Category Archives: Nonfiction

How to Love your Daddy After He’s Dead

(After “How to Love Your Mother After She’s Dead” by Lidia Yuknavitch)

I first met Daddy just before he took his first drink. His oldest sister Irma was feeding the rabbits in the side yard and her husband Mackey gave him a sip of his beer. Later Daddy would give his only son Mackey’s name and his first drink.

I first met Daddy when he was in the army stationed on Okinawa sitting in front of a tent while everyone else stood. “Never stand up when you can sit down. Never sit down when you can lay down.” I learned a lot from Daddy.

I first met Daddy when he stole a Ford from the Naval Base in Norfolk Virginia. He didn’t really steal it. But I thought he had because he’d brought home the silverware embossed with US Navy and he never returned it. My sister still has the knives and forks.

I first met Daddy when he stretched out on the grass that covered Mama’s grave and said “Bury Me Now” and I took a picture. 10 years later to the day he crawled in next to her. I wore a big black hat and a red dress.  I buried him in red pajamas. I wanted him to be comfortable.

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What Every Dog Lover Knows

darcy kisses

  • It is not nasty to let a dog kiss you on the lips
  • When a dog is really happy she curls up her upper lip. That is not a snarl.
  • There is no such thing as “people food” – everything is dog food. Especially that roast beef you left on the counter – and it’s okay.
  • Christmas trees look better without ornaments at the bottom.
  • Dogs are not thinking dirty thoughts when they watch you having sex. They are just amused.
  • $400 a month for a dog walker is not extravagant.
  • Neither is $40 for a case of dog food.
  • A girl dog can never have too many sweaters. If they could the people at PetSmart wouldn’t keep selling them to me.
  • No one notices the tooth marks on my suede boot or the piano bench and if they do – so what.
  • There is nothing odd about riding 400 miles with a 60-pound Samoyed on your lap. It isn’t like I have much choice. That has been his seat since we brought him home from the breeder.
  • Yes, I do think they are human
  • My Dalmatian is smarter than your honor roll student

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A Brief Tour of Pungo Creek

That was the bridge we watched the fireworks from on the 4th of July. One year daddy was in charge of the fireworks. He got drunk and blew a hole in the bottom of the barge they were using to light off the fireworks. The barge sank. Daddy swam to shore. The whole town was real disappointed.

 Pungo Creek was the most boring place in the world. There was nothing to do and no one to do it with. There was nowhere to go. If you turned right at our mailbox in about a half a mile you would pass Scott Toppins place. A little bit later you would get to Ms. Jordan’s. That was the last house until you got to the end of the road. That was about a mile up. If you turned right at the end of the road you went bridge and then you hit colored town. If you went through colored town you got to Sidney Cross Roads. If you turned right at Sidney Cross Roads you got to Sidney Free Will Baptist Church –but just before you got to the Church you got to the cemetery where Uncle Harvey and JoAnn were buried next to Grandmama and Granddaddy. The cemetery wasn’t too full when I was a little girl. It has gotten filled up since with Voliva’s  and Stokesberries joining the Foremans and Hardees.  Now if you had turned left at the end of the road in a couple of miles you would have gotten to Smithtown…where everyone  is named Smith.  If you kept walking though Smithtown in another two miles you would get to another bridge. That was the bridge we watched the fireworks from on the 4th of July. One year daddy was in charge of the fireworks. He got drunk and blew a hole in the bottom of the barge they were using to light off the fireworks. The barge sank. Daddy swam to shore. The whole town was real disappointed. If you turn right just after the bridge you are in the town of Belhaven. Keep walking. That’s Main Street. On the left is John A. Wilkinson School.  The elementary school and the high school sit side by side. A little further down on the left are the jail and the firehouse. That’s were the welfare department handed out the food to families like us that couldn’t afford to shop at the Colonial Store. Each month we picked up cans of processed meat and peanut butter, shortening and flour. We combined the welfare food with the eggs I collected from the chicken and the fish we caught after school and we made out pretty good. Just past the firehouse on the right hand side of Main Street was the bakery. There were two entrances. White people went in the door on the left. The counter ran down the middle. The donuts were the same on both sides. I went in the wrong door once and all hell broke loose. Across the street from the bakery was the Ambrose Barber Shop. My Uncle Roswell owned the barbershop. He cut hair there everyday except Sunday. His chair was the one in the back of the shop. You had to walk past all the other chair’s to get to his. They were empty because he was the only barber in the shop. He was the only white barber in the whole town of Belhaven. Mama cut daddy’s hair. He never cared much for Uncle Roswell or any of Mama’s brothers.

