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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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, Part II

By Karen Brode

Continued from Snakebite, Part I

Mother had been a Baptist as a child. Her daddy was a deacon in the Baptist church. No one in the family ever missed even one service. Now, though, she often talked of her regret that she had spent so much time in a church that didn’t count.

She stared into the distance. Her thoughts took her far away.

“Momma didn’t want to let us girls out in the world,” she said. “She kept a tight leash on us. But the boys…” she paused. “Poppa always said ‘boys will be boys.’ I guess she had to let them go and hope they’d eventually come back to their Baptist roots.”

Grandma Morrison was never convinced, though. She wanted to believe the boys would come back. There were times when I found her looking at Poppa’s college degree hanging on the living room wall. He was an accountant for the cotton gin in the town over. She’d always turn to me with a sad smile and say, “That’s a good job he’s got, even in the worst of times, people need accountants.”

Grandma Morrison, or Lela, as her friends and the other old people knew her, had never been really happy about anything when she was a kid. I could tell that just by being around her. Mother told me that the only time Lela thought she could almost be happy was when Poppa Morrison, or Walter, came courting.

“She always thought maybe there was another life she could live besides the one she’d always lived,” said Mother.

Then she met Poppa’s family. There were so many brothers she couldn’t remember their names, and his sister, a grown woman, allowed people to call her “Pet.” They were rich and spoiled beyond anything Lela could imagine. She never thought that she would ever fit in with uppity people like that.

Walter’s older brother, Charles, was the richest of all of them. He thought his money could buy him anything he wanted. He had no respect for anyone, not even his dying mother. Once, when she was visiting Walter’s family at his childhood home she was horror struck when she saw Charles grab a visiting nurse who was simply walking through the parlor after checking on his mother. He planted a kiss right on her lips. Of course, the nurse was highly offended. She pulled away immediately and swished her cape as she exited their home.

Lela was in shock. Then Charles looked at her. His eyes flashed hungrily, as if to say, “You want to be next?”

She turned away immediately and walked out of the room. She had never encountered such vulgarity and disdain for propriety. She had decided that Charles and his whole family were godless, sinful people! They didn’t even say morning or evening prayers, nor did they say grace before their meals. She decided that she could never live and raise her children around those people!

She was just about ready to tell Walter she couldn’t marry him when he asked for Lela to visit his ailing mother with him. She agreed. No one knew what was wrong with Walter’s mother, but she was withering away and the time for her passing was near.

Walter led Lela into the bedroom where his mother lay. Lela held the older woman’s hand for a moment and the woman started speaking in a weak voice. Lela had to lean in close to hear what she said.

“Take care of my son, make a family with him, and love the Lord all the days of your life.”

Lela’s heart almost burst at this and tears moistened her eyes. She nodded and squeezed the old woman’s hand to let her know everything was going to be okay. She would take care of Walter for her.

From then on, Lela mounted a mission to get Walter to stay close to her family and to try not to be part of his family. She didn’t want them to influence her children so that they would become like Charles and satisfy only their base needs. She had to think about their physical health, as well as their spiritual lives. She knew that in the years to come, Walter would assume more power in their relationship, but at the time, she used what she could.

When she announced her engagement to Walter Morrison, her family was very happy. He was a good catch and his family was wealthy.

Walter wanted to move out west to be closer to his family. He reminded her that their lives would be a lot better there, but she wouldn’t go. She insisted they stay close to her family and, secretly, she thought his family was all heathens. “Money isn’t everything,” she’d say.

Of course, there was some point in their lives when she came to believe they probably should have moved. In the lean years, she wondered what her life would’ve been like in the oil-rich part of West Texas where Walter’s family lived. By then, though, they had established their lives and they were on a set course. And, amazingly, Walter never insisted on anything being his way. He deferred to his wife in all matters. Yet, every time Lela got pregnant, she got so mad at Walter.

“If you had to go through what I’ve gone through,” she’d say, “we wouldn’t have any children!” Lela usually spent the first few months of her pregnancies not speaking to Walter.

