Getting My Groove Back

By D. Margaret Hoffman

{ A version of this essay originally appeared in Saving Our Lives: Volume One–Essays to Inspire the Writer in YOU by D. Margaret Hoffman, 2015.}

Christmas changes everything.

If you are a religious person, you are nodding and thinking of the promise of the Christ child.

If you are me, you are shaking your head and thinking, “Damn, I did it again.”

It is January. I am not the same person I was in November. I am heavier, poorer, slower. I haven’t written, exercised or kept regular hours in a month. I have ingested sugar in a frightening assortment of processed forms and carbs in abundance. I have spent more money than I intended and I dread the arrival of the next MasterCard bill.

I enjoyed the holiday season very much. But somewhere in the middle of it I lost my mind.

For me, it seems, The Christmas Season brings with it the slow, imperceptible erosion of good habits, good judgment and common sense. I start out well enough. Adult. Responsible. Health conscious. Fiscally aware. But somewhere in the process, about the time when the department store renderings of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” get my attention, I begin to lose my grip.

It’s ironic, really. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is the story of one man’s shameless efforts to seduce an innocent young woman, ply her with drink, break down her resolve and convince her to stay with him where it’s—nudge, nudge—warm. When the girl in the song concedes to another drink, we know she’s fallen. And when I start to enjoy this and the countless other corporate seductions thrown in my path, we know that I, too, have succumbed to a siren song, this one sung not by Dean Martin or Leon Redbone or even John Legend, but instead by the wildly alluring Ghost of Christmas the Way Retail America Tells Us It Should Be. Snowy. Bountiful. Bejeweled. Sugary. Carb-loaded. Gift-laden. Calorically dense. Alcoholically lenient. Impeccably decorated. Expensively dressed. Beautifully wrapped. Cost is no object! More! More! More! Yes! Yes! YES!!

They got me. Pulled me right in there. Got under my skin and into my wallet. Inhibitions fell away, the shopping began in earnest and I officially lost control.

Why do I let this happen?

Well, for one thing, I kind of like it.

No, I don’t like being manipulated by Madison Avenue and corporate greed, but I do like the Currier and Ives, traditional, bountiful family Christmas that they portray.

I like parties and presents and decorations and fancy food. I like lights and shopping and snow. I like having the family all together. I like happy people. I like ooohs and ahhhhs and kids with cookies. I like full plates and clinking glasses and sparkles on trees and on sweaters and in people’s eyes. 

I like it when everyone forgets for a little while that there are so many things in this world that suck. I will do whatever I can to make this happen for people in my life even if it means taking temporary leave of my senses.

Who knows when—or if—the chance will come again?

This kind of Christmas doesn’t happen by itself. I am in charge of the extended family Christmas celebrations, so I know how much work goes into them. It’s a big responsibility. I take it seriously. And as much as I want to save time and pinch pennies, every year I reach that moment when I say, “What the hell! It’s Christmas!” And I mean it. But it’s like having that first glass of wine too early in the evening. Once I quaff the Christmas Kool-Aid there’s no turning back. I shift into preparation overdrive and I inevitably overdo, as evidenced by the mountains of leftovers, the gifts that looked great under the tree but are not very useful later and the growing number of Rubbermaid tubs that it takes to store the decorations. I have yet to get the hang of choreographing the Christmas cruise without dancing my way into the drink.

December is an anomaly. It gives us an annual opportunity to find a crazy place that we wouldn’t think of visiting any other time. That means loosening the restraints of the rest of the year, at least a little. It shouldn’t mean gaining twenty pounds, pickling our livers or going into hock, but it should allow everyone at least one good party, whatever that means to us. Even if we give it to ourselves.

But getting there sure does throw off a groove.

And that is what January is for. It is the morning after. It is when we realize that it’s great to break the routine and have a wonderful time, but those songs that wish for Christmas all year ’round don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s beautiful to put up decorations and to enjoy them with people we love, but it is also a huge relief to take them down and vacuum the glitter out of the carpet. It feels good to eat salads again, to walk around the neighborhood instead of the mall and to give the old charge card a chance to cool down. The tree was lovely this year, but it is nice now to have the window unobstructed to let in that precious, fleeting January daylight.

Seeking perfection and happiness is hard work and living up to such stratospheric expectations is only possible for short periods of time. January reminds us that cookies make us fat, that dried up pine needles hurt when we step on them, that staying up late makes us unproductive, that parties and presents come at a price, that maybe we did let corporate America get the better of us and that there really are many, many things in this world that suck. That’s the way things are. But having had a break from them in the noble pursuit of comfort and joy makes it all a little easier to live with.

December, then, is a temporary departure from real life. This is good. January brings reality back. This is good, too.

But now we are encouraged to improve, to embrace the New Year, to renew ourselves with obligatory resolutions. I am not looking for a New Me. I caught a glimpse of that chick in December. Cool, but totally unsustainable. I want the comfortable Old Me back. I miss her.

So instead of resolutions, I am using January to make restorations, replacing the sprees of December with the steady habits that I abandoned in November. This means settling back into my former groove by writing every day, walking every day, keeping the bird feeder full, maintaining a reasonably healthful diet (you hear that, cookies?), getting out to the movies every once in a while, staying out of the mall, sticking that cork back in the wine bottle, singing in the choir, keeping in touch with friends and loving my family. Simple goals—staying connected, productive, healthy, sane. Steady. No need to set the world on fire.

At least not until next December.


