Harold’s Boots

By Karen Brode

Marjorie and Joe were in bed late for a Sunday morning. Any other time, it would have been unthinkable, but today all they could do was stare at the blank ceiling and try to feel something other than the numbness.

“Why did we let him go to that rodeo?” Marjorie asked, her voice cracking over the words.

Joe was silent for a long time. She thought for a moment he had fallen asleep and it made her angry in a way. How could he sleep when their oldest son had just died?

Joe wasn’t asleep, though. In a monotone voice she could barely hear, he said, “He was 19. What were we supposed to do?”

They both broke down again, Joe turning away from Marjorie. She knew he didn’t want her to see him so broken. He was a cop. He had seen the worst of things. He was always the strong one.

Meanwhile, Marjorie just lay on her back and cried into the empty air. The world she had thought she had such great control over yesterday spun out of control when the phone rang at two in the morning. She didn’t have to be told something had happened. She knew. She had been out on the porch waiting for their son Harold to drive around the corner. He was never late. He was a good son.

She managed to smile then, thinking about her child. Harold wasn’t like so many of the young people they saw with long hair and a general air of rebellion. He kept his hair short and well groomed. He was especially handsome that summer he had a buzz-cut. She couldn’t remember for sure which summer it was. They all blurred together now.

Harold had always been thin, almost too thin. Marjorie thought about how he lifted weights every night in his bedroom to try to build up his arms and look bigger. She almost laughed remembering him take on a boxer’s pose to show them how much his muscles had grown.

Up until yesterday, their lives had all been so good. Marjorie and Joe had good kids – three of them, though now there were only two, she remembered. She tried to remind herself that the other two were good kids too.

Bonnie was so smart. It seemed especially cruel that her daughter was so successful in school but she didn’t have any real friends. Up until yesterday, the greatest heartbreak Marjorie had experienced was seeing how cruel other girls were to her Bonnie. She had tried to help her daughter deal with the weight that caused her so much grief, but it always came out wrong. It always seemed to make Bonnie think that Marjorie saw her in the same way those mean girls at school did.

Harold and Bonnie looked a lot like Joe, but their youngest, Jerry, looked like Marjorie. She smiled when she watched him playing out in the backyard as she cooked. He truly was a beautiful boy. Her heart was lighter when he was in the room with her. He reminded her of her older brother who had died of pneumonia when he was in the army.

Being a mother of three, Marjorie thought she had seen it all. There were days of chicken pox and measles. Jerry had to have a tonsillectomy one winter when he stayed sick for months. And she had come very close to tragedy on other occasions with her children. A car had hit Jerry when he was nine.

Marjorie recited the story to the other policemen’s wives more than once. She had heard the squealing tires, the yelling, and she knew. Mothers just know sometimes. She knew something had happened to Jerry, and she rushed down only to find his body on the pavement a few feet from the car.

She had run to comfort her son, but a man standing nearby grabbed her and held her back and told her that she could hurt him worse if she moved him. The ambulance arrived and she had climbed on board to go with him. She prayed and begged God not to take her Jerry away. And he hadn’t. Jerry recovered with only a tiny scar across his forehead as a reminder of that awful day.

She thought she had seen it all by then, but as another wave of sobs rattled through her she started to think that all the other days before had just been part of the routine. Yesterday might have been the last truly normal day she would ever have. Harold had not been spared as Jerry had before. He had simply been walking his girlfriend to his car across the parking lot when a drunk driver spun out of control and slammed into him, sending him flying 30 feet. There’s no way he would have survived.

Marjorie played out in her mind every detail of that last day she had with her son. In some way it seemed like it had happened years ago already. Maybe that was what shock did. It made time twirl and tilt until you weren’t sure what was real and what wasn’t.

Harold had been home all day. He had been working on his car. He got his clothes all greasy and then he got all spiffed up to go out with Susan, his girlfriend.

“Do I look like a cowboy, Mom?” he had asked as he tipped his cowboy hat in her direction while she washed a plate in soapy water.

She turned and smiled at her son. The warmth of that moment felt so real to her.

“You sure do,” she had said. She dried her hands on a towel and turned full around to get a better look at him. He had on a short sleeve cowboy shirt and jeans that she had ironed with great care to get the creases in the front just like he liked. And he wore his black cowboy boots.

“You worked hard for those boots,” she told him. She had felt so proud of him for working so hard on a paper route to earn the money for those boots. “You and Susan are going to have a good time at the rodeo, I think.”

She walked over to him, adjusted his bolo tie, and gave him a tight hug. She had started to ask if he and Susan had talked any about getting married, but Harold had bent down and kissed her on the cheek before she could say anything more.

“Don’t wait up for me,” he said.

She laughed and shook her head before walking back to the sink. It was a joke between the two of them. He knew she always waited up and she knew he would always come home. He had before.

Harold had gone out the back door then and Marjorie went back to the dishes as if nothing could ever happen to take her child away from her.

Marjorie thought of her mother then. She had been gone for several years, but Marjorie’s heart ached now to have her mother hold her. They could cry together.

Harold had been the first grandchild. She had ridden a bus all the way from Pascagoula to spend a week with them and help out with the new baby. It had been such a special and happy time for all of them.

It was in this moment, in the midst of all this pain, that she realized she had no one to turn to like she would her mother. She felt lonely. There were no real women friends she felt close to. She had had friends in high school, but they had all drifted apart.

