Home Town Tales

Idle chat from the square

April 14th, 2016

Last Rites part 2

This was fair warning not to enter the territory of religion, but I couldn’t resist.

“What do you mean you couldn’t do it? Jim’s wishes were clear. You, Joe, and I made a pack, as kids in the holly hill gang. We promised to carry out Jim’s wishes; it’s not our choice to make any changes.”

As a matter-of-fact the holly hill gang had made the promise many years earlier after my Aunt Viola’s wake. Aunt Viola made woman’s hats and could have coined the term “mad as a hatter”. I think she developed dementia from the mercury used in making the hats. Aunt Viola made us all crazy, even in death. Wakes in those days meant you waked, as in staying up all night with the dearly departed to protect them and make sure they made it to wherever they were headed. Aunt Viola’s wake and funeral were not at a funeral home, but in the front parlor of my house. God only knows why they felt Aunt Viola needed protection, who would want to steal her is beyond me. She never wanted to be embalmed in case she really wasn’t dead so the wake was the day after she died. This was the first wake for all of us so the process was new and intriguing. The whole holly hill gang, Jim, Mary, Joe and I came to my house for a sleep over. The house was creepy as if it were the one mourning for Aunt Viola. Black cloth draped the mirrors to keep the soul’s reflection from being captured on earth and never moving on. There was a black wreath and black cloth draping the entrance door. All the clocks were stopped at the time of her death. I wasn’t sure what moving on meant, but the thought of Aunt Viola stuck in my house for eternity terrified me. It was enough to keep me awake all night. Mary of course said she wanted to be there because it was the proper pious thing to do for a soul who has passed. Even at ten she was a pain in the ass. Mary suggested we go to the parlor and pray. Since none of us were going to be able to sleep this sounded like a good plan. My family was Methodist and we didn’t believe in the public show of piety as was seemingly demanded of Mary’s Catholic faith, but if praying meant Aunt Viola would not be caught in a mirror, I was game. We timidly descended the stairs and peeked into the front parlor.

Uncle John was on watch sitting in the red velvet Victorian chair, but the only protection he was giving Aunt Viola was his snoring which was loud enough to scare off any evil spirits. My fear was it was loud enough to wake the dead, in this case Aunt Viola. Mary went straight to the casket knelt and started praying, while the rest of us decided to have a closer look at Aunt Viola. We peaked over the edge of the casket and straight into Aunt Viola’s face. None of us had seen a dead person before so we were not sure of what to expect. I for one wanted to make sure she was dead. At the precise moment we were inspecting Aunt Viola her whole body jerked, I guess it’s called rigor mortis. We three boys ran from the room with Mary shrieking, crossing herself, and clutching a rosary. Once safe behind the locked door of my bedroom, which Mary was guarding with a crucifix, Jim, Joe, and I took a solemn oath to be cremated because the thought of ending up like Aunt Viola was too gross. Mary of course would not take the vow, Catholics don’t believe in cremation.

Mary’s convictions still hold her captive, they are dogma to be followed to the last Hale Mary but she should realize by now it’s wasted on me, however it didn’t stop her from trying, “Harry the Catholic Church permits cremation but I will not accept it. When Christ raises the dead we’ll need our body parts. If you spread Jim to the winds he’ll never come back together, he’ll suffer in purgatory for eternity or worse, rot in hell.”

Given our history Mary should know not to get me started on this subject. You see Mary was continuously trying to change Jim; she was forever playing the role of Yenta. It is Mary’s belief Jim was gay because he hadn’t found the right girl, so she offered up for sacrifice girl after girl hoping to find the perfect match for him. Mary even tried to target me, but I informed her she would be better off praying for my soul because I was going to be a gay man until I die, and if there was afterlife there also. I wondered if the protests were really because of her faith or because it was the proper attitude to keep peace in the family. I said, “That will please you and your conservative family. Didn’t you already think Jim’s lifestyle was sinful, and doomed him to an eternity of hellfire and damnation, so what does it matter if he were cremated? I’m sure you spend many hours praying for your homosexual brother’s soul. You must be going broke buying all those candles to light.”

Mary was really into this now; she put the tissue in her purse and sat it down on the table allowing the full use of her hands to bring the point home. “Yes I pray something you should think about.”

“I do pray Mary, in my own way,” I said, “But I don’t need my friends to know what I do. As a matter of fact I was praying this morning to be able to have the strength to come here at all. I’m here now. I consider it to be a sign of Jim’s direct intervention with God.”

“What does a tight ass Lutheran know about direct intervention from God? Harry, you don’t want to be seen in public practicing your faith.” Mary was on a role,” Just what right do you have to lecture to me? Don’t tell me how to practice my Catholicism.”

“I am Methodist not Lutheran. The soul doesn’t need a body to survive,” I added, “However, there are two parts Jim would be interested in saving and I am positive he would find them among his ashes. Jim never had problems finding any part of his body that gave him pleasure.”

We had accelerated to bitch fight status. Mary was shocked beyond tears; she called me a heathen among other things. “Lutheran, Methodist all you Protestants are alike. I believe at death we go to the heavenly realm of God with Christ.   In heaven sex is not necessary we relish in the love of God and it is sufficient to sustain us.”

“It may not be necessary but I guarantee in my heaven and in Jim’s heaven there will be sex.”   I was certain of Jim’s view, we talked extensively about death. “Jim believed heaven is like making passionate sex but without the guilt, especially the guilt you and your Catholic Church impose.” Perhaps I had gone a little too far with Mary.


