Category Archives: Family

Anything to do with relationships between parents, siblings, and extended relatives

Sitting to a Painting

I visited the Art Institute of Chicago a week ago. I feel fortunate when I’m able to visit an art museum more than once, to the point that I can remember which beloved paintings are where. It’s always confusing when the Mary Cassatt “The Child’s Bath” painting seems to be moved, but surely it’s my orientation and unreliable memory. This visit I ventured into some rooms I had not yet seen, featuring a favorite subject for me: early American furniture and paintings.

I didn’t recognize the painting subjects, probably individuals who were prominent when our country was still a set of backwoods British colonies. Fine white lace, golden ribbon, light blue silk…I thought not only about the position and presentation of the person painted, I thought about each’s life, trying to imagine one of the days when the person came to sit for the painting.

One auspicious lady intrigued me. Had her husband amassed wealth in shipping or whaling, or did she bring the fortune to the marriage, her man clever enough to earn—and intelligent enough to sustain– her affection?

I often think about other days in other centuries, trying to figure how they were similar and different to my days. Tending to personal nourishment, hygiene, social calls, family needs, household dealings, memories, histories, thoughts and desires: all these characterize common, even daily, activities in any person’s life. So what was going on in that woman’s mind, as she sat for the painter?

Her posture erect, her face smooth, her brow unwrinkled, through youth, a relatively easy life, or the painterly touch? Her skin so white, her eyes open to possibilities, a reserved smile that, taken with her eyes, speaks of kindness, the potential for generosity and mirth or light mischief: again, the personality or the painter?

Surely she had some secrets, from loved ones, from long ago, even ones shared with her by friends. Did she keep them? Certainly she had desires, either to be noticed for her station in life, to be appreciated by her family, or to make her way in her world. Did she act on them? Being human, she had to have had heartaches, for living to adulthood implies that through the years, friends move away, relatives die, prospective lovers fade. Did she weather them? Choices sour, ideas prove unfeasible, dreams dissipate. I looked more closely, wishing I could see beyond the oil. What would have made this placid-seeming woman apprehensive? Did she trust the painter; was there chemistry, not necessarily romantic, between them? Who commissioned the painting and what was the agenda?

I have read that George Washington hated to sit for portraits. Maybe they took too much of his time. Maybe his earliest experiences were unpleasant. Or maybe he just had so much to do that he resented seemingly doing nothing, sitting still. I’m so glad he did, in the time before photography.

To sit for a painting definitely swallowed a part of one’s life. Some subjects might have enjoyed it; it might have made them feel special, or as if they had arrived at some longed-for higher social position. I didn’t know what—if anything–the woman in the painting needed to prove. One thing was sure. After the sitting, on came the regular day: pacifying Mama, tending to hubby, correcting children, managing the household, seeing to the horse. At least on the canvas, the subject is alone with her thoughts, lost to time as clearly as her likeness has been saved to posterity.

Childhood’s Charms

 We may be backed in a corner, but we’re heading the right way.

As I walked through an airport terminal last week, I observed a photograph of a celebrity from childhood. As I thought about the photo, I wondered what place childhood held for that celebrity. Was it just a phase to get through, a stage understood as a catalyst, or a magical time revered, treasured, and protected from oblivion through frequent returns?

I then thought about the importance of my own childhood and the place it holds in my present. Is it the equivalent of a tattered tissue in a side pocket of a jacket, carried along without much thought, or is it more like a lucky buckeye in that pocket, intentionally kept for its mythical impact on the present and the future?

Everyone’s childhood has joys and sorrows. Flannery O’Connor stated that anyone who has survived childhood has enough stories to write about for the rest of his life. It’s perhaps the richest mine of experience. And memory is so malleable, I have to understand that what I’m remembering may be one version of the truth. Several years ago my siblings and I produced About As Much Fun as a Child Could Have: A Shell Collection, a book of childhood memories as a gift for our parents. We found that some of us remembered conflicting  details of a single event. We left them in, all different. The truth is in there somewhere!

So I’m saying that I highly value my childhood, I’m grateful for it, the good and the bad, and I find much comfort in recalling those innocent days. The excitement of riding my bike farther than I’d ever been before. The delight of holidays with my cousins and extended family. The contentment of quiet Sunday evening suppers, with each member so relaxed in the setting that we didn’t have to clutter the space with conversation. The security of hearing my parents discussing the day after I was tucked in bed.

I address all females as “girls” with the highest connotation. Perhaps some are offended by being called a girl. I hope I’m always considered a girl; I would much rather be thought of as a girl than a woman or a lady.  My father’s frequent saying, “The past is a great friend but a lousy roommate,” speaks to the importance of keeping things in proportion. But it’s always good for me to spend time with great friends.

What does childhood mean to you?

On Never Giving Up, or Reaching Chicago from the North via Arkansas

We expected a high-school trip across an ocean would introduce our son David to lifestyles far different from his own in southern Arkansas. What we didn’t realize is that one of the biggest lessons and eye-opening experiences occurred before he even boarded the plane.
Japan’s flag

Our middle son, David, has always identified as a Japanophile: as a teenager he studied karate, read manga and anime, and followed the Japanese rock star Gackt During the fall of his junior year in high school, 2005, David was invited to visit Japan with Chicago-based People to People Student Ambassador Group, a travel service for young people, the following August. When we told him we’d pay for half the trip, he immediately began washing cars and mowing yards to earn the remainder. He also attended local People to People meetings and researched Japanese history and culture.

We booked a 6:17 Monday a.m. flight out of Little Rock to O’Hare airport, where David would meet his group then continue across the Pacific to Osaka. He was flying to Chicago on a different airline (one not available through Little Rock), and would have to run his suitcase through security again at O’Hare, but it was all part of becoming a responsible traveler. Students were expected to prepare for diverse opportunities. My husband Jeff taught David how to tie a Windsor knot and we reviewed where to find the dessert spoon at a formal dinner. The week before he left, we rolled up khakis, stuffed socks into dress shoes, tucked in Band-Aids, extra batteries, the 5,000 yen we’d ordered for expenses before he exchanged money, a journal. By the time he zipped the bag for the last time, David was tired of packing and especially my non-solicited travel advice

The Sunday night before the trip, Jeff, a private pilot, flew us in our Baron B58, N5476B, to Little Rock.  At the hotel, we confirmed David’s flight: on schedule. We reviewed all he would have to take care of by himself at O’Hare: Go to baggage claim and retrieve your suitcase. Recheck it and clear security again. Go to Terminal 1 to meet your group. Don’t make any jokes. Don’t take candy or gum from anybody. Don’t talk to strangers.

At the airport 5:15 a.m. Monday, the ticket agent informed us that David’s plane had a mechanical problem and they were flying in technicians from Dallas to repair it. The plane would not leave for Chicago before 10:30. As the group plane to Osaka departed Chicago at noon, David would not make it.

The agent helpfully noted, “There’s a flight leaving in twenty minutes for Charlotte SC connecting to Chicago, but you can’t get on it.”

We pleaded, “He’s a minor; he’s got to make that international flight.”

She conferred with her supervisor, and returned with a non-negotiable “no.” She smiled, “If you’d been here fifteen minutes earlier, you could have made the other flight.”

We had arrived when we thought the terminal opened. I wanted to remind her, “If your plane didn’t have a problem, we’d make the flight.” But it wouldn’t help any.

I began calling the Chicago People to People leaders and their national switchboard, located in Washington state. As it was only 5:45 a.m. Central time, the switchboard wouldn’t open for over three more hours. I cruised through about ten Emergency options before finally reaching one of the Chicago leaders, Randy, who informed me he’d be leaving for the airport soon and wouldn’t be taking his cell phone.

Me: “You’re the only person I can contact with the group and you’re not taking your cell phone?”

Randy: “Well, I won’t need it there.”

Thanks a lot. Randy handed me off to Scott, People to People’s “aviation specialist.” Scott rattled off options: “There is another flight for Osaka at 10 pm tonight, as well as the noon flight the next day…Funny,” he mused, “It will land before the 10 pm flight does.”

The idea of our seventeen-year old son sitting in O’Hare by himself, crossing the Pacific by himself, and trusting the People to People representative to find him in a country which didn’t even use our alphabet much less our language, then unite him with the group, neither amused nor appealed to Jeff or me. David needed to make today’s flight. Scott offered to alert the airline in Chicago, but doubted they’d hold the flight for a single passenger.

We reviewed our options. Jeff could fly us south in the twin engine to El Dorado to pick up the flight charts that were mandatory for such a cross country trip, then head straight into O’Hare to reach David’s group. It seemed like a great idea at the time; it was our only hope. We zipped to El Dorado where a loyal employee met us at the hangar with flight books around 6:30 a.m.

