The Higgins Family Move to Elm Street

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Opal Strikes Again

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good old Opal. Always there to help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dear Mother

By Karen Brode

Dedicated to my dear mother, Hazel Hawk.

January 12, 1992

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

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

February 10,1992

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

April 5, 1992

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

June 28, 1992

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

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

July 13, 1992

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

August 7, 1992

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

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

August 8, 1992

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

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

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

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

August 9, 1992

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

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

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

August 14, 1992

My heart sank when I arrived today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 18, 1992

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

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

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

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

September 7, 1992

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

September 14, 1992

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

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

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

September 20, 1992

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

October 21, 1992

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

October 22, 1992

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

December 6, 1992

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

December 24, 1992

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

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

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

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

January 12, 1992

I hate coming to see you, Mother.

March 4, 1993

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

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

April 2, 1992

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

June 7, 1993

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

August 11, 1992

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

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

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

September 12, 1992

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

May 28, 1992

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

February 18, 1996

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

November 24, 1996

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

October 7, 1997

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

December 25, 1997

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

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

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

May 24, 1998

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

November 1, 1999

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


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

Gene’s Proposal

By Karen Brode

From this valley they say you are leaving
I will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile
For I know that you’re taking the sunshine
That brightened my pathway awhile

Winnie reached up to turn off the radio. It was better if she didn’t think of him. She stared out the kitchen window and sunk her gloved hands back into the plastic dishpan. She tried not to think of him. There was no way that anything could ever be worked out now.

She remembered that spring when her life had been so happy. She was 24 years old. She had graduated from college and started teaching at the community school. And then, almost on cue, there he was at church one night. Every time she peeked at him, he was looking at her as if his whole world revolved around her. She didn’t understand this. She knew she wasn’t pretty.

She had inherited her mother’s olive complexion and her uncontrollable hair. She couldn’t remember the number of times she had given up in despair trying to make it look normal. But it never did. It was easier when she was a child. She wore it in a long braid down her back, but as she had gotten older, a braid looked ridiculous, so her mother had cut it off when Winnie entered high school.

Her hair was bad enough, but she wasn’t like any of the other girls at church who wore makeup. She had no clue where to get it, let alone how to wear it! The only places she ever went were to church, work, and the grocery store. The grocery store only had basic necessities like flour and sugar and cornstarch. And even if she could get it, she didn’t know who to ask to help her with it.

Lucy Bradshaw was one of those girls who never needed that sort of help. She seemed to understand instinctively how to use makeup to make her beautiful eyes stand out more. And, of course, she did everything she could to bat her baby blues at the handsome man who had started coming to church. But, miraculously, it didn’t work. He seemed to have eyes meant only for Winnie.

His name was Gene. Eventually, she learned to accept his attention to her. It still troubled her that Lucy Bradshaw and Clara Bates stared daggers at her from the other side of the church, but it’s not like she had thrown herself at Gene. If she could’ve understood what it was that he found attractive in her, she would try to capitalize on that, but he seemed to accept her for who she was and what she looked like.

He sat by her every Sunday night at church that spring, and sometimes he was waiting for her when the school day was over – just to be with her.

So come sit by my side if you love me.
Do not hasten to bid me adieu.
Just remember the Red River Valley,
And the girl that has loved you so true.

When they took walks together, they talked of mundane things.

“The corn looks good this year.”

“It looks like like it’s going to be a dry summer.”

Among the mundane, Winnie wanted to ask him what he saw in her that he wouldn’t want those pretty girls, but she never did. After all, her skin was leathery from picking cotton under the unrelenting north Texas sun. Her hands were rough and hard. It would make so much more sense to her if she could understand what he saw in her.

She felt like she was in a strange land where she didn’t know the customs. She was fearful of saying something or doing something that would make him suddenly realize who she was.

Eventually, she decided that he was seeing her through rose-colored glasses and she accepted this, especially when she realized that her own life was nothing without him.  He completed her.