November 24th, 2015



If being a sinner means to be estranged from God, then Jim was not a sinner. I have known Jim since first grade, over forty years, and I don’t think once in all those years did he emotionally separate from or turn his back on God. However, there were a few times when he did question the judgment of certain world circumstances and the lack of an apparent response from God. I personally think Jim is a valid candidate for sainthood; he was without doubt venerable and heroic in his virtues. Jim had ample faith in his ability to get any man he wanted into his bed and he never lost hope in this quest, even to the point of offering charity sex now and then. The AIDS scare forced Jim into the practice of prudence and temperance, though as it ultimately turned out, the actions he took were too late for him. Jim always believed in justice and the conformity of moral rightness in his actions. Just ask any of the anti-gay demonstrators who roamed the streets on Mardi Gras day damning all to hell if they did not repent. Jim thought it was his moral duty to oppose their single-minded hate. If the demonstrator was a hunk, especially good looking, Jim would practice temperance in his moral righteousness. As for fortitude, the boy could go on for hours, an energizer bunny, not just in sex but in his indignation of those who would find his life sinful. Yes, I would say Jim had prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, to a heroic degree. I wasn’t asked to be the promoter of Jim’s cause, but by my recollection, he is definitely venerable, possessing all the qualities necessary for becoming a saint.

Jim thanked God every day for the life he had been given and in his time on earth did his best to give praise every day. This praise was especially notable when Jim had sex. He called out to God in thanks for the blessings of this life. Jim could be heard shouting vociferously, “Oh God, oh God ….oh God!” Jim’s sister, Mary, a devout Catholic, would take the position as the Devil’s advocate. Because of his expressed desires for the affections of other men, regardless of any of his other traits, Mary feels Jim lived in sin his whole life. His homosexuality alone makes him a sinner in her eyes.

In his death, Jim has already produced one miracle. He got me to a funeral again. I had sworn off funerals since losing too many friends to the big A, AIDS. Because of this miracle, Jim must be enjoying the Beatific Vision, which is seeing God without someone or something censoring. Exactly the way Jim always wanted to know God. According to Catholic doctrine all we need is one more miracle, and we can present Jim as a saint. However, there is already a Saint James. Maybe if I pray hard enough Mary’s opinion of Jim’s fate could be changed and there would be the second miracle, which is the only reason I am going to Jim’s wake and if not successful there, maybe his funeral.

I didn’t stop going to funerals just because I have lost so many friends, but because I dislike funeral homes. I’m offended by their pretense insolently sailing under false colors. The employees talk in hushed whispers as if a normal conversational voice would disturb the dead and the last thing I need is the dead telling me to shut up. I have enough people who are still living telling me to keep my mouth shut. Today, Bob, the funeral director, is guarding the parlor door like Cerberus guarding Hades. He performs the duties with the grace of a ballet dancer who’s choreographed his movement along with a bevy of stable boys in the wings ready to dance at the slightest sound of a need from a mourner. One of the boys takes my coat, does a pirouette and meticulously hangs it up. Trained to miss no detail, the boy, John, could be removing Queen Elizabeth’s robes and jewels. With a precise half turn, he points to the parlor and says, “This way please.”

Bob is not as graceful in his greeting of the mourners, he has a forced sincerity perfected over his many years of experience, “Harry, I haven’t seen you since your mother’s funeral. It’s such a shame we can only meet old friends at times like this.” The words are empty and flat, like an actor in a long running play who’s become indifferent to the role.
“Yes, Bob, isn’t it.” We were casual friends in High School, but I gladly lost contact long ago and the only time I see him is at family funerals. His greeting never changes, and we never meet outside the funeral home.

“I think you will be happy with how Jim looks. He seems at rest now, in a peaceful sleep, no more suffering.” Then Bob added, “Let me know what you think of the lighting. Our new soft blue lights help improve skin tone softening the features of the deceased.”

I thought to myself, isn’t that nice. Thank God it was not necessary to come up with a witty reply. Someone else demanded Bob’s attention as he was ushered away by one of the boys. I was probably a need to console another bereaved family. My comments would not have been kind. However good the body looks, to me they still look dead.

Jim’s coffin now captures my attention, not because it looks expensive, tastelessly showy with brass angels for handles, but because it’s there at all. Jim wanted to be cremated, his ashes spread to the whim of the winds carried off to an exotic land. Actually Jim did not care where his ashes ended up as long as it wasn’t in his hometown. He spent too much energy trying to escape its grasp to be brought back there in death. With any money he had left, Jim prearranged a wild party at John’s home. He said we could celebrate his rise to sainthood for the miracle that God had let him die before he could lead anyone else in the ways of sin. Jim indeed led a large number of men to the sins of the flesh, and some would agree it is indeed a miracle he was allowed to die and not left to suffer with his illness any longer. If they were God they would decree he should suffer not die. Having already stated my position on this matter, I will only say I still think he met the qualities of a venerable human being, not a sinner. However, the bum did take some of my prized catches that got loose from my hook. Chalk it up to his fortitude and faith in getting the men he wanted.