Church didn’t offer much in the way of comfort then either. They went to church every Sunday, but people there didn’t really say much to each other about daily sadness, much less horrific tragedy. They smiled and waved and clapped each other on the back and pretended everything was fine. Sometimes Marjorie wanted to call one of the ladies in her church circle. She wanted to ask her if she ever felt depressed or lonely for no reason. But Marjorie never did that.

The only other social activity she had was the Policeman’s Wives Auxiliary meetings every other Monday night at the community center. There were folding chairs set up in rows and the wives listened to someone talk about budgets and city ordinances for about twenty minutes. Then they’d eat tiny pieces of coffee cake and drink coffee while the children rushed to a table set just for them to get a cookie.

Usually after the lecture, the women would scoot their chairs around a bit so they were in a circle and they could discuss recipes and wallpaper and dress patterns. Anything more personal than that was not even considered by any of them.

Joe’s movement pulled Marjorie back from her thoughts. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He didn’t look at Marjorie or say anything for a while. He looked like he might be holding his breath.

“Where you going?” She whispered through tears and a stuffed up nose.

He shook his head and looked down at the floor.

“I need some air,” he finally said. His voice squeaked on the last word and, before she could say anything else, he hopped off the bed and slammed his way through the house to the back door.

A chill ran through Marjorie as she watched and listened. Was he leaving? Was he going somewhere without her? What if something happened to him too?

She forced herself to sit up and get out of bed. She shuffled to the kitchen where she could look out the back window to the garage. Joe was there. He was just standing in the middle of the yard looking at the spot where Harold always parked the car.

Watching her husband hurt like that and seeing the evidence of Harold’s death in front of her felt like a horse kicked her in the stomach. She bent over and slid to the floor crying.

She had ended up in that spot the night before after the phone rang. Joe had taken the call. She had watched his face turn white and she knew. Her heart had stopped and she had screamed until Joe had come and folded her in her arms and told her their son had died.

She barely heard anything after that. She knew someone had told her that Harold’s girlfriend was okay. She knew that someone had said Harold had been a hero to push Susan out of the way at the last minute, but she could not really hear or see or feel anything after she had been told her son was dead.

And then someone knocked on the door. She woke out of her misery and she pushed Joe from her and stood to run to the door.

“Harold!” She said, opening the door. “I knew it was a mistake! I knew you’d come….”

Her voice trailed off when she saw the police officers standing in front of her. Their eyes were puffy and red and she wondered why they should be crying when it was her son. But then she remembered – they were Joe’s friends. They were men she had known since she married Joe. They loved Harold almost as much as she did.

Joe came up behind her and nodded to the officers standing in their doorway.

“Come on in,” he said, gently tugging Marjorie to one side.

“We didn’t want anyone else to bring these,” one man said.

Marjorie looked up. There were tears in each man’s eyes. Then she looked at what they held out to her.

Harold’s boots.

“We’re so sorry,” one of them said, choking on his words. “We’re so sorry.”

Marjorie figured she fainted then. She may have screamed before as well. She woke up who knows how long after. She was on the bed and Joe was next to her. She looked him in the eyes and wept as she prayed out loud that it had just been a nightmare.


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 Letter from Maria

By Luis Martin

“Here comes that white nigger.” My older brother Miguel kept his dark piercing eyes trained on the woman who walked past our car as we sat parked on Main St. by the courthouse.

I watched the woman walk by. She was white from what I could tell, but I now I wouldn’t be able to look at her without thinking that she was also black. In our little town of Neasbitt, Texas, right on the border of Mexico, I had only ever really known Mexican people and white kids at school. At 13, I couldn’t imagine what mixed race really meant. I wondered if she was white everywhere or if the skin we didn’t see might be black as night. She was beautiful and there was something about her that I felt drawn to; like neither of us fit in exactly. Like maybe she would understand how lonely I felt sometimes.

But then she looked up. Her car was parked next to ours and she caught me staring. I looked away. My face flushed with heat. I felt ashamed that she might think I was staring for the same reason my brother stared. I made a point to look straight ahead through the windshield. I prayed she hadn’t actually seen me.

Miquel leaned across me and whistled through the open window. “Hey, lady! You want to meet me later tonight?”

I wanted to crawl under the seat but I was practically pinned under Miguel’s arm. I wanted to tell the woman I wasn’t like him, but all I could do was look away.

When the woman ignored him, Miguel cocked his head and looked at me with his mischievous smile.

“You think you’re all that, don’t you?” Miguel asked.

I didn’t say anything.

“Just you wait, little brother. You’re going to mess up big time and when you do, I’m going to sit back and watch you suffer.”

He slid back to the driver’s side and leaned his elbow up on the side of the door. “Your day will come.”

I didn’t understand why Miguel said these things to me all the time. I don’t know why he would want to see me mess up and suffer. I was just a kid trying to get through middle school.

Miguel had been all over the world already. He was 21 and he had been in the army since he graduated high school. He had seen places and things I would probably never see. I could already see that my life wasn’t going to be nearly as exciting as his had been.

