A Short Halloween Story

A few years ago, it was nearly Halloween and I was in Target. Halloween has always been a favorite holiday; I’m kind of amazed that it has become so commercial in recent years.

Anyway, I don’t remember what I was shopping for – money was tight — probably deals on paper towels or laundry detergent.

I stopped at an end cap display of Halloween items – some bowls and candles, I think — but what really caught my eye were the towels. These were decorative hand towels in black and orange with phrases like “Boo!” or “Trick or Treat” with ghosts and assorted goblins and bats embroidered on them. As I recall, because it was close to the holiday, these hand towels were marked down to like $1.99 or so.

Even though $1.99 didn’t seem like much, I thought about the bills we needed to pay and that I didn’t know where the money for Christmas presents was going to come from over the next month or so.

And I heard my mother’s scolding voice in my head, “You don’t need that. What do you want to spend money on that for?”

I pushed my cart forward and continued with my shopping.

By chance, as I headed toward the check out lanes a little while later, I passed the same end cap display. I paused once again and picked up one of the black towels with “Happy Halloween” and a scary house embroidered on it.

Before my mother could start talking in my head again, I grinned, put it in the cart, and headed on to the check out.

I hung my Halloween towel on the rack in our half bath as usual this weekend.

The small towel never fails to make me smile when I see it. I am reminded that small things can offer big rewards and that it doesn’t take something elaborate and expensive to make my day – or someone else’s.



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Old Wine

The wine is a rich, dark, golden yellow – much darker than most of the chardonnays I normally drink. Mark takes photos of the bottle before we cut the foil around the top. The cork crumbles as we try to open the bottle. Little pieces scatter to the floor, some damp pieces cling to the corkscrew. I use a knife to flick out small chunks and more cork crumbs. Eventually, what’s left of the cork slips down into the bottle.

We expect it to smell “corky” – that mildewy, bitter, sour smell/taste that coats the back of your tongue. But it doesn’t. The wine smells more like whiskey, robust with a woody taste of alcohol. I look briefly for some muslin to strain it, but we settle for a metal strainer because it’s handy.

I get to finally use a beautiful carafe I’ve lugged through four moves, and we filter the wine into it, to prevent further contamination by the old cork.

“Do you want to drink it?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I say.

The wine, bottled in 1987, came from a winery across the street from a facility where Mark’s great uncle lived. Uncle Herb was a smart man in many ways but very gentle and unable to cope very well with life. He had lived in different facilities for much of his life and once, survived an attack from another resident who’d gone berserk with an axe. Herb died sometime in the 1990s.

On a visit to Herb in 1990, Mark bought the bottle of wine as a gift for me. We set the bottle aside and intended to drink it for a special occasion. Occasions came and went and we never seemed to remember to open it.

About a year ago, Mark found the winery on the Internet and called them to inquire about the now very old bottle of chard. They were very nice but told him they thought the chardonnay wouldn’t have lasted this long. Still somehow we didn’t get around to opening the bottle.

We’re trying to reorganize and yes, get rid of some stuff. Today, Mark decided we should open the wine. We decided that it is, after all, a special occasion – a time to celebrate and remember Uncle Herb.

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I make lots of lists. Since the days when my college roommate and my then boyfriend used to take turns adding things to my lists like “breathe” or “pee,” I’ve been an obsessive list maker.

My newspaper/magazine jobs required – at least in my mind – lots of lists because details and getting stuff done on time (and done correctly!) was important.  Every Monday, I’d get out a yellow legal pad, and I’d put all of the days of the week in two columns with space left to write the particular tasks that needed to be done on that particular day. As the week would wear on, I’d mark stuff off as well as add items to the list, as last minute tasks would come up.

At home, I’d make lists of household chores and needed groceries on scrap paper. Now that I work at home, I have running lists of work-related tasks, household tasks, and miscellaneous tasks.

When I was my mother’s caregiver, I’d keep a running list of tasks related to her care: reminders to make doctor appointments, reminders to balance her checkbook, and reminders to take her to doc appointments or to the grocery store.

Somewhere along the way, I even began to color code my lists and the notes on my calendar. Red is for personal tasks and fun things to do. Black is for business – appointments, lists, assignments, client meetings, and deadlines. Before she died, I used blue for anything related to my mother’s care and now I use it for anything related to her estate and other family matters. After years of taking notes for stories (either in meetings or in interviews), I find I remember things better if I write them down.

