The Higgins Family Move to Elm Street

By Karen Brode

My mother did not allow me to ride my bicycle around the block like the other children my age. I could only ride up and down Elm Street so that if she looked out the window at any given time, she would be able to see me.

She worried—a lot. And it was my job not to worry her. It seemed to me that I had to be good to make up for my brother and all of his shenanigans. So, I didn’t push limits and I kept to just the one street.

Up on the corner of my street was a small, two-bedroom house. I knew it had two bedrooms because I heard Mrs. Harris, one of our neighbors, whispering to my mother about it. Seeing that our house just had my mom and me, two bedrooms seemed plenty, but hearing how Mrs. Harris talked, I got the impression that meant it was extra small.

The size took on new meaning when a family of five moved into that house over the winter. The house was a rental, so people were moving into and out of it all the time. This time, the Higgins family moved in. Nobody knew about it until the weather got warmer and we started venturing out of our houses again—and, boy did Mrs. Harris and all the other neighbors have something to say then.

“Their lawn is just Johnson grass and weeds and dirt!” She said, emphasizing the last word as if it was the definition of everything she thought about that family.

“It’s just embarrassing,” she said. “The rest of us keep our lawns manicured. Why can’t they?”

It was true. Up and down the street I rode my bike past lawns that were bright green and precision-cut to two inches.

The house where the Higgins family lived, though, had no flowerbeds, no shrubbery, not even a tree. No matter how many people lived there, it always had the look of an abandoned house.

Mr. Higgins was a taxi driver but he often went days when no one needed a taxi ride. It was hard to tell what he was really like because he never spoke. He may have talked inside his house to Mrs. Higgins or the children, but he never spoke to or even looked at any of the neighbors.

He and Mrs. Higgins had three children and another was on the way. Now that I knew how many bedrooms their house had, I did wonder how they all fit in there. Did all the kids sleep in one bedroom? And where would the baby go when it was born? Truth was, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous of such a large family in the tiny house. I wouldn’t have felt alone in their house. Maybe I could’ve just immersed myself into the family and not let things worry me so much.

The oldest child was Margaret. She was in third grade, two grades below me. People said she could’ve been very pretty, but her teeth were coming in crooked. These same people would say that there was something about her that set her apart.

“You can just look at her,” said the Mr. Harris. “She’s gonna live on handouts and charity the rest of her life.”

Margaret was often put in charge of her mentally challenged brother, Junior. She did everything for him that he couldn’t do because Mrs. Higgins already had her hands full with the littlest child, Waynie. When her mother deemed it necessary, Margaret was even pulled out of school to help out.

“What on earth is she going to do when she gives birth to that forth?” My mother asked one night when we sat on the porch together and listened to Mrs. Higgins yelling at her kids. We lived half a block away and could make out every word. I felt bad for Margaret.

At school, Margaret’s life wasn’t a picnic either. Kids made fun of her clothes and bullied her about how poor she was. I felt bad for not sticking up for her, but I wasn’t socially secure enough to stand up to anybody.

What impressed me was how she had a way of flipping her black hair. It made it look like she could care less what those other kids thought. A part of me wished I had hair like that to flip in just that way. But then, I wasn’t bullied like she was and I was glad not to be.

No matter where I went—school, home, or church—the Higgins family was the talk on everyone’s lips. Mrs. Green, one of the ladies from our church, stopped by our house one day after dropping off some donated groceries to the Higgins family. She was a florid-faced woman whose mouth was always set in a tight purse no matter what she did. When she delivered groceries to our neighbors, though, her mouth got so tight we thought it might pop right off.

“You would not believe the state of that house,” Mrs. Green said. Her nose scrunched up like she smelled something bad. “She had the audacity to see my visit as a social call.”

Mrs. Green wiped her hands on a handkerchief she had been carrying since she arrived at our door. She seemed to think she was dirty or something, but her dress was perfectly pressed and her heels were the shiniest I had ever seen.

“The smell was horrific,” she said, her nostrils flaring this time, as if trying to air them out. “You could smell it from my car.” She looked out the open door to her late-model Buick LeSabre. “I hope it didn’t permeate my car!”

“Well, was she happy about the donations we took up for her family?” my mother asked. I remembered then that we had taken some canned peaches and fruit cocktail to church with hopes Margaret might get to enjoy them.

Mrs. Green nodded. “You’d think we gave them caviar and champagne,” she said in a whisper, as if saying the word champagne was as much a sin as drinking it.

“I just do not know how that woman does it. There’s not a spot in the house to sit that isn’t covered in something.” Mrs. Green shivered. “To be polite, I pulled up an old wooden chair that seemed cleaner than the other things and watched her go through all the items like it was Christmas day.”

I wasn’t sure how to interpret Mrs. Green’s snobbery. On the one hand, she had been nice to deliver those things to the Higgins family, but the way she spoke about them was the way other people talked about cockroaches and that seemed kind of mean. It was very confusing. I didn’t understand why she cared about giving a poor family groceries if she thought they were so disgusting.

I won’t say it was easy being neighbors with the Higgins family. There were a couple of times that I rode my bike past their house and that’s what ultimately drove me away from any previous longings for a larger family in a small house and long black hair to toss in the face of bullies.

Throughout the summer, the family sat together on any given evening on the porch. I’m not sure what they did there other than what all the other families were doing—watching the kids play and ride their bikes, waving to the passing cars and pedestrians.

Since I only rode my bike up and down our street, I saw them often. One time I ventured to wave and say hi to Margaret. She looked down and half-waved back.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew she didn’t have a bike of her own and I had noticed she watched all the kids riding around the neighborhood.

I pulled over to the side and slid off the seat, straddling the lowered center bar of my bike.

“Wanna ride my bike for a while?” I asked her.

Margaret’s eyes lit up for only a second and then she looked over at her mom. Mrs. Higgins didn’t look at me or say a word but she shook her head slowly no. Margaret looked down at her hands and shook her head too.

I didn’t ask again. Based on what I had heard the adults on the block say, it did seem as if Mrs. Higgins wanted her children to understand early on that there would be no luxuries, no extras, and not to ever get their hopes up.

Later that summer, I took my bike out after dinner and, when I went to make the turn back down Elm Street, Mrs. Higgins called out to me.

“Don’t you get tired of riding that bike up and down the one street?”

After my previous experience, I was a little shy about talking with her, but being the child I was, I rode my bicycle into their yard and in a low voice explained how my mother worried more than she should.

“She doesn’t want me riding my bike where she can’t see me and I try not to worry her.”

Mrs. Higgins held her head up and looked down at me but she didn’t say anything. It reminded me of the way Mrs. Green looked when she talked about Mrs. Higgins.

Just then, Junior said something that I could not understand.

“He wants to know if he can ride your bike,” Margaret said in a monotone voice.

Mrs. Higgins turned her disapproval on Junior and said in a voice far louder than necessary, “Why on earth would you think you could ride a bike, Junior Higgins?”

“I…I don’t mind,” I said, getting off my bike to roll it over to him.

“Don’t you come around here with that shiny new bicycle trying to make us feel poorer than we are, young lady!” Mrs. Higgins yelled so loud I was sure everyone could hear her. “You get on out of our yard now! We don’t need people like you trying to make us feel worse!”

I was so stunned that all I could do was stand there and stare back for a minute. I know I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. I trembled while I backed my bicycle out of their yard and rode back down the street toward my house.

I vowed to myself after that to never to ride my bike up the street by their house again. It didn’t occur to me until after I’d made my vow that I went from having just the one street to ride on to having half a block.


Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas 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 Love That Endures

By Karen Brode

It was one of the first days of summer; still cool enough to sit out on the front porch of my house. In a few days school would be out and I would officially be finished with fourth grade. I looked forward to summer, but I was a little sad that the school year was coming to an end. It had been a good year overall. I didn’t like endings. My heart yearned to hold to what I knew, and not keep changing things.

I saw Mr. Powers walking down the street in front of my house. He wore a hat to keep the sun out of his eyes and carried a fold-up stool in his left hand. There was something purposeful about his walk, something that suggested he wasn’t just walking around the block for exercise.

Years before, when I was very little, he had scared me because his bottom lip was gone from cancer. I soon learned that there was nothing scary about him. He liked to make me laugh and he always feigned surprise when he saw me, as if it had been a hundred years since our last meeting.

He and his wife, Hattie, had been a special part of my young years. She was a study in calmness, a beacon of kindness to everyone she knew. I remember dancing as a little girl through her garden. It reminded me of a fairy tale and I felt like a princess. There was even a rose arbor in the back with a place to sit inside. I loved the beauty and tranquility Mrs. Powers (as I called her) carried with her.

Inside the house they had photos of their children and their life together as a couple. Mr. Powers told me once over a plate of cookies how shy he had been to court Mrs. Powers when they were young. It made Mrs. Powers giggle to hear him tell it, but I could see in his eyes the real concern he had felt back then.

“I had to quit school,” he told me, leaning forward in his blue-upholstered rocking chair. “I hadn’t even gotten to the third grade.” He looked up and counted something on his fingers.

“How old are you now?” he asked.

“Ten,” I said.

His eyebrows shot up like he was surprised at my answer. “I was younger than you when I had to leave school,” he said.

I wondered what that would be like to not have school anymore. In my mind, it seemed wonderful to never have homework again. I loved the structure and the sameness of the school year, but it seemed so freeing to imagine never having to go there again.

Mr. Powers grinned over at me. “Before you get to thinking what a grand thing that would be, let me tell you something. I left school to pick cotton so my family could have just the basic necessities.” He looked at the plate of cookies Mrs. Powers had set in between us. “We couldn’t have those cookies. No ma’am. I forfeited my childhood so we could just have some potatoes and a bit of meat now and then.”

He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.

“What was it like?” I asked. “Picking cotton, I mean.”

He opened his eyes and shook his head. “I panicked sometimes. The rows of cotton went further than I could see. I felt stuck there in the middle of all these plants that needed tending. But I couldn’t let it get to me. I had to keep working.”

Mrs. Powers sat down next to me and patted my leg. “He had to be at the cotton field at five in the morning and by two in the afternoon he went home to help his mother with chores.”

Mr. Powers grinned. “But then I saw this one here,” he said, leaning forward and taking his wife’s fingers into his hand. “I couldn’t look at another girl. I was obsessed.”

“He was embarrassed,” Mrs. Powers said, squeezing his fingers.

“Why were you embarrassed?” I asked.

He laughed out loud. “I was poor as dirt. I was afraid my Hattie would find out how poor my family was and want somebody better.”

“There couldn’t be anybody better,” she whispered back.

Even at ten years old, I knew how devoted he was to her. I imagined my own life getting married, having kids some day and hoped whoever came along would be like Mr. Powers.

It wasn’t until much later, when Mrs. Powers started “going downhill,” as all the adults around me would say, that I learned just how much devotion Mr. Powers had for his wife and their family. I hadn’t known how much they had endured together until Mrs. Powers couldn’t remember any of it.

