off two shelves in the panty where I saw the ant and wiped them down with vinegar water. I thought, “You forgot to wipe that jar and get that label on it.” I climbed up the ladder and followed the ant back to his entry hole above the cabinet. I feel sorry for ants and don’t kill them, just follow them home and caulk up their entry.
The Christmas frenzy came early this year. Long before Black Friday my email overflowed with people wanting me to spend money at their stores. Even my dentist is begging me to get something – anything – done to my teeth in time for the holidays. Tis the season!
I responded to Land’s End’s frantic 55% Off and Free Shipping! emails by ordering a bunch of stuff I don’t need, since I have nowhere to go. No holiday parties, no nights at the theater, no restaurants with old friends I haven’t seen since March. But just in case, I ordered a red sweater – they were practically giving it away. Also some cotton zip-up sweatshirt things to stay warm while I clean closets. I’ll wrap these items and give them to myself for Christmas. That way I’ll at least get a few presents I won’t have to return.
One of the things I’m most thankful for in this world is my electric teapot. Sorry if you were expecting me to say my family, my health, food on the table. Those are the big things, and I’m exceedingly grateful for all of them. But sometimes it’s the little things that have the most impact. Like when a child hands you a bouquet of scraggly wildflowers to show they love you – isn’t that more wonderful than a huge box of long-stem roses? Sure, the child is just trying to bribe you, but still, you see my point.
When my mother-in-law gave me the electric teapot for Christmas a couple of years ago, I rolled my eyes. Another gadget. She’s the queen of gadgets. If it’s been on TV, or a friend has told her about it, she’ll buy one for herself and one each for her daughter and daughters-in-law. At my house a few of these get used, some collect dust, others find themselves snuggled in with clothes and old toys headed for Goodwill. I pictured this gadget in that last group.
We humans are a stew of talents, motivations, and fears. In the right proportions, our stew can end up being a huge success that feeds many others, or it can be something a dog wouldn’t touch.
Take, for example, the metaphor I just tried to make. Shakespeare’s pen would have made it a culinary masterpiece. My keyboard has produced a bowl of gruel.
Here’s a mo’ better metaphor. A guy had three servants. He gave the first five talents, the second two talents, and the third, one talent. This metaphor is a tad confusing because a talent is an ancient measure for a weight in gold – approximately one gazillion micrograms to the third power or something like that.
Election 2020 has put an extra five pounds on me. On Tuesday, as I watched the returns coming in, my appetite for salty, crunchy foods hit new highs. We made tacos for dinner, and I ate extra beans and onions and chips and cheese and guacamole, and vigorously shook out way too many drops of Tabasco sauce on everything. I was wound up.
Record-breaking quantities of food passed through my mouth at dinnertime. With every new red or blue state on the map, I headed for the kitchen. I devoured 80 percent of the crunchy food group before moving on to chocolate.
It was fear eating. Like when I’m at the cinema watching a scary movie in wide-eyed horror, barely breathing, putting fistful after fistful of faux-butter popcorn in my mouth with one hand, clutching the armrest with the other, not even aware I’m eating until my greasy fingers scratch the bottom of the bucket.
We don’t get many trick or treaters on our street. Parents drive their kids to clustered neighborhoods of decorated houses where all the lights are on so they get maximum loads of candy with minimum time and effort, like I did with my kids. On our street the houses are darker than a bat in a cave. They are obviously not in the free-candy business on October 31st. Except us. One of us is usually home, or at least we leave a full candy bowl on the porch.
A few days before Halloween I put a few decorations around the house, a witch sitting on a pumpkin with a plug-in little Christmas light in it, an round, orange wicker basket full of dried mini-corn cobs – those kinds of things. For the window by the front door I have six carved pumpkins stacked on each other – about 2 feet high – that my mother-in-law gave me years ago. They sit on the shelf looking out the window. This year I balanced a giant spider on the top pumpkin’s head to look creepy.
