Carolina Woman received a flood of entries in the Writing Contest this year, and the caliber of the work was inspiring. We would like to extend a huge thank you to everyone who participated.
The diverse selection of short stories, essays and poetry demonstrates the wealth of talent that can be found in the Triangle. Our editors had a tough time narrowing the entries down to just a few winners, but after many days of reading your thoughtful pieces we were able to choose some favorites.
Enjoy the champs printed below and discover more winning ways as we continue to publish pieces in upcoming issues.
Heather Marshall Dixon, of Knightdale, for her essay "Love, Over All Things"
Prize: Dermatech MD Facial Peel & Mask followed by Jane Iredale Makeup Application + $100 Gift Certificate - $300 Value
Heather Bell Adams, of Raleigh, for her story "New Moon"
Prize: NC Writers' Network 2-year membership - $130 Value
Ellyn Bache, of Greer, S.C., for her story "Cow"
Prize: Penguin Classics Cotton Tote Bags - $75 Value
Michele Tracy Berger, of Pittsboro, for "The Invisible Son"
Sheryl Cornett, of Chapel Hill, for "You Scan"
Janice Mack Guess, of Durham, for "The Burning Cross"
Alice Osborn, of Raleigh, for "Nolan, the Split Foyer, Is Under Stress"
Susan Thomas, of Raleigh, for "Recital"
Prize: Carolina Woman Tote Bag
By Denise Smith Cline of Raleigh
Mother's yeast rolls. Once again I gather what I need to make them. Now that she is gone, I worry over the enigma of her recipes – for rolls, for child-rearing, for patience and kindness. The ingredients for rolls are simple enough. Warm water, flour, yeast, oil, an egg, a bit of salt and a touch of sugar for the rising. That's what it says in my own handwriting on the recipe card.
She dictated the recipe to me while she was stirring something else, her then-steady voice hinting at the first grade teacher she had been.
Even though the handwriting is mine, it baffles me now. I can barely recall what my life was like when it looked as my handwriting does on the card. Neat, confident, legible and suggesting the hope of a new wife, eager to learn and please, to master old, hard things like marriage and yeast rolls. But now the recipe card is stained from my many efforts, partial successes, utter failures.
Like the ingredients, some measurements are straightforward:
Two packages of dry yeast.
And then the clarity disappears.
"How much flour?" I'm sure I asked. And the answer on the card reads as it always has, "Enough so that the spoon doesn't stick."
As a young woman writing on the card, I didn't understand how narrow the path is between the soft dough of the right consistency and the dough of too dry, too much.
What does that mean, "doesn't stick?" Doesn't stick at all? What kind of spoon? A wooden spoon seems a good guess but there is a big difference between a wooden spoon and a silver one.
"Don't worry about those small things," she would say, a lesson in her tone. "Just add it till it seems right."
When I could still call her and ask these questions, I did. But she often offered more ambiguity: "Well, when it's wet, you need more flour, and when it's not, you need less." Once, covered in flour and flushed with frustration, I called in a panic. She could not look through the phone line and figure out what I had done or failed to do. But I knew she understood my predicament.
Then she told me that as a young wife who could not even boil an egg, she tried to make Daddy a batch of biscuits for his birthday.
"I don't know what got into me, thinking I could go from nothing to biscuits, but I was young and dumb," she laughed.
She told me she had used her own mother-in-law's recipe, but put in a quarter cup of soda instead of a quarter teaspoon.
After tasting the dough, she rushed to bury it in the back yard before he came home. By late afternoon, the biscuits had risen so much Daddy found them peeping out of their shallow grave when he went out to feed the dog.
We both laughed at that baking story, and now I think she was trying to tell me: Sometimes there is too little. Sometimes there is too much. Sometimes when we try to bury our mistakes they rise up from the grave. And sometimes we can laugh at that.
A mother to five, she had the same gentle ease raising children. "Let them play," she would say when I tried to enforce strict schedules with my own children. I despaired at mothering when my own 13-year old daughter did what she was supposed to do and suddenly became my most devastating critic. Mother listened and offered advice for bakers and mothers alike: "Honey," she said, "It's not personal and it's not permanent."
Other times, she tried to soften that most difficult answer - that there is not one. But how do I go forward when the yeast is stale, the water won't warm?
Must I stay in this dry job?
Do I leave this sometimes kind man?
Most essentially, how will I know?
I remember her frail, thin hand tightly clasping my own, her nails polished a rosy pink even to the end of her days. Her answer: "I don't know. But you do."
And yet I don't, and the boxes I brought back when we cleared out her house are still stacked in my own attic. I held out hope that in those boxes, filled with paper and drying relics of her full life, there would be further guidance, her own handwritten recipe. Instead I find clippings of us all, Daddy's successes, our school plays, printed programs from decades of garden club and Circle meetings, letters from her sisters.
So many things I failed to ask. How to forgive, to dissolve years-old lumps of betrayal and arrogance I've held onto, mine and others? How to move beyond big and little failures and exhaustion and keep rising as she did? "This is the day the Lord hath made, rejoice and be glad in it" she would say as we groaned awake on Saturday mornings.
I weep to remember the times I made her cry - I was sassy, selfish, and now, it seems to me, young and cold. Perhaps she knew it wasn't personal, wasn't permanent.
And so today, I pour in the flour - a lot because it's damp - and stir, enough so that on the third or fourth try, the spoon, wooden this time, mostly doesn't stick. The result is yeasty and warm and the smell calls up memories of her and all that she did to try to explain the unexplainable.
I set the bowl on the back of the stove and watch it rise.
"Love, Over All Things"
By Heather Marshall Dixon of Knightdale
"She was comfort. She was rest. She was home."
This was the response from my grandfather when asked how he fell in love with my grandmother. He said he knew he would love her forever because, from the very moment he met her, he found rest in her eyes. He was comforted by her presence and she made him feel like coming home even when they were far from it. He was also quick to remind me of the goodness of her cornbread and chili on a cold night, the way she tucked her chin when he complimented her, and the joy in her belly laughs.
"He knew me and loved me still. He was gentle and steady, light-hearted, but wise. He saw me not for who I was, but for who I wanted to be. And he made me better and not so messy."
This was the response from my grandmother when asked how she fell in love with my grandfather. By her own admission, she was a "passionate woman, with as many dreams as she had broken pieces." But, she said he made her feel whole. She was also quick to remind me of the kindness in his eyes, the strength in his hands, and the evenness in his voice as he read aloud each night in their den.
My grandparents were married on February 12, 1949. He was a twenty-six-year-old mailman from Martin County, North Carolina. She was a twenty-one-year-old nursing student from Buies Creek. They recently celebrated their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary this year. He still holds her hand in his and her eyes still twinkle when she winks at him. If you ask them the secret to their marriage they will tell you things like this:
- Choose love, all the time. Love is a choice we make, not an emotion we feel.
- Serve each other. You will not always get as much as you give and this is okay.
- Argue naked.
- If you do find yourself arguing, at the moment when tears erupt from either person, stop talking, wrap your arms around each other and breathe in and out until you cannot tell your breath from the other person's breath. At that point, you can begin the discussion again, although you will likely find that you don't remember what the argument was about in the first place.
- Forgiveness is mandatory and you will give it as many times as you receive it.
- Life is sweetest in the simple moments. Be present for all of them. Celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary.
I want what they have...sixty-five years of solidly knowing that someone else on this planet sees your heart and chooses to protect it. Sixty-five years of loving someone who speaks your name and simultaneously knows all the moments in your life that have made you who you are. Sixty-five years of memories filled with heartache and blessings and richness and the beauty of two souls breathing together. And they didn't get there by simply falling in love and hanging in there all these years. They got there by choosing love over all things, even over themselves.
They got there by choosing to heal each other every single morning of every single day of every single year.
And if I want that kind of love, these are the things I must resolve myself to:
I will choose love. Even after the mistakes. Even after the hurt feelings. Even after the poor decisions. Even after sleeping in a different room. Even after the tears spill into the dishwater and I have to run in the rain to catch my breath from anger or disappointment or disbelief. Even after all the moments that I want out, I will choose love.
I will remember to forgive. I will remember that the act of forgiveness heals my heart as much as it does the person whom I am forgiving. And that our sweet lives are too brief to waste time on anything other than reconciliation.
I will remember to serve. I will not always get this one right, but I will start my day thinking how I can make his day easier. And then I will do it.
I will find joy in the simple moments. This is where love exists. This is where love is real. I will remember that it is within these simple moments in which you are making another person whole. When you think you are merely holding a hand, refilling a glass of iced tea, folding the laundry, fixing a flat tire, inspiring a laugh, packing a lunch with a hot thermos full of coffee, filling up a gas tank, quietly listening, stocking the fridge, wiping away a tear, walking the dog, bathing the children, cleaning the shower, scratching a back, taking out the trash, or stirring the soup...you are choosing love. It is in these quiet moments that we restore each other.