Over the months of Mrs. Powers’ decline, I learned about their son, Tad who had been killed in a car accident.

“No one should have to live with that kind of memory and misery,” my mother had said to Mrs. Wright, our next-door neighbor. They were watching Mrs. Powers from a distance. She stood on her back porch looking out at her beloved yard and she looked a little lost.

Mrs. Wright agreed. “It was such a tragedy. But it’s going to be just as much a tragedy to lose her memory of him. She had always lived with that sorrow and managed to find peace besides.”

Weeks passed and Mrs. Powers started forgetting bigger and bigger things. The few times she and Mr. Powers visited after her diagnosis, she would forget what she was talking about in mid-sentence and lower her eyes pitifully. I didn’t totally understand what was happening to her, but I felt sad anyway. After that, they didn’t come visit us anymore.

They didn’t visit us anymore, but my mom made sure we did what we could to help out our neighbors. One Saturday evening, we went to their house to drop off a casserole. One of their daughters answered the door. She thanked us for the food and invited us in.

“She’s just started watching Lawrence Welk,” Mr. Powers whispered, looking up from his chair.

Mrs. Powers was in a wheelchair dressed in a beautiful dress and her hair and makeup were done as if she was going to church.

“She wants to look her best for Lawerence,” he said, smiling.

Later, in the kitchen, I overheard Mr. Powers and my mother talking about his life with “Hattie,” as he called her. It seemed to help for him to talk about their years together, so my mother sat with him and listened while Mrs. Powers and their daughters watched her favorite show together.

Mr. Powers pulled open a photo album they had kept nearby to help Mrs. Powers with her memory of her family. He, my mother, and I looked through it together. When we came to their son Tad, Mr. Powers seemed happy and sad at the same time.

“He had a huge imagination,” he said. “And Hattie always believed him no matter what he told her.” He smiled and continued. “Made me love her even more….”

He leaned over to peer into the living room and then he leaned back and whispered, “My kids seem older than I am now. I still feel like that hopeful young man who was determined to woo Hattie.”

His finger traced along the edge of their wedding photo. He and Mrs. Powers looked so different. I didn’t recognize them until Mother complemented the dress Mrs. Powers was wearing.

“It’s hard to see her like this,” Mr. Powers said with a gentle nod toward the living room. “I try to give thanks for the years we’ve had. I try not to be bitter and angry at God for giving us this burden.”

Tears pearled up in his eyes and overflowed down his cheeks. It was the first time I had seen an old person cry and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I shifted in my seat and accidentally knocked my glass of tea. It spilled all over the table, but my mother was quick enough to lift up the photo album before the liquid reached it.

One photo fell out of the book, though and landed right in the tea.

“I’m so sorry!” I said. I jumped up and ran to the sink for a handful of paper towels.

Mother shook the photo out and we did our best to dry it off. Then we cleaned up the table while Mr. Powers stared at the photo.

“Don’t worry, child,” he said. His voice had turned sour and, at first, I thought he was mad at me.

He flicked the picture back to the table and continued. “That there is my brother Pierce.” The photo showed a young man in a white t-shirt and partly rolled up jeans. His arm was slung over the door of an old car and he looked like he was singing at the top of his lungs.

“I didn’t know you had a brother,” I said, hoping he wasn’t mad at me about the photo. “I’m really sorry I got it all wet with my tea.”

Mr. Powers grunted. “I’m not upset about the picture,” he said. “I could just do without being reminded of Pierce.”

“You don’t get along?” my mother asked.

Mr. Powers leaned back in his chair. He had both hands on the cane he sometimes used to get around.

“You know that fella that lives in that abandoned boxcar in the woods?” His eyes were squinted. He seemed uncertain if he should tell us this.

My mother nodded.

“That’s my brother.”

We were both speechless. I had seen that man several times and was a little afraid of him, though he seemed nice in a way. He was always singing that song – When Irish Eyes are Smiling.

“He used to live with us,” Mr. Powers continued. “For years he did.” His face softened for a moment. “Hattie was so good to him. She cried when he left.”

“Why did he leave?” I asked barely above a whisper.

Mr. Powers looked right at me and I could see anguish in his eyes as he said, “Because I told him to. He wouldn’t stop drinking. I couldn’t let my children be around that.”

Several days later, I watched as Mr. and Mrs. Powers tried to get in the car to go somewhere. When she stepped out of her wheelchair to get into the car, she held onto his arm and took tiny, uncertain steps. Not once did Mr. Powers get irritated or impatient, not even when she took a long time to get in the car. He just seemed to be reassuring her every step of the way.

I didn’t see Mrs. Powers after watching her husband help her into the car. It wasn’t that I wasn’t allowed to go visit. It’s just that I wasn’t invited by my mother when she would go. I never asked why, though I figured it was because of something she didn’t want me to see. She always seemed sad when she came home from her visits.

And then the day came that we learned Mrs. Powers had died.

It was the first funeral I had ever been to. Mrs. Powers looked like she was sleeping in a lacquered box stuffed with satin pillows. She looked smaller than I had remembered. I cried when I realized she would never wake up and there was no one to tend to the fairy tale garden or the rose arbor. It didn’t seem fair.

The neighborhood wasn’t the same after she died. Mr. Powers looked even older than before. It seemed like a piece of him had died when his wife did.

On that summer day before the end of my fourth grade year, I decided to follow Mr. Powers on his solitary walk. I hid behind a bush outside the cemetery and watched him walk to Mrs. Powers’ gravesite. He sighed. As frail as he looked, he also seemed weighted down. Something seemed to pressed down on his shoulders and make them sag.

He sat down on the fold-up stool he had carried with him. For a while he was silent. Then he put his head in his hands and cried.

I wanted to go comfort him. He had always been so nice to me. But I also didn’t want him to know I had been watching him. Before he could see me, I snuck back to the road and went home. I was sitting on the front porch when he walked up the street to go back to his house on the corner. His back was straighter. His face looked less drawn in sorrow. It seemed he had talked things over with his wife and she had helped him to carry on.


Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas 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.

Tarnished Pearl

By Grace Washington

My sister Pearl was the biggest waste of humanity I had ever seen.  Most everything she did bothered me and I knew I couldn’t make her do better. Momma was too tired to make her do better and Daddy had gone to his reward last year.

Pearl was the type of girl most people would point out to their children and say, “Don’t you ever be like that!”

She didn’t seem to notice that the shack we lived in on the edge of town was falling down around us. She just sat at her mirror and tried on different lipsticks and pomanders. She had slicked her hair back. I wanted to tell her it looked awful but my opinion mattered not at all to Pearl.

I often wondered how it was that she and I could even be related, much less sisters. I had never had even the possibility of luxuries that Pearl took for granted.

Momma looked so tired lately. She seemed to age a whole year in 24 hours. So I made her stay in bed until she got some good rest.

I tried to reassure her, let her know I would keep up her cleaning jobs for her. If it got around our little town of Milledgeville, Georgia she couldn’t keep up her work, there’d be no work to have. This was small-town Georgia in the sixties. If it weren’t for her cleaning jobs, I wouldn’t have a job either. It’s not for lack of trying, though.

I saw a “cook wanted” sign on the window of a diner recently, but when I asked around, nobody seemed to know about it. I waited out back for somebody to go empty the trash or something. Finally, a woman came out and tried to shoo me away like I was a dog or something.

“Go on, now,” she said. “We don’t need you all hanging around here .”

“I…just.” I couldn’t find the words fast enough. I was angry and scared at the same time.

“Go on and git,” she said, flapping a kitchen towel at me.

“The cook’s position,” I finally blurted out. “I want to cook.”

Here I was heading toward my third year in college and I sounded like I couldn’t talk my way out of a paper bag.

“I don’t care what you want to do,” the woman said, finally looking me in the eyes. “You can’t do it here.”

“But my momma cooks for lots of folks,” I said. “And I cook when she’s sick or something.”

The woman shook her head.

“Mm-mm. Not gonna happen. Not here. My husband would have my head on the silver platter his daddy passed on to him from Stonewall Jackson. Now, go on.”

All the way home, I fought back tears. All I wanted to do was give Momma a good life. She gave me everything she had and she was getting old. I would leave school and work my fingers to the bone if she needed me to. But if I couldn’t get my own work, I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen.

This was the way of life that I knew. I knew how to abide by the rules. But sometimes the rules just didn’t make sense. Before I stopped at that diner, I had cooked two meals for two different white families and made cookies for their children.

Whenever I caught myself daydreaming of running off to New York or something, I thought of Momma. I would do anything if it would help her.

Toward the end of June, Momma seemed more rested. There were times she’d even sit on the front porch when I walked up to the house after cooking and cleaning all day. This made me so happy.

And then there was Pearl.

Some nights I needed to just sit in the dark by myself when everyone else had gone off to bed. It was quiet and peaceful. I’d sit in the kitchen where it still smelled of dinner and family. It was in these moments I felt my soul resting after it had tossed and turned all day in a hateful world.

On this night, my peace was interrupted when I heard the floorboards creaking from the room I shared with my siblings. At first I thought she was just going to go to the bathroom. I heard the shuffle of her feet and then the squeak of the door closing.

I don’t know what made me look out the kitchen window. It was on the same side of the house as the bathroom. When I did I saw a man—or what looked like a man—standing at the edge of the yard. Moments later, I heard the bathroom window slide open and a thump against the ground outside.

There went Pearl, tiptoeing in bare feet toward the man. She was wearing a dress and had a pair of heels dangling from one hand.

I just froze. All the work Momma did—all the work I was doing—and this is how Pearl behaves? I was livid.

And yet, watching her walk off hand-in-hand with this man who, in the dark, seemed twice her age, I knew I couldn’t tell Momma. It would break her heart. Momma had all those other children coming up to take care of.

I whispered a prayer. “Please don’t let any of them be like Pearl.” I spoke each of their names. “Take care of the twins, Tom and John. They’re only nine. And Maribelle she’s just a little girl. Keep her sweet and good.”

By four in the morning, Pearl was back. She smelled of cigarettes and whiskey and something else I couldn’t quite place, but I could guess what it was.

I sat up and whispered so the other kids couldn’t hear me. “Where have you been?”

Pearl had just about gotten into bed next to me when she stopped. Even in the dark I could hear her back tense.

“I was just in the bathroom,” she lied.

“I saw you leave at midnight.”

“Shush!” she said, lifting the covers and slipping into bed. “Now’s not the time!”

Her tone sounded more grown up than she was. She was only fifteen. “I guess you think if you can go do adult things now you can talk to me like you’re an adult, huh?”

“You’re just jealous,” she said. She put her head down and pulled the covers up to her chin.

Maybe she was right.

Except, a few months later, I saw her sneak out again, only this time, she grabbed the man by the hand and led him to the front of the house. As quietly as I could, I walked to the front window and listened.

“Oh no, honey,” said the man. “You got to do something about that. I can’t be giving up the rest of my life to go work in the coal mines. You’re a fine woman, but even you aren’t worth that.”

I heard Pearl start crying. It was hard to know what she was saying, but the truth sunk in quickly. She was pregnant.

“You think about it, baby,” said the man. “Let me know what you want to do. I can get some money together somehow. I’m willing to help you…do something.”

I heard the sound of a hand slapping skin. It must have been Pearl slapping the man because he seemed to get angry then.

“I am not going to have a baby at 17,” he said. “You got to get over it, Pearl.”

So he wasn’t quite a man. And, from the sounds of it, he wasn’t going to step up like one either.

“I gave everything to you,” she said. “Now, you need to get a job. We need to get married.”

“That ain’t happening,” he said. Then he laughed a mean sort of laugh that only men seem to know how to do when they’re trying to put blame on somebody. “I know lots of boys you been with. That baby could be anybody’s baby.”

I closed my eyes. It was all I could do not to run outside and throw them both on the street for good. Pearl only thought of herself in everything she did and the rest of us paid for it, especially Momma.

Oh, Momma! I thought. I leaned against the wall next to the window. I knew how this was going to end.

Outside, things were quiet except for the muffled sobs coming from Pearl. I pulled the curtain back. The moon was bright. There was my young sister standing by herself. Her head was in her hands and her shoulders were curled over in grief. The young man was nowhere to be seen.


Grace Washington is a part-time contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. Her stories often uncover the realities and courage of those who fight for justice. 

Salt, Pepper, Garlic, and Chicken Eggs

By Karen Brode

My Aunt Jewel’s lap was the best lap to sit in when all my mother’s sisters visited at once. She tended to sit furthest away from Aunt Opal, which meant I was less likely to come under her scrutiny. Plus, she had a way of cooing over Mother and me that made me feel comfortable and safe.

She held me a little tighter when my other two aunts started laughing at something Aunt Opal had said about Mother. I had just come in from playing outside and had only overheard a part of it. I looked up at my mom. She was standing at the stovetop stirring the soup. A bead of sweat just barely covered her forehead. She had been cooking up a storm since that morning. There was cornbread in the oven and she had a cake ready to go as soon as that came out.

Opal bellowed something about chicken eggs. She sat in the chair my father would have sat in had he still been living. Aunt Cleo sat next to her cackling away. My mother shot a look their way that told me she didn’t give a plug nickel for either of them. All I knew was whatever story Aunt Opal had been telling was not one of my mother’s favorites.

“Both of you stop that right now,” said Aunt Jewel, leaning forward and clutching me to her protectively. “You’re upsetting Hazel.”

Hazel was my mother. I had the feeling Aunt Jewel would have hugged Mother to her in the same way that she did me if she could have.

Before everyone arrived, I had asked Mother why she was going to so much trouble fixing up such a nice supper. I knew Opal expected the royal treatment, but I also didn’t think she deserved it. She could be such a bully sometimes.

Mother had stopped peeling the potatoes and looked almost past me.

“I don’t really know, Karen,” she said. “It’s not like they really appreciate it.”

“Aunt Jewel does,” I said.

Mother nodded and smiled. “That’s true. Then I’m doing it for her.”

By the time she put the soup on the table, she had made up her mind about something. I couldn’t tell what it was until she sat down and took up saying the blessing over the meal herself. Aunt Opal always had that duty, but this time when the sisters held hands, it was Mother who started praying. Normally, I closed my eyes for prayer, but when I heard Mother’s voice, I looked up.

Opal blatantly stared at Mother while she prayed. Opal was the eldest and we all knew she thought herself to be a better Christian than anyone else in the family. I was only nine but even then I had heard a million times how she had never missed a church service, how she had baked hams for people who were sick or bereaved, how she sang solos at funerals or paid for a child to go to church camp last summer.

“Dear Father in Heaven,” my mother said. “Look down on us with mercy and not justice. Help us all to realize how human we are; how we have all disappointed you at times.”

She paused for a moment. My aunt took a breath, as if she might be about to take up the prayer, but my mother continued before she could.

“You know our hearts, Dear Lord. You know how judgmental and condemning we all can be at times. Help us to see the good in those around us. Help us to appreciate the kindnesses offered to us from other people. In the name of Your Son and our Redeemer, amen.”

The entire table sat like statues for several breaths. No one touched the food. Aunt Opal seemed to be replaying the prayer in her mind, mentally scanning it for hidden slights aimed at her.

Aunt Jewel was the first to break the silence. She helped herself to some soup and started chirping away about how nice all that food looked and how much trouble my mother went to for everyone. But even with her voice, you could almost hear a pin drop.

She just carried on, though. She sipped her soup and announced, “This is some of the best soup I have ever had!”

I watched Aunt Opal. She had dished some into her bowl in silence, but she didn’t even taste it before she stood up and asked, “Where do you keep your salt, pepper, and garlic, Hazel. That soup tastes like warmed up water!”

I wanted to crawl under the table rather than witness the anger the flashed across my mother’s face. She didn’t get upset often, but Opal had just pushed the one button that could cause World War III. It seemed to take everything in my mother to keep her mouth shut. She just pointed to the cabinet where she kept the spices.

Opal poked around looking but she didn’t find anything. Deep creases etched into my mother’s forehead between her eyes. She was quiet, but I could tell that in her mind she was counting to ten — maybe even twenty.

Opal moved all of the spices and flavorings around. “I can’t find it,” she said.

And then, “Hazel, I don’t know why you have your canned goods up here. You are going to get knocked out one of these days when a can falls on your head. Remind me before I leave to reorganize your cabinets for you.”

Mother could not have steamed more if she had been on fire. The effort it took for her to just sit there and not say a word was saint like, but I wasn’t sure how long she could keep it up.

Cleo must have sensed the tension because she jumped up and said, “Get out of the way, Opal. Go sit down. I’ll get your salt and pepper.”

There was something different about Cleo’s tone of voice that made me jump a little. It must have made Opal a little wary too because she sat back down and looked at her bowl of soup.

Before Cleo could locate the salt, though, Opal collapsed in tears. Mother and Jewel looked at each other.

“Opal, I’m sorry if I’ve upset you,” my mother said. She sounded tired. “All I wanted was for us to sit down together and enjoy each other’s company. We are all we have left! Our husbands are dead, our children have their own lives, and Momma and Poppa have both been gone so long.”

Mother’s voice broke off at the mention of Poppa’s name. He had been such a good father.

Jewel grabbed my mother’s hand and spoke to her.

“Hazel, you have outdone yourself for us with this meal. You even made us a cake on a weekday! I rarely make cakes, even on the weekend.”

She patted her stomach. “If I ate like this all the time, I would be as big as…” She rolled her eyes toward Opal. “I would be as big as a house!”

Opal didn’t say a word. She refolded the napkin in her lap and she stared out the window as if she might find something out there to change the subject.

***

Opal could never understand why they were all so mean to her! She had never brought shame on the family like Cleo did by marrying that stupid Neal in the Baptist church! She wouldn’t have done anything like that. She married the nicest man in town because she deserved a nice husband.

She looked over at Jewel. She had tried to talk her sister out of marrying that awful Homer who did nothing but drink and cheat. Sure enough, he left her bereft of all dignity and niceties of life because he had to chase after other women. Jewel did make the best of it, but she’d had a hard life. Opal had been there for all of them. She often gave Jewel five dollars just because. She knew it wasn’t easy raising a child alone.

She glanced over at Hazel, her youngest sister. She had even tried to help her with John, that rebel of a child, but Hazel would never follow through in disciplining him. Now he was wild as a March hare. Opal would’ve never allowed any of that to happen. Her sons went to church and they had jobs. They knew better than to show up on her front porch expecting a handout.

Hazel didn’t talk to Opal much about John anymore. Opal figured she was embarrassed that her son was the way he was. She had never known what to do with him.

Opal never said a word.

***

Opal never said a word, but Hazel knew how her sister felt. Sometimes in the night when Hazel would lie awake hoping John would come home soon, she would think of Opal and wonder how some people just seemed to know how to do things and other people didn’t.

Being harsh with John would’ve gone against everything in Hazel’s soul. She wasn’t a mean person, but she probably should have been a little meaner to John. She should have held him to a higher standard. She had let things slide with him for so long that there wasn’t much that could be done now.

In Hazel’s middle of the night worries, she would think of her youngest, Karen.

“Karen would never worry me like this,” she would whisper. “Karen is the good child.”

Hazel often wondered what it would have been like if John had been the good child, made the straight A report cards, and read books. If she could have flipped things around she would have. Karen would be much more understandable if she could have been popular. Hazel would’ve understood a daughter who slammed her math book closed and said, “I just can’t do this!

Hazel’s friends would have been impressed if her daughter had been a cheerleader. She hated to admit even to herself that Karen wasn’t exactly how she had hoped her daughter would be. Hazel had imagined a little girl with curly–but not too curly–hair. She had made all of Karen’s clothes and dressed her in nice clothes for special occasions. She had hoped Karen would be like other little girls—not just good, but maybe more social.

On her fourth birthday, Karen had said she wanted a desk. Hazel couldn’t imagine a four-year-old who would want or need a desk. So she took her to Myles Variety Store on Main St. and steered her to the doll section. There were baby dolls, dolls almost as big as Karen, and even a doll that could walk.

But Hazel saw Karen glancing over at the desk. She walked over to it and rubbed her fingertips across the top.

“This is what I really really want Momma,” she had said.

Mother didn’t know what to do with Karen.

Karen got the desk, but Hazel realized then that, even at four, her daughter had never really been a child. She was born old with the weight of the world on her shoulders. Karen was bookish and she didn’t do much besides sit at that desk and color or draw pictures. The chalkboard desk had the alphabet written across the top of it, and before long, Karen was writing.

Karen’s father, Albert, had been so proud but his reasons were selfish. He said that, unlike John, he finally he had a child like himself!

Hazel begged him not to say that in front of John, but he continued to praise Karen with every breath. What could Hazel do? She adored that little girl, but someone had to love John!

***

Mother looked at Aunt Opal and sighed.

“You never told me why you did it, ” she said.

Opal smiled. My mother’s words were like a peace offering, apparently, because my aunt seemed to relax then.

“I was six,” Aunt Opal said. “These two were even younger than that.” She nodded with her head toward my other two aunts.

Her eyes glistened with youthful memories. “You were just a baby sitting in your carriage under that old oak tree in the front yard.”

“I remember it was a gorgeous spring day,” said Aunt Cleo. Her giggles threatened to erupt again, but she managed to calm them down again before Aunt Opal continued the story.

“I was six,” she said again, as if it was an apology. “And I did it because it was funny.”

She smiled and a little laughter rippled from Aunt Cleo’s side of the table.

Jewel grabbed my mother’s hand. “I’m so sorry we did that to you, Hazel. I would never have have participated if I had known how upsetting it was going to be to you.”

Cleo was laughing so hard by then that she had to wipe away tears. “I can see it so clearly,” she said doubling over. “Like it happened yesterday.”

“That chicken coop,” Aunt Opal continued, barely covering her own laughter. “Why on earth Momma made us go out there to gather eggs—that place scared me to death! I still wake up in the night flailing my arms trying to keep those chickens from flying at me.”

This made everyone laugh. Even Mother giggled a little.

Opal took a breath and said, “You were just sitting there, Hazel. And we had just come back from gathering the eggs. I had a whole basket of them. I was already thinking of how funny it would be, but it was Cleo who threw the first egg at you. You looked so shocked. It spurred all of us on to throw more eggs. It just got funnier and funnier.”

With great effort, Cleo said, “Poor Hazel was sitting in her baby carriage completely covered by egg shells and eggs running down her face. And then Momma came out on the front porch!”

Opal nodded, “We all ran in different directions!”

All of the sisters, even Mother, collapsed in a fit of laughter.


Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas 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.

Opal Strikes Again

By Karen Brode

It seemed like we had been waiting hours for my Aunt Opal to get ready to go. For a while, I had paced around the living room and kitchen like my mother. She spent the time cleaning up here and tidying there. Every now and then, she’d look down at her watch and frown. There were two little lines in between her eyebrows that were only visible when Aunt Opal visited. On this day, they etched more deeply with every minute that passed.

Finally, I got tired of standing around, so I flopped into an upholstered chair in the living room and closed my eyes. My stomach growled.

Mother gave me an apologetic look and hollered from the hallway, “Cleo is waiting for us, Opal! She’s probably got lunch on the table by now.”

Opal swung open the door and swished out of the bathroom. “Keep your skirt on, Hazel,” she said. “It’s not like Cleo’s gonna go hungry.”

Opal ambled down the hall. Her large hips curved out from her thin upper half, giving the impression that she had been sewn together from the parts of two different body types. If anyone was going to pull it off, though, it was my Aunt Opal.

All my life I had heard about how she had been the beautiful one in the family. It seemed that, even now, even though age had settled into her features and her hair had started to thin, she wasn’t going to give up on that title. That explained the expensive night cream and why she brushed her hair 100 strokes everyday, but as a ten-year-old girl with a growling stomach, I had a hard time understanding why somebody would need so long to get ready for lunch.

After what seemed like another eternity, we finally got in the car. Mother drove, I sat in back, and Opal settled into the passenger seat. The first thing she did was pull the windshield visor down to look at herself in the mirror. I had to keep from rolling my eyes at this. Hadn’t she just been doing that in the bathroom?

She grinned up into the mirror and examined her front-most teeth. “Lately, this lipstick’s been rubbing off on my teeth,” she said. “I don’t know what it is. I try to look my best and then things like this happen.”

She took her index finger and rubbed at the flakes of rose pink lipstick that swam along her teeth.

As Mother moved the car out of the driveway, Opal snapped the mirror closed and leaned back in her seat.

“I’m sure glad Neal won’t be there,” she said with an air of relief. “It was lucky for Cleo that he went quickly and didn’t linger.”

I felt the car jerk a little and looked over at Mother. Even from where I sat, I could tell she was angry. Her ears turned a little pink and her grip on the steering wheel tightented.

“How could you say that?” she asked. “Cleo is our sister. She loved Neal so much.”

“Well, it’s the truth,” Opal said. “That Neal was an odd duck. He just glared and glared. Never said a word.” She looked over at mother and made her eyes wide in a crazy stare.

Mother had always taught me to respect the dead, even if we didn’t like them when they were alive. I looked around the car, feeling uneasy about what it might mean for my aunt to talk this way about my dead uncle. It seemed to me like she was asking for trouble.

“Whether he was odd or not doesn’t matter,” Mother said after a moment. “Cleo loved him. She misses him and here you are going to lunch at her house happy about his death.”

“Oh good grief. Give me a little credit. I’m not going to say anything. Mother taught me manners, too!”

I could tell from my mother’s silence she was thinking the same thing I was—if Opal had manners, why didn’t she use them all the time?

“I never had one conversation with Neal,” Opal continued. “Lord knows, I tried! What kind of conversation can you have with someone who doesn’t talk back?”

The lines between my mother’s eyebrows deepened even more and her mouth tightened to a puckered line.

“So you’re mad at me now,” Opal said. “Just because I said how I felt about Neal? It’s not like you adored him. We both know how controlling he was. She couldn’t say a word without his permission and you know how much she loves to talk.”

Mother stayed quiet. She had always told me, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all and I could tell she was doing her best to say something nice.

Opal seemed to get the hint. She stared out her passenger window and was blessedly quiet for a little while.

When she turned from the window, though, she started back up. “You remember that he lived with his mother, don’t you? What kind of grown man lives with his mother?”

“Opal, you need to stop thinking about anyone but yourself,” my mother finally said. “You are the only person in this world that you can control.”

Opal’s head turned so fast to face Mother, I thought it might snap off. Her face was disbelief and surprise.

“Hazel, I have never in my life tried to control anyone!” She shifted in her seat a little and wiped off some imaginary dust particles from her dress. “Sure, I’ve tried to make helpful suggestions, but that’s not the same as controlling people.”

She pulled the mirror open again and then shut it as if she had had an epiphany.

“Let’s just face it, Cleo was not pretty, not terribly smart, and she towered over most of the boys. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not putting her down. I’m simply saying what happened. By the time Neal came around, she was 18 and had never had a real boyfriend. If a few more months had gone by, she would have been declared a spinster. I mean, let’s just call a spade a spade. She was desperate.”

“Opal, Cleo has had a relatively happy life,” Mother said. “Just keep your opinions to yourself.”

“I’m a solid citizen of the United States,” Opal said. “I would like to know when my freedom of speech was taken away.”

Mother sighed. I knew that sigh. It was the one that meant she felt helpless to do or say more. Her next words were quiet, tired. “Just try to be nice, please.”

“I am the nicest person in the world,” my aunt said. But for just a moment, when she turned and looked out the window, I thought I saw doubt creep across her face.

We had gone several more blocks before Opal turned to face my mother. “Do you know that Cleo didn’t even know how to spell her second child’s name when she gave birth? Anybody in their right mind would have wondered or asked someone how the name Juanelle was spelled, but she obviously didn’t know or care because I saw the birth certificate. She had written it with a W, like the way it’s pronounced. But that’s not how you spell that name! I wanted to say something to her, but I decided to be nice. I didn’t want to cause trouble.”

My mother’s face was weary. I knew she had hoped this would be a happy occasion for Cleo to see her sister. She had been so lonely after Uncle Neal had died. She seemed to be rethinking the value in having Opal there as a way to boost Cleo’s morale.

“Opal,” she said. “Let’s think happy thoughts. Cleo needs us to brighten her day, not bring her down more.”

Opal blinked at Mother a few times and then she sat up straight, as if a jolt of electricity had come through the bottom of her seat.

“Oh, Hazel,” she said. “I just remembered what it was I have been wanting to tell you.”

Mother blinked at my aunt and then turned her eyes back to the road. The shift in tone seemed to surprise both of us. There was something in Opal’s urgency that made me lean forward and listen harder.

“You’re never going to guess,” she continued. “What is the strangest information you could hear about our sister Jewel?”

Opal and Jewel both lived in Fort Smith, Arkansas. They usually traveled together to visit the family, but on this occasion, Opal came alone because Jewel had to work. I can remember Mother’s disappointment in learning that her other sister couldn’t come. The truth was, Mother and Jewel were the best of friends and Opal was much more difficult to deal with when Jewel wasn’t there as a buffer.

Mother smiled. “I know she isn’t pregnant!”

“No, but it’s almost as bad,” Opal said. “She’s met someone at church.”

“That’s not a bad thing, I don’t think,” Mother said.

“His name is Tommy,” Opal continued. “What grown man calls himself Tommy?” Her smile spread across her face, but it wasn’t the kind of smile somebody gets when they’re happy for someone. It’s the kind of smile my aunt got when she had gossip to share. It was always mean gossip, too, and wasn’t something I liked that much. I turned to look out the window and forget about the conversation, but my aunt had a way of talking that was hard to ignore.

“Well, you know Jewel isn’t classically beautiful like I am, but she has a certain sweetness of spirit. He tried to sit by me at first, but I didn’t want some old guy hanging around, so I moved as far away as I could just as soon as he sat down. But our Jewel is so gullible. He just had to smile at her once and she smiled back. Needless to say, they’ve been sitting together in church for almost a month and he takes her out for dinner all the time.”

I didn’t know why it would be bad for my aunt to sit with a man from church, so I looked over at Mother. She seemed genuinely interested, if not outright concerned for Aunt Jewel.

“Where did he come from?” she asked. “Has she met any of the rest of his family?”

“No,” Aunt Opal said. Her eyes were wide with conspiracy. “Conveniently, they all seem to be dead. Our sister is acting like a teenager. She keeps asking me which dress she should wear to go out with him for supper or picnics on Saturdays.” Opal shifted in her seat and dabbed a finger at the curls along her temple. “It’s almost more than I can stand, to tell the truth.”

She was quiet for a breath or two, but Mother didn’t say anything, so she continued.

“The other church people are just horrified. Althea Morgan took an instant dislike to him, but I think it’s only because he didn’t try to take her out. I guess my standards are just too high. I’ll never find another Lloyd.”

She smiled over at Mother and then said, “You’ll get to see for yourself. He’s coming with Jewel next month when she comes to visit you.”

Mother gasped. “I hope you told Jewel that a man will not be sleeping under my roof under any circumstances. I have a little girl to think about.” Her eyes flashed up to the rearview mirror and we made eye contact. I suddenly had a feeling of dread at meeting this Tommy person. What if bad people did go to church?

Opal must have gotten the reaction she was looking for. She grinned from ear to ear. Her tone was more serious, though, when she said, “I’m just trying to give you some advanced warning. I don’t like to see people blind-sided.”

Good old Opal. Always there to help.

Finally, we arrived at Aunt Cleo’s house. I couldn’t have been more ready to eat and be rid of some of these conversations about terrible men. I loved Aunt Cleo. She had the most interesting collection of things on her front porch that were constantly for sale. If I hadn’t been starving, I would have stopped to look at all the toys and books she had out there. It was always changing. I never knew where she got the stuff she sold, but for a kid, it was fascinating to look through.

I could see that Aunt Opal didn’t agree, though. She canned the porch and then raised her eyebrows at my mother. Mother glared back at her with her warning eyes and anything my aunt might have said disappeared behind haughty eyes.

When we went into the living room, though, Opal couldn’t hide her disgust of all the piles of clothes and stacks of books and boxes filled with knickknacks.

