Mastering the monster

School bus

Bus #147. SebamirumCC BY

Life takes many unexpected twists and turns – a friend of mine says, “Life is one wild ride.” The mysterious is frequently interwoven with the breathtaking, the brightest moments often collide with the darkest, and the greatest desires of our hearts almost always involve epic challenges.

It took me the better part of two decades to finish college, for example.

I married at twenty, quitting college with a year and a half of coursework in general studies and theater arts. My boys were born. My husband completed two degrees needed for his work. I took a variety of jobs, all the while wanting to return to college myself, taking a class or two whenever and wherever I could. Sometimes I dusted off the old textbooks and plays, reread portions, dreamed of going on with my education.

When my younger son started kindergarten, I took a part-time reading remediation position that became full-time, until the program was cut after a couple of years.

“I’d like to keep you on, if you’re willing to take a teaching assistant job in first grade,” my principal told me. “Furthermore, there’s a distance education cohort beginning for paraprofessionals to get teaching degrees. You should pursue this – you’d be an excellent teacher.”

I pondered the prospect. A teacher. At the elementary level? I don’t know. High school English, maybe, but . . .

“It’s a consortium,” the principal went on. “If you’re a full-time teaching assistant, our county qualifies you to attend with financial aid. The books are even covered.”

Here it was, the long-awaited chance to finish school, only it didn’t look exactly like what I imagined.

The principal noted my hesitation. “It’s a perfect opportunity. What are you waiting for?”

Turns out that the program had K-12 reading certification built in.

That was the tipping point.

I love roller coasters. They climb and climb, gaining momentum, then – wooooosh. Hold on tight, as you don’t know what’s coming next – a pretty good metaphor for the wild ride of life. I applied to the program, got in. I loved my classes, my advisor, my instructors, my classmates. Returning to college was exhilarating.

Until.

“Of course, as a full-time teaching assistant in our county,” my principal said, “you’re required to get bus driver licensure.”

WHAT? 

I’m not overly fond of driving in the first place. The idea of maneuvering something as big as a bus, loaded with kids, being the only adult responsible . . .

“I’m not sure I can do it,” I said, going cold and clammy. My stomach lurched like it does after a sudden twist on a coaster, only worse.

The principal smiled. “Yes, you can. Look at it as something that gets you where you want to go.”

That’s what it came down to. If I wanted to finish school, to teach – which I now wanted to do more than anything, the ultimate situational irony – then I would have to face the big yellow monster.

My dad had driven a school bus when he was in high school. So had his sister. Back in their day, students were drivers. Daddy told stories about students tampering with the governor so the buses would go faster – I could envision the buses bumping down the country dirt roads, whipping around the bends in thick clouds of dust, kids bouncing wildly. He told the tales with glee; I listened in horror. While I darkly imagined Daddy’s great amusement on learning that I’d be driving a bus, if he’d lived to see it, this connection to him helped, if only the tiniest bit.

Look at it as something that gets you where you need to go.

I couldn’t let a bus stop me from finishing school or embarking on a whole new career that stretched out before me, glimmering and beckoning like the sea.

I signed up for the training.

The trainer started off with lots of stories, such as a driver once tipping a bus over by trying to avoid a squirrel, which is why we should never swerve if an animal runs in front of the bus.

I put my head down on the desk.

Then there was the first exam: Memorizing all the parts of the bus, how these parts are connected, what these parts do and why, what every light means. This was conducted by walking with the instructor, pointing everything out and giving an oral explanation. A written exam was also given.

I briefly considered failing these exams but my pride wouldn’t let me.

The training culminated in behind-the-wheel practice with the instructor, who asked: “Ever driven a Mercedes before?”

“No sir,” I answered.

He chuckled. “You’re about to now.”

I thought he was joking.

He wasn’t.

The bus I learned to drive on was made by Mercedes-Benz – who knew? It almost drove itself.

I managed to get this monstrous thing, this almost-airplane, through the narrow tree-lined streets of the nearby little old southern town without doing harm to anything until the instructor said: “All right, make a stop. Let these imaginary kids off the bus.”

I made the stop, opened the bus door. The flashing lights came on, the stop sign came out. I even counted imaginary heads.

For the first time, I thought: I’ve got this. It’s not so bad.

Then, as I closed the door to move on, the instructor said, “STOP!”