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“Wake me up when we get to the Sound Bridge.”

sound bridgeThe only part of the ride from South Norfolk to Belhaven that scared me was the long bridge that stretched over the Albemarle Sound. I was five. I was sitting in the passenger seat of Aunt Gladys’ pink Studebaker. There were no seat belts. The front of my new short set was covered with icing from Krispy Kreme donuts. The short set still had its original store crinkles. Aunt Gladys had bought it for me that morning at Robert Halls. She wanted me to have something nice to wear on the trip to see Grandmamma and Granddaddy. As we rode along we sang…”I must take a trip to California and leave my poor sweetheart alone…..Let me go. Let me go. Let me go, Lover….. Lambsy dotes and dosey dots and little lambsy divies…” When we got to the canal with the lily pads, Aunt Gladys got stopped the car and we got out to sit for a while by the side of the canal.

“Can you get me a one of those?” I asked pointing to a lily pad about 10 feet from the shore.

Aunt Gladys never said no to me. She took off her Trotters and waded out and picked the water lily for me. I held it in my lap as we continued our ride to Belhaven. The short set was now wet and sugar coated.

“If you’re a guy that’s got a gal in each and every port. If you’ve broken every rule of love that life has always wrought. If you’ve caused as many heartaches as ripples in a stream. Well brother here’s the only way that you can be redeemed. CROSS OVER THE BRIDGE. CROSS OVER THE BRIDGE….”

That was the song we sang as we drove over the Sound Bridge. I was awake and holding on to the armrest. My eyes watching the road ahead. I had the window rolled down so I could swim out if the car went over the railing. Aunt Gladys looked calm. She kept singing and told me to sing too. “….Change your reckless ways of living. Cross over the Bridge….leave your pickle pads behind you.” That’s what I said instead of “fickle paths”. It always made Aunt Gladys laugh.

We got over the bridge without incident. Next stop White’s BBQ in Hertford. There were two barbeque joints in Hertford. They sat across the highway from each other. We always stopped at White’s…even if it was on the wrong side of the road. And we always got the same thing: barbeque pork sandwich with coleslaw and a Dr. Pepper. We ate in the Studebaker because Aunt Gladys didn’t like the cigarette smoke inside. Now there was barbeque on the wet, sugar dusted short set. But Aunt Gladys didn’t fuss. There was another short set ready for me to put on. It was neatly folded in her red-plaid zipped overnight case that sat on the back seat.

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Windshield

Next month I’ll be going to the Taos Summer Writing Conference to take a memoir workshop with Barbara Robinette Moss.   My memoir is about my time on a commune just north of Taos in Embudo, New Mexico.  This is an excerpt from the memoir.

 While Stephen struggled to get the Triumph running again I tried to keep busy reading, writing letters and housekeeping chores. I washed our clothes in the Rio Grande and laid them out to dry on the rocks. I decorated our cabin with wildflowers that I collected on walks by the river. But our meager diet had taken its toll. I slept a great deal – sometimes in our cabin, sometimes on the sun warmed rocks behind the commune.  Stephen accused me of being lazy.  “Instead of lounging around all the time, why don’t you do something to help me?”

I was baffled. “What can I do to help you? Just tell me and I’ll do it.”

He threw a wrench against the already broken windshield. “For one thing you could figure out what we are going to do for a windshield.”

