The Funniest Thing

By Karen Brode

For the first time that day I felt really happy. I had a plan. I had my suitcase packed with coloring books and my Barbie and Ken dolls. I was going to be with my Aunt Winnie and it was all going to be really funny when I told her the whole story.

Even though the suitcase was heavy, I couldn’t help but grin the entire time I walked down the road toward Winnie’s house. Winnie’s neighbor, Mrs. Whitman, stood outside her front door, clutching her folded apron. She watched to make sure I got to Winnie’s house okay, but for that moment, I felt like I was on my own. In some small way I was free. At seven years old, that was a big deal. Especially since I was heading away from a day being shuttled around like a dog toward the home of one of my favorite people. And since I walked from Mrs. Whitman’s house, I could surprise Aunt Winnie and she’d have no idea how I got there.

In my mind, I decided that this might be the funniest thing I had ever done. I giggled as I dragged the suitcase up the front steps to Winnie’s porch. Then I knocked on the door. 

The look on Winnie’s face was exactly what I hoped for. Her eyes grew wide and, before she said a word, she took a step onto her porch to look for the car that had brought me.

“Heavens, Karen, how on earth did you get here?” Her face grew pale and her hand shook as she reached out for my suitcase.

“I walked!” I said, but it came out all wrong. I had meant to sound certain, to pull off the greatest joke I had ever managed. But I felt bad for causing my aunt to worry. It seemed like I was always causing people to worry. 

Winnie pulled me into the house and squatted down as much as she could to get eye level with me. She tilted her head and looked into my eyes. “Karen, how did you really get here?”

Why is it that wherever I went I caused people to worry?

Mother used to get terrible migraines. She had to lie quietly in her bed with the shades pulled down. I would go to her with a cold, damp washcloth and lay it on her forehead.

“You’ll feel better soon,” I’d tell her. I was careful to be as quiet as I could be so she could rest. Still, I had that niggling thought that surely she was sick because of me.

Those times when Mother was so sick, I sat on the floor in her bedroom and cut out pictures from the Sears and Roebuck’s catalog. I wanted to be as close as I could be to her without being a bother. I was extra quiet turning the pages of the catalog to look for images I could cut out as paper dolls. 

That catalog had everything you could ever want and all the people in it were always happy. It made me happy to look at them. There was the mother who waltzed through her kitchen because she got a new washer. A few pages over, there was a man fishing with his buddies—that would be the dad. 

My own mother became still as I worked. I glanced up at her several times. At one point, she was so still I got nervous that she had died. I couldn’t help myself. I had to check. So I touched her arm and she startled awake. 

“I’m sorry, Momma,” I said. “I…um…wanted to see if you needed anything.” I didn’t want to tell her I thought she had died. That would only make things worse.

That day I walked to Winnie’s Momma was feeling okay, but she had outdone herself for a visit from my oldest brother, Kenneth, and his wife Helen. They were only there a couple of days but Momma made all my brother’s favorite pies. She was a lot like my Aunt Winnie in that way—always wanting to make her guests happy. That morning she had gone off to work content with how the weekend had gone, but so exhausted that she had forgotten to figure out what to do with me once Kenneth and Helen left. 

This was not the first time in my life I didn’t know what to do or say, but for a while I was the only one who realized that when Kenneth and Helen left, I would be on my own in the house. It was only when their car was packed and they were about to lock up the house that they realized I was there. 

“Karen, did Momma tell you where you should go?” Kenneth asked as he and Helen stood at the front door. I could see they were both eager to get on the road. Helen was on the front porch and Kenneth had his hand on the doorknob.

“I’ll be okay here,” I said, hoping I sounded older and convincing.

He and Helen exchanged worried glances. He rubbed a hand through his brown, slick-combed hair. His brow had those creases I came to know as worry, frustration, or impatience in adults.

“We can’t leave you here alone,” he said. “You’re only seven.”

“I’ll be okay.” I held the Barbie I had been playing with up in front of me and combed her hair with a tiny brush. I hoped by looking busy Kenneth would get the hint and go on home. I didn’t want to bother anybody, least of all Momma while she was at work.

Helen whispered something to Kenneth that I didn’t hear, but I knew it had to do with Mother because, moments later he was on the phone with her.

“Is there a neighbor or somebody we could leave her with?” he asked into the receiver. “No, we told you we needed to get on the road before this afternoon, don’t you remember? Helen has to get back to her job tomorrow and we don’t want to be on the road all night.” 

Kenneth looked over at me and held out the receiver of the phone. “She wants to talk with you,” he said.

I took it and then took a deep breath. When I put the receiver to my ear, I tried my best to sound as adult as possible. “Momma, I’m okay here. Don’t you worry.”

“Oh, Karen,” she said, worry flowing out of every letter of my name. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how the wires got crossed. Pack an overnight bag with some coloring books, your Barbie and Ken, and Kenneth will take you by Poppa Morrison’s house in Bells. I’ll pick you up as soon as I get off work.” 

At these words I felt a knot in my chest grow tight. I didn’t want to go to Poppa’s house. He, like my Aunt Opal, never remembered my name. He called me Carol or Karee. He had no idea who I was or what I was about. He had so many grandchildren and I was one of the younger ones. By the time I was born, he had so many of us that the novelty had worn off completely. 

But that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t like visiting Poppa. The last time I went there, he had positioned his rocking chair so that he could see if Nurse Nita walked by. Nita worked at the hospital where Poppa had his last surgery, and Poppa surely wanted to know her better. If Nita was outside, Poppa found some excuse to be out in his yard, too. It was uncomfortable watching him fawn over her.

I thought about the doilies on his chair and the little glass bowl of sugar mints on the coffee table. But more than anything else, I didn’t want to be in the same house with someone who used a spittoon. I gagged at the thought of it.

“Karen, let’s get going,” Kenneth said. My brother was nice enough but he always had an edge of impatience in his voice when it came to me. 

Reluctantly, I finished packing my little suitcase and handed it over to my brother. Helen took my hand and we walked to their car where I got in the back seat. 

The knot in my chest grew bigger with each mile we drove toward Poppa’s house. By the time we got there, Kenneth had to practically drag me out of the car and up the steps to Poppa’s front door. More than anything else I wanted to run far away, but I knew if I did I’d be causing even more worry than I already was, so I stayed put. Still, when Poppa opened the screen door, I froze.

“C’mon, Karen,” Kenneth said. “Go on inside with Poppa.” 

I looked up at Poppa whose tobacco lumped smile appeared more like a grimace.

“I can’t stay here!” I finally blurted out.

Kenneth glared at me. “Where is it you want to stay, then?” He looked over at Helen who was still in the car and shrugged his arms.

“I want to go to Winnie’s house,” I said. The words were so soft, he had to bend toward me a little to hear them.

“Winnie’s house,” he said with a sigh, staring out toward the endless road ahead of him. 

Poppa nodded. “Winnie’s house is good,” he said. He reached out and patted me on the head as if to thank me for saving us both. “You’ll be in good hands with Winnie.” 

Before we even turned to step off the porch, Poppa had closed the door and locked it. I imagined him wiping his brow with relief before shuffling off to a nap or sitting in his chair by the window looking for Nita and spitting snuff.

I felt the tension in the car as we made our way to Winnie’s house. It was just a 15 minute drive from Poppa’s, but it was clear that Kenneth and Helen were both weary of dealing with me. So, when we pulled up in Winnie’s driveway and saw the empty garage, Kenneth slapped his hand on the steering wheel and his face turned pink with frustration. 

“I can…I bet Winnie’ll be back soon. I can just go sit on her front porch,” I said.

Kenneth looked back at me and rolled his eyes. “You know I’m not going to let you just go sit on Aunt Winnie’s front porch,” he said. 

I bent my head down and looked at my thumbnails. They were ragged and worn from me biting them. It took great effort not to chew on one now but I knew adults didn’t like it when I bit my nails so I kept very still as Kenneth looked up and down the street for an answer.