“What?!” I jumped a little in my seat. I stood on the brake.

“You just ran over a child,” said the instructor.

“I – what? How? I counted all the imaginary heads!”

“You didn’t check your mirrors. Kids can hide close to the bus and you’ll never see them if you don’t check all those mirrors. That’s why they’re there. Kids have been killed that way.”

I returned to work that afternoon in the deepest funk. A teacher assistant colleague greeted me: “Hey, how’d the training go?”

I sighed. “Not great. I ran over an imaginary child.”

My colleague grinned. “How did the imaginary parents take it?”

I laughed in spite of myself.

Still, I put myself on the prayer list at church. Seriously. The youth minister consoled me: “Look, when the time comes, God will give you driving grace.”

He was right.

The first time I had to drive, on my own, with real kids, it wasn’t a magnificent Mercedes bus but an old “cheese box,” as the kids say. I boarded with driving grace in my head and rosary beads in my pocket, given to me by a friend – and I’m not even Catholic.

I – and more importantly, the kids – lived to tell about it.

In fact, my driving the first-graders on their field trip to the movies (a trip of about three miles, consisting of three turns, one of which I took too close with a back wheel going over the curb, causing the bus to sway and the kids to scream), made their writing journals. When the teacher asked them to write about their favorite part of the trip, our entire class wrote various versions of this, with various spellings: “My favorite part of the field trip was when Mrs. Haley drove the bus.” On all the pages I was depicted at the wheel of the big yellow monster, my hair flying in the breeze for some reason, and smiling.

In the eyes of the kids, apparently, I was a great success.

I consider my mastery of the yellow monster my most dubious achievement, closely followed by my passing a college course on golf. No animals ever ran in front of me, all the kids got home, and other than the door handle rolling off one day and causing me to drive back to school with the stop sign out and all the lights flashing so that every car on both sides of the road pulled over, I am happy to report that I only had to drive a handful of times without incident until I finished the teaching degree and moved on, when I no longer had to drive a bus.

It did, indeed, get me where I needed to go.

Those obstacles that stand in the way of what we want, where we want to go – there’s no shortcut, no way over or around them. The only way is through, even when it doesn’t seem feasible, beneficial, or possible.

Whatever it is, whether it looms in front of you, in your past, or inside you, face your monster. Look it in the eye.

Then make up your mind to master it.

Grace be with you.

Fresh-cut grass

Grass

Grass. montillon.aCC BY

As daylight hours grow longer, spring stretching toward summer, the hum of a lawnmower is ever-present in my little neighborhood.

Yesterday my younger son mowed our lawn. When I arrived home after work, there stood Banjo, our yellow Lab, with his front paws on the wooden gate leading to the backyard, barking his welcome. As I walked from the car to pet him, the clean, green fragrance of fresh-cut grass also rose to meet me.

It’s the smell of home, of childhood, of long ago.

I closed my eyes against the waning afternoon light. In the cool of the day, for a second, I was there, in another neighborhood, another yard.

My father was so proud of the corner lot he bought in the summer before I started school. This was our first house. Up until then our family had lived in apartments. At the time, having two bathrooms (really a bath and a half – my sister and I dubbed them The Big Bathroom and The Little Bathroom) seemed a great luxury.

By the front steps to the left of the sidewalk stood the black lamppost. Beyond this, the yard sloped toward a chestnut tree and the ditch, which entered our yard from under the street and joined the backyards of all the houses on the block. When I wanted to visit my friends, I took the shortcut, running alongside the ditch. (This ditch sometimes caused flooding, which is  another story starring my dad: The secret gates.)

A maple tree stood on the right side of the front yard. My mother’s gardenia bushes and forsythia comprised a small hedge near the front steps, and at the right corner my father eventually planted a camellia bush, brought from his own childhood home.

My father kept our lawn immaculate.

He did it for years with a push mower. I wonder now if he ever rued having that corner lot with so much grass to cut, especially in the summer when his fair face grew florid from the sun and heat. He wore a towel around the back of his neck to wipe away the sweat.

I played outside a lot as a child; the scent of grass wafted through many games and adventures with my sister, the neighborhood kids, the dogs.

I can’t remember the first time the fragrance brought a pang. It just hit me one day: I stopped, inhaled.

Fresh-cut grass.

Daddy. 

