Tag Archives: family

Keeping House

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Patrice wouldn’t exactly call herself the domestic type, but James recognized that when he married her. Practically everyone who knew her realized the woman didn’t care to be the perfect housekeeper and cook.

That just wasn’t her thing, and she couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly be content to just care for her husband and kids. So many other activities tugged at her mind and begged, “Come this way. Do this instead.” Having a restless soul meant she agonized at staying still, and household duties dulled the senses, as far as Patrice was concerned.

On one occasion a man asked her, “Do you work outside the home?” She had to stifle a laugh before answering him. “Shit, as if working inside that place isn’t enough? And taking care of everything at the hardware store is just a trip to the carnival,” she mused. “Isn’t that a humdinger? I’ve got two full-time gigs going.”

True, their home had the trappings of a lower-middle class lifestyle – a front screen door with holes, manual garage door that didn’t open if it rained, and a taped-up window pane here and there —  but the man’s expression turned so sour when Patrice answered in such a surly manner. To her, having a job meant a steady check to manage the co-pays and balance left of what insurance didn’t cover from the doctors.

“Humpf, maybe he thinks you married the Queen of England, James. She just wanted to live in the country ghetto,” she muttered. Her husband shook his head but said nothing in return. He knew better with that mood showing. “It’s not like standing behind that counter listening to those good ol’ boys grouse about nonsensical shit for eight hours straight isn’t bad enough.” Three extra-strength pain relievers didn’t even touch the headache she’d nursed all day.

Regardless of its center sinkhole, the mattress felt pretty soft when her head hit the pillow around 6 o’clock. Other nights it was as early as 5:30. Finding her with a washcloth drying across her forehead, a book splayed on the bed beside her, and eyes closed, James might leave a warm cup of broth on the night table. Many times, he just sat and rubbed her back before he left a glass of water there in case she woke up thirsty in the night.

Patrice contended somebody didn’t have to keep a meticulous house to be a whole woman. Theirs wasn’t actually a sty, maybe just more “lived-in” than others who hired a weekly cleaner. Having her in-laws look down their noses at her about it didn’t set well either. So what if dust crusted a few ceiling fan blades and little cat-hair tumbleweeds wound in behind the t.v. cabinet?

Priorities changed, and the couple no longer joined everyone for holiday dinners and birthdays. “I don’t appreciate their condescension, James. They think you’re Ethan Frome or something, I swear!” He felt for her and did as much as he could to ease any worry or suffering. Daily life became a shared effort in their home, as it should be anywhere, at least in Patrice’s opinion. Why shouldn’t everyone play a part?

Family members weren’t as vocal about Patrice’s taciturn inclination once she went into hospice care.

“She woulda liked to see you and the kids a little more when she was living. ‘Specially since she thought so much of little Annie.” James rubbed the brown curls on his niece’s head.

“At least the day turned out nice for her service,” he said leaving the graveside. Gravel crunched under their dress shoes and covered the siblings’ awkward silence going to their separate cars. His sister’s furrowed brow hinted at a bit of remorse. He thought to himself, “Wouldn’t Patrice have snickered at that?”

James drove home in dread of a floor that needed swept and dirty dishes awaiting him there. Those things and a pile of unpaid bills on the table in an otherwise empty kitchen.

Our Write Side – Two Word Tuesday

(photo courtesy Old White Truck)

 

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Consequence of Time

a houseTen children were born in the two-bedroom house over the years, with indoor plumbing installed only after the youngest became a teenager. They were all born and grew up in that tiny place their father built. Talmadge, Iris, Talbot, Ernie, Loretta, Pearl, James, Frank, Myrna, and little Minnie.

Mother kept house as well as she could, in between having babies, and tried to put meals on the table with the meager means her sporadically-employed husband provided. Ernest, a sullen man, began to bald early. His worries of finding work as an uneducated laborer and supporting his growing brood aged the man sooner than his time. Mother birthed children for so long she looked like a grandmother by the last baby’s arrival.

