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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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Near Miss

Wait! Frantically I chased the bus trying to catch the driver’s attention. Brakes screeched and exhaust puffed as he threw open the door and impatiently waved me in. Out of breath from my unexpected sprint, I leaped onto the bus which jerked roughly into motion. Why does everything seem so urgent?

Ear shattering noises blasting from my alarm clock that morning had startled me into reality. Abusing the snooze button meant ultimately springing from bed in a hasty rush. After a speedy shower I dressed in a hurry and dashed out of my front door to see the bus pulling away.

And from now on I should hurry! I nearly missed it!

Anxiety at work as constant emails popped up. Between fast-paced phone calls I zipped out for a quick lunch and realized in a panic that I was late to a meeting. Choking down a sandwich while running, I flew through the doors of the conference room just as the meeting began.

Frazzled and heading home, the congested commute included a hectic stop by the crowded market before charging off to meet others at a restaurant across town. The cab was late, I anxiously begged the driver to speed up, and barely made it before losing the reservation.

Busy Saturday’s numerous errands included a breakneck trip to the dry cleaners before stopping by the bank. Next, off to the post office. Back towards home to drop off the car for repairs before the mechanic closed. Heavy traffic and honking horns added to the stress of trying to make it in time.

And from now on I should hurry! I nearly missed it!

Breathe. Calmly, I began the next morning determined to take it easy. Though always much to do, this day would not suffer the angry push from an alarm clock. Lusciously aromatic steam billowed from my coffee cup as I eased into the cushioned chair on the patio outside. The fountain trickled peacefully in the background.

Beautifully, a cardinal sang from a branch in the maple as a nearby squirrel gave himself a lazy scratch behind the ear. Two small white butterflies danced and drifted as a pair across the garden. A fuzzy bumblebee covered in pollen took his time crawling over marigolds blooming under the crepe myrtle.

Gracefully, a sparrow floated down to land at the edge of the fountain. The little bird dipped its beak into the water, ruffled its feathers, and with eyes closed sat motionless in the early sunshine for several minutes. No sound. No movement. That tiny fellow had made a decision to find some peace in that moment. A valuable lesson.

And from now on I should slow down. I nearly missed it.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Perfect Fit

“Hopefully I’ll have that again someday.” my son Evan said wistfully over the phone.

“You will!” I encouraged him. “Just give it a while.”

“Best that it’s over but there were still some fun times.” he went on.

“You’ll have that with someone new.” I said. “You’re only nineteen. Plenty of time.”

“Yeah.” he said solemnly. “Just not sure it will happen again or be as good.”

“It will only be better!” I said confidently.

“But how do you know it will be better?” he asked.

Oh no. He wanted an answer.

I’m absolutely no relationship expert. I’ve been in several and calculate I’d have done things differently in every case. I’m just no fountain of good advice. Still, my son’s lamenting after his unpleasant breakup triggered memories and I searched for words of wisdom to help him through this momentary setback.

That strong parental desire to offer profound guidance washed over me. I prepared to launch into weighty philosophical input that would surely embolden him to dismiss his temporary breakup regrets. I took a deep breath and began my lofty speech.

“Well, it’s like this…” I began.

With the spotlight squarely on me and my son listening intently, paying more attention to a parent than any nineteen year old ever has, I went into a panic. Ideas had flashed before me while Evan spoke. Where had they gone? What had I intended to say? What was that clever tidbit again? Gone. All gone. But Evan waited eagerly.

“Well, it’s like this…” I began again. “Relationships are like underwear.”

I had no clue where that came from even as I heard myself say it.

“Ok…?” Evan chuckled in anticipation.

That wasn’t enough? I had to say more?

“You put on a new pair of underwear and it’s great. Feels good, nice change, you like them, and soon find you prefer them over all others. How wonderful life is with this new pair of underwear.”

“Ok…?” Evan chuckled again.

He expected even more? He’s a nineteen year old boy. Time to break it down.

“Well, then one day you realize the new underwear is up your ass.”

Evan chuckled loudly this time. “Ok…?”

“So you say wow, didn’t expect that. You make a few adjustments and you try to move on. It happens again. A few more tries to make things right but it’s just not working. No matter how much you’d loved the new underwear and no matter how many adjustments were made there has now come the point when you realize you need to take them off for good.”

Silence.

“So, unfortunately you say goodbye to that pair but at some point you come across another new pair. You put them on and maybe something about them reminds you too much of the pair that hadn’t worked out so well in the past. You pretty quickly take this pair off having learned from the last just what works for you about underwear and what doesn’t.”

Silence.

“None of us know when or where we might ultimately find underwear with the right fit, but we keep trying with yet another new pair if an old pair fails. So, I know your next pair of underwear will be better than the last because you learn something each time you try one on. Never settle for the wrong fit. Remember, none of this means that you or any of the pairs of underwear were necessarily bad. It simply means the fit wasn’t right.”

Silence.

“One day you’ll put on that next new pair of underwear and they’ll feel pretty nice but  you may hesitate. Ignore the fact that any one pair of underwear, or maybe all underwear, has disappointed you in the past. If this newest pair feels good then enjoy it and see what happens. One day you’ll put on a new pair and the fit will be so nice, so perfect, that you’ll skip along every day for the rest of your life not even realizing you have on underwear at all.”

There, that was all I had. I knew I’d fallen short but I’m just not good with relationship advice. I waited for the dial tone I knew was coming…

That” Evan said through a hearty laugh, “was the dumbest, grossest, and best thing I’ve ever heard! That was awesome.”

Phew! I wiped the sweat from my upper lip.

Evan hadn’t necessarily asked for relationship advice nor had I been eager to give any. What do I know? His angst was serious and my response may not have been, but I recognized his feelings and let him know in the wacky way he probably expected of me that I understood.

Keep trying. The perfect fit is out there.

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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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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One Man’s Trash

“Naw, let’s just leave it there for now.” Mama said over her shoulder as she washed a plate and arranged it with others in the rack.

I didn’t ask why I couldn’t have it, I just dropped the rusty key back into the drawer and watched it disappear between a crushed matchbook and a small ball of frayed string.

When I was little the drawer by the refrigerator was a mystery. The clanking sounds made as Mama or Daddy dug through it and the strange faces they made when they picked up one item or another, stared and tossed it back, were intriguing. Finally tall enough to open it myself, I’d spent a few minutes running my hand through the odd assortment of things in the drawer. If Mama wouldn’t let me have the rusty key I didn’t dare ask about the torn Queen of Hearts playing card, the bent thumb tack, or the random assortment of colored bread ties. They must really be valuable.

A few years passed before I opened the drawer again. Although it was directly beside the refrigerator, which I opened often, the drawer usually faded into the cabinet. It caught my eye that day so I pulled it open. Taller now, I could see and reach even further into its mysterious depths. I fished out a cracked cigarette lighter with half an old crayon stuck to its side, the words “Burnt Umber” still visible on the crayon’s fragile paper. To the left, tucked behind the microwave’s yellowing owner’s manual, was an old pair of broken sunglasses. With a questioning look I held them in the air to show Mama as she came back from the store with a bag of groceries.

“Naw, let’s just leave it in there for now.” She maneuvered around me to put milk in the refrigerator.

I looked in the drawer several times over the years, at first to ease my curiosity but later to laugh and wonder how the useless random items spent decades in that sliding time capsule without being thrown away. In my spot checks of the drawer I never saw anything missing and rarely saw anything added other than a few questionable AAA batteries, an occasional dry rotted rubber band, and the cracked cap of a long-gone ballpoint pen.

I vowed never to have a drawer like that in my house.

Years later in my own home I hung pictures one afternoon. When done, rather than take the hammer back to the basement, I lazily dropped it into the drawer by my refrigerator. I giggled to myself when I saw familiar bread ties and an old shoelace already taking up space there. Some time later I lost the key to a small luggage lock. Thinking I’d eventually find it I put the little lock into the drawer for safe keeping. When my daughter’s doll lost a hand I put it in the drawer along with the tiny tire from one of my son’s toy cars. I knew they’d be safe there with the broken pencil sharpener and a feather.

As my kids grew older and taller they discovered my drawer. They caught me off guard the day they asked to play with a broken wristwatch they dug from its contents.

“Naw, let’s just leave it in there for now.” I heard myself say.

I was always puzzled by my parents’ junk drawer. I was even more puzzled by my own. Why do we keep odd bits of trash? I had locks with no keys, keys to no locks, and I actually struggled one day before throwing away a peppermint I found stuck in the drawer’s back corner behind a broken shoehorn.

My kids are older teenagers now. Will they also collect little drawers of debris when they start homes of their own?  That very thought crossed my mind last year during my daughter’s high school graduation weekend. While she went out with friends, my son and I sat in his room happily chatting about nothing. As he reached into his closet for a guitar, a non-descript little tin can rolled out into the room. Thinking it trash, I picked it up and walked towards the door. He stared at me for a second then nodded back towards the closet as he spoke.

“Naw, let’s just leave it in there for now.”

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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