Family Reunion

By Karen Brode

Mother got into the driver’s seat of our car,  and Opal took the passenger seat.  Thankfully I had a quilt and a pillow in the backseat. I liked to watch the trees zoom past the back window. We had to drive 100 miles to get to Marble Falls.

It seemed odd to see my mother driving Opal around. My aunt usually commandeered any situation. But, in a burst of unusually rebellious energy, Mother had hurried to the car and got behind the wheel. That left Opal no choice but to sit in the front passenger seat.

I was proud of Mother for taking charge. It was something she rarely did.

We had only been in the car for about thirty minutes when my aunt began squirming.   Mother cut her eyes to watch each time she changed positions in her seat.

Finally, Opal said, “Hazel, I have to find a bathroom!”

Mother’s face blanched. “Oh no. You didn’t take your water pill this morning, did you?”

Aunt Opal shifted in her seat and dabbed her brow with a handkerchief. “You know I have to take that pill every morning! It’s prescribed by my doctor. I don’t have a choice.”

“Couldn’t you have waited to take it after we get there?” My mother’s rebelliousness petered out into a whisper.

Opal glared at her before grabbing her belly and sucking fast air through pinched lips. She seemed miserable.

Mother sighed and looked out the window. I noticed that her hands, placed always at “ten and two,” had a hold of the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles were white. I knew she had not wanted to go to this family reunion, but Opal had planned it and insisted we participate. She had spent the fall and winter contacting all of the relatives on their father’s side of the family.

Neither my mother nor my aunt had had much to do with Poppa’s side of the family. For one thing, there was Uncle Gerald. It was rumored that he had made a killing in the stock market early in his life and now lived in luxury. When Poppa was in the hospital, Gerald had visited a few times, but he always ended up embarrassing my mother in some way, like when he handed out five dollar bills to the nurses. She thought he, of all people, should be poor and miserable because he was morally bankrupt. She told me it didn’t matter how much money you had if you had no soul.

The one hope my mom had for the reunion was to see Aunt “Pet.” She had been Poppa’s favorite sister and had been with him in his hospital room as he died over the last year. My mother loved her.

We had been on the road for about 30 minutes when Mother pulled into a gas station with full service. She drove over the little tube that made a bell ring and the attendant came out to put gas in the car. He looked pretty tousled, like he hadn’t slept much the night before. There were dark circles under his eyes and he moved in slow motion to wash and wipe the windshield. When he squatted to the concrete to check the air pressure, I wasn’t sure he would be able to get back up again.

“Well, we’re out of Grayson County,” Mother said.

Opal swung her legs out of the car, but she couldn’t seem to lift herself off the seat. She made several heaving attempts, but all it did was make her sweaty.

“Karen, go help your aunt get out of the car!” said my Mother.

It was easier said than done, but after extreme effort, I managed to pull her to a standing position. She rocked back and forth a bit to catch her breath.

It was hard for my ten-year-old brain to wrap itself around my Aunt Opal’s figure. She was thin on top and wide, wide, wide at the hips. I tried not to stare when she came out of her bedroom at our house, but I just couldn’t understand it. When she walked down the hall, her whole body sort of swung to the left and then to the right. I never dared try to pass her in a hallway for fear of getting stuck to the wall on one side.

I marveled at her proportions–going from narrow up top to extra-wide in the middle, and tapering at the ankles and feet, until it looked like she might tip over should a strong wind blow by. I often wondered if she knew this about herself. I didn’t think she ever looked in a full-length mirror, and I couldn’t blame her. Perhaps this is why she always seemed very happy with her looks and confident of herself. She certainly didn’t have the personality of someone who had been beaten down by society for being fat.

In fact, she walked around unashamed in her bra and panties when she went to wash her face in the bathroom and get ready for the day. I just wondered if she special ordered her panties from somewhere. It looked like yards and yards of nylon had gone into making just one pair.

There were other things, too, that made me curious about my aunt. She never wore anything but Old Maine Trotter shoes. She was a religious woman–never cut her hair because she said the Bible had forbidden it. Her hair was long and, every morning, she braided it and wrapped it around her head a few times and held it in place with bobby pins. She could never recall the scriptures that forbid a woman cutting her hair, but she believed it and so I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe there was a scripture about Old Maine Trotter shoes too.

My aunt wasn’t completely without vanity. In an impulsive moment, she had bought a wig that she thought might make her look more sophisticated and modern. Had she bought one that fit with her coloring and age, it might have made a little more sense. But it was platinum blonde and it made her look sallow and old. Mother made me promise not to say anything. She told me that if Opal wanted to wear the wig, we should just accept it, and not mention it.

Accept it we did, as we did with everything about Aunt Opal. She was a force to be reckoned with. And so, when it came time for her to use the restroom at the hole in the wall gas station, my mother and I exchanged glances knowing it was likely not going to end well.

“We ain’t got no ladies restroom,” said the attendant to my aunt when she asked for the key to the ladies room. “But you’re welcome to use the bathroom that everybody uses.”

My aunt frowned. She squared her shoulders and with a grim look, started toward the restroom.

It was worse than any of us could have expected. The toilet leaned precariously to the left and the sink had a trickle of orange rusty water drip, drip, dripping out of the faucet.   She looked around for paper covers for the toilet, but of course, there were none.

Finally, she turned and marched back to the car. “I can’t use the rest room here,” she said. “It’s awful. I feel so dirty just being in here. You’ll just have to stop somewhere else.”

So, we piled back in the car and continued down the road. Only a few minutes had passed–just long enough to watch my aunt start squirming again–when my mother said, “You know, there’s not a lot of traffic. You could just go in that field.”

Even from the back seat, I saw Opal roll her eyes like it was a ridiculous suggestion.

“Oh, you know that the minute I got started, there would be lots of traffic,” she said. But in less than a second a pang of pressure must have hit her because she blurted out, “Okay. Stop here, stop here. I’ll do it.”

I helped her out of the car again and watched her disappear into the trees. I wondered if she knew how bright her red dress stood out. Thankfully, no cars came by.

Five minutes passed before Mother started looking irritated.

“What on earth is she doing over there?”

I remained silent. I knew better than to try to guess what my aunt was doing.

Another few minutes passed, but still no Opal.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” said Mother. “I should probably go check on her.”

“Do I have to stay here?” I asked, a little nervous.

“Our things are in the car. It will just be a minute.”

It was another 15 minutes before they returned to the car. They didn’t look right, especially Opal. Her face was dirty and her glasses sat at an odd angle on her nose. Her wig had slid to one side of her head.

She got back in the car without a word and Mother told me that Opal had taken a tumble in the woods when she stepped on a large grape vine.

Opal sniffed from the front seat. She was crying.

Mother started the car and quietly moved back on the road.

Through her sniffs, my aunt finally spoke. “Hazel, would you let me out here in this next town? I can’t go to a family reunion looking like this, but you all keep going. There’s no reason for you and Karee not to go.”

If this had been a cartoon, I would have seen smoke coming out of my mother’s ears.

“No, Opal,” she said. “You planned this family reunion and you are going to enjoy seeing Poppa’s relatives today.”

That’s when Opal started sniffling in earnest. Between sobs, she said that she had always wanted Poppa’s side of the family to like her, but they didn’t. In fact, on bad days, she wondered if they made fun of her. I felt sorry for my aunt, but kept my head down focused on the Etch-a-Sketch I had brought along to pass the time.

“You know how they are,” said my aunt. “If they saw me like this, it would just make them think that they were right about me!”

Mother pulled the car over on the shoulder of the road and stopped. She knew her sister was right. It was also true that Opal did not look her best. No matter how much trouble she was and how much of a nuisance she could be, neither of us wanted to see her humiliated. Mother told Opal that they would stop for an early lunch in the next town and then turn around and go back home.

Opal would have to call the family from a pay phone to tell them that we couldn’t make it after all.

___________________________________

Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

Memories of Pete Everheart

By Karen Brode

“He was already a senior in high school when I first met him,” Mother said. She and I sat on the front steps of our house looking out into the warm, Texas night. I could tell by her voice and the faraway look she got that she still thought about him.

“I was 14 years old and nothing to write home about,” she continued. “Opal was married by then, so she wasn’t around to tell me how ugly I was, but I still knew. It was too much to hope that someone like Pete Everheart would fall for me.”

“Momma, don’t say that!” I said, grabbing her hand in mine. “You are so pretty! Whenever I look at that picture of you and Daddy on your dresser, I always think you could’ve been a movie star!”

Mother continued without comment.

“His family was well-off, but we weren’t. Going to a party at his house was almost like stepping into a fairy tale. They had Japanese lanterns all over the yards, and there was a punch bowl and all kinds of cookies. The girls were all dressed in formals and the boys wore suits. It was hard to think of these people being the kids I went to school with everyday.”

I leaned my head against her knee just picturing it. It sounded so glamorous.

“I didn’t go the first time Pete asked me to a party at his house. I thought I was too plain. I kept wondering what someone like him would see in me.”

“Oh, Mother!” I sat back up and squeezed her hand.

She smiled an apologetic smile and said, “I was afraid it was a joke. Every girl in that school had her eye on him. He had golden blonde hair and was tall and very smart. He played on the football team. He was always smiling with those perfect square, white teeth. I didn’t want him to look too closely at me.”

Heartache and longing pulled her eyes from me and into the distant past. I knew that in her mind she was seeing Pete Everheart again, as if he was standing right in front of her.

“When he finally persuaded me to go to his house for a party, old Mrs. Everheart stared out at everyone from the kitchen. She had to wonder which girl Pete would pick to bring home to her. She was so intimidating. She was heavyset at a time when not too many women were. She wore horn-rimmed glasses on a chain around her neck. Her dresses were sewed by a professional seamstress, and you could just tell that she didn’t feel as if she had to be nice to anyone. She was the main detraction to Pete, at least in my mind.”