I braved a quick glance at the woman who had finished loading her groceries and had gotten into her car to drive away. I thought about how she had managed to ignore my brother when it seemed like no one else could. Silently I wondered how many children he had. I knew he had two sons who lived with their mother in the next town over. Miquel refused to pay child support and the consequence was that part of what he made as a Walmart warehouse stocker went straight to the mother of those kids. I knew this because he complained about it all the time—like it was the woman’s fault she got pregnant with those kids, so why should he have to pay her?

Miquel never worried so our mother did it for him. Ever since I could remember she seemed resigned when it came to my brother. He did what he wanted and other people had to adjust to him. This was a fact of our lives.

Mama told me that Miquel had never wanted to be held even as a baby. As he got older, his emotions grew colder. He would never come to Mama and tell her he was sorry for anything. She had to go to him and try to work things out.

Miguel’s warning rang in my ears. Did he know about the letter? If I could go back, I would not have opened it. It was addressed to him and I shouldn’t have even looked at it.

It came from the small town in Oklahoma where Miguel had been living before he came to live with us after another failed marriage. I tried to ignore it when I saw Miguel’s name written in feminine handwriting on the front. I knew I should not read other people’s mail. But it practically begged to be read.

I put it on Mama’s old television set in her bedroom. I thought I could ignore it, but it kept calling out to me. Miguel was at work and I knew he wouldn’t be home for some time.

Finally, I decided it was best for all of us if I knew what was inside. I knew Mama would never look and maybe she needed to know. Whatever the letter said, it might affect her too.

I held it in my hands and flipped it over to look at the back. Whoever had written it had kissed it with red lipstick and written SWAK—Sealed With A Kiss—next to the lip marks.

If I was honest, I knew nothing noble is what urged me to open that note. Curiosity was what drove me to it. It’s what pushed my conscience to one side. I thought because it wasn’t actually sealed well that I might be able to get it out, read it, and then put it back like nothing had happened. But it tore at the point where the woman had kissed it. There was no hiding what I had done and I was already in too deep, so I read the letter.

It was from a woman named Maria. She went on about how much she loved Miguel, as if he had somehow convinced her she was the only woman in his life. It was heart wrenching because she was so happy. She was pregnant with Miguel’s child. She was certain it would be a boy. She wanted to name it after his father, after Miguel. Then she wrote with sincerity of her hopes that he would come back to her soon. She was in love with Miguel. She hadn’t yet learned how he treated those that loved him.

I folded the letter and slid it back into the envelope. I sat for a while and tried to picture this woman in Oklahoma. I imagined her alone and maybe a little scared. I saw her as sweet and kind, like the Virgin María. By the time my mother came home from work, I had decided Maria would be a great mother and that Miguel had to go to her and make things work.

But then I saw my mother’s face when I handed her the letter.

“Qué hiciste, mijo? What did you do?” Mama asked me.

All my courage flew out of my stomach and I lied. “Nothing. I…I didn’t mean to open it. I was just opening everything like I do for you sometimes. I didn’t notice it was to Miguel.”

Mama stared at me for a long time. She had to know I was lying. She always knew when I didn’t tell the truth. She took the letter from me—her lips pressed together—but she said nothing.

I had never known what happened to the letter. I figured Mama had known what to do. I also knew that if she chided Miguel, it would be pointless. Even as we sat together in the car that late afternoon, I knew he would never care about Maria.

He leaned his head out of the driver’s side window and whistled at a señorita walking by.

“Mamacita!” He hollered with a smile.

The woman gave Miguel a sideways glance and a coy smile. She walked effortlessly in her high heels and touched her perfect hair as she walked by.

I wanted to jump out of the car and warn her that my brother was not a good man, tell her about the innocent woman in Oklahoma who was pregnant with his child.

But she was caught up in the attention of my brother.

She giggled and nodded when he winked at her and said, “See you later, baby?”

“How can that woman be white?” I asked.

Miguel looked at me like I was crazy. “That woman? She was Latina, man. What are you talking about?”

“The woman before with the groceries,” I said, tilting my head in the direction of the woman who had just driven away moments before.

Miguel nodded then shrugged. “The half nigger? That’s cuz she’s got more white than black. Dude, I don’t know.”

He sat looking out over the hood of the car. A serious, angry look came over his face and he said, “You know them niggers are trying to ruin all of us.”

I just rolled my eyes and looked the other way.

It surprised me when we got home to see the letter from Maria sitting on the kitchen table. It had been a couple of weeks since it arrived and I thought for sure Mama had thrown it away. I guess she was just waiting for what she thought was the right time, though.

“This came for you,” she said, handing the letter to Miguel while setting the table for dinner. She had made Miguel’s favorite enchilada casserole.

Miguel took one look at the envelope and threw it down on the table.

“That’s not for me,” he said. “Must be some other Miguel Sanchez.”

“You didn’t even read it,” Mama said, picking it up again and holding it out.

Miguel took two steps back, like the letter was toxic.

“I’m going out with Ace,” he said. “I don’t know when I’ll be home.”

Mama and I stood in silence in the kitchen. The front door slammed and moments later, I heard the sound of the car peeling out in the gravel driveway.

“You’ll have to help yourself to the casserole,” Mama said, rubbing her temples. “I’m going to bed.”


 

Luis Martin is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. He says he incorporates true stories from his life into his fiction so, “to protect the innocent,” he has dropped his last name.