In late May of that year, when school was almost out, Gene came to her house on a Sunday afternoon. This was not something he had done before. Winnie and Gene sat together in the glider out by the shed. It was a nice day, and shady where they sat. He seemed nervous and excited. She could tell he had something very important to tell her.

From her place on the glider, she could also see her mother, Effie, pulling the kitchen curtain to the side keeping watch over everything that happened. Winnie panicked a little when Gene slid off the glider and knelt at her feet. She thought maybe he was hurt. Her first instinct was to try to help him. Then he opened the little black velvet box and asked her to marry him. He put the ring on her finger and, for the first time, kissed her lips.

It was all too much for her. She cried out of joy and wonderment. All of it felt like someone else’s life. These things didn’t happen to her!

She was so overwhelmed that she didn’t know what to say. Gene took her hand in his and told her he loved her.

But the curtain shifted at the window and a familiar twang of guilt nudge her side. She was very practical minded and was led mostly be loyalty to her family. She hesitated then and looked down.

“I…I need to let you know next Sunday,” she said in a whisper. Her eyes flickered up to his face and then beyond to the window. “I need some time to think things over.”

The spark in his eyes trembled and dimmed. Confusion and hurt furrowed his brow.

“I do love you,” she said. “I just can’t make a decision right this minute.”

He grabbed her hand and held it. His grasp was both tight and gentle.

“I got a job in Missouri,” he told her. “I’ll be going there in a few weeks. I’d love for you to be there with me.”

Winnie nodded and smiled. Tears brimmed her eyes. “I’ll let you know. Just give me some time.”

She sat as still as possible on the glider when he got up to leave. She didn’t want this moment to end. She realized she had been holding her breath after he had walked far enough down the road that she couldn’t see him anymore.

It wasn’t long before Effie was outside standing where Gene had been standing only moments before.

“What was that all about,” she asked, her tone accusing and bitter.

Winnie flinched and had the urge not to respond. She didn’t want to tell anyone, especially not her mother, and take away that moment of magic.

But she owed it to her family to know, so she held the lump in her throat and said, “Gene asked me to marry him. He got a job in Missouri and wants me to go with him.”

Effie’s face twisted up like she had eaten a lemon. “Well, you might as well just get the gun and shoot me now.” She rubbed her neck with a handkerchief. “It’s just as well. My life is almost over anyway. I wouldn’t want to go on living if you were way off in Missouri. I don’t even know where that is!” Her rant continued with the nervous energy and fear fluttering out through shaking hands. “It’s not like I could make a trip there!” She clutched her chest and fanned herself while waddling off toward the house. “Oh, my chest hurts. I’m going to lie down in my bed and hope death comes quickly. I don’t want to linger.”

Winnie sat in the glider until the shadows had started to grow long. She had always suspected her mother would be unhappy if she married and moved on, but now she knew that Effie expected Winnie to live with her and Papa for the rest of her life.

Winnie tossed and turned through many nights wondering and worrying and trying to figure things out. She was certain that Effie could not keep her there with anything but guilt. But guilt was Effie’s currency. She manipulated her husband and her children with it, everyone except for Albert. Somehow he had escaped the chokehold of their mother’s guilt.

It was three o’clock in the morning on the Wednesday before Winnie would give Gene his answer. Effie woke and went to Winnie’s room to tell her she thought she was having a heart attack. Winnie walked Effie back to her bed with soothing words, just like she would have done a child of her own, and waited while her mother slipped back into sleep. But Winnie did not sleep.

On Sunday morning, Winnie put the black velvet box in her purse and went to church. Gene was waiting for her there. He watched her walk up with happy anticipation. His face practically glowed. She took her usual place beside him on the pew.

During the sermon, he leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I love you.”

Winnie did everything she could not to let the tears fall, but they did. She didn’t say anything until after church was over, but she knew what she had to do and it was the hardest thing she had ever done.

When the last song had been sung, she asked Gene to follow her to the back of the building. It seemed an appropriate place for what she had to say. Cigarette butts littered the ground and the smell was heavy with the smoke of men who went there to smoke out of sight of their wives or the minister.