“Besides that, though, there were all the other girls who wanted his attention. You know that I was the only freshman girl at his parties. That was enough to make me feel threatened in every way. Some of the senior girls wondered why he would even want me there. The measuring way they stared at me made me so uncomfortable. If I hadn’t really cared for him, I would not have gone to those parties.”

“So, I spent a good deal of time standing alone, watching the senior girls flirt with Pete. I always knew that there would be someone ahead of me, someone prettier, someone smarter, so I never had the nerve to approach him. But, he always sought me out and asked if I was having a good time. Sometimes, he would catch my eye from across the room. He made me feel as if I was the only girl there. Somehow, without ever saying anything out loud, I knew how much he cared for me. I don’t think I was just imagining and wishing this.”

“Did you and Daddy have that sort of connection?” I asked, thoroughly absorbed in what sounded like a storybook tale. My dad wasn’t Pete Everheart, so I had to know how Daddy had won Momma’s hand.

“Daddy just loved me outright,” Mother said. “I never had to wonder or guess how he felt about me.”

The mention of my father seemed to wake her up to present day. She shook her head and it was as if her old beau disappeared. But I wasn’t done yet. I still wanted to know what had happened that she hadn’t married him.

“Where does he live now?” I asked. “Does he have any children?”

Mother looked at me for just a moment and then back into the darkness. A tear rolled down her cheek and I wished I hadn’t asked.

“It was Labor Day weekend of his senior year,” she said. “He caught up with me that Friday after school and asked if I would join him and some friends for a picnic at the quarry the next day.”

“Did you go?” I asked, sitting on the edge of my seat.

She nodded. “There were about eight people that day at the quarry. My mother had fretted and worried that I was too young to go on a picnic, even if there were a bunch of people there. She reminded me that sometimes boys got ideas on picnics and wanted girls to go for a walk with them. “

“Your mother didn’t want you to go for a walk with a boy?”

Mother looked at me with a tired smile and said, “Granny just wanted to avoid the appearance of evil. Our family had a reputation for being fine Southern folks, except for my brothers. They got to do whatever they wanted. Granny never did get her sons back into the fold at church after they went wild and left home. She stayed mad at Poppa the rest of their lives that he had let his boys run wild.”

I stared at Momma and tried to envision what “running wild” was. I decided that my brother, John, was probably like Mother’s brothers. John didn’t answer to anyone. Even his sergeant in the Army couldn’t make John good.

“The sun was shining so bright that day,” continued Momma. I’ll always remember that. And we were, all of us, in the mornings of our lives. It was one of those days that seemed perfect. The way I felt that day – if it could be bottled and sold – stores would sell out immediately. I was happy in every cell of my body. We spread our tablecloth on the ground, and each of the girls unpacked a picnic basket she had brought. The boys looked over the different foods and chose a girl to sit with.”

I saw another tear escape down Mother’s cheek. She took in a breath and I knew without being told that Pete Everheart had chosen to sit with her. It was so romantic! I could picture his smile and his dancing eyes as he let Mother feed him. I was certain that her hands were shaking and that her eyes were darting about to the other girls, hoping that Pete wouldn’t decide to go sit with one of them.

“After we ate,” Mother said, “Each girl put away the food and covered their picnic baskets so the flies wouldn’t come. Two of the girls pulled their dresses off over their heads. I looked away for fear of what they might have on underneath. They were wearing swimsuits that by today’s standards were quite conservative, but at the time, they were scandalous. I didn’t have a swimsuit. My mother probably didn’t even know they made swimsuits. I was glad I didn’t have to take my dress off in front of everyone. Even if I’d had something presentable on underneath, just the thought of taking my dress off was unthinkable.”

My poor mother, I thought.

“A black haired girl in a swimsuit came to take Pete’s hand. She wanted to race with him to the edge of the quarry. They had all been there before and knew the best places to dive and swim. Pete had the body of an athlete. He had on black swim trunks and a white undershirt. I will never forget the contrast of his pure white skin against the black swim trunks. He represented all happiness to me that day. I let my heart soar just a bit to think that such a wonderful, happy boy would even look at me.”

“Did you go swimming?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t know how to swim, and I didn’t have a swimsuit. I was happier than I had ever been just watching him have fun.”

“Did everyone else go swimming?” I asked.

“I can’t remember anyone but him. Isn’t that odd? There were other people there, but now it seems as if all their faces were blanks. Then George Stephens pitched a quarter in the air, and told Pete it was his call. Pete glanced back at me and called heads. George told him he could dive first.

“Pete backed up a ways to get a running start. Then he executed the most perfect dive I’ve ever seen. We all watched in happy anticipation of seeing his shining face burst through the surface of the water. But then time slowed, and we were in a sort of trance trying to make time run backward. All at once, George panicked and ran down the bank to get into the water where Pete had dived. Not long after, he yelled for the other boys to come help him.

“I watched in slow motion as they pulled his body out of the water. His eyes were open, but there was no longer any life in them. Several of the girls screamed and held onto each other. The boys carried him to a rock and laid him on it, but it was far too late.

“I remember George’s voice. It was confused, scared, and sad at once. He started to tell us that they had been there before and the water had been deeper, but his voice trailed off before he finished. None of it mattered anymore. There wasn’t anything else to say.”

“I kept thinking of a poem I had memorized for Mrs. Johnson’s English class. It was a Robert Frost poem:

Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

“Eventually, I looked away. I couldn’t watch any longer. People were screaming all around me, but I just shut down. I leaned against a tree and looked up at the bright cerulean sky.”

Asleep in Group Therapy

Editor’s note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


By Karen Brode

Every Tuesday afternoon we had group therapy. I dreaded it with all my heart.

At least it was better than individual therapy. There were other people there to fill in the silent places. People like Mrs. Travers who always wanted to tell her story over and over and over.

I had been in the loony bin for three months and I knew the whole story by heart. Any one of us in the group could have told it. Yet, for some reason, Dr. Henshaw let her tell it every time she wanted to. I wondered if I was the only person there who noticed this. I looked around but no one else seemed to notice we were hearing the same story every week.

Or maybe they were all just pretending. I learned early on that it was best to appear extremely stupid. To speak up with anything of intelligence might be interpreted as rebellious. It might lead to more medication, or worse, restraints.

So I sat there like the rest of them looking at the ceiling tile while Mrs. Travers dove into her story for the millionth time.

“They fired me!” she screamed. I jumped. I wasn’t expecting her to tell the story with such high volume. Sure, she always had a note of desperation in her voice, but this was a little different. I kept my eyes on the tiles above, but listened for any sign she might explode completely. 

“I gave my whole life to that company! When I started working there, my babies were little. I left both my babies in that baby prison so I could work and make our lives better!”

The first time I heard her mention baby prison, I had no idea what she meant. I learned later that she was talking about daycare.

“My babies had everything they wanted because of me! That horrible excuse for a father was only good at doing drugs and going to prison. I had to shoulder it all.”

She paused for a moment, almost panting. I dared a glance at her and saw that her eyes were wide. It was like she was reliving her life with her ex-husband. 

“He told me he was just barbecuing steaks. I couldn’t imagine why you’d barbecue inside the shed, but I never grilled anything in my life. When the shed went up in flames, he tore out of there and left the three of us to die in his fire.”

She squinted her eyes until tears came. “He was cooking meth, you know.” She shook her head. “No. Idiot. He wasn’t cooking meth. He was too stupid to cook anything. He just thought he could do it. Instead, he nearly cooked his whole family. Poor Joey and Donnie….”

I forgot the ceiling tiles and leaned forward toward Mrs. Travers. This was taking a little bit different turn from the weeks before. Normally she focused on the place she had worked for 35 years. She had been a bookkeeper at a roofing company. Everything had been great until they bought a computer and told her to keep records on it. She usually talked about how ridiculous she thought computers were and how she continued keeping books in the same way she always had, on paper. She didn’t think anybody at the company would notice or really care, as long as she got her work done. To this day she didn’t understand why she was fired.  

Nothing she said was funny, not even the fact that she had told her story so many hundreds of times before. Still, it never ceased to surprise me that she couldn’t understand why she had been fired from the roofing company. This woman had withstood so many things, but it was the firing that got her. She could never quite come to terms with it.   

All the sudden, her voice got even louder. She started rocking back and forth in her chair, wringing her hands. I looked over at Dr. Henshaw. His head was down, but I couldn’t tell if he was taking notes or sleeping. I hoped he wasn’t asleep because I didn’t think Mrs. Travers was going to make it through her story without some professional help.

“I got fired the year Donnie graduated from high school!” she continued. She stood up and paced the room. I clutched my arms to my chest, just in case she started throwing punches. “How was I supposed to buy him anything without a job? I couldn’t even make the payments on his braces!”

She walked around the room. Her eyes were wild. And was it me? Or did her hair look like it was standing on end?

“I didn’t care about my own teeth! My teeth were always in terrible shape.” She clenched her terrible teeth together and curled back her lips to show no one in particular just how horrible they were. There weren’t many left. “I was always glad when a tooth fell out because it saved me from having to pay a dentist! But they kept falling out!” She reached a finger up to her mouth and tapped on one or two. “I’m not sure how many I have left.”

Then her arms started flailing and her face went wild again. “Joey and Donnie’s father was in prison from the time they were little. They hardly remembered him. It was just me! All alone! I never had any help! And NO ONE CARED!”

I was getting seriously worried now. Her face was red and the veins at her temples were throbbing. It was then, too, that I realized Dr. Henshaw was asleep. How could he sleep during this? 

Mrs. Travers stopped talking. I looked over at her and saw she was staring at Dr. Henshaw. Her face was contorted like an angry bull. She leaned over the back of her empty chair and said, “Hey.”

She snapped her fingers and clapped her hands. “Not you, too,” she said in an eerily calm voice. “You don’t care either!”

She let out a crazy hyena scream and charged through the circle of chairs toward Dr. Henshaw. He woke up just as she slammed into him. His chair went backwards and his head hit the floor, knocking him unconscious. Mrs. Travers didn’t seem to notice that he was already out. She sat on top of him and punched him over and over.

“How dare you sleep through my story! What kind of doctor are you?” She cried and screamed at the same time. She was in a blind rage. Her whole body shook with anger. “You’re like all the rest of them! You don’t care!”

I’m not sure how long it was before the paramedics broke down the door. They pulled Mrs. Travers away and put her in a straight jacket. She fought valiantly, but there were more of them than there were of her. She kept screaming until they injected her with some sort of sedative.

The rest of us just sat there silently watching. It seemed no one wanted to be implicated in that moment of insanity. We were all curled up in different ways. Some had their feet up in their chairs with their arms around their legs. Others were crouched against the wall in a fetal position. I just sat there with my arms pulled to my chest, trying to pretend what was happening was absolutely normal. Even when the paramedics left to take Mrs. Travers away, I just sat there and looked at the bloodied, unconscious body of Dr. Henshaw. They were back soon enough with a stretcher to carry him out, but it was so strange to be left alone like that.

In the silence that followed, I wondered what we were supposed to do. I looked around the room and heard whimpers from different ones. Were we supposed to leave now? Were we supposed to wait? I never knew what I should do in that place.


Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening. 

Flashes of the Future or Crazy?

Editor’s note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


 

By Karen Brode

This was the part of the day I hated most of all. It was social time. I sat alone at a table in the corner. The top of it was covered in some sort of worn laminate that was supposed to look like wood grain. I smudged my finger into a worn spot, so bored I thought maybe I could make the spot bigger if I did it long enough. But then I stopped. Someone was watching, somebody who could make me take more pills. I didn’t need any more pills.

The worn spot on the table was just another reminder of the quality I was living in. I’d seen pictures of other places. Some of them even had real wood tables and chairs, but that would be too fancy here. This place was the bottom of the barrel cheap.

The walls were painted pale yellow. I wondered if it was that color so we’d stay calm. Or maybe so we’d chipper up somehow. It was hard to be chipper knowing I’d probably never see what the walls were made of on the outside. I was locked in and there was no way out. I’d already thought about escape on several occasions. There were too many nurses who probably knew what we were thinking before we did. They were too observant.

There weren’t any books to read. It would have helped me pass the time if there were books. I thought of my bookshelves back home. I once had whole walls lined with books I loved. I wondered what had happened to all those books, to all my things. A tear slipped out of my left eye. I wiped it away quickly so as not to appear vulnerable. That would be the last thing I’d need.

The radio crackled from a thunderstorm moving through. It grated my nerves a little, but at least it was some kind of distraction from the infernal boredom.

I scanned the room for the hundredth time, hoping I had somehow missed seeing a window before. But there were no windows so I couldn’t be certain whether there was a thunderstorm. It sounded like it.

I tuned my ear to what I thought was thunder. Between the scratchiness of the radio and all the other women making noises in the room, I couldn’t be certain. I wished I could just get a peek outside, just to be sure. A thunderstorm is exciting if nothing else. I would have felt better knowing if it was raining hard outside.

It was a mistake for me to be there, but there was no convincing the others of that. Most everyone in the room could appear normal for short periods. The first day I arrived, a blonde-haired woman came to sit by me at the table. She looked to be in her forties. She could’ve been much younger than I thought. Age didn’t really exist in this place. I probably looked much older than I was after all the medication they gave me, but I had no idea what I looked like anymore because there were no mirrors.

The blonde shook a cigarette out of her pack and asked if I wanted one. I told her I didn’t smoke. She lit up her cigarette and blew out the smoke in a slow, methodical exhale. She looked as normal as anyone I’d ever met.

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, hoping it came out friendly.

“I killed my family.” She said this as if she was talking about the weather, then she flicked the ashes of her cigarette into the ashtray sitting on the table between us.

It felt like such a regular conversation, she seemed so nonchalant and bored, that I momentarily forgot where we were. So I asked, “Why?”

For a split second she locked eyes with me. Hers were blue and they went steely in a flash. She jumped from her chair and overturned the table on top of me. I screamed and hit the ground, landing on my back. People came running, but before they got there, she was on top of me, snorting like a bull and pounding me with her fists. I held my hands over my head to keep her from slamming into my face and head.

The staff managed to wrestle her away. After that, I never saw her again. I don’t know what happened to her, but I was relieved to say the least. I learned a lesson that day: Don’t talk to anyone.

Still, when I looked around the room watching the other women, I wondered if anyone else was like me—there by mistake.

Many of them danced, pretending to be ballerinas. Some shuffled forward, never quite lifting their feet off the ground. They seemed so out of it, their heads empty. I had read about the thorazine shuffle before, but it wasn’t until I “social hour” my first week that I actually got to see it. I wondered if any of them knew where they were, who they were before the windowless walls. It didn’t seem to matter to them. If they took all the pills given to them, they were sure to forget.

I closed my hand around the pills I had saved from breakfast and lunch. I couldn’t tell what they had me taking these days. I couldn’t trust any of the doctors or nurses to tell me what they were giving me. All I knew was that these were not the same pills I had been taking before.

I looked over at the nurses’ station. It was a little box of an office with a large window that looked into our social room. The nurses were safely ensconced behind that window. The glass was thick and it had wire criss-crossing through it. It was no use to approach the window. They didn’t acknowledge anyone unless you banged long enough. They wanted to make us feel like we didn’t exist. They wanted us to believe we were invisible. But I wasn’t invisible!

I felt a little shiver go down my back when the doctor walked in. He walked through the room with his clipboard and a nurse following him. He watched each of us in turn like we were zoo animals and then scribbled notes onto his pad. He never said anything to us—just scribbled and walked away.

There were so many things I needed to tell him—for his own sake! I closed my eyes and watched the scene play out on the back of my eyelids. I didn’t know when it would happen, but I knew the car crash would happen on a stormy night in a secluded area when he was on his way home from work. I also knew that he drove to that area for the express purpose of meeting his mistress. And I knew that the accident would prove fatal for him.

If he would just listen to me, he wouldn’t have to die. But no one believed me. I was just a crazy woman in a loony bin.

When I was a child, I had not realized what I had was a gift. I’d used it for entertainment when I was trying to go to sleep, but now I’d seen too much. After what happened to those people in that terrorist attack, I knew that all the things I saw were things that eventually came true. It was only when I started talking about what I saw that I ended up in a mental institution.

Doctors didn’t believe me that I was just trying to be a good citizen. I begged them to get the President on the phone. I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been a matter of national security. All they did was take their glasses off and look at me, like I was some sort of alien species. I was beginning to think maybe they were right. And yet, if they had listened to me, they would have caught those men before they boarded the planes and used them to kill thousands of innocent people.

I guess I can’t blame them. If I had known then what I knew now, I might have saved myself a lot of trouble. I might not be locked like a hamster in a cage. I saw my future long before it happened. I had seen this place on the backs of my eyelids. At the time, I didn’t understand how it related to me. I wish I had.

Now I understood it everyday. I was marched to different parts of the hospital in single file with all the other crazy people. I knew this place by heart. I knew it was Monday and I knew that there would be Chicken al a King for lunch, along with some canned vegetables. If Gertie was working, there might be squares of cornbread. Otherwise, we just got a piece of white bread from a store-bought loaf. Martha stood by the bread and kept tabs to make sure we only took one piece each.

“People misjudge their appetites,” she had said to us on the day of orientation. She paced back and forth in her thick cafeteria shoes. They squeaked across the linoleum tile floor. Her eyes burned with anger and her hairnet slipped down on her forehead. “When I see even a little piece of bread get thrown out, it just ticks me off!”

I remember watching her and wondering how it was she was allowed to roam free when the rest of us were being locked up. I didn’t know any sane person who would go mental over a piece of bread. Still, her tactic worked. None of us took more than one piece each. And we all made sure to eat the one we took. Nobody wanted to make Martha mad.

I kept my head down and tried not to make eye contact with Martha. It seemed wiser that way. In fact, I kept my head down a lot now and tried not to talk at all. It seemed talking got me in trouble. Telling people what I had seen on the back of my eyelids made people nervous. And I usually ended up having to take more pills.

I stared down at the pills in my hand and closed my eyes, feeling them lie there against my skin. I pushed back the scenes crawling up in front of me. It was no use to pay attention to them. It didn’t matter that I had seen things before that ended up on the news months later. No one would listen.

The first time it happened, I ran screaming around the room pointing to the television, telling anyone within earshot that that is what I had been talking about. That plane crash. I had tried to warn them before it had happened. I had even written down the numbers that were on the plane and given them to my doctor. But like everyone else, he had ignored my warnings and, as payment, I got two more pills added to my prescriptions.

That’s when I stopped talking. That’s when I gave up. None of them wanted to know the truth behind what I said. And, really, why would they want to know? Even I thought it was too much. I didn’t want to know about the wars that would happen or the murders. I didn’t want to see the crashes and the fires.

I squeezed my eyes tight until all I saw were flashes of abstract lights. Then I threw the handful of pills in my mouth and swallowed them all without water. Maybe it was better not to know.

____________________________________

Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

A Visit with Aunt Mavis

By Karen Brode

“Here ya go, Betty.” Aunt Mavis had just vacuumed the shag carpet in the living room and handed me what looked like a small rake. “Take this and make all the little shaggy pieces go in the same direction. Do you think you can do that?”

It didn’t matter that I was 10. My mother’s oldest sister always spoke to me like I was a toddler.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said pretending enthusiasm. Aunt Mavis had a rule in her house that we couldn’t watch television during the day. I thought if I helped out, though, she might bend the rules a little.

“Do you think after I’m done here I could watch The Mickey Mouse Club? Please?” I asked with as much politeness as I could.

“Oh, honey, no,” said Aunt Mavis. “We can’t turn the television on during the day.” And with no further explanation, she turned and walked back into the kitchen.

I sighed and set about the work of raking the threads of carpet until they looked like brushed hair. Since arriving at Aunt Mavis’s house in Beaumont, I had been bored to the extreme. I knew going into it she was strict about pretty much everything, but the rule about not watching TV during the day just about killed me. At home, I never missed an episode of Mickey Mouse, and for the last couple of days, I hadn’t even gotten to sing along with the opening song.

The thought crossed my mind that this no-television-during-the-day might be a religious rule I had missed out on. Aunt Mavis was the most religious person I knew. I wondered with fear if I had somehow sinned by watching it everyday. And then I worried that I might have to give up TV in order to go to heaven.

“It was raining, dear when I met you,” sang my aunt from the kitchen. “You smiled, the sun shone through.”

For all her rules and restrictions, she had a beautiful voice. But she stopped mid-verse and came barreling back into the living room.

“Oh, Betty,” she said. “I just remembered I’ve invited Althea Morgan to dinner, along with our other guests from church.”

I stopped raking and stared at her. It was probably the first time she had spoken to me like I was halfway grown up.

“I don’t know if I’m going to have enough food,” she continued. She counted on her fingers. “Let’s see. There’s your mother and you. That’s two. Plus Brother and Sister DeMent. They’ve never been here before.” She held up four fingers. “Then Sister Morgan and myself. That’s six!” Without another look at me, she turned back to the kitchen and said, “I know I’m not going to have enough food.”

I listened for a moment while Aunt Mavis’s thick-soled shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor. She mumbled to herself about salt for the ice cream maker and more green beans. She probably didn’t realize I was listening because I heard her say, “That Althea can eat as much as two people.”

I bit my tongue to keep from laughing. Aunt Mavis was no skinny minnie herself. In fact, as I meandered through the dining room to join her in the kitchen, I noticed the treadmill that sat in the corner. I couldn’t imagine that she had ever used it. She certainly didn’t look it, at least not from the waist down.

“Aunt Mavis,” I said. “Could I go to the park?” I looked out the kitchen window to the kids playing and chasing each other just beyond. If I couldn’t watch TV, maybe I could at least go have some fun with kids my age.

She stopped her muttering and looked at me with what came across as a warning. “No, you may not, young lady. Your mother is asleep and I don’t want to have to explain to her that you went to the park and got yourself kidnapped. You have no idea what kind of people hang out there, just waiting for little girls like you to go there by themselves.”

Outside the window, a couple of little girls giggled on a swing set. They seemed to be having a race to see who could go the highest. They squealed every time they flew a little higher. I didn’t see any of the bad people Aunt Mavis warned me about. It took everything in me not to make a run for it.

“When was the last time you brushed your hair?” she asked.

Just then, Mother wandered into the kitchen yawning. “I slept too hard” she said. “That bus trip yesterday just wore me out!”

“If you and Betty would just get in your car and come here rather than taking the bus, it would be a lot easier on you,” Aunt Mavis scolded.

Mother had many reasons for not driving on long trips. Usually it had something to do with drunk drivers running us off the road, but she didn’t say anything in response to my aunt. She knew better than to argue with her older sister.

“We’re going to have to make another run to the grocery store,” said Aunt Mavis. “I forgot that I invited Althea Morgan. She eats as much as two. Besides I forgot the rock salt for the ice cream maker.”

“Betty, go get your shoes on,” Mother said.

Before I could move, Aunt Mavis stopped me with a touch on my shoulder.

“I’ve got a cake in the oven,” she said. “I need Betty to stay here and watch it.”

“But Mavis,” said Mother. “Leave her here alone? After what happened to you?”

The tone in my mother’s voice sent shivers down my spine, but that was nothing compared to what it did to my aunt. She swayed and leaned heavily on my shoulder. The blood ran out of her face and her eyes glistened.

“I’m sorry,” my mother said. “I shouldn’t have….”

Aunt Mavis moved to a chair and plopped into it with a thud.

I looked at my mom and whispered, “What happened.” She shook her head and put a finger to her lips.

“She’ll hear about it one day, Mildred,” said my aunt, her voice sounding milky and sad. “She might as well hear about it now.”

“She’s too young,” said my mother, but Aunt Mavis held up her hand and my mother bit her lip. When it came to my aunt, her rule was law.

“Betty, you need to know,” said Aunt Mavis. “Come sit.” She pointed to a chair next to her. When I sat down, she grabbed my hand and closed her eyes.

“There are bad people out there,” she said. “One of those bad people crawled through a window one night and robbed me.”

My hand tightened in hers. I looked around at the windows that I could see in her house and wondered which one he came through.

“But that’s not all, honey,” she continued. “I came home before he got out of the house.” She exhaled a rattled breath. “And he…he forced me onto the floor in the dining room and…raped me.”

The word rang in my ears. I had heard it before, but I didn’t know yet what it meant. Even without the meaning, I knew it was more horrifying than anything I could imagine. I felt sweat drip down my back and I shuddered.

Aunt Mavis squeezed my hand while my mother picked up a napkin and blew her nose.

I shut my eyes and tried to block it all out, to forget about it. But it was no use. Now everything in the house was tainted with this horror.

“Where was….” I could hardly breathe, much less speak. “Where was Uncle Lloyd?” I finally squeaked.

“Oh, honey,” Aunt Mavis sobbed. “He and your cousin Bruce were already gone.” She pulled a napkin from the table and wept into it.

“I’m sorry,” she said pulling herself upright. “I just never get past losing my son.”

Her son? I thought. What about that man and being…. I couldn’t even think the word.

“If only Lloyd would’ve handed me the phone that night,” Aunt Mavis continued. “I would have gotten to talk to Bruce one more time, but by the time I got there.”

No family ever admits that one child is more loved than the others, but everyone can see in all families that there’s the favorite one and there’s the not so favorite one. No parent would ever admit to loving one child over another, but it is a fact. And in Aunt Mavis’s family everyone knew that she worshipped Bruce while she only tolerated her other children. Even I knew that and I had never met him.

“What happened to him?” I asked. I had heard the story before and it didn’t scare me as much as the other one, so I asked, hoping it might take away some of my fear.

“He was a traveling salesman,” Aunt Mavis said with a sniff. “He died taking a corner too fast. His car slid off the road and he hit a utility pole.” She trembled while she dabbed at her eyes. “I never got to say goodbye.”

Mother took Aunt Mavis’s hand and gave me a look that told me to keep quiet.

“Come, now, Mavis. You’ve got guests coming. Let’s get to the store before it’s too late.”

“But somebody’s got to stay with the cake,” Aunt Mavis said, her voice still shaky.

“I’ll do that,” Mother said. “You take Betty with you. She’ll be good company and won’t ask you any questions about bad things. Will you, Betty?”

“No, Mother,” I said, relieved to hear I wouldn’t have to stay in the house by myself.

Aunt Mavis stood and lumbered to the oven with the napkin still crumpled in her hand. When she got there, she pulled open the door and jiggled the pans inside. Not satisfied with how done they were, she closed the door and turned back to face Mother and me. Her face was stony, like she was trying to lock all those memories back in the shadows of her mind.

Her voice was far away when she said. “I learned long ago that life isn’t fair and there’s nothing I can do about it.” She looked at Mother and then at me. Her eyes didn’t really focus, though. I felt like she was talking to ghosts instead of real people. “I can’t let these things bother me. I’ve got to pick up and move on.”

“Betty, go get your shoes on,” she said. I jumped to hear her say my name. She just seemed so distant. I halfway didn’t expect her to know I was standing in front of her, let alone to know I needed to put my shoes on. “Maybe change your dress while you’re at it,” she continued. “You look like you’ve been living in that one.”

Somehow I took comfort in hearing my aunt tell me what to do. I was more used to that than to the woman who stood in front of me, vulnerable and sad.

It didn’t occur to me until after we got on the road that Mother was left behind in the house by herself. My worry for her increased until Aunt Mavis had checked out with all her groceries and we started back.

But my worries began again as my aunt wove her way through streets I didn’t recognize. I had taken the route to and from the grocery store enough to be familiar with certain landmarks. As we went along, though, residential streets gave way to strip malls, fast food joints, and seedy motels.

My heart hammered. I knew we were getting lost. We were getting further and further from Mother and that tainted house. I didn’t dare say a word, though. I was too young to tell my aunt what to do.

Finally, she looked at the local businesses we were passing and must have realized we weren’t where we were supposed to be.

“Oh, now, Betty,” she said looking over at me and smiling. “We’ll make our way back in time. Don’t you worry.”

But I was worried. I knew that look. As much as she tried to hide it, she was confused. I was afraid we’d never get home and that some horrible man was in Aunt Mavis’s house hurting Mother. Still, I had been brought up respect my elders, so I nodded and attempted a smile.

It wasn’t long before Aunt Mavis pulled the car over to the side of the road. She looked out of her window toward a river we had followed for several miles. The sun was starting to set in the distance. The sky was orange and purple. After a few minutes in complete silence, she turned and looked at me as if seeing me for the first time.

“Do you know where my house is?” she asked.

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Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

No Pit of Ashes for Me

By Karen Brode

The nursing home door was just across the parking lot from where I stood. There were no hills to go up or steps to climb. Even so, I felt as if I trudged through waist deep molasses to get there.

Mother had been in the nursing home seven years. Each year that passed, I wondered how much more I could take. I wanted her to die and be out of this misery. But then I felt terrible for having wished my own mother dead. Seeing her like she was, surely death was better?

I’ll admit there were times when I thought she might outlive me, when it seemed death was a disappointing friend—never there to relieve the suffering of my poor mother, never there to take me from the dread of seeing her suffer like that. It always hovered, always lingered somewhere in the shadows, but it never came. Maybe it was a blessing that at least one of us didn’t know what she had lost.

There were times when I arrived to find Mother in the dining room and she knew who I was. Little glimmers of the past, of the woman who had raised me, given me everything. Other times, she looked at me as if she had never seen me before. Every single time it hurt just like the first time it had happened.

Then there were the times when she saw me walking up to her and she would start crying.

“Where is Albert?” she’d ask, clutching and unclutching the arms of her chair with despair. “Why doesn’t he come visit me?”

The questions of my long-dead father always broke my heart almost as much as her not remembering who I was. I got to the point where I didn’t even try to tell her the truth that he had died when I was seven. It seemed cruel to tell her the truth. I would cry later, but not in front of her. In these times, I tended to tell her that he was out in west Texas, but he would be home at the end of the week and he would see her first thing. This is all she needed to hear.  She settled down after she knew where he was.

Other times, she asked me about her mom and dad. Somehow, even when she didn’t know who I was, she knew I represented her family.

“How are Momma and Daddy?” she’d ask.  “Are they okay?”

I tried to allay her worries and fears with little lies.

“They’re doing just fine,” I’d say, knowing they had long since passed on. “Why, just yesterday I ran into Granny at the grocery store and she was buying ingredients to buy a cake.”

This almost always made my mother’s face light up, as if she could see it clearly.

“They were planning to play dominoes that evening with some neighbors,” I’d continue to encourage her happiness.

I know you’re not supposed to lie, but it gave my mother peace of mind when that’s the one thing she hardly ever had. I discovered that my vivid imagination was an asset after all.

It surprised me that she never asked about my brother, John. I would like to have told her the truth about him if she ever mentioned him. He fled to Las Vegas to escape the nightmare she and I lived in. He left me to handle it all alone. I couldn’t tell if I was more angry or hurt that he had found a way not to be involved. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to be left holding the bag (again), but I was surprised. I think I expected him to rise to the occasion. What a foolish expectation.

The one thing I felt good about was that we could put her in the nice nursing home, the one with cheerful wallpaper and high end decorating. I took comfort in the fact that we put her in the best place possible. There wasn’t much else we could do for her. That was the most frustrating part.

I attended Christmas parties every year with my mother at the nursing home. Personally, I hoped to forget about the holiday. Seeing how  she deteriorated, I never felt as if there was anything to celebrate. The Christmas Carols sounded like funeral dirges. So many people sat in their wheelchairs asleep even as we clapped and sang around them. Mother was lost wherever the mind goes when it is deep with Alzheimer’s. She didn’t seem to realize it was Christmas.

Still, the nursing home tried to give all the folks something to enjoy. One year, someone dressed as Santa and went around the room ho-ho-hoing. When he stopped at our table with some goodies, he asked Mother what she wanted for Christmas. She just stared out somewhere in the distant past.

I glared at him and had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, “What do you think she wants, Santa? A little piece of her mind back, maybe?”

It wasn’t his fault, of course, that we were in this place. It’s just that every Christmas since she had gone to the nursing home had been a reminder of what she had lost—what I had lost—and it got to be too much.

The first Christmas she was in there, it seemed that every store I entered immediately began playing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on their intercom system. I often had to leave my half-filled grocery cart in the aisle and walk out of the store crying.

After one particular Christmas party, I started to wheel Mother back toward her room, but felt a gentle grasp of someone’s hand on my arm. It was Harriett Mercer, a woman I had known in passing at church before her health had failed and she had to go to the nursing home. I didn’t know her well, but I could see her mind was still sharp, even if she was wheelchair bound. It didn’t take long for me to realize that she knew the score. She knew she was in a nursing home. She knew she would never get out. She knew she would never go home again. Mother also would never go home again, but at least she didn’t know it.

When the nurse came by to push her down another hall, I waved goodbye and vowed to visit her next time.

True to my word, during my next visit I stood by her bed and held her hand while she told me about the life she had lived. Her husband, Floyd, had taught woodshop classes at the high school most their married life. He was killed in a car accident on a Sunday afternoon on the way home from a football game. She no longer cried as she spoke of that horrible day, but I could see the toll it had taken in the heaviness of her voice.

“He and his buddies had gone to see the Cowboys play,” she said, staring out into the difficult past. “Floyd drove. The others walked away with scratches. Floyd….” Her words drifted off with the pain that, even years later, came to the surface. “At least it had been a good day,” she said with more courage than I could imagine. “His friends, Merle and Bill, told me they’d had the time of their lives.”

I remembered then the accident that had killed her husband. He had been impaled by the steering column. I shuddered thinking about it and didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t want to think about it more than I had to.

Their only child, Floyd, Jr. had died of cancer when he was 45. No amount of time passing could keep the tears from leaking from her eyes as she told her son’s story of chemo and radiation and prayers that didn’t work.

“They gave him a 21 gun salute at the funeral,” she said. “But I hated it. My nerves were already gone. Hearing the guns go off finished me.”

I squeezed her hand a little harder as I listened. She stared at the ceiling for a while. I had the impression she was thinking back to more normal times, days when her family was intact.   “I never imagined things would end up the way they did,” she finally said. “I had a regular life once. And then I lost everything.”

I gasped at her words. Like Harriett, I had a husband and a son. And, although I have not known the pain of losing my husband, I came way too close to losing my son during his senior year of high school. He survived, but he lost his dream of being on the varsity track team and he nearly missed half of his school year. When he finally went back to school, it was with a walker and neck brace.

All this while my mother withered away under the influence of Alzheimer’s. The weight of it broke me down. I cringed when the phone rang. Was it the nursing home? Was my son in yet another wreck? Or maybe it was my husband who had met with disaster. I no longer expected things to go well.  Just getting through a day at work or a day at home seemed all I could do. I lost any hope of my life ever being normal again.

I looked at Harriett and felt a kinship with her. It seemed cruel that she still had her mind to remember all of that. It seemed oddly a blessing that my mother couldn’t remember the hard times she had experienced. Maybe she was better off not knowing where she was or what had happened to her.

Harriett’s eyes were magnified behind the thick glasses she wore. I asked her if I could get her something to read.

She shook her head. “I can’t see to read,” she said. Her voice broke over the words as if she mourned yet another loss. “And even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.”

She made a heavy wave with her curled up hand in the direction of the woman who shared her room. “She keeps that infernal television on night and day. Half the time I can’t even sleep.” She sighed and let her head drop back onto her pillow and closed her eyes. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in hell.”

I wanted to do something for Harriett. I tried to think of something, some measure of peace I could leave with her, but there wasn’t any. I looked to her bedside table, thinking I might read her a chapter from the Bible, anything to comfort her.

She saw me looking and guessed my thoughts. “I threw away my Bible years ago. I don’t have any use for a God who takes everyone I loved and everything I had and leaves me to languish in this place of complete misery.”

At first, I thought maybe I should defend God to her, remind her that He is good and has our lives in His hands, even when it feels that He doesn’t. But, to be honest, I could see her point. I sort of felt like she did and I wasn’t really happy with God either. I was becoming increasingly clear just how much she and I had in common and I was afraid of ending up just like her. It was a sobering thought.

Even so, my upbringing always brought me back to the Bible, searching for understanding and comfort. I thought of Job, the ultimate sufferer. I tried to remind myself what he said to his wife when he lost everything.

“Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (I didn’t dare bring this up to Harriett.)

In the midst of his fiery pain Job was able to remember the many wonderful things from God before asking, “Should I expect to never have anything bad happen to me?”

I think Job was in better shape than I was. He seemed to take a lot of comfort in that pit he sat in with ashes on his head. I had no such pit, no ashes to give me peace. I had to keep going and try to make the most of what was left of my life. Somehow I envied him getting to give up and grieve. I didn’t have time to grieve!

Almost overnight, I felt as if everything in my life as I had known it was over. And it was. I was broken and I didn’t know how to put myself back together. And yet, standing there, holding Harriett’s hand, I realized something else. I could walk out of the nursing home anytime. I could go to my home and cook supper and take the trash out and mop the floor. These were activities that she would never do again.

_________________________________

Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

Meals On Wheels

By Karen Brode

Gary and I were regulars at the Senior Center each Tuesday. We were there to retrieve thermal containers of hot food and cartons of cold milk for the people waiting on the east side of town. These were people down on their luck, out of luck, or people who had never had any luck to begin with. We’d load up the backseat of our car with the container of meals and head off with our list of recipients.

It was my job to get the meals coordinated before we hit our next destination. I sat in the backseat and called out to Gary the name and address of each person. Then I’d pull a meal from one container, a carton of milk from another, and finally, dessert. I’d have everything ready by the time we arrived to the next place.

Many of the Meals On Wheels recipients were old and lived in the Projects, a housing community where rent was subsidized and adjusted to the income of the person living there. I felt sorry for most of them, and I couldn’t help but think that this could happen to anyone. There were many roads to The Projects. No one was immune from ending up there.