A specific example of O’Hare’s legendary traffic: almost 78 million passengers flew through in 2016. Air Traffic Control (ATC) assigns planes a reservation number (slot) good for a 15-minute window for landing. Jeff was concerned that the slot he’d applied for would be too early. Furthermore, we couldn’t locate Illinois airport pages in the books the employee brought. We rushed to a pilot friend’s hangar and commandeered his book, hoping he wouldn’t need to make an emergency flight to O’Hare that day.

We took off from El Dorado a little after 7, our destination the mighty O’Hare International. Before we passed Camden, a town 35 minutes from El Dorado, we learned that O’Hare wasn’t accepting any arrivals from the south. The Air Traffic Controller twice asked, “State your intentions.” Jeff twice replied, “Standby, I’ll let you know.”

Soon the St. Louis Arch loomed on our left. David and I kept repeating, “We’re not going to make it, are we?”

Jeff responded, “We’ll just keep flying north and hope something happens.” He had already requested tracking from Signature, the general aviation FBO (Fixed Base Operation) for private aircraft, where we would land if we were lucky. The tracking would insure that a vehicle would be ready to whisk us to the commercial terminal.

The 12,000-ft altitude reduced my oxygen level. Furthermore my eyeballs stuck to my eyelids from dehydration. I had assumed we’d drop David at LR security for the original 6:17 flight then be home by 8:00. I had planned a yard work day; therefore had taken no pains with my appearance. No makeup, scarcely a brush run through my bangs: I was wearing the same clothes I’d had on the day before.

I sat there like a rag doll. We hadn’t had breakfast and our empty stomachs protested. We finally broke into David’s Pacific-flight snacks. The closest approach to nutrition was a Trix cereal bar. The thought of eating something pink, purple, and lime green nearly made me nauseated. Nevertheless, I ate one and felt better. “Any port in a storm” was the day’s motto. David sat in the back in a fear-induced stupor. He had dreamed of and worked hard to take this trip; how little control we now had.

When Jeff contacted Chicago Approach, stating his intentions, the controller said, “You’ve already tried that this morning, haven’t you, 5476Bravo?  No landings from the south.”

So we were denied a landing slot again. Jeff proposed that we land from the north. Coming from Arkansas!

Wanting to discourage Jeff from landing our twin engine at the busy commercial airport, the controller suggested, “Why don’t you try Midway?”

Jeff shot back, “I have a minor on board who needs to make a connecting international flight. I don’t care how you vector me. I have got to land at O’Hare.”

The controller paused, then spit out, “Turn left, 270.”

Glorious words! We were going to fly west, then north, then east, then south, but we were being routed to land from the north. In the meantime, a storm had popped up west of Chicago. To keep us safely behind it, the controller routed us 45 miles farther west of Chicago, then north. I began to laugh—we were even facing supernatural interference. Maybe David wasn’t supposed to make that flight. I murmured what I hoped sounded more like a prayer than a dare: “GOD, You can surely keep him off this flight. In the meantime, we’re going to do everything we can to get him on it.”

Recounting all the steps we would have after landing gave me the illusion I was doing something to make our quest successful: taxi the plane to Signature, get out, and secure the shuttle. Load David’s baggage, drive to the terminal, locate the right airline. Wait in line for check in, pass through security, dash to the gate. The clock kept moving, tick tock tick. Our chances wouldn’t appeal to a gambler. I planned to throw myself at the nearest ticket agent and only hope that she, too, was a mother.

Consistent with the day’s challenges, the controller assigned Jeff a runway far from the general aviation terminal. A Boeing 737 was barreling up behind us. The controller grumbled, “5476B, can you maintain current air speed?”

Jeff ‘s reply: “If you’ll let me keep descending.” Our air speed indicated the yellow, or caution, zone already.

We finally touched down around 11:15, four hours after takeoff from El Dorado. But many hurdles awaited us. In flight chart books, most airports are represented by a single page detailing their ground map, diagrams for landings and taxiway instructions. In ’05, O’Hare alone had twenty-three pages of taxi diagrams. We were daunted, but we weren’t giving up. Jeff requested “progressive taxi,” or turn-by-turn instructions to navigate the maze of runways and taxiways to reach Signature. The Ground Control tower barked commands:

…Left turn on High speed taxi November 3. Right turn on November to Echo Echo to Bravo to Hotel 3 to Poppa Poppa to Tango Tango to Signature Flight support.  

[Note: these aren’t verbatim directions; they represent what my then-befuddled layperson’s mind absorbed. In fact, all aviation references represent a passenger’s–not a professional’s–understanding of the world of flying.]

Airports list taxiways as single letters, but the alphabet isn’t sufficient for O’Hare, which has doubles: EE, PP, TT, and so on. They move traffic, no amateur dealings. I scribbled as fast as I could, bewildered and unable to find all the letters and numbers on the map. Jeff scoured the field for taxiway signs. We certainly didn’t want to get lost on the runways, especially under the watchful eye of the no-nonsense Control Tower. As we tottered along in front of a jet, I felt like a ladybug. We could easily be squashed beneath that behemoth. To our right, a line of commercial jets sat connected with walkways to the terminal, being emptied and refilled of humans and their trappings. I wondered if one of them were David’s. I also asked myself, if I had known what it would take to get my son delivered, would I have even attempted this trip?

As soon as we arrived at Signature, a gray van appeared right beside our plane: the shuttle to the main terminal, a blessed stroke of luck. We catapulted out, flung in David’s suitcase, and the driver sped us right to the international area.

I began to spill our story to a lady in uniform who led us toward a counter. On the way, a blond, blue-eyed teenager called out in broken English about Frahnk-foort, and she stopped to help him, halting our anemic progress. I thought, okay, kid, we had this lady first. I was terrified that we’d made it this far, against all odds, and some youth from Frankfort was going to spoil our success. He was so tall that the main thing that kept me from decking him and yelling, wait your turn, idiot! was the knowledge that I’d probably only reach his Adam’s Apple. Plus, any violence now would cause David to miss his flight. I could scarcely restrain myself. But the agent answered the youth’s questions and he sauntered off, no hurry, no worries at all.

Flight agents recognized David’s official red People to People polo shirt and uttered the magic words:  “You’ll make it. Your flight has been delayed because of weather.” Thus the storm we had to fly behind had grounded his jet.

As is often the case, our exhaustive instructions about Chicago were irrelevant now. They checked his bag, directed us to security, and suddenly it was time to say goodbye. After so much going wrong that morning, I still wasn’t convinced he’d make it.

The final moments had been extremely critical, and we had survived with scant hope. After practically shoving him toward the checkpoint, I began to sob. I wasn’t crying because my son was flying halfway across the globe (well maybe a little), but from fatigue, hunger, and stress. I tried to hide my anxiety from David, but, still in shock from the morning’s trauma, he was attempting a game face, too. Another Chicago leader telephoned. I assured her David was in the security line on his way. She offered activity suggestions for Jeff and me, supposing we had planned all along to sight-see in Chicago.

We hadn’t thought of anything beyond getting David on board. We still hadn’t had breakfast (it was past noon).  We watched our son clear security then turn to his right. At the last minute he looked our way and waved, slightly pale, before moving out of sight. I felt as if I could have turned into a puddle on the floor.

Back at Signature, our only lunch resources were vending machines. Here we were in this cosmopolitan metropolis, Hog Butcher to the World and Wheat Stacker, having left global menu choices at O’Hare, and all we could get were peanut butter crackers. I nibbled them gratefully enough, still shaking with what we’d been through.

Soon the storm let up, and Jeff filed a flight plan. We walked to our little twin engine. On the tarmac, we studied the flight charts again to determine how to taxi out of the terminal apron and onto the correct runway.

We advanced along the taxiway, assuming our place in line with the jumbo jets for takeoff. I watched a 767 lumbering ahead of us, then it turned.  I waved. Maybe, just maybe, a seventeen-year-old Arkansas boy on board was looking out his window, realizing he was on his way to Japan.

The hard part wasn’t over yet. We had a head wind going home. Again I was oxygen-depleted, dehydrated, and hungry. I’m not sure David or I, as passengers, can appreciate Jeff’s accomplishment in landing a six-seater at the busiest airport in the world, with no previous preparation or planning. Our crazy flight to O’Hare reaffirmed to us all that no matter what’s facing us or who’s telling us what we cannot do, we must keep pushing.

Believe in dreams and keep aiming for the skies-

David shot Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), which he says is really gold, in Kyoto.


Pondering Proust

There’s a reason everyone’s heard of Marcel Proust. There’s also a reason so few people have actually read him. Proust’s prose, labyrinthine and obscure, challenges even the stoutest of readers. I’m not saying I could write a dissertation on Pynchon, nor am I asserting that, like Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay in To The Lighthouse, I can make it to Q (but not R) in her brilliant suggestion of the extent of an individual’s intellectual development as being measured by his progress through the alphabet. But I do like it when my mind is stretched, taken out for a grueling run (sorry if the personification doesn’t work for you), worked over at the hands of a capable literary master, which brings us back to M. Proust. I have compiled a few of his statements. They’re worth pondering, if chiefly for their brevity in contrast with his usual multi-clause marvels.