The Reason for All the Misery

By Grace Washington

Reverend Samuels’ car was quiet but for Pearl’s weak moans and the tread of the tires against the road. It started raining as soon as we left Milledgeville. The rhythm of the raindrops on the windshield would have been soothing another time, but right now all I could think about was getting Pearl to the hospital.

In the dark quiet, I thought about Momma. She would surely be pacing the floor until she heard some news. I went over in my mind how I could have made this situation better, but I couldn’t.

I looked at the back of the reverend’s head and thought about his words to Momma before we left. I needed to accept that we were all doing the best we could. Still, I shivered thinking about Momma. I wasn’t sure she would be able to get past any of this.

“Miss Grace,” Reverend Samuels cleared his throat and looked back at me from the rearview mirror. “I know your Momma was upset about all this, but she a good woman and she been through a lot.”

I nodded, curious about why the pastor chose now to say that. Could he read my thoughts? Could he see the worry on my face for both my sister and my mother?

He stumbled over the next words, his eyes flickering from the road to the mirror where he could see me.

“Some the other ladies…” he said. “…In, in the congregation….” He paused like he was holding his breath, nervous about something. “Well…we’ve been worried about her. She just ain’t able to stand much since Ernest died.”

I looked out the window and gave thanks for the darkness. From the heat I felt in my neck and ears, I knew my face had to ten shades of red. Here I’d been working all these weeks to help Momma get a break, to keep other people’s noses out of our business, and here the reverend says the one thing Momma feared the most – that she was being talked about by the pastor and the church women.

Reverend Samuels cleared his throat again and I met his eyes in the mirror.

He spoke more softly now, as if he knew he had embarrassed me. “She got those young’uns to raise, you know. And now…this. “ He whispered the last part and glanced quickly over his shoulder at my sister who had stopped moaning and started shivering.

The heat from my embarrassment flipped over in my stomach and turned to resentment. I know the pastor meant well, but it felt more like judgment and, with everything else I had dealt with recently, I didn’t need nobody looking down their nose at my family.

“Reverend, I thank you for your concern and I thank you for helping us out tonight.” I bit my tongue and tried to remember my manners. “We’re…Momma’s doing alright.”

The rain came down heavy then, so much so that even if I had wanted to continue our conversation, neither would have been able to hear the other. I took comfort in the back and forth of the windshield wipers and tried to reign in my shame.

We were just a few miles out of Tilton when the rain let up.

“I didn’t mean to offend you, Miss Grace,” Reverend Samuels said. “All I meant to say was…your Momma is in a mighty fragile mental state and….” He glanced back over his shoulder at Pearl. “She got plenty of reason.”

I looked down at my sister who seemed so small just then and I felt so weak all the sudden.

“What’re you sayin’, Reverend?” My voice was barely above a whisper. It was all I could manage. “I take good care of Momma. Don’t I? I look after her and the little ones.” I squeezed Pearl’s hand. “We ain’t got money for anything more.”

The car slowed as we neared the hospital. Reverend Samuels pulled up as close as he could to the door and got out of the car. I wasn’t exactly sure how old he was, but until that day he had always just been old. Watching how fast he moved and how easily he lifted Pearl into his arms, I wondered just how old he really was.

We hadn’t gotten halfway down the sidewalk before two orderlies came running out with a gurney. While Pearl was loaded onto it, I tried to avoid the blood staining her entire lower half. I shut my eyes and tried to tell myself that my sister was so young, so healthy, and oh so stubborn. Surely she would be okay.

“Surely, God,” I said out loud.

When I opened my eyes, Pearl was already inside the building. Reverend Samuels had his head down. When he saw I was ready, without a word, he bowed and held the door open.

I’m not sure how much time had passed by the time the doctor came out to see us. When I saw him coming, I stood up and walked toward him.

“I’ve got good news and bad news about your sister,” the doctor said.

I hated it when people said this. Why couldn’t they just get to the point?

The doctor must have sensed my lack of patience. He just dove headlong into the bad news first.

“We couldn’t save the baby,” he said.

This hit me harder than I thought it would. My knees went weak and I had to reach for the nearest chair so they wouldn’t buckle completely.

“And the good news?” I asked, tears choking my voice.

“We can save Pearl,” he said.

“Oh, thank God!” I wanted to stand up and shake the doctor’s hand, but he took a step back from me and crossed his arms over his white coat.

“There’s a cost you all need to understand,” he said.

I thought immediately of how many houses I would have to clean and realized that none of that mattered.

“What is it? I can pay. I can get the money,” I said.

The doctor held up his hands and shook his head. “No, no. No, you need to understand what’s happened here. Pearl’s lost a lot of blood and it looks like the pregnancy did some damage to her reproductive organs. She can’t ever have kids now. We need to remove those organs so she can’t ever get hurt like this again.”

The blood rushed to my feet and I felt like I might be sick.

“No children?”

The doctor shook his head again. “I’m sorry, Miss Washington.”

I couldn’t say anything back. Tears ran down my face. I was thankful to know Pearl would be okay, but to think of her losing her chance at being a mother made me ache inside.

Reverend Samuels handed me a handkerchief and I wiped my eyes.

“Thank you, doctor,” I finally managed to say. “Please do whatever needs done to save my sister.”

“We’ll take care of her from here,” he said. “If you want to go home and get some rest, you can see her tomorrow.”

