Dear Mother

By Karen Brode

Dedicated to my dear mother, Hazel Hawk.

January 12, 1992

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

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

February 10,1992

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

April 5, 1992

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

June 28, 1992

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

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

July 13, 1992

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

August 7, 1992

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

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

August 8, 1992

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

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

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

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

August 9, 1992

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

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

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

August 14, 1992

My heart sank when I arrived today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 18, 1992

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

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

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

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

September 7, 1992

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

September 14, 1992

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

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

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

September 20, 1992

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

October 21, 1992

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

October 22, 1992

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

December 6, 1992

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

December 24, 1992

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

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

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

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

January 12, 1992

I hate coming to see you, Mother.

March 4, 1993

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

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

April 2, 1992

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

June 7, 1993

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

August 11, 1992

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

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

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

September 12, 1992

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

May 28, 1992

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

February 18, 1996

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

November 24, 1996

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

October 7, 1997

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

December 25, 1997

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

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

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

May 24, 1998

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

November 1, 1999

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


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

The Man in Her Car

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

I closed my eyes and held my breath.

“Patience,” I whispered to myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My thoughts were interrupted when Mother continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother, maybe it was your imagination.”

“Was it Cleo’s imagination, too?”


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

Hometown But Not Home

By Eliot Gregory

After so many years away, I was back in my hometown. I didn’t know if anyone would remember me. I sort of hoped they wouldn’t. I liked the idea of being a bit invisible.

This was where Bradley and I had grown up. We were fraternal twins and there could not have been two people in the world who were less alike than my brother and I. It often seemed like our birth and childhood had been a cosmic joke.

Bradley had been a football player in high school and he looked like it. At six foot two with eyes of blue he was the stereotypical heartthrob quarterback that everyone worshipped.

No one worshipped me. I was almost the exact opposite of my brother. I was tall, but not as tall as Bradley. I had a ruddy complexion with dishwater blonde hair. While Bradley was the picture of American masculinity, I was wispy and thin. Perhaps the biggest difference of all, at least to our parents, was that I was gay and he wasn’t.

As you might imagine, high school was not something I wished to prolong, whereas Bradley’s glory days were those between the ages of 16 and 18 when he was king of the varsity team. At the time, I was jealous of him for all the admiration he had, but as time went by, I watched how fervently he clung to those memories, as if time might possibly stand still and he could relive them again one day.

That never happened, of course, and everything else that came after it paled by comparison. None of his wives lived up to the girls he had dated in high school, even though at least two of them had been girls he had dated in high school. Eventually, even his children left him as he slipped into middle age and held on to the dreams of a boy.

Even though I had been only a shadow in his life when we were kids, it still hurt me in a primal way to see Bradley suffer as an adult. His failures led to addictions and, before it was all over, the failures won. They were larger and heavier than the few victories he’d had in his youth. I watched my brother give up. He stumbled down life’s road and stopped caring anymore about anything.

I would never have wanted that for him, not ever. But I’ll admit that, after all I had been through—none of which Bradley noticed or acknowledged—a part of me initially felt a bit justified when he came to me for money or needed help sobering up. I admit to feeling a twinge of justice that he had not had a completely charmed life.

The cool autumn air forced me back into the present. I felt a chill walking down the sidewalk. I was in my old neighborhood. The sun was just starting to set but the old-growth trees blocked what warmth might have lingered. I pulled my cardigan tighter across my chest and folded my arms to keep it there. It wasn’t lost on me that this might also be a way of protecting myself from the past.

The neighborhood hadn’t changed much in thirty years. The old homes were stately with beautiful lawns. Some even had the proverbial white picket fence. It was so perfect in some people’s view of perfection, but even as a small child I knew I would never fit into that particular view. I used to think that it was only me who was different, but I have lived long enough now to know that the lives of people – anywhere – are often not what they seemed to be.

Finally, I came to the house where Bradley and I had grown up. It had been repainted probably a half a dozen times since we had lived there and some of the trees had been replaced over the years, but otherwise, it was the same. Or, at least, it felt the same.

I thought back to the sign my dad had pounded into the front lawn boasting his son’s status as an all-star quarterback on the football team. How many Friday nights had we traveled to Bradley’s games and cheered him on?

My eyes lingered on the window that used to be my room. There were shutters now where there had once been curtains. My mother had sewn them by hand. I wondered if the built-in desk was still there. I had logged so many hours at that desk, studying for tests and memorizing lines for the plays I was in. It’s how I earned a scholarship to the school that set me on the path I had followed for the last 25 years. I tried not to think about the disappointment of the boy who had sat at that desk, hoping that maybe this time his parents would show up to the play he was lead in, hoping for the kind of celebration Bradley got when he brought home another victory.

These days I was proud of what I had accomplished, proud of the love and acceptance I had in my life. I could see, though, why Bradley had clung so much to his time living in that house. He had the love and acceptance then that it took me a lifetime to discover. There was never any doubt in my mind that my parents might have been happier if I had not been a member of their family. So, while Bradley stayed locked in the past, I ran as fast as I could toward a future that might be different from what I had known as a child.

A car pulled into the drive across the street and it woke me from my thoughts. I moved on. I didn’t care to be questioned by one of the residents of the neighborhood.

I’m not sure why my feet took me past the old church I had attended as a child, but I did feel drawn there. Church was no longer a part of my life. I came out when I was in my twenties and was told I no longer had a place there. By then, it wasn’t much of a shock and, in some ways, was a little bit of a relief. I was released to go find community with people who would love me for who I was. In my heart, I knew what drew me there now wasn’t the church. It was the cemetery where my parents and Bradley were buried.

I walked under the archway at the entrance to the cemetery, and headed down a small pathway to the family plot. My parents lay side by side under the double gravestone. I ran my fingers over the chiseled names and dates. My mother had purchased the tombstone after my father died not long after Bradley and I had graduated high school. Mother’s gravestone sat for over twenty years unclaimed. Her name and birthdate had been there but there was nothing after the little dash.

Mother died less than a year after Bradley killed himself. Even standing there alone, I wanted to use euphemisms when I thought about Bradley’s death, but the truth was the truth.

All the years of hard living took a toll on him. He hadn’t thought about what he might do after high school. I guess he thought it would always be like that.

He was diagnosed with Type II diabetes when he was in his thirties and it was like nothing to him. I can still see him sitting at Mom’s thanksgiving feast asking if he could have another piece of pecan pie. Then the drugs and alcohol caught up to him. He had a stroke at forty that miraculously didn’t take his life but it left him limping and one side of his face was always a little slower to react than the other.

A few years back, he had confided that he had stopped taking all of his medications. He wasn’t going to the doctor anymore. He was tired of it all. I tried to rally him, to give him reasons to live, but nothing worked.

Now – when I think about it – I wonder why I didn’t jump up and go find his medications and make him swallow them. The truth is, he wouldn’t have done it, and, toward the end, he was just unhinged enough to say I tried to kill him.

By the summer after his stroke, he was in a wheelchair, but not the one he wanted. He was so angry about everything by then, and I can’t say that I blame him. But he wanted to blame me.

“If only I had the motorized wheelchair,” I heard him saying. “I wouldn’t have to rely on you.”

He had ordered one in the spring and by summer it still hadn’t come. He was convinced that was the only thing that would keep him going, and he blamed me because I had not yet called the company to find out what was going on.

I couldn’t get the company to move any faster on the wheelchair, so I tried to be there in other ways. It was no use. When I took him for a leisurely stroll in a park near his house, he screamed the entire time. He accused me of trying to dump him out of his wheelchair and kill him. I’ll be honest. The more he kept on about this, the harder it was for me not to just dump him out of his wheelchair and go on with things.

And then there was the diagnosis of cancer. His dentist found the tumor under his tongue. By then, though, it had invaded his jawbone. I tried not to imagine what he might look like after that surgery.

Surgery couldn’t happen, though. The doctors called Mother and I as next of kin to be present when they broke the news.

