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Wrap Star!

It was holiday time again. Back from shopping, my sisters raced to their rooms. The sound of hushed whispers mixed with the crinkling of bags stashed hurriedly into closets. Christmas presents. The only thing they enjoyed more than shopping for them was wrapping them.

Mama taught them well. Before Christmas she cleared a table and lined up with military precision her wrapping paper, tape, scissors and ribbon. Unrolling a length of paper over the gift on the table, Mama’s keen eye determined the amount needed for perfect coverage. Her scissors sliced a cut so exact any surgeon would be jealous.

Folds and seams were flawless. The tape was snipped neatly and applied invisibly. Mama was meticulous even to the bow, another step made magically simple. Using several strips of ribbon, she gripped each between her thumb and a blade of the scissors then jerked her hand down each of their lengths. Voila! A festive cluster created by some mysterious feat of wizardry. The perfect bow of curls.

For years Mama repeated her fascinating exactness in gift wrapping and my sisters learned well. Our tree was surrounded by magnificently concealed holiday surprises but I sometimes wondered why they bothered. With paper so tightly formed around each gift it was no mystery what was inside. A book looked like a book. A box was likely a shirt. My new Frisbee was clearly just that. What happened to shaking mysterious gifts and guessing the contents? That was half the fun!

But, their wrapping efforts were works of art. My sisters took pride in their skills and enjoyed the process.

I did not.

My uneven folds and botched tape jobs were the brunt of their jokes. Not that I didn’t care about the gift wrap, but wasn’t all of this going in the trash? My sisters encouraged my efforts though I knew mine would never look like theirs.

They giggled. “Keep trying, you’ll get there.”

I tried to imitate Mama’s keen eye yet ended up unrolling enough paper to wrap any one gift two and a half times. My scissors didn’t glide through the paper, so I was left with torn and jagged edges. Folding ragged bits to hide my blunders only resulted in lumps, wrinkles and ridges. It was bad.

My tape job was worse.

Instead of tidy strips I ripped foot-long pieces knowing it would take that much to rein in my mistakes. Once under control, each of my gifts was ready for a bow. Gripping the scissors, I tried to imitate Mama’s maneuver. During one noble attempt I yanked back hard, the ribbon snapped, and I stabbed my bedroom door. The gash is still visible today.

With wrapping eventually finished, my pitiful packages were made fun of instantly. “Did you just put a bow on a ball of trash?” “Wait, that is a bow, right?” I heard it all. I could never achieve the beauty crafted by my sisters.

They giggled again. “Keep trying. You’ll get there.”

As they wrapped theirs, they chuckled about mine. Enough was enough. If my gifts brought that much Christmas joy even before being opened, then I knew just what to do.

I taped wadded scraps of paper to each gift, forming odd-shaped masses, which I then wrapped in paper ripped from the roll. Who needed scissors? Pulling a length of tape from the dispenser, I wound it entirely around what became a wrinkled blob. No worrying with folds or seams. My gifts looked like distorted little mummies ready for bows.

I decided to forego the bows.

Finally finished, I hauled the gifts to the tree and stood beside the gleaming gift wrapping of the others aligned there in symmetrical perfection. I dumped my pile of Yuletide rubble.

There, let them make fun.

One sister approached the Christmas tree and stared at my heap of colorful debris. As she reached down and grabbed one of the holiday blobs, she called to the others. I waited for their good-hearted ribbing.

“What are these?” she asked as she handed each of them a wrinkled mass.

Eyes began to widen. “Shake it!” “Shake this one!” “What could it be?” they squealed with excitement as they poked and prodded.

For days leading up to Christmas they investigated my oddball gifts. They pondered, guessed and took visiting cousins to the living room to show off the crazy presents. They found humor, not in my mistakes, but in my new style of wrapping. By Christmas Eve they admitted what fun it had already been.

My fancy designs had caused quite the stir.

“How did you decide the shapes?” “How did you make them lumpy?” They agreed that next year instead of forming smooth and perfectly wrapped gifts topped with beautiful bows they would attempt my oddly unique method.

“We’ve wrapped ours the same way for so long. Not sure we could pull this off!” they said.

I giggled. “Keep trying. You’ll get there.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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1. magic marker

“No, no, no!”

That reprimanding tone rang a bell for some reason. Behind me in the check-out line a young mother wrestled something from her toddler’s tight grip.

“No, no, no!” she repeated. The little boy grabbed a ball point pen from a display rack near the cash register. Having swiftly removed the cap, he was about to demonstrate his unique brand of artwork across a stack of Washington Posts. He clenched his little fist when his mother tried to take the pen. I felt for him.

What child doesn’t like to draw?

I drew constantly as a child. Pens and pencils were my implements of choice and when I could sneak it away I’d use my oldest sister’s fountain pen until it emptied. She always wondered why her ink ran out so quickly and unless she reads this it will remain a decades-old secret. Of course I had a box of Crayola crayons, 64 count with a built-in sharpener. I lived large. One thing I’d never used, but craved greatly, was a magic marker. I didn’t have one, but Mama did.

I’d seen her use it once then toss it into something in the back of the high cabinet above the stove. I was too short then to know the secrets of that cabinet, but one day as Mama backed out of the driveway to go to the grocery store I seized the opportunity to learn. Home alone, I slid a kitchen chair to the stove, climbed up, and eased open the cabinet door. I saw spices, aspirin, glue, rubber bands, and a deck of playing cards. That was it. Disappointed, I started to close the cabinet, and that’s when I saw it. There, from inside an old coffee mug, wedged between broken pencils and a pair of scissors it called to me. A black magic marker!

My heart beat a little faster as I reached in and plucked the marker from the mug. I removed the cap, catching a whiff of that distinct (and what I considered beautiful) aroma. In slow motion I turned to hop from the chair, determined to be quiet as I secretly drew with that marvelous thing. I’d return it to the mug when done and no one would know. No one could be as stealthy.

Except for Mama.

“No, no, no!” Mama said, coming in the back door with an armload of groceries.

“You can’t use that. It’ll get everywhere and it will never wash off.” she continued.

Even when I drew with generic pens, pencils, and crayons Mama made it clear I was to sit at the kitchen table, draw only on the paper, and never get near the walls. No surprise that the notion of me with a magic marker made her nervous. I handed Mama the marker, she returned it to the coffee mug, and I headed to my sister’s room to take out my disappointment on the fountain pen.

With Christmas right around the corner, my sisters and I started making our lists for Santa Claus. I noticed that their extensive lists included things like dolls, dresses, games, and make up. I had written down one thing only.

  1. magic marker

Oh, everyone laughed, but to me it was serious. I had to know what it was like to draw with a magic marker. Pens and pencils were great, crayons were fun, and fountain pens were nice while the ink lasted, but I had to have a magic marker! Christmas seemed like it would never come.

But it did, and when that morning came, in my spot near the tree was the mountain of gifts Santa Claus generously left every year. As my sisters hugged new dolls and compared games and make up, I marveled at my remote control helicopter and a book about dinosaurs. To the left of a new pair of slippers was a small, plain box. There were no words or pictures to provide a clue, but as I lifted the lid the distinct and beautiful aroma gave it away. A brand new magic marker.

Merry Christmas to me!

I held the precious thing high in the air. I had to draw immediately! I ran to the kitchen table where I knew it was safe, grabbed my drawing pad and sat down. Mama, on my heels the entire time, pulled me and the entire kitchen table three feet from the wall. She instantly spread a layer of newspaper beneath my drawing pad, handed me several wet paper towels, and reminded me that magic marker ink would never wash off. Daddy stood by calmly, grinning at Mama’s panic. I think I know which half of Santa Claus was behind that particular gift. I happily drew as the distinct and beautiful aroma filled the kitchen.

For a kid who finally got his magic marker, it really was the most wonderful time of the year.

And Mama was incorrect. Magic marker ink will come off, it just takes rubbing alcohol and three good days of scrubbing. I know, because when she wasn’t looking that Christmas morning I’d scribbled a test patch across my knee.

Stuart M. Perkins

 

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Dumb Little Dish

The dumb little dish meant nothing to me. I threw it in the trash.

Fall had come, temperatures dropped, and I thought it best to bring plants back inside after their summer spent on the sunny side porch. The dumb little dish covered in dirt and crusty old plant fertilizer had been under a Christmas cactus to catch the draining water.

It was an ugly dish too. The last remaining piece of an awful looking partial set of hand-me-down dishes given to me years and years ago when I moved into a new place and had nothing for the kitchen. Each plate, saucer, and cup had a nonsense design of white geese, blue ribbons, and an occasional flower. Or maybe the thing was a sickly butterfly. Altogether hideous.

Over the years, various pieces were broken and thrown away. I began to use the last few dishes as trays under my paltry collection of houseplants. Time and accidents had whittled the set down to this one lone worthless dish. It was filthy. I bought shiny new plastic trays to catch draining water from the plants, so the dumb little dish really meant nothing anymore.

It had two big chips on the edge anyway. One chip happened when my son Evan, only four at the time, turned it upside down to use as a ramp for his MatchBox cars. The second mishap occurred when Greer, only six then, decided it would make a nice boat for Barbie. In a stormy capsizing incident, the boat was chipped a second time. A few chips but so what, I still used the dishes. They were all I had.

In summer we’d sit on the screened porch and Evan would eat sliced hot dogs from those dishes. I’d watch his tiny hands pick up one piece at a time and smile as he popped each into his mouth. Greer would ask for one helping, no now she wanted two, of macaroni and cheese on those dishes and being the fickle little girl she was decided never mind. She wanted pizza.

Evan continued to use a dish or two as car ramps, flying saucers, or to hold his crayons as he colored. Greer’s Barbie often used the dishes as wading pools, boats, or stages from which to sing to imaginary audiences. One Christmas, Greer and Evan got watercolor paint sets from Santa Claus. Every remaining dish in the decrepit old set was called on for use in mixing those paints. The three of us had a grand time!

Those dishes held soups and sandwiches, marbles and doll shoes, eggs and bacon, army men and princess stickers. That ragged old set of dishes was there every evening at the dinner table, every lunch on the porch, and every time one of the kids needed a spaceship or a place to save acorns they found during our walks in the woods together.

The dumb little dish with two chips that meant nothing to me was the last of its set. It had somehow survived Matchbox cars, Barbies and countless meals with my children and me. Many years, and a thousand happy memories later, it was still here.

The dumb little dish meant everything to me. I took it out of the trash.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Alexandria Living – Life is Like a Loaf of Bread

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 was 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 just below the essay. We would love to hear your feedback!

https://alexandrialivingmagazine.com/lifestyle/life-is-like-a-loaf-of-bread/

Thanks 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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Get Dirty!

This is another re-post from a few years ago I was reminded of when I walked outside this morning. Nothing gives me an instant shot of happiness like the smell of spring, and more specifically, the smell of good old earth in spring. I played in dirt as a kid, I play in dirt now as a gardener, and I certainly expect to become a dirty old man. In the garden!

Get Dirty!

I’m going to be dirty today.

As a kid, Mama often met me on the back stoop as I came in from playing outside. With a broom in her hand she’d have me slowly turn in a circle while she brushed dirt from my blue jeans. She wasn’t against sweeping my bare legs either if I happened to be wearing shorts.

“Don’t bring that mess in this house.” She’d say. “Did you plan to get dirty?”

Well no. I hadn’t planned to. I was a kid. There was dirt. We met and fell in love. The end.

I remembered that this morning as I thought about where to plant some things in the yard. I still love dirt. Not potting soil in shiny garden-center bags. I don’t care for the sterile smell of plastic and perlite. I love real dirt. Earth.

One of the finest smells of spring is that first whiff of good clean soil. Sealed in by frigid winter, spring unlocks the distinct scents I first noticed as a kid. Dirt in our garden had a plain chalky smell, dirt in the yard had a more sour smell, and digging in the woods provided pungent aromas too delightful to describe.

Dirt smells good.

Dirt feels good too.

The powdery dirt in the garden stuck to our sweat when we worked the long rows and red clay in the yard felt almost oily as it clung to our fingers and hands. The different soils in the woods provided a variety of textures from mushy sludge along the creek to sandy light mix up on the hill.

As a kid who spent almost every day outside, I knew my dirt. Mama ended up sweeping off quite a lot from my pants before allowing me into the house. She didn’t sweep off mere dirt, she swept off ground-in goodness and muddy proof of the fun I’d had that day. I didn’t plan to get dirty, it was just good luck.

Excited to get into the yard this morning, I remembered the happiness that digging, feeling, and smelling good old dirt can bring about. Coming home with blue jeans caked in mud for Mama to sweep off was never my goal. I’d had great fun in the dirt and the muddy jeans were just a byproduct of my good time. I never planned to get dirty.

Today I’ll put on blue jeans to dig in the yard and plant a few things. Along the way I’ll wipe my hands on my pants, feel the gritty soil stick to my skin, and marvel at how sweet the earth can smell when you stir it up a little.

Today I plan to get dirty.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Perfect Fit…?

Some time ago I had what began as a serious conversation with my teenage son. He’d recently parted ways with his girlfriend after a fairly considerable amount of time and I could tell he was looking for advice.

Parents never want to see their kids upset but good advice doesn’t always come to mind at just the right moment. Or does it? I wrote a piece about the conversation. Needless to say, the serious conversation took a turn…

A website called Positive Outlooks has posted my piece!

Their site is full of so many uplifting, great stories. Check out mine and others there if you can!

https://positiveoutlooksblog.com/2018/02/22/dad-gives-awkward-and-hilarious-relationship-advice-to-his-brokenhearted-son/

Stuart M. Perkins

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Home Is Where The Nose Is

“I wanted to tap my heels together three times in that bakery!” the woman said as she sat down beside me for the flight back home to Virginia.

I glanced at her feet expecting ruby slippers.

“Smell this.” she leaned towards me and opened a paper sack containing several blackberry pastries. “I loved France but the smell of blackberries made me miss childhood summers at home!”

“Well, there’s no place like it!” I added.

I was fortunate to do some traveling over the last year and found myself captivated by the beauty and history of various cities in Colombia, Spain, and France. Every day, in every city I visited, I’d daydream about what life might be like to leave the place I’ve always called home and live abroad in such majestic locales. I doubted that a hint of blackberries, or anything else for that matter, could cause me to pine for home the way this woman seemed to. Just because she smelled a pastry? I wasn’t so sure about that one.

However, while waiting for our flight to depart Paris we continued discussing the strange power some scents have to unlock fond memories of people or places and to sometimes make us homesick. She insisted that the mere hint of blackberry instantly transported her back to summers as a little girl. She stopped reminiscing as the plane took off but I continued thinking about the power of scents. I admit that a remembered smell is like a souvenir from the past, but how silly this woman’s sudden urge to tap her heels three times to be home – because of a smell!

Born in and spending most of my life in Richmond, I then realized, had given me many scents to fondly associate with those years. During countless youthful Saturdays along or in the James River I remember its water’s pungent dank aroma in summer and how it took on a crisper essence whenever rainfall upriver came barreling through. Cookies baking at the FFV off of Broad Street made my mouth water almost as much as a whiff of sugary sinfulness when passing by Krispy Kreme. Closer to home, the call from fresh slices of our garden’s first cantaloupe would lure me into Mama’s kitchen. To this day, the aroma of butter beans cooking makes me homesick I confess. Maybe I have wanted to tap my heels a time or two after all.

For decades now, summer trips to my uncle Tuck’s cottage in Lancaster County where the Rappahannock River meets the Chesapeake Bay have provided many a memorable sniff. Saltwater marshes with their fishy odors make me recall the childish excitement of simply nearing the bay. Even the acrid sulfur stench of the paper mill in West Point has the power to remind me of long gone summers. In the air is a bracing spice given off by layers of decaying pine tags along the shaded sandy road approaching the cottage and entering the cottage itself I experience a rich potpourri of aged wood, salt air, and a suggestion Old Bay. Every one of those aromas has the power to take me back in time.

Another uncle, Jiggs, owned a farm in Lunenburg County where I also spent many summer weekends. The musty old wood of a barn is comforting to me and hundreds of bales of fresh hay emit a tangy sweet bouquet. Summer sun beating on a field of dry alfalfa causes it to release its zesty aroma and sometimes I think pure country air itself is invigorating perfection. Just after a summer rain, I know that it is. The fragrant perfume of honeysuckle on the fencerow, the peppery redolence of old tobacco barns, the faint sweetness of cornfields in the morning, and the lightly pungent pile of composted cow manure behind the barn all make me smile when remembered. Even today I can brush by a tomato plant and have the sharp scent from the crushed stem take me right back to the country. The more I thought about it, tapping my heels didn’t seem too silly anymore.

It was back to reality when I heard the pilot announce our landing. The woman beside me held up her bag of blackberry pastries and smiled. Once on the ground I gathered my things and made the slow walk up the aisle to the exit. As I neared the door a gust of wind from outside blew into the plane. Wow, I thought. There really is a sweet Virginia breeze. In that small burst of summer air I smelled trees, blooming trees of some kind, and remembered the pasture at home.

I’ve enjoyed my world travels and hope there are more in store. Surely my daydreaming of life abroad will continue with each trip, but as I walked from the plane that day I inhaled deeply and fought the urge to tap my heels.

Ahhh, I had just smelled Virginia and there really is no place like home.

Stuart M. Perkins

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