Tag Archives: christmas

Virginia Living – I’m a “Wrap” Star!

Just a little announcement:

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

It was a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine again (my third essay for them now) and as a native Virginian, like my parents and theirs, it was especially fun to contribute to a publication I’ve had in my own home over the years.

Below is a link to my piece in the online version of Virginia Living.  Check it out and if you like, please comment on their site in the space just below the essay. I’d love to hear your feedback!

http://www.virginialiving.com/culture/wrap-star/

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

Stuart M. Perkins

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1. magic marker

“No, no, no!”

That tone of reprimand 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 had 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. 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. Although home alone, I quietly slid a kitchen chair to the stove, quietly climbed up, and quietly 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, but 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!

Quietly I reached in and quietly I plucked the marker from the mug. Just as quietly 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. I’d been quiet and I’d be quiet as I drew with this marvelous thing. I’d return it to the mug when done and no one would know. Nothing and no one could be as quiet as me and that marker. Except 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 a bit 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 at that point, 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 only one thing.

  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 morning came and 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 on 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 stood in a rush. 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. When she wasn’t looking that Christmas morning I’d scribbled a test patch across my knee.

Stuart M. Perkins

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I Had a Slice of Fruit Cake

Mama grinned when I brought up Daddy’s past fruit cake project to her a few days ago. She instantly recalled the many details he had described to us before, during, and after production of his masterpiece.

“My lands.” Mama said. “That fruit cake was all he talked about for a while.”

She also remembered my promise to Daddy that I would eat a piece of his fruit cake on Christmas day. The sight and smell of fruit cake are enough to make me retch, but Daddy had been so proud of his cake and so eager for me to taste it that I finally gave in and promised a Christmas day tasting. At the rate Daddy was already eating his culinary work of art, I was sure the thing would be gone by the holidays and I could then shake my head and tell him I was sorry to have missed it – while silently cheering.

When Daddy suddenly passed away a few months before Christmas, the fruit cake and all of our inside jokes associated with it were soon forgotten and replaced by the sad details of the loss. It was only a week or so ago that I remembered my insane promise to taste the awful thing and reminded Mama.

“Mama,” I began, “I know Daddy had some fruit cake left. Do you know where it is?”

“You don’t want it do you?” she asked. Her eyes widened as she looked at me and grinned just imagining my reaction to tasting the cake.

I reminded her that each time I visited them Daddy asked if I wanted a slice. He and I would joke about what I considered to be a downright awful cake. My answer to his question was always an emphatic “no” until I finally broke down and agreed to taste a piece on Christmas day. Daddy has been gone for four months now, but for what it was worth I intended to keep my promise.

Mama said what remained of the fruit cake had been put in the freezer. My sister Vicki soon presented me with a large chunk of Daddy’s masterpiece, still wrapped in wax paper and aluminum foil, and tucked inside a fruit cake tin.

My feelings were mixed. The sight of the fruit cake reminded me of the crazy conversations and silly jokes that Daddy and I shared about his making the thing. The sight of the fruit cake also struck me with shivers of disgust. But, I had promised to taste it, so taste it I would.

But maybe later…

We all knew Christmas would be odd, sad, and definitely not the same without Daddy. Unfortunately it turned out to be all of those things. Although Mama knew I was going to taste the fruit cake, I didn’t want it to become a big production so I didn’t mention it to anyone else. I would just discreetly fulfill my promise before the day was through. Admittedly, I planned to put it off as long as possible. Fruit cake is not fun.

Mama’s house filled with more and more family members as the day wore on. Periodically, she grinned and asked me, “Have a slice of fruit cake?”

“Later.” was my standard response, usually accompanied by a dry heave.

The first holiday after someone passes away is hard on any family. Each of us had to again process losing Daddy when faced with his absence. We missed the jokes he would have told, the snappy one-liners he would have had ready, and the simple sight of his empty chair was enough to upset some. In spite of the void, everyone tried to make it as normal a Christmas as possible, especially for Mama who is still struggling with major complications from her knee replacement surgery earlier this year.

I was afraid that memories stirred up by my fruit cake tasting might upset Mama, but she seemed fine. In fact, she found humor in knowing that the last thing in the world I wanted to taste, regardless of the day of the year, was fruit cake.

As the day wound down I summoned the necessary courage to remove the lid from the fruit cake tin. I began unwrapping the cake and wondered how I might be able to cut a tiny slice without actually having to look at it. The sight of those unnatural neon colored fruits was not appealing. A particularly ugly red one fell out just as I finished unwrapping.

I took a deep breath and tried to cut a paper-thin slice, not easy to do with a heavy cake chock full of bizarre fruits and too many nuts. For fear the smell alone would cause me to lose my courage, I quickly popped a piece of the cake into my mouth and chewed as rapidly as possible. Just as I finished swallowing the hateful concoction, I heard Mama call my name.

“Have a slice of fruit cake?” she asked, laughing when she saw the look on my face. She continued grinning as I washed the cake down with several gulps of water.

“I had a slice of fruit cake.” I confirmed as I exhaled and wiped the vile crumbs from my face.

I have never mixed turpentine, cake batter, and a splash of Drano together, but I believe it would taste exactly the same as fruit cake.

Daddy would have enjoyed the look of misery on my face and would have compared my rapid chewing to “a possum eating briars”. Mama got a good laugh out of the tasting in spite of the emotional reminders. I felt good that I had fulfilled my promise to Daddy and was glad that Mama had not gotten upset.

That came next.

The family made it through the day with only a few spoken comments about Daddy’s absence. Even Mama had been able to talk about him some without completely losing control – until my sister Donna gave her a gift.

A few months ago Donna asked Mama if she could take some of the flannel shirts Daddy had always worn. Donna planned to make a quilt from the material. Even though Mama knew the plan, she hadn’t expected it would be her Christmas gift.

Mama opened the box Donna handed her and saw the quilt. Naturally, she was instantly upset. It was a beautiful quilt in its own right, but as Mama examined patch after patch that came from shirts she had seen Daddy wear on a daily basis, it was more than she could handle. She cried heavily as she held the quilt, occasionally touching one patch or another and softly saying words most of us couldn’t understand.

“I love it.” Mama said through her tears, “But I can’t look at it anymore right now.”

Everyone understood and after a few silent minutes the conversations slowly began to flow again. A grandchild or two gave Mama a hug and we all continued opening presents.

I can usually manage to make Mama laugh, or at least smile, regardless of the situation. In this case I knew there was nothing I could say that would give her any relief or distraction from her upset, so I thought I’d try being practical rather than comical for a change.

“Mama, do you want some water?” I asked. “Is there anything that’ll help?”

Her eyes were still teary and her face was still red but a partial grin showed itself when she responded.

“Have a slice of fruit cake?” she said.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Why Would I Eat Fruit Cake?

It wasn’t even Christmas when Daddy finally made the fruit cake. Every time I’d go back home to visit, Mama and I would listen to Daddy discuss his plan to make it, the vast amounts of ingredients required, and how delicious he knew it would be.

“You like fruit cake don’t you? he asked when he finished telling me the amounts of nuts and dried fruit he would have to add to what I considered a hideous waste of good sugar.

“No.” I answered, making the same face I would make if asked whether I liked road kill.

“If I make it you ought to try it.” Daddy insisted.

“Why would I eat fruit cake?” I asked. “It’s full of unnatural blobs of neon green and red rubber things.”

“You ought to try it though.” he repeated. I pretended to vomit and he laughed as he got up to go outside.

When he left, Mama grinned and said, “You would not believe the production this fruit cake has turned into. If he’s told me once, he’s told me a thousand times how he’s going to make it!”

Weeks passed and each time I visited or talked to my parents on the phone, the fruit cake became the topic of conversation. I’d actually forgotten about it though when I called one night. Mama answered the phone and I asked my usual “What are y’all doing?” She normally responded by telling me Wheel of Fortune was on or my aunt and uncle were visiting. That night though, she whispered into the phone.

“He finally made that dog-gone fruit cake today.” she said.

“Is he going to send out announcements?” I asked.

“I declare I wouldn’t be surprised.” Mama said laughing.

On my next visit home Daddy met me at the back door with a fruit cake tin in his hand.

“Want a slice?” he asked as he wrestled the lid from the tin. “It’s pretty ain’t it?”

“Beautiful. If you like to eat rubber fruit.” I said laughing.

“Want a slice?” he asked again as he shoved the tin under my nose, insisting I smell the cake.

“Why would I eat fruit cake?” I asked with a sigh.

“You ought to try it though.” he said seriously. “I made it.”

I listened as he describe precisely how he had made his beautiful creation, the work he put into it, how delicious it was, and how he didn’t understand why anybody would not eat fruit cake. He bet he could eat the whole thing in a week.

He didn’t.

Unfortunately, fruit cakes last for several eternities so it was there every time I went back home to visit. Daddy would go to the spare bedroom where he kept the tin and unwrap the cake for me to see how much he’d eaten and to tell me over again the entire process involved in making one.

All while I fought back nausea.

“You want a slice?” he asked.

Why would I eat fruit cake?” I responded, hoping I’d finally conveyed my complete disgust.

Daddy grinned knowing he’d turned my stomach. “I made it though, so you really ought to try it.” he said again.

This pattern repeated with each trip back home. Daddy would disappear down the hall to the spare bedroom only to return with his fruit cake to show me the progress made on eating it and to ask again if I wanted a slice. On one occasion he was lying in his recliner and simply looked over at me to ask, “Want a slice of fruit cake?”

“Sure.” I said.

He didn’t hear me at first but as it registered with him what I had said, his head whirled back towards me. “You say you do?” he asked.

I laughed. “No. Why would I eat fruit cake?” I actually detected a tiny sign of disappointment on his face.

“Anyway,” I continued, “I thought people only ate fruit cake at Christmas.” I wondered if I should give in and taste the awful thing, if I could force myself not to recoil at the sight.

“You can eat a cake any time you want, you know.” he said grinning. “But yeah, most people eat them around Christmas.”

“Ok then.” I said. “I’ll eat a piece on Christmas day just to say I tasted it, but don’t worry about saving me any if it seems to start going fast.” I added sarcastically.

“I reckon there will be some left.” Daddy said grinning. “I made it, so you ought to try it.”

We never discussed that fruit cake again. In March of this year Mama had to have knee surgery and she suffered complication after unbelievable complication. Daddy threw himself into taking care of her, the house, and yard. All of these months later, Mama is still unable to walk. Later in the summer of this year, Daddy’s own health issues began to worsen.

He passed away in August.

It has affected the family in ways I’m not sure we know how to articulate and process. In spite of horrible complications from her knee surgery, Mama continues to slowly improve. Losing the man she was married to for sixty years hit her hard but she is tough and will persevere, even with the holidays and all of the memories they will certainly stir up.

I remembered the fruit cake today. I think the rest of it is still in the tin back in the spare bedroom wrapped up just as Daddy would have left it. I told myself I would find it and try a slice on Christmas day.

“Why would I eat fruit cake?” I asked myself out loud as I thought about that silly cake that Daddy was so proud of.

Because I told Daddy I would. He made it and I really ought to try it.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Filled Need

One summer evening back in 2006 I happened to see a P.B.S. documentary on people living in the Appalachian region of Virginia. My kids, 8 and 10 at the time, had been with me for the weekend and we’d had a great time as usual. After they left, I cleaned and washed a few dishes. The television was on for background noise really. I hated how quiet it was once the kids left.

I started to pay attention to the documentary when someone began to interview an Appalachian couple as they sat on the front porch steps of their tiny frame house. The couple had two kids but little else of any value besides their home. The father worked as a coal miner and handyman while the mother took care of the kids and worked a part-time job at a corner grocery store.

During the interview the couple held hands as they spoke about the hardships of living in such an impoverished area where most people had little education and jobs were scarce. I was struck by the fact that they never complained. Not once. The simply did the best they could and were grateful their good health allowed them to work.

They were serious when they spoke but smiled when asked about their kids. The mother described how much they loved them. The father smiled at first, then his expression changed. This big, burly, tough, coal miner and handyman who lived a rough mountain life began to cry as he spoke about his children. He expressed disappointment in himself because he was unable to give his kids things he knew other children had. At Christmas, he said, it was especially rough. It was hard to tell what he said, he cried so hard as he said it.

I cried with him. To some extent I understood that disappointment. This couple worked as much as possible to keep the kids taken care of and happy. In spite of their efforts, they felt shame and disappointment because in their minds they were letting their kids down. Every empty Christmas was a reminder of that feeling.

At that time, I had very little myself. I have never had much, but that was an especially rough period. Still, as I watched that grown man cry, and not just tear up a little but completely sob because he felt he was letting his kids down, it dawned on me. This was suddenly all pretty simple. I had very little, but he and others in his situation had even less. Surely there was something I could do.

The first call I made was to my friend Mary Dell. I told her what I’d seen, how it made me feel, and asked what she thought of collecting clothes and shoes and once we had enough we could take them all…somewhere. I had no idea where. She immediately agreed. After my call she drummed up donations on her end while I did the same on mine. Friends and family eagerly pitched in. Over the next few months a spare bedroom in my basement began to overflow with bags of clothes and shoes.

As collections grew I began to email various community action programs operating in Virginia counties within the Appalachian region. I also spoke with various social service departments, charitable organizations, and even fire departments, anyone I could find who might know which agency would get the most use out of the things we were quickly stockpiling in my basement. The idea was not to start our own charity, but to feed into established programs that provided help to the people they served.

Amazingly, my calls reached many dead ends. No one was rude or unappreciative, they just didn’t know what to make of my proposition. I simply wanted an address of the office or warehouse used by the program. My friends and I would pack up the hundreds of items we were still collecting and deliver them. I got responses from those I contacted like “We can’t pay you anything.” or “We don’t have it in our budget to reimburse your gas.” I never asked for any of those things. I just wanted to deliver the clothes. Many times I was asked for the name of my organization. People I contacted seemed to have trouble understanding why one individual, hours away across the state, would call with such an offer.

If these program directors felt more comfortable feeling they were dealing with an organization, then I would give my group of friends a name. I decided on “R.E.A.C.T. Virginia” (Reach Every Appalachian Child Today) and registered our group online so that my contact information could be accessed.

After weeks of back and forth with about thirty agencies, I managed to get the attention of the director of a community action program in a county in southwest Virginia. I told her we had hundreds of items, clothing and shoes for men, women, boys, and girls. All sizes. If she would tell me where her office or warehouse was, I would make sure the items were delivered.

She initially responded with comments I’d heard before. “We thank you for your desire to help, we can’t come to Richmond to pick items up, we can’t pay for shipping.” I told her I understood, that friends and I had collected the items and at this point we only needed to be told who needed these things the most and where we could take them. If her agency could use them we had no problem packing it all up and driving the four or five hours to deliver them.

The director’s next email to me was one word. “Why?”

She was baffled as to why anyone from across the state would contact her little program and volunteer to hand deliver such an amount of clothing as I had described. I once again quoted my grandmother, Nannie, to a complete stranger. I repeated the line of hers that I have repeated many times. “When you see a need, fill it.” My friends and I were just trying to fill a need.

Still baffled, she sent me directions to her office warehouse. We agreed upon a date to make the delivery, which happened to fall on my 44th birthday. I couldn’t wait to tell Mary Dell, her son Greg, and her sister Brenda, who had all been instrumental in making this effort work. I was thrilled. Finally I had found people who knew how to make the best use of all we had collected. I walked downstairs and looked at the room full of clothes in bags and boxes.  The room was literally full to the ceiling in the corners. Then it hit me that all of these things would have to be packed onto the truck.

What truck?

Without hesitation, Brenda’s husband Fred offered us the use of his pickup truck. What followed next was a blur of the core group of friends, my sisters, and my mother who arrived with a cooler packed full of sandwiches working like ants over that room full of clothes and shoes. We sorted, sized, folded, bagged, and laughed for hours. Everything was ready to go on the truck in the morning.

When Mary Dell, Brenda, and Greg arrived in the truck early the next morning I remember thinking we probably wouldn’t need so big a truck. I was wrong. Before the packing was done the truck was piled high, rounded over with bags of clothes, a tarp stretched across and lashed with ropes. All we lacked was Granny Clampett in a rocking chair as the cherry on top.

The four of us left for our five hour trip to southwest Virginia unsure of our directions, where we were actually going, or what we would find when we got there.

What we found was a small but effective organization run by kind, caring, and determined people. We drove to the back of the office warehouse and were greeted by a man at the door. When he asked if he could help us with something, I told him my name and who we were. He suddenly disappeared from sight but we could hear him yell to someone inside, “Come quick! R.E.A.C.T. Virginia is here!”

I was embarrassed and suddenly feared that maybe I had overplayed the amount of things we were bringing. What if they were disappointed?

They were not disappointed. There was disbelief in their eyes as they saw the mountain of bags of clothes, contents all clearly labeled. That alone had saved them a lot of work, we learned. It took a while to unload the truck and I stopped counting the number of times we were thanked. With the truck unloaded I looked at my friends, knowing we were all feeling pretty good that we had accomplished what we set out to do. That’s when we were invited inside for a tour of the office.

We went inside and were told in detail how they work, what they do, where the items go, who can receive the donations, and every other detail. We were also told that our delivery couldn’t have come at a better time. There had recently been two house fires in the nearby town and both families had been left with nothing. The timing was perfect.

They thanked us, we thanked them, and we told them we would be on our way since we had to make the return five hour trip. We were told we couldn’t leave until they took our picture. We were escorted outside where we lined up in front of the agency’s sign and had our group photo taken. R.E.A.C.T.Virginia was going to be in the local paper.

After the photos we headed home. It had been a long, satisfying day. My intention was to continue that effort. Maybe a yearly trip to other programs, if not that particular one. Unfortunately, life got in the way a bit. I changed jobs, moved, and the planned effort was basically left behind.

This has been seven years ago now, but just recently I got a phone call from the director of a community action program in North Carolina. She had learned about us from the director of the agency where we had delivered our truckload of clothes – seven years ago. She wondered if R.E.A.C.T. Virginia would consider helping agencies located outside Virginia and if we would, could she talk to me about their particular needs.

I apologized to her and let her know that we had not been active for a few years, but I hoped she would be able to find the help she was looking for. She very pleasantly thanked me. I hung up and since then have pondered how to make it work again.

It all started because I saw a hard working grown man brought to tears when he felt he disappointed his children. Even though I had little, I still had more than that man, and it caused me to remember what Nannie always said. Seeing that sad man sparked the effort, but my friends and family are what made it succeed.

I felt such satisfaction knowing that many, many people benefited from the huge amount of clothes and shoes we were able to provide. There is so much red tape, sometimes, in getting charitable acts accomplished.  The people who needed the things we delivered had no time for red tape. Somewhere a kid needed shoes, and he got them.

That truckload of clothes and shoes we were able to deliver was not the result of years of planning, debating, budget reviews, and demographic mapping. It happened because we saw a need and with the help of our families and others, we helped to fill it. It didn’t take master plans and countless meetings to accomplish.

It was accomplished by four friends and a pickup truck.

Stuart M. Perkins

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