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Finial Moment

Friends and I enjoyed brunch the other day. Afterwards, I suggested we stop by the local antique store to see what was new…

No one got the joke.

Still laughing at myself, because it never takes much, I held the door for the others as we entered and went our separate ways down cluttered and dusty aisles.

We hadn’t been there long when I saw, tucked between Mason jars and wicker baskets, an old Thanksgiving decoration like one Mama used when I was a kid. It was a turkey with a cardboard head but the rest of it was the honeycomb style that opened and latched onto itself, giving the turkey a big round body. Its cardboard head was bent and its big round body didn’t latch anymore, but I held it up to look at it and wondered whose it used to be, where they might have placed it, and how many kids had ever touched it or crunched it.

“You want that thing?” one friend asked.

“No, I’m just having a finial moment.” I responded.

“Ok…” my friend said. He waited for an explanation.

For years and years, the same floor lamp stood in the same corner of the den at home. It was always positioned at one end of the couch regardless of how the room was arranged. Mama rarely rearranged, so the lamp stood in the same spot forever it seemed. The lamp sported three light bulbs and was about six feet tall counting the huge beige shade. As a kid I thought it was “fancy” because as you turned the switch you could opt for one, two, or all three bulbs to be on. Wow! Poking up above the huge beige shade was a tarnished bronze finial about an inch long.

Under that lamp at the end of the couch Mama sometimes worked crossword puzzles or sewed loose buttons. Daddy would temporarily leave his recliner to sit under the extra light to squint at a roadmap or at the faded date on an old coin. My three sisters and I took turns sitting under that lamp to do homework, color, or play games.

We laughed, argued, and watched television under that lamp. Daddy told stories about his workdays and Mama made sure he was caught up on neighborhood happenings, all under the lamp. That lamp saw holidays and birthdays and every day as soon as it was dark outside it was turned on. It was the last light to go out at night. That same lamp had been there forever and would be there forever. Such a thing couldn’t be replaced.

One day Mama replaced it.

I came home after school to see the old lamp standing beside the trash can. The shade itself, admittedly less beige and torn in two spots, had been smashed unceremoniously into the trash can. Poking up above the less beige lampshade was the tarnished bronze finial. I pulled at the finial and realized it could be unscrewed from the shade. I’d gotten it almost off when Mama walked by on her way to the clothesline.

“You want that thing?” she asked as she adjusted the laundry basket on her hip.

“Yep.”  I said. I removed the finial and kept it.

That was almost forty years ago and I still have it.

I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve come across that finial, but each time, I’ve held it and remembered countless days and nights at home as a kid. That little finial sat in the same room with me and my family as we celebrated happy times, cried over sad times, or did absolutely nothing but be with each other one regular old evening after another.

Photographs are wonderful, but to hold an object in your hand that has the power to bring back so many memories is a gift. We should accept those when they’re given.

I have several boxes full of items like the finial. Sometimes I go to the boxes just to have a finial moment with one object or another.

When I hold a tiny porcelain giraffe I think about Nannie in her chair by the window. She’s crocheting and smiling because someone’s walking up the path under the walnut tree coming for a visit. Her rolls are almost ready in the oven and my aunt Dessie will be over later to fix her hair for church tomorrow. Nannie had a hundred houseplants and for years the tiny porcelain giraffe stood in the dirt under her Christmas cactus. When she gave me the plant I got the giraffe. The Christmas cactus died long ago, but I kept the tiny giraffe and when I look at it I see the plant blooming on Nannie’s table.

Three little magnets I keep in the box remind me of Granddaddy. When I was a kid he used those magnets to show me “magic”. He’d put one magnet on the dining room table and ask it to spin, which it did wildly for him but not for me! I never thought to look for him holding the other two magnets in his hand under the table, close enough to make the third one react on the tabletop. He could make two magnets stick together or make them push apart, all at his command. It was magic to me. Even when I was old enough to know how he did it, I played along. The satisfied grin he gave after each performance was enough to keep me playing dumb forever. One day he called me over to the swing where he sat chewing tobacco. He “taught” me the trick, swore me to secrecy, and gave me the three little magnets.

