2008 Writing Contest
Super Scribblers

Here's who has the write stuff

Grand Prize The Bead Room, Handcrafted necklace ($125 value)
Dody Williams of Greensboro, "Pink Slip"

First Prize North Carolina Writers’ Network,1-year membership ($75 value)
Lillian Brewer Pollack of Wilmington, "Maggie's Day"

Second Prize The Bare Wall, $50 gift certificate
Hannah Alliason of Efland, "Dangerous as a Wild Stallion"

Third Prize At Ease, $40 gift certificate
Jo Bouler for the poem "Southern Spring"

Fourth Prize Barnes & Noble, $20 gift certificate
Judy Martell of Durham for the narrative "Under My Feet"

Honorable Mentions Carolina Woman t-shirt
Cara McLauchlan of Fuquay Varina for the tribute “Hope’s Tortillas”
Audrey D. Mark of Raleigh for the sly “My Dirty Little Secret”
Elizabeth Underwood of Chapel Hill for the essay “Letting Go”
D. L. FitzGerald of Raleigh for the fanciful “Orange”
Genevieve Fitzgerald of Raleigh for the poem “Of Poetry and Lingerie and Choosing to Comply

  • Grand Prize
  • First Prize
  • Second Prize
  • Third Prize
  • Fourth Prize
  • Honorable Mentions
“Pink Slip”
by Dody Williams of Greensboro

The first day of kindergarten my very dour teacher (whose complexion was the color of day-old oatmeal) made the following proclamation: “The principal, Mr. Matka, wants to meet all of you new students personally. He will send a pink slip on the day you are to go to his office and talk to him. Once you receive your pink slip, be prepared to walk down the hallway with Miss Duffie to your meeting. You will be going in AL-PHA-BET-I-CAL order, according to your last name.”

For some reason all the other kids sitting around me on the kindergarten rug started to murmur in fear, “The principal wants to see us? Were we naughty?”

Unlike my worried peers, I was transfixed. Miss Gardner (who looked exactly like the old maid in the deck of cards) had said two magic words: “pink slip.” After “pink slip,” I lapsed into a reverie of anticipation. I fervently hoped that the pink slip Mr. Matka sent me would be silky. All of my plain, boring, white slips were cotton. None even had a pink satin rosebud trimmed in green ribbon leaves positioned in the center of the bodice that I had longed for on our last trip to Marshall Fields.

Yet, here was the promise of a pink slip from, of all unlikely sources, Mr. Matka, the gruff, large, grumpy looking man with the Frankenstein head who had made announcements standing on the stage during the First Day of School Assembly.  Like my mom said, you just never knew.

Miss Gardner (whose mouth was wrinkled from too much frowning) had made it clear that the pink slips would come according to the letter that our last name started with.  My last name started with L. I looked up to the signs displayed across the top of the blackboard with all the letters doing funny things and scanned them to see where L was. It was kind of in the middle. Not as good as A or B (Jeff Abbott or Lori Bromowitz) but certainly better than W (Vicki Wilson). I glanced sympathetically at Vicki. Poor Vicki.

I kept my anticipation to myself.  No one else seemed to act as elated as I felt. It never occurred to me to wonder what the boys would do with their pink slips. Maybe they would give them to their sisters. It just didn’t raise a red flag. Each day I came to school eagerly. Throughout the next few weeks, kids would be summoned to the classroom door by gray, wrinkly mouth Miss Gardner. On these days, the lucky pink slip recipient would dutifully hold Miss Duffie’s hand and disappear down the hallway to Mr. Matka’s office. I was always careful to observe them on their return. No sign of the pink slip, but I knew it had to have been put in their satchel or maybe it was sent directly from Marshall Field’s like the packages that came for my mom when she ordered something directly out of the Chicago Tribune. That was it! I imagined the white delivery truck with the distinctive green script writing pulling up to our house and the man in the delivery suit ringing the doorbell.  I would answer and the puffy brown paper package, (squishy like a pillow,) smelling all papery and fresh would come with my name on the top line: Miss Dody Landgren.

The days of kindergarten seemed to move at a crawl. It was almost Thanksgiving and I had yet to visit the principal’s office. Looking up at the alphabet signs, I tried to calculate where the hold up was.  Weeks earlier I had taken an inventory of the kids in the class and asked them what letter their last name started with. Lori Finklestien had already been – I scanned the alphabet, F is for “Fire.” I couldn’t read the word “Fire” but the top of the F was ablaze and a smiling fireman was trying to hose it down. F looked like it was halfway between A and L but not every kid in the class had a last name that started with every single alphabet letter. Miss Gardner had explained this to us at the beginning of the year and I got the impression she was disappointed by this; almost like we planned it on purpose to make her mouth wrinkle.

I looked around the class sitting on the carpet square. There was Carolyn Hall (H is for “Ham” with a great big fat chef sticking a knife into it), and then the names skipped all the way to Mark Kohman (K is for “Kite”). I was after Carolyn and Mark. Surely I would have the pink slip by Christmas.

Finally the moment came. Miss Gardner stood at the door and called my name.  I looked up at my alphabet sign with reverence. L is for “Light,” a bright yellow light bulb with black flashy lines shooting enthusiastically. This proved to be prophetic for me.  I rose from the kindergarten carpet. I carefully smoothed my dress of smocked black calico sprinkled with red rosebuds.  I walked to the door as if I were Miss America walking up the runway.  I even smiled up at that old sourpuss Miss Gardner who put a pink piece of paper in my hand with my name written in large letters. When I arrived at Mr. Matka’s office, Miss Duffie indicated that I should sit in the brown leather chair usually reserved for delinquents. Then Miss Duffie said the words that reverberate in my ears to this day:
“When you go into Mr. Matka’s office, be sure to give him your pink slip so he will know your name.”

