Clouds covered the sun, breaking the intense heat of the evening, as Sonia climbed the last of the steep steps, trudged across her porch, and, juggling her bag of groceries, swung open the kitchen door. “Lord, it’s too hot for June. Can’t we save this till July? I can’t take it.”
The front entryway didn’t respond. Though Delmar, her German Shepard, started barking from the backyard.
She plopped the shopping bag on the counter, shoved her personal-bag, which, if one looked closely, resembled her college backpack, off her shoulder, and stomped to the back door. She twisted the handle and yanked.
Delmar sped into the house like a red Mercedes in the right lane.
Falling backward on impact, she smashed her hand against the counter and swore at the devoted animal. “Dammit, Dog, you know better. Trying to kill me? The one who feeds you?”
Contrite, Delmar whined and attempted a sloppy make-up kiss.
Sonia wasn’t in the mood. Amazed at herself, she realized that she wanted to smack the dog. What’s wrong with me?
Not getting anywhere in the reconciliation department, Delma trotted to the metal dishes set beside the refrigerator and inhaled a bowl of tepid water. Next, he crunched the last remaining bits of breakfast, nosing the bowl across the room in the process.
Normally, the dog’s self-involved obsession would set her laughing. But not today.
Her stomach grumbled. The workplace café had undergone new management, and without a sane thought to their long-range business, they decided to hike the daily lunch prices to nearly twice their usual. In protest, and because she honestly couldn’t afford them, Sonia swore off their offerings until they came to their senses.
But that left her no reasonable options at noon. And it was after six now.
She filled a pot with water and set it to boil, then pulled the pasta box from her bag. She lined up all the ingredients for a healthy spaghetti supper: whole tomatoes, onions, peppers, lean ground beef, and a jar of spicy sauce. She even rooted through the highest shelf above the stove, the one where she hid the tempting stuff—chocolate chip cookies and red wine.
She’d make a night of it. Long, impossible days deserved a reward, right?
Something was off with her logic, but she shook her head and pulled the wrapping off the meat, then set it to sizzle in the frying pan. Next, she set chopping board on the counter, and she was on her way. Oh, the wine! She poured a healthy glass, lifted it to her lips, and—
The doorbell buzzed, sending her nerves into fits.
Delmar went into full-frenzy mode. As far as he was concerned, aliens might have landed their spaceship at the door.
A headache sprouting behind her eyes, Sonia took a sip and trotted to the front room. Yanking the dog back, she took a quick look out the window.
Awe, dang-it! Jim and Eva. Grinning like fools.
They saw her, and their hesitant smiles ballooned outlandishly.
Mumbling under her breath, she informed her dog of the real state of her mind. “I thought when I moved in this neighborhood, I’d finally be free of—”
Whining, Delmar looked scandalized. He scratched at the door. Company was waiting!
In defeat, she opened the door.
“Hi!” Twin voices, Jim’ baritone and Eva’s soprano, melded in perfect harmony.
What? They practice on the sly?
Her weak response didn’t hinder them from barging right in, their happiness bouncing along with them.
Eva gushed, “We saw you drive up and waited, but we couldn’t stand it any longer. We just had to stop by and share the news!”
Sonia forced a smile. They were already married, so what…?
Eva’s slim hand caressed her belly.
“We’re expecting!” The two voices harmonized like a well-practiced song.
Forcing a return smile, Sonia itched to slap someone. Instead, she gushed back. “Oh, how wonderful! So happy for you. Great news.” She swallowed the bile rising in her throat and waved toward the kitchen. I was just giving myself a littler reward after a hard day. Want to join me?”
No second invitations needed. The two lovebirds pranced into the kitchen, Eva leading and patting a remarkably sedate dog on the head.
Delmar let them pass like the gentleman he never was.
Sonia sneered. “He usually jumps all over people.”
Eva rubbed the dog under the chin. “Oh, we’re good friends. I see him out in the yard during the day; he seems lonely, so when I have a moment, I call him over, and we have a good chat.” She grinned at the canine. “You’re a great listener, aren’t you, Buddy.”
After mouthing “traitor” at the dog, Sonia pulled two glasses from the shelf and started to pour.
Eva backed off with a look of horror. “Oh, no, not me.” She rubbed her mid-section. “Can’t take a chance with the baby.”
Jim rubbed his wife’s back, his gaze dropping to the floor.
What’s he looking so sheepish about? Going to melt into a puddle all over my clean floor.
Holding herself together with superwoman grit and the better part of the wine and cookie supply, Sonia listened to their happy plans for as long as she could stand it. Then she yawned and exclaimed over the late hour. “I’ve got to get up early tomorrow…”
With a blushing retreat, the blessed couple found their way home.
Sighing in relief, Sonia toddled off to bed. The ingredients of her spaghetti dinner all but forgotten on the counter.
Grateful for the respite on a cloudy, low 80s, August day, Sonia lugged her latest dinner ingredients into the house and onto her counter.
A tecno-snafu had shut the office down early, so she made it home before the clock struck noon. She hummed in the quiet kitchen, enjoying the peaceful opportunity. Then she looked up and frowned Not a sound from Delmar. Where is that dog?
She unlocked the back door and swept her gaze across the backyard. Nothing. Fear clutched her chest.
Then a flash of red caught her eye. There in the back corner, Delmar sat on his haunches while a woman crouched on the other side of the chain-link fence and reached through, patting his smooth fur. Who the—? Sonia squinted and recognition settled her heart to a normal rhythm.
She sauntered over. In a joking tone, she called out, “He’s spoiled enough. He’ll want his meals on golden dishes next.”
Eva glanced up; her face blotched, almost as red as her shirt. She snatched her hand back.
Sonia stumbled. “Oh—hey, just joking. Go ahead and pet him. He’s alone a lot. Loves company.”
With a nod, Eva reached out and stroked the dog’s ears.
Delmar grinned in doggy ecstasy.
Tiny alarm bells ringing, Sonia dragged her memory back to the last time she’d seen Eva. Months ago. When she and Jim came by with the great news. Her stomach clenched at the memory. She steeled herself. Oh, what the heck. “So, how’re you doing?” She titled her head, trying to see. No baby bump yet, that’s for sure.
Swallowing convulsively, Eva’s hand shook even as it went limp.
Delmar seemed to understand. He pushed his face against the mesh and tried to lick his neighbor’s face.
A tiny bubble of laughter (or was it despair?) burbled to the surface. Eva choked.
The alarm bells went from tinkles to gongs, pealing their warning. Sonia crouched closer. “Sorry. I didn’t mean—”
Eva pulled her hands onto her lap. “I’m not so good. We lost the baby.”
Sonia sucked in a pain-filled breath. “I-I’m sorry.” What else could she say?
“So are we. Can’t always get what you want.”
Best foot forward, Sonia chose the encouraging, supportive path. “You can always try again.”
The woman’s convulsive swallow turned into a sob. “We did. Lost ‘em both.”
A meek nod. Eva climbed wearily to her feet. She stared at Delmar. “He’s a good listener.”
Eva finally met her gaze. “I really wanted this baby.” Pain shared. She turned and slogged to her house.
Sonia stood stunned as realization hit her. Their pain was much the same.
Delmar whined and nudged her hand with his wet nose.
Sonia peered down.
The clouds parted, and the hot August son baked her shoulders. All hope of dinner evaporated.
When the doorbell buzzed at sundown, Sonia wasn’t surprised to see Jim’s face staring back at her from the porch window. She let him in without comment.
He paced to the far side of the living room and turned.
Delmar plopped down in the corner with a decided harumph. Clearly, he knew he was not the center of attention.
Sonia pointed to the kitchen. “Can I get you something?”
His face drawn and lined with grief, Jim shook his head. “Thanks. We ate earlier. I just came by to thank you.”
Startled, Sonia narrowed her gaze. Was he joking? A passive aggressive thing?
Jim stepped closer, inviting a moment of intimate conversation. “No one understands. Just because the baby was so young, some people think that it didn’t matter. It wasn’t real. My aunt even teased us about having a burial. Said it was like burying a foot after an amputation. Or a lost tooth.”
Rage writhed inside Sonia, a beast she corralled almost every day of her adult life. “That’s stupid.”
Jim nodded. “Cold really. But you understand. And Eva needed to be heard. So, I just wanted to thank you.”
Flummoxed, Sonia fought impending tears. “I didn’t do anything.” Slashing against scars that had nearly ruined her life, she snipped her words into tiny pieces. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Jim’s eyes widened, clearly shocked. “Oh, sorry, Eva thought that you’d lost a baby too. That you understood her pain.”
“I never told her that!” Sonia was surprised by her scream. Guttural, ripping her insides out.
Wordlessly, Jim shook his head. His expression spoke for him. You never lost a baby?
“I can’t lose something I never wanted—never admitted!”
Crushed, Jim’s face fell into a chasm of grief. “Oh, yes. You can.” He strode across the room, swung open the door, glanced from Delmar to Sonia’s face, then plunged outside and plummeted down the steps.
Sonia fell to her knees, a sob taking her places she had refused to go for years.
Delmar inched closer and nudged his head under her arm. At some point, she would stop crying, and he’d be there, waiting for her.
I don’t like to look back. Only forward. Perhaps one of the reasons why a sunny evening after a rainy day discombobulates me. A shiny-bright sky shouldn’t arrive when my exhausted body is ready to flop onto bed for a well-deserved rest. I like to consider where I am heading. Not where I have been. Can’t fix the past, only improve the future.
But last week, I became the custodian of a box of old letters. My brother who passed away had kept them through the years, and the kids and I discovered them only recently. My first surprise involved the sheer number. So many of the foreign students who boarded at my mom’s—Mrs. B’s—house had loyally written to her even after they had moved on with their lives. Our first renter, Yasushi Fujimoto, wrote from various places including the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Miramar, which my eldest daughter, a math-chem major, found rather interesting. As a kid, I could never have imagined that I would have a daughter who would grow up to become a scientist in her own right.
There is also the wedding invitation from Miss Ming Chu Hsu to Mr. Yaan Ming Jeffery Chan in Milwaukee not far from where we lived. There’s a thank you card from our Italian renter, Giuseppe, and his new wife, Laura, from their place in Glendale, WI. A sweet letter from Bing from his home in Wuhan, China.
Another letter, written by Bharat from Tanzania, apologizes profoundly for his delay in writing. I can’t imagine what could possibly be as important as writing a letter to us… He’d only had to fly across the globe to see his family. But he promises to return very soon, so his intentions were certainly honorable.
Chen wrote from California. Gustavo wrote from Caracas, Venezuela. There’s a wonderful catch-up with life’s goings-on from Awatif from the United Arab Emirates. A Christmas card from Bangladesh. A note from Said from Saudi Arabia…and that’s only a sample! Now, I’m wondering about those guys who didn’t send letters: Wael from Palestine and Bala from India. And so many more…
I have always considered myself blessed to have known so many people from such diverse walks of life. Not only did they come from different regions of the world, they spoke various languages and dialects, they ate fantastically spicy and exotic food. They practiced a variety of religions yet lived the same nobility of spirit. Hard working and determined, yet generous and understanding on so many levels. I don’t remember one cross word being spoken between the men during all those years.
I look back on my kid-tudes, and I’m ashamed that I wasn’t always as welcoming as I could have been. Being a child of a broken home, I wasn’t initially thrilled to have “my space” taken over by strangers. But those strangers became family in a way few other human beings have since matched.
In our international home, with usually between two to four students living with us at a time, I learned the impossible is possible. We humans can see beyond skin color, learn each other’s languages, discover new facets of God’s reality, and care so deeply about one other that even after thirty years, a yellowed scrap of paper can revive the flame of brotherly love. For, in fact, each of the men who stayed with us was my brother in the truest sense of the word.
Sadly, I have no connection with any of them now. I grew up, moved away, married, had kids, and became absorbed in forming my own little domestic universe. But as time marches relentlessly on, and family and friends pass away, my gaze turns inward. I discover that my heart is not frozen in ages past. Where ever those men have gone, my prayers and well-wishes go too.
Balloons have no business on the ground. It’s quite obvious why, and I shouldn’t have had to explain it to anyone, much less my nearest and dearest. But then, one has to explain everything these days, doesn’t one?
I had just lost a tooth. One I had been particularly fond of as it made chewing so much easier. It was a chilly spring afternoon, and I was at the college graduation party for my niece, Marley-May. A child saddled with such a legal title deserved my compassion, as well as monetary encouragement, so I generously supported my favorite niece through five years of college. It took her a year and a half to change her major six times. But once she settled on Art Therapy with a minor in Anxious Languages taught by a guy named Phil-something, she plowed right through.
Using every ounce of her hard-earned sensibility, Marley-May was dressed for the weather that morning in a skin tight, sleeveless dress and high heels. The spring thunderstorm held off until the last of the graduates made it across the stage. Then it swooped in for revenge.
I and sundry family, faculty, and community members scattered to our cars and made it to graduation ceremonies throughout town, gripping steering wheels and squinting into failing light.
My sister, Marley-May’s mom, Geraldine, had decorated the garage with streamers, balloons, and hung a huge, stenciled swag: CONGRADULATIONS, NOW GET A JOB!
Piled high with sandwiches, snacks, cakes, and drinks of all kinds, a standard plastic table dominated the oil stained, cement floor. An array of nails and screws piled up in old tin cans lining the shelving was a sight to behold. I had no idea that Geraldine’s husband, Sherman, was into recycling. I admired his organizational skills almost as much as I admired Geraldine’s dam-the-torpedoes approach to life’s challenges. Her husband’s projects among them.
Then, I took a bite of a caramel candy and promptly broke my tooth. But I couldn’t tell her that. So, I wrapped the piece in a matching “Congratulations, Now Get A Job” napkin and grinned through my discomfort.
“Having a good time?”
I glanced at my sister and grimaced. “Course. I love these get-togethers.”
She grimaced back. “Liar.”
“You know me too well.”
“I know that you made this day possible. Marley’s got a lead on a job, and her future looks bright. Thanks to you.”
I lifted my gaze beyond Geraldine’s left shoulder and watched my happy niece swigging back a soda with a half-eaten sandwich in the other hand. She chattered excitedly in a gathering of two other gals and a couple of interested, though not overly enthusiastic, young men. Did she have any idea how harsh the world would be? How dreams would be dashed? Aspirations squashed? The mighty burden of reality overload?
I shook my head. Of course not. She wouldn’t be smiling right now if she knew. Like a young bride going on her honeymoon, there’s no warning in the world to prepare a person for real sacrifice. That few care to notice. Even when it costs everything.
Geraldine patted my hand.
I met her gaze.
“You’ve done more than your fair share.”
“I did what needed to be done. Like what you did for Mom.”
“I just read her stories and relived my childhood as she slept in a chair.”
“You also held her hand. That’s what mattered.”
Geraldine’s eyes filled with tears.
Sherman marched into the make-shift party grounds and boomed. “Hey, I got old family videos set up in the living room and there’s hot cocoa on the stove. Let’s take this party to new heights, shall we?”
Wide-eyed horror rippled over Marley’s face.
Geraldine stood and faced the crises with charming calm. “Family videos are for us older folks who have no plans tonight.” She sidled into the youth’s gathering and drew her daughter aside. They spoke, and Marley looked over.
My stomach sank. The obligatory thank you was heading my way, complete with the hunted look and swift backward glances, pleading for courage from her friends.
Marley stopped in front of me and wrung her hands, her shoulders thrust back, ready to do her duty. “Hey, Auntie, just wanted to thank you for everything. I never could have made it through college without your support.”
I nodded graciously. The sharp edge of my tooth cut my tongue. “Happy to help. ‘What good you can do, you should do,’ Mom always said.” I shrugged. “Besides, Joe left me more than I really needed. It was only right that I share.”
A perplexed expression squinted through Marley’s eyes. “Oh, the money was nice. But what I really mean was your—I don’t know—your being you. Always there. Someone who cared about me.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Mom and dad are great. But, you know, they don’t always understand.”
The combination of honest flattery and dishonest betrayal sliced through me.
Words fell from my lips before I could stop them. “No one understands us completely, Honey. Only bits and pieces. The parts that reflect what we know. The rest confuses the hell out of us. We just try not to get mean about it.”
A startled glimmer of understanding quivered over Marley’s face.
Then a high, laughing voice rose from the background, “Hey, Graduate, you coming?” One of the gals pointedly tapped her watch. Fun called. Best not be late.
Marley squeezed my hand and smiled, peering into my eyes as if to convey something no words could tell. Real gratitude?
I nodded in acceptance and let her go her way.
Geraldine swept the remnant of the party-goers inside while Sherman took charge of clearing the faded festive grounds.
I stood and swiped my wrapped tooth from beside my paper plate. I’ll get it fixed next week. Geraldine will fill me in on Sherman’s newest home-improvement project, and Marly will find a job, making a life somewhere, somehow.
A red balloon skittered out of my way as I stepped across the floor. I picked it up and carried it with me. For a while, at least, it could hang in honor on my kitchen wall.
It amazes me that we humans ever understand each other given our robust ability to mess with syntax, translations, and meaning.
Some years back, the kids and I visited my dad in Kansas. My youngest, only about five at the time, was very impressed by something my dad shared with her. I was clueless.
After we returned home and I was making bread in the kitchen, my little one climbed up on a stool, watched me for several minutes, inflating my ego no small sum. Me thinking that my exceptional ability to knead dough actually impressed her developing mind.
She looked at me and inquired, in that adorable way small children do, with big searching eyes, “We’re related to pastry-people, aren’t we, Mom?”
I stopped kneading. Flummoxed. My eyebrows must have spoken for me.
Her voice rose with her determined desire to be understood. “You know, Pastry People. Granddad said we’re related to PASTRY PEOPLE!”
Thank the Lord of Heaven that daughter number four wandered through the kitchen at that appointed moment in history. I stalled her with a well-aimed, albeit desperate attempt to clarify our ancestry. “Uh, do you know anything about…”
She stared at me, furrowed her brows, pursed her lips, then smiled as light dawned. “Oh, yes, Granddad did say something about us being related to the Danish.”
Danish. Pasty-people. Get it?
I forgive you if you’re slow on the uptake. It took me a moment.
I don’t know if my youngest has yet forgiven me for merely being related to some of the greatest sea-faring humans in history, Hans Christian Anderson, and kings and castles rather than pastry-people. Though the discoverers of butter cookies are relatable!
When I took my ancestry test last March and got the results in May, I discovered that Dad was pretty much on the mark. 61% Irish, 26% English and northwestern European, 6% Scottish, 4% Welsh, 3% Swedish, I’m a mixed lot to be sure.
At an Irish pub with friends—back in my Chicago days—an Irish gentleman discussed ancestry with me and, when I shared my mixed heritage, his eyes rounded in something akin to horror. “You’re made up of people who hate each other, Love.” Add the fact that going generations back, we have mixed religious affiliations as well—heck, it is surprising love survived long enough to grow new lives. To say nothing of generations of lives.
It seems that everyone wants to be different these days. The irony is that we are different. Go back far enough, we all travel through the highways and byways of DNA history. And no one journeys unscathed. That’s what makes us the same. What unites us and makes us strong.
Nobility of character, depth of soul, worthiness as fellow human beings reflect both our shared human-kind but also the choices we make as individuals, including the stories we tell our kids and what’s put on the supper table.
So, though my daughter has to accept her nature as non-pastry-people, she does share our heritage as a chosen race—beings that our Creator willed into life. On a good day, we make bread and conversation, nourishing bodies and souls to journey on.
Recently, I celebrated another year marked on the calendar of my life. I am also considering how best to focus my energy and enlighten my soul, so I look back on my previous accomplishments and peer ahead into exciting new projects.
In our vastly changing world, we still follow an ancient path, searching for God, our proper place in family and society, and the meaning of our lives. Today, we live in a global reality little imagined in the land of Ur, though—made in the image of God—our souls have always held limitless possibilities.
In my OldEarth Encounter series, our world is viewed from a close-up Earth-bound, historical perspective but also from a distant, alien viewpoint. In the truest meaning of “Catholic,” the stories revolve around universal themes.
OldEarth ARAM Encounter—Humanity’s search for the one true God.
OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Conflict between humanity’s need for God and our desire to be god.
OldEarth Neb Encounter—The price of chosen evil.
OldEarth Georgios Encounter—God as Father and Son and our personal reflection of those roles.
OldEarth Melchior Encounter—Marriage, parenthood, and the meaning of our Christian identity.
The first three books are currently available on Amazon, and the last two are near completion and will be available soon.
For the rest of April, I will take a break from creating new stories, My Road Goes Ever On reflections, and poems. I’ll start up again sometime in May. In the mean time, I am completing the work on the last two OldEarth books, reading my posts aloud for those who’d like to listen, (Just hit the Listen on Spotify button) and organizing my newest work:
My Road Goes Ever On II
Encounter—Science Fiction Short Stories II
It Might Have Been Short Stories II
I am also hoping to publish a collection of my poems at some point. Still have to come up with a name…
May our lives be blessed with God’s grace each day.