I notice there’s a man at the kneeler praying. Damn it, I wanted to get here early so I could sign the guest book, and escape. I have no desire to talk to anyone except Mary, and I do not intend to view Jim’s body despite the effect of Bob’s new lighting. I can pretend to be reading the names on the floral bouquets until he leaves. My deception is interrupted when Jim’s sister, Mary, taps me on the shoulder. Turning to hug her, I notice tears have streaked the makeup Mary is famous for.
“I’m so glad you’re here, I know funerals are not your thing.” Mary could barely talk through her sobs.“Especially ones with open coffins, didn’t Jim want to be cremated?” I asked trying to be polite without prodding too much.

Mary responded, “He did, but I just couldn’t do it.” She stopped crying, and her mood became authoritarian, resembling our high school principle after catching us in the bushes smoking.

November 3rd, 2015

Indian Summer



For over 200 years, The Old Farmer’s Almanac has adhered to the saying, “If All Saints’ (November 1) brings out winter, St. Martin’s (November 11) brings out Indian summer.” So I guess according to them it is technically not Indian summer. However in this case, it is warm 70’s and has followed a period of cold, but I’ll go with The Farmer’s Almanac and say it’s not yet Indian Summer. My grandfather swore by it, counted on its knowledge, its dates, its predictions to organize his farming life. My grandmother wished he swore as much to the Bible.

Some say the early Algonquian Native Americans believed that the condition was caused by a warm wind sent from the court of their southwestern god, Cautantowwit.

The origin probably goes back to the very early settlers in New England. Each year they would welcome the arrival of a cold wintry weather in late October when they could leave their stockades unarmed. But then came a time when it would suddenly turn warm again, and the Native Americans would decide to have one more go at the settlers. “Indian summer,” the settlers called it.

Whatever the meaning or where it came from, for me it was always a time of harvest, a time to be in the field with my father, help my grandfather drive the truck, and a time to thank God for another year that the earth sustained us.

August 17th, 2015

Scent of Love III

hat and gloves

I’ve never been to Disney Land, but I didn’t really need it. I have my own Main Street, except in this case it’s a square, and it even has its own cast of characters. Carol Davenport is always there on Saturdays and still tries to pinch my cheek, even in public. Maude Davis is the waitress at the Rexall Drug lunch counter. With a Camel cigarette hanging from her red lips, she has a smile for everyone who enters. Best of all, each time John and I order fries and a coke she says, “If you share those fries I’ll get your friend a free coke.”

The weather is nice, so I expect to find old man Blue sitting on a bench in front of Greeks Tavern. I don’t know his real name. Everyone calls him old man Blue. I don’t know why, but Grandma says to be polite and call him Mr. Blue. As I leave the car, I see him. He’s smoking a pipe and is in blue coveralls with one strap hanging loose. He knows everyone’s name. When he sees me, he asks, “What you up today, Timmy Joe? Not spending all that allowance are you?”

It’s only 12:30 and John said he wouldn’t be here until 1:00, so I sit next to old man Blue to talk. “I’m waiting for John. We’re going to get some fries and a Coke at the Rexall and then go to the movies. Roy Rogers is on today.”

He takes the pipe out of his mouth and points it at me. “You want to be like Roy Rogers, be a cowboy?”

“Yes, more than anything. I’ve got a Roy Rogers lunch box, chaps, a cowboy hat, and a gun belt with a six shooter.”

“Well, be careful, don’t go killing anybody.”

“It’s not a real gun. I just pretend.” I see a friend of Grandma’s coming down the street and I want to talk to her. “Mr. Blue, I’ve got to go.”

Old man Blue put his pipe back in his mouth, takes a puff, blows out white smoke, and finally nobs his head. “Well — enjoy yourself and stay out of trouble”

Grandma’s friend is Irene. Behind wire-rimmed glasses, her eyes dance as she looks at me. They sparkle, and I feel happy when I see her. She loves movies. “Hey Timmy Joe, what’s at the movies today?”

“It’s Roy Rogers, Miss Irene.”

“I was hoping it was Frances the Mule or Ma and Pa Kettle,” she says. When one of them is playing, she takes me and buys me Raisinets. She gets Sugar Babies.

Irene always wears a hat, Minnie Pearl style. Today it’s small, with a veil, boxy, except without the price tag. She’s short and wears black lace shoes with white gloves, just like Grandma. Today she’s in a blue flowered dress and smells like roses, most likely the body powder, probably uses it like Grandma. Her money and a lace handkerchief is kept in a zippered black purse. She never appears lonely, but she’s always alone. I’ve never seen her with a man, so I guess she’s not married, and I never see her with kids of any age.

Since Irene will not be going to the movies, she gets in the back seat of the car to talk to Grandma. It’s time for me to find Grandpa. He’s always good for some extra money. I’ll need it if John and I are going to movies and getting fries at the Rexall.


August 2nd, 2015

The Scent of Love II

As we left, Grandma did not bother to lock the house. The black iron skeleton key remained in the lock. Grandpa sat in his tan Buick with an unlit King Edward cigar in his mouth, and as Grandma opened the car door, she said, “Sherman, don’t light that thing while we’re driving.” She then pulled down the sun visor and inspected her blue pillbox hat, took out the hatpin, made a few adjustments, and then repositioned the pin.

Grandpa said nothing. He raced the Buick’s engine, let it die down a little, and then put it in reverse. Like clockwork, Grandma bugged him. “Sherman, I don’t know why you need to race that engine.” It was the same as all other car trips. Grandpa would race the engine, and Grandma would complain. It was comforting to know that in a rapidly changing world of a young boy, some things never changed.