For a split second, I was a child again, standing in the front yard in the cool of the day, glimpsing the streets, feeling the hum of everyday life, lazy afternoons, the maple tree stirring.

The sense of order, continuity, stability behind it all is my father.

All present and real in that clean, green smell.

Our last phone conversation was about his cutting the grass. He had a riding lawnmower by then:

“My chest is sore. I think it’s from turning the wheel on the mower. I probably shouldn’t have gone over the yard twice.”

“Why do you need to do it twice, Daddy?”

“Well, I don’t need to do it twice. I like to cut it in one direction and then the other. It makes a pattern. Looks so nice.”

“Has that made you sore like this before?” 

“Not really. I overdid it this time.”

“When do you go back to your heart doctor?”

“I don’t go to him any more. Once you’re healed they see you for a while but then they release you. I only see a regular doctor when it’s time for check-ups.”

I don’t like the sound of this. He’s been mowing his lawn forever and hasn’t been sore. It could be overexerted muscles, but . . . 

“Daddy, you should go back to the cardiologist. Just in case.”

He didn’t make the appointment. His mind was on getting through his last week of work and retiring after nearly forty-one years as a security guard at the shipyard.

Four days later, on a bright, early-fall morning, he walked across his prized lawn for the last time. He was in uniform, going to work. He had three more working days to go.

The neighbor across the street happened to look through her window and saw him lying beside his car.

It was his heart, of course. It just blew, six years after his first attack and bypass surgery.

He died there by the green, green grass of home.

That’s a damned sad song, he once told me, shaking his head. “The Green, Green Grass of Home.” That and “Danny Boy.” When I was stationed in Las Vegas, at the nightclubs somebody always asked for “Danny Boy.” Why do people like songs about dying? Why not ask for something cheerful, for God’s sake?

Something cheerful.

It’s not a song, Daddy, just a blog post about fresh-cut grass, but there’s cheer in it, because the grass, though cut, always heals itself and grows again, and you are always present in that sweet scent, and I am a child without a care in the world, only I don’t realize it yet.

I do now.

Thank you for everything. I owe you much.

Love you.

* * * * *

Daddy - USAF

Daddy served in the United States Air Force before I was born. Memorial Day seems to be a fitting time to honor him. Although his service to his country was long past, he was nevertheless in uniform and on his way to perform his duty when he died – one of the most dutiful men I’ve ever known. He was also a storyteller. With Daddy, stories occasionally became epics, as he liked to talk and frequently got in trouble for that in school, according to my grandmother. I owe my love of story in large part to them. Here are two favorite stories of mine derived from theirs, featuring all of us:  Born and Baby’s breath.

Making adjustments

Poor Banjo

Poor Banjo!

Banjo is my family’s 18-month-old yellow Lab. If he can be summed up in one word, it’s exuberant. If two words – wildly exuberant. He is a force to be reckoned with, ninety-one pounds of raw energy barreling toward us at top speed in hopes of 1) eating something or 2) having us throw a ball or stick for him to retrieve. Endlessly. Banjo goes into a frenzy if he thinks we’re about to stop throwing said ball or stick, the bodily equivalent of shouting NONONONONOPLEASEPLEASEPLEASEPLEASE!!!! His beautiful gold-green eyes (sky-blue when he was a baby) go pink around the rims; he often leaves us humans coated in a layer of frothy slobber, prompting us to quote Bill Murray’s line to Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters: “He slimed me.”

During attempted walks on the leash (key word: attempted – these walks are more like trying to restrain a steam locomotive), Banjo’s mouth foams to the point of looking rabid, unnerving to anyone who might recall a certain story about a big yellow dog exposed to hydrophobia. I mentally push this horrible connection away the instant it comes to mind. Managing Banjo has become something of a Herculean challenge, to say the least. Twice he’s escaped from us, running, barking and foaming, through our neighborhood, causing one woman to run into her house and giving young men chase. I corralled him once myself and got him safely to our fenced backyard. The other time my older son chased him for forty-five minutes, while Banjo had the time of his life ripping through neighbor’s yards and swimming in the pond across the street from our house. In disgust, my son gave up and stormed home, at which point Banjo, sopping with pond water, bounded back up the driveway.

