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.

Aunt Emma

By Karen Brode

By the time I was ten years old, I felt the responsibility to be a good church-going, God-fearing person. The summer before, when I was still nine, I had been baptized at the big gospel meeting held at the Sheraton football stadium.

No church in Liberal County could hold the crowd that filled the football stadium each night. The theme of the meeting was “Three Days of Decision.”

I succumbed to the spiritual pressure to be baptized on the first night. I didn’t trust waiting until the next night. A lot of things could happen in a day. I didn’t want to take any chances.

Back at the little church in Appleton, though, it was like seeing the same movie over and over. It was always the same. I knew what would happen next, but still I watched.

For instance, every Sunday, Geraldine Morton sat in front of Aunt Winnie, my mom, and i. No sooner did we file into our regular pew than Mrs. Morton turned to hold Winnie’s hand while the two talked.

“You know Beulah’s funeral is tomorrow,” said Mrs. Morton. “Could you bring a pie to my house? I’ll have Frank take it over to her.”

There was always a funeral and always a pie needing to be made. Aunt Winnie always agreed to make it or whatever food was necessary to help out the grieving, hurting families. She also went to every funeral service. It’s what people did.

It was pretty much the same every Sunday, some version of that anyway. But one Sunday, Mrs. Morton turned around quickly, before the men had set up the communion table and decided who would say the first prayer.

“I meant to tell you, Winnie,” she said. “I saw Emma down at the Bonham Farmers Market yesterday.”

Aunt Winnie’s head jerked back a little and she tilted her head like she hadn’t heard right.

“My Aunt Emma?” she asked.

Mrs. Morton nodded. “She was looking so much better than last time I saw her. I’m so glad she doesn’t need that walker anymore.”

Aunt Winnie’s mouth dropped open like she was trying to get the words out but she couldn’t. Finally, she whispered, “Are you sure it wasn’t someone who looked like my aunt? Maybe someone far away?”

Mrs. Morton didn’t seem to notice Winnie’s surprise. “No, it was her,” she said. “We talked a bit when we were looking at the plums.”

Winnie nodded and smiled a weak, confused smile, but she said nothing more. Her husband was walking up to the podium just then, so time for talk was over. Still, she seemed so shocked to hear that Aunt Emma was walking without a walker that she leaned forward to look over me to my mother.

They made eye contact and Winnie’s eyes widened, as if to say, “Did you hear that?

Mother shook her head and motioned with her hand something suggesting they talk later. I knew that gesture well because I had been taught from a very young age that once the minister stands to speak, it’s time to hush and listen.

“Let us pray,” my uncle said. He bowed his head and closed his eyes. “Dear Lord, may the speaker of your word have a ready recollection of thoughts. May those thoughts move someone today to turn their life over to you. And please bless the hands of the women who are cooking for our bereaved family….”

I took a chance to open my eyes and look over at Winnie then. She was the one who was always pitching in and helping. My uncle had to be talking about her. I wanted to see if I could tell that she was proud of what he had said. But she didn’t seem to be listening. Her head was bowed, but her eyes were opened. She was looking down at her hands and she seemed troubled about something.

My uncle finished his prayer. He repeated his concern for the lost souls of the congregation. When he said “Amen,” I looked around at the few dozen people and wondered who he thought was lost because we had all turned our lives over to God, even me. Did he know someone’s inner miseries that the rest of us didn’t? Was he trying to reach them?

It was time to sing then and we were asked to stand. Most of the congregants were past sixty. They groaned as they forced themselves from the comfort of the wooden pews.

“Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting Lord. What have I to fear, what have I to dread… leaning on the everlasting Lord.”

While we sang, I noticed my aunt watching the cows in the field out the window. She continued to do this throughout the sermon. I looked at the back of Mrs. Morton’s head and wondered if Winnie was upset about what Mrs. Morton had said about Aunt Emma’s walker. I didn’t completely understand, but I knew she was worried about my other aunt for some reason.

A few days later, Winnie came for a visit. She sat at my mother’s kitchen table, and she told her what Mrs. Morton had said. Mother seemed shocked as well.

“Emma’s needed that walker for forever,” my mother said. “It takes her ages to get to the door when someone goes to visit.”

Winnie nodded. “It’s pitiful to watch.”

They sipped tea in silence for a few minutes and then Winnie asked, “You don’t think she’s just pretending, do you?”

Mother shrugged and shook her head. “I can’t imagine. I’ve never seen her without that walker. To go this long just pretending?”

“Have you noticed her hair?” Winnie asked.

Mother shook her head again. “I don’t visit Emma like I should. What I know of her is what you tell me.”

“She’s put something in it!”

I’m not sure what Mother thought of when she heard this, but I had to put my cookie down because I was imagining Aunt Emma with gum or peanut butter or some other sticky substance all over her head. The thought of it made me want to laugh, but Aunt Winnie was so serious that I knew better. So I picked up my cookie and stuffed it in my mouth to keep from giggling.

“Her hair is jet black now!” Winnie said. She seemed almost angry, but I knew the look on her face was more about worry. “Hazel, I think she used shoe polish on her hair!”

I wasn’t expecting that. I burst out laughing. Cookie crumbs went everywhere.

“Karen!” Both Mother and Aunt Winnie hollered at me before I could compose myself.

“Sorry,” I said, still chewing what cookie remained. I stood up and immediately started cleaning up the mess.

My offense didn’t last long, apparently, because Aunt Winnie continued.

“I don’t know why she did it or why she does anything! She’s crazy!”

“It’s not just old age?” Mother asked.

“It is old age and we’re going to have to put her in a nursing home soon. I can’t keep going to her house everyday after I’ve worked a full day. “

Mother wiped a few of the crumbs I missed off the table into her hand. She looked like she wanted to say something but she was biting her tongue.

Finally, she said, “Do you think she’d be better off in a nursing home?”

Winnie sighed. She put her hands to her face and wiped her eyes. She seemed tired all the sudden.

“Even if she goes into a nursing home, she’ll expect me to visit everyday. I guess a home isn’t going to change that. But there’s a limit to what I can do, Hazel.”

The Higgins Family Move to Elm Street

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Opal Strikes Again

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good old Opal. Always there to help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dear Mother

By Karen Brode

Dedicated to my dear mother, Hazel Hawk.

January 12, 1992

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

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

February 10,1992

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

April 5, 1992

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

June 28, 1992

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

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

July 13, 1992

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

August 7, 1992

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

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

August 8, 1992

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

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

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

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

August 9, 1992

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

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

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

August 14, 1992

My heart sank when I arrived today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 18, 1992

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

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

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

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

September 7, 1992

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

September 14, 1992

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

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

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

September 20, 1992

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

October 21, 1992

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

October 22, 1992

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

December 6, 1992

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

December 24, 1992

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

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

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

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

January 12, 1992

I hate coming to see you, Mother.

March 4, 1993

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

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

April 2, 1992

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

June 7, 1993

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

August 11, 1992

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

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

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

September 12, 1992

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

May 28, 1992

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

February 18, 1996

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

November 24, 1996

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

October 7, 1997

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

December 25, 1997

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

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

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

May 24, 1998

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

November 1, 1999

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


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

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.

Gene’s Proposal

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The corn looks good this year.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________

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

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.

_______________________________

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.