Great-grandmother’s candlestick, my most treasured possession

Mary Ethel Wynne Helvenston tintype photo. #Mary Ethel Wynne #Mary Ethel Wynne Helvenston

My great-grandmother lived during a time of great injustice. Slavery was practiced in the South; child labor was rampant in Northern factories. As the daughter of slave owners, she was too young at the time of the Civil War to comprehend all … Continue reading

Writing 101, Day 14: An open letter to Prestige

My dear esteemed Prestige:

Excuse me for beginning this letter in such familiar terms. I would imagine that you would prefer to be addressed as “Your Excellency”, “Your Highness”, or something else equally ego-satisfying. You may not remember me, but we met on page 361 of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, Volume 5, “The Captive”. You are a truly interesting word, I must admit. I googled your definition for the sake of exactness and came up with this: “widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality.” And therein lies the rub.

It is, if you will pardon me for saying so, that little word “perception” that bothers me so much. “Perception” is relative in its meaning. I suppose this makes sense. Little children often feel that some character on television has great prestige by virtue of some completely imaginary superpower; grown-ups attribute prestige to those who have achieved great wealth through their own efforts, such as Bill Gates, or great notoriety, such as Paris Hilton. And this is what bothers me.

I really prefer things to be a little more precise than what you seem to be. After all, what is prestigious one day is quite old-fashioned and comical the next. So, if you will excuse the question, “What good are you, anyway?” Your definition is so slippery and fickle that I’m not quite sure I have much respect for you anymore. Nowadays when I hear you used, you are almost always followed by “university”: This or that institution is a “prestigious university”.

It must annoy you to know that you have been largely replaced by the phrase “trending now”. I’m sorry for this; that’s a rather clunky term and you are a truly musical word when pronounced correctly. So please hang in there. You may not be trending now, but I think you will come back. And not just because they built another university. But if worst does comes to worst, just remember that once upon a time you were a word used by Marcel Proust in one of the most brilliant novels ever written. That amount of prestige ought to be enough to set you up for life.

Well, I won’t take up any more of your time. You probably won’t hear from me again, as you keep changing addresses. Have a good life and take care of yourself.

With great respect,

An anonymous admirer

Writing 101: Day 8, no adverbs – An ice cream sundae in the park

The park is as it has been for one hundred years, give or take a water fountain or two. The trees bend leaf-laden arms overhead until they touch, their pale green tips entangling and clinging to one another.
The wooden slatted benches are more comfortable than the modern “improvements” they replaced – those hard, flattened arches of concrete that were touted as an “evolution” in design. Alas, our sitting apparatus had never evolved, and one noisy night a local college group demolished them with a great clamor and a final cheer. We were all grateful.
I think of that now as I chase the little rivulet of ice cream that’s creeping down my chin. The napkin catches it. I had coveted that voluptuous banana split that Louise had touted, telling me in graphic detail of its delicious perfection, the superiority of the whipped cream (“Real cream – none of that plastic stuff”), and the gleaming roundness of that perfect red maraschino cherry that dazzled from the snowy summit. I had wavered, but told her in an unconvincing voice that all I really wanted was a small chocolate sundae. She had snorted, but plopped an extra cherry on top all the same.
The sun is warm but not yet burning, and it seems that everyone else in town has decided that lunch in the park is a good idea. From the squirrel that snuffles and grunts and swishes its feather-duster tail, to Mr. Parker who has deserted the bank, loosened his tie, and slipped his feet halfway out of his impeccable Florsheims, to the young mothers in pastel shorts who lean their heads together and giggle and then make patting gestures in the air as they describe curing infant fussiness.
But there are few of the mainstays of the town – the solid working men who populate the box factory and the fields. It would be too far a trek in heavy boots and sweat-stained overalls. And it would take time, time they could use to tell embellished tales of weekend fishing trips, arms waving in the air to measure their catch, voices raised and excited over the rainbow trout that got away. They will be lolling against the tree trunks, bone-weary, enjoying the company of their coworkers and friends who chomp on everything from biscuits and jelly to the remains of last night’s now-rubbery chicken fried steak.
Dabbing at my sticky chin, I deliberate whether to arc the empty container into the trash from here. But no, my images of a graceful, Whitey Ford throw usually culminate in splattered wreckage on the grass. Besides, Mr. Parker has his eyes closed now, and there is a possibility he will nod off. A poor throw could make a harsh bounce off the metal and startle everyone.
The chimes from the church bell tower begin, and I know it’s time to go. I see Mr. Parker jerk into full consciousness. Perhaps I could make that throw. When it seems no one is looking, I lift my arm and let it fly. It takes forever before it hits the back of the trash can, hesitates, and then slides inside, a trail of melting ice cream on the plastic liner the only evidence.
“Yes!” I think.
A small victory on a perfect day.

Writing 101: Day Six, Character-Building

I ran into Kerry for the first time in ten years. I remembered her from  high school, but all she cared about then was cheerleading and getting married. The last time I saw her she had been headed for college to get a degree in elementary education. Somewhere between her freshman and sophomore years her vivacious personality and toothpaste-ad beauty had snared her the sought-for husband. Soon I began to receive monthly updates of letters spilling over with baby pictures. Nothing very personal was ever said, just reports on how the baby was doing and how happy she was. I moved away and we lost track of each other. Since she hadn’t really penetrated my consciousness very much, I gave her little thought in the intervening years.

But seeing her this Tuesday was a shock. It was as if all the light had drained from her eyes and something had pricked the balloon of her personality until it lay on the restaurant table between us, flat and deflated. Everything irritated her: the service, the menu, the voices of the other patrons, the fact that I was wearing a color she didn’t approve of. I was trying to think of excuses to leave before the meal arrived, but none came. I was only half listening when the giveaway sentence fell like lead between us. “And then after the divorce –” What? What divorce? I had long ceased receiving updates on her idyllic life. I had no idea.

“You just don’t get it, do you?” she smirked. “The majority of people in this country who get married get divorced. So what’s the big deal?”

I mumbled something about not knowing about the divorce and was trying to think of some way to change the subject. This definitely qualified as an awkward moment.

“Come to think of it,” I said. “I only know of one girl who is still married from high school. You remember Carol?”

“Carol just trapped him into marriage. If anybody should be divorced, she should.” There was a biting meanness in that remark that left me speechless. She tapped her fork on an invisible spot about three inches in front of my nose. “And don’t try to pretend you’re happy. I know better.You were the one who was supposed to go on to college and get that big-shot degree. Didn’t happen, did it? I heard you ran out of money right before your junior year. Husband didn’t make enough money, did he? And your parents didn’t chip in either, did they? They didn’t care, did they? That makes you a failure, too. Don’t pretend you’re not. What a joke. Life is just a joke.”

That gesture with the fork had frightened me. Its resemblance to a pitchfork was a little too much for this country girl. “Maybe we shouldn’t be having this conversation,” I said shakily.

“Ha! I got you there, didn’t I? I hit a nerve!” she crowed. “So now you want out of the whole conversation. You don’t want to talk. Miss Fancy Pants doesn’t want to talk.”

I was beginning to want a pitchfork of my own. “Look,” I said. “You are obviously hurting too much from something I know nothing about. I came here to have lunch with you just because we met on the street. I knew nothing about what happened to you and Tom –”

“You certainly did. I’ll bet everybody was just dying to tell you all about it. That’s why you asked me in here. You just wanted to  gloat.” She got up and slammed the chair under the table, snatched her jacket off the back of it and started digging in her purse. “Here’s a tip. Tell them to send mine back. I didn’t come here to be insulted.”

“I didn’t know anything about this. If you weren’t hurting so badly we could’ve gotten through this dinner without my even suspecting. Look, we weren’t the best of friends. We ran in different circles  –”

“You never ran in any circles at all. You were just a loner.” And with that she stalked away. I can still hear the clump – clump of her stylish heels on the restaurant floor, fading out to the door and then blending with the traffic.

It was as if I had been caught up in a roaring tornado and then slammed to earth miles away. I was aware that the noises in the restaurant had almost ceased. My cheeks were red and burning and I was trying to figure out how to sneak out with all those eyes on me.

I jumped when the waitress set my salad in front of me.  “It’s on the house,” she said in a whisper. “I wouldn’t talk to a dog like that. But believe me, there’s one like that in every family.”

“There is?” This was a new concept to me.

She nodded. “It’s like the stages of grief people go through. Someone wrote a book about it. You know – denial, bargaining…. what was the other one?”

That broke the spell. “Anger!”

You can meet the nicest people in diners.