Panic rose in my throat and my ears felt very hot. The pink piece of paper in my hand started to feel damp. “But Miss Duffie,” I croaked, “um, I haven’t gotten my pink slip yet.”
Miss Duffie looked confused. She cocked her head to one side and said, “Well, yes dear, you have it right there in your hand!”

“But this is just a piece of pink paper!” I blurted out. And then, just like L is for “Light,” the light bulb went off in my head as Miss Duffie said, “It is a hall pass with your name on it.”
A large, painful lump lodged in my throat. My eyes felt bulgy and hot. Somehow I managed to walk into the office. Somehow I was able to sit and answer Mr. Matka’s questions. “How many brothers and sisters do you have…when is your birthday…” BLAH BLAH BLAH.  Somehow I managed not to cry, not to mourn the passing of my beautiful pink slip. 

Many years later when I was a college student who lived in faded blue jeans embroidered with my boyfriend’s name on the back right pocket, I wandered by the window of a very pricey lingerie store. I was dumbstruck by what I saw. Displayed on a headless, plastic torso was my pink slip. It was the exact slip that I had imagined 15 years earlier in kindergarten. I stood before the window dazed. I felt a little shaky as I placed my hand on the door and entered the store, which obviously catered to wealthy women owning more than two bras (one in the wash, one out) and the ubiquitous three-pack of Fruit of the Loom bikinis. 

 The woman behind the counter looked up at me, and her left eyebrow arched quizzically as she scanned my appearance. “Yes? May I help you?”

My voice sounded kind of squeaky as I asked, “Could you please tell me how much the pink slip in the window costs?”

Scanning my frame with a sniff she responded, “I’m afraid it costs $75.00.”

This was two weeks of my work-study pay. “Can I look at it?”

The woman’s left eyebrow was permanently stuck in the arch of disapproval, but she went to the window and removed the slip and carefully laid it out on the counter in front of me. Ever so gently I ran my hand over its length. It was deliciously silky, like you would imagine satin sheets in old 1930s movies to feel. I took one of the straps in my fingers and I closed my eyes as I rubbed the slippery softness between my thumb and index finger. 

“It is silk charmeuse,” the woman said.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

After she got over her shock, the woman folded my slip carefully. Laying the slip on tissue, she affixed it with a gold seal and placed it in a sliver-thin box bearing the faux coat of arms logo of the store.  At some point, the arch of her left eyebrow softened and I could see that she was touched by my obvious devotion to the slip.

“I’ve been waiting since kindergarten for this.”

Relaxing her eyebrow, she nodded her head as if she understood.
“Maggie’s Day”
by Lillian Brewer Pollock of Wilmington

Maggie carefully brushed leaves off the wrought iron bench with her lacy white handkerchief. Central Park was across the street from her condominium, and she had come here several times a week for longer than she would like to think about. Today it was a cool crisp autumn day, so she was wearing her gray gabardine coat with a silk scarf. A small wool hat covered her white hair.

Sitting there on the bench, she thought about how the park would look in a few months, all covered with snow. The trees would be bare but strangely beautiful with gnarled winter branches in twisted shapes. Icy paths would make her wary of falling and keep her away for days at a time, she thought. She would yearn for the spring. Perhaps she should think about visiting one of her friends in Florida this year, but she would miss her own familiar environment; the rooms that she and Joseph had shared.

Today the colorful trees blazed in the sunshine, and the grass was still thick and green. Maggie looked around at the typical young twosomes on benches or blankets thrown over the grass. Mothers and nannies were watching spirited toddlers racing tricycles or constructing roads and villages in the sand pile. Some were gently rolling baby carriages back and forth as they shared gossip. Two boys were tossing a bright blue Frisbee, and an elderly gentleman was feeding birds. Maggie noticed he was dressed in a very attractive wool tweed jacket. Their generation usually took particular care with their clothes, she thought. It may have been a way of hanging on to their dignity or just an ingrained habit. Maggie thought the young couples looked very comfortable and carefree in their jeans and jackets. They reminded her of her grandson who might be flying over Kosovo at this very moment. She looked skyward and offered a brief prayer for his safety.

Today was the first anniversary of her husband Joseph’s death. They had been married forty years, and she could hardly get started this morning, because she was thinking about the past too much. She and Joseph had been blessed with two healthy boys who seemed secure in their careers and relationships. They had always encouraged their sons be independent. Sometimes she wished they had not instilled so much independence in their boys. Then they might be close by when she needed them, but that wouldn’t have been fair to them.

She could have used some company today, but everyone was traveling or working. Her best friend, Martha, was going to a grandson’s bar mitzvah in New Jersey and Sophie, her next door neighbor, was vacationing with her family in Atlanta. No one remembered today’s sad anniversary of course. She really hadn’t expected them to, and she wouldn’t remind them later.

She thought how much Joseph would have liked this sunshiny autumn day in the park, where they had spent many pleasurable afternoons. He always walked so tall and straight beside her and she had thought he would always be there to lean on. Who would have thought his heart would take him away so quickly. Joseph wouldn’t have approved if she had moped around the apartment all day today. He would have said, “Chin up old girl,” so she was doing her best. The fresh air, and being around people, would brighten her outlook, she hoped.

Maggie walked over to the elderly gentleman across the path, because he was part of her generation and might be lonely too. “Good afternoon, lovely day,” she said. He just nodded unsmilingly and gave a brief “Good day.” At least he had spoken, but he didn’t seem interested in talking. Hmm, she thought, some people were more interested in birds than people. She walked on.