“A powerful idea communicates some of its strength to him who challenges it.”

“The variety of our defects is no less remarkable than the similarity of our virtues.”

“A photograph acquires something of the dignity which it ordinarily lacks when it ceases to be a reproduction of reality and shews us things that no longer exist.”

“Our most intensive love for a person is always the love, really, of something else as well.”

Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. Random House: New York, 1961. Page numbers of actual quotes available upon request.

 What would Proust think of the lines in the Louvre for La Gioconda?

Caroling, Caroling, Here We Go

Caroling at Christmas is a dying tradition, but one I dearly love, and one in which I intend to participate as long as I’m able.  At some point every December during the holiday seasons of my childhood in Walnut Ridge, my mother would announce that our family was going to see Mr. and Mrs. Wharton, a former English professor at Williams Baptist College and his wife.  Neither my older brother Jay nor I appreciated the interruption; we wanted to keep playing with our Hot Wheels and Barbie dolls. We griped and pouted while my mother assembled a fruit basket. She would gently scold, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

We piled into our red and white Chevrolet Biscayne and drove to the Wharton’s house. They were a retired couple, overjoyed to hear two mischievous children singing “Away in a Manger” out of tune on their doorstep.

Though Jay and I initially complained about going, we would beg to stay at the Wharton’s when it was time to leave. The couple never offered us any toy or snack as compensation during those visits, but we were always glad we had come. Caroling has that effect.

I still love to brighten the night of a shut-in or to encourage a new widow facing her first Christmas alone. For years, as social planner for my Sunday class, I organized a caroling party (that class is probably breathing a sigh of relief that I promoted). We’d go caroling then enjoy a steaming bowl of thick vegetable stew. We balanced this hearty, nutritious meal with an array of fudge, divinity, and baklava.

One year we drove to the home of a widowed church member, Melva Melton, who owned a bulging beagle, “CP,” short for Cutie Pie. After we belted out a few sincere, straggling strains of “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Deck the Halls,” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” (which is much too high for caroling), we closed with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Our audience of one (not counting her pet) invited us inside. The noisy dog strained against the leash his mistress had casually draped over the fireplace insert knob. He sounded like he needed a breathing treatment.

CP barked so vehemently that as we entered, several of the carolers backed against the door facing, a few feet beyond the length of his tether. His mistress unclasped the leash and we braced for an attack. To our surprise, he whirled around the room, ecstatic.  We learned CP is very social. When Mrs. Melton bragged that he could play the piano, everyone agreed we’d all have to see that to believe it. She offered us sugar cookies on our trek through the kitchen into the living room.

We tried not to dribble crumbs on the carpet while we waited for CP’s performance. He paused three feet behind the piano bench, took a flying leap I would have bet big money against his making, and landed solidly on the bench. He then trounced around the keyboard with his front paws, making a joyful noise.  My husband Jeff offered the dog a corn-kernel-sized crumb of cookie and the dog suddenly choked. Everyone stared and held their breath. Many were afraid he would throw up on the carpet; I feared he would spontaneously combust.

I deftly turned Mrs. Melton, in raptures at her Christmas company, toward her china painting display in special shelving, exaggerating my interest in the hopes that she would not witness the explosion of that stuffed dog. I pumped her with questions: “So how do you paint a rose?” Somehow CP managed to overcome his hacking fit. We trooped back into the den, relieved. Caroling can be traumatic.

As we prepared to leave, Mrs. Melton grew teary-eyed, claiming that in part because of our caroling, this Christmas was the best ever. CP nonchalantly slipped out the patio door while she was talking. She didn’t seem worried, so we didn’t either, since all pets have to go out from time to time. When someone mentioned that the pup had escaped, she grew alarmed and cried, “No, no! He can’t get out. He runs off.”

The chase was on.

I would not have believed that stubby chub could move so much like a rocket. He had to have some greyhound genes somewhere in his pedigree; he was two houses down and flying. I decided to loop around, which worked. He came right up to me, wheezing away, his whole back end wagging with joy. I had no idea how to pick him up, but I at least kept him in a holding pattern.  Luckily another class member scooped him into his arms and returned CP to his much relieved owner. While climbing into our cars, we discussed how awful it would have been, right after she basked in the joy of her “best Christmas ever,” if Mrs. Melton’s treasured pet had been hit by a car, or experienced a totally probable heart attack. We laughed about CP for quite some time.

One of the main reasons I want to continue caroling is the hope that some Christmas when I’m enfeebled and shut in after dark, a familiar melody will pierce a still and starry night: “Sleep in heavenly peace.” I acknowledge my selfish motivations. However, the pleasure I anticipate as the recipient cannot match the joy I have received through the years on the singing end of a caroling spree. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.

Illustration by Joan Coffey.

A Change in Plans


Time for some posts about the holidays! With the city parade Thursday night, I present a memory of another Christmas parade. photo by Dero Sandford

A Change in Plans

Take our busy schedules and multiply them by ten: that’s December. In 2002, I raced to pick up the kids the afternoon of El Dorado’s Christmas Parade, a major extravaganza. RVs and vans were already parked along the main thoroughfare, North West Avenue, and traffic lanes were swollen and slow, like Friday afternoons before Memorial Day.

My appointment book was a riot of scribbles. I had forgotten to order citrus for our church staff in October, and was pressed to take care of it now so that the gift baskets would arrive before Christmas. Our outdoor decorations consisted of two half-lit garlands drooping from the left side of the house, stopping at a large ladder. The Cuthbertson Christmas dishes we use from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day had not been unpacked. I had not made plans for my bake day, nor had I even thought about which snapshot to copy for our Christmas card photo. Our oldest son Justin needed a tuxedo for the Winter Ball. I was behind in the Christmas department, not to mention the daily life department.

I had to get the family packed to fly to Topeka, Kansas, the following day to see my niece Caroline perform as Clara in the Nutcracker. I had not rented a car, was not sure the boys’ dress pants were clean, and hoped they’d informed their teachers about leaving early the next day. I did not have a decent pair of black nylons, needed to pick up Jeff’s suit at the cleaners and could not recall exactly where I’d placed the airline tickets for safekeeping. I needed to find someone to feed our dog, Rex, and I hoped the car would have at least half a tank of gas.

I would have to empty our car of all our junk: CDs, a book borrowed and not yet returned, an atrocious mass of plastic bags to recycle, guitar—another story in itself— outgrown roller blades I intended to give away, as well as three shirts and two pair of swim trunks belonging to our sons’ buddies. Prescriptions, bills to be mailed (though I was out of stamps), an overdue RSVP for a wedding whose date (and main characters) I could not recall; I had to wade through my list of errands.

The main reason I was so behind, however, was that our family was building a new home. I had a complete other set of files for this project. Jeff needed the insulation quote. The contractor needed the height of my tile to make the sub floor even with my hardwood. The carpenters needed the window schedule. The heating and air man needed a deposit. The brick masons needed the fireplace dimensions. The roofers needed a check and the plumber needed my attention. They all needed it NOW.

Therefore my spirits were not much heightened by the rendition of “Sleigh Ride” bounding off the walls of my car. The whip cracking in the music seemed to be laid across my back. That evening basketball games and karate lessons had been cancelled due to the Christmas parade. I could not imagine taking time for something so frivolous, but when the boys hopped into the car, they both chattered enthusiastically about their elaborate plans to meet friends at different locations along the parade route. More time in traffic. I seethed.

“You have to have your homework completed and your bags packed. And I mean your toothbrush. And dark socks and a belt. And don’t forget your dress shoes this time.”

To each demand they nodded earnestly, sure Mom, which gave me no confidence that anything would be completed before or even after the parade.

The next couple of hours were a study in triage. The nursery delivered the pine straw I’d ordered three weeks earlier and had forgotten about. Rex was sick on the kitchen floor. I realized the car had only an eighth of a tank of gas. I scorched a pot of macaroni and cheese. The answering machine screened my phone calls. I slopped lumpy banana nut batter into a pan (this breakfast bread a feeble attempt at a hospitality gift for my sister’s family), shoved it in the oven, and set the timer for an hour.

The boys planned to meet their friends about dark. They sat sheepishly in the car while I barked orders and complaints at them, the excitement about the parade granting them an extra measure of tolerance for their mom who was about to snap. Or maybe they knew Santa was watching.

I dropped them off with the usual ineffective warning about watching for and coming to ME after the parade, the “Don’t make me come find you” drivel that they always ignore. I glared at pedestrians ambling along. They were acting like they were having a good time. What was wrong with them?

