Finding Life When It’s Over

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go, Grandpa,” she said softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wanna lick the envelope?” he asked.

Hazel nodded and took the envelope from him.

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

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

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

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

You’ll Never Believe What Laurie Did

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel nodded, waiting for the conspiratorial news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cost of an Opal

By Karen Brode

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


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.”

Effie’s Third Baby

By Karen Brode

I wouldn’t admit this to anyone, but I loved my youngest child so much more than the others. I tried to be fair, but it was so hard at times. When Winnie and Albert came along, I didn’t think I could love anyone any more than I loved them. And then Travis arrived and I realized he had been the child I had truly wanted all along.

I was 22 when Winnie was born. It was a laborious birth. I stayed exhausted mentally and physically for so long. My neighbors and the church ladies came often to give me time to nap or they would bring a casserole to the door. They assured me that things would get easier in time. I waited a long time and it never happened.

To say it bluntly and truthfully, Winnie was not a pretty little girl. Sometimes I looked at her and asked myself how this could’ve happened. When I found out I was going to have a baby, I was so happy. I didn’t really think that much about what the child would be like.

My daughter had soulful gray eyes that watched me constantly. She had my swarthy complexion and seemed to be frightened of something even as a baby. She didn’t cry much, though. She would just lie in her crib, wide awake, for hours. But she didn’t cry.

The closest I could come to describing her emotion was that she was worried. Always worried. I felt sorry for her even before she could crawl. I didn’t know what I could do with her.

I made her dresses of lace but she looked ridiculous in them. I tried everything. Her hair grew out to almost waist length. On any other little girl this would have been helpful. It just made Winnie look older. She was not like other children so there was no use in hoping that she would find a group of girlfriends at school.

My sister Dollie had a baby girl six months after Winnie was born. Dollie came all the way from Slaton, Texas to spend a few days with us right before the holidays. I didn’t understand how my sister had been able to travel with a baby that young. It wasn’t something I could do. She and I put Winnie and her daughter Christine in the same crib, but Christine crawled away from Winnie as fast as she could. Still Winnie just sat there and never complained.

My daughter was an old soul. As she grew, she began to be a good child. She was probably the best-behaved child anyone has ever met. People marveled at her social graces. She liked people to be happy with her, to appreciate her.

I could already imagine the life that she would have before she became a teenager. It made me sad. I didn’t know how to even talk about this with anyone. Winnie was four years old when I saw everything so clearly. It was about this same time that I found out that I was going to have another baby.

I gained over 50 pounds in my second pregnancy. I was so miserable the entire time. I couldn’t sleep, I was nauseated a great deal of the time, and I wondered how on earth I could gain so much weight.

At times it seemed that the baby that grew in my womb was already warring against me. The child did not rest peacefully inside me. I knew he would not be like Winnie. I secretly hoped that might be a good thing. I knew that he would have a lot more spirit and a lot more fight than Winnie ever did. By the last few months of my pregnancy, Winnie had taken over many of the household chores.

It was a torturous labor that started on a Sunday night and went on until Tuesday afternoon. I had wanted to die so many times during that labor that I could not fully appreciate the baby that had been born to me.

I slept for what seemed like days – a hard sleep without dreams. Then when I woke up, my husband brought in the new baby to greet me.

“It’s a little boy,” he said, so proud. “I’m not sure who he looks like.”

I took one look at him and immediately knew who he looked like! He was the spitting image of my father, John Gamble. People would remind me often of this – thinking that it made me happy that my child looked like my father. It did not make me happy.

From the very start, Albert was the opposite of Winnie. He demanded attention and wanted more of everything. He watched me with those dark brown eyes and I tried to feel something positive about him. I held him and changed his diapers and gave him food and took good care of him, but I could tell — he didn’t like me.

As Albert grew, he looked so much like my father that I almost couldn’t stand him. If it was just his appearance that bothered me, I might get past that. But he had the same blustery presence. Albert walked into a room and I was suddenly on edge. I got the prickly sense that he could see completely into my soul and I always looked away. Sometimes he didn’t say anything at all. He just looked at me with disgust.

It was always better if Albert and I didn’t spend much time together. We ate at the same supper table and bathed in the same washtub on Saturday nights, but beyond that Albert and I had nothing in common.

On numerous occasions, I asked my husband John if he thought we should discipline Albert in some way. As always, he chose to have no real opinion. He wasn’t even aware of the fractured relationship between Albert and me.

I’ve often wondered how my husband was able to go through life not making any enemies, not noticing the problems, the worries, the miseries. Everyone adored him and they feel sorry for him because I am his wife.

I loved John with all my heart, but we stopped talking like we used to. We didn’t even talk at all most days. Everybody just wanted to get away from me. It was hard to know these things and not understand how to change them.

I can remember how much my husband and I loved each other in the beginning. Nothing made me happier than to see him coming toward the house after work knowing that he wanted to come home to me. When he saw me standing at the stove cooking our supper, he would stand behind me and put his arms around me, and tell me how happy he was with his little wife. I was little back then. He could almost encircle my waist with his hands. It wasn’t long before I wasn’t little anymore.

I didn’t see any of it coming. The change in my appearance happened gradually over the years. Suddenly I had to extend my dress patterns to accommodate my widening girth. I saw the other women at church looking at me, noticing, wondering why I had let myself go.

All of my sisters and my one brother managed to take life in stride so much better than I did. I don’t know why that is, but it is. If I had not had my sister Emma to laugh with in my childhood, I don’t know what I would have done. Emma could make me laugh in the midst of the worst times of our lives. She could somehow turn things around and make me feel so much better.

When Emma lost her baby girl, though, she was never the same. I didn’t know what to say to her during this time. She did not cry hysterically. She just got very quiet. Her husband didn’t help much either. He had always been the strong silent type. I could imagine the silence in their house being almost palpable.

That’s about the same time Emma began to think of her cats as if they were her children. No one dared to say anything to her about this. We were all very happy that she could find solace in the company of devoted cats.

I wanted to tell my sister that she might be better off not having children. But there was no way to say that without sounding ungrateful for the children I had.

I often wondered if other mothers and wives felt like I did. I never broached the subject with anyone, though, because people didn’t do that. Any one of those church ladies who sit by me at the fellowship dinners and showers at church would stare at me in shock if I had asked if she really liked her children. It was a social necessity to at least pretend you liked your own children.

My sister, Dollie, seemed completely taken by her baby, Christine. Dollie always looked pleasant and seemed positive about everything in general. I wanted to ask her how she did that, but I didn’t ask her. When I thought of Dollie, I thought of her face lit up with a smile. I knew that wasn’t what people remembered about me.

There were days when I woke in panic and an icy cold fear in the pit of my stomach. I knew this wasn’t normal. I was hemmed in on all sides by fear, but I could see in other people’s eyes that things would go a lot better if I didn’t mention any of this.

I didn’t think that we would have any more children. Albert was seven and had grown even colder toward me than he had as a young tot. Sometimes my father came to see Albert and take him fishing or he invited him to the domino hall. I didn’t want my son to be around my father but my husband thought that having his granddaddy around was good for our son.

Besides, my husband said, “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen John Gamble do something besides think of himself.”

I had to agree, but I didn’t like it. I pictured my father turning my son further away from me.

Then I found out that there was going to be another child. Winnie was so excited. I think she might have been more excited than me. She was eleven years old.

I was 33 years old when my third child was born. I didn’t know if my body would let me carry another baby. I was young when the other two were born and neither of their births were easy. I envied the women who talked about giving birth as if it was like breathing. Especially after the first one, it was all supposed to be easier. But it was never easier for me.

Travis was born after four days of hard labor. When I was going through this experience, it was the first time I got angry with my husband. How dare he get pleasure at the price of my pain. Even if it did result in a sweet little baby, I swore I would never go through that ever again.

My husband sat by the bed and kept a wet washcloth on my face to help distract me from the pain. I thought it would never end. When the third day of labor dawned, I began to feel desperate. I thought something should be done but I didn’t know what. Winnie stood in the corner of the room watching me with those gray eyes. They were as big as saucers.

Then early in the morning of the fourth day my third baby arrived in a mighty swoosh. For just a moment, I could relax. My husband put the baby on my chest, while he helped clean up. I thought Winnie might be in shock because she didn’t move – even after the baby was born.

The new baby rooted around on my chest and settled in nursing. That is when I fell in love with him. He was a baby boy but already I could tell that I loved him in a way I had never loved Winnie or Albert.

My husband came to take him and let me rest, and I said, “No, I want him here with me.”

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.

Harold’s Boots

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t wait up for me,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shook his head and looked down at the floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harold’s boots.

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

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

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

A Side to Momma I’d Never Known

By Grace Washington

I didn’t have time to worry about Momma’s shock and her sudden discovery of Pearl’s condition. Momma looked so odd sitting at the table with her mouth open trying to absorb what all had just happened. The three younger children had put their forks down completely ignoring the meal Momma had made, even though it was everyone’s favorite.

I put my arm around Pearl and walked her back to the bedroom. Pearl was barely in bed when Momma came charging into the room. She was hysterical.

“Grace,” she cried. “We got to call the amblance people! Run across the field to Lillibelle’s and see if she can call them!”

“Momma, ain’t no ambulance comin’ to this part of town after dark,” I reminded her while trying to get more towels to cover the blood that seemed to be everywhere on my sister. “They might not even come during the day!”

Momma screamed and fell to her knees.

“Oh Lordy, help us now in our hour of need,” she said. Tears were streaming down her face. The hands she lifted into the air were shaking. “I call upon the Great God of heaven to come and save this…my errant child.”

I ran to the bathroom and wrung out a wash cloth with some water. When I got back, Pearl was moaning. Her face was so pale.

“Only one person might help us,” I said to Momma. “But you’re not gonna like it.”

Momma looked up. “Who would help us now?” Her face was covered in tears like nothing I had ever seen before.

“Go to Lillibelle’s,” I said. “Call Reverend Samuels. He’s the only one with a car that might take mercy on us and drive us to the colored hospital over in Tilton.”

Mother stared at me as if I had grown horns. “What you mean, girl? I ain’t gonna call my reverend for something like this! You think I want the church people knowing what’s happened here?”

It took a couple of seconds for the impact of Momma’s words to sink in. When they did, I had to sit down next to Pearl on the bed. I felt gutted. Was my own sweet mother more concerned about what church folks thought than her own daughter’s life?

“You know Zinnia and Millie get ahold of this, and we’ll never be able to hold our heads up anywhere in this town again. ”

I turned back to Pearl. She was still moaning, but the sounds grew quieter.

“Momma, forget the church people,” I heard myself hissing at my own mother. “This is your daughter! We need Reverend Samuels’ car. If he has any soul at all he’ll see us as we are. We’re all sinners–he knows that! He’s our only hope, Momma.”

Mother slid to the floor and started rocking back and forth.

I ran to the kitchen.

“Tom, John, you all need to get to Miss Lillibelle’s house and use her telephone to call Reverend Samuels.”

They just stared at me, their eyes wider than the saucers sitting on the table in front of them.

“Is Pearl dyin’?” John asked.

Their innocent, frightened faces made me ache inside. They were getting an education and fast.

“Yes, Pearl is very sick. I need you to help her. Go on, now! And tell Reverend Samuels hurry!”

It seemed like an eternity before I heard Reverend Samuels car in the front yard. Pearl had somehow rallied long enough to scream through a shock of pain and then the fell limp on the bed.

To my shock, Mother left us only to reappear just before the reverend arrived. Her hair had been combed out and she had lipstick on. But no amount of makeup would hide her hysteria. She shook like a leaf and, before Pearl passed out, she wailed with Pearl’s every sound.

The boys led the reverend to our bedroom. He had taken off his coat and hat before he got there as if he was there for a prayer meeting. His face told me he hadn’t expected what he got.

“Reverend Samuels,” I said. “My sister’s got herself in the family way. Something is terribly wrong.”

The reverend nodded. His face was solemn and sad.

“We’re so sorry to take you out of your house tonight,” my mother said shuffling quickly to our pastor. Her words seemed meant for more civil times but her voice was screechy and wild.

To my great relief, Reverend Samuels took my mother’s hand and patted it.

“We got to help little Pearl over there,” he said. “We’re gonna do the best we can and the rest in in God’s hands.”

Momma nodded. Her face and body relaxed and, for the first time since all this happened, she went to Pearl’s side and took her hand.

“You hear that, young lady?” Momma said, her voice a little shaky but not hysterical. “We got to do the best we can. That means you too.”

“Do you know how far along she was?” Reverend Samuel’s asked while he put his coat back on.

“I think she’s about four months along,” I said. Now I understood the shame Mother had felt moments before. Speaking it out loud like that to someone of Reverend Samuel’s stature made me feel so ashamed.

“Alright then,” he said. “I already took the liberty of calling Mercy hospital to let them know we’re coming. I didn’t know how bad it was–just thought it might be pneumonia or some such.”

Without blinking an eye, he gently wedged his way between me and my sister. He scooped her up in his arms like a baby and started walking to the car.

“It’ll take us half an hour to get there,” he continued, as if he wasn’t carrying my unconscious sister in his arms. “Miss Grace, will you be so kind as to ride along with us?”

I grabbed the blankets off the other bed and hurried out with the reverend. Before I got in the car, though, Momma grabbed my arm and pulled me back.

“When all this is over,” she said, her voice filled with anger, “You got a lot of explaining to do, young lady.”

I wanted to tell her how I hadn’t tried to hide anything, that I just didn’t want her to worry, but there wasn’t time. If we wanted Pearl to live, we had to go now.

“I gotta go, Momma.”

Grace Washington is a part-time contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. Her stories often uncover the realities and courage of those who fight for justice.

John’s Papers

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Duties of a Sister

By Karen Brode

Opal stared at the open suitcases on her bed. They were near full, but she wondered if she needed all of it for a trip meant to comfort her sister Cleo after the death of her husband.

The one item she questioned the most was the pair of yellow stretch pants she had bought the week before on impulse. She had thought they might be more practical to do the work of packing up Cleo’s house, even though she knew the church did not condone women wearing pants. She figured that perhaps in this situation, church folks might cut her some slack.

Still, she decided she should try them on before deciding to take them all the way to Denison, so she slipped out of her dress and proceeded to make the great effort of pulling on the pants.

Fifteen minutes later and dripping in sweat, Opal looked in the mirror.

“Oh, goodness no.” She clucked. “These look hideous.”

When she went to pull them back off, though, they were too tight. She started to panic as she pulled and pushed to get the blasphemous apparel off. In complete desperation she ran down the hall to her sewing room and cut them off. Once relieved of the pants, she took great pleasure tossing the pieces into the garbage bin.

Back in her bedroom, she buttoned up her dress and nodded in the mirror.

“That’s better,” she said.

The woman staring back at her was the woman she knew to be a pillar of the community and the church. She was a woman of substance, a woman who could probably endure anything.

She thought about Hazel, her sister who lived in the same town with Cleo. Right after Neal had died, Opal had wondered why Cleo hadn’t asked Hazel to help her. It didn’t take much thinking on Opal’s part, though to know why. Hazel was afraid of her own shadow. After her husband had passed away all those years ago, Hazel never recovered. She was barely equal to all the surprises life had handed her. She had nothing left to help Cleo stay afloat.

“Cleo,” she thought.

Opal frowned thinking about this sister whose husband had so recently passed. In her heart she had never liked Cleo’s husband, Neal. In all her memory, she couldn’t remember a single word he had uttered to her. For this, she could never forgive him. It was rude not to talk to your own sister-in-law. Besides that, he was just odd.

When the call came a month ago that he had passed, she had thought about not even going to the funeral, but her sister had wanted her there, so she went. Now, though, Cleo needed her to clean up the house and help her settle in as a widow. And when duty called, Opal was the first to answer.

The folks at the church in Fort Smith had been so accommodating when she told them about her family’s loss and her sense of duty. Brother Brown, the minister, had been especially kind to Opal during this time of need. He was a fire and brimstone preacher who delivered his sermons with a nasally Arkansas lilt. In times like these, he always found the right words of comfort.

“What a sad time for your family, Sister Taylor,” he had said squinting up at her with his dark brown eyes. “But what a great day for heaven.”

Opal had nodded at these kind words with furrowed her brow, clutching her watch necklace. It was a gesture she always did in sorrowful times. In that moment, though, she didn’t have the heart to tell Brother Brown that she was only half sure Neal was in heaven right then. She simply thanked the preacher and told him that she looked forward to joining her brother-in-law someday.

Now, though, it was time to join her sister and help her sort through the mess she liked to call a house.

“Three bags,” Opal said with decision at the suitcases. She sighed. “I just can’t know how long this will take.”

She bent over and latched each of the hardcover suitcases and carried them all at once out to her car. Someone with less heft might get a hernia carrying that many bags full-to-capacity, but Opal was was a sturdy woman, with a wide center of gravity, and not much phased her when it came to lifting things.

She had just slammed the trunk of her car when she remembered the wedge pillow she needed for sleeping. Even with all the junk Cleo collected, Opal knew her sister wouldn’t have a wedge pillow – at least not one that was clean.

She took one last walk through the house, going over in her mind anything she might have forgotten. Once she picked up the wedge pillow, though, she decided that was that and she headed out to the car.

The car dinged when she opened the door and she rolled her eyes. There was a time when the only noise a car made came from the engine. She decided she would like to go back to those days. She could do without the racket.

Behind the wheel of her Oldsmobile Cutlass, she looked out over the hood into the far distance of where she was heading. It made her tired when she thought of the long drive to Denison.

It was going to be a sunny day. She leaned over the wide berth of a front seat and dug her clip on sunglasses out of the glove box. She looked in the rearview mirror and decided it was a good thing she was doing. Besides being a help to her sister, she knew she, Cleo, and Hazel would have some high old times remembering their childhood.

Around 11:30am, Opal stopped at a roadside diner near Texarkana. All the booths and tables were filled with local farmers, businessmen, and several women with small children.

While she waited for a table, Opal noticed a family nearby whose children seemed better suited for the jungle than a public diner. Parents had no idea how to raise children these days, she thought. If those had been her children, they would’ve sat in their seats and been quiet and still. Now, though, people acted like they were afraid of their children, afraid to discipline them, afraid to even tell them no.

She shuddered when she heard the mother of the two boys sitting in the booth across from where she was standing bargain with her son.

“If you stop hitting your brother,” the woman said, “you can get a toy at the grocery store – okay?”

No child of hers would’ve ever heard her say that.

When it came her time to be seated, the restaurant hostess asked if she could sit at the bar to keep the tables open for groups of two or more. Opal was never one to make a scene so she agreed to sit at the bar.

What she hadn’t counted on, though, was how small the bar stools might be. She hefted herself up on the stool, but there was more of her hanging off to the sides than was on the stool. She shifted her body to the seat next to her and distributed everything across two stools.

It never occurred to her that her seating arrangement might be amusing to the other customers. She had stopped trying to explain her weight to anyone. Everyone who knew her knew that she ate like a bird. She often looked at her sisters, who were not fat, scarf down huge meals like wolves. Opal had just come to accept that her weight was just another injustice she had to endure.

Sitting there all alone, she had the impression that this trip seemed longer than it usually was. Maybe it was because on most of these trips to Texas her sister Jewel had been with her. Jewel wasn’t all that interesting, but she would’ve made the trip easier for Opal by just being someone to talk to.

Back in the car and satisfied from lunch, the car seemed to drive effortlessly. Opal turned on the radio, and heard the last part of a very important announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our president has been shot!”

“Not again,” Opal thought in despair, thinking immediately back to the day she heard of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. As she listened, though, she was relieved to learn that President Reagan was alive in spite of being shot.

“Thank goodness,” she said out loud.

Ronald Reagan was too nice a man for something like that to happen. He was nice looking, too. Opal had seen all of his pictures.

She listened intently to the news stories as she continued toward Denison. She was thankful when she heard the shooting had taken place somewhere besides Texas. Once she knew this, she turned off the radio.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Opal drove up to Cleo’s house. She was surprised to see several cars parked outside with people milling about the lawn and porch.

Cleo didn’t notice Opal as she stood on the corner and watched her sister and all the people on her front lawn.

There was a sign on one of the porch posts that read “Big Porch Sale” in writing Opal recognized to be Cleo’s.

“No, no, now,” Opal heard Cleo say to someone on the other side of the yard. “I’ll have to get at least a dollar for that.”

Opal took in the scene of bargain hunters picking over the junk overtaking the whole front of Cleo’s house. She had forgotten how Cleo loved to haggle over things. She often wondered in these moments how she and Cleo could possibly be sisters.

This feeling alone made Opal want to get back in her car and drive down the road. But she watched Cleo and suddenly felt sorry for her. Cleo would never be the pillar of strength or the definition of cleanliness and organization that Opal was, but ultimately they were sisters and this bond alone kept Opal from leaving. She was there to help Cleo become stronger in her time of need and, if she could, teach her to be a little less cluttered, more organized – like she was.

With her resolve restored, Opal walked through the crowd of people and up onto Cleo’s front porch. She had already started calculating how they might get rid of all this junk without having to deal with all these people when she heard Cleo’s screech from the steps below.

“Opal! You made it!”

In seconds, Cleo had bounded up the steps and across the porch. She threw her long, skinny arms around Opal in a tight hug.

“Now that you’re here,” she said in Opal’s ear, “I can let myself cry.”

Opal didn’t even have to look at her sister to know tears were already streaming down her face. She could feel the sadness pour through her. She felt the pent up worry and fright that Cleo must have been enduring all this time.

Cleo pulled away and smiled at Opal. She sniffed and wiped her nose with the fatty part of her palm – if any part of Cleo could be called fat.

Much to Opal’s dismay, her sister then clutched Opal’s shoulders with the same hand she had just used to wipe her nose and said, “Let me send these people home.”

Before Opal could say anything, Cleo turned from her sister and, in an age-weary voice, said as loud as she could, “The sale is now over! Please leave!”

Some of her customers looked pouty they didn’t get to go through more of the boxes, but in just a few minutes, they had all meandered off to homes Opal could only imagine were cluttered with the kind of junk Cleo was selling.

It took them half an hour, but the two sisters worked together to get all the boxes, containers, and fold-up tables back into Cleo’s house. Opal bit her tongue to keep from making editorial comments on the items her sister felt proud to offer for sale. From what Opal could see, it was just a bunch of ridiculousness.

It wasn’t until they had gotten Opal’s things from her car and had started to settle in that she realized her sister had left off cleaning at all. She wanted to say something. She wanted to point out that Neal would never have liked living in these conditions, but she didn’t think it was the right time, so she kept her mouth shut.

When Cleo led Opal down the hall, she noticed that her sister’s bed was not made. It didn’t seem like anything had been swept or dusted or cleaned in who knew how long.

Opal began to wonder if Cleo had always wanted to live like this and, had it not been for Neal, she would have lived like an animal her whole adult life. Under her breath, she whispered, “At least he was good for something.”

Other than that, she kept her mouth shut out of respect for Cleo’s feelings. She almost lost it, though, when they came to the bathroom. Two birdcages sat in the only tub in the house. There was no shower–this is where Cleo would bathe. Opal had wondered when they had hugged earlier, when Cleo had last bathed. The birdcages confirmed her fears.

“Have you met my parakeets?” Cleo asked. She pointed to one cage and then the other saying, “This one is Toodles and this is Penny.”

“Is this where they stay all the time?” Opal asked. She took in shallow breaths to keep from breathing in the smell of bird dung that permeated the room.

“I can’t think of anywhere else they could be,” Cleo said, as if that was a perfect explanation.

“I could think of lots of places they could be,” Opal thought to herself. But again, she held her tongue. Cleo was still suffering, she thought. Give her time.

It was almost too much, though, when they came across their mother’s crocheted ecru tablecloth. It was torn all along the edges. Pieces were just dangling from it. Opal wanted to pull the tablecloth to her and cry. She remembered their mother working on it for hours with hopes that it would be cherished and passed down for generations – and now it was in tatters, beyond repair.

“Be careful on the rolled up carpet in the hall,” Cleo said when Opal left the dining room.

Sure enough, her foot slammed into a thick area rug that was rolled up and sitting on the floor in the hallway.

Opal felt her blood pressure rising. When she had agreed to help Cleo get settled, she didn’t imagine this level of disaster. Even with the contents of her three suitcases, she had not come prepared.

She thought of her suitcases and wanted to cry. All the clothes, all her belongings were going to be tainted with the smell that seemed to follow her everywhere she went in Cleo’s house. It was a combination of mold, rotting food, and bird or cat mess.

When she reached the kitchen, Opal found the source of at least two of those smells. Littered across the floor were dirty plates. There were several cats sitting on the countertops and the table. One was on the floor cleaning the leftovers off a plate.

“We don’t even have to wash,” Cleo said, coming into the kitchen, laughing. “We have our own little dishwashers!”

“Where did all these cats come from?” Opal asked, trying to sound more curious than disgusted.

“Oh, I just let them come and go. They’re neighborhood cats.” Cleo pointed to a hole in the screen door that led out to the back of the house.

Opal watched in horror when another cat squeezed through it and walked right in as if he owned the place. He meowed a couple times and Cleo bent down to pick him up.

“This is Fluffy,” Cleo said. “He’s my favorite.”

The cat purred in Cleo’s arms. Opal suddenly felt sick. This was a new feeling for her. She was the rock that held everything together. This, though, was too much.

“What should we have for supper?” Cleo asked Opal. She set the cat down next to a plate of picked-over chicken bones and then started rummaging through the cabinets.

Opal shook her head but didn’t answer right away.

“I, um, I saw a restaurant a few blocks away we could go to.” She surprised herself by the lack of conviction in her voice. She usually always knew what she wanted and was never reserved at saying so.

Cleo laughed. “We can’t go there. They close at five.” She opened the freezer and started rummaging through a thick block of frozen things that had been there for who knows how long. “I’ve got some corndogs in here somewhere. Would you turn on the oven?”

Opal tried hard to focus on her sister. It was a rare thing for her to be shaken like this. She kept reminding herself she was there to help, but she was just beginning to wonder if Cleo could be helped.

“Found ‘em!” Cleo said, holding up a flimsy box of corndogs. She turned and looked at Opal with a smile. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Opal tried to smile, but she couldn’t. In the smallest voice she had ever heard herself use, she whispered, “Me too.”

Not knowing what else to do, she went to the oven and turned it on. Then she went to the table and watched in disgust as her sister prepared the corndogs next to a cat sitting on the counter.

(To Be Continued.)

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