Banjo escaped from the backyard recently, having dislodged two slats of the wooden fence by repeatedly jumping against them with his considerable weight. Looking at the slats, presently secured with bungee cords until we can nail them back properly, my husband said, “If we can’t contain him, we’re not going to be able to keep him.”

My turn to say NONONONONOPLEASEPLEASEPLEASEPLEASE!!!! 

Despite all, I love this wildly exuberant dog. He’s been with us since he was seven weeks old, a ball of yellow fuzz that slept in my lap or on my feet. Banjo’s presence represents hope and survival, his own as well as my husband’s during a dark time;  I wrote about it in The unplanned baby. How can I just give him up? Yes, he’s one giant mess. Sure, he sheds copiously, enough hair to make a whole other dog. Yes, he dug up the pipe leading from the propane tank by the back deck until the stench of gas frightened us all, giving us visions of the whole place blowing at any moment, until we buried the pipe again and built a small wall of cinder blocks around it. Banjo barked at these blocks nonstop, all day, every day, for about a month.

But when he goes into his crate at night, he looks at me with those golden-green eyes and waits patiently for me to reach through and rub him for a minute. When I do, he leans his head against my hand, closes his eyes, and savors every second – the sweetest, most loving of creatures.

If only he would stay this calm more often . . . .

It was inevitable, of course, and past time, really. It had to be done.

We took Banjo to be neutered.

We did not know until we picked him up that he’d be wearing a cone to keep him from interfering with his surgery site until it healed – for seven days.

“There’s no way,” I said, watching Banjo writhing, twisting, and jumping, trying to rid himself of this horrid thing around his head. But after a few minutes, he sat still, with his head hanging down. Subjugated, submissive, maybe even dejected, Banjo seemed to be contemplating this new, unfortunate turn of events.

In the subsequent days, he simply made the necessary adjustments.

He learned that he had to put the entire cone opening over his food and water bowl to eat and drink. I laughed at the sight. He looked like something straight out of science fiction, a vacuum-headed suction creature from another planet. He ran through the backyard, as exuberant as ever, with his cone pointed toward the sky like a morning-glory flower. He wanted to play so badly that, despite the cone, he managed to drag a five-foot pine limb thicker than my arm to me in hopes that I’d throw it for him.

He still waited for me to rub his head when he went into his crate to sleep.

“I am so sorry about all of this, Banjo,” I said, working my hand through the bars and past the cone.

He shifted his head to help me reach him, leaned against my hand, and closed his eyes. So accepting and forgiving.

I rubbed him an extra-long time, tears stinging my own eyes.

My husband and I took the cone off after four days. We couldn’t stand it anymore.

Banjo is healed now, running unfettered again in the backyard each day of this glorious, sunny spring. He never fails to lift my spirits, this big, beautiful, messy boy. He reminds me that setbacks are temporary, that whatever pain and hardships come, there’s something good waiting just on the other side. Accept, make the necessary adjustments, carry on – cheerfully.

Just another of life’s lessons from an exuberant yellow dog that will hopefully be calmer now.

Regardless, here’s the truth about Banjo: He doesn’t belong to me. I belong to him.

Always.

Reflection: What are the necessary adjustments must you make in your own life, currently? Think acceptance, forgiveness, healing, moving beyond. What’s the something better that might be waiting on the other side of the struggle, the pain? Write your truths.

 

Born

“They said it would be a while,” announced the young man, as he came through the apartment door. “I gave the nurses your number – I figured I could wait here just as good as at the hospital, since it’s so close.”

“Yes, that’s true!” beamed his mother, closing the door behind him. “I’m so glad you came!”

The young man’s father nodded from the table. “You’re just in time for strawberry shortcake. Come have a bite.”

The young man seated himself at the table while his mother dished up another serving of shortcake topped with freshly-whipped cream. He’d hardly tasted it when the telephone rang. He froze – it couldn’t be the hospital, could it? 

His mother darted to the phone: “Hello? Yes … yes he is.”

She held the receiver out to him.

Was something wrong? Despite the juicy strawberries, his mouth was dry as he took the phone.

“Congratulations!” said the chipper nurse on the other end. “You have a daughter! Mother and baby are doing fine.”

He managed to thank the nurse. He hung up and looked into the rapt blue eyes of his parents.

“It’s a girl,” he said, blinking. “She’s already here!”

His mother hugged him. She began to cry.

In a flurry, they gathered the dishes and set them in the sink. His mother took off her apron and grabbed her pocketbook. His father put on his black cap, and the three of them fairly scrambled out of the kitchen door and down the back stairs.

His mother-in-law and sister-in-law were standing at the nursery window when the young man arrived with his parents in tow. 

Said his sister-in-law: “It’s a girl – finally!” She sounded almost wistful, having no children of her own.

Turning to hug the young man, his mother-in-law said: “Looka there – a granddaughter, after five grandsons! I thought this baby might come fast. All of my mine did.”

“Mine did, too,” said the young man’s mother, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

The mother-in-law took her by the arm.”Come up close and see your first grandbaby.” And she stepped back to let the new grandmother near the nursery window.

“Ohhhh,” whispered the young man’s mother, gazing through the glass. “She looks just like a little angel.” Tears streamed down her cheeks, unabated. 

Her son, the brand-new father, peered through the glass beside her, frowning. He hadn’t known exactly what to expect, but one thing was for sure – the newborn wasn’t pretty. “Good Lord. She looks just like Daddy.” 

Everyone laughed at that. It was true – the wrinkly, ruddy newborn had hardly any hair and looked like a little old man – indeed the image of her granddaddy, who beheld her silently, smiling, his heart bursting with pride. He thought of the twenty silver dollars he’d collected  for his first grandchild. One day when this baby was old enough, he’d give them to her.

The in-laws congratulated each other on one side of the glass as the baby slept soundly on the other, while somewhere in the bowels of the hospital, the baby’s mother wanted to know when she was getting some supper, since the baby’s arrival had preempted it.

Thus was I born, that long-ago evening in May, strawberry season, in the city, when fathers were relegated to waiting rooms instead of witnessing and participating in births, before Cool Whip was even invented – alas.

As the day rolls around yet again, with every celebrant who gathered at the nursery window long passed on, it occurs to me that knowing the story of my birth is a gift. It ranks high, priceless, among all the gifts given me over a lifetime. I owe this mostly to my grandmother, a tireless storyteller, and some to her son, my father, who, in his matter-of-fact way, told me that my mother grumbled about missing her supper and that newborns aren’t pretty – not even his own! He made a similar observation at the funeral of his father – my grandfather – as we stood by the casket. “He looks really good,” I said, stroking Granddaddy’s snow-white hair for the last time, marveling at the smoothness of his skin. My father frowned: “I don’t know why people say that. Corpses don’t look good.”

Geez, Daddy.

Nevertheless, I cherish my birth narrative as told by those who were there.

Tonight I celebrate them and their truths, their personalities, their wit, their lives – and their stories, which allow me to see events from their perspectives. Tonight, for just a moment, I am at the window, watching through their eyes, when I am born.

The fascinating reciprocal, of course, is that because of their stories, they live on through mine.

Reflection: Do you know your birth – or adoption – narrative? If you do, write it down! If you don’t, ask, if possible. If not possible, well, that’s a powerful story in itself. Explore your beginning, experiment with perspective  – and write. And, by all means, if you know the birth stories of others – tell them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baby’s breath

Sleeping child

Angel1. peasapCC BY

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea. – Isak Dinesen

Being a light sleeper, he hears the rasping sound in the middle of the night. He gets up, tracing the sound to the baby’s crib. 

She’s not breathing right.

He touches her face; she isn’t feverish. She stirs under his hand, still sleeping, drawing ragged, rattling breaths.

He is young. This is his first child. They are out of town, visiting his sister in the country.

He goes back to bed.

But he carries his baby with him and lies awake all night beside her, to make sure she keeps breathing. He perspires with anxiety – she’s so little. 

Just three months old. 

“It’s asthma,” the doctors tell him later. 

A few years afterward, she has a bad bout of it. He takes her to the doctors, gets medication. She cries and cries, which doesn’t help the breathing.

“I – want – Grandma,” she wheezes, tears dripping off of her chin.

He calls his mother. “She wants to be with you but I hate to bring her when she’s sick.”

He sounds worn out.

“Bring her,” says his mother.

She lets all the housework go. Wrapping her arms around her granddaughter, she sits down in the rocking chair. Back and forth, back and forth she rocks, singing, “Little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong.”

Yes – Je – sus – loves – me – ” the little girl tries to sing, rattling, wheezing, coughing on the words. She can’t get enough air. 

