The Higgins Family Move to Elm Street

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A Love That Endures

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How old are you now?” he asked.

“Ten,” I said.

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

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

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

He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why were you embarrassed?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother nodded.

“That’s my brother.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Opal Strikes Again

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good old Opal. Always there to help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dear Mother

By Karen Brode

Dedicated to my dear mother, Hazel Hawk.

January 12, 1992

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

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

February 10,1992

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

April 5, 1992

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

June 28, 1992

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

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

July 13, 1992

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

August 7, 1992

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

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

August 8, 1992

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

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

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

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

August 9, 1992

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

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

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

August 14, 1992

My heart sank when I arrived today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 18, 1992

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

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

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

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

September 7, 1992

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

September 14, 1992

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

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

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

September 20, 1992

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

October 21, 1992

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

October 22, 1992

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

December 6, 1992

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

December 24, 1992

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

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

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

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

January 12, 1992

I hate coming to see you, Mother.

March 4, 1993

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

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

April 2, 1992

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

June 7, 1993

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

August 11, 1992

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

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

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

September 12, 1992

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

May 28, 1992

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

February 18, 1996

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

November 24, 1996

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

October 7, 1997

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

December 25, 1997

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

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

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

May 24, 1998

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

November 1, 1999

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


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

The Man in Her Car

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

I closed my eyes and held my breath.

“Patience,” I whispered to myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My thoughts were interrupted when Mother continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother, maybe it was your imagination.”

“Was it Cleo’s imagination, too?”


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

I’m Going to Kill Him and Tell God He Died

By Karen Brode

“I’m going to kill him and tell God he died!” Albert stormed through the house toward his son’s room.

His wife, Hazel, was just a few steps behind him.

“Albert, please!” she said, desperation in her voice. “Don’t talk to him now! You’re too angry.”

Albert stopped so suddenly Hazel nearly ran into him. He turned to face her, his eyes wide in disbelief.

“How in hell could I not be mad?” His chest rose and fell with the hot, angry breaths he took. His fists opened and closed in sync to his breathing. “Why aren’t you mad? You know he is just going to keep on doing these things. You sure aren’t going to stop him. It’s all up to me.”

He started to turn back toward his son’s bedroom but Hazel’s face made him stop. It was a soft, gentle face, so vulnerable. He thought back to his mother’s words before he married Hazel.

“She’s been too sheltered to weather the storm of a marriage to you, Albert.”

His mother had never pretended to like Albert. In return, he certainly had never cared about her the way a son should about his mother. He thought about a family picture his mother had shown Hazel before their marriage.

She would try anything to ruin my happiness, he thought.

In the photo, Albert stood off by himself. He remembered that day. His parents and sister and little brother all huddled together as if they were one big happy family. But he knew better. He knew they didn’t love him like they loved each other. The photo proved that. Was he supposed to smile and hide the disgust he had for all of them too, just because they wanted to be something they weren’t?

Standing in the hall with his little doe of a wife, he knew his mother had been right about Hazel being weak. He saw the pain in her face. He knew it worried her so much that he could fly off the handle so easily, especially when it came to their son John. In his defense, though, he was such a difficult kid.

Still, Hazel’s eyes plead for mercy on John’s behalf and all the fight went out of Albert. He was still angry, still bitter toward his son and all the trouble he caused them.

He threw up his hands and said, “Just let him do what he wants, then. He’ll end up in reform school or prison.” He looked past Hazel and sighed. “I’m so tired of trying to get through to him.”

He pushed passed his wife in the hall and went to the back door. If he couldn’t fix his son, he’d keep working on that darn boat he was building. Even that had pain in it, though.

He had started building it with hopes that his son would maybe want to help him with it. He wanted his son to be with him and he wanted them to have some good times. He thought if he could manage to get John to even come out and watch him as he went through the steps, maybe somehow he could reach that part of him that was like him. But he had yet to see any hint of that. His son wasn’t like his side of the family. He was a Morrison through and through.

Albert poured his frustration into sanding the board he was working on. He thought about how John had never been like him and how his wife was so taken with him, so protective. Sure, he was a good-looking kid, but Hazel went overboard. She made all of his shirts on her sewing machine in the bedroom. Even that made Albert mad, though, because when she stepped on the foot pedal of the sewing machine, the television turned to snow and static. If Albert was watching a baseball game or a wrestling match, he could just forget it. John’s shirts were way more important to his wife than anything Albert wanted.