Copyright © 2020 by D. Margaret Hoffman

    

    

    

    

   

    

    

    


 

Leaning In

by Jane M. Bailey

In the depth of Winter, I finally learned 
that there was in me an invincible Summer

– Albert Camus

No one will argue that January isn’t the depth of winter.  I for one am not a fan of winter.  I miss the ever-so-slow changing spring palette from Crocus pink to Daffodil yellow to Iris blue to finally leaf and grass green.  I miss the heat of summer days spent on the porch with a glass of iced tea and a book in hand as squirrels dart across the lawn making their pass at the bird feeder, scattering birds and their feed as they steal what they can.  I miss summer walks and dinners of fresh corn, grilled meat and strawberry shortcake.  I miss the au-gust change of palette back through the color range of gold to red to brown as the leaves make their fall and the painting shifts from high to low on the easel, with the fiery red Burning Bush underbrush the last bastion of autumn before Thanksgiving.  So yes, when winter hits, I miss all that. Terribly.  

Here I sit, grousing about being cold, not wanting to go out.  Cranky that I must scrape snow from the windshield and fender crevices of my car.  Afraid of falling on ice, afraid of driving on snow-slicked roads, afraid of catching a winter cold—or worse, the dreaded flu.  I spend my days cold and afraid. 

Last week, the howling wind piled a 21-inch pillow of snow on the deck, blocking the slider and darkening the kitchen as the power ominously flickered.  What if the pipes freeze?  What if we can’t get out?  What if, what if?

Yet the swirls of white whipping around the house were a sight to behold—a MoMA exhibit of Jackson Pollack splatter paintings as the snow swirled and dropped leaving traces in the air as the snow moved and swirled up and around and back in and among the frigid air that seemed it might freeze all in place:  a three-dimensional painting that could be packaged in an ice-cube.  Cubist art at its best. 

The arctic cold prompted me to visit the cedar closet where I found an old fisherman-knit sweater that still fits.  Warmth enveloped me as I tugged it over my turtle-neck shirt.  I found socks, thick hiking socks, at the back of my sock drawer.  How good they felt on my cold feet as I rolled out an extra room heater and shut the door to the library to keep out the cold from the other rooms.   I warmed the kitchen with stove-heat under milk for hot chocolate and padded back to the library to snuggle into the heat of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.

It was like being homesick—missing so much of spring-summer-fall home, yet gradually feeling the homesickness dissipate by fortifying myself and leaning into winter.  Lean in!  Lean in! as Sheryl Sandberg wrote.   It’s hard to lean in to that which we don’t like!

Yesterday the snow fell gently.  Simple quiet strokes of the brush added thin layers of white, one on top of the other until the ground was once again covered after the thawed interlude of warm temperatures last week.  The beauty of this snowfall so different, yet no less beautiful than last week’s storm.   As the white layers covered the back yard, the brook magically kept flowing, its dark arterial path flowing in stark contrast to the soft white banks on either side.  Beneath the winter snow, the flow of water—lifeblood—continues its path.  The water is seen clear in contrast to the winter white surrounding it. 

Like this morning when the lights I flicked on before dawn illuminated the darkness behind the window, blocking whatever light might be there.  By turning the lights off, I could see the last of the stars disappear and the midnight blue of the dawn sky start to outline the bare tree branches across the barren field.

In this winter that I hate, water flows and light glimmers, if only I will lean in.

Brian's Museum

by Chris Armentano

I met Brian Kilgore nearly fifty years ago when he was a clean-cut anachronism in the era of long-haired scruff. I recall that he was soft spoken, with a subtle, dry sense of humor that he sometimes betrayed with a barely visible crinkle of a smile. In love with all things out-doors, Brian was an adventurous sort who hiked, biked and white-water canoed. When he insisted I join him, he poo-pooed my reluctance to do new things that were both physically demanding and potentially dangerous.  Not long after our first meeting, I found myself paddling madly in a white-water canoe race in a barely thawed river north of Bangor. Brian, who finished in the middle of the pack, was greatly amused when my shivering canoe partner and I ended the race dead last. 

My first time on a ten-speed came a little later when we biked more than seventy miles on a windy, rainy day from Burlington, Vermont, to someplace a half-hour’s drive south of Montreal. Brian, an experienced biker and no worse for wear at the end of the day, was equally amused that my butt was so sore that I suffered for days. 

One time we hitchhiked from Hartford to Knoxville, Tennessee, for the hell of it.  One awful night when the sky sputtered a mix of snow and rain, we camped without a tent in the hills just north of Oak Ridge. Brian was unapologetically dry under a space blanket he’d strung up between a few trees while I shivered like a dog under bare branches.

Even though he’d shown no sympathy or discernible guilt, that miserable event and others helped cement a friendship that has endured for just shy of half a century. Over the decades, in dribs and drabs, during hikes and other travels, he’s shared the details of his life: the memorably good and monumentally bad, along with accounts of his everyday joys and miseries. Once I kidded him about opening a museum so his personal history wouldn’t be lost. He didn’t take up my suggestion, but if he did, I figure the instructions for getting it going would read something like the following.

“Writers, artists, inventors and dead presidents: all great people have museums. Why not me? Or people like me: ordinary as mud but each special to their own and themselves?  Wet-dirt people deserve museums just for getting through life without any special privileges or any particular talent. I bring this up because I’m almost seventy-two and still of sound mind and body. I figure I better get it on paper while I’m able. What follows are my instructions to whoever still loves me when I finally wander off this life and into the next.

For location, the garage at the old place is as good as anywhere. In the warm months people will think there’s a garage sale going on and stop in for a look. The other months, just leave a light on and post an “Open” sign that says “Museum of Brian Kilgore: Ordinary Person.”

The garage ought to be cleaned out first. Paint everything. Walls, ceiling, floor, doors and trim. Get a few tables and hooks to hang things. Do this before I die so that it will be ready for the funeral. After I’m safely tucked in the ground, I want a party in the driveway for what friends and relatives want to come. I don’t know how many of either there’ll be by then. I figure Roy, my hikin’ buddy and non-stop chatter-box, who won’t stop talking long enough to die, will still be around and he’ll want to come.

I have gathered up many of the items on the list but someone will need to pull the rest together.  If I die before Judy, my life and love since I was twenty-three, she’ll be able to help.

Here’s what to put in that garage:

A pair of old-fashioned tortoise-shell glasses. I got my first pair, to my embarrassment, when I twelve, just in time for me to be self-conscious about my looks, the unpredictable activity of my wang and girls. I probably lost four pair during puberty. Dad figured I lost them on purpose. No matter what I said I couldn’t convince him otherwise. Now that I look back on it maybe I did. At the time I kept asking myself, why me? Nobody else I knew lost his glasses.

A piece of rope about an inch thick, like I had on the Tarzan swing I put up over the stream out back by the golf course. First time I jumped I landed backwards on two washing-machine-size boulders. I thought I broke my back. My sister Ray Anne went to get mom, but only Dad was home at the time. He came out running with a funny-ugly look on his face that I couldn’t figure out at the time. When he saw I was mostly all right, he about blasted me for being a dumb kid. Wild eyed and spitting, he went on about how I could have killed myself, even though by that time I’d figured that out by myself.  I cried on the way to the emergency room. Dad scared the pee out of me.

Hang the twenty-foot canvas Old Town canoe from the rafters in the middle of the garage. It’ll make a nice centerpiece of sorts. Dad, the river guide and I canoed down the Allagash in northern Maine the spring I turned fifteen. Things were going OK until I steered our canoe into a boulder, drowned Dad’s camera, most of my clothes and his sleeping bag. You can never tell in advance what will cause a deep hurt. What my dad said at the time caused a pain I carried for decades, even after the words were lost to me.

The head of the steel rake my father sent me out with to clean out weeds. I used it like an axe and broke it. My father chewed me out for being stupid and not doing it like he told me. I guess he was right about that, so I can’t blame him really. I vowed I’d never do that to my kids.

Find an old cover of Travels With Charlie. When I was fourteen I left a note for my parents on the inside cover saying I was running away from home. I was out for a few hours in the middle of the night, walking around our little town trying to get to State Route 44, where there was a chance to get a ride. I didn’t know where I was headed, but I knew by going west, I’d get out of Connecticut and be heading to the rest of the country. Steinbeck was happy he’d driven west and I could be too. I got a ride from a state cop who woke my parents at three in the morning when he dropped me off. I was punished of course, although I don’t recall anybody asking why I’d done it.

The book Johnny Got His Gun had a big impact on me. I read it during the Vietnam Era, when the whole idea of risking our lives to kill Asians in their hovels and rice paddies started to seem absurd.

The Simplicity lawn tractor, with a large hay rake attached, that I used when I was a kid to mow the back lot. We had three acres that was mine to mow. Nobody bothered me for the hours I was out on that tractor. It was my sanctuary.

A shade grown tobacco leaf. I’d spent two summers picking tobacco in the fields. That was before I turned sixteen and could get a real job. It was the dirtiest, hottest work imaginable. I learned about migrant Jamaican and Puerto Rican farm workers who seemed to me to be the most exotic humans I’d ever seen. Jamaicans carried knives so we steered clear of them. Puerto Ricans spoke rapid-fire Spanish and stayed to themselves. I had never seen a homelier bunch of people.

My father’s 1929 Curtiss Robin and 1935 Waco biplane. When I was a kid my father spent a lot of time restoring these two planes. I could watch, but I wasn’t allowed to help. I flew in them a few times with Dad. He’d been a WWII pilot who flew helicopters and transports. He hired my sister and me to separate the bolts and nuts he collected at work at Kaman Aircraft. I’d wanted to do something that was actually helpful, but we didn’t get the chance. When I rode in the Curtis Robin, I was extremely proud of my Dad.

A picture of the tractor-trailer rig I drove for a year out in California while Judy was getting her master’s degree at USC. I had one bad experience: getting the rig caught under an overpass. I got it unstuck by letting the air out of the tires and backing the rig out from under. The boys at the terminal got a big kick out of it, and for a day or two, I was sort of a hero. The truck, like the lawn tractor, was a sanctuary.

My cross-country skis and backpack without which, I’d never have survived winters. Alone on the trail, out in the middle of the Sequoia National Park, skiing drained the tension out of me, filled me with a good kind of tired, and made me feel like I could do something without somebody criticizing me. More than once I came close to death out there but nothing makes you appreciate life like almost having it taken away from you.

My VIP badge. Volunteers in Policing. I like policemen, and I always wanted to hang out with police. Now I hang around old folks like me who are directing traffic, standing around at public events or high school football games, parades, block parties and Fourth of July celebrations.

School staff photos. Most of my career I taught fourth grade in central California. The kids were mostly Mexican-Americans. They were sons and daughters of legal and illegal immigrants although there was never much differentiation in my mind. They were pretty much the same kind of kids. Their parents were hardworking, Catholic and family-oriented. I spent two years at Fort Wachucha in Arizona teaching army kids, which was fine, though by that time kids’ imaginations weren’t as easy to catch a hold of as when I was a kid. Only space adventures like Star Wars interested them.

My long teaching career came to a sad end when I was accused of touching a female student. I put my hand on her shoulder as we were walking to the cafeteria. She steered away from my hand and a caf worker told her,  “You can report that.”  She did. If I hadn’t been an effective union representative, they wouldn’t have been so hot to get me. It was as if they wanted me to pay for every union victory I was part of.  It took a year for them to get to me. I retired at sixty. If all’s well that ends well, what can I say about my last year as a teacher?

The newspaper photo of my father’s flight helmet on the ground after the crash that killed him. I was sixteen when he died at the Kaman Helicopter Plant in Bloomfield, Connecticut, while test flying a new chopper. The copter dropped like a rock from 100 feet. I felt cheated that I didn’t get to have a father anymore. I asked myself why they took my father away. I didn’t realize he took himself away when he picked a career as a test-pilot. At school, I became a zombie, disappearing into a shell that nobody bothered to penetrate. Once and only once, a teacher asked me how I was doing. I was lost at a time when nobody bothered to find anybody. At home, everybody was just as lost, and nobody else cared.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the Tennessee Williams play. I can’t tell you why other than when I was working at Renato’s in Key West, I waited on Mr. Williams. He was a good customer often ordering eggplant Parmigian. He sat in the back of the court the morning I was arraigned for assaulting the restaurant owner. Renato had gotten so angry at me for something, he pushed me through his glass front door. Then he had me arrested. When the charges were being read, a voice in the back of the courtroom said a loud, “Bullshit.”  The judge beat his gavel like a jackhammer. Looking angrily to the back of the courtroom, he yelled, “Who said that?” It was while he was screaming something about contempt of court that he spotted Mr. Williams’ hand waving in the last row. “Yes, Mr. Williams,” says the judge. “Do you have something to say?” Mr. Williams said he did have something to add, and he told the story as I knew it to be true: Renato had been the instigator. The judge took Mr. Williams at his word and dismissed the case after giving Renato something to think about. I went to Mr. Williams’ house once or twice after that. He was a nice fellow.

A stuffed bird. I was the president of the Tulare County Audubon Society.

Pictures of my wife Judy. Judy, my wife of 45 years, is the reason I have any kind of normal life. We met when I joined the college hiking club. She was the prettiest girl of the lot, and for some reason she didn’t mind talking to me. When I look at pictures of us in those days, I can’t believe how beautiful she was. Judy is special. My friend Chris says it takes a special person to put up with my quirks. He must think he’s special too. He knows me as well as anybody outside my family and we’ve been friends for forty years. I used to think he was quirkier than me. Maybe he is, or maybe we are about the same.

A picture of Linda Barrett.  She was Chris’s high school girlfriend. For more than forty years I have stood by the claim that I made out with her on the bus during my first week of college. We were on our way back to campus from the football game with the Coast Guard Academy when one thing led to another. Over the years the story has become a legend and like any other legend, it could be true.

I’d like, but don’t need, any items of my daughter’s. I don’t need her harp, or swimming ribbons. No climbing gear. No college diploma from Mount Holyoke, even if she graduated in three years. No pictures of Ellen at any of the stages of her childhood. None of her wedding pictures either. What can I put in the museum when, after all this time, I don’t know what my daughter thinks of me?

One more thing:  My mother’s apple pie.

Anything else, as they say, is gravy.”

A few years back Brian moved from California to his daughter’s Colorado neighborhood where he’s become a doting granddad to Ellen’s two pre-school boys. These days, swimming in love and wonder, he’s happily busy with the things he’d been too stressed out by life to enjoy comfortably as a father. Things like picture books, parks, naps and ice cream. The love, which goes both ways, is soulful, magical and uncomplicated. He hadn’t known how it would change him.  It’s made the old artifacts less important and opened the door for a set of more sunny memories. Time will tell which will make it into the museum.

Copyright © 2019 by Chris Armentano

Wanderer, Backpack, Hike, Away, Path, Mountain Hiking
Books, Shelf, Library, People, Father

Just a Hiccup

by Jennie Nimtz

I call them the Three Uglies. There is a walnut-sized lattice ball with half of its metallic paint scratched off. White plastic is exposed under the flaking, silver paint. Purchased as a Christmas tree adornment, it spent most of its Decembers as a cat toy when Rebecca and I were growing up. Then there is the red velvet, three dimensional, dodecahedron with a tassel, a jingle bell is trapped inside. This decoration always hung on one of the low branches of our artificial tree. It was a token offering to our orange tiger kitty, Ollie, who would sit near that ornament, reach up with a front paw and hook his nails in it. And then there is the painted, wooden, figure of a grinning, plump, orange tiger cat holding a fish in its mouth. In an aesthetic sense, these are the three least attractive ornaments I own. Yet I have hung them in prime spots on my Christmas tree and I will continue to do so because of the memory of a very special March weekend.

“Ready to make decisions about the furniture and other household items?” I come right to the point on this third try to get my sister focused on the main reason we are together this weekend.  I know she is not doing well but I desperately need her help clearing out the house in preparation for selling it. This is the final piece of settling Dad’s estate. It is not so much a matter of she gets this and I get that. My house in Connecticut is fully furnished. Rebecca, even in her 50s, rents an apartment in Boston and has never replaced her battered furniture. Here is an opportunity for her to have some really nice things. As Executor, I just need to know what she wants.   

“I always break big tasks down into smaller ones so things don’t seem so overwhelming. We can start in the pantry.” I try once more as I look over my detailed list. 

Rebecca gets up from the table. We have been in the house for over an hour and she has not left the kitchen. She wanders over to the side window. “Oh, there’s a cat out there!  Hi Kitty!” she taps on the window.

“That’s Hiccup.” I start clearing the lunch dishes. “The Brandts’ newest cat. He’s a Maine coon mix and I should warn you I have strict orders not to let him inside. The Brandts want to wean him from coming over here because someday, hopefully in the near future, someone else will own this place. But Hiccup always tries to come in when I am here – I think he still looks for Dad.”

“He looks like Ollie. My favorite out of all the cats we had. Why the name Hiccup?”

“He sounds like he’s hiccupping just before coughing up hairballs. Is there a room you’d prefer to start going through?”

“You mentioned you could use help with sortin’ through things in the outbuildings. Can we do that this afternoon? It’s unusually warm for early March and it’d be a shame not to spend time outside.”

“But going through things inside is most ….”

“Let’s do that later.” She already is putting on her coat and heading outside. “Here Hiccup…” I hear her call as the door closes.

I watch her sit on the porch steps. The frustration with some resentment I often feel when I am with my younger sibling starts to bubble up. Why did I even suggest Rebecca come here? I should have foreseen nothing would get done this weekend. I can’t push her. When pushed, Rebecca shuts down. She’s ill, I remind myself. The depression and anxiety she has struggled with since she was fourteen are always present, at least to some degree. Sometimes she gets by pretty well and sometimes she hovers on the edge of a darkness I will never comprehend. I recognize today she’s near that edge. Right now she looks like an overgrown waif living on the streets of London in a Dickens novel, her shoulders hunched from the weight of the world and from her illnesses. She is thinner than when I last was with her, which was over a year ago at Dad’s funeral. Her dark hair is streaked with gray while mine, a mousy brown, has no gray at all even though I’m five years older. Rebecca ate a good lunch just now but I sense part of that was just for my benefit. I focus on her frown. Her frown is the indicator of how well she is “hanging in there”. It’s deeper than it was at the funeral. It is a permanent part of her facial features, a frown that just varies in deepness. I sigh. I’ll have to be flexible with my plans. And accept that it will likely fall on me to make all decisions about the books, the furniture, the dishes, paintings and rest of the household items. 

“I suggest we work in the old garage. There’s not too much in there. There being two of us, I think we can pretty much finish sorting things while there is still daylight.” I’ve stepped outside in a tattered barn coat. “I’ll do the woodshed another time – it’s crammed with gardening things and will take more than one weekend to get through.”

Hiccup prances after Rebecca as we walk over to the large building. At least we can’t lose him in the garage – his orange tiger coloring will show up anywhere in the building. With a “Brrrrrump!” the cat runs in ahead of us as I start swinging open one of the carriage doors.  He leaps up on a stack of boxes just off to the side. 

“Hiccup and I will start with these,” Rebecca announces. “It looks like there are books in here.”  Hiccup wants to see what is in the boxes and starts batting the cardboard flaps. Wait until the Brandts see how much dust is on him when he returns home.

As Rebecca sits on a box and slowly pulls books out one by one from another, I work on quickly, sorting the spillover of garden tools that are in here because the shed is full. It’s safe for me to make decisions about the walk-behind metal tiller, rakes and three scythe handles because Rebecca has no need for lawn or garden tools.

A Christmas Carol!” Rebecca exclaims and holds up an old book with covers attached with duct tape. “My favorite part of being here Christmas morning when we were kids was that early morning time before we went downstairs to find our stockings stuffed. Remember we shared a double bed and we had orders from Grandma not to come downstairs ‘til it was 7 a.m.?”

“Yes,” I start pulling mouse chewed burlap bags out of a wooden crate and toss them in a large garbage bag. Hiccup, sensing there was rodent activity in the building, comes over and tries to get at the bags. “It was so stressful listening to the clock down in the kitchen chime on the hour and half hour waiting for those seven chimes!” 

“What I liked best about those mornings was your reading to me as we burrowed under the blankets to stay warm. Each Christmas you read something different.  Remember you read the Christmas story in the Bible, about the Ingalls’ Christmas in The Little House in the Big Woods, parts of The Homecoming when you were infatuated with “The Waltons” and one year, the ending of A Christmas Carol.

“You remember all those readings?”

“Yeah, that made the start of Christmas pretty special. It was really the only time on Christmas Day we had together, just the two of us.”

“It was special to me too,” I admitted. “Even now I’m the first up Christmas morning reading something Christmas-related before doing anything else.”

“Do you think all of these books can be donated? Is this the donation pile? What’s next?”

“The items on the shelf under the workbench back there. See that large box; can you help me pull it out? I don’t know what’s in there.” We drag the pile of brittle hoses off of a large box, hindered by Hiccup chasing the dragging ends of them. Then we heave the bulging cardboard box to the center of the cement floor. 

Rebecca tears into the box. “This is like a treasure hunt, isn’t it? It’s a Christmas tree!” she holds up an artificial branch. “It must be ours from Connecticut because when Grandma lived here she never had a tree. Where are the ornaments?” 

I hate to squelch the bit of excitement I hear in her voice. “Rebecca, I didn’t know the tree was in here. Dad, as far as I am aware, either threw out or gave away the ornaments soon after Mom died. He did this without even letting us know. There was a handmade, pine cone wreath I gave him and Mom as a gift one year and I wanted it back if he wasn’t going to hang it during the holidays.  He told me he had already ‘gotten rid of it.’ I think he would’ve thrown out this tree out too if he knew it were here.”

“I would of liked to have had some of the ornaments,” Rebecca pushes away the box frowning deeper. She gets up and grabs a broom standing in a corner and starts sweeping the floor, mindless of the dust this activity kicks up.

As I attempt to close up the box, Hiccup jumps up into it. He teeters and totters, losing his balance on the stack of fake branches. As his large cat butt pulls him deeper into the tangle of branches, I reach down and pull him out. He sinks his claws into my jacket and buries his head into my neck, his loud purrs so soothing. “What a pet!” I smile as I use the phrase Dad often uttered when Hiccup was “visiting” him. I lean over to put the cat down. “Hey, what’s this?” In his struggling in the box, Hiccup had moved aside a number of branches. So now I see a boot box at the bottom. I gently wiggle the box out and carry it over to a shelf by the window so I can see better. 

Rebecca comes over. “Decorations!” we say in unison as I slip off the lid. 

“Remember these; these decorated the mantel in Connecticut!” Rebecca pulls out Mr. and Mrs. Claus ceramic salt and pepper shakers. “Oh and look, our nativity scene!” The plastic manger with painted figures on the base, wrapped in yellowed paper towel, is intact. “Are the angels there?” The three ceramic angels on their knees praying are not broken, having been protected by more paper towel and newspaper. Though slightly taller than the manger they always were positioned on either side of it on our mantel place.

We pull out Styrofoam balls with the blue satin threads hanging off of them. There are also packages of spare painted glass screw-in Christmas lights–blue, green, white and red. Scattered around among all are metallic painted plastic bells and balls. 

“Except for the lights, I don’t think Mom ever dared to hang glass decorations on the tree because of Ollie.” I hold up a bell.    

“Look at this weird decoration!” Rebecca holds up the red velvet ornament. Immediately Hiccup jumps up on the shelf and bats at the tassel. 

“You know, we didn’t have many ornaments, but I loved that tree all decorated. Jen, remember how we’d listen to Christmas records playing as we helped Mom put up the tree? And remember making long garlands out of strips of colored paper? And that Christmas where we had to delay coming up here by a day and so we actually put presents under the tree to open on Christmas Day rather than opening them up here?” She surveys the ornaments lined up on the shelf. “How are we going to divide these up?” Her voice has an edge to it as she abruptly changes the subject. 

I look at the ornaments and think about the four large boxes of holiday decorations I have at home. And how these ornaments are the first things here Rebecca’s shown any real interest in. I would really like one of the ceramic angels but decide it is much more important that they all go home with Rebecca. 

“What would be most meaningful to me would be one of the metallic balls and, if you don’t have any interest in it, that funky velvet ornament Ollie liked.”

“Are you sure that’s all?”

“I’m sure,” I said. “Keep what you want in the boot box. I can pack the few I want in another container.”

“Thanks Jen.” Her voice softens. “Thanks so much.”

Rebecca finishes sweeping as I quickly go through the rest of the items on the lower workbench shelf. The light outside starts to dim and chill is seeping in as we finish up.  In trying to coax Hiccup to follow us out of the garage, one of the plastic balls slips out of the box and rolls across the cement. A flash of orange fur charges after the ball. The happy cat swats at it with his paw and then races towards the back of the garage after it. The ornament rolls under the workbench and Hiccup squeezes after it. Or at least the front half of him does. When the cat fully backs out with the ball in his mouth, Rebecca and I instinctively back up. The front half of Hiccup is white. Draped in cobwebs sprinkled with fine dust he trots back to us, thin white strands hanging off of him. I hear a strange noise from Rebecca. Looking over I see her shoulders shaking. 

“I’ve never seen anything so funny!” My sister is laughing, truly laughing. “If Charles Dickens had a ghost cat in his story, it would’ve looked like this!” 

Hiccup shakes his head, still holding tight to the ball. Dust poofs off of him and the cobwebs shake around like he is having a bad static hair day.

I start laughing as well. Rebeca is holding her sides gasping.  

“I need the bathroom!” I say. “I’m going have an accident if I don’t get to the bathroom!”

“I’ll close up the garage,” Rebecca calls after me.

In my panic to get to the bathroom before I embarrass myself, I don’t see the ghost cat slip into the kitchen.   

“Jen, you let Hiccup in?” Rebecca calls.

“No, I ….” I see the two of them gazing expectantly at me when I come back into the kitchen. 

“Oh, I give in. Hiccup can stay–let’s get him cleaned up before he jumps on any of the furniture.”

Hiccup makes himself right at home after Rebecca combs out as much of the dust and cobwebs as she can. He starts touring the downstairs rooms stopping and turning around frequently to see if Rebecca is following him. She is. I allow him to stay for dinner. He loves the meatloaf I brought and even accepts the seconds Rebecca offers him. 

I can’t make myself break the spell by asking Rebecca to tell me if she wants the sofa, any of the end tables or the recliners in the living room. So instead I ask, “Do you remember after suppers, when Grandma was alive, we’d play 500 Rummy until bedtime? And Dad turned out to be a card shark even though he never played cards with us at home? Do you want to play a game? I know where there’s a deck of cards.”

When we finally go to bed, Rebecca chooses to sleep in the twin bed that replaced the full sized bed in the upstairs front bedroom.  I sleep in the adjoining room. Neither of us closes our door. After checking out his options Hiccup decides he likes the thick comforter covering my sister. I swear I hear him purring.    

Uncharacteristically I am the last one to wake the next morning. I find Rebecca at the kitchen table sipping a cup of instant coffee and Hiccup settled on her lap. There at my place is my room list. Rebecca has added notes to it. I look at the list and then at her.

“I put an R by which furniture I’m interested in.  The same for the dishware.  Can we look at the paintings and knick knacks together after breakfast?  And then do you think there would be time for a walk before you drop me off at the train station in Worcester?  Remember how much we loved taking walks with Dad through the pine woods and fields up here?”

We quickly make decisions about the items in the house and then manage to get in an hour’s walk on a nearby rail trail. Hiccup is waiting on the bulkhead when we return and I let him into the house one last time. I no longer care whether or not the Brandts see me do this. Hiccup does all he can to hinder Rebecca’s packing, jumping in and out of the suitcase and insisting on pats and chin rubs. Too soon it is time to lock up the house and drive Rebecca to the Worchester train station. Hiccup follows us outside and expectantly runs over to the old garage doors. 

“Can you keep an eye on him while I back out?” I ask as we get into the car. When I stop at the end of the driveway, Hiccup prances towards us, stopping a foot from the car. 

“Jen, hold on,” Rebecca unbuckles her seatbelt then gets out. She pulls a blue plastic Christmas ball from her pocket, swings her arm back and rolls the ball far up the driveway. 

The hair rises on the orange cat’s back and tail. And then he is off. Hiccup runs so fast he outruns the ball and then practically summersaults in an attempt to double back and get it. This antic pushes the ball in another direction where it rolls under some loose leaves at the foot of a silver maple.    

“I can’t tell if he is attacking the ball or those leaves!” Rebecca, back in the car, starts to laugh then stops. “Hey, who is that?”

A tall figure in a camouflage jumpsuit and leather cap with flaps is marching down the driveway.”

“It’s Mr. Brandt!” 

“Quick! Jen, let’s get outta here!” Rebecca urges. “Go, go go!”

Caught up in her panic, I back onto the road as Rebecca sinks low in her seat. Just then a streak of orange rushes up the maple’s trunk to a high branch. As we hear “Come down here right now!” I hit the gas.  Hiccup turns on his perch to watch us leave, tail twitching. 

”Bye to you too Hiccup,” I giggle as we speed away. “Oh, am I glad I’m heading back to Connecticut right after I drop you off. I hope Mr. Brandt forgets all about this by the next time I’m up here!”

 When we reach the state road, I reach out and hold my sister’s hand. She holds mine tightly back. “I didn’t think I could do this, you know, make it through this weekend.” Rebecca admits. “Numerous times, I almost called you to tell you I couldn’t come. I know we didn’t get as much done as you’d hoped – the woodshed and the other garage ….”

“Don’t give it a second thought,” I tell her. “I think we accomplished a huge amount this weekend…in so many ways… don’t worry, the place will get cleaned out. Hey, I can always ask Hiccup for help!”

“What a cat!” Rebecca smiles.

I find the cat ornament two weeks later in the clearance section of a chain craft store. Actually a pair of them. They are priced at forty-nine cents each. I buy them both, one for me and one for my sister. The wooden orange tiger cat is wearing a Christmassy robe.  It is sporting wings and a wire halo. I am absolutely sure Rebecca will agree with me that if the fish it is holding in its mouth were replaced with a Christmas ornament, this cat would be the spitting image of Hiccup. 

Copyright © 2019 by Jennie Nimtz

Atta Girl

By Gail Ouimet

My mind races, unable to settle on one thought, nor give over to the sleep I crave. My stomach gurgles and churns stimulated by the anticipation of tomorrow’s endeavor. It’s always this way before a hike. Even a familiar one. One I’m sure I can do.

Because sure is not always a sure thing.

You see, I hike using forearm crutches. Have to watch where my feet land to avoid trips and stumbles. Seeing the scenery means stopping to cast my gaze upward. Progress is slow. I move over to let people pass. And they do. Constantly.Their stares often precede a quick look away; sometimes followed by an “Atta girl,” “ Wow” or “You’re amazing.” One young man, seeing me clambering over rocks on an Oregon shore, looked me up and down before exclaiming “Lady, you’re killin’ it. Way to go!” Sometimes it’s just a silent thumbs up.

I guess, at 71, I ‘m expected to be home watching television. Yet, if I were to believe it, I am now some stranger’s hero. I’m not really; I know that. They are just being kind. I acknowledge with a nod and a quick “Thanks.” I look back at the ground ahead of me.

I’d prefer to be like everyone else. You know…old, young, fat, thin, looking up at the trees and mountains as I nimble foot it up the trail. But I’m not. My crutches betray me. On the other hand, I couldn’t do it without them. I’m out here doin’ it. I tell myself, “Atta girl.”

I’d like to wear a t-shirt that says “This is not the ME that I know.”

The me that I know rode a bicycle across the United States, east coast to west coast.

The me that I know, in my youth, played softball and basketball and field hockey.

The me that I know bicycled from New Mexico to Jasper, Canada. Then, just for fun, rode up the steep Edith Cavell mountain road to do a hike at the top. Just for fun. Atta girl.

A mosquito bite. A partially paralyzed left leg. Everything changed. Still, I’m out there doin’ it. Atta girl.

Home from vacation, I lean my crutches up against the garage wall. They are a mix of two sets; one pink, one blue. Perhaps I should name this newest combo. How about Ebb and Flo?

That sounds about right to me. Sorta like my life.

We three, waiting for the next adventure. No regrets, off we’ll go. Team Atta Girl!

Copyright © 2019  by Gail Ouimet

Learning to Fly

By Maire Greene

“I’m not lying,” I yelled. “I was flying. You just don’t believe me.”

Even at four I get the difference. But Mom is making her very mad face and doing that open and close thing with her hands that means she is “on the verge.”

That’s something they say that I don’t get. What’s a verge?

She always says to Auntie Corine, “I’m telling you Reeney–I was on the verge.” and Auntie Corine just nods, “M-mm-h-mm” which means, “Tell me more.”

 Auntie Corine doesn’t talk as much as Mom. And she doesn’t hit. Least wise not when I’m at her house. Teddy and Robby say she hits them all the time but they probably deserve it. They do enough bad stuff. I do too when I’m with them but I almost never get caught. When I do I just blame them which is how Declan told me to do. It works really good so far.

Anyway I can see Mom won’t believe me no matter how true I am so I just stop talking. She hates when I do this. That’s one thing I learned so far. Mom likes a fight.  Declan says this is so she has a better excuse to hit ‘cuz if you argue you’re diserspectin and she’s your Mom and so there’s no diserspectin.

So many rules. I start to feel myself floating up through the top of my head—not good. When I float out I mostly don’t make answers quick enough and then she hits. But the hitting just makes me float out. And when I’m out I don’t feel her—I can see and hear but no feels—so it’s a trade.

I just got lost. Where was I? That happens a lot. It’s confusion and sometimes makes a sinky feel in my stomach.

Declan says, “That’s the price you pay.” He can also fly and do the floating thing. But he also can do the being different people thing which is way better. See, when he floats out he can let another voice come out his mouth, mostly scared and sorry but sometimes, when it’s just us two he does a really scary monster voice. And his eyes change. They get all dead.

I know what dead looks like ‘cuz I’ve seen lots of dead–like the frog Dec killed to show me how to kill frogs. You stick ‘em in the head with a nail. Also the same with the bird, though I really cried hard at that one. It was just a little baby bird that fell out of the nest. Declan said it would die anyway and he was doing a mercy kill. He offered to let me do the neck twist thing but just thinking it made me throw up a little—just in my mouth and I didn’t tell Dec. That’s ammunition for him. He says that kind of weak makes me fair game which doesn’t feel fair but I really know to keep shut around Dec so I’m safe.  He let me do a bird funeral after. Dec told Mom it was dead when we found it. He even squeezed out a tear or two. Mom really fell for that. She gave us a cod fish box which was cool ‘cuz it was real wood. It smelled fishy though, but Declan says that’s how dead smells anyway.

Boy, I talk a lot in my head but now I really don’t know what Mom’s yelling at me. S-W-O-O-O-P! I get sucked right back into myself and Mom’s yelling, “Don’t stare at me with that fish eyed stare.”

Which makes me laugh ‘cuz I was just thinking fish—sometimes it feels like she hears my mind. Scary. There’s so much scary in this family I start to cry.

“Oh, stop your sniveling. Your bladder is too close to your eyes.”

Which I don’t understand at all but it usually means I’m off the hook. Another one! I never see any hooks but apparently I’m really good at getting off them. That’s what Declan says, so that’s why he always puts me in front of him when it looks like we’re gonna get in trouble. It’s mostly ok with me ‘cuz he’s older so he knows more about what works and also without him I’d probably never have any aventures. Declan says aventure is better than fun ‘cuz fun is just cheap thrills but aventure learns you skills. Like climbing trees–which is good for hiding from grown-ups but also other kids. They never look up when they’re chasing you.

That’s how I started flying in the first place. We were both running from the bullies. Dec had let the air out of their tires so they couldn’t use their bikes to chase us but they were still bigger and could run faster. We had a head start on them so we went around the corner and up the apple tree.

I’m too little to reach the first branch but Declan reached down and pulled my arms while I was shinnying up. I just got to the third branch up when the bullies came around the corner. Dec and I were real quiet. We would have got away but Dec couldn’t resist throwing apples at them when they came near the tree. He got in a couple of good hits and I beaned one off fat Tony’s head. They yelled and started climbing so we jumped.

Here’s a clue. Don’t jump if you don’t have to–the ground is really hard. And it comes up fast. But there’s this little minute where you are flying for real–it sent me right out the top of my head so I was looking down from the top of the tree. Which was lucky ‘cuz then I didn’t even feel it when I conked my head. It made me blink out for a minute. I guess that really scared the bullies . They ran screaming and then Mom came running.

I told Mom about the flying but like I said she didn’t believe me. And she’s open closing her hands but when I’m floating I suddenly know something I didn’t know before. Sometimes when Mom is on the verge it’s because she’s scared herself. I never thought grown-ups got scared. But I can see it in her eyes–just like I can always tell if her smile reaches her eyes or if Declan’s eyes are dead.

Declan is right. Aventures are better than fun.  They do learn you stuff. I won’t tell him about Mom getting scared though. That would just give him ammunition and he is not scared to use his ammo on anyone. He says you gotta use it or what’s the sense of having it. I get that too now. I’ll be sure to check Mom’s eyes the next time.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Maire Greene

  Photo by Stephanie Albert from Pixabay

Memorial

By Susan W. Meister

From the oak

(all unaware)

the acorn falls,

buried beneath

a cover of red and gold

fallen leaves.

Rain falls,

Sun pales,

Moonlight chills.

Killing frost bites tall grass,

shrivels mushrooms,

crisps leaves.

Worms wriggle deeply down

in darkness.

The pond glazes,

turtles burrow beneath the ooze.

A full moon,

A sudden freeze,

The ground locks.

Snow falls:

on snow on

snow on

snow.

Silent nights,

Nature sleeps,

The world turns.

Days lengthen,

Ice unlocks,

Snow thaws.

Buds redden,

Bluebirds sing,

Crocuses bloom.

The acorn splits,

sends one pale,

seeking sprout

up,

through softened soil,

through snow-pressed leaves

into the light.

Sprout to stem to bud.

 One

tender

Oak leaf

Unfurls.

My body the oak,

(all unaware)

My spirit the acorn.

Eternal return.

Copyright © 2019 by Susan W. Meister