Their ages spanned so many years that Iris, much an adult herself by then, was left to name Minnie, choosing the moniker from Disney’s famous character of the time. Their parents’ preferences ran dry by then. Some cried themselves to sleep at night without enough to eat.

Iris resented her father for making Mother have so many children. “You’d think she was a dog with that many puppies in a lifetime litter,” she said. “Worked like one, too, caring for us all.” She remembered the want all too well.

She told, “Aunt Mertie sent us a few staples. Things we could use. We’d pull our wagon up to her house a couple blocks away when the water got shut off. Musta had the utilities come due and couldn’t pay ‘em. Had to fill lard cans with water and haul it on home to cook and wash with it.”

That’s what families did, helped during the hard times. No amount of ridicule from neighbor kids riled them much. Iris recounted, “We was just kids. Didn’t know any different.”

She relayed stories of siblings dropping out of school, some of the boys joining the military, other brothers following their father into menial labor. Only little Minnie ever graduated from high school. “With no money, us girls had to go to work right away or else get married. Couldn’t stay with Mother and Daddy in that ol’ house with all those kids piled on toppa each other. Too many mouths to feed.”

Iris grew wistful and looked up at the ceiling, deep in thought. Finally, she said, “Talmadge disappeared after a spell. Nobody saw him for ages, so we were left to believe he either went to jail or got killed. Broke my mother’s heart to not know what happened to her boy.” His name couldn’t be repeated at home, either because of the grief of his absence or their father’s anger at him leaving them all guessing.

“My mother cried when telling me how James left for the rails, though,” said Iris. Her hands twisted around upon each other, and she picked at her cuticles in nervousness. “I already married by that time but still loved my little brother,” she explained. “He weren’t worthless like Ernie, who couldn’t put his mind to hard work and ended up in a den of thieves. Not an ambitious bone in his body.”

Iris sniffed back a sob, pulled a tissue from its box, and continued. “I miss that James the most. He wanted to see the world and figured jumpin’ freight cars to be the easiest way to go about it. We got a telegram from a hospital in Pennsylvania to let us know he’d died. Nurse found a note in his pocket to notify us of his whereabouts. We all mourned.” The woman’s weary face resembled her mother’s in later years, eyes still wearing their mutual sorrow. It’s hard to tell truth from what’s imagined.

The staff refer to her demeanor late in the day as “Sundowner Syndrome.” Iris gets agitated at the remembering, and her mind wanders when she re-tells family stories. Details hint at actuality, but the dementia often brings out more fanciful tales.

“Yes, little Minnie.” She shook her head slowly back and forth. “Minnie didn’t know James like I did, was too young when he left. The girl only knew from what we told her. Just like I’m telling you now.” Iris fidgeted in her faded blue glider, the seat’s padding molded where her backside rested most of the day.

She’d once been quite a looker, fully coiffed at the beauty parlor every week, nails freshly painted – the epitome of a kempt woman. Brushing her short-cropped gray hair back from her face, she turned toward the dining hall. “About suppertime, ain’t it? I can tell you more later if you still wanna listen.”

Upon returning to her room, she wouldn’t remember where she left off.

***

s30pStudio 30+ writing prompt – ridicule Image: US National Archives

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Role Reversal

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The bathroom faucet ran full blast while Ann Marie scrubbed her hands with antibacterial soap, wringing them over and over and willing the foam to cleanse her system of any germs she might happen to miss washing away. All the water being wasted never entered her mind as she muttered to herself, “Gotta get under the nails.” Her obsession to get them clean overrode even her previous distraction with the tasks that first dirtied them.

She swore she’d never admit it aloud to anyone. Not her mother or even her friends. She didn’t feel any natural inclination toward caretaking whatsoever and was ashamed of herself for it.

Fully realizing she wasn’t cut out for this type of work, she felt a responsibility to help out anyway. Ann Marie just loathed the aroma of it all. Such a noisome bother to her delicate sensibilities.

Cleaning up after other people’s bodily functions made her almost sick to her stomach, no matter how close the familial connection. Nursing was not Ann Marie’s forte.

Even a faint whiff of vomit or just the sound of another person breaking wind triggered her gag reflex and sent her scrambling for a waste basket. So helping care for her grandfather, at her mother’s insistence, exceeded her comfort level. She begged for any other task than his personal care – manicuring the lawn, cleaning out gutters, dusting the ceiling fans – anything except clipping ear hair or rinsing bed pans. Hearing other people’s bodily functions was just too intimate, especially at such close range in his tiny little house.

It broke her heart to so loath such closeness. The sights, the sounds, the smells.

Tears flowed from her eyes as water rushed into the kitchen sink. Having her hands submerged in floating food particles and dinner’s remnants didn’t compare, because she couldn’t see anything gross. Soap suds across the surface made washing dishes a thoughtless and impersonal action, one that lacked any human offal. Only imperceptible organic leftovers. No gas, urine or mucous.

She would willingly complete any other menial chore, clean the house or take out the trash. Flashes came to mind of how her parents left her with her grandpa when she was a toddler. He read her stories and helped teach her to ride a bike. No doubt he’d changed his share of her diapers, but she couldn’t fathom doing the same for him. Life’s circle brought her around to reciprocate nonetheless.

He called from the bedroom, “Ann Marie, come in here please.” His voice resounded with the pain that wracked his withering body, no longer the sturdy frame that previously towered above everyone throughout her comparatively short life span. An overwhelming odor took over her senses in crossing the door’s threshold. She blinked back a reaction so he couldn’t sense her disgust.

She feigned a smile and asked, “What do you need, Grandpa?” His kind eyes and gentle smile reminded Ann Marie how much he meant to her, how much she loved him. That’s why she was there. The phrase repeated in her head, “I can do this. I can do this.” Flipping on the table-top fan to sweep the smelly air in the opposite direction, she told him, “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

*The writing prompts “noisome or smelly” came from Studio 30+.

Studio30(top image: goodhusbanding.com)

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L’chaim

The usual fodder here is fiction, my random musings generally prompted by online writing communities. Today I’m unnaturally reflective, as it’s my 48th birthday. Big deal, right? Aging may suck, but it’s better than the alternative.

Having recently been diagnosed with beginning stage osteoarthritis, I feel like whining. My fingers and palms ache every morning when I wake up.  BUT … I wake up. I can move. I can go to work. Life is good.

Even though I’m not an outwardly demonstrative person, emotion got the best of me over the weekend. My seven-year old insisted on knowing whether or not Santa Claus is real and gave me several possibilities of who first presented the possibility to him. After pressing me several times, I fessed up, and he got pretty upset at the reality. I couldn’t uphold the façade when he asked me not to lie to him. So we both cried, inching so much further to the total erasure of innocence. He told me that his “imagination was closed,” and the statement almost broke my heart. I want him to stay as young and unaffected for as long as he can.

We are so fortunate to have such a great kid, no matter how old we are. My biggest fear in life is to miss seeing him grow up and pass all the milestones people take for granted are guaranteed to us.

My friend, Mary, recently received a lung cancer diagnosis. She is also 48 years old and full of life. Although we only converse via social media any more, I doubt she will dare utter any negativity about her precarious situation. That’s not her style. The woman is fierce, and I admire her bravery.

I raise my proverbial glass to another year of possibilities – cheers!

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The Weight of Blood – book review

McHughCountry noir — as dubbed by one of my favorite authors, Daniel Woodrell, is on my top shelf of genres.  So I don’t mind dark brooding stories. Living in the same part of the United States as the fictional town of Henbane, we are lucky to be somewhat oblivious to the realistic base for this type of crime. The author began her book tour locally and mentioned at her first signing how she got the idea from a real life crime scenario that happened not too far away from here. While this particular tale is about some people who are seriously creepy and depraved, the events are told in such a way that a more desensitized reader (like me) continues eagerly turning pages.