The road was oiled each spring in front of the house, a failed attempt to keep the dust down from the rest of the gravel road. In the country, the road no name, but when you reached the city limit, it was called Madison Street. One of my best friends, John, lived in a new subdivision at the city limits. I couldn’t see his house from the road, so I didn’t know if he and his parents had left. I was supposed to meet him on the square.

At the top of a slight rise, before you crossed Coon Creek was Peggy’s house, another friend. Her family ran a nursery center. She had to help out Saturdays, so I rarely saw her on those days, which was a shame, because for a girl, I kind of liked her. The bridge across Coon Creek was only one lane and a little scary. Grandma would hold her breath, but Grandpa never missed the running boards.

After Coon Creek, we were in the town proper and headed to the square. We turned on Main street at the Dairy Queen, just past Grandma’s Baptist Church. On my left was the Clintonia Theater where a double feature was playing, Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Mule. We crossed Monroe Street, which still had the tracks of the old inter-urban electric train. The square was just ahead. The popcorn smell always lured me in to spend a nickel of my allowance for a bag. It was at Main Street and the Square, in front of Gottlieb Mens’ Clothing Store.

Grandpa looked for the perfect parking spot. It had to be on the Northeast side of the square, out of the afternoon sun, and ideally in front of Woolworth’s Five and Ten. From there it was easy for him to get to The Greek’s Tavern for a beer and a game of pool. At one time or another, everybody needed something from Woolworth’s. A place there would assure Grandma would have plenty of visitors to the car for gossip. Grandpa didn’t have to circle. There was a spot between Woolworth’s and the tavern, in front of Montgomery Wards. After we parked, it was time to explore the square.

July 20th, 2015

The Scent of Love

Tuesday – Thursday, July 21 – 23 my novel Square Affair is available as a free E-book on Amazon.


As its white particles landed on the dinning room table, she emerged from a white dust cloud, and the room was filled with the scent of lilacs. Grandma still held the powder puff in her hand by its pink satin ribbon. I watched as she gave one final pat to her chest and placed the puff back into the round decorated box with painted flowers on top.

We had just finished lunch: fried pork chops, fried potatoes, biscuits and gravy, wilted lettuce salad, and cherry pie for dessert. Afterwards, I helped Grandma with the dishes that were now drying on the drain board of the kitchen sink. She hung her flowered bib apron on a hook next to the pantry and went to change out of her blue dress.

I sat in the wooden rocking chair while Grandma dressed for our trip to the town square and looked at her bed, a small cot in the dinning room next to the stairway. I wondered why she didn’t sleep with Grandpa in one the many bedrooms upstairs. The dinning room buffet held her slips, bras, underwear, and girdles. As she took off her dress, I looked at her jewelry, hatpins, and powder box reflected in the mirror on top, that is until it disappeared in the cloud of lilac powder.

Once the powder settled, Grandma put on a white dress with blue cornflowers and then turned to me. “Timmy come over here and zip my dress.”

I walked through the lilac scent, stood on a dinning room chair and zipped her dress. She then took a necklace with blue stones and held it to her neck. “Now, fasten this.”

As I closed the latch on her silver chain, we heard Grandpa in the green 1954 Buick. He got it used last month from his neighbor, John Day. John now owned a new 1958 red Buick, it’s fins so big, it looked as if it could fly.

Grandpa liked his Buick, and he impatiently sat in it, waiting for Grandma to finish getting ready. He wanted a good parking spot on the town square. The best spot was in front of Woolworth’s, close to the dress shops for Grandma, and Greek’s Tavern for Grandpa, but most importantly, he needed an ideal spot to catch up on gossip.

The car was parked in the drive under an open kitchen window, and when Grandpa floored the idling Buick, a roar echoed through the house. “Go tell your Grandpa, I’ll be there in a jiffy, and to stop gunning the car.” I never heard them argue, but Grandma could never stand Grandpa racing the car engine. I was also eager to go. The afternoon movie started at 2 and I wanted to get there in time for a front row seat.

To be continued.

July 6th, 2015

Boy Wins Battle With Garden Hose

Little boy playing with garden hose

Little boy playing with garden hose


When I wanted to play Mom or Dad would give me a chore. This time it was Mom. Before she left for work, Mom told me to water the garden. “It’s been hot. You need to water the vegetable garden for me today. There hasn’t been any rain, so the vegetables will die if they don’t get water. Don’t forget now.”
I didn’t see anything so wrong if the vegetables died. I didn’t like cabbage. The only time I’d l eat lettuce is if it was on a sandwich and then only with Miracle Whip. Carrots were yucky and tomatoes, I guess, were all right when Mom put them in spaghetti sauce. I couldn’t tell this to Mom. She’d tell me to pack up my portion and send it to China. There are plenty of starving kids there. She’d make me pay to mail it. I could only give in. “Okay Mom, okay. I won’t forget.” She knew I’d be watching my morning TV shows. I knew I better ask if could wait. “Can I finish watching the Lone Ranger?”
“I guess so, but make sure you get it done before it gets too hot.”
The Lone Ranger was getting exciting. He and Tonto were on the trail of stagecoach robbers. I wasn’t about to take my eyes off the television, so I answered Mom without looking at her. “I’ll go right after the show.” I added in my most convincing voice, “Honestly I will.”
I could feel the eyes on my back, not ordinary eyes. They were penetrating X-ray eyes, capable of seeing right through me, even hearing my thoughts. Lying was not possible with those eyes. Even the smallest fib would be caught. She was better than the Lone Ranger. Her eyes had the ability to force you to look at them, even though it was the farthest thing from your mind, so I wasn’t surprised when I found myself turning to face her. She asked, “Mickey Mouse comes on next, doesn’t it?”
“Don’t be watching it and water late, or forget. Are you listening?”
See I told you. Those eyes, they see and know everything. How did she know I was planning on watching Mickey Mouse? Wonder where she got that power? Do you think I’ve got it too? I’ll try it out on my sister later.
I could hear Lone Ranger calling, high ho, Silver and away we go. I was missing the best part. I’d promise almost anything to get rid of her eyes and get back to the television. “Yes, Mom, no Mickey Mouse.”
Mom’s eyes turned their attention to finding her purse. It allowed me to return watching the Lone Ranger. I listened for the screen door to close. It meant she was walking to the car, and soon I’d hear its wheels on the gravel driveway. Mickey Mouse came on at eight-thirty and ended at nine. There would be enough time to water after nine. It didn’t get really hot till around noon. Then I heard my sister. She thought she was boss when Mom was gone. “Aren’t you supposed to be watering the garden?”
“And aren’t you supposed to be making the beds and dusting?”
“Yeah, but I can do it anytime, and you’re supposed to water the garden before it gets hot.”
She turned and went to Mom and Dad’s bedroom. I could see her through the open door. I focused my eyes on her back and stared hard, willing myself not to blink. It didn’t work. She didn’t turn around, but she spoke. “Quit staring at me.”
Maybe it takes a little more practice, or it gets better as I get older. I kept staring to see what it would do. She was feeling it all right. “I said stop staring. I’ll tell Mom you didn’t go out after the Lone Ranger.”
She’d tell just to get me in trouble. One time she was so mad at me for not doing what she said she shoved me, and I fell out of my bedroom window. Good thing it was on the first floor. She never said she was sorry. That’s why I’m trying to see if I have the eye power. I can use it to get even.
I usually did what she said, so I went to my bedroom to get dressed. While I was getting out of my pjs, I pretended I was still staring at her. No response. I guess it doesn’t go through walls.
Giving up my experiment with x-ray eyes, I went outside to water the garden. Mom used the watering can because you had to put two hoses together, and, even then, it barely reached. She said it was less hassle with the can. Well maybe less hassle, but a lot more work. You had to walk back and forth to the faucet at least a gazillion times. No, I decided to use the hose and put my thumb over the end like Dad. I could get the entire garden wet that way, without a watering can.
The faucet was between the porch steps and the house. In order to make it reach the whole way, the hose had to go over the steps, and it had to stay in place. I got it just so and started watering. As long as it stayed put, it worked, but it kept falling off the steps.
I went to Dad’s tool shed to see what I could find to keep it in place. I decided on a couple nails and a hammer. Once I nailed the hose to the steps it stayed in place. There was less water coming out at end because it was spraying from around the nails, but I was still able to water the garden.
I was proud of how I had solved the hose problem, so I left it in place until Mom got home. I could show her that when she watered she wouldn’t have to work so hard. Excited, I ran out to greet her when I heard the car in the driveway. I didn’t want to miss the look on her face as she saw how I solved her problem, but it wasn’t the look I expected.
It started with the eyes again. They got wide as they saw the nails in the hose, like the bad guy when he sees the Lone Ranger’s gun. Then the eyes squinted as they searched and found me. “Timmy Joe what is this?”
Mom used Timmy Joe only when she was angry. She had the ability to yell it so loud I swear I could hear it at Grandma’s house, a mile away. I still thought if I explained it, she’d understand. “I solved your problem with the hose. It’ll stay in place now, and you won’t have to use the watering can.”
It wasn’t working, because this time the index finger joined the eyes. It’s almost an evil combination, enough to make a kid have nightmares. “But you’ve ruined the hose.”
“No, Mom, there’s still enough water to get the whole garden.”
She broke down then and started laughing. There were tears in her eyes.
“Your dad will not think it’s such a good idea. We better get it off the steps.”
I know we didn’t have enough money to buy new hoses, but Mom and I went to town to get them anyway. We got two longer ones this time. They reached all the way to the end of the garden. I told Mom to keep my allowance for two weeks to help pay for it. I don’t know if Dad ever knew, but I think he did. That night Dad was laughing so loud it woke me.
Bye the way, I’m still working on my stare.

June 15th, 2015

A Great Void part 3

Clyde Baker

Sitting on a small bench by her husband’s headstone, Zora was waiting.

Clyde spoke. “How was Ben today?”

Zora chuckled in short bursts, like she was hiccupping. “As usual, didn’t have much to say.”

Since Mary died, Clyde had not found anything funny, but this made him smile. “Not much different than when he was alive. Ben never was much for words.” Clyde’s solemn face returned like a hungry wolf to its prey. “All these tombstones, a permanent reminder of death. Are they meant to fill the void I feel when I can no longer talk to my brothers, my dad, my aunts and uncles?”

“There’s nothing stopping you from talking to them, Clyde. They will talk back, if you listen.”

“What are you talking about? They’re dead! They can’t have a conversation with me.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. Talk. You’ll hear answers. Their advice, wisdom, mistakes, and regrets were not buried with the body. They remain with you.” Zora stopped to pull a white embroidered handkerchief from her purse. “See this? My grandmother sewed it as a present for my wedding. Each time I use it, I hear her words. Love your husband, but don’t let him rule you. Love your kids, but don’t tie the apron strings too tight. Remember to keep the butter cold when you make biscuits.” Zora dabbed at a tear and then pointed to the family plot. “Go on, talk to your dad and your brothers. I’ll wait here for you.”

He stopped at the grave of Charles Young Baker, his father. What would his father say about this strange longing in Clyde’s heart? Maybe if his father had not died before Clyde married, he could have told him love is like a corn crop, planting is only the beginning; to make it grow you’ve got to cultivate it, till the ground, pull out any weeds threatening to strangle it.

Clyde could see his dad with his foot resting on the lower rung of the wooden fence surrounding their pasture. “That alfalfa sure looks green, but you can’t let the cows on it or cut it. It’s not yours. It’s John’s. Pining over something that’s not yours will get you nowhere.”

Next to his father’s grave, Clyde read Mary Anne on the headstone. They called his mother Polly, because there were too many Marys in the family. He could have talked to her about his marriage, but she was English, a proper lady, who did not openly discuss marital problems and certainly not anything to do with sex. She was not too fond of Mary. When Clyde told his mom he was marrying, she said, “At least she’s not Catholic.” Clyde knew his mom was a stoic wife. He could hear her talking to Mary. “A wife’s place is with her husband, regardless of what he does. Turn the other cheek, Mary. A woman is in no condition to fend for herself without a husband.”

None of Clyde’s brothers and sisters was alive. He struggled to remember conversations, words said to help him understand this longing, this regret. His father, his mother, his aunts, and uncles buried here had all emigrated from England, and he could see their eyes open wide with wrinkles of happiness when letters from home arrived. Clyde remembered a letter from his grandfather, Grevase, still in England, because his uncles cried as it was read aloud. I would have written sooner, but I have been ill and in bed for several days. Even as a small kid, Clyde knew these words could do nothing to soothe the longing for those left behind. They didn’t repair the rip in his uncles’ hearts. He wondered if those rips ever healed. Would his?

Clyde saw the grave markers for his uncles, William, Jarvis, and John. All had fought in the Civil War. Jarvis gave his life for the good of his adopted country, and that sacrifice is etched in his gray, fieldstone grave marker: An American citizen and soldier. A noble life devoted to honor and country.

Zora came up to Clyde and put her arm in his. “Time to go.”
A hint of a smile crept across Clyde’s face. “When we get to church, remind me to tell Martha that she needs to make her cherry pie extra sweet when it’s time for her to bake it for my funeral. My youngest, Millie, has a sweet tooth. I know she will complain if it’s not sweet enough.”

Zora tilted her head slightly and looked at Clyde over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses. “What made you think of that?”

“Cherry pie was Dad’s favorite dessert. He also liked it sweet.”

The two began walking. Zora waved her free arm to all the farmland surrounding the cemetery. “Look in any direction, and see the work of your aunts, uncles, and father. This land has thrived on the sweat of their bodies. Listen and you might hear the distant moo of a Holstein waiting to be milked by the dry, chapped hands of your aunt Eliza, perhaps her husband, William, starting up the thrashing machine, maybe it’s uncle Henry crying over the death of Martha, his first wife, or the wind rustling the green wheat.”

Clyde knew Zora was right. She spoke of the legacy of his family, but would he, Clyde, only be remembered for his failed marriage, his mediocre politics?
As he walked with Zora away from the graves of his family, Clyde knew there was more to the void left by the death of Mary, his family; it was the great void of God that he feared and yet longed for. They stopped at his pink marble headstone. His name, Clyde Ethel Baker, was waiting a final date. And he waited, hoping that death would be more than another void.

June 9th, 2015

A Great Void part 2

weldon cemetary

As the cars disappeared and the dust settled, Clyde, Joe, and the cemetery workers were the only ones left. Joe walked back to the gravesite.

Still standing by the drive, Clyde heard the wench groan and watched as the gravediggers lowered Mary’s oak coffin into the copper-lined vault, attached the lid, and transferred the mound of dirt. After the workers dismantled the tent and stacked the funeral parlor chairs into the van that had carried the bouquets and left, hat in hand, Clyde walked to the flower-draped grave. The ribbon on a spray of yellow roses said, Beloved Mom. A wicker basket of white lilies, lavender gladiolas, and green asparagus fern had a white ribbon with gold words, Cherished Grandmother. Aunt was inscribed on the ribbon in a bouquet of sunflowers, yellow daisies, pink roses, and baby’s breath. A white ribbon, saying Great-Grandma, was wrapped around a heart of red rosebuds. There were more, but these were the only bouquets he cared about. These were from his family

He knelt on the grass surrounding the grave and recited the Lord’s Prayer. He asked God for forgiveness. He had said things he regretted. His actions had caused harm. Clyde was sorry, and he would repent, if he knew how.

The sky sparkled in the sun like it a sapphire, and as Clyde watched a lone cloud float to the east, he heard a familiar voice. “Clyde, are you okay?”

It was his sister-in-law, Zora, Roy’s wife. “I didn’t see you.”

“I was in the car with Charles and Leta, but decided to get out and come back.”

Clyde looked to the sky. “I was wondering if the sparkling sky is God’s way of hiding heaven. Do you think Mary can see us? Would she be laughing at me standing by her graveside, showing love, too little, too late?”

Zora and Mary had been active in the Methodist church and remained friends after the divorce. “Mary and I didn’t see as much of each other after she moved, but I knew her bitterness didn’t lessen. I’d imagine she’d tell you to go home to Ethel, your wife.”