“Mrs. Whitman,” he said, clearly pleased with an idea.

Mrs. Whitman was Aunt Winnie’s nearest neighbor. She and my aunt were very good friends. Her first name was Irene and her husband was called “Fat.” I don’t know why anyone called Mr. Whitman by the name “Fat” but I never asked. 

Mrs. Whitman had given up going to church years before. I had heard bits and pieces why she didn’t go—something to do with her son Andy dying of meningitis when he was 15 years old. I remembered going to the hospital with Aunt Winnie when Andy was there. He had all kinds of tubes coming out of him. Winnie held Irene as she cried in her arms. Andy wasn’t going to make it but the doctors had placed the decision for when to pull the plug on Mr. and Mrs. Whitman.

She cried hysterically to Winnie. I couldn’t remember ever seeing someone so upset. She screamed with anger and sadness, “How can I decide when I want my son to die?” 

Even then I knew that was not a choice any parent should have to make.

After that, Winnie baked a ham and a turkey and some pies for the Whitman family so they’d have something to feed everyone who came out for the funeral. It was a sad time, but as usual, my aunt ran to help make it a little easier to bear.

We pulled up into the Whitman’s driveway and Kenneth held my hand as we walked up to her front porch. He knocked and smiled down at me, his lips tight over his teeth, as if to say, “This had better work or we’re leaving you on the side of the road.” His smile melted into a genuine look of relief when Mrs. Whitman came to the door.

“Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Whitman,” he said. “I’ve been in town visiting Momma with my wife Helen,” he pointed over to the car and Helen waved hello. “We’ve got to get on back to Houston now but we need to make sure Karen is okay. Mom didn’t realize we were leaving so soon and Winnie’s not home right now. Can she stay with you until Winnie gets back?” 

Mrs. Whitman wiped her hands on her apron and smiled broadly. “Why, of course she can stay here!” she said. “She can come play with kiddoes.” She looked over her shoulder at five of her six remaining kids all playing happily in the living room behind her.

I looked over at her kids and felt the pang of jealousy I always felt when I was around the Whitman children. They had each other and two sweet parents and they never seemed to worry about a thing. 

“Oh, thank you,” my brother said, pushing me a little too eagerly toward the door. 

Mrs. Whitman put a hand on my shoulder and hugged me toward her. I clumsily followed over the threshold and into her arms. “You come on, now,” she said. “We’ll get you something to eat.” 

“Thank you, again,” my brother said. He hopped off the porch, not even touching the steps in front of him. Helen rolled down her window and waved thanks to Mrs. Whitman. She didn’t look at me as they drove off.

As gently as I could I pulled away from Mrs. Whitman and said, “Thank you, but I’m not hungry right now.” 

“Alright then, you can just to play with the others.” She waved a hand toward her kids who were involved in some sort of board game.

I smiled and tried to appear appreciative, but the truth was I couldn’t wait to leave. It’s not that I didn’t like the Whitman family, I was just ready to get to the comfort of Winnie’s house. It had been a long morning.

So, I sat on the floor and stared out the window, sitting taller with every passing car, hopeful it was my Aunt Winnie.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Winnie drove by.

“There she is!” I yelled while getting to my feet. I had my hands on my suitcase and was at the door before Mrs. Whitman could get into the room from the kitchen.

Mrs. Whitman took off her apron and folded it neatly. “Just a minute and I’ll walk with you.” 

She started to walk back toward the kitchen, which made me panic. It was going to take too long for her to walk with me. 

“It’s okay. I can walk by myself,” I said. “It’s not that far.” 

I didn’t want to give her a chance to say no, so I turned the knob on the front door and rushed out onto the porch. 

Mrs. Whitman came to the door with her apron still in her hand. She had those creases in her forehead that I had seen on Kenneth earlier.

Suddenly I had it in my head how to make everything lighter. “It’ll be funny,” I said, smiling. “To tell Aunt Winnie that I walked there.” 

Much to my relief, Mrs. Whitman smiled back. She understood me. “Well, okay. but I’ll be down there in a few minutes.” 

I nodded and turned then stopped and said, “Thank you for letting me stay with you.” 

“Anytime, Karen,” she said, waving her apron at me.

I began walking toward Winnie’s house, smiling from ear to ear. It was going to be fun to see Aunt Winnie’s face when I just appeared out of nowhere. The suitcase was a little heavier but the excitement kept me moving toward her door. 

This might be the funniest thing I had ever done, I thought. 


Karen Brode is the 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 for more than 40 years. They have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

High-Strung

By Karen Brode

Mother looked at the elevator and then at me. I clung to her arm and silently begged for her to take the stairs to the doctor’s office. Her eyes showed the worry I felt, although I was worried about the elevator and I knew she was only worried about me and my fears.

We traversed the small stairwell on the left of Bear Drug. My relief was short-lived, though, because I remembered why we were there—to see Dr. Fredericks about what was wrong with me.

What wasn’t wrong with me, I wondered. Over the last few months my shortness of breath had become worse. When I couldn’t breathe, Mother carried me out to our front porch and held me in her arms while she sat on the top step. I wished I could explain what was happening. I wished I could tell Mother not to worry, but I couldn’t.

It was odd because I didn’t always have shortness of breath. I inhaled and exhaled like any healthy child when I was playing in the yard with the other neighborhood children. It was only when I went to bed that I struggled to find the air I needed.

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” I prayed this every night. It was required. “If I should die before I wake….” My heart beat faster. “I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I trembled inside but I tried hard to push it away. I wanted to go to sleep. I did not want to be a problem for my mother.

It wasn’t long after reciting those words that I ended up wrapped in Mother’s arms on the front porch trying to fill my lungs with night air. 

I didn’t think the visit to Dr. Fredericks was necessary. I knew I wasn’t sick, but Mother was worried and I would do anything to keep her from worrying about me. She had enough to deal with on her own since Daddy died.

Dr. Fredericks was scary. Everything was scary, except maybe when the sun was out and I was playing outside. The doctor wanted to talk to me—just me—so he asked Mother to leave the examination room. I sat stiff as a board on the edge of my chair, trying not to make eye contact with him.

“Why do you want to worry your mother so much?” he asked. 

I didn’t know how to answer that. My heart beat heavy in my chest. I could feel it, like it might burst out of my ribcage. Didn’t the doctor know I didn’t want to worry Mother? Didn’t he know that I worried about Mother? Didn’t he know that I worried I might lose her like I had lost Daddy?

My mind raced. Images of my father came to mind. The times we had together. I used to sit on his shoe and wrap my arms and legs around his leg. He would drag me along and I would laugh. And then he was gone forever.  

I looked at the picture of the doctor’s children that he kept on his desk. They were all smiling, such happy, sunshiny children at the lake. I glanced at Dr. Fredericks and then down to the floor. In that one moment, I knew he was glad his children were not like me.

Dr. Fredericks leaned back in his chair and made a steeple of his hands and fingers. I stared at the black and white floor. The white squares were sort of mottled, not pure white. It was shiny and clean except over in the corner where the custodian had missed a place.

I thought of Mother sitting out in the waiting room. Or maybe she was standing right outside the door. She was my whole world. I wanted to jump up and run to her, to grab her hand and run down the stairs out into the sunshine, away from this place. I wanted not to worry anymore, to not fear what might have happened to her when she was late picking me up at the babysitter’s house. I didn’t want to imagine her dead. I didn’t want to think about who would take care of me or where I might end up. 

A long silence passed and the doctor finally stood up and invited my mother back into the room. 

“Thank you for waiting, Mrs. Hawk,” he directed her to a chair next to mine. Then he looked over at me, his eyebrows furrowed. Was he angry with me?

He sat down at his desk and took a pen out of his breast pocket. On the notepad in front of him he wrote a single word. I couldn’t tell completely what it said but I knew it wasn’t good. 