Sometimes, I think that being too anal about the lists is counterproductive plus I don’t like to think of myself as a control freak. Sometimes, I feel trapped by the list – mostly when I find I haven’t marked anything off the list as finished. Lists don’t leave much room for spontaneity if you strictly adhere to them.

But at its best, a list is a way to make your brain pay attention – we are all so distracted by the constant input of images and sounds all around us that the act of making a list can become a way to also take stock. What is important today? How do I deal with this crisis? What did I forget to do?

We all need to see the “big picture” in our lives, but sometimes that can be overwhelming. A list breaks your life into bits that are much easier to take care of – one by one – and a list can help you celebrate the small victories on the way to the larger goals.

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Home, Revisited

The house in which I grew up is for sale. I really don’t know how many times it’s been sold since my dad sold it in the mid-1970s, after we had lived there for about eighteen years. My parents moved out of this house into my mother’s dream home in 1973. They then rented the house for a few years before finally selling it.

For me, it was bittersweet to look at the photos in the online real estate listing. I was amazed at some of the changes but perhaps even more amazed at the things that had not been changed.

The house on Oak Street remains the home that figures in my dreams and has been the model for houses I’ve used in stories. My parents, Opal and Mac, bought the house not long after I was born. A portion of the den, at the back of the house, was partitioned off for my mother’s beauty shop. Two large, ancient oak trees – one in the front yard and one in the back – kept the house and the yard shady year round. I got used to the sound of acorns hitting the roof. The trees are both gone now.

I always felt safe in that house. My room was at the front of the house and was painted pink, I think at my request. It stayed pink and I grew to hate the color. At some point carpet was laid – but now the listing photos show the original hardwoods. I also remember the baseboard electric heat getting installed. I had a decent closet for clothes and toys, but my favorite thing about the room was the built–in bookcase. The bookcase included a built-in desk. I loved having my books carefully stowed on those shelves and one shelf was the home of my all-important radio.

My bookcase housed Nancy Drew books and some of the other mystery series books that I liked: Trixie Belden, a few Hardy Boys and a few Bobbsey Twins. I had a lot of paperbacks I bought through a program at school. One of my favorites was a bio of Houdini, which I still have. When I was in the sixth grade I acquired a book of Sherlock Holmes stories, and I was hooked. I read everything Holmes related in the public library and then re-read them.

I read a lot but I don’t remember reading under the covers with a flashlight. I do remember watching TV — after my parents bought me a black and white portable – late into the night. I’d turn the sound way, way down and turn the set so the light wouldn’t show under the door before I learned the trick of rolling up a towel to put across the bottom of the door. I’d stay up and watch Dick Cavett and on weekends, the late night rock shows. It was years before I knew the doors on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise were red.

I went to college about three weeks after the move from the Oak Street house, and over those years I lived in dorms, off campus housing, and one summer, I housesat for a professor. The only time I ever spent in the “dream house” was a few months the summer after my freshman year and a few holidays. Since college, I’ve always lived in apartments or condos. Unlike my mother, I don’t like yard work.

Home, I sometimes say to my husband, is where he is…and that’s true. But home for me will also always be that two bedroom cottage/ranch on Oak Street, still shaded by the biggest oak trees I’ve ever seen, and still guarded by my first dog, a collie named Dan.

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You Say It’s Your Birthday…

Birthdays are your own personal holiday. And you usually get to hang out with friends to celebrate, which has always been my favorite part.

Back when I worked a newspaper job in an office with at least semi-regular hours, I used to make it a point to save a vacation day to take on my birthday. Wasn’t always easy to juggle that what with deadlines and meetings to be covered. Why the city would schedule a council meeting on my birthday instead of declaring a holiday, I’ll never understand!

You know I’m kidding, right?

Anyway, at one place I worked we always made a big deal out of birthdays: cake, ice cream, even beer and wine sometimes. Part of the ritual was that Donna, the editor, would ask, “What is your favorite birthday memory?”

The first time she asked me, I had my answer ready: “Why this birthday of course!”

But birthdays, like any holiday, can be a mix of fun and frustration. The birthday cakes from the Mooresville Bakery, run by the grandparents of a woman who would become my best friend in junior high, were pound cakes with a doll in the middle of the cake – the icing and the cake forming her dress. One year — maybe I was five or six — I got a cake with bright red icing for the doll’s dress. I loved it and, as my mother, Opal, always told the story, I “pitched a fit” and would not let it be cut. Opal cajoled to no avail, and my friends who’d come to celebrate were mystified. I cried and the cake remained intact until about a month later when Opal finally pulled the doll out and threw the cake away.  I cried again.

For a few years when I was growing up, we all had birthday parties at The Dairy Bar. This ice cream/sandwich place was hugely popular and they had a “back room” just for parties. When I was a bit older I had a skating party – I loved to roller skate. When I turned sixteen, I had a party out at our cabin on Lake Norman. I remember lots of folks showed up, but Opal was furious the next week when she found a bunch of empty beer cans and empty Boone’s Farm bottles hidden around the yard.

My Pop always sent me roses on my birthday. At first, he sent me the same number of roses for my age – like eight roses when I turned eight. I think he stopped it back to a dozen about the time I turned sixteen. I turned twenty-one my senior year in college and I got, I think, three dozen roses, including the dozen from Pop. One of my housemates said my room smelled like a funeral home!

That same year, my friends Mark and Steve took me to dinner at Slug’s 30th Edition, at the top of the then tallest building in Charlotte. We had a wonderful time – drank wine, which I never drank in those days. (It was Mateus – better than the Boone’s Farm — but don’t judge, we were in college and usually drank beer. What did we know from wine?) I kept that bottle for years. And yes, I admit I used it for the drippy candle thing.

For my 50th birthday, we took over part of one of our favorite nearby restaurants. My friend Steve (a different Steve) wrote and read a poem for me and we both cried. He and I are the designated criers of our circle. Last year, we took over most of the upstairs of a different favorite restaurant – folks came and went – and there was good wine, good food, and much laughter. This year, since my birthday was on a weeknight, we had dinner – at the same restaurant – with a few friends.

Birthdays with social media are different. I always try to at least “like” all the happy birthday messages people are kind enough to post on my wall. I’m always kind of amazed when someone writes a thank you note when I’ve posted a birthday message to them. That takes some time and dedication. In some ways, though, I feel a bit odd about posting a birthday wish for someone who is a Facebook friend but someone I don’t know in real life.

And yet, having all that good karma floating around seems like a good thing.

Hope you have a great birthday this year!

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The Verities of Memory

Have you ever had a memory that you’re not sure is a memory?

There’s a certain building I pass sometimes on Hawthorne Avenue. Every time I go by the building I think about a memory fragment that involves a woman I knew in high school. I have a memory that one night I dropped her off at that building. She was living there, which of course was why I dropped her off. The odd thing is that I have no memory of why we were together – a dinner? A show? A meeting? A movie? Or why she was living in Charlotte.

I am fairly sure it was after we’d graduated from college, but it could have been a summer break. I don’t remember where I was living either – I didn’t actually move to Charlotte until much later. But I was often in Charlotte over the years to go to the movies, to go to dinner with friends, to see concerts at venues large and small.

Sometimes I think it must not have been the woman I think it was – that I’ve confused her with another friend, who would have been more likely to live in that area during the period of time I think it was.

Sometimes I think I dreamed it since I can’t put the rest of the evening into any sort of context.

You’d think if I had a clear memory of dropping her off, then I would remember where I went after that. Home? To another friend’s place to crash? I have no clue.

Memory is a peculiar part of our psyches. Scenes seem to ebb and flow and don’t follow any particular pattern.

I worry about memories fading and simply disappearing because my mother had dementia and a great deal of memory loss associated with that disease/condition.

Even without dementia or other diseases, I also know from experience that things you absolutely remember are often wrong. I discovered by reading through my old journals that an incident from my wayward youth happened not my senior year in college but my junior year. As a newspaper reporter, I double checked facts often because mistakes were easy to make and not easy to rectify.

Lillian Hellman said it this way: “Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again. That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.”

Human memory may be more jumbled than transparent but many times we can use our memories of the past to inform our present.




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Christmas Past

The very best in tacky (and I use this word fondly) Christmas ornaments and decorations used to come from drugstores. When I first lived on my own in the early 1980s, I’d hit the after Christmas sales at Eckerd’s and get strings of lights for 99 cents and boxes of tinsel for even less.

But my favorites were the plastic “candles” that I could put in the windows. We’d had those same type candles in the windows of the Oak Street house every Christmas for as long as I could remember. Opal, my mom, would change the bulb color depending on her color theme for the year. I seem to recall my pop and I always lobbying for multi-color, but she liked to go with all red or all blue or all white. I don’t ever remember a green theme. But I also remember the use of orange/yellow bulbs to look more like real candles.

Anyway, these plastic candles, or as I learned from a bit of research, “candoliers,” were even molded with fake drips from the rim where the light bulbs would go. The disappearance of the necessary drop cords to plug in the candles mystified my pop every year.

The plastic candoliers came in singles, sets with three, and sets of maybe five or possibly ten for bigger windows. The larger sets we owned went in the kitchen and dining area windows in the Oak Street house, because these were the windows that faced the street. Two of my bedroom windows also faced the street, and I think I had a set with three candles in one window, and maybe a single in the other window.

One of my responsibilities was go around and plug in the lights at dusk.

Because I’ve lived in apartments and condos for most of my adult life, my decorating is usually minimal. New traditions have replaced some old traditions – because of my husband’s allergies (and easier clean up), we have a fiber optic tree instead of a real tree.

Somewhere, I’ve got several sets of candoliers. I’ll get ‘em back out someday. Meanwhile, I’ll celebrate the Christmas memories.







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Long Lost Friends

There are some people in your life that you think are always going to be there whether you see them often or not at all. Then you get word they’ve died.

Steve was one of those people. We were in school together, from kindergarten to 12th grade. Steve was smart, good looking and talented – dark hair and blue/green penetrating eyes. In the second grade, Miss Patton, our teacher, locked him in the closet (maybe more than once) for misbehaving. Probably for nothing more than making the class laugh at something.

Steve’s dad was the crossing guard for our elementary school – in the days when the crossing guards were police officers — and since I walked to school I saw his dad every day. Frank would send messages to Steve, even though I’m now pretty sure he’d probably just dropped Steve off at the school. I had such a crush on Frank when I was about eight years old.

I think Steve started playing drums when we were in junior high – I wanted to play drums as well, but the band director wouldn’t let me. (I ended up playing the flute, which was a total waste of time and an entirely different story.)

He was also a talented artist – I’d forgotten that until someone on Facebook mentioned being in an art class with him.

Steve was in a rock band when we were in junior high, and I remember a talent show where his band rocked the gym but the teachers didn’t like it for some reason. It would have been 1968 or 1969, and knowing Steve, they probably leaned more to the bad boy rock of The Rolling Stones than the feel-good pop of The Beatles.

We lost touch after high school. I don’t think he went to college, but I could be wrong. He moved away from the small town where we grew up (and where his dad eventually became the chief of police).

Some people remember he came to one high school reunion in a limo – pretty big stuff for our little town.

I would run into a good friend of his during the 1980s in the city where we both eventually moved and would get brief reports that Steve was doing okay in Texas. Or was it Florida?

Sometime in the early 2000s, I heard he’d moved back to the town where we grew up. His dad had passed away, and I heard he was helping take care of his mom.

At some point, he contacted the newspaper where I worked for advertising. Somehow, he and the sales rep figured out he knew me – kind of crazy since the paper was in a different, albeit nearby city. I don’t remember what he was advertising – maybe he had put together a small business.

I always thought I’d run into him – I was in our hometown a lot, helping my own mother – but I never did.

I’m sorry now I never tracked him down.

I’d rather be able to tell you I’d made time for a glass of wine or a coffee and laughed with him about Miss Patton, than to now have to tell you that I made time to write down these memories.


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Lesson Learned

Perhaps seeing the tiny snake on the stoop as I left to go to the Post Office was a portent. The line was long, but not unusual for this branch. I was in line behind a nice older lady who said she needed Christmas stamps. As the line moved slowly along we chatted about each of our Thanksgiving plans. She is dining with family; my husband and I are going to our favorite Indian restaurant.

I also eavesdropped on the two people in front of her. He was a fireman in a nearby community, and he chatted away with a woman about how he was studying to be a lawyer. The woman then had to tell him about her jury duty experiences.

