If I Were King of the World

First off, I will vote myself in by a landslide garnering at least 90% of the popular vote. I will allow the (remaining) unpopular vote to be divided between Alfred E. Neuman and Vladimir Putin. Upon my conflagration, I promise to enact the following changes:

1) I will require that all roads be lined at least two thirds of their length with trees. As part of my rule, it will be necessary that such vegetation be allowed to develop in a natural fashion. Arcing boughs will extend over the pavement forming periodic green tunnels. Highways will not be designed for speed but for enjoying travel; constructed with long gentle curves that take advantage of every panoramic and pastoral setting. No billboards will be allowed; only informational notices. The formerly ubiquitous Burma Shave signage are to be reinstated along with occasional groupings of picnic tables set in shady groves. Speed limits will be governed by cables buried in the pavement and confined to a leisurely fifty-five miles per hour thus allowing the driver to appreciate scenic pleasures also.Tree lined road

In addition, all means of travel will be required to have those triangular vent windows that were once installed on all vehicles. Then everyone may again enjoy the gush of air across their body as they travel, diminishing the need for air conditioning while allowing outside air in.   By reducing purchases of Abrams battle tanks from all national offense funds, governments can cover these costs.

Mobile phones will be available for use only in genuine emergencies. Travelers’ destinations will become only part of any journey’s gratification as trips will take on more of an aesthetic function.  ‘How long did it take?’ will be displaced by descriptions of how many birds were seen, what kind of clouds sailed the sky, and remembered conversations enjoyed along the way.
Baby image2) As King of the World I’ll also make it an imperative that members of both sexes are schooled and licensed as fit for parenting before being able to conceive. Those opposed to this rule would be among the first groups to be trained. As of this writing, it is much more difficult to purchase a gun, become qualified to be a hairdresser, or spray chemicals into the environment than it is to make babies. Emotional maturity, patience, and the ability to consistently give love and care to a small person will become the qualifying criteria for becoming a parent.  Financial ability will be a very secondary consideration and monetary assistance is to be available for those otherwise qualified. If family and friends are in short supply for the competent parent(s), help will be made available in the form of nannies, foster aunts and uncles, along with those skilled in the inestimable art of growing children.
3) Just after my conflagration, I will make it a requirement that the “Official Language” of each state be the one that was dominant in the year 1500 around the area of the current capitol.  This would help eliminate the periodic concern of cultural pollution that occurs as new waves of immigrants arrive. By popular vote every five years, there would be an option to choose Latin as the non-political, non-secular, non-appropriate language.
4) I will, as King of the World, enjoin  everyone at some point in their life to experience the bliss of a hot air balloon ride. I particularly favor this rule because I’ve yet to partake such a journey myself and I want plenty of amiable companionship on my trip. For those who fear heights, counseling will be made available to provide a period of adjustment. If therapy does not benefit those who fret, then an alternative method of personal giddiness will be encouraged such as sailing, kite flying, or swinging. The underlying purpose is an intent to keep all peoples in routine touch with the gaiety of childhood.

Hot air balloon
5) In addition to the above, I will insist that the currently popular phrase “Respect Life” is broadened beyond Homo sapiens to include all life. To that avail, I will set aside eighty percent of the land surface and ninety-five percent of all water area as private reserves for flora and fauna other than people. Travel through and into those areas is to be carefully monitored and restricted so that complex ecological systems are not disturbed by human footprints. Harvesting of life forms and minerals for human consumption will only be allowed in a manner that respects the environment and preserves any species being affected.  (This includes ticks, sharks, and snakes.)

6)  Use of mobile phones, computers, tablets (any electronic device for that matter) during meal times will be outlawed.  Violators will be zapped by taser-armed drones that will be on continual overhead duty.
7) As King of the World, I will alter the long standing tradition of being born, living, and then dying. Quite simply, I’ll reverse that traditional order so that everyone will come into this world by dying. Then, each person will be able to appreciate all the sentiments, eulogies, and floral arrangements for themselves from their respective funerals.  If such accolades are in short supply (i.e. pallbearers have been paid to carry one’s corpse), then the dearly departed now have a chance to make amends.  Dying into this world will give everyone an opportunity to mend regrets and to do those things we would have done differently “if we just had the chance.”

It will also become permissible for each person to keep their acquired wisdom with them as they became younger; ultimately leaving this world by actually being born. This would help rid our lexicon of that old saying that “Youth is wasted on the young.” Birth is, of course, almost always a joyous occasion and generally a much happier manner in which to depart this earth. As an essential characteristic of this new way of dying and being born, everyone would keep their childhood laughter as a normal way of communicating joy and thus serve as an emotional wellspring of mirth. (I’m confident this would be one of my most popular dicta.)

