Thursday, November 26, 2009

Are We There Yet?

It always took forever and a day to get to Granny and Grandad's.  Know why?  'Cause my dad drove so daggone slow!  Do you have any idea how long it takes to get the 45 miles between Huntington and Charleston, West Virginia, when you drive 45 miles an hour?  Darn tootin' it takes an hour!  And that's if no one got car sick.  Whenever that happened, we always had to pull over and let whoever barf in the designated coffee can.

My three older brothers and I tried to make the time go faster.  We’d play the Alphabet Game or Bury the Cows, but it didn't help much.  Even though the big, green "Stink Bridge" outside St. Albans smelled worse than the container of ham salad my brothers tried to make into catfish bait, we were always glad to see it. 

"Won't be long now."

Granny and Grandad lived on Swarthmore Avenue in Charleston.  The turn into their driveway was tight.  I always closed my eyes and waited for the scrench of Buick Skylark bumper on metal fence post.  Miraculously, it never came.

When I opened my eyes, there was Tara, or what I imagined Tara looked like, before I saw Gone with the Wind.  If you looked at the house from the driveway, it was pretty ordinary, just a larger than average, brick Cape Cod.  But if you walked around to the front, it did a presto change-o into a mansion, thanks to the semi-circular appendage that was more veranda than porch.  What made it truly grand though, was the presence of four white columns that supported the porch roof.  I'd hang onto a column and do a skippy dance around it, leaning out like half an 'x.'

Someone would always shout, "Last one in is a rotten egg." Twenty seconds later we'd be inside the house, lined up like the von Trapp kids, for Granny kisses.

"Go see your Grandad," she'd say as she swatted each of us on the behind. 

Grandad was usually in a suit and most times we found him in the living room, reading The Charleston Gazette.  He'd pound each boy on the back and say, "How much do you weigh, son?"  We spent many an hour speculating why he always asked that.  Then he'd pull me onto his lap, and my feet would dangle over his shiny wingtips as he scraped his face against mine.  I don't think he shaved on Sundays 'cause his face always felt like 80 grit sandpaper. 

I remember his breath the most because it was what I dreaded most.  If I had to say which smelled worse, the Stink Bridge or Grandad's breath, I don't know if I could.  I've smelled that odor a couple times since.  It's a cross between unflossed teeth and stale coffee.    I reckon it could've been worse--if he licked an ashtray or ate a chili dog with onions.  I have always been a faithful flosser, thanks to Grandad.

On the other end of the smell spectrum was Granny's rump roast.  It was to drool for.   When I heard the oven timer buzz, I'd hightail it into the kitchen.  If she was in a good mood, she'd let me chew on the roast beef strings.

Granny always carried the roast platter into the gymnasium-sized dining room with much pomp and circumstance.  She was a very good cook, and she knew it.  We'd eat off delicate, white with gold trim china plates, even it it wasn't a holiday.   

My brothers and I would make mashed potato dams and flood 'em with Granny gravy that was more au jus than gravy.  The boys and I would wolf down firsts, seconds, and thirds, as fast as possible in order to get to the best place ever.

The attic was the best place ever because my grandparents lived through the Great Depression.  When you live through a depression, you save stuff.

There were hundreds of books up there.  I liked to sit on the old brass bed, under a quilt, and read the first pages of as many books as possible.  I wanted to see if any of them were interesting.  They never were.  I mean, what story in a super old book could measure up to the adventures of Nancy Drew or Alec Ramsay and his big, black stallion? 

The boys would root through scads of military uniforms and paraphernalia.  Dad had four brothers, so there was lots of both.  I'm pretty sure my brothers were looking for guns.  Boys like guns.  My brother John could make the best machine gun noise ever.  Hold your mouth like you're gonna blow a bubble and say to-to-to-to super fast.  I don't know why, but it always sounds better when it comes from a boy mouth.

When my brothers weren't around, I'd hold Granny's evening dresses in front of me and look in the giant mirror, tilted against the wall.  I'd rub my cheek against the satin lapel of Grandad's tuxedo and inhale the sharp scent of moth balls.  They must be important to wear these super nice clothes.  