Winnie reached into her purse and pulled out the black velvet box.

“I can’t marry you,” she said, chocking on her words. “My mother is very ill and needs me to take care of her.”

She looked up into Gene’s face. Only moments before, it had had such a soft, gentle expression. Now, his mouth dropped open and he leaned against the church building like he would fall if it hadn’t been there to catch him.

Shaking, she took one of his hands and placed the box into it. And with as much courage as she could muster, she turned and walked toward her house. She didn’t look back. She knew if she did, she would never go home and she would live to regret leaving her mother.

Won’t you think of the valley you’re leaving.
Oh how lonely, how sad it will be?
Oh think of the fond heart you’re breaking
And the grief you are causing to me.

Even all these years later, the memory of Gene’s proposal left Winnie in heart wrenching sobs. She did love Gene. Why had her mother constantly stood between her and any happiness she might have?

_________________________

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.

John’s Family Reunion

By Karen Brode

In the summer of 2005, my brother John, moved back to Grayson County in Texas where we had grown up. He was wrinkled and worn, and for the first time, I noticed that he seemed tired. I tried not to think about all the situations that had driven us apart for so long. The list was endless, and I didn’t have a lot of fight left in me.

The truth too was, no matter what had happened, I had missed him. I often wondered how it could be possible to detest and love someone at the same time. But I did. And I sensed that he wanted to try to be a family again, so I gave it my best shot.

He had been gone for ten years, living in Las Vegas. I wondered how he could live in the entertainment capital of the world one day, and then the next day live in Pottsboro, Texas, the epitome of a tiny Texas town with only one red light.

He had only been back for a week when my husband Gary and I met up with him and his new wife, Jan, at a Mexican restuarant for supper. I hoped and prayed that things would go well, that maybe we could salvage some kind of relationship from the ruins.

He looked old and so small compared to the larger than life man I had known just ten years before. There were no black hairs left on his head, just gray and white. Inside, though, he was still John. He regaled us with some of his favorite stories during supper. They were stories I had heard before, but I wanted to hear them again. I hung onto his words as he wove his stories and I watched the cigarette smoke rising from his mouth.

“I was working at an air conditioning and heating place in Fredericksburg,” he said. “We went out early in the mornings to install new units. That day, we had just climbed up into the attic of a house  when I heard a man’s voice down below asking us how things were going.”

“Well, what was I supposed to say? That it was as cool as an April morning? Hell no. I looked down toward the voice and simply told him the truth–it was hotter ‘n hell up there.”

“You actually said that?” I asked, laughing. I knew this story. I knew he had actually said it, but it had been so long since we had had times like these that I relished hearing it again.

John nodded. “Sure did. And wouldn’t you know, when I looked down through the ceiling air vent, but it was Lyndon B. Johnson opening his morning mail.”

I laughed again. “Did he say anything back? Get onto you or something?”

“Naw. He just stared down at his mail and smiled.”

Sometimes, I wondered how true any of these stories were, but I didn’t really care. It really made them more exciting and interesting.

John had always been more at home in the world than most people I knew. Even as his old age crept up behind him, he still had the confidence and demeanor of the handsome young man he had once been. He even flirted with the waitresses at the restaurant and it didn’t seem to surprise him a bit when the young girls flirted back.

From about the time his feet touched the green grass of Texas, John started talking about having a family reunion. I wasn’t against it exactly, but wasn’t exactly up to it either. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. And if I couldn’t explain it to myself, I certainly couldn’t explain it to my brother.

So, soon he was calling me several times a week to go over his list of invitees.

He kept saying “Have I forgotten somebody?”

With every name he added to the list, I felt a deeper sense of dread. So the plans marched on and one day he told me he wanted to have the reunion in July, the hottest month in Texas.

July. Sometimes the entire month went by without a cloud in the sky. The month always made me think of Momma and the song we had sung at her graveside service, “Uncloudy Day.”

