Tag Archives: humor

A Father, a Daughter and a Fire: A Cautionary Tale about Voice.

DSCN0139I grew up in an age and family where children were meant to be seen, not heard. If either of my parents could have foreseen how my older brother and I would erupt with ideas and opinions as we neared adulthood, they probably would have been more lax about the policy. But they weren’t. And, boy, have they paid for it.

In high school my brother and a friend put out a political newspaper printed in red ink that protested the Vietnam War. He hawked copies at his high school, and when the administration found that to be disruptive, he took his bundles to the street corner and handed copies to driver stopped by traffic. I can’t remember whether all of this came before or after the year he joined the debate team. He has always loved the art and power of persuasion. How he ended up being a real estate developer rather than a lawyer still puzzles me.

I, too, had my causes. Most had to due with women’s rights, and I still champion those, although I no longer discuss them with my mother whose views are conservative. She still refuses to acknowledge that I kept my own surname when I married 17 year ago. Last week I received a birthday card from her. The last name on the envelope was my husband’s.

Such protest by my mother or others by my father has not stopped me from expressing myself on the pages of magazines, short stories, novels, letters to the editor, feature articles, Facebook and this blog.

Once I wrote a story about a trip my brother, father and I took to Belize in the days before it became prettified enough by Francis Ford Coppola and others to appear on HGTV and the Travel channels. After the column appeared in a magazine, my father threatened to sue me. He said we were definitely not on the same trip. My brother agreed, but his version differed from my mine and my father’s, too.

So, understanding how opinions and point of views can create havoc and dissension in a family, I still can’t believe that my father took advice from me seriously when I was only eleven or so. Back then, even I knew my suggestion was a fantasy, a crazy one. The kind Beaver Cleaver might dream up. But, heck, if my father was willing to listen to me, I was glad to hog the spotlight and talk.

It was a sunny fall day. My brother was off who-knows-where, and my mother and her best friend were going shopping and to a matinee in downtown Norfolk. Before leaving, she instructed my father and me to rake up and burn the leaves four-inches deep on our three-quarter-acre yard. Just the idea of this chore sapped our energy.

I wanted to bike with friends, hang out at the neighbor’s house where the daughter and I would take our Barbie and Ken dolls and smash them together so they could make out. This was long before we found out that Ken was gay. Before we even knew that gay meant something other than happy.

My father, who often kept a bushel of iced Lynnhaven oysters on the flatbed of his pickup and a bottle of Seagram’s under the driver’s seat, wanted to visit his buddies. I don’t know what his exact plans were for that day, perhaps rockfishing, but he had no more desire to clean up the yard than I did. For the first time, I understood we were allies. And that was when I told him I had a plan. I did not think he would go for it. Afterall, he was the adult.

I suggested to him that we rake the leaves away from all the trunks of the trees, then set the yard on fire. He said it was a fine idea. I was thrilled, even though I had doubts that I kept to myself. Whatever happened, I imagined my mother would never ask us to rake again.

The job took longer than we thought, leaving us no time for our friends, and by the time my mother returned home late that afternoon, we were guarding our yard of smoldering ash, careful to make sure the house did not burn down.

It took my mother a few moments to take in what we had done, even longer to find her voice because she was so livid. Madder than when I forged her name perfectly on a failing arithmetic test in third grade or when, at age four, I stole a caramel out of the Braff candy barrel at Overton’s Supermarket.

She wanted to know what we’d been thinking in our addled brains. We told her.

Then she told us what was in her sensible one – that someone would have to clean the smoke film from the windows, the soot we tracked onto the floors of the house, the paws of our white toy poodles every time they came in from doing their business.

But that wasn’t all. Someone, meaning my father, would have to plow up the yard with his tractor, rake it smooth, sow new seed, and keep it watered with a web of hoses attached to sprinklers cross the yard until grass sprouted.

It was a long time before I saw my friends anywhere except in Sunday School. My mother kept me busy after school and on weekends, washing dogs, dusting, mopping and so on. A list too tedious for details.

The next November, what I had imagined would be the best possible outcome – that she would never ask my father or me to rake again – never entered her mind. I hauled one small pile of leaves after another to the fire.
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My novel, Cooley & Rose, is now available as an e-book at Amazon Kindle Store, the ITunes Store, the Sony Reader Store, the Nook Store, Kobo, Baker & Taylor, Gardner’s, eSentral, eBook Pie, Scribd and Amazon.co.uk. NEW: A paperback version is available from Amazon. Please rate and review, good or bad, with the distributor and Goodreads.com. Thanks.cover final 3-2-13

Swinging to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Learning a Lesson in Discrimination.

imagesWhen my oldest niece, S. was young, the two of us danced together whenever we had the opportunity – overnights at her grandma’s, weddings, and always after Thanksgiving dinners at her father’s house.  As soon as her sister was born and able to walk, K. joined us as we made our own conga line and danced down hallways and from room to room, the three of us joyfully flinging arms and legs here and there, our only teachers having been MTV videos and Barney.

Then S. turned into a teenager, and before long, she was no longer content with our own stylistic gyrations.  She wanted to learn how to swing dance and shimmy to the salsa.  At age 16, she was old enough to take adult dance classes at the local recreation center.  There, the swing classes required partners, and I agreed to be hers.  The idea of the two of us taking lessons made us giggle — but not for long.

When I turned in our registration, I learned that we could not sign up together.  When I asked why, the clerk said, “Because you’re the same sex.” She also suggested others might be offended by my niece and I dancing hand-in-hand.

I was stunned but only momentarily because civil rights issues fire my blood more quickly than any Latin dance.  As my FB friends know, I’m quick to jump on a soapbox.  I pointed out that our country was nearing the dawn of a new millennium: that the center was a public facility funded by tax dollars: and that laws prevented such discrimination!

Still, the woman insisted it was the policy.  Understanding she was the messenger, I asked her to pass on my comments, which she did.

A week later I heard my concern had been sent to the city attorney’s office.  I was thrilled, sure that soon my niece and I would learn how to dance to the sounds of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy without knocking into each other, and, in doing so, she would benefit from a real life civics lesson.  My heart swelled.  I, her old auntie, would have a hand in creating an activist for equal rights.

Two weeks later, the clerk called to give us the okay.  She didn’t sound too happy, and I wondered if she had no niece or daughter of her own.

Maybe I should have thanked her and hung up, but I REALLY couldn’t.  This was about more than S. and me.  “So,” I said, “what if two guys come in tomorrow to sign up?  Will you let them in the class?”  There was a moment of silence not unlike the kind at a funeral service, the way it lingered before she said, “We don’t have any choice.”

The rest of the day I kept watch on the clock, waiting for S. to arrive home from school.  At 4:40 p.m., I called her.

“Great news!” I said.  “ We’re in.”

“What happened?”  I detected excitement in her voice.  My own little Bella Abzug.

“They had to let us in. They can’t discriminate.”

“Oh,” S. said, now sounding a bit dejected.

“What’s wrong?”

“Well,” she paused, “I thought you were going to say they’d found us some cute guys.”

But this story, like so many of mine, doesn’t end so quickly.

Our teacher, a skinny platinum blonde with hurricane hair, segregated us from the group and sent us to a corner.  When the other dancers changed partners, we were not included.  But at some point they all cut eyes our way, watching S., fired up by her love of dance, push and pull and spin me as I hung on for my life.

Afterwards, an old friend and his wife asked why we were not allowed to participate with the rest of the class, a group that seemed too somber to enjoy dancing.  Before I could answer, S. said, “The teacher thinks we have cooties.”

In the following weeks, others we knew only by sight asked, too.

Then, on the last night my friend told the instructor that everyone wanted to dance with S. and me.

“Is that true?” she asked, her mood soured by the request.  They all nodded.

She started the music, and when she turned to us, no one stood with his or her partner.  The Spanish couple had broken apart. So had the African American one.  Two women had paired up and didn’t seem the least bit put off by holding hands.  S. danced with most of the group, including a man whose age totaled that of three 16-year-old boys, and I danced with my friend, his wife and others.

And, that night, we all laughed and danced, no longer minding if our moves were smooth or steps in time. All inhibitions were surrendered as we became grown-up teenagers who just wanted to share the joys of dance with a 16-year-old girl.

The Birds, the Bees and Clematis. A Story that Takes a Sexy Turn.

ClematisI 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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The Year I Became a Black Sheep and Stayed that Way.

imagesOne glorious morning after my high school graduation, I totaled my car while my parents were vacationing near remote Corolla, NC.  They were unreachable because cell phones had yet to be invented, and Corolla Beach was off the grid.

I had stayed home alone because of my job at a bank where I spent my days checking the accuracy of computer print-outs for credit card merchant fees.  Even then, I thought the job, aside from being tedious, was silly.  Who was I, who maintained a steady C in high school math, to correct a computer?

But I did, and that’s where I was headed on a bright June morning as the eight-track played the Moody Blues when I, the only driver on the road, hit a parked car.  An Oldsmobile that was big, shiny cherry red, and, later I learned, bought new only one week prior.

Terrified, I knocked on doors until I found the owner.  But Jerry, even after taking a look at his car, seemed more worried about me.  He let me use his phone to call my neighbor and my boss.  He called the police because he needed a report to file an insurance claim.  As we waited for our guests, he gave me a Pepsi Cola and a Valium to calm my nerves.

When the policeman showed, Jerry begged him not to give me a ticket, but I left with a citation for reckless driving.

That Friday evening, my neighbor drove me to a pick-up spot north of Corolla to meet my father as planned the week before. Because I’d already spent a good portion of my life on restriction or writing “I must not . . .” sentences hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, I was scared to tell him about the ruin of Jerry’s car, the damage to my fifth-handed 1964 Impala and the ticket.  But I had to since my car was nowhere in sight.

As I recounted my morning and all that had gone wrong, his nostrils flared.  Moments later, he informed me that I would have to pay for the damage to my car and for a lawyer, whom I’d not planned on hiring.

Then he said, “Tell me exactly how this happened.   What were you doing?”

I told him that my shoulder bag leaning against the diver’s side floor hump flopped toward the gas pedal as I made a left turn and that as I’d reached down to remove it, I swerved into Jerry’s car.  An innocent mistake.  That was all.

“Hmph,” my father said.  “I think you were smoking a cigarette and dropped it.  You swerved trying to pick it up.”

It was scary how close he was to the truth, but I stuck to my story and told it to the judge who said, “What about centrifugal force?”

I left that courtroom with a reduced charge of improper driving, a fine and a crush on that white-haired man.  Even as a teenager I had a thing for brainy guys like Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Judge Lamb.

I told my father about court, the wisdom of the judge, and I let my dad think that he had gotten the story right since his theory was so close.

I would have left it at that if not for one thing.  The story became part of family lore —  the-daughter-as-a-black-sheep tale, and it was brought up at family dinners for the next 15 or so years.  I had moved on, done a lot of amazing things no one every mentioned or asked about.  In some ways I had the least blemished record of anyone in the family, except my mother.  Yet the story persisted.

Then, one Thanksgiving, long after my parents had split up and married others, someone, without a doubt my father, brought up the story that had so entertained my family, my family which had grown to include two teenage brothers, in addition to my older one, and a sister young enough to be my daughter.

This time when he came to the “she was smoking a cigarette,” I said, “Dad.”  I put down my fork.  “It wasn’t a cigarette.”  For a long few seconds, no one spoke.  Everyone stared at me. Having nothing to add, I picked up my knife and fork and returned to eating my dinner.  So did the others.

Several years passed before anyone brought up that story again, and the next time it was told, it was told right.

But not by my father.  He didn’t say a word.

Writer’s Note: I’ve an old notebook in which I keep weird facts, websites and off-the–wall news items.  Today I scanned through it, hoping for a blog idea.  Then I came across one line that read — The International Society of Black Sheep. This blog almost wrote itself.