I also hang ghosties outside. My kids made a dozen or so of them years ago out of baseball-shaped Styrofoam covered with white cheesecloth and a pipe-cleaner that we twisted under the ball to look like ghosts. By fanning out the “arms” of the pipe cleaner under the fabric, they become fuller and look more lifelike. Each one is about 8 to 12 inches long. My daughter drew happy faces on hers – my son’s look grumpy.
For the final decoration I carve a pumpkin – three triangles (two for the eyes, one for the nose) and a jagged mouth. This year I found a pumpkin at the last minute. He was the right size but had a big gash. I got him for a discount – $1.67 – and figured I’d just carve the good side. But when I started carving, the gash was so mushy I cut it out and gutted him from that direction, rather than the top. A semi-rotten pumpkin is the way to go. The whole thing turned out to be soft and pithy. It was very easy to carve. Plus, it’s extra creepy-looking with the whole back of his head gone, and you can see through it so it gave off more light. I put it on top of my car facing the street, and could also see the whole pumpkin’s face (from the inside) while looking out the kitchen window.
Since we were home because of Covid, we decided to watch “The Shining” as our Halloween entertainment. Neither of us had ever seen it. Boy, that Jack Nicholson can sure look spooky when he moves his eyes sideways, especially with the eery music that sometimes sounds like my heart pounding (or maybe it was). We’d pause the movie so one of us could grab a Milky Way while the other got a little bag of peanut M&M’s that had either 4 or, if I was lucky, 5 pieces in there. Hardly worth the effort to tear open the package.
I got worried around 8pm – not because Jack was hacking through the locked bathroom door with an axe, his lunatic – no possessed – eyes wild. I worried that Covid would keep my one family of trick or treaters from showing up. I’d gone to the kitchen for more food (candy) when I heard the doorbell. By then my nerves were as tight as new banjo strings, and I was afraid that, instead of a sweet family, there’d be an axe-wielding maniac with crazy Jack Nicholson eyes.
Giggles from outside gave me the courage to open the door. “Trick or Treat!” they called. “So glad you came! Tell me what you are.
The boy, who’s maybe middle-school age, had on a black outfit and carried a black bow with arrows on his back. “I’m the Black Bowman,” he said.
“Haven’t heard of him.”
“It’s a name I made up.”
The girl, who’s close to high school, was also in black with a wad of aluminum foil on her right hand. “Are you familiar with Marvel characters?” she said.
“Yes.” I know about 479 Marvel characters and have seen about that many Marvel movies. Tuesdays used to be $5 movie nights (before Covid) and my friends and I saw a lot of Marvel movies.
“I’m Bucky Barnes.”
“I don’t know Bucky Barnes.”
“He’s a fried of Captain America.”
“Oh, okay, cool,” I said. “I know him.” I turned to the adult behind her. “And you are?”
“I’m a hobbit.”
“That’s what you were last year.”
“Yes, you’re right, I was.”
“Good to get your money’s worth out of these costumes. What about you?” I said to the woman beside him, but can’t remember what she said – I think it was a half costume, like when you dress normal and wear a witch’s hat. “How about you?” I said to the woman behind her – making Halloween small talk, I guess. As a kid, I used to hate it when people delayed me with a lot of questions – I wanted to get to the next house for more candy, but figured this was their last stop.
“I’m just me,” she said. “No costume.”
“It’s hard to tell if someone is wearing a costume when we all have masks on,” I laughed. They chuckled at my sparkling humor. “I’m just really glad you came. You made my night.”
“We love coming here,” the girl said. “We love all the ghosts. We call you the ‘Ghost Lady.’
“The Ghost Lady,” I said. “Hmmm, I like it. I have a Halloween nickname.”
“I love your stacked pumpkins,” the boy said.
