Tag Archives: mother

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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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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Maybe That’s Why

Almost home after a day of errands with Mama and Daddy, my sisters and I were crammed into the back seat of the car. For a second we didn’t know what Mama meant when she spoke to Daddy in the driver’s seat.

“He’s gonna get hit.” Mama said.

We in the back seat jockeyed for position to get the best view through the windshield up front. We had to see who “he” was.

“He” was a dog.

The little blond dog trotted ahead of us right in the middle of the road. His fluffy tail, with long strands of blond hair trailing in the wind, curved up towards his back. He paid no attention when we passed but as we turned into our driveway he followed.

Daddy came to a stop in the driveway and so did the little dog. Through the window the dog and I stared at each other. He sat.

“Why’d he come here?” asked one of my sisters.

“Who knows.” Mama answered.

I leaned forward to poke my head between the two sitting in the front seat.

“Can we keep him?” I asked.

From the front came their synchronized “No.”

I offered a follow-up. “Why?”

“We already have a dog.” Daddy said as he opened her car door.

“Don’t touch him!” Mama yelled when I hopped from the car and walked straight to the little dog. “You don’t know what he might do.” she warned.

I talked to the dog as I approached. He wagged his tail before slightly baring his teeth. I stopped. He wagged his tail again then flopped to the ground on his back, bared his teeth even more, and appeared to squint.

He hadn’t snarled. He had smiled.

For that reason, Daddy named him “Smiley”. For a reason I don’t recall, I named him “Chip”. He never answered to either, but we kept the dog we couldn’t keep.

Chip was by my side constantly. He waited on the back porch when I went inside, followed me around the yard, and walked with me across the field to my grandmother’s. Our connection was instant and he acted as if I’d had him forever. Whenever I came home from being gone he’d squint, smile, and drop to have his belly rubbed.

Chip even followed me to the pasture where I picked blackberries. It had been a good summer for blackberries and cousins and I picked them by the quart for our grandmother who sold them and gave us the money. I’d picked blackberries all summer to save for a new bicycle. The one I wanted cost a hundred dollars, a lot of money at the time. I had so far earned ninety-four dollars but Chip’s arrival had temporarily slowed me from picking. I was back at it, excited that I’d almost reached my hundred dollar goal.

“He’s gonna get hit.” Mama said. “I had to get him out of the road again today.” Though normally by my side, whenever I was away Chip was seen walking in the middle of the road as he’d done that very first day. We sometimes caught him doing that at night.

The little dog had been at our house for maybe a month when Mama woke me up early one morning. “Something’s wrong with Chip.” she said.

I went outside to find him lying on the back porch. He didn’t stand up and the gash in the thigh of his left hind leg was still bloody. He’d have to go to the vet but I knew I had some money saved and I made it clear I would pay.

Daddy drove me to take the little dog to the vet and lectured me all the way. This is what happens when you have a dog, now money will need to be spent, the dog should have stayed out of the road, and on and on. He was mad that I’d spend my money on a stray dog. At the time I didn’t recognize his “anger” for what it really was. Disappointment. Not in me but for me. I’d worked and saved towards a goal and after almost reaching it this had happened. He thought I was being stupid.

I thought he was being heartless and I told him he’d never had a heart when it came to animals. It was a very rough argument.

The vet supposed Chip had been hit by a car. The little dog left the vet’s office with a shaved leg, several stitches, and a drainage tube dangling from the wounded area.  I left the vet’s office minus ninety-four dollars. I never knew what Daddy paid in addition but I’m sure it was plenty.

For the next two weeks I cleaned the drainage tube and waited for the next vet appointment. All went well and the tube and stitches were soon removed. Chip was energetic as ever. The only sign that anything had even happened to him was the shaved patch on his leg where the hair had just started to come back.

The next morning he was gone.

We searched the neighborhood, questioned everyone we saw, and in morbid reality we checked the ditches. No sign of Chip. We continued to search for him off and on for a few weeks before deciding he’d simply run away like he’d done from the people before us.

“Why’d he even come here?” I asked.

“Who knows.”  Daddy said.

Weeks passed and although we didn’t forget about Chip, we stopped looking.

I was in the yard when Daddy pulled in the driveway and told me to get in the car. He thought he’d seen Chip. We rode less than a mile down the street before entering another neighborhood. Two small girls played in a sandbox under a tree. Lying beside them in the grass was a little blond dog.

Daddy parked and we got out. I walked towards the dog, still unsure. He happened to wag his tail when one of the girls giggled and I saw the long blond hairs wave in the air.

“Chip?” The same dog who had never once answered to that name sat up instantly. He stood and walked slowly towards me. It was him.

He squinted, smiled, and dropped in front of me waiting for me to rub his belly.

A man came from the house and started talking to Daddy. As I rubbed Chip’s belly I heard Daddy ask questions about the dog. Apparently they’d had “Buddy” for eight years and he’d been a good dog, never leaving home, but a while back he suddenly disappeared for a month or so. When he came back he looked good but oddly one of his legs had been shaved.

Daddy explained all of that.

Funny too, the man went on to say, but Buddy never walks in the middle of the road anymore. He used to do that all the time.

“Why’d he go to your house?” the man wondered out loud.

“Who knows.” Daddy answered.

I was still rubbing Buddy’s belly when he stood and casually walked back to the sandbox where he wagged his tail at the girls before lying down again in the shade. Daddy walked over to where I stood and we watched Buddy roll onto his back, inviting the little girls to rub his belly.

I felt no sadness really, just a surge of happy satisfaction seeing my Chip, their Buddy, back where he belonged.

Daddy and I got in the car and sat for a minute. He watched me, to gauge my reaction to the situation I suppose. When he realized I felt pretty happy, he felt pretty happy too. I’d grown up a little maybe and I think he noticed. Under his breath Daddy said “See ya later, Smiley” and watched the little dog over his shoulder as we drove away. I noticed that.

Daddy and I hadn’t had much to say to each other since the bad argument on the way to the vet that morning some weeks ago, but we talked all the way back home.

“Yep.” Daddy said as we turned into our driveway. “Who knows why he ever came here.”

I wasn’t sure either why a dog that had never left home in eight years would follow us into our driveway, cause an uproar for a month, then go back home.

Then again… Daddy learned I’d grown up a little, I learned my father had a heart, and Buddy learned to stay out of the road.

So maybe that’s why. And that’s enough.

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 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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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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What Man?

“Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?” Daddy asked when my sisters and I were kids.

“What man?” we responded.

Daddy grinned slightly as he gazed into the distance. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, slowly lit one as suspense built, then pretended he’d forgotten he asked a question.

What man?” my sisters and I repeated. We grinned and stomped a foot at him.

We were familiar with his exasperating style but we knew a joke was coming. Or was it a joke? With Daddy we were never sure. He told a joke in such a way that after we had a good laugh we still had to ask him whether it was true.

“Is that real, Daddy?” one of us asked after he delivered the punch line.

“I don’t know, that’s what they tell me.” he answered, then walked off to busy himself with Daddy things, leaving us still wondering.

Daddy’s joke and story telling styles were the same – set us up, draw us in, hit us with a good one, then walk away like he’d had nothing to do with the laughter he left behind. Clearly it was genetic because I saw similar styles exhibited by his siblings. All excellent joke and story tellers.

Just like many families gather around the television at night, our families walked across the field to gather on my grandmother’s back porch. Nannie enjoyed the fact that her children had homes next to her farmhouse, and we all enjoyed her back porch filling with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Story telling would soon begin.

My parents, aunts, and uncles would shift chairs around the huge screened porch as they asked Nannie about the garden, wondered out loud as to when we’d dig potatoes, or decided we ought to fix home made ice cream the next weekend. Eventually, they would settle into the random collection of old metal chairs that lined the porch. Amid the sounds of ice tinkling in the tea glasses, metal chairs being scooted into final position, or a cousin’s dog barking to be let onto the porch, one of them would finally say, “Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?”

The games had begun.

Daddy or an uncle would stretch a story out for a while and the porch would laugh. The first story would trigger a second. The second story would give rise to a third. Then someone would remember a joke. More laughing from the porch.

At times, Mama or an aunt would feign disgust over a story or joke they considered remotely off color. “Thank goodness that’s all you told.” they might say. “I was afraid you were going to tell the one about the horse!”

A clear signal that the one about the horse should now be told.

Once the horse joke began, Mama and the aunts would sigh in disgust, then grin at each other between sips of iced tea.

The stories my family told were always funny, but I remember how much I loved their story telling styles. If Daddy told one, you may as well have a seat. He could stretch a knock-knock joke into a filibuster. One uncle might deliver lightning fast one liners, another might rival Daddy for air time. One aunt could hardly finish a funny story for all the laughing she did as she told it. I loved hearing what was told and couldn’t get enough of how it was told. There were many years of good story telling on that porch.

Earlier this year, both of my kids and I sat on the screened porch at my parents’ house. Daddy, eighty years old now, sat down to join us. As the four of us discussed what my kids had planned for the summer, I remembered my own summer evenings on Nannie’s porch listening to relatives do their story telling.

During a rare pause in Daddy’s conversation with the kids, I asked, “Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?”

“What man?” they both asked.

“He’ll tell you.” I said, as I nodded towards their grandfather.

Daddy said nothing, but he grinned slightly as he gazed into the distance. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, slowly lit one as suspense built, then pretended he’d forgotten I’d asked the question.

What man, Big Daddy?” the kids asked him.

Like the pro he was, Daddy slowly launched into one of his best. He stretched it out, paused when necessary, sped up when required, and hit the punch line hard at the end. Both of the kids doubled over with laughter and told him he was “awesome”. I could tell something was on their minds.

“That was funny, but was it true Big Daddy?” they asked him.

He looked at me and grinned from ear to ear. He remembered the old days on Nannie’s porch, just as I had.

Getting no response from him, the kids turned to me.

“Well?” they asked me. “Was that true?”

I grinned at the inquiring looks on their faces. I remembered that feeling when what I’d just heard had been hilarious, but had been told to me in such a way that I really wasn’t sure it was a joke. Daddy’s grin became even wider when I responded to my kids.

“I don’t know, that’s what they tell me.” I said to them. In unison, Daddy and I left the porch, leaving the kids still wondering.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Cousin with a Casserole

I washed the last casserole dish and stacked it with others on the kitchen counter. What a genuine kindness each represented and the many meals provided to my family this week sincerely helped ease some distress. Daddy died one week ago today. His heart issues had recently worsened and at almost 81 years old he could handle no more. This past week is a dismal blur and a void that can’t be filled has become brutally obvious. I could write volumes on Daddy and maybe at some point I will. With emotions still so close to the surface I wouldn’t do him justice right now with an attempt.

It was a wee hour of the morning when Daddy died, so friends and extended family didn’t learn of his death until some hours later. As early afternoon arrived, so did the first wave of cousins bringing food. They weren’t asked to, they did so because that’s what you kindly do. They quietly appeared with bags of drinks, casseroles, containers of this or that, and even an entire baked ham. There was no fanfare, just a solemn presentation of the tangible evidence of their caring.  Mama, distraught over Daddy’s death and drained by her own health issues said more than once that she was overwhelmed by the instant show of support.

The number of tasks to attend to following a death saps everyone of everything and attention to meals gets lost in priorities. The gifts of food that flowed into Mama’s kitchen were appreciated more than anyone can know. Each day this past week saw yet another meal supplied by cousins, aunts and uncles, or one of many family friends. It seemed that every person who dropped by to express sympathy did so as they handed us a gift of food. With so many of us staying at Mama’s house, what a blessing that really was!

Often over the years I saw Mama leave the house with food she’d made for other grieving families, but I’m astounded by what I’ve seen come into her house this week. The meals thankfully filled a basic need for our family, but every dish was also a sincere expression of love. We had many things to worry about and still do, of course, but whether we had enough food in the house was never one of them. To come home to waiting meals after talking to the funeral director for hours or spending a long evening at the funeral home was a true comfort.

I would imagine that taking food to a grieving family preoccupied by sorrow and the business of death is probably ages old, all over the world. On a personal level there was something so encouraging about seeing people, many were friends of Daddy’s the rest of us didn’t even personally know, come through the back door with food and condolences. The act of providing meals to a grieving family is such a basic and purely kind way to help.

All who stopped by have their own lives to manage, their own issues to deal with, but they stopped by just the same. Among the many people who so kindly looked out for us I saw elderly women who had difficulty walking but who walked anyway just to bring us a meal. An elderly man Daddy knew for decades brought a cake to Mama. He tried to speak but his crying prevented it so he simply handed her the cake and walked away. Yesterday I saw Daddy’s older brother, arms full, struggling to open the door to the porch. Before I could get there to help he had quietly slipped a watermelon into the extra refrigerator and gone on his way. At the funeral home, a high school friend I hadn’t seen in years handed me a wrapped platter full of brownies as she hugged me. Maybe something extra is communicated when condolences are accompanied by food?

I wish I could properly articulate how much it helped my family to see the parade of familiar faces come through the back door during such a strange, sad week. It was wonderful, beautiful, awesome, and all of those other words we tend to overuse but which in this case are completely appropriate.

During such a stressful, gloomy time, I was reminded that the kindness, caring, and love I have seen my family and friends give to others over the years is still very much there. They rose to this occasion and their generosity and presence this week helped us deal with the sorrow, no question about it.

We never expected more than the “I’m sorry.” which we heard many times, but there was something innately sweet and comfortingly familiar about a tentative tap on the back door followed by a cousin with a casserole.

Whether family or friend, what each person held between two pot holders was more than just supper. It was an extension of their caring, an expression of their love, and a show of support that no one in my family will soon forget.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Hi Ben

During my walk through the cemetery this afternoon I noticed rabbits tucked here and there, watched countless squirrels skitter across gravestones, and heard two blue jays bicker with a crow as it picked something from an old paper bag. Acres in size, this cemetery is full of wildlife from backyard birds to a family of foxes living in a back corner where brush is piled. Once I walk into the cemetery all traffic noises are gone, no sirens blare, and I forget I’m only four miles from downtown D.C. Watching a pair of cardinals in the shrubs by the gate, I sat down at a bench beside one of the gravestones.

I knew from other walks in the cemetery that if I sat on this bench long enough, the family of chipmunks living under the granite base of the tombstone next to it would soon get the nerve to come out. I’m not sure how many live below since there is a constant flow out of the hole, in the hole, back out, two of them now, no wait three, all gone, no here they come again. Once I had four in sight as they scrambled over each other like kittens, paused, then dashed back under the granite, tails in the air. All of these animals today reminded me of the many, many times as a kid that we took in abandoned animals brought to us by well-meaning people.

Our house was always full of animals. Not just the cats and dogs we had, but baby birds, baby rabbits, and even a lizard with three legs someone brought in case we could help it. I currently live in a third floor condo so a pet of any kind is almost out of the question, but something as simple as an afternoon watching rabbits, foxes, and chipmunks can sometimes fill the void.

As a chipmunk bounded from the hole and headed towards a crepe myrtle, a plump robin landed beside me on the back of the bench. I instantly thought of Ben, the name Mama gave to a baby robin someone brought to our house years ago. Mama was usually pretty exasperated by the number of animals I kept, but for some reason she took over caring for Ben the instant he showed up in the bottom of a shoe box. He was just a chunky, fuzzy blob the day he arrived, but in no time Mama had him fat and feathered.

We had a huge screened porch where Mama kept Ben, so he was able to fly as he grew. Ben was satisfied to stay on the screened porch and land on the arms of neighbors who came to visit. People would always ask Mama, “Doesn’t he go to the bathroom on you?”

“Ben would never do that.” Mama always said.

As weeks passed and summer went by, Ben became an adult and began acting interested in other robins in the yard. Mama worried about it, but not wanting to hold him back, she decided she would let him go out to see what he would do.

He flew away.

In an hour he was back. Mama tapped on a can, something she’d done each time she’d fed him, and he flew back to the screened porch. He spent the night there but the next day the pattern repeated: Free to fly in the yard all day, sit on the gutter over the back door which was now favorite spot, then back to the screened porch at night. After a few days of this, Ben no longer returned to the screened porch at night but still spent a lot of time on the gutter over the back door.

“He’s going to sit up there and go to the bathroom on you.” Daddy would say to Mama as he laughed.

“Ben would never do that.” she maintained.

Mama would tap on the can, Ben would fly from the gutter to the porch railing to be fed, then off to the yard somewhere to socialize with his own kind. This new pattern continued for a few more days then we stopped seeing Ben waiting on the gutter. As weeks went by we saw the occasional robin on the gutter, or one in the yard that didn’t seem particularly afraid, but robins never really do. As fall and then winter came the robins disappeared and we wondered if Ben had adjusted well enough to leave with them. We hoped he could survive.

We thought about Ben often during the winter.  As spring came, the more robins that showed up the more we talked about him. One late spring morning I went outside to see a robin on the gutter above the back door. It didn’t fly away. I called Mama who hurried and started talking to the bird. It cocked its head at her but made no effort to move. She stepped inside, grabbed a can from the recycling bin, and came back. As she tapped the can the robin cocked its head again. When Mama tapped a second time, the robin flew down from the gutter to sit on the railing.

“Hi Ben.” Mama said. The robin sat still as she talked. “Hi Ben.” she said again. The robin cocked its head once more and actually hopped along the railing towards Mama. It sat still, staring at her. Then, in a flutter of wings it flew away over the pine trees and was gone. If it was Ben, we never saw him again that we know of. Mama still talks about Ben to this day.

As I sat on that bench in the cemetery remembering Ben and the many, many animals we took care of for short periods of time, I felt a little wistful. There’s a feeling we animal lovers get from having them around, the interaction, the bonding, and the comedy they can provide. There was a feeling of melancholy that came over me remembering Mama’s success with Ben and how I really do think that was him who came back for a visit the next spring.

Feeling full of nostalgia, I turned to the plump robin still sitting on the bench beside me.

“Hi Ben.” I said.

The robin cocked its head at me and just before flying off, it unceremoniously went to the bathroom down the back of the bench.

Ben would never have done that.

Stuart M. Perkins

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