8) I will make an immediate maxim that narrow-minded thinking must be replaced with open-mindedness. (Sorry, folks, my call as to the description of what constitutes having an open mind.)
9) Unease about money and financial well-being willl naturally be one of the primary concerns in any domain. I will allow each individual a choice between being wealthy or penniless (no more of this middle-class stuff). If one chooses wealth, they could have that experience until they completely (all wealthy trial periods limited to five years!) appreciated riches and then would be required to experience being poor. Once they had mastered (minimum ten year period) the worries of the unfortunate, they then could decide what is best for them in terms of financial well-being. For those not understanding any part of the lesson, it will be mandated that they be required to repeat their prior existence “Groundhog Day” style until they get it ‘right’. As part of this law, any person who has annual income of greater than one million dollars in any given year will be required to place the overage in a lottery system for the poorest folks. Sorry, I know all the multi-millionaires “earned it”, but no loopholes on this one.rich-poor

10) I’ll ask the brightest scientists of the world to come up with brain and penile implants that will negate, inhibit, and prevent imposed views (other than my own), rape, and hurts (verbal, physical, and emotional) to all children under the age of 150 years.
11) Finally, as King of the World, I will confine my reign to a period of no more than one month. By then my improvements will have caused adequate angst, anger, and acrimony, particularly among those who relish such emotions. For these folks, I will mandate the companionship of one ‘I love you unconditionally’ dog. Each of these malcontents will be monitored to see that they are subjected to a five-minute licking (by the dog) twice a day.

Having completed my objectives, I will retire to the mountains of western North Carolina and await my execution my well-meaning zealots.  As part of my last request, I will ask for a brief opportunity (seven days) to enjoy the fruits of my improvements without the additional pressure of having to come up with, and then implement, better ideas.

For my last meal, I will request fried chicken, fried okra, and fried apple pie.  In order that my brain be fried upon my demise, I will also ask for copious amounts of nitrous oxide to be administered by twenty dancing girls.  ( I won’t object if the quantity of female lovelies is increased to twenty-one.)fried chicken dinner

P.S. I’ve also decided that each time there is reasonable precipitation (you know, snow, sleet, hail, or rain) in an area, all humans will be given the option to stop whatever it is that they’re doing, relax in whatever fashion is appropriate for them, and enjoy nature’s interlude.  Choices of where to appreciate this respite (a front porch, under the covers, or in the arms of a lover) will be left up to each individual.

Having spent almost all of my life (before becoming King of the World) planting trees, shrubs, and groundcovers, I will want those elements to be my legacy.  No plaques, memorials, or oil-splattered roadways in my name, PLEASE!  Instead I’ll opt for the hopeful legacy of beauty that those plants will give to future generations.

'Angel' Live Oak in South Carolina

Sense and Responsibility

Another trip to the dentist as a fifty-six year old.  This is one of many in a long line of appointments associated with proper oral care and a continuing effort to retain as many of my diminishing numbers of original teeth as is possible.  This time I am here to have the two caps on my front teeth replaced as the current ones have “done their due” as my grandmother used to say.  During the course of my life, I’ve had the typical amount of dental work done in addition to the periodic replacement of these caps.  Like most people, I’m not ecstatic about going to the dentist, but I learned from an early age to bear up to whatever was necessary while reclining in that chair with that same glaring light that Saul must have received on the road to Damascus.  (Except that I’ve never had a conversion experience in that supposedly comfortable recliner.)

When I was a young boy, an unfortunate event happened that would add to my familiarity with that dreaded environment for the rest of my life.  However, I am getting a little ahead of myself.

Before having a crown done a couple of years ago, I decided to take advantage of the nitrous oxide my dentist’s office offers.  I was curious as much as anything.  Numbing of any areas to be worked on had proven adequate in past procedures.  Numbing in addition, of course, to imagining myself in more pleasant circumstances, a skill I honed early on at funerals.  But this particular time, I discovered that having ‘laughing gas’ lowered my anxiety to the point where I didn’t much care what was being done to me.   I decided that I was ready to trade teeth and enamel for nirvana.

So, this trip, knowing that I am going to have those front teeth worked on, I look forward to the nitrous oxide.  Draping the hose around my shoulder that delivers the glorious intoxicant, the assistant fits plugs into my nostrils.  She reminds me that in order for the gas to be effective, I must breathe in solely through my nose.  With a combination of obedience and anticipation, I carefully follow her instruction.  Soon I begin to feel the effects, my feet tingling slightly, my brain giddy with a light buzz.  After a few minutes, the assistant returns.

“Feeling anything,” she asks, “any tingling or anything?”

“Not yet”, I lie as sincerely as possible.  Because I am a big guy, I am hoping that she will buy my fib and increase the octane.  And she does.  Or maybe she’s just being accommodating.  As long as I get the juice, I don’t really care what her motivations are.

“I’ll turn it up a bit.”  She does so and leaves the room.  I continue to inhale deeply and completely through my nostrils, encouraging every molecule of gas to rush into my bloodstream and add to the developing party atmosphere inside my head.

Lightheaded and carefree seconds add up to fast minutes as my eyelids drift closed.  Suddenly, I am disturbed from my reverie by the dentist who is now leaning over me and explaining what she is going to do.  Hoping I appear lucid, my eyes blink open in response to some long distance call from my foggy brain.  I nod my head.  I’ve heard it all before anyway, and I want to seem like I am fine and not headed towards the moon.  Cautious, I want to avoid any behavior that would betray my mind’s ongoing request for oblivion.

“How’s the gas?  Do you need a little more?” she asks.  In the most piteous, non-eager manner I can muster, I nod my head affirmatively.  I hear her adjusting the dial behind me.  Disguising any external bliss, my internal cells revel in their neuron pathways experiencing a celebration worthy of Mardi Gras.

After what seems like a few more minutes of restrained gaiety, I am feeling most fine.  In acknowledgment, perhaps, of my wasted state, both the assistant and dentist return to begin the formerly dreaded procedure.  As they collaborate in my gaping mouth, I wonder if they are curious about why my two front teeth were knocked out and wouldn’t they like to know?  I feel like blathering away.  The sensible side of my high is still in control (albeit barely) though, and I promptly realize that it would not be professional of them to ask what happened.

