A boy hunched over his school desk. A protestor whose fist is raised to the sky. An abused wife who smiles when her husband leaves the house. A young woman opening a can of beans in a lonely kitchen.
These vivid characters were drawn by the winners of the annual Carolina Woman Writing Contest. The judges cried and, yes, laughed as they entered worlds of anguish and triumph.
Carolina Woman received well over 100 submissions this year, and many were from prize-winning writers whose work has been widely published. Thanks to everyone who sent in poetry and prose. It displays what fertile ground the Triangle is for those who pick up a pen.
We are once again honored that Diane Strauss served as head judge. Strauss is the former associate university librarian for collections and services at UNC-Chapel Hill as well as a published author and a contributing editor at Carolina Woman magazine.
Sylvia Freeman, of Durham, for her story "Aunt Wilma"
Prize: French Connections $100 Gift Certificate
Neha Verma, of Chapel Hill, for her story "Something Extra"
Prize: Jackie Moore Salon Cut & Style - $75 Value
Tara Lynne Groth, of Cary, for "Money Changes Everything"
Linda Johnson, of Chapel Hill, for "Birthday Cake"
Ashley Memory, of Pittsboro, for "Ode to My Ironing Board"
Alice Osborn, of Raleigh, for "How to Remove a Carpet Stain"
Agnes Stevens, of Raleigh, for "Moonshine Manhattan"
Leslie Waugh, of Apex, for "Running for My Life"
Prize: Carolina Woman Shirt
by Lisa Williams Kline of Davidson
"We're not allowed to mention time," the teacher says as I follow her into the copy center that will serve as today's testing room. "He gets as much time as he wants."
J.T is small for his age, with smooth, babyish cheeks and child-like hands. His too-tight shirt is faded with repeated washings, and his jeans pool around his ankles. Constantly, he taps the heel of one untied basketball shoe on the floor. He plays with his pencil, drops it repeatedly, bends to pick it up, then finds a tape dispenser and sticks small pieces of tape on the table and onto his pants, and after that he grabs a phone book and accordions through it, then drops his pencil again. Picks it up.
"OK, J.T.," the teacher says, as she takes the phone book from him. "You need to listen to these instructions. I am only allowed to repeat them once."
All seventh grade public school students in North Carolina must take this writing test. My job as proctor is not only to make sure the students don't cheat, but also to make sure the teachers don't give in to the temptation to help them.
Normally, when I proctor, I patrol a classroom while the teacher reads instructions such as "Do not open your test booklet until I say to do so. You will have ninety minutes to complete this portion of the test. You may begin." Twenty-five students then scribble their outlines or create their bubble maps and then the room is filled with the fevered scratching of twenty-five pencils as they regurgitate five-paragraph essays. Today, however, I'm proctoring only one student – J.T., who receives special testing conditions.
I'm a writer, on deadline, but I seem to be blocked, so when the secretary called and said they were desperate, I came.
The teacher begins to read the instructions. J.T. wants to keep his own green pencil, but it's not a Number Two, and the teacher says he must use one the school provides. He picks up a school pencil, but when the teacher looks away, he exchanges it for the green one, glancing at me to see if I notice.
Should I say something? Maybe the computer won't be able to read his answers and his test will be thrown out.
"He's using his own pencil." I feel like a snitch.
After a minor skirmish, J.T. relinquishes his green pencil. The teacher finishes reading the instructions. The prompt is something about students being tardy too often.
"J.T., do you have any questions?"
J.T. stares at the ceiling. "No."
"You may begin."
The teacher starts grading papers. I watch the second hand inch around my watch face. J.T. continues to stare at the ceiling. He drops the pencil. When he picks it up, he tries to shove it into the side panel of the desk. He twirls it in his hands, examining with great care the eraser and the strip of metal attaching the eraser to the pencil. Perhaps he wonders what makes it superior to his own. He leans back and stares at the ceiling.
I wonder if J.T. remembers that he's supposed to be taking a test.
I pick up a geography textbook from a box next to my chair. I examine a map showing Utopian communities in the U.S. during the 1840s.
J.T. leans his head back, way back, and examines the ceiling tiles. His eyes travel to the far corners of the room.
I study the cluster of Utopian communities in the north east, as well as a few in the upper Midwest. There don't appear to have been any here in the south.
Minutes pass. And more. I could be here all day. Not that it matters, since I am stuck in my writing, somehow, anyway. But we're not allowed to mention time.
"J.T. Do you need me to read the instructions again?" the teacher asks. "I'm allowed to read them to you once more."
"No," J.T. says.
"O.K." The teacher nods and smiles encouragingly. "I know you can do this, J.T. I have complete confidence you can do it."
I lack that confidence. I picture J.T., the teacher, and myself, like Rip Van Winkle, trapped in this room, growing gray-haired and shriveled, as civilizations rise and fall around us.