“Don’t try to sing, honey. Just listen to me singing,” says her Grandma.

On and on Grandma sings. The little girl settles, dried tear stains streaking her flushed face. Lulled by the beating of her grandmother’s heart in time with the song and the rocking of the chair, her eyes close at last. Rocking back and forth, back and forth, Grandma sings, tears flowing freely down her cheeks. Be well. Be well. Be well.

The sweat and the tears couldn’t cure asthma.

They represent another kind of healing power.

Self-sacrificial love.

“I was afraid to sleep,” my father told me of the long-ago night he lay awake, sweating, to make sure I kept breathing when my first asthma attack struck at three months.  He would get up countless nights throughout the years when he heard me coughing, to bring me medication or to turn on the vaporizer.

It’s why my grandmother dropped everything to comfort me, always had open arms, always had a song despite the tears. “My heart was breaking the whole time,” she said, recalling the day I begged to stay with her and didn’t have breath enough to sing, the memory resurrecting the tears even after decades had passed.

The memories are theirs, not mine, as I have no firsthand recollection of these events; told to me separately by my father and grandmother, many times over, they are part of my narrative identity.

Sweat, tears. The pouring out of their lives for mine, the pouring of their love into me from the very beginning. I am infused with their strength, their perseverance.

And beyond the power of the sweat and the tears is the power of story.

I remain to tell it.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Laughing Buddha

Hotei

Hotei Buddha. Shanna RileyCC BY-SA

“Come see what your aunt brought you!” Mom calls. 

My aunt has given me some pretty neat gifts: A shirt with iron-on letters that say Bookworm and a Partridge Family album. She’s a fun person, sometimes, like when she records us singing Olivia Newton-John songs on her tape recorder and says we sound professional, or lets me try on her wigs.

I can hardly wait to see what she’s brought this time. I fly down the hall from my bedroom to the living room.

My aunt is smiling wide. She hands me something wrapped in brown paper, saying: “Be careful -it’s breakable.”

I unroll the wrapping, pull out the breakable thing.

It’s a statue. A little bald man with a big belly and no shirt, wearing only a skirt, with his hands up in the air. He is laughing – at me, I think, because I don’t know what in the heck he is.

He’s also solid pink. A little darker than Pepto-Bismol.

I am confused. 

“I made him in ceramics class,” my aunt says, looking pleased with herself. 

Every grown-up female I know is making ceramics or macrame or decoupage. But I’ve never seen anything like this fat little pink man.

“What is he?” I ask, feeling disgusted, while he laughs at me silently. 

I think about dropping him.

My mother glares at me.

“He’s Hotei. If you rub his belly, he’ll bring you good luck,” says my aunt.

I want to say he needs it for himself, but my mother speaks up:

“Look at what’s underneath.”

I turn Hotei head down. Under the base on which he stands is an inscription:

Made for Fran with love. Aunt E.

I look up at my aunt and see the earnestness in her eyes.

She never married, never had children of her own. When I went to high school, she attended my plays, convinced that I’d make it on the stage in New York City. She directed my wedding, bought dozens of outfits for my first child. When I started trying to write short stories, she asked to read my work.

“You should send this to magazines!” she said, genuine excitement in her voice. “You could be published!”

She didn’t live to see my second child.

Hotei sat on my bedroom shelf for many years, and yes, I rubbed his belly. Some days more than others.

But I didn’t need him for good fortune, not really.

I had my aunt.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

 

The storm passes by

Church after tornado 6-18-13

Our phones are popping at the same time:  “Take cover immediately . . . .”

Outside, the wind gusts; objects are striking the building, the windows.

We quickly gather the children who’ve come for Vacation Bible School – there’s about seventy of us in all – and they get down on the floor, balling up with their heads against the painted cinderblocks of the main hallway.

The wind is roaring now. The electricity goes out. The emergency lighting flashes on, bright as spotlights, adding a stark, garish quality to faces and bodies. The fire alarm goes off, a deafening blare, as it’s right above us. A boy with hearing aids rips them out of his ears.

The children are still, silent, as heavy objects strike windows in classrooms – will the windows shatter? For a split second I am tempted to look out and see if Miss Gulch is riding through the air on her bicycle just as she morphs into the Wicked Witch of the West.

Instead I kneel over several children as a shield, leaning my head against the cool concrete wall.

