The Best Peanut Butter Fudge in the Whole ‘Verse, Part II

The Best Peanut Butter Fudge in the Whole ‘Verse

My son, Kippy, not quite 4, snuggled up to my very pregnant self and sighed. His sigh lasted forever, it seemed. “What’s wrong, Lovey?” I asked as I hugged his sturdy little body.

“It’s my birthday in two days. I know I can’t have a party this year since you have the baby kicking about. So I guess I can’t take a treat to school for my birthday.” I tipped his elfin face up and smiled.

I leaned down and whispered, “How would you like to take something…such a special treat that all the children will talk of it for ages?”

His eyes grew wide with wonder, reminding me of my brother Dusty’s stare on that long ago day when my world slipped back onto its axis.

I leveraged my bulk up from the chair, and took Kippy’s hand.

“Let’s check this out with Grammy,” I suggested.

“Kippy needs a special treat to take to his class to celebrate his birthday,” I informed my mother. I wondered as she hugged Kippy and whispered to him Do all women at some time or other wear a Mona Lisa smile. Mom certainly showed one that day in my warm, fragrant tiny English kitchen.

“Can you gather ingredients for me?”

“Absolutely. Kippy can get to the ones too low for me,” I assured her.

She clearly worried about me. The baby’s due date, December 28th loomed only two weeks away. I had gestational diabetes. I had followed the diet and exercise prescriptions the obstetrician had set out. I’d actually lost eleven pounds, but I looked as if I would give birth to the biggest beach ball in the world. My stomach stuck out so far, I could not bend over very well at all.

It meant the world that Mom had come to help me. She helped keep the house under control since even washing clothes in the tiny washer and dryer had become an issue. We had to laugh, though. Mom’s clean freak reputation had caused many problems through my teen years. Every time I used the loo, my clogs had disappeared. I go and find them, put them in front of our pink porcelain goddess as Bill Cosby phrased it. Do what I needed to do, then the next time, even if it was only ten minutes later, as was often the case, the clogs had once again disappeared.

Finally, I asked Mom, “Do you keep moving my clogs out of the bathroom?”

“Yes! I live in fear that you will trip over them,” she answered. I saw her sincere concern for me.

I laughed and explained, “Mom, have you noticed that the toilet is higher than the one in the States?”

“Yes, but I like that.”

“Well, I’m having trouble getting comfortable, so I keep the clogs there so I can rest my feet on them. My legs keep going to sleep if I have to sit for any length of time, so that extra couple of inches helps,” I laughed as I told her.

The bright Nichols twinkle lit her eyes reminding me of Aunt Thelma, the aunt I’d spent several months with as a nanny to her twin girls. Mom’s laugh made me giggle harder, “Sorry. Sorry. Do you need a step stool?”

We both broke up, an activity that sent me right back to the room under discussion. The baby had a sense of humor, too, as Agatha (as his nearly four-year-old Kippy had named The Bump)got busy doing a cheer, since one fist hit my ribs, a foot kicked out, and the head bounced off my bladder.

Then we got back to serious business. Mom bustled about assembling a heavy sauce pan, measuring cups and spoons, baking sheets only two inches deep, and somehow, she’d either found or created three aprons.

“I have perfected my peanut butter fudge recipe. I can do nothing to make it better. So I will measure: you write down since I have it memorized. I’ve never tried to teach anyone else how to make it. I’ll stir: you will note the color of each stage of the process and how much longer you should let things simmer. You will sing Christmas songs for me!” Her hair might have glowed silvery white, but her eyes held the expression of an elated elf. Well, I reasoned, ‘Tis the Season I guess!

“Before we get started, I must tell you, Kippy, that you have the most important job.” Mom sounded dead serious.

My son’s expressive, intelligent eyes, so desirous of sharing magic flicked between Mom and me. I nodded assurance. “He’s up to the challenge.”

“Grammy,” he asked, “what will I have to do?”

“You will taste a bit of the fudge at each stage of the process. Your judgment will determine our next step.” She noticed his hesitation, and assured him, “Your mother is a world-class taster. I’m certain you have her same gifts.”

After that load of horse apples, my über masculine child donned an apron, and took up his position.

I checked the gathered elements:
2 cups white sugar √
2 cups brown sugar √
2/3 cups evaporated milk √
1 teaspoon Vanilla extract √
Skippy peanut butter, smooth √
1stick Salted butter √
½ cup karo syrup√

I placed a candy thermometer next to Mom’s utensils, and setup my electric mixer. She gave me a “mom look” which said in the lingo veterans of bowling alleys “I don’t need no stinkin’ mixer or thermometer!”

I returned her gaze with the “I’m no longer 14 and can make decisions in my own home” look. Mom may have been able to beat the hot sugared liquid into its solidifying stage, but I could not! I didn’t realize at this moment that Mom and I shared some of the same remarkable fortitude. My baby, the miniature field goal kicker within, did not simply draw all his needs from me. He gave me that extra bit of courage to help me stand against Mom and say. “No. I cannot beat the mixture as you do. See the belly, here? I’ll use the mixer.”

I could not beat the mixture: physically, I could do nothing that strenuous. I needed the candy thermometer because it actually denoted, “Soft boil stage”; “hard-boil stage”; “the candy is burned stage.” (I made the last one up). Instead of having these messy little bowls of cold water in which the candy maker lets drops of the concoction fall periodically, I relied on my thermometer. Mom still depended on her use of the texture of the sample drops. She had to make several “syrup drop” tests. I elected to do a civilized combo-punch: when the thermometer hit the “soft boil stage”, I then did a drop test.

Kippy watched this silent show down with interest. Is he taking notes so he can turn me inside out when we argue in the future? I wondered. He tired quickly of my mother’s and my emotional tug-of-war, though, and took it into his own hands. Literally. He dumped both sugars into the pan, and stirred them vigorously. He knew not to turn the burners on, but the mess he made united Mom and me in delivering an important one-two punch that saved much of the sugar, and we acknowledged our silliness. Thank God for an insightful child!

The three of us commenced on the journey to create the perfect fudge. We created the fantastic, fabulous sugar high of all times. Kippy was with us at each moment of need or uncertainty.

“Go, go, Mama! Go, go Grammy!” he chanted.

I sang the loudest silliest Christmas songs I knew, like “Grandma Got Ran over by a Reindeer,” just to make Mom laugh. Mom’s alto fit snuggly with my mezzo soprano. I do believe that batch of fudge tasted better than any before, filled as it was with intangibles such as laughter, bickering, shaping up and adaptation.

Did Kippy’s class like this American treat? Do British men of a certain class have “their” pub?

Kippy and I fixed fudge together for years. We fixed a batch when he got into a special art show and when the baseball team’s season finally finished. We stirred up the old pot when I got a raise. We stirred fudge into obedience when my lumpectomy’s results came back negative.

Making fudge once a month became a habit. I carefully cut the cooling candy into squares, put the lot in a food carrier, making certain that two squares, cut a bit larger than the rest of my offerings sit apart from all the rest, just as Mom had done for me when I took my fudge to school as a kid. Then I drive to the college where I teach. I leave the container with fellow teachers who promise I will be able to pick up the container when I leave.

In my imagination, I go to Room 165 in the Woodsfield Rest and Rehabilitation Center. I see Mom watching yet another re-run of The Andy Griffith Show.

At least she’s awake.

“Hey Mom!” I feel as if I’m a loud, obnoxious woman. I’m not. Mom’s deafness concerns me. She turns to me, and smiles her gorgeous smile with those dimples that made my dad notice her nearly seventy years ago.

“Honey! It’s so good to see you!” She leans up and hugs me. “What’s that in your hand?”

“I brought you a little snack.”

She lights up and giggles, “Peanut Butter Fudge! It’s my birthday!” She takes a bite and savors the rich butter saturated sugar, mixed with just enough peanut butter, when she finishes her bite, she has a sneaky grin. “My fudge is the best. But don’t tell whoever made this I said so.”

“I won’t. This is between you and me.”

Then her face lights up, “Sweetheart! How good to see you! What have you got there? Fudge! Oh, it’s my birthday and I forgot!”

“Happy birthday, Mom,” I say as I hug her, sit with her a bit.

I’m ready for her next round of, “Oh, hi, sweetheart! Is that peanut butter fudge? It must be my birthday.”

A part of me wishes she could remember the last five minutes. A part of me wishes her memory worked better. But, I tell myself, having a birthday whenever she sees peanut butter fudge (rest assured that no matter what she thinks, it is just as tasty as her own) is a gift. She gave it to me and now I give it back.