But the inane side of my brain persists.  They must be interested . . . . football injury, car wreck, blow to the head from an angry ostrich?  I am dancing my way through an ethereal fog as the relay switches try to make once familiar connections.  I realize that any event that would result in the loss of one’s front teeth would likely not have been pleasurable and polite folks might be curious but not inquisitive.

Encouraged by the loss of brain cells, the thought of acknowledgment persists and takes root in the few remaining coherent parts of my mind.  Maybe I’ll go ahead and tell them!  I struggle with the idea while they wrestle inside my mouth.  I don’t want to appear overly loaded and have them turn down the juice.  Giddiness interbreeding with raw excitement, I am feeling the rush that downhill skiers get when racing just on the edge of control.

Because of my inebriated state, the pathway for glabbing has been lubricated to the point I feel as if I could take on the entire MIT debate team single handed.

I can’t recall the circumstances preceding the loss of my teeth, but I know it had to be my fault.  I am nine or ten years old and the incident itself is yet very clear in my memory.  My mother is standing in the kitchen in our house and for some forgotten reason I have made her very mad.  Turning from the sink, she throws (my mother was a thrower from way back) a fork and I feel the tines as they embed themselves in my left forearm, the odd circumstance of spinning metal biting my skin at just the right angle.  I don’t think the utensil stuck in my flesh very long, but I clearly remember watching the four jagged lightning streaks of blood trickling down my arm before they merge and drip off my wrist.

I don’t recall fear or pain, but there must have been some interest in self-preservation as I remember turning to run away.  Retreating, I get no more than one or two steps before my traction fails on the throw rug covering the hardwood floor.  I hit the unforgiving surface face first and my upper teeth absorb most of the impact.  The two front break with an inverted ‘V’ between them leaving me with the appearance of a molting vampire.  Staring in disbelief, I pick up the broken pieces and look at them in my hand.

My next memory of this specific event is of being at the dentist’s office.  I am trembling with fright, my hands shaking leaves on quivering limbs.  I have caused my parents unneeded financial expense with my mistake.  I cannot escape the continual admonitions of my father of being an error prone, worthless son and will receive further physical retributions from him as affirmation on this and countless other matters.

Noticing my anxiety, the dentist likely realizes that I will not make a very compliant patient.  Saying it will calm my nerves, he gives me a strange-looking green liquid to drink.  I manage to get it down even though my hands feel as though electric current is running through them.  I can’t recall how much it helped, but I did get my first of many sets of caps on those fractured teeth.

However, I am now an adult and have dealt with these sorts of procedures many times.  Of course I don’t need the gas and I really would like to tell the women plying their trade in my wide-open mouth about how I got to be here.  My inhibitions lowered, reckless speech engendered, I give strong consideration to a confession.

“It was really my fault you see . . . .”

But I never tell on myself.

Helium Hope (conclusion)

Near where the blue and green balloons rest exists a small cottage.  Inside sleeps a young boy. Nudged by dawn, he rises to the sound of bird music that is periodically overwhelmed by the crowing of a rooster.  His balled fists rub the sleep from his eyes as he gets up.  Wandering from his bedside, he quietly walks the wooden floor with pattering steps and goes out onto the front porch.  Moving into the yard, both he and the grass are washed with morning light.  His pale blond hair gleams like corn silk.  His belly protrudes in the way that the stomachs of small children do.

He shares this place with his older sister and mother but they are not yet awake.  Their dog greets the boy with a wagging tail, that movement signaling his readiness to go and do whatever the boy wishes.  They meander about the yard in random dots and dashes; an irregularity of looking and learning.  With the curiosity characteristic of the open slate that is his young mind, he plays tag with the dog, makes toys of random objects, and touches everything with either his eyes or fingers.

The red ball that is the rising sun stirs the air.  A breeze rocks the two resting balloons and their movement catches the boy’s attention.  Any remaining sleepiness is instantly forced from his tousled head.  Their presence registers as magic to his blue eyes and his mind immediately recognizes them as a gift.  They become treasures he holds close forever. In weeks and years to come, he will discover additional balloons that were dispersed by the old woman in the surrounding lands.

As he walks his path, her hand provides guidance; her heart gives him courage on dark days; he feels her love when there is none other to be felt.  When reassurance is necessary, he can see her in the heavens a lighthouse of hope for a young boy . . .  an old man.

Helium Hope (continued)

Sailing over a meandering river two of the balloons become targets for a young man with a .22.  Their withered remains collapse into the waters below.  The rest of the colorful melange gradually drift out of sight headed away from the setting sun.  They dance over a tree-draped ridge which forms the rocky backbone against which the river constantly exerts its force. The river and ridge are ancient neighbors accustomed to eons of shared events and sights.  For them, the balloons are at once both exciting and mundane; a brevity of interest amongst millenniums of untold happenings.

Aided by a downdraft, a few of the trees at the top of the ridge make an effort to reach out and capture some of the beauty for themselves as decoration.  Assisted by a clump of mistletoe, an old sycamore manages to hold a pink balloon in its gray and white streaked boughs.  The sycamore sighs happily with its success and, over the next several days, shares its prize with its more diminutive neighbors.  The balloon is gradually handed down through the forest canopy, finally nesting among a clump of Christmas ferns.