“This is the worst case of cirrhosis of the liver I have ever seen,” they said. “His heart is enlarged and the cancer has spread to his lungs.” They couldn’t do surgery, not with all of that.

We sat there in that little room after the doctors left. I remember searching my mind for something to say that would be comforting, but there was nothing. I just looked up at him, into those bloodshot, empty eyes. He was broken.

He had enough pills and things to keep the pain at bay that it would have killed a horse to take them all at once. As it was, Bradley was halfway gone already, so I can’t imagine that it took long for him to go after he swallowed the whole bottle. I try not to think of it, what his last moments were like, but when I do, I realize that it was really his last years that were the worst. He hated his life.

There are questions I could never answer. My poor mother followed Bradley to the grave soon after his death. She just didn’t have the will to go on and I was definitely not enough to keep her here.

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

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’ll be the day, thought Albert.

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

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

_______________________________

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

Nobody Likes the Spanish Armada…Twice

It was September 3, 1971, the first day of my senior year at Denison High School. I wasn’t really sure how to feel about it. I knew I’d make it through the year and come out on the other side a high school graduate, but I was more or less ambivalent. The only feeling I might have had was a feeling of being different. I was so different from my brothers in so many ways, one of which was graduating high school.

My father had been so disappointed in both his sons. Neither turned out to be anything like him. He must have held each of them as babies and read bedtime stories to them just as he had read stories to me. But neither of them liked to read. For that matter, they never showed any interest in anything my father enjoyed.

I, on the other hand, did my level best to be the child my father had been waiting for. I was the child who reflected everything that he was. I was born very late in my parent’s marriage, when they were both almost 40. He taught me to read when I was three and I was his constant shadow. Even when he tried to get away from me, I would grab onto his leg and sit on his shoe and he would have to drag me along wherever he went. Unfortunately, my attempts to hold onto him had not kept him from dying when I was seven years old.

And now, so many years later, I was a senior in high school. So many of the memories had faded over the last ten years. I couldn’t  remember a lot about him, nothing concrete, anyway. I knew he loved me a lot and I knew he was proud of me. Sometimes I wondered what he would think of me as a teenager. He’d be proud I was still in school, about to reach the finish line.

There was only one thing, though. I got Miss Bledsoe for Civics Class.

I stared in horror at the card listing off my scheduled classes for the year. There, in handwritten print, was Room 217. That room represented nothing but torture for me. The year before, I had suffered through American History at the hands of Miss Bledsoe and her beloved Spanish Armada. She had written her thesis on the topic and apparently thought it a great idea to spend an entire semester having her students learn every detail about it as well. Forget about the Civil War or the American Revolution. The class should have been called “Spanish Armada History.” And now I was destined to spend another semester hearing how it related to civics, apparently.

I couldn’t believe it.

The first chance I got, I flagged down my friend Melanie in the halls. It took a while to get her attention. The halls were crowded and Melanie’s eyesight wasn’t so good. She had worn glasses since we were little girls and had tried a couple of times to wear contacts, but that hadn’t turned out so well. I waved at her through the crowds and, squinting, she finally saw me.

Once I caught up, I showed her my schedule card.

“I’m quitting school,” I said with a whimper. I knew I wouldn’t really do it, but the idea of getting away from Miss Bledsoe and her armed Spaniards made me consider the possibilities of being a car-hop at the local drive-in. “I’ll just…go be a car-hop.”

Melanie snorted. “You’d never make it as a car-hop. They wear skates to carry food.” She looked down at my feet. “We both know how that would turn out.”

So much for trying to have a dream.

“You should come to class with me,” she continued. “Mr. Donowho is a whole lot more interesting.”

I nodded. “That’s who I was hoping to get, but whoever makes these schedules thought I needed another year of persecution.”

We were pushed along by the crowd in the hallway and I stayed by Melanie’s side expecting her to do something.

“I can’t go through another semester with Miss Bledsoe! I’m sorry, but I just can’t!” I screamed to be heard above the bustling crowd of students.

“I’m serious,” she said. “Come on!” She gestured for me to follow her into Room 214, Mr. Donowho’s class.

“I can’t go in there!” I said. “I’m not in his class!” But my will was stronger than my words and I followed her into Room 214.

We sat down. I looked around the room and gulped. I just knew someone was going to find me out. I always obeyed the rules and never questioned authority, even if it was on a three-by-five index card.

“Let me see your schedule again,” Melanie said.

I handed her my card, thinking she just wanted to have evidence when they convicted me of being in the wrong class. The thought of it made me second guess my decision. I started to get up from the desk, but Mr. Donowho walked in right at that moment and sat down at his own desk.

“Here, give me my card back,” I told Melanie. “I’ll just go now and no one will get in trouble.” I could feel my heart beating in my throat. If I didn’t get out soon, I was going to cry.

Melanie handed the card back to me. “Stay put. Now you are in this class.” She pointed to the class assignments. She had changed the room number from 217 to 214. I nearly screamed.

“Oh no!  This will never work, Melanie. Now you’ve done it! How am I ever going to explain this?”

In what felt like record time, Mr. Donowho went through the roster of names. “Is there anyone else I haven’t called?”

I sat still. My first instinct was to be like a rabbit–just blend in and stay quiet, no one would know I was there.

“I don’t think you called Karen’s name,” said Melanie. I detected a little bit of know-it-all in her tone.

“Where is Karen?” asked the teacher, searching through the faces of students.

Melanie turned around and looked at me. I was pretty sure there was a gloating look on her face when she said,  “There she is.”

Mr. Donowho motioned for me to approach his desk with my schedule. It was the longest walk I’d ever taken. I was pretty sure I was going to pass out before I got up there. I just didn’t do things like this. I was good and honest and no one would ever believe that I had had anything to do with this.

I tried not to hyperventilate while I stood at the teacher’s desk. Instead, I poured all my energy into glaring at Melanie who got me into this. She spent the time trying to appear very interested in her new civics textbook, but her twitching lips gave her away. She would really think it was funny if I was sent packing to the civics class across the hall in Miss Bledsoe’s room.

In my head, I worked through the semantics of the situation. It wouldn’t exactly be lying if Mr. Donowho asked me if I had changed that room number and I said no. I peered down at the card sitting on his desk. You would have to look really close to tell that the room number had been changed, but to me, it practically screamed “KAREN IS IN THE WRONG ROOM.”

Finally, Mr. Donowho turned his head to look at me. This was it. I knew it was coming. I held my breath and tried to prepare myself. I’d heard all about Mr. Donowho and I knew he could ruin my entire senior year if he wanted to.

Mr. Donowho ran his finger down the list of students registered in this class, and he said, “I don’t see your name here.”

All I could muster in response was a shrug of my shoulders. Speech was no longer an option for me. There was no explanation.

The thought flashed through my mind just then, Maybe I’m more like my brothers than I thought. Maybe I won’t finish high school! Maybe my dad would be just as disappointed in me as he was in them!

But then Mr. Donowho did the unthinkable. He wrote my name in the class register. He made me an official student of his class!

“They probably made a mistake at the office,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the first time!” And he chuckled. He literally made a soft, forgiving little laugh that reassured me and sent me back to my seat with relief.

This was a new feeling. It was an awakening of possibilities outside the box I had lived in all my life. My heart began to beat faster and stronger. I no longer felt as if I might faint. Instead, every nerve in my body trilled at the thought that this might actually work.

Jars of Money

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve been thinking,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was it a concrete cellar?” asked John.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you, John,” I said.

“I love you too, Karen.”

__________________________________

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

West Texas Wagon Trip

By Karen Brode

It was almost 11pm and Winnie was still up. She never had any trouble going to sleep because, even at 13 years old, her daily work schedule was so exhausting. If she could just get another pone of cornbread made, she would be able to lie down, and she knew she would go to sleep immediately.

She had fried two chickens and put some roasted corn on the cob into a dishcloth and wrapped them tightly. Her mother had asked her to make lemonade, which was Winnie’s specialty. She glanced at the clock and decided it might be better to make it before going to bed rather than counting on having time to do anything in the morning.