My grandfather would tell me that this is a great responsibility and to hold it with care. You are making another person whole. You are filling their empty spaces. If you take the time to notice where the spaces are, you will know exactly what to do. My grandmother would tell me that it is in these empty spaces that you find the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Loving people is not always easy. We may move forward, we may move back, but we do move. And I hope we always take time to celebrate the miracle that we are moving together and not alone. Perhaps we would celebrate this simple miracle by indulging in a lavish dinner at our favorite restaurant. Perhaps, in honor of my grandparents, we would enjoy a screening of "South Pacific," which opened on Broadway the year in which they were married. We would listen to "Some Enchanted Evening" until we knew it by heart and we wouldn't know and wouldn't care if it was the song or the wine that actually made the evening enchanted. Perhaps we would stay in our pajamas and eat our favorite takeout food and laugh until the sun comes up.
Either way, we would take the time to listen, to notice the empty spaces, and to fill them with care. To choose love, to heal, and to be healed. To find the joy in the quiet moments and to celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary. This is where true love exists. This year, may we choose love over all things and may we all be restored.
By Heather Bell Adams of Raleigh
Owen Beckett's aunt picks him up from school in her Buick. She has the heat on and there's the almost-burning smell of hot fabric. He puts his backpack on the seat next to him.
"How was your day? Did you get your science test back?"
Owen nods, thinking of matter and mass. Condensation. Density. Gravity. The ways things change and how to measure them.
"How'd you do?"
He remembers the question he missed. "If you weigh sixty pounds on Earth, how much would you weigh on the moon?" He'd been confused and multiplied sixty by six, answering three hundred and sixty. Now he knew that he'd gotten it backwards. The answer was ten pounds.
"The moon is smaller than the Earth and has one-sixth the gravitational pull," his teacher had said, drawing a small circle for the moon at the top of the white board and a larger one for the Earth.
"I got a ninety-five," he tells Aunt Serena.
"Wow, a ninety-five, huh? Great job, Owen." She checks for traffic and turns right onto Dixon Road. "That's very, very good."
There's something different about her today. He can't place what it is. From what he can see in the backseat, she looks the same. Her short brown hair is combed smooth and when she turns to the side, he can see the small pearl earrings that she always wears.
"Did you make any new friends today?"
"Not really." Owen shrugs. He thinks about the way Darcy holds her lunchbox under the table when she opens it, the ripping sound when she pushes the zipper around. Trying to hide it doesn't work. He doesn't know why she thinks it would.
"I picked up some special things for dinner," his aunt says and she tilts her head toward the front passenger seat. There are two plastic grocery bags, but he can't see what's inside.
He remembers last night after dinner. He wanted to watch the football game with Uncle Ron, but she made him stay in the kitchen, calling out questions to him and raising her eyebrows when he got one wrong.
"We'll stay here as long as it takes," she said. "You need to know these backwards and forwards so you don't get tripped up."
She's going to lose it when she sees the one I missed, Owen thinks. He knows what she'll say. "We worked on that one, didn't we?"
At home, Owen's aunt puts away the groceries and he takes everything out of his backpack. He pulls the science test out of the folder, bends it in half and straightens it again.
Aunt Serena is standing at the kitchen counter cutting apple slices. He's watched her before. She holds the red apple steady with one hand and pushes the knife through with the other, each slice the same width as the one before it. His mother hadn't done it that way. She would have handed him one slice at a time, a thick chunk one time and a sliver the next, so thin he could almost see through it. She would have stared out of the window and put a piece in her mouth, chewing it slowly. That's what his mother would have done.
When his aunt brings the saucer over to the table, Owen shows her the science test, pointing to the question marked with a red x. She leans down to read it and nods.
"That was a tricky one. I'm sure you did your best." She squeezes his shoulder. Owen stares at her and wonders what has happened to make her this loose, stretched out way. It reminds him of his running shoes when the laces aren't pulled tight enough.
"How much homework do you have?"
"Not much, just grammar." He points to the workbook on the table.
"Over, around, on, behind, they're all prepositions," he remembers her saying a few nights ago. "Just imagine there's a box in the middle of the floor. You could stand on the box or climb under it or hide behind it."
Today she leaves him alone. "I'm going to sit down on the couch for a minute. Come get me if you need any help."
After he finishes his homework, Owen leaves it on the kitchen counter and goes into the living room. It's beginning to get dark, but she hasn't turned on any lights. Uncle Ron's car pulls into the driveway and the headlights shine through the living room window before blinking off.
"I should go see about dinner." She sighs and gets up from the couch.
As Uncle Ron comes in the back door, Owen asks if they can play football.
"Just a little bit and get your coat," Aunt Serena says, opening the refrigerator.
Owen's uncle turns on the outside lights. "We need to practice, don't we Owen? You're definitely one of the biggest and strongest kids in your class - and fast too. They'll want you for the team next year."
Sometimes when he jumps to catch the ball or when he leans back to throw it, Owen can see his aunt through the kitchen window. Running water at the sink, carrying a pot to the stove. She taps on the window when dinner is ready.
At the table Owen is surprised to see that she's made his favorite dinner, the one his mother used to make. Fried chicken with gravy – the white kind – and corn cut off the cob, shiny with butter. Last night they ate boiled asparagus and baked white fish that didn't taste like anything except the black pepper sprinkled on top. And the night before that it was plain grilled chicken and white rice with carrots and peas.
"This is so good," Owen says, reaching for another bite of chicken. "It's amazing."
Aunt Serena smiles. "I'm so glad you like it."
"I sure am glad you've come to live with us," Owen's uncle says, patting him on the back. "Otherwise I'd never get dinners like this."
"Ron." Owen's aunt shakes her head and Uncle Ron holds up his hands, like the criminals on TV when they're surrendering to the police.
When his uncle starts to clean off the table, Aunt Serena holds up her finger. "One more thing," she says, getting up from her chair. Owen and
Uncle Ron look at each other. Even though he's only lived with them for a few months, Owen knows they don't have dessert except on birthdays. Aunt Serena comes over carrying three bowls and spoons.
"Ice cream?" Uncle Ron asks. "Wow, what's the occasion?"
She shrugs. "Life's short."
Owen's uncle frowns, but she doesn't say anything else. She dips her spoon into the ice cream carefully, like it might break.
"Hey, it's mint chocolate chip, buddy," Uncle Ron says. "Remember me telling you how good it is?"
Owen nods. "It's awesome. The mint makes it even colder."
"It does, doesn't it?" His uncle laughs, nodding like Owen has discovered something.
That night Owen is getting ready for bed when he hears them talking.
"They'll get the results back next week," Aunt Serena is saying and she starts crying. "Probably Tuesday."
"I'm sure it's nothing," Uncle Ron says.
"I've got a bad feeling about it. And here he is, he's already lost--"
"Shhhh, you worry too much. You can't think that way."
When he's in bed, Owen thinks about the day his parents died. He remembers waiting for them at their neighbor's house.
"We'll just be an hour or so," his mom had said. "Please don't let him eat too much candy."
His dad had picked something out of his mom's hair - a flower petal or a leaf. He remembers once it started to get dark how he sat backwards on Mrs. Tucker's couch, watching the driveway through the window. Rubbing his chin over the scratchy fabric. Pushing down the cushion with his hand and watching it grow back to its original size. Mrs. Tucker switching the TV channel to a singing show and saying, "I'm sure they just got caught in traffic." The orange taffy and the way it pulled on his back teeth. The waxed paper wrappers in his pocket from all the pieces he took when Mrs. Tucker wasn't looking.
Now lying in bed, he pulls the shade away from the window and looks for the moon. It's in the crescent phase, but he doesn't remember whether it's waxing or waning. Tomorrow he'll ask his teacher when it will be a new moon. "A time of new beginnings," she had said in class. He imagines himself lying on the moon, stretched out and still six times smaller than he is now.
Over the next few days, Owen watches Aunt Serena, but she looks the same. When he gets up in the morning, she's already in the kitchen with her hair combed and her shirt tucked in. But she keeps giving them dessert. Chocolate cake one day and lemon squares the next. On
Monday she lets him have a leftover lemon square for his after-school snack. He presses his lips into it, letting the lemon sting a tiny cut in his mouth, and he wishes for the awake chilliness of apple breaking on his tongue.
On Tuesday morning, Owen asks his aunt if she's going to pick him up from school that afternoon.
"Of course. Why wouldn't I?"
He shrugs. "I don't know."
"I have some things to do today, but I'll be finished by early afternoon. Plenty of time to pick you up. Now hop in the car or we'll be late."
Owen touches the money in his pocket, the allowance he's been saving up for a skateboard, and he climbs into the backseat.
They have snack time in the morning, right after current events. Owen pulls out his lunch box and instead of carrot sticks or raisins, there's a cookie fat with chocolate chips. He puts it down and slides it across the desk to Darcy. Her mouth drops open.
"Well, do you want it or not?" Owen asks.
"But I don't have anything –"
Owen shakes his head. "It's not like that." He wants to say he's sorry for all the days before, but he doesn't.
He raises his hand and asks for a bathroom pass. In the hallway, he finds the lockers assigned to Darcy, Riley, Sam, and Mason. He's thinking about all the things he's gotten out of them. Brownie, cookie, doughnut, cupcake. He slides a dollar through the metal slats of each of their lockers. "I'm sorry," he whispers. He has money left over and he keeps putting dollar bills in the lockers until he runs out. He figures he owes them each one dollar, but he's given them much more. He does the math, nodding when he realizes that he's given them each six dollars.
When she picks him up from school, his aunt asks again if he made any new friends.
"Maybe." Owen stares at the back of her head, the way she leans forward after the light turns green, checking to make sure it's clear to go.
At home he puts his backpack on the kitchen table and Aunt Serena drops the car keys in the bowl on the counter. "After you eat something, let's take a look at your homework."
"Okay." He keeps pulling on the zipper of his backpack, back and forth, just for the sound it makes.
"You mean yes, ma'am," she says and Owen tries to swallow but he can't. "Yes, ma'am," he whispers and waits to see what she will bring him. She's standing at the kitchen counter with her back turned to him. He hears the knife sliding through and the dull thud as it hits the cutting board. When she turns around and hands him a plate of apple slices, he sees for the first time how each piece is shaped like the moon.
By Ellyn Bache of Greer, S.C.
Not until many years later did Melba reflect on her marriage.
By then she was living a narrow, white-haired life in a retirement home, independent living but if she keeled over they could haul her off to the next level of care.
She and Kenneth had married young, raised two children, spent thirty years in insurance (him), forty in retail (her). He was so handsome, she was still in love with his looks years later. About once a month they fought. Loud, bitter fights late at night, always over money. They had a joint account but she also kept one in her own name. "Why is the money I earn our money but your money is yours?" She said, "It's for when you leave me and run off with some other woman!"
The children, roused by their racket, huddled together discussing who they would go with after the divorce.
By then Melba and Kenneth had made up and made love.
His annual Christmas party usually broke up by ten. One year when her phone rang at eleven, she expected police, bad news, the worst. It was Jack McNulty, whose wife worked for the firm. "Do you know your husband and my wife are alone in that office, and that everyone else has left and the door is locked?"
Jack's wife, Linda, was pretty. Prettier than Melba. A new-ish employee who followed Kenneth with her eyes.
He stumbled in an hour later. "What a night. Everyone went for a nightcap at Bailey's, and Linda's husband barreled in and dragged her out. I think I've lost an employee."
That jokey tone of voice, he only used it when he lied. She picked up a manicure scissors and lashed out at him, insides boiling. She caught his left earlobe, a ragged slice. He bled like a pig. Later in bed (truce declared, first aid applied), he said, "You're my only sweetie, Melba. My only love."
She snuggled closer but didn't say she loved him. Not then, not ever again, though she did.
The roil, the tumble of the marriage. Linda didn't come back to work. Never even called.
Melba earned more than Kenneth did, most years. Then she got laid off. She'd thought her whole tight knot of ego was wrapped up in that job. It wasn't after all. She got another job, less pay, but quit when Kenneth got sick.
His pain. His yellow skin. Her revulsion. She hid it well. Life always turns away from death, she told herself. No excuse. He was only sixty.
One day she saw Linda McNulty entering the hospital as she was leaving.
Was it Linda?
She felt the slash of sharp scissors, shredding an earlobe. Felt herself bleeding like a pig. Inwardly, of course. He'd been sleeping with her all these years.
Maybe it wasn't Linda.
A private funeral. Acres of flowers. A terrible time. After a while, not so terrible. All that hot passion, draining little by little. She was glad to be rid of it. She missed him, though.
One day she looked in the mirror and saw her middle had grown thick. Years ago she would have starved it off. Old women used to remind her of cows, their slow bodies, their incurious gaze, seeing and not seeing. Kenneth had been wonderful, but he'd exhausted her. He loves me, he loves me not. In the retirement home she had people to eat with. A van to take her shopping. No painful illness, not yet, just this thin glaze of serenity. Soothing, really. She'd always liked cows.