Free Range Stories


“We write to taste life twice; in the moment and in retrospection.”   Anais Nin

Stories and poems written in Guided Autobiography class

Voice by Holly Bertram
It's Saturday morning. I'm sitting at the dining room table; the flame of the gas wall heater next to me is making familiar purring sounds. It’s warm and cozy here. I'm using the clustering method and I have so many ideas written down. I feel somewhat proud.

I'm reminded of my voice. I'm ten. I'm belting out "Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer" while lying on the backseat of my parents yellow 1958 hardtop Thunderbird. My brother is driving; mom's in the front seat. We're driving to Lakewood, Ohio from Pompano Beach, Florida, mostly on two lane US highways. It's a very long trip.

Jeff only has his permit but Mom lets him drive. Once he stops too suddenly and I land on the floor. I sing the verses "Roll out those lazy, hazy days of summer, over and over again the whole trip, except for an occasional nap or when my voice becomes hoarse. I'm an annoying ten year old according to my brother. But, boy can I sing. 

My 4 year old Granddaughter, Ryn, loves to sing. No one can stop her from singing; just like her grandma as a young girl. Once she's buckled in her car seat, she'll ask for one of her favorite CD's to be played. She sings along with feeling and enthusiasm. She knows the words of Frozen, Let it Go, Jonah and Whale songs. My daughter sent me a video of Ryn singing Adele's Hello. I love listening to her powerful little voice.

I started driving a school bus this year; a short one, an EC bus. EC means exceptional children. I like saying that instead of handicap bus. The afternoon route of my first day, the adult rider/helper said, “You're going to love the last stop”. I thought for a second and said, “You mean, I won't like it?" He said with a little laugh, "Right". He didn't tell me why. 

It's the very last stop and I have to back down a narrow, steep one lane road, passing two front yards to get to where I stop, all the while missing two mailboxes and a ditch on either side. Did I sign up for this? I remember when I took the school bus driving course 30 years ago. I was taught you never back up more than a few yards. When the bus is in reverse a backup alarm makes a continuous beeping, a strobe light and caution lights are blinking so you can't miss seeing the bus. 


I have the bus ready to back up. I'm stressed.  I've never backed up this far.  I know this isn't safe or appropriate. The driver before me put the bus in neutral and would coast.  That sounded totally crazy to me.  Using my side mirrors for guidance, my rider gives me assistance.  I back up very slowly until the bus door lines up with the driveway.  I'm relieved.  the boy exits and I drive away.

When we return to school, I'm anxious to make a change to this situation.  I speak to the principal.  He understands.  My principal said he'd contact the bus garage in the morning; changes can't be made without their approval.  My voice was heard.  Turns out it was an unofficial stop.  I only had to back up two more afternoons while the parents made other arrangements.


The Stranger in the Backyard

Paul and I pedal through waves of honeysuckle and wild rose scented air.  Heading to town for Japanese food, we ride our bikes past a man sitting crossed legged on the grass.  He is barefoot and draped in a white cloth.  He sits on what would have been the front lawn of an elegant ruin of a house that burned down years ago.  The concrete stairs are all that remain.  They look like a small stage.   The dark skinned man sits there reading in the shade. 

Getting off our bikes like aging cowboys, Paul says, “That was amazing; seeing that man back there.”  “I know”, I agree, “beautiful -like human art,” We head inside to eat sushi and drink Sapporo beer.   Paul tells me that the Sapporo can is exhibited in the Guggenheim.  He points out that the shiny grooved Sapporo beer can is considered art.  I don’t think so.  

We chat with the sushi chef, who is from Burma; and he calls it Burma, not Myanmar. His smile engages his whole face.  We invite him to play table tennis with us but he works most every night.  I wonder where his joy comes from. 

It is almost dark as we get back on our bikes and head home.  We glance in the direction where we’d seen the dark skinned stranger.  We barely make him out in the fading light.   I see the white of his cloth lying flat on the ground.  He is sleeping on the grass?  Paul and I pull over, get off our bikes, and lean them against a tree.

I whisper to Paul,  “I think he is asleep.”  Paul says, “If the police see him, they won’t let him spend the night here.  Each sentence is almost a question.   Paul gently touches the man’s shoulder and wakes him.  The stranger calmly opens his eyes.  I wonder where his calm comes from.

His face is elegant and timeless; I have no idea how old he might be.  He searches our faces and says something in another language; maybe some African language.  We tell him that he should not sleep here.  He doesn’t understand.  We mimic authority telling him to go away.  

We invite him to come with us.  Paul and I, without talking it over, just know to do this.  It feels somewhat risky; but if feels right.  

The man has been listening closely but doesn’t say anything.  Paul and I don’t know how much he understands so we say the same thing again, slowly.  He says something but we don’t understand.  We start again.  We tell him our names.   Paul and I make it clear that we want him to come with us.  The stranger smiles so we think he agrees to it.  

I race my bike home to get our car while Paul stays with the man.  We live less than a mile away.  I tell Casey, my daughter, what we are up to, and quickly drive back.  The men are sitting together in what looks like silence.   I pull up and they get in. 

We drive home with few words; just enough to affirm a plan.  I feel like we have an astronaut in the car, or Gandhi.  I have the feeling of a Holy Experiment.  Standing together in our backyard, I invite the man, in what I imagine is fluent sign language, to shower, have some food or tea.  

He smiles wide, shakes his head no, and stands there; poised and attentive.  I go inside and get him a jar of water.  He smiles, gleaming white teeth and peaceful eyes.  We say our versions of “Goodnight”.  The stranger wrapped in white cloth and probably nothing else, heads toward the tent that Paul has just finished setting up.  

 “Mom, are you crazy!” Casey, a senior in high school, is in the kitchen waiting for us as we come in.  She’s been watching us from the window.  I vouch for her safety and dramatically lock the back door.  

It’s late.  I go upstairs and look out my bedroom window.  The man is wrapped in the white cloth right outside the tent on the tarp.  

I am startled by the grace and mystery I feel as I watch the man curled up in the moonlight.  I feel a peace, a grace in this man’s presence.  Sheltering him in our backyard feels like we are sheltering Jesus.  

Just before sunrise I wake, get out of bed, and look out the window.  

He is gone. 

Where is heaven?    By Jeanie Martin
Growing up, my family attended the First Presbyterian Church in New Bern, N.C.  On Sunday I would be dressed in in a hand-me-down dress from one of my sisters who may have received it from one of our cousins, which meant by the time it made to me it would be faded and worn.   I could have cared less about the dress because what excited me was that this was the one day of the week that I could wear my patent leather, flip-strap, Mary Jane shoes.  I was born with feet issues and every other the day of the week I had to wear heavy oxfords with arch supports.  My brother said that I looked like I was wearing Frankenstein shoes.  I begged my mother to let me wear the Mary Janes with the straps flipped to the back so that my shoes would look like fancy, grown-up slip-ons but she always said no because they would “eat up my socks”.  

After everyone was dressed and hair was combed, we piled into the Rambler and headed downtown to church. On the first day of my Kindergarten Sunday School class, my mother escorted me to a classroom in the basement. The room had tiny chairs placed into a half-circle and the teacher Mrs. Huggins welcomed me to her class.  As I watched the last bit of my mother’s hem round the corner, my mild anxiety dissolved at the site of animal cracker boxes and juice.  Other children’s little hands were passed from their mothers to Mrs. Huggins and we settled into our seats for our Bible story and lesson.  

I don’t remember the details of the lesson but I do remember the picture that Mrs. Huggins showed us. She held up a print of a child in a field looking up.  Peeking down out of the clouds was a man with long white hair and a white beard and a kindly smile.  I got excited thinking that our lesson was going to be about Santa Claus.   Mrs. Huggins said this was God who was our father in heaven.   She said that he loved all his children very much and if we were good then when we died, we would live with him forever in heaven.   

I remember being confused about God being my father as my father worked at Eddie Webb’s Shoe Store on Middle Street and he didn’t look anything like the man in the clouds.   And besides that, I didn’t plan on dying any time soon.  After the lesson we pulled our chairs up to little tables, took crayons out of a cigar box and colored pictures of angels who also lived in heaven with God our father.  

After we got home, we ate Sunday brunch prepared by my father, the one that worked at the shoe store. He didn’t go to church.  My mother said that his Sunday morning church was reading the newspaper without all of us bothering him.  My mother and I then went out to work in our garden.  We had a big vegetable garden and my mother knew all about growing food.  She showed me which plants were the weeds and how to pull them out so that the roots didn’t break off. 

Still thinking about heaven, I looked up into the sky and asked my mother where exactly heaven was. She stopped for a moment in the middle of the squash vines, looked around the garden and said, “Right here.” I liked the idea of heaven being in our garden where we weren’t dead and everything smelled so good.   And since I believed that my mother knew everything about everything, gardens became my idea of heaven and they still are.   

After all the preaching and teachings I have heard in my life in regards to the 3 story Universe of heaven, Earth and hell, I wonder how things might have been different if we all had been taught that heaven was right in our backyards.  How would we have cared for Earth if we knew that God lived in the squash patch and the only white-haired man in the sky was Santa Claus? 


Restaurant by Georgina Holmes 
It was England; 1947.  The war was over and all those who had been overseas were now back where they belonged, which I supposed included us.  We were a family of strangers.  My brother came back to England from India when he was eleven.  He was now twelve. I had known him for one year.  Father, whom I had never known, returned as an angry and unhappy man. 

He had hoped to die with his boots on.  Now he was obliged to join the group that he most despised; civilians.  He had recently married a woman whom neither my brother nor I had ever met.  She had a daughter, a very precious daughter, the same age as myself; sixteen years old but from such a different mold.  Our dysfunctional family now lived together in a three-bedroom apartment in Central London.

My brother was allocated a room half way down the stairs.  It had been used as a broom closet.  Very little was clear other than the lack of communication, the lack of understanding, even the lack of genuine good will.  I remember when my father was told by his new wife to take my brother and I to lunch, as she and her daughter would not be home.

I thought hopefully, “Oh, perhaps we might visit this new place with the wonderful smells called The Brasserie!”  I mentioned this hesitantly because I was mostly terrified of father’s reactions.  My remark was met with, “Don’t be so disgusting.  What are you thinking?”  I was duly cowed.  I remained puzzled and silent and considered that maybe he thought I said, “Brassiere”.  In a numbed state of mind, we waited to see where we would go.

To our surprise, he called a taxi.  Why, I wondered?  Our neighborhood was littered with restaurants?  We got in and set off.  In about 20 minutes, we arrived and were stunned to find ourselves at the Savoy Hotel?  Father strode purposefully forward with us following timidly behind.  The doorman bowed as we entered into the grandest and most glittering hall we’d ever seen; with high ceilings and at least six huge chandeliers.  Still trying to fathom father’s mind, we noticed a grillroom on the side and a coffee bar.  Maybe.. but no?  We were escorted to the main dining room!  

On entering, we were swept away to a far table by waiters in white uniforms floating silently around like a flock of doves from table to table, leaving three to hover behind our chairs.  They pressed a menu in our hands and deferentially handed a list of drinks to father.  I was so confused, so benumbed, that I could not even read the menu.  Father had that effect on me.  He seemed to paralyze my brain. After a long silence, I heard him tell the waiter, “We’ll have two baked beans on toast and one martini.”

Where did he come up with this; certainly not the menu?  We ate in silence, struggling to swallow our baked beans.  Did he think we were still six years old?  Peggy, his wife, commented later that he must have had a flashback to nursery tea with his Nanny.  While we ate, father sipped his martini and contemplated the menu.  I considered that as soon as he delivered us back to the flat, that he would be off to his beloved Army and Navy Club to have a splendid lunch with yet another martini.

Although my thinking process was challenged, I felt I knew exactly what he was thinking.  He considered that he had done his fatherly duty and so with a clear conscience and a sigh of relief, he could go back to those who knew him best; certainly not his family!  He would be comfortable surrounded by his own well-trained wait staff; so anxious to fulfill his every need.




Deconstructing Goldilocks 
               A published piece by Karen Jackson

Ugly old woman or girl with fair
hair? Lost in the woods or lured
into the forest? Whichever

version of the tale you choose,
the chair breaks, the broth spills
and the bed is filled with a babe

who does not belong
there, in that room,
with those bears

and no matter how many homes
one peers into, none are justrightand many a mother

has told a daughter, it doesn’t matter
if your bed is too soft or too hard,
“If you make it, you have to lie in it.”

And lie in it Goldilocks did,
through two centuries
as bards altered her from

hag into naughty child with silver
then golden hair, and then into a lass
eating porridge, plumping pillows

because too many stories featured
nasty old crones, and the once
frightful tale of a mother

rescuing her daughter from grizzlies
became a damsel longing for hearth,
dating one man, too hot, another too cold,

a third just right, until she wakes in his bed,
jumps from the story, and exits through
a window that has always been open.


       One: An Online Poetry Journal.Issue 17: January 15, 2019





The Stranger in the Backyard by Diane Rhoades 
Paul and I ride our bikes past a man sitting crossed legged on the grass.   He is barefoot and draped in a white cloth.  He sits on what would have been the front lawn of an elegant ruin of a house that burned down years ago.  The concrete stairs are all that remain.  They look like a small stage.   The dark skinned man sits there reading in the shade.

Getting off our bikes like aging cowboys, Paul says, “Did you see that man sitting on the steps?”  “Just beautiful; like human art”, I say.  We head inside Umi's to eat sushi and drink Sapporo beer.   Paul points out that the shiny grooved Sapporo beer can is exhibited in the Guggenheim as art.  I don’t get it.  

We chat with the sushi chef, who is from Burma. His smile engages his whole face. We invite him to play table tennis with us on Tuesday nights.  "Work most every night. Can no play. Sorry." I wonder where his joy comes from. It is almost dark as we get back on our bikes and head home.  I see the white cloth of our dark skinned stranger in the fading light.  The cloth covers him as he sleeps on the grass.  Paul and I, without a word, pull over, get off our bikes and quietly lean them against a tree.

I whisper,  “I think he is asleep.”  Paul says, “If the police see him, they won’t let him spend the night here. We should wake him."  Each sentence sounds like a question.   Paul gently touches the man’s shoulder.  He calmly opens his eyes.  I wonder where his calm comes from.

His face is elegant and timeless; I have no idea how old he might be.  He searches our faces and says something in another language; maybe an African dialect.  We tell him that he should not sleep here.  We mimic authority telling him to go away.  We invite him to come with us.  Paul and I, without talking it over, just know to do this.  It feels somewhat risky but if feels right.  

The man has been listening closely but doesn’t say anything.  Paul and I don’t know how much he understands so we say the same thing again, only slower.  He says something but we don’t understand.  We start again.  We tell him our names.   Paul and I make it clear that we want him to come with us.  We suggest a plan in sign language.  The stranger smiles so we think he agrees to it.  

I race my bike home to get our car while Paul stays with the man.  I tell Casey, my daughter, what we are up to, and quickly drive back.  The men are sitting together, in what looks like silence.   I pull up and they get it. 

We drive the mile home with few words.  I feel like we have an astronaut in the car, or Gandhi.  I have the feeling of a Holy Experiment.  I invite the man, in what I imagine is fluent sign language, to shower, have some food or tea.  He smiles wide, shakes his head no, and stands there; poised and attentive.  I go inside and get him a mason jar of water.  The stranger, wrapped in white cloth and probably nothing else, heads toward the tent that Paul has just finished setting up.  I give him the water and we say our versions of “Goodnight”.  

