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Stew Day

This is a repost of a piece I wrote a few years ago. Since today is Labor Day, precisely the sort of cool, clear, late summer morning when we would make Brunswick stew, I wanted to put it out there again.

My morning walk took me by our local farmers market. It was a lively scene as vendors slid from trucks, stretched, and waved to others setting up for the day. I watched as a hardworking woman spread out ears of corn alongside boxes of huge tomatoes and I was reminded of summers back home when it seemed everything in the garden ripened at once. Our piles of tomatoes, squash, butter beans and other vegetables rivaled any farmers market.

Mounds of homegrown produce also meant it was time for a Brunswick stew…

I was an adult before I realized just how fortunate I was to grow up the way I did. My grandparents had a small farm and had given each of their children a bordering piece of land on which to build their homes. My grandparents’ farmhouse and the huge garden worked by our families were the focal points for us all. I grew up surrounded by best friends – who happened to be my cousins.

From my backyard I could look across garden, field, or pasture to see a cousin on the swing set, an uncle on the tractor, or my grandmother Nannie under the apple tree by the well as she emptied a bucket of just picked tomatoes onto an old metal table. With so much ripe and ready at once, it was time for the stew.

It was exciting to wake up to the faint smell of wood smoke coming from across the field. Daddy and the uncles would have gathered early to start a fire beneath the huge cast iron stew pot. It was no stove-top pot. That thing could easily hold two small kids and a cousin and I proved that once during a game of hide-and-seek… By the time we kids showed up on the morning of the stew, the fire was at perfect peak, gallons of water were boiling, and Nannie, Mama and the aunts had readied the meat and cut up vegetables from the garden.

For the next several hours we kids would play – usually as close to the fire as we could without getting fussed at – while Mama and the aunts scurried back and forth between kitchen and the boiling stew. Daddy and the uncles would talk and take turns stirring the stew with what appeared to be the oar from a sizeable dingy. As a kid I remember thinking how interesting it was that Mama and the aunts were in charge of family cooking all year long, but on stew day Daddy and the uncles took over. I think they just wanted to play with the fire.

Even today I have no idea what stew recipe was used, the proportion of ingredients, or how long and how often the boat oar needed to be swirled around the giant pot. I do remember that timing seemed to be everything and there was generally great debate over several major points: Time for the corn, no add the butter beans first, is the meat already in, should we add more water, have the tomatoes cooked down, add salt, don’t add salt, get that oak leaf out that just fell in, and on and on.

Hours later, after being properly talked over and paddled, the stew was ready. It was always good, but with Nannie’s homemade rolls alongside, it was even better. Naturally we washed it all down with sweet tea.

As I walked back home after passing the farmers market I thought about all of the family stews we had in the past and how long it had been since I’d had any “real” stew. When I got home I checked my kitchen cabinets. I did have one can of store-bought Brunswick stew. It might be ok, but I’m certain it won’t be as good as the “real” stuff. I don’t know if it was the fresh vegetables, the boat oar, or the occasionally fallen oak leaf in the pot that made those stews so memorable.

I imagine it was more likely the fact that each time I ate “real” stew I was surrounded by laughing aunts and uncles, Nannie in her apron, and a gang of cousins. All gathered there under a tree with bowls of stew in our laps, a roll in one hand, and a glass of sweet tea in the other.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Chesapeake Bay Magazine – “It’s What We Do”

A little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have an essay appearing in the current issue of Chesapeake Bay Magazine!

It was a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine and having enjoyed time at the bay my whole life, it was especially fun to contribute.

Below is the link to my piece in the online version of Chesapeake Bay Magazine.

It’s What We Do

Thanks again to all who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be great fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to opportunities such as this. Exciting!

Stuart M. Perkins

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Alexandria Living Magazine – “Between the Rings”

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have another essay appearing in the current issue of Alexandria Living magazine!

It’s always a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine and as an Alexandria, Virginia resident it is especially fun to contribute.

Below is the link to my piece in the online version of Alexandria Living. If you like, please comment on the magazine website in the space they provide just below the essay.

We love the feedback!

https://alexandrialivingmagazine.com/lifestyle/between-the-rings/

Thanks again to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be great fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to opportunities such as this. Exciting!

Stuart M. Perkins

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Doing Corn!

Prompted by friends who insisted others might enjoy my stories from home, I began this blog. Seven years ago now! Below is the very first story I posted. Appropriate because it was this time of year when I began the blog, this time of year when the story occurred, and this particular memory which inspired the name “Storyshucker”.  Blogging has been fun, has led to other writing opportunities, and most importantly has shown me how alike we are. You can blindly pick a spot on the globe and know that the people you point to have memories of home, reminisce about the old days, and love to share their stories. You have a story too. Write it down.

 

Doing Corn!

Years ago I reminisced with coworkers about past experiences we longed to relive. One said “I want to do Italy again! The sights and sounds!” Another said “I want to do Paris again! The shopping!” When asked what summertime excitement I wanted to have again I whispered, “I want to do corn…”

Nannie, my grandmother, had acres of garden which were summer’s focus for our huge extended family. We anticipated nothing more than corn. Excitement began the day Daddy hooked the planter to the tractor, dropping seed kernels into the many long rows. Weeks later, we pulled suckers in the hot cornfield.

“Straighten up the stalks as you go.” Daddy said, wiping his face with a handkerchief.

As weeks passed, Nannie checked the developing ears by pulling back shucks just enough to stick a fingernail into a single kernel. Others leaned in to monitor her testing…

“If we’d get some rain it would go on and make.” Mama predicted.

“You could get enough for supper now.” Aunt Noody insisted.

More weeks passed and as the entire field neared “readiness” everyone waited for word from Nannie. On pins and needles we kids anticipated an exciting proclamation, but in true Nannie-style she only casually posed the question. “Y’all want to do corn Tuesday?”

Tuesday morning aunts started early “before it got hot”. Yawning cousins gathered by the barn with lawn chairs, buckets, tubs, and knives. Out in the field we saw tops of cornstalks jerk and heard the distant “sca-runch!” of an ear being pulled.

“Lord, it’s snaky in here.” Aunt Helen declared. “Sca-runch!” we heard again.

One by one, aunts emerged from the cornfield pushing heaping-full wheelbarrows. They made it to the shade of the ancient oak by the barn, wiped sweaty faces, and sat in chairs arranged around bushel baskets to hold the shucks. Shucking style was important and if we cousins didn’t get all the silks off “we just as well not shuck”. Wormy ears were passed to experienced aunts who flicked away the wriggling offenders and cut off damaged kernels with surgical precision. As each tub filled with shucked corn, a younger cousin ran it up to Nannie’s house to be blanched in huge pots of boiling water on her old stove.

Nannie hummed hymns as she took steaming ears of corn from the pots and plopped them into ice water in her old ceramic kitchen sink. Older cousins stood at her counter and cut corn from the cobs.

Aunt Dessie asked “How many pints y’all reckon we’ll get?” as cousins packed corn into freezer cartons.

“I’ve still got some from last year so don’t count out any for me.” Aunt Jenny demanded.

We snuck mouthfuls of corn as we cut it from the cobs, but we didn’t need to. Nannie always saved out “pretty” ears for lunch. We ate on her huge porch, leaning over plates, butter dripping from chins. After lunch we did more corn until Nannie announced “It’s just too hot.”

The steamy kitchen was cleaned, sticky hands washed, and freezer cartons full of corn were divided up. Mama and the aunts stacked the filled cartons onto trays and we all walked home across the field to put them in our freezers. We had done corn.

My coworkers’ favorite summer memories may be of Paris and Italy where shopping, sights, and sounds made them happy, but not mine. A hot summer day with sticky hands and a chin covered in dripping butter is what I long for again.

I don’t need to visit foreign places to hear the sounds I loved. I want to go home and hear Nannie hum, cousins giggle, and a “sca-runch!” in the cornfield. I want to do corn…

Stuart M. Perkins

 

 

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Alexandria Living Magazine – “I Just Might Keep That”

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have another essay appearing in the current issue of Alexandria Living magazine!

It’s always a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine and as an Alexandria, Virginia resident it is especially fun to contribute.

Below is the link to my piece in the online version of Alexandria Living. If you like, please comment on the magazine website in the space they provide just below the essay.

We would love to hear your feedback!

https://alexandrialivingmagazine.com/lifestyle/i-just-might-keep-that-stuart-perkins-red-marble/

Thanks again to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be great fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to opportunities like this. Exciting!

Stuart M. Perkins

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Cartagena Paws – A Dog’s Hope

Colombia is an incredible country, geographically remarkable with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Not to mention the impressive Andes which extend through a number of South American countries, Colombia being one of them.

As a tourist I’ve visited Bogota, the capital, located in a valley in the Andes, Pereira in the Coffee Region, and Cartagena on the Caribbean Coast. So much history and culture in every city, but Cartagena always calls me back.

On initial trips to Cartagena I stayed and played within the inner walled section of the city, the wall being tangible evidence of past Spanish colonization. El Centro is beautiful. Plazas, hidden patios, and ornate balconies hanging over the streets. All of the elements you expect in a place known for colonial architecture. So much to see in that fascinating old area. The more I visited, the more I noticed.

Including quite a few stray dogs.

On my last visit I ventured out a bit and stayed in a beachfront condo in the Bocagrande area of Cartagena, just minutes from El Centro. Here, instead of old colonial styles and fortress walls you see high-rises, hotel chains, and malls. Fun to pretend I was a local, simply crossing the street for groceries at a neighborhood market. Nearby shops offered hair cutting, dry cleaning, and other routine needs. Each time I took a walk I noticed something new.

Including even more stray dogs.

By the second morning of this particular visit I began to comprehend the magnitude of the stray dog issue. What spurred that realization may have been the dirty white dog sniffing around the steps of the condo, the three hound mixes running together across the street, or possibly the black dog sitting by a dumpster casually licking two whining puppies. Seven strays seen in just the time it took to walk across the street for coffee creamer. It got to me.

I began to obsess. In spite of their numbers (those seven were the tip of the iceberg) I rarely heard barking, fighting, and definitely no playing. Dogs roamed across sidewalks, rooted through trash bins, and sought bits of shade during the heat of the day. They were silent ghosts in the streets, almost zombie-like as they moved through the neighborhood doing – well, whatever it is that homeless dogs do.

Besides the occasional cab driver braking to allow one to cross the road, I saw little acknowledgment of their existence. People went about daily routines without much regard for the four-legged objects they hurried past. Instead of pestering and begging for food, hungry dogs stood and watched as sandwiches or snacks were eaten, checking for scraps only after the person moved on. Theirs seemed to be detached dismal lives of rejection.

On the last morning there I walked again to the market across the street. Outside, a young girl ate breakfast while a small brown dog stood motionless behind her. As she turned to toss her trash in the bin she noticed the dog. She said something sweetly in a baby voice, leaned down, and patted the dog’s head. The girl turned to leave and missed seeing the dog feebly wag its tail. Just once. Heartbreaking that from my perspective it appeared to have taken a minute for the dog to recognize the girl’s gesture as an expression of kindness.

But how kind was it, I wondered? That incident reminded me of a story I read as a child. I can’t recall the title or author, but it involved a puppy lost on the street. As the frightened little dog searched for home it was yelled at, kicked, and mistreated in various ways by several people. But as the story goes, the cruelest person of all was the one who actually stopped, patted its head and spoke kind words, yet still turned and walked away.

Loss of hope is a terrible thing. The invisible dogs of Cartagena have precious little from the start.

In spite of this sad reality, I once again left Cartagena with a great appreciation and love for the history, culture, and cuisine of this amazing city. But I also left with a somber curiosity about the plight of the strays. When I got home I began to search for answers.

The problem is not unique to Cartagena nor to Colombia as a whole. Stray dogs can be anywhere and everywhere, but they are apparently more of an issue in many Latin American countries where policies on animal welfare, if they exist at all, are often at various stages of development. As I searched specifically for steps being taken in Cartagena, I wasn’t encouraged. There are few substantial policies or programs and I found nothing that instilled much hope.

Until, that is, I clicked a link to the website for “Cartagena Paws”.

This organization, founded by Maureen Cattieu, was launched in 2015. She and her team work to carry out a mission promoting the adoption and fostering of animals and a capture/release program which spays or neuters. Also, perhaps most significant in terms of a lasting solution, they run an educational program that aims to change the mindset of how unwanted animals are viewed. The hope is that once more informed, people will then go out and become “active agents for change” in their own communities. Admirable objectives!

Curious to know even more, I emailed Cartagena Paws directly and quickly received a response from Maureen herself. She was happy to speak with me, answer questions, and tell the organization’s story. I learned that in addition to all they are working on right now, fundraising is currently underway for the purchase of land in Cartagena where they hope to build an educational-based rescue center.

Finally, I felt a bit hopeful about the plight of Cartagena’s street dogs. I wish Maureen and Cartagena Paws good luck and every success. I plan to help all that I can.

And of course I can’t wait to return to Cartagena, an amazing place on so many levels. Once again I’ll enjoy all that the spectacular city has to offer. And next time, when I see a stray dog standing alone in the street, I’ll know help is coming. Cartagena Paws might stop and pat them on the head, but they will never walk away.

Stuart M. Perkins

In case you’d like to read more about Cartagena Paws and the good work they do, and plan to do, below is the link to their website.

https://www.cartagenapaws.com/

 

 

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Hand on the Plow

I watched the morning news but turned away when feelings of hopelessness washed over me as they reported infection rates and death tolls. Isolation is helping end this nightmare, they say, but for any one individual it can sometimes seem an exercise in futility. When a reporter stressed the importance of continuing our social distancing practices, an old memory crossed my mind:

“No.” Ms. Wade shook her head. “Here’s what you’re going to do.” She put her arm around my shoulder. “Keep your hand on the plow and hold on.”

I knew what she meant.

Having grown up around farming and plows I understood the metaphor, but until then I’d never heard anyone describe so succinctly a situation pertaining to myself. Don’t dismay, was her message. Simply continue doing what I’d been doing.

It was early 1980s and I was a twenty-year-old kid working a part-time retail job. Ms. Wade was an older African-American woman who had done that same job full-time for decades. She trained me, showed me around, and only a couple weeks into the job had become my mentor and good friend.

New in the position, one day I rang up something incorrectly. Technology not being then what it is now, that was easy to do. My inadvertent mistake, realized later, cost the store less than twenty dollars but that was serious stuff for them – and I assumed it would be for me. I waited to be fired.

For an entire week I came to work expecting the worst and it was a tense few days. During that time Ms. Wade listened to my worries but encouraged me to keep my chin up and just keep doing what I was doing. I didn’t feel like it. I thought maybe I should quit.

“You can’t quit when things seem worthless. That’s exactly when you don’t quit.” Ms. Wade looked at me and put her hand on her hip. “Just hold on, I told you. Keep your hand on the plow and hold on.”

I whined to her again anyway, so bothered by the thought of being fired and having to explain the embarrassment to everyone as well as find another job. For me that situation seemed pretty gloomy, and I told her so.

Ms. Wade patiently encouraged me to keep going, even through moments of confusion and fear. It was ok if I didn’t know the outcome. The point was to push on, doing all I could do, taking it day by day.

“This is a mustard seed moment, honey.” Ms. Wade said as nonchalantly as if she were telling me the time of day. I was getting the impression she’d kept her hand on the plow many times in life.

A few days later I was informed, unceremoniously, that personnel had discussed my mistake and chalked it up to inexperience and a learning curve. Because I’d continued working and demonstrated my determination, they decided to let it all go. Wow. Just as Ms. Wade said, the best thing to do was carry on, regardless of apprehension.

Yes, what a memory of the valuable lesson that good woman taught me.

I turned back to the television. More reports of infections and deaths. So much uncertainty. When will this end? How much can any of us really do? I’m not the only person experiencing moments of confusion and worry, those feelings are swallowing the entire world as we wait for a resolution.

For now, our responsibilities are to be careful, follow advice, and keep at it even during moments of doubt. Especially during moments of doubt. A solution will eventually come. In the meantime, I can’t offer an answer to this mess, but I can offer one bit of advice.

Just hold on. Keep your hand on the plow and hold on.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A New Leaf

While working in the flower garden out back yesterday, I noticed a few “weeds” in full bloom. I was reminded of this little piece I wrote not long ago about those very plants:

A New Leaf

My bed felt too good to leave that early summer morning years ago. I yawned, fluffed my pillow a little, and rolled over. The house seemed quiet. Hopefully no one was around to tell me to get up.

“Get up!” my sister yelled from the hallway.

“For what?” I yelled back in a tone indicating I had no intention of leaving the bed.

“We told Nannie we’d pull weeds.” My sister loomed over my bed, hand on her hip.

My grandmother’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Richmond was surrounded by huge curved flowerbeds, with several more dotting the ample yard. In addition to tending to the yearly cycles that played out in her massive vegetable garden, there were also routine chores in her yard that required a good deal of work. One tedious task was pulling the first flush of summer weeds from her rose bed. The entire bed was periodically smothered in wild violets and other low-growing things we had to pull, which we at home simply referred to disgustedly as “chickweed.”

My sister and I pulled for hours. Starting at one end of the long bed, by the handfuls we ripped out wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow load until we had nearly reached the opposite end. Tired of persistent gnats and wiping gritty sweat from my face, I could think only of getting on my bicycle to meet friends down at Falling Creek for some cool relief. Just one more hefty patch of chickweed and we would be finished.

As I stood to stretch, I noticed a thick stand of violets under a nearby crepe myrtle. In years past we had never been able to get rid of that particular bunch of violets, try as we might, and we knew we would be back at it again this year.

“We’ll pull those violets when we finish this,” I said with resignation, pointing to the chickweed at my feet.

“You can leave the violets be.” Nannie responded as she walked towards them. She tossed a small handful of fertilizer into the center of the mass from the bucket she carried.

“Did you just fertilize those weeds?” I asked, puzzled. She had always wished the violets gone.

“It’s only a weed if you don’t want it.” Nannie said, tossing a second small handful of fertilizer.

Still puzzled, we agreed to leave the violets alone. Stretching again, I sat on the ground to rest and noticed several strands of chickweed lodged in my shoelaces. I plucked out one stem and absent-mindedly studied the small piece of nuisance.

Although I had pulled up pounds of that plant over the years I had never bothered to look at it closely. “Hey!” I yelled to Nannie. “The stems on these things are square, not round! And look! The flowers are like tiny orchids!” In my mind, I had discovered something remarkable.

What I had “discovered,” I learned years later, was that this was not chickweed. It was actually purple dead-nettle, a non-native intrusive plant with purplish-green leaves and tiny purple flowers. The plant is found, well, all over the place. That was unknown to me at the time.

“Can we keep these?” I asked excitedly, pointing to the last bit we had yet to pull from the rose bed. I was certain I was preserving something special. “These might be the last of their kind!”

“Yeah, except for those.” my sister said sarcastically, pointing towards the barn where at least two acres of pasture appeared dusty purple in the sun from the masses of dead-nettle growing there.

Nannie stared down at the remaining patch of green in her rose bed. “You want to leave these weeds?” she asked.

“But it’s only a weed if you don’t want it,” I grinned. The very same weedy problem I had cursed every year was suddenly something unique and worthwhile to me.

Nannie smiled and said nothing. She walked back to the crepe myrtle where she tossed another small handful of fertilizer onto the violets growing beneath.

Nannie had shifted her view of those violets. Practiced at picking her battles rather than fighting them, she embraced them and by doing so turned a headache into a showpiece. It was all about perspective. Satisfaction can come by a simple change in attitude. Nannie learned that lesson long ago. And now she taught it with the help of a few insignificant weeds.

I quickly understood Nannie’s change of heart regarding the violets, and I marveled at how smoothly she turned a problem into a bonus. But I wasn’t sure she agreed when I applied that notion to the scraggly green weedy blob remaining in her rose bed. Nannie walked towards the house, passing my sister and me still sitting on the ground.

She was just a few steps past us when she stopped, turned around, grinned and tossed a small handful of fertilizer onto my chickweed.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Alexandria Living Magazine – A Stranger’s Act of Kindness

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have another essay appearing in the current issue of Alexandria Living magazine!

It’s always a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine and as an Alexandria, Virginia resident it is especially fun to contribute.

Below is the link to my piece in the online version of Alexandria Living. Check it out, and if you like, please comment on the magazine website in the space they provide just below the essay.

We would love to hear your feedback!

https://alexandrialivingmagazine.com/lifestyle/stuart-perkins-a-strangers-act-of-kindness-keys-locked-in-car-march-2020/

Thanks again to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be great fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to opportunities like this. Exciting!

Stuart M. Perkins

43 Comments

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Mitzi

We were lying side-by-side on soft green moss in the shade of an old pine. Me on my back, hands cupped behind my head. She so close I could hear her breathing. I talked about things bothering me at the time as she stared into my eyes. Though young, I realized how lucky I was to have her. She blinked. Such long eyelashes. But I didn’t love her for the long eyelashes, or for the perfectly white teeth, not even for the way she adored me.

She was still looking into my eyes when she burped, wagged her tail twice, and continued chewing on a stick.

I loved her because she was my dog.

Mitzi was a collie. I was nine when we went as a family to meet the litter. I don’t remember whether we picked her or she picked us, but in short order we were on our way home. Mama and Daddy in the front seat while in the back seat my sisters and I fought over whose lap the fluffy puppy should ride home on.

It would take a long time to tell about her lifetime and anyone who’s loved a dog knows the telling doesn’t do it justice. You have to have felt it. As a puppy she was constantly hugged and kissed. As she grew up she became our best friend. And in her old age she earned the respect of family and friends as an intelligent, faithful old girl. We treated her like a member of the family.

Because that’s exactly what she was.

During her life Mitzi accompanied us kids on hundreds of trips to the pasture, ran countless miles behind our bikes, and joyfully ratted us out during games of hide-and-seek. She was a happy constant when we returned from school. Not only did her tail wag, her entire backside swayed vigorously when she saw us hop from the school bus. Many families have several dogs over the years. My family did too and we loved them all, but for me that collie puppy was the dog. Thirteen years into her life, I was then twenty-two, and that happy old collie was still the dog.

When she fell ill it happened fast. I went to work but called home to check on her. Mama hesitated, sniffled a few times, and told me Mitzi died. Back in those days, in spite of regular vet trips starting with her spaying and continuing with regular vaccinations, heartworm prevention was not what it is today and sadly Mitzi was a victim.

I hung up with Mama and went directly to tell my boss that I needed to go home. When she asked why, I said there had been a death in the family. My phrasing had nothing to do with dishonesty. It was the genuine reason. I’d heard she had a dog too so surely she would understand.

She expressed condolences and asked who died. When I said “my dog” there was a slight pause before she giggled and said she couldn’t let me go home for that. With no one to easily cover for me I’d have to stay. Undaunted, I left her office and immediately talked to my coworkers who agreed to cover for me, no problem they said. I returned to tell my boss I’d made arrangements for coverage but she repeated no, I had to stay.

I left.

There was nothing I could do when I got home. Daddy had already buried Mitzi at the edge of the same pasture she played in all her life. Nothing I could do, but to stay at work with that sense of grief would have been pointless. It was Friday, so on Monday I’d talk to my boss about it again. If I still had a job.

It was an emotional weekend. We cried, laughed, talked about Mitzi and talked to Mitzi. Family and friends called to say they were sorry. They treated her death as though she’d been a member of our family.

Because that’s exactly what she was.

Early Monday morning I learned from coworkers that my boss had been very unhappy about my leaving on Friday after she’d told me to stay. I started working and awaited my fate, but my boss didn’t come in that day. On Tuesday she was back.

I tried to read her face as she walked towards me. She said nothing as she handed me the envelope and walked away. I looked at it, puzzled she’d said nothing, and ripped it open expecting my dismissal letter. It contained nothing official, just a small card from her to me.

A sympathy card.

I learned later just why my boss missed work the day before. Sadly, her own dog had been hit by a car over the weekend and hadn’t made it. My boss was understandably upset and stayed home that Monday. She told upper management her absence was due to a death in the family.

Because that’s exactly what it was.

Stuart M. Perkins

 

 

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