Oh, they tell me of a home far beyond the skies
Oh, they tell me of a home far away
Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day

Oh, the land of cloudless day
Oh, the land of an unclouded day
Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day

Oh, they tell me of a home where my friends have gone
Oh, they tell me of that land far away
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the unclouded day.

Months went by and John kept making plans. I tried to distance myself from all of it for a while. Something told me that he wanted me to cook all the food, just like our mother would have done when she was alive. I really didn’t want that kind of responsibility, so I kept the reunion conversations at arm’s length. Still, I didn’t want to walk into some kind of John-created chaos on the day of the reunion, so I got up the courage to ask him about it.

“Oh, I’m going to rent a boat and ferry people across the lake to the islands,” he said.

He sounded like a little kid, to be honest, and like most kids, he never really thought all his plans fully through. I felt panic rising in my chest. I still couldn’t explain why, but it was there.

“Then what?” I asked, hoping that might prompt more in-depth thought to his plans.

But he heard my worry and got irritated. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’ll have fun no matter what we do.”

I sat there on the other end of the line wishing I could understand why I was so reluctant about all of this so I could explain it to him without him getting angry.

Maybe it was my age, I thought. Maybe I’m just getting too old for things like this. So I told him that.

He snorted. “You’re still just a kid,” he said. “You always will be.”

He had always felt like I had been shielded from life’s harsh realities.

I pictured Aunt Jane riding in a boat going across a large expanse of lake in 110 degree heat. Old people would be dropping like flies on that boat and John hadn’t thought about any way to keep them from overheating, keeping everybody hydrated. Did he expect me to come along and pick up the slack?

“You can’t worry about all that right now,” I heard him say into the phone. He had gone from irritated older brother to snaky salesman. “Just think of sitting under the shade of those big trees on the islands. How long’s it been since you played a good game of dominoes? Wouldn’t that be fun to sit outside with our family and play dominoes?”

The week before the family reunion, I felt as if something catastrophic was bearing down on me, and there was no getting out of the way. How could I have stopped it? I had rarely seen John this excited.

I comforted myself by thinking that maybe the world would end before it happened. Or maybe an asteroid would hit the earth and I wouldn’t have to worry about the family reunion. I tried to appear excited when John was around.

He had contacted every member of each side of our family that he could hunt down. He had asked me a thousand questions about people we hadn’t seen in decades.

“You think Clyde is still alive?” he’d ask.

I hadn’t thought about Clyde in a month of Sundays, so I just shrugged and said I didn’t know.

Each day leading up to the reunion was hotter and drier than the one before. No cloud graced the North Texas sky. I wouldn’t watch the weather forecast because it was always the same–sunny and hot! It was the same every summer–a high pressure ridge sat over us and any possible precipitation went around us.

A few days before the reunion, the phone rang. John’s voice was muted on the other end. He sounded tired and sad.

“I hate to tell you this, but I don’t think we are going to have that family reunion.”

“What?” I asked. I was glad I had been sitting down when he called because otherwise, you could have knocked me over with a feather. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s Tammy,” he said, talking about his oldest daughter. “She’s been taken to drug rehab in California.”

And that’s when I realized it. He had planned the whole thing for Tammy. She was the real reason he wanted to get the family together.

Never would I have wanted his daughter to have the problems she had and I certainly would never have wished for her problems to be the reason we couldn’t have a family reunion. But there was a part of me that was relieved.

Still, I couldn’t show my brother that. So, I commiserated with him and did my best to sound disappointed.

And then I said, “You know, John, we can have it another time.”

__________________________________

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.

Family Reunion

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five minutes passed before Mother started looking irritated.

“What on earth is she doing over there?”

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

Another few minutes passed, but still no Opal.

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

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

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

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

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

Opal sniffed from the front seat. She was crying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________

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

Memories of Pete Everheart

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

Mother continued without comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My poor mother, I thought.

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

“Did you go swimming?” I asked.

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

“Did everyone else go swimming?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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