I held out the bowl of candy. The kids grabbed handfuls. “Take more,” I said. “Anything you don’t take I’ll eat.” I stretched my arm toward the adults. “Here, you guys, take some. Take it all.” Each of them grabbed a small fistful. I offered it to the kids again. They took most, but not all, of the candy. “Trust me, you’ll want a few pieces tomorrow,” the man said. Of course he was right.
They left, and it occurred to me that, in all the chaos of life, we’ve had this five-minute encounter that I look forward to every year. I know where there live (not on our street), but I don’t know anything else about them. They always come later, probably after they’ve hit the good, candy-rich neighborhoods. We’ve never exchanged names. Every year I’ve had taken my kids out, and in later years walked with my friend and her youngest daughter, or occasionally we’ve gone to a party, but I always try to be home by 8 in case my one family comes. I leave the candy bowl out in case they get here before we do.
When they left I came back inside beaming, an active participant in the Halloween tradition that I have loved ever since I can remember. “Well, they came,” my husband said. “Yeah, they came,” I said. I cozied up under my throw, pressed the “Play” button and saw Shelley Duvall slice Jack Nicholson’s hand when he reached through the hole he’d hacked in the bathroom door to get to the doorknob. The blood. The fear. The horror. Didn’t bother me a bit. I was floating like a, well, like a ghost. The Happy Ghost Lady. That’s me.
I’m on vacation. These are some excerpts from emails I’m sending to friends about the trip.
Already, a few minutes after we left at 7:30 am, we got in an argument. About politics. By the time we got to the Gorge, however, we’d forgotten about it – literally, the plus side of being old. The low fog made the Gorge look mystical, prehistoric – a setting for a Swamp Creature movie – I could picture the Loche Ness monster rising out of the deep.
We pulled over at almost every historical marker on the way to Lewiston Idaho, including this one of the Valley of the Jolly Ho Ho Ho Green Giant in Dayton, WA. If you zoom in you can see the giant is also up on the side of the hill, too.
A couple miles out of Dayton is a historical sight where Lewis and Clark camped on the Touchet River .- the lifelike structures depict the horses, 30+ men in the Discovery Party, and three dogs – the artist wasn’t sure how many dogs there were, but when they left camp they only had one, they ate the others. Dog gone them!
One of the roadside kiosks told of the Nez Perce Indian’s skill at breeding horses – they used natural selection to develop the American Appaloosa horse, probably originally called the Palouse horse after the Palouse River. I like those Nez Perce. Chief Joseph was the one who said, “I will fight no more forever.”
On I-90 in Montana we pulled into a rest area for another potty break. I opened the back of the Tahoe to get a snack – road trips (like everything else) make me hungry. We drove up the ramp and I heard this noise that sounded exactly like a cooler sliding out the back of an SUV, followed by another cooler and a suitcase. “The back’s open,” I screeched. Sure enough, in the rear-view mirror, two coolers, a suitcase, and odds and ends were scattered on the ramp like a tornado had dropped them there. Scott always closes the back hatch but – ooops – not this time. Cars drove around the debris, their occupants shook their heads at us. Dumb Oregonians. We backed up and gathered everything – it was good for a laugh.
Then I looked for a place to hike on the Map of my iPhone – never tried that before. The map took us down a dirt road that dead-ended on some rancher’s property. It was a little creepy out in the middle of nowhere. Barking dogs lunged out from all directions, viscous and snapping. The rancher appeared and said there wasn’t a hiking trail there, but directed us to Ringing Rocks. We drove 5 miles up a rutted, pot-holed, narrow dirt road (thank goodness for 4-wheel drive) to the parking area, then hiked the rest of the way. They have hammers hanging there to beat on the rocks – I think the rocks have iron in them because they’re red, and some sounded just like a blacksmith beating on a horseshoe. I made a one-minute video of Scott so you can hear them – see below.
We hiked around up there a little – lots of cool boulders (see the last picture) and saw elk and deer scat (turds) – so exciting – but no actual animals.