The jagged little puppy tooth I keep makes me smile. The collie we had growing up was a good friend to us all and I still miss her, my first dog as a kid. We got Mitzi as a puppy and for thirteen years she watched me and my sisters grow up. She walked Mama and Daddy back and forth to the garden and she was gentle towards the many smaller animals that came and went through our house during her time. As a puppy, she lost that tooth in the kitchen one day and before Mama could sweep it up I took it to my room. I remember when we brought Mitzi home and I remember when we buried her. A thousand fun times are recalled when I look at the little tooth that once gnawed my hand while a tiny tail wagged.

My boxes are full of items that spark “finial moments” for me. The hinge from a gate by the barn, a feather from a quail I hatched in an incubator, a pocket knife, and a simple brown rock are just some of the items. All hold stories and images stronger for me than any photograph could trigger. I remembered these things as I talked in the antique store that day.

My friend listened to me go on as I stood there with the old Thanksgiving decoration in my hand. Several times his eyes glazed over, boredom I’d assumed, so I cut my story short. As it turned out he wasn’t bored, he was remembering…

I leaned over to put the broken turkey decoration back on the shelf as I wrapped up my story but before I could stick it back between the Mason jars and the wicker baskets my friend took it from my hand.

“You want that thing?” I asked

“Finial moment.” he said, and headed to the cashier.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Happy Father’s Day, Daddy… and Mama

With Father’s Day coming up this Sunday I’d like to acknowledge the obvious individual…Mama.

She still laughs remembering Daddy’s funny stories. He artfully told his silly tales and endless supply of jokes to keep everyone entertained. Daddy could be truly funny and Mama was the first to laugh. After sixty years of marriage there’s no doubt she’d heard his material several times over but Daddy loved to see people laugh and Mama wouldn’t have him disappointed. She loved him and laughed hard at his jokes, chastised his colorful language, and coyly prompted him to repeat her favorites. Daddy enjoyed making others laugh and Mama happily served as the perfect straight man even if she occasionally found herself the brunt of his playful banter.

An aunt grinned and asked Mama, “How in the world do you live with him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

Daddy’s vegetable garden was perfection. His weedless rows were straight, well-watered, and produced profusely. He playfully bragged about having the first tomato, prettiest butter beans, or biggest peppers. Mama joined Daddy in the garden every morning to sweat alongside him ensuring enough was grown not just for her to freeze and can, but for Daddy to have some to give to others, which was a great source of joy for him. Daddy was proud of his garden. Mama, knowing what it meant to him, faithfully assisted. Ice tinkled in Daddy’s water glass as he rested in the shade and jokingly scolded Mama for missing a squash. She wiped sweat from her face and went back to pick it, playfully cutting her eyes at him.

A neighbor visiting at the time smiled and asked Mama, “How in the world do you live with him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

Daddy didn’t buy a lot but what he bought was top rate and built to last. When Mama needed a new washer it was a great one. A new dryer? Nothing but the finest. If Mama needed this or that then Daddy bought her the best. One Christmas he surprised her with a brand new car. The perfectionist in Daddy compelled him to give advice so Mama was reminded to keep the car full of gas, to let him know if it ever sounded odd, acted odd, or gave her trouble. She patiently allowed him to finish knowing it was how he showed he cared. She grinned and slightly rolled her eyes a bit when he was done. He grinned back.

My sisters and I watched their comical interaction and asked Mama, “How in the world do you live with him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

In all that Daddy did, and he did a lot, Mama was there to back him up. Daddy was a perfectionist but giving, rigid but generous, and a serious provider who enjoyed nothing more than a sense of humor. He and Mama were together for sixty years, raised four kids, and saw grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They were a powerful pair when they needed to be, a comedy duo when the occasion arose, and always surrounded by family and friends. Daddy was unique and Mama supported that uniqueness. It dawned on me over the years that Daddy was free to be Daddy because Mama was Mama.

Daddy died almost two years ago now. His vegetable garden is no more, fewer friends stop by Mama’s for impromptu visits, and though we still laugh it’s not with the frequency or intensity it was when constantly bombard by Daddy’s zany tales. We all miss him, but Mama surely misses him the most. Friends and family do still visit Mama and inevitably they talk about Daddy and his garden, his jokes, and all he did for Mama.

One visiting friend recently asked Mama, “How in the world do you live without him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy… and Mama.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Load of Fun

It was still cold the day I noticed that in spite of an unyielding winter determined to wear out its welcome, the local hardware store had taken a leap of faith by filling its storefront and walkway with a grand display of all things summer. I saw birdbaths, a gleaming row of new lawnmowers, and a stack of wading pools depicting smiling cartoon elephants spraying water on laughing cartoon hippos. Closest to the sidewalk was a row of huge, bright red wheelbarrows with glossy black wheels, price tags swinging in the still chilly breeze.

As I hurried past the hopeful display and on to the grocery store one building over, I passed a small boy waiting for his father who was busy admiring an array of shiny new grills. The father turned to catch up to his son who had stopped at the row of red wheelbarrows. With both of his little hands gripping the side of one wheelbarrow, the boy stood on his tiptoes to peer over the edge.

“It’s a toy?” he asked into the empty wheelbarrow.

“No.” the father said as he took the boy’s hand to lead him into the hardware store. “You only use that for work.”

“It’s a toy.” the boy said with conviction.

“No, it’s not.” the father repeated. “It’s only for work.”

“No, it’s not.” I thought to myself. “It’s not only for work.”

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my grandmother, Nannie, helping me and a cousin into her wheelbarrow for a ride. She pushed us to the pear trees in the pasture where we helped her pick up fallen fruit. Riding back to her farmhouse in a pile of pears, we held on to the sides of the wheelbarrow during the bumpy ride and pretended we were on a boat. That was no wheelbarrow only for work. It was a toy.

As older kids, cousins and I took turns pushing each other in the random wheelbarrow that always leaned against Nannie’s barn, maybe the chicken house, or sometimes left under a tree. If lucky, we came across two wheelbarrows and races began. Those wheelbarrows were not only for work. They were cars or planes or motorcycles. They were toys.

My aunt Noody once gave me and my cousins a package of little plastic sailboats. Having nowhere to float them, we soon lost interest until Noody suddenly appeared with her old wheelbarrow. As we watched, puzzled, Noody unrolled her garden hose and filled the wheelbarrow with water. Instant lake! Her old wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

Years passed and when my own two kids were small I spent as much time behind the wheelbarrow as I ever had inside the wheelbarrow. I pushed first one, then the other, but usually both at the same time. The wheelbarrow became a train, a rocket, and once it was a dinosaur they rode. The wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

I was still thinking about these examples as I left the grocery store and headed back towards the summer display next door. As timing would have it, the little boy and his father were leaving the hardware store when I approached. As the father walked on ahead, the little boy lagged behind just a bit when he got to the wheelbarrow display. Once again, he gripped the side of a huge red wheelbarrow and craned his neck to peer over the edge.

The little boy looked up and grinned at me as I neared him. His little hands never let loose their grip on the edge, but one tiny finger rose up and pointed down into the wheelbarrow.

“It’s a toy?” he asked as I walked closer.

I leaned down just a bit as I reached where he stood.

“Yes, it’s a toy.” I said grinning as I walked past.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Dog Wouldn’t Eat It

My family and I talked a lot over Christmas about Daddy’s fruit cakes. His yearly project meant we would hear many times just how he was going to make it, we would have to admire the ingredients as he laid them out on the counter, and when his edible work of art was complete we would have to sample it. And we did.

Reluctantly.

But Daddy was not the only cake baker in that house. Mama’s pound cakes are well-known to family and friends. Because of recent health issues she hasn’t made one in a while but she will and we’re waiting. Mama never needed a holiday to prompt her to make a pound cake, although production ramped up during special occasions. There always seemed to be a half eaten cake on the counter and another in the freezer, usually heavily wrapped and labeled “okra” to keep us from getting into it.

A few years ago I asked Mama for her pound cake recipe. I love those cakes and thought it might be a good idea to learn to make them. Mama gave me the recipe and admirably hid her shock that I would attempt to make a cake of all things. Just scrambling an egg presents me with a challenge.

“Follow the recipe and you can’t go wrong.” Mama said.

Daddy asked, “You never made a cake before?”

“No.” I said, “But I’ve eaten enough to consider myself a professional.”

“I bet a dog won’t eat that thing when you’re done!” Daddy laughed.

I listened to Mama’s baking advice, bought all necessary ingredients, went home, and began to follow the recipe.

No I didn’t.

I can’t remember exactly how I altered the recipe and I didn’t plan to, but those tiny details became so tedious. My first mistake was to say I even wanted to bake a cake at all. More mistakes followed.

I thought if a little sugar was good then a little more was better. Butter is nice so extra butter should be nicer. The notion of needing to add the eggs “one at a time” (which the recipe noted and which Mama stressed) just seemed silly. In they all went together. I don’t recall how long the cake was to bake but I thought if I increased the temperature by just a little bit then it should cut down on the cooking time. Finally, I learned that there is a difference between baking powder and baking soda after all.

When the cake was done, or so I assumed, I took it out of the oven and realized immediately that it didn’t look just like Mama’s. I was sure it would still be delicious.

It wasn’t.

The few parts that didn’t stick to the pan slid onto the plate rather nicely. I eagerly tasted a piece of my first pound cake.

Once I stopped choking, I called Mama. Daddy answered the phone and I described my results.

“I told you that thing wouldn’t be fit for a dog to eat!” He laughed again.

“Did you follow the recipe?” Mama asked when she got on the phone. I could hear Daddy still laughing in the background.

“Mostly.” I lied.

“Well bring it over here and let me look at it.” Mama said.

I pieced the cake back together in the pan to make it “pretty”. When I got to Mama’s, she and Daddy were sitting in the yard. I walked up to Mama and held the pan full of butchered cake out in front of her.

“Here it is.” I said in a tone that I hoped would make her believe I had faithfully followed the recipe and was still baffled by the finished product. “What could I have done wrong?”

Mama looked at the cake, made a horrible face, and asked, “Do you want a list?”

Daddy, in very colorful language, gave his opinion of my cake and laughed as he added, “I told you a dog wouldn’t eat that thing when you were done with it!”

Mama decided she didn’t want to taste it because it “didn’t look right”. Daddy, once again in very colorful language, told me just why he didn’t care to taste it either.

In spite of the mess in the now ruined cake pan we all had a good laugh. I walked to the end of their yard and threw the cake out into the garden where I assumed birds, if desperate, might eat it. As I walked back to where they sat, Mama and Daddy were joking about whether or not birds might soon die by the flock.

“I told him even a dog wouldn’t eat that mess.” Daddy said to Mama as I sat down with them.

As we talked about anything other than cakes, my aunt Noody walked from her house next door to join us. On the way, she stopped to let her dog Maggie out for an evening run. As the four of us talked, I noticed Maggie making her way to the edge of the garden where I had dumped the cake.

“Well Daddy.” I said smugly. “Maggie is about to prove you wrong.” I pointed to the dog as she approached the cake pile and gave it a sniff. I bet a dog would eat my cake. I awaited my minor victory.

They all turned to watch the dog. Maggie approached the cake pile and sniffed. She raised her head and paused, adding to the mounting tension. She lowered her head to sniff the cake again. That’s when it happened.

Maggie lowered her front end, leaned slightly to the side, and dropped to roll in the cake. Not just a light roll, but a full grinding-the-cake-into-the-shoulder roll. She stood, sniffed the cake again, and rolled on her other side. Adding insult to injury, she walked away from the cake pile, stopping just long enough to kick grass over it with her hind legs. She then trotted away never having taken a bite.

The wheezing sound I heard next was Daddy laughing. “You do know what dogs generally roll in, don’t you?” he asked through the laughter.

Mama made the horrible face again and looked at Noody. “You’ll never be able to get that smell off that dog.”

I laughed too and stood up to walk towards Maggie and the cake pile. I wasn’t going to let Daddy win this one!

“Come here Maggie!” I called as I picked through the cake pile to find a piece I thought she might find edible. It wasn’t easy.

Seeing something in my hand, Maggie came running. I leaned down and handed her the piece of cake as Daddy, Mama, and Noody watched from the other end of the yard. Maggie took it from my hand! I was about to declare a victory when Maggie backed up, raised her head slightly as if to sneeze, then threw her head forward spitting the cake onto the ground. She stared at it.

So did I. She still hadn’t eaten any of it.

Maggie looked at me, wagged her tail, and barked at the piece of cake.

I gave up and walked back to where the others were sitting. They were laughing and appeared to be looking past me. I turned around just in time to see Maggie getting back to her feet after a second roll in the cake.

Daddy was right. Even a dog wouldn’t eat that cake. But she certainly enjoyed it just the same.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Kindred Connection

“I dread the holidays.” The woman seated beside me on the bus today said. She flipped through pages of a sales flyer that reminded her to buy early and save.

“The shopping?” I asked.

“No, the family!” she responded. “I’ll have to spend time around all of my father’s siblings and I’ve never felt connected to them. Did you spend much time around your aunts or uncles while growing up?”

“Oh yeah…”, I began as the memories started flowing.

She interrupted me. “His siblings lived nearby but didn’t interact with me very much. How about yours?”

“Oh yeah…” I said as I stared upwards about to relate a funny family story.

Again she cut me short. “I just didn’t enjoy being around them.” she added.

Instead of being cut off, I only nodded my head in understanding.

However, I didn’t really understand at all. I was lucky to come into this world literally surrounded by a large extended family. My father’s siblings were also my neighbors because my grandparents had a small farm and had given each of their five children an adjoining piece of property on which to build homes and raise families. Because they lived beside me, across the field, or just past the walnut tree, my aunts and uncles were as much a part of everyday life as my parents.

There are countless recollections I associate with my father’s sisters and brothers, but some specific memories come to mind whenever I think of each individual.

My aunt Noody encouraged me in whatever I had set my mind to. When I was a kid she spoke to me as though I were an adult and she made me feel relevant. We often took neighborhood walks together and talked about anything that crossed our minds. I trimmed her crepe myrtles and in return she made for me the best potato soup I ever had.  When our extended family gathered at the bay, Noody not only laughed at us kids playing in the water, she joined in. In swimming cap festooned with pink plastic flowers she patiently taught me to float on my back. She went roller skating with us kids too. One particular night I rested on the sidelines and she said “Don’t sit there like an old man. Come skate!”

My aunt Jenny once brushed a spider off of me once. When the giant hairy thing crawled up my pants leg she instantly brushed it away with her bare hand. She was my hero for doing that. Jenny laughed loudly and liked to hear others do the same. Once, while several of us kids were in a swimming pool, Jenny suddenly came down the sliding board wearing a huge floppy hat and holding an open umbrella above her head. She laughed as hard as we did when she plunged into the pool. Every Halloween for several years she drove my sister and me around town to visit people. Too old for trick-or-treating, we still dressed up as old women and no one laughed at us any harder than Jenny.

Interrupting my thoughts, the woman on the bus said, “And when I was a kid they never did anything fun with me. Did yours?”

“Oh yeah…” I began again, smiling at the funny anecdote I was about to tell.

She cut me off again. “My family is just not fun.” she said.

Assuming she was finished, I started thinking again.

My uncle Tuck, for decades now, has made sure that our extended family has been able to use the cottage on the bay. Tuck insists we use the cottage whenever we can and is kind enough to update us on where in the shed the fishing poles are located, not to forget to use the crab pots if we want, and to please try to go down more than we did last year. With each trip down he reminds us to help ourselves to anything we find in the refrigerator and to just have fun. There were also many times when Tuck’s calm and logical advice helped me figure out solutions to quite a few problems.

My uncle Jiggs was at our house on my first birthday. Mama said he came in, squatted down, and called me. The first steps I ever took were from Mama to Jiggs there in the kitchen. Jiggs lived across the field but also had a farm where I spent many summer weekends. When up against what to me were impossible mechanical issues with maybe a tractor or truck, Jiggs would  calmly suggest we just “think about this thing for a minute”. By the end of a cup of coffee Jiggs had thought it through and miraculously, to me anyway, solved the problem. During that process Jiggs never got upset. He would make a joke out of it, think about it, then fix it.

Fortunately, as a kid, I had an almost daily connection with my father’s siblings and their spouses who influenced me just as much. I can’t imagine growing up without their presence, guidance, and comedy! I was thinking about them all when the woman on the bus elbowed me to get my attention.

“And they’ll ask me questions over and over but when I begin to answer they’ll just cut me off. Ever known anyone like that? she asked.

“Oh yeah.” I said.

Stuart M. Perkins

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The “Fencident”

If you take a left out of my parents’ driveway you come to an intersection. Look across the intersection and you’ll see a house with a chain link fence along its driveway. Look again and you’ll notice that the end fence post is slightly askew and the chain link is buckled. It’s been that way for thirty-five years.

And I know, because I did it.

There is rarely a time when I leave my parents’ house that I don’t glance at the bent fence and think back to my first year of driving. I’d never told anyone about the fence until recently when my teenage kids were with me as we stopped at the intersection. Somehow, the off-kilter fence post caught my son’s eye.

“What happened to the fence?” he asked, unaware that was a question I feared for a very long time after I caused the damage.

Unfortunately, there have been many times in life when I haven’t been as honest or as forthcoming as I should have been. In the case of the bent fence, however, I’d had an occasion of truthful glory. Remembering what I’d read about “teachable moments” I decided to confess the story to my kids, hoping to teach them something about the value of honesty.

“What happened to the fence?” my son repeated.

“I did it.” I said.

Both kids gave me their full attention as I crossed the intersection and passed the scene of the long ago incident. Almost in slow motion, they looked from the fence then back to me as I began to explain.

I was sixteen at the time and hadn’t been driving long. A friend was visiting and I decided to drive us down to the service station for a Slim Jim and a Yoohoo, I guess because they’re such a delicious combination. The car my sisters and I shared at the time was a 1963 Mercury Comet, affectionately known around home as “The Vomit”. It was an ugly beast with tail fins akin to those of the Batmobile.

As I stopped at the intersection with my friend I realized I’d forgotten my money. I crossed the intersection to turn around at the house with the the chain link fence and return home for cash. Eager to show off my driving skills, I backed into the driveway. It went well until one of the jutting tail fins snagged the chain link. I heard a slight screeching sound as the fence bent and the post shifted. I began to sweat.

“Go! Just go!” my friend insisted as he looked around for anyone who might have seen us.

I considered just going, but couldn’t.

My hands shook as I put the car in park and told my friend I’d be right back. My nervous knees nearly buckled as I walked from the car up the sidewalk and to the front door of the house. It took several tries to convince my finger to push the doorbell. I pushed it and waited for the worst. I felt my lips quiver and assumed I wouldn’t be able to speak when the man opened the door. Surely I’d have to start over several times before being able to tell him what I had done. “What happened to the fence?” he’d ask, unable to understand the stuttering I was sure to do.

