GRIEF

It was the peaceful, painless death at home at age 87 we’d all like to have, but she wept large, noisy sobs at the closing of the casket.  Crying like that over the death of an old man, especially in a room near the chapel where everyone could hear, is just not done.  We may shed tears, but generally we conduct ourselves as if at a reception: quiet conversa­tion, pleasant faces, and an absence of black clothing except among the funeral staff.  Even the widow generally uses her handkerchief little, smiling and comforting others.  To wail and display so much grief was a breach of etiquette, an embarrassment to the family.

“Hush!  Be good, now!” the widow vainly whispered to her erring granddaugh­ter whose mother was blushing and hovering, offering pink tissues from her purse packet.

The eldest son waited at the just‑closed casket to lead the family prayer.  Receiving the line of viewers had taken them past the eleven o’clock starting time.  Her noise was too loud to pray over.

“Must be having PMS” muttered another son to his wife who passed over a purse packet of yellow tissue when the pink was used up.

The funeral director cleared his throat, clearly hinting that people were waiting.  Probably the organist was running out of prelude music.  Still the wails continued.

The eldest son spoke to the mother of the girl, suggesting that she lead her out so they could go on.  Then the unthinkable happened and the girl screamed, “No!  No!  You can’t have him! No!  I want to die too!” and threw herself over the casket, crushing a very expensive floral display of red roses, white carnations, and palm fronds.

Now the mother, herself weeping, was pulling at the daughter’s shoulders.  Someone muttered, “That girl must be on drugs,” foot tapping.

Now an aunt was on the other side of the granddaughter, the two women virtually carrying her out while she sobbed and sobbed.  Then it was silent and the family prayer and funeral went on decorously and predictably.

All he had done was lead an honest, hardworking life in which he was instrumental in rearing two daughters and two sons.  His life history contained no unexpected events or outstanding achievements except, perhaps, that bootlegged tribute sobbed out as the granddaughter was hustled to the door, “He’s my best friend!”

 

 

 

 

 

TREE TALK

 

                       

 

Manuel was listening to his tree so hard that he didn’t hear his teacher call.  He was looking so intently at the terrain of its trunk that he didn’t see the other children go.  His tree’s leaves backlighted against the morning glowed so green, he didn’t leave.

Mr. Larsen, the balding, red‑faced, reading program volunteer sent to find him, walked heavily into the thicket where the tree lived.  His calling voice was obscured by the trees’ voices, drawn out by a brisk and billowing wind.  He half resented being sent on the errand, ready to chew the kid out. Then he saw Manuel, listening now to a scrub jay noisily protesting the invasion of its territory.

Mr. Larson had attended this school.  He had often played in this thicket with other boys and girls.  The trees were still familiar to him.  Now he too listened.  From the school border came the low, surflike roar of huge blue spruce.  The sycamores shading the play area cheered to the clanging of metal swivel hooks on the tetherball poles.

A lull.  Bells clanged for grades 3 to 6 recess.

Manuel startled, turned to run, and bumped into a large knee. He looked up and   smiled when he recognized the man. He patted the trunk nearest him.  “This is my tree.  His name is Woody.”

Mr. Larsen knew about the second‑grade program.  “I’m pleased to meet him. Manuel, why did you adopt Woody out of all the other trees?”

The boy looked at the diagonally growing trunk, all inner branches broken off with the passage of many years and children, and he patted it affectionately again.  “He’s had some hard times.  See those scars?” His hand touched a knot. Then his face tensed as he expressed another thought: “He’s kind of little.  He’s littler than the other trees and grows in his own way.  Maybe somebody walked on him when he was a baby.  But look.”  He pointed to a higher branch. “He’s got good, big leaves.  He’s growing bigger.”  The grin was as brilliant as the light that patterned his face.

Mr. Larsen saw the tree bend in a new gust and whisper something to the boy who patted it once more before he turned to go in.

 

 


 

 

FIDELITY

The package said his new shears with the stainless steel blades could cut a branch three‑quarters of an inch in diameter.  He found one about that large and cut it cleanly at the trunk.  Soon twigs and suckers puddled under the tree as he created a bowl shape that sun and insect spray could fall into.

He stepped into the tree from the ladder, reaching with the lopping shears for a small limb that was growing at a bad angle.  His leg wobbled with the elastic sway of his foothold. He dropped the loppers in clutching to sapplesteady himself, then had to climb down after them.  He moved the ladder in closer.

So many years he’d pruned this apple tree.  It bore the scars of major surgery as well as the nodules of removal of countless suckers that always grew back with undiminished enthusiasm.  In the apple’s biennial cycle, he could expect a bumper crop this year.