These walls are solid, I think. Safe.

But just around the corner in the fellowship hall is a hutch with a large, framed photo of the church when it was nearly flattened by a tornado twenty years ago.  

Minutes are eternal when destruction is banging on the door.

If we die, I think, at least we are in church.

My husband, the pastor, prays aloud.

The wind soon abates, dies away.  

We go outside to find long strips of vinyl from someone’s home strewn in the parking lot. Big pieces of plywood from who knows where are lying against the building. Shingles are scattered about like fall leaves. The trashcans are way across the graveyard – we trek over to fetch them and we see the gap in the woods where the tornado came through. It cut a path through the cemetery, knocking down a line of gravestones. Silk and plastic flowers, little angel statues and other loose memorials left by families for their loved ones are blown everywhere.

The children retrieve and replace them.

Parents begin arriving, alarmed. Others in the community come to see if everything’s okay.

Just as we are leaving, I turn back toward the church – “Look!”

Arcing up from the woods across the street to the woods behind the cemetery, in the sky directly above the church, a rainbow gleams.

All is well.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

My grandfather, St. Patrick

Columbus St. Patrick

Columbus St. Patrick Brantley, circa 1924-1925, age 18 or 19.

On a small family farm in Beaufort County, North Carolina, in late September of 1906, my great-grandmother had her fifth of ten children. Her previous children were named Franklin, James, William Hosea, and Penelope (not pronounced pe-nel-o-pee, mind you, but pen-a-lope, rhyming with cantaloupe).  Thankfully the girl was called Penny,  which the family spelled Peaney.

This new son was named Columbus St. Patrick.

We do not know why.

He wasn’t born on March 17th.

The family wasn’t Catholic; they were Baptists and Methodists.

Legend has it that a great-great ancestor came over from Ireland, but this isn’t evident in the family tree roots running deep in North Carolina and Virginia to the 1700s. In fact, as Columbus St. Patrick grew up, his southern dialect carried traces of Elizabethan English: He pronounced his brothers’ middle names as Acey and Hosey – that’s Asa and Hosea – and a neighbor’s name as Miss Etter, which I believed was spelled that way until I saw it on her mailbox: Etta.

His middle name troubled him.

I became fascinated by names around the age of five. My own given name is in honor of my grandmother, Ruby Frances. I asked her: “What’s Granddaddy’s middle name?”

“It’s just S,” Grandma replied.

“S?”

“Yes.”

“How can a name be S? That is just a letter.”

“It’s an initial. He had his name changed to an S.”

I didn’t know anyone could do that. Your name is your name; it’s who you are.

Grandma went on: “It’s S because his middle name was St. Patrick and it bothered him his whole life, so he changed it.”

Even as a preschooler who knew nothing of Saint Patrick yet, I felt a pang at this. What a magical-sounding name. Strange, but pretty.

Later that day I crawled into his lap and in the blunt way of children, asked: “Granddaddy, why did your mother name you St. Patrick?”

Granddaddy shook his head, briefly drawing a hand over his face as if to brush the thought away.

“I have no ideer,” he replied, sighing.

Those who did know were already long gone.

When St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, of course I think of Granddaddy. He was St. Patrick. He was a man of faith and a man of the earth, a farmer; Saint Patrick is depicted holding a cross and a shamrock. Saint Patrick sailed on ships in the fifth century; his namesake built them in World War II. Columbus St. Patrick spent his life serving others, putting their needs ahead of his own, always a compass for doing what is right, what is good.

The venerated saint is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland. I recall Granddaddy killing copperheads with a hoe on the dirt road of his country home when I was a child. When he grew too old to manage the hoe, he simply grabbed his shotgun and that was it for the copperheads. No harm was going to come to his own, not on his watch.

“Never kill a black snake,” he told me. “They keep rats and mice away.”

I suppose it would not do for North Carolina to be rid of all snakes.

Today I celebrate my heritage as do many others, but I suspect very few can say they are St. Patrick’s granddaughter.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Follow the light

Hermit crab

Hermit crab. Jessica DiamondCC BY-SA

Daddy has a story to tell this morning:

“Last night, a sound woke me up.  I got out of bed and listened.  A steady clinking was coming from the bathroom. I thought: What in the devil could be making that noise in the bathroom? I went and looked around – didn’t see anything. I bent down to look at the pipe under the sink. Nothing. The noise was much closer, though, almost right in my ear . . . I turned my head and there on the sink leg was that hermit crab, crawling up. His shell was hitting against the metal leg – that was the clinking.”

I look in the glass bowl where my pet crab Shermie lives. He’s completely inside his black-and-white shell now, obviously sleeping off his late-night adventure. 

“He got out of his bowl and went that far? Why would he do that, Daddy?”

 “I guess he was following the light.”

The bowl is in the living room. I look at the hallway. The bathroom is at the end, around the corner on the right. That’s an awfully long way for a little crab. I imagine him crawling along the hardwood floor past the bedrooms in the dark. It’s a good thing none of us got up and stepped on him. 

Shermie’s stalk eyes peek out of his shell and I wish I could ask him: Why were you trying so hard to get to the light?

Maybe it wasn’t the light. A quick skim of the Internet reveals that hermit crabs are nocturnal creatures which often climb out of cages at night, when they would normally be in search of food and water; in the wild, they do this in droves, traveling for miles. When a pet hermit crab escapes – apparently quite a few do – the experts say to check the bathroom, as the crab might be seeking the humidity of its natural habitat.

In the days before the Internet, however, we didn’t know all of this.

For years I thought of that tiny creature and the Herculean task of climbing out of a wide, smooth glass bowl – how, I do not know to this day – to make his way, alone, through the dark toward the only light in the house.

And I would think: If Shermie could figure out where the light is, then so can I. There’s a light to follow out of this darkness, somewhere. I’ll find it. I’ll climb out.

slice-of-life_individual Early Morning Slicer

 

 

A long time ago in a Galaxie far, far away

Galaxie

Truly wonderful the mind of a child is. – Yoda

A long time ago in a Galaxie far, far away . . .

A little girl clutches Mama Bear and Papa Bear. Baby Bear has accidentally been flushed down the toilet.  Clad in a mod red pantsuit instead of a long white dress, and with hair too short for cinnamon buns on the sides of her head, the little girl is nevertheless a princess of sorts, if not a rebel. Yet.

“Stand right there and smile,” says the little girl’s grandmother, who snaps a picture. The little girl really cannot not see the camera, as the sun is in her eyes. She smiles anyway.

Behind her stands the Galaxie  – a 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 that the little girl’s Granddaddy bought, used, for her Grandma. The exterior of the car is red. The interior is red, the fabric of the seats trimmed with silver cord.  The Galaxie doesn’t have power steering or air conditioning. In the summer its windows must stay rolled down if the people inside are to survive. Once it lost a hubcap and the girl’s Granddaddy had to run after it in the city streets.

Yet the Galaxie represents power, things far beyond the little girl. Ford Motor Company named it for the Space Race before the success of the United States over the Soviet Union, which came to pass in 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The little girl has no memory of this event but likes watching Star Trek with her dad: “Beam me up, Scotty.” She sings The Jetsons theme song:  “His boy, Elroy . . . .” She loves the Jetsons’ dog, Astro. Space gets up close and personal in March of 1970, around the time this picture is taken. A total eclipse occurs in the southeastern United States. The little girl’s family and all the neighbors run out of their apartments in an excited frenzy to watch it. A hush, a stillness, falls over them as the bright day goes as dark as night. The sun disappears,  becoming a mere halo around the huge, black moon. 

“Don’t stare at it,” says Grandma, drawing the little girl close. “It will hurt your eyes.”

The little girl stares anyway, because it is so strange to see the sun go dark.

The world was changing fast. So was my universe. In the year following the eclipse, my grandfather retired. He’d been a shipbuilder since World War II. “We turned out ships in three months in during the war,” I recall him saying, “when it used to take a year.” The war had been over for twenty-five years and it was time to go home; my grandparents packed everything, loaded the Galaxie, and returned to the remote outskirts of Aurora, North Carolina – a tiny town named after the Roman goddess of the dawn. I thought at first it was named for Sleeping Beauty.

My summer voyages began. There on the old dirt roads where my dad ran and played as a child, I learned how to drive with that Galaxie. It was, after all, more indestructible than the Death Star. It was still running after the birth of my first child. My grandparents finally gave it away to the man who hauled trash off for them.

It’s probably running still, somewhere.

Which is more than can be said of our spacecraft.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer