Monday, July 11, 2016

My Eighty-Year-Old Stalker


© | Dreamstime Stock Photos

I ended up my working career by working in a church office. Sounds simple, right? Answer the phone, type up the bulletin, a cinch. 

Unless you’ve worked in the office of a growing church (500 members when I started, 1200 when I left), let me just tell you: You have no clue what goes on there. The pastors weren’t always in the office, so as the only other full-time employee, I often handled crisis situations. I prayed with people, listened to their sad stories and tragedies, and sometimes gave them money if they didn’t smell like cigarette smoke. (Hey, if you can afford to smoke you can afford to pay your bills.)

But nothing in the job description prepared me for the eighty-year-old man who mistook my sympathy at his wife’s death for something else. I first met him in the grocery parking lot where he was looking lost. I stopped to help; turned out he was furious that someone had stolen his white truck. I hesitantly pointed out a white truck parked in the next row. He completely fell apart—his wife was on her deathbed and he just didn’t know what he was going to do without her. I listened to him talk and cry for an hour, then told him where I worked and that he should come by and talk to a pastor. Instead, he came by a couple weeks later to see me—his wife had died and he was very sad.

He lived on my route home, so twice when I saw him on the front porch I stopped and chatted with him for a few minutes. The second time as I got up to leave, he jumped to his feet and shoved his walker out of the way. He grabbed my upper arms with shockingly strong hands and kissed me on the lips. “God sent me a woman!” he shouted. 

Unfortunately, I seem to have the same self-protective reflexes as a cabbage. I just stood there with my mouth hanging wide open in shock. Which left me wide open for the second kiss. Bleah! Gross! Ick!

I ran to my car. All the way home I shuddered, let out short screams and tried to get someone—anyone—on the car’s On-Star phone. No one was available in my time of need. Not even youth minister Craig, who later laughed his behind off saying, “Oh man I wish I’d been there! Oh man I wish I’d been there!” He's probably still laughing.

The old molester could not remember which house we’d moved the office to when the church outgrew itself, and he went door-to-door knocking and yelling, “I know Valerie’s in there! You send her out!” An eighty-year-old stalker. Someone asked my husband what he was going to do about it. John said, “I’m not going to punch an eighty-year-old!”

Which begs the question, exactly how young do my molesters have to be before John will defend my honor?

The church office manager held a meeting at which we were reminded to keep boundaries when doing ministry. She said, “If he wasn’t eighty, we’d be calling the police about the situation.” Instead, we called Jim, a member of the church who knew the old guy, and asked him to go explain that I was married and not interested, and the whole thing was inappropriate. 

Since I know you're wondering, yes, when I got home from the disgusting kissing incident, I brushed my teeth, rinsed my mouth with Listerine, eyed the bleach bottle in the laundry room for a minute and then took another shot of Listerine. 

But I still shudder at the memory.
 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Literary Confessions

I have bookshelves in nearly every room.
Sometimes I feel the need to fill the gaps in my education by reading some of the classics of literature. In one of these self-improvement fits I bullied myself through "Pride and Prejudice," and then Dickens’ "Bleak House." I really hated "Pride and Prejudice" (stop gasping. You probably just watched the movie), but "Bleak House" was okay. The main problem I had with BH was that it was so dang long—I had other, probably far more entertaining, books waiting for my attention. Also, as I read new scenes which introduced yet more characters I wondered if I should pay close attention. Were these people important? Were we going to continue with them, or were they once-n-dones?

I’ve always heard that Dickens’ stories are more entertaining than a lot of other old literature. Apparently a
uthors were afforded much mercy at that time. In BH you have to get past the first two dreadful chapters of the book. Readers now haven’t the patience to wade through page after page of a never-ending lawsuit, so writers are expected to jump into a scene and explain—if needed—later.

At a writer’s conference a few years back, agent extraordinaire Janet Reid, a/k/a Query Shark, yanked the first five pages of my manuscript from my novel’s opening and said, “One, two, three, four, five pages about three people we really don’t much care about. Start here where the story gets interesting and we love the characters.” Too bad she wasn’t around in 1853 to tell Dickens to leave off those first boring sections and jump right in with Esther.

My classics-jones is tempered for the time being, and I’m back to new stuff. Well, newish stuff. My reading schedule is similar to my fashion schedule. I don’t reach for the buzz books anymore than I search the mall for the latest style of dress. The dresses I have in my closet are fine.

Books sort of come to me whenever, through the library, friends, gift cards for book stores, and used book sales. I read The Da Vinci Code in about 2010, although it was published in 2003. A little late to that party, eh? And to carry through with the comparison, no, not all my dresses are that old. 


Wait. What year was my nephew married?

I have a blue file folder on my desk jammed full of names of books I plan to read someday, names of authors whose work I've enjoyed. It's not an actual list; There are many lists, print-outs, scraps of notebook paper, whatever. If I read a book a day for the rest of my life I'd never get through the list. But I'm not worried. In my life, plans are very fluid. Which is one of the things that drives my always-planning husband craziest. Opposites, and all that.

How about you? Do you scout the best seller lists? Sign up on library waiting lists for just-published books? Wait for word-of-mouth reviews? 


How do you acquire the books you read? Tell me--because God forbid I should miss a book.

 


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Cavewomen and Dinosaurs


Some of you know that I hosted “Sewing Camp” for two granddaughters, ages 10 and 11, this summer. Each of them brought a sewing machine, one still new in the box. We bought fabric, cut out pattern pieces, and threaded bobbins and needles.

A little aside here: Sewing needles are my nemeses—trying to shove thread through a tiny, invisible hole brings out the Yankee in me; it fills my head with cuss words that battle to escape through my mouth. The only way I can see the hole in the needle is to hold a piece of white cardboard behind the hole—and then it’s still really hard to get the thread through. Each time, I wonder if this is the day sewing will join the lengthy list of items I used to do: “I used to be able to digest dairy,” and “I used to wear bikinis,” and “I used to get up off the floor without holding onto something.”

Ella’s machine needs about a foot of thread trailing off the needle to start or the thread disappears right back into the machine at the first stitch. Took us way too long, and way too many rethreadings, to figure out that little peculiarity. New to sewing, the girls alternately revved the foot pedals like Dale Earnhardt, then stopped abruptly like an old lady at a yellow light. RRRRRRn. RRRRRRn. Finally realized I sew with my entire foot on the pedal, and they were using their toes.

Ella had chosen a fabric I’ll call “Devilour,” since it was hell to work with. Fuzz everywhere, sliding seams, jamming thread. She fought the fabric for all four leg seams, but when her machine broke a needle, I took pity and told her I’d finish the garment on my trusty Husqvarna. Those chainsaw folks invented a sewing machine that can sew a hem in denim, right through two overlapping seams. I loooove my Husqvarna.

But it proved no match for Devilour.

Jammed again and again, bent two needles, and just as I finished, the machine threw a Hail Mary wad of thread in the bottom side of the fabric and jammed for its last time. It’s at the sewing machine doctor’s now, undergoing expensive tests.

Molly, who had chosen regular, wonderful, no-fuss fleece, came down with strep throat after the first day and missed days two and three. Meanwhile, Ella tried her hand at a pair of pull-on cotton shorts, this time with a cooperative fabric. She was perhaps halfway through when she stopped and said, “This is really hard. I thought you just put the fabric in there and the machine did all the work.”

She’s got a point. You load up the washer, the dryer, the dishwasher, push a few buttons, and walk away. The sewing machine is the complete opposite of that. Home appliances were invented to make a homemaker’s life easier. And they did—except for the sewing machine. It’s kind of the dinosaur of the appliance world, balky and slow and hopelessly out of step with the times. You can walk into department stores and find any number of factory-made clothing.

So why sew?

I’ll bet you expected me to wax nostalgic for sewing, mention how economical, how satisfying it is to create your own clothing, make crafts, etc.

Nope. It used to be economical. I could dress the girls in homemade clothes for far less than I would have spent on ready-made. Nowadays fabric is costly and pattern prices are ridiculous. I mainly use my sewing machine to mend seams and shorten hems. Utility sewing.

But then one day I’ll realize that all my flannel pajama bottoms are ratty and old, and rather than limit myself to the stupid cartoon character prints at the stores I’ll sew in fabrics of my own choosing. And there I am again. A cavewoman with her dinosaur. Which I pray survives the Devilour. 
 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Talk Southern To Me


      We moved south from Michigan nearly thirty years ago. We spoke the native language—English—so it wasn’t going to be difficult fitting in, right? But “Southern” threw us now and then.
      The four-year-old girl from next door said something sassy, and her mother said, “Kristen! Don’t be ugly!” 
      I thought, “How could that beautiful little girl ever be ugly?” Then I realized that “ugly” meant sassy or mean. 
      Another neighbor girl was trying to explain what her little brother’s name was. “It’s Lahn,” she said. 
     “Line?” I repeated.
     “No, Laaahn.”
     “Lyon?”
     By now she was a bit frustrated with me. “No! L-A-N-E, Lahn!” she said.
     “Oh, Lane!” I said.
     “Right, Lahn.”
     My first experience with a southern PTA meeting was enlightening. A local pastor came to give a short sermon before the meeting. He mentioned “them whales in the desert” and my mind skittered off, trying to make sense of the phrase. I wasn’t really strong on the Bible at that point in my life, but I had heard the story of Jonah and the whale. Had I missed some connection to a desert? No, probably not. Maybe he meant wails. Deserts were inhospitable places. People probably were known to wail sometimes. 
     Then the pastor said, “And there was WATER in them whales!”
     Water in them whales? I finally got it. I turned to the people around me and said, “He means ‘wells.’ Water in wells.” 
     You can imagine the looks I got.
     In the days before GPS, I visited Greeneville, TN for a writer’s conference. I drove 260 miles on my own and found my hotel, both of which were astonishing to me and everyone who knew me. (My own daughters said, "Mom's growing up!") Not too far away from the hotel was a strip mall, so I stopped at a dress shop to find something a little fancier than my usual ratty clothes. At checkout, I asked the young cashier if she could tell me where Main Street was.
     Her entire face turned frowny and wary, like I’d slapped her grandma. “I don’t know that street.”
     She didn't know where Main Street was? I said, “Main Street? You don’t know where Main Street is? The main street of town?” 
     She shook her head no, eyes wide. 
     An older woman behind her said, “I think she means Mine Street.”
     The girl said, “Oh, I thought she said Mean Street.”
     So, my Yankee friends, Main means Mean and Mine means Main. Have you got that?
     No, neither have I. But they seem to put up with me anyway.

Monday, June 13, 2016

My (Old) Front Porch


Note: This was written when we lived in Georgia, in my two-story house with a wrap-around porch. We've since moved to South Carolina, and my one-story house here has an amazing covered back porch which I love as much as I loved the front porch in my Georgia house. But I found this in some old writing and decided it was still post-worthy. 
Me, on my front porch, the day we bought the house.

I use my front porch as an extra room, one I don’t have to dust and mop but once or twice a year. I’ve thought about making the entire house into a porch for that very reason, but then December rolls around and I remember why that’s a bad idea. 

My favorite thing in the world is to take a cup of hot coffee out there on a warm spring morning, in the hairdo my pillow created, and wearing flannel pajama pants and a T-shirt. The neighbors pretend not to see my morning get-ups—Valerie’s Secret is nothing like Victoria’s—and I pretend not to notice all the far more annoying things they do every day of my life. I sit out there reading, writing, daydreaming about a world with working leash laws, wishing every day were Saturday. My husband thinks it’s strange that I’ll sit on a porch looking at the outdoor world but never feel the need to step into it and say, mow the lawn or pull weeds. I figure it’s like the TV—he’s happy to watch it 24/7, but dust it? Ha.

My front porch could be the closest place to heaven I’ve ever been—if it weren’t for the bugs. I sat out there on my wicker rocker one evening, candles placed strategically around me on the table, porch rail and floor. Fly swatter in defense mode, I dared bugs to approach through fire and the dread cloud of citronella. Before each sip of tea, I peered into my glass for suicides.


My son-in-law, who lived with us at the time, peeked out the front door. “Ring of Death?” he asked.


“The bugs can have everything beyond the candles.” I swung my arm around in an arc. “I’ve declared this my personal, bug-free zone.”


“Okay,"
he said. "The rest of us will be on the other side of the window screens.

Sometimes I serve supper on the porch, dragging food, dishes, cutlery, beverages, and my husband outside, to fight critters for the hamburgers and potato salad. A neighbor said, “I see you two out there having supper in the candlelight. It’s nice that you still do such romantic things after all these years.” 


I didn’t tell her that the candles were the bug-killing kind, and my husband accompanied me only because I had hauled all the food out there. Why ruin a hot reputation?

In Michigan, where I grew up, mosquitoes go into a feeding frenzy at dusk and continue buzzing your ears all night. Anyone with sense retreats inside at the first bzzz. One evening my sister and I sat on my Southern front porch talking and laughing about something—our husbands, probably. 

Suddenly she sat straight up. “It’s dark!”

“You’re scared of the dark?” I asked. At last, I thought. Something in common. She’s thin, artistic and runs for exercise. I love her anyway, but it would be nice to share something besides a tendency to snort when we laugh.


“No," she said. "It’s dark, but the mosquitoes never came out!”


“We don’t get many mosquitoes,” I explained. “Moths, June-bugs, scorpions, lightning bugs, spiders, ants, and some really scary things that like to get lost in my hair, but not many mosquitoes.” 

My husband’s favorite thing in life is to walk along the ocean. He told me that when he dies he wants to be cremated, with his ashes sprinkled on the beach.


I couldn’t come up with any place I loved that much. I asked, “Where do I want my ashes?”


He knew immediately. “In a wicker box on the front porch.” 


When I was diagnosed with cancer (don't panic--it was years ago and I'm still here), a good friend had trouble talking about my illness. But when I came home from the hospital after surgery I discovered that she’d decorated my front porch with magazines, flowers, wicker magazine rack, and an iced tea set with tray. A card said, “I know you’ll be spending lots of time out here as you recuperate and go through chemo, and I wanted it to be nice.” 


She didn’t even have to sign it, “Love, Sherry.” I could see the love all over the porch.


Monday, June 6, 2016

Shades of Blue



My husband and I do not agree on decorating. Shocking, I know, since we agree on so much else. (Sarcasm. That we’ve stayed together all these years is a testament to our stubborn natures—my theory, or true love—his thought. Gotta love him.)


From the start he thought we needed to agree on decorating, so for years we compromised. Meaning we lived with things more his choice than mine, since I was so dang grateful to have anything new and nice I just let him choose. Also I thought he hung the moon. 


Eventually I grew a backbone. He says I got bossy, but we don’t agree on that assessment.

“Our house doesn’t reflect my taste at all,” I complained. “It’s what we both could live with.”


Shockingly, he disagreed. “It’s a compromise.”


“It’s your taste,” I said. “The home is supposed to reflect the woman’s taste, not the man’s. And why do you care? None of the other husbands care!”


We argued over new dishes. Dishes! He did not want flowered dishes but I was in a flowered-everything stage. I asked him, “Are you telling me that if I buy dishes decorated with flowers you’re not going to eat what I cook for you?”


Although he loves my cooking, he wouldn’t back down—“I get a vote!”


Instead of giving in, which historically I had done, I dragged him all over to stores carrying dishes we can’t afford, Mikasa and such. When he was sufficiently sticker-shocked I took him to the long-gone and heavily-mourned Linens and Things and pointed out the dishes I wanted. We came home with the dishes.


He has softened over the years. Nowadays he says, “I get veto rights,” so I drag him all over creation until I find what I want and he gives in. It helps that I’m out of my floral stage. The house now reflects more of my taste. 


John has a two-color color wheel. Blue and brown, only light shades. He was happy during the 1980s country decorating style when we bought a blue couch and loveseat that both reclined—his choice. He still gravitates toward light blue and light brown. I think he’d wear light blue shirts and medium brown pants daily if he could.


I love burgundy and cobalt blue, hues that gives him hives. I compliment people on the street wearing tops and dresses in those colors. I found that when I limited my decorating to little bits of cobalt and burgundy he didn’t object. He even looks for matching items when we antique shop together. (Yes, together. He has his charms.) 


Sometimes I think marriage between people as different as we are is a slow wearing off of each other’s sharper edges. 


And that’s when you get to the good stuff.