But now they had all those children, she loved all of them, though everyone knew that Opal and Walter John, Jr. were her favorites. Still, with little Cleo in such pain before her, none of that mattered. She wanted Cleo to live. She wanted to the life they had, just as they had it before the rattler bit her baby.

Cleo’s eyes rolled up and her body stiffened. Lela had never been so scared in her life.

All she could think of was, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” over and over.

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of Snakebite.


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, Part I

By Karen Brode

Mother and I sat on the front porch steps contemplating the inky night sky pierced with stars that looked like pin pricks in fabric overhead. I wondered if heaven was just on the other side of the sky shining down on us in the form of stars.

My father had taught me many of the constellations. We had often watched the night sky together.

“There’s the Big Dipper,” he would say.

And then I would bounce up and down pointing. “And there’s the Little Dipper!”

“This night reminds me of the night Cleo got bit by the rattlesnake,” Mother said. She made it sound so normal, like it was a rite of passage for everyone.

“It was a quiet, still summer night, not the kind of night that you would think something bad would happen.”

Instinctively, I raised my feet up a step, just in case.

“How old was Cleo?” I asked. In my childish eight-year-old mind, it was hard for me to grasp the idea that old people had once been children. Even though I had seen pictures of my mother when she was young, it still didn’t quite register that she had been a child at one time. And yet, I knew on the other side of that coin, I would someday be old. Still, I couldn’t imagine being that old.

All my life I had heard about my mother’s childhood. It was something of a myth to me. She had all the things I longed for—three brothers and three sisters. And she had to share a bed with her sisters. My childhood was lonely. I thought it would be such fun to blend into a large family.

Mother stared up into the sky, her eyes seeming to calculate the heavens. “I believe that was the summer Cleo was eleven,” she said. Then she nodded and pressed her lips together. “Yes, she would have been eleven because I was nine.”

“I’m almost nine,” I said. I tried to look past the lines on my mother’s face and see the smallness of a child, but I still couldn’t see her as a kid.

“We were playing hide and seek just about this time of night,” she went on. “It was that in-between time between sunset and full dark. There were lightning bugs all over the place back then.”

In my mind, I could see lightning bugs everywhere. I knew we had lightning bugs too, but the way Mother told it, there were so many in her day that you didn’t need a flashlight to see in the dark.

She paused and looked out beyond our house, beyond our street. I did the same, sure we were both looking for the onslaught of lightning bugs to light up the night.

Finally, she continued. “It was Cleo’s turn to hide and she went out by the well and crouched down. I don’t think she was out there but a second or two when we heard her scream!”

I felt my chest tighten at the thought of this. Even though I knew Cleo had survived—she lived just over a few streets from us in the same town—I still had to ask, “Then what happened?”

“Well, Poppa went running to the sound of her screaming. He grabbed her up and ran to the house with her. We knew right away it was a snake that had bit her. Blood was oozing out of two little holes on her ankle and it was swelling fast.”

My stomach felt a little queasy thinking about it, but I leaned forward anyway.

“My brother Leon was fourteen at the time. Being the oldest, he took the coal oil lamp out by the well to try to see what kind of snake it had been.”

She closed her eyes then and seemed to transport back in time as she continued.

“I remember Cleo was completely white even in the dimly lit parlor. Her heart was beating so fast and she was having trouble breathing. Poppa laid her out on the divan.

“Mama just screamed, ‘Get the doctor, get the doctor!’ over and over. She wasn’t very good in a crisis. No matter how many times Poppa told her to calm down, she never did.

“I don’t know how long it took the doctor to arrive, but he got there and immediately put a tourniquet around Cleo’s ankle to try to keep the poison from going past her ankle. Of course, by then, some of it had probably already traveled all over her body.”

I shivered. The idea of poison going all through my body terrified me.

“Before long, Leon brought up the dead snake. The doctor and Poppa looked at each other with dread when they saw the rattler still rattling.”

A neighbor walked by just then, crunching through some gravel. I jumped at the sound of it, but was relieved to see it was a person and not a snake.