I swerved up a side street to avoid traffic. Parade revelers honked, waved, and rolled down windows toward others walking toward North West. I drummed my thumbs on the steering wheel and raced the engine. At this rate, it would take me twenty minutes both to get home and return, leaving a total of thirty minutes to accomplish anything at home.

I drove like Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro in the traffic light scene in the original Meet the Parents, gunning the engine then slamming on the brakes. When “Silent Night” began playing on the CD, I jammed the Seek button to find a peppier carol. I swerved around an old Buick idling while a decrepit grandmother helped another decrepit grandmother get out. I tried another side road, only to find two cars blocking the street while they passed a camera between them. I very badly wanted to honk, just blast those idiots out of my way. I determined if they hadn’t moved in two minutes I was going to let them have it. They moved. I tailgated, turned sharply onto another smaller side street to get clear of parade traffic. But here I encountered a gang of pedestrians, children darting around the adults, taking up the entire road.

I regretted not turning off the oven before leaving home. I eased up to the crowd, which, instead of dispersing, laughed at my impatience and continued to saunter. One teenager veered toward my window and said, “Peace,” flashing the two-finger universal peace sign.

I rolled my eyes and shook my head. I had another universal hand signal for him, but held back. At the next intersection, I veered into one more side road. The streetlights were farther apart, and one was not working at all. The houses here featured crumbling or non-existent driveways, cars on blocks in the yards, and busted couches on splintering porches. I slowed and began to really look around.

Then I saw it. Tucked behind a modest house in need of a coat of paint was a tottering garage apartment. Someone had tried to keep the yard tidy. No rusting, bent lawn chairs, no half of a swing set, and a porch light beaconed like a source of hope and comfort. A huge old Plymouth, the kind with enormous fins and a wide back end, was parked in the garage. The rail for the stairs leading to the apartment was freshly painted.

A strand of icicle Christmas lights was festooned along the narrow porch, and someone had spelled out the word JOY in red and green garland below the rail. I braked and stared. The place could not have been more than three rooms, but was obviously cared for with loving attention.


I was ashamed of myself. If the inhabitants of this house, who might never have ridden on an airplane, owned Christmas dishes, had pine straw delivered or bought foodstuffs for their church staff, could find joy in their existence, then I should do a little better myself. I needed to shed the burden and enjoy the moment. After all, we were celebrating a very important birthday. I calmly drove home, removed the deep brown banana bread from the oven, put Rex on a leash, and left for the parade, stopping for gas along the way.

I parked several blocks away from North West Avenue, in between the boys’ meeting places, and Rex and I strolled down to join the crowd. Though I recognized nobody, friendly people welcomed me with a smile. A large University band roared by. Giddy children more than once ran into me or stepped on my toes. I laughed with them.

When the parade ended, I returned to the car and switched on “Silent Night.” I watched all the cars get ahead of me in traffic while I waited for my boys. When they arrived, shivering from the cold as well as expecting a blast of icy mothertongue, I said, “Brrr. Want to get a cup of hot chocolate before we go home?”

They looked at each other. “Wow,” one said. “It really is Christmas.”

This story was published in several newspapers, and in book form in Have Yourself a Hamster Little Christmas. illustration by Joan Coffey

A Thanksgiving Parable


Who has time to read during the busy holidays? Hopefully these words will make us all think about how we celebrate Thanksgiving.  Original illustration by artist Susan Barnes

A Thanksgiving Parable

Thanksgiving is a happy family time, a moment to bask in turkey gravy and be grateful that football games only have four quarters. In such a time of bounty it seems only natural to share with the less fortunate.  When she tried to do so, Polly DoRight learned that pushing beyond a superficial stab at benevolence can be difficult…and revealing.

Every year, Polly’s church, the UpRight Church, hosts a potluck and testimony time the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving. The assortment of casserole dishes and heirloom cake plates fills Polly with memories of prayer meeting potlucks from her childhood church. A smidgen of sweet potatoes, a spoonful of chicken broccoli rice, the rainbow of gelatin salads fluffy with whipped cream, even hot dogs and brownies for the kids: the potluck offers something for everyone. Instead of hoisting an entire piece of pecan pie, guests butcher four or five different confections, trying to “break off just a nibble.”

During testimony time, many white-haired saints stand and recall blessings. The trials these gentle soldiers faced through years of world war, political upheaval and economic crisis is touching. Their stories definitely make the meeting a worship service.

With memories of last year’s homey potluck and her pastor’s appeal to invite someone new to the church Thanksgiving dinner, Polly thought about Shorty, her yard man.  Shorty walks three miles to work in the yards of Polly’s neighborhood.  He weeds in the swelter of August, plants pansies in frosty November, and trims shrubs through the snows of February, seven days a week.

Once when she drove him home, Shorty described his landlord, Alonzo, to Polly.  Alonzo rants about Jesus and drapes a red robe symbolic of Jesus’ blood across his porch. He suffers from a facial defect. His mouth, chin, and cheek are swerved to the right. People driving by snigger and point.

The first week of November, Polly invited Shorty to her church Thanksgiving observance.  Shorty asked if he could bring Alonzo. Both curious about and wary of this strange fellow, Polly agreed, reasoning to herself that Shorty might not be comfortable without a companion.  Shorty’s incessant questions concerning time and directions belied his hesitation.  Polly assured him they would be welcome.

A week later the pastor of the UpRight Church announced the observance would not be a potluck and that adults would pay three dollars. They also moved the service an entire week earlier to accommodate a mission group heading to Brazil during the Thanksgiving break.  The shift mean Polly’s husband Pete would miss the observance, because he would be out of town all that earlier week. Polly informed Shorty of the changes, and he still looked forward to a meal at the big fancy UpRight Church on Main Street.

The day of the dinner, Shorty called mid afternoon to see if he could get a “take-out” meal instead. Polly frowned. She intended to get him into a church. But forcing him to stay seemed the equivalent of making him pay. She understood Shorty might not feel comfortable among the UpRight people. She agreed, and instructed him to meet her outside the fellowship hall. He promised he and Alonzo would be there, 5:30 sharp.

Although Polly has been the mother of three children for thirteen years, she still forgets that it takes more time to mobilize her high-octane pranksters than merely to move herself.  She began to round up sons and playmates at 5:15, but the car didn’t pull out of the driveway until 5:30, sharp.

They zoomed toward the church, and Polly wasn’t driving like a Christian. The church parking lot was packed. She lurched the car into a bank parking lot across Main Street. She abandoned the children and tore across Main Street to meet her guests.

The food line was already stretched out of the fellowship hall to the middle of the rotunda. A pleasant buzzing of happy homefolk prevailed. Friends laughed; mothers patted daughters’ heads, fathers wrestled with sons, all anticipating the joyous upcoming celebration of feasting, family, fellowship, both that evening and in a couple of days, as well. Polly spied Shorty and Alonzo, subdued, seated by themselves on a pew against the wall, near a small desk where members pay. Everyone ignored them. Polly winced.  A hastily written sign on the desk declared NO TAKEOUTS.

An elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. CountRight, took up the money. They were pushed so far out of their comfort zone by Shorty and Alonzo, these men with different clothing, faces, and skin that evidently they had forgotten how to be helpful or friendly. Polly feared that the sign had been instituted after the mens’ arrival. When she questioned the CountRights about the NO TAKEOUTS sign, they shrugged. Polly scrambled back to appeal to the kitchen. The normally cooperative hostess groaned and apologized that they were much too busy, absolutely no way.

A stack of Styrofoam take-out containers perched atop the bread warmer. Polly started to request: “Might I not grab a spoon and fill the plates from here?” But the bustling agitation and confusion of the harried servers stalled her.  She briefly wondered if it were this tense when Christ fed the five thousand.  She bowed out of the crowded, overworked kitchen.

She apologized to the men and invited them to stay. Shorty stood to leave, but Alonzo stayed put. He wanted to eat, so Shorty shrugged and sat down again. Polly turned to pay.

Mr. and Mrs. CountRight were so bewildered by the crowd and the strangers that the couple had forgotten basic addition. They could not determine the amount Polly owed.  She needed to pay for four adults and two children, because her eldest was over twelve. Mrs. CountRight repeated “How many?” several times, then questioned the age of the children as if they were trying to sneak into a ride at Disneyworld. Polly thought she was going to have to pull out birth certificates. The money takers stared at a standard list meant to simplify payments for families, but could not locate a “4 adults 2 children” combination. They scowled at Polly’s guests, as if everything would get better if the men would just leave.

Polly gently reminded the CountRights of the church’s standing $12 maximum for families. Mr. CountRight’s grimace let her know that all discounts were off for the Thanksgiving feast.

“Heavens, these men are guests anyway,” Polly pleaded. The UpRight Church’s regular policy is that first time guests eat free. Mr. CountRight didn’t budge. Polly didn’t need to swear in front of her children, especially in the UpRight Church, but this challenging couple was trying her patience. How her husband Pete would roll his eyes at her well-intentioned predicament, if he could see her now.

Polly finally scribbled a check for twenty dollars. Then she made small talk with her guests in the stalled line. She joked about the crowd, asked after their families. They related their Thanksgiving Day plans. Polly had difficulty understanding Alonzo’s soft voice, especially due to his facial defect, but he did mention that he was a member of another church.

Several UpRight church members stared or frowned at her. These so-called Christians seemed solicitous for her, their church sister, talking to two rough-looking strangers, the church members’ eyebrows raising in a “do you need help?” attitude. But nobody offered any help or words of welcome to the men.  It never occurred to the church members that the two men were guests.

Polly’s considerate children had shot into the line with their buddies upon arrival, and were long gone. They swarmed a table near the window. When Polly and her guests finally received their plates, she invited Shorty to sit with her family, but he declined. He and Alonzo chose to sit alone at an adjacent table. Polly didn’t push.

She had lost her appetite. Both men took seconds, Alonzo twice. Polly’s oldest son approached the table, shook Shorty’s hand and met Alonzo. Only two other people came to welcome them.  Polly told the men they could leave when they wanted to, and they repeatedly thanked her for the meal.

Her guests left before the observance of the Lord’s Supper, and Polly saw them to the door. As the men walked out into the cold, she questioned herself: Was it a good experience for them? Had the UpRight Church fulfilled its Christian duty? Were only their physical appetites satisfied? Maybe Alonzo and Shorty knew more about Christ than the UpRight Church did. Polly breathed a sigh of relief, but instead of thanksgiving, she whispered a prayer for mercy.


This article was first published in The Times Dispatch; also included in Have Yourself a Hamster Little Christmas.

When Will We Grow Up?

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published this article Oct. 17, 2016:

When I was in the fourth grade, a classmate, Randy, made a remark that showed a slightly different religious viewpoint than my own. As several children playing on the swings at that time shared my outlook, we nine-year-olds got into a heated discussion with Randy about a very minor spiritual topic. He was alone, so we self-righteously huffed and puffed him down, believing him to be a fool for taking such a contrary position. Furthermore, we all gave him the isolationist treatment the rest of the day for his folly. I can remember the pride that I felt for standing up for my beliefs, the smug feeling of being right, even superior… and also a nagging conviction that something was amiss. For goodness’ sake, Randy was a Protestant, just like me, only on a different rung of the high- and low-church ladder.

That’s typical for grade school antics, but I’m surprised to find how little most of us have matured past that fourth-grade mentality of not liking, or not being able to abide, someone because their religious, political, or philosophical views don’t align with our own. The Presidential election and national politics have drawn out the worst in citizens on both sides of the debate, resulting in inability to have regular discussions, deterioration of relationships, and destruction of the unity of our united states.

Considering underlying differences of perspective can help heal some of these breaches. NYU Stern School of Business moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has extensively studied the underpinnings of moral behavior and decisions and distilled five core values that drive the majority of philosophies and actions. More interesting, Haidt, who describes himself as an unapologetic liberal atheist, has identified that some of those basic tenets appeal to one set of political thinkers, while others seem more important to another set. Realizing that our political opposite shares just as strong convictions about his/her ethical standards as our own should take us away from simply assuming “He’s an idiot,” ”She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” ”He doesn’t even know what’s good for him,” or any of the other blanket assumptions both sides address toward opposing political party adherents.

Haidt’s *five moral indices are as follows:

Care/Harm: “It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.”

Fairness/Cheating: “Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.”

Loyalty/Betrayal: “People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.”

Authority/Subversion: “People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.”
Sanctity/Degradation: “The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.”

Each of these foundations contributes to successful civilization. Haidt notes that the first two, Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity, appeal to left-leaning political thinkers, while the last three, In-group Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity, appeal to right-leaning individuals. Even in thinking of those values, readers can identify which foundations are more important to their own worldview. Furthermore, readers can begin to see how, if one political group prioritizes some, while another political group prioritizes others, argument will ensue. To move toward seeing there is more than one political lens is a step in the right direction. And to acknowledge that someone else has a different stance–and respect that stance instead of the mindless shouting down we see offered as entertainment on what passes for news programs promoting both political parties on television–is maturity.

Haidt points out that Rodney King is famously misquoted. King did not say “Can’t we all get along?” He actually asked, “Can we all get along?” Such a small grammatical distinction creates a huge difference in application. If we focus on our similarities: a love of family, a desire for our community to succeed, a yearning for the United States to be “the best she can be” (thought ideas differ on what that entails), we can strengthen constructive components of our citizenship rather than tearing each other, and consequently our great country, down. For goodness’ sake, we’re all Americans.
Individuals can also take the words of Maya Angelou’s poem “Human Family” to heart: “In minor ways we differ/In major we’re the same.” Even more to the point, the intentionally repetitious ending: “We are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike.”

I wound up getting along fine with Randy for the rest of my school days, and am somewhat embarrassed that the fool in that childhood argument was me. Hopefully we can all step back and focus on what’s good about our fellow Americans then begin to behave more like grown-ups on life’s political playground.

from The Righteous Mind: How Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. New York: Random House, 2012, chapter 7.

*Synopses of moral foundations are taken from “Morals Authority,” Tom Jacobs, in Miller McCune Magazine, May, June 2009, Vol. 2, Number 3, pp. 46-55. Read “Human Family” at

Explore your morality at a website associated with Haidt ,

In Pursuit of Dolphins

israel 490

Short summer fiction for this season of beach vacations-

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Cloud 9 magazine.                                                                   

In Pursuit of Dolphins

I’ve always heard that if dolphins are present, you don’t have to worry about sharks. I never thought much about sharks, but I always thought it would be great fun to swim with dolphins.

Ever since I was four, my family has vacationed on Anna Maria Island, a sliver of sand off the Gulf coast. As grade school children, my brother Jack and I spent hours shoulder deep in the Gulf. We would hop at the right moment to let the waves lift us and set us down again gently, like seagulls perched on the water’s surface. We’d strain our eyes for a glimpse of that first fin, when the dolphins would approach. They’d glide up or down the coast, in that transitional border between their sea and the shallow water man claimed as his territory, and we would fantasize about playing with them.

Jack and I would change into our suits in the station wagon before we arrived. I couldn’t wait to blast out of the car and smell that slightly unpleasant, oil-tinged beach scent. As our parents unpacked, we’d be jumping through the breakers. I’d lean over to scrub my face in the surf and taste the salt. It stung my eyes and drops of sea water trickled into the back of my nasal passages, burning out any leftover sinus.  Jack could venture shoulder deep immediately, but my belly button had to stay dry until my mother set up camp on the sand. Even after she arrived, to read her magazines and consolidate the freckles on her back, if she caught me beyond that halfway mark of the pier, I’d have to sit on the beach next to her for thirty minutes.

Now that I’m grown, my family still escapes to Anna Maria Island every other year. My husband Reese and I have to unpack as our son, Curt, splits for the pool. I gripe at him for choosing concrete over coast, then head for the beach, my shoulders soon tight from sun and salt. As I share my thrown-together sandwich with the seagulls, my eyes adjust to the vast distance. I stare hard for the familiar dark curved triangle that cuts through the surface of the water, and then slides under again.

Midway through our last vacation, we woke to drizzle. With rain in the forecast, we decided to blow the morning at a nearby aquarium. But while Reese was tying his sneakers, the balcony brightened.

”I have to take advantage of this,” I kicked off sandals and ran toward the bedroom.

“You’re staying?” Curt hadn’t pulled on a tee shirt yet.

“Sure.” I yelled through the closed door as I slipped into my suit. “You want to?”

He didn’t respond. I left the bedroom, started on him again. “You can’t pass this up. We might see dolphins. Give it a chance.”

The previous summer, before his tenth birthday, Curt’s soccer team reached the semi-finals of a city-wide tournament, largely due to his athleticism. He didn’t like shooting goals, but preferred to control the ball from mid-field. The young coach had no children, had never played soccer, but had read some books. On the field, the kids appeared to play without a game plan, even to the parents on the sidelines, who still struggled to understand an offside penalty.

The score was tied 1-1 at the end of the game, sending them into a shootout. The parents watched as coach and players huddled across the field. Then one of the smaller boys donned the jester-like goalie’s jersey.

“Why isn’t Curt playing goalie?” A teammate’s father threw up his hands as he paced the sidelines. I shrugged and we all stood there, stunned.

Our goalie did not stop a single kick. After Curt booted in the ball, the other team’s goalie caught every player’s attempt. On the sad ride home, I asked, “Why on earth did Coach Winfrey put in Micah as goalie?”