Maggie certainly wouldn’t interrupt the lovers on the next bench. She envied the freedom of their generation a little. When she and Joseph were dating, they had been so different. She usually wore full skirts and Caldonia sweaters with bobby socks and Spaulding saddle oxfords. She remembered Joseph’s crisply pleated khakis, often with a white shirt and tie. Sometimes he wore a soft light blue flannel shirt and that was her favorite. He always loved special occasions when she wore a royal blue silk file dress with a flared skirt and her ankle strap shoes. In fact, he liked it so much that she wore it the day they were married.
Two little girls were swinging nearby so she stopped to watch. They were trying to see who could go the highest. She felt like telling them to hold tight but decided not to interfere. The way the country was changing, they might think she was some sort of deviant. Sad that people had to be so careful these days, especially children.

She stopped at a fountain for a sip of water and accidentally splashed her face. She chuckled to herself remembering a time she and Joseph had stopped at this same fountain, and she had splashed water on herself that time too. Joseph had blotted her face with his big soft handkerchief. She could almost smell the scent of his Aqua Velva aftershave and see his smile as he looked down at her face. “My pretty Maggie,” he said. That was a very special memory, she thought. One to tuck away and bring out when needed... like today.

Stopping by a small stream that meandered through the park, and watching children float paper boats, she noticed how they laughed and talked with each other. Then, sadly, she turned back in the direction she had come, not wanting to walk too far. As she passed by the two young boys throwing a Frisbee, she stopped to watch their companionship. “Throw it Ryan,” yelled the smaller boy with the light hair. He ran sideways as if catching a football pass. The Frisbee went over his head and sailed right toward Maggie. Instinctively she reached toward the circling blue object and grabbed it in both hands. She was surprised at herself and laughed out loud. With a surge of energy and unexpected delight and enthusiasm, she turned her hand to the side and put a spin on the Frisbee like she had seen Ryan doing when he had thrown it over the other boy’s head. “Thanks Grandma,” Ryan yelled. What a nice boy she thought. He must have a grandmother somewhere who loves him. To Maggie’s surprise, Ryan called to her again, “Catch,” he said and threw the Frisbee. She caught it too. Then she threw it back. Again he threw it to her, and this time she tossed the Frisbee to the smaller boy. “Good throw,” he yelled. She caught the Frisbee several more times then waved as she turned toward the bench to rest a little.

My what a lovely day I’m having, she decided. The orange and gold leaves on the trees are so pretty. She picked up two handfuls of fallen leaves and tossed them up in the air as she smiled. Then, she glanced up toward the snowy floating clouds; I’m holding my chin up Joseph, you would be proud of me, she thought. She didn’t say it out loud because she didn’t want the young boys to think she was “bananas.” She smiled at the thought of that old-fashioned expression and got up to walk back to her apartment. She wanted to be there in case her son called, so she could tell him she had played Frisbee in the park today. Wouldn’t he be surprised?

“Dangerous as a Wild Stallion”
by Hannah Allison of Efland

Sarah Jane detests every jolting pothole this wagon hits. Sarah Jane does not think the misty Appalachian Mountains are pretty like my Mama thinks. Sarah Jane is fed up with my little brother, hollering at me to hold him. Sarah Jane is my corn-husk doll that my Daddy made for me when I was knee high to a grasshopper. She’s been my best friend these eleven years. Sarah Jane used to sit next to me in the cornfields when I was working and sweating under the raging sun. But that was all at our old house that we just left behind, because Papa couldn’t pay the taxes on it. You can barely make out our farmhouse, a charcoal smudge on the bronze horizon line. Sarah Jane loved that old house: the squeaky floorboards, the smell of corn on the breeze, and the dulcimer music drifting around the farm. But Sarah Jane has to forget about that rusty, old house; we’re moving on to a new place in the mountains, where nobody can make my Daddy pay taxes. That’s why my family is traveling in this rough, wooden wagon aimlessly, until we see a spot good enough to stake out our territory.

That’s enough about Sarah Jane. My name is Sue Anne, and I live in North Carolina. I have a younger brother, sister, and two younger cousins who are all on this godforsaken quest. Right now, my Mama is yelling at my Daddy to make me stop writing in this “stupid journal” that he got for me.

I think this journal is the best thing I have, besides Sarah Jane, of course. Anyway, I think Mama is just jealous that I can write better than she and Papa can. Wait, there’s a man strolling towards our two wagons with a peculiar looking box with three legs on his shoulder. Sarah Jane thinks he appears funny, wearing his Sunday best out in the middle of nowhere. Daddy’s stopped the wagon to traipse out and talk to him about whose land we’re on. Mama is looking as impatient as a hound about to snap at a vexing bee.

Papa lopes back to us and declares, “This man has offered to take our tin-type with that camera on his shoulder. It’s a picture that will make us remember this time in our lives forever, he says. He says everyone in town is getting one, and he’ll make us a picture for twenty-five cents. What do you say, Mama?” Daddy consults Mama about everything because she gets as irate as a trampled-on rattlesnake when Daddy makes decisions without her. Nobody crosses my mama; they all whisper when she’s not looking that she is as stubborn as a mule and as dangerous as a wild stallion.

She’s the reason I’ve tried running away from home (our old home, Sarah Jane reminds me) eight times. Whenever Mama would yell at me for something trivial, I would pack up Sarah Jane and my journal and run away down the dusty dirt road before anyone noticed. Then my mind would wander back to my lanky Daddy and what he would do without me. How would he make melodies without me to sing to his dulcimer tunes? So, each time I would turn around and trudge home reluctantly. Mama would be as mad as a hornet then, but I just ignored her and went about gathering the warm, delicate chicken eggs and churning the butter with my aching arms.

