Lift the Flap

My mother sits at the kitchen table, her purple bathrobe loose around her thin body. She covers her face with her hands.

I drop to my knees beside her chair and look up at her. I am like a baby bird, waiting to be fed my mother’s wisdom and understanding and love.

She drops her hands to settle in her lap, her fingers interlocking, but she doesn’t look at me. “I can’t tell her. You’ll have to.”

“But why?” I whisper, shame coloring my fair skin pink.

My mother shakes her head, closing her eyes, and I know she is remembering another moment spent in this very kitchen when she was much younger, seventeen years younger in fact. But she has misunderstood my question. I’m not asking why I have to tell my grandmother or why my mother can’t tell her for me. “Why tell her anything?”

My mother stands up and grabs my hands. I am surprised to feel her hands are as icy as mine are hot. “Hush, now,” she says, pulling me to my feet. With a quick squeeze of my hands, she releases me, moving over to the counter where her purse rests. She hands me five dollars. “Get the donuts.”

I nod, recognizing the urgency in her voice even if I do not completely understand it. I admit I am surprised by the request. The doctors have counseled my mother on limiting my grandmother’s sugar intake and my mother, “the Sugar Nazi” as my grandmother calls her behind her back, has taken their advice seriously. As I hurry out of the house, she calls after me, “The white kind!”

I set a fast pace despite the summer heat and while I walk, I think of what I will say to Grandmother Rue when I return from the bakery on the corner. I should keep it simple. State the facts and wait for her reaction. But what will her reaction be? She is so old, her joints stiff with arthritis, her eyes nearly blind. We don’t really expect her to live much longer, which is why I don’t want to tell her. And which is why my mother’s desperate call for donuts is so frightening.

When I return, I do not enter the house right away. Instead, I pause and peek in the kitchen window. I see my mother, sitting at the table. She has changed into a dress, the cotton material decadent in blue Hydrangeas. It is my grandmother’s favorite dress, the color blue matches her eyes, which are the same color as my mother’s eyes, the same color as my eyes. My grandmother sits across from her, her back to me. She is wearing men’s striped pajamas and a white ushanka, the thick sheepskin and ear flaps a perfect hat for frigid Russian winters, but a conundrum in this summer heat. I know there is a story behind the hat (she wears it everywhere and in every season), but she does not share the details, only corrects my mispronunciation of ushanka. I once thought something was wrong with her hair and perhaps that was the cause of her attachment to the hat, but I was wrong because the one place she takes it off is at the beauty parlor. This perplexes the stylist, a woman named Jan, who spends an hour getting grandmother’s hair set with perfect finger-curls only to watch them be crushed, hidden beneath that inappropriate hat before Grandmother Rue thanks her formally and walks out the door.

My mother spots me looking in the window and leaps up. When I walk in the back door, she grabs the box of powdered sugar donuts out of my hands. She won’t meet my eyes and I realize that she is just as afraid to hear my truth as I am to speak it.

Quickly, she places two donuts on a chipped plate with pale blue flowers adorning the rim. It is a plate from my grandmother’s days as a young bride and is chosen to make my grandmother happy, much like my mother’s pretty dress. But the plate just seems like a sad reminder of happier times and I wish my mother had not chosen it. She hands the plate to me and nods once. It is her signal to me to speak and get it over with.

“Hello, Grandmother Rue,” I say, setting the plate down in front of the old woman. I feel a trickle of sweat slide down between my breasts from my fast walk to the bakery.

Grandmother Rue doesn’t even look at me. She reaches quickly for the unexpected treat before my mother can change her mind and take the plate away.  She lifts one donut to her mouth and takes a bite.

I pull out a chair and sit next to her. “How are you feeling today?”

She remains silent, quickly finishing the first donut and moving on to the second.

I take a deep breath. I need to tell her of my shame before she finishes her last donut. “Grandmother Rue…my father…well, he—“

My mother suddenly lunges forward, placing her hand on my shoulder. “Lift the flap.”

I frown, wondering what kind of code she is speaking in.

“She can’t hear you. Lift one of the flaps.”

I swallow the saliva that seems to be collecting in my mouth before reaching over and lifting the soft flap that covers her ear.  I lean in as if I’m sharing a secret. “I’m pregnant,” I say.

Grandmother Rue looks up from her donut, her lips coated white with powdered sugar. She needlessly straightens her ushanka and then turns her attention to my mother for confirmation I think, but no, she points her finger and says in a matter-of-fact voice, “This is your fault. Now she’s got his devil-child.”