I get an idea. What about mental telepathy? I once read a story by Isabel Allende in which a small girl uses telekinesis to make an ash tray move across a coffee table. If I focus in the same manner, maybe I could get J.T.'s pencil to move across the page, producing words. I outline J.T.'s essay in my mind and concentrate, trying to transmit each sentence one at a time. I know this is absurd, yet I knit my brow, willing J.T. to pick up the pencil and write something, anything. The minutes tick by.
I am a writer and if I were in a room such as this one with two people watching my every move I couldn't write a word, either. I can't write a word, anyway.
How important is it, in the overall scheme of life, for J.T. to do this? When will he ever need to write a five-paragraph essay? With technology, when will he ever need to write anything? I imagine him in ten years. Maybe after the water pipes in his house burst one winter, and he needs to fill out insurance forms, he will need to write a description of the items he has lost. If he witnesses a crime, or commits one, he will need to write a statement describing what happened. Maybe once in his life he will want to write a love letter. These are the three reasons I love you.
Thirty-seven minutes have elapsed. J.T. hasn't touched either his answer sheet or the scratch paper he is to use to write his outline.
I put away the geography book to focus more intensely on my telepathic efforts to help J.T. I scrunch my eyes together, almost put both hands to my temples like Dr. Spock when he did the Vulcan Mind Meld. Write! I practically shout inside my head.
Now J.T. has begun tearing small pieces of tape from the dispenser and placing them in a column on the left side of his answer sheet. What is he doing? He carefully lines these all the way to the bottom of the sheet. Finally I tap the teacher's arm.
"No, J.T, your answer sheet won't go through the computer."
"But I'm doing it to help me indent."
Indent? Then he is actually considering writing? I feel something akin to joy. Being careful not to tear his answer sheet, the teacher and I help J.T. remove the pieces of tape.
J.T. picks up the Number Two pencil.
"I think," he writes.
It happens so fast that if I blinked I would have missed it. J.T. has been thinking! 'I think, therefore I am.' College philosophy – Descartes, was that right? I feel light-headed with success, anticipating what the next moments will bring. I think, therefore I am. And I have an epiphany:
Writing this essay is important. J.T. himself has blasted a ragged sky-blue hole in my cynicism.
But now time slows to a crawl again. J.T. places his hand on the instruction sheet and slowly runs his finger across the page, moving his lips as he reads the instructions to himself.
"Can you help me?" he asks the teacher.
"No, I'm sorry, J.T., I'm not allowed to."
J.T. nods with sad acceptance, then tries again. "What about spelling?"
"Mrs. Kline and I are not allowed to help you in any way."
That doesn't count our secret weapon, does it, J.T.? Our Vulcan Mind Meld? Write, now, write. Tardiness is unrelated to godliness. In a Utopian community, no one is ever tardy. In Utopian communities, people learn with ease, and they write with ease. They are not forced to endure the humiliation of writing a five-paragraph essay while two people watch like vultures. And what they think and what they write matters. My brain sizzles with the effort, but I don't give up because I know it is working. J.T. has written, "I think."
J.T. picks up his pencil. He scoots his chair closer to the table. He hunches over the test paper and then magically, miraculously, words begin to spill from his Number Two pencil like oil from a well. He doesn't stop at the ends of sentences, he merely jabs a period onto the paper and rushes on.
I am praying, write five paragraphs, write your introduction, your three reasons why, and your concluding paragraph. Use active verbs.
Descriptive adjectives. I watch in stunned fascination as this boy, in whom I had no faith, somehow manages to reach down inside himself and excrete the words drop by drop, as if they were his own blood. Like a weapon, he grips the Number Two pencil, until his fingertips turn a bloodless white. Tears come to my eyes.
"I'm finished," he says.
"Are you sure?" the teacher asks.
"Yes." He drops his pencil and slumps back in his chair, repeatedly opening and closing his fingers like a video game champ.
"Then you may close your test booklet. You have completed the writing test."
She gives me J.T.'s answer sheet to return to the guidance counselors. As she steps outside with me, she tells J.T. he may get out a Scrabble board until the test period is over. He has finished thirty minutes early.
"I love Scrabble!" J.T. shouts. With a burst of joyous energy, he runs to the cabinet and pulls out the worn and flattened box.
We read his ten line essay together, the teacher and I. I know his fate but ask her anyway. "Will he pass?"
"No," says the teacher. "It has to be five paragraphs. But it doesn't matter." She tells me that after the test booklets were printed the state office discovered a problem with the prompt. The tests will be graded, but none of the tests in any of the schools will count this year. "We told the other kids," she says, "but with kids like J.T., well, it's almost too hard to explain."
I take J.T.'s test booklet and Number Two pencil to the guidance office.
After that, inspired by J.T., I go home to write.
by Veronique Moses of Raleigh
for another life
lips that will
arms to give hugs
at the beckoning of
the day's sunrise,
a strength that will
lead a nation
are all left behind
in the chalk line.
another unsaid goodbye.
you ask why
our feet trample
with our hands held
to God's sky
and our voices
bellowing over the
by Sylvia Freeman of Durham
At home, she wore a half smile,
eyes shifting, like someone on guard.
He drank too much, sometimes made fun of her,
swinging his whiskey bottle around
first thing in the morning.