While I’ve been recounting this, Mama has been glaring at Daddy like he is chicken droppings on her shoe. Then she lowers her demonic eyes to mumble, “I suppose that would be alright.” All of the little kids jump out of the wagon cheering, but Sarah Jane and I are more composed than those little children. The family assembles and the camera-man tells us to smile, but we have nothing to smile about. Somehow, I got stuck at the back of the picture, and you can’t even see Sarah Jane in my lap! But when the queer picture-taker gave us our tin-type, Sarah Jane sees the beauty of the burnished mountains behind us with the setting sun casting glorious shadows on the land, and she starts to accept this new adventure of our life. I believe I spot a slight grin on Sarah Jane’s coarse face, matching mine.

“Southern Spring”
by Jo Bouler of Durham

In North Carolina,
After yellow daffodils have heralded the early anticipation of spring,
Redbud appears, bright pink cotton candy tufts on brown-gray branches.
Each year, reminding me I’m living in the South.

One dream of my youth, kept:
Traveling from eastern Maryland to the mountains of Virginia,
The beauty nearly heart-stopping, my mind’s camera on overload,
I yearned and prayed for my future to see redbud blooming in the spring.

Bradford pear, popcorn-white weeks earlier,
Now have white-green hues, bringing forth leaves.

Soon, a mysterious yellow-green dust covers everything on earth.
Ah Ha! The pine pollen! In the breeze, leaves and branches rustle,
Like a wet dog, gently shaking the yellow-green dust as clouds waft across yards,
Covers everything on earth.

With the yellow-green spray, cars soon change their colors unevenly,
As if they stood in the paint shop, too close to another car painted with yellow-green paint.

Folks make small talk about the annual event,
Punctuating conversations with sneezing, coughing, and wiping watery eyes.
Lawns mowed, memories of autumn leaf, and the yellow-green powder,
Co-mingle for more punctuation from weekend warriors against the growth,
Heralding spring.

“Under My Feet: Climbing Mauna Kea for my mother”
By Judy Martell of Durham

The mountain is pure and lifeless, wrapped in thin skies and an uncanny quiet. It is a moonscape, with its dry gulches, its harsh outcroppings of lava rock in odd, bundled shapes, and, always above, the ridges and slopes of gray rubble stretching on toward the summit, beyond view. I am utterly alone: no animals, no birds — no scurrying or twittering to keep me company. The ground pops and slides beneath my boots as I climb Mauna Kea, the White Mountain of Hawaii.

I am in my own desolation of the heart as I take this journey. I have come to the big island of Hawaii to fetch my ailing mother back home to North Carolina, where she will live with me for the remainder of her life. For two weeks I will learn from my brother, a doctor, how to understand what is happening in my mother’s mind and how to care for her body, which she no longer tends well. I have always honored the strength and independent spirit of my mother as she has forged her own life’s way, but I hardly know this woman I have come to claim: she is frightened by scrambled memories, fixated on food, at times rude and at other times ingratiating, and she is failing physically, in every quarter. She is far along in the drug spiral of the aging, with the fix for one ailment creating the next, and it is too late for her to go back: she appears lost now to herself, and to her children.

I sense that caring for my mother will be one of my greatest challenges, greater than any of the high peaks I have climbed before this one. I sense I will need to accept my mother as her needs define her, not by my own needs. My mother has never been comfortable showing affection, nor has she allowed the space for me to be demonstrative with her, so I look to this mountain to help me: I need to find comfort here, and determination, and perhaps love.

At the age of fifty-two, and not in the best of shape, I will take this mountain on as a way to test myself for the care-giving work ahead: Do it, no matter how hard it is. It needs to be done. Do it and love it. I will trust that the mother spirit lies under my feet, ancient and powerful. I will absorb her strength through the soles of my feet. I will gather it up, step by step, to take to my mother.

This silent mountain I am climbing rises from the sea to dominate the island of Hawaii from every direction, not just with its tremendous presence, but with its story. Mauna Kea is almost a million years old. Its last eruption was over forty-five hundred years ago. It is dormant now, but has erupted often — and will likely rise again. It commands almost a quarter of the big island and extends five miles from the sea floor to the summit, which means that Mauna Kea is technically the tallest mountain in the world. I consider this metaphor of the submerged base: How much of my family’s emotions are hidden but secure; how I can gain strength for this work at the end of my mother’s life from the many strong years that have come before; how I may only ever know a fraction of my mother’s pain as we work our way toward her summit. But, more important to me than all of the symbolism, I feel concretely the strength of this mountain’s base beneath me; a sense of endurance and power I have never felt before on a climb.

Ascending Mauna Kea is a unique challenge to the body because hikers must start at sea level, making it impossible to acclimatize to the altitude in advance, as is done with most high peaks. Altitude sickness is almost guaranteed for those who drive straight to the top; those who climb are advised to rest often. In earlier times, though, native Hawaiian men challenged themselves to run straight up the side of the mountain from the ocean to the summit, grab a fistful of snow, and then run with the snow back down to the ocean before it melted. I cannot imagine such strength, speed, and endurance.

I have broken my own slow ascent into two days of climbing. Three days ago, I walked comfortably along winding pavement up from the base road to the 9,000-foot point and back down again. In the following days, as I learned from my brother and his wife about injecting insulin, measuring blood sugar, keeping track of pills and managing my mother’s medical highs and lows, I felt a strong call from the mountain to return and climb again. And so today I am attempting the second portion: I have driven up in the early morning to the point where I stopped three days ago, and have walked away from the road on a rough trail across from the visitor’s center where my car is parked.

At my back as I climb is Mauna Kea’s sister volcano, Mauna Loa: She is the earth’s largest active volcano, quietly threatening the island on all sides with a slow boil. To me, today, she offers a charged benevolence: I’ll give you this day, but remember that my power is here, under this gray-brown cloak, for another day. She is only a few feet lower than Mauna Kea, so I stop regularly during my trek to turn and acknowledge her across the valley, and to measure my upward progress. I feel her rising with me at every step.
As I climb, I begin to sing to my mother and to the mother in the mountain. At first, near the start, my voice is charged and flings the words out into the world: “Oh, mama, oh, oh, mama,” I bellow. This is a primal song, huge and charged with all of the energy of daughter seeking mother, mother in daughter: pain, love, and grief. It is a song that pulls itself from within and fills all the space it can find. But as I rise into thinner air and my lungs claim what they must to take each step, I can no longer project my voice very far: the words fall about my feet. I feel a sadness encircle the song as it falls. Much later, near the summit, the song will not even escape my throat, but will cling as a whisper to the feeble breath I give it, and then die.

I engage my mind only loosely, as it takes so much of it just to move upward: I count my steps; I consider the aching places in my body; I count my steps again; and I say short, encouraging things to myself. I am on the trail for seven hours, rising to almost 14,000 feet, one careful step at a time. I walk very slowly, with pounding carotids and leaden legs. I fall into a rhythm of sorts: I walk twenty-five yards and stop for a “bend-over,” and then every half-hour I stop for a “sit-down” for water and a snack. Each time I rest, I think, “Oh, this isn’t so bad—I’m ready to roll again,” and then five steps later I’m back to a snail’s pace as my body just slows on its own, matching the oxygen supply. I am so weary that at one point when I see a shady spot in a cluster of boulders I take off my boots, lay back, and fall asleep instantly on a hard slab of rock.

Eventually I am stumbling, getting close to failure, and a frontal headache is overtaking me. The last half mile of the trail joins the paved road again in one giant, climbing switchback, which I manage only by moving my hand along the guardrail, my face down and hidden from the burning sun by my hat brim, my mind on nothing. It is a blessing of sorts that I am too lightheaded to remember whatever discomfort has come before or to worry about what comes next. Finally, with what remains of original thought, it occurs to me that any challenge may be met in just the way that I am moving: on little air or fuel, one small step at a time. No lungs of steel, no bulging calves or disciplined conditioning, but only the will itself can have the final say.

When I reach the top I find a large space observatory, but I have no energy to explore. I can see a cairn on a nearby ridge, which I imagine declares the true summit, but I am content to cling to a signpost, disheveled and exhausted. I think to myself, “I am on the top of Hawaii. I am on the top of the highest mountain in the world.” I am proud to share this moment and the mountain-top with the spirits of all the natives who were able to run up the mountain’s shoulder to this place, without rest.

As I stand here in the dying light, looking down on a sea of clouds, and then beyond the clouds to the broad, blue ocean to both east and west, I know with the same clarity as the clean, high air around me that I now have the strength to carry my mother home.

In a few days, my mother and I will travel back across the country to begin our quiet life at a low altitude and a slow pace. We will spend the next six months sitting in the living room and at the dining room table playing cards, listening to the radio, and talking in fractured conversations as she takes a slow slide into her darkness of mind. On good days we will walk with short steps down the driveway and back again and she will complain, “Why do we have to go so far?” I will prepare her meals, bathe her in the evening, and tuck her into bed. I will sit beside her as she struggles through fragments of nightmares and wakes not knowing where she is. And then I will sing to her one pure spring morning, just the two of us together, as the air becomes thin in her lungs and the top of the white mountain lifts up before her..

“Hope’s Tortillas”
by Cara McLauchlan of Fuquay Varina

A tortilla is more than a circle of dough to me. It is a symbol of comfort and a gentle reminder that everything is going to be OK. Tortillas are my “it” food – they are the emergency meal, a reminder of humble goodness and perfect restoration. My adoration begins with the story of Hope.

Hope was a short and stocky Mexican lady whose name said exactly what she meant to our family. Until I went off to college in the 1980s, she helped my mom every week around the home. She was there to manage the five unruly children and the endless piles of laundry we generated. Hope brought my mother just that. Hope of relief, helping hands and a friend in the midst of it all.

My mom was divorced and trying to raise five kids – all born within seven years — by herself. Being the “ex-wife” of a small Midwestern town doctor made it even trickier: a veil of constant scrutiny and gossip surrounded her. I have no idea how my mom did it. And there were plenty of days when she didn’t. I can still see her — smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and watching television all day long. She was lost in her problems, absorbed by any details of my dad’s love affairs or whereabouts.

In her younger days, my mom was a beauty – red haired, green eyed, with gorgeous creamy Canadian skin. She always had the ability to charm the pants off anyone – grocery store owners, bankers, handymen, even the IRS. With her throaty, movie-star laugh, they fell under her spell and they were hooked. In the end, this driving need to be the center of attention was the ultimate downfall of their marriage. My dad, the Latin hotshot doctor and my mom, the diva, were constantly vying for center stage. They were a great passionate pair, but horrible partners as they tried to emotionally destroy each other on a daily basis.
Those were the hard days that took their toll on my mom. She began to appear thin, hard and desperate. At times she was mentally checked out and exhausted, with no idea how she was going to pay the bills. Despite the constant hubbub of activity that filled our home with kids, friends and the chaos – my mom stood post in the kitchen like a vacant watchman. Aware of the surroundings, but only silently taking it all in – never participating.
Because my parents were so obsessed with their own problems, things got missed. Lunches went unpacked, permission slips didn’t get signed. I remember learning to sign my mom’s name so that I would never be the odd kid out again. The oldest siblings stepped up to become pseudo-parents for the others. My sister packed lunches, my brother shared the birds and bees story. We five banded together like a tenacious tribe that took care of their members. Each was there for the other — shielding from our parent’s wrath, taking odd jobs after school to buy school clothes, helping each other in small but important ways.