One time I asked Granny about her fancy dresses.  "You can't look like a tramp when you visit the Greenbrier, you know." She told me that as  she gave her hair a hundred brushstrokes.  I nodded like I understood.

One day I found four unopened boxes under the brass bed in the attic. 

"It's probably beans," one of my brothers said.  "They ate a lot of beans during the Depression."  

I found a pearl-handled knife and sawed through the stringy packing tape.  All four boxes were full of Estee Lauder beauty cream.  My brothers couldn't believe it. 

"I was sure it'd be food," one of 'em said.  

I knew why it wasn't canned goods.  Granny stockpiled beauty cream in case Mrs. Lauder stopped making it.  Granny loved her country, but she didn't want to stop being pretty on account of the war.  

It always made me sad when Mom or Dad called upstairs.  Sometimes they wanted us to come down for a bowl of Valley Bell Ice Cream, but more often than not, it was  time to go.  

Sadder still was the day 20 years later when my dad called.  I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio at the time.  

"They've got a dumpster pulled up to Granny's house.  They're throwing everything out but furniture, china, and silver." 

My bottom lip came out, and I slumped over on the sofa.

"Gosh, Dad," I said.  "Why didn't you tell me sooner?  It's not like I live 45 minutes away, you know."

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Man Who Loved Me First

The man who loved me first was as big as Andre the Giant.  You know . . .  the really big guy in "The Princess Bride."  His name was Francis.  It was a family name but I was the only one who knew it.  Everyone else called him Frank.

He lost a whole lotta weight one summer.  Afterwards, he still weighed three of me.  Well . . . maybe two and a half, but when you're 6'4," that kinda weight's okay.  I always wondered if he went on that diet for me.

Frank was from the bottom of the state.  His daddy was rich from things that came from the earth but you'd never know it.  Frank wore Wranglers and flannel shirts like the rest of the guys. 

Frank loved me.  I could see it when I looked in his eyes, even though I'd never  been loved before.  His eyes were the color of God's green velvet.  You know . . . moss.  And when he looked at me, the moss color would darken, like the sun was going down in the forest.

I also knew he loved me 'cause he wouldn't step back from a hug when I did.  When someone that big hugs you, you can't help but feel safe.  Like, when you're playing Hide 'n Seek and you're behind a refrigerator and you know they'll never find you.  They'll have to yell, "Olly, Olly, in come free."

Frank loved me even though I baby powdered his dorm room one afternoon in October.  I'd been T.G.I.F.'ing in Sunnyside and I was feeling ornery, like I had a bee in my bonnet or somethin.'

Frank always ran a fan in his room.   Big people seem to be warmer than the rest of us.  I skipped down the hall in my cut-off jean shorts and my I Heart New York t-shirt.  I had an open container of Johnson & Johnson baby powder in my hand.  When I ran by the common room, Stu, the photography major who sounded like a Sleestak when he breathed, said, "Here comes trouble."  He had that right.

Frank left his door unlocked most of the time.  I think he did that in case I stopped by.  And I did, quite often, just to see his moss eyes go dark.  I flung the door open and shrieked, "Boo!"  Quick like a bunny, I shook baby powder into the fan wind.  Then I ran.

From my room six doors down and six doors 'round the corner, I heard the roar.  It sounded like the Wabash Cannonball.

Frank's hair looked like an old man's at dinner that night.  He heard me fuss that all the Drumsticks were gone out of the ice cream freezer.  He handed me his.  "I only took one bite."  I looked in his moss green eyes and felt bad.  I shouldn't have baby powdered a guy like him.  A guy who'd give someone like me the last Drumstick in the dining hall.

I'd always wanted to be loved.  All my high school girlfriends had been loved lots of times but not me.  My daddy always signed his letters with "luv," not "love."  I always wondered if that was the same thing.

I guess guys didn't know that inside, I was the kind of girl who'd sing, "Stand by Your Man," even though I didn't care much for country music.  The thing is, I had a hunch me and Cyndi Lauper had been separated at birth.  And one time, I almost won a Madonna-Look-Alike contest. 