She kept silent, waited for him to leave.
When he did, she'd open into joy,
hum as she went about her chores -
swept the porch,
gathered eggs, made cakes to sell.
Before I married, thinking I knew the world,
She took me aside, pressed twenty dollars in my hand.
Take this, she said, save it for when you need it, because you will.
She kissed my forehead, told me to be happy.
After she died, ten years later, I found two thousand dollars
stashed between her mattress and box springs,
heard her whisper in my ear,
Take it. I didn't get away, but you can.
by Neha Verma of Chapel Hill
My rice is too dry. I am in Woodstock, New York, living alone on a farm with no cell phone service, six hundred miles from home. My nails are brown with dirt, my nose is starting to peel from sunburn, my back aches. And my rice is too dry.
I look at the box of my newly-opened rice cooker, sitting beside me on the counter: "Prepare two to eight cups of restaurant-quality rice at the press of a button! Once the rice has cooked to perfection, the rice cooker will automatically switch over to its ‘Keep-Warm' setting. Rather than worrying about stirring or monitoring the rice as it cooks, you're free to spend that time as you please!"
"Bullshit," I say. My voice feels too loud for the empty kitchen. I watched my rice the whole time, but somehow it didn't exactly turn out "restaurant-quality."
As I scrape white flakes out of the cooker, I remind myself that this is what I wanted: to get out of North Carolina for the summer and live on my own for the first time. I was going to be so free, so grown-up.
I open a can of Target-brand red beans, wash them in the sink, and pour them on top of my bowl of rice. One of the farm cats, Leo, hops onto the counter. He sniffs at the bowl and turns away. I pull up a stool and sit down. There is something odd about putting just one plate on a kitchen table, so I've been eating my meals at the counter instead.
"This is what it means to be independent," I say to Leo as he looks up at me. I begin to eat. The kitchen is silent except for the sound of my chewing. Stiff grains of rice stick between my teeth.
I didn't realize it that summer, but when my mom makes red beans and rice, she never gets the beans from a can. As she gets ready for bed the night before, she takes the bag of dry beans from the cupboard. She pours them into a bowl of water and leaves them out to soak.
The next evening, she starts with the onions. She chops them finely and tosses them in a pot with oil, then turns up the heat of the stove until they begin to sizzle. She adds turmeric, and as the oil wets the bright yellow powder, she thinks of her childhood home in India. When she spoons in bright red dollops of crushed tomatoes, the mixture turns the deep orange color of a sunset. She rubs fresh ginger against her steel grater, and the shreds fall into the pot. She pours in a cup of water, then a sprinkle of paprika. Now comes the main event: the red beans, soft from their overnight soak. She finishes the dish with at least three tablespoons of salt – maybe even a fourth, depending on the day – garlic powder, and a little black pepper. When the mixture starts to boil, she puts a lid on the pot. Within ten minutes, the aroma begins to spread through the house.
She never makes the rice in a cooker. To another pot, she adds two cups of water for each cup of rice. Sometimes when she makes it for me, she substitutes vegetable broth for water, if I'm"looking a little thin" or like I "could use a little something extra." Then a pinch of salt, a drop of oil.
She stirs occasionally, and when it's just right, she knows.
The red beans are always tender, their broth thick and rich, and the rice is never too sticky or dry. She serves it warm, with love.
When I was younger, my mom and I used to play a little game. I would ask her what we were having for dinner, and she would answer, "Red beans and rice!"
I would open my eyes wide and say excitedly, almost incredulously, "But I love red beans and rice!"
"I know, that's why I made it," she would answer.
"But I love red beans and rice!" I would say again, my eyes even wider and my voice even more incredulous than the first time.
"I know, that's why I made it," she would say again. This would continue until we were both giggling too much to get the words out. No matter how much time goes by, I will never forget what it felt like to be sitting on the kitchen counter with my feet dangling off the side, laughing so hard I thought I might faint.
"Leave your stuff outside, it probably has cockroaches in it," my mom says as she opens the door. After spending eight weeks on a farm in the town of peace, love, and music, I've made it back to North Carolina. I drop my bags on the doorstep. As I walk inside, I ask her what we're having for dinner.
"Red beans and rice," she answers.
"But I love red beans and rice," I say with a smile.
I've seen her make the meal so many times, but I never really paid attention. Today, I watch more closely. Chopped onion, crushed tomatoes, garlic powder...I didn't know there were so many ingredients.
When it's almost ready, she tells me to set the table. For the first time in a while, I get out two plates instead of one. As she serves the rice, I notice that it is a soft orange instead of white. She substituted vegetable broth for water – must have known I'd come home needing a little something extra.