“Keep her on those iron tablets,” he said, looking up at my mother. “Her anemia isn’t any better.” 

Mother nodded. “Did you find any reason for her…um…breathing problems?” It seemed like she was going to ask a different question but she paused and looked down at me before finishing her question. 

The doctor’s lips stretched into a thin frown. He rubbed his chin and looked back toward the wall behind us. As he stood up, he shook his head. Without saying anything, he indicated with his hands that it was time for us to go. Mother and I rose from our chairs and moved toward the door.

I was almost out of the room when he stopped my mother and whispered, “She’s just high-strung.” 

High-strung? What did that mean? And why did I suddenly feel guilty and ashamed? 

I clung to my mother’s arm as we left the doctor’s office together. 

We were almost to the door when the receptionist called out, “If you hurry you can catch the elevator!” 

Mother turned to smile back at the woman. “Thank you,” she said, rubbing my head with her free hand. “But we’re going to take the stairs.” 


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 for more than 40 years. They have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

Lela’s Quiet Time

Lela Morrison went to sit in the dark parlor in her rocking chair. She could still see Walter and the children surrounding the kitchen table, though. Their voices were loud and demanding and unceasing. Lela closed her eyes and laid her head back against the chair. Oh, to be silent. To have time. To have peace.

Her life spun completely out of control the day she married Walter. She believed him to be the love of her life and she would have done anything to be with him. If only she could have seen what was down that road. Would she have still done it? She honestly didn’t know.

She was so tired. Nothing ever ended. She had done her part to keep her girls chaste little ladies. But Walter had dropped the discipline of his boys. He kept telling her they were good boys at heart. They would grow up, come back to the church. Nothing he said about those boys made her believe him. She had a bad feeling about all of them.

Lela knew that things could be much worse. She was reminded often about this whenever she complained about her life.

“Look at Mrs. Jacobs,” Mother would say, never looking up from her cooking or sewing. “Would you rather have Mr. Jacobs be your husband and never get sober? Would you be happier with no children?”

“Well, of course not,” Lela said in return. Still, it didn’t help her much. Just made her feel lonely. Whenever she had these conversations with her mother, she the walk back home seemed farther and what was waiting for her there felt heavier. But she always went back and put the bridle back on, and she tried to be thankful for a life that was wearing her down a little more each day.

Opal was the oldest of Lela’s and Walter’s kids. In the darkness of the parlor Lela heard Opal’s voice above all the others. Lela smiled weakly remembering how happy she had been when she learned her first child was coming. She wanted that baby. She could not wait to hold her in her arms and know that she and Walter, with God’s help, had made another human. And Opal had been such a treasure, such a pretty little girl. She had bouncing blonde curls and such a sweet personality. She was perfect.

Before Opal was weaned, though, Lela was in a family way again. This second baby was just the first of a long line of moments that felt overwhelming for Lela. At the news of this second child, she felt she might never get to just enjoy anything at all. Opal had been enough—at least for a little while—but now a new baby to care for was on the way and soon another and then another. Her life rolled out before her in an unending road of children needing something from her always.

Lela was praised far and wide for her needlepoint. It was one of the few things in her life that she enjoyed. Still, no matter how many hours she spent surrounded by women her own age at her sewing circle, she felt utterly alone. There wasn’t a soul there who would understand her exhaustion, her loneliness. Her world was bordered by the church, by Walter, by other women’s criticism, and the never-ending needs of her children.

Lela sighed in her rocking chair. She knew she couldn’t sit there for long. Life would not wait on her. She must run to keep up but it made her so tired.

She heard Opal trying to get her father’s attention. Walter never immediately acknowledged his daughter. That was the way he was. So Opal escalated the conversation until he did.

“Daddy this boy at school said he loves me!”

At this, the clamor around the table stopped. Lela pictured Walter looking at Opal in a new light. She has always been a little girl to him but now she was 15 and had just announced a boy loved her. Walter hated confrontation, but surely he would not be completely spineless

Walter cleared his throat. “Well, missy. Do you like this boy?”

“Not particularly,” Opal replied. Lela could hear the triumph in her daughter’s voice. “But it’s nice to have someone in love with me”

Lela sighed realizing that Walter was finished with his part of parenting Opal around this. He would ask her to handle it. She knew that when they were in bed he would turn toward her and ask if she had told Opal about men? He might even say that not all men were nice like him. If he said that, Lela thought she might have to hit him.

How on earth did Walter think it was nice to make her feel the way she felt? She so wished Walter, and all men, could walk through that dark valley of child labor. Lela was devoutly religious but in the worst of her labor pains, she would have gladly sold her soul to make it stop.

She wondered how it was that Walter managed to have the low tension inside himself to the point of almost being boring, and yet people always liked him. People, even the children, responded in a much different way to her. She was always on the edge of panic wondering when the next shoe would drop.

Walter had a good job as an accountant at the cotton gin. He went to college and did whatever college boys did. She was sure that he and his brothers had done things that she could never imagine Walter doing. Walter’s family had been wealthy. His brothers were still wealthy, but they were far out in West Texas in the oil fields, which suited her just fine.

Sometimes Lela tell Walter her fears and worries. Walter always reminded her that they could be very well off if he had joined his brothers in West Texas. Lela believed there was so much more to life than money, like the moral fiber of her children, but there were times that she wished they had more money.

She recalled the time she had to stop by the cotton gin to get some money from Walter. She had been overcome by the sound of the machinery, but in the center of it all was Walter, closed up in his glassed-in office working on the books. She was jealous of his peace and silence. It made her hate him more.

Mainly she hated him because he was a man. Men did not have to have their bodies split open in childbirth. Her womb had been opened seven times because he wouldn’t take no for an answer. She had done these things for him, for their marriage and yet come breakfast time, she wasn’t good enough to talk to. All he wanted then was to sip his coffee and read the newspaper. And he always got what he wanted.

Lela groaned low so no one would hear her. She decided as she rocked in her chair that there must be something terribly wrong with her. She had completely lost her desire for Walter. There was a time in their lives when he had been so exciting. He came to the door of her childhood home armed with a dozen roses behind his back. He had taken her for drives in his Model T on Sunday afternoons. Lela was so happy back then.

Lela’s mother was not pushy as a rule but once Walter Morrison came calling, even her mother had stars in her eyes. All of her girlfriends were eaten up with jealousy that he had not chosen one of them. And the thing was, Lela had not gone looking for Walter. Maybe it was her lack of being impressed with him that drove him to try to impress her more.

Lela’s mother had warned her that married life was never easy.

“After the new wears off,” she’d say. “Just wait and see.”

But when it came to Walter, Mother’s tune changed.

“You couldn’t find a better one than Walter.”

Her mother constantly listed off his attributes as if Lela needed reminders. He was clean and had no rude habits. He was a churchgoer, a tither, he prayed before meals, even in Lela’s house. Even before they were married the church elders were considering him to be made a deacon. The only thing holding him back was his marital status. They preferred that deacons were married.

Walter was no fool either. He brought little niceties to Lela’s mother; a box of chocolates, a new package of needles, perhaps a bowl of fruit from his mother’s house. It didn’t take long for Lela’s mother to make up her mind about Walter.

Lela wondered how other families were. She had no idea if anyone else felt the way she did. No one ever talked about their home life at the sewing circle at church. All of her friends went to church at the same place. They all smiled the same smile. Sometimes Lela would be recruited to help on a committee or to join another group to hem the infant’s blankets for new mothers.

Mrs. Henry was one of the few women Lela connected to at church. She showed Lela how to make an applique quilt. It was the only time Lela could recall having so much fun. Mrs. Henry was so talented and she was so easy to talk to. Lela started to think that maybe one day she could actually open up to her, so she undertook a huge quilting project.

Lela had not attempted to do any such undertaking in the past, but working on the appliqued squares gave her an excuse to sit with Mrs. Henry and work together. But before she finished them all, Mrs. Henry and her family moved away and she was left to work on it all on her own.

Lela heard chairs being pushed away from the table. She knew her “quiet time” was almost over. It was the only time of day she could call her own.

“Mother!” Opal called, “Did you iron my blue skirt?”

Lela stood up and brushed her apron back into place. She took a deep breath before answering.

“Yes, Opal. I ironed your skirt earlier today. It’s hanging in your closet.”

Lela walked toward the kitchen but Opal met her at the threshold of the parlor.

“Oh, thank you, Mother!” Opal wrapped Lela in a warm hug and squeezed tight.

Lela had to admit she loved that girl. She hugged her oldest daughter back. Then she felt a pang of guilt for not liking her other children like that. She and Walter should have stopped having children after Opal, but they didn’t.

As she and Opal parted, she wondered to herself why the others were so different from this daughter. How happy she and Walter had been when they saw her for the first time. From the first moment to this last one, Opal was so sweet. She watched her daughter hum down the hallway and she smiled. Opal was happy.

Finding Life When It’s Over

By Karen Brode

Stephen Garner felt a lot older than he thought he should. The years and the failures had caught up to him. He looked down at his work-worn hands. At 56 years old, his body was broken and his spirit wasn’t too far behind. If he had just been 10 years younger, he would have rallied. Once upon a time, those hands could have saved the farm. But nothing could help him now. He had lost the farm, lost everything he had worked for. And now his wife was dying.

The best he could do was to stay alive to take care of Ella. He was unselfish in his prayer for continued breaths. He knew his wife depended on him so much. She depended on him to say their morning prayers because she had forgotten them. She depended on him to bring her meals to the little room where they now lived in their daughter’s house. He fed her because she had forgotten how to eat. She depended on him to keep her warm in the night and to understand so many things that she could no longer understand.

And Stephen did understand. He loved Ella through all of it. He felt himself being used up, consumed by the situation, but he never wavered in his love for her. She had been that beautiful young girl who had just glanced across the church aisle at him when he was young and vibrant and well. She had waked in him all the love and devotion a young girl could cause a young man to have. They had been young and happy and their children had had enough to eat and life was good. Their life together had never been rich but they weren’t poor either. The Lord had always provided. By the sweat of his brow, he had helped the Lord provide for his family. And on Sundays, he and Ella and their three children took up most of a pew at church.

He rubbed the tight pain between his eyes and looked over at his wife. She was sleeping. She had forgotten all of those times but he remembered them. Sometimes he wished he could forget too so he wouldn’t really know how much they had lost.

Stephen and Ella were penniless. They had lost the farm. Stephen ached remembering the day the bank came and took the farm away. They just weren’t able to keep up on their payments. Now, he and his wife were at the mercy of whichever of child would take them in. Thank God for the generosity of their oldest daughter Lela and her steadfast husband Walter.

Stephen smiled at the thought of their kindness. It was a bittersweet smile. He would have rather been in his own home and not tucked in the corner of his daughter’s house. But his children were good to him and Ella. Walter took care of the roof over their heads and Lela made sure they ate. Stephen was sure there was never a better pair than those two.

Stephen’s thoughts were interrupted by a tiny knock at the door. He knew it was little Hazel, even before she turned the knob and peeked in.

“What you doin’, little girl?” Stephen asked, opening his arms and inviting her into his lap. She smiled and ran to him, giggling quietly.

She was only five, the youngest of seven children. Stephen could see her little heart, and it was as big as the earth itself. Unlike the other children, Hazel had a restless spirit. She longed to go to school with her sisters, but since the time wasn’t right yet, she always found her way to Grandpa’s lap with stories she had seen around her.

Sometimes in a sad moment, it would be enough for him to hold this little granddaughter in his lap and feel her hope and love. It gave him the strength to go on a little while longer.

“Mama’s in a fluster,” Hazel said after she was settled on Grandpa’s lap in the crook of his arm.

“What about this time?” He asked. With seven children and a husband who refused to get involved, his daughter was rarely not in a fluster.

“Opal’s got a date. She’s worried she’ll sit too close to a boy in a buggy.”

“Heavens,” said Stephen, “Is Opal old enough to date?”

Hazel looked up at her grandfather like she was shocked. “Well, she is 15,” she said. “She’s gotta get married soon so she can have babies!”

“Oh my word,” Stephen said laughing. “Where on earth did you hear that, my little girl?”

“Opal told me. She said she was the prettiest out of all of us and that she had to get married first.”

Hazel sat up in Stephen’s lap and pretended to brush her hair in front of a mirror. Stephen knew without her telling him that she had seen her older sister do this a hundred times.

“Heaven help that boy, then,” Stephen said. He knew what kind of woman Opal was going to be. She would be insufferable, but whatever boy would have her would never know it until after he had married her.

Stephen didn’t like to get into the parenting affairs of Lela and Walter, but he knew they struggled sometimes. For one, Lela spoiled Opal and gave her whatever she wanted. And on the other hand, Walter had a weak spot when it came to disciplining his children, especially the boys. He left everything to Lela.

Stephen knew, then that it was better for him and Ella to take their meals in their little room by themselves. Ella didn’t feel like eating much of the time, but Stephen knew that she just didn’t feel like talking or being a part of the chaos in the main house. So, they stayed in their room much of the time when the entire family was together.

There were times, though when Stephen went to the kitchen to sit with his daughter while she prepared the meal for the day. They talked often about the trials and tribulations of raising such a large family. Lela never relaxed. She made Stephen tired to watch her dart about her kitchen looking for ingredients to make a new meal each day. Lela was only 37, but she looked 50.

Stephen thought about her husband Walter and wondered if he might still be mad at Lela for not moving to West Texas when they were young. He had brothers out there who were successful oil barons and he had oven mentioned how much better off they might have been if they had lived there.

Stephen thought they had made the right decision by staying in East Texas, though. He didn’t think his daughter would fit well into Walter’s family. His brothers were fast talkers, fast dealers, and there was nothing Christian about them. It worried Stephen that his daughter and her children might be unduly influenced by these people and turn out to be infidels.

Stephen blinked into the darkness of the room and squeezed his little granddaughter to him. He was so thankful for that room and that little girl, who took after Ella in sweetness and smarts.

“Wanna go get the mail?” he asked her.

She nodded and slid off his lap. She waited patiently for him to rise out of his chair and then she took his hand.

“Let’s go, Grandpa,” she said softly.

As they walked down the dirt road together, Stephen felt the sun on his face and decided he should get outside more often. Hazel chattered away about the flowers and dropped his hand just long enough to stoop down and pick one.

“For you,” she said standing back up and holding a little flower up to her grandfather. “It was the prettiest one of the bunch.”

He was humbled and love filled his heart. “Thank you, Miss Hazel,” he said. He would later take the flower to Ella, but for now he stuck it in his pants pocket.

At the mailbox, Stephen went through the letters. His sister had written, but he would give that letter to Lela. Lela handled all of the family communication. Truth was, Stephen wasn’t too good at writing. He could never write down all that had happened to him. It was better not to talk about it or think about it.

He did open a letter from Washington, DC, though. He didn’t know anyone in Washington. Hazel leaned on him, tired from the walk, so he bent down and picked her up as he opened the letter.

“Well, Hazel, this letter is from the social security department, whatever that is.”

Stephen opened the letter and shook his head. “Wouldn’t you know it, Hazel? Those fat cats in Washington are asking me for money! That president in with all the money in the world is asking me for money!”

“What’s it for?” Hazel asked and leaned her head on her grandfather’s shoulder.

Stephen looked at his granddaughter and then back at the letter. It talked about some new program that was meant to help people get on their feet when they couldn’t work anymore. The idea of it struck home, made him wish something like that had been in place when he had been forced to leave his farm and livelihood.

“It’s meant to help people,” he said in a whisper.

“That can’t be bad,” said Hazel, looking at the words in the letter.

Stephen squatted down in the road and slipped Hazel down to his knee. He dug a dime out of his pocket and dropped it into the stamped envelope that had come with the letter.