“I wish I could have said something to Mary before she died, but her stroke was so quick. I’d like to know what she’s feeling now. It’s times like this that I fear death has the final word.” Clyde paused a moment looking at the grave. “Zora, not one of my kids came over to give me a hug, shake my hand. No one looked at me as they were leaving.”

“Clyde, you stubborn old fool. You think it’s all about you. Your kids, your grandkids should come to you, console you. Today is not about you. It’s about Mary, her family’s love. Thinking only of yourself is what got you here, alone.”

Anger was coming to a rolling boil in Clyde. His mouth began to open, ready to spew irate words. With little facial expression, Zora stood firm and watched, pursed lips the only sign of anger. Clyde chose to leave the comment be. “Have my kids forgiven me?”

“Clyde, your kids haven’t forgotten, but they’ve moved on. They took care of Mary when she needed help. I don’t know if they’ve forgiven you. Why do you ask?”

“Because you’re right. I’m a stubborn old fool. My pride won’t let me ask for forgiveness.”

“This ain’t politics, Clyde. This is family.”

“Zora, remember our Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Swagart?”

“Yes, but why in heaven’s name are you bringing her name up? She’s been gone a long time. Mrs. Swagart would have said you need to be with your family, no matter how uncomfortable you feel, and she’d slap you up the side of the head or rap you on the knuckles with a ruler.”

“She talked about a God, who would listen to your words of repentance. She said He always forgives.”

“Well, Clyde, if you still believe that, then I guess you best get talking.”

“I did talk at Mary’s grave, asked her and God for forgiveness. I’ll never know if either heard.”

“None of us do.” Zora picked up a red rose from a bouquet, smelled it, and stuck the end in her purse. “I’m going to press this in my Bible” She paused a minute to look around the cemetery. “I’m going to leave you with your thoughts, Clyde. I need to go scold my husband.” Zora pointed in the direction of a row of monuments all saying Baker. “Your uncle Ben, his brothers and sisters, and your dad are all buried over there. When you’re done, come get me. I expect you to walk to the church with me. You can be with your kids. We’ll make it in time for dessert. My mouth is watering for some of Leta’s apple dumplings, and I know Bessie made your favorite cake, chocolate. You hear me, Clyde?”

Zora walked away. Clyde believed in God, and Christ, but he wasn’t sure about life after death, except what lived in his memories. He closed his eyes, attempting to see Mary and himself, good times before their marriage was torn apart.

There were many moments Clyde could’ve recalled. At church, Mary played piano for the choir, helped with bake sales, and led a ladies’ prayer circle, all as Mrs. Clyde Baker, not Mary. Mrs. Clyde increased his presence in the community, as if the deeds were his. As a wife, Clyde expected Mary to manage the home. He longed to see her in the blue bib apron with sunflowers, her hair in a bun as she cultivated her vegetable garden, hoed , sowed seeds, and planted cabbage, onion sets. He knew all summer Mary was busy harvesting her crop, red and yellow tomatoes, snap peas, green beans, pole beans, beets, and corn. She picked leaf lettuce, pulled radishes and onions, pickled cucumbers, made sauerkraut, and homemade horseradish.

Between church, home, and entertaining Clyde’s political friends, Mary had little time to herself. She and the kids did the work. Clyde’s time was increasingly devoted to politics. But this was the role he expected of his wife and kids.

Clyde remembered these things, but he could only see her still, silent, stone cold body locked within a coffin beneath. He would never see her face again, hear her voice, or taste her apple pies.

He thanked Mary for supporting him, his politics, and the kids, but his words lingered over the grave, then nestled among the funeral flowers to be thrown in the trash when cemetery crews cleaned.

Clyde knew his kids could not forget their mother’s loneliness after the divorce. Mary depended on close friends visiting her. It didn’t happen often; they continued with their own lives in Weldon. Mary struggled to keep food on the table, even though she still canned from her new, smaller garden.

Behind his closed eyes, Mary’s death mask faded, and Clyde was left with nothing. Was this black void all Mary was seeing? He mouthed the words, rest in peace, and opened his eyes. Clyde still tried to see her face, but it was blown away with the wind rustling leaves in the gnarled oak tree, causing shadows to dance across Mary’s grave.

Clyde walked through the cemetery, the path of his genealogy, but he only saw death as a vast unknown among the granite, marble, slate, fieldstone, and sandstone headstones. He saw family names engraved on them along with: anchors, angels, arches, crowns, conches, columns, palms, poppies, pillows, lambs, lilies, laurel, and lions.

May 31st, 2015

A Great Void part 1


I have very fond memories of memorial day, or decoration day as we often called. We prayed the peonies and iris would bloom in time to make bouquets. My aunt and I would carefully pick the blossoms, put them in bunches, and place them in large buckets of water. Next we’d load them into the car trunk and off we’d go to the cemeteries to put them on the graves. She’d tell me stories about her various relatives and I’d listen in rapt attention.

Following is the first of a three part story about my grandfather and his special remembrance of my grandfather, his divorced wife.

Clyde might as well have been an empty heat shimmer or artificial flower bouquets left at the grave sites on Memorial Day. No one thought he would mourn, let alone be seen at the cemetery, but there he was, alone, in a blue seersucker suit, straw hat in hand. He’d walked over from his house. The one he moved to in 1946 with his new wife after divorcing Mary. Now fifty-three years later, she returns to her hometown to be buried.

