Poison ivy, phone issues, a leaky sink, and tenacious weeds could have ruined my week. Lucky for me—life is bigger than bad moments, and free will is the true test of love.
There is an old oak tree that stands on the edge of our property, and every time I pass by, I offer a nod of respect and a prayer to the Maker of beauty and growing things. I’d noticed, of late, that several of the branches have died, reaching out like gnarly arms with not a stitch of clothing. Tracing the trunk with my gaze, I discovered that ivy vines had twirled around and were sucking the life from the ancient arboreal glory. So, I did the decent thing—got a pair of clippers and set it free from their death grip.
I didn’t notice any change at first. But the next day, the attacking vines on the tree drooped and the skin on my legs blistered.
AT&T kindly informed me with emails and text messages that they were doing upgrades, and my current phone was going out of business. Originally, I thought I had till 2022 to deal with the issue. Eons of time. Or not. Yesterday, I got a text message telling me exactly what disaster would happen (I’d only be able to dial 911 or 611—suggesting that from then on disasters would be my only option) if I didn’t switch to the new phone that they had sent me soon. I quickly set my tech-ready son to work.
Within the hour neither phone worked. I was Bilbo frantically patting his pockets for his ring!
Since it is summer, we have a garden. And lots of tasty things grow there. Including cucumbers. As wonderful as five cucumbers are, thirty-five can sit on the counter with an air of accusation: “What you gonna do now, eh?” So, I cleaned some canning jars, scrubbed the pot, added vinegar, water, and spices and tromped downstairs with visions of pickles dancing in my head.
Then I was hit with an atrocious stink. I looked around for a dead animal. Nope. Then I peered under the sink to the pipes I repaired last month.
There is a reason I have our plumber on speed dial.
The driveway and I have an agreement—the rocks stay put, and I drive cars over them. Unfortunately, no one told the weeds. Or they just aren’t listening. I have tried pathetic little weed killer spray bottles and got two-tenths of a millimeter cleared at a time. The other day, I saw a guy spraying his driveway with what looked like herbicidal big-guns. Normally, I avoid chemicals of all kinds. But enough is enough. I’ll need all-terrain drive soon to get into the garage if I don’t take action. So, I went to Rural King’s garden section and got a big bottle of something. I soon discovered that not all killers are the same. Helps to read the label.
My point? You’re very generous in reading this far in expectation that I have a point.
There happens to be medicine for poison ivy rash, and the itch goes away in time. The old oak will live another day and whispers thank you as I pass. My tech-magic kid calmed my racing heart when he got the new phone working, even transferring my contacts, thus the Earth continued to revolve around the sun. The plumber scheduled a date to fix the sink. I did get the cucumbers pickled, in case that was on your mind. For the driveway, I discovered the right tool for the job—a spray actually invented for the sole purpose of clearing out grass and weeds! And some people say that there aren’t miracles any more.
As I contemplated the reversals of the week—for good and evil—I realize once again, that freedom makes a big difference. In a true act of love, God gave me a will of my own. In a titled world of blisters, lost connections, broken pipes, and nefarious weeds, I get to choose how to handle each and every one.
And I’ve decided that my life is bigger—and better—than the bad moments.
Weary after a long day at work, Everleigh forced down a tuna salad at the kitchen counter as evening closed in. Blessedly, a cool wind rippled the curtains, relieving the furnace-blast heat of the hot summer day. Body and soul still together, she patted her sleepy do-nothing cat as it dozed on the couch, and then padded down the white hallway to her bedroom.
Her phone binged, notifying her that she had received a message. Without even looking at it, she placed it by her bedside and began her evening routine. A cold shower would revitalize her, surely.
Well, that didn’t work.
Bleary eyed, she brushed her teeth and then plopped onto her bed.
Boring rote days, toss-and-turn nights, and high humidity drained her will to live.
She stared at the fan. “Don’t just hang there.”
Padding to the wall switch, she did the needful and then grabbed her phone on the way back to her bed.
“Dad?” She scrolled to message.
Your grandpa is arriving on Sunday to celebrate his 90th.
Hope you’ll come too.