Daytime is gently displaced by the rosiness of dusk which itself is gradually transformed into nighttime’s starlit skies.  The breeze which has guided the flight now fades into the still night air as the balloons lose some of their haste.  They, too, rest with the quiet countryside.  Yet, their journey continues, more slowly, over dew covered fields.  Some contain cattle, but they patently ignore the quiet, overhead parade.  As their large jaws grind cuds in a sideways motion, their huge bodies rest on bent legs folded underneath them.

The balloons sail on, their reverie briefly interrupted by the din and glare from a busy roadway below.  However, their height gives them protection from the hurried jostle beneath.  Slowly, but inexorably, the long hours of flight gradually dissipates the gas which has given progress.  As though weary from their long journey and seeking respite, each one begins to randomly lose the altitude which has given them a lofty plane.  Singly, and in small groups, they drift closer and closer to the earth finding anonymous landings in unnamed meadows, forests, and streams.

Two balloons (one blue and one green), regain contact with each other in their dreamy descent.  In their slow, easy drift to earth, they are chosen to gain purchase near a small house.  Their silent approach runs no risk of disturbing the pre-dawn sleep of humans or animals as they descend.  Quietly landing within a short distance of each other, they roll about in the high summer grass as though stretching to ease their fatigue.  Gradually they come to a complete rest, whispering to each other, waiting for the dawn.

The old woman lies awake in her bed, accustomed to years of early rising in order to accomplish the tasks of each day.  Near her home, the river’s currents carry cool night air that caresses the soft warmth of the land.  Their meeting creates a wispy, undulating fog that beckons to the old woman and she walks to it, her uncovered head glistening with dew.  Her lower body is enveloped by the slowly swirling cloud.  She reflects on her long life.  She smiles as her soul loosens its earthly bounds and takes a place in the heavens.  Now a star, the morning songs and calls of birds become a cacophony of greeting, a celebration of this new spirit in the waxing sky.

Although unseen during the bright day, her new position is a lofty realm over the soils she once tread.  And, she is always there; sometimes prominently like the bright star she has become.  Other times, her presence is muted by clouds or sun.

But she is always there.

(To Be Continued).

Helium’s Hope

Wearing shoes of cracked, black leather, an old woman is standing in her yard. The grass about her feet is ankle deep and dark green. Draping in loose folds over her thin, bony frame, a faded blue dress, flecked with white daisies, is testimony to her practicality. The dress itself extends in long, vertical ripples to her calves and the sleeves slip just past her elbows, only just exposing her brown hands that are lined with dark purple veins. The palms of those same hands are etched with gray-white streaks as though lightning itself had traced its explosion on her leathery skin.

Her upturned head is covered with a gingham bonnet, salt-streaked from countless hours in the hot yellow sun. Under her chin, a graceful bow keeps the covering in place. Although her shoulders are gently rounded with age, and her arms seem to protrude stick-like from her body, her tanned and wrinkled face is angled expectantly towards the summer sky.

Glinting with hope, her blue eyes refuse clouding.  Her eyes are following bright ascending objects as they gradually rise towards the milky and azure heavens. Easing through the oak trees about her, a breeze finds its way among the strong limbs made furry by Resurrection Fern which resides in green carpets along their sturdy branches.  From a perch high above, an unseen Wood Thrush sings its melodic song.

To keep her balance, she spreads her feet slightly and concentrates so that her watching may linger as long as possible. Only a minute ago, she released from her careworn grip a sweat-moistened handful of cotton strings to the end of which are tethered bright balloons . . . a merry mixture of rainbow colors gaily ascending in a slow, happy swirl. The breeze that is easing through the oaks, promptly embraces the balloons as they rise. Dividing the gregarious cluster into smaller groups, and, finally, into individuals they swim through the sky in their non-ordered, spiral flights.

Surprised by the too-close pass of a red balloon, a Cooper’s Hawk lashes out with his talons and is further shocked by the loud bang of its abrupt collapse. Wheeling away in fright, the hawk pursues a safer haven while the remaining balloons continue their random drifts. Higher and higher they ascend until the upper air currents sweep them to the east, gradually fading from the old woman’s sight.

Yet her vision extends beyond the horizon over which those balloons disappear. After all, this recent launch has been preceded by countless others over the decades of her life. Her perceptive abilities having been honed by loving and loss, she understands the circle of life.  Her heart swirls with a mixture of emotions . . . including memories of her own children as they progressed from babies to adolescence and beyond; each one growing, rising, and slowly separating from the hands that gave them life and nurturing. As she did with her own, she sends hope along with the milk of human kindness with this new offspring as they take flight.

(TO BE CONTINUED, if you’re interested, of course!)

Aunt Mollie (conclusion, maybe)

“And, so it happened . . .” just like the passages from Genesis describing the Earth’s creation by God.  A little over two weeks later, the Saturday morning had begun inauspiciously with a thunderstorm.  But just as my great grandfather used to say, “A summer’s morning thunderstorm is like an old woman’s dance.”  The rain and thunder didn’t last long but did leave the air clean smelling along with birds singing their appreciation.   As afternoon approached a breeze dried things out and the skies cleared with expectation for a wake for the not yet departed.

Later, as the four o’clock funeral time approached, Aunt Mollie’s yard and driveway were rather unfilled by ten or twelve kin and friends and three or four autos.  The idea of having a funeral for the living had not exactly caught on like wildfire in Clinton.  Spending time and money on words and flowers for someone who was yet alive just didn’t sit well with most who heard about it.  Several folks complained that they’d just have to do the whole thing all over again when Aunt Mollie did actually depart this realm.