Mother continued. “Cleo writhed in pain like that for what seemed like forever. She was out of her head. Our momma cradled her and rocked her back and forth. Cleo was somewhere between life and death. She kept telling Momma that she saw Jesus, and Momma looked at Poppa with such fright.

“All us kids gathered in the parlor to see what was going to happen. Leon held on to the coal oil lantern like he couldn’t let it go. Opal and Jewel stood like they couldn’t breathe. James and Walter, the younger boys, cowered in one corner of the room. And I sat with my back to the piano, trying not to think about all those times we had had together as a family, singing. I just started praying silently in my head. It was the only thing I knew to do.”

She nodded like she was agreeing with herself and then said, “It was the best thing to do.”

Want to find out what happens to Cleo?

Check back in tomorrow for more from Karen Brode!


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.

Nobody Likes the Spanish Armada…Twice

It was September 3, 1971, the first day of my senior year at Denison High School. I wasn’t really sure how to feel about it. I knew I’d make it through the year and come out on the other side a high school graduate, but I was more or less ambivalent. The only feeling I might have had was a feeling of being different. I was so different from my brothers in so many ways, one of which was graduating high school.

My father had been so disappointed in both his sons. Neither turned out to be anything like him. He must have held each of them as babies and read bedtime stories to them just as he had read stories to me. But neither of them liked to read. For that matter, they never showed any interest in anything my father enjoyed.

I, on the other hand, did my level best to be the child my father had been waiting for. I was the child who reflected everything that he was. I was born very late in my parent’s marriage, when they were both almost 40. He taught me to read when I was three and I was his constant shadow. Even when he tried to get away from me, I would grab onto his leg and sit on his shoe and he would have to drag me along wherever he went. Unfortunately, my attempts to hold onto him had not kept him from dying when I was seven years old.

And now, so many years later, I was a senior in high school. So many of the memories had faded over the last ten years. I couldn’t  remember a lot about him, nothing concrete, anyway. I knew he loved me a lot and I knew he was proud of me. Sometimes I wondered what he would think of me as a teenager. He’d be proud I was still in school, about to reach the finish line.

There was only one thing, though. I got Miss Bledsoe for Civics Class.

I stared in horror at the card listing off my scheduled classes for the year. There, in handwritten print, was Room 217. That room represented nothing but torture for me. The year before, I had suffered through American History at the hands of Miss Bledsoe and her beloved Spanish Armada. She had written her thesis on the topic and apparently thought it a great idea to spend an entire semester having her students learn every detail about it as well. Forget about the Civil War or the American Revolution. The class should have been called “Spanish Armada History.” And now I was destined to spend another semester hearing how it related to civics, apparently.

I couldn’t believe it.

The first chance I got, I flagged down my friend Melanie in the halls. It took a while to get her attention. The halls were crowded and Melanie’s eyesight wasn’t so good. She had worn glasses since we were little girls and had tried a couple of times to wear contacts, but that hadn’t turned out so well. I waved at her through the crowds and, squinting, she finally saw me.

Once I caught up, I showed her my schedule card.

“I’m quitting school,” I said with a whimper. I knew I wouldn’t really do it, but the idea of getting away from Miss Bledsoe and her armed Spaniards made me consider the possibilities of being a car-hop at the local drive-in. “I’ll just…go be a car-hop.”

Melanie snorted. “You’d never make it as a car-hop. They wear skates to carry food.” She looked down at my feet. “We both know how that would turn out.”

So much for trying to have a dream.

“You should come to class with me,” she continued. “Mr. Donowho is a whole lot more interesting.”

I nodded. “That’s who I was hoping to get, but whoever makes these schedules thought I needed another year of persecution.”

We were pushed along by the crowd in the hallway and I stayed by Melanie’s side expecting her to do something.

“I can’t go through another semester with Miss Bledsoe! I’m sorry, but I just can’t!” I screamed to be heard above the bustling crowd of students.

“I’m serious,” she said. “Come on!” She gestured for me to follow her into Room 214, Mr. Donowho’s class.

“I can’t go in there!” I said. “I’m not in his class!” But my will was stronger than my words and I followed her into Room 214.

We sat down. I looked around the room and gulped. I just knew someone was going to find me out. I always obeyed the rules and never questioned authority, even if it was on a three-by-five index card.

“Let me see your schedule again,” Melanie said.

I handed her my card, thinking she just wanted to have evidence when they convicted me of being in the wrong class. The thought of it made me second guess my decision. I started to get up from the desk, but Mr. Donowho walked in right at that moment and sat down at his own desk.

“Here, give me my card back,” I told Melanie. “I’ll just go now and no one will get in trouble.” I could feel my heart beating in my throat. If I didn’t get out soon, I was going to cry.

Melanie handed the card back to me. “Stay put. Now you are in this class.” She pointed to the class assignments. She had changed the room number from 217 to 214. I nearly screamed.

“Oh no!  This will never work, Melanie. Now you’ve done it! How am I ever going to explain this?”

In what felt like record time, Mr. Donowho went through the roster of names. “Is there anyone else I haven’t called?”

I sat still. My first instinct was to be like a rabbit–just blend in and stay quiet, no one would know I was there.

“I don’t think you called Karen’s name,” said Melanie. I detected a little bit of know-it-all in her tone.

“Where is Karen?” asked the teacher, searching through the faces of students.

Melanie turned around and looked at me. I was pretty sure there was a gloating look on her face when she said,  “There she is.”

Mr. Donowho motioned for me to approach his desk with my schedule. It was the longest walk I’d ever taken. I was pretty sure I was going to pass out before I got up there. I just didn’t do things like this. I was good and honest and no one would ever believe that I had had anything to do with this.

I tried not to hyperventilate while I stood at the teacher’s desk. Instead, I poured all my energy into glaring at Melanie who got me into this. She spent the time trying to appear very interested in her new civics textbook, but her twitching lips gave her away. She would really think it was funny if I was sent packing to the civics class across the hall in Miss Bledsoe’s room.

In my head, I worked through the semantics of the situation. It wouldn’t exactly be lying if Mr. Donowho asked me if I had changed that room number and I said no. I peered down at the card sitting on his desk. You would have to look really close to tell that the room number had been changed, but to me, it practically screamed “KAREN IS IN THE WRONG ROOM.”

Finally, Mr. Donowho turned his head to look at me. This was it. I knew it was coming. I held my breath and tried to prepare myself. I’d heard all about Mr. Donowho and I knew he could ruin my entire senior year if he wanted to.

Mr. Donowho ran his finger down the list of students registered in this class, and he said, “I don’t see your name here.”

All I could muster in response was a shrug of my shoulders. Speech was no longer an option for me. There was no explanation.

The thought flashed through my mind just then, Maybe I’m more like my brothers than I thought. Maybe I won’t finish high school! Maybe my dad would be just as disappointed in me as he was in them!

But then Mr. Donowho did the unthinkable. He wrote my name in the class register. He made me an official student of his class!

“They probably made a mistake at the office,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the first time!” And he chuckled. He literally made a soft, forgiving little laugh that reassured me and sent me back to my seat with relief.

This was a new feeling. It was an awakening of possibilities outside the box I had lived in all my life. My heart began to beat faster and stronger. I no longer felt as if I might faint. Instead, every nerve in my body trilled at the thought that this might actually work.

Margaritas and Woe

By Karen Brode

I had not seen Wanda since high school forty years ago, except for a few awkward meetings in Wal-mart or the grocery store.  I didn’t know what to say to her, really. She and I had been inseparable in elementary school, but by middle school, just like that, we had nothing in common.

The older we got, the wider the gap between us. As teenagers, I overheard church matrons talk about how boy crazy Wanda was.

“That girl,” said the ever-righteous Mrs. Albright, “she’s gonna wind up in a world of trouble one day.”

The ever-pious Mrs. Carmichael agreed. “Her mother leaves for work and Wanda has a boy to the house until she goes to school.”

“She needs to be more like Jane here,” said the devout widow Mrs. Stewart. She leaned forward in her pew to pat me on the shoulder. “Janey here is a good girl.”