He swore when he popped open the can of stain and spilled half of it on the ground. If he hadn’t been angry, he thought, that would never have happened.

His mind turned to Hazel’s family, her sister, Opal. This was really all her fault. If Opal hadn’t constantly told Hazel how ugly she was as a child, she might realize how beautiful she was and not have to live vicariously through their son. It didn’t matter how often Albert told Hazel how she looked like a million dollars when she did herself up, she never believed him. And so she took all her pride in her son’s looks. She thrilled at the sight of young girls walking up and down the street giggling and stealing glances at the house with hopes of seeing John.

Albert stood there staring at the half-finished boat. He felt hopeless thinking about his son. None of the things Hazel did made John any more devoted to being a good son. He knew if he even tried to talk to his son, he would look at him with that look of complete, bland disrespect. In those moments, Albert didn’t trust himself not to hurt John. He brought out the absolute worst in Albert!

He wiped his hands on an old rag and started cleaning up his tools.

Maybe it was better to just try not to be around his son. But that wasn’t the answer either. He would be shirking his duty as a father. And yet, at every turn he knew that Hazel would be there to stand between him and John no matter what.

The phone rang in the house and Albert listened when Hazel picked up the line. From what he could tell, it was John’s teacher. He could only imagine what he had done this time.

He heard Hazel apologizing and then, “I’ll be sure an talk with him.”

That’ll be the day, thought Albert.

When Hazel got off the phone, she looked outside at Albert. They made eye contact, but she broke the gaze off quickly. He knew it was bad if Hazel didn’t want to tell him what the call was about. And he knew her excuse would be that she didn’t want to worry him with these things.

Albert felt his blood pressure rise until his ears were ringing. What he wanted to do was go give that son of his a good dose of whatfor. But he was tired of fighting and he knew Hazel would be there to block him, so he picked up a hammer and took out his anger on the boat.

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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.

Jars of Money

By Karen Brode

My brother, John, had moved back to our hometown in north Texas after ten years of living in Las Vegas. He was sixty-one years old, and his appearance had changed so much that it was hard for me to think it was really him. Corpulent was a word that described him when he fled our hometown. Now he was almost too thin. We had been estranged for such a long time that it was a challenge to know what to say to him. He came back with a new wife. I couldn’t help wondering if there had been other wives in those years.

In some dark corner of my mind, I knew he had come back to die. But when he called to ask me to visit him one sunny Saturday afternoon, I tried not to think about it.

“We’ll sit in the backyard and shoot the bull,” he said. He was much better at that than I, but I went because I thought the time we had left together would be short.

After I got there, we sat across from each other at a wooden table. The table was old enough to have been bleached by the sun, but the umbrella over our heads was festive and new.

The smell of chlorine from his pool brought back memories of summers when I was a child. I had never learned to swim exactly, but I prided myself on thinking that I could float. I probably couldn’t float if I was panicking, though. It would be important not to panic.

John tapped out another cigarette from the pack on the table and then lit it, blowing the smoke upwards. He squinted into the sun.

“Would you get me an ashtray?” he asked. “They’re inside the house.”

The house was dark after being in the bright sunshine, but then I spotted several to on a table in the living room. Some still had ash and butts in them. I wasn’t sure which one he’d want, so I took the closest one.

When I sat back down, I pulled my chair to the side in hopes of avoiding as much cigarette smoke as possible.

“Do you remember Uncle Charlie?” John asked, almost immediately.

My mind flipped through a rolodex of faces of people I had known as a child. Uncle Charlie’s swam up to my conscious mind. It occurred to me that he had had skin cancer all over his face, but back when I was a child, I wouldn’t have known that.

“I can’t believe I remember him, but I do,” I said. “Seems I only saw him a couple of times in my whole life. He was very thin and wore a cowboy hat.” I recalled how Uncle Charlie and Aunt Emma had had cattle, and how he always stayed out in the fields. “He may have been one of the last cowboys to walk the earth.”

John smiled, “Oh he was a cowboy alright. I always liked him.” He looked sideways at me and continued, “You know, he never went to church, but he was a good man.”