One of Aunt Mollie’s cousins, Jeb Beets caught a ride down from Blowing Springs for the occasion.  He arrived with a tongue that had been liberally lubricated with white lightnin’.  Wandering around with a lopsided grin, he made efforts to move straight ahead, but his internal gyroscopes were skewed and he crabbed sideways usually missing his intended objective.  Blabbering loudly to anyone who would listen, he used the event to reminisce about his brother-in-law who had apparently recently died of a heart attack while having sex with a woman who was not his wife.

“I’ve been wonderin’ if’n he came before he went!” his words delivered with a generous spattering of saliva.  Jeb then cackled gleefully, took another pull from a flask halfway hidden in his bibb overalls, and then slapped his thigh as if that comment was the funniest thing he had ever said.  Needless to say, it didn’t take long for everyone to give him and his alcoholic halo a wide birth.

Jessie (good ‘ol reliable Jessie) did come and was cranking a freezer full of ice cream.  A covered dish was brought by each woman who showed up and Aunt Mollie had fried a huge platter of chicken.  However, it began to dawn on her fairly quickly that her idea of a good time send-off and the reality of the afternoon were markedly different.

After listening to one too many comments about how nice her yard looked and “Oh, isn’t it a pretty day!” and “My, that dress you have on is sooooo beautiful!”, Aunt Molly had a “craw full” of insincerity.  She wanted wailing, regrets, anguish pouring out of prostrate mourners.  Not too long into the proceedings she disappeared inside her house and came out having changed into one of her workday dresses.  Pinching a dip of snuff into her lower lip, she proclaimed that she wasn’t gonna waste no more time on this earth doing something she didn’t care to and anyway, she needed to can some tomatoes and clean out the crock and get some dill pickles started processing.  And, my goodness, did she have enough vinegar for a run?   With that, she strode out to her garden with basket in hand to gather tomatoes and cucumbers, patently ignoring her perplexed, but relieved, funeral guests who began to quickly melt away much like the ice cream that lingered in the now thawing freezer.

After everyone left she told me that the whole thing was a major disappointment similar to the time she got married.  She vowed to live as long as possible in order to avoid “having to go through all that again!”  And, she did, dying over forty years later at the age of 106 on her birthday in late July having spitefully outlived just about all of her contemporaries.  Likely, she would have made it a while longer but she choked on a bit of her cake while a few of us sat on her front porch helping her celebrate another milestone.

In an effort to relieve her strangling, Jessie stood her up and unintentionally slapped her back with a little more force than necessary.  Aged himself, he lost his grip on her arm and she lost her footing, pitching forward off the three foot high porch which had never had a railing.  Landing face first amongst the gladiolus she had planted along the foundation, her brittle neck promptly snapped.

She had the foresight to be wearing that satiny, pink dress she had bought years ago at Millers which had also expired as a business entity.  I remember thinking she looked rather peaceful splayed amongst those red and pink glads.  Unfortunately, she was a little over three months from gaining back the hour she had ‘lost’ in the spring to Daylight Savings Time.

Sitting at her funeral in the Methodist Church (the Baptists were still somewhat petulant about her life long absence), I smiled thinking about her longevity.  My great grandfather used to remark that he had a couple of cousins when he was growing up that lived to be over one hundred.

“My folks used to say that they’ll have to be knocked in the head come Judgment Day!” he recalled.  I found it amusing to think that feisty Aunt Mollie might merit the same treatment from St. Peter.

For me, I missed her grievously.  I learned that loss is not something one gets over, but that it can become something that can be lived with.  Of all the people I have known who have died, Aunt Mollie was one of the few whom I felt really graduated to the next realm.

Whether in my garden or watching roaming chickens, I think of her often.  I wonder if St. Pete was able to cope with her matriculation.

THE END (or Intermission for sure!)

Aunt Mollie (continued)



In an abrupt, belated alliance with the Women’s Temperance Union, Aunt Mollie decided that the road sign announcing the location of our town’s watering hole had to go.  Even though it had been erected two decades previously just after Prohibition had ended, she felt that its presence offended her and others of like mind.  Listing to one side like a drunken sailor, the sign and its directions were not far from collapsing of their own accord.  The letters “CE” and “OD” had faded, pale ghosts of “ICE COLD”.   But the word “BEER” remained prominent in dark blue letters along with a tilted, frothing mug of suds, making any thirsty passerby able to comprehend the message being conveyed.

A long time neighbor of Aunt Mollie, Ben Jones, lived across the road from her.  The elevation of his dilapidated house allowed him to see most anything happening up and down the two lanes including the sign across the way.  Plopping his huge butt into his remaining rocker, he began the back and forth motion that would take him for a nap.  A few minutes later, with eyes almost closed, he watched with sleepy interest as his neighbor strode out of her driveway with an axe perched on her shoulder. Curiosity aroused him.  What was she up to?  It didn’t take long to find out as she carefully worked her way through weeds and briars and then began to deliver blows to the supporting posts with a righteous punishment.  With barely a drop of perspiration having formed on her brow, the sign collapsed languidly into the surrounding blackberries.

“Hell,” Ben later told the sheriff, “hit didn’t take her more’n five or ten minutes to slay those goddam timbers!”

Aunt Mollie marched back home in triumph coupled with satisfaction.  Placing the axe against the chopping block to await the execution of another chicken, she went out to thin the green beans just emerging in the garden.  Her mind had moved on to other objectives.

Next morning, the sheriff, with warrant in hand sworn out by the tavern owner, arrested her as she hilled the potatoes and weeded the English peas.  Making no resistance, she left calmly with him.  As she did, she glanced over her shoulder at the cold frame next to the wash house and noticed that the spring onions weren’t up enough to merit attention but the lettuce was struggling under-attended and over-grown.

“I need to thin that lettuce right away or I’m gonna lose it all” she proclaimed to no one in particular.  The sheriff glanced uncomfortably at her, holding her arm firmly but gently as he guided her to his car.  Making declarative statements intended for just her ears helped her to remember things.  For others, it reinforced beliefs held about her eccentricity.

Insisting on riding up front with the constable in his official car, she maintained an unruffled, regal disposition as she was taken to be incarcerated.  Word got around town quickly about the incident spreading faster than kudzu on a sunny bank.   A couple of women from the Second Baptist Church (members of the First Baptist congregation elected to “not get involved”) did some arm twisting of their respective husbands and convinced their men to get her released.  There was some initial resistance.  However, their feminine persuasive powers were enhanced by threats of withholding food combined with a dramatic reduction in bed time privileges.

On the scale of demands made upon married men, this was a relatively small request, so Aunt Mollie only spent four hours behind bars.  By then she had eaten lunch courtesy of the County and engaged two fellow prisoners in lengthy conversations.  They had been caught running ‘shine a week earlier as they had failed to share some of their bootlegging with the proper authorities.  She invited them, and they agreed, to come by her place as soon as they were released and have some of her famous country fried steak smothered in gravy.  Later, the incongruence of inviting strangers who had been hauling the product to which she objected, and been briefly jailed, was not lost on some of the locals.  However, Aunt Mollie didn’t see any contradiction at all.

“Those are humin beins, NOT billboards”, she retorted with compassionate logic.

Refusing all offers of assistance, she smoothed the apron on her dress as best could be done, re-pinned the wisps of hair that had managed to escape her bun, and then walked the three and one half miles home as if being jailed and set free from confinement were all part of a normal day.  ‘Normal’ for Aunt Mollie was atypical living for most.

At the end of such an average summer day, I sat on the edge of her front porch enjoying her oatmeal cookies and a glass of milk.   I think I was about thirteen or fourteen and she and I had spent most of the afternoon clearing an area above the chicken house of weeds and brush.  Clucking with enthusiasm, the chickens were appreciative of the disturbed soil and avidly pecking away at any exposed earth.  Watching their movements, I became mesmerized as I enjoyed those delectable cookies.  Transfixed, I sat with an immobility that left red imprints on the back of my legs from the rough wooden planks that decked our favorite sitting spot.  Aunt Mollie rocked slowly in her chair while I focused on slating my burgeoning adolescent appetite.

Being close to dusk, the sun was settling down into a cotton candy bed of rose and pink clouds.  For what seemed like a long while, our sharing of sweets and sunset displaced any talking.  Although no words were spoken, our shared reverie had a plethora of communication for both of us.  With typical suddenness, she broke our mutual silence.

“Y’ever thought about gettin’ a casket?”  Her question caused me to stop chewing abruptly.  Although I was accustomed to her spoken fastballs, this one had whizzed by me before I knew it was being thrown.  I wasn’t mature enough to have the reached the age of reason and balance necessary to parry with an adult, especially one as complex as she.  I swallowed hard.

“I ain’t old enough to need one am I?”

“Are ya puttin’ aside some of the money I give ya for helpin’ me ‘round here?  Are ya still savin’ yur earnins from mowin’ grass and sich?”

“Course I am, Auntie!  That’s how you taught me.  I got ‘most twenty- five dollars in the bank right now!”

“Well, then, ain’t nuthin’ wrong with havin’ a little savins for yur end time neither.  Anywho, I got Joe Hollingsworth (our local mortician) to give me a two fer one deal on solid oak caskets.  Ya might be a bit short for either of ‘em, but you’re still growin’.  Doesn’t hurt to plan for the future.”   Picking up the rusting coffee can next to the rocker, she spat into it, wiped her mouth on her apron, and then concentrated on the waning sun.  As she was focusing her eyes into the distance, she seemed to be talking to the horizon instead of me.    Understandably I found her logic distracting and immediately lost my appetite.  As I pondered her offer, the u-shaped bite I had made out of my cookie grinned back at me.  Before I could respond, she continued.

“Matter of fact, I got the whole thing planned out.”

“What whole thing, Auntie?”  My juvenile mind was trying to keep pace with hers, making a strong effort to find some common ground of understanding.

“The funeral; my funeral.”

I was getting lost fast now.  I looked up at her, blinking and bewildered.  In the nighttime gloaming around us, crickets were beginning their chorus and fireflies were emerging from the grass with their erratic connecting dots of light.  A lone bullfrog gave his throaty call from the creek which flowed by not far away from where we sat.

“When’s it gonna be?”  I didn’t know what else to say.  The surrounding elements of nature were not having their usual soothing effects on my psyche.

“I think I’ma gonna have it in about two weeks.  That’ll give everybody tha’s interested plenty of notice so they’s can be here if they want to.”

Now I was really starting to fall behind with her line of thought.  I felt as though I had agreed to race a sprinter but instead found myself competing with a marathoner. I hadn’t been trained for this sort of event.

“You mean you’re going to have your funeral here . . . at your house?”  Realizing I had placed the cart before the horse, I quickly added “Do you mean you’re gonna be dead in two weeks?” My heart beat fast with dread.  I was incredulous and my still developing voice slipped upwards in part because a lone raisin had lodged against my larynx.  ‘Weeks’ ended up sounding like ‘squeaks’.

Without hesitation, Aunt Mollie handed me the glass of milk sitting by my side and said, “Nope, I don’t plan on that.  I want to be ‘round to enjoy my own funeral.  What good does it do a body, and a dead ‘un at that, to have flowers and tears that ya can’t enjoy if yur stiffened up in a casket?”

As if to add emphasis, she began rocking briskly.  “Nope, I’ve already been down to Miller’s and bought me this purty pink, satiny dress and I’m gonna walk around in it and listen to all those friends of mine tell me how much they are gonna miss me.   Loretta, (who had been instrumental in arranging for her jail release) has one of them record machines.  I’m gonna ask her to play “Whole Lotta Shakin’” by Elvis and “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” by that Sinatra gal.”

At this point in time, I was completely overwhelmed and too confused to know what sort of emotions I should be feeling.  The two or three funerals I had attended were hardly parties and the preachers seemed to devote most of the services to saving the souls of the living.  At one in particular, the fellow being eulogized had been a rascal.  The minister made him a practical saint saying he had agreed to be ‘saved’ on his last day on earth.   I wanted to rattle the box in which he lay and make sure we were considering the same person that I had known.  All sorts of thoughts roiled in my mind, speeding through like moonshiners on an overnight delivery.  But Aunt Mollie continued as though I were right with her.

“I’ll make a stack cake and I’ll get Jessie to bring over his freezer and crank up some homemade peach ice cream.   He’s been getting’ some nice fruits from his orchard up at Blowing Springs.  I gotta remember to get some rock salt.  I can’t expect him to bring everthin.”

While she had certainly never been the depressed sort, I couldn’t recall her looking so happy and unburdened.  She paused and I was able to gain a little ground.   Breathing deeply in an effort to steady my thoughts, I asked, “How you gonna let folks know?  Are you gonna invite a preacher?”  No bigger than a bar of soap, her frame had not darkened the doorway of a church since her husband passed.

Hesitating for a moment as though she had not considered this possibility, she quickly recovered.  Her voice rose an octave or two, passion evident in her words, “Yeah, I’ll invite any pritcher that wants to come, but he ain’t gonna waste MY funeral on hellfire and brimstone!  He can sit ‘round with the rest of us’n’s and act like reglar folks.”



Aunt Mollie

Aunt Mollie

Memories are a patchwork of colors, sizes, and arrangements. In that jumbled assortment of recollections, some pieces repeat themselves throughout the fabric of one’s existence for many reasons. Aunt Mollie is such a redundant presence in the first decades of my life in rural Tennessee.

None of my family was related to her and she was more of a mother figure to many in our community. From the time I was allowed to move about with some degree of freedom, I felt her gravitational pull and soon learned to navigate the quarter mile or so walk from my home to hers.

She was a sweet but independent-minded woman. Married long before I was born, her husband had been killed in an accident at the hosiery mill which provided most of the employment in our county. Their union had produced no children and, seemingly, no regrets as I never heard her speak of him. She treated me with a degree of equality that was absent in the behavior of most adults that I knew. As a youngster her candor caused me some difficulty in understanding her conversation, but I always grasped the genuineness clearly present in her words.

Her style of living would be viewed today as archaic, yet I never thought her preferences as odd simply because those habits were the way by which I knew her. She owned two or three faded, patched gingham dresses. They were clean but the full apron she wore would be flecked with bread crumbs, chicken parts, or black soil from her garden. Those particles from her various activities created mosaics of modern art that would have made Jackson Pollack proud.

She wore her hair in a bun and her chores would, as the day progressed, gradually free wispy puffs in downward drafts like grey and white smoke about her cheeks. She also dipped snuff, its presence marked by a pale brown trickle that crept out of one side of her mouth and disappeared beneath her chin. Along with cash, she kept the tobacco stuffed over her left breast inside her clothing. Keeping several empty JFG coffee cans at strategic sites about her home gave her the convenience of being able to spit the effluent of her habit into those handy reservoirs. The odor of her spittle and the dark brown fluid that collected in those cans gave a sickly sweet smell that was pervasive throughout her home.

The interior of her house was dark, yet to me it felt inviting and a bit mysterious. On the back side, a small screened porch provided a retreat where I felt safe and cozy. She would reinforce my comfort with a few of her oatmeal cookies or a saucer of homemade pimiento cheese and crackers. Her cooking was renowned, although her method of preparing vegetables was the other side of al dente. By the time I was in grammar school, her place had become the center of my small universe.

Somewhere in the alphabet soup of mental issues, Aunt Mollie had drifted from ‘eccentric’ to ‘peculiar’. In that era, most folks accepted others with various forms of dementia and accommodated them in their lives. Part of this tolerance was borne of the fact that institutions were reserved for the desperate or defenseless and spaces simply weren’t available for mid-grade emotional deficiencies.

For example, “Crazy Arthur” lived in town and was viewed by folks much like a wart that exists on one’s hand. He pretended to drive the small section of downtown using the top of a garbage can lid as his steering wheel and his own two feet for propulsion. The locals accepted Arthur’s parking privileges with gentle derision as he placed a few pennies into the meter. He continued this habit until, at the age of thirty-eight, he was punched by an irate out-of-towner from Ohio who thought Arthur was being disrespectful to him. Arthur was rightfully upset that this stranger had run over and then parked on top of his ‘car’.

And then there was the well-known brother and sister in Pop Holler who co-habited in the house they had inherited from their parents. Embarrassed personnel from the county health department would periodically come out to deliver an oblique lecture on incest and separate the two beds that they had pushed together to make one. Then the siblings would stand together at the front door, watch the county people leave, and as soon as the dust had settled on the driveway they would push those beds right back together. So, while Aunt Mollie had slipped a bit in society’s view of normalcy, she was still several categories removed from temperamental and really not much of an exception when compared to some other characters.

It was easy to figure out where Aunt Mollie stood on just about any issue as she didn’t mince words. “Shit fire, and save matches!” she declared in frustration at the post office upon learning that the government was adopting the practice of Daylight Savings Time.
“Those sinators from Washington have forgotten that roosters crow at the crack of dawn and that cows need milkin’ ever day at the same time no matter what hour they want to say it is! That’s messin’ with God’s time!” While Aunt Mollie was not particularly devout in the traditional sense, she knew the value of invoking the Good Lord’s name when applicable.

She was incensed about ‘losing’ an hour in the springtime when the clocks were moved forward. “I’ll be dadgum if’n I’m gonna die before October!” In frustration, she repeated this oath each April along with underscoring her rebelliousness with a refusal to adjust the time on her own clock.

In addition to an expansive garden, she raised chickens. I watched her many times as she severed a hapless bird’s head with an axe, and then held the legs while the decapitated body splattered red blood over the green grass and her hands. Once though, she absentmindedly left the chicken on the grass with green bottle flies slowly circling the white feathered body and walked the two miles to Cas Wallace’s store. Having also forgotten to clean the chicken’s blood from her hands and put on a clean apron, she strode unerringly to the spot where she knew cornmeal was kept and picked up a bag. Approaching the worn wooden counter, she looked Cas straight in the eye as if older women with blood stained hands and aprons were a regular occurrence.

“Put this on my bill, iff’n you don’t mind, Cas.”

Cas had certainly seen many an oddity in his long years, but he right then and there deeply regretted not having closed the store earlier that morning and gone fishing as he had wished. Complying with her request, he kept one eye on her as she sailed through the squeaking screen door and headed back down the dusty road towards her home. But that incident paled in comparison to a couple of years later when she was arrested.

To Be Continued . . .

Mail Sex

I’ll bet that title got several folks’ attention . . .

However, it is that time of year when many of us look forward to the cornucopia of color and content that begin to arrive in our mailboxes.  Enthusiasm, excitement, and enticement build with each delivery by the good ‘ol reliable USPS.  Forgotten are the dog days of August when heat and humidity steamrolled any further interest in just about anything to do with the out-of-doors.  Overlooked are the remaining chores yet to be accomplished to clean up the landscape, re-mulch, and get rid of withered plants from last season.

FullSizeRender (4)What am I talking about?  Gardeners among us know precisely.  It is the highly anticipated arrival of seed and nursery catalogs with their lovely, alluring, specimen-perfect photos and descriptions of seeds and plants.  Some companies accentuate the appeal by having attractive young people smiling into the camera while holding gorgeous fruits or veggies in collecting baskets.  Although casually dressed, these gardeners have no soil stains on their clothing, their brows are void of perspiration, and they smile as though the produce was collected on perfect days sans much effort.  As readers, we blithely succumb to the possibilities suggested in those pictures, happily giving in to the hopes and promises of a new season.  Those images connect our gardening minds with fondness into the soon-to-be future of soil under our fingernails.  Our minds contentedly imagine visions of 100% germination, envious people admiring our luscious gardens, family and friends gathered around the table drooling over fresh vegetables . . .  and, thusly, our drab winter days are brightened with hope.FullSizeRender

And, why is it that we drift into the horticultural equivalent of denial, pushing into the recesses of memory past droughts, the worry over pests and diseases, the sweat and toil associated with gardening?  Partly it is due to the fact that many of us are weary of the cold, short days of winter and partly it is because we can’t wait for the sunny promise of those warm, soft feelings that April brings like a beautiful bride.  Additionally, human nature is such that we can’t resist the competitive urge to do it better than last season.  For some, that includes having the first edible tomato in the neighborhood.  (Hint: 1) start seeds indoors in mid-February or, 2) purchase in May those ridiculously huge three-gallon plants that already have several green, well-formed fruits on them.   Be sure to throw away the $15 receipt before claiming sole effoFullSizeRender (2)rt.)

FullSizeRender (1)Gardening and farming have to be among the most positive and hopeful of human endeavors.  Those activities resonate with our roots on this earth just like the memories of our respective mothers however they manifested themselves into our lives.    I won’t enter into the debates of GMO’s, organic versus non-organic practices, hybrids versus heirlooms, seed-saving versus purchases.  However, I can guarantee you that $100 invested in seeds and plants will yield better results than gambling with the same amount of money, more highs than an equivalent amount of booze, and greater satisfaction than the mixed emotions of watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your brand-new BMW.

Happy gardening!