Nothing like three old ladies contrasting you with your worldly ex-best friend to make you feel ancient and undesirable. And I was only 13 at the time.

That didn’t bother me as much as knowing that Wanda’s mother held me as an example to her daughter as to how a girl should be at 13. Whenever they argued, Mrs. Rivers always ended with, “Why can’t you be more like Jane?”

It made me cringe.

Years later, in 1968, the old ladies’ predictions came true. It was our senior year and Wanda walked through the hallways holding her books in front of her, keeping her eyes cast down. She had gotten pregnant the summer before and been forced to marry her boyfriend. She finished high school, then, with a baby on the way and a new surname.

Whenever I saw her walking the halls in shame, I always wondered if she had wanted it to happen, or if it had been some horrible realization when she looked in the mirror one morning and saw the pregnancy beginning to bloom.

I’ll admit, there was some part of me that was a little jealous. There were mornings when I walked past Wanda’s car and she and her young husband would be locked into an embrace of passion and desire. No one had ever been that needy of me. No boy had ever clung to me as if I were the answer to all of life’s problems.

And now, all these years later, Wanda wanted to have lunch with me. We hadn’t really talked in over forty years, and yet, the same worries and concerns plagued me at 60 as they had in high school. I worried that she might think I looked down on her, but I didn’t. Instead, I hoped I could somehow seem as worldly as she was.

The last several years had been so hard for me. I had been through things I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I wanted to show Wanda she wasn’t alone in all that she had suffered. I didn’t want her to think that she had been singled out to feel miserable and to make drastic mistakes. I wanted her to know all that had happened in my life, to somehow put things in perspective so she would know she wasn’t being punished for not “being like Jane.”

Or, maybe it was the awareness that I had been Jane and, in spite of following all the rules, I had still suffered horrible things and made bad choices. No one escapes unscathed in this world.

When I entered the restaurant, I saw her already sipping on a margarita in a booth. I approached the table and she stood up to hug me.

At first, we talked about our children and I learned what had become of her right after high school. Her first child was named for the young man she had clung to in the car all those years ago.

“God, I hate him,” she said, talking about her ex and taking a long sip on her margarita. “We had to go and have two more kids before we figured out we couldn’t stand each other.” At 21, she became a single mom with three kids.

I thought about that time in our lives when we were just kids. I remembered how so many of her choices were in direct defiance of her mother and the church we went to. It seemed an awful price to pay to have to raise three kids on her own just so she could get back at her mother, but I didn’t point that out.

I cleared my throat and told her about my son, Frank. “When they found the cancer, it was stage three,” I said about his brain tumor. “It nearly did me in.”

Rather than understanding, the conversation took a competitive turn.

“At least he’s still alive,” she said. “My grandson is only ten and has stage four brain cancer. He’s taking chemo and radiation as we speak.” Her voice was hard as she said, “Nobody knows if he’s going to make it.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. It was sad to think about a little boy going through what my son went through, and worse. Still, there had to be some way we could connect, some way I could show her we were similar.

When the waitress came to our table, Wanda ordered a chicken salad and another margarita. I looked across the table at her folded up menu and empty glass. Then I looked to the waitress who was standing above me, waiting for my order.

I cleared my throat and said, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

“A chicken salad and a margarita?” asked the waitress. She no longer looked at me, but wrote in her pad.

“Uh-huh,” I said. I didn’t think I could get the word margarita out of my mouth without my voice faltering.

I hated the taste of alcohol. After considering my genetic background, I realized this was a blessing. A recovering alcoholic had once told me never to take even a sip of alcohol. With a whole line of alcoholics in my family, he knew what I was up against.

“You’ll never be able to stop,” he had said.

So I trusted this advice and stayed as far away from it as I could. But then life caved in on me and I turned to tranquilizers, pills my doctor had prescribed in great quantities.

At the time, I told myself that was different. Pills prescribed by a doctor couldn’t be the same as drinking alcohol. A psychologist had explained to me later that the tranquilizers I was taking were from the benzodiazepine family; they hit the same receptors in the brain that alcohol did. I might as well have been drinking alcohol.

It made me feel duped somehow that in my weakest moment I had not escaped addiction. Looking back, I admit those tranquilizers were all that got me through the scary and sad times. But at the end of it, I was left with a nagging addiction to benzodiazepines. I no longer had a choice about taking them. My body wanted them even if I didn’t. And now I had to take them everyday, just to feel normal.

I had been warned about what might happen if I tried to stop taking tranquilizers too fast: nausea, body aches, palpitations of my heart, and a seizure. There was a chance I could die if I just stopped taking them cold turkey.

The waitress brought me my margarita and I stared at it a long time before taking a drink. I knew I would have to at least look like I was drinking it. I knew Wanda was watching me, wanting to convince herself that I was still too good to be like her.

Finally, I picked up the drink and took a small sip. I lingered on the straw to make it seem like I had taken a bigger swallow. The taste of the alcohol was awful. I tried not to gag.

Wanda was in the middle of telling me about her children, a boy and two girls. I kept my eyes on hers as I casually opened and dumped three packages of Sweet-n-Low into my margarita.

“My youngest is the only one who lives nearby,” she said. “The others have moved as far away as they can.”

I’m not sure how much time had passed when I ventured my next sip. Wanda was telling me in great detail about her mother-in-law who lived a few blocks from her and her second husband.

“That woman goes doctor shopping every few months, and she’s 88 years old. Can you believe it?”

I secretly felt sorry for Wanda’s mother-in-law. She was obviously a woman like me—she wanted her pills.

Wanda continued to regale me with stories of her life and her children’s lives. I listened as best I could while adding four more Sweet-n-Low packets to the margarita. Surely, I thought, this is how to make a margarita taste less like alcohol and more like an attractive drink.

I took another sip. Nope. It still tasted like alcohol.

I was somewhat relieved when the time came for me to share a little about my life. In spite of having to relive some of the worst moments of my life, at least I didn’t have to drink any more of that margarita while I was talking.

“He was 18 when we got the call,” I said about our son. “We got to the scene of the wreck just as they were cutting him out of the car with the Jaws of Life. Now, every time I hear a siren, my mind goes back to that night.”

Wanda nodded. “It’s a horrible thing,” she said. “My youngest was in an accident and they had taken him to a hospital in Dallas. My husband and I had that long drive through Dallas traffic, not knowing what we would find when we got there. Thank heavens he was still alive.”

Wanda had been married to her second husband for 30 years and she was full of praise for the kindness of this man who had come along to help her raise her three children. I thought it was wonderful, too, that she had found someone so devoted to her.

While she talked, I listened intently, making sure we had eye contact while I emptied four more Sweet-n-Low packets into my drink. Thinking that should have done the trick, I cheerfully took a rather long sip of the margarita through the straw. It felt like fire going down my throat. I started coughing and couldn’t seem to stop.

“Jane, are you alright, hon?” Wanda asked.

I nodded, but kept coughing. “I’ll be okay—cough—just give me a minute—cough.

Finally, I grabbed a glass of water and downed half of it in one swig. The coughing subsided and I was able to tell Wanda about my job woes.

“I had worked for that place for 30 years,” I said. “And, right in the middle of Frank’s illness—right when I needed support the most—they fired me.”

I thought for sure this would somehow bond us, that she would see we were alike underneath it all. But the eyes looking back at me had no sympathy, no understanding.

“Try being a single mother with three small children and being fired from two jobs in one year,” she said. “I thought I’d never recover after that.”

I looked down at my margarita and realized then it was the only thing that Wanda seemed to relate to. But then she said, “You know, I might drink some of your margarita if you hadn’t drowned it in Sweet-n-Low.”

I was hoping she hadn’t noticed.

“Oh,” I said, laughing awkwardly. “It won’t go to waste. I’ll just get a to-go cup and take it to my husband.”

“Are you kidding?” she asked. Her eyes were wide with surprise. She leaned over the table and said in a quiet voice, “Jane, honey, you can’t ask for a to-go cup for an alcoholic beverage.”

“Oh, yeah!”  I said, trying not to blush. “What was I thinking?”


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.