Although the “culprit” emerged early on, I kept grasping at Lila’s outcome and her daughter Lucy’s future. My curiosity was piqued by more than just the beautifully crafted descriptions of Ozarks’ scenery I’m used to but that some people aren’t privileged to see. These characters became real women whose predicaments made me cringe, and I hoped in vain for the best for both protagonists.

The scenario in this book was more palatable than some to which it’s being compared. McHugh’s characters meant more to me than most of those in a Daniel Woodrell or Gillian Flynn story, because I wanted to like them. As far as the connections to those authors being drawn, there was more hopefulness for the women of Henbane regardless of its misery. Even though I realize the fuller desperation of Woodrell’s and Flynn’s females, my overall impression of that work may (unfortunately or unfairly) fall on how well they draw unlikable people. McHugh’s main characters are sympathetic, while Flynn admits to creating the lesser-seen female villain, and Woodrell many times pens women for whom there is little hope at all. Who’s to say which is more realistic of the three styles? McHugh is a burgeoning author who deserves her own kudos if she can ever escape the comparisons.

Even though I sing praises for McHugh’s ability to build tension, her characters aren’t 100% flawless. I had a hard time believing the implicit loyalty between the Dane brothers, family ties be damned. That much sociopathy surely limits the ability to truly love other people, even family, so the fierce devotion did not ring true. I, however, loved the juxtaposition of that loyalty with moral conscience and how the two concepts competed against each other in all the interlaced characters’ lives. The way McHugh weaved those ideas throughout this too-true-to-life crime story was done very well.

Truth is truly stranger and sadder than fiction, but we can’t live in constant fear of the criminally anti-social elements in our midst. I prefer to remain mindfully unaware, at the risk of living in denial, of that ugly felonious sort and just read about it through the creative capacity of writers like McHugh and Woodrell. People like the Henbanians (Henbanites?) are everywhere, and I carelessly choose to believe in the good (ala Lucy) and middle-of-the-roaders — those long teetering toward the good side (Jamie), even if that road is paved with gravel out in the middle of nowhere. Besides, it’s pretty out there.

I’d rather think the Birdies out-number the Joe Bills. Naive as it may be, I want to believe more quality citizens exist than degenerates. Let’s hope they’re the out-liers, the miscreants just laying low, hiding in plain sight but concealing their actions from detection, left to speculation within a good book like The Weight of Blood.

 

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Shopping

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via teedlo on Flickr

Ed raised his head upon entering the building, was shocked to see his brother-in-law, and asked him, “What are you doing here?”

The reply was not what he expected. Gary’s eyes widened, and he countered with, “What do you mean what am I doing here? What are you doing here?”

Both men were taken aback by the other’s presence at the adult bookstore, and they glanced around the place to see if anyone else was there who would recognize them. Embarrassment radiated from their mutually crimson faces.

Ed blocked the doorway behind him with his imposing frame and maneuvered himself between the exit and the cash register where his wife’s brother, Gary, stood. Ed didn’t want Gary to see his younger sister waiting in the parking lot outside the porn store. He felt as if he was caught buying condoms on their first date.

The couple’s sex life, and any intricate details of it aided by items procured from the premises, were none of Gary’s business. Ed’s mind instantly flashed to how he could hide Regina’s presence there and save face no matter how impossible it seemed since Gary was paying for his purchase as they spoke. He’d leave momentarily and see Regina awaiting her dirty-movie-renting or KY-Jelly-buying husband’s imminent return.