He felt a pact with the tree he had never broken:  When he fertilized, pruned, and sprayed, the tree gave huge, burgundy red apples.  These he plucked and placed bruiselessly in boxes, his offering of love to friends and family.

Upon the ladder again, he reached for the highest shoots, cutting them just above a bud that would sprout in the right direction, the judgment made without hesitation through years of practice.

One shoot he had to lean for escaped his first grab.  He leaned farther and felt himself overset, losing his balance, the ladder tipping.  He somehow steadied himself on a limb, trembling.  That had been close.  He knew that he would be sore and limping from wrenched muscles tomorrow.

He had moved the ladder in as close to the trunk as it would go.  He looked at the limbs, trying to find a safe path to the upstarts and saw only danger.  If he fell and broke something . . . .  Better safe than sorry, he told himself, his muscles twitching as he climbed down again.  After all, when the tree was leaved out, it would look okay. Yet, he hated to leave those unpruned shoots like an unmowed swath in a hayfield—a broken promise.

He put the ladder, loppers, gloves and shears away in the shed as usual, but this year he didn’t stand back and admire his work.  He told himself that no one would notice, but the failure continued to bother him.  Two possibili­ties occurred to him: hire a young person to prune or have the whole tree cut down.  Either course seemed a betrayal, somehow.

Then he remembered he had bought a tool at the gardening supply.   He found it in the shed and poked the new, pole-mounted lopper towards the high branches he hadn’t been able to reach. He pulled the rope that closed the blade. He grinned at the old tree as the shoot tumbled to the ground, waving the pole in salute to his old friend.

Time Bomb

 

Steve made out, through a light powdering of snow, the inscription: Louisa Gibbs Smith, March 24, 1946—April 13, 1998.  The last of her seven children, he hadn’t visited his mother’s grave since he was twelve, but now he had come for an accounting.

 

            The cold air made his cough worse.  Nothing yet known to science seemed to be able to stop the eruption of a cancer three of his mother’s children had contracted nor to predict whether the others who didn’t have it had passed on the tendency to their offspring.  Bill his eldest brother was at this moment coughing to death in a hospital, so Steve couldn’t ask Bill what he thought of the bane he had inherited.  Bill had five children.  Two of their sisters with the disease had six and four children. Of these, up to half could die early of cancer unless acancer modern genetic discovery intervened.

 

            Was it worth it?  The question had more meaning than ever before as he planned to marry a valiant woman who vowed to accept with joy the time they could get and trust the future to God.  But children!  The foundation studying the family heredity predicted that perhaps 40 percent of his offspring would die in their later forties or fifties, having been around long enough to have implanted the tendency in their children.  They would probably also have passed on genes for musical and mathematical abilities far above the average.  He asked himself if he had the right to plant seeds whose potential for good was so blatantly marred.

 

            If he died in, say, ten or fifteen years, leaving children to grow up without him, would that be a gift or a curse?  He thought, “What if my own mother and father had known what they were passing on and refused to have me?  What if I had never been born?” His answer had to be in his contributions and in his sense of life’s abundance.  When it came down to it, the question he was asking was, “Am I worth it?”

 

Ms. Kemp

 

Kale-SmoothieJessica screamed, “I hate you!” and slammed the door as she left the house.  Ms. Kemp saw her arms pumping as she butted, head down, into a hostile world.  She had pleaded that she hadn’t been able to do anything with her hair and she would be late if her mother did not give her a ride to school. Ms. Kemp had calmly replied that she must get up a little earlier if she was to have time to walk the three blocks. And wasn’t it a lovely day for walking?

 

Ms. Kemp had her own problems getting ready for work this morning.  She and Jessica had hurriedly torn open their Valentines to each other and exchanged hugs at breakfast (instant with spinach in it). So now Ms. Kemp could not pretend that she had not yet received her gift nor ignore it.  Face it, she told herself, you will have to wear it all day lest Jessica check up on you and find another excuse to hate you.

 

Twelve years old was probably not the most difficult age she would ever be.  As a counsellor, Ms. Kemp theorized that this was only the beginning.  An inauspicious one, perhaps.  Some kids just had a harder case of adolescence than others.  So she’d better wear her basic black and flaunt the neck piece, carry it off somehow.

 

What Jessica had made for her mother was a wood heart about half an inch thick by four inches, top to point.  A border of curlicues and the words “Have you hugged your Psychologist today?” had been crowded onto the red painted surface.  It was heavy and awkward, but she would wear it because Jessica was sure to ask and Ms. Kemp would not lie to her daughter.

 

Ms. Kemp took pride in adorning her fashionably slender, long legged body with smart, very low key, but beautifully stylish clothes. The heart hanging from its red ribbon just below the bust line looked grotesque.  Her clients asked about it understandingly.  The staff snickered or razzed her.  Reactions of the partners ranged from understanding smiles to surprised looks followed by averted eyes. Mr. Black had openly disapproved of her, but then he always disapproved.  She’d even worn the heart to her professional organization’s planning meeting/lunch at Smirnoff’s.  Somehow she got through the ordeal tattered but honor intact.

 

It was Jessica’s turn to cook, thank heavens.  The smell of TV dinners in the oven greeted her nose as she removed her jacket to reveal her fidelity and love.

 

Jessica’s shocked screech grated: “Mother, don’t tell me you wore that!”

 

“Jessica, isn’t this a necklace?”

 

“Do you think I’m, like, eight?”  Insulted.  “I’d never make something so gross for you to wear!  Like, how tacky!”

 

“Then what is it for?”

 

“It’s for your office wall!  It’s a decoration!  You mean you actually wore it, like, all day?  I bet you told everybody I made it for you! Oh, Mother, how could you?”  And she slammed the door to her room.

 

PRAYERS

shoppinghero“Pray for a twenty-one-year-old girl who has spinal meningitis and something else and they told her parents to plan her funeral!” a woman at the supermarket, a stranger, told me.  Her troubled face make me take her seriously, not think her deranged.

 

“I will,” I said, expecting more detail, but she went on, pushing her shopping cart and speaking to a woman down the aisle.

 

I told my wife about the incident, shelving my load of groceries, and she cried, “Oh, I will pray with all my heart!”  Tears in her eyes, she turned away and I knew she would soon be kneeling by a bed whose coverlet was already salty with many tears.

 

We did pray for a girl whose name we didn’t know almost as hard as we still prayed for a girl we did.  And as months went by, I wondered what had happened.  So when I spotted the woman in the store again, I spoke to her, asking her what had become of the girl.

 

“Oh, it’s a miracle she survived!  But not only that, the doctors thought she might lose a foot, then maybe just a few toes.  Finally, they said all her limbs were intact and this girl is engaged and going to be married in a few weeks!”

 

I said appropriate things and brought my groceries home, but with a perplexed heart.  “How does it work?” I asked my wife.  “How does prayer work?  I mean, is the extent of the miracle based on the number of people “calling in” like one of those TV polls?  Did this girl who is perfectly whole now have that gift because of the number of strangers and kind people who prayed for her?  If we had decided not to, would she have lost a toe?  If ten people hadn’t prayed, would she have lost a foot, a leg?  How does it work?”

 

“Hush!  Hush!  Accept it!  We have the trust in the Lord!” my wife soothed, then answered a call from the other room.  Together, we helped our nineteen-year-old daughter Beth from her bed, helped her attach her prosthetic leg to one knee and the foot unit to the other ankle, helped her steady herself as she learned to walk again, using crutches now, but determined not to have to, to dance, she said.  Remembering that we too had been given small hope for her life and seeing how much life was in this courageous girl, how her will had been tempered to steel, I wondered which was the greater miracle: the one where a girl had been completely restored or this one where the girl had now to finish the job and restore herself.

Face All Over

“Face all over,” her mother would have said if she saw her wearing the skimpy dress.  “Face all over,” was something she had never said to Paula while alive, for back then Paula could never have worn a store-bought dress, let alone a black designer model with sequins.

“Be mother’s good girl, now,” she’d always say. But Paula wasn’t mother’s good girl any more.  She wasn’t anybody’s good girl.  She lit a cigarette.  She poured herself another drink.  She looked at the admirable thinness she’d achieved and flaunted in lacy underwear when the man was right.

“Eat everything on your plate.”  That was another maxim she didn’t practice.  She loved to order a fancy dessert and leave $2.50 worth of it on the little plate.  That would have killed her mother whose most hated sin was waste.

“Waste not, want not,” she’d said.  Before it was fashionable she had recycled and composted, made over and left-overed until Paula felt if she didn’t have something brand new, she’d scream.

Well, she could have screamed to death for all the good it would have done.  The rooted trailer house hadn’t had its toilet hooked up to a septic tank until her sophomore year in high school.  She supposed she was the only girl in her class who had never had her hair cut at a beauty shop, gone to Pocatello and bought clothes, nor asked any friend to her home ever because it was so horrible and her mother monstrously fat.

So fat that Paula had to do any chore that required much motion or any bending.  Mother could cook and do some hoeing.  She sewed for Paula—always from remnants and bolt e-victorian-dolls-victorian-decornds, never from fabric chosen because it was pretty.  Paula had to come right home from school to scrub floors, dust, weed and harvest the garden, help hang out the wash, and cut what there was of scrubby lawn in front.

Paula knew her mother was doing the best she could.  She was an artist come down in the world.  She sewed old fashioned lace-and-velvet Victorian clothing for expensive, porcelain-faced dolls and curled their luxuriant wigs. It eked out the monthly check, but the dolls were dressed far better than Paula had ever been.

Now she had mirrors all over her apartment.  She changed her stockings for a snag, not waiting for a run.  She paid the cleaners to sew on a button and had a housekeeper every week.  She looked down at the city lights outside her window.  Now she was free of poverty, of the past, of Mother.

NEW DEAL

ShovelofDirt“When I get my new body,” she said, “it’s going to be nothing like this one. I want it to be beautiful, slender, lithe.  I want to look like a movie star and move like a ballerina.”

“I thought you were lovely the way you were.  You were always huggable.”

She chuckled. “I tried so hard to lose weight, but no matter how much I lost, I’d always want to lose twenty pounds more. Then I gained it all back with five pounds’ interest.”

Well, down there, everybody’s left for the dinner. They’re letting the coffin down.  They put on a really nice funeral for you, don’t you think?”

“I wish they’d said some of those nice things to my face more. I could have used the approval.  I never thought I was good enough, served enough, devoted enough, but when you look at it all in a bunch, it turned out pretty well.  I’m surprised. I didn’t think I was making much of an impression.”

“Perspective, my dear. And you’ll get more as soon as we get back.”

“A lot of them cried, but I don’t feel sad.  I am so glad to be free! I am glad that until the last I never had to be the weak one.  It was a lot easier to be the giver than the receiver!”

“You gave me so much, I’ll always be grateful.”

“No, Love, you were the one that gave. All our lives together. And every minute I tended you, even towards the end when you couldn’t talk, I knew what you were thinking.”

“We didn’t need words. I’ve missed you.  I’m so glad you’ve come home.”

She looked down at her spirit body: “I need a mirror. I know we get an automatic face lift and age reduction. Looks like the excess weight has been dropped.  Hey, where do I go to sign up for a beautiful body, not just a version of the old one? I want my heavenly reward to be beauty! I mean outward, not just inward! Forget the mansion and the streets of gold.”

“But you were never ugly!”.

“I felt ugly from age twelve on. No matter what I did, because I was fat, I was despised or invisible. You, skinny one, never knew how people treat a fat person. No matter what you say, no matter how hard to try, how smart you are, how able and helpful, the fat hides everything, muffles it.  But if you’re beautiful, the world approves of you. You can see that in people’s faces.”

“I loved you. Everybody loved you. Besides, how healthy the babies you delivered were.”

“Yes. But I got like a blimp.  And stayed that way. You know, some of my friends had as many kids as I did yet their stomachs were almost flat. I fought it, but I ended up with a figure just like my grandma’s”

She looked ahead at the light they were approaching. “I have missed you as if I’d been cut in half!  The last ten years without you have seemed longer than the first fifty-five with you!” They hugged each other again, shining with joy as they continued walking through the jewellike spiritscape, hand in hand.

He smiled at her: “You always saw yourself as fat, but we saw you as, well, as you.  Those who knew you well cherished you. Those who were the object of your charity, your service, your love, that gentle wittiness—we didn’t worry about what you looked like. We were too busy smiling because you made us happy!”

She felt surprise. She brought to mind the old intermittent misery she had felt, especially when she went looking for clothes and found she’d increased another size. “But you made me feel honored. I was overwhelmed that you wanted to marry me! And then you let me be a mother! And you were so nice to me!”

“We had to concentrate on our inner strengths because we didn’t excel in the beauty department, either of us. What if we’d looked like models?  Would we have been happier? Would we have loved each other more? Would we have had a nicer family or served others better?”

She smiled at him with shining affection. “You became exactly what I didn’t know I wanted!  Oh, my love, I felt beautiful when you held me!” She realized that past pain had slipped away into insignificance. Suddenly she grinned in the old, impish way. “If I had been as beautiful as I’d wished, I wouldn’t have had to settle for you!”

 

 

THE BLAME

Messy-Kitchen-7

Connie:  They had their second biggest fight about the C on my report card.  Daddy said it was OK, but Mommy said I was grounded until I was working up to my potential.  The biggest fight happened three days after she had to take me to juvenile court.  Mother said she was mortified that her daughter would do such a thing and I should have told Amy no, but she’s the only friend I have!  It must have been my fault.