One particular woman was a frail old lady who was so thin she seemed to only eat that one meal a week. She asked Gary if she could have two of the small cartons of milk instead of the standard one carton per person. Gary came back to the car to see if we could give her an extra carton, but all we had was the one. By the time he got back into the car, we both agreed it would be best if we stopped by a convenience store and bought a gallon of milk for the lady. Then, at least for a little while, she’d have all the milk she wanted.

You know that feeling you get when you do something nice for somebody? It kind of lifts your heart a little, makes you feel like the world isn’t so bad after all? That feeling for us only lasted long enough for us to step off that old lady’s porch.

The woman a few doors down was waiting for us when we got to her apartment. She was next on our list and, since we had just dropped off the extra milk to her neighbor, we decided we’d stop by her house together.

“You’ve done killed that woman, you know,” she said. She was a stocky black woman bent from years of walking the earth. She leaned heavily on her walker.

Only moments before, Gary and I had been smiling, happy to have done something nice for someone, but this stopped us in our tracks.

“That woman over there, she lactose intolerant,” the woman said, pointing an arthritic hand toward the porch several doors behind us. We just stared at her, taking in what she just said, and not really sure how to respond. “She can’t have milk! I done put a sign up on her door, but she take it down!”

I looked back at the closed door and imagined the little old lady laughing maniacally as she gulped down the whole gallon we had given her. A little shiver went down my spine to think we might have done something horribly wrong.

“What happens when she drinks milk?” I asked.

“Oh Lordy, honey, you don’t wanna know that! If she drink all that milk by sundown, she be dead!”

I looked at Gary, but he kept his eyes on the hot meal in his hands. The color had drained from his face, so I knew he was feeling as bad as I was.

“I’m gonna make another sign,” the woman continued, “but I have to look up how to spell it. I should just say ‘Don’t give her any milk!’ That would be simpler and folks could understand it better. People don’t know what lactose intolerant means. They probably think it’s some sort of attack dog that might come out to bite them.”

Finally, Gary looked up and offered to help the woman into the house with her meal. When he came back out, I noticed his forehead was sweating a little.

“What should we do?” I asked.

“We can’t just go take the milk from that woman,” he said.

“She’ll be okay. Right?”

Gary cleared his throat. “Sure.”

It only occurred to me later how fast we had walked back to the car and how quickly Gary had thrown the car in gear. We rode to the next house in silence. I think we were both worried that we had just killed an old lady with a gallon of milk. Before long, the police would come looking for us. I wondered out loud if they would believe us when we told them we were only trying to help.

When we were several blocks away from the scene of the milk crime, I finally remembered we were supposed to be handing out meals. I glanced down the list of the people next on our list and my eye stopped when it came to a name that rang from my distant past: Arthur Cordell.

I looked out the window at the barren yards scorched by too many summers and not enough water. I tried to imagine what Arthur must look like after all these years. He had to have been in his mid-sixties. Had prison changed him at all?

My mind was flooded with memories of my mother begging my brother John not to go places with Arthur.

“Being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person could end up badly for you,” she’d say. But that was my brother. If it hadn’t been Arthur, it would have been somebody else just like him.

There were many nights my mother sat on the front steps of our house waiting for John to get home. She stared off into the night, her jaw clenched tight, her hands opening and closing in nervous fists.

When I wandered out beside her, I could hear her talking to herself.

“Please not jail. He can’t handle that. Oh, but what if it’s an accident? What would I do?”

She worried so much for my brother. He always promised he’d be home by midnight and she always sat out on the front porch waiting for him past midnight into the wee hours of the morning.

When he finally did come home, it was usually around three in the morning. She could hear him coming from blocks away. He was always riding in the passenger seat of Arthur’s beat-up Chevy that rumbled with loud music and a busted muffler.

Before they got too close, she snuck inside the door and watched him stagger out of Arthur’s car. He was always drunk when he got home and it made her sick to watch him stumble across the front yard and then lean against a tree to throw up. Before he got in the house, she went to her room and fell across the bed. She heard him tiptoe past her door and she wanted to scream at him, to ask where he had been all this time, but she didn’t. She decided it was better if she didn’t know.

She confessed to me later how she had felt nothing but revulsion watching him then. He had robbed her of her peace of mind, her sleep, and she knew he would do it all again.

But as much as she worried about him, she never had to face what Arthur Cordell’s family did.

“They don’t deserve any of it,” mother would say. “They’re church people, godly people.” But Arthur hadn’t gone to church since he was in grade school. And like John, Arthur didn’t make it much past seventh grade in his school career either.

Arthur’s father always looked as if he couldn’t stand one more thing to happen to their family, but because of Arthur, it always did. With each blow, Mr. Cordell grew thinner and paler, as if his life force was being drained from him with each new arrest or accusation.

Mrs. Cordell got to where she rarely went out of the house. She only went to church sporadically as her son got older and became more trouble. When Arthur went to prison, she never went back to church. It seemed she couldn’t face the sympathies and the pretend concern from the other church members. Even I knew at my young age that most of the sympathies people offered were really just curiosity and attempts to find out more about what Arthur had done. I knew this because I was just as curious as everybody else.

The list of his crimes was endless. He had burned a boat that belonged to a man who made him mad. He had raped several girls and the girls refused to go to the police to report the rapes out of fear. One girl had Arthur’s child and she refused to see the baby before it was placed for adoption. Mrs. Cordell told my mother she didn’t want to see Arthur’s baby either. Not under those circumstances. She was already in her forties when it happened and she knew she couldn’t raise another child like Arthur.

My mother had been one of the few who would go check on Mrs. Cordell. They seemed to bond over horror stories of their sons. I remember being taken to Mrs. Cordell’s house. I had a window seat into everything Arthur did.

There was a plaque that hung above the kitchen table, which read, “The family that prays together stays together.”

My mom held Mrs. Cordell’s hand the day she explained to us in tears that she didn’t know where he had gotten the gun.

“We don’t have guns. We’re not gun people,” she said into a damp handkerchief.

This home should not have had an Arthur in it either, but it did.

“He screamed at me, Hazel,” she said. “He told me if he hadn’t shot that policeman, he was going to be shot. And then he asked me…” she looked away and seemed to be holding her breath. “He asked me which would I have preferred?”

She said it looked like the entire police department arrived just a few minutes later. She watched them take her son away in handcuffs and shackles. She knew that as soon as they were out of her sight, Arthur would not be treated well. Then she sat down on the floor of her living room and wasn’t really sure if she would ever have the energy to get up again.

My mother invited Mrs. Cordell to join her at church on Sundays, but she shook her head.

“I can’t do it,” she said. “I can’t ask those people to pray for my son. They want to pray for the sick folks and the hard-luck people, but they won’t really pray for my son. He’s in prison. I can barely lift my own head in prayer for him. I can’t ask those people to pray for him.”

There was a time when Arthur was a good boy, she told us. He was a sweet boy who picked bouquets of daisies and wildflowers and brought them to her.

“Those folks at church don’t know that child. He’s just a bad seed to them. They’ve written him off. He’s getting what he deserved. But he wasn’t always a bad seed. He had a sweet face as a child and slept with a teddy bear.” She dabbed at her eyes. “I don’t know what happened to change that.”

Gary and I drove into my old neighborhood and these memories of life back then nearly overwhelmed me. My old grade school was now a church building. I thought of how we used to line up on the sidewalk when recess was over and walk into the brick building in an orderly fashion.

I looked fondly at the small swing set right outside the back cafeteria door. I remembered trying to swing so high to make the swing wrap around the frame of the swing set. I could picture it happening so vividly. But that was before I had taken physics. That was before I knew that I would never have had the momentum to swing completely around the top bar.

Gary stopped the car and I rushed to get the hot meal out of the thermal bag along with a carton of milk. People were mostly grateful when Gary brought them their meal. They often introduced him to their pets. Gary told me about the woman in a blue house who had a little Chihuahua. She could hold it in one hand. She was so proud of that little dog that when Gary asked if he could hold it, she was happy to let him.

I knew from their faces that the old ladies we delivered food to looked forward to my husband coming up their sidewalks and onto their porches. He was kind and he loved their animals. Sometimes he would give them a small amount of money if they seemed desperate. Gary was always good. There were no bad streaks in him. He had not worried his mother and father like John and Arthur had worried their parents.

Arthur Cordell’s house was next. Surely he wouldn’t remember me. I didn’t look too much like the seven year old I had been last time I saw him. I pulled the visor mirror down, and stared at my face. Maybe I looked a little like I used to.  But he would never expect me to show up on his front porch with his meal.

At first, I wanted to deliver the meal myself, but there was enough fear left in me about what he’d done back in his youth that made me want to steer clear of him. He wouldn’t know Gary at all. So it was Gary who took the meal to the porch and rang the bell. I watched as Arthur came out to meet him. He was thin and old looking. He looked at Gary as he took the meal from my husband’s hands, but Gary was not someone he recognized.

Arthur still looked enough like he used to look that I would’ve known him, I think. He didn’t look like a mean person. He didn’t look like somebody who could have done all that damage all those years ago. He just looked tired and old.

I watched Arthur stay out on the porch even after Gary had come back to the car. He looked up at the sky and watched the trees blowing in the fall breeze. It occurred to me then that these were sights he hadn’t seen in more than 40 years.

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Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

Campbellites!

By Eliot Gregory

When I was growing up in the sixties, breakfast generally consisted of a boiled egg and orange juice. Every morning, the same thing. It’s what my mother could manage to slap together between her job and keeping up with her kids, but what I would have given for some Frosty-O’s.

“Those things’ll rot your teeth,” Mom used to say, taking a drag on her cigarette.

At eight, I was willing to risk it. It was hard enough to get up early for church on Sunday, but it would have been worth it for Frosty-O’s.

Mom didn’t see me when I first walked in to the breakfast nook and sat down. She was on the phone consoling somebody. I didn’t have to guess too hard to figure out it was my Aunt Ruby. She was the oldest of my mom’s sisters and she was always upset about something.

Mom saw me and walked across the kitchen with the phone pressed to her ear. The yellow cord stretched from the wall near the fridge over to the table, the round curls straining against the stress. She put her hand over the receiver and said, “Eat your breakfast, Martin. We don’t want to be late for church.”

I sat at the table for a while, just staring at the egg and listening to my mom’s conversation. Now that my brother had gone off and joined the Army, I was the only one home. There’s something about being the youngest—and not only that, but a lot younger than my other sibling—that brought me into the confidence of my mother. She didn’t keep a lot of secrets from me and, in fact, often seemed to believe it was best if I knew up front what kind of family I had been born into. So, I sat listening to my mom talking and ignored my egg.

When she hung up the phone she lit a cigarette.

“Why’d she call so early?” I asked. “She was just here. We just got rid of her.” And, in my head I said, “I finally got to take off that stuffy shirt and tie.”

My Aunt Ruby and Aunt Rose had recently visited from Mississippi. We lived seven hours away, in Northwest Arkansas. Whenever they decided to visit, they always stayed two or three weeks Both Mom and I thought two or three days would have been plenty. They had only left the day before to go stay with my grandfather who lived a half an hour away.

Mom took a long drag and leaned heavily against the wall. She still had half the curlers in her hair from when the phone started ringing.

“They’re on their way back,” Mom said. “She and Grandpa Mackey had a falling out.”

“They’re coming back?” I whined. “What did they argue about that would make them come back?” Without thinking about it, I sat up straighter and fussed with the napkin on my lap. I really didn’t want them to come back.

She sat down in the chair next to mine and picked up her coffee. She looked exhausted. She didn’t want them back any more than I did. “I guess Grandpa thought she and Rose would go to church with him.”

She stood up and started to pour herself some more coffee, but then put her hand to her stomach and set the percolator down.

“Oh, how I wish they would just get along,” she said. “My acid indigestion can’t take anymore of this.” She pulled the chair out further  from the table and fell into it.

“They didn’t want to go to church with Grandpa?”

Mom shook her head. Her eyes filled with tears. “He was so looking forward to this, you know? Showing off his daughters. I bet he even had on his best suit.” She wiped her eyes and looked over at me.

“That’s how I feel about you, you know. Since Frank has turned out the way he has….” She looked out the back window. I could tell she was trying not to cry again. My brother, Frank, had joined the Army, but he had also gone AWOL a couple of times. Mom had given up a good portion of savings to buy him a car so he’d at least stop hitchhiking when he did these things. She didn’t want to have to worry about him going missing and getting killed by an axe murderer.

“Why didn’t Aunt Ruby want to go with Grandpa? What’s wrong with his church?” I asked.

Mom dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. “He’s Baptist, you know. She’s First Christian.”

“So?” I had always gone to First Christian, too, but it didn’t seem a big deal to go to the Baptist church with Grandpa.

Mom sighed. “Ruby said she’d only go to the ‘one true church’ and she actually had the nerve to ask where the First Christian church in town was.” She started to rub her head but then jumped out of her chair. “My curlers! I can’t let Ruby see me like this.”

She ran to the bathroom just off the hall from the kitchen and left the door open so I could hear her.

“It’s such a mess, Martin.” I heard the curlers and plastic pink pins clink into the sink. “Grandpa yelled at Aunt Ruby and Rose. Poor Rose.”

“What did he say?” I couldn’t imagine my grandfather yelling at anybody. He was the gentlest man I had ever known.

She leaned her head out of the door, and with her arms raised over her head, she pulled on a curler. “He told them he didn’t know where the First Christian church was and he didn’t care to know where it was. He said they had grown up Baptist and if they were too good to go to church with him, then they could just be on their merry way.”

She ducked back into the bathroom and a few seconds later I heard her blow her nose. “I can’t imagine what Rose was doing during all of this. She’s probably as upset as I am.”

I heard the hiss of hairspray and smelled its aerosol fog just before Mom came out. Her brown hair was perfectly curled. But for the red puffiness in her eyes, no one would suspect her older sister had thrown the morning into chaos.

I, on the other hand, looked every bit chaotic, based on the once-over I got from Mom. “Good thing we’re not going to Bible class this morning,” she said. “You look like you got dressed in a tornado. Since Ruby and Rose are going to church with us, you’ll need to do a little better than that.”

I didn’t really see the problem. For the past three weeks I had had to dress more “like a little man” so Aunt Ruby wouldn’t criticize my mom for dressing me like a homeless imp. When they were gone, the first thing I did was rip off those stuffy clothes and toss them in the corner. But then I had to go to church. It made sense to me to wear what I had worn the day before. It was more broken in, less starchy. I knew from past experience that I had risked being sent back to my room to change, but I was hoping Mom would be so relieved to be free from her sisters that she wouldn’t say anything. I was wrong.

“We’re not going to class?” I asked, doing my best to change the subject.

To be honest, I was kind of glad to hear we weren’t going. The lady who taught it always seemed sleepy. Every week was the same. She read a chapter out of the King James Bible and then she would ask if there were any questions about it. We were eight. What did she expect, a theological debate on the Gospel of John?

My favorite part of class, actually, was the mimeographed sheet of questions she passed out every week—not that I enjoyed quizzes, but the smell of the purple ink made up for a little bit of the boredom.

Every week, we took turns reading the questions, trying to answer what we would do in a given situation.

One time my question had been, “If you saw your best friend steal a cookie out of your mother’s cookie jar, would you tell?”

I generally saw these as trick questions. In reality, I wouldn’t have told on my friend, but I was pretty sure the answer was supposed to be that I would. I tended toward shyness and hated being in the spotlight, especially in front of a teacher. My strategy was to answer the question in whatever way made the teacher the happiest so she’d move on to another kid, but it was like walking through a minefield. Sometimes what you thought was right turned out not to be the right answer at all.

So, no, I didn’t mind skipping Bible class. Seemed like a pretty good idea, actually.

Just then, the door opened. Mom leaned in and whispered, “Don’t mention anything about Bible Class!”

“Why not?” I whispered back.

“Ruby and Rose go to an anti-class First Christian church in Jackson. They don’t believe in classes.”

“How can they not believe….”

“Ssshhh!” Mom straightened up and tugged at the waistband on her dress just as her sisters came into the kitchen.

I could tell Mom had intended to give Aunt Ruby a hug, but she stumbled back when her rather rotund sister leaned against her and sobbed.

“I don’t cry for me,” she wailed. “I cry for Daddy.” She pulled away, but kept her hold on my mom’s shoulders. “You do realize his soul is in jeopardy, Martha.”

Mom’s eyes widened. She said nothing, but nodded weakly.

My aunt pulled dramatically away from Mom and took two, heavy strides into the the breakfast nook. She rested her meaty hands on my shoulders and squeezed.

“Besides,” she continued, even louder than before, “He was so mean to me!”

It took everything in me not to cover my ears with my hands.

Standing a couple of steps behind my mother was my Aunt Rose. She was a lot more like my mom, more reserved and quiet. Also like my mom, she was very sensitive and only wanted everybody to get along. But even she had big tears streaming down her cheeks.

“He called us Campbellites!” said Aunt Rose, pulling Mom into a hug and sobbing makeup into her blue polyester dress. “He actually told us to get out of his house and then said, ‘you Campbellites!’ It was so hateful!”

Mom just stood there. Even I knew things had to be bad if Grandpa was throwing people out of his house and calling them names. I had heard other people refer to the Christian Church as the Campbellite church because of a guy named Alexander Campbell, but I wasn’t sure who he was, exactly. No matter who he was, though, I was old enough to know that the term was meant as an insult. I could not imagine my mild-mannered grandfather being so up in arms about anything. I had never heard him raise his voice.

Aunt Ruby pulled a handkerchief from her purse and blew her nose. She leaned over me and picked up my uneaten egg. Without asking, she ate it in two bites.

I guess I didn’t have to worry about eating breakfast.

Aunt Rose sat down at the table and smiled meekly at me. “I don’t know how she can eat right now. I think I’m getting a migraine.”

Mom sat down next to Aunt Rose and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Me, too.”

“How can you not be hungry after all that?” Aunt Ruby said. She walked over to the refrigerator. The rubber soles of her shoes squeaked against the linoleum. “Martha, do you have any of those biscuits and gravy left over? Didn’t we leave some of that yesterday?”

Mom kept her head in her hand and shook her head. “No, Ruby,” she said. “You ate all of the gravy yesterday. Remember?”

Aunt Ruby pulled out from the fridge and held a jar of strawberry jam like an Olympian holds the torch. “I know there’s got to be some of those biscuits leftover, though.”

“They’re wrapped in foil in the cabinet,” Mom said.

When my aunt found the biscuits, she brought everything to the table, along with a knife and some more napkins. I sat and marveled watching her inhale the biscuits in record time. She had the look of a mad bull chomping through a wood fence.

“I never thought I would see the day when my own father would treat me like this,” she finally said when she was down to the last bite. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been this mad at him.” Then she popped the rest of the biscuit in her mouth and chewed angrily.

Finally, Mom looked up and said, “Our church service begins at 11. We’d like both of you to come with us if you feel like it.”

Aunt Rose continued to whimper into a napkin. Then she wiped her tears and sighed. “We should probably go,” she said. “I think I’d feel better if we did.”

Aunt Ruby busily mopped up biscuit crumbs with her fingers and ate them. The kitchen was silent, but for the dull smush of her fingers pressing against the plastic placemats.

When she ran out of crumbs, she looked at my mom with a look that could have cut her in two.

“Is this a church that has separate Bible classes?” she asked, chewing the last crumbs with her front teeth.

“Yes, Ruby,” Mom said. I had the feeling my mother wanted nothing more than to lay her head on the table and cry. Her shoulders were stiff and she seemed to have forgotten to breathe. “We have Bible classes for different age groups. But we’re not going to Bible class. We’re just going to the church service today after…everything.”

Ruby stood up and stalked back to the refrigerator. Before she opened the door, she paused, and walked back over to my mom. She was so big that her hip squeezed against the metal lip of the table. She took up so much space in that little nook that I couldn’t see the back window. I can only imagine how intimidating it was for my mom, who had my aunt’s belly in her face.

“You know I can’t go to a church that has Bible classes,” she said. “We can’t compromise in this. How would I ever hold my head up again if I went to a church that has divided up Bible classes?” She shook her head. “Oh no. If Sister Morgan heard that I went to a church that had Bible classes, I would never hear the end of it.”

She turned on her heel and walked back to the refrigerator. She dug past the milk and orange juice until she came upon a carton of eggs. “Do you know if there is a Christian Church without Bible classes here?”

Rose let out a squeak and laid her head on the table. I don’t think she was still crying, but she might have been hoping for a quick death of some sort. The desperation came off her in waves.

Mom stood and started to shuffle towards the hall. “You know, I have such a pounding headache now, I don’t think I’ll be able to go to services today.”

I watched my mom with as much sympathy as an eight-year-old boy can have for his mother. She looked so drained. And I knew exactly why. I wanted so badly to ask, “Is your headache named Ruby?” But I kept my mouth shut. I knew it would have done more damage than good.

I stood up then, too, and walked over to Mom. “I’ll get you a damp washcloth,” I said, knowing the drill. “You go to bed.”

Mom smiled down at me and patted my head. “You’re a good son,” she said. “Thanks.”

When I turned to look back in the kitchen, Aunt Rose seemed to be asleep at the table and Aunt Ruby was boiling more eggs.

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Eliot Gregory is a contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. For him, writing is an exploration in human emotion and action. He has been writing for his own enrichment for more than 20 years. Thankfully, upon gentle encouragement from others, he decided to share some of his favorites with us.

Snakebite, The Aftermath

By Karen Brode

I slid the peas one by one under the mound of mashed potatoes on my plate. I figured if they were hidden, I might not have to eat them. Ever since a nurse friend of my mother’s had told her I didn’t look well, she worried about what and how much I ate.

“She’s got dark circles under her eyes and she’s far too thin for a child her age,” the woman had said.

I wish she had minded her own business. I had been thin my whole life, but it was only after that woman’s comment that my mother worried about it.

I guess she felt she was failing me if I didn’t look like the picture of health. But I was 8-years-old and never got sick. I didn’t understand why I suddenly had to eat things I didn’t like. I mean, I could ride my bicycle around the block four times without having to rest. Surely that counted for something.

Mother sat across from me at the table and sipped her iced tea. We were having a “family supper” so we could talk. It felt more like torture. It’s not that I didn’t like talking with my mom, but I could hear the other children riding their bikes and yelling in the summer evening. They had put playing cards onto their bicycles so that when the card brushed past the spoke of the bicycle wheel, it sounded motorized. It was making me crazy to not be outside playing with the other kids. I didn’t think I could sit there much longer!

“I’m not really hungry,” I moaned.

“Oh no, no, no,” my mother said, looking up from her paper. “You’re going to sit there and eat what is on your plate.”

I looked down at my plate. Most of the peas were hidden under the mashed potatoes. I took another bite of bread. It seemed to take forever to chew. I didn’t think I would ever get to go outside again. If I had to be caged in and eat peas when I was well, I wondered what it was like for my Aunt Cleo, who had been bitten by a rattlesnake when she was a girl.

“Did Cleo get to go play after she got bit by that snake?” I asked.

Mother looked up from her paper and out past me. She seemed to be seeing clearly that summer when her sister come so close to death.

She shook her head. “No. She didn’t play much that summer. She was one sick little girl. Her foot turned completely black. We were afraid it was going to fall off.”

“What would have happened then?” I asked, horrified.

“I don’t know. But I can tell you this, Momma fretted about it night and day. She had that doctor out almost everyday. She never did believe he knew what he was doing.”

“Why not? Wasn’t he a good doctor?”

“I guess so. It wasn’t like today. This was a country doctor and I don’t know what kind of education he had. He’d come in, take his black hat off, sit by Cleo for a few minutes, ask her if she could feel her toes, and then he was off again.  Momma tried asking him all kinds of questions, but he never could give her a good answer. It drove her crazy.”

“But wasn’t he supposed to know something about what was happening to Aunt Cleo?” I couldn’t imagine a doctor not knowing everything.

“That’s what Momma used to say. She’d go on and on at the supper table about that doctor. Poppa just let her talk. And after awhile, it seemed as if Momma wasn’t really directing her questions to anyone in particular. She was just trying to process what had happened.”

Mother looked at her supper plate and sighed. I could tell she was missing her mom. I tried to think of my own memory of Granny Morrison, but most of the things I knew about were things I had heard from my mother.

“You know, I don’t think Momma was ever the same after Cleo was bitten by the rattlesnake,” Mother continued. “Up ‘til then, she had felt protected, like we were sealed off some way from all the hurt and pain in the world. Before the snakebite, she always talked about how nothing bad could happen to her family. She figured she had borne seven children and they had all lived. Not many women could say that back in those days.”

“She didn’t ever worry about anything?” I asked.

“Sure, she worried, but after Cleo got bit, her worry turned up to high volume. Momma was like a lot of people back then. She believed if she did all the right things, lived a good Christian life, and took her children to church every Sunday she would be protected from anything really bad happening.”

“But there’s nothing in the Bible that makes that promise, is there?” I remembered people saying this when my dad had died. He had been a good Christian man, but he had still died when I was six. And since then, I had seen the best of people brought to their knees in grief and worry.

Mother looked at me like she was trying to remember Bible verses. “No,” she said. “There wasn’t a promise that if you did everything right, nothing bad would ever happen to you.”

She thought for a few minutes more and then continued. “After all that happened, Momma tried to protect us in her own way. She didn’t want us away from the house. She wanted all of us to be where she could find us and know that we were okay. Every night after we all went to bed, she walked through the house to make sure all the doors were locked. She went to each room and counted us children so she knew we were all there, safe and sound. It didn’t matter if Poppa had locked the doors. She had to check for herself every single night. That snakebite did more than just hurt Cleo. It broke something in Momma. She didn’t ever trust life again. She knew something bad could happen at any moment. And she almost expected it.”

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Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

Snakebite, Conlusion

By Karen Brode

Continued from Snakebite, Part II.

“Momma always taught me to pray,” Mother said, thinking back to the time her sister Cleo had been bitten by a rattlesnake. “So I did what I could. I got down on the floor and prayed.”

She told me this story as we sat together on the front porch of our little house in Texas. The stars were bright and a few of those lightning bugs she was so fond of had started flashing in the lawn beyond us.

She seemed distant in thought. Whenever she thought about her family, it was with mixed emotion. She had been raised Baptist by her parents, Walter and Lela Morrison. They had taught her how to pray and they had sung hymns together at their family piano. And yet, when my father had come along, he had introduced her to what she now called “The One, True Church.”

She was fond of saying how he had really saved her. “Why, I might have missed my chance at heaven altogether if it hadn’t been for your father!”

She seemed to think about this a lot, especially as she talked about her family. And that night on the porch, she was particularly pained as she told the story of the night her sister had been bitten by a rattlesnake.

“Your Grandma Morrison wasn’t what you’d call a religious zealot, but when the situation called for it, she could become one. I remember her just saying over and over that night, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!’”

“We all stopped our praying when the doctor looked at his watch and announced she had made it through her first hour. I remember him saying that was a good thing, though he wouldn’t come out and say she was completely out of the woods.

“I know Poppa was somewhat relieved then. He went to Momma and grabbed her up in a hug they both needed. Together they cried that this had happened. I cried, too.”

Mother’s heart seemed kind of full just then as she talked. I leaned my head against her knee. She reached down and patted my hair gently, and then she continued.

“When Cleo broke out in a cold sweat, the doctor said that was good, too. He said the poison was working its way out through her pores. Opal ran for a blanket at Momma’s instruction and they did their best to help bring some comfort to Cleo.

“We were all afraid to hope for the best, even me. I was just a little girl, but I knew snakebites were serious. Still, Momma and Poppa seemed to breathe just a little easier after this, which made me hope just a little more that everything was going to be okay.

“Momma sat all night by Cleo’s side. Every hour or so, Poppa came in to check on her. Gradually, Cleo began to know what was going on around her and she was very thirsty.” Mother laughed as she recalled Poppa running back and forth to get her water. “He would’ve done anything for his little girl at that moment.

“By the next afternoon, it seemed Cleo had made a turn. Momma was convinced she was going to live, so she went to take a nap. That’s when Opal, Jewel, and I, took turns keeping watch as she became herself again.

“I’ll never forget the look on her face or what she said when she was finally well enough to talk to us. She was dead serious, too. ‘Don’t ever be afraid to die,’ she said. She had wanted to stay there in heaven with Jesus. She said it was the most wonderful place she’d ever been, but then she heard Momma crying and Jesus nodded to her and let her know that she could go back if she wanted to.” Mother stopped, her voice choked for a moment. “Then she turned her face to the wall, and cried.”

“Why’d she cry,” I asked. “She was alive. Didn’t she want to live?”

Mother dabbed at her eyes a little and said, “It wasn’t that she didn’t want to live, Karen. We all cried with her. We knew she was missing her real home in heaven.”

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Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.