Curt looked out the window. “He asked me to and I said no.”

I almost hit the ditch. “Why?”

Curt looked down at his cleats. “I was afraid to.”

I was astounded at his reply, but let it drop. Now, with a glorious morning’s swim as prospect, maybe my son needed a little push to join me on the beach.

“Why stare at fish through glass when you can experience the real thing?”

Curt hesitated.

“We won’t go far,” I promised. “It’ll be fun.”

He slung a towel over his shoulder. He would swim in his black mesh shorts, the ones he wore day and night, letting them dry while eating hot dogs by the pool. Reese left to find a cup of coffee and a newspaper. I scooped up my flip-flops, and Curt and I scooted down the stairs.

When we reached the beach, the sun was already wavering. The shoreline was practically empty, and I couldn’t see any other swimmers. I stepped through the breaking waves and strode then stroked out to my favorite spot, shoulder deep. I didn’t wait for Curt, who was taking his time getting used to the water.

I turned to the shore, which looked far away, sixty yards or so, due to the minute grade of the slope. I was two-thirds of the way to the end of the pier to my right. Curt dog-paddled out. Usually he preferred boogie-boarding to wave riding, but I had hurried him out the door without his board, and he didn’t want to trek back up to the condo. He floated a little, easy in the salt.

“Don’t you love it here?” I looked at my son. He lifted his head out of the water and gazed as if he were thinking about something. Maybe he wished he’d gone to the aquarium to see the fish up close. If the rain returned, we’d be sorry we stayed, and Reese had the car. The wind blew, and thick clouds choked out the sun’s warmth.

Curt shivered and stared at the waves. “I’m thinking about sharks.”

We had never worried about sharks on this beach before, due to the regular dolphin sightings. However, last summer a boy had lost an arm to a four-foot shark less than five miles south of our beach, and an elderly man had been attacked off his private pier a few miles north of us. He died soon afterward. I tried to put the thought of it out of my mind.

“Miles of sand and sea surround us, tons of fish. Why would a shark come up to us?”

“Maybe that’s what that boy thought,” Curt replied, not looking at me.

“How many people have been in this water since then, though? We’re well inside the safe zone.”

He remained unconvinced.  And I couldn’t dispel the thought that, since we were alone in the water for as far as I could see, if one were lurking, we’d make a fine brunch.

“All right, I’ll head in some,” I sighed. Curt looked a little relieved, as much for me as for himself. I semi-backstroked, in a sitting position with my back to the shore, piddling really. We stood when I was rib-cage deep, half way to the end of the pier. The waves weren’t ready to break yet, were rolling into their head, still good for a lift. I spread out my arms and bent my knees, lowering my shoulders to the water level to get the full effect of the rise and dip. Then I caught sight of the fin far off to my left.

I squinted and focused hard before saying anything. Many times what seems to be a fin is merely a lapping wave.  A viewer has to gaze straight and hard, but in a general area, because the dolphin won’t surface again in the same place. But the fin rose again, and this time it was unmistakable. There were three of them, still far down to the south.

“Dolphins!” I turned to yell at the scant beachcombers who had braved the damp weather, none of whom were within earshot but who could recognize my gestures. They covered their eyebrows, salute fashion, and nodded in recognition.

Then I realized: for all the years we had spotted dolphins out in the Gulf, my parents would never have allowed me to swim that far past the pier. But if we hurried, Curt and I could intersect their path.

“Hey, we can reach them. Let’s go.”

Curt didn’t move. He had never mentioned an interest in touching or swimming with dolphins. Though very much in shape, he had never swum a lap at sprint pace, and swimming has its own cardio-respiratory demands. Besides, the dolphins’ track ranged out twice as far as the end of the pier.

How badly I wanted him to share this with me—something he could tell his grandchildren sixty years from now. The fins continued to arc, nearing ten o’clock. I lunged toward Curt and pulled on his arm.

“Come on; this is an unbelievable opportunity! You have to.”

He reluctantly joined me. We swam freestyle, the stroke for speed, another hundred yards. We were well past the pier, and I didn’t want to think about how deep the water was. Usually this beach drops into a trough after the gradual slope then rises onto a surprisingly shallow sand bar. In past years, during low tide, I have stood rib-cage-deep at the bar, near the end of the pier. While snorkeling, Reese has seen dozens of sand dollars on the outer edge of the bar. But this year we were unable to locate the incline. Two days earlier, we swam out just past the pier, occasionally dropping straight down to sound for the bottom. Reese is six feet tall, and when the surface was two yards beyond his arms stretched above his head, we quit trying. We were beyond the bar. Maybe the sand was not as shallow. Maybe the bar had shifted closer to shore than we guessed and we had passed it.

Curt had not matched my pace. I held up, listened for him, and gauged the progress of the dolphins. To my surprise, they reared up at about 11 o’clock to my left. A hot chill swept over me. First of all they were black. They didn’t look like Flipper at all. They were close enough for me to see their shiny flesh, which made me think of how a runner’s thighs would feel after a two-mile jog, slick with a slight give, but firm under the surface. They didn’t seem to be mammals. Because of their slow, clockwork-like movement, they appeared to be mechanical replicas. Their alarming progress seemed incongruent to their leisurely pace, perhaps because of their size. They were much larger than I’d expected, and I realized that I was afraid.

I could hear Curt splashing behind my splashing. He sputtered, “Are you sure those aren’t killer whales?”

“They’re dolphins.” I was so out of breath from swimming that my voice squeaked. What if they were friendly dolphins’ malevolent cousins? What if one were a nursing mother who thought we were trying to harm her young one? If a creature this size could crush my ribs with even a playful roll of its body, what could it do to Curt?

I forged ahead and tried to determine the length between me and the dolphins as they curved and slid under, unhurried but advancing markedly. When describing a fateful or heroic experience I always exaggerate distance to my benefit, thus I reckoned they were a little farther off than they seemed. Twenty feet? But in an area the size of the Gulf, distance is distorted. Knowing this, I reckoned it would be less than it seemed. Five feet? I considered body length, and guessed they were about two body lengths from me.

I was delirious with excitement. The middle one, the largest, puckered his blow hole and then the hole disappeared as his head cruised under the surface. I charged forward, slapped the water and yelled to get their attention. They ignored me. I tried to scream underwater, anything to reach them. They were practically straight in front of me, but how far?

Strangling wheezes shot out of my heavy breathing. I had to draw deeply, and I fought to avoid swallowing more salt water as the gray waves kept coming. I felt dizzy. My heart was hammering from the swim; I swam some more. I longed for Curt’s boogie board. They glided on. I was spent.

Or was I? I couldn’t possibly reach out and touch those huge beasts. Nothing could be holding back my arm from its maximum span. Surely my fear wasn’t slowing me down, constricting my bronchial tubes, convincing my brain I couldn’t make contact with the dolphins.

Years before, on a summer afternoon in the middle of a freshwater lake, while I was swimming off a rented pontoon with my friends,  a ski boat skimmed by, its wake so large that it rocked the pontoon and knocked its detachable ladder into the water. I was closest to where the ladder sank, and everyone called for me to save it. I bravely dove down, but the deeper I probed, the murkier the water became. Sunshine glinted off the aluminum as it floated down, just beyond my grasp. I tried to grab it, but the chill of the thermocline made me shudder, and I scurried to the surface.

To my friends’ hopeful faces I shook my head, coughing. Nobody questioned my effort. We’d all have to chip in on the $150 to replace it, so surely I had done everything possible to reach it. But I wasn’t sure then, and now I couldn’t tell either.

With these beautiful exotic creatures so close, I wanted to be able to say, “We swam with dolphins. “ To crow in front of my brother, and tell my friends at home. To be the one at the party to regale guests with this adventure, to share a lifelong memory with my son.

Runner-up, bridesmaid, also-ran: there’s no trophy for almost. Almost hit the ball over the fence. Almost crossed the finish line first. Almost cleared the tracks before the train.

Meanwhile the dolphins slipped by. They were simply faster, at home in their territory. I angled north, but couldn’t reach them. I treaded water while Curt caught up with me. We watched the fins rise and fall.

“We were so close,” I panted. “Maybe they’ll circle around. Sometimes they circle around.”

“We missed it,” Curt muttered.

“You want to stay a while? Isn’t it neat to be out this far?” I pulled up my legs, wrapped my arms around my shins to make a ball, but began to sink. I scrambled to the surface, hacking. At least Reese wasn’t around to see how far out I’d taken Curt.

His breathing was labored. “We’re out pretty deep, and you sound horrible.”

He seemed to spend as little energy as possible to keep his head above water. For the first time, I thought about how tired he was.

The sky had darkened more in our pursuit, and with the object of my focus gone, I realized the waves had grown more choppy, the wind more intent. I smelled the storm rolling toward us; saw the opaque gray wall at the horizon. We were a long way from the shore. Drops began to ping against my cheeks. I turned to watch and yearn for the diminishing dolphins. And I knew that sharks were the least of my worries.