I had heard this song many times, and I stayed silent. Uncle Charlie was someone John identified with, except for the good part. My brother was not a particularly good person, but he probably thought he was. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to get him started on an argument about the Bible.

Whenever we argued about these things, John’s favorite argument was “Who did Cain marry?” And every time, I told him that I didn’t care who Cain married. It wasn’t something I had to know. Still, whenever we talked about religion or faith, John steered it right back to Cain.

“Do you remember where Charlie and Emma’s house was?” he asked. His voice was conspiring.

“They’ve all been dead for years,” I said. “The last time I drove by there, the only thing left of the house was filled with bales of hay and there were cows on the front porch.”

John laughed. “Those cows may have been an improvement over Aunt Emma!” he said. “She used to sit out there, too!”

This got me to giggling. “Oh yeah, you know those cows were better looking than Aunt Emma!”

“Did you know,” I said, cracking up, “she won a beauty contest at the Fannin County state fair when she was young?”

John looked at me incredulously. “Nah. That’s impossible,” he said.

“Aunt Winnie told me. She had been a child hiding in the shadows as Emma looked at herself in the mirror,” I told him. “She watched Emma eating peanuts as she celebrated her newfound beauty.” The image of this in my mind got me to giggling again.

“I never heard anything like that,” said John, his grinchy grin curling up on his face. “If she did win a beauty contest, it’s because no one else entered! The only way she could’ve won is if she was the only contestant!”

I doubled over in my chair laughing at poor Aunt Emma. I could never have imagined her winning a beauty contest either.

Just as my side started hurting from laughing so hard, John got a serious look on his face.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said.

My laughter came to a complete halt. It was never good when John got to thinking. I felt my shoulders tighten as my guard went up. Whenever he got to thinking, it usually meant danger for my body or soul.

He leaned across the table and in a low voice said, “You know Charlie and Emma didn’t believe in banks.”

I nodded. “You couldn’t blame them. All those people who lived through the Depression and saw what happened to the stock market were wary of banks.”

In the back of my mind, I knew where this story was going. Both of us had heard many times how our uncle and aunt had buried their money in the field in mason jars with metal lids. I had always imaged Uncle Charlie had made some sort of map where the jars were buried. Then I remembered how he kept a wad of $100 bills in his shirt pocket. They were safety pinned to his pocket, probably because the money had fallen out several times. Even as a child I had wondered why he would carry that kind of money so visibly. It seemed like a robbery waiting to happen.

John leaned even further across the table. He looked both ways as if to make sure no one could overhear.

“How would you like to help me find that money?” he asked.

My stomach lurched. Just the thought of being an accessory to such a thing made me nauseous.

“John, someone owns that land now,” I said. “You can’t just go on someone’s property and start digging!”

“Gary has a pretty high tech metal detector, doesn’t he?”

I wanted to say that Gary had given it away because he didn’t find things with it like he thought he would, but the truth was that he still had it.

“I don’t…you can’t….” I tried to think quickly for protests to John’s plan, but my breath was failing me. Finally, I said in a flurry of words, “There’s a house across the road from there. They’re probably the owners and, if not, they probably know who the owners are. Don’t you think they’d call the police to tell them someone was in the field with a metal detector?”

“What if it was 2 in the morning when everyone was asleep?” asked John.

“I…I…” I stuttered. “I don’t know for certain that I would be able to find where the house was,” I said.

My ears were ringing and my neck felt suddenly hot. I shifted in my seat, knowing how close I was getting to telling a lie. The truth was, I had visited Aunt Emma enough as a child that I was fairly sure I could find my way back there if I had to, but with every word out of John’s mouth, I wanted less and less to do with it.

John leaned back in his chair. He took the cigarette from his mouth and held his arm away from his body like Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone. I half expected him to say, “Imagine if you will….an enormous field in the middle of the night.” But he didn’t. He just sat there, strategizing.

I knew my brother. He only wanted me there to help him locate the money. If he found anything in the field, he would’ve feigned defeat and pretended to give up. Then, after I had gone home, he would’ve gone back to get the money. He had no intention of sharing it with me. I was useless to him except to help him find what he was looking for.

It’s hard to know these things about a brother, but I knew that is exactly what he would do.

As we sat in silence, my thoughts went to Aunt Emma’s old place. Uncle Charlie died, then Emma, and finally Winnie, even though she never lived there. Still, generations passed and over the years, the house began to disappear with them. I was struck by the memory that the outhouse somehow outlived the house. It leaned way over before it met its demise, but it stood there for years. I remembered it had a sliver of wood cut out near the top of the door to resemble a sliver of moon. A lot of outhouses back then had that. I wondered if it was a utilitarian thing, or if it was merely a decorating touch.

John’s voice brought me out of my thoughts when he asked, “Do you remember that there was a cellar on one side of the house?” His eyebrows were knitted together, like he was trying to bring it all back to living memory.

“I wouldn’t have thought of that, but yes, there was a cellar.” I remembered running up and down the cellar door as a child. It wasn’t the kind of door that you could slide on, like my Aunt Winnie’s. Hers was angled, like a slide. If I gave myself a good push to get started, I could slide a few feet down it.

“Was it a concrete cellar?” asked John.

By now, I knew that he was putting his plan together in his mind as we talked. I could not remember. Winnie’s cellar had been concrete, and it was still there even now. It was the only reminder of the way things had been when I was a child. I knew if I could stand on that cellar, I would know where the house had been, where the shed was, where the garage had stood.

My Grandfather Morrison’s cellar had been a dirt one. I only looked in it once, and even if I had seen a tornado bearing down on me, I wouldn’t have gone in there.

“If it was a dirt one,” I said, hoping to sway John from his plan, “I’m sure it’s been plowed under by now.”

John narrowed his eyes and said, “I’ve thought of it all. Here’s what we’ll do.” I hated that he was still on this and that he was including me in on it.

“John, You can’t do this!” I said. “Even if you went in the night, someone would see the vehicle, the flashlight bobbing in the field.”

“We’ll rent a boat and go down the river until we are right behind Aunt Emma’s field. If we come from that direction, no one would know we were there.”

“How far is it to the river from Emma’s back field?” I asked, hoping he would see how foolish this was.

“Oh, I don’t know. A mile, maybe two.” He said this as if it was a block or two.

I sighed.

“And we’d have to tie the boat up somehow, climb up the slippery riverbank, and walk in the dark through unknown places,” I said, growing impatient.

“Yeah, I’ve thought of that. I think we should try to do a trial run during the day.

I stared at my brother. I wanted to shout at him how I didn’t handle the heat well, and how I certainly couldn’t climb up a slippery riverbank any time of the night or day, for that matter. But then he had this look on his face that reminded me of my dad and I stopped.

There were times, like then, when John’s face became my father’s. John was nothing like our father in so many ways, but he put me in mind of him when he was telling stories and cracking jokes. He didn’t look exactly like my dad, but enough to make me think of him. His eyes were like my dad’s, just like mine were. I had not seen him since I was seven years old, but looking at John made me remember the face I had loved so much as a child.

John put his head on his arms and looked up at me like a little boy, as if he were a supplicant. “Pretend you are Aunt Emma. Where would you bury jars of money?”

I looked into the distance. There was a park across from John’s house. Children were chasing each other while mothers sat on benches keeping a careful watch.

“Emma was cautious. She probably would’ve buried it near the house, maybe even under the house. She would’ve felt more secure to have it under the house.”

I remembered the dogs that lay in the cool dirt under her house. When Winnie and I walked toward the porch, the dogs growled low in their throats. Emma always appeared with her walker before anything happened.

“Don’t you worry about them dogs any,” she’d say. “They won’t hurt you none.”

I remember looking at her leaning on her walker. I couldn’t imagine what she could have done if the dogs had attacked me.

John had leaned back in his chair. The spark in his eyes had faded and he suddenly looked older than his years. His hair was gray, but for the parts of it that had become completely white. The young man he had been bore no resemblance to this man who seemed to be aging before my eyes.

“You’re not feeling good, are you John?” I asked with genuine concern.

“Karen, I don’t ever feel good anymore.” He stood up, but the look of him seemed saggy, tired. “I think I probably need to go take a nap.”

I stood up to leave and John put out his last cigarette in the ashtray. Something about him at that moment made me love him despite all the ways he had hurt me. I walked over to him and hugged him, and he hugged me back.

“I love you, John,” I said.

“I love you too, Karen.”

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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.