Maybe it was the fish tacos and too much pinot gris at dinner. Or the craving for dark chocolate and crushed peanuts that followed. Who know why I, or anyone else, spent Tuesday night tossing and turning between fits of waking and sleeping
That was the night I found myself in the living room of an old two-story house with a stoop, its exterior shingled in navy squares of asbestos. Inside was a group of people who were dressed as though they were going to church, one that required dresses for women and suits for men. A woman in a royal purple wrap and black patent leather pumps, sat on an olive green couch. She looked familiar, much like someone whose face I knew from Goodreads.com but had never met in real life.
I didn’t know what I was doing in this place more than an hour from my house and feared it was a start-up church, the kind that focused on the Old Testament, perhaps used the New Testament in ways Jesus would not have liked. I’d been done with bad news churches for decades and had no interest in squirming through a sermon that would leave me snippy.
Now, the good news in this story is that these people, all middle-aged and white, had gathered in the middle of nowhere in a starkly furnished house to play a kind of charades that involved no alcohol or shouting. Even the silent gestural clues were modest. Such civility intimated me into silence. I had no idea a party game could be so dull. When there was a break, I plotted my getaway and stood to leave, but something amazing happened before I acted on it. As I opened to door to leave, President Obama and the First Lady came through up to the door and entered. I decided to stay a while longer.
Rather than shake hands or politicize, the Obamas, too, came to play charades. They were crazy about the game. Before taking a seat, Michelle said to me, “I heard about your novel, Cooley & Rose. I want to read it.”
Thrilled – how did she know me? – I excused myself to go to my car to grab a copy, even though, until that moment, I had no idea how I’d driven there. Dreams are like that. Details come when you truly need them. All the way to the car and back, I reminded myself to take a photo of Michelle holding my book, to ask someone to take a picture of the two of us. Once I was inside, however, I was so awed by the power of word-of-mouth, especially the mouth that knew a First Lady, that I forgot my intentions. I left with no recorded memory of the moment, and nothing to help sell my modest indie undertaking. The disappointment was crushing.
And it was the next morning, too, when I woke from my dream. I still wanted those photos.
For most of my life, I had no desire to marry. From what I saw, marriage didn’t have much to offer a woman except a life of drudgery, more submission that compromise, and no time of her own until the kids were grown and gone and the husband still employed or dead.
Sounds a bit harsh, I know, but having grown up as the youngest in my family, I had already lived with too many bosses, and I could see no reason to commit myself to another.
If you’re a reader of this blog, however, you know I changed my mind when I was 41 and found myself becoming engaged to marry in a circumstance more fitting for a creepy thriller than real life. There was no bent knee, no diamond ring, no roses, not even dinner. If you don’t know the details and want to know more, scroll down to the title with the word “stalker” in it.
The idea for this post came early this a.m. By the time I rose at 6:30 a.m., my hunk of burning love (HOBL)had already cut back the limbs of the floribunda rose bush that had sprawled across the side courtyard toward the door to the house, picked our first tomatoes, lopped of the top of a bush that had been tall as a small tree, and fed the three dogs and the cat. Amazing, right?
But he wasn’t always like this.
When I was in my thirties, a friend of mine, who was ready to meet the father of her future children and thought I should be, too, despite my protests, told me to stop being picky. “Find a good guy,” she said. “One that’s trainable.”
By this point, she had started applying her hiring skills to her love life. For her, finding a husband had become a priority project.
“If he has a shirt you hate, throw it out. Bad haircut? Take him to a different hair cutter. You can change the small things. But you’ve got to find a great guy.”
At the time, I truly felt I would never have any need for this information, but the fact that she had set herself such guidelines amazed me. Where was the romance?
Then came the moment I learned my HOBL wanted to marry me, and in a flash, my friend’s advice returned to me, and I knew that I had found a man that I could marry without being shackled to domesticity or his every whim and whom I could train.
Right away I threw out his red, white and blue, paisley shirt and urged him to stop smashing the hair on the top of his head flat.
Other than that, my training of him didn’t seem to take. I taught him how to cook a variety of seafood, to make salad dressings and mashed potatoes, which he loved, but he’d forget how and couldn’t be bothered to read a cookbook. I showed him how to separate clothes for the wash, but our underwear ended up smoky blue or pink. I reminded him that a closed door to my writing shed office meant I was working and not to disturb me, but he did anyway, with our three dogs at his heels.
Then this year, everything changed. Some evenings I came in from my shed to find him cutting up vegetables to roast with a pan of fish filets nearby, ready to be broiled. He started separating the wash and using the wrinkle-free setting. He saw what needed to be done in the yard and did it! Without nagging or to-do notes from me.
No long ago, I called my friend, now a happily married mother of two teenage girls, and said, “You didn’t tell me the training would take 18 years.” She laughed.
I bragged to everyone about my husband and even advised my niece to find a good guy who was trainable, and, after running my mouth, something came to me that probably everyone else already knew but hadn’t mentioned. My HOBL had trained me.
I had added color to my black-and-white wardrobe and cut my hair. I no longer freaked when dishes from late night snacks set in the sink unwashed overnight. He taught me not to act rashly or over-react, that perfection is more of a nasty compulsion than a virtue and that lies, such as “No, those jeans don’t make your butt look big,” from him or “No, you aren’t going bald,” from me can be a small gestures of love.
Update: Interested in winning one of three, free paperback copies of my novel, Cooley & Rose? Or other new novels? Go to Goodreads.com, and participate in its First Books giveaway. The promotion for Cooley & Rose will run through Sept. 15, 2013.
Fifteen years ago the Lord came to Mary Paulsen during a dream and told her to start making art, and she obeyed him, even though her husband and mother-in-law laughed at her. After all, red-headed Mary knew nothing about paint or brushes or color therapy or the high cost of supplies. But that didn’t stop her. She had faith.
Mary gathered empty bottles of all sizes and shapes, salvaged windows from tear-downs and renovations. She invited the people of Supply, NC to drop off their unwanted junk. She bought paint and brushes and, later, power tools and went to work.
The result is Mary’s Gone Wild, a dazzling village of play-size houses built by the artist, herself, and that houses a fairy garden, folk art galleries, a museum of more than 6,000 dolls, a Coke-Cola house, a boat sculpture made from wine bottles and more. Because her preferred canvas is glass, this tiny town glows during daylight. People come from all over the United States to buy her folk art painted on old windows. Depictions of roosters, flowers, cartoonish worms, dancing crabs. Many others come to talk to Mary, browse her creations, and leave donations to help her feed tens of thousands hungry children in North Carolina.
No one, except Mary, is laughing at her now.
You can find Mary at 2431 Holden Beach Rd. SW, Supply, NC. She welcomes visitors from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 365 days a year.
“Happy Anniversary to B. and me. May 12 is the only day of the year I will never work, as this was her request on our wedding day. She gets flowers from me on the 12th of every month, and has since we answered the easy questions together 23 years ago today.
“It’s been mostly fun.”
A long-time friend of mine, who, like me, married for the first and and only time in early mid-life, recently posted this on Facebook. Later in the day, his wife commented: “Awe!! So sweet! :>x. Time flies too quickly especially with my boyfriend for life.”
I tell you. Love doesn’t get any better than this. Or more romantic.
My anniversary is in less than two weeks. Because my Hunk of Burning Love (HOBL) and I changed our wedding date to accommodate out-of-town visitors, on more than one occasion we’ve missed our anniversary and celebrated it belatedly, only after being reminded by a friend or family member.
He stopped bringing me flowers after a sassy cat named Mr. Burt Reynolds joined our household and started disassembling the arrangements stalk by stalk, then petal by petal. Now we grow our own flowers for cutting – various types and colors of zinnias, which the cat hates. When the flowers are in bloom during late summer and early fall and I’m out and about, my HOBL cuts and arrange them in vases he sets in unexpected places.
When we announced 18 years ago that we were going to marry each other, one of my nosey brothers called my HOBL and asked who proposed to whom. When my HOBL’s answer didn’t satisfy him, he called others to get the scoop. He found the truth hard to believe.
The Big Moment did not involve a diamond ring gunked with creme brulee, a bottle of Dom, long-stemmed red roses or bended knee. Nothing about it was romantic or planned. But, drama? There was plenty. The catalyst for our spur-of-the-moment decision was someone whom I’d known as a teenager. A shy boy who rode the same school bus as I. As a man, he served as a naval officer and after that earned a Ph.D. and became a biogeneticist. J. was also an unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic who stalked me off and on for more than 20 years.
A few weeks prior to the night that changed my life, J. had obtained my unlisted telephone number from an alumna of the school we had attended, a person who was unaware that his teenage crush had become an obsession. By this time, J. had been quiet for several years, living and working in the Midwest, creating corn hybrids, and, from what I’d been told by a family member, in love and hoping to be married. I was happy for him, even happier for myself, believing he was out of my life for good.
But the woman he loved did not want to marry him, and I can only guess that served as one of many factors that led him to call me near midnight in April 1994.
The moment I picked up the phone, I knew it was him. The moans and heaving breathing of an animal in pain, sounds I’d heard so many times before from. Sounds so pitiful that it pained me to know he suffered so. I did not hang up, because it was important for me to know his location and where his mind was. I will not go into all of the chilling details, but once he found his voice, he told me that he raised finches; that two beings lived in his body, one who could draw extremely well; that the Pope would be assassinated in the fall of that year; that I was destined to marry him, to have his child; and that the three of us would study sorcery and cure the ills of the world.
The next few days, as calls continued to come from the Midwest, I worked to erase any signs that I lived where I did, including trading in my car. I knew that before long he would show up, which he eventually did. Friends made daily calls to his office to track his movements, and I hid out in another city while a family of four settled temporarily into my home. These efforts to protect myself and mislead him, however, make up a later chapter in a long story that I have no plans to write.
Let me pause here and tell you, the only time I have written about this was a short note to a mutual friend, and writing this post is exhausting me. So many emotions are churning inside, including sadness that J., who died two years ago, had to live such a confused and difficult life.
But there were moments of happiness for me. Not long after J. found me that April and before I changed my telephone number for the umpteenth time, I came home from a graduate class, and on my answering machine were numerous messages from him – his voice and language growing angrier with each, all accusing me of being home and not picking up. And that’s exactly what I did with the other harrowing calls that followed. Lucky for me, in between these, a friend phoned and volunteered to keep me company.
And he was the one who answered the next ring. He told J. that I would be home from school soon, to call back in 20 minutes.
When J. did, I held the phone so my friend could hear, witness the insanity, but after a few moments, he pulled away, shaking his head, unable to listen any longer.
Then, J. said to me, “That guy there? The one who answered the phone? He’s in love with you.”
For the first time in days, I laughed. I looked at my friend who had plopped down on the couch as though he owned it. Looking into his eyes, I said, “You say the guy who answered the phone is in love with me?”
My friend grinned, pushed himself up and nodded.
I smiled. “You know what?” I said to J. “I’m in love with him, too.”
Eighteen years later, I still am.
I wouldn’t tell what follows if my late stepfather had been the least bit shy or embarrassed about it, but I can still recall the day he laid back in his recliner, told me this true story as tears streamed from his Paul Newman baby blues and laughter deepened his always prominent dimples. He had hardly said two words before my mother started laughing and tearing up. She knew what was coming.
First, you need to know that before my mother and stepfather downsized to a condo, both were gardeners. On temperate days, the exceptions being my stepfather’s golf on dry Tuesdays, their standing dates on Fridays, and Sundays when they attended the Southern Baptist Church where they met and were fixed up on a date by a deacon, they worked in their yard.
In addition to taking care of the tedious chores of cutting grass, weeding, edging and raking, they tended huge flowers beds of heirloom azaleas, roses bushes, hydrangeas, and assorted annuals and perennials, both low-growing and climbing. When they were done and had showered off the muck and dirt, the two would sit out in the backyard and sip iced tea, enjoying their own private paradise, one they sorely missed after their move.
They took care to make sure their front yard was beautiful, too, with beds of neatly trimmed boxwoods along the front walk and tall pines ringed by azaleas. On anything else rising from the ground – a trellis, a light pole, a mailbox, they grew clematis. Neither my mother nor stepfather were interested in the mini-versions. They loved the huge showy blossoms of white or purple that could be seen by anyone passing down the street. The bigger the clematis bloom, the more awed they were by nature and God’s hand in it.
One day on the golf course at Ocean View as my stepfather hit a round with old friends from his youth and others from his church, the talk turned to yard work. I wasn’t there, but I imagine there was grumbling by some who’d prefer to spend less time on the grass at home and more on that at the course, but eventually the conversation turned to the growing season and how flora of all kinds were flourishing – squash plants spreading like octopi, dahlias stalks breaking ground, hydrangeas clumps taking on tinges of blues and pinks.
And it was during this talk that my dear stepfather, picturing the dazzling clematis abloom on the mailbox, said, “You’re not kidding. You should see the beautiful clitoris I have at home!”
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When my soon to be 92-year-old father-in-law moved to a Mennonite assisted-living center in Goshen, IN three years ago, he called in his 80-something brother-in-law and a much younger son-in-law to help build an oversized desk and lots of shelving for his laptop, books, a printer and the vase with my mother-in-law’s ashes.
Papa John wasted little time in setting up an office in his modest one-room apartment. He had much to do — track trends of the futures market for his own investment strategies and draw a house plan for a family in Africa.
He quickly made friends with other residents, but when they began dying off he turned to the center’s employees for conversation. Now he especially enjoys talking with the beautiful young Eastern European women who work as servers in the dining hall because they tell him about things not discussed on the evening news. Conversations about their customs, mores, ambitions and dreams. Conversation that help to keep him connected to the larger world.
In the Virginia home where Papa John lived most of his life, his dining room wall was plastered with a National Geographic world map. It was there that he and my mother-in-law hosted lively Sunday dinners for family members, church friends and newly arrived emigrants from Albania and Laos. And it was at that table that he learned to speak conversational Laotian.
At his 90th birthday party, my father-in-law announced to his children that he was starting life anew. He went so far as to say, “It saddens me to think of all the funerals I’ll have to attend.” He looked from one adult child to the next. All nine of them.
Less than an hour later, his children had created a death pool and drawn names to see in what order they would all predecease their father. Most of them share his sense of humor, especially Chris, one of the sassy and delightfully twisted instigators, who takes her dad to Walmart and a local diner every week where they discuss, in addition to his shopping list, the insanity of American politics at home and abroad..
At that 90th birthday celebration, one of the center’s employees gave Papa John, whose only taste of liquor occurred 71 year earlier, a bottle of Sangria. Because he had read the benefits of red wine, he tried it. And liked it. In the days that followed, he drank a half-cup each morning with his breakfast until it was gone, then resumed doing so again when his stock was replenished at age 91.
These days he takes no prescription medication but believes dark chocolate is a daily “vitamin.” Every so often he calls me and says he has run out, knowing that I will send his favorite brands — Dove Bliss and Reese’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups — which he shares with his visitors, always sending extras home with little kids.
Sometimes he mails me copies of his blood work. On the desk in front of me is a recent one that shows his cholesterol is in range. On that same sheet, scribbled in large print, is his blood pressure — 120/70.
Fifteen years ago a doctor told him he had the heart of a 25-year-old, and he reminds us of that often. But even though he spends 25 minutes, twice a day on a stationary bike, his legs are not so young. He walks with a cane, one of his own design. It’s made of PVC pipe. At one end is an ell-shaped handle so he can hang it on the edge of a table. The other end is four-pronged so it can stand upright. Other features include a magnet for picking up dropped paper clips and a tine for stabbing paper debris. His cane fascinates the center’s residents, some who want their own, and strangers at fast food restaurants to whom he gladly demonstrates its features as his sausage biscuit and free senior coffee cool.
Among his other creations are a pencil extender to increase the life of a nub; a specialty paper tray for home/small business printers; methods for more efficient construction estimates; and a steel leg for a friend who damaged his own in a accident. The last was a prototype that needed further tweaking. No matter. His buddy was too scared to strap it on.
A compulsive problem solver who wakes up thinking, “What if. . .,” Papa John is now working on a design for affordable, prefabricated living space that would allow persons on the low-end of the economic spectrum to afford their own 700 sq. ft. homes. Floors could be added as families flourished.
The reason I’m writing about my father-in-law, other than the fact that I’m crazy about him, is that I recently watched the documentary, Happy, which features interviews with academics at U.S. universities and regular people in Denmark, Okinawa, Japan and elsewhere.
According to the film, the unhappiest people fall into three groups:
1. People who work so much they have no time for leisure, family or friends. As an example, the film cites Japanese businessmen.
2. Those on a hedonic treadmill who always WANT/NEED to have the next, big thing. Look around. We all know someone like this. Or perhaps we are like this. (But I’m not. Really.)
3. Members of fringe groups who fear or dislike outsiders. Think White Supremists. Evangelicals, such as snakes handlers. Or mountain-bound conspiracy theorists.
And what makes for a happy life? According to experts, four conditions:
1. Regular physical activity that raises feel-good dopamine levels,
2. An appreciation for what one has (which is easier when one’s basic needs are met),
3. Close friends, family members and an involvement with community, and
4. Compassion and service to others.
When I finished streaming Happy on Netflix, I thought of my father-in-law who gave up his home and car at age 89 and moved from a Virginia community he’d known for most of his life to a final one in Indiana. Those changes alone, especially the last, are enough to send most people into a downward spiral.
Yet he continues to thrive. He wakes up every morning, looking forward to his day, happy.
How to Start a Day
Begin by letting go of the hem
of your dream. Let it slip
backwards into a black lake
as you greet the dawn. Be thankful
for small aches. You have survived
night’s heavy arms to wash yesterday
from your face. Begin to create
the opus of a new day. Look out
from a kitchen window as you savor
a first cup of coffee. House wrens
flap at the feeder. A squirrel
dances osiers so that the willow
shakes with laughter. Be thankful
for the small favors of sunlight
walking across the lawn, a cabbage
butterfly teasing the azaleas,
the pink rain of cherry blossoms.
Even the neighbor’s dog barking
ducks from his yard is sacred.
Open to morning’s hymns:
the big mouth of the garbage truck,
the mockingbird’s purloined songs,
chatter on the corner waiting
for the yellow school bus. The engine
of the day purrs in your throat
as you dress. Sweep your calendar
clean of doctor appointments,
chores. The vacuum and the duster
can wait. Let the day surprise you.
Be thankful to be who you are.
This is a poem I long ago tacked to a wall in my office where I would be sure to see it when I needed to — which has been often. It appears in Jane Ellen’s prize-winning chapbook, The Long Life, and in her latest, The Red Coat, which is now available from Amazon.com.
Since day one of this blog, I wanted to share this poem and its creator’s name. So, with her permission and photo, here it is for you to read, enjoy, perhaps reread and share while I try to pare the rambling post I’ve written about my elderly father-in-law and happiness.
Happy Tuesday, all!