I wrote to Aunt Gladys telling her that we needed a windshield for a 1959 Triumph TR3. I walked to the Embudo Post Office and mailed the letter. In a few weeks she wrote back that she had found a windshield in a junkyard in Greensboro and that she was shipping it to me by bus. I could pick up the windshield at the Trailways depot in Espanola.   I hitchhiked to Espanola alone. The windshield was there just as she promised. The only problem was going to be getting it back to Embudo. I stood by the highway for hours waiting for a ride. Finally a semi pulled over. The truck driver helped me lift the windshield into the compartment behind his cab and drove me to Embudo.

It was dark when I got there. 

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Taking a Leap

zip-line-costa-ricaI looked down from my perch 120 feet up. Looked down through the mesh platform that appeared totally inadequate. Carefully avoided the Bullet Ants that were crawling up the tree. Leaning against the tree would have provided a modicum of security but I had been warned that bites from only five of the dime-sized ants would produce a reaction equivalent to a poisonous snake so I did not lean on the tree. 

The young Tico attached my harness to the cable. I willed myself to ignore the fact that I was entrusting my life to a 16-year-old that I had never met. “Ok! Time to Fly.” I think those were the only English words he knew. 

 “Pura Vida” I yelled as I jumped off the platform. I flew at 40 mph toward the next platform. I knew it was somewhere out there in the jungle. It was just obscured by the trees. All harboring those Bullet Ants. Five minutes into my first zip-line experience I realized I was terrified but there was no way out of it but through it. What a metaphor!

 I continued jumping and screaming for the next hour. When it was over and I was able to plant my feet on terra firma and shimmy out of my harness I realized I had not seen a single monkey. Not a Howler Monkey. Not a Spider Monkey. Not a White Faced Monkey.  Hard to spot monkeys when one is soaring along at 40 miles per hour with eyes closed.

This was the second in a series of what I refer to as my “Fear Factor Vacations”. At almost 55 I decided it was time to begin living dangerously. I have spent enough of my life safely ensconced on a beach chair while other folks surfed, dived and bungeed.  I am happy to report that I can do things today that I could not or would not do at 20.  “Take a Leap” is my mantra.

Not all the leaps are from tree tops. This trip the most challenging leap was into an Iyengar Yoga Class. Most of the other yogis were 20 something. Most were yoga teachers themselves. This was not your mama’s yoga class.

“Ego is the first barrier.” Did I imagine that the instructor looked straight at me when she said that?  As I sat in my version of lotus and tried to fathom how I was going to survive six hours of yoga a day I heard the words that brought fear to my heart.

“Headstands! Those of you that can go up on your own do it now. Those that need help move to the wall. We will be holding this asana for 15 minutes.”  I moved to the wall and tried to make myself invisible.   No luck. She wasn’t buying it.  I moved to the wall like a dead man walking. After several tries – several very awkward tries – I found myself looking at the world from a whole new perspective. As the blood rushed to my head I was exhilarated. 

This was better than white water rafting or ziplining. It was better than scuba diving or riding those mules down the side of the Grand Canyon. I was making my body do something I didn’t know it could do. My properly diminished ego was allowing me to risk looking silly in front of strangers.

 I only had minutes to enjoy this bliss before the instructor called out “Okay – Handstands!”

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I Always Thought I’d See You Again

Bertie lived with her mama Lilly Mae and six younger brothers and sisters. The youngest was an infant, which accounted for the smell of urine that hit you like a wall when you walked into Bertie’s apartment. I got used to it after a few breaths.

Bertie and I were the same – only she was prettier. Her hair was strbye_bye_birdie_1963aight and Lilly Mae let her wear makeup. But Bertie smelled poor – just like me – and when we got on the school bus together, the “others” could smell the poverty on us. We sat together and talked about other places and other people – the ones we saw on television mostly. Our favorite shows were Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey. She loved Richard Chamberlain. I preferred Vince Edwards.