Meanwhile, another lady had fallen in behind me. I realized she was talking away on the phone. She was very angry with someone about leaving the garage door open, presumably, at her residence. She was most concerned that the guestroom would be cold. I tried to tune her out and continue to talk to the pleasant lady in front of me, but it was almost impossible.

Years ago when I worked at the public library in another city, one of my jobs was to take the postage meter to the post office and get it “recharged.” I actually loved this task because it got me out of the office and away from the phone and other duties. Obviously, those days are gone.

After the woman behind me finished talking to the person with whom she was upset, her phone rang. This new conversation mirrored the previous one as she related the garage door business to the new caller. After finally hanging up from that call, she answered the phone again. After yet another round of complaining about the garage door, this call at least morphed into new material about airplane flights and arrivals.

When she finally concluded the third call, I breathed a sigh of relief as she took the Bluetooth device from her ear and put her phone in her purse.

The nice lady and I continued to chat a bit, about how the weather was supposed to be nice on Thanksgiving and all. She also waved to a friend of hers in the back of the line.

After a nice period of silence, the lady behind me began to talk again. Apparently the silence bothered her, so this time she’d called someone. “I can’t believe you planned something for Friday night,” she said. At least, I thought, this is new.

“I can’t believe it,” she said again. I turned to the woman in front of me. “I can’t believe she keeps talking on the phone!” I said, sotto voce. The lady nodded and had she not been so classy, I knew she would have been rolling her eyes.

“But you knew it was my birthday,” the phone conversation continued. “And that I wanted to celebrate at home. With you and…” (I couldn’t understand this part as she had turned to look back out the door.)

After a pause, she began again. “Just don’t expect…” another pause. “No. I just can’t believe you made plans. Remember when we went to Chapel Hill and we ate with you for your birthday? Just don’t expect me to go out of my way to celebrate your birthday next year.”

After another pause, she continued, “No, go out with your friends. Just don’t expect anything for your birthday next year.”

I cringed. The woman had been talking to one of her children or perhaps her sister and layering on the guilt; we’d witnessed a master manipulator at work.

Now, at last, I knew what else to celebrate on Thursday — I was thankful I was not on the receiving end of that phone call.

Happy Thanksgiving!




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Thirty Years

October is the anniversary of my father’s death. I don’t like to celebrate what we used to call “deathaversaries” at the newspaper. But on the anniversary of the day he died, I couldn’t help but think about him.

When my mother was still alive and before the dementia left her confused most of the time, she’d call me on the anniversary of his death.

“You know what today is,” she’d say.

“Yes, Mom, I know,” I’d say.

Sometimes that would be all she would say about it. Sometimes she told me she’d been to his grave to leave flowers. Sometimes I’d say something along the lines of “I’d really rather celebrate his birthday, Mom.”

Sometimes we’d talk about his quirks – while he was less than generous with cash, if either of us saw something in a store that we liked and maybe wanted, he’d often say, “Well, getcha one.” Or how he hated yard work, while she loved it.

He’s been dead for 30 years, longer than I knew him. I don’t visit their graves much. I don’t know why. Cemeteries have always fascinated me. Maybe it’s because the cemetery where they are buried is a more “modern” one – all the graves are marked with flat, ground level markers that make it easier to mow and otherwise maintain the cemetery.

When I was a kid, this cemetery – one of, I think, two non-church related cemeteries in our town – had a big pond in the center with goldfish. The pond is paved over now and the cemetery itself is three times as big. I wish there were more trees and a way to plant roses or something in the area of their graves.

When I walk around in the cemetery, I see lots of names I recognize from my childhood. Not always people I knew personally but names of mayors, business people, and doctors and my parents’ friends and colleagues – and the parents of some of my friends.

When I knew my mother was dying, one day I drove from the hospital to the cemetery. I thought I knew the location of my father’s grave, but I couldn’t find it. I called my husband, who, wonderful man that he is, dropped everything and found a map of the cemetery online. He talked me through finding the spot.

Mostly, I try to remember the lives well lived. The doctor I went to until he retired when I was in high school is buried over near a stand of trees. He was gruff to some but kind to me, always, and I adored him. Some of the names remind me of elementary school, some of furniture stores and some are just vague notions and barely familiar.

While we mark the death, the emphasis should be on the life. My Pop, I think, would want it that way. But he still wouldn’t want to mow the yard.

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