After Cleo gave us all hugs, my aunt seemed apologetic when she said, “This is my inventory that I haven’t priced yet.” She reached to the couch and moved a large Raggedy Ann doll from the couch. “I’m going to try to get it priced and out on the front porch for tomorrow. If you see anything you want, Opal, I might could give you a special price.” She smiled warmly.

Opal pursed her lips, but my aunt didn’t seem to notice. She laid the doll down on a box filled with other toys and then picked up a pair of blue clip-on earrings.

“These would look so pretty on you, Opal. I know for a fact that a teacher here in town has a pair just like these.”

Opal shuddered and her face went pale. The earrings were cut glass and garish, even to me.

“No…” Opal started. Her voice sounded harsh. Then, more softly, “No, thank you. I don’t need any earrings.” Beneath the tightness of her voice, I heard the real meaning of her words. She didn’t want to wear earrings she thought that had been dug out of someone’s trash.

Aunt Cleo seemed undeterred, though. She went to another cardboard box and dug into it.

“I was saving this back for you, Opal, if you want it.” She pulled out what at first looked like a colorful caftan. “I know you are always looking for something comfortable to wear.”

We all leaned closer in to look at it. The caftan was a huge piece of fabric that had been folded over and had a neck hole cut in it.

“I have nice clothes, Cleo” Opal said sounding offended. “I wouldn’t ever wear something like that. In fact, I don’t know any kind of woman who would wear something like that.”

Cleo took a step back from her sister and looked at the cloth as if seeing it for the first time. The sides of her mouth dipped down. She seemed embarrassed and sad at the same time.

Before she could say anything, though, Mother stepped forward and offered her the bowl of beans she had brought for lunch. Aunt Cleo’s sadness brightened for a moment, but not to the level of excitement she had had when we first arrived.

She took the beans, then, and led us through the house, making some kind of small talk about the weather.

In the dining room, Opal noticed Cleo’s paint-by-number painting sitting on an easel.

Cleo had spent much of the summer working on the painting. It was called Pinkie and Blue Boy. If anyone asked her about them she was glad to tell people that they weren’t meant to be a pair, and were originally painted by two different artists. But like the rest of the artistic community, Cleo thought they were meant to be together.

When Cleo was painting she rarely looked up even to talk to people. There were such tiny spaces that needed to be filled in with a color, and then she had to wait for the oil paint to dry. She worked arduously for hours at a time on her new project.

Neal had only died a few months before, and Cleo’s grief was still fresh. My mother’s grief over the loss of my father had been plowed under more urgent matters years ago, but she knew what Cleo was going through. She was used to walking into a room and seeing only furniture, lamps, and a television where people used to laugh and talk. She knew the darkness of a day by herself in a house when no one called or came by.

So, Cleo had her painting of Pinkie and Blueboy. She had Pinkie over half done, but had not yet started on Blueboy. When Opal picked up the box the painting had come in, she looked at my mother and pointed to the writing on the box. “Appropriate for ages 8-12.”

My mother ignored her and kept following Cleo into the kitchen. Mother instructed me to set the table while she put the water on to boil for the macaroni and cheese. Meanwhile, Aunt Opal walked around with flared nostrils, as if everything had a stench to it that was hard to place.

Sitting on the counter was a package of ground meat. Opal traced a finger over the sticker that read “Reduced for Quick Sale” and made a face. She tried to get my mother’s attention, but she was too busy helping get lunch prepared. I dared not make eye contact with Aunt Opal. I did not want to be seen in league with her opinions.

Finally, it was time to eat and Cleo asked Opal to say the blessing. For the first time ever, I heard my aunt falter. And then I realized she didn’t say a word about the food. Usually, when adults said grace, they were thankful for the food we were about to eat, but Aunt Opal left that part out.

It wasn’t until she kicked my mother under the table that things became clearer.

“Why on earth did you just kick me?” my mother asked.

Opal glared, as if Mother had revealed a secret she wasn’t supposed to tell.

“I was only trying to save your life,” she hissed. “Did you see that package of ground beef? It was warm and it was reduced for quick sale! You’d think you’d be grateful to me for trying to warn you about it!”

Cleo stood up and said, “I bought that meat at Kroger this morning! There is not a thing wrong with it!”

Opal stood up then too and threw her napkin on the table. Her face had the look of someone who had bitten into a lemon. “Think what you want, but I wouldn’t eat anything from this kitchen if you paid me to.”

Cleo drew herself up, shoulders back. When she stood like that, she was right at six feet tall. Any timidity she had had before completely dissolved. She was angry. “Nothing would be good enough for you, Opal.” She held out a hand which pointed to the front of the house. “So you can just leave.”

I looked over at Mother. She had her head in her hands and I could tell a migraine was coming on. I silently counted on my fingers how many more days until Aunt Opal left. No matter how long it was, it seemed like an eternity.

Opal stomped back through the house and Cleo followed behind. Opal picked up the caftan and held it before her sister. “Look at this. You think I want some prostitute’s cast off clothing? Even if I did, I wouldn’t buy it from your porch sale!”

Mother slid out from the table and motioned for me to join her. I had only gotten a couple of bites of macaroni and cheese, so I was still hungry. But I did as I was told, turning back only briefly to take in the table of food. I couldn’t see what Aunt Opal did. The food looked delicious.

By the time we got to the living room, Opal was in the car.

Mother sighed. “I had hoped we could have a nice visit,” she said, her voice sad and frail.

Cleo patted her on the arm and I remember thinking it odd that Cleo was comforting my mother after all the things Opal had said. “Don’t worry, Hazel. I’ve been dealing with Opal all my life. I can take care of myself.”

Before we got to the door, she continued, “You’re the one I feel sorry for. You’ve got to deal with her for several more days.”

Mother smiled sadly and nodded. “Sure wish Jewel had come. She always seems to know what to do.”

We were silent as we walked to the car, but as soon as we had the car doors open, Aunt Cleo yelled from her front porch, “Next time you come over Hazel, don’t bring that buffoon with you!”


Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas 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.

Dear Mother

By Karen Brode

Dedicated to my dear mother, Hazel Hawk.

January 12, 1992

I stood at the kitchen counter slicing carrots for soup. I don’t know what is happening to you. You are changing in front of my eyes, and I want to grab onto you and pull you back to normal.

You used the microwave oven last week, but now you don’t know how to use it. I don’t understand.

February 10,1992

When I took you to the neurologist yesterday, he told us to start looking for a nursing home for you. You looked at me and winked as if it was a big joke. And it is. I have no intention of you ever going to a nursing home.

April 5, 1992

You came to our house to spend the night. I look forward to these visits. When Brandon was little, it was the highlight of his week. Brandon would run out to your car and help you carry in your things. I’ve reminded Brandon often that once someone loves you as much as you loved Brandon, it doesn’t go away – ever.

June 28, 1992

As time goes by, I see that you are getting worse. I feel shadows and darkness gathering closer to me. Even on days when the sun is shining, the light seems murky and eerie and not like real sunshine at all. Yesterday, I got in my car and drove with no destination in mind. I screamed in my car where no one could hear me.

I have begged God to not let this happen to you. Or if it has to happen to you, I beg God to take you now before you get any worse. I know I can’t stand for you to get any worse.

July 13, 1992

Today I made some calls to local nursing homes. I have finally reached the point where I know that this is our only option. To leave you in your home would be negligent.

August 7, 1992

I went to your house tonight. It is the last evening you will ever be at home. You had several trash bags in your living room. You were putting things in the bags. I looked in one and found a pitcher, a puzzle, and a picture of me from high school. Each of these items started with the letter “P.” I still try to make sense of the things you do.

After I went home, you phoned me. It was the last time you would ever call me. You wanted to know if you could go home.

August 8, 1992

You went to the nursing home today. I watched you walk down the sidewalk into the nursing home. My heart ached when I remembered my promise to myself and to you that you would never go to a nursing home. I had hoped and prayed that God would intervene, but He did not.

I felt nauseated when I smelled that distinctive smell of nursing home.

You sat on your bed. I gave you some cookies to eat and hung up your clothes in the closet. There seemed to be so much more of an explanation I should make to you.

You were all I could think of as I laid in my bed and sobbed into the night.

August 9, 1992

When I woke this morning my first thought was that you are in the nursing home, and I must go and get you. I was certain that you felt as if we had abandoned you. You probably didn’t even know where you were.

When I arrived, I saw that you had tied your Bible and your purse up in one of your dresses making a kind of knapsack and put it under your bed.

I sighed and knew then I could never rescue you from this.

August 14, 1992

My heart sank when I arrived today.

You said, “Thank goodness you are here! I’ve been waiting all day.”

You had all of your clothes out on the bed, and your purse in your lap. You were getting ready to go home.

I was never a good liar. You always knew if I was even stretching the truth a little.

But I forced myself to say, “Just a little longer. Maybe just one more week and you can go home.”

Of course you saw through that. Even in your state of mind you could tell I was lying.

“Where are my car keys?” you asked. “I know you have them. I want them back.”

I panicked. I was on the verge of tears. I wanted more than anything to give your keys back. To have you whole again.

But I couldn’t answer you. Instead, I looked to the distant window. We were both free out there once.

You waited until your silence caused me to look back at you. Then you stared me right in the eye and said, “I know what you’re up to. You just want to get rid of me.”

You might as well have slapped me. I stood in your doorway and felt my legs tremble. I never wanted this for you, for us, but I would never convince you of that. It would be along time before I would ever know peace again.

I edged out of your doorway and into the hall. All I wanted in that one moment was to be away from whoever it was that you had become.

August 18, 1992

The nursing home called to tell me that you had gone out the door and started walking down the road. They wanted me to come talk to you. They said that if you kept doing that, they would have to put you in restraints.

When I got there, you shrugged and said, “I wasn’t lost.” You pointed somewhere only you could see. “I was only going across the field to visit Mama.”

You laughed, like I was making a big deal out of nothing.

I drove down the highway screaming again after I left you but it provided no satisfaction. It didn’t make you any better.

September 7, 1992

Your sister, Opal, called me from Arkansas today. She told me to bring you home from that nursing home. She hasn’t seen you. She can’t comprehend what has happened to you. There’s no way to explain in a phone call what has happened to you. There’s no way to explain what has happened to you if I had days and days.

September 14, 1992

Today was your first birthday in the nursing home. Gary, Brandon, and I took you out to eat at a restaurant. While we were eating, I asked you what you had done that day. You said you had made some pies.

Tears ran down Brandon’s face. He remembered the times he had made pies with you when he was a little boy.

As Gary helped you back into the car, I told Brandon that if I died suddenly or before I was old, he should get down on his knees and thank God that he would not have to endure seeing me like this.

September 20, 1992

The first time I saw you in a posey vest restraint, I didn’t think I could stand it. I wanted to rip it off you and take you out of there. But where would I take you?

October 21, 1992

You broke your hip yesterday. Seeing you in physical pain is so hard now because you don’t understand what has happened. I have to keep explaining to you that you broke your hip, and a few minutes later, you ask me again what happened. Doctors and caregivers dismiss you and direct their questions to me. If only there was something I could do to make all of this go away for you, I would do it.

October 22, 1992

You had hip surgery today. When you were in surgery, I thought maybe you would die a peaceful painless death and all of this would be over. But you woke up to your confused upside-down world.

December 6, 1992

It’s almost Christmas. Brandon has been in several track meets but I have not attended any. It seems to be all I can do to absorb what has happened to you. I thought after the first Christmas with you in the nursing home, I would have a pattern to go by, but this Christmas fills me with dread. How will I ever get through the rest of my life? Does it ever get any easier, Mother?

December 24, 1992

It’s Christmas Eve. It seems like a cruel joke, actually. All the glitzy decorations and the songs I used to like seem wrong and mean.

I started crying in Wal-mart. I had to leave my half-filled grocery cart in the aisle when “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” played over the sound system.

We gave you your presents and sat with you for awhile. You asked me the same questions over and over and I tried to be patient with you. I know you can’t help it. You wanted to know where my father is. You asked again and again why your parents have not come to visit you.

When we got back in the car to start home, I waited for the tears that always come, but I was too weary to cry.

January 12, 1992

I hate coming to see you, Mother.

March 4, 1993

Today, I helped you up out of the wheelchair and you stumbled, but then you took small steps as I held tightly onto you. You weren’t walking well, but it’s progress! I looked at the elation on your face and felt such joy in my own heart. You are getting better and coming back to us instead of always floating farther and farther away.

For the first time in so long, I felt hope.

April 2, 1992

Today is Brandon’s 17th birthday. We talked about his birth and first few days in this world. When I got to the part about Gary and I bringing Brandon home from the hospital to your house, my voice broke. I didn’t mean for it to happen. I wanted this to be a happy time for Brandon. I described you coming out into the yard and meeting Gary and wrapping Baby Brandon up in your arms and carrying him into your house. You gave him his first bath and your arms held him when he whimpered in the night. Your voice comforted him during those first few days of his life. He learned so much love from you mother. It’s a lot for all of us to lose. A whole lot.

June 7, 1993

I used to think Aunt Winnie was so silly to make so much of family, but here I am feeling the same way. I feel so alone. I keep thinking that there is someone I have overlooked – someone who would help me – if I could just think of who it is.

August 11, 1992

I haven’t seen you in almost a month. Brandon was in a wreck on August 5th. We heard the sirens in the distance and a feeling came over me. You know how those feelings are. I knew that it was Brandon – deep in my soul.

My legs were jelly when I saw the wreck. I ran screaming across the field to get as close to him as I could. I walked right up to the car past the paramedics and looked at him but he didn’t know I was there.

He had several life-threatening injuries, but he was alive. My Brandon was alive. He didn’t die in that wreck. It’s all I could think about – how close I came to losing my future so quickly on the heels of losing my past.

September 12, 1992

Brandon was in the hospital for almost two weeks. You were just a few blocks away in the nursing home, but you might as well have been on the moon.

May 28, 1992

Brandon walked across the stage and claimed his high school diploma tonight. He still limps a little, but he’s alive. When he was little, I thought the days would never end and he would never settle down and go to sleep. Now all those days are gone. You told me this time would come, Mother. Now I would love to have some of that other time back. Is that the way you feel, too?

February 18, 1996

Your sister, Jewel, died today. I didn’t tell you. I know that she was your favorite. You told me that she always took time to read stories to you when you were a little girl. I’m glad you had such a sweet older sister. When you get to heaven, Jewel will be there waiting for you. 

November 24, 1996

Another Thanksgiving has come. Brandon helped me with cooking. I know you probably cannot imagine it, but Brandon is 21. Sometimes it seems as if everything stopped when you got sick and that Brandon will be forever 16. But time has marched on.

October 7, 1997

I came to visit you at the nursing home today. But of course it wasn’t you I saw. It was what is left of you. You were sitting in the dining room holding your doll. I pretend that the doll is a baby because I would do anything to make your life a little happier. There are times when I can’t cry. Those are the worst times. I feel as if I don’t have any more tears. It doesn’t make any earthly sense to me that you have kept on living all these years.

December 25, 1997

As I looked about my house tonight it was filled with laughter and fun and relatives, but you were not there. I try so hard not to grieve for you constantly because your body may live a lot longer and I have to pace myself.

Your sister, Opal, died last week. I sent flowers to Jewel’s funeral, but I just couldn’t make myself send flowers to Opal’s. You would be ashamed of me, I guess.

You have lost so much since you have been sick, but you are blissfully unaware.

May 24, 1998

I so wish I could come and sit down and talk to you about everything that has happened. There are so many things I need to tell you. Brandon is getting married in August. I know that to you, Brandon is still a little baby, but in reality he is a grown man. You have been there every step of his life, and I don’t think any of us know what to do without you. Life is so much harder than we ever thought it would be.

November 1, 1999

I feel as if I have been at your funeral for six years. I don’t know if I will ever adjust to you not being you. I don’t want to remember you like this! At times when this facsimile of you talks, I listen close and strain to hear what my real Mother would say. My heart yearns to share this burden with you. Would you understand how painful this has been? Would you be surprised at what you have become and the anguish and sorrow your illness has caused? There are no rituals or traditions to follow in this long goodbye. There is only grief and sadness every day. There are no days off, no closure, no time to grieve and move on. Your death is a living death and you don’t even know that you have died.


Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas 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.

The Man in Her Car

By Karen Brode

“Did I tell you about the man in my car?”

My mother had just been telling me about her day, like it was any other day. Her question, though, seemed to come out of nowhere. It hit me like a sour note in a song. We had been talking for at least ten minutes and, not only had she not yet mentioned this man, she didn’t seem at all shaken by it.

I, on the other hand, felt a twinge of panic.

“What man?” I asked. My mind raced through a thousand scenarios of why there might be a man in her car and what could possibly have happened. I tried to remind myself that I was talking to my mother. She was still alive. No mention had been made yet of any ransom required to release her from kidnappers.

But rather than answer my question, she moved on as if noticing this man in her car was just a casual observation, like noticing a house weeks after it had been painted lilac purple.

“Cleo has been so lost ever since Neal died.”

I closed my eyes and held my breath.

“Patience,” I whispered to myself.

Cleo was my mother’s sister. She was tall and stick-figure thin and she hated it. As a young woman, she had worried about being so tall and finding a man who would love her. When Neal came along, it was clear to everyone that she felt as if she had won the lottery.

Cleo wasn’t my mother’s favorite sister, but Mother was happy when my aunt and uncle moved back to Denison. The two of them talked for hours on the phone at night after Neal had gone to sleep. Cleo didn’t talk on the phone if her husband was around. Even after all the years of being married to him, she was careful to cook his favorite foods and listen to his stories and make him feel special.

Mother thought this was not necessary because Neal wasn’t exactly good looking, but he may have thought he was. And Cleo certainly thought he was.

When he died, my aunt mourned like every other widow, but the loss seemed etched into her even more deeply than other widows I had seen. It seemed to take her longer to find her life again.

“Cleo called me this morning and told me she was about as lonesome as she could be,” Mother continued. “You know she sold her car because she can’t drive. It’s lucky that she lives right by Kroger so she can at least get her groceries.”

Mother paused for a moment and I was about to ask her more about the man in her car when she continued on with her story.

“You know the people at Kroger are mad at her because she left the parking lot with one of their grocery carts a few months back.”

Mother sighed. I couldn’t tell if it was because of Cleo or because the people at Kroger were mad. I told myself she was telling me all of this to lead up to the man in her car, but it did seem to be taking forever.

“She told them she was only taking her groceries home and would bring the cart back, but they’ve been watching her when she comes in now. She would prefer to go somewhere else for her groceries. Now she can only buy a day’s worth of groceries, and she picks up her sack and wouldn’t think of even touching a grocery cart in their store. It’s all so ridiculous!”

“Mother, what about the man in your car?” I finally said, sounding more snappish than I had intended.

“Oh yes, before I went to Cleo’s house I made a lemon meringue pie and oh, it was so good! Cleo said she hadn’t eaten anything that good in so long. I stayed at her house all afternoon and we talked about old times because, you know, those were the best times. Even if we were as poor as Job’s turkey, we had fun together when the kids were little.”

An old twinge of jealousy tightened my chest and burned up to my ears. The times she reminisced about—the times she called “the best”—were the years well before I was born. My parents had been married for 20 years and had two nearly grown sons when I came along. Talk like that only reinforced my feeling that I really wasn’t part of my family. I had missed so much being born so late. And I wasn’t stupid enough to assume I had been planned. There’s nothing quite so unsettling as to realize you’re not just an accident but you missed all the years when the family was a real family.

My thoughts were interrupted when Mother continued.

“That Cleo,” she said. “They broke the mold after they made her. Do you remember that summer that she sued the bus company? She wore that neck brace for months and everyone watched when she would try to raise her hand above her head! Her hand would start shaking. You could tell she was just doing it on purpose! Mother would be laughing hysterically by then but Cleo got the last laugh because she won a big settlement.”

“Mother!” I had run out of patience. “Tell me about the man in your car!”

“I will, I will,” she said. She still had the laugh in her voice about Cleo’s bus settlement. My outburst hadn’t even fazed her.

“So, I took Cleo that pie and we had to talk in spurts because, even if it was raining, people still came by to look through her porch sale items. I wouldn’t want people coming to my house all day like that! You can barely get through all the clothing racks and boxes of knickknacks and tables with costume jewelry to get to her front door! That would drive me crazy to have all that on my front porch! You know that one of her neighbors reported her to some city agency, whatever agency it is that makes all the city rules people have to follow. They said she had a perpetual garage sale, and that is not allowed in the city of Denison.”

This went on for another five minutes until I said, “Oh, good grief, Mother! Was there a man in your car?”

“Yes,” she said. Her voice became thoughtful then. “I wanted to get home before dark. You know how I hate to get home after dark. Cleo seemed to be in better spirits. She packed up some of that custard that I like. Mine never tastes as good as hers. It makes me wonder if she may have left out some of the ingredients when she gave me the recipe.

“Well, I had my purse and the custard and a few books in my arms as I started out the door and that’s when I saw him! My car was parked in Cleo’s driveway there at the side of her house. It wasn’t ten feet away from where I was standing. For a minute, I just stood there looking at him, sort of awestruck, I guess. Cleo had gone back to her kitchen at the back of the house, and I stood there looking at him for the longest time. He was sitting at the steering wheel. He was a large man and he was wearing dark shades and a white shirt. I didn’t know what to do. I stared at him but he just kept looking straight ahead. Then he turned his head slightly and looked right at me. You talk about a creepy feeling! I started backing up into Cleo’s house and I whispered real loud for her to come. I told her there was a man in my car.

“By the time she got to the living room, she was white as a sheet! Both of us just stood there not knowing what to do.

“Cleo asked me if I knew the man, but of course I didn’t know him! Would I have been shaking like I was if I did? And then she asked how we were supposed to get him out of there.

“When I told her I didn’t know, she threw her dish towel over her shoulder and started toward my car! I tried to stop her. I told her he might shoot her head off, but she just kept going! She said she wanted to ask him what he was doing in my car! When she got to the car and opened the passenger door, he was gone! Cleo looked everywhere, but there was no sign of the man in the white shirt with dark shades.”

At some point in my mother’s story, I had had to sit down. I imagined my mother’s car being stolen or Aunt Cleo being shot. I was wondering why they hadn’t just called the police and was close to hanging up to call them myself. But when she said my aunt hadn’t seen anybody, my pulse slowed a little and the panic that had been building up eased. It had been nothing, I told myself.

“Oh, Mother,” I said. “You just thought you saw something. It was probably just the shadows playing tricks on you.”

“He looked right at me,” she said, sounding a little hurt. “I didn’t like him looking at me. It was like he was waiting for something. I didn’t like the feeling at all. And then he just disappeared into thin air. One minute he was there, and the next minute he wasn’t.”

“Mother, maybe it was your imagination.”

“Was it Cleo’s imagination, too?”


Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas 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.

Spirits In The Wind

By Karen Brode

“Karen,” said the strained voice on the other end of the line. “I need to see you.”

I knew the voice well. It was my brother, John, but the urgency and fear in his voice made me shudder. Before I said anything, my thoughts immediately jumped to the worst conclusions—cancer, accident, death.

“What is it?” I asked. “Are you okay? How’s Jan? Is she hurt?”

“It’s nothing like that,” he said, resuming his usual gruff tone. “It’s…it’s something I can’t talk about on the phone.”

I could almost feel him looking around to see if someone was watching. Now I wondered if he had committed some horrid crime. My hands broke out into a sweat and the earpiece of the phone receiver stuck to my ear from perspiration.

“What did you do, John?” I asked. My voice trembled imagining what he had done.

“Nothing!” he said. “I just…it’s just…I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

I paced a hole in the floor in the time it took my brother to get to my house. When he banged on the door, I jumped. By then, I was a complete wreck. I had told myself that I would demand him to tell me what had happened before letting him in my house. If he had committed a crime, he could be endangering me or my husband by making us accessories. And I didn’t want to go to jail.

But when I opened the door, the shell of my brother stood before me. His face was pale and clammy. I couldn’t utter a single word looking at him.

He didn’t wait for an invitation, either. He pushed past me into the living room and sat down in the green chair he always favored when he visited. He leaned his head back and let out a long sigh.

“They were all in that wind,” he said.

“What wind?” I asked. “Who?” I was at a complete loss where he was going with this.

“Look outside!” he said.

I pulled the curtain from the picture window that looked out onto the street.

“I don’t see any wind,” I said. I was beginning to think maybe John had lost it. Or maybe he was on something?

“Exactly,” he said. “And what month is it?”

“John, this is ridiculous. Just tell me what’s going on.”

He bolted up in his chair and said, “It’s August!”

I just stared at him. I didn’t know where this was going and why he was so upset.

“August in North Texas isn’t exactly known for its cold wind, is it?” He leaned back in the chair as if he had just clarified everything.

“I don’t know where you’re going with this,” I said.

He nodded and closed his eyes.

“You know that property I bought from you?” he asked.

I nodded, but didn’t say anything.

How could I forget? It was my share of the old homestead our grandparents had left us in their wills. And John had essentially badgered me out of my share for a price I would never have taken from anyone else. He knew no one wanted to fight with him. He was so blustery and his threats seemed real when he made them. So, everyone in the family just gave in before things got ugly, even if it meant giving up a piece of good land at a bad price.

My silence made him open his eyes and he glared at me, thinking I hadn’t answered his question.

“Yes, John, I know the property you bought.”

“Our grandparents’ homestead,” he said, as if I needed reminding.

“Yes.”

“Well, did you know that the old home place burned last night?”

“I heard something about it, yes,” I said. I had also heard that John had arranged for the house to be burned down. It was just too coincidental that the house burned almost immediately after he assumed ownership. It seemed clear to me that he didn’t want the house. He wanted the proceeds from the insurance company.

John leaned forward in his chair. “The whole place is gone,” he said. “All those family times we had…now all that’s left is a pile of smoldering ashes and the old chimney.”

His voice shook a little when he talked.

“I thought I was going to cry when I saw it,” he continued. I noticed his hands were shaking when he lowered his head and covered his eyes with them.

I pictured it as he described, a chimney just standing there like a sentinel in the remains of the house. I remembered when they had built a sidewalk from the front porch steps to the road, and I thought of what the sidewalk must look like now, a sidewalk to nowhere. I supposed the storm cellar was still there, also. I could picture in my mind how desolate it must look.

John had raised his head and shook out a cigarette from his pack. He looked around for an ashtray.

“I don’t have one.” I reminded him.

He sat with the cigarette between his fingers and his eyes seemed to lose focus, like they were looking at something distant, some memory.

“When I drove up in front of what was left of the house,” he said, “I couldn’t believe it! This was the house they loved.”

I nodded. “They had loved that home,” I said.

“I cried, Karen!” He seemed almost in tears now, which was enough of a shock by itself. “I don’t think I can go back down there ever again!”

“I might go down there later,” I told him, just trying to calm him down. I had no desire to see the way it looked now, but I didn’t want him to know that, so I added, “I don’t want to see it right now, though.”

John fell back against the back of the chair and looked up at the ceiling.

“I got out of the car,” he went on. His voice sounded dry. “I stood there at the edge of the road, but I couldn’t make myself go any closer.”

“I understand all this, John, but you seemed urgent on the phone. Was it about the fire?”

He turned his head and looked at me. “Then the wind came.”

“What wind?” I was starting to get impatient.

He turned his face away from me. He was crying. He was never one to show emotion, at least nothing like fear or sadness. I thought about how our mother used to fret over the fact that he wasn’t like other kids. His emotions were so buried inside him—all except anger. He didn’t want the kind of hugs and cuddles I adored from our mother. And he definitely didn’t care if anyone approved of him—not like me. It upset me terribly if our mother was mad at me. John, though, he would do the most horrible things and never apologize for them. So, to see him crying now worried me.

I waited for him to answer, but he didn’t right away. He wouldn’t look at me. He stood up, walked to the window, and looked outside. He seemed to be checking if someone was coming for him.

Finally, he dropped the curtain and looked over at me. The tears had all but dried from his eyes.

“That wind came out of nowhere,” he said. “It was cold and it completely surrounded me.” He lifted his arms out and made a motion to demonstrate how the wind circled around him.

“It enveloped me and then,” he snapped his fingers. “As fast as it had come, it was gone.”

He leaned in closer and said in a low voice, “Karen I think they were all in that wind.”

I blinked back at him and tried not to smile. What he said sounded crazy.

“You think Granddaddy and Grandmother were in the wind?” I managed to keep the giggles from bubbling to my mouth.

The look John gave me made me hiccup. He was completely serious, almost terrified.

“All of them, Karen. Every last one of them who had lived and loved in that house. They were all in that wind.”

I took a deep breath. It was only wind, I thought. As nervous as John was making me, I reminded myself that at least he hadn’t robbed a bank or killed somebody. It was just the wind.

But John wasn’t finished.

“I’m telling you, it wasn’t just a normal wind,” he said. “There were presences in that wind. And…and they are all mad at me!” He looked away from me, back outside, and whispered, “They think I am a fool.”

Hometown But Not Home

By Eliot Gregory

After so many years away, I was back in my hometown. I didn’t know if anyone would remember me. I sort of hoped they wouldn’t. I liked the idea of being a bit invisible.

This was where Bradley and I had grown up. We were fraternal twins and there could not have been two people in the world who were less alike than my brother and I. It often seemed like our birth and childhood had been a cosmic joke.

Bradley had been a football player in high school and he looked like it. At six foot two with eyes of blue he was the stereotypical heartthrob quarterback that everyone worshipped.

No one worshipped me. I was almost the exact opposite of my brother. I was tall, but not as tall as Bradley. I had a ruddy complexion with dishwater blonde hair. While Bradley was the picture of American masculinity, I was wispy and thin. Perhaps the biggest difference of all, at least to our parents, was that I was gay and he wasn’t.

As you might imagine, high school was not something I wished to prolong, whereas Bradley’s glory days were those between the ages of 16 and 18 when he was king of the varsity team. At the time, I was jealous of him for all the admiration he had, but as time went by, I watched how fervently he clung to those memories, as if time might possibly stand still and he could relive them again one day.

That never happened, of course, and everything else that came after it paled by comparison. None of his wives lived up to the girls he had dated in high school, even though at least two of them had been girls he had dated in high school. Eventually, even his children left him as he slipped into middle age and held on to the dreams of a boy.

Even though I had been only a shadow in his life when we were kids, it still hurt me in a primal way to see Bradley suffer as an adult. His failures led to addictions and, before it was all over, the failures won. They were larger and heavier than the few victories he’d had in his youth. I watched my brother give up. He stumbled down life’s road and stopped caring anymore about anything.

I would never have wanted that for him, not ever. But I’ll admit that, after all I had been through—none of which Bradley noticed or acknowledged—a part of me initially felt a bit justified when he came to me for money or needed help sobering up. I admit to feeling a twinge of justice that he had not had a completely charmed life.

The cool autumn air forced me back into the present. I felt a chill walking down the sidewalk. I was in my old neighborhood. The sun was just starting to set but the old-growth trees blocked what warmth might have lingered. I pulled my cardigan tighter across my chest and folded my arms to keep it there. It wasn’t lost on me that this might also be a way of protecting myself from the past.

The neighborhood hadn’t changed much in thirty years. The old homes were stately with beautiful lawns. Some even had the proverbial white picket fence. It was so perfect in some people’s view of perfection, but even as a small child I knew I would never fit into that particular view. I used to think that it was only me who was different, but I have lived long enough now to know that the lives of people – anywhere – are often not what they seemed to be.

Finally, I came to the house where Bradley and I had grown up. It had been repainted probably a half a dozen times since we had lived there and some of the trees had been replaced over the years, but otherwise, it was the same. Or, at least, it felt the same.

I thought back to the sign my dad had pounded into the front lawn boasting his son’s status as an all-star quarterback on the football team. How many Friday nights had we traveled to Bradley’s games and cheered him on?

My eyes lingered on the window that used to be my room. There were shutters now where there had once been curtains. My mother had sewn them by hand. I wondered if the built-in desk was still there. I had logged so many hours at that desk, studying for tests and memorizing lines for the plays I was in. It’s how I earned a scholarship to the school that set me on the path I had followed for the last 25 years. I tried not to think about the disappointment of the boy who had sat at that desk, hoping that maybe this time his parents would show up to the play he was lead in, hoping for the kind of celebration Bradley got when he brought home another victory.

These days I was proud of what I had accomplished, proud of the love and acceptance I had in my life. I could see, though, why Bradley had clung so much to his time living in that house. He had the love and acceptance then that it took me a lifetime to discover. There was never any doubt in my mind that my parents might have been happier if I had not been a member of their family. So, while Bradley stayed locked in the past, I ran as fast as I could toward a future that might be different from what I had known as a child.

A car pulled into the drive across the street and it woke me from my thoughts. I moved on. I didn’t care to be questioned by one of the residents of the neighborhood.

I’m not sure why my feet took me past the old church I had attended as a child, but I did feel drawn there. Church was no longer a part of my life. I came out when I was in my twenties and was told I no longer had a place there. By then, it wasn’t much of a shock and, in some ways, was a little bit of a relief. I was released to go find community with people who would love me for who I was. In my heart, I knew what drew me there now wasn’t the church. It was the cemetery where my parents and Bradley were buried.

I walked under the archway at the entrance to the cemetery, and headed down a small pathway to the family plot. My parents lay side by side under the double gravestone. I ran my fingers over the chiseled names and dates. My mother had purchased the tombstone after my father died not long after Bradley and I had graduated high school. Mother’s gravestone sat for over twenty years unclaimed. Her name and birthdate had been there but there was nothing after the little dash.

Mother died less than a year after Bradley killed himself. Even standing there alone, I wanted to use euphemisms when I thought about Bradley’s death, but the truth was the truth.

All the years of hard living took a toll on him. He hadn’t thought about what he might do after high school. I guess he thought it would always be like that.

He was diagnosed with Type II diabetes when he was in his thirties and it was like nothing to him. I can still see him sitting at Mom’s thanksgiving feast asking if he could have another piece of pecan pie. Then the drugs and alcohol caught up to him. He had a stroke at forty that miraculously didn’t take his life but it left him limping and one side of his face was always a little slower to react than the other.

A few years back, he had confided that he had stopped taking all of his medications. He wasn’t going to the doctor anymore. He was tired of it all. I tried to rally him, to give him reasons to live, but nothing worked.

Now – when I think about it – I wonder why I didn’t jump up and go find his medications and make him swallow them. The truth is, he wouldn’t have done it, and, toward the end, he was just unhinged enough to say I tried to kill him.

By the summer after his stroke, he was in a wheelchair, but not the one he wanted. He was so angry about everything by then, and I can’t say that I blame him. But he wanted to blame me.

“If only I had the motorized wheelchair,” I heard him saying. “I wouldn’t have to rely on you.”

He had ordered one in the spring and by summer it still hadn’t come. He was convinced that was the only thing that would keep him going, and he blamed me because I had not yet called the company to find out what was going on.

I couldn’t get the company to move any faster on the wheelchair, so I tried to be there in other ways. It was no use. When I took him for a leisurely stroll in a park near his house, he screamed the entire time. He accused me of trying to dump him out of his wheelchair and kill him. I’ll be honest. The more he kept on about this, the harder it was for me not to just dump him out of his wheelchair and go on with things.

And then there was the diagnosis of cancer. His dentist found the tumor under his tongue. By then, though, it had invaded his jawbone. I tried not to imagine what he might look like after that surgery.

Surgery couldn’t happen, though. The doctors called Mother and I as next of kin to be present when they broke the news.

“This is the worst case of cirrhosis of the liver I have ever seen,” they said. “His heart is enlarged and the cancer has spread to his lungs.” They couldn’t do surgery, not with all of that.

We sat there in that little room after the doctors left. I remember searching my mind for something to say that would be comforting, but there was nothing. I just looked up at him, into those bloodshot, empty eyes. He was broken.

He had enough pills and things to keep the pain at bay that it would have killed a horse to take them all at once. As it was, Bradley was halfway gone already, so I can’t imagine that it took long for him to go after he swallowed the whole bottle. I try not to think of it, what his last moments were like, but when I do, I realize that it was really his last years that were the worst. He hated his life.

There are questions I could never answer. My poor mother followed Bradley to the grave soon after his death. She just didn’t have the will to go on and I was definitely not enough to keep her here.

First Summer Home

By Grace Washington

Sunday mornings were always busy in Momma’s house. All five of us kids knew church attendance was mandatory. Even I, who had been off at college over the last year, knew not to question that.

Being the oldest, it was my job to help the younger ones get ready. I had just stood up from buckling my baby sister’s shoes when I caught my mother looking in the mirror in her bedroom. Outside that room I felt the chaos of five young people getting their hair pinned back or worrying about where they put their gloves. Inside Momma’s bedroom, it was completely still.

“What you looking at, child?” my mother asked, her eyes still turned toward the mirror while she adjusted her hat.

“It’s just so quiet in there,” I said. I walked forward to the doorway and leaned against the frame.

It had been months since my father had passed away. The last time I had been home, he had been confined to the bed that was now perfectly made, without the hint of a wrinkle. He had shriveled up to nothing by then, but his presence was anything but quiet. He was in such pain and misery and so very helpless. I was at college when he died, but Momma told me to stay put. She didn’t want me to miss a day of schooling.

“I’ve got church folks who can help out,” she had said over the phone. Her voice had sounded so tired, so worn.

So I had stayed at school and finished my semester there, telling myself that it was only a couple of weeks, trying to believe that she would need my help more once the reality of things set in.

Momma turned from the mirror and smiled. That weariness I had heard in her voice on the phone showed up in the wrinkles that tugged at her eyes. She was forty-five, but she looked sixty. She had the same expression on her face that I had seen on other black people as they aged. It was the look of resignation.

“We all ready for church?” she asked. She walked past me and patted me on the shoulder.

“Yes ma’am,” I said. I walked to the table and put my own hat on. “We’re ready.

All of us moved toward the door and I noticed as Momma walked through, her shoulders relaxed and her posture grew more confident. We were going to church as we had done every Sunday since before I was born, but it was the first time I realized what it gave my mother. It was a way for her to feel more hopeful and secure about her life and the world in which she lived.

The walk to the church was not far and we met up with others along the way. I had grown up around all of them. We were like extended family, really.

I watched Momma greeting the other families. She was so graceful, so much more alive than any other time. Her smiles were effortless with her lady friends at church. I thought about the many times I had seen them gather at one another’s homes after worship and how everyone raved about my momma’s bread pudding

No wonder she loved it so. It gave her so much and helped her keep going. As happy as it made me to know she was well loved and respected, my year at college had opened my eyes to a life different than this. It was a hoped-for life, but it was a life without the weary ways of hard labor and racial injustice. I felt sad when I realized that there were borders in every part of my Momma’s life, lines not to be crossed. She had accepted her lot in life a long time ago, but I couldn’t let go of the possibilities of something different.

Walking with those families to church for the first time since returning from school, I couldn’t help but feel a world apart. I think they felt similarly. Sure, they smiled and were kind, but they looked at me differently, as if I had crossed one of those borders, as if I had betrayed them somehow.

My sister Pearl seemed to believe I had and she told me so.

“What you think you’re doing?” she had said before I left for college. “You just going to make life harder for all of us!”

I remember then struggling to keep my mouth shut. What did she know? She was 15, beautiful, and boy crazy. With all the boys who flocked around her, she was headed toward babies and marriage before she was 17. I didn’t think she had a lick of sense. But since returning from school, I was starting to think maybe others felt the same way.

Still, I did my best that summer to fit back in and to help out Momma. I put on a uniform, just like Momma’s, and I accompanied her to her cleaning jobs. When she wasn’t at the nursing home taking care of old white folks, she was cleaning their families’ houses. She worked so hard. I wanted to take some of the burden off her if I could.

No matter what I did, though, I couldn’t shut out the year of college under my belt. It had opened my mind, raised my consciousness. Momma never questioned her existence. She didn’t have the luxury to think about it, I guessed. And she didn’t understand why I did. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help. I especially wanted to make Momma’s life better, but as the weeks passed, I didn’t think change would come in time to save her.

That first morning of work together, she and I left before the sun was over the rooftops. The early summer air was fresh, not yet sticky like it would be later in the day.

A few minutes passed before either of us said anything. It was enough to be together, to listen to the birds busy in the trees and bushes.

It was Momma who broke the silence. When she spoke, I realized that she had been holding whatever it was in. Her words came out awkward and hurried.

“Gracey, there’s something you need to know.”

I stopped walking and turned to look at her. She stopped too, but she looked off in the direction we were headed. I had the sensation that she was afraid to go on but also afraid not to.

“We’ve got a job to do today,” she said. Her fingers dug into the pockets on the front of her apron, which was part of her uniform.

“Yes, ma’am.” I held my breath and dared not rush her. She seemed skittish as an old hen.

“It’s just,” she said and then paused for too long. She was searching for something. “Maybe you oughtn’t to come with me.”

I felt my shoulders stiffen. Was Pearl right? Had I made things harder for our family by going to college? Is that what this was about?

Before I could protest, Momma raised a hand to my arm. “There’s a man at this first job,” she said. “He’s…he’s not a good man.”

My cheeks burned hot with anger at the thought that someone had hurt my mother. I wanted to scream, but I knew it would do no good to anyone.

Instead, I took a deep breath. My lips trembled as I said, “Momma, has he hurt you?”

She looked down and then off again toward the place where we had been heading. “His wife is usually there,” she said.

She didn’t answer my question directly, but she didn’t have to. I tried not to hate anyone. Being vindictive and resentful never did anyone any good. But sometimes, I just wanted to take matters into my own hands and hurt those who hurt the ones I loved, especially Momma.

“You can’t go there, Momma,” I said. I heard the pleading in my voice and I couldn’t control it. “Please. Let’s find something else.”

She shook her head. “If I don’t go, there won’t be anything else. Word gets out that I’ve up and quit for no good reason I won’t get another job anywhere. Gracey, I need the money.”

I looked into her dark eyes and I felt all her weariness weighing into my shoulders. Survival was why she put up with this life. She just needed to get through another day, get her kids fed and grown. I wanted to take all that from her and give her a good life. I wanted her to have respect and ease and comfort. And then I felt the resignation I had seen in her. It crept up into my shoulders and neck. She had no other choice. There were hungry mouths to fill and no other way of making do.

“I’ll go with you, Momma,” I said. I tried to speak evenly so she wouldn’t hear the heartbreak in my voice. “Maybe with two of us there….”

I didn’t finish the sentence. I wouldn’t have been able to without being honest. The truth was that I hoped with us both there he wouldn’t try anything and I wouldn’t have to kill him.

Momma nodded. She held out her hand and I took it. She wrapped my arm in with hers and we walked the rest of the way in silence.

_______________________

Grace Washington is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. Her stories often uncover the realities and courage of those who fight for justice.