Got to Bozeman late. They’re predicting snow tomorrow, high of 41. Glad I packed all those sweaters!
Talk about cold! We headed out of Bozeman at 8am with those little ice crystals falling out of the sky, and by the time we got up to Bozeman Pass it was 28 degrees and a blizzard. I white-knuckled it while Scott tried to keep up with some maniac Washington driver whose license plate said PNW BOY (Pacific NW I guess). We stalked him for several miles going way too fast especially for the conditions – we were going about 65 – Montana’s speed limit on the freeway is 80, but nobody goes that slow. Even in the snow they don’t slow down much. I started listening to a book on tape to distract me from worrying about shimmying off the road and going over a cliff. Then a lunatic in a semi-truck pulled up beside us and splashed a fire hose blast of slush on the windshield – it rocked the car. I liked to died. Scott squirted water on the windshield to get the slush off, which immediately froze – he couldn’t see a thing. Luckily there was an exit ramp rich there. When we stopped at the bottom of that ramp was the first time I breathed all morning. Once we took the exit for Cody it was a little better. Not much else happened today except that we went through Belfry, Montana and turned down a side street that led to their school. The town is Belfry, and the school’s marquis read, “Home of the bats.” Seriously. I took a picture – there’s a big bat over the sign and bats on either side of the entry door.
Driving out we saw a flock of wild turkeys passing through someone’s front yard. This was the excitement of the day. We checked into our room in Cody, then walked along the Shoshone River for about 2 1/2 miles – snow blowing on us, colder than a well-digger’s ass in the Klondike. I went to St. Anthony’s Catholic Church at 5. The priest had a sense of humor. He said, “It takes a village to raise children, and a vineyard to home school them.” Amen to that! It is 25 degrees outside. We about froze during the five minute drive back from dinner. Debating tromping down the hall in my bathing suit to do a few laps. Nah. I’m hittin’ the hay and snuggling under every blanket I can find.
On Thursday I had lunch with Cory, a 43-year-old Black man I visit as part of a volunteer thing through an organization that builds community with low-income people. I enjoy our visits because he makes me laugh. We meet on the phone now, because of Covid, but every so often I go downtown and take him lunch in the park. This is the first time we’ve gone to a restaurant.
We met at Chipotle. As we waited our turn, I explained that he’d go down the line and tell them what he wanted. While I paid, I asked for some hot sauce – mild for me and regular Tabasco for him. Cory’s told me many times, “I like a lot of hot sauce on my food.” The server handed us two little clear plastic cups filled with about an eighth of an inch of sauce. Poor Cory, what he calls “hot sauce” apparently isn’t Tabasco.
Even though it was chilly, we sat outside. He took a bite of his steak bowl and said, “This is good.” He told me about his pending lawsuit against the guy who ran into him and broke his femur. “The lawyer said the son-bitch’s insurance will pay for me to have a maid if I want one.”
“You only have a one-bedroom apartment with no furniture except a bed,” I said. “Why do you need a maid?”
“Hell, if the son-bitch’s payin’ for it, damn right I’m havin’ a maid. A mother-f-ing butler too. I needs me a butler.”
He took a couple more bites, then remembered the little cup of hot sauce and picked it up, still talking. I watched him pour the whole thing on his food. When I shake Tabasco from the bottle, I count the drops – about 7 is my limit – each drop carefully spread out so I have the flavor without getting excessive heat in one bite. Cory poured that whole little cup on his bowl, and even thumped the cup with his finger to get the last few drops. I figured there were about 250 drops coating his food.
I stopped eating and watched him take a bite. He put the fork into his mouth, pulled it out, did a little shake of his head and said, “Man, that’s some hot sauce.” I started laughing. Anybody who’s ever used Tabasco knows that feeling, the heat, the burning that won’t stop, and he had just dumped enough on his food to belch fire.
“I thought you liked hot sauce.”
“I do, I do.” He paused as if trying to convince himself. “I do.” He looked at the bowl like it was a rattlesnake or something worse, but I could tell he wanted another bite because he had his fork raised, ready for action. Finally he got up his nerve. He aimed the fork, then slowly, cautiously, put the bite in his mouth and deposited the food. He looked straight ahead, his eyes bugged out. “That’s some hot sauce,” he said. He shook his head a little and let out a “Shwooo,” sound. He grabbed his water glass and took a sip. “Wooo,” he said.
I started laughing and couldn’t stop. Not only was it funny the way he said it, but I understood the dilemma he was in – between a culinary rock and a hard place. He wanted to eat, but he was scared to because his mouth was on fire. He also probably didn’t want to seem like a wimp. He’s six feet tall, meaty, with a bushy grey beard and shaved-bald head. A sweet guy in a hardened shell. The times we’ve eaten together in the park, he’ll only eat a couple of bites then say, “I’m going to take the rest home. I wanna put some hot sauce on it.” He had an image to uphold.
So I just watched. He looked at the bowl as if it was now the enemy. He stirred it. Stared at it. Stirred it again. Pushed the food from one side to the other. Then he took another bite. As he pulled the empty fork away he paused midair. “That’s some hot sauce,” he said, and shook his head. I laughed again, actually I guess I hadn’t quit laughing from his previous bite.
He put the fork down and picked the empty sauce cup up and looked at it, like it had betrayed him. He put it down and said, “I called Merry Maid and told them I wanted a maid. I can’t just get somebody off the street. They might rob me. You can’t trust people. Not around here. They said they’d call my lawyer and get it all set up.”
I continued to eat and just let him talk. A couple of times he looked down at his food, like he was getting up his nerve. Finally he loaded the fork half-full and hesitated a split second before putting the bite in his mouth. He chewed a couple of times, shook his head and said, “That’s some hot sauce.” I started laughing again.
I was enjoying this lunch. A lot. It was cold sitting out there under the October overcast sky with wind trying to steal our napkins, and I ate quickly so I could be done and climb back into my warm car, plus all the laughing was wearing me out. I often tell Cory how funny he is, though I’m not sure if he means to be. It’s a combination of all the cussing plus the way he tells the stories. His eyes twinkle and he grins when he sees me laughing, so I know he does some of it on purpose, but not this time. He picked up the aluminum to-go lid and molded it over his bowl and put it in the bag.
“Too hot for you?” I ask.
“No girl, you know I can’t eat much at one time. I’m gonna take this home and munch on it later.”
“Yeah, right,” I said to myself. He asked me to drop him off at his dentist’s office a few blocks away. He made fun of the way I drive, and I thanked him for all the laughs. On the way home, every time I hear him in my mind saying, “That’s some hot sauce,” I start laughing, and it’s a hearty, deep, lasting laugh.
They say it’s better to give than to receive. For the small price of a Chipotle lunch, I enjoyed a lot of entertainment. I also got a blessing that filled my heart, and my soul. Thank you, Cory!
What do you want to be when you grow up? We ask children this a lot. One time my daughter answered someone with about twelve things, all in a row. “I want to be an artist, a teacher, a doctor, (eight more that I can’t remember but I think astronaut might have been in there) and a waitress.” Lofty goals for a five year old!
I used to reply with only one response: a singer. I loved to sing, but I also had the ability to make up songs on the fly because of all the practice I got with my older brother. We were very competitive, and when he wasn’t beating me in foot races, high-jumping, basketball shots, ping pong, or, as big brothers often do, just plain beating me, we’d have rhyming contests. They went like this:
Me: You’re fat.
Him: You’re a rat.
Me: At least I’m not a splat.
Him: Well you’re a brat.
Me: I can’t agree with that.
Him: You’re as ornery as shit under a couch from a cat.
Me: You stink like liquid toe jam in a vat.