I was in my Granny's black cotton, zip up the front, strapless and whale-boned slip and everything.  I even had on 38 black rubber bracelets between both my arms.  In the end though, a frat boy won.  He had the frat-boy-crossdressing-is-hilarious factor working for him.

Frank gave me a hug afterwards and bought me a beer.  He wouldn't let me open it with my teeth like I usually did.  He pulled a Swiss Army knife out of his Wrangler's.  It had a bottle opener on it.  I sniffed.  "Thanks."

I knew Frank was a good man, even though he wasn't 21  yet.  His face was serious more often than not.  In my woman's heart, I knew he'd be a 'til death do us part kinda man.  Just not mine.

Sometimes I think about Frank.  Part of me wonders, like I reckon all women do, what would life be like if I'd picked Frank to stand by.  I best put that thought away.  I've made my bed, now I've gotta lie in it.

Frank . . . if you're out there, you might not wanna know it, but I love the bed I made.  Every night I lie in it with an exceedingly fine, 'til death do us part kinda guy.  He may not have loved me first, but I'm believin' he loves me best.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I love long fingernails, especially when they’re the real thing. But they can’t be too long. Those ones that are so long they curl under? They freak me out. Have you ever seen the woman who got into the Guinness Book of World Records for her super long nails? That picture always triggers my gag reflex. It’s like her curly-q fingernails reach off the page and touch my uvula.

All my life I wanted long nails but for the longest time I didn’t and couldn’t have them because I bit mine. I didn’t bite mine as short as my college roommate though. She bit hers halfway down the nail bed and she had eczema. Or was it (the heartbreak of) psoriasis? Her hands always looked like they were made of pink phyllo dough that hadn’t been sprayed with water, the way they tell you to do on the box.

I remember the first time my nails were long enough to paint. I painted them, “Poppies Will Make Them Sleep” red. I walked into my brother’s hospital room with my hands leading the way and my fingers splayed out so that even on pain meds, he couldn’t miss them.

His smile was weak but it made me happy. Of my three older brothers, he and I fought the most, but after he was in the hospital for four weeks, I started to miss him.

“You stopped biting them,” he said, his eyes only half open. “Did you do that just for me?”

“Yep,” I said. It was a lie. Well, half a lie. I gave up biting them so that I could show him I cared, the way some people give up eating for a little while to get closer to God. But in the end, the long nails were for me.

Growing up, I bit my nails constantly. I usually sat on my hands because they were so ugly. In addition to being a nail biter, I was a wart magnet. I had warts on every single one of my fingers, all over my cuticles. I had little bumpy wart frames around each gnawed fingernail.

I’d paint the warts with Compound W and blow on them ‘til the stinging stopped and the nail polishy medicine turned white. Then I wrapped them in Johnson & Johnson medical tape. I did this like, forever. Besides not working, this ritual was really unattractive. I wonder if people thought I had leprosy?

One day though, all the warts disappeared. My family went to Myrtle Beach (along with everyone else in West Virginia) for a week and I think something in the salt water ate my warts. Yay me!

A few years back my mom gave me some high tech nail strengthener. She’d bought a bottle for her and a bottle for me off an infomercial. It worked great!

Almost every day when I walk my son to the bus stop, if I’m not wearing my apple green leather gloves, I hold my hands out and admire the long, painted, slightly squared tips.

Sometimes I walk with my eyes closed. “Thanks God . . . for my now long fingernails. I think it’s you giving me the desires of my heart, now that I believe in you.”

One day Mom turned my hands over and looked at the undersides of my nails.

I snorted. “What? Do you think they’re fake?”

She let go of my hands.

I made a snot face. “You’re the one who gave me the stuff that made ‘em long, remember?”

That’s how good they look now. Still, it bugs me that my own mom doesn’t believe me. I don’t lie much these days.

I had fake nails for a little while but they drove me nuts! I gave them to my husband for his birthday ‘cause he really likes long, painted nails, especially when they’re red. I had them put on at the beauty school.

They sure were pretty, but man, they were a hassle. Every week, one or two of them would pop off and I’d have to go back to the beauty school, with my daughter in a pumpkin seat, and get ‘em glued back on.