 “Mom, are you crazy!” Casey, who is 17, is in the kitchen waiting for us as we come in.  She’s been watching us from the window.  I vouch for her safety and dramatically lock the back door.  It’s late.  Casey and I go upstairs and look out my bedroom window.  He is not inside the tent.  He lies right outside the tent on the tarp, his white cover. 

I am moved by grace, mystery, and the man curled up in a flood of moonlight.  There is a peace about this man’s presence.  Sheltering him in our backyard feels like we are sheltering the Holy One.  Just before sunrise I wake, get out of bed and look out the window.  

He is gone. 


BEYOND BELIEF by Arlene Russell
Tuesday morning I pick Koda up from Hal and Constance’s house in Arden. They are heading to Buffalo, New York and Koda is staying with me for the week. 

After a quick stop for fruit and vegetables at Harris Teeter, we head back to my condo. Sitting near the entrance is a young homeless man.  A black and white Jack Russell is cuddled up next to him. 

The dog, Rasha, draws me in. After a few pleasantries about his dog, I settle myself on the sidewalk to continue our conversation. I offer to buy him lunch. He hesitates.  “That would be very generous of you. I just had breakfast though.”   

He looks at me, turns his gaze to the sky, and continues, “I’m worried about the hurricane. It’s heading our way… I don’t think my tent will be a good place to ride out this storm. It’s set up in the woods near by.”

He talks a bit about the hazards of unauthorized ‘camping’. Between the possibility of police rousting him or people stumbling across his site - slashing his tent, it doesn’t sound good but it appears to be all he and Rasha have at the moment. 

Rasha is in a trance as I scratch under her chin.  I listen as her owner continues his story. He grew up here in Hendersonville and is back now after falling on hard times down in Florida.  

“Would you be offended if I give you some money?”, I say.   
“No” he says.
Checking my wallet, I find I only have a couple of singles. 
“Look. I’m going to run in and do some quick shopping. I will be able to get some cash when I check out.”

We continue to talk about his prospects. 

“I have a few things in the works”, he says, meaning friends who might be able to take him in during the storm. I tell him about the 7thAvenue Shelter. 

“Hmmm... can’t do that. I can’t leave my dog. She is everything to me. We've been together for six years. I can’t leave her with just anyone.”

He shows me his hand and the stitched up slash across his palm; a work related accident. 

“I’m not afraid to work. I want to get off the street and have things. It’s just a bad time right now.” 

Finally, my brain clicks into gear! I had made a stop at the bank to cash a dog sitting check. I do have money! “I just remembered I have some money in my car. I’ll be right back!”

As I head to my car, an elderly woman calls to me from her vehicle, “What is that young man’s story?” Rattling off a pocketful of words, I finish with, “It’s so hard to know what to do, but I am going to my car to get some money for him.”

After a few words with her husband, she gets out of her car and walks toward the young man.

Lovely story, isn’t it? But this is only the first layer. Underneath the Hallmark façade is a different ‘truth’ buried beneath an impressive amount of garbage. Approaching my car, I hear yet another voice.

“You don’t really believe him, do you? I think he is playing you. The cute dog is a nice touch. You are such a sucker. A regular ‘Do Gooder’!  And now you are going to give him money?  How much?

“I don’t know...$40? Or $60?”

“Are you kidding me? Good lord, you just want to make a good impression. I know you…you showoff.”

Opening the bank envelope, I debate,  “$40?...No, $60! It has to mean something…hurt a little. Giving $20 is too easy. $60 is better.”

Walking back to the young man, I see the older women handing him something - money, I presume.

“I wonder how much SHE is giving him?” 
“So that’s why you opted for $60…you didn’t want to be out done by this interloper. Oh, look. She’s talking to him. YOU talked to him first. Well, I bet you are giving him way more than she is. Doesn’t that make you feel all warm and tingly?”

“Shut the F’k up!”

“Oh, you are precious! Touchy, touchy! Did I hit a nerve? You do know these are all your own thoughts, don’t you?”

Reaching him, I palm three $20 dollar bills into his hand.  He looks up with a shy smile and thanks me.

“Did he see how much you gave him? What did she give him? Wait…what are you doing?”

I wish him well, lean over and kiss him on the forehead.

CUT! That’s a wrap folks!

“Damn! You are right! I am all about the image. Damn! I hate that about myself …the part that watches, judges and gages the impact…WITNESSING MYSELF WITNESSING!  Why can’t I just be present!?”

“Because you’re a fake.  Playing for the ‘GOD’ cam in the sky. Piling up points.” After a slow, drawn out exhale, the voice mutters, “You make me sick.”

“Me, too,” I sigh.   “At least I DID something! Doesn’t THAT count for. …Anything?”

“Noooo. It’s all about motivation…and yours is laced with selfishness and self-aggrandizement. You started out O.K.…with the dog, but it slid down hill after that. Fast and deep into the netherworld.”  

“You’re right. I could see it all as it was happening. That’s the thing though. How do I pull back gracefully before the moment morphs and looses its soul? How do I turn it around? Is it too late at that point?”

“You are hopeless. Why do I bother?”

“What? WHAT???

“You are still doing it…trying too hard to do “IT” right.  Perfection is not the point. It is not even a direction or goal. All this is a trap and you fall into it every time. By the way, do you remember the last thought you had as you drove out of the parking lot?”


“Yes, I do. I was wondering if I had fallen for a scam. But I figured, so what. Even if this is how he makes money, I can live with that. Better to be open and foolish than closed and stingy.” 

“There it is AGAIN. THAT is what I am talking about.”

“What ARE you talking about? You’ve lost me! You are NOT making any sense.”

“You are still THINKING, hedging your bet, figuring out a positive angle. It never stops with you.”

“What other way is there? Consciousness is a good thing. Choosing a better path…rising above my lower nature…can’t do THAT if I am unconscious.”

Silence.

“Finally!   That shut you up.”

More silence floods in on me, setting a chilly wave of goose flesh up the back of my neck leaving me wondering. 

Hours later, the flicker of a thought plays out across the choppy surface of the pond where I am sitting, dissecting the morning’s encounter. Replaying each beautiful and sickening moment as it swirls through my muddied mind.

When did life get so complicated, devious and manipulative? When had my brain assumed control over my heart? 

On turning 70, three years ago, I felt the corrosive change burrowing bone deep, but didn’t know what it was. I am now 73 and I know the answer.  And it frightens me. It didn’t happen all at once and I was fooled into thinking it would never happen to me.

In childhood, I vowed to never grow up. To always see life through the eyes of my inner child; with joy and innocence. She died three years ago leaving me behind, trapped in the body of an old woman with a frozen, empty heart to live… 

“Pst!   You are beyond belief.  O.K. Drama Queen, we still have a lot of work to do.




PARADOX  by Nancy K
I am…

A deep surface
A selfish giver
A special nobody
A successful failure
A law-abiding criminal
A needy loner
A conservative risk-taker
A submissive dominant
A sensitive bully
A healthy invalid
A living corpse
A conventional free-spirit
A pretty monster
A respectable adulteress
A judgmental outcast
A narcissistic inferior 
A permanent mask
A willful servant
A genuine phony
A social alcoholic
A fat anorexic
A solo partner
A silent conversationalist
A worthless plutocrat
A conforming rebel
A resentful altruist
A promiscuous monogamist
A frigid hussy
A liberal authoritarian
A dependent caretaker
A rational fantasist
A brilliant moron
A controlling follower
A humble egotist
A powerful victim
A godless disciple
A faithless believer
A depraved angel
A perfect human

Holiday by Nancy Keswani
The TV station promoted the program for weeks, on one of the seven channels we had back then: two, six, and 10 for the major networks; 12 for PBS; and three VHF stations, 17, 29, and 48, that featured such fare as Elvira Mistress of the Night hawking horror movies.

No doubt, The Yule Log special was on one of the majors. It sounded like just the thing to bring on that sentimental, nostalgic, warm and fuzzy feeling I find biological, some secret spurt or electric snap that starts in my brain, drops to my stomach, makes mush of my limbs, and lands on my mouth in a tender smile. All this within a second. Sometimes, it’s triggered by a word, a smell, a glance; other times, a memory sprung of its own will into consciousness conjures it up. Then there’s the afterglow – a minute or so of feeling like everything is right instead of wrong.

I’m not sure I’d had that feeling yet at 10, waiting with waning patience for the televised extravaganza of music and imagery that would fuel our annual decorating of the tree on December 22, the day after my birthday. In a suspect display of devotion, my mother ensured that no Christmas decorations left their attic-bound boxes or bags until my big day had passed. Never mind that family and friends destined to be written off proffered a single gift “for your birthday and Christmas,” or that I had more sweaters than any kid on the planet. Mom kept Christmas out of our house until I was another year older.

(My younger sister, Becky, of the blond locks and cheerleader’s uniform, was born on August 12. While my birthday called for yet another sweater doing double duty, hers inspired the renting of ponies and pool clubs.)

Christmas 1970 was destined – we were all certain – to be the best ever thanks to the addition of The Yule Log to our tree-raising ritual. First was “the stringing of the lights,” a gender-specific task that, apparently, only Dad could handle. It frayed the nerves like nothing else. If just one tear-shaped bulb was blown, the entire strand would fail to light. Finding the culprit was a painstaking process of removing and testing them one at a time. Dad needed to be left alone, avoided even. An unspoken agreement among us specified that The Yule Log not be tarnished by this foray into electrical engineering. So the lights went up during the afternoon.

Then came “the checking of the ornaments.” We’d been using the same supply forever, kept in their original boxes of thin cardboard and a plastic window that revealed the beauties within. They were opaque, with hollow insides and liquid glass outsides, and incredibly delicate. My favorites were the rounded marquises in brilliant blue. Others were balls of gold, silver, and red, some smooth, some rough with raised filigreed swirls of snowflakes.

Checking involved ensuring that each was donned with a tiny metal cap that sprouted two spidery legs into the ornament’s belly and a circle on top to which a thin metal hanger was attached for adherence to the tree. A tedious task, “the checking of the ornaments” was performed by us women-folk while our man, having successfully strung the lights, lounged in his Lazy Boy.

Next was “the great tinsel controversy,” which replayed every year, never to be fully resolved. These slender slivers of metallic plastic inspired unlikely passion. Mom was firmly against it, citing the risk to her vacuum cleaner as sucked up strands coiled around its innards. The avocado-green and mustard-yellow shag carpet didn’t help any. Mom also objected to the way we girls chucked handfuls of the stuff at the boughs, creating clumps that suggested snowballs more than icicles. If we were going to tinsel the tree, she argued, it should be done one strand at a time.

That year, the tinsel won out. So, with lights blazing, ornaments twitching to be hung, and tinsel ready to chuck, Dad turned on the TV. In a semicircle around that giant tube, we held our collective breath, leaning in. First came the carols. Then, the scene on the screen burst onto our eyes. The Yule Log!!!!!

Picture this: A fireplace hosts a lone log, flames lapping it from below. Every 15 seconds. Yes, The Yule Log was an endless loop. We figured it out when the same tall flame kept shooting up again and again. But we remained hopeful, staring into the screen for several more minutes, waiting for something else to happen. But nothing ever did.

It went on for three hours.

I’m not sure if The Yule Log ever saw a repeat performance. If so, we didn’t tune in. Still, every Christmas for the past 46 years, someone has brought it up, usually me. Beaming at this treasured memory, I happily ask the survivors of our shrinking clan, “Remember The Yule Log?” It always gets a laugh.


DEATH                                                                                              
Suzy Carson 
The time is 20 years more or less in the future. 
The setting is my cottage, having moved out 5 years earlier from our bigger home up the hill. Julie, my daughter, now in her 60’s, Cora, my granddaughter, going on 30, and I, approaching 90, are sitting together. 
Good music on the stereo or perhaps a good chick flick on the TV plays softly in the background. Sunshine pours in through the windows. The aroma of freshly baked oatmeal cookies perfumes the air. We sip our tea or maybe a glass of wine. My favorite ginger whiskey would make me too sleepy. Several yards of ivory colored cotton flannel spreads out over our laps. Each of us content, concentrating on our stitches, speaking up now and then to share a memory. We laugh, sigh, and weep, coming back to laughter. I love the way laughter and tears mix together in the same story, the same breath.
We are embroidering memories into my shroud. I’m not dying today, not any more than any 90 year old might be, but I’ve never believed in denying the inevitable. We’ve been working on this together off and on for the past six months. I recognize the gift of time and indulgence of my whim - Julie has dozens of other things she could be doing, and Cora is now a busy young wife and mother herself. 
Nonetheless, here they are, not begrudgingly, spending the afternoon with me embellishing my winding-sheet. Tiny stitches turn into words or flowers or dragonflies or other meaningful symbols. Out of chain stitches and French knots my black eyed Susans speak of my and Scott’s wedding day. The stars and stripes of the American flag are a reminder of Cora at 8 fervently belting out the National Anthem. Even now at the start of every ball game I delight in her patriotic enthusiasm that hasn’t faded. 

When Julie was 3 or 4 our old-timey neighbor was fishing at our pond catching catfish with salamanders. Julie wanted the dead one he had discarded as no longer good for bait. Clad only in pocket-less shorts, she resourcefully stuck the critter half in and half out of her waist band. Blue and green threads memorialize that comically dangling salamander and Julie’s innocent “nature’s child” ways, a foretelling of her lifelong inclinations. 
On one corner of the shroud I’ve stitched the lyric Scott often sang to me, “I’m hungry for your love and I’m waitin’ in your welfare line.” Funny how that was the only line he remembered. If there’s more to that song I’ll never know. Cora takes her time finishing the goldfinch she’s been working on. Bird watching has long been a shared pleasure. With metallic floss I’ve remembered Julie’s countless emails, texts, cards and verbal expressions of “Thanks, mom.” My heart is burnished gold by those two words said together. Birthdays, death dates, and anniversaries stitched in a rainbow of colors are scattered about like New Year’s Eve confetti. 
From where I’m sitting I can’t quite make out what Julie is sewing. Looks like it might be a Christmas tree or could be a Girl Scout badge. We have plenty of stories to go along with either. Seems our memories could easily fill an entire bolt of fabric. Of course, when I die I won’t really need the shroud to remember the richly blessed life I’ve had. But embroidering on it together is a ritual of storytelling, fortifying our hearts and satiating the cosmos with what it means to be family and that which gives our life meaning. Before the shroud is done we’ll get Cora’s three brothers, Carson, Cyrus, and Chet to add their storied stitchery to it, too. Perhaps Andrew, my son in law, will as well. 
Months later I quietly pass during the night, an easy transition. As I asked them to, my grandsons built my simple pine coffin. It’s autumn and my family lines the inside with an abundance of rust, gold and crimson leaves. Smiles show up on their faces as they remember their mutual childhood delight, and presently their own kids’ glee, in leaf pile jumping. Now Nanny, swaddled in her beautiful shroud, is nestled in her own last leaf pile. My casket is lowered into the ground next to my beloved husband, in the family plot we’ve created. Our shared grave marker reads, “In Our Hearts We Treasure You.”
 A few end of the season wildflowers and more fall leaves are ceremoniously strewn into the grave. My young great grandchildren can’t resist dropping in acorns, too. That’s ok because I’ve always loved acorns and the plunk, plunk, plunk frees up welcomed giggles. 
Everyone takes turns shoveling earth into my final resting place while Julie tenderly croons a song we learned together years ago which has become her family’s lullaby. The others join in: “Nanny, Nanny, take your time, go slowly. Listen deep within your heart, simple things are holy.” There’s some sniffling, snuffling and a few sighs, then Carson takes up his banjo. The change in tempo is just right. His left hand skillfully travels up and down the neck while the right picks the Blue Grass songs he knows make me happy. 

On one or two songs Chet sings along, chuckling when he mixes up a verse. Even as a little boy he was good at making up his own words! Cyrus accompanies his pretty wife on his guitar. They harmonize well on a song they wrote together. I think he has a bit of Johnny Cash in him! After a while, Andrew, along with all three sons, beat West African rhythms on their drums, rousing everyone to dance in a free form circle. My family’s music making has always filled me with the utmost awe and delight. I hope they know there has never been a more transcendent offering. My last rite is wonderful, perfect.
The sun is setting.  An owl’s hoot joins the revelry. Cora brings the singing and dancing to a close with a favorite Bob Marley song, “Three Little Birds.” Joining in on the last refrains, “Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing is gonna be alright…” my family and their closest friends form a spontaneous conga line and dance their way back to the cottage! They share a hearty meal of pea soup and corn bread, brownies for dessert. The repast is made from a few of the favorite simple recipes in my old wooden recipe box. 
I watch as Julie offers second helpings. The lines around her eyes give away her need for rest. Yet tired or not, she still has the same magnetic spark in her eyes that her dad always had.  Surrounded by her grown children, husband and grands, enjoying their meal, softening their grief with lively chatter, the family bond is unmistakable, an extraordinary blessing.
 I cross over into the Great Divine Mystery knowing what it means to experience joy, enshrouded in love given and received. There’s not more I could ever ask for.

FOREST by Nancy Keswani                                                            Delaware is a desert. At least that’s how my mom describes it to family back in Ohio. A drought has killed the grass, or at least discouraged it into camouflaging medium brown with blonde highlights disappearing into the gritty ground. Our bare feet find it both smooth and prickly, matted as it is, but with surprising talon-like tendrils. It’s hot, too. Not burning like blacktop a person can fry eggs on, but an anxious, disorienting warmth, since grass is supposed to be cool.

The tract of mind-numbing homes we’ve moved into, standalone row houses, were sold without landscape save for forlorn builder’s trees, one per lot. They are short and shadeless, leaves a mottle of green centers and brown edges crinkling in on themselves like campfire marshmallows.

A different summer, long after the rain returns, I spy a spiraling maple seed, a single propeller nose-diving downward, hoping its plant DNA will prevail. I dig a hole in the now green grass to reveal nourishing nearly black soil, a perfect pot for the future tree I’ve already begun thinking of as mine. I place a praying mantis on its boughs who lays eggs that hatch into miniature mantises, making me a grandma. By the time we leave the tract, my much-loved tree dwarfs the development.

Most of the girls are Girl Scouts, stockpiling badges we badger our mothers to guide. Renee Knox’s mom is a seamstress, giving her daughter an advantage on the sewing badge we all think unfair. Scouting’s siren, though, is camping. The first year I go, I see my first forest. The smell of pine needles so subtle compared to the cleanser mom uses on the kitchen floor. Shade from the swelter and respite from the rain that pings on the cabin’s metal roof. A lake, surrounded by trees, a colored cotillion of reds, oranges, and yellows to float on the water come fall. Hidden creatures shuffling like blind mice in the brush, calling one another under the moon. Living food, bursting berries and rock-like nuts harvested with stones beside blackened weenies covered with catsup.

“It’s like having our own private park!” exclaims dad, describing our new home in Connecticut. Three and a half acres dotted with dogwoods all to ourselves. A pond foaming with frogs, translucent pouches where their necks should be, singing bellows we can hear from our bedrooms at night. Catfish cruising the depths for food, turned into food by our neighbor’s ancient father who catches them and cooks them for a family feast. Nesting ducks leading hatchling parades to their first swim, we cheering from the water’s edge as their tiny yellow feet take wing.

 Once, I trek the woody terrain in search of the nest site. Butchered by brambles, peering into patches of overgrown underbrush, I never find it. Instead, the pond’s fountainhead, a putrid puddle of sticks and rotting leaves, is revealed, leaving me feeling like a voyeur seeing something not meant to be seen. Dirty from the discovery, I retrace my shallow steps, affording the forest the dignity of privacy.

In winter, ice encases the trees, frozen limbs stinging eyes like summer sparklers. When the wind blows, branches shatter to twigs and carom across white topsoil two feet thick. My sister and I sled through the forest with panicky passenger chickens, beaks wide, unhappily along for the ride.

I have another life in the forest years later. The fragrance of Autumn Olive fills the backyard. Coyotes bay, tempting neighborhood dogs to betray their masters and join  a more primitive pack. My husband marks his territory, unseen, around the perimeter. We mate under the stars and sleep in a small tent.

Alone now, I am back in a tract. But if I have to live, I’d like to die living in a forest.



                                       
Three Vignettes by Diane Rhoades 
 The Boy on the Bike  
The truck pulls out from the STOP sign.  The young boy on the bike zips through the intersection.  They collide.  The impact is “soft” but enough to knock the boy off the bike.   He scrambles to his feet, gets on his bike, and rides off.  The driver sits in the cab of his truck.  He makes no attempt to get out, to call after the boy,  make sure he is OK.  He pauses and drives off.  I memorize his license plate. 

If the boy had been white…if the pick up truck and the boy and the bike and the man had this unfortunate collision in a prosperous neighborhood and not on 7th Ave, I wonder how this would have played out?  

Would the child have scrambled back onto his bike and ridden away as if he had done something wrong?  Would he have allowed himself a moment to recover - anticipated that the man who hit him would want to make sure that he was OK?  

It feels like a crime now; not an accident.   I walk to my car dazed; the only witness.

The Woman in the White Caddy  
She is movie star beautiful.  Stopped at a light, I look across and catch sight of her.  I am taken with her unusual beauty.  Her thick jet black hair is pulled back revealing a widow’s peak.  Her sculpted cheek bones are etched into flawless white skin.  Her red lipstick is dramatic. She could be a country western singer.  Maybe she is married to a Texan oilman.  She turns, rolls down the window and spits a wad of chewing tobacco onto the street.  

Wow.  I didn’t see that coming.

Throwing Things
I wander around in the heat of a packed Belle Cher Wall St. when I see the cage.  A man in a Speedo bathing suit is sitting on a metal tractor seat inside the cage above a giant tank of water.  He is inviting people to pay $3 for three shots at dunking him. In a heartbeat, I am on that line with my dollar bills.  I watch kids throw their balls - looking like they are at risk of dislocating arms in their enthusiasm.  A couple shares their three opportunities to dunk the man.  Nothing.

Speedo Boy revs up his rant.  “Come on!  What’s wrong with you?  Put on your glasses! Shoot!  I’m hot.”  I am next.   I throw the first ball and ace it.  He is in the water.  Cheers!  Back on the seat, dripping wet, he threatens me to do it again, I hit it dead on. He is in the water.  I feel like a contestant in So You Think You Can Throw.  “No way you will get me under again!  Come on.  Let’s see you cave!”  I throw my last ball.  Bull’s eye!  He is laughing.  I feel like I won that skinny, wet man.  I look up and see Jim Stowell in the crowd; smiling at me.  I have a witness.   


    
Intimate Moments by Lynn Fink
I am free. I spin and spin, fall down laughing. It is so much fun. Look how fast I can run. Fast as the wind, Mommy says. Zip, zip, around the bases.  Haha, home run.

I love my overalls and sneakers. I climb the willow tree. I hide there for a long time. I hang upside down on my branch. Look - everything is upside down!

Oh, Purrlite has kittens. They are so cute. They climb all over me. I hold Tiger up for Mommy so she can take a picture. He is almost as long as I am.

I have my fishing gear on. I hold my rod. I have my basket hooked to my belt. Ready to go over to the creek. We fish for trout, but I catch a sucker. Boy do their mouths look funny. I put it back.

The spring springs. Pussy willows are so soft. I explore in the swamp. My boot gets stuck in the yucky stinky mud. My foot comes out of the boot when I try to pull my boot out of the muck. I put my foot on the ground and pull my boot out with my hands. Oops, my sock is pretty dirty.

It is fall. All those leaves. Grandpa makes a big pile and I jump in. I jump in a lot. We both laugh really hard. He pulls me around in my red wagon. I like the smells as we rake. I like the smell as we burn the leaves. But it is very hot if you get too close. My arms and face hurt from the heat. I back away.

I find milkweed pods. They are starting to open. They are so soft. I pull one apart. There are seeds on one end of the fluffy stuff. They start to blow away. I watch them blow away in the wind.

Some sticky things stick to me. They are all over my clothes. Mommy and I pull them off. It takes a long time. I get burdock stuck on me. I try to pull it off too. It tears apart.  Half of it stays on my pants.

 I love my tall rubber boots for the snow. I wear two or three pairs of socks. The boots are black with a red band around the top. I go in deep snow with them. It is too deep, the snow comes in my boots. I get cold. I lay in the snow and eat it. I make a snow angel, but then start on a fort. That’s more fun.

I go across the street to visit Star and feed him a carrot. He is big and smells good. I hold my hand flat like Karen taught me. Star’s lips feel funny on my hand. Sometimes Karen lets me ride him in the summer. One day they have a horse show in their corral. I watch.

We are in the pet parade. We have Tiger and Purrlite in a hospital in the red wagon. They have bandages on. They keep trying to get the bandages off.

Mommy makes a jack-o-lantern totem pole. I am a skelton. I get lots of candy.

Daddy puts me up on his shoulders. Wow, this is high. This is fun. I rub his crew cut. He laughs. He dances with me. I stand on his feet and we spin all around the kitchen. I sit in his lap after dinner. He smokes his pipe. I try to put my finger in his smoke rings.

We take care of a Lassie dog. I lay down on the floor too and put my head on her belly. She runs away. We try to find her for the people that own her.


I love my stuffed animals. They all have names. I talk with them and feed them. My best friends are Judy Reed and my imaginary friends. My imaginary friends are real because they show up at the Lake. Mommy is surprised. So am I. They are supposed to be at home taking care of my stuffed animals.