To make the fudge saga complete, I have to include my father’s “non-contribution.” Mom had bought a gigantic jar of Skippy peanut butter from Sam’s Club when they had visited us. Mom knew she had enough peanut butter to make many, many batches of her incredible creation. One day she decided to make fudge, for whatever reason.

She experienced the odd sensation not unlike stepping on a step that isn’t there. It’s a jolt. As she prepared to heft the large, heavy jar, she nearly lost her balance as the jar flew across the kitchen, a nearly empty jar she discovered. The sides of the jar had a coating of the peanut butter so it looked full. She had no idea that Dad had sneaked spoonfuls of the treat for months. To make sure he didn’t get caught not watching his cholesterol, he had carefully smeared the jar’s betraying evidence to conceal his peanut butter predations.

I wasn’t there when the discovery happened, but when he told me his side of the story, his inner imp, never far from the surface, gleamed in his eyes. “You should have heard your mother! I thought she was going to ban me from eating the fudge!”

I laughed so hard, it hurt. Mom came into the kitchen and said with disgust, “He’s bragging about stealing my peanut butter again, ain’t he?”

“But Mom,” I said, “Surely you expected it! He tells about getting the loaf of bread for Aunt Deenie and taking home a hollow crust because he’d pulled the soft innards out.”

She sighed and looked him with exasperation and love. “I should have. I did. That’s why I had a hidden jar. Let’s make some fudge!”

“There’s no occasion,” I said.

“Oh, I reckon it’s someone’s birthday somewhere.”

I got out the pan and wooden spoon and grinned, “Where’s the secret ingredient?”

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The Best Peanut Butter Fudge in the Whole ‘Verse

The Best Peanut Butter Fudge in the Whole ‘Verse*
Part 1

“I think the steel workers’ strike is over!” I whispered to my little brother, Dusty. “Mom’s fixing peanut butter fudge!”

Dusty’s confusion irritated me. “What’s a strike?”

I rolled my eyes, I thought, Okay, he’s only five years old, but still… So, I poked him with my elbow, “You know. The steel mill strike. It’s finally over! Mom and Dad will have money again.”
Dusty pondered my revelation, “I think I remember when Daddy used to go to work every day.” He frowned, thinking demanded energy for my little brother. “He carried a lunch bucket. Then, he didn’t go to the mill for money for a long time, huh?”

At a mature seven years old, I couldn’t believe Dusty had not seen and experienced all the things we learned to do without. We wore hand-me-down clothes. We had gone bare foot much longer than usual this summer. We wore shoes on Sundays, but my white Mary Janes cramped my toes: I’d outgrown them. I knew better than to say anything. Mom’s mouth would have made that straight, angry line with, and Dad would have slammed out of the house. His truck’s elderly engine would grind into gear and off he’d go looking for someone needed coal hauled, or hay shifted, or logs chopped. He’d come home tired and sad, but usually with some money.

How could Dusty not realize the wonderful trips to the A&P Grocery store had ceased altogether? Sometimes, the garden didn’t provide enough, or the farm critters slacked on their jobs meaning not enough eggs of milk. Sometimes the farm just couldn’t make soap powder or sugar and Grammy made a trip to the Company Store connected with the deep pit mine Pap toiled in.

So, we never when hungry; we had life’s the essentials, but no special treats for what seemed an eternity. As the United Steel Workers of America went on an all out strike against the mill owners, men like dad had to show solidarity. He often said that strike ruined the American steel in the United States. History proved him right. But back then, I had no idea what the reasons for the strike might have been. I only knew I missed things. We never got to pick up a comic book for three cents when we went to Lewis’s little shop. Mom made Ralston’s Store, the other place that offered spices or penny candy, off limits. I overheard Mom tell Gram, “I will not set up an account with him. He’s chargin’ interest to run an account. Things is bad enough without gettin’ in debt to that old miser.”
I remembered those lean months. We went to the auction on Saturday nights at Silo, Ohio. Dad bought mixed boxes for a nickel and fixed the toys so we had gifts on Christmas mornings. We had no Sunday drives, no stops at the ice cream shop for a root beer float, and maybe worst of all, none of Mom’s peanut butter fudge: our reality didn’t mean we went hungry, we just had no treats to speak of except Grammy’s apple dumplings and Mom’s tubs of popcorn. So as I looked at Dusty’s big blue eyes, at his scalped haircut and third-hand bib overalls, I understood his confusion. He probably didn’t remember the times before the strike very clearly.

I remembered. I remembered and I knew if I had a choice between a new dress to celebrate the resolution of the strike and a batch of Mom’s peanut butter fudge, I’d go for the fudge.

That day, I knew the strike had ended as we peeked into the kitchen to see Mom deftly pour the honey-brown, fragrant liquid onto evenly buttered cookie sheets. She put the hot pan in which she’d brought a magical, mysterious, mixture of ingredients to just the right stage for the candy off to the side. Mom carefully made swirls on the tops of the hardening fudge, and without even turning, she asked, “Who wants to lick the spoon?”

I had to give Dusty credit: he might have been clueless about the meaning of the strike, but when a wooden spoon smeared with peanut butter fudge appeared, his brain worked double time. When Mom saw my disappointment, she grabbed a clean spoon and ran it along the inside of the fudge pan. “Here, Twany. See how this tastes.”

I don’t recall having an actual piece of fudge that day, but I still shudder in delight when I remember that first taste, how good, how perfect, how smooth every taste was. I licked the spoon Mom gave me and knew I’d never taste anything so good again.

White refined sugar, brown sugar, peanut butter, vanilla flavoring, tinned milk: these ingredients had to come from the grocery store. They cost money. So, the only times we had Mom’s Amazing Peanut Butter Fudge came on special occasions. The end of the Steel Strike qualified as “special.”
I have a December birthday. I had watched the kids in my first grade class bring beautifully iced cup cakes to share with the class on their birthdays. I had no idea how I could match that. Since I rode the bus to school, transporting thirty cupcakes without mishap posed a big problem. Yet, I wanted to have a few special moments for my birthday, too. I couldn’t figure out a solution. Mom noticed my preoccupation, “Okay, Tawny, what’s wrong?”

“Well, next Monday is my birthday,” I began.

“I remember something about that,” Mom said.

I didn’t understand her irony; it sailed right over my blond curls. “Well, everyone brings cupcakes for the class usually.” I couldn’t say much more. In my throes of inadequacy, I knew Mom couldn’t drive me to school since Dad worked daylight shift and needed the truck. My granddad needed his big Hudson to get him to his job at the mine. No cupcakes for anyone! I thought.

“Does it have to be cupcakes?” Mom asked.

Not cupcakes? That seemed bizarre. The idea of none of my classmates helping me celebrate my birthday seemed worse. “If I can’t take cupcakes, what could I take, Mom?”
Mom’s dimples flashed as she grinned and whispered, “What about peanut butter fudge?”

I gasped. I loved Mom’s fudge. Family dinners and get-togethers featured that fudge. She managed to fit many chunks of fudge in a Tupperware container. I’d even dropped a container once, and the fudge survived just fine, without one piece crumbling.

“Would you do that? Would you make fudge for my class?” I know my voice conveyed hope, fear, and wonder.

“You come and watch. I’ll even let you stir.” I ran and gathered ingredients as Mom called her memorized list out. Then I dragged a chair up next to the big iron stove that Mom had stoked carefully.

“This is your initiation into the richest gift of the women in this family,” Mom explained as she poured cups of white sugar, firmly damped down cups of brown sugar dollops of Karo Syrup and tinned milk in the special pot. We stirred the mass of dense calories constantly so it wouldn’t burn. Once the mixture formed firm drops when dripped into the cold water standing ready in a shallow cup, Mom took the bubbling concoction from the stove and stirred in heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter, with a chunk of butter and a dollop of vanilla extract. Then she stirred the hot mixture until it began to shine, then the liquid began to harden. She poured it on to prepared buttered baking sheets. The wait began for it to harden and turn into candy I could pick up with my fingers.

That evening, standing by the stove, occasionally stirring just as Mom instructed, made me appreciate how Mom took very minimal food stuffs and created the rare treat that my classmates found fascinating.

She carefully layered the squares of fudge between sheets of waxed paper as she prepared the cooled fudge for me to transport. She also included several extra pieces, “You never know who might like a piece,” she explained.

Mom’s canny insight meant that teachers whose classes loomed in my future got a taste of the addictive, soft, decadently smooth masterpiece. How smart she was! Those teachers didn’t forget the fudge, or its source. Each year on my birthday, Mrs. Carpenter, Miss Gooch, Miss Marrow and Mrs. Sindlinger each waited for her piece of heaven. They took a moment to appreciate that Mom’s fudge happened to have a place in the school year. Unlike Dusty, I knew the significance of figuring out adult thinking.