On the day
I finally accepted
the fact that by the
time I arrive somewhere
my clothes are wrinkled any-
way, my ironing board was pro-
moted from second laundress to ma-
jordomo of my house, no, my life—book-
shelf; drying rack; nightstand; TV tray; surf-
board on stilts; charging station for mylaptop;giant coaster covered by faded purple flowers; the one surface I can reach but my dog can’t even on his tippy toes; aluminum shrine to the mother chromosome; gurney for frayed socks; staging area for poetry class: pen, notebook, prompt, poem; magazines turned to poems I must share with Nancy, Ruth, and the one for Michele; a story in The New Yorker that I wish I had written and maybe I should have, maybe I could have if I wasn’t so preoccupied with poetry. The iron sits forlornly at the absolute edge, perched there like an afterthought or a piece of art in one of those avant-garde exhibits like the famous one with a toilet yet he still sulks at his own superfluousness. He isn’t completely forgotten, like the rules of my mother on the proper order for ironing a shirt: collar first, back, sleeves, cuffs, then the front, or was the collar last? But what does it matter? I do iron occasionally but it’s only when I see a wrinkle so obvious it cannot be mistaken for a pleat and when it is on the front of my blouse where I will see it too but because it would take too long to find a place for all the stuff on my handy ironing board, I decide to do the practical thing and iron my shirt while I’m wearing it, oh come on, you know you’ve done it too, you just turn up the heat as hot as you can bear, better not bother with the steam unless you need a facial too, quick, easy now, ignore your husband if he catches you and asks what the hell you’re doing. Don’t make up some
cockamamie story about how you seared the flesh on your chest. Just be proud of it and
tell people it’s the badge of a
In my dream
I’m wearing figure skates,
As the music starts,
I step out onto the ice,
not a treadmill.
I’m wearing a curve-hugging
midnight blue costume
with a flowing skirt,
not black Spandex shorts
and a white XL T-shirt.
makes my sequins sparkle.
I’m alone on the ice,
by walls of mirrors
reflecting an army
of antlike worker-outers
who don’t make eye contact.
The only person
who can see me
is the muted CNN anchor
looking through the screen of the TV
hanging from the ceiling in front of me.
In my dream
I receive the audience’s
although I move for joy,
I am so much bigger
than the shapes I carve
under my feet,
which glide like twin snakes
over hot sand.
I choreograph myself
over the impossibly frozen water,
twirling and extending
from every cell of my being.
I’m not pounding out
the same steps
over and over
on a rubber mat
that loops around and around
but goes nowhere forever.
Under my sneakered feet
I feel how I’d move
if I weren’t hemmed in
by these rails
on either side of me,
the red-and-white STOP button
glaring up at me
from the console
like a dare.
On eighth-of-an-inch-wide blades
I move through every plane
of space at once,
to the playlist
only I can hear —
sexing it up to AC/DC
with my American thighs,
coolin’ baby, not foolin’
with Led Zeppelin,
with Missy Elliott.
For as many miles
as I can sweat through,
until I stop spinning
and the music ends,
I go nowhere
Money Changes Everything
By Tara Lynne Groth of Cary
The shovel was probably still stuck in the fresh soil at our Great Aunt Harriette’s grave and my family was already playing tug-of-war with her possessions. Realtors had stopped by the house and delivered the disappointing news that her home was worth about $100,000 less than what was anticipated. One agent tapped her patent leather pumps on the peeling linoleum and shrugged. Another broker straightened his tie and pointed out how the chimney was separating from the house, then played with his Rolex while discussing the buried oil tank. Even though you could walk to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world from the porch, this Long Island house was a money pit.
Money was on everyone’s minds. The funeral, the second one this year, had cost fifteen thousand dollars. We were in the peak of the holiday shopping season and my mother had maxed out her credit cards again. Aunt Lorna’s wedding budget was apparently being fed after midnight as it compounded daily. (Does she really need her photos etched into a leather book for $4,000?) I was almost finished with college and dreaded the thought of finding a job — any job, whether I liked it or not — just to pay back the forty grand in student loans I had accrued. What I really wanted was to go back to the Caribbean. Even Sarah and Wesley, the only two people in our family under the age of twelve, were absorbed in their juvenile fascination with money. To them one hundred dollars was a fortune. A hundred dollars made them jump up and down because they thought they could afford a lifetime supply of ice cream. As their big sister I wanted to remain calm and set an example. But, one can imagine how they reacted when they learned that Aunt Harriette had left $50,000 in cash somewhere in the house.
Sarah suffered a twitch all day, whirring with the excitement of finding the money. She had checked under the kitchen sink dozens of times already. She wanted to buy candy.
“Too many points,” our mother would remind her of Weight Watchers.
Wesley wanted to buy a puppy. He had checked under the beds and under pillows as if the Tooth Fairy was making a very belated delivery — with interest.
I remained in the living room, lounging on one of the plastic-covered couches, avoiding the anxiety, excitement and greed revolving and colliding around me. My dad remembered that Aunt Harriette told him as a child to put his allowance in a coffee can and bury it under the porch so that when he wanted to buy something he was forced to decide if it was worth digging up his savings. He decided this was a sign that the money was buried. He had spent the morning chiseling at the frozen dirt, his scarf wrapped around his head and neck, his eyes uncovered and searching for a rusty Maxwell House logo. My mom was in the attic, checking behind the insulation in every rafter. Aunt Lorna didn’t want to ruin her manicure so she resolved to check “logical places” like filing cabinets, junk mail piles and cookie jars.