. . .

Lucy:  I should have done more.  One day I came by to give her some PTA things and she was sitting at the kitchen table in her robe crying.  Probably the first time in her life the kitchen was messy and she wasn’t not only dressed but wearing makeup by 7 a.m.  I took her to lunch, but when she asked me what she could do to help him, all I could tell her was don’t spend too much and be lots of fun.  Lord knows I can’t take the credit for still being married.  My husband, bless his heart, treats me too good.

. . .

Bishop Lee:   I’d have talked with both of them, but he insisted she wouldn’t come.  After all, he said, he was the one who wasn’t living up to his potential, the one who abused himself, the one who was too easy on the kids and was depressed.  She didn’t need counseling.  She was always on time, always organized, never lost her temper, perfectly groomed, a “textbook Christian.”  I have to admit, I considered them unequally yoked.  He was ineffectual.  She was the one we depended on in Sunday school, the one who could pinch hit at the organ, head the pot luck supper committee, and never missed church.

 

Ted’s Dad:   Hell, he couldn’t even make a decent living, though God knows I spent enough on getting him through college.  All his life he’s been lazy.  He had brains, but he didn’t apply himself.  When he graduated high school I told him he’d have to earn his own clothes and gas money, but he couldn’t hold a job, so I had to bail him out just like I’ve had to bail him out a dozen times since I helped them buy their house.  Now, she’s a sweetheart.  I told them the day they were married that if they had problems he could go to hell, but she could come home to us any time.

. . .

Ted’s Mom:   You know, you think you’ll never like the one who stole your baby, but she was so nice to us.  She’d come over on Saturdays to help me clean house whenever I my arthritis acted up.  She said we took the place of her dead parents.  I could never complain about her until now.  I know he wasn’t always the best husband to her, but she should have known how immature he is when she married him.  So I’m stuck sitting the baby until the kids get home.  Why didn’t she kick him out instead of leaving him?

. . .

Janice:  I gave him three lovely children.  I did everything for him.  He could be proud of me. But he got more and more slobby.  He’d be his old fun self around other people, but when he was home, all he did was watch TV.  I never nagged him though, not really, unless you count pleasantly pointing out a few things he could improve on.  Mostly I tried to be a good example so he’d see how poorly he was doing.  I shouldn’t have left the children, but when he pushed me out into the rain, after all I’ve done for him, I promised myself I’d show him.  As soon as I’m making enough money for a larger apartment, I’ll get the kids back.  I can make a better living than he can and be a better parent too!

 

Ted:   I never was good enough for her and I don’t know why she married me.  The kids like me, but what do they know?  The kids are the only good things left in my life, but I don’t do a good enough job with them.  She used to keep them spotless.  I can’t even braid hair decently.  The house used to be so clean and neat we couldn’t even go into the living room with our shoes on and now it’s pretty messy.  I’m trying, but everything I do seems wrong.  Mother tells me Tommy’s wetting the bed again because I’m not giving him enough security.  How can I when I’m the one who got us all into this mess?

 

 

BRACES

smart-bracket-braces

The braces had come off last week.  The fortune they had cost was not the worst of it.  Headaches and mouth sores had added their misery to the ordeal.  The pain she had suffered at each tightening had made him want to call it off.  He had sometimes felt that he was as bad as those old-time Chinese parents who bound their little girls’ feet, crippled them in the name of beauty, and listened to them scream in the night.

Squeaks and giggles from the bedroom. Her sixteenth birthday and first prom occurring in the same week had been celebrated with a new dress far more expensive than they’d expected to pay. Her new perm had been allowed to frizz uncontrolled so it would “set.”

The date would be tomorrow.  She’d ordered a boutonniere as big as a corsage.  Had already started reminding him not to forget to pick it up from the florist.  Would she survive the dating years emotionally and morally intact?

He’d adored the chunky little girl in jeans and tees and the tomboy with warts and worn-through knees.  Now it was still jeans with holes, but $100 designer models.

She was expensive in other ways than money. Besides paying for a piano and lessons, they had invested four years of wrestling with her to practice.  At age thirteen and fourteen she must have cried at least once a day.  Nobody liked her.  She couldn’t do anything. Her teachers hated her.  She hated everybody, especially her parents and her brothers. The piano was the only thing she had not hated. When they’d had to listen to the pounding of rock improvisations day and night, they’d comforted themselves that it was better than wondering where she was.

“Ta Da!” heralded his wife.  He gasped as his daughter walked down the hall to stand in front of him afroth in pink, hair haloing the suddenly different face with cheekbones and jewel eyes.  All these years she’d been secretly becoming lovely.