Mom worked to perfect her recipe throughout the post-strike years. Every birthday, special holiday, and pot luck dinner gave her the scope to experiment with chunky peanut butter instead of smooth. She dropped chocolate chips on the still steaming lakes of buttery sugars and peanut butter, swirling the dark brown into the light shimmering tan, creating an early form of Reese’s Cups. She worked on that recipe diligently, and I served happily as her chief critic. Due to my fine palate, black walnuts appeared in only one batch. She took my word for it that the fudge didn’t need any other kind of nut to make it better. Mom took me shopping with her and we stood for ages debating Jiffy over Skippy; did we go with the tried and true or the cheaper store brands? No. We settled on Skippy.

Eventually, I left home. Mom and my female relatives all gave me copies of recipes done up nicely in a yellow, blue and white recipe box. I ran through them, thrilled to see Grammy’s “From Scratch Homemade Nichols’s Noodles” and Angel’s “Ambrosia Pie.” I realized, though, Mom had forgotten to put the fudge recipe in the box.

Mom actually blushed when I asked for the recipe. “I’ve never written it down. I just know when to put what in and when it feels right to pour.”

My jaw dropped and I felt bereft. I knew I could never reproduce my Gram’s pastry. She had such a light had with pie crusts, they flaked perfectly over the cherries, or apples, or mince meat. I accepted Gram’s unrivalled wondrous pastry, knowing my limits. But no fudge?

After one look at Aunt Wilma’s recipes, I knew I could never bake brownies anything like hers. She said she gave full disclosure of ingredients. It was dirty lie. Her niece, Joyce squealed on her. “I saw Aunt Wilma fixing the brownies last night, and she poured something in the bowl with the flour and cocoa. Then she drank right out of the bottle and hid it in the place where Uncle Joe keeps that yucky stuff he says is the only remedy for a lousy day.”

“Do you think Aunt Wilma drank that stuff because she was having a lousy day?” I asked.

She shrugged. I sometimes thought Joyce should have been named Sparrow for the miniscule size of her brain.

Thanks to Joyce, my brownies usually go first in any bake sale, pot luck or housewarming. The small shot of chocolate liquor makes amazing brownies. Thank you, darling and slightly dim Joyce! Sorry Aunt Wilma grounded you when you stayed with her next, but I hope the retro-guitar and the Elvis white pant suit I gave you helped occupy your time in the slammer called “house arrest.”

Aunt Willa’s homemade nut filled bars created a sensation when I took a plate to the Little League Mothers’ get together. I could have made a mint off all those gym-members and their yoga-minded bleached blonde friends. I didn’t, though. I have some family loyalty after all.

I didn’t think I’d ever make good peanut putter fudge, though. I used various recipes from numerous sources, but none ever tasted like Mom’s.

(Part 2 follows in a few days)

*Firefly fans, you get this!

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No Joy in Mudville–but a Ray of Hope


As I endure the unrelenting heat wave of a North Carolina June, I stay indoors as much as possible, but still keep my finger on the pulse of my favorite sport: baseball. My St. Louis Cardinals pretty much own in the National League Central Division, and that makes me smile. However, I remember just four years ago, I had no smiles at the end of a baseball game, despite my team’s fantastic season. The NJCAA Baseball Play-Offs in Burlington probably missed most of Franklin County, NC population’s radar, that year, but for me, at least, it served as a metaphor for how that year at Louisburg College had evolved.

I began my fourth year teaching English Composition and Literature classes at Louisburg, feeling optimistic and comfortable. Things looked bright for the school, but within weeks one hard knock after another hit both the faculty and student body. Despite an interesting group of incoming freshman, a stable, well-adjusted returning class, and peers with whom I enjoyed working and interacting, that year turned into a grim scratch and dig time for all of us.

As obstacles mounted, ranging from financial issues to searching for a new president, and the tenor of each week became tighter and harder, I realized how much I’d come to love the college. Since I live in Raleigh, attending the many athletic and extra-curricular events after school was hard. Yet, I realized amid the college’s difficulties, I wanted to be as involved as possible with my students and the institution I had come to care about so much. I started paying more attention to the activities in which my students were involved. How could I connect outside the classroom? The answer presented itself through baseball.

I’ve always loved baseball. My husband and I grew up in the Ohio Valley near Pittsburgh during the thrilling years of Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and my “hometown” hero, Bill Mazeroski, playing gritty baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Many years later, due to my husband’s re-assignment to the St. Louis area in the summer of 1984, we began to follow the baseball Cardinals for several years of magic base stealing, the wonder of watching “the Wizard”, Ozzie Smith, making miracles at short stop, and the audacious managing of “White Rat” Whitey Herzog. When we relocated to North Carolina, my only hope lay in what I’d seen of the Carolina League in Bull Durham. Instead of the Bulls, we found the Mudcats. Our son re-created Five-County Stadium in an eight year-old’s bedroom and had a lead story written about it in the Clarion Times. After I accepted the teaching position at LC, I discovered its baseball program’s almost legendary status, so it seemed only right to hang my small gallery of baseball write-ups from the Martins Ferry Times Leader about Mazeroski, my few Cardinal pictures, and the write up of my son’s artistic accomplishment on the walls of the very first office I’d had in my fourteen-year teaching career. Many students noticed the baseball related items on my office walls, and I talked baseball with the students, but I’d never attended any sporting event—not even a baseball game.

Then, as the spring term of the difficult year rolled toward graduation, one of my students, a pitcher, Paul Clemens, invited me to come and see him throw that afternoon. Since the game started right after classes, I could go directly to the field and not have to make the round trip to Raleigh. I went and I loved it. The kids played amazing ball. Fans and parents offered genuine friendliness and were pleased to see a faculty member at a game. I decided to reach out some more. Because of that one baseball game, I attended poetry readings, art shows, recitals, and Spring Open House.

The experiences I enjoyed at Open House came about because of baseball. My husband,Cliff, a former collegiate scholarship football player for Virginia Military Institute, had begun attending weekend games with me, bringing his scorebook and helping me keep the minutia of rules straight. He had played baseball throughout his youth, and through high school, lettering in that sport as well as a couple of others. He admired the level of play the Hurricanes put together, and it became a fun way for us to spend time together. Some of the football players attended a baseball game when we were there; I introduced them to Cliff and they immediately asked if I would come and see them play in the spring game.

My husband, told them, “Of course we’ll come.”

Following the college’s spring Open House, we attended the football team’s scrimmage, mingling with perspective students and parents. We also saw the Varsity versus Alumni soccer game where we chatted with former soccer players I’d taught in previous years, as well as with several of the women’s soccer players. We caught the second game of a double-header that the baseball team held. There we met some of the women’s softball players who we who were currently in my classes had seen play a couple of times. I’d never attended an Open House, but because of baseball, I did that year, and I ended up coming together and mixing with people I would never have met otherwise.

During the next weeks of classes, basketball players checked to make sure I would attend their games in the up-coming year. Football players who hadn’t seen us at the scrimmage were pleased that I’d been there and wanted to know if I’d come see them play in the fall. Class attendance improved, assignments suddenly came in on time, and it wasn’t just from the athletes. The people whose art I’d seen perked up; the ones whose poetry I’d praised, smiled more, and I’ve never seen such high grades on a literature final in my career. I had photos taken with many graduating students, met their families and sincerely knew I belonged at Louisburg College.

Although classes were over and grades handed in, not everything had culminated. The Louisburg Hurricanes baseball team entered the regional play-offs feeling just as I had back in August: this was their year. They had every right to feel that. Their record amazed me; they had a bye in the opening game because of their fine season. As my husband and I joined their parents, grandparents, siblings, girlfriends, other coaches and classmates to watch them play their first game, I felt such pride to be part of Louisburg College. This team of young men, half of whom had taken classes with me, had come together to play beautiful baseball. They brought me more than that, though. Sitting in the Burlington Royals’ stadium, I watched moms and dads whose sons had spent two full years at Louisburg support and encourage other parents whose kids had come to LC after a year at another college, just for the opportunity to play in this program, with these two coaches. I saw folks hug a guy who was from Oklahoma because his parents could not come so far to see him play. I talked to a dad who drove 400 miles to watch his brilliant son play left field. As I told him what a wonderful student that young man was, he just stared in disbelief.

I noticed a spectator had a St Louis Cardinals pin on his hat.

I exclaimed, “That’s a birds-on-bat!” (We loyal fans recognize this symbol for the St Louis Cardinals at forty paces.)

He grinned, “Yeah, when I moved down here, I thought I’d have to go without baseball, but here are these kids—ain’t they something?” and we two Cardinal fans smiled like idiots.

An incredible come-from-behind win thrilled the Hurricane’s crowd as the team used wily base running to put them in place to take advantage of, and score the winning run on, an improbable wild pitch: a very wild pitch since the catcher had called for a pitch out in order to walk a potentially dangerous batter. Everyone grinned like idiots. I kept trying to get in my car, but excited player after excited player ran over to thank me for coming and to ask, “Are you coming tomorrow?”

The Louisburg players acted like gentlemen. They cheered each other; they encouraged the guy who sagged and pumped up the slugger who popped out. They filled me with admiration for their class and style. Our boys shone like they knew how they would behave in the Bigs, and I could see where they’d learned it: from dignified and friendly upbringing. They had warmhearted parents like the mother who had taken hundreds of photos and developed at her own cost, then gave copies to other parents, and some to me when I mentioned how many of the guys I’d taught. Other moms helped her sort them into envelopes so she could distribute them. That kind of open hearted generosity and caring stands out and these qualities had obviously rubbed off on those parents’ sons.

Still, on a cold, wet Mother’s Day, they had to accept a runner’s up trophy. Through tears of immense gratification, I watched that left fielder show poise as he alone seemed to hear the announcement to present the trophy. Head a bit bowed, he walked briskly over, accepted the round disk, and got his team mates’ attention so they could pose for a final picture of that Louisburg College Hurricanes baseball team. I’m certain there were no smiles in that photo. Those guys had really thought their final photo would be in Colorado where the NJCAA College World Series takes place. Many of those in the stands looked bemused. Half the team would go on to other schools. A few expected offers in the draft come June. Several would come back to classes in August. That’s where I found my hope.

Even folks who are not baseball fans know the poem “Casey at the Bat” and its melancholy last line, “There is no joy in Mudville–Mighty Casey has struck out”. Baseball demands that we hang tough. Most people think The Natural has a happy ending because of the film starring Robert Redford. The author of the original book, Bernard Malamud, however, chose to have Roy Hobbs strike out, just like Casey. In the tightly written novella, Hobbs goes down swinging, doesn’t get the girl, never meets his son, and is forgotten: he is not “the best who ever played the game”.

As I think back over that year and the punch after punch the college took and yet, still hurting, began again in the fall, I also see the players, parents, fans, and coaches heads down, tired, confused making their way out of Burlington’s stadium on Mother’s Day and remember several players who came up and hugged me hard saying, “See you next year, Mrs. B.” Yeah. In baseball and college, there is always next year—not the same year, but a new year fresh and filled with hope.

And the kid who invited me to that first game? Paul Clemens is pitching as closer for the Houston Astros. That makes me smile.

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The Hillman and Zucchini

The Hillman and Zucchini
The spring the coalmine laid my Grandfather Nichols off permanently, left this hale, active sixty year old man with too much time on his hands. He took care of this lack by finding ways to fill the freezer and pantry for the long winter dearth of fresh provender.

He took me as a partner to walk the steep slope from one of our favorite raspberry patches shortly after he got his “pink” slip. When he stopped, I watched him study his tidy farm, with its neat house, the car he’d paid off just in case a day came when he had no regular pay check. Dad had finished spring plowing for both families. Pap and studied the rich loam fields from the hillside and I could nearly hear his busy mind clicking. Dad had situated Grammy and Pap’s small garden near their backdoor so Grammy could walk out and pick the produce they planted: fresh lettuce, scallions, tomatoes, corn, and cabbage well into the autumn.

Beyond the acres of field corn and alfalfa that would fill silos as winter feed for the stock, that Dad had plowed, laid our one luxury crop. On a rich acre of flat land along the Big Creek, we carefully spaced strawberry plants, counting on the Farmers’ Almanac not to lead us astray. A late frost meant losing precious plants we couldn’t afford to replace.

I just could imagine that wonderful brain of his pumping out ideas as Pap considered the small garden by his house. Suddenly he grinned. He saw potential: a project. We hiked back to the house and for the next couple of weeks, he covered the big pedestal table in the living room with research materials. He combed seed catalogues, studied his materials, dug through encyclopedias and dictionaries. He plotted a course, made notes, figured acreage, fertilizing techniques, and watering rotations, focusing his formidable intelligence on a new adventure. He may only have finished eighth grade, but his appetite for knowledge had substituted that formal education, enabling him to persuade my father to plow more land. He did argue with Pap about the unusual plants he wanted to put in the ground.

Dad said, “Look, Walt, go with what we know. We ain’t none of us heard of this stuff—just plant a different kind of tomato, maybe, or a hardier string bean” Dad’s suggestion was reasonable.

My granddad, a man of few words, just held his notes, diagrams, and drawings under his arm, got in Dad’s truck and stuck his head out the window, “You comin’ to the feed store with me or you just gonna stay here scratchin’ where the sun don’t shine?”

The first summer, Pap introduced the folk on Rush Run, Ohio, who thought French fries exotic, to a strange crop of kohlrabi. His mischievous grin encouraged people to try grating the odd looking stem with their cabbage as they made slaw.a href=””>Kohlrabi-3

“Go on, Mae” he urged my tiny grandmother as she frowned at a pile of the pale green “things” on her kitchen table. “Ya know, the people in Kashmir eat Koler-rabby four or five times a week. They eat it like we eat tomatoes when they’re ripe and ready.”

Sitting by the wood burning oven, making sure to put wood in when the thermometer on the side wavered, I listened raptly. I’d find out where Kashmir was later. Grammy pursed her lips and shook her head, “Well, good for them. You suppose they sent anybody this way to tell me how to cook these things? I bet them Kashmir people eat missionaries, too,” she grumbled.

I loved Pap’s deep laugh. “Oh, I reckon they don’t. They’re mainly vegetarian thata way.”
She looked at him suspiciously. “What is that big word? It ain’t nice to make others look stupid.”

He hugged her, towering over her, rubbing her back gently, “Oh, I ain’t tryin’ to make you look stupid. I’m tryin’ to make Tawny look things up!” He winked slyly at me. He knew me very well.

He held my 5’2” grandmother at arms’ length and said gently, “A vegetarian don’t eat meat. I bet they’d love your pie, though. You go ahead and grate this up and pour your slaw dressin’ over it, then keep the oven ready. Tawny and I’ll go pick you enough black raspberries that you can make us so many fresh raspberry pies that them folk over in Kashmir would be real sorry if they knew what they was missin’”

Mae Nichols, in her fifties, looked up at her 6’1” husband of over forty years and blushed. I thought, No wonder—he’s just like a movie hero!

As his berry-picking buddy, I had gained status in my family. Canning fruit or making jelly, jam and preserves did not hold first priority with Mom and Grammy. They had to concentrate on providing staples for the coming winter: vegetables, soup stocks, root crops that would go in the dark cellar. They cultivated only strawberries; we combed the hills for all other fruit. Mom and Grammy bought sugar during the winter any time it came on sale. They saved jars, scrubbed the labels off with fanatic insistence, and tucked paraffin wax away. The process of making the high treats for toast or biscuits on cold winter mornings took military-like planning. Pap and I served as foot soldiers.

“This girl knows how to pick berries!” Pap declared after we’d been paired the first time. We had one crucial rule when we picked the wild berries growing over the acres of hillside my grandparents owned: go in pairs. Besides the danger of serious injury due to a fall, the ever-present hazard of poisonous copperhead snakes lurked. Pap’s success as a picker amazed everyone. While most of us took one pail (usually a paint can, scrupulously scrubbed, then fitted with a long cord to loop over the shoulder to free the picker’s hands), Pap took a literal milk pail and came back with it brimming. He instinctively knew where the best patches were, and the fastest way to get to them. He didn’t like to chat, and he fought for every berry, never putting even one in his mouth.

He soon realized I obviously had inherited that particular Nichols’ gene as I plunged gamely into thickets, after using my climbing stick to make sure no snake had snuggled in for a nap. I concentrated on picking the plump, juicy little berries, dark purple, tiny spheres clumped together to make a lovely whole. It took a careful technique to get at the base of the berry and pop it off the stem, not putting pressure on the fruit itself, or it would burst leaving the picker with nothing but stained fingers. I loved this nuanced battle for the fruit guarded by briars, long, thorn covered stems that dragged at sleeves, trousers, scratching any exposed skin. My hands looked as if I fought mutant cats that bled purple blood during berry season.

“Nice work, Kiddo,” Pap said after our first partnering.

Amazing words of praise from this taciturn man!

As we walked back to the house, Pap said, “I hear you’re a reader.”

“Yeah,” I answered cautiously, as my parents didn’t like my obsession with books.

“Got one you might like.”

“Okay,” I hid a grin. I didn’t care what the book was. If Pap gave it to me, it was sanctioned!

He handed me a small book about three inches thick with onion skin pages I associated with bibles. I had to open it to discover the title and author: Ben Hur by Lew Wallace.

Pap had ridden as a cowboy in Montana at age fifteen, served as a Marine through WWI deployed to Haiti as part of the off shore reconnaissance patrol; he had worked deep pit bituminous coal mines before unionization, and told us stories around the stove in a raspy, hoarse voice. But he had never acknowledged me as more than one of the group of grandkids. With the gesture of handing me that book, Pap had invited me into his world of adventure.

So, the crisp, tangy taste of kohlrabi became a summertime treat, along with Grammy’s astonishing raspberry pie. I loved to bring a stalk of the strange vegetable in warm from the sun, strip away the leaves, wash it in the spring water that drained into Grammy’s sink, then eat it raw with salt. Savoring the crunch I pictured a country in the far north of India, surrounded by Pakistan, Tibet, China and bits of the USSR. Mountains soared in a bright blue sky; the people ate kohlrabi with relish, the way folks on Rush Run consumed corn on the cob.

Pap’s introduction of zucchini flopped the first season he planted the ubiquitous squash. He liked to say the word. “In England, them Limeys call ‘em ‘cor-jets’. Now why take a perfectly good Eye-tal-yun word and Frog-ga-fy it? I just don’t understand!”

He also didn’t understand that he should pick the squash when it was about six to ten inches long. He thought like a good water melon: the bigger, the better. Unfortunately, his research on zucchinis did not turn up good suggestions for preparing it. Nor did it explain that given free rein, the vines would slowly, but surely insinuate their way throughout the garden, crushing weaker plants. Bye-bye, beans! So long, lettuce! Ta, ta, tomatoes! Rush Run soil welcomed this assertive vegetable, promoting its pushy, aggressive stalking.

That summer we ate zucchini batter dipped and fried: gross. The stringy texture and bland taste took forever to chew. Quantities of salt didn’t improve it. Deep fried strips managed to feel squishy and hard at the same time; the only taste came from the oil. I tried mustard: it didn’t help. Raw, sliced on salad, it looked like cucumber—I loved cukes; betrayed! I gnawed my way through the first bite, poured Italian dressing on the rest of my salad and prayed for a locust blight that would destroy plants starting with ‘Z’ and ending with ‘I’.

Mom and Grammy weren’t the only ones struggling with the vegetable from hell. Pap generously bestowed bags of the green elephantine summer squash to neighbors, relatives, church folk, and total strangers if they stopped too long. How does one say, “No thanks!” to a grinning man, so proud of himself?

Pap researched further over the winter and realized he’d been over zealous in allowed the squash to grow so large and fixed that the next year. I’d gone off zucchinis for life, I thought. I discovered, though, that zucchini can be the basis of wonderful spicy bread and muffins, much like pumpkins. Surround the “Eye-tal-yun” veggie with enough sugar, butter, flour, eggs, and spices, bake it, serve it sliced, with cream cheese, and I’m first in line offering my plate for a slice. notes in its article on zucchini, or courgettes , that thirty years ago, most Americans had never heard of the vegetable; however, now it is one of our staple vegetables. Nearly fifty years ago, Mom and Grammy grappled with gigantic zucchini, attempting to make edible dishes from something they could not preserve or can, and could not make tasty despite years of disguising squirrel, pig’s heads, rabbit, mincemeat, and organ meats. People from uneducated, poor, discouraged Rush Run, Ohio, which still doesn’t have a stop sign, certainly knew about zucchini.

I hate relinquishing the idea the Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy, but my research assures me he recognized the noodles when he saw them in China as he already had eaten them at home. No one will ever question who brought zucchini to Rush Run, Ohio. I suspect Pap enjoys this accomplishment in the hereafter and has tracked Mr. Polo down to say, “You’re still a hero, Marco. Your travels are legend. Now, did ya ever try zucchini? Goes right well with spaghetti”

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Home is Where the Mirth Is

Home is Where the Mirth Is
The mushroom cloud caused by my Uncle Loo’s wrath hung in the taut atmosphere. We heard the front door slam, his truck motor rev, flying gravel ping on the windows as he careened away from the farmhouse. My aunt had devoted hours and years turning the small living room where we sat into a haven in the old place out in the Ohio hills. The family feared my uncle’s temper, although this time marked the first he had lost control in front of witnesses. My eyes furtively darted from imagined x-ray pictures engraved on the creamy tan walls: my aunt’s ravaged face, my father’s body poised to act in protection of his sister, the kids’ stunned paralysis. Silence lie in the wake of his destructive, vile words.

Then, my cousin Judy, strutted across the room perfectly mimicking her father’s demeanor. She threw herself into his chair, picked up his still-smoking cigar. “Well, Woman,” she sneered in her father’s demanding tones, “A hot chocolate: now! I want three marshmallows in it. Make it snappy. I ain’t got all day.”

A second of suspended silence reigned; then we burst into various forms of hilarity. My aunt buried her face in a pillow; every now and then a shriek of laughter emerged and re-ignited our own. My mother held her ribs and wiped her eyes; Judy, unrepentant, just grinned. She had neutralized Ground Zero. Laughter defused the bomb of unreasonable anger and abuse. We no longer sat in the remains of a personal Hiroshima, but in a home filled with support, love, and laughter despite faint lingering radiation. My aunt spent most of her married life trying to make a safe home; I think she succeeded mostly, for all of her kids can laugh.

Like my cousins’, my early home demanded certain virtues, qualities, and jury rigging some vices for survival. I coped with hard work, little money, abuse, and emotional neglect. I did more than cope: I triumphed. I prevailed because I learned, just as Judy had, that laughter and parody often made situations fraught with terror, bearable. I learned the gift of storytelling heavily imbued with laughter in that painful childhood. I have heard psychologists list the roles family members assume when their lives present problems. The Enabler, most people recognize, as well as the Baby and the Rebel. Many dysfunctional families have a Clown—the person who can defuse situations by telling a joke or mimicking the bad behavior of others as my cousin Judy had done. Although I dislike clowns and am afraid of their freaky big shoes, I see myself in that role. I learned it early and have honed it through the years.

In many ways, a well told story, laced with a willingness to laugh at myself enabled me to tolerate the experiences life dealt an Air Force wife whose house changed frequently, with no extended family nearby.

My only constant home dwells within in the form of remembered stories and laughter. After a move to a new assignment, household goods lagged months behind, or sat ruined in flooded warehouses. Picture albums, journals, diaries, scrapbooks disappeared. But because I had learned from masters, I can give multiple generations instant recall of the Cliff M Biram, Jr. home as it made its way geographically and historically around the world. My father taught me the trick of a well-crafted tale that painted time, place, personality and detail.

At supper, Dad usually had a “story.” He led a colorful life working the boilers in a steel mill. Part of his job dealt with the river coal barges pulling in to the mill docks to off load tons of coal. At least one man from the boiler house had to oversee this tricky maneuver. One very cold winter’s day, “George the Greek” (in Dad’s world few men had last names) got confused and did not get off the barge in time; he ended up getting a free return trip the next day on a freezing boat. My father never let a good joke die a natural death. For months, whenever a shipment of coal docked, Dad yelled, “Hey, George! Is that your boat?”

“Brownie, that’s not my boats!”

Weeks later: “Hey, George! That your boat?”

Finally, George-the-Greek reached the end of his tether and shouted, “Brownie!! What you tink? Ev’ry boats MY boats?”

Dad told us stories of his childhood; we’d heard them so often, we could recite them with him, what ADVENTURES! Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn seem like choir boys compared to the harrowing tales of the nine-year-old orphan. When I think of Dad’s stories now, of sleeping in hay rows in the summer, of fighting with his aunt’s kids for a place to sleep in the winters, of the kindness of farmers barely making it during the Great Depression as they let him work summers, then supplied him with a set of clothes and shoes to start school, I hear the longing of a little boy wanting a home again: a mom, a dad, his sisters and brother living with him. I also realize most of them were not funny if I thought about them. Since he didn’t have that family, he carried home within himself, and shared it with anyone who wished to listen. He possessed the magnificent ability of making himself the butt of jokes; I learned the craft from him.

Our hard, painful home still had more laughter than tears. We stored memories in our oft-told tales. One of the early memories I have of my serious, calm older sister is a neighbor pounding on the backdoor, “Mr. Brown, come quick! Angel’s about to kill Archie!”

A pick-up game of baseball had turned ugly when the Neighborhood Nuisance made the mistake of taunting Angel when she was a bat. She tackled the blithering idiot, known by Mr. Wick, from up the road, as “Whistlin’ Pete from Down the Street” because Archie whistle incessantly. That day, my sister knocked him into a ditch and prepared to whale on him with her bat until Dad intervened. She swears forty-odd years later,”I would have killed him, but Dad spoiled my aim. There’s not a court in Jefferson County that would have found me guilty, either.” Clearly, no one messed with Angel and baseball. Recently, I recounted this story on Facebook and my cousin responded, “Didn’t everyone try to kill Archie at one time or another?”

Cliff’s first assignment, Keesler Air Force Base, situated on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, sweltered in the Deep South. I learned the truth of Air Force life: I kept the home fires burning; Cliff saw the world. I soon found keeping busy helped. Remembering the funny times enabled me to bring this odd home to a distant family, and to help Cliff not feel guilty about my being alone so often.

I sang with “The Skylarks”, a women’s singing group sponsored by the base. The quartet in which I sang occasionally answered calls for a small group than our normal twenty-five voices. The four of us donned the obnoxiously sky blue, maxi dresses with butterfly sleeves, huge bows at the waist at the back, big hair, and just so make-up. We definitely stood out in any crowd. After one such gig, we treated ourselves to lunch at the Hilton Garden Room on the beach. We talked a mile a minute discussing our performance, laughing manically, high on performance adrenaline and good wine.

A police officer stopped at our table, rocking on his high heeled cowboy boots, apparently squinting down at us, taking close note of every detail, our meals, wine glasses, high color. He typified every stereotype I’d ever seen of a southern cop. His big belly hung over his gun belt; his Ray-Ban sunglasses glinted, disguising his eyes; he even had a toothpick hanging out of the corner of his mouth. The four of us grew silent. Then Jane, a prim woman from Massachusetts, who feared no one asked in prissy New England tones, “Is there a problem, sir?”

He studied us a moment longer, then drawled, deep, deep south heavy in every syllable, “Ya know: ya’ll ahr dresst awlike.”

I stuffed a roll in my mouth and pretended to choke to hide my hilarity. Bonnie made no pretense, a confident Major’s wife, she asked sarcastically, “What was your first clue?”

Diane, our alto, pinched Bonnie, who glared at her. He tilted his head and said slowly, “Why—ya’ll have blue dresses on. Ah noticed right off. Have a nice day, ya’ll heah?”

Stunned, then helpless with laughter, we looked as if we’d had far more to drink than we had. Whenever I think of Biloxi, I think of the observant policeman, and worry, a lot! My family in Ohio howled as I retold the story complete with all the accents, and felt relief that I knew friendship and well-being despite Cliff’s absences.

Our tour of England deserves a book all of its own. The stories of the Yanks in the neighborhood still circulate, thirty years later. No one in Ohio could quite comprehend how small our bungalow was until we described a pizza party we held for the church youth group. We realized, even after putting salad, cold drinks, desserts and pizza out buffet style in the kitchen, people could come in and get their food, but had no room to turn around and get back to the living area to sit and eat. So, Cliff opened the kitchen door and the front door; the kids filled their plates, left by the kitchen door, walked around the house, re-entered through the front door, to get to the sitting room. After a while, we began to check and make sure we weren’t picking up people wandering home from the pub who just joined the queue because it was there. When we go back and visit England, that story inevitably resurrects itself—and we know we are still home.

Remembering our sons’ childhoods has become extremely important as they reach their thirties and many photo albums and video tapes disintegrated during the Mississippi River’s heavy flooding in 1995. Our eldest, Cliff, III (aka Kippy during early childhood and to me, still), born in 1976, served with Mum for two years in Biloxi, so we became best buddies. I talked to him all the time, much as if he were an adult, seeing no reason to demean him or myself with baby talk. As he began stringing sounds together, he sounded as if he were trying to make real words. He’d wave his arms vehemently, holding on to the sides of his playpen. I called them his baby-power speeches.

I assured his father and doting grandparents that Kippy demanded, “Two strollers in every garage. Grape juice in every other bottle. Wet diapers for no longer than two seconds! Babies have rights, too!”

His vocabulary developed precociously. My best friend visited with my folks just before Kippy and I joined them. Cathy confided that Mom told her Cliff and I used such big words with Kippy, he didn’t understand what we were saying!

I looked at my two-year-old son and asked: “Kippy, do I use big words when I talk to you?”

He frowned a bit and answered, “Not particularly large ones, no.”

He didn’t communicate quite so well on his first day at playgroup in England, though. When I went to fetch him, he wore unfamiliar clothes. When I asked why, his teacher said, “Well, he had a bit of an accident, you see, and wet his trousers.”


“Yes, but it was ever so peculiar. He kept asking about a pahty—I told him we weren’t having a pahty today.”

I had to laugh, but Kippy and I practiced, “I need the LOO,” for the next three days; obviously the British didn’t ask for the potty.

Blessed Paul, our son with learning disabilities, developmental delays and other issues arising from a problem pregnancy and heredity, has created his own history within our home. Although he didn’t speak until well passed four years of age, he could hum any tune he heard. He crawled at light speed and had an infectious chuckle that made everyone smile. Cliff and I were reading in the sitting room when we heard the Star Wars theme. “Is that Kippy?” I asked, knowing his enthrallment with all things Jedi.

Cliff said, “I don’t think so…” then we heard Paul’s contagious chuckle. We peered out into the hallway and there he sat, holding a Darth Vader action figure, looking very pleased with himself. His brother’s shriek of anger assured us that Paul had made a fast, if not a silent get away.

Now years later, when we four get together three or four times a year, Cliff and I listen to Kippy and Paul’s stories as we continue to keep our home together despite living hundreds of miles apart. As a videographer who films depositions for law firms, Kip has fascinating stories; and he’s a natural storyteller with the ability to produce dead-on accents. We love his Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sean Connery imitations which he’ll use for certain attorneys, or his perfect New York fast talking illiterates. Paul’s natural mimicry of his friends and take on politics, music, and the weird world of on-line gaming keep us roaring.

Just this recently I got back to North Carolina after a week in our childhood stomping grounds in Ohio. We visited with elderly relatives and reminded them of times they’d spent visiting us at our various bases. Their eyes lit up and they smiled—“I remember that!” We all had visited home again, without leaving their care facilities, laughing gently together at what we shared within.

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Memories from the Depps

4 ladies contemplating Barnabas Collins.

4 ladies contemplating Barnabas Collins.

Memories from the Depps

Johnny Depp preys on my mind these days. I can’t wait for the theatrical release of The Lone Ranger. I’ve laughed at the trailers as I saw Tonto’s over-the-top make-up. I should have expected as much, after all, this is Johnny Depp aka Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter or, my favorite, Barnabas Collins, vampire.

In the Tim Burton re-make of Dark Shadows, I appreciated Depp’s take on Collins. The staid British accent from the Eighteenth Century served to make his dealing with awakening in the radical Sixties in Collinsport, Maine hysterical. As I laughed in the darkness of the theater, I kept glancing around, thinking Aunt Thelma had to be nearby, although she had died several years earlier. I had watched the original series with her and always remembered that shared experience with fondness.

My presence in her home came about in a way that Collins would have loved. Some peculiar, even occult, power crept in and changed my life. When I graduated from high school in Ohio, I planned to attend Ohio University with a degree in education as my major. Then, I received a graduation card from Aunt Thelma. I loved that she had taken the time to do this. She had just given birth to twins known to my female relatives as change-of-life-babies. She had not planned get pregnant at forty-two-years-old. The stork missed the memo. Twelve years after her “final child”, the birth of twin girls shocked everyone. She had no close family nearby as she lived across the country in California and was coping on her own. Given her busy motherhood responsibilities, I appreciated her sending a congratulations card. I wrote a thank you note. It read something like this:

Dear Aunt Thelma,
Thanks for the twenty dollars. I can really use it to pay for books when I start college. In the meantime, if you need a babysitter for the twins let me know (wink, wink). I have great credentials–I have taken care of four of Angel’s* newborns, ridden herd on them as they grew up to toddlers, and taught them the words to all the Mamas and Papas’ songs, including “California Dreamin'”.

Within days, my mother, grandmother and sister assured Aunt Thelma that I hadn’t been blowing smoke about my experience with children. Before I could sing a single line of “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Mom presented the one-way ticket to LA to me, fait accompli. I don’t think anyone even asked if I was interested or wanted to go. I sent regrets to the university, packed clothes, my new Gibson acoustical guitar, sheet music, books, my Bible and my journal. I didn’t understand their rush, but I didn’t dare ask questions because here was my chance to go to California, land of the flower children and the Jesus Movement.

None of my female relatives told me that during the twins’ birth, the doctors had discovered malignant tumors throughout my aunt’s colon. She needed urgent surgery. They knew that after the operation, some recovery time, when she got home, she would need extra help. She would need more than a nanny. She needed someone she could trust to look after the twins, Lisa and Laura, clean house, and cook for my Uncle Ray, and her older kids. I would be a laundress as well, with all the diapers twin newborns would generate.

So, in July of 1970, the girl from the hills of Ohio brushed her waist-length blond hair, dressed in her bell-bottomed jeans and tye-died shirt. With Mom’s “Don’t talk to hippies” ringing in my ears, I boarded the TWA plane in Pittsburgh to fly to LA, California.

Culture shock hit before I left the airport.

My uncle picked me up and as we made our way from LAX International Airport, I tried to make conversation with this relative I’d only met on his infrequent family vacations to Ohio.

I said, “Wow! I knew Los Angeles was big, but I had no idea just how huge it is!”

My uncle laughed, “It’s good you have a sense of humor.”

I asked in a puzzled voice, “It IS huge. Just look at those skyscrapers!”

He said, “But, Twana, we haven’t left the airport yet.”

The big surprises just kept coming
Their house amazed me. Not only was it modern and beautiful, but it had a swimming pool in the back garden. I quickly learned my way around, though. I had little time to acclimatize.

Aunt Thelma struggled with severe health problems after her surgeries, but her humor never let her plunge into depression. I did a good job taking care of the babies. I grabbed a swim in that kidney-shaped pool while they napped, and then settled with this little-known aunt while she rested. She had worked at one of the aircraft companies for many years, so she had never watched the day time soaps. We had a great time catching up on the ones I had watched after school. Then one day, she discovered Dark Shadows starring depp-voiced Jonathan Fridd as Barnabas.

At first we were bewildered by this odd, dark tale that was unlike The Doctors or As the World Turns. Actually, “unlike” doesn’t begin to cover the differences. I will never forget the moment she caught on. She looked at me, her eyes sparkling with mischief and started laughing. It took me a minute, then I realized the hilarity and boldness of the people who dared take on the afternoon dramas and turn the ideas on their heads. We laughed so hard, we woke the babies.

I lugged Lisa and Laura out and handed Aunt Thelma one of the wailing girls, all the while, we both laughed uncontrollably. From that day on, I warmed bottles and changed diapers to the atmospheric silliness of “Victoria, never Vicky” and Barnabas. Both twins have grown into amazing women, but I wondered at the time if we were scarring them for life. WE took the chance as those afternoons became precious. Aunt Thelma, the twins in porta cribs and I tuned in to watch vampires in Maine.

I learned Aunt Thelma’s sense of humor helped get her through hard times. A clever woman, she had many jokes that took a fiendish mind to sort out. She tried the old standard of “Stick out your tongue and touch your nose,” on me. Then fell about laughing when I could accomplish this literally given my odd jaw formation.

When a minor earthquake hit in the middle of the night, Aunt Thelma opened the door and whispered, “Don’t worry. It’s a little earthquake. Oh! You don’t have them in Ohio. Just pretend it’s a flood since you have those regularly.”

She howled with laughter when we were out with the twins and people congratulated me on my beautiful children. She got a kick out of the befuddled looks on their faces when she said, “Oh, I’m the mother.”

The time to go back to Ohio finally arrived with my uncle, aunt and grandparents who had come to see the kids and to take me home. One afternoon before we left, Aunt Thelma let them enjoy the babies and took me into her bedroom for a last chat.

One of the oddities of my stay was my correspondence with Cliff, my future husband. At the time, he was a “Rat” at VMI, a miserable time for him. We had dated in high school, and I had treated him badly. So I wrote to apologize. Thus began a long-distance correspondence between two 18 year olds both far from home. Aunt Thelma noticed the name on one of his letters. “Is his mother Margret Jane Thorn?”

“Yes. Why?”

“She was Valedictorian of our class and I was Salutatorian—we only had a point between to determine who had the speech. She lost. I hate public speaking.”

The depth of our magical relationship grew from this revelation. That day, she told me stories about her youth and asked me about my life and dreams. As we sat on her bed, she said, “No matter what they tell you, Twana, you can be whoever you want. Don’t let them take your guitar away. Don’t let them send you to the school that is cheapest. Don’t let them cut your hair. And most of all, don’t let them ban Dark Shadows.”

I nodded solemnly, “If they try, I’ll just suck them dry and hide the bodies in the basement.”

Our laughter brought knocks on the door, but just as Jonathan Collins would have done, we kept them out with the power of our formidable minds.

*My older sister, Angel, had 5 children at this point. She, too, had a change-of-life baby, as did my mother. I an one of those woman grateful to have had a hysterectomy in my late thirties.

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For anyone who loves to write, and benefits from input from other budding authors, I highly recommend

This online community of writers provides opportunities in most genres: poetry, short fiction, creative non-fiction, memoirs and more. The folks in this group are generous in their time and kind in response to each others’ latest posting. I “met” them nearly 4 years ago and have enjoyed getting to know people from around the world, from Texas to Australia, they quickly become friends and family.

Come on in–the water’s fine.



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A Secret Santa Story

A Secret Santa Story
The Secret Santa deal most offices embrace at Christmas has never struck me as anything more than the gift exchange we did in grade school. Back then, the teacher put the names of the kids in a bowl, and we chose a name randomly. I honestly can only remember one gift from those days. In third grade, Miss Marrow had made a huge difference in my life. That was a tough year for me. Miss Marrow knew this and went out of her way to be kind. She encouraged my reading and allowed me to actually take books home. I met Winnie the Pooh that year and the characters from Wind in the Willows. So, since I knew Santa would not bring many gifts, I had high hopes for the gift exchange. We were to spend no more than $.50 on our gifts. In 1960, $.50 bought neat stuff.

I remember carefully choosing something for whoever’s name I’d picked and wrapping it using ribbon to decorate the package. I waited with excitement to receive my gift during our class party having seen whatever I had chosen had put a big smile on the recipient’s face. Miss Marrow handed me my gift and my young heart sank. My family had little extra money. The steelworkers had been on strike for months and any extra that Dad earned hauling coal or doing odd jobs for other families went to my sister. She was in her last year of nursing school and her books cost so much extra, she needed the money. However, as in most places, even the kids from pretty poor families knew kids from really poor families. I knew Hazel Birchess and that her family could not afford even $.50. When I opened my gift to find a pair of socks, I knew my face had not lit up. Socks! What kid wants a pair of socks when everyone else had puzzles or little stuffed animals or toy trucks or coloring books? I looked up and saw Hazel watching my expression. I gazed back at the socks and realized they had lace around the tops. A tomboy to the core, I didn’t wear lace anywhere on my body if I could help it, but I understood to Hazel the pink socks with white lace were beautiful.

“Thank you, Hazel,” I said.

Then Jill Martin, one of the town’s rich kids yelled, “Look! Twana only got socks!”

Poor Hazel’s face flamed red. I moved my chair closer to hers and said, “I like these. Know what is neat about socks?”

“No, except they keep your feet warm and when they don’t have holes in them, they feel soft,” she answered.

We might have been poor and my socks often had holes in them, but my mother’s tidy soul made sure she mended the holes. I felt sorry for Hazel. I guessed her mother who worked hard because her daddy got drunk and couldn’t hold a job didn’t have time to mend socks for her kids.

I grinned at Hazel and said, “Yeah, they do keep my feet warm, but they also can be hand puppets.”
I slipped them over my hands and one spoke in a squeaky voice, “Hey, Janey! I heard Mickie Mouse has a new girlfriend!”

My left hand answered with a lisp, “No, sir! Minnie is his true love.”

For a few minutes I made up a play featuring my right hand and my left hand covered by pink socks. Hazel’s laughter and giggles made me happy I had done something so silly.

When I left the room that day, Miss Marrow drew me aside, “I have a little gift for you. Put it in your bag and don’t let anyone else know.”

I ran to my room when I got home and ripped the paper off Miss Marrow’s gift. She had given me a book. I hugged it to my chest and thought many thanks toward my teacher.

I know I had many other gift exchanges through my years in school and even in college, but that year is the clearest. I suspect it’s not so much because I was so disappointed by the socks, but more that I managed to be kind to a kid no one had much time for.

I rejoice that I never have had to be a Secret Santa. Cheap candy or smelly hand lotion are tough items to turn into an impromptu play. Today, though, I saw a Secret Santa with the soul of the real guy, or maybe one who keeps God’s gift to the world as central, can make a real difference.

Most of us have been so sad over the past days, knowing in a little town in Connecticut, twenty children are not giggling over their toys from the gift exchange. Adults who are heroes won’t exchange Secret Santa gifts. These thoughts accompany me everywhere.

I needed to have blood work done at a lab in the kidney specialist’s office. I had put it off for several days just because I was tired of needles and being poked. I had an appointment with another doctor on the same street, though, and made myself go up to the lab.

When I walked in the door, I subconsciously noted how warm and happy the room seemed, not the norm for labs in my experience. I took my seat and handed Pamela my paperwork and saw a sign from her Secret Santa.

“Your floors may not be clean, but your room is happier. Your Secret Santa

I looked at the room more closely. The walls were a lovely lavender color; the many notices skillfully pinned over interesting scrapbooking paper looked great. Despite the vials and tubes and needles, the small room offered comfort and peace.

“Did your Secret Santa paint your room?” I asked.

Pamela lit up. “Whoever it is did that. Can you imagine? He or she moved all my furniture and painted this in my favorite color, then prettied up my notices. When I came in yesterday, here it was!”

Tears filled my eyes as I saw such a magnificent gift. Someone had given up a weekend to undertake the task. In doing so, whoever it was didn’t just make Pamela’s life sweeter, but gave a gift of comfort to everyone who will go in to have blood drawn.

We’ve all heard the adage: “the gift that keeps on giving”. When I saw the huge smile on Pamela’s face and then those on her co-workers’s faces as she shared my response, I knew the Secret Painting Santa had done that: given a gift that will keep on giving.

So, to whoever this person was: thank you.

Thank you for making Pamela happy. Thank you for making a room that causes fraught emotions seem sweeter and safer. Thank you for showing an understanding of what a meaningful gift is. Thank you, Pamela, for understanding what it means to accept a gift gracefully.

And, belatedly, thanks, Hazel, for the pink, laced-trimmed socks. You taught me a special lesson and it has stuck with me for over fifty years.

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“There’s No such Thing as Free iTunes”

I carefully went to the bottom of each offer and found the minute “No Thanks, I’m not Interested” button. I pushed it and was instantly transported to ANOTHER offer. All I wanted to do was claim a free $25.00 iTunes card. I have learned to be careful of trying to claim free stuff over the years. I thought I had their number, though in this little gem. I followed my brilliant husband’s observation, “Yep. They have a huge, red submit button. In teeny, tiny black letters beneath it is ‘No thank you.'” How many people get roped in to getting Nextflix or ezines just because they do not read the small print?”

Well, I read the small print. I read it carefully. I even evaded the “Be in the Drawing for a Free iPad!” bit. Honest. Then what do I see in my email? I had just enrolled in an ezine for “women who had lost their OOMPH’–or words that were far earthier. I followed the “If you think you have enrolled in error” directions and deleted that ezine and another I just don’t want to think about. It is humbling to know I, a veteran English professor, still missed fine print.

I thought I had learned that lesson 38 years ago in Biloxi, Mississippi. I thought I had learned “There’s no such thing as free lunch” as Robert Heinlein put it. We were really hurting for money. Cliff made an okay salary as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. But on our trip from Ohio to Mississippi, the newly re-worked engine on the 1964 Oldsmobile Cutlass, threw a rod exactly 500 miles from home and 500 miles to Cliff’s very first active duty assignment.

That was a test of our new marriage and our relationship. We didn’t have close to enough money needed to repair the car, and we believed the mechanic in Goodletsville, Tennessee had given an honest estimate. Finding the money to pay for the car’s repair proved difficult. My parents had just paid for a wedding. It wasn’t an extravagant affair, but it still hit their pocketbooks. Cliff’s folks were dealing with college loans for his siblings. The best we could come up with was to rent a car and drive to Biloxi and figure out how to deal with the Olds after Cliff had reported in.

We aren’t sure how, but Cliff’s father got the money together and wired it to us. But that was a weekend and Cliff had to report early on Monday morning. The garage stayed open long enough to take the check and give us a lift to the airport so we could rent the car. The big, bad world just got crazier then. We tried the economy rentals, and not one of them would let us hire a car for a week even though we had the cash to pay for it. We did not have a major credit card, so, “Too bad, newlyweds!

We went to Hertz as a last, desperate shot. Their prices were higher, but at least they took Cliff’s orders, called Keesler AFB, and were assured Cliff was indeed a commissioned officer due to report on Monday. We handed them a wad of money (monetary wedding gifts), they handed us keys, and we drove to Keesler in the hot, muggy southern heat of August in the deep south.

The saga of the Olds went on for years. Someday when I have recovered from the PTSD that I reel from just at the mention of that car, I may write about it. The flashbacks are fearsome.  But our big concern was how to repay his father. We were fairly sure he had borrowed the money from his sister, Margaret, but we never knew that for certain. If he had, we also knew she might not demand interest, but she had ways of making his life uncomfortable. We didn’t want him to have to deal with that any longer than possible.  So, big chunks of his bi-weekly pay went back to Ohio. It took a year to re-pay Dad Biram. We lived frugally, indeed, and continued to baby the Olds along.

So, when I received a “free gift” in the mail if only I went to Mobile, Alabama to view property, I talked Cliff into it. In my dewy-eyed innocence, I thought even if we only won the electric skillet, I could sell it at the base Thrift Shop for a few dollars. And who knew? We could win the television or even (God Please!!!!) the new car.

Yes, of course, it was a time share deal. We barely had the money to pay for gas to get to Mobile, and that was when gas was $.60 a gallon. But, Cliff, bless him, despite warning me of my impending disappointment, took me over to Mobile. The tour was lovely. Mobile Bay is a beauty spot on the Gulf Coast, but we couldn’t afford a bucket of sand there. The guy who showed us around saw in a glance we were not the pigeons who were going to make his day, but he did scratch off the foil revealing what I had won.

Let’s just say I don’t think that perfume was truly Parisian. Within three miles of leaving the resort, I felt nauseous from the fumes–and I had not opened the bottle. We stopped at the first road side rest, threw the elegant purple bottle away and I washed my hand several times.

Cliff never uttered an “I told you so.” He never even repeated the free lunch line. But I learned from that. I have never thought I won Publisher’s Clearing House. I have never bought a lottery ticket. Heck, when Cliff came home and said his next assignment was to England, I didn’t believe that until we were on the plane with a hundred other Air Force families headed for RAF Mildenhall, England.

So, I’m not the sucker anymore. I am really careful about suspiciously wonderful offers in my emails. But, I had spent money on iTune cards and gone through the complicated process of using them on Cliff’s iPad. We were in Ohio and the sequels to the books I had were not available in Ohio. Since I  could not find there and could not give an address to Amazon,  I caved. I went electronic. For lowering my severe standards about ebooks, I guess I felt iTunes owed me a $25.00 gift card.

I should have known. Still, the card will come by FedEx which will not please my Postal Service Employee husband, but it will come. And I also know, that despite all my lessons in how not be the newest sucker or the dimmest mark, I still will find items I “ordered” in my email for the next week.

I think back to the Oldsmobile and the hole it put our early financial life. We called it The Gopher–after the cartoon series “The Go-Go Gophers.” That name arose from the fact that we sang “go-go” at every light and stop sign, never knowing if the car would take off or not.

That was the original scam, I see now. My father-in-law assured us the body of the Old was good and in 1974 Ohio, that was not always the case. In fact, my father had sold us a little Ford for $1.00 and it ran beautifully, but the body was rusting away. One memorable time while driving 55 mph down Ohio Route 7, Cliff handily caught the fender as it peeled away from the body. So having a car with a solid frame and body was aces,  and Dad assured us it wouldn’t take much to get the engine right. If Dad had one fault, it was his loving to tinker with cars. He’d had his eye on the Gopher for several months and assured us it would be a snap to get the engine running.

I adored that man, and he was hard-headed and cynical about most things.  He rarely let anything get by his radar. Yet, that car suckered him. I should have seen the signs all those years ago. No one is immune to “free lunch” deals.

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