“Wanna lick the envelope?” he asked.

Hazel nodded and took the envelope from him.

Stephen looked out into the distance to a future he would never know and he wondered if that dime might help some old soul like himself.

“It might not help Ella and me,” he said, taking the closed envelope back from Hazel, “but maybe it’ll help some other poor old feller at the end of his life.”

With that, he took Hazel’s hand and they started back to the farmhouse. They kicked at the dirt as they walked and the September sun shined hard on their backs as they laughed together.


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.

You’ll Never Believe What Laurie Did

By Karen Brode

Hazel rushed to the front door as fast as her legs would let her get there. She was in good shape for a woman in her 60s, but her ankles and knees moved a lot more slowly than they used to.

“I’m coming! I’m coming!” she called to the person who was banging on the front door.

“Hurry up!” Jewel cried from the other side.

Jewel was one of two sisters that lived in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Opal was the other. The two women were rarely seen without the other, so it was a surprise when Hazel heard only Jewel on the other side of the door. It was especially disconcerting because she was rarely demanding like that. That was usually a job left to Opal.

Hazel got the door opened, but before she could ask any questions, Jewel barged in with her suitcase, threw it on the floor, and hugged Hazel tight.

“I had to get here before Opal,” she said.

Hazel felt her sister breathing hard from the effort of the commotion.

When she pulled away from the hug, Hazel said, “It’s so good to see you, but you look as flustered as an old hen!”

Jewel let out a long breath, as if she’d been holding it for the entire six hours it took to drive to Denison.

“Opal’s not far behind me,” she said. “She brought her own car so she could stay a few days longer.” Jewel paused and raised her eyebrows with a look that said, “Sorry!”

Hazel laughed at the commiseration. They both knew how difficult Opal could be. They had known it their whole lives. You might say that having to deal with Opal gave them something in common. It had kept them close all these years.

Jewel put a hand on Hazel’s arm and looked straight into her eyes.

“I need to tell you something before Opal gets here,” she said. “That’s why I’m so flustered. I didn’t want Opal to hear me.”

Hazel nodded, waiting for the conspiratorial news.

“Whatever you do, don’t mention Laurie.”

“Opal’s granddaughter?” Hazel asked. “Is everything okay?”

Laurie was Opal’s favorite, above everyone else in the world. Up to this point, she had always been beyond reproach. In fact, most days, you couldn’t get a word in edgewise for all the talk about Laurie: Laurie had gotten a raise at her job. She had gone on a date with a medical student. She had attended the symphony with her church group. There was really no end to all the good work that Laurie was doing.

Hazel wondered what could be so bad that Jewel would race ahead of their sister in order to have a private conversation. Already, Laurie had stunned Opal by moving away to Dallas as soon as she graduated high school. Hazel couldn’t think of anything worse than that. She remembered watching Laurie grow up and Opal talking about her granddaughter’s future as if it were her own to decide. She would have a small house in Fort Smith and marry a Christian man who would emerge from the small house every morning with his briefcase with Laurie standing at the door with his coffee and a kiss. And then Laurie and her husband would have a sweet little great grandchild that Opal could cuddle in her arms. She had even talked of their living with Opal so Opal could be of assistance with the children. When Laurie moved away, it had stunned and hurt Opal deeply.

“It’s bad,” Jewel said, as if reading Hazel’s thoughts.

“My word,” Hazel said, putting her hand to her mouth. “Did she marry a Baptist?” Her eyes widened as her mind tried to guess what could be so bad. And then she gasped.

“Did she marry a…Catholic?” She could barely get out the last word and when she did, she whispered it. She knew that would be worse than anything in Opal’s mind.

Everyone knew how her sister felt about church and other churches. Hers was The One True Church, the church without instruments, the church without separate Bible classes. When anyone asked Opal about her beliefs about Bible classes, Hazel knew that Opal would consider those people as feeble minded. And she saw it as her duty to teach them.

“God did not say, ‘Go off and put yourselves in different places to worship me!’ He said, ‘Everyone must be together to praise me!’” She was quite passionate when she would relay this to anyone who challenged her on it. When pressed where in the Bible she got her information, she’d shrug and say she couldn’t remember exactly where it was, but she knew it was there and far be it from her to dispute the Word of God.

So, as her children had children, Opal made it clear that those grandchildren must marry within the church—her church. They should never even think about dating anyone outside the church. Marriage was hard enough without being unequally yoked, she’d say.

Jewel shook her head. “No. Laurie’s not married. It’s worse!“

A car drove by outside and both women jumped. They looked back through the front door as if expecting Opal to be standing there listening. Hazel was relieved to see that the car wasn’t Opal’s and she wasn’t standing there.

“Worse?” Hazel said. She stepped to the door and shut it, just to be on the safe side.

“It’s the awfullest thing I’ve ever heard,” Jewel said, tears springing to her eyes. “I knew Laurie wasn’t quite as white-washed as Opal always thought she was, but I don’t think I could ever imagined her doing what she did!”

Hazel felt the need to sit down. She guided Jewel over to the sofa and as they both sat, she grabbed a box of Kleenex from the end table and put it between them.

“Laurie called a while back and told Opal she had cancer,” Jewel said. She took a Kleenex from the box and dabbed at her eyes. “You can imagine how Opal received that news! It was terrible!”

Hazel thought back to all the loss her older sister had endured. First her son Bruce, whose death she somewhat blamed on her husband Lloyd, even though he hadn’t been within 50 miles of their son when the car accident took him.

Hazel remembered Opal recounting how, on the night of his death, he had called while he was on the road. She had wanted to say hello to her son, but she had been in the bath and, by the time she got out and dried off enough to go to the phone, Lloyd had hung up. She never got to say goodbye or anything. She had always wondered if Bruce had meant to confide something to his mother, something important that he’d never get to say. So she blamed Lloyd until he, too, died some years later.

Laurie was Bruce’s only child. When she came along, Opal took care of her on the auspices of helping out, but really she had wanted to be with her favorite son’s child. She could see Bruce in Laurie and that was as close as Opal would ever get to her son. It helped Opal cope with Bruce’s death, but Hazel knew that her sister had taken all the dreams she had for Bruce and pinned them on Laurie.

Hazel felt her own eyes misting up at the thought of Laurie having cancer. She knew how devastating this would be for her sister and, as hard as Opal was to have as a sister, she didn’t want her to suffer.

“Laurie started sending letters to the Fort Smith church last February,” Jewel said.

Hazel looked at Jewel quizzically. “To Opal’s church? But Laurie lives in Dallas, doesn’t she?”

Jewel nodded. “Opal went to Brother Bailey in tears and asked if the church could have a special drive to help Laurie with her cancer treatments. And he was quick to agree to it. He told Opal that’s what the church was for – to help in times of need!”

“That is so kind,” Hazel said. She warmed to the new minister’s generosity and thought maybe he had finally started filling the shoes of the previous minister. It had been hard on the congregation when Old Brother Leon had a stroke and it took a while for them to take to Brother Bailey.

“Opal was making plans to go to Dallas,” Jewel continued. “She wanted to take care of Laurie herself. They talked every night on the phone, so much so that Opal had to work out a payment plan with the phone company! Her phone bills went sky high!”

“Oh dear,” Hazel said. “She didn’t mention to me anything about Laurie’s cancer or going to Dallas.”

Jewel looked down at her hands. She seemed embarrassed or ashamed.

“Laurie didn’t want Opal to go,” she said looking up and blinking her eyes. “She said she’d rather call and give daily reports, which she did. It did such a number on Opal to not be there and know how to be helpful. She prayed, of course, but she was sick with worry.”

Hazel nodded. She could just imagine what that would be like.

Outside, they heard a car door slam and then the sound of a trunk slamming shut.

“That’s Opal,” said Jewel. “I have to tell you quick then. Opal found out last week that Laurie didn’t have cancer at all. Never had it! It was all a scam to get money!”

Hazel started to stand to go to the door, but she felt light-headed and had to sit back down again. The breath escaped her chest and she felt all the sadness, misery, and embarrassment that Opal must have felt this last week. She could barely believe that Opal’s own granddaughter would do such a thing!

“Poor Opal!” she said in a whisper because the doorbell had just rung. “How could Laurie do this?”

After the second ring, Hazel managed to get to her feet and shuffle to the door. Tears clouded her vision, so it took her a moment to get the door opened. Before Opal could even get over the threshold, Hazel pulled her into a big hug.

“I’m so sorry, Opal,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

Opal burst into tears herself and she practically melted into Hazel’s embrace. And then Jewel joined them. The three sisters stood in their familial triumvirate and wept in unison.


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 Cost of an Opal

By Karen Brode

Albert sat at his sister-in-law’s kitchen table reading the Fort Smith newspaper. His wife, Hazel was busy cleaning up the lunch dishes. He figured they had about another minute’s peace and quiet before Opal, his sis-in-law, started up again with her constant demands.

“Hazel!”

There it was. Opal couldn’t keep quiet longer than twenty minutes before she needed something new. For about a week she had been lying in bed nursing her gall bladder surgery for all it was worth. Albert had wished some other sister had been available to stay with her while she healed up, but Jewel had a job and Cleo was in Houston visiting the new grandbaby. That left his wife to do all the heavy lifting with their oldest sister.

“Hazel, can you come in here a minute?” Opal hollered again just a second after she had called out the first time.

“That woman,” Albert said under his breath. He watched Hazel dry her hands on a kitchen towel before heading down the hallway to Opal’s bedroom. His wife had this soft way about her. Even her steps were soft and gentle, though he also noticed they were always full of purpose. He knew whatever Opal wanted Hazel would give her. Sometimes he wished she’d just tell her sister to stuff it. But then, she wouldn’t be his Hazel if she did that.

Albert leaned back in his chair until it squeaked under protest of his weight.

“You okay, Opal?” He heard Hazel ask.

“Oh, I guess,” Opal said. “For the shape I’m in.”

“What can I get for you?”

“Nothing…nothing. It’s just, I noticed there’s a lot of dust up there on the door frame, above the door. I hadn’t noticed it before, but just lying here makes me see things from a different angle. Would you get a dish cloth and try to get all the dust off that frame?”

Albert’s face turned red at this request.

“Who does she think she is?” He whispered, leaning forward again. He had to resist the urge not to hit the table top with his fist.

Then he heard his wife speak, “Do you need anything else? Because I can bring it now and not have to make another trip back here to your bedroom.”

That was Hazel’s way of putting her foot down. He shook his head and took a deep breath.

“The pain is getting bad,” Opal said in a whiny voice. “But no, I am going to try to hold off on taking anything until after supper.”

Albert pretended to be reading the newspaper when Hazel entered the room again. He knew his marriage had always been a point of contention between his wife and Opal. It didn’t help that Opal knew what he thought of her marriage to her dead husband Lloyd.

Albert had liked Lloyd, but he thought he had always been a spineless jellyfish and let Opal walk all over him. One day he told this to Hazel and Opal overheard. You would have thought he had accused his sister-in-law of genocide. She laid into him like a cat chasing chickens. They had steered clear of each other ever since.

“Oh, Hazel!” It hadn’t even been five minutes since Opal called her sister back to the room. “I think the baseboards need cleaning too.”

Albert threw the paper down on the table.

“You didn’t come here to do her housework!” He said through his teeth. “Tell her to get her old fat butt out of bed if she wants anything else dusted.”

He stood up, ready to go tell Opal himself just what he thought of her. Hazel walked over to him and put a hand to his chest. She looked up at him with pleading eyes — the eyes he fell in love with.

A little bit of the wind went out of his sails but not enough for him to calm down completely.

“She has more nerve than anyone I have ever met,” he said. “How dare she think she can order you around like this!”

Hazel removed her hand from his chest and took a couple of steps back.

In a quiet voice she said, “I promised Opal I would stay to help her. Please don’t make this harder than it has to be.”

Albert clinched his fists and tried to calm down but he was too angry. He was angry because of how Opal behaved and angry because his wife put up with it.

“I really want to leave her here to clean her own baseboards,” he said. He looked at his wife, who looked past him to some place she probably dreamed of–some place without a pushy older sister.

“I’m going for a walk,” he said, finally, stepping around his wife. In three strides he was out the door. He slammed it so hard the entire house shook.

He didn’t actually go for a walk right away. Instead, he sat on the front steps for awhile to try to calm down. He watched the birds skittering and chirping around the bushes in Opal’s front yard.

Under the windows along the front of Opal’s house, he noticed some shrubbery needed trimming. He would have already trimmed them if they were not Opal’s shrubs. He liked to stay busy. He was never happier than when he could stand back and look at a job well done. But he simply would not let himself do it. If he did that, it would open up all kinds of expectations from his sister-in-law. She would ask him to paint her house and put a new roof on and build a new shed. It would never end.

Opal’s house was the last house on a dead-end street. Albert looked around, thinking about the implications of that. It made him smile. He certainly felt like her house was a dead-end whenever he visited.

After a while, he stood up and took off, away from Opal’s dead end. Sometimes walking helped him clear his head.

He had walked past only two houses when he saw a man raking the leaves in his yard.

“It’s a nice day to get that done,” Albert said, nodding toward the rake. “I think it’s supposed to rain the next few days.”

The man looked up and smiled. He had a tan face that showed he liked working outside as much as Albert did.

“Yep–Heard that on the news. Thought I’d better get to it before the rain hit.”

Albert nodded and took a few steps into the yard.

“You Opal’s sister?” asked the man.

“Heck, no!” Albert bristled. “She’s my wife’s sister. Opal’s had some surgery and my wife doesn’t drive, so I had to bring her.”

The man leaned on his rake. “You all staying very long?”

Albert rubbed his big heavy hand through his hair. “If it was up to me, I’d already be gone back home. That woman wears on me like nobody else ever has.”

The man leaned closer to Albert. In a confidential tone he said, “That woman has been a sore spot to all us neighbors. Most of the men in the neighborhood won’t even go out in their front yards anymore. She’s always out there hollerin’ from her front porch. You can only pretend to be deaf so long! She doesn’t give up and she doesn’t take a hint.”

Albert cackled in commiseration. “Oh yeah. She would never take a hint. You’d have to scream it in her face. Even then she might not get the message.”

The neighbor chuckled, which made Albert laugh, too.

“Guess we’re in the boat together trying to avoid my sister-in-law!”

Opal’s neighbor pointed to a house further down the street. “See that house there with the flag pole? That’s Ralph Martin’s house. He’s been forbidden by his wife to go anywhere near Opal.”

Albert laughed again and said, “You don’t mean….”

The man shrugged. “I don’t know if it’s true, but it seemed like Ralph was running to the house every other day to look at the faucet or the refrigerator or any little thing to get him over there. His wife Millie had enough and put her foot down.”

Albert nearly snorted in disbelief. He couldn’t imagine Opal in that way, not ever. “You don’t think she….”

The neighbor held his hands up and said, “I have no idea what her intentions were, but Ralph’s wife wouldn’t have any more of it.”

Both men looked at each other for half a second as the image of Opal the Seductress sunk in. Then they both started laughing at the same time. Tears sprung out of Albert’s eyes he was laughing so hard.

When they couldn’t laugh anymore, Albert shook the hand of Opal’s neighbor and thanked him for getting him out of the huff he had been in.

“Those clouds are gathering over there in the north,” he said. “You’ve still go your raking to do and I was planning on a walk before I’m expected back.”

“If you ever need an escape,” the man said winking, “you just come on over. We’ve always got something good in the fridge to share.”