The rain had almost stopped as we got back into Reverend Samuels’s car. It had turned cold while we were in the hospital, and my teeth began to chatter. My body started shaking.

Reverend Samuels pulled a blanket from out of the trunk and offered it to me. I draped it over my shoulders and covered myself with it all the way to my toes.

We drove for a while in the darkness without a word. I thought over the whole awful night. For the first time in hours, I thought of Momma and remembered she was probably still up pacing the floor.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said out loud. “I was planning on going back to college next fall, but Momma and Pearl…. Who’s going to look after them?”

I wasn’t sure what I expected the reverend to say, but when he finally spoke he said, “There’s something you need to know.”

“Oh, Reverend,” I said, my voice sad and sleepy. “Nothing good ever comes from those words.”

“It pertains to your momma,” he said. “And it’s something you need to know while you figure out your future.”

This made me sit up a little bit. I didn’t realize it then, but it was the first time in a long time that somebody besides me had mentioned my future.

“I was a young man when I came to minister to the people in Milledgeville. Not long after I arrived, a young woman came to talk to me. She was in a similar way that Pearl was. Even though the father of the child was still around, they weren’t married and she was afraid if she told him, he’d run out on her. She was so scared. I’d never seen anything like it and I worried she might do something desperate.”

“What’d you do?” I asked.

“I asked her to bring in the baby’s father and we would tell him together. I thought maybe some prayer and Bible study might help.”

“What happened? Did he come?”

The reverend nodded. “He was such an angry young man. They were both miserable, truth be told. He said he had to leave to get some air. Said he couldn’t breathe inside a church. As he walked away, I knew he wouldn’t be back. I never felt sorrier for anyone more than I did that girl. She was all alone.”

“What happened to her?” In my mind’s eye I saw Pearl’s face as the woman in the story and I wanted to know that she ended up okay.

“As it turns out, I had some friends over in Willoughby where I did some preaching now and then before I came to Milledgeville. I took the woman with me to a revival and she met Ernest Washington, Jr.”

He was silent for a moment after that. It took his words that long to sink in.

“But Ernest Washington, Jr. was my father.”

Reverend Samuels grimaced. Your momma and Ernest fell in love by Christmas. They got married in January and, if I remember right, you were born in February.”

“The girl was my momma and Daddy wasn’t my real father?” Big tears fell from my eyes and I didn’t even try to wipe them away. “Whatever happened to my real dad?”

“I have no idea who he was or where he went,” Reverend Samuels said. “I’m sorry to tell you all this now. You’ve been carrying a heavy burden and I just thought you ought to know.”

After everything I done to be a good daughter and sister, none of it really mattered. None of it had been really real. I was the reason for Momma’s shame. I was the reason that Momma didn’t expect anything to ever work out for her. Just as I had always suspected, I was the reason for all the misery.


Grace Washington is a 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.

John’s Papers

By Karen Brode

In the aftermath of my father’s death, I spent a good deal of time trying to blend into the wallpaper, especially whenever big conversations happened between the adults. The rug had been pulled out from under me when he died. Nothing felt safe or real. Being unseen gave me the advantage of hearing things most eight-year-olds wouldn’t get to hear. If the adults didn’t notice me, I could learn what was really going on.

“Momma, all you would have to do is sign the papers!” My brother John had been ranting all through dinner about papers he wanted our mother to sign so he could be released from the Army. “I don’t think I can stand it anymore and now I have a real shot of getting out, thanks to Daddy dying. If you sign these papers, I’m free!”

I felt cold hearing my brother talk about Daddy that way. It was like he was happy our father had died. I couldn’t risk moving, though, to feel the actual shudder that crept into my shoulders. They might see me and send me out of the room.

I looked over at Mother. She was at the kitchen sink working away on the cast iron skillet she had used to make fried potatoes for dinner. Her shoulders slumped at the same time mine felt frozen.

John leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. He was only 18 but he was like a bull in every way – broad chest, stubborn nature. He was also full of mischief and if there was one thing he bucked against the hardest it was rule and regulations. Even I knew the army was full of those.

It was like watching a tennis match in a way. John sitting there waiting for Mother to cave, Mother leaning her body further over the sink, as if she might crawl into that greasy, soapy water and get lost in it. Who would crack first?

John brought his heavy fist down on the table so hard it made the spoons jump. Momma and I jumped too. She dropped the skillet into the sink. I held my breath.

“So I guess you’re not even going to look at these papers, then?” John asked. His voice was irritated but I saw a little curl on one side of his mouth. He saw me watching him and his face changed completely.

I heard Momma sniff before she lifted the corner of her apron to her eyes. My stomach hurt wondering why she was crying. Was it because of John? Or because Daddy wasn’t here to help her deal with John anymore?

I looked back at my brother and imagined what it would be like if Daddy had been here. There would be no talk of leaving the army, that’s for sure. I might have been Daddy’s Little Girl, but I knew things were different for John. He had felt the harsh side of our father’s moods more than anyone and it always seemed my Mother was there to try to make up for those moods.

Right after Daddy had died, I had overheard Momma tell my Aunt Opal it was the tumor that made my father so angry at John. My aunt nearly choked on the blueberry pie she had been eating, but she tried to cover it up by taking a swig of sweet tea.

“Well, he loved him once,” Momma said sounding defensive. “It was only as John got older that it got harder.”

My aunt nodded. It was her patronizing nod, the one that was meant to be comforting but it always came off insincere.

“Albert wasn’t himself,” Opal said. “He had that…that….” She made a motion with her hand over her head.

“The neurosurgeon said the tumor almost sprouted through his skull.” Mother sobbed into a handkerchief.

That’s when I had started crying too and the two women shooed me out of the room so I wouldn’t hear any more of the horrible details about my father’s illness and death. But I was left on my own to imagine the pain my father had been through, and a child’s imagination can be worse than listening to the conversation of adults.

Back in the kitchen with Mother and John, I felt myself blinking back tears. I didn’t want to be discovered and sent out of the room by myself again. I pretended to be a statue and forced myself not to cry.

By now, Mother had fished the skillet out of the sink and she was drying it off. I caught her looking at John from the mirror above the sink. I could see in her eyes she was weighing what was best and I could tell from the way John sat up in his chair that he thought he was making headway with his case.

He looked back at Momma in the reflection of the mirror and his mouth made a smirk so quickly I’m pretty sure I was the only one to see it.

“Momma, did I tell you about the poor guy I had to sit with out in the desert?” John lit up another cigarette and took a deep drag. His fingers fiddled with the papers in front of him. “He was only one year older than me. We were doing maneuvers out in the desert. The sand blew in our faces every minute and it felt like needles piercing our skin.”

John looked back at Momma’s reflection. She wasn’t looking at him anymore. She was wiping down the countertops. Her brow was furrowed with forced concentration.

“The kid had a fever I think,” John continued. “He was just so out of it those last few days. Maybe he had a heat stroke. I tried to contact the sergeant with my walkie-talkie, but I couldn’t reach him.”

John looked over at me then. He flashed a grinchy grin and then he went on with his story. I jumped because I didn’t think he knew I was there.

“And then some knucklehead cut him right in half with a tank! Can you imagine? His intestines were sprawled out everywhere! All I could do was light a cigarette for him and help him smoke his last one. He died right out there in the sand.”

Without meaning to, I squeaked. It was all too gruesome to imagine. There was a look in John’s eyes that told me he was making up the whole thing, but the way he told the story made me believe him.

“John!” My mother spun around and stared at him for the first time since the conversation started. “Your sister is eight years old. Don’t you think she has seen enough horror for awhile?”

John’s eyes glittered with mischief and I knew his story wasn’t over yet. I wanted so badly to close my ears, but if I did that I’d prove I wasn’t ready to be in the room with the adults and I’d be sent away again. I sat stock still and looked at my brother with pleading eyes.

“Just imagine,” John said, his voice low and conniving, “I was asleep just a few feet away when it happened. It could just as easily have been me cut in half and bleeding to death in the desert.”

I looked away from John then. I couldn’t take it anymore but I knew better than to jump up and run to Mother. I couldn’t risk being sent to my room now.

Mother closed her eyes. Big tears rolled out of her eyes.

“That poor boy,” she said. She turned back to the sink and wiped her eyes. “Somewhere his mother is crying. So senseless.”

John smiled. I couldn’t believe he could smile after telling such a terrible story. And poor Momma. It upset her so much. John had a way of doing that whenever he was around.

“Momma, look,” John said. His voice was calm now and easy, like someone soothing a wild horse. “None of this army stuff is going to help me. How can making my bed perfectly and shining my shoes until my face shines in them make any difference to anybody?”

Momma shook her head and sighed. It looked like she wanted to say something, but she didn’t. She seemed so tired.

John stood up. He stubbed out his cigarette and shoved his hands in his pockets.

“I’m going out for awhile,” he said. He slid the papers he wanted Momma to sign over to her side of the table. Without another word, he walked out the door and into the night to who knows where.

The quiet that followed was almost too loud. John’s large presence—and his horrible stories—still rang in my ears. I was relieved when Mother took notice of me.

“Go get your bath, Karen,” she said. “It’s time for you to get ready for bed.”


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.