She thought over her list yet to do. She would have to get baby Travis ready in the morning, but that wasn’t really work. She took great pride in taking care of her baby brother. He was almost two. Sometimes, he looked at her with such love in his eyes. She loved her him so much. She loved Albert, too, but he was so different from her and this sweet baby. She had known from the beginning that little Travis would have a very special place in her heart.

Her father, John Hawk, would be up before dawn packing provisions in the covered wagon which would take them to West Texas where so many of their relatives lived. That was a long way from Ambrose, but they could make it in three or four days. She tried not to get too excited about seeing all the relatives until the time was closer.

Once they were there, they slept on their quilts in the yard or on the porch of the house where her relatives lived. If it rained, there was always the covered wagon.

She thought about the pilgrimage they made the year before. A downpour seemed to follow them the entire trip. She and Albert were inside the wagon while their mother held an umbrella above herself and Travis on the bench next to Daddy. Winnie cautioned Albert not to touch the inside of the cloth that covered the wagon. Rain would drip into the wagon wherever he touched it. She should have never told him this. She should have left well enough alone. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him reach up and poke at the cloth with his index finger. Sure enough, in came a steady drip. She looked for a bucket of some kind to catch the drops. It was no use being mad at Albert. He was like a force of nature.

One of her favorite parts of making the trip to West Texas was getting to see her favorite cousin and best friend, Christine Wells. Winnie was six months older than Christine, and they had written to each other since they could write.

Winnie put the fried chicken in the icebox and blew out the lantern. In the stillness of the house, she heard Albert snoring softly in the back bedroom. His sleep sounds were nothing compared to their father’s. He drowned out everything else with his snoring. Sometimes, he stopped snoring abruptly and she would sigh with relief, but then he snorted and snored with more gusto.

Sometimes, if he was very very tired, he yelled out his horses’s names in his sleep, “Gee haw, Kit and Rhody!”

He always seemed fine in the mornings, so she never mentioned his nocturnal noises.

Travis still slept in bed with their parents. Winnie suspected that her mother could not feel that he was safe sleeping anywhere else.

Winnie got the quilts down from the closet and went to bed.

***

There was a faint pink streak on the eastern horizon when Winnie woke up. She was very sleepy and she could not afford that. There was work to be done. Her mother was already inside the wagon holding Travis in her lap. Daddy and Albert sat on the bench seat to drive the horses. Winnie sat in the wagon with her mother and and the baby. Before long, the soft swaying of the wagon lured Winnie fast asleep.

She woke when the wagon stopped. It was time for their nooning. She spread a tablecloth on the ground and put out the chicken, cornbread, and corn on the cob. Then she remembered the lemonade.  It was in a well bucket, and there was only one dipper, but they all drank the lemonade. Even Albert commented on how good it was.

In no time, they were back on the road. She had brought a book to read to pass her time on the trip. Sometimes she got sick if she tried to read while the wagon was moving, but on this day she read through several chapters of a book she had borrowed from the school library. The book, Freckles, was  about a boy close to her age. As she progressed through it, she began to feel as if she knew the boy and was living his life for awhile, instead of her own.

The wagon stopped. Daddy jumped down from the bench seat and leaned backward with his hands akimbo trying to pop his back.

“Where are we?” Mother asked from inside the wagon.

“I think Gainesville is right over that next ridge,” he said.

Winnie got the quilts out to spread on the ground where they would sleep. Mother and Travis would stay in the wagon, but Winnie thought there was something magical about watching the stars light up the dark sky overhead.

It was almost dusk. Daddy ate a banana while everyone else had an apple. Winnie was surprised that her father did not ask for the peanut butter. She had packed it especially for him.

He turned around to look at the road behind them, and said, “Just look how far we’ve come in one day!”

__________________________

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

The Kindness of Strangers

By Karen Brode

Lightning flashed and thunder rolled as I sat in my car hoping the rain would let up. It seemed to come in alternating waves of intensity. I thought if I could just catch one of those times when it wasn’t hammering down on the car, I could make a run for it.

It wasn’t just about the rain, though. I was extremely afraid of lightning. When I saw it flash, I could count, one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, and estimate if the storm was getting further away.

Really, though, the truth was, I simply didn’t want to be there, no matter what the weather was doing. I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather not be than at the nursing home where my mother lived. As it turned out, no one else wanted to go there, either. There wasn’t anyone but me to do what had to be done. They had all scattered to the four winds after she went to live at the home. They wanted nothing to do with her.

Finally, the rain let up enough that I decided to run for it. I ducked my head and ran. It seemed long ago when Mother and I had sat on the front porch of the nursing home, but it was just last summer. I tried to imagine that we were just sitting out on her front porch at her house. She liked nothing better than to sit on her front porch in the twilight. This was a little better than staying inside the nursing home.

During that visit, I had brought my Bible to read to her. I searched through the pages to find something appropriate to read to a woman who had lost everything.

I began, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

“I shall not want!” She almost shouted. She would never have done that before Alzheimer’s. She was so quiet. It just killed me to see her that way. I guess it was good that she was in her Alzheimer’s World because she did not hear my sobbing as I turned away.

When I looked back at her, I saw her sitting in her wheelchair dressed in some other old woman’s clothes. Her beautiful silver hair was cut at chin length. I wondered what she would be like if she hadn’t turned into this facsimile of herself. But it was no use to wonder that.

In the beginning, it had upset me to see her in someone else’s clothes and to spot other people wearing the dresses I had bought for her. After awhile, I realized that there was no way to keep up with clothes, and I should just be grateful she was dressed.

I made it safely to that memorable porch out of the rain. I shook my umbrella off and left it outside. I had forfeited my lunch hour from work earlier that day so I could just go home when my time at the nursing home was over. I wanted to sit quietly in my house and not have to think about any of it.

She was usually in the cafeteria when I arrived, but when I looked in, she wasn’t there. One of the nurses said she was asleep in her room. I walked into her room and watched her sleep. The thunder clapped in the distance. I told myself that nothing could ever be as bad as this. Nothing for the rest of my life could hurt as bad. I put my hand on her hand as I stood by her bed. I didn’t mean to cry, but the tears came unbidden.

The door to her room opened. I turned to see a woman in a business suit. Her hair was professionally coifed. I wiped at my eyes and she came to stand beside me. She explained she was from the State of Texas. They were doing a routine check of the nursing home. She saw my tears and put her arm around me as I cried some more.

“My mother has been in the nursing home over ten years,” I said. “She used to have Sunday dinners at her house, and the table would be full of family members, but now. No one else in the family will help. ” My voice broke off.

She nodded. “It’s not right, but this is usually what happens. Usually just one person ends up doing all the work.” Then she hugged me again and left the room to continue her rounds.

After she was gone, I leaned down and kissed Mother’s forehead. “Momma, I love you.”

_____________________________

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

Opal

By Karen Brode

“I don’t understand why they don’t have a bathroom at the cemetery,” Mother said as I struggled to keep the car straight while backing down the narrow road in which there was no place to turn around.

“Why would they have a bathroom at a cemetery?” I asked as I navigated a tricky turn.  We had followed in the processional caravan from the funeral home where we had attended my uncle’s funeral. We were close enough that we could see the flowers around the gravesite. There were people gathered in and around the tent.

“I don’t think I can make it,” Mother said. “If I get out of the car or even move, I’m afraid I’ll have an accident. You know I don’t have any brakes.”

Without another word, I moved the car out of the processional and we drove out of the cemetery.

“I still can’t believe that Jelly’s gone!” she said. “You hear it and you know it, but your mind just can’t comprehend these things all at once.”

“You and Jelly were not real close, were you?” I asked.