Theirs was an otherwise stunted and awkward conversation punctuated with an atypical silence before it ended with the two otherwise confident men left shuffling their feet and staring at their shoes. Normal banter centered about the latest football score and whose team was bound for the bowl game, a rivalry between their favorites normally spurring their competitive natures, but the weekend’s cold snap was the only safe topic to be found. Gary finally took his leave with an uncomfortable, “Well … that about does it.” He gave a quick nod and added, “See ya.”

Hands in his pockets, Ed nodded back and offered, “Yeah, see ya around.” Seeing his brother-in-law at the porn shop while he checked out a raunchy DVD was not the place Ed had mind. So sheepish at the surprise that he totally forgot what Regina had asked him to get — strawberry flavored something, Playgirl magazine, sex swing — he had no recall whatsoever. Shaking his head in disbelief, he snickered to himself and turned back in retreat to the car.

The man was shocked to discover what waited for him outside the glass advertising-covered door. Gary’s wife and Regina both sat in the cab of Gary’s truck grinning like two Cheshire cats. Funny, Ed didn’t notice the truck there when they first arrived.

His brother-in-law hadn’t yet worked up enough courage to get back into the truck’s driver seat and turned back to Ed, shrugging his shoulders in deference to the women. Gary lifted his hands out to his sides, chuckled, and shouted back to Ed, “So who do you think is gonna win that game on Sunday?”

*prompted by “What are you doing here” from Studio 30 Plus

s30p

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Penalty and Pain

They ran a mule team for plowing their fields and planting crops. Doing so was only as recent as the 1950s, but as Clarence said, “poor people have poor ways.” That was the time before they could afford a tractor, and the kids were used for brute labor. Southern farming families were still strapped for cash after the Great Depression ended, and each year’s yield paid the outstanding bank balances already past due.  from trumanlibrary.org

Needless to say, tensions ran high under such dire circumstances. Having five mouths to feed didn’t help matters either. Clarence was a good provider, if not a stoic man. The financial straits of his family fell hard on his conscience, and he tended to internalize his worry. The children pretended not to notice and went along with their chores as any good God-fearing brood would. Papa didn’t talk to them much but expressed his love with homemade gifts and a hug at Christmastime. Otherwise, they tried to stay out of Clarence’s way.

James Ernest had it the hardest. He was the oldest son still at home, as Lee had escaped to the military as soon as he was of age to enlist. Little Eugene would watch their work from the safety of the back yard, his little black dog trailing along behind him. He and the mutt hung on a dull section of the barbed wire fence separating them from the back pasture.

Eugene looked forward to working in the field some day, having no idea what the toil would do to his body and his happiness. He had the naivete to glamorize the hand-blistering hard work in his imagination because of his inability to partake in his few years of life. Eugene knew nothing of the drudgery from which Lee had fled their home. He only watched from their porch where Mother tasked his sisters with housework, hoping for the day when he could join the men from sunup to sundown.

Papa barked the orders out there, and they were meant to be kept. Each week started with a day of Sunday school and church service, followed by a big family dinner with the cousins and an evening at home in rest. They geared up for the remaining six days spent earning their keep, and James Ernest came to know what was expected of him. Whereas his stature was lean, his strength increased exponentially with each calendar’s succession. He produced an adult’s capacity from a growing boy’s body, his thin arms and sinewy muscles masquerading an extraordinary ability to drive the team alone.

He called to the mules, “On, Jack!  Up now, Jenny!” James Ernest was expected to do some things all by himself during harvest when Deacons’ meetings required Papa’s attendance at the elder council held in town. Clarence was well-respected in their small rural community, and placed a lot of responsibility on James Ernest in his absence.

James Ernest knew all too well the consequences of not fulfilling his obligations. He’d left home to go fishing with a cousin late one Sunday afternoon without asking permission. The bigger mule, Jenny, grazed in the pasture by the barn and sneaked her way past the loose latch on the stall where gain was stored. They worked the animals hard, so the greedy old gal stole more than her fair ration share. By the time James Ernest returned, Papa had already discovered how Jenny ravaged the crib and ate herself sick.

Mules usually have fewer feeding problems than horses, yet she was in bad shape and could’ve been lost to foundering. A lame mule was worthless, and days missed in the field due to the beast’s illness equaled what James Ernest felt on his backside later. The others knew of his punishment, and the girls cried when they found him sobbing and sore in a barn stall afterward. They’d never seen their brother so upset, and he pridefully sniffed back his tears swearing he’d get away from the farm one day just like Lee had done. That incident, among others, stuck in the recesses of his mind.

*****

Years later his wife would speculate why her husband turned out the way he had, what soured him along the way. In retrospect, she wondered what had gone so wrong. What was the inscrutable cause of his agony?  She’d met such a boisterous and happy young man straight out of the Army who turned into a different person in his later years — someone who let his anger go inward, one who grew sullen, introverted and gloomy. Once an admirable, competent, hard-working man, James Ernest transformed into someone — something — else. Alcohol added to his depression and agitated it into a toxic mixture that destroyed his family life.

During one specific outburst, his wife watched James Ernest’s face transmogrify into an unrecognizable fiend expelling consternation. Those hurtful words aimed to retaliate against an unknown opponent in his past but caught his wife in the cross-hairs instead.  Her weak ego couldn’t withstand his transformation and the resulting attacks. A recurring hateful ugliness ultimately cost him the love of his life.

In a more lucid state, James Ernest tried to explain away his behavior. Night terrors hinted at a disturbance deeper than any words could justify. He’d worked to overcome poverty, to gain financial independence and not live by the sweat of his brow. Reaching those goals, however, couldn’t conquer other demons of his past. He realized it was of little consequence but apologized to his ex-wife over and over.  A strong man’s facade dissolved into the countenance of a young boy.

Dejectedly he told her, “You just can’t understand … you don’t know. I can’t tell you everything Papa did to me.”

This post was generated by a weekly Studio 30+ writing prompt — Papa.  Studio 30+

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Life gets in the way sometimes

Half-way through the month of January already, and I am only now considering goal-setting for 2012.  Like the title says, busy schedules can make prioritizing a little fuzzy at times.  I read a simple idea for a New Year’s Resolution, passed along by missrepresentation.org, that is terrifically difficult to qualify.
Get healthy.
It is a great suggestion and should be a priority.  But what are the terms by which to judge your success?

MissRepresentation.org (what I’ll call “MR”) is a “call-to-action campaign that seeks to empower women and girls to challenge limiting labels in order to realize their potential.”  I love their concept and hope to follow that mission in my words and acts on a daily basis.  MR’s challenge to “get healthy” does not center around unhealthy weight and physical ideals but “inner health and safety.”

A great suggestion is to keep physical appearance out of the center focus and concentrate more on how smart, confident and happy we are!  How different our world, or even just the United States, would be if we celebrate more attributes of substance and not just attempts at physical perfection.

What a different view of being healthy. Developing our talents, or what is called “potential for greatness” in MR’s latest campaign, is quite a challenge. Naming even one talent is hard to do, as women are usually less likely to brag on themselves or even say they are good at something.  We are socialized to deny compliments, much less compliment ourselves (*blush* for shame!).

I plan to spend the next week at least coming up with new and inventive ways to help boost my friends’ confidence.  Paying it forward, if you will.  My good luck in life has brought me so many creative, dynamic, self-confident (if not self-effacing) women who deserve praise.  Their selfless acts in both their professional and personal lives help other people every day, most of which goes unrecognized.

At the risk of too much self-congratulation, I dare to say my talent I hope to nurture is writing.  I want to keep doing so in this new year, honing my craft being the main goal and exorcising demons along the way a great add-on.  Other healthy practices include continuing yoga for the inner balance I seek and expressing my love of my son and family throughout the journey.

While results are perhaps difficult to measure, success is felt within, and I have great hopes for 2012!

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