The Age of Reason

More Short Fiction about lessons from Childhood, this time about a boy who learns there’s more to shooting a gun than pulling the trigger.

The Age of Reason
At the base of the mimosa, a wooly caterpillar scaled a twig six inches from Mackey Jarrett’s sneaker. The husky boy lined up the creature between the BB-shaped ball at the end of the barrel and the notches near his nose. He held his breath. The blast spurted dirt and rolled pebbles. After the second shot, the black line curled into a furry circle.

Mackey’s first kill of the day.

The day before, Friday, Mackey’s family gathered at his house, three miles outside Poplar Bluff, to celebrate his birthday. He blew out all seven candles in one huff. He glanced at a coloring book and 64-crayon set from Grandma Jarrett. Mackey muttered “another old shirt” at the rectangular box from his mother Nedra, and refused to stand still long enough for her to hold it up to his shoulders. He peeked under the coffee table and behind the divan. Since his sixth birthday, he’d slept with the Sears catalog under his pillow, opened to the pellet and air gun page. He had expected a BB gun then, but his grandfather Ben Mercer had convinced his parents to wait a year.

This year, while Mackey searched, his father Glenn slipped in from the carport. Glenn’s beefy arms strained to hold the long, narrow box behind his back, so that the button holes of his garage uniform stretched to reveal his ribbed tank tee. Mackey ran to his father and threw his arms around him. The boy only ripped off enough of the cowboy-motif paper to free the box on one end. His stumpy fingers yanked at the heavy copper staples. He cavorted with his prize around the cramped den, as Nedra swerved her knees aside to protect her feet from his snub-nosed sneakers.

After every man there handled the shiny Daisy and voiced approval, Mackey tore through the remaining gifts: a carton of Number Six shot to shoot skeet with his father, ten cylinders of BBs, and a gun cleaning kit from Grandpa Mercer.

“Thanks,” Mackey gave Ben a one-arm hug, his eyes on the BB gun.

“Got to be responsible with it,” Ben glanced at his son-in-law for affirmation, but Glenn was describing the symptoms of one of his cows to his brother and did not catch his father-in-law’s remark. Ben turned back to his grandson.

“I’ll help you learn about guns. Anytime.”

But Mackey had already dropped the cleaning kit and picked up the Daisy. He banged the back screen door against the house on his way out and leaped off the porch. He skipped chocolate cake and ice cream, which his father consumed while he and Ben discussed the thirty head of breed cows Glenn had purchased last fall.

“You know that one, started dropping weight ‘bout as soon as I got her? I noticed Tuesday she’s missing.”

Ben had seen the cow in question by the fence earlier that spring, her head low. Her limp tail occasionally slapped her gaunt flanks. Her bag never looked full. Glenn had rigged a pen for her and her puny calf near the barn, and fed her liquid protein as well as sweet feed and hay daily since Easter, but she lost the calf.

“Maybe she swallowed some barbed wire,” Ben offered.

Glenn shrugged. “Might have.” When he stood up to get more ice cream, Ben walked out on the back porch and eased himself into a lawn chair. He pressed his fingers against each other prayer fashion and smiled at Mackey. As the boy walked deep into the pasture in the back yard, he began to shoot piles of manure. The new Daisy made a pouf sound.

Mackey’s fine-textured hair at his nape, as well as his bangs, the color of a dried magnolia leaf, consolidated into thin, inch-long cords in the heat. His fair forehead, cheeks, and thick neck flushed deep like sunburn. Mid-pasture, he stopped. He pointed the BB gun at one of the cows dozing in the cedar shade by the pond.

“Hey, b-boy, stop that!” Ben lumbered to the fence more quickly than a retired man should. He began to cough. Mackey whirled around, his face guilt-blanched. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled to his grandfather, “Just kidding. I wasn’t going to do nothing.”

Ben stood by the cattle guard and held his side. Mackey retreated to the woods southeast of the near pasture, where Ben couldn’t see him. He blasted white oaks, an abandoned hornets’ nest, and old fence posts. Though he dislodged raccoon-sized stones with his sneakers, no rattlers emerged. He knocked off a large crow feasting on poke berries. When he happened upon a table-wide ant colony, Mackey took random shots at the beige, grainy soil. Soon ants frothed out of the new exits. He fired away. Neither coming darkness nor natural appetite affected his decision to head home. He ran out of ammunition.

By the time he reached the porch, Ben had gone back inside. After minute steaks and mashed potatoes with gravy, Mackey carried a paper plate of cake out to the back porch. When he finished it, he trained his sights on fireflies from the porch steps.

Glenn sat on the divan inside, his feet propped on the coffee table. He played with the lid of a box of bird shot while Ben helped Nedra stuff wrapping paper and disposable plates in a trash bag. Ben stood up, crumpled an empty cup, and looked at Glenn.

“You mind if your son aims at the cows?”

Glenn bristled. “He’s seven.”

Ben leaned over and mashed the contents deeper into the bag. “Pretty young to be going into the woods with a gun on his own.”

Glenn sat up, slammed down the box of shot. Several shells spilled onto the coffee table. “A BB ain’t gonna hurt a cow. That’s just part of learning to shoot.”

As their voices rose, Mackey crept closer to the back door and listened. Ben calmly secured the twist tie on the trash bag. “He needs someone to make sure—“

“Make sure what?” Glenn broke in. “He don’t shoot something by mistake? Like Foreman mistaking that six-point for a doe last fall? You still don’t believe that was an accident. Well believe this: there ain’t nothing my son can’t handle on my property.”

Nedra began picking up the shells. “You two please. Dad just means to be helpful.”

Glenn leaned back, crossed his arms, and looked at the television. “If he wants to be so helpful, let him find the damn cow tomorrow, ‘cause I’m working on the Gaines transmission all morning.”

Ben carried the trash bag toward the back porch. As he opened the door, Mackey scrambled away from it. Ben set the bag outside. “Isn’t it your bedtime?”

“But I’m not tired!” Mackey’s hazel eyes glistened with fatigue.

After Ben left, Nedra plunked the shirt and coloring book on the army trunk at the foot of Mackey’s bed in his room. “Don’t forget your prayers,” she reminded Mackey, who had come inside and already gotten in bed. His hair, still damp from a quick and inadequate bath, moistened his pillow. He turned to the wall, flipped over his pillow, and murmured “Night, Mom.” As she left his room, she pulled the door almost closed. Mackey turned and reached under his bed for the Daisy. He cradled it at his side like a teddy bear. His father peered in the cracked door and smiled.

“There’s more BBs in the shed.”

The next morning, the Daisy at his feet, Mackey finished off a second bowl of Frosty Flakes then walked outside. He approached his father’s gun case in the storage shed out back. He located the BBs next to a minnow bucket so stuffed with yellow, green, and red shotgun shells that looked like a parlor compote filled with Christmas candy. He pocketed several packs of BBs and began his campaign on the insect population in the back yard.

From the mimosa after shooting the caterpillar, Mackey stalked a lady bug to his mother’s four o’clocks. The bug landed near a cluster of seeds, which were shaped like tiny grenades. Across the yard, in Mackey’s earlier hunting spot, a dusty red bird flitted. She whistled and dipped to the ground. She pecked at his trophy, the riddled caterpillar.

Mackey cocked his head into the stock in time with the slow raising of the gun, daydreaming he was a big game hunter. He assumed a sportsman’s stance, feet shoulder width apart, torso torqued to the left, weight divided equally. He watched his prey above the ball at the end of his barrel. He shriveled his left eye to keep the right one from blinking. Suddenly a fleshy tan barrier appeared between his eye and the end of the barrel, obstructing his view of his target. The bird fluttered over the cattle guard. Mackey leaned away from the barrel and looked up into the face of Grandpa Mercer. The man was not smiling.

“Grandpa!” Mackey attempted to pull away the gun, but Ben’s grip tightened.

“Female cardinal. Never shoot a cardinal. Illegal.” Benn looked toward the pasture. “And immoral.”

Mackey gulped. “I didn’t hear you drive up.” When he stopped pulling against his grandfather, Ben released the barrel. Mackey hugged the gun and looked beyond Ben. Ben slid his hands into his slate blue coverall pockets. The twill pulled across his shoulders, still sound from a lifetime of planting and plowing.

“You want to pluck that bird and have your mama fry it for supper?”

“No,” Mackey pushed his tongue against his front teeth, shook his head, grimaced, and wriggled.

“You need a reason to kill something, son. Make sure you have a reason.”

Mackey lowered the gun, his hand on the end of the barrel, the stock set in a clump of clover. He watched a cricket lurch from a fallen four o’clock leaf.