Clyde could have seen the cemetery from his house, but he felt he needed to be here. As he was watching, Clyde didn’t notice Joe, the cemetery groundskeeper, until he spoke. “Morning, Clyde. Why aren’t you there with the family?”

He’d been satisfied standing alone with his thoughts. Clyde was a politician, and words flowed out of his mouth like water over a cliff. “Morning, Joe. This is my kid’s day to mourn. I gave up the right to mourn her when we divorced.”

Taking a pipe from his back pocket, Joe stomped it on the sole of his boot, got rid of any loose tobacco, and then blew through the stem to make sure it was clear. As he took out his pack of Prince Albert to pack the pipe, Joe spoke. “Shouldn’t you be there to support your family? I know you keep in touch.”

Joe struck a match, let it flare a minute, then sucked the flame into the pipe bowl. When it was lit, he waved the match to put out the flame, dropped it on the gravel, and crushed it with his boot. Joe moved his eyes from Clyde to the funeral, finally settling on Clyde. Joe gently puffed and Clyde spoke through the aromatic smoke surrounding him. “I can’t change what I did. Ethel is now my wife, and though I think of Mary fondly, after the divorce, she was just a woman I had once known.”

Joe took the pipe out of his mouth, blew a smoke ring, and then responded. “Well…” He drew this out as if he were thinking while he talked. “Clyde, you’re still a father, a grandfather, and great-grandfather. Doesn’t that give you some responsibility?”

Clyde fanned himself with his hat while he and Joe turned to the funeral. Clyde spoke, “ They’re on their own. I nurtured them as kids. Mary and I didn’t divorce until they were grown.”

“That still doesn’t tell me why you’re not over there.”

Joe took another puff, looked at the pipe bowl, exhaled the smoke, and then turned to Clyde. “If you’re not going to be part of the mourners, if you’re not going to talk to your family, if you’re not going to give any of them a hug, a kiss, a handshake, how come you’re standing here all duded up in the sun, gawking?”

Clyde wasn’t sure he knew the answer. Joe took out another match to relight his pipe, so Clyde had time to think about his answer. “I guess it’s about the responsibility you mentioned. I still feel responsible for their grief.”

Joe took the pipe out of his mouth and, holding it by the bowl, pointed it at Clyde. “They’d be grieving with or without you.”

“I can’t really explain it, Joe. They need their time to grieve, and I need mine. You see, the kids didn’t think I respected Mary when she was alive. Charles and Esther came early in the marriage. I was still farming, only dipping my hand in the politics around Weldon, but the marriage was not good by the time Cecile and Millie came along.”

“But I remember you and Mary as happy. My wife and me’d come over to play cards, strum the banjo, Mary would make her famous apple pie, and I’d bring some of the sausages I’d made. Then you were absent a lot, gone on the road to some meeting or another. I don’t know when you had time for two more kids.”

“We covered it well, but if you’re willing to listen, I need to talk about Mary and me.”

“I’ve got nothing to do until those cars drive off.”

Clyde and Joe took a look at the mourners and decided there was time. “I wanted Mary with me. A politician wants visual support from his wife. Mary said she needed to stay at home with the kids, watch over the farm. I’d get angry. We’d have arguments. Esther and Charles were married. Cecil was in WWII, so I guess Millie got the worst of it. She blames me for the divorce.”

“Now…” Again, Joe drew the word out. “Clyde, you can be ornery as hell, and you can ramble on from your soapbox better than most. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.” Joe motioned with his pipe toward a bench under the oak tree. After they sat, Joe continued. “There were rumors about your womanizing on the road.”

Clyde was beyond denial, even if it did put him in a bad light. He was no longer involved in politics and didn’t worry about his image. “They were true. When I was on the road for a meeting or a convention, there were available women hoping to hook a politician. We all had a chance at being an elected official, most petty local politics, but one of us could make it to be governor, senator, or president. I couldn’t resist the urge. I strayed.”

The funeral was breaking up, but no one had gotten into their cars. Satisfied he’d smoked out the pipe, Joe hit the bowl on his shoe again and put the pipe in his pocket. With his slow drawl, Joe spoke. “Well…now…Clyde, didn’t you think it would come back to bite you in the ass?”

“I didn’t care. I needed a woman on my arm, and if Mary wasn’t willing, I’d get another.”

“Same old Clyde, stubborn as a mule.”

Joe saw the mourners going to their cars, but he wanted to ask one last question. “Clyde, why did Mary move to Clinton when you divorced?”

“Mary was embarrassed to stay in Weldon. Everyone knew your business. If she moved to Clinton, she could invite the friends she wanted to see. I wouldn’t be around.”

“But Clinton is only five miles. We all go there to shop and catch up on gossip.”

“She never learned to drive. Without a car, living there was easier. I bought her a house. I didn’t want to see her walk the streets in Weldon either. If locals didn’t see her, I didn’t have to explain anything.”

As the cars started moving, Clyde and Joe stood. They watched the black hearse pull away with Reverend Jones. On the vinyl side, silver letters spelled Harrington Brothers, with a scroll below. Cars, with family and other mourners, followed. Their movements on the gravel drive covered Clyde and Joe with dust. Hat in hand, Clyde searched each passing car for eyes to look his way, confirm he’s more than a bystander. No one acknowledged his presence, no wave, no head turning to look back. They were off to Weldon Methodist Church for lunch. He didn’t think he should join them. Clyde thought he was as dead to his family as the wilted bouquets or the bodies beneath his feet, or was he feeling sorry for himself?