Him: Not bad – I’d call that tit for tat.
As you can see, we didn’t make Shakespeare jealous. The object of the contest was to not be the one who couldn’t come up with a sensible rhyme (not just jibberish) right away. If you paused too long to think of something, you lost that round. This could start at any time – walking to Dairy Queen, sledding in winter, riding bikes. With all that practice, I gained the ability to knock out songs that were, admittedly, awful. But they rhymed. I’d sing them to a slow, syrupy melody to give me time to compose them while I sang – picture a soulful love song sung by Barbara Streisand or Adele. They went something like this:
My dog has fleas,
He’s weak in the knees,
So I feed him peas,
Because he loves…….me.
My dog is kind
He’s here all the time,
Licking his behind,
But I don’t mind
Because he loves……me
My friend Carole and I used to get in verbal skirmishes a lot, probably from being together all day long in the summer heat. Most were those “are too!” “am not!” fights like: “You’re cheating.” “Am not!” “Are too!” “Am not!!!!”
With Carole, it escalated to one of us getting so mad we’d shove the other one. We were about eight years old, bored, in the hot, muggy, Tennessee haze, plus both our birthdays were in December, on either side of Christmas, so people were always giving us just one “combined birthday and Christmas present,” which caused a smoldering current of aggravation to pulse through our veins year round, and is probably what made us so cranky.
We were like a pressure cooker about to blow, and one of us took off running, knowing the other was about to strike. We both had long, skinny legs and she was exactly as fast at running as I was. We’d chase each other all through my backyard, and finally the person in front would falter – out of breath, legs tired – and the one chasing would catch up and swat her in the middle of the back, then pivot 180 degrees and start running. It was a little like two-person tag, except on the anger chart we had reached 11 on a scale of 1 to 10, so instead of tagging, we’d swat. Seriously, we chased each other like this until we were exhausted, red-faced, sweaty, and laughing.
One time my brother came out with two pairs of boxing gloves and said, “All this running around is stupid. Put these gloves on and just duke it out.” We tried but it wasn’t the same just standing there looking at each other, she in her long brown braids and me in my sun-streaked pigtails. After all, she was one of my best friends! I don’t think either of us even threw a punch.
In peaceful times we’d have singing contests. She sat on the grass and I stood up in front of her and sang as I made up a song – a really excellent one like the one above. Then she’d stand up when it was her turn and fumble around. “No, you have to make it rhyme. A song has to rhyme.” “Does not!” “Does too!” “Does not!!!!” She’d start chasing me and I knew if I ran out in the open area of the backyard, I might step in a gopher hole or trip on a croquet wicket or get clothes-lined by the cIothesline, and she’d catch up and deliver a soft whack between my shoulder blades, so I kept circling the two trees in the middle of the yard that had a thick bed of iris’s between them. Round and round we went until I got dizzy and darted into the open area, slowed down from exhaustion, and got swatted.
I never performed my little concerts for anyone but Carole, and she told me I was too good at singing and it wasn’t any fun. She probably meant rhyming, not vocal ability, but I took it as a huge compliment and pictured myself as a star.
Now I’m old (Am too!), and that dream has been in the fog of my memory all my life. In case you haven’t noticed, I not a star yet, haven’t ever tried to be one (what a yellow-bellied coward I am, plus I’ve rarely had any encouragement from any sane person that I should pursue singing, or even do it in public), and rarely ever sing around others except in the pews at church or when a group is bellowing happy birthday.
My dream has been with me all these years, and even though I’m old, I’m still working at it. If you pass my house early on summer mornings, when the windows are open, you’ll hear me practicing, “Corina Corina,” or “At Last,” or “Speeding Cars,” or even “Like a Rolling Stone,” although Dylan stuck a lot of words in there and it’s hard to remember them all.
Everyone has dreams. Kids don’t have the monopoly on them.
What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s not too late, you know.