I never mastered life with super long nails. How do you go to the bathroom with them? How do you change a baby’s diaper with them? How do you pick coins off the ground? How do you open a car door without breaking one?

I pulled all ten of them off after three months. That night, my husband looked across the dinner table at my hands. His bottom lip slid out. “All gone?”

I nodded. “All gone.”

He’s happy my long nails are back now. I have to give him some credit. Since he adores long, painted fingernails, he does the dishes more often than not these days.

“It’s washing dishes that makes them break, right?” he said one night.

I felt my head go up and down. The truth is, it’s the being in the dishwater that makes fingernails weak and I always wear yellow, Playtex gloves when I do dishes. But, if I get out of doing dishes several nights a week, maybe I’ll just let him keep thinking that doing dishes equals short, stubby nails.

Just between you and me, I’m pretty sure there’s another reason he does the dishes, besides the fact that I hate it. I think he thinks that if he helps me out in the kitchen, I just might help him out in another room of the house later in the day. Maybe, just maybe, he’s right.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ode to Lacy June Bug Lulu Bell

I used to be real scared of death ‘til I lived through four funerals in a year. I used to stand at the back of the viewing room and admire the flowers. I’d sign the guest book and say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Then I’d look at the coffin in the front of the room and drum my fingers in the air. “See you in heaven . . . I hope.”

I remember when our Beagle, Lacy June Bug Lulu Bell, died. I hate to say it, but it was her own doggone fault.

Being a Beagle, she loved to run and she loved to pillage trash cans. One day she picked the wrong time of the month and the wrong trash can. Within twelve hours she wasn’t eating or drinking. Our vet, Dr. Doom, performed multiple surgeries on her, removing highly absorbent objects from her small intestine.

We called him Dr. Doom because he was a pessimist. The vet techs would say, “Lacy’s doing better. She tried to bite us today.” That’s a good thing? Dr. Doom, who looked like John Malkovich, would shake his head. “She’s not out of the woods yet.”

Every night for two weeks we’d visit Lacy after supper. She’d be lying on her side and her tail would thump once or twice. Cody Brook would squeeze her two-year old hand through the bars and pet Lacy’s silky ears. I’d stand behind her and sniff.

Every morning I called the vet’s office and they’d put me on hold. Dr. Doom would come on the line and say, “She’s hanging in there, but you may want to start thinking about—“

“Gotta go,” I’d say. I didn’t want to think about what he wanted me to think about.

One morning Dr. Doom called me before I could call him. My heart jumped into my throat. Josy, then five years old, was doing a paint-with-water picture at the dining room table. I walked into the living room so she couldn’t hear my conversation.

“Lacy died in her sleep,” he said.

I whimpered.

“She looked peaceful.”

I fell back on the sofa, feeling like the air’d been let out of me.

“Thanks,” I said. “I mean . . . ‘bye.’”

Josy bounced into the room, waving her wet painting of Princess Jasmine and Prince Ali, fabulous he, Ali A Babwa.

“Looky! Looky!” she said. She stopped waving her picture when she saw my face.

“What’s wrong?”

I wiped tears and snot away with my robe sleeve.

Josy looked at it and said, “Looks like a slug trail.”

I didn’t smile. “Lacy died this morning.”

I prepared to fold her sobbing form into my arms.

Instead, as I watched her, I saw her frown turn into a smile, kinda like a rain storm turning into a rainbow.

“It’s okay, Mommy,” she said.

My head dropped and my mouth fell open.

She flipped her palms up and threw one of her little girl hips to the side. “It’s just the circle of life.”

I squinted at her.

“You know,” she said. “Like in the Lion King?”

I shut my mouth and shook my head. I patted the sofa beside me.

She ignored the pat and headed back to the dining room. “I’m going to paint Belle and the Beast next,” she said over her shoulder.

I thought of Lacy again and sighed. I let my body fall over. The sofa caught me.

“Thanks Walt Disney,” I said to the fireplace. “For providing grief counseling to my kids.”

The phone rang but I ignored it. I listened to Dr. Doom leave a message.

“Let us know if you’ll be picking up Lacy or if you prefer cremation,” he said. “Oh, and if I didn’t say it before, I’m sorry for your loss.”


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