Albert continued on his way and, while he walked, he wondered why God had even made people like Opal. It seemed to him that she served no real purpose, except to make the people around her miserable. Albert supposed that her husband Lloyd had loved her, but she was 16 when they married and he figured she was nicer back then. The thing that bothered Albert most of all about Opal is that she did not know unlikable she was. She could at least have a little humility.

Albert’s thoughts went further back in the past, then. He thought to the time when he had been courting Hazel. He got dressed up every time he went to a family supper over at her house and her parents gave him the once-over more than once.

He always felt claustrophobic when he visited. Hazel’s entire family was so proper and pious. He tended to like people who were more down to earth and didn’t think so much of themselves. Opal was by far the worst of the worst. She played the piano after suppers and the family would gather around and sing. Albert hated it, but he endured it because he loved Hazel.

Albert scratched his head trying to understand Hazel’s family. Hazel and another sister, Jewel, used to say that their mother would’ve been happier if she had had Opal as her only daughter. He never understood that. He never saw anything attractive about her. He almost hated her for the way she treated Hazel.

Opal was exactly the kind of girl he would never have looked at twice because she already thought she was so pretty. He would much rather be married to that sweet, kindhearted Hazel. Sure she sometimes wore her heart on her sleeve, but she always tried to do the right thing.

Albert figured it probably wasn’t easy to be Hazel. Sometimes he felt sorry for her. Once they were married, he didn’t plan to spend much time at her family home, if for no other reason than to give Hazel a break from trying to measure up and take care of everybody.

Albert was still full in thought when he started up the sidewalk to Opal’s house. He was surprised and delighted, then, when he looked up and saw Hazel standing on the porch.

“I thought you had run away,” she said in a stage whisper.

“I thought about it,” he replied, smiling.

“Opal is having a hard time,” Hazel said. She gave him a second look, like she was trying to figure out why he was smiling. “She, uh, needs you to go and get her some more pain pills and the pharmacy closes in about 30 minutes!”

Albert thought of Opal writhing in pain and he smiled even bigger.

Hazel tilted her head. “Do you want me to go with you?” she asked.

Albert looked at his wife’s plaintive face and his heart melted. He could never tell Hazel no about anything, even if it was to help that harridan, Opal. He knew that his wife was such a goodhearted person and that he didn’t really deserve her. She went out of her way to keep things calm, keep everyone happy, make sure he had what he needed.

“Come here,” he said, stepping up on the porch and pulling Hazel to him. He planted a big kiss right then and there for all the neighbors to see and then took the car keys from her limp fingers and turned back toward the driveway.

He didn’t say a word as he got in the car and drove away, but he did look in the rear-view mirror. As he drove up the road, he noticed that Hazel didn’t budge from the porch. He was pretty sure he’d never forget this moment, or that look of confused happiness she gave him just after he had kissed her.


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.

Julia’s Visit

By Karen Brode

The window air conditioner unit was turned up to “high” and if there had been a “very high” setting, Minnie would have turned it to that. It was only 10 AM, but in north Texas in June, window units ran continuously.

Minnie had put a chicken and a ham in her oven early that morning. She would serve this along with seasoned greens, potatoes, garden vegetables, cornbread and rolls, and several choices of desserts. And then there was always Neapolitan ice cream in her freezer. Minnie reassured herself that she had made a scrumptious and appetizing lunch for her special guest, her niece, Julia.

Minnie had several nieces from both brothers. Julia was one of them. She was 19 years old, the picture of youth and beauty. Minnie was so excited to have her niece visit for a week. Her visit was the closest Minnie could get to her beloved baby brother, Leon who had died suddenly a few years back when he had suffered his second and last heart attack at the age of 45. Minnie had no idea why both her brothers – who had children – were taken so young when she was left childless and alive. She resented the injustice of that.

It wasn’t that she had a death wish, exactly. It’s just that she had bothersome thoughts that she had let all her nieces down by allowing their fathers to die so young. She felt she was somehow responsible because she had outlived them. She would have gladly died instead of either one of them. But they were both gone and here she was was left to try and make their daughters as happy as possible.

With everything just about ready for Julia’s visit, Minnie felt content enough to take a few minutes to sit down and relax. That is, relax as much as Minnie ever felt safe enough to relax. She sat in her recliner in the corner of her living room and chugged back a Tab soft drink until the can was almost empty. She was like her father that way. She could almost drink an entire soft drink without stopping for breath. This was especially easy for her to do when she was nervous, and that was most of the time.

Julia arrived at the expected time and, after settling in, she planted herself in the cushioned chair by the front door. Minnie couldn’t help wonder if she chose that particular seat in case she couldn’t stand any more and had to rush out the door quickly.

Minnie watched her beautiful niece from the kitchen.

Gosh she was thin, Minnie thought.

Minnie looked at all the food she had prepared and looked back at her skinny niece. She wondered if she had prepared the kinds of things that Julia would eat. She didn’t want Julia to get skinnier!

Or maybe Julia was still grieving her father’s death. There were still many days when Minnie could not bear to think that Leon was gone from this earth, never to sit at her dining table again, never to keep everyone entertained by his stories, never to talk to her again in that special way that only he and Minnie had. He had been her touchstone, someone who would always understand.

Minnie dabbed at her eyes thinking back on these things. Leon had kept alive all of the family times they both remembered. He remembered her when she was young. He saw all of her and loved her anyway. He knew her secrets and her fears. He also remembered how impossible their mother had been.

Sometimes, Leon would hold Minnie’s hand while she poured her heart out to him about all of her sadness and he would listen attentively. She knew he was really listening; not pretending to listen like other people. She got relief and consolation from those visits. It was as if she could breathe again.

The night Minnie got the call about Leon’s death she had run up and down the road in front of her house screaming. She felt so alone, so frightened. She was not only scared. She was angry. She didn’t want to go on living in a world without Leon.

Minnie wiped her eyes and looked again at her niece. She was reading a book. Minnie squinted to make out the title – “Narcissus and Goldmund.” Minnie had never been much of a reader outside of the Bible and book in which someone overcame great adversity to win in the end. She had to read books like that. She had this hope about her own life – that maybe, if she was good enough, wise enough, and nice enough, her life would at least end well.

Minnie wanted people to love her. It was all she had ever really wanted. She had worked her fingers to the bone, said her prayers every night, went to church every Sunday, baked hams for bereaved families, lived a life that had no dark spots, and yet, she wasn’t a happy person.

When she lay down to sleep at night, her worry never stopped. She laid on her back with her head on the pillow and her hands on her belly. Her worry was visible in her thumbs as they went round and round each other. Sometimes, if the night was worse than most, she got up and went in the living room to read. She had had some kind of heart problem since she was 18. The doctor had told her to think twice about having children. She hadn’t said anything at the time, but in her mind, she was thinking – not much chance of that.

The first day of Julia’s visit had passed awkwardly, Minnie thought. She had done everything she could think of to feed and entertain her niece, but all Julia seemed interested in was sitting on the chair reading that book.

When she couldn’t take it anymore, Minnie put her Tab drink down and asked, “Would you like a piece of strawberry icebox pie, Julia? I made it especially for you.”

Julia looked up at Minnie in a blank way.

“No, I’m not hungry,” she said. “But thank you.”

Then she turned back to staring at the page in her book and Minnie’s worry-go-round ratcheted up to a new level.

She was relieved, then, when a knock came at the door. She was even more relieved to see her Kelly standing there. Kelly was another niece from her other brother. She was 16 years old and reminded Minnie of herself. She was so eager to please and didn’t want to let anyone down. Minnie thought for sure that everything would go well with Julia now that she had someone more her age to talk to.

It was clear after a few minutes, however, that Kelly felt just as self-conscious as Minnie did in front of Julia. Before long, they were all three silent in the little living room. The window air conditioner whirred on, its fan ticking away the excruciating minutes.

Minnie looked from Kelly to Julia and back to Kelly again. She tried to get Kelly to say something, anything, to entertain her guest. But Kelly shrugged and her eyes were wide with uncertainty.