The scene from The Lord of the Rings where Frodo sets off from Rivendell, heading to Mount Doom in order to save the Shire flashed through her mind.
It’s not quite that bad.
Ignoring the jittery goose bumps that raced up her arms, she scrolled down.
Yep. There’s the address. “Dad doesn’t miss a beat.”
With a mighty effort, she gripped her will by the collar. Behave yourself! She talked out loud to encourage her flagging spirits. “Dad never asks for much, and he hasn’t seen grandpa in years. I’ll be merciful and go along.”
She squinted as she googled the address.
“Oh, wait! That’s way south. Nearly in another state. There’s no direct road!”,
Panic reared its ugly head, and Everleigh sucked in a shuddering breath. Then her phone binged again.
What now? The whole thing’s been canceled? Sure, that’s it. Thank you, God. I promise I’ll—
The thought—Check the message before making any promises—wiggled through her brain.
She scrolled down.
Aunt Kate needs a ride. Pick her up on the way, okay?
No “please, dear daughter.” Not even an emoji grimace—a way of saying “Sorry for the horrific situation I’m putting you in.”
Her fingers itched to tap back a formal message stating, “Everleigh died last year and was peacefully buried in the local cemetery.” She’d even be willing to pay for a tombstone to make it look good.
Dying was one thing. Being buried under her family’s strange coping mechanisms was quite another.
The thing about Aunt Kate, Everleigh reminded herself as she sped along the country road, was that she had lost the ability to communicate decades ago, but no one had the heart to tell her.
She parked her car in front of the tiny white ranch house in the quiet neighborhood and peered in the back seat, mentally reviewing her to-do list. Blanket for Auntie—since ninety-five degrees in the shade just won’t cut it for her old bones. A bottle of cola, two root beers, a water bottle, and a flask of gin. She’d make her way through them with unerring determination. Heaven help her if she forgot one of the nectars of the gods.
Her sainted sister, Jane would take care of the food. Jane would also take care of the decorations, insurance policies, and would make sure that two televisions were blaring—one covering the conservative side of world affairs, the other keeping the liberals in touch with hot-button issues. Of course, the internet would be available at all times.
Or the universe would evaporate.
Ready to leap forth and assist her eighty-something aunt, Everleigh froze when the old woman speed-hobbled down the walk swinging her cane. “Open the door, honey cakes! Can’t ya see, I’m ready?”
According to Google maps, the drive was only supposed to take two and a half hours. According to Everleigh’s comfort barometer, the drive was interminable.
The old woman chatted rapid-fire for several minutes, then asked incomprehensible questions.
After using every stock answer in the omniverse, Everleigh soon reverted to “Hmmm” and “you don’t say?”
Aunt Kate was not amused.
Everleigh’s dad, on the other hand, seemed to find everything and everyone funny. He never laughed out loud, just let the glitter in his eyes chuckle at the cymbal-clash reality of the family gathering.
Out back, her brother-in-law-number-two, Donnie, barbecued ribs and turkey burgers for those who either wanted delicious food or clean arteries. Jane sent the vegans into ecstasy with crispy buffalo cauliflower bites, oil-free pumpkin pancakes made with gluten free flour, and no-tuna salad sandwiches.
The two teens in attendance peeled off into opposite corners of the house and played multiplayer games with people on the other side of the globe.
Grandpa sat stage center stretched out on a lawn chair, a mild afternoon sun brightening his pale face. His wandering wide-eyed gaze reflected little of his glory years serving in two wars and then managing a realty business for forty years, till grandma died and all her money sense was buried with her.
After seeing that auntie was stashed safely at the picnic table where she could snatch whatever food or drink took her fancy, Everleigh wandered about, checking to see if there were any friendly aliens about the place.
Naw. Just family.
Then a hand tapped her shoulder and Everleigh shrieked. She turned and stared into the blackest eyes she had ever seen. Set in a golden face crowned with blue-black shiny hair that trailed down a straight back, Everleigh realized that beauty knew how to arrange her jewels.
The woman thrust out a hand. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. Just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Lekha, a nursing student from the hospital where your sister works. I watch over your grandpa whenever she’s too busy or something special is going on.”