As I waited for an eternity for the door to open, I also imagined how it would be when I had to tell my parents. “What happened to the fence?” they would ask, forcing me to repeat to them the awful incident. Luckily, when I imagined telling them, I hadn’t yet had my Slurpee so the urge to wet my pants went unfulfilled.

I heard the front door being unlocked and the doorknob turning. An old man stared at me through the storm door as he then unlocked that too, and opened it partially. He stared at me.

“I messed up your fence, sir.” I croaked to him. I waited for him to curse, demand to talk to my father, or tell me to wait while he called the police. He just stared at me.

“I backed in and accidentally hit the end of it.” I said, turning to point to the fence with my shaking hand.

His expression never changed as he said very calmly, “I know. I saw you do it.”

He went on to say he was watching television in his den when he saw me back in and hit his fence. I hadn’t realized that living so close to my parents he’d seen that unmistakable car a thousand times, he’d known my father and extended family for years, and he’d seen me driving the car a few times before.

“I saw you do it but you came and told me.” he continued. “If you’d driven off I would have known who to call, but you came and told me you did it. So don’t worry about it.”

“What?” I asked, not understanding. He never raised his voice, no cursing, no calling the police, and no calling my father.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s between me and you.” he said as he shut the door. I heard the lock turn and his footsteps fade away as I stood there with sweat on my upper lip. I told the truth and the old man had respected that.

My kids listened as I wrapped up my teachable moment. I told them that although I had been scared to death of whatever punishment might come my way, I had done the right thing by being honest with the old man. In return for my honesty, he forgave the whole thing. Had I not been honest, things would have turned out very differently for me.

“So you never told Mamaw and Big Daddy?” the kids asked.

Many times I thought about telling my parents. I always wondered if the old man would eventually tell them. For a while I was certain one of my parents would approach me, having learned what I’d done and ask, “What happened to the fence?” I’d started many times to tell them but each time I could only get a few words out before I began to sweat. “Nevermind.” I’d say. “I’ll tell you later.” The old man passed away long ago and two families have lived there since. The chain link fence, rusty now, still remains.

Feeling empowered by the teachable moment, I told the kids that as soon as we got back to my parents I would tell them all about the little accident that happened over thirty years ago now. Being ancient history at this point it would make a funny story. What could be the big deal?

Hours later as we sat around my parents’ living room the kids looked at me and grinned. “Hey, don’t you have something to tell about a fence?” they asked, very loudly.

I took a deep breath and asked my mother if she remembered way back when an old man lived in the house across the intersection, the one with the chain link fence. She nodded yes. I tried to keep talking but I got tongue-tied and suddenly felt a little warm. I stopped talking.

“Well, what happened to the fence?” she asked.

I felt even warmer.

Daddy entered the room and caught part of the conversation. “What happened to what fence?” he asked.

I broke a sweat.

“Nevermind.” I said. “I’ll tell you later.”

After all, the old man did say to forget about it. It was between me and him – and now my kids, for the sake of a teachable moment.

I did finally tell my parents about the “fencident”, the code word my friend and I used for that day now thirty-five years ago. They grinned as I told them, they had never learned of it from the old man, and the passage of so much time made the whole event seem pretty irrelevant to them. To me though, it has remained relevant. Being human, I’ve sometimes failed to apply what I learned. Then again, there have been many times when that lesson has served me well.

Stuart M. Perkins

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No Hamster

Today a coworker stepped into my office to invite me to a function celebrating World Animal Day. She handed me a flyer showing photographs of native wildlife, house pets, and exotic animals. I told her that might be fun and I laid the flyer on my desk.

“Hey, do you have any pets?” she asked.

“No, I don’t.” I answered.

I live alone in a third floor condo. Between work days and weekend travel, any pet I owned would spend most of its time alone. Unfair, I think. Before I could explain that to her, she had a question.

“You don’t like animals?” she asked, in apparent disgust.

I tried to respond, but she interrupted.

“Your parents never let you have pets.” she assumed, and rolled her eyes.

Again I tried to respond, but she had another question.

“You never even had a hamster?” she asked as she appeared to hyperventilate.

Seeing that my explanation stood no chance, I simply said, “No, no hamster.” and turned back to my computer.

She reached in slow motion to take the flyer from my desk and left my office as though I were a leper.

I really never had a hamster.

But as a kid at home we had several dogs I loved, like our Siberian husky, a spayed female. She once instantly befriended a pregnant stray dog that wandered into our yard. When the time came for puppies, although Daddy had built the stray a doghouse of her own, she chose our husky’s instead. While the stray had puppies inside, our husky stood guard outside and had to be physically pushed aside, tail wagging all the time, when Mama checked on the stray’s progress.

We also had a beautiful, faithful collie who was once bitten on the foot by a copperhead. The swelling, peeling flesh, exposed bones, and weeks of applying salves and medication while keeping the horrible wound clean was something I’ll never forget. Our collie did walk again, but always with a limp. We had some really great dogs.

But no, no hamster.

Stray cats appeared occasionally, much to Daddy’s chagrin. One came as a kitten and was still there twelve years later, loved by us all. Daddy continued to claim he disliked cats, even as this one slept on his lap. He wasn’t as fond of the stray cat who entered our garage through a broken door to have a litter of kittens in the Brunswick stew pot. Mama vowed to never eat stew from that pot again. Daddy joked that it only helped to “season” it. Once the kittens were given away, Daddy bleached the stew pot and repaired the garage door.

Mama was generally afraid to come into my room. The green snake I kept in a huge terrarium might have been the reason. The terrarium was temporary home only for a few days to the tiny snake, then I turned it loose again. Sometimes the terrarium housed a toad or a box turtle. All stayed only briefly before I took then back to where I’d caught them. I was always fascinated by any animal. The only lizard I ever caught proved himself a skilled escape artist. I awoke one morning to find him staring at me from the lamp on my nightstand.

But no, no hamster.

Mama wasn’t happy when I hatched quail in my room from a mail order incubator, but she hadn’t been fond of fowl in my room since the day she walked by and saw several baby chickens lined up on the footboard of my bed, preening in the morning sun. Finally getting their wing feathers, who could blame them for taking a first short flight to the sunny footboard? Mama was not amused.

People brought young animals to us they thought had been abandoned. Countless baby birds passed through my room to be cared for and turned loose. One spring I had nine tiny baby rabbits to be fed by eyedropper. Their nest had been run over by a tractor, their mother killed, and they were brought to us. All nine survived and were turned loose in the pasture by our house. For the next few years rabbits came from the pasture to sit at the edge of our yard.

But no, no hamster.

In high school I had to complete a biology project. We had several choices, but I opted for the one requiring the purchase of a mouse which I would then teach to run a maze. Mama was already at her wits end with the number of animals I had. In order to get one more I convinced her it was in the name of education. My teacher advised me to purchase a male mouse since a female would likely be pregnant. Naturally, I then asked specifically for a female but managed to purchase the only virgin. Babies never came. She proved a fast learner though, helping me get an “A” on my project. She then lived out a happy retirement in my room at home.

I once had finches, parakeets, and a wounded but recuperating pigeon in my room all at the same time. My fish tank was full of very prolific guppies. We had a big white rabbit for a while. Once, while bike riding with a cousin, I saw a dead kitten on the side of the road. I rode closer to see make sure it was dead, and it was, but another kitten then crawled from the ditch. I scooped it up and took it home. We had cows in the pasture for many years. Animals of many kinds were always a part of my daily life.

I would have told my coworker these things had she cared to listen. As I sat at my desk thinking back on the many animals I’ve loved in my life, I heard my coworker talking to someone at the copier.

“Did you ask Stuart too?” she was asked.

“Oh yes,” my coworker responded, “but I don’t think he’s into World Animal Day. He’s never had a hamster!”

No, I never had a hamster.

Stuart M. Perkins

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