How could this go on for a whole week, Minnie wondered.

Finally, Kelly spoke up.

“Uh, Julia, do you like crossword puzzles?” Kelly held out a book she had carried with her.

Julia looked up from her book. Her shiny black hair was flipped up at her shoulders in Marlo Thomas fashion and it bounced as she shook her head.

“Not really,” she said. She sounded bored.

Kelly nodded and seemed to take this as a cue to work on her crosswords by herself. She pulled out a pencil and sat staring down at a page she had turned to, her tongue sticking out on one side in concentration.

Even so, Minnie detected Kelly’s own discomfort. Or maybe she was just uncomfortable enough for the both of them. She watched Kelly shift in her seat, look up at Julia, and then look back down at her book.

Then Minnie looked over at Julia and wondered for the first time how long she had been reading that same page. She worried they had disturbed her too much. Maybe she couldn’t concentrate because of them.

Finally, though, it was too much. Minnie couldn’t take the silence anymore. Julia could read her book any time, but she was in Minnie’s care now and Minnie wanted her to enjoy herself.

“Kelly, why don’t you and Julia go for a walk?” Minnie said. The words tumbled out of her mouth in a burst of impatience with the whole situation. Sweat ran down her face at having spent the last few minutes racking her brain trying to come up with something. By the time an idea finally occurred, she had crossed the line from worry into complete misery. She felt no choice but to blurt it out.

Kelly looked up from her book. Minnie knew that look. She was restraining herself from rolling her eyes. Kelly knew better than to roll her eyes.

Instead, her dear niece stood up and asked, “Julia, would you like to go on a walk?”

Minnie knew Kelly would be just as miserable out in the Texas heat with a silent cousin as they all were inside the little room that was cool for more reasons than just the air conditioner.

Julia nodded and Minnie nearly squealed in delight! She was doing something! Julia would not be miserable after all!

Minnie watched her two nieces walk out of her yard and down the gravel road. It was a road Minnie walked almost every day. Despite her weight problem and inability to follow a diet more than a day, she did try to offset the damage to her heart by walking a little each day. There was a tree about half a mile down the road that she would walk to and then she’d turn and walk back.

She knew—or hoped—the girls would walk farther than that. She worried for them, though. What if a pack of dogs or a car full of boys or a hunter with a gun came along and threatened them somehow?

Minnie took a few tentative steps off her front porch. She thought about following the girls on their walk, but she knew she would never be able to keep up. Instead, she stood on the porch and waited for them to come home.

***

Kelly couldn’t believe Aunt Minnie had stuck her alone with her cousin. Besides being intimidatingly beautiful, Julia was practically silent all the time.

The two cousins walked down the gravel road to the tree Minnie walked to each day. The only sound between them was the crunch of the gravel beneath their feet. Kelly’s earlier attempts to engage her cousin had been met with shrugs and more silence, so she decided it would be on Julia to break the silence.

With each step it became more difficult for Kelly to keep to her resolution. She had noticed they were wearing similar sandals and would normally have mentioned it as a way of bonding, but she bit her lip and walked on.

Kelly took the time, then, to think about their Aunt Minnie. She looked back toward the house and saw their old aunt standing on the front porch. She looked so earnest and kind of pitiful, even from a distance.

Kelly looked back at her cousin and wondered why she was always so quiet. She was pretty sure that her mother had told Julia how to feel about their aunt – maybe she had told her how to feel about the whole family, even Kelly. She wondered if Julia realized how much Julia’s mother had sabotaged her relationship with everyone. She wondered if she knew how much their aunt loved her and how much she wanted to please her.

In the past, before Julia became so silent about everything, she had told Kelly how brainwashed people could be. Kelly had wondered if this was a way to break her out of her own Minnie-imposed prison, to save Kelly from the same worries and pressures that Minnie put on herself. At the time, she admired Julia for saying these things and trying to help her not be like Minnie, but now she wondered if Julia knew how much she, too, had been brainwashed by people like her own mother.

It’s not that Julia’s mother was mean, especially not to Kelly, but she had always kept an arm’s distance, just like Julia was doing. Minnie loved all of them, especially Julia’s mother, Kate, if for no other reason than because Kate was Leon’s wife. Kelly didn’t think the love was reciprocated on the part of Kate, but she would never say that to her Aunt Minnie.

During one of the visits Kate and Julia made to Minnie’s house after Leon had died, Aunt Kate had sat in Minnie’s living room knitting. Kate was beautiful, just like her daughter, and very accomplished. She was so different from anyone Kelly had been around, including Minnie and her own mother. Kate was a principal at a grade school. Her evenings were taken up with all kinds of activities and classes that would further her education.

If that weren’t enough, Kate was elegant in appearance. She wore her hair in a style that would’ve been impossible for Minnie. There were combs and pins involved in her hair-do, whereas Minnie had curly, unforgiving hair. She had given up on such a style long ago.

During their visit to Aunt Minnie’s house, other relatives had been called by Minnie to celebrate their visit. The living room was filled with family. Minnie had invited all the nearby relatives and even some from further away. She was never happier than when she could get a bunch of relatives together.

During this visit, Kate put her knitting down and looked at Kelly in a way that made her nervous.

“You will be graduating high school in a couple of years,” Kate said. “You should come to Knoxville and stay with me and go to the university there.”

Kelly looked from her Aunt Kate to her Aunt Minnie. Minnie was beaming, but Kelly knew she would never take her aunt up on such an offer. She suspected her aunt knew this as well—that the offer was merely to win points with Minnie and not genuine. And of course, Minnie would never suspect such manipulation. She was completely innocent of guile or duplicity.

Uncle Leon had taught at the university in Knoxville. Kelly tried to imagine how it would be to be able to say her last name in a place where that last name was a good name, a respected name, an important name. She wouldn’t have to stammer and be bashful about her last name because of what her brother had done to their name. Kelly thought about all the times people looked at her when they realized who her brother was. There was always a look of judgment, always a sense that they had put her in the same box with him. It was a hard row to hoe, as Minnie would have said.

Kelly never went to Knoxville for university. Until she was married and took another man’s name, she never knew what it was like to be proud of her last name.

In the meantime, there she was walking in silence with her cousin Julia, not really sure what the future held, only knowing that she didn’t want to be the one to break the great silence.

As Julia and she came to the first turn, Kelly looked ahead and saw the sunlight dappling through the shade of the trees on either side of the road.

She had just about decided to break the silence to point out such beauty when a snake fell from a tree about six feet in front of them.

Kelly jumped and screamed. Even in her panic she felt embarrassed doing all this in front of her cousin who, predictably, remained calm.

Without thinking, Kelly picked up a large piece of gravel and threw it at the snake. Amazingly, it hit the snake right in the head and killed it.

“I…I don’t know how I did that,” Kelly said, completely forgetting her pact with herself about the silence.

“It’s impressive,” Julia said, nodding.

Kelly looked over at her cousin and felt something like pride and bashfulness wash over her.

“I don’t think I could do that again in a million years,” she said, stammering a little.

She looked back at the dead snake and rubbed her arms at the shudder of adrenaline and fear pumping through her.

“Mind if we head back?” Kelly said, turning before Julia agreed.

Julia nodded and they started back to the house.

Kelly thought of Minnie then. Maybe they weren’t so alike after all. Whenever Minnie had come across a snake, she went into some kind of trance. Her husband had always had to rescue her whenever it happened – and, living in the country, it happened at least a couple of times a year. She would stand in the yard and scream, but she couldn’t move.

Kelly felt distantly responsible for Minnie’s fear of snakes. After all, it had been her father who had terrorized Minnie with them. If Minnie could be at fault for not having died in the place of Kelly’s father, it stood to reason that Kelly was at fault for Minnie’s phobia.

Kelly shook her head and sighed as she and her cousin walked toward the house. But for the fear of snakes, she and her aunt were exactly alike!


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.