My hair stuck up like a hydra from the static between my sweater and the couch plastic. I sat up and tried to press it down, but it was out of control; like everything else in the house — and my life. I walked down the hall to the office where Lorna shuffled piles of papers like a Vegas dealer. Thuds sounded above us when my mother slid plywood to another corner of the attic.
“I’m going to walk to town and get some pizzas. What toppings would you like?” I asked.
“A salad, please,” she said without interrupting her search.
In the next bedroom Wesley was pulling a pillowcase off and checking the pillow seams. “Wes, I’m going to pick up some pies. Pepperoni?”
“Yes! And extra cheese, please!” He jumped on the bed a few times and collapsed. “I’ve got to find it.”
“No one’s going to find it,” I said. “It probably doesn’t even exist.”
“Ella, everyone else believes. Why don’t you?”
“I believe our lives will be fine without the extra money. It’s not like we were expecting it.”
“But wouldn’t you be angry if a new family moves into the house and we see on TV that they found our money? They would get to eat ice cream for dinner every day and we would be eating...chicken,” Wesley said and stuck out his tongue.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
He threw a pillow at me.
I tossed it back. "I will help you look after dinner — and I will get you a cannoli." I left him smiling, still intent on his treasure hunt, and wandered into the kitchen to look for Sarah.
The countertops were covered with all of the pots and pans that Aunt Harriette and I had used to cook so many meals for our family. Sarah was picking apart the silverware drawer, meticulously checking under each fork and spoon.
“I’m getting pizza, what do you want on yours?”
“Meatballs — oh, and get some garlic knots too.”
I didn’t bother going up to the attic to check with Mom. She always liked her pizza plain. Instead I went to the other end of the house where the master bedroom was. We always left our coats in a pile on the bed when we came to visit. Thanks to Wesley’s searching skills, all of the coats and bed sheets were on the floor. The closet door was open and Aunt Harriette’s furs hung as neatly as ever. I went over to them and nuzzled their soft, heavy sleeves, inhaling stale remnants of her perfume and mothballs that brought back memories of Easters and Christmases past. I put one of the coats on and decided to wear it down to the pizza parlor. It was warmer and heavier than I expected. I was supposed to take them back to college with me the following week to sell them on eBay. I wanted to keep this cream-colored one though.
On my way down the porch stairs I heard my dad grunting and digging. I walked to one side where I could squint at him through some lattice work.
“Dad, I’m going to get some pizzas. So far we’ve got pepperoni and meatball...anything else?”
I walked down the street toward town. Cedar estates with white trim rested at the end of long driveways. Twenty-foot high, skinny hedges separated properties; little features of each house were visible now that were usually hidden during warmer weather. Adirondack chairs by a sleeping garden and ceiling fans on a rocking chair porch were things I never noticed before. It amazed me that these were summer homes, or for some people, one of many homes. If this is just a summer home, what do their year-round homes look like? I wondered.
The tall reeds bordering the street and the harbor were victims to the wind’s push, winter-brown and, unbeknownst to most, out of place here.
I remembered walking with Aunt Harriette down the same street as a child as she fed me little pieces of Long Island’s history:
“The reeds didn’t exist in America until the Spanish ships began to arrive and use the island’s ports,” she had told me. Seeds fell off the sailors’ shoes and the reeds took to Long Island’s shores like barnacles to a pirate ship. Now they are found up and down the Eastern seaboard. Funny how the reeds looked so perfectly at home here, probably just how I look with my family, when in reality we are each so far from where we belong. I stopped at the boatyard and looked at all the winterized boats in stacks with “Paradise,” “Minnow II,” “Retirement” and other quaint ship names scripted on the aft sides. My dad’s was “The Other Woman.”
I had loved coming here as a child and reading the ships' home ports and imagining their journeys over the ocean. Shelter Island, Port Jefferson, Block Island...nothing too far. The ones that said St. Thomas and Grand Cayman garnered my attention. Once I saw one from Italy.\
Usually they were yachts and the passengers would hop in their dinghies (which looked just like my dad’s boat) to cruise over to the dockside restaurants where they would have fresh crab and lobster served to them without ever having to leave their boats. Aunt Harriette and I ate ice cream there most summer afternoons, vanilla cones that melted down our fingertips, paper napkin pieces stuck to our skin like peeling sunburn.
Now it was empty and cold. The sea air whistled between the dock slats and waves from other shores lapped at the thick columns below. I wanted more than ever to be back on a coconut-littered island.
I started to walk again and turned onto Main Street. The swirling white and red barber shop cylinder came into view and the evening lights of the other shops illuminated Amagansett. Surf shops closed for the winter, art galleries and the Hampton-ite necessities of Tiffany & Co., Ralph Lauren and Versace bookend the restaurants.
As I approached the pizzeria I buried my hands deep in the coat pockets to press the memories of Aunt Harriette closer to me. My hands felt something and I pulled out a thick brick of $100 bills from both pockets. A rocket of excitement shot from my stomach to my heart. The money must be in the other coats’ pockets too, I thought.
I thought of everyone back at the house. I thought of my mom’s credit cards, Sarah’s ice cream, Wesley’s puppy and Lorna’s wedding. I thought about how little they were thinking about Aunt Harriette while they were digging up her yard, ripping up her rafters, pulling apart her pillows and waiting for their pizza.
I pressed the money back into the pockets and looked into the pizzeria. No one had seen anything. My reflection in the parlor mirror smiled back at me.
I thought about my college loans and palm trees.
Beside the creek stood an old farmhouse with a big wrap-around porch, dotted with rockers, chairs, tables and a swing. The woman who lived there had turned ninety last spring. Her three children, eight grandchildren and fourteen great-grandchildren had filled the house on her birthday. They talked and laughed and sang “Happy Birthday” to her while she tried to blow out all those damn candles.
The noise had been deafening and Annabelle was relieved when they left and she went back to her quiet, peaceful life. Her children worried about her living alone in that drafty, old house, but she refused to move. She didn’t want to live with any of her children, much as she loved them. And she certainly didn’t want to be put in a home. That was where you went to die and Annabelle had no intention of dying anytime soon.
Her mother had lived to 102 and Annabelle intended to live at least that long. She followed her mother’s recipe for a long life: one cigarette at breakfast, deep-fried food for lunch, one shot of whiskey before dinner and another at bedtime.
One summer afternoon following her ninetieth birthday found Annabelle in her living room watching Katie. Oh, how she liked that Katie Couric - always so peppy. Like she knew the secret to happiness was to just keep smiling.
When the doorbell rang, Annabelle thought about ignoring it. Probably someone selling something. And what could she possibly need at this point in her life that she didn’t already have. By the third ring, she gave up and went to answer it - surprised to see her great-granddaughter at the door. Even more surprised to see a suitcase on the porch next to her.
“Lilah, what are you doing here?”
“Hi, Grammie. I’ve come to move in with you. Isn’t that awesome?”
The way the girl smiled at her, Annabelle thought she looked like that Katie Couric. She couldn’t tell her no and send her packing. She’d at least have to invite her in, hear her out.
“Come on in, child.” Annabelle moved aside and Lilah entered the house.
“Thanks, Grammie.” Lilah brushed Annabelle’s cheek with a kiss. “I’ll just run upstairs and drop my suitcase off. Do you care which bedroom I take?”
“Why don’t you just set it down here in the foyer for now? We’ll have a cup of tea and you can tell me why you’re so hell-bent to move in here.”
A look of disappointment crossed Lilah’s face. Like when she was a little girl and Annabelle had taken the plate of cookies away after she’d helped herself without asking permission. The girl hesitated, held her suitcase, and looked longingly up the staircase. Then she sighed and set the case down.
Annabelle smiled at her, patted her arm. “Good girl. Now let’s go get that cup of tea.” She led the way into the kitchen and nodded at the table. “Have a seat and we’ll talk this through.”
Lilah sat, while Annabelle bustled around the kitchen. She filled the teapot with water and set it to boil, pulled teabags from the cabinet, sliced lemons, and poured milk from the carton into a creamer.
“How about some cookies? I have some nice coconut macaroons and some sugar cookies those Moravians make.” She pulled them out of the cabinet without waiting for a response. “It’s so beautiful out today. Why don’t we take this to the porch and sit there?”
They sat in the rocking chairs, with the tea and cookies on a table between them. “So, what’s this all about, Lilah?” Annabelle asked.
The girl’s eyes filled with tears. “It’s Mama and Daddy. They kicked me out of the house.”
“What? Why’d they do that? You’re not pregnant, are you?”
The girl looked horrified. “No, Grammie. Of course not.”
“They said I had to go to college or get a job. And I don’t want to do either one.”
“I’m too young, Grammie. I don’t know what I want to do with my life yet. It makes no sense to go to college if I don’t know what I want to major in. And I’m certainly not going to figure it out by bagging groceries at Harris Teeter.”
Annabelle sighed, thought back to her youth. A girl graduated from high school and either married or took a job until she married. Kids these days have it way too easy. “How do you think you’ll sort it out?” she asked.
“I think I should take a year off. I can live here, help you out.”
“Why do you think I need help? Have your parents said something about me needing help? Because I’m doing just fine, thank you very much.”
“Oh, Grammie, you’re like a hundred years old---”
“Ninety, young lady, and not a year more.”
“Well, ninety then. Whatever. You must need some help around here. I’d do the heavy cleaning, help in the garden, whatever you needed.”
Lilah looked so hopeful. “Please, Grammie. Mama and Daddy said I could stay here if you’d let me. It would be like a job - only you wouldn’t have to pay me.”
Annabelle considered it. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Lord knows, she hated housework - always had, even when she was young and had energy. She didn’t mind the dusting, but wouldn’t it be nice to have someone to vacuum, clean the bathrooms? And when she thought about how she struggled to change the sheets. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone do that for her? But having someone live with her...
“I don’t know, Lilah. I’m used to living on my own. Twenty years now - ever since your Paw Paw passed on.”
“You’d hardly know I was here, Grammie. If you didn’t have any chores for me, I’d just stay up in my room. I’d read, write in my journal, listen to music.”
Annabelle shuddered. “Not that bunny hop music you kids listen to.”
“Hip hop, Grammie. But no, I’m not into that. Anyway, I’ll use my iPod. You won’t even hear my music.”
Annabelle wasn’t exactly sure what an iPod was, but she guessed it had something to do with those cords that dangled from the kids’ ears. They didn’t play records on the stereo like they used to.
She gazed into her great-granddaughter’s eyes. If the girl helps with chores and otherwise disappears the way children are supposed to, it might not be so bad.
“All right, then. We can give it a chance. Let’s set a trial period, say two weeks. If it works out, you can stay. If not, you’ll have to go back to your parents.”
“Oh, Grammie. Thank you!” Lilah jumped to her feet and gave her great-grandma a hug. “I’ll take the blue bedroom.”
Annabelle sat on her porch and rocked. She watched Lilah unpack her car: three more suitcases, a box of books, a box of CDs, a small TV, and a guitar. The last item was a hamster in a cage.
“You remember Henry, right? It’s his birthday today. He’s one.” Lilah flashed a big smile. “Can we bake him a cake? I know how you love birthdays, Grammie.”
Lord, have mercy. Not another birthday cake, Annabelle thought.
Mo made the classic cocktail for Millie and me at the well-stocked bar in their den; he placed cubed ice in the double old fashioned glass, poured in a jigger of bourbon, a splash of vermouth and a dash of angostura bitters, and stirred gently before plopping in a maraschino cherry by its long, red stem. As he served the drink to me, Mo asked that first time – and every time after, “Now give a taste and tell me if that’s strong enough for you?”With its double-dose of alcohol it was always plenty potent.
At his office he was Malcolm. But we called him what Millie called him – Mo. He was tall, slim and had thick white hair. His voice was raspy, as if he had strained it by yelling at football games too often in his Ohio State fraternity days.
Millie, slender and elegant in her Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses, was the Society Editor at the paper where I was a new reporter covering government in Wilson, N.C., a town of 30,000 or so fueled by the dual fortunes of tobacco and banking. Some years back, she and Mo had moved to Wilson from Akron, Ohio, for his job. They had come as complete strangers to this little Eastern North Carolina town and had to blindly navigate its nuanced caste system. There was not a primer for it.
For those on the outside, Eastern North Carolina seems about as sophisticated as a snow globe. But under the dome, the flakes sparkle with the intensity of diamonds. Millie either intuitively knew this or quickly learned. She could play with the rich set and write about their parties, but she could never be one of these people. Like Millie and Mo, I was a Wilson outsider, but of a different sort. Born 30 miles away, and educated on a college scholarship, I had all the words and ways of the town’s elite, but none of the actual money. Anyway, to be “from” Wilson required at least two genteel generations planted in that particular community. Millie, Mo and I literally did not have it in us.
Over the years, Millie had learned the bloodlines of the leading families. She had become real friends with many. And naturally Millie already knew that dark cottons are appropriate for fall, and spectator pumps and jackets with white piping do not peep out until Easter – or really Memorial Day. From the outside Millie was indistinguishable from the people she was covering.
The town’s privileged sons and daughters lived in lovely homes, and those with the best trust funds also had pied-a’-terre in New York. They had parties to celebrate Beaujolais nouveaux but never the town’s nouveaux riches. Their children were educated locally until they were old enough to go away to prep school – for the boys, Virginia Episcopal School, Episcopal High School, Woodberry Forest. For the girls, St. Catherine’s, Salem or St. Mary’s.
On the right side of the railroad tracks where we all lived, Wilson was (and is) a beautiful town with cultured people. According to a legend impossible to validate, sometime around World War I, the town’s main thoroughfare, Nash Street, had been included in National Geographic or the Saturday Evening Post as one of the ten loveliest streets in the US of A. I found it intriguing, and plausible, that before the notorious Hurricane Hazel slung its scythe of winds across the state six years before I was born, Nash Street likely featured an arched canopy of oaks over the town’s gracious entry road. With such a double row of stately trees edging the front lawns of the columned mansions, Nash Street could well have been considered nationally notable. It was still a pretty street when I first saw it.
At that point in my life, I was an adult in many ways, most especially in my view of myself. But still, many people my parents’ ages looked out for me. Mo and Millie were particularly good to me, balancing being protective pseudo-parents with being pals and colleagues.
As Society Editor, Millie knew the debutantes, the bridge groups, the garden clubs and the book clubs. She attended teas and coffees. All of that was fine. But she well understood the essential point of the Society Editor’s job was to handle the wedding write-ups. These appeared each week in the paper with two- or three-column wide photos of the brides in their full, white gowns. The weddings were the culmination of a generation’s preparation, and they rivaled the description of Princess Diana’s 1983 nuptials for detail. Millie’s write-ups included whether and when the bride had been presented by the Terpsichorean Club in Raleigh, the style and fabric of the gowns, “the bride wore her grandmother’s full-length, antique white, satin gown trimmed with pearls along the sweetheart neckline;” the veil – “fingertip illusion edged with handmade lace,” a reprise of the pre-wedding barbecues, cocktail buffets and coffees, the full list of attendants, and where they were from, and the music, “the bridal party processed to Clarke’s trumpet voluntary.” The weekly wedding section stood as written testimony to family status. As Society Editor, Millie created the archive and paid homage to the town’s feudal lords. She was a part and apart at the same time.
The Wilson paper paid its staff peanuts, but because Millie and Mo had come to Wilson for Mo’s executive job at Firestone, Millie could go to the Country Club luncheons as a personal member. Millie and Mo attended First Presbyterian, one of the town’s two or three big society churches, and lived in one of the nice neighborhoods, though not in one of the Nash Street mansions.
When I lived in Wilson I often made my way to their den. I had a suitor - though the contemporary word for Eugene is stalker. I would go to their house and have a drink with Millie and Mo to avoid him. They knew this. They knew him. Millie and I both worked with him. Eugene was a copy editor. Though he was smart, Eugene was dirt lazy and showered and shaved infrequently. His too-short, brown, polyester pants and cream shirts generally wore stains from the barbecue place next door. Bald and fat, he had the round-everywhere physique of a Weeble.
Because he knew my work schedule, I could not feign the excuse of “Sorry. Gotta work,” when Eugene popped up in my driveway, as he did from time to time. He was harmless, but persistent. So, to miss his invitation: “How’d you like to go out to Silver Lake Seafood for supper?” I evaded him by rarely being home. That is how I came to like Manhattans. Mo made quite a number of them for me over the three years I sought shelter at Millie and Mo’s house.
After I left Wilson, I still talked on the phone and exchanged Christmas cards with Millie and Mo for quite a while. But 10 years later, 20 years later, I had moved twice more, and we had fallen out of touch. So, one morning not too long ago when I was skimming my Raleigh paper I was startled to read Millie’s death notice: First name. Last name. City and time of funeral. That was all.
Millie had died.
Her obit, which should have been long and published in the state’s leading paper, was not. Millie wasn’t there to write it or to tell Mo that it was important - that she was important enough - to spend the money to place her full obituary and photo in the Raleigh News & Observer where all of the prominent people in Eastern North Carolina are memorialized.
When I saw Mo at the funeral, I understood why. He was there in body, but time or illness had taken a toll, and his mind was mostly absent. I think he recognized me after I introduced myself. But I cannot be sure. It clearly was beyond Mo’s ability to take care of the obit. And no one else in her far-flung family thought to do it either. So, today I have written one for her. If Millie’s obituary had ever been printed in my morning paper, it might have said something like this:
Mildred Miles Jensen of Wilson died Monday after a brief illness. The beloved wife of Malcolm Grainger Jensen, Millie was a long-time resident of Wilson and active in the community before and after her retirement as Society Editor of the Wilson Daily Times. She was an award-winning journalist and entertained with great pleasure in the lovely home on Forest Hills Drive she shared with her husband “Mo.” She loved her sons, their wives and her grandchildren with unfailing warmth, and she reserved a special place in her heart for “my Mo,” who will miss Millie more than he can bear to say.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, March 11, 1930, Millie earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami of Ohio and worked for several advertising agencies and newspapers in Chicago and Akron before moving to Wilson in the 1970s.
She is survived by her husband of 47 years, Malcom, and by her two sons and three grandchildren.
Millie will be missed by her friends, neighbors and former colleagues who remember her wit and intelligence, and above all, her kindness.
Not long ago I was at a Raleigh restaurant that was serving a novelty drink using local – and legal – moonshine. They called it a Moonshine Manhattan. I drank one, and as I sipped the fiery liquid, I thought it was mighty tasty.
I bought a bottle of that white whiskey and the other Manhattan makings. After a recent snow storm brought my neighbors out to sled by my house, I offered the grown-ups a little moonshine mixed with a bit of sweet vermouth and bitters – with a maraschino cherry garnish. And as I took the first sip, I thought of Millie and Mo – two people who had that same mix in life: the fire and the bitter too, with a nice bit of sweet for their friends.
As my neighbors complimented my drink, I silently raised my glass to the old Society Editor and her gallant swain.
Here’s to you my friends.
The Big Dipper splotch
mocks me at the top of the stairs
guarding the bathroom, delighting in permanence.
Not coffee, tea or dirt.
Motor oil perhaps, but how the hell
did a member of my household
spill fuel from their hands or a plastic cup
before going to bed? Boiling water,
baby shampoo, toothbrush, prayer.
This stain is like a pole dancer
clinging to carpet fibers,
before closing time.
I call the carpet guys
and they blame me for playing
Lady Macbeth. But in the wetness
of now scrubbed wall-to-wall,
the stain remains, a hero who
remembers that moment
of glory when strangers’ thoughts
only centered on him
and now refuses to disappear.