On weekends we rode the city bus down town where we shopped for clothes we couldn’t afford. Sometimes we put them on lay-away but we never took them home. In the summer we rode the bus to Ocean View Amusement Park. Bertie flirted with the boys on the boardwalk and they flirted with her. I watched. They ignored me.

I saw Bertie for the last time on a Saturday in the summer of 1963. We took the bus downtown to see a movie and Bertie insisted on seeing two.

“Let’s go see one more. I want to see Bye Bye Birdie.” It was playing just across the street.

“Bertie Mae, that will make us late getting home and besides, I’ve got just enough money left to get home.”

“Come on. I’ll pay for it. You can pay me back.”

We went to the second show. When we walked out of the theatre onto Granby Street it was dark.

“We should have been home hours ago,” I moaned. “I hope mama and daddy aren’t worried.” I couldn’t call them because we didn’t have a telephone.

“Hell. Lilly Mae won’t even know I’m gone,” she said as we boarded the bus.

When I got home all hell broke loose.

“Where have you been?” mama screamed. “We thought you had been murdered.” Daddy nodded. He was awake and sober. That was unusual, I thought. They must really have been worried.

They had called Aunt Gladys from the payphone at the rental office and she was there too.

“Don’t you know any better than to go traipsing around downtown Norfolk at night by yourself?”

“I wasn’t by myself. Bertie Mae was with me.”

Addie and Willis were sitting there quietly – but they had been crying. I knew I was in trouble but at the same time I was pleased that my absence had created such drama. I wondered how Bertie was making out.

Mama and Aunt Gladys took turns yelling at me for a while. They seemed to enjoy being on the same side of an argument for a change. Daddy went to bed without saying much. Willis and Addie fell asleep on the couch – both sucking their thumbs – ok for Willis – He was only two, but Addie was almost 11.

Aunt Gladys finally changed the subject. “Well, Frankie Mae, I’m going to go down to Belhaven tomorrow to check on Mama and Blanche.”

“Can I go, Aunt Gladys? I haven’t seen Grandmama in ages.”

Before Mama could object, Aunt Gladys nodded.

“We’ll be back Monday or Tuesday.”

I ran to grab a few things from the room I shared with Addie, returned to the living room and sat quietly in daddy’s chair hoping Aunt Gladys would be ready to leave before Mama changed her mind or Addie woke up and insisted on coming along.

I don’t remember the trip to Belhaven but I remember the day I got back. As soon as I could I ran over to Bertie’s to see it she had gotten into trouble for being late.

I knocked. When no one answered I pushed open the door and walked upstairs. The apartment was empty – only the smell of urine remained. The furniture was gone.

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Photographs

mama and daddyThere is a notion in some cultures that we steal a person’s soul when we take their photograph. We all have pictures. Some are tucked away in shoeboxes others are glued carefully in albums or hung on walls. Whether they are produced by a Brownie, an Instamatic, a Polaroid Land camera, or the instant photo booth in the arcade, there is a little of our soul in each one. It is true that there are some photographs that should never be made – like the one I took of Daddy lying on top of Mama’s grave or the one that Addie took of me the day I ran away for the last time. But there are photographs that are so precious they are almost worth the price of a soul. Those are the ones that capture moments of elegance, youth, hope, exuberance, wonder – precious moments in lives – before hopes were abandoned and dreams died. Those photographs remain as souvenirs of what was hoped for before life took away the dreams.

Look at the picture of the skinny young boy with the hairless chest paddling the kayak. Tell me what he is thinking as he poses for the camera – as he grins and flexes his muscles. 

Look at the young girl with the floral print dress and the broad brimmed hat and the Ipana smile leaning against the young man in uniform. You can see the creek in the background. Her high heels burrow into the earth. The young man may be helping her keep her balance but she won’t marry him. She will marry the skinny boy in the kayak – one day.

As I sort through these old pictures time ceases to be linear. The picture of great grandmama as a young girl is on the page next to cousin Peggy’s wedding.

One of my favorite photos is that crinkly-edged black and white of granddaddy pushing me in a wheelbarrow. Granddaddy had dug a farm out of the earth of eastern North Carolina. He made it good enough to provide an inheritance for seven children. Mama wasted her’s and the others didn’t share.  Do I remember or imagine his big strong hands on the handles of the wheelbarrow? He pushed the wheelbarrow without effort. But then I didn’t weigh much. Just a slip of a girl. Still scared of the chickens that grandmama kept.

Here is an old photograph of daddy taken in his army days. He stands with his arms stretched around the shoulders of Fatty, Toothless and Texas. I know the names because Daddy wrote them on the back of the photo along with his own, “Slim”- and the date and place: “Honolulu 1945 – Schofield Barracks”. There are palm trees in the background. Daddy is the only one wearing a cap. He is the only one with a crease in his trousers. Four years later he will have a baby daughter.

Here are more pictures of me as a child. I look happy. My hair is always combed and my bangs are trimmed neatly. Even in the black and white photographs the hues of the organdy and dotted swiss party dresses are evident. In one I am sitting in a wagon holding a birthday cake while sister, cousins and friends gather round me like courtesans. We feign delight. I pretend to blow out the candles careful to keep my dress away from the flames.     

The cake is a fake. It is really a dusting powder box with holes punched into the top to hold the burning candles. Nothing in our expressions reveals the cake is a fake. 


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For Virginius and Frankie Mae

Yesterday, June 6, was the anniversary of my mother’s death. Today marks the anniversary of the death of my father. In honor of my parents, this is the story of how they met. As a writer, I have the opportunity and the license to tell this story in the present tense.

 Frankie Mae is young and beautiful. Her waitress uniform hugs her farm girl figure. A nametag is pinned to her breast: Frankie Mae. She has a fancy handkerchief folded like a flower pinned on the other breast.  As she picks up her order, she looks up in time to see the handsomest man she has ever seen sit down at the counter. His army cap is tilted over his left eye. His brown uniform shirt is starched and ironed but it is open at the throat and his sleeves are rolled up revealing tattoos on his forearms: “Mother” on the right arm and “USA” on the left.

It is love at first sight.

Frankie Mae sidles over to the stranger and smiles at him “What can I get for you, soldier?”

He grins at her. “You on toast, darling.”

Frankie Mae turns away and treats him to the sight of her bottom waving goodbye as she walks slowly over to the coffee pot and comes back with a cup of coffee.

He holds out his hand. “Since I plan for us to be good friends I should introduce myself. My name is Virginius, but my friends call me Click. You should call me Click and I will call you Bug.”

“But my name is…”

“Frankie Mae. I know. I can read. But you have this cute little mole on your chin that looks like a bug – so I think I’ll call you “Bug”.”

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Embudo

embudo

From Windshield, my  memoir in progress 

I must have imagined Embudo. Sitting on the deck of Aunt Gladys’ tidy stucco home with the citrus colored rattan furniture and the gleaming terrazzo floors, Embudo seemed far away. I watched the seemingly unlimited supply of water from her automatic sprinklers douse her perfectly manicured grass, spray her grapefruit trees, sprinkle her lime trees and decided I must have imagined carrying water from the Rio Grande for cooking and bathing and drinking. I must have imagined emptying our chamber pot in the arroyo. I opened her avocado colored refrigerator and gazed at shelves laden with yogurt and milk and cheese and Pepsi Colas and beer and iceberg lettuce and shrimp and sirloin steaks and I was sure I must have imagined going to sleep with an empty belly. I picked up her telephone just to hear the dial tone. I turned on her radio and listened to Cream and Vanilla Fudge and Mountain and knew I must have imagined reading by lantern light. I let her kiss me goodnight and tuck me in. I let her brush the tangles from my matted hair and paint my toenails pink. I let her make me feel like her little girl again and I was convinced I must have imagined the terror and the loneliness and the hopelessness of those silent nights when we huddled together in that cold cabin for warmth not affection and no words were spoken and I was sure no one could ever love me again.

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