Ben scanned the tree line that bordered the pasture. “You seen that cow–”

“No.” Mackey cut off his grandfather, the way he’d watched his father do, before Ben had finished the question. Ben turned and shuffled toward the pasture.

“Seven years old.” A man of few words, he scratched the white and gray stubble on his cheek. In his seventy years, he had seen buried a big brother and little sister with polio in childhood and stood helpless as three of his platoon buddies fell to fire in Korea. He had witnessed a cutting horse stud worth a new pickup lie down and die from colic. As county agent, he had shoveled hundreds of dead broilers one August day from a chicken house whose overhead fans had failed. Ben had grown a truck patch every year since his return from military service, and raised ring neck pheasants and quail. Mackey was his only grandson.

As Ben stepped across the cattle guard and headed toward the woods on the other side of the pond, Mackey alternated between scoping the cricket and watching his grandfather. He made a sour face toward Ben’s back, and scoffed, “If I need help, I won’t ask you,” and zapped the cricket.

The boy left the yard, meandered through the meadow, and sidled into the southeast fringe of the woods, his Daisy barrel pointed down. A steady rustle stopped him. A dull black cord, speckled with yellow, curved through a patch of jewel-weed. The rustling stopped. His eyes followed the crook to the blunt, slightly rounded head. The mottled sunlight occasionally highlighted the shadow of a forked black string against one of last year’s oak leaves.

Mackey’s hands shook with adrenaline. He was so engrossed with his prey that he blocked out the sound of twigs snapping behind him. He took a deep breath. He had not yet cocked the air gun when he jumped from pressure on his shoulder. A pup-like yelp surged from his throat. The pressure remained. The snake he was aiming for slithered under a rotting tree trunk that had fallen across a segment of rusted barbed wire fence.

“King snake. Leave him alone.”

“Grandpa, you scared me.” Mackey dabbed at his eyes, his hands still quaking both from the excitement of seeing the snake and the surprise of being hindered by his grandfather.

“Son, you have got to have a reason to kill a creature. Long’s that snake’s around, we don’t worry about the bad ones.”

Mackey rammed the butt of his Daisy into the moss-clothed roots of a white oak. He tapped his foot and glowered into the woods, his “Yes, sir” shaded with sarcasm.

“You didn’t hear your daddy say where he’d looked for that cow?”

Mackey jerked his head back and forth in a manner that betrayed his impatience. Ben adjusted his cap and rubbed his forehead. “Listen to me. Don’t shoot a king snake. Ever.” He turned away without further comment.

Though Mackey peeped over his shoulder from time to time, he spent the next couple of hours without interruption. He backtracked to the near pasture where the cows grazed, and drilled grasshoppers there. He returned to the house to gather cola cans. He toted them in a tow sack to the far side of the big hay meadow where he arranged them on a log at the edge of the woods.

He popped twelve of the sixteen cans. He reloaded, reset the cans, counted off twenty paces, and turned to face them again. But two trees deep to the right of his target, something unnaturally bright flickered on a fallen branch. A bluebird conversed with an out-of-sight companion. After glancing back across the meadow to make sure his grandfather wasn’t nearby, Mackey inched closer to his mark, hands glued to stock and trigger, eyes settled on the pinkish upper breast of his cobalt blue target. He slowly cocked the gun and nestled his cheek into the stock. After a couple of deep breaths, he fired.

The dead weight rolled off the branch. Mackey did not move, the gun still aimed, his cheekbone crunched against it. He slowly lowered the Daisy, glanced over his shoulder again, and walked toward the brush. As he neared the dead bird, he recoiled.

Twenty yards deeper in the woods, the sick cow groaned on the ground. Her once curly sienna coat, now matted and dull, sunk into deep crevices between each of her curved, slender ribs. The hide over her pelvis stretched like canvas over a tent pole, as if the sharp bone might puncture the skin.

Her mud-caked tail flicked a couple of inches off the ground. Flies crawled on her nostrils and muzzle. She nodded her head faintly but could not raise it. A stench

pervaded the low area where she lay. Three feet in every direction beyond her frame, a swath of bare brown, where she had rubbed away every stub of vegetation to the powder below, resembled arcs like the snow angles children etch on the ground in winter. Her wild eye rolled. When she tried to moo, a distinct guttural grunt emerged from her throat. She made soft and short blowing noises as she gasped.

Mackey dropped his BB gun and streaked across the meadow. Dust flared into his throat and choked him. He hacked and stumbled, but stood and ran again. He tried to yell but could not because he was coughing. All he could utter was an intermittent wail. He tore through the fescue, first zigging toward the house, then zagging toward the lengthwise end of the field.

Ben strode out of the trees in a corner of the meadow, alarmed. When Mackey reached him, the child flung himself into his grandfather’s arms. The old man squatted in front of his grandson and took him by the shoulders. “What happened?”

“The cow,” Mackey panted.

Ben stood. “Alive?”

Mackey nodded. He thrust a quivering finger toward the cans on the log. They crossed the meadow. At the edge of the woods, Mackey huddled behind Ben as if the weak beast were a healthy crocodile. Ben took a few steps, looked down at the bluebird, and frowned. From there he saw the cow. He turned toward the house. Mackey sniffled, tagging behind his grandfather a couple of steps, but keeping pace. As they walked over the meadow through the strip of woods and across the near pasture to the yard, Mackey’s breathing resumed a more normal rate.

“Wait here.” Ben instructed him behind the storage shed. Ben returned with a twenty gauge. He dropped a single shell in his pocket. They retraced their path to the cool of the woods near the cow. Mackey dragged his feet, but Ben advanced toward her. He stopped five feet from the cow’s head, then turned and waited for his grandson.

Mackey hovered behind a pin oak. His grandfather pulled the slug from his pocket, loaded it in the chamber, and slammed the bolt shut. But instead of aiming at the brute, he lowered the shotgun and turned toward Mackey. He eyed his grandson for a moment.

“You want to kill something. Shoot her.”

Mackey began to blink. Fists at his side, he took small steps backward. “Aw Grandpa.”
Ben did not grin. He extended the firearm, barrel toward the treetops, to his grandson. Mackey backed into a tall white pine. He clasped its trunk with both hands behind him.

A clot of flies had drawn blood on the cow’s neck. They did not move when she swiveled her ear. She made an effort to paw the ground, but could not. Ben shook the fist that clamped the gun, pushed it at his grandson.

“Come on. Here’s your chance.”

Mackey shifted focus from his grandfather’s face to the ragged cow. The child sunk down the pink bark, which snagged the back of his tee shirt, until his bottom grazed his heels. He covered his head with his arms and moaned, “I don’t want to.”

“This cow can’t get up. We have to put her out of her misery.”

Mackey stood, wiped his nose on the back of his hand. “Please…not me.”

Ben spoke through gritted teeth. “Come here and take this gun, boy.”

“Hunh-uh, I—“ Mackey faltered. He hung his head. He covered his face with his hands and sobbed again, his shoulders shaking.

Ben strode over and grabbed Mackey’s arm with his left hand and jerked him off his feet. Mackey scrambled to gain balance as Ben hauled him over to the cow. He wheeled the child in front of him to face the cow, scooped up Mackey’s left hand and mashed it beneath his on the barrel. Ben pressed the stock into Mackey’s shoulder and used his chest, arms, and the gun to position Mackey’s cheek next to the stock. Mackey bawled out loud. He clenched his eyes shut and tried to wriggle away from his grandfather’s hold. As he wagged his head about, mucous smeared onto Ben’s forearm.

“Shoot her!” Ben roared.

“Noo-oo!” Mackey cried. He felt the parts of the gun, metal and wood, against his hands and his cheek, his grandfather hemming him in. Ben jolted him again, repeating, “Shoot her!”

The child inched his finger toward the trigger, sniveling. The blast rammed the stock into Mackey’s shoulder and made his ears ring. The beast flinched then was still. Flies returned to the glossy red hole in her neck. Gun smoke momentarily battled and lost to the rancid smell.

Mackey wrenched free from his grandfather’s hold, bolted across the meadow and into the strip of woods. He tripped on a hackberry root and groveled several yards before he returned to his feet. He was still running as hard as he could, kicking up acorns and dirt clods. Tears blurred his vision, twigs slapped his cheeks, and fallen branches caused him to stumble.

When he cleared the trees, he could see across the near pasture to his father’s truck parked in the carport. Glenn stood in the back yard, his fists on his hips, watching. His uniform was stained with grease, his work boots like two chunks of granite. So big and strong, a stern expression on his face, he seemed to peer beyond his son. Mackey pressed his left hand to his side, took deep breaths to stop the sobbing, and slowed to a walk.

This story won honorable mention in the Page Edwards Short Fiction Contest at the Florida First Coast Writer’s Conference in Jacksonville, Florida. It was published in the Summer 2014 issue of Cloud 9 magazine.