“Jelly was a lot younger than me,” she said. “I remember when he was a baby. He still sort of seems like that, even though he was an old man. Isn’t that strange? Opal and I were talking just yesterday remembering things he had done when he was a kid.” Her lips pressed together at the mention of her sister Opal before she continued. “She said that Jelly left this world of pain and misery for a worse fate in the next world.”

I slammed on my brakes at a red light that I almost missed and turned to Mother. “When did God die and put Opal in charge?” There was heat in my voice, but right away I felt bad for talking to my mother that way. “I’m sorry,” I said. “But I really don’t like Opal.”

“Well, you know Jelly didn’t live right,” said Mother.

“Momma, you don’t like Opal either! Can you think of anyone who likes Opal? She’s been such a pain all her life.” Every time she visited, Mother’s blood pressure spiked, and it always took weeks to get it back to normal.

She winced a little, but nodded sideways. “She’s old,” she said. “I guess I feel sorry for her. Sometimes I wonder if maybe she’s had a stroke and that’s what makes her the way she is.”

“I don’t feel one bit sorry for her,” I said, feeling the heat rise to my chest again. “She’s been that way all her life.”

The light changed to green and we continued on. “You know who I feel sorry for?” I asked. ” Jelly! He was ready to die – probably begging to die – just to get away from Opal! I hope she’ll go home now that he is dead!”

“As far as I know, she’s leaving today,” Mother said, taking a deep breath. “Truth is, I’m ready for her to go back to Ft. Smith.”

She looked out the window and dug at her fingernails. “She does wear me out. She  brings so many suitcases, and she can’t carry any of them in. By the time I get all her things–and that wedge pillow–in the house, I’m ready to drop!” Her voice trembled as it rose to a fever. “After all these years, she still thinks I don’t know how to cook. She comes around behind me and turns the burner down, then tells me I’m cooking all the nutrients out of my food! It’s no wonder my blood pressure goes sky high when she’s here!”

She shook her head heavily. “She always has to have special food. You just can’t cook beans and potatoes and cornbread and things normal people would eat. She still claims that she has diabetes. I try to cook things on her diet and then I see her eating pie and cake! And when it comes time to clean up the kitchen, she invariably has one of her sinking spells and has to go lie on the couch. Then she’s  fresh and rested and wants me to take her somewhere!”

She stopped then. I could see her clutching her fingers together tightly.

“I shouldn’t talk about my sister like this,” she said with guilt in her voice. “I do love her, but she just gets on my nerves.”

A few moments went by in silence before she softly cleared her throat. “I haven’t told you what she did yesterday. You know that hutch and buffet that you and Gary gave me, the one with all my treasures on it? Opal was in a hurry to get to the table for lunch and she bumped into it. I was at the stove at the time and I looked up to see the whole top of it fall over. Everything broke into about a thousand pieces.  It made the loudest noise!  Ann from next door heard it and called to see if we were okay.”

I felt my hands gripping the steering wheel in horror.

“I just stood there looking at my things all broken on the floor,” she said. “I saw pieces of all the things I had kept and treasured through the years, things you kids made for me in school, things Daddy had given me. I just couldn’t eat.”

“Momma, I’m sorry that happened,” I said, my anger giving way to sadness.

“I keep thinking about those things that got broken,” she said. “They were important to me, but they were just things. And you can give up things so much easier that you can give up people.”

_________________________________

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

A Red Rose in February

By Karen Brode

The old woman sat silently listening to the quiet sounds of the ticking clock and occasionally reaching down to pet the cat that rubbed against her legs as he paced back and forth in the room.  Her eyes were dim and her hair was pinned up and back away from her face, but there were some straggling hairs that fell limply against her neck.

Her housedress was old and faded, and even the rocking chair she was sitting in was warped and didn’t rock properly. It didn’t matter much to her.

The room was filled with memories. A table in the corner was covered with photographs of people she used to know but now sometimes when she looked at them, she couldn’t remember their names.  It surprised her that many of the things she had thought would seem important to her weren’t important at all.

There was someone who had been very important to her, but she had never told him and now the situation had begun to haunt her. Her life had been an artificial life. She had lived someone else’s life while her real life passed her by.

She found herself thinking of him at odd moments. When she took her teeth out at night, she would look at herself in the mirror and laughingly ask, “Wouldn’t he think I’m a pretty sight now?”  She would try to imagine what it might have been like if they could have been together and grown old with each other. Would her heart still beat a little faster at the sight of him? Would she still try to dress up a little and look her best instead of wearing these old rags? And then she would look back at herself in the mirror and see tears coursing down her wrinkled cheeks for a man who had been dead eight years now – a man who had never known that she loved and adored him.

She had attended his funeral. She had been careful even then to cry her saddest tears alone. She had gone back to the cemetery after everyone had gone away and planted a red rose bush near his head -just as a wife might’ve done for a beloved husband.

She cried bitter tears of sadness and anger as she sat in the pavilion provided for weary visitors at the cemetery. For so many years she had hoped that something might happen that would bring them together, but a lifetime had gone by without that happening. She had wanted to tell him many times, but too many things stood in her way. Even now, she wanted to tell him, but instead  she picked up her cane and her purse and slowly walked out of the cemetery.

She remembered how his smile had made her feel alive and wonderful and happy. When she first met him she felt better almost at once just knowing he was in the world with her. But her feelings sat inside her heart day after day, year after year moldering away. When she had been younger, she had cried many times in desperation that she would never have what she wanted, and life had gone on and she had gone on with it.

She didn’t worry too much about the dwindling bank account or the ache in her back. A lot of times, her thoughts wandered to years ago. It all still seemed crystal clear like it had happened yesterday.  She could remember the way he had looked at her or a wink or a smile or a conversation word for word. She had hoped that in time, she would forget him, but the memory of him had turned golden and precious to her.

Just last night she had dreamed of him. When she woke, she was startled to realize that she was 84 years old and no longer the young woman he had known. The neighbor boy was coming to shovel snow from her walkway. She winced and reached for her arthritis medicine. She put one foot on the floor and saw that it was swollen. The skin on her legs looked like sagging hose. She sat on the edge of her bed for a minute looking at her hands folded in her lap. They looked like two pieces of over-fried chicken because they were so brown and gnarled and wrinkled. She couldn’t remember when she had begun to look so terribly old. She wondered what he might look like by now if he had lived. He might be wheelchair bound by now. His legs had been bad the last time she saw him, but it hadn’t mattered. She would’ve gladly pushed his wheel-chair or kept blankets wrapped tightly around him when he was asleep. She wouldn’t have minded feeding him. She loved him! Everyone else in her life had been a bit of an imposition but he would never have been.

She would sometimes tell herself she wasn’t being fair. She had never wall-papered a room with him or argued with him about money. He was a dream and never a reality and surely it was impossible to compare the two. But even so, she still knew deep in her heart that he was the man she should’ve been with as surely as she knew that she was getting old and would die soon.

When she had been young, death had seemed ominous and threatening and it had scared her to think of leaving behind all that she knew.  But as the years passed, death had begun to seem more like a friend or a dark lover. It fascinated her to think that he had already passed through the portals of death. Sometimes when she thought of him, he didn’t seem so far away. Perhaps he now knew and understood all the things she had never been able to tell him.

That night as she got ready for bed, she looked out at the lawn and noticed the shovel lying in a drift of snow. There was a full moon and she sat on the couch in the dark and noticed how lovely the moonlight was streaming through the windows. The snow that lay on the ground reflected the moonlight and the calm dim light inside her house was ethereal and soothing. She didn’t think she had ever seen such a beautiful night. Soon she found that she was too sleepy to get up and go to bed, and she fell asleep on the couch.

The next morning when the neighbors came, they found her on the couch and it seemed as if she had simply fallen asleep. The woman from next door said that she hardly ever left the house, and she had been a good neighbor. She had made pies for bereaved families when she had been younger. The people who had gathered assured themselves that she had had a good life and it was okay for her to die now.

Clutched in her hand they found a bright red rose in full bloom and that startled them a little.  Where could she have gotten such a beautiful summer rose like that in February?

_______________________________

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