My teenage brothers’ and sister’s care giving was an ironic contrast to my mother’s style. Her way of dealing with life was not to deal with anything at all. “The Lord will provide,” is what my mom always said. And He usually did. The biggest gift He gave us was Hope – literally and spiritually. It’s funny in a God-way that He sent us this lady with a namesake that was exactly what our worried hearts needed. Despite having the occasional peanut-butter meal, our family weathered the hard days. We didn’t always know what to expect from our parents. But we knew we could always believe in Hope.

Coming home from school, Hope would be there to greet us with her high, tinkly laugh and doughy hug. She would fold our small bodies into her strong arms and cuddle us as if we were her own children. Her stout figure was a permanent fixture in our laundry room. With her long, shiny dark locks, she was barely taller than the ironing board. She wore floppy men’s t-shirts salvaged from someone’s castoffs.

Contrasting the rest of her ramshackle attire, she wore glowing, bright-white Keds shoes. In her later years, she began to wear thick glasses that would magnify her warm, round eyes. My guess is that sometimes she got paid and other times she did not. I think my father secretly funded her because he knew she added order to our daily uncertainty.
Along with neatly starched laundry, Hope produced a steady supply of homemade tortillas. Circles of white perfection, neatly wrapped in tight discs of tinfoil. Her tortillas were slightly bigger than your hand with a scattering of brown bubbles on the creamy smooth surface. Homemade tortillas were perfect restoration after a long day at school and an evening of homework ahead.

My brothers and I used to cook them directly on the stove burner until they puffed slightly with warm air. Smearing them with gobs of butter, we would then roll them into neat tubes, causing the butter to run down our hands and arms. No matter how rough things got, we could always count on Hope’s tortillas and their ability to comfort.

Our home seemed to hum along peacefully when she was there. She brought order and neatness to a place that longed for her calming ways. She was a fixture at family illnesses, graduations, weddings, hospital stays and parties. Hope’s presence was like a grounding force to whatever life swept across my family’s path – with her tortillas as a constant source of nourishment. Even now as a grown-up, if I have a hard day or just need a quick fix, a tortilla will always set me straight.

The name “Hope” in Spanish translates to “Esperanza” or pronounced “ess-purr-on-sa.” It even feels nice to say her name – the way it rolls across your mouth with a breathy exhale. Hope created for our family a sense of happiness and confidence that cannot be explained.

As my brothers and sister went off to college, Hope’s days were less and less in our home. I was the youngest and watched each sibling take flight, waiting for my day to come. As time passed, my mom’s life got better and she was able to launch her own business in caring for the elderly, a passion from her days as a nurse. For each of us, Hope was the solid footing we needed until we were strong enough on our own.

This year, I wanted my 6-year old son to meet Hope. I wanted him to know the lady who helped form my spirit for so many days, so long ago. It was time to say thank you and it was definitely time to learn how to make her tortillas. In her tiny home in rural Michigan, unchanged since I was a child, we spent the afternoon together. That day, we filled her kitchen with the sweet smell of tortillas — padding neat mounds of dough and cooking them on a tiny circle of cast iron. I hope my son will remember her. Or at least remember her tortillas.

People speak of comfort foods like mashed potatoes or chicken noodle soup. My ultimate comfort food is the tortilla. They only have a couple ingredients – water, salt, lard, flour. But the plain white circle is a sweet reminder of a lovely lady whose presence meant everything was going to be all right. Hope showed me how something can be so perfect in its simplicity. She was not a fancy lady – but she could make tortillas that could mend any heart.

A small thing, a great thing – a tortilla.

Honorable Mention

“My Dirty Little Secret”
by Audrey D. Mark of Raleigh

Pssssst…Please don’t tell anyone, but I need to come clean. I want to share my dirty little secret with you.

Sure, in print I look pretty good; with my sentences evenly spaced and paragraphs aligned just perfectly. But stop the presses! The reality is that when it comes to being tidy, I make Oscar Madison look like Martha Stewart. Seriously, I’m the Diva of Disarray. My house is in such a constant state of chaos, that when you ring my door, instead of the traditional chimes of the “Bells of Windsor,” you’ll hear the opening theme song from “Sanford and Son.”

Piles of “simple-living” themed magazines, promising to teach me how to live a de-cluttered life, are stacked precariously on top of every available horizontal surface. Pull any knob in my kitchen and it’s guaranteed that you’ll find a “junk drawer.” They’re all filled with disorganized organizers overflowing with assorted containers without lids, pens without ink and widgets without any apparent purpose.

My home is decorated based on the ancient energy flow principles of Flung Shoe. Tired, old sneakers and flip-flops, discarded midide, stand in the path of order and harmony. Sometimes the chi at “Chez Mark” is so backed up that it feels like a senior center without prune juice.

My husband says that when he comes home from work on a good day, our house looks like a set from “Fear Factor.” On a bad day, it’s more like a scene from “CSI.” He won’t even look in the laundry room. I still have a bathing suit hanging on the line to dry — my leopard-print maternity suit — and my “babies” are 9-1/2 years old!

I used to lie and tell visitors that just this morning my household help had heroically run off to volunteer for Housekeepers Without Borders. But in truth, I have no one to blame but myself — oh, and of course, my mother!

Don’t get me wrong — my mom has always kept a meticulous home, but still I hold her responsible for the mess mine is in today. Instead of passing down her tidy strands of DNA, she left me with a heaping pile of rumpled genes. Unfortunately, it seems that my daughter, Sydney, and I are code-carrying members of the same gene pool club.

But neither nature nor nurture can account for domestic differences between my identical twin boys. Jared clears out as soon as he even hears the words “clean up,” while his brother, Jasper, steps right in to tackle even the toughest jobs better then Mr. Clean. In fact, from the time Jasper was a toddler, he caught on quickly; during “time-outs” he could either straighten up his attitude or really redeem himself for his misdeeds by straightening up his room.

Lately, I’ve taken to turning his willfulness into a windfall by sitting him in time-out around the house. Last week, a 10-minute tenure in the garage got me an extra ten feet of usable space. I think he’s starting to suspect that I’m setting him up before company comes over.
So, now that my secret is out, I’m going to try to clean up my act. However, if you’re planning to stop over, please just give Jasper — I mean, me — a few minutes to straighten up. Wow, I never knew it could be so refreshing to air my dirty laundry!

Honorable Mention

“Letting Go”
by Elizabeth Underwood of Chapel Hill

On cruise control, the car hurtles down the highway, with a mind of its own as it climbs through green, Georgia foothills partly hidden in rainy mist. Miles ahead, the road will cut through the limestone walls and cedars of my childhood — I am going “home.” Funny, the connotations of that word. Since I left the last house I shared with them more than 40 years ago — left their house to set up with my husband a “home” of our own — my mother has lived in half a dozen places, the last 10 of those years without my father. But when, as now, I return to middle Tennessee, there is a part of me that remembers and still calls it “home.”

I find a country station on the radio. Only country-western lyrics will keep me awake during the dull highway miles. “Number eight on our list of old-time favorites — Patty Lovelace, with ‘How Can I Help You to Say Goodbye.’”

When my husband left me, with no job and no skills, with only my years as a wife and mother behind me, my mother begged me to come home —”There are jobs here,” she said, “lots of jobs available. I know you could find something.” “It would be so good to have you home again,” she said. But I tried to tell her that where I live is my home now; the house I live in has been home to my children and me for 30 years. Here are my friends, my “middle-of-the-night” friends, who would come if I needed them, and with whom I share a trust and love that has made us extended family. This is the place that has shaped me, made me who I am. I don’t belong back there anymore — but yet, it is still home.

Far from the city now, in the foothills, the traffic thins: mostly semis hauling cargo and a few cars, back windows packed with teddy bears and plastic toys, children squabbling — families headed for vacation. The trucks and passing cars spew up a fine spray from the wet pavement, adding to the fog on the approaching mountains.

My sister called a week ago. My mother, 84 and already in poor health, had fallen. Her broken hip needed surgery; she is in a rehabilitation center. And then what? So I said I would come. Hastily arranging for my job, for the cats, for the mail, rescheduling appointments, making apologies for commitments that must be postponed, I began the long trip home.

I spent the first night with my daughter in Atlanta. Of my three children, she is the one I would have thought least likely to be happy in a city, but she is. She has become a big-city person, at home in the traffic, the congested malls, and excited by the music, the museums, the people she meets. She is stronger than I was at her age, more capable. When I was 25, I had never gone to a strange new city, found a job on my own, found a roommate, flown across the country to vacation. I had never had an apartment, never even opened a checking account, paid a deposit for a new telephone, done my income taxes, or bought a new car — all those things, and many more she has done. I left my father’s house for my husband’s — that was the way it was then.

Last night we ate at a Thai restaurant. Her housemate, a bright CPA from Asheville, came, too. “When you come again,” my daughter said, “there is a new Greek place near the shopping center. I’ll take you.” She talked of a concert on the weekend; talked with a knowledge of the music and musicians I did not know she had. Next week there is a play at the Fox; she had been to two there already this month. She told me of her friends and of the people she works with — names I know, but only a few of them are familiar faces, met on earlier visits. Last week she went to an art exhibit, and she, still excited, relived her meeting with the artist. She is sophisticated, elegant, even, in her blazer and short skirt — her “career girl” clothes, but under it all, I know there is still the lovely, vulnerable daughter I know, that even now, comes home to her old jeans and sweatshirt in her bedroom bureau drawer. When I see how much she has grown and accomplished, I wonder at what she has become, how much a few short years in the city have changed her.

Sometimes, on gray days, when the realization that her job is not where she wants to be forever, when her dreams of a home and a family of her own seem far off or even unattainable, she calls in tears, and long distance, I try to console her. “There are other fish in the sea,” I say about the last romance, now ending. “Things will get better,” I say, cheerfully. “Give yourself more time; you will find what you want to do; you have so many, too many, choices. And someone will come along; just be patient.” But my heart aches for her; I want to hold her tight and tell her: “Come home. Come home and go to graduate school; you can live with me here and save money until you graduate.” But I don’t.
My grandfather said that pride was sin to God, but that it was all right to be glad. He told my father he was “glad of his boy.” I am “glad” of my daughter.

As I left her house this morning, she gave me directions for the route north — a confusion of one-way streets, stoplights, turns and intersections — such traffic as I am not
used to. Finally, I asked her to write it down. “Call me, she said, “so I’ll know you got there.” “ I will,” I said. She told me goodbye, but we know it will not be for long.
I make my way through Atlanta’s morning rush-hour traffic, clinging to the steering wheel. Trucks and cars push me on; no one is following the speed signs.

Now, hours later, at last in Nashville, I drive through streets with familiar names, but I recognize nothing. There are new highways where two-lane roads used to be, high-rise apartments where a friend’s house stood. There is a shopping center where I remember a horse farm; a subdivision in what was once woods. I find myself circling around blocks, seeing for the second, for the third time, the buildings I passed before. Finally, at the end of a narrow lane, among a row of modest houses, I find the rehab center.

In a small, double room at the end of the corridor, my mother is resting. Behind the next curtain, a laugh track from a “I Love Lucy” rerun blares. Over the TV noise, someone is talking, unintelligible, slurred words, disconnected, as if in a conversation from a dream. “She’s deaf,” says my mother. From down the hall, I hear a woman’s voice, loudly, “Help me, Hee-lp me!”

My mother’s face is pale and blotchy; her once hazel eyes are drugged dark, almost black, and her arms are bruised from her fall and from IV tubes. She, once so particular that she would never leave home without hose and heels even in the heat and humidity of Southern summers, is wearing a loose housedress and slippers. I have not been home in several months; each trip there are changes.

I have brought an album and show her pictures she has not seen before, of her grandchildren, of their friends, and of mine; some she has met; some are only names. I tell her about my job and the people in the office. I don’t mention the searching, the uncertainty, and the relief at finally finding a place for myself in the new aspects of my world. She talks of people in her life; one or two are in the same rehab center. One will be going home on Saturday. She tells me of a former teacher of mine who had a heart attack in the doctor’s office —”Wasn’t he lucky?” she says. Her circle of friends is growing smaller; one died last week, another has Alzheimer’s and cannot speak. Another’s husband is dying a long, slow death to cancer. Most are friends I never knew; I have been gone too long.

The attendant comes in to help her bathe, to go to the bathroom, and to sit in a chair for a while. “They like for me to sit up,” she says. “ I would rather be lying down.” At her house she has a garden. “It is lovely this year,” she says. I tell her about mine, which is just beginning to bloom.

“I miss Daddy,” she says. “I know,” I say. It is lonely; it is frightening to be alone. I miss my father, but I also miss my husband — not the one who left me, searching for happiness with a woman from his office, but the one I married “for better or for worse,” for a lifetime. My mother was married for more than 50 years; I, for only 30. My mother has good memories; there are no memories of my husband that do not cause me pain.

The attendant, a cheerful, pretty girl, brings my mother’s dinner. I ask my mother about the food. She says it is good, but she is afraid it has salt, which her doctor has forbidden. “Did you tell them you aren’t supposed to have salt?” I ask. “I told them when I came in, but I don’t think they paid any attention,” she says. “You have to tell them,” I say. “You may have to tell them more than once.” “They can’t fix special diets,” she says. My mother, a career woman through economic necessity long before being a career woman was a given, had for years managed a staff of over 50 people. “Mother,” I say, exasperated, “That’s what they get paid to do. You have to tell them what you need.”

My mother eats slowly; she is not hungry. She eats as she has lately, not talking much, with a kind of preoccupied faraway look, as if she were planning or thinking of being or going somewhere else. It is a look I know I sometimes have, one that I have learned from her. When she is finished, the attendant comes in for the tray. “Think of somewhere we can go, you and I,” she says. “For a vacation. Maybe we could go to Sea Island.” “I don’t know,” I say. I feel a mixture of love and pity; vacations were something we could never afford when I was a child; neither of us has ever been to Sea Island, and certainly neither of us could afford it now. And her days of travel are behind her; I don’t tell her that.

“They are taking us to the mall on Wednesday,” she says. She tells me they will go in a van and eat lunch, with one attendant pushing each wheelchair; perhaps they might even go to a store or two. I remember shopping with my mother; she could spend hours searching for a special gift or vase that would “just fit in that spot.” She was a careful shopper; to her, it was a challenge. I am a careful shopper, too; she taught me well.

We watch the evening news, something she and my father always did together. “I can’t believe all this business in Washington,” she says. “If I had managed my office with a budget deficit, they would have let me go in a hurry!” Then, abruptly, “Did I tell you about the men dressed in black who were working behind the fence? They were there for three days watching the house. One even peeked in my window. Then a truck came and took them away. Nobody will believe me; nobody saw them but me,” she says. “I am going home in two weeks,” she says.

The woman behind the curtain cries out. “Janet, oh Janet....” The rest I cannot understand. It is 8:30; the attendants are bringing bedtime snacks. I kiss my mother goodnight. “Call me when you get to the motel,” she says, “so I’ll know you got there.” I promise I will.

Honorable Mention

by D. L. FitzGerald of Raleigh

Drucilla 0’Sullivan endured teases and taunts from her husband Philo for some thirty years before he sold their small home on Long Island and encapsulated both their pitifully few possessions in a rented truck and drove to Jacksonville, Florida where Philo’s discussions with a real estate lady resulted in them uncapsulating and moving into a house which pleased Philo so much he gave Drucilla a Florida navel orange;

in the morning Drucilla emerged from their new home with backyard extending right down into a lake and noticed an alligator sunning itself on their grass swallowed all of Philo except his sneakers and even as Drucilla watched the alligator whipped around and erupted noisily into the lake;

she knew the alligator enjoyed Philo and happily she digested her first Florida novel orange.

Honorable Mention

“Of Poetry and Lingerie and Choosing to Comply”
by Genevieve Fitzgerald of Raleigh

If you tell me I must rhyme
I will do so
I will rhyme
This time.

And if there must be meter, I will count
The beats with my poor feets and push the thoughts
And words into a shape
They might not else wise take,

And see what comes of it,
Of forcing me to fit…

Like sucking in, to lace a bustier
When thinking to go out at night;
For pinches, pokes and bones aside,
It puts parts in their bestest light


Past Writing Contest Winners: