Barbies, Brides, and Bicycles

My first Barbie...

I just got my first Barbie Doll. She’s a blue-eyed brunette with long sausage curls that make me want to call her Scarlett. The pretty box says that she is the Sweet Valentine Barbie. Scarlett Barbie wears a billowy pink satin and chiffon ball-gown, adorned with soft red roses. Her jewels are a simple strand of pearls with matching stud earrings.

She is gorgeous. She is mine.

I never really wanted a Barbie.

“That’s because you were too intellectual for dolls, I guess,” my friend said.

“What? No. I had dolls. I loved my dolls,” I said.

Barbie first appeared on the doll scene in 1959, the year I turned ten, two years after my last doll, but that was only at a show in New York. My family was preparing for a move from Tennessee to California. My dad was finishing at Belmont College in preparation for Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. The next year, I would wear Tangee Natural lipstick and hose with my flats and white satin dress to my piano recital. I never even knew Barbie was around.

By the time little girls of the middle class were getting their first Barbies, I suppose I was through with dolls. But Mom wasn’t. She rescued my two Cynthia’s and my Betsy-Wetsy and gently laid them in a box on a high shelf in a closet.

At the beginning of my senior year at Pittsburg High in Pittsburg, California, Mom and Dad moved to Montana. I stayed.

“Mom,” I said, “Could you keep my dolls for me?” I didn’t need to ask.

Later she told me that dressing the two Cynthia’s made her miss me more during that first Montana winter but she did it anyway because it also made her feel closer to me. When I flew to Billings for Christmas, my dolls were nostalgic adornments for the bed in the guest room.

My three favorites now live next door with my mom and dad. They wear handmade clothing, designed by Mom, and they occupy an entire rocking chair in her bedroom. The three wear a lap blanket to keep them warm. I speak to them as I pass through to the kitchen when I go to check things out over there.

“Good morning Cynthia Dawn, Cynthia Denise, and Betsy-Wetsy.”

Betsy never got a name beyond her brand. She cost $6 in 1956 and Uncle Morgan and I both got in trouble for her purchase; me, because I faked crying to get her, and Uncle Morgan, because he fell for my performance.

Cynthia Dawn is my baby doll. I cared for her daily and we made soft clothes for her and kept her warm in her own bed, always with a receiving blanket wrapped around her like a burrito-tortilla. I felt real love for Cynthia Dawn. And when I thought about naming my first child so many years later, “Cynthia Dawn” was the first consideration. I settled on Dawn Jeanine; I thought we might call her DJ.

When Jade Edward was born—and not Dawn Jeanine—I felt the same love I remembered having for Cynthia Dawn. Oh, it was so much greater, but it was the same love. I learned on Cynthia Dawn.

Cynthia Denise is the bride doll.

I got Cynthia Denise when I was eight, the year that Santa was to bring me a bicycle. Mom and Dad took me “looking” at Kuhn’s, the local pre-cursor of Wal-Marts and Targets, to identify just which model I might choose for Santa’s bag.

After a few minutes of pointing out colors and models and handle-bar tassels, my mother, without covering her mouth, whispered across the line of shiny bicycles to my dad, “She doesn’t want a bicycle.”

“Sis,” Dad said, bending down to one knee, “Do you really want a bicycle?”

I was frank. “No, I really don’t.”

“Well, what would you like to have instead?”

I was frank. “Just get me a bride doll,” I answered.

No one asked me why I didn’t want a bicycle. I’m not sure I would have been able to explain at the time, anyway. The idea of a bicycle sounded good to me. All the boys on Easy Street played Cops and Robbers on their bikes. I played, too, but I ran along behind on foot. I wanted equal status.

However, I was afraid I would not be able to ride a bicycle. I had already tried on my brother’s model several times and I had failed, just couldn’t balance. Actually, I never got good with bicycles.

Sometime during that week after my declaration for the bride doll, Mom went back to Kuhn’s and bought Cynthia Denise to put under the Christmas tree.

It didn’t take long for me to remove her bride’s dress in favor of suits and business clothes. I mean, what does a bride really do? Mom made straight skirts—now we call them pencil skirts—and tailored blouses and jackets. I also straightened her strawberry blonde hair and removed that silly engagement ring, the equivalent of an 8-carat solitaire. 

Cynthia Denise would be a career woman. Today Cynthia Denise wears a two piece, olive green A-line skirt with matching short-sleeved top. Her feet are curved to sport the equivalent of four-inch heels, but she is barefoot. No wonder Mom wants her to have a lap blanket.

Barbie had her fiftieth birthday a couple of years ago. My granddaughter, Carly Rose, had her fourth in early January, 2011. Last year, her birthday party was Spider-man themed. This year, she asked for a “Pink Princess Birthday.”

What a difference a year makes.

Grampy Dave and I bought sets of clothes for the Cruise Ship Barbie she had received for Christmas. All I could find was very urban or rock star-ish, or, well, trashy. I also bought pink hair adornments for Carly’s hair and a sequined carry-case for her “makeup.” Our daughter-in-law Dana brought Carly another Barbie to add to her growing collection.

“You never had a Barbie?” Dana said to me, in disbelief, as I admired the new one wearing a royal blue formal.

“No, never did.” I didn’t feel deprived.

“I literally had a hundred of them and some of them could have been worth a lot today. I wish I had never taken that Millenium Barbie out of the box. I’m not kidding, I had a whole closet full of Barbies,” Dana said.

“Where are they now?” I asked.

“Oh, I gave them away to less fortunate little girls–when I was twelve,” Dana said. “Pretty much all of them.”

She shook her head slowly. “I can’t believe you never had a Barbie.”

Carly dresses her Barbies and cruises with them in the Cruise Ship. Lifeguard Barbie rescues the others and swims with the dolphins. They all lie around on the Cruise Ship in various states of dress and position until the next Barbie session.

Carly’s baby, John Graham (named for her daddy just like every other doll she owns), sleeps with her every night. She feeds John and cares for him. She keeps him warm. He has his own stroller and his own bed for the time that he’s not in bed with Carly. I wonder if she’ll want to call her first real baby John Graham. It could be a girl.

Sometime in the 70’s, Mattel outfitted Barbie with career clothes and began to imagine that Barbie could be a doctor. I figure I’ll look online for business suits and scrubs, just in case Carly’s Barbies want to do something besides cruise, swim, and strut.

Me? I don’t want my Sweet Valentine Barbie to do anything but look pretty in her pink satin dress with the red roses and pearls. I’d never, never, never straighten her hair.

***

Having a Bad Day

Carl, Dad’s physical therapist, motioned to me just outside the elevator door. He was bringing Dad to his room after his morning session and he wanted to talk to me.

I sat down in the activity room across the hall and waited for Carl. (By the way, Carl is a made-up name; the rest of the names in this piece are aliases, too.)

“He’s just not himself today,” Carl said. “He likes to work out hard, but today I had to sit him down. He just couldn’t do it.”

“Do you mean today he didn’t want to do it?” I asked.

“No,” Carl said. “He felt dizzy and sick. I had to sit him down to rest. And after a while, I said, ‘Mr. Blair, let’s go to your room’ and he didn’t even hear me. I got down on my knee in front of him and said, ‘Ernie, Ernie, let’s get you back to your room.’ Then he turned his head and looked at me and said, ‘What? What? Oh! Yes!’ and I got him up and we just came back.”

“How is he now?” I asked.

“I think he’s okay, but he’s just not himself.”

“Carl, my dad has had unexplained fainting episodes for years. That’s not on his chart, is it?”

“No, I haven’t seen anything like that. What do they think causes it?”

“Well, he’s been diagnosed two or three times with possible epilepsy. In fact, he took Dilantin for several years a long time ago, and that made him sick. Last time he saw a neurologist, he put him on some new anti-seizure medication, but he just couldn’t tolerate it. Diagnosis was ‘unexplained fainting.’”

“Now, he didn’t faint…And I took his blood pressure. It was low, but not real low. It could be all sorts of things, maybe low blood sugar. Could be something he ate. Or maybe he’s just having a bad day. Or… maybe he was having a near-fainting episode.”

“I’ll talk to his nurse. If that thing isn’t on his chart, it should be,” I said.

“Yeah, I think so, too. Don’t get too alarmed, though. It may be just a bad day. We see that a lot.”

Carl is Dad’s favorite therapist. He’s a Nazarene youth director; he and his wife moved here from Wyoming. Carl seems to like Dad, too. I like Carl.

“Hey, Dad,” I said, “What’s going on?”

“Oh, I’m just having a bad day,” he answered. He didn’t look good, either. He was too white. He needed a haircut, a beard trim, a bath. I had the barber shears and clippers in my bag, but this was Tuesday; the bath was scheduled for Wednesday after dinner.

“Maybe we should wait until tomorrow for your haircut,” I said.

“Ohhhhh, no,” he said. “I’m getting that haircut today. It will make me feel better.”

“Your shower is tomorrow, though. You’re going to have hair all over.”

“No, I’ve talked to my nurse and she says I can get a bath after supper today since I’m getting my hair cut.”

“Okay, but what happened down there?” I asked.

“Oh, I tried to pass out. Had to cut it short,” he answered.

“Do you still feel faint?” I asked.

“No, I’m better. I just needed to rest for a while. You’re going to have to get a towel.”

“I brought a sheet to put around you. Now where are we going to do this?”

The wing nurse swept into the room; she disappeared behind a dividing curtain to check on Dad’s roommate, Kenneth. Jean looks rough; squatty, blonde, a smoker. She’s always been friendly to me.

“I’m going to cut his hair,” I said. “Where shall I do this? They just cleaned his room. Is there a better place?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that.” Jean pulled the curtain back. “Just call housekeeping and they’ll clean up afterwards. I think I’d do it in the bathroom.”

“If I can just get a broom, I’ll clean up,” I said.

“There’s no need for you to do that,” she said as she left the room.

“Cut it pretty short, Sis,” Dad said after we got all set up. “And then you can put my extra blanket over the bed so that I don’t get hair all over it until I can get my shower.” He’d thought this through.

“Did that wear you out?” I asked after I helped him back to bed.

He laughed. “Yes, it did, but I’m sure glad to get it done.”

I cleaned up the bathroom floor with wet paper towels.

“Dad, you go ahead and get a nap. I’m going to see if I can talk to the nurse.” If there was no information on these “unexplained fainting episodes” on his chart, someone needed to know.

There was no one in scrubs in the hall. I walked on down to the nurses’ station.

“Can I help you?” a young clerk asked.

“Yes, I need to talk to Dad’s nurse.”

“I’m not sure where she is right now, but I’ll tell her.”

Forty-five minutes later, I returned to the nurses’ station.

“I was trying to talk to Dad’s nurse,” I said.

“Okay,” a different clerk said. “I’ll leave her a note.”

“Do you know what time she’ll be on the floor?”

“She’s working now, but she’s just with another patient.”

“Okay.”

Dad was awake and sitting up on the side of the bed. He had good color and said he felt good.

“Except…I need you to look at this place under my arm,” he said.

Once, at the hospital the week before, he had complained that there was a little place under his left arm, “toward the back,” that felt as if it had a small cut. It burned, it hurt, it felt “like somebody stuck me with a knife.”

“Okay. That place is still bothering you?” I asked.

“Yeah. It is painful. Feels like somebody stuck me with a knife,” he said, pulling his arm out of his grey waffle-weave shirt.

I poked and felt around until he flinched.

“That’s it, right there! What does it look like?”

“Doesn’t look like anything much, but I think I can feel a little rise of sorts,” I answered.

“I’m going to get somebody to look at it. The nurse is supposed to talk to me anyway.”

“Sometime this afternoon,” I added, to myself.

I stuck my head out into the hall. No one there, but I did see the nurse practitioner at the nurses’ station. NP, I call her. I can never remember her name, but I know that NP is the highest medical person on staff; the Medical Director, a physician, makes rounds but is not onsite. I rounded the nurses’ station to place myself in front of her.

“Hi,” I said. “You’re the Nurse Practitioner, aren’t you?”

“I am,” she answered.

“May I have just a word with you regarding my father, Ernest Blair?”

“Yes. Have you talked to his nurse?”

“I have asked to speak with her but that’s been about three hours ago and I haven’t seen her. I’m going to have to leave soon,” I answered, with my voice trailing off.

“Okay, what is it concerning?” she asked.

NP is much taller than I am and she was looking over my head, down the hall. Sometimes she leaned her upper body to one side and then the other to look around me. I shifted and then turned to look down the hall myself.

I continued, “Well, there are two things. The first one is, he had a near-fainting episode in physical therapy this morning and I wanted to make sure that you all know that he has a history of unexplained fainting.”

She countered. “That’s what he came in for.”

“No,” I said. “You mean, from the hospital?”

“Yeah, that’s the diagnosis he came in here for,” she said.

“No, actually it was an internal bleeding thing that sent him to the hospital.”

I was going to continue but she interrupted me.

“Same thing. He fainted from the internal bleeding,” she said, still bobbing around me to look down the hall and then in back of her toward another wing.

“Yes, several times,” I said, “but they sent him here for therapy, to get back on his feet and also to treat a sore shoulder.”

I stopped. “I’m sorry, do you need to attend to something else right now?” I asked.

“Oh. Well, I’m trying to get this family’s attention. They’ve been trying to teach their mother to use the wheelchair and she’s down this other hall making wheelies and everything. They need to see this,” she said.

“Okay.” I didn’t know what else to say.

NP called over my head, “She’s down this hall, flipping wheelies and going all over the place!”

The family proceeded past the nurses’ station, toward the other hall.

“I’m sorry,” NP said. “Now, tell me that again.”

So I did.

“Same thing,” she said again.

“No, not exactly,” I said. “He’s here for therapy, to be able to get around again, and also for his shoulder.”

“Oh. Okay. What was the second thing?” she asked.

“He has this little place under his arm that is extremely painful, and I am able to find it. I want to show it to somebody,” I said.

“Have you talked to his nurse?” she asked. “Because you really need to talk to his nurse.”

“No. I’ve been waiting to talk to her but I haven’t seen her,” I answered.

“She’s right down the hall there in front of his room,” she said, motioning with the clipboard in her right hand.

And she was—in the hall—not in front of Dad’s room, but in his hall. She was distributing medications.

“Thank you,” I told NP. “I’ll just run down there and talk to her.”

By the time I got to the medication cart, Jean had ducked into a room. I stood by the cart to wait for her.

“I just need to tell you a couple of things,” I said.

“Okay,” Jean said. She looked at me, my signal to start.

“The first is that Dad had an episode of near-fainting in physical therapy this morning and I don’t think there is anything in his chart to say that this is his history. He has a history of unexplained fainting episodes,” I said.

“Oh, great,” Jean said. Was the tone sarcasm? “That’s good to know.”

“Well, yes,” I said. “And the second thing is that there is this place under his arm that I think you should look at.”

“Let me run in here and give this medicine,” she said, as she disappeared into Mrs. Taylor’s room.

I waited beside the cart. Jean and Mrs. Taylor talked about the weather, the kids, the floral bedspread.

When Jean came out of the room, she said, “Physical therapy never called me this morning.”

“Well, I know that the therapist took his blood pressure, and it was low, but it wasn’t that low…”

“Physical therapy is not nursing. They are not medical people. They cannot make medical decisions,” she said.

“I think they were just trying to make some immediate response. He said he had to sit Dad down, and they didn’t get to finish the therapy session.”

“They’re supposed to let us know, immediately, if something medical happens. I’m going to be calling physical therapy to have a word with them,” she said.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” I started.

“Yes, I do,” she said. “They are supposed to call us.”

“I was just trying to let you know, you know, in case Dad got woozy…You know, he took a fall the other day.”

“I know he did,” she said. “Let me give this medicine.”

She ducked into another room and came back out.

“The second thing is that there is this place under his arm, actually on the side of his armpit, that is painful, and he says it feels like somebody stuck a knife in it. I think someone ought to look at it. I can actually show you the exact spot,” I said.

“Okay, I’ll be down there in a minute,” she said.

That meant I should go to the room and wait. Jean passed me as she entered the activity room where Mrs. Smith and her daughter were visiting.

“How you doing?” Jean said to the daughter.

“Good. Good. Hey, I think Mom needs a change. She’s been out today for a long time and I’m sure she needs to be changed.”

“I’ll get you somebody,” Jean said. “How did the curtains turn out?”

“I think they look really good.”

I stopped listening. Jean handed the pills to the daughter along with a glass of water. The daughter handed the pills to her mother, one at a time, and her mother swallowed each one with a sip of water while the conversation continued.

Jean hurried by me into the room.

“Where is he?” she asked, just as we heard Dad click the paper towel dispenser twice.

“He’s just drying his hands,” I said.

“Then I’ll come back,” she answered, and she was gone.

Dad sat down on the side of the bed and we continued a conversation about Egypt’s upheaval.

“I think they’re just in for bad trouble,” he said.

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Sis, you need to get started home. It’s going to be dark pretty soon. I don’t like you girls being out after dark.”

I smiled back at him. “I know. I was waiting to see the nurse,” I said.

“Maybe you should start getting ready to go,” he said. “She’ll probably be in here in a few minutes.”

“Okay,” I said. I began to gather up Dad’s laundry, some cards he wanted me to take home, and the magazines on the table that I had brought to read while he napped.

As I passed the window, I saw Jean crossing the parking lot, pulling the hood of her jacket over her head in the rain. As soon as she crossed the street, she lit her cigarette and called out to the other woman joining her.

“Dad, I think I’ll go on. I’ll talk to the nurse tomorrow.”

“Okay, Darlin’. You have a good evening. Give Mom a kiss for me,” he said.

***

Grandpa Goes to Rehab

Dad had an “episode” a couple of weeks ago Friday and wound up in the ambulance on the way to St. Thomas about five thirty in the morning. He and Mom got some sort of stomach virus a few days earlier; Dad was ill first and we thought he was getting better, but sometime after midnight he started vomiting blood. Turns out he had a severely infected stomach and esophagus and the repeated vomiting had made a tear in the lower esophagus. The kind ER nurses started a Nexium drip the minute they got their hands on him and the tear was repaired medically on Saturday—no stitches.

I think it’s quite remarkable that he has not had even a moment’s indigestion since.

Now, what has become a problem—or maybe there are several—is that he’s having some rather severe balance issues along with being weak to the point that he could not get out of the hospital bed unaided until the following Wednesday. He also has a frozen shoulder that is giving him a fit. We were on our way to see an orthopedist when he and Mom came down with the virus.

We moved Dad to rehab at Woodcrest, a very nice skilled nursing facility at The Blakeford, a large progressive-care place about seven miles away, last Wednesday or Thursday—I’ve lost track of days here. He gets a lot of intense physical therapy on both his balance and his shoulder. These sessions are independent of each other; Dad’s favorite therapist advised me that “these are really two different disciplines.”

Dad honed his description of his rehab prescription and filled me in. “My main job is to work hard on my therapy so that I can plant my garden this spring.”

And then the next problem developed: Bowels. He finally got them going again (after seven days) and then couldn’t get them stopped, that sort of thing. The nurses told me that the whole experience is quite common. One day I left Mom with Dad to visit and went on a Wal-Mart run to lay in a supply of the fleece pants he’s wearing over there. Three changes of clothing weren’t enough, so I increased the stack to six.

I’ve spent a little time “doing battle,” too.

When he was at St. Thomas, I took Dad three bold-stroke, ball roller pens to stand in for the fine old pen he writes with at home; the man cannot live without a notebook and some pens. When he got to Woodcrest, I put two of the pens in the top drawer of his nightstand and left the third on top of his notebook on the bedside table.

Saturday morning, almost as soon as I walked into his room, Dad furnished several pieces of information, in answer to my probing, that toyed with my happiness. He was supposed to have a shower on Friday and didn’t, even after he had a soiling incident. His breakfast, every day, was a big plate of sausage, bacon, and eggs, in spite of his request for “a bowl of Cheerios or cream of wheat or oatmeal.” Then they brought him cereal but he got no milk, even after a second request, so he didn’t eat his Rice Krispies. Another time he couldn’t get anyone to go look for Splenda even though they said they would, and they wouldn’t bring him coffee, even decaf, except for breakfast.

And every damn pen was GONE!!!

It was the pens that sent me over the edge. Just after Dad asked me to look for his pens, the physical therapist came to take him downstairs for his afternoon session.

“Mom,” I said, “Let’s go down to the activity room until Dad gets back.”

The spacious activity room is a warm, cheerful gathering spot with honey-colored leather couches, gliding rockers in front of a fireplace, and flat-screen TV’s. In another area, heavy tables with rolling chairs flank bookcases with inviting titles and large print. Three staff members were moving couches against the wall, said they were getting ready for “the sing-along,” and invited Mom to join them.

“You’ll love it,” one promised.

“Oh, I’m sure I will. We love music,” Mom said.

I strolled down the hall to the nurses’ station and asked for a talk with the wing nurse, the nurse in charge of Dad’s wing of the floor.

I started by saying, “Britney, there’s this one little thing that is just bugging the snot out of me and I want to get that out of the way first.” (Britney is not her real name, but it is something jazzy like that.) Then I unloaded about the pens. Britney said that the nurses might mistake his pens for their pens.

“I don’t think so. Britney, Dad’s are better pens than those Bic stick pens, not that I blame the nurses for wanting better pens.” (Dad and I like our “school supplies.”)

“Let me get him some pens,” Britney said. “We have lots of pens.”

“Okay,” I said. “But they have to be like the ones he just lost. He can’t write with a Bic stick pen.”

Actually, Britney was pretty good. She declared that she was as disgusted by the rest of my complaints as I was and that she was happy to note that he will drink a glass of skim milk any old time and that he will eat ice cream at the drop of a hat, hood, or scarf. She thanked me for bringing my dad’s needs to her attention.

After I had covered the topics of pens, eating, pooping, laundry, and personal cleanliness to my satisfaction, I found Mom sitting at a table in the activity room—alone—grinning, and singing—along. Forty or so residents, mostly in wheelchairs, some with tambourines and some with shakers, made a large semi-circle audience.

The pretty young woman with the guitar finished singing “Hey, Good Lookin’” just as Dad eased in the door with his walker. He rolled over to our table. She called out to him, “What’s your name?”

Dad stopped and proclaimed, loud and clear, “Ernest. Blair.”

“Well,” she said, “I hear you’re a hillbilly and a guitar picker and banjo plucker!” (Mom must have been sharing before I got there.)

“Oh, yeah?” Dad paused and grinned. “Yes to all the above.”

“Will you come up here and sing with me?” she asked.

“Let me sit here and rest a while,” he said.

After a couple more songs, she turned to Dad. “Do you know On Top of Old Smoky? Come up here and sing it with me.”

“Okay, I guess I can do that.” Dad eased to the front of the group of forty or so residents, let go of his walker, stood straight as an arrow and waited for her intro.

She just didn’t know what she was in for. He started traditionally enough but then he began to sing verses that he had made up. The residents howled and clapped. So now he’s a stand-up comedian? He was clearly in his glory.

“Old top of Old Smoky, underneath the blue sky, If you don’t say you love me, I’ll just sit down and cry.” And then there was “On top of Old Smoky, all covered with frost, I found my dear sweetheart, a-flirtin’ with her boss.”

Through the glass doors, I saw some blue scrubs whizzing into Dad’s room. I excused myself. No, she was with Dad’s roommate. But somebody had placed a Bic stick pen on the bedside table…

When I got back to the activity room, Dad and Mom were leaving (Mom whispered that Dad was tired) but I heard the guitar lady say, “Is this who you’re talking about?”

Dad said, “Yes. She’ll play for you.”

And that’s how I wound up at the piano. I told her I would just play along with whatever she played while they sang. It was great fun. We did all sorts of stuff; she quit playing the guitar and just led them in the singing. A few brave residents got out of their chairs to dance to “Five Foot Two.” I wanted to sop up the joy.

When it was time to end, she said, “Usually, when our time is up, I put on a CD while they make their way to the dining room. Would you just play something while they leave?”

I played “That’s All I Ask of You” and they sang. I played “The Sound of Music”—and they sang again. I played “Red River Valley” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” They sang. The three staff members sang, too, as they pulled sweaters tight, tucked wraps over laps, and reminded each resident, “I’ll see you later” or “Don’t forget we’ll be here Tuesday afternoon.”

I started “Claire de Lune.” A song with no words, that’s what I need. I motioned to the leader with my left hand to come closer to the piano.

“They’re not leaving,” I said. “I think I may have to quit, and then they’ll go.”

“Probably so,” she said. “They love to listen to music. They don’t get the piano very often. Will you come back?”

“I will.”

I zig-zagged around the wheelchairs while the women extended their hands. I took each one; sometimes I held two at a time.

I understood when the first lady said, “That was just beautiful. I hope you’ll come again.” I didn’t understand what the second lady said to me, but her hand was cold and I cupped it in both palms.

The third lady said, “Your hands are so warm.”

Four frail hugs and some more handshakes later, I found the door and held it open for the expected migration until one of the staff members relieved me. I was hanging on to my emotions by a thin thread; I felt tears coming on. I’ve played so many times for retirement places, assisted living, and nursing homes, and every time, it feels like the first time. This first time was really a first time; it was the first time I’d played for my dad’s nursing home.

I walked into Dad’s room, hoping he wouldn’t notice my shaky demeanor. He laughed out loud when he saw me.

“See what I got you into?” he said, and slapped his hands together.

Dad loves to go to the dining room, even if he doesn’t like to eat, because he meets such interesting characters. His favorite so far is a ninety-year-old retired Vanderbilt professor who requires an assistant to wheel him in and feed him. Dad says he would love to feed him himself if he could hold the spoon.

I asked Dad, “Does he talk?”

“A little,” Dad said. “His voice is real weak, but if I strain, sometimes I can make it out.”

Britney told me that Dad regales the staff and the other residents with stories. She said, “He’s the kind of man that would rather tell a story than to ask for what he wants, or needs.”

Later I wished I’d stood there longer to take in Britney’s compassion and to appreciate her insight.

“Dad,” I said, at the end of that problem-solving day, “If you don’t get your Splenda, or they don’t bring you milk, just press your call light. They’ll get it for you.”

“Oh, I’m not going to hound them,” he said. “My main job is to be a sparkle. Their jobs are difficult enough.”

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot…

They arrived ready to party, the GrandYardigans. We nicknamed them after that cheery, busy toddler show we watch “On Demand,” The BackYardigans. Carly was wearing a gauzy hot pink ruffled dress over black footless tights and boots, a hot pink silk chrysanthemum holding her loose side-braid, an equally pink sequined heart barrette anchoring the other side of her head. She said she was wearing makeup, and if she was, it had the intended adult effect, very natural. Jameson sported a #21 Duke basketball jersey with matching shorts, an outfit he got on a December special trip to a Duke basketball game with his dad.

“We looked all over Raleigh-Durham for a #20 jersey. That’s Andre Dawkins, you know. He’s my favorite Duke player. Dad took me to every Duke store he could think of. I finally got #21; it’s the closest to #20.”

“So who’s #21?” Dave asked.

“Miles Plumlee,” Jameson said.

“I have a Tamwun Twazy at home,” Carly said, “A Tamwun Twazy tee shirt.”

“Oh, I thought you were talking about your puppy dog,” I said. John bought Vicky a Shih-tzu long before either Carly or Jameson was born and they named him Cameron Crazy, the nickname for a lone Duke Blue Devil student basketball fan. When they went back to the breeder for seconds, they got Sophie Mai, named for Miss Sophie Hall, Vicky’s residence hall at the University of Tennessee.

“Well, we do have a weal Tamwun Twazy,” Carly said. “That’s Tamwun, our dog. That’s where he got his name.”

We started the New Year’s event with a gift opening. We saved the rule-breaking presents we bought for today when at least most of the family wouldn’t know that we could not keep our commitment not to buy for anyone other than the ones whose names we drew. (It was the first year we drew names—We’ll work our way into it.) Jameson got a Hot Wheels Speedway track and a charcoal Star Wars Legos shirt with matching knit cap. Carly loved her pink tee with the nail polish bottles all over the front (and the word “Twinkletoes” for explanation) and ruffled purple skirt and the porcelain tea set. We left Grampy Dave to his work of heeling in roses and proceeded to our favorite place, The Cellar.

Carly and I started a lovely tea party with Diet Fanta Orange subbing for real tea; she selected the pink cup and saucer and placed the red set in front of me. Jameson said he’d rather just drink a Diet A&W Root Beer without all that tea party stuff. After he had raced a few laps on the new Speedway, he said he thought it would be a good idea for him to join Carly and me so that we could share snacks. He still had most of his root beer and said we could put that in the teapot when the orange ran out.

Carly asked me to re-fill the tiny teapot with the Fanta, but she wanted root beer in the cream pitcher. Jameson and I took our “tea” plain—no cream, no sugar. Carly insisted that she was the pourer. Jameson said he was capable of pouring his own and that she should allow the servants to help.

“Besides,” he said, “you spill every time you pour.”  (She did.)

“So are you the servant?” I asked Jameson.

“No, not really, but I thought she’d let me pour,” he answered.

“I have to pour the tea,” Carly said. “I’m the owner.”

“You mean you’re the mistress of the house,” I said.

“Well, it’s my tea set,” she said.

Jameson drank ten of the tiny cups, each in one gulp. I noticed that we were out of Fanta Orange—It was my job to re-fill the teapot from the soda cans. We were starting on the root beer, the Sprite reserved for the cream pitcher.

Carly leveled her gaze at her brother, turned her head toward me, and blew. I thought I was looking at myself there for a minute.

Jameson understood her body language and said, “Just let me pour my own.”

“No,” she said to him and turned to me. “He is just drinking too fast and that’s mean.”

Jameson shrugged in my direction. “She knew I was a heavy drinker. She should just let me pour my own.”

“Jameson, this is the last cup you’re getting. You should just drink out of the can,” she said.

Jameson finally said he was full and that he needed to race those cars again. So far, out of the four chosen vehicles, the red car had won in every lane.

Carly tore off to the bathroom and when she came back, said, “I had to go tinkle really bad.”  I supposed as how she probably did; she had consumed a lot of tiny cups of liquid.

“Are you finished with your tea?” I asked her.

“No. I need more tea—and more crackers,” she answered.

Then she crushed up some crackers and sprinkled them into her teacup.

“What’s that supposed to be?” I asked.

“Just makes it all taste better,” she said. She pulled out a small cracker, a pretzel, and a tiny melba toast.

“Which do you think I should put in here first?” she asked.

“Oh, are you creating a mix in your tea?” I asked.

“Yes. How about the pretzel first?”

“Yeah. That sounds good.”

“And then this one.” She lifted the toast. “Do you want some of this in yours?”

“No,” I said, “I think I’ll just drink mine plain.”

“Grammy,”  (only she really said “Dwammy”), “you’re going to have to use the Sprite.”  She crunched the crumbs she had just siphoned from her cup.

“Okay,” I said, as I filled the tiny pink teapot from the Sprite can.

The plastic tray, next to the table on the plastic kitchen set, was overflowing with soaked paper towels, bags from the snacks, and soda cans. It was 5 P.M. and the three of us had consumed a bag of Spicy Doritos, three packs of Cheezits “Extra Cheddar” cracker mix, one single serving of Cheddar Jack Cheezits,  two pots of cheese dip with their accompanying bread sticks,  a Diet Fanta Orange, an A&W Diet Root Beer, and a Sprite Zero.

Jameson announced the latest race results. “I’ve raced eleven times and the red car has won all but two. I wonder what percentage that is.”

I let him wonder. I couldn’t divide eleven into nine without electronic help.

“I think I’m done,” Carly said after she had drained the Sprite from the teapot, the sugar bowl, and the cream pitcher. “Or we could have some more crackers.”

“Well,” I said, “I think tea time is past. We’re going to need to get ready for dinner.”

“What’s for dinner?” Jameson asked.

“Steak, baked potato, green beans,” I answered just as my cell phone rang. It was Dave. When I’m in The Cellar, he calls me from the home phone.

“How many potatoes should I put in the oven?” he asked.

“Four,” I said. “They’re small. Four.”

Carly pulled at my sleeve. “Tell him I don’t want a potato. I don’t want a potato. No potato for me, okay, Dwammy?”

“Four,” I said. “If we have some leftover, we can always use them for breakfast.”

On the way upstairs, Carly asked, “Did you hear me say I didn’t want any potato?”

“Yes, I did,” I said. “We’ll just put a little on your plate and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.”

“I already know I don’t want it. I want mac and cheese.”

“Mac and cheese?  You want mac and cheese?” 

She grinned and nodded. She always wants mac and cheese and she usually gets it.

“Grammy, can I have mac and cheese, too?” Jameson asked from three steps below us.

“Sure,” I said. “You want potato and mac and cheese?”

“No,” he said, “just the mac and cheese. No potato.”

“Okay, yeah,” I answered. The prix-fixe menu was slip-sliding away.

I figured they’d eat half a tub each of Kraft Original Microwave and the foxes on the ravine would get the rest on Saturday. Dave handed Jameson the remote controls so that they could watch a new Scooby-Doo video while I microwaved mac and cheese and steamed green beans and Dave grilled rib-eyes and small lobster tails for the two of us.

The Scooby-Doo was done before dinner.

“I know,” I said. “Let’s watch The Backyardigans!”

“Oh, yeah, we haven’t done that in a long time,” Jameson said. “Grammy, it’s on Nickelodean.”

“Oh, yeah,” Carly chimed in, “let’s do the one about the library.”

Jameson ate his four-ounce, hand-patted, seasoned ground chuck steak and asked if he could eat Carly’s since she wasn’t eating hers. She was happy to share; she had already eaten her whole tub of the sticky yellow stuff and a large serving of steamed green beans. I burned the rolls so there was no bread.

“Can I eat Jameson’s green beans?”

“Jameson, aren’t you going to eat your green beans?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think so, but do we have any more steak?” he asked.

“Yep,” I answered, “I cooked three. Geez, did you finish Carly’s already?”

“Dwammy, I need some more green beans,” Carly called into the dining room, just as I sat back down.

“Okay, I have more. Dave, are you finished with green beans?”

“I’ve had plenty,” he said. “Is that all you’re going to eat?”

“Yeah. Why don’t you put that steak in a plastic bag and you can make a sandwich for lunch?”  I gathered the last of the green beans from the top of the stove.

“Carly,” I said, “this is it. These are the last of the green beans.”   

Nobody mentioned dessert. Dave said he’d clear the dishes; Jameson said we should pick something good to watch.

Carly said, “How about SpongeBob?”

There was a time when watching SpongeBob would have been low on our list of choices for New Year’s Eve festivities. I would not have been amused by a tea party with a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old. Dave would have been happier at a party where we saw the New Year in. There was that time.

Today, John and Vicky said they went to a four o’clock movie, The King’s Speech, after which they ate a late dinner at a new restaurant where the food was “really, really good.”   John said he asked Jameson what was for dinner at Grammy’s New Year’s Eve party.

Jameson said, “We had this salty steak that was made out of some kind of, you know, ground up meat. Dad, it was really good. You would have loved it!”

Carly said, “We had a really special tea party.”

Jameson, I’m so glad you liked it. Yes, Carly, it really was special.

Happy New Year, everybody!

***

What are you grateful for?

We used to do that rather regular thing of going around the table on Thanksgiving so that each person could answer The Question. “What are you grateful for?” we’d ask the next person after the one before had remarked on health, family, love. But then that whole holiday routine got blown up the first year John and Vicky were married when her answer was an impish “I’m thankful for that puppy John is going to buy me.”

I still ask myself the question—I think it has become a coping strategy.

Last week, Mom, Dad, Dave, and I went to the Nashville Zoo. I was thankful for wheelchairs that day. Oh, we didn’t have any wheelchairs, but I was thankful that there were such things because we will need them someday soon. We could have used a couple at the zoo.

Dad got four complimentary tickets to the zoo from one of the college-age daughters next door. Saleh and Zienab Al-Akashi have six children including Jinan and Noura, both pre-med students at Lipscomb University and part-time employees of the Nashville Zoo. The four children that follow the future physicians are Naba, Abbas, Mohammad, and Zahra and they range from twelve years down to four. Saleh works two jobs and is finishing classes for a technical degree; Zienab transports children, runs a household, and mows the yard.

Dad made friends with Saleh last year when we all first moved in here on the ravine. He knows when Saleh arrives home between jobs—that’s when they meet in the driveway. Dad asked Saleh if he could weed-eat for him. It wasn’t long before Dad got permission to mow for Zienab. I hear that Dad will plant a flower garden for Zienab this spring, too, with Saleh’s agreement.

“You are so nice to us, Mr. Blair. What can we do for you?” Saleh asked.

“Saleh,” Dad told him, “You and your wife are working so hard raising this family, it’s just a privilege for you to let me help.”

One day Saleh brought the four tickets to the zoo. “You said you wanted to go to the zoo?”

That evening, Dad said, “Saleh gave me four tickets to the zoo. Well, actually, he didn’t give them to me, his daughters did. They work at the zoo, you know. When the weather gets nice again, we can go to the zoo. That’s the only thing I wanted to do in Nashville.”

The dark blue macaws are just to the right past the entrance.

“Look, Honey,” Mom said. “Blue macaws. Can you see them?”

“No, not very well. I’m cold. It’s cold out here.”

“You should have worn a heavier coat,” Mom said.

“Well, I know that now,” he answered.

“Dad, put Dave’s jacket on,” I said. “We put it in Mom’s basket.”

Mom rolled up beside me with Dolly, her Rollator walker. “Well, this is going to be fun. He can’t hear and he can’t see.”

“Well, aren’t you glad you have Dolly?” I asked. “This is the whole reason we needed that Rollator.”

“It does nothing for the pain,” she answered.

Uh-oh… her legs… pain…this IS going to be fun.

We passed the red-crowned crane (he couldn’t see that, either) and inched our way up the hill toward the carousel and “Lorikeet Landing,” where the colorful ‘keets light on shoulders and heads and hands in a mesh enclosure. No strollers. I guess that means Rollators, too. Mom and Dad sat on a bench. Mom sighed and blew.

“How much further to the giraffes?” she asked. “They’re my favorites.”

“Well—me, too. There’s a lot of walking here,” I answered. “Dave, did you happen to pick up a map?”

No, he didn’t.

“It’s around this loop here,” I said. The sign said “African Savannah.”

There were no Red River Hogs in the hog pen, and we cut off the loop at the first viewing station for the elephants huddled in the far corner of their field.

“Dad, look way out there. They’re in that far right corner of the field,” I said.

“I can’t see them. They’re too far away. Oh, wait, are they moving? I think I can see them moving.”

“Let’s stop here for a minute,” I said, pointing toward fifty wooden tables in a big field. Festival Area. I thought about the time we brought grandchildren to the Halloween celebration; games and activity tents had covered the field.

“I knew there would be a lot of walking,” Dad said as he propped himself on a big rock in the curve of the path, “but I didn’t know there’d be this much.”

“Let’s head back this way.” I pointed back toward the entrance. We had rested plenty but Dad was staggering a bit, even with his cane, and Mom was moving slower and leaning hard on Dolly.

“We almost need wheelchairs to get around this place,” Dave said. “I brought Mom out here the last time she came to Nashville and I pushed her in a wheelchair.”

“Remember when you pushed me all around the Memphis Zoo in a wheelchair?” Mom asked.

“Yes, I do.” Mom and I both started to laugh. We pushed and pulled that wheelchair over cobblestone, onto little trains, up dirt hills. That was over seven years ago, before she walked with a cane, before Dolly was a fleeting thought, before Mom lost fifty pounds. At the end of that day, Mom was doing fine. I needed a heat pad and ibuprofen at the hotel. But, we did see the visiting Giant Pandas!

“Your daddy would never ride in a wheelchair—he wouldn’t even use this walker,” she said.

“Well, we have two wheelchairs at home,” Dave said, “and when we need them, we’re going to use them.”

“We’ve got that motorized chair, too,” Dad said, “and we ought to get that thing running.”

We all sat down at the picnic tables near the gibbons. Dad finally saw one of the white ones.

“Hey, Boy, come on over here,” he hollered, waving his cane in the air.

“Dad, stop hollering,” I said.

“Well, I want to see him up closer. Where are the monkeys?”

“Dad, there are no monkeys here.”

“No monkeys? What kind of a zoo doesn’t have monkeys? No apes?”

“No, the closest thing to a monkey you’re going to see are these gibbons.”

“What are they?” he asked.

“Gibbons. You heard her, they’re gibbons,” Mom said. She shot him a look.

“Well, nothing is close enough for me to look at,” Dad said.

We tried to explain about natural habitats and current trends in keeping wild animals.

“Let’s go,” I said. “Let’s go look at the meerkats.”

Mom counted the meerkats. Dad leaned on the clear enclosure and dropped his cane over the side to circle the head of one of the colony’s sentries.

“Ernie, quit that,” Dave said. “Don’t do that.”

“I’m not bothering him,” Dad said. But he withdrew his cane.

“Now I like those,” he said.

We passed the big stork.

“So that’s what a stork looks like,” Mom said. (Dad couldn’t see it.)

I saw the tables in front of the snack bar near Unseen New World where the snakes and amphibians live, and knew this would be our ending point for the day. We would not make the Jungle Loop with the lemurs and cougars and leopards and ostrich. Even if we did have wheelchairs, we wouldn’t make it. We were all tired.

“Dad, let’s rest here,” I said.

“I think I have to quit here,” he answered. I was glad he said it.

“Well,” Dave said, “I am going around this loop here to see the tigers. It’s what I came for and I’m going to see the tigers.”

“Okay, we’ll just wait for you here,” I said.

“Now, why would she come to the zoo with that little kid?” Dad pointed to a young mother pushing a stroller.

“Why wouldn’t she?” I asked. “It’s a great place.”

“Yeah, but what does she get out of it and what does that little kid get?”

“Well, it’s a safe place to be, quiet, no cars to dodge, and you know, here are these animals that she’s shown the baby in his picture books.”

“I can see where it’s safe. Nobody would threaten her and her child here,” he answered.

“Oh, I wasn’t thinking of that kind of ‘safe,’” I said. “I was just thinking that you can be on the walking trails and no cars…”

“Oh.”

“Look,” Mom said, “Flamingoes.” She pointed to the sign for the Flamingo Lagoon.

“You want to go down there?” I asked. “I think it’s just right there around the corner past the petting zoo.”

“Yes. I want to see the flamingoes.”

“Dad, you stay right here. Don’t you go anywhere. You stay right here,” I said.

“Where are you going?” he asked Mom.

“We’re going to see the flamingoes,” she called over her shoulder.

“Ohhhhhhhhh, they’re beautiful,” she said, “and so many of them.”

We stopped by the petting zoo on the way back to Dad.

“Llamas, goats, donkeys…oh look, there’s a camel!” Mom said.

We turned on the path to see that Dad had found a friend. A young man and two children, a girl maybe eight and a boy about ten, were saying their goodbyes.

“Mr. Blair, it was very nice visiting with you.”

“Who was that?” the girl asked as they walked away.

“He’s my new friend, Mr. Blair,” the dad answered.

“We were having a philosophical discussion,” Dad explained as we neared the tables. “We were talking about why people come to the zoo. He’s a writer. He’s from Los Angeles. He came to the zoo to get ideas for his stories.”

“Hm,” Mom answered. (We’ve come to recognize “Hm” as the signal that Mom is bored.)

“And he left his cell phone at home,” Dad said. “He doesn’t like to be interrupted when he’s getting ideas.”

“Hm,” Mom answered. “He’d talk to a fencepost,” she said in my direction.

Dad was oblivious; he probably didn’t hear her. “And he thinks it’s a big intrusion to use your cell phone in a nature place like this,” he added.

“So did you see the tigers?” I asked as Dave walked up.

“Yep. Two of them. And the lynx, too.”

“Then I think we’re ready to go,” I said.

“How far is it back to the entrance?” Mom asked.

“It’s not as far as we’ve come,” I answered.

“Next time we come, we need some wheelchairs,” Dave said.

“Well, we’ve got wheelchairs,” I answered, “but I’m not sure I could push one around this whole zoo.”

“We need to get that motorized chair working,” Dad said.

“Well, I’m not sure that motorized chair would be good around here,” Dave said.

“Too many hills?” Dad asked.

“Yeah. We need wheelchairs or maybe a golf cart. I don’t think they allow golf carts, though.”

“Where did we get the wheelchairs?” Mom asked.

“Fannie Tietze,” I answered. “Remember her? Sweet, sweet, elegant woman. She died last month and wanted people at church to have her things. No one wanted a wheelchair so I said I’d take one and then the son told me that I should take both of them.”

“They’re in perfect condition,” Dave said. “I haven’t figured out how to fold that smaller one. You need to help me with that.”

What am I thankful for?  I am thankful for family, health, and love, those very “regular” things that everyone answers in response to that “regular” question.

I am thankful for family, especially the family of four that we’ve put together here on the ravine, and that we are all happy. I am thankful that there are children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren close by. I am thankful for that puppy that John bought Vicky, the little Shih Tzu who is now ten years old, as well as the other dogs, cats, and foxes that have come into our family lives.

I am thankful for health—Mom and Dad’s health at eighty years old. I am happy that their health allows them to make trips to the zoo, to the grocery store, to church. I am grateful that Mom’s health allows her to care for their apartment and that Dad’s allows him to garden for himself, us, and the Al-Akashis.

I am thankful for love—the love of a good man, the love of parents, children, and grandchildren, the love of neighbors, and the love of friends—old and new, living here or watching over us from the other world.

I am grateful for wheelchairs.

***

Mama Said.

Today was Mammogram Day.  Mom and I have already observed Bone Density Day, Cardiologist Day (followed by Heart Ultra Scan Day), Colonoscopy Day (preceded by Prep Day), Sleep Test Day (wait–that was an evening event, preceded by Sleep Doctor Day and followed by Sleep Test Night II and Go-Get-the-Machine- Day), and Thyroid Doctor Day.  All of these marked occasions occurred during the last six months. 

Sometimes she and I wonder aloud if she’s healthy because she keeps all these appointments with health care professionals, or in spite of her diligence with her physi­cian brigade and her complete compliance with medication for organs, limbs, and a half dozen other eighty-year-old body parts.

“Daddy says I’m doing the right thing by going to the doctor,” she has an­nounced to me on more than one occasion.  I always muse a bit about this discussion of Dad’s approval.

“So, what time will we leave for the mammogram?” she asked on the way home from our water class at the Y. 

“1:00,” I said.  “We’ll leave right at 1:00.”

“You think that’s enough time?” she asked.

“Yeah, your appointment is 1:30,” I said.  “So thirty minutes will get us there fine.”

I called her at 12:50. 

“I’m headed out the door as quick as I can grab a book and my shoes,” I said.  “Right at 1:00.” 

“I’m ready,” she answered.  “I’m sitting in the sun at the picnic table.”

“So, are we definite about where we’re going at St. Thomas?” I asked.

“You don’t know?” she asked.

“I thought it was on the same floor as where you saw the doctor and had your bone density test.”

“Probably so,” she said.

“We ought to be sure.  Do you have any papers?” I asked.

“Oh yeah.  I have this paper where I wrote down where it is.  But I’m not sure I can read it,” she answered.

“Well, let me look at it,” I said, as she pulled the sheet of paper from her purse.

“Hmmmm.”  I looked at her notes and read. “Turn left from skybridge Park D Seaton Purple–opposite direction from doctor.   –I’m not sure what this means, Ma.”

“Me either.  Half the time I write stuff down and then can’t read it.”

“I do the same thing,” I said.  “Or I lose the note before I get a chance to read it again.  I sure don’t understand this.  Do you remember the nurse telling us ‘everything you’re going to do is right here on this floor’?”

“Yeah…” Mom said.

“I’m remembering her pointing down the hall where you got your bone density… Remember she said, ‘It’s just beyond that sign that says ‘bone density?’”  I asked.

“Seems like I remember something like that, but I wasn’t thinking it was the mammogram she was talking about,” Mom said.

“Well, we better just get on over there.  I’ll just park where we usually park for your appointments and we’ll go from there.  We’re eating up time,” I said.

A big Oldsmobile pulled out and left a parking place for us three spaces from the door. 

“Well, we’re in luck this time, Sister!” Mom said.  “I can walk from here.”

“We sure are,” I answered.  Normally, I drop Mom off at the door to the elevators while I park the van.  She walks okay with her cane–but slow.  She’s speedy with her new Rollator that a friend named Dolly; of course, we left Dolly stabled in the garage. 

“What floor was the doctor on?” I asked. 

“Four,” she said.

When we got off the elevator, me with the sheet of paper in my hand, I turned right. 

“I thought we were supposed to turn left,” Mom called after me.

“I thought you said to turn the opposite from the doctor’s office,” I said.  “We would turn left to go to the doctor’s office.”

“No, I think the place is opposite from the doctor’s office,” she said.  “It’s the Breast Center.”

“Hmmm.”  I stopped to read Mom’s notes again, just as a lovely young employee arrived.  I was enamored with her asymmetrical haircut and aware that she seemed to be in a hurry but took time to offer herself. 

“May I help you?” she asked.  “Did you say you’re going to the Center for Breast Health?”

“I’m not sure,” I answered, “But she is going to have a mammogram.”

“That would be the Center for Breast Health,” the woman said. 

I loved the way she tilted her head toward both of us. 

“Now,” she said, “You’re a good little walk from the breast center.”  I could tell she was noting the cane.  “You can do it, but it’s a good piece.  It’s at the back of the hospital and you’re more on the front side right now.”

“Ah, that’s what this means,” I said.  “It says ‘Seaton’ and I didn’t realize that anyone parked in Seaton Garage except for people visiting patients or staying at the hotel place.”

“Did you park in Seaton?” she asked.

“No.  We parked downstairs right here where we always park to go to doctors in this building,” I answered.

“May I look at your instructions?” she asked. 

After a glance at Mom’s scribble, she explained.  “See, you park at Seaton, and then you go up to Level D, which is the purple.  And then you cross the skybridge, and the Center for Breast Health is right there on the left.” 

“But we can get there from here?” I asked.

“You can, but now, you’re going to walk a ways.  Go straight down this hall, turn to the right, go past the Starbucks, and then turn left and you’ll see the skybridge.  It will be just on your right before the skybridge.”

“Mom,” I said, “I think we better walk.  I’m afraid we’re going to be late.” 

“Okay,” she said.  “How far is it?”

“It’s a good ways, but we can do it,” I answered.

Our friendly St. Thomas guide walked the same way that we did, only a little faster.  When we hit a T somewhere along the way, she looked back and said, “Keep coming this way.”

“How much further?”  Mom asked.

“Mom, I don’t know but it can’t be that far,” I answered.  “I’ll get out ahead and sort of scout it out.  Remember, we’re looking for Starbucks.”

“Well, just don’t get out of my sight, okay?” she said.

“Okay.”  I dodged sad slow visitors and happy fast employees. 

“Do you see Starbucks?” she called after me.

“Not yet.  But we can do this, Ma.  It won’t hurt us to walk,” I answered.

And then my elegant and reticent mother (at least, publicly reticent) announced to the hall full of hospital travelers, “Oh yes it does.  It hurts.  And if it doesn’t hurt you, well, it hurts me–bad.”

I didn’t dare ignore her but I wasn’t about to turn around.  I wasn’t brave enough to even look back at her, ten paces behind me.

“We’re almost there,” I said–although I had no idea how much further we would walk.  “See, Mom, here’s Starbucks!”  I always like to find a Starbucks but this time, a sort of true love welled up in my heart at seeing the green logo.

“Is that where we turn?” she asked.

“We just go straight to the end of the hall and it will be there,” I answered.

“Oh yeah,” she said.  I heard a bit of a groan and a sigh and noted the sarcasm in her brief reply.

“So where is it?” she asked at the end of the hall.

“See the sign?” I asked.  “It’s right there before the skybridge.”

She did the “whew” sound.  I limped and she clomped to the next door on the right.  I signed her in with the volunteer lady in the pink jacket while she sat down in the first chair she came to.

“Mom,” I told her quietly, “I’m going to go get the van and move it to this garage over here.  Then we can just go right there across the skybridge to the garage when we leave.”

“Me wait for you here?” she asked.

“Yes. Right here,” I said.

“I won’t go anywhere,” she answered.

When I returned from the long hike, short drive, and brief elevator ride, the pink lady was escorting her to the test.  I called softly after her, “Mom,” to let her know that I was there but she didn’t hear me.  I settled in my chair to read my friend’s new cookbook–It’s called Bless Your Heart; Saving the World One Covered Dish At a Time.

Two chapters later (and one altercation and two offensive cell-phone hollerers, too), she was finished.

“All done?” I asked.  “We just have to go right out this door and right down the elevator.  See–there’s the purple you wrote about.”  I pointed to the purple stripes on the wall of Level D just outside the elevator.

“I think I’ll just go home on Franklin Road,” I said as we pulled onto the street.

“Well,” Mom said, “That place was certainly a lot nicer than the colonoscopy center.”

“Yeah, it sure was.”  It was.

Then I told her about the two women passing the cell phone between them and talking so loud.  “Well, when the second one asked, ‘How are you?’ I wanted to holler back, ‘Oh, I’m fine, thank you!’”

We both laughed out loud. 

“Well, shoot, I was thinking about driving through the Ag Center but I guess I’ve got to turn on Harding.  Don’t know what I was thinking about,” I said.

“I just love that place,” Mom said.

“The Ag Center?”

“Yes.  It’s so pretty over there,” she said.

“Well, we’ll just drive through there then,” I said.

“Isn’t it out of your way?” she asked.

“A little, but so what?  We’ve got time,” I said.

“Oh, boy,” she said.

“Now isn’t this just beautiful?” she asked as we started up the hill on the south side of the Tennessee Agricultural Center. 

“It is,” I answered.  “Wish we had been able to come over for the Molasses Festival.”

“Well, next year,” Mom said.  “Your knees are bothering you, aren’t they?”

“Yeah.”

“You’ve been limping,” she said.

“Well, I walked three miles this morning and then we did water class and then we hiked at St. Thomas.  That hot tub sure felt good, didn’t it?”

“I love it,” she said.  “You know, we’re going to have to go get our eggnog ice cream at some point.”

Mom loves my tradition of going to Baskin Robbins that one time a year, just before Christmas, for a single scoop of the seasonal treat.

“Yes, we are.  But I can’t afford the calories today, Ma.”

“Me either,” she said.

“I know!  –Would you like to have a decaf latte?” I asked.

“Sure.  Where are we going to get it?”

“At Starbucks.  It’s just down Edmondson Pike, you know, from the ag center entrance.  They have this pumpkin spice one, and this cinnamon one, too, and I think you can get both of those sugar-free.”

“Okay.  Sounds good to me,” she said.

“Look. They left us a parking space.  You want to come in with me?”

“If you want me to.  I’ve never been inside a Starbucks.  I’ll get us a seat and you just order, okay?”  She sat down at the nearest table.

“Would you like a cookie or something?” I asked.

“I don’t know what they have…”

“Well, come on up and look.”  I pointed out her favorite flavors.

“Let’s split that pumpkin scone.” She was grinning big.

“And let’s sit outside,” I said.  “You go get the table, okay?  And I’ll bring out our treats.”

“This is nice,” she said.  “Don’t we have a good time together?”

“We do.”

“This is good,” she said.

“The scone or the latte?”

“Both.  I’m glad we don’t have problems.”

“Me, too.  –I love Starbucks,” I said.

“We just do all sorts of things together.”

“It’s a gorgeous day, isn’t it, Ma?”

“Sure is.  We won’t get too many more of these days.”

“No, we sure won’t.”

***

A mangy fox…

We noticed the mange several weeks ago but, at the time, just didn’t recognize what it was.   I saw the foot-long white strip stretching down his left side as he ran through the back yard; I foolishly concluded that this was a very old fox.   Within just a few days, the white had covered his backside. 

“Dave,” I said to my husband, “You know that weird fox with the white I told you about?  That’s mange!  Remember we read they’re prone to mange?” 

We read up on mange in fox populations.  “What do we do now?” we asked each other.

It turns out that the average Joe Blow can treat the mange in a wild fox population.  It’s iffy.  It’s dicey.  It’s not quick.  It’s not even sure.  But if Joe can do it, so can Dave and Dinah. 

We were to buy a bottle of Ivermectin, an injectable medication to be used “in swine.”   Why don’t they just say “pigs?”  Now don’t go conjuring up images of Dave holding down a fox while I give him a shot–No, the idea is that you take a syringe and draw up the Ivermectin from the bottle and then you shoot it into some fox-worthy food.  You set up a feeding station and feed the fox Ivermectin-laced dog food, or hot dogs, or cooked chicken every three days. 

Mangy foxes tend to get closer to humans and the buildings that humans live in. The mangy fox also hangs around in the daytime, which is unusual for the nocturnal animals.  I need to talk to whoever wrote that article because he obviously does not know our foxes here on the ravine.  Our foxes are unafraid to sprint across the back yard or trot across the street when the sun is out.  This spring, Mama Fox brought all the babies out to play every day about 10 AM.  Mangy foxes seek shelter and warmth and easy food supply.  This daytime proximity provides a good chance to target the sick fox because, after all, you’re not really sure that the fox is going to get the medicine if you don’t see him eat the treated food.   

Once we committed by buying the Ivermectin, we were in for the long haul.  Let me describe the setbacks.   Let’s start with buying the Ivermectin.  After all, that’s when the first obstacle appeared.

There’s a coop in Franklin.  There’s a TSC in Franklin.  There are two TSC’s in Murfreesboro.  So I could order from the internet or I could drive a few miles to the nearest farm supply store. 

I met my friend Peggy at the TSC on the south side of Murfreesboro at 8 AM.  We were off to our writers group meeting at 9:30 that morning and, since she raised Sussex Spaniels and assorted other mammals for years and years, Peggy was familiar with both the drug and the store.  She thought I needed help and I was sure I needed help.

“No,” the clerk told us, “We’re out of the 0.27 percent for pigs and it looks like we’re discontinuing it.  We do have the 1 percent for cattle and horses.” 

“Oh dear,” I said, “I think I better get the 0.27 percent.  I only have to draw up 5 millimeters for each dose and I’m not sure I could draw up such a tiny amount to compensate for that larger concentration…”

“We have another store on the other side of town.  Would you like me to call over there and see if they have it?”

“That would be great.  I’m going that direction.”  Peggy had told me that there was another store on the other side of Lou’s house, where we were headed for our meeting.  The other store had one bottle and they had reserved it for me.

“Follow me,” Peggy said as we hit the parking lot.   When I started discussing the merits of following versus riding with her, she took charge.  “No, just get in the car with me.  We’re wasting time …”

“I’ll call Lou and tell her we’re going to be late,” I said. 

The bottle of medicine was at the cash register.  The clerk asked me if I had a syringe.  I told him I kept a supply as we give Murphy (the Shih-tzu) an allergy shot every Sunday night.  He said he was just going to say that I could pick up a syringe at any pharmacy since I was in a hurry. 

I found out, on the first try, that Murphy’s syringes were too small to draw up the thick Ivermectin.

I stopped by Walgreens – on my next trip out of the house – to pick up prescriptions and, as the assistant asked, “You want this on your Express Pay?”, said I was going to need a “syringe with a big fat needle like for penicillin.”

“What are you going to use it for?” she asked.

“ Ivermectin,” I said.  “For foxes.”

“You’re going to give a fox a shot.” 

“No,” I said.  “You put it in their food.” 

“You’ll need to bring in your medicine and let us look at it, okay?” she said.

I nodded.  “The stuff is very thick,” I started to explain.

She interrupted me gently.  “But we can’t sell you a syringe without knowing, um, what, um…”

“Ahhhhhhh.  What I’m going to do with it.  I mean, you need to be sure….”

“Right.”

“Okay.  Okay.  I see.” 

The medicine was in the van but so was my dad and he was hungry for lunch.  I had agreed to make a Walmart run with Mom later anyway so we headed for home.

After lunch, Mom and I met at the van.  I figured I’d just take the Ivermectin in to the Walmart pharmacist.  No need to make a second trip to Walgreens. 

“This is Ivermectin,” I said to the Walmart pharmacy assistant. “I need a syringe with a needle big enough to get this stuff out in order to shoot it onto dog food.”

“Is that an injectable?” she asked as she took the bottle.  “Can you take the top off?” she asked and handed it back.

“Well,” I said, “I’ve tried.  See if you can do it.”

She took the bottle, twisted the neck and called for the pharmacist. 

“Did they not sell you a syringe to go with it?” he asked, turning – and turning – the cap.

“I was in a hurry and I thought I could get one later.  Actually, I thought one that I have for our dog might work but this stuff is too thick.  – You can’t get it off, either?”

 “I can’t see how you get it off.  I’ve never seen this before.  Where are the instructions?”

“They’re in the box but the sheet only tells about the medicine itself.  Doesn’t say a thing about how to get the lid off.”  (I was NOT going to the van to get the piece of paper with the four-point font which had already half-blinded me.)

“I can’t do it,” he said.  “Rick, come here a minute.  Have you ever seen this?”

Rick, the second pharmacist, took the bottle.  He thumped it, he twisted the lid, he shook it.  “I think you should take it back to the store.  They should be able to help you.”

The pharmacy assistant had been standing by quietly to the side of her two bosses.  The first three people in the line behind me had staggered themselves to better watch the drama.   “So do you still want these syringes?” the assistant asked.

“Yes,” I said, and swiped my card and signed the ticket for $2.78. 

I’m sure I heard the man in second position utter, “Finally,”  just as my cell phone rang. 

“I’m finished shopping,” Mom said.  “Are you ready to go?  I’ll be waiting on this bench right inside the door.”

“I’ll only be a minute.  I have to get the canned dog food,” I answered.  I headed for the grocery section on the opposite side of the superstore.

Back in the van, nine heavy bags of groceries loaded (only one of them mine), I said to Mom, “We’re going to have to go to Brentwood to see the vet.  Nobody can get the top off this bottle.”

“Oh, that’s fine.  I’m not in a hurry.  But I have ice cream.” 

“Did you put it in an insulated bag?” I asked.

“No, but it’s down in there between some other cold stuff.  It’ll be okay,” she said.  “Can’t believe I had eight bags.  I didn’t think I had to get much.”

I explained the problem to Wendy, Dr. Sullivan’s assistant.    Wendy is always helpful.

“He’s on the phone.  But let me try it,” Wendy said.

And then, after her brief turn at fiddling with the bottle cap, she laid it down on the counter and said, “He’ll be off the phone in a minute.”

Dr. Sullivan has been our vet for fourteen years.  He’s a cheerful man.

“Hmmmmmmm.  This is for one of those automatic syringe systems.  I don’t know if I can help you.  Now we keep Ivermectin here, of course, but we buy the small vials of 1%.  That’s what we use.  … Now how did they get this on here?  I can feel the rubber underneath this cap so I know you’re supposed to take the cap off…” 

“Maybe I should just go back to TSC,” I said as Dr. Sullivan handed the bottle to me.  “Maybe there’s something wrong with this bottle cap.”

“Yeah… unless… Hey, let me see if one of the large animal guys is in the office over in Nolensville.  He’ll know this stuff.  If I can’t describe it to him, we’ll just scan the bottle and send him a picture!”  Dr. Sullivan was downright pleased with himself – and I was, too.  “Let me see that thing again.” 

And, as he took the bottle from me, he pushed on the side of the cap and it shot across the front desk.  Wendy dodged.

“You almost got me!” she said.

“How did you do that?”  I asked.

“I don’t know – but it’s off!” he said.  “I’m so glad I could help you.”

We all laughed and I picked up my keys from the counter and put the medicine in my purse.

“Oh yeah, another question.    What happens if a neighborhood cat or dog gets this Ivermectin?  We have this feral cat.  And some raccoons.”

“Well.”  Dr. Sullivan paused and leaned on the counter.  “They won’t have mange.”

I thanked him, thanked Wendy, and left, almost skipping out to the handicapped parking space where I had left Mom parked in the van with a window rolled down. 

“Can we go home now?” Mom asked.  “I need to get that ice cream in the freezer.”

“Sure.  And I can feed those foxes some Ivermectin,” I said.

Treet, the poor man’s Spam.  I would have bought dog food, intended to buy canned dog food, but I looked for it in groceries at Walmart and the dog food was in pet supplies which was on the far side of the superstore – right next to the pharmacy that I had just left.  Treet.  Foxes like Treet, I convinced myself.   And it’s probably as cheap as dog food.

The new syringes didn’t work any better than what I already had, but I pulled and cajoled and, ever so slowly, drew up 5 ml of the thick liquid and shot it into some Treet. 

I mixed a few spoonfuls of treated Treet with a slice of stale bread and old chicken from the freezer and covered it with some canned beef gravy.  I wondered if I should have warmed the gravy. 

Our calico mama feral cat didn’t care whether the food was heated or not.  Neither did two fat raccoons.  I didn’t see a fox.

“I thought you were supposed to only give the medicine to them every three days,” Dave said as I wielded a skinny needle again the next evening. 

“What he said was if you know for sure that the fox is eating it, then you only have to give it every three days.  Otherwise, you have to put some in all the food you give them,” I said.

“I thought you were going to get some bigger needles,” he said.

“I am.  I’ll stop by Walgreens tomorrow morning.  Walmart said those were the biggest ones they had.”

There was a different pharmacist at Walgreens on Thursday.  I brandished the big bottle of Ivermectin. 

“Ohhhhh,” he said, “That’s going to take a penicillin needle.”

“Yes,” I said quickly, “That’s exactly what I need!” 

“We don’t have any.”

I gave him my blankest stare.

“Think about it – who gives themselves a penicillin shot?” he asked.

I sighed.  Just a small one, though.  “Oh.  What do you think I should do?”  I asked.

“If I were doing it, I think I’d just break the top off the plastic bottle and pour it all into another bottle and use a medicine dropper.  I mean, you’re not going to inject it, you said, right?”  He reached behind him and handed me a big brown plastic bottle and a medicine dropper for infants.

“Great,” I said.  “Thanks.” 

“No problem,” he answered over his shoulder as I stood at the counter waiting to pay.

“There’s no charge,” he added. 

“Well, well … thank you,” I said and left the store. 

I just couldn’t break the top off the bottle.  What if I did contaminate the stuff?  What if it ruined in the brown plastic bottle and I didn’t know it and I fed it to the foxes and the cat and the raccoons and they all died?  What if I spilled it?  How much sanitizing would I need to do to that medicine dropper in-between applications?  No.  I just couldn’t do it that way. 

Saturday night, I would go to book club in Murfreesboro. 

“Dave,” I said at breakfast, “I’m going to go to book club early.  Peggy and I are meeting at Starbucks at four to visit and before that I’ll make a swing by TSC to get a needle for this Ivermectin.” 

“Oh, that reminds me, your dad said the fox was out at the compost bin yesterday and they gave him some bread.  I told him you’d give him some treated meat to put with anything they give him to eat.”

“Good idea.  We’ve got to get that medicine in him some way.”

“So do we have some leftovers?” he asked.

“Yeah, but I’ll put the Ivermectin into that Treet I bought.  I’ll fix some up and you can take it over to Mom and Dad and they can keep some in the refrigerator.  You know, I need to shoot up some wieners with Ivermectin for Don to use, too.”  (Don, our neighbor, likes to throw out treats of cut up hot dogs.  This may as well be a community project.)

Dave changed my course.  “I mean ‘leftovers for me.’  I have to plan my dinner, you know.  You are eating dinner at book club, right?  Don’t you have to take something?  What are you taking?”

“Olive salad and pita bread.”

“What else is in the refrigerator?  Maybe I’ll just have a hot dog.”

“Oh yeah,” the young clerk at TSC said when I showed her my biggest syringe, “You need a small syringe and a big needle.  There’s no way you can draw up that stuff with something that tiny.” 

She mixed and matched the plastic syringes and the needles, weeding out the packages that had been opened. 

“Looks like you have a problem with people opening these packages,” I said.

“Yeah, this aisle is a constant challenge,” she answered and handed me a bag of syringes and a bag of needles.

“This should work fine,” she said.  “And if it doesn’t, just bring them back and I’ll trade them out for something that will.” 

I said “Thanks,” but I really wanted to tell her, “This better work.” 

Sarcoptic mange, in the last stages, is fatal.  The animal’s immune system is compromised and internal parasites begin to take over and absorb any nutrients that the fox may find.  Mangy foxes are usually starving in the last stages.  Sometimes, because of the fur loss and the infected skin, the fox will die of hypothermia.  If the weather is unusually hot and the fox can’t find good shelter, he might die of hyperthermia.

“Grammy, what is that for?”  Jameson, my six-year-old grandson pointed to the Ivermectin bottle on the shelf in my office. 

“It’s medicine for the mangy fox,” I answered.

“Is he all better now?” Jameson asked.

“I don’t think he is,” I answered.

“Did you see him yesterday?” he asked.

“No.  I saw him last week.  I’ve only seen him one time since we bought the medicine.  I’m afraid we’re going to lose him.” 

“Well, Grammy, how about the other foxes?  Are you going to give them the medicine?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“For how long?”

“Well, for a long time.   Maybe forever,” I answered.

“Hm.  I hope it works.  They look like little red dogs,” Jameson said.

***

In The Cellar With Dad

Yesterday, I wondered if we would have an autumn this year.  Today, almost suddenly, there is a shower of golden leaves outside my window.  They drift and saunter and lollygag; then the wind kicks up and they whirl and spin and drive to the ground.  It’s going to rain.  Rain!  After weeks of draught, a thousand gallons of city water for the roses, and ground so hard it takes a pick-axe to pull a weed, it’s raining. 

Dad told me last night, “This is just what we’ve been waiting for.”

Last week, Dad knocked on The Cellar door.  (I was writing.) 

“Come on in, Dad.  Sit a spell.”

“I ain’t gonna sit down unless you give me a drink.”

“Well, hold on.  I happen to have a little bourbon in this refrigerator.  Here it is.”

He chose a spot on the couch and put on his serious face.  “I wanted to talk to you about your roses.  Well, actually, there’s a few things.”

I nodded.  I poured myself one, too, and sat down in my desk chair and opened the bottom drawer and propped my feet.

“I think your soaker hose needs to be re-done and I know how to do it.   That little ditch needs to go all around the rose bed and the dirt needs to be piled up on top.  They do that all the time like where you see commercial landscaping.”

“You’re talking about a berm.”

“Is that what you call it?  Okay.  Berm.”

“Well, go to it.  Just don’t pile any dirt up around my roses.  That crown of the rose needs to be where I’ve planted it.  You know, it’s almost time to winterize those things.  I’ve got to read up again.”

“Okay, well, here’s my list.”  He counted on big thick fingers on a weathered palm.  Number one was his little finger.  “First, do that berm thing on the roses and re-do the soaker hose.  Then, that ground out front is hard as rock.  What happened is they dug that up and you planted it when it was wet.  It didn’t get a chance to lay there.  It’s got to be loosened up.  So I need to take up those small plants – leave the bushes alone – and put some loose, good dirt and peat moss and compost and work it in.  Then I can put those little plants back down.  And, third, I’m going to turn that ground for my garden.”

“Go to it.  Fine with me.  But you better not disturb my rose roots.  These roses have been the best I’ve ever had.”

He mocked me with his bitchy-woman voice.  “I’m not going to ruin your roses, Sis-Puss.”

He thought of something else.  “I can’t dig out front until it rains.  I’m going to rent that big garden tiller with the tines behind it from down at that rental place – $75 for four hours or $50 for three hours – and I can do the front and my garden while I’ve got it.”

 “Dad,” I said, “We can soak that ground down.  Water it good for two or three days and you’ll be able to dig.”

“Nooooooooo,” he said.  “No need to water except in an emergency.  We’ll just wait ‘til it rains.  You can go ahead and get the mulch, though.  Want me to go with you in the truck?”

“I don’t know exactly when I’m going yet,” I said.

“Well, you just get whatever you think, and I’ll spread it.  And I’ll unload it, too,” he said.

“Okay, I really do need to read up on winterizing roses.  I forget every year how to do it and have to read all over again.”

“What did we do last year?” he asked.

“Well, now, the rose bed wasn’t there.  We just planted those this spring.  And the ones we brought over from the other house were heeled in down there on the bank.  Remember, we brought all that stuff over in November and put them in the ground and strawed them in?”

Pause.  Sigh.  “Dad, we’ve been here a year,” I said.

“Mom and I’ll be here a year in November,” Dad said.

“I get to thinking that we – I mean, Dave and I – should have been further along by now.  And yet…”

Dad arched his eyebrows, shook his head, and rattled the ice in his glass.  “Ah, Sis, just think of all we’ve done!  Look around you, girl.”

“That’s just what I was about to say, Daddy.  When I think that I should have been able to get more done, I look at the roses and the corner gardens and even the front…“

“Our vegetables…those vines all over your porch rails…your roses…”

“Morning glories and moonflowers.  I think I’ll plant those again next year,” I said.

“Oh, it’s pretty.  Beautiful place.  I never thought it would be this way.”

“It’s changed.  A whole lot,” I said.

 “I like to think I’ve helped.”

“Yeah, you’ve done pretty good for an old fart,” I told him.  “Give me that glass.  Mom’s going to be looking for you.”

Mustn’t get too serious.

***

Happy Birthday Happy Birthday Happy Birthday

Pausing in the work of digging…

My dad turned eighty-one on September 25.  Last year, Dad celebrated his eightieth with my brother’s family in Fernley, Nevada.  Denny and Bev had gifted Mom and Dad with a train trip across country to celebrate with the “Western” family; they arrived home just in time to pack a few “last boxes” and make the move from the farm to The Compound on the ravine.  So this year, Dave and I had planned a brunch, complete with the “Eastern” grand-kids, great grand-kids, and maybe a couple of old friends.   After all, we’re also coming upon the one-year birthday of communal living on the ravine; maybe this could be one of those dual-purpose, or multi-tasking, events.

The brunch never happened.  September turned out to be a problem month for The Compound’s primary caregivers.  We traveled too much – first Mom and I went to the Southeastern Women of the ELCA convention in Marietta, Georgia, then Dave and I flew to Las Vegas for the big meeting of the Deloitte Partners, Principals, and Directors.  Those trips came on the heels of the trip to California in August, which was preceded by the trip to South Dakota in July.  With that many hole-ups in airplanes, hotels and strange places, it was bound to happen – we both came down with a nasty respiratory virus on the tail-end of the Las Vegas jaunt.  Really nasty.

The first day we really did anything after days of fever, coughing, and brain fog was Saturday, September 25.  Dave was salivating to grill a chicken with a half-can of beer up its rear; he had clipped the recipe from a Men’s Health magazine he read on the trip out.  I stirred up a quick recipe of baked beans and a small bowl of coleslaw.  Mom and Dad were thrilled that they would join us for late lunch-early dinner.  We hadn’t been together in days.

Dave, could you get me a cake mix and a can of frosting?  I want to make a cake for Dad.  

I got an early start and I practiced intervals – cook for fifteen minutes, couch for twenty, repeat, repeat, repeat.  The beans went in the oven, the lightly-dressed cabbage found its place in the refrigerator, and the two-layer yellow cake with fudge frosting looked lovely on the crystal stand.  Mom and Dad sipped summer drinks in the den while Dave tended the roasting fowl. 

Smells so good.

I had just said “I think we’ll be able to eat in about twenty minutes” when the phone rang. 

Jade.  Elder son.  “Heyyyyyyy, how you doing?”

“We’re coming along.  We’re cooking a chicken on the grill.”

“We’ve been up to have lunch with Jerry Wong today.”

“Did you go to eat Chinese food?”

“Of course.  Anjie says tell you she could hardly eat – People were in there with no underwear.” 

“What?”

“Yeah, we actually went to the nicer one of the two Chinese restaurants and it was still awful.  Turned her stomach.” 

“Was this a man or a woman?”

“A  man.  Made her sick, you know, hanging out like that.”

“Oh dear lord.  Don’t tell me anything else.  We’re about to eat here in a few minutes.”

“I called Grandma and she didn’t answer.”

“That’s because they’re over here.  We’re having Grandpa’s birthday lunch.”

“That’s actually what I was calling about.  We want to stop by to bring Grandpa something for his birthday.”

“Well, come on.  You can eat with us – or if you don’t want to eat, you can have cake.  I baked him his favorite cake.”

Long pause.  “He’s going to have plenty of cake.”

“You’re bringing a cake?” 

“He told Anjie he wanted a yellow cake with chocolate frosting for his birthday and she told him she’d bake him one.”

“Well, bring it on!”

“And – well, there was some kind of mix-up with Jerry Wong.  When we called to ask him out to lunch, we told him that we’d have to leave by two because we needed to take Grandpa a cake.”

“Oh no.” 

“Yeah…so when we got there, he said, ‘Well, you don’t have to stop and get a cake for Grandpa because I got one.’”

“So you’re bringing a Walmart cake, too.”

“Yeah.”

I had set the table on the porch. 

Dave, this is about the best chicken I’ve ever eaten.  Oh, Diana, I’m so glad you made coleslaw.  No, we’re not going to eat but we’ll just sit out here on the porch with you and visit.  Yeah, maybe some cake – since you have plenty. 

We all dodged the hummingbirds whirring and chattering from one feeder to the other to the morning glory vines on the porch rails.  I forgot to bring out the ice cream I’d bought specifically for the birthday party but, hey,  I navigated the brain haze well enough to bring out dessert plates, forks, and napkins. 

“Okay, what are we going to do here?  We have yellow cake with homemade chocolate frosting – Oh I just love homemade frosting.  Mine’s not homemade; mine’s from a can.  Anjie, I can’t believe you made homemade frosting,” I said.

“First time, too.  I’m anxious to see if it was worth it.  I want a little of yours and a little of mine,” she said.

“I want some of both of them and don’t be too stingy,” Dad said.

“We don’t want to cut Jerry’s cake, do we?” I asked.

“Could put it in the freezer,” Anjie said.

“Didn’t you say you had a dinner at church tomorrow?” I asked.  “Maybe you could take it to share.”

“Now that’s what we’ll do,” Mom said.  Nobody asked Dad. 

Everybody had a little of both yellow cakes with chocolate frosting.  The men said they liked both of them and, to prove it, ate equal amounts of both.  Mom said Dad would eat the rest of both of them.  I asked Anjie if she didn’t think the homemade frosting was worth it, because I sure did.

She thought about her response, shrugged her shoulders, grinned, and said, “Yeah, it’s worth it.” 

“Definitely.”  Actually, I liked my cake better but her glossy dark frosting put my Pillsbury canned in its place.

Jade and Grandpa were engrossed in some sort of conversation about how churches can best support the community. 

Dave interrupted our cake talk to say, “Look at the fox.”

The young fox we’ve come to call Miss Prissy Fox eased around the compost bin and trotted to the garden on the opposite side of the back yard.  Miss Murphy Shih-tzu stuck her black nose through the white bottom rails of the porch to get a better look – but she didn’t bark.  Miss Prissy scratched the dirt in the garden and then made a dash for the center of the yard where she flopped in the grass and rolled for a minute, scratching first one side and then the other.  We all laughed out loud.  She sat up and made a lazy pass at scratching her left ear and then just looked around – at the yard, at the birds flying near the feeder, at us looking at her. 

“Well, she certainly seems very comfortable – not scared at all,” Anjie said.   “Jade, we better get going.”

Jade did not take the cue.  Instead, he returned to a previous statement.  “Grandpa, I think the United Methodists do a better job than any of the other churches at supporting Scouting.  Well, except for the Mormons.”  (Our Jade spent ten years in professional Boy Scout leadership.)

Anjie turned to me.  “How do you know it’s a female?  Or do you?”

“I don’t know.  Wouldn’t you think you could see his wee-wee if it’s a boy?”  I said.

Dave just shook his head. 

“And he’s not wearing underwear, either,” I added.

Anjie and I laughed and then she said, “Oh, God, that was just so gross.”

Several minutes later, all of us exhausted by Methodists, Mormons, Scouting, Habitat for Humanity, the Harlem Children’s Zone and Zuckerberg’s 100-million dollar donation to Newark City Schools, the party ended.  Dad collected big hugs from Jade and Anjie and told them how glad he was that they came to his birthday. 

Dave had just pushed the “Start” button on the first dishwasher load when Dad and Mom started down the hallway for home, each carrying a cane in one hand and a cake in the other.  Dad turned around. 

“This was the best birthday party I’ve ever had.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Shoot, yeah.  It would have to be – I got three cakes!”  Then he laughed out loud as he continued down the hall behind Mom.

“I’ll bring the other one over tomorrow morning,” I called after him.

***

With the Grillos

We’re away from the ravine again.  We’re staying somewhere very close to Santa Cruz, California.  Our friends, the Grillos, live in a fantasy place that they call Aptos Hills.  Somewhere close by is Aptos, a very fashionable and quaint little village and somewhere else are the Santa Cruz hills and even a little bit further down the road is the City of Santa Cruz.   There’s Capitola-by-the-Sea and Watsonville where there are lots of strawberries and a bunch of artichokes and then, on down and around the bay, there is Monterey. 

Dave and I love Aptos Hills.  The ocean is never far away.  The weather is moderate; almost anything pretty grows here without much effort, it seems.  The Farmers’ Markets are treasure-rows of fruits, vegetables, nuts, plants, honey, flowers and handmade items ranging from hand-woven wool to utility items like knives and dish drains.  Saturday morning we bought peaches, green peppers, and almonds.  We tasted the sauerkraut but decided to wait and buy a jar at a local market. 

The Grillo casa is nothing but beautiful, with a back yard full of apples, pears, berries, and lemons.  During the ten years our friends have owned the home, they’ve peformed miraculous upgrades and improvements.   The kitchen re-modeling included granite countertops and an etched-glass breakfast bar.  The living room/dining room makeover featured a massive handmade buffet and new neutrals in the living room – neutral except for, of course, the hydrangea-print chair, the one I always choose to sit my Southern bottom in. 

Every time we arrive for another visit, there’s something marvelously changed. This time, it was the grounds.  But what always makes our visits with the Grillos is not the weather, not the shopping, not the beach.  There are two things:  food and talk.  They’re the same two ingredients that make the Grillos’ visits with us in Tennessee, too.  Doesn’t matter who cooks, it’s always good.  Doesn’t matter what we talk about, it’s always better.

Food.  Just off the plane, Mrs. Grillo served up two hot soups, split-pea and chicken tortilla, both her specialties.  Our high school reunion in Pittsburg featured real Mexican stuff from the New Mecca Cafe, a well-known culinary treat in Pittsburg for over seventy-five years.  On Sunday, we ate hotdogs at the A’s game so Mrs. Grillo fed us grilled chicken salad – Not just any salad, but a big garlic-rubbed wooden bowl of greens, beets, purple onions, carrots, warm sliced chicken, crumbled bleu cheese and a finish of some old balsamic vinegar and good olive oil.   So far, on these weekdays, we’ve eaten at Phil’s Fish Market where the specialty is that pungent and brothy Italian seafood soup called cioppino, the famous Cliff House in San Francisco – where we loaded ourselves with sourdough and popovers, crab, and more fresh greens, and, yesterday, fish tacos at Olita’s on the Wharf in Santa Cruz.   For supper?  Fresh Bavarian sausages and locally-cured sauerkraut and corn-on-the-cob.

Let’s not forget breakfasts:  whole-wheat biscuits, eggs fresh from Glaum’s Egg Ranch, fruit salad, bacon, fried apples from the trees in the back (my Southern addition with lots of butter and sugar).  We cook – and we eat.  We should all be regular listeners to that NPR program “The Spendid Table.”  Lynne Rossetto Kasper always tags the introduction with “for people who like to eat.”   

Talk.   While we cook, and while we eat, we talk.  We even talk when we’re not cooking or eating.  Oh, we cover the usual for two couples with grandchildren.  Kids – four between them and three between us, grandkids – five and 3/4 for them and four for us with some great possibilities for more, jobs – Alex is a research physicist on the ATLAS project headquarted in Cern (you know, the Large Hadron Collider – think “Angels and Demons”), no jobs – Dave and Jean are really retired from real jobs, retirement, “going to retire” (I’ve “retired” several times), the 60’s (“if you remember the 60’s, you weren’t really there), a touch on the 50’s (Dave saw Buddy Holly and all the rest in Hot Springs, South Dakota),  home repairs and renovations completed, repairs that need to be done, repairs here vs. there, new landscaping, garden projects that need to be done, plants that grow here vs. there, laundry – and new laundry appliances, travel, weather.  But we cover some BIG topics, too – public schools vs. charter schools, mathematics (J’s job was a math coach for elementary teachers), the operations and theory of that collider at Cern (Dave and I don’t have a clue), immigration (there are some differences between California and Tennessee), home sales (we have a beautiful one for a reasonable price if you’re looking), the tax code (Dave=the Deloitte tax partner), government and politics, Obama, The Gubernator, the New Orleans Chief of Police (who was ours until N.O. stole him away). 

Just now, and just for a few minutes, here’s how the thread ran:

You know the thing that’s different about your hummingbirds?  So who votes for eggs?  I don’t like that all that sheetrock dust is flying around in their dining room.  They light on the feeder and drink for a long while – I mean, at least one of them does.  These apples are really good.  No, that wasn’t real Mecca food.  Maybe I’ll just fry up some apples and put whipped cream on them.  Ours never light for long.  Did you know that Willia WAS at the reunion?  Maybe it’s because the perch gets too hot.  Yeah, the brown sugar and cinnamon helped.  Walnuts, too.  Lots of fog. Yeah.  I really don’t know what they expect Obama to do if they won’t do it with him.   We really need to eat some lunch before the play.  I heard something dripping and thought your roof was leaking.  Well, even the Liberals are being bad.  There are so many flowers I’m surprised they’re at the feeder.  I just hated Nixon.  They’re disappointed.   You voted for George McGovern? -That surprises me.  We still have a bunch of that tortilla soup.  I’ve acquired a bit of sympathy for Nixon.  Her laptop weighs a ton.  I don’t think he’s been any worse than most of the rest.  Are we going to pick apples today?  Did you take your morning pills?  Next time you need to go Mac.  I need a sympathy card.  These things are two days old and taste pretty good.  I smell fish.  It’s because of the sugar.  Well, yeah, there was Reagan selling arms…    No, I’m talking about the popovers.  There’s no fish.  A guy can’t be President without some distance from reality.  That’s a native mint plant.  I have these other cards, too.  See my little oak tree?  Can we stop at Surf City? We’re out of coffee at home.  You should see Alex’s email.  You can’t call it the SuperCollider; that was in Texas.  Because I like to hold a book in my hands.  Why not olive oil?  You’ll smell fish when I heat up that leftover cioppino.  He didn’t want her to tell about the illegal substances.  I’m going to go download all those pictures.  I don’t know why it’s drooping – I watered it.  Did you call your mother?  Why wouldn’t you be cheered up looking at that every morning?  New dishtowels – these are wet.  No, I was not talking about cooking.  How do you know how firm it is if you can’t see the sleep number?  Why were you taking a picture of Alex’s foot?  She said she saw the fox yesterday.

Friends.  Friends with a lot of history.

None of it has to be coherent; it still makes perfectly good sense.

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