Sister, Thy Name is Soot

By Karen Brode
Opal sat tense with her eyes closed in her sister’s kitchen. It was impossible to relax. Before she had closed her eyes to block out the mess, she had counted eight cats who seemed far more at home than she felt.
It wasn’t like her to stay quiet about these things, but the state of her sister’s home–the way she was living–was a greater shock than even she could have anticipated. For the first time since Opal could remember, she was speechless.
She was about to take a deep, cleansing breath, when her nose prickled again from the fumes of cat pee, rotting leftovers, and mildew. She decided then that it was probably best not to close her eyes either. There’s no telling what might crawl out from under the table and up her leg.
So it was in silence that she watched Cleo scuttling around the kitchen. Not once did her sister actually lift her feet off the ground. Opal decided it was because if she lifted a foot and set it back down again, she might step on something and break it or hurt it or kill it, depending on what it was. Shuffling just scooted it out of the way.
“Opal, did you light the oven?” Cleo asked.
Opal was almost relieved to hear Cleo speak. At least it gave her something else to think about besides the mess around her. But the question itself was odd and it made Opal wonder if she had heard correctly.
“Did I what?” she asked.
Cleo didn’t respond. She was suddenly preoccupied with unwedging a baking sheet from the bottom of a pile of newspapers and dirty dishes. Opal looked over at what would normally be a countertop, but it too was stacked with empty cereal boxes, a few dirty rags, and of course, a cat. Sitting next to the cat was the clump of frozen corn dogs Cleo was bent on making them for dinner.
Opal’s mouth went dry. A little knot of nausea dropped down into her stomach. The idea of serving frozen corn dogs to an out of town guest was bad enough, but those corn dogs in that condition sitting next to a cat and a stack of filth — it was almost too much to bear. The knot of nausea moved up her throat.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d have before whatever lunch was left in her body would join the mess around the kitchen. She stood up, thinking through the route she would need to take to get to the filthy bathroom.
But then Cleo pulled a box of matches from who knows where. Opal couldn’t guess what her sister was up to, but it was enough of a distraction to settle the sickness she had been feeling.
Cleo took a match out of the box and opened the door to the oven. She squatted down and lit one of the matches.
“Cleo, what are you doing?” Opal started to take a step toward her sister, but then she heard a whoosh and a great cloud of fire and black smoke blasted from the oven.
Opal screamed. She and several of the cats ran out the back door and into the backyard. She was halfway to the gate when worry and panic made her turn around. Her sister was still inside.
“Cleo!” she hollered. “Are you okay?”
She assumed the worst when didn’t hear anything and she made a beeline back to the house.
She was just about to step foot on the back step when Cleo came running out the back door. They almost ran into each other.
When Opal saw her sister alive, she grabbed her and hugged her tight.
“I’m so glad you’re okay!” she said.
All the horrible things she had been thinking moments before passed out of her mind. She was glad to have her sister, no matter what.
Seconds later, though, she smelled the scent of burnt hair. She pulled away to get a good look. It was then that she saw how Cleo’s eyebrows were curling up, her hairline was singed, and her face was covered in soot.
Opal nearly fell off the steps with laughter. The ridiculousness of the day and her soot-covered sister overcame her. She figured it was better to laugh than cry.
“What are you laughing about?” Cleo asked with a suspicious grin that etched the charcoal color deeper into the lines on her face.
Opal laughed again and then grabbed her sister and hugged her tight. She couldn’t help but be grateful Cleo didn’t put much stock in her looks because if she could see what Opal saw, she might never leave the house again.
“I’m just so glad you’re okay,” Opal said.
She pulled away and wiped some of the soot off Cleo’s face with the handkerchief she always kept close at hand.
Cleo blinked as if realizing for the first time what had happened. Without a word, she turned and ran back to the kitchen. Opal followed.
The kitchen was covered in soot and Opal wasn’t sure but maybe it was an improvement. At least now, she hoped, Cleo might see how dirty it was.
She looked over at her sister and tried to read her thoughts, but as usual, Opal couldn’t fathom what might be going on in her mind.
“The corn dogs,” Cleo finally said with the kind of grave disappointment someone might have over a failed soufflé.
“Don’t you worry about dinner tonight,” Opal said with her old familiar confidence. She reached over and patted her sister on the hand. “I’m going to go get us some hamburgers and maybe a malt. What flavor would you like?”
(To be continued)

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.

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.

No More

By Grace Washington

“Momma, don’t look so worried,” I said. I patted her arm and walked past her to the room I shared with my sisters.

“I ain’t worried!” she said in a huff. “You just ain’t got no sense is all.”

It took restraint for me not to roll my eyes. It would do no good to be disrespectful. It didn’t matter that I was a grown woman now, a college graduate. Momma could still remind me of her place in our house.

“As long as I lived under her roof,” she’d said time and again.

But now I was moving out from her roof and she was scared. With every piece of clothing I packed, her hands plunged deeper into the pockets of her uniform. I knew her heart was breaking, but it was time for me to go, even if where I was headed was scary and dangerous, even to me.

It had been two years since the Freedom March in 1962 when I had heard Doctor King speak. My heart swelled with pride when I listened to his speech. He gave such an impassioned plea for help with the civil rights movement. It had stirred something deep within my soul.

I knew then I wouldn’t be able to stay in my little town of Milledgeville, Georgia. If I did, I had only one choice, and that was to become a service worker like my momma.

I looked over at her, her hair graying at her temples already. My going to college was hard enough on her, but she was proud I had graduated, and magna cum laude, no less. The whole neighborhood got an earful about that. But the people Momma worked for didn’t even know she had a daughter that had gone to school. In fact, she hid that fact from most white folks. If they knew, it might make life very difficult for all of us.

No, if I stayed in Milledgeville, I’d end up walking with Momma every morning to Rosehill Lane where all the society matrons lived. I’d spend my days minding their children and doing someone else’s dirty laundry. They would give me those measuring looks when they wondered if I had taken some of their silver after I spent the afternoon polishing it. They would choose to treat me as if I were a pet, and pretend we were friends. Or they might scream and yelI if I didn’t stay in my place.

Staying in my place meant different things to different people. In Milledgeville, it would always be my job to know what my place was in any social setting.

I saw the writing on the wall. I could see how it would always be. I wouldn’t survive in Momma’s world. I needed things to change.

In Momma’s world, she was “Girl” and she had to jump whenever anybody told her to. The only place she could be just herself was at the Immanuel Baptist Church around the corner. They called her Mrs. Washington there. I’m not sure how she did it, but somehow, every Sunday, she managed to get all five of us kids washed up and down to the church. We went during the summer’s heat or winter’s ice. It didn’t matter.

My momma had made a name for herself at church. Even after working long hours at the nursing home, she was there for any family who needed her. She was known for always showing up on the doorstep of bereaved families with a baked ham or a caramel cake. Some days, her oven didn’t get turned off until late at night. In addition to looking after the white folks at the nursing home and the heartsick people at church, she tended to her houseful of kids and a sick husband, too.

Was it wrong that I wanted something different than that? It was 1964, and change was in the air. I wanted to be a part of that.

“Now don’t forget to bathe everyday,” Momma said, as if I might forget. “And don’t draw any attention to yourself. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Her eyes glazed over then. I could tell she didn’t hear me when I told her I would be okay and would do all that she told me. I watched her face for a minute. She seemed lost in another time.

When she looked back at me, her eyes were clouded with tears.

It’s just…so much can go wrong. And some things never change,” she said. Her voice trembled.

There was something different about what she said, a tone I had never heard before. It surprised me, so I just stood there and listened.

“There’s always going to be white people and you ain’t ever gonna change their ways no matter what you do.”

She reached in the pocket of her uniform and pulled out a worn out photograph.

“That was my brother,” she said. “Ben. I don’t even know how he got that picture made. He was always a charmer. He had his ways. And it’s what got him in trouble.”

“What happened to him?” I asked, even though I had my suspicions. Even these days it happened often enough that I didn’t really have to guess.

“I was just a girl,” she said. “It was after midnight. We lived in a two-room shack out in the woods.” She pointed somewhere in the distance, a place I had never heard of or been to.

“The hooded white men in sheets came up on our front steps. They banged on the door and hollered for Ben to come out. The whole family was terrified.” Even so many years later, her eyes were wide with fear.

“Daddy asked what business the man had with his son. Ben was only fourteen. But the man just fired a pistol in the air and said, ‘Bring us Ben or you’ll all get some of this. You got ‘til Three.’ And he started counting.”

“It didn’t take but one word for my brother to walk out onto that porch with the rest of us. We didn’t even blink twice before those men had him off the porch and strapped up in an oak tree right next to our house. They had the noose made already and they tied his hands behind his back.”

Momma shook as she told this story. I realized I was shaking too. I guided her to the bed and we sat down, both crying hard tears.

“Every one of those men grabbed some part of the rope and hoisted Ben into the air. He put up such a struggle. And then one of them yelled up to him. ‘You gonna whistle at another white woman, you nigga?’ But Ben couldn’t answer.”

Momma gasped at the memory. “His head lolled onto his chest and the only sound left was the creaking of the branch he was swinging on.”

She grabbed my hands tight and said through gritted teeth, “And now you’re going off as if you can change anything. Why in heaven’s name you got to put yourself in harm’s way? Where did you get this from? Ain’t nobody in our family got the gumption you got. Why’d you have to grow up and be like this?”

Tears blurred my vision. “Momma,” I said. “I got to do this for Ben. I got to do this so we don’t have to grieve like this anymore.”

She grabbed me and pulled me to her, sobbing into my neck. “But why you?” she asked.

Not an hour later, I had a moment asking myself the same question.

I boarded the bus and the driver simply looked past me like I didn’t exist.

All around me were empty seats, but my place was in the back. I felt angry all the sudden, sad and angry. I hesitated for only a moment at an empty aisle seat and the white woman sitting next to the window put her purse down, daring me with her eyes to just try to sit there. If I had, she would’ve caused some sort of ruckus. I might be kicked off the bus before I left my own town!

I moved on toward the back and tried not to show my anger. An old black woman on the next to last seat in the bus patted the seat next to her. She seemed upset about something and I assumed she was angry about the same thing I was. Her dark eyes flashed and her lips were pursed together tightly. She was dressed much like my momma, in a service uniform, but I couldn’t tell where she might have worked or why she was on the bus.

Once I got settled in, she leaned in close to my ear and whispered, “Did you really think you could sit next to that white woman? Who do you think you are?”

It didn’t much surprise me to hear her say those things. Momma probably would have said the same thing. But I said what I would have said to Momma, “Nothing will change until someone makes it.”

She stared at me as if I had slapped her and it nearly made me smile. She did remind me of Momma. And something about that gave me comfort.

“Now, you listen here!” The woman said. “You don’t know what you’re playing at.”

I looked down at the worn picture of Ben my momma had given me. It was true that my heart beat with fear for what lay ahead, but I couldn’t just sit still anymore.

The woman looked over at the picture and nodded.

“Somebody you know?” she asked.

I shook my head. “He died before I was born.”

“Oh yeah,” she said, her voice cracking. “We’ve all got one of those.”

The bus driver announced the next town ahead on my journey to Mississippi and any fear I’d had before disappeared. It was happening. It was really happening.

I reached out and took both of the woman’s hard, work-roughened hands. “Don’t you understand? Everything I do from now on is so we don’t have anymore of those.”

_______________________

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. We look forward to hearing more from her!

Family Reunion

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five minutes passed before Mother started looking irritated.

“What on earth is she doing over there?”

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

Another few minutes passed, but still no Opal.

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

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

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

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

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

Opal sniffed from the front seat. She was crying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Pit of Ashes for Me

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snakebite, Part I

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to find out what happens to Cleo?

Check back in tomorrow for more from Karen Brode!

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