Everleigh shook the offered hand and tried to think of coherent words. “Oh?” Where was Auntie’s quick wit now? “Well, that’s good of you. To come all this way—” She glanced over her shoulder.
Jane’s boy, Earl, sat beside the old man, showing him something on his phone. A game probably.
Unabashed, Lekha took in the scene with an expression suggesting that not only was her eye color different, her vision was too. “I enjoy it. Seeing a family together is refreshing, lifts my spirits.”
Everleigh gawked. She clamped her mouth shut to keep it from dropping open. She swept her gaze over the yard. Probably fifteen people in all and no large family confabs. All intimate clusters. Each to their own niche.
“We’re not a very cohesive group, I’m afraid. We get along by not having too much to do with each other.”
Lekha grinned. “Most of my family is home in India. I’m here studying. At least your family is on the same continent. That’s something.”
Earl stepped up, barging into the conversation as entitled people often do. He beckoned Lekha with a waving hand. “Hey, you gotta come and check on grandpa. I think he’s thirsty, but he’s trying to drink the hand sanitizer.”
Undisturbed by this newest proof of borderline insanity, Lekha hurried away to her duty.
Everleigh strolled over to her dad who stood near the empty grill holding a sampler plate—a bit of everything on there. “You having a good time?”
He shrugged. “I don’t come to have a good time.”
Everleigh sighed. “I thought that was the point.”
Her father took a bite of a buffalo cauliflower and shook his head. “Honey, we can’t make each other happy. But we can get along well enough to celebrate a person’s life while he’s still with us. That’s pretty good, in my book.” He lifted a pumpkin pancake and offered it to her.
Hungry for the first time in days, Everleigh took a bite.
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.
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.
Robert sat back on the wooden library chair, pushed an award-winning thriller aside and stared down the packed double rows of books. Heavy weighted shelves topped with hardcover novels that couldn’t fit in their appointed place, lined the room. An oversized GREEK MYTHS illustrated cover stared at him from a shelf mounted on a pillar directly ahead. The back wall, plastered with paperback mysteries and romances, while the front entrance, dominated by newspapers and magazines, offered a neat but plentiful aurora to the room. A wooden rack sported an array of local t-shirts for sale, and community news splashed itself over a mounted bulletin board.
He chuckled. History behind, romance to the left, political figures to the right. Myths and legends directly ahead. I should be well educated or happily entertained, at least.
The heavy oak front door creaked as a patron entered. A middle-aged woman dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans bearing an armload of books lumbered to the front desk.
The librarian, an older woman with white hair and thin glasses, glanced up. She smiled in welcome.
Robert frowned. She didn’t smile when I entered.
A muted conversation ensued.
He really should pick out a couple of books, or get back to work, or deal with Beatrice’s issues…but the voices oozed with understanding friendship.
“You liked it?”
“Oh, yeah. Reminded me of the time I spent overseas with Carl, when we were just married, and he was stationed in Germany. I didn’t understand at the time—terribly ignorant when I was young.”
Rueful laugh. “Aren’t we all?”
A snort. “My granddaughter seems to know everything—certainly knows more about—” The throaty voice dropped to a subterranean level.
Robert tipped his head to peer between the wall of books. Yep. The librarian was nodding, even as she ran the wand over each book, then dropped it into a box.
Beatrice’s face rose in his mind as a knot tightened in his stomach, the pain in her eyes puzzling him.
“You don’t understand!”
What did he need to understand? He loved her, and she loved him, and they were married after all. What more did she want? They had a couple of kids and didn’t want more—at least not for a long while. Kelly and Roger were great, but even he could see how stressed Beatrice got with their schedules. He tried to help. But there was only so much he could do.
“It’s not that!”
He had tried to hug her into a better mood, but she wasn’t having it. Stiff as a board and just as unrelenting. Tears dripped down her face as she stared at the floor, slumped on the edge of the bed like some kind of broken toy.
Frustration filled him. Almost every night, it was the same routine. He approached, and she resisted. He cajoled until she either got mad or gave in.
“What’s the deal? I thought Fridays were good for you. Look, I’m a patient guy but even the best of men needs a little encouragement.”
She’d just stared. That baleful look spearing him with hopeless injury.
The librarian’s voice startled him. She stood at his right, peering at the thrillers he had shoved aside. “Anything I can help you with?”
Got anything on how to talk your wife into a romantic mood? he didn’t say. “Uh, just looking. Trying to figure out what I want. Thrillers just not cutting it for me.”
Sympathetic eyes stared into him.
Good Lord, how much do librarians know?
“If you want a suggestion?” It was the other woman, the patron with the heavy stack.
He shrugged, appearing open but not needy. Or so he hoped.
“Try Palmer’s series. Historical fiction starting in the middle-ages but with a phycological twist. Kind of thrilling, but he’s got depth, if you know what I mean.”
Robert glanced at the librarian for confirmation.
The white head nodded in agreement. “Oh, yes. Palmer is good. Real family drama without the typical social motifs. The gritty stuff of life but without antiquated solutions.”
A groan rose inside Robert. “I got enough grit in my life. Thanks.”
A conspiratorial grin passed between the two women.
Burning heat rose in Robert’s cheeks, as if he just realized that he had forgotten to zipper his pants this morning. His left hand slowly inched onto his lap.
The librarian tried again. “Well, there’s always Susan Price Marks Siva. She’s got some fun escapism. Very global and internationally acclaimed.” Her brows scrunched—trying to remember or trying to discern? “Thrilling but educational.”
“You like biographies? There are some heart-stopping accounts on the shelf right behind myths and legends.” The helpful patron jogged aside and pulled a heavy volume from the shelf. “Life and lies of—”
The door creaked open, and the three-some froze. Caught blatantly chattering in the library.
Tentative padding steps. Then a small voice. “Hello?”
What a sweet sound. An image of an apple tree in springtime rose in Robert’s mind.
A blond head poked around the corner. A bright smile. The young woman stepped forward; a book lifted in her right hand. “I’m here to pay my debt to society.”
Duty calling, the librarian returned to the counter, leading the way to reparation for overdue books.
Helpful patron chimed in. “I mark the due dates on my calendar. Got fined twice before I thought to do it. Funny how I have to make mistakes a few times before I learn how to solve them. O, happy fault, maybe?”
Robert didn’t have a clue what the well-read woman was talking about. But as she turned and meandered to the fantasy section, he didn’t follow up.
With a sigh, he replaced the thrillers in their proper section and wandered toward the counter.
The pretty lady stood with one arm propped on her hip, her body tilted, like a mother used to carrying a baby and can’t get comfortable in a straight position.
“Dan’s watching them. You know how it is. He loves the procreation process and playing with ‘em when they’re young, but the follow-up’s a real chore.”
The librarian met Robert’s fixed stare as he stood one bookshelf away. Then she returned her gaze to the conversation at hand. “Growing up is hard. At every stage.” She tapped the book. “You want to return this or renew it?”
A quiet sigh. “Well, I just got into it, but I never know if I’ll get a chance to finish it. Between Dan and the kids, I get so tired, don’t have any time to let my mind roam. My soul is not my own.” She released a brittle, suck-it-up, chuckle. “But like you said—growing up is hard. Renew it, and I’ll try to squeeze in a bit of time.”
Stunned by the image of a captured, weary soul, Robert waited and then watched the young wife and mother saunter out the door. His gaze trailed after her as her blond head bobbed and then disappeared around the corner.
He marched forward and faced the librarian. “You have anything on ‘Oh happy fault?’”
Breaking into a grin, the librarian pointed to the religion and philosophy section. “Probably. We’ve got something for everyone. Just have to figure out what you want.”
A happy wife rang in Robert’s ears. He lifted his hand. “You know, I better get going. Thanks. But I think the book I need to read—is at home.”
He paced out the door and sauntered outside, a new story filling his mind.
As a kid, I knew my mind. I honestly believed I had a mind. But as the world turns on its axis, seasons change, and all forms of world leadership, pundits, and professionals offer their expertise, speeding through high-tech revolving doors, I find that my mind isn’t always my own.
Pursuing academic excellence is a fantastic way to lose one’s mind. But don’t stop there. Try marriage, parenting, and—goodness knows—volunteer service does wonders for one’s “I don’t know what I was thinking” mindset.
School days taught me to think. To read different resources. To consider various points of view. I have a distinct memory of sitting in a comparative religions class in my Catholic high school wondering if the teacher believed in anything at all. Respect implied an open mind to every question. An honest consideration that the presented view could possibly be the right one. Then they send in the next contestant. And so, on it went. Historical perspectives. Religious tenants. Persecution complexes. Vapid voyeurism. Collections and chapters detailing human interactions—interior thoughts and earthly battlegrounds—all striving to touch the finger of God.
Marriage snaps the sinews of personhood, demanding a level of “us-ness” that no one can properly prepare for no matter what bride magazine one subscribes to. Right after impassioned vows charges the inner-scream-crisis between self and self-denial. Have a mind-full opinion? Certainly. But share cautiously.
Parenting starts with euphoria, travels through exhaustion, canters about introspection, chokes out, “I don’t know” well before the kids’ reach their teen years, and sits humbly on a kitchen chair while family and friends illuminate what they can’t possibly see.
Volunteer service offers a nice platform to rest wounded egos and tired minds. After all, what could possibly go wrong? Between serving in Chicago’s inner city, a barrio in the Philippines, various pro-life adventures, and community opportunities, I’ve discovered that mindfulness abounds in every situation. To serve with a mind is one thing. To serve with the heart—quite another.
I’ve often wondered, who needs to have a mind when there are so many to choose from? As for the heart, well, it breaks all too easily.
Last night, I received a call from a woman who is arranging her mother’s funeral, and she had questions about the burial details. As the secretary for the local cemetery, I answered what I could and directed her to other resources when necessary. This morning, a funeral home called with information concerning another burial this weekend. The name rings familiar though I don’t know the man who died. He was a friend of a friend, his passing a loss to many.
When I accepted this position last year, I had no idea of what I was getting into. The logistics seemed simple enough. How hard can it be to bury a body? Little did I know. Seriously. We humans have an absolute knack for confusing ourselves and losing our loved ones. From attempting to locate bodies in unmarked graves using witching sticks (Not my idea—but certainly an experience I won’t soon forget) to submitting accurate records to the state of Illinois, I have learned the value of various kinds of knowledge.
My predecessor helps me with the records and relations between folks. The who’s who and how to negotiate unexpected inquiries. How many bodies can be buried in a site? Two—if they are cremations. And, yes, sometimes people are buried in the wrong place, stones reflect broken family connections, and the rows aren’t always straight.
The grave digger offers his expertise—allowing me the security of double-checking my records and getting the facts, if not the lines, straight. No, bodies aren’t buried six feet under. Cremations can be hard to detect even a day later, and mounds over a full grave can linger for years.
In the end, literally and figuratively, I have discovered that though knowledge of the facts may be etched in stone and measured in records, it is the heartfelt memories that hold folks together—inside and out. The truest truth of a person isn’t detailed in words or numbers, it is shaped in lives. Those we know and those who know us through others, down through uncountable generations. DNA and the embodiment of the soul start a winding process that bends through dates, events, joys, and sorrows right into personhood.
The truth of who I am involves my mind, but it doesn’t end there. I am not what I think or who I know. More than tears, screams of frustration, cries of delight, or even laughter, I find myself concerned less with the content of my mind than the character of my heart. Or should I say characters… No man, woman, child, critter, or composition has left me untouched. I am chiseled and etched by the God who made me and the personalities of this world—now and forevermore.
Kiara loved the sound of the wind rushing through the woodland. Earthy and rustic, it spoke of invisible worlds and steadfast powers beyond human control. Blades of spring grass poked up from last winter’s mulch, and buds swelled in the promise of better things to come. She sighed. If only…
The sun had crested over an hour ago, and she must return to her apartment, then off to her shrill, insistent work place, always maintaining a calm, professional demeanor.
A redbird alighted on a fence post, chirping an attractive, lilting tune. Why can’t I be a bird?
Her sister’s voice. Myra always knew where to look.
Kiara stepped from the shadows into the field. “Yes?”
“There you are!” Myra jogged forward. “Let’s go to the lake. Mother left a cold supper in the kitchen, and the boys won’t be back for another couple of hours.”
A thrill ignited Kiara’s imagination. “You think we could?” Doubt quickly cooled the spark to mere ash. “But I should prepare for—”
“Another workday?” Myra gripped her sister’s arm and tugged. “You’re always working, and when you die, your spirit will float about this beautiful planet, wondering why you ever lived.”
Aching pressure surged against an inner wall, splashing over the ramparts. Tears filled Kiara’s eyes.
The two women stood on the rocky shore, surrounded by cliffs held together by a phalanx of trees, ripples scurrying across the blue-green water.
A tall, lean man strolled toward them, waves splashing his toes.
Shock filled Kiara as she stared wide-eyed. “What’s Jagan doing here?”
Myra kept her eyes glued to the horizon. “Does he have to have a reason?”
Images of the muddy water, floating debris, homes half-submerged in the flooded plain filled her mind. So many had lost loved ones in the disaster. The funerals never seemed to end. Then they did, and everyone returned to work and normal lives.
Normal? What does that mean? “I thought he moved up north, away from—”
Myra shot her a glance. “He did. But now he’s back.”
“He doesn’t have family here. Not anymore.”
Scuffing a bare toe against a smooth rock, Myra rubbed a fish-shaped pendant hanging around her neck. “Doesn’t he?”
With a snort, Kiara tossed her head.
Jagan stopped and nodded. His eyes reflected grief mingled with endurance. “I was down the shore and saw you; hope I’m not interrupting.”
Myra hugged her sister’s arm. “Of course not. Mother has made enough supper for a spring festival; come and join us. The boys would love to see you. They’ve been working on a kite.”
His gaze glancing off Kiara, Jagan waited.
Words tumbled from Kiara’s lips before she knew what she was about. “Certainly. Come and be welcome. I have to return to work so someone should enjoy—” What? Life? She blushed in confusion.
Ignoring the unfinished thought, Jagan fell in step between the two women as they headed back to a small blue Honda. “You’re still at the same place?”
Kiara nodded. “Same work. Same family. Same everything.”
Myra’s tiny head shake obliterated the lie. The tiny woman pulled out her keys and slid into the driver’s seat. “You two sit in back and don’t tell me how to drive.”
After supper, Jagan met Kiara in the kitchen as she wiped the wooden table free of spots and crumbs. He tugged a towel off the rack and started drying the dishes. “Keeping busy helps, doesn’t it?”
Her throat tightening, Kiara kept her gaze glued to the polished surface.
“I moved away. Thought I’d find peace if I didn’t have to run into a memory every time I turned around.”
The distant sound of rumbling thunder echoed off the hills. “But now you’ve returned. For good?”
He smiled and lifted the clean stack of plates onto the middle shelf. “For good? That’s funny. I hardly know.”
With a shrug, Kiara dismissed his honesty. “I like to keep busy. Productive.” She squeezed the sponge and laid it neatly on the soap dish. “Not a problem.”
Jagan leaned against the sink and nodded. “That’s good. I hated it when I couldn’t feel anything anymore. Just a vague unease, like something was supposed to be inside of me that wasn’t.”
The wind picked up, and branches swished against each other, groaning in stormy delight.
A shiver ran down Kiara’s arms. “I should’ve headed back to my apartment this afternoon, but I got caught up in the spring sunshine. And Myra and mom wanted…you know.” She sighed. “I’ll have to get up extra early tomorrow to make the drive if I want to get to work on time and do stuff.”
With a playful twinkle, Jagan twitched the towel at Kiara. “Love doing stuff, do ya?”
Laughter bubbled inside Kiara. “You betcha! The more stuff the better! I’m one of the best stuffers—” Suddenly, as if she had been stripped of every article of clothing like in a horrible nightmare, left without a single defense, choking tears killed all joy.
Jagan didn’t ask. He simply took her in his arms and held her. Softly, without possession, advice, or comment.
Her tears stained his brown shirt, but she couldn’t stop them. She hung on and let the tears do their work. After a deep calming breath, she pulled away. “I still have to go tomorrow.”
He nodded. “And you’ll manage another productive day.”
“I will.” She looked up and met his eyes. “And you?”
“I’m home now. Grief can find me whether I work or play.”
Rain pounded the roof and beaded the window. A breeze sashayed into the kitchen.
“I wish I were a bird…”
Jagan took her hand, led her to the doorway, and flung open the door. Messy drops drizzled and splattered.
He pointed to the treetops where a nest swayed in the wind.
Queasiness unsettled Kiara’s balance. “How do they stand it?”
He gripped her hand tighter. “It’s home.”
“The place where you face life’s storms.”
As the drops slowed, Kiara relaxed, peace enveloping her. Home isn’t a place. It’s a presence. For the first time in forever, her soul flew.
Song, in her petite elven form, wearing a dark green tunic over grey leggings, strolled along the wooded glen, soft brown soil cushioning each step while pink blossoms waved in a gentle breeze. She stopped and breathed in the deliciously sweet scent of spring.
Butterflies sailed by as birds twittered from the branches: bluebirds, redhearts, and goldenhues. Even a pair of orangefires insisted on wishing her a good morning.
She smiled and bowed in the accustomed greeting between Bhuac and natures’ citizens.
A fierce greenhawk swooped in and, with its large bulky body, bristled, sending the gentler folk into a frightened frenzy. The joy-filled chirping turned to cawing and sharp screams of distress.
Her heart twisting, Song watched, helpless to alter the scene for though she ruled the planet, her influence in the wild only reached so far.
Pounding steps along the wooded path, turned her attention. A figure jogged forward, long black hair flowing over thin shoulders, clear eyes narrowed in concentration. A strong woman suffering from unaccustomed weakness.
Slapping her hand against her chest, the woman came to a skidding halt before Song, heaving deep to catch her breath. “They’re going back!”
Her heart clenched; Song froze. As if understanding the gravity of the moment, the feathered feud ceased, and silence descended. Only the sun continued to shine unabated. With a start, Song realized that she could not sense a thing. Even the ground under her feet had fallen away.
“Did you hear me?” The woman drew closer, her hand reaching, whether to awaken her mentor or grasp at needed strength, neither could guess.
Song nodded. “I heard.” She forced a calm smile. “It is good to see you again, Kelesta. Where is your husband and daughter?”
A darted glance at the sky and a facial spasm spoke louder than words. “They’ve gone too.” Her gaze fell. “Ark passed on and his son, Tarragon is taking his place.” She straightened her shoulders. “Teal is sick, and Sterling is…preoccupied. A Luxonian named Mauve has stolen his heart.” She sucked in a deep breath, readying herself for painful truth-telling. “Zuri wants to teach Nova about humanity’s true nature. Perhaps make room in her soul for—” Kelesta flapped her arms like a bird perched on the edge of flight. “Something.” She shrugged. “She certainly isn’t interested in me.”
Caught in a snare that had held her for much too long, Song wrapped her arm around the young Bauchi woman. “She loves you—she just doesn’t know it yet.”
With a muffled sob against the older woman’s shoulder, Kelesta gave way to tears. “She can’t love someone she doesn’t know. She refuses to even consider what Zuri and I offer.”
The sun, still on its ascent, shone bright from the clear golden sky. “Let’s return and have a morning cup with biscuits and honey-jam. You’ve come home just in time to help me face the coming storm. Humanity measures time in such small increments; they do not see the landscape of their days. They are about to undergo a momentous change, and they have no idea of the long-range repercussions.”
“But what about Zuri and Nova—and all the rest?”
Song took Kelesta’s hand and started down the path, her feet padding on the soft, springing soil. “They must learn too. It is what all the living must do or else die in stagnation.”
Kelesta brushed a low hanging branch out of her way, pink blossoms falling on the path, as she kept in step with Song. “But what if she learns the wrong lesson and refuses her father and me? What if we lose our daughter?”
Tears aching behind her eyes, Song looked to the trees and silently beckoned to the birds. Give me strength. “It is the highest praise of our creator to give us freedom.” She squeezed her friend’s hand as the birds burst into fresh song. “It is our trial to endure whatever they choose.”