My mother flushes and begins to weep. She believes Grandmother Rue is right, that she is to blame. I remain in my chair and watch as my grandmother licks her finger and then runs it over the plate, picking up the loose sugar from her donuts before sucking her finger, greedy for the sweetness.

This scene was written for the Scriptic prompt exchange. My prompt of “Lift the flap” came from SAM.  Cheney ended up with my prompt suggestion of “a black and white photograph, the edges curled and yellowed, found in an old, empty Folgers coffee can.”

Some of you may remember Grandmother Rue from another prompt challenge I was a part of this past week. I’m not sure if she and her daughter and granddaughter will turn up in anything else I write, but I couldn’t let them go just yet.

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June Camp NaNoWriMo Stats

Well, the June camp of NaNoWriMo is officially over and I failed to reach my goal. Yes, we had family visit and we took a mini-vacation and I have three kids and my husband did not travel like he normally does, but those are just excuses because in the end I still failed. I started out strong and I got close to reaching 50,000 words. (I must’ve been in Never Never Land when I suggested trying for 75,000 words!)

I wrote a total of 43,623 words, falling short by 6,377. It is an accomplishment, of course, to go from zero words in May to over 40,000 by the end of June so I am happy with that. As far as what I wrote, well, I think I learned my lesson for having no plan. But within all of those words, two NEW novels broke out, not that I need any new projects to work on!

The Power of a First Word

She sat in the dark, rocking the fussy child. She was so tired she didn’t remember climbing the stairs to answer the crying toddler’s wordless call for comfort. It had been a hard pregnancy, a hard birth, a hard year of transitioning from three children to four. And this child was proving to be hard in every stage.

The toddler placed her small hand on her mother’s cheek. “Mama.” And then she snuggled into her mother’s embrace and slept.

The simple word had been a breath, a murmur that had escaped much like a sigh, but it reverberated in her heart.

This post is in response to Velvet Verbosity‘s 100 word challenge using the word Murmur.

Bombshell by M-A-C

It was her one night out a month, a time to be with girlfriends, to leave husband and child to gorge themselves on frozen pizza and chocolate milk while she sipped French wine and talked shoes and upcoming vacations. Walking into the restaurant, heads turned and she couldn’t resist putting a bit of swagger into her normally reserved walk. Yes, she looked good, pretty even. She was wearing high heels, her favorite blouse, the one she never wore because of the “Dry Clean Only” on the tag. And no one had to know her lipstick was older than her preschooler.

This post is for Velvet Verbosity‘s 100 Word Challenge. The goal: to write exactly 100 words using the word of the week: swagger. I should also thank my friend Beth for inspiring me.

Keeping Score

“It was a nice service,” Peter said, pulling away from the curb. He glanced into the back seat at me, but his comment was meant for his mother sitting in the passenger seat.

“Except for that bum cozying up to Martha.” Louise frowned. “Here she is, burying her husband and she has to deal with that no-count grandson.”

“You know him?” Peter squinted, his sunglasses forgotten at home on the kitchen counter.

“I know plenty. I know he’s living out west, that he hardly ever calls. Martha practically raised that boy.”

“Maybe he’s busy with family, an 80-hour-a-week job.”

“Don’t be silly, Peter.” She clucked her tongue. “He needs to go back where he came from. Leave her to the grieving.”

“He came from here,” I pointed out.

“How many years has he stayed away?” Louise continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “Fine time to come back if you ask me.”

“He came to the funeral. Doesn’t that mean something?”

“The very least he should do, Darcy. Didn’t I say they raised him?”

Peter’s eyes met mine in the rearview mirror and I smiled, making a slash in the air as if marking on a tally. Peter’s mother usually ignored me, pretending I was invisible so it was fun for me to make her acknowledge my presence.

Peter changed the subject. “We should invite Julia over for dinner while she’s in town.”

I didn’t answer, thinking about how my best friend from high school still had a crush on my husband.

“What?” He turned down the radio.

“Julia still has a crush on you.”

He snorted. “I’m small potatoes compared to the guys she dates in New York.”

“I always liked that girl,” Louise said, reaching over to pat her son’s leg. “Such a sweet thing. And pretty!”

“She sleeps around,” I said, guessing she might.

“You’re such a gossip, Darcy.”

That was two I thought, keeping score, smug with satisfaction. This time Peter kept his eyes on the road.

 

This writing exercise was for Trifecta’s Week Thirty-Three Challenge (second prompt): Write a 33-333 word response using the third definition of the word score (an account or reckoning originally kept by making marks on a tally).

What I Tell You Three Times Is True

I slip into the stairwell of the derelict hotel and begin to climb the five flights of stairs. My footsteps are steady, but my mind weaves erratically. I don’t want to think, but my mind won’t behave. At the first landing, I pause and breathe. I do not want to stop again.

When I reach the second landing, I think of my mother as a pretty teenager. Grandmother Rue looked up from her snap peas to study the boy dating her daughter and spit in the bushes. “Nothing but trouble.”

By the third landing, I remember the story of my mother treating Grandmother Rue to donuts, hoping to sweeten her up before confessing her unplanned pregnancy. Grandmother Rue, unaware of the powdered sugar lining her upper lip, shook her head. “Nothing but trouble.” And then she bowed her head and prayed for the grandchild that would become me.

I continue to climb, unaware of passing the fourth landing, as I remember my mother crying at the kitchen table, a black eye and busted lip telling the story without her ever saying a word. “Nothing but trouble,” Grandmother Rue muttered as her arthritic hands pressed an ice pack to her daughter’s temple.

I begin to tire as I pass the fifth landing and I wonder if I beat the sun to the top. It is only when I reach the door to the roof that I hesitate. Even my mind stutters to a stop. But I only allow a few seconds to pass, to breathe deeply, and then I push open the door as the sky begins to lighten. I hurry to the edge, wanting to watch as the sun slowly reveals the town. Birds chirp hello, a car backfires good-bye. Grandmother Rue had a saying: three times and its true. My father is nothing but trouble, I agree, placing my hand on my belly where his baby grows. And then I jump, but I do not fly.

This writing exercise was for Trifecta’s Week Thirty-Three Challenge: Write a 33-333 word response to the following quote: “What I tell you three times is true” by Lewis Carroll. The actual quote does not have to be included.

Map Reading: An Acquired Skill

I know I’ve mentioned my love of chalkboards, but I also have a bit of love for maps. I love the look of maps, the soft colors of blue and green and yellow, but also the black and white antique maps and the bold colors often used on the USA map. And not just maps, but globes, too. I would love to have a variety of globes adorning the mantel one day.

But what fuels this love? Is it because I often dreamt of living in other places when I was a kid? Of expanding my horizons far past the little town I grew up in? Maybe. Or it could simply be an aesthetic one. Maps are pretty.

I can tell you it is not because I am an expert at reading maps. I am the person who decided that the best way to get to Texas from Maryland was not to consult a map, but to drive west and then eventually south, guessing I’d see a sign that would direct me the further I got from Maryland and the closer I got to Texas. Luckily my mother intervened and forced a road atlas into my hands minutes before I hit the open road. (I say luckily because I did use the map to get me to my destination which the Adult Me recognizes as the best result, but really might have my plan worked also? The Free Spirit Me believes it might have made for a far more interesting trip!) Granted, I was 19 at the time, but I’m pretty sure that today if there was no Mapquest and I didn’t have a GPS in our car I would be more inclined to trust there would be signs and not consult a map.

I suppose I learned map reading skills sometime during my education, but somewhere between longitude and latitude and identifying countries in front of the entire classroom…well, it coincided with having to wear glasses and being embarrassed at wearing those awful brown glasses and so having no idea what was going on in the front of the classroom because I couldn’t see…well, you get the idea. I’m pretty sure I missed out on acquiring decent map reading skills out of vanity.

It was on one of my subsequent cross country trips when I was driving west with a friend of mine that I learned map reading was a skill. And I say that because I’d never given it a thought until that trip. I’d handed my friend the map and asked her to navigate and it stressed her out so much I had to pull over and give her a pep talk. She always referenced that trip, about how I helped her to see that she could, in fact, do something like read a map, which I guess had at one time been an issue in her childhood. My husband would probably think this is funny because I’m pretty quick to hand him the map or to call him for navigational advice!

What about you, dear Reader? Any life skills you’ve found yourself lacking as you navigate the bumpy road of adulthood?

Russian Prisons and Cannibalism

National Geographic recently broadcast a documentary, “Russia’s Toughest Prisons,” featuring three prisons: Prison Camp 17 in Siberia where the temps reach 50 below and it takes three days for visitors to reach the camp; Vladimir Central, where Stalin’s son was imprisoned; and the prison I found the most fascinating: the Black Dolphin, which is quite different from American prisons, at least from other documentaries I’ve seen. Not having ever been incarcerated, nor having visited a maximum security prison, I could be mistaken. But prisoners here in the US seem to keep their swagger behind bars. They are relaxed, sauntering around in their orange jumpsuits, just kicking back, putting in their time and living day to day.

Within the Russian prison the Black Dolphin, the inmates do not saunter. They have no swagger. When they are out of their cell, they are bent at the waist, head down, arms handcuffed behind their back. When they are transported from one building to another, they are also blindfolded to ensure they do not get the layout of the prison, that they do not know where the guards are, or even how many guards there are watching over them. The Black Dolphin houses inmates that are there for life, inmates that are convicted murderers, serial killers, cannibals, terrorists…

They interviewed an inmate convicted of murder and cannibalism. (Please note: if details make you squirm, skip to the next paragraph!) He’d been out drinking, gotten into a fight with a guy outside his apartment building and killed him. So he dragged him into the bathroom and cut him up. And then he just thought he’d try it so he boiled a piece of the guy’s thigh. He didn’t like it so he fried it. And then he gave some of the meat to his friend and told him it was kangaroo because they don’t have kangaroo there. The friend took it home and his wife made dumplings with it and fed it to her children. This is how he talked in the interview: simply stating the facts without much emotion. His conviction is for two murders (and cannibalism), but I’m not sure where the second murder fits in to the above story.

What I can’t get out of my head is the family he considered his friends. What was their friendship like? Did he (Vladimir is his name) and the father work together? Perhaps the friendship started when they were boys, growing up in the same neighborhood, riding bikes, teasing girls. Why had he done this to his friend? Could Vladimir have been mad at the friend because he’d lost a bet or a card game and the friend had teased him about it? Was it revenge? What was the friend’s (and his family’s) reaction when they found out Vladimir had killed his neighbor? Were they surprised he could be violent? Did they nod their heads in understanding, remembering the time he’d gotten drunk at the husband’s 21st birthday party and broken some furniture?

And then what was their reaction when they found out Vladimir had tricked them, involving them in his crime? Does it haunt the mother at night? Does she sometimes find herself unable to eat, the memory of that meal causing her throat to close in disgust? Does she turn away from her husband, disappointed in him for exposing their family to such a sick person? Maybe the husband had been out of work for some time and putting food on the table was a hardship. Maybe they’d said extra prayers for their friend Vladimir, grateful for the gift of food, relieved that their children’s bellies would not growl for a couple of nights. And what about the kids? Were they old enough to read the papers, to learn of the details of Vladimir’s crime? Do they know? How has this changed them as a family?

It is details like this that fascinate me as a writer. I think it’s because it is the very opposite of me, that darkness that lurks in some people’s souls. I’m not saying I’m all rainbows and flowers and sunshine-y days, but my novels tend to explore the darker side of life. Currently I find myself juggling four books right now, all in varying stages of creative disarray, but maybe my fifth will be about a crazy Russian…Or maybe not. Cannibalism might even be too dark for me!

Down With E-Readers…?

Have you read Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story? It is a good book, certainly very smart, but I was mad reading it. Really. So mad, in fact, I contemplated not finishing it. But because I have a thing where I like to finish a book no matter what and yes, I know life’s too short and I’m too busy to spend time reading a book I dislike, but the writer did put their heart into it so I like to support them albeit anonymously in reading it cover to cover…There should be a support group for people like me, but I am getting better at putting a book aside if I hate it.

Anyway, I was mad while reading Shteyngart’s novel. And all because in the book people don’t read actual books anymore. They think books smell and only use technology to skim or speed-read through summaries of books. The main character has books, but he’s a bit embarrassed by them because it marks him as being weird, old, uncool.

But as I’ve thought about writing this post, and about how I would raise my fist and declare, “An E-Reader is Not for Me!” I’ve felt hesitation enter my heart. Are e-readers really so bad? Could I be wrong in my loyalty to the printed and bound books?

I love books, which I discuss in great detail here. So I’m just speechless that I’m not as anti-e-reader as I thought. I suppose it could be great carrying several books with you via an e-reader instead of the actual books. My bag is already pretty heavy as it is with diapers and wipes, sippy cups and snacks, Hot Wheels and crayons… and then there’s my stuff! And it would be nice to highlight favorite passages without marking the physical books up, since I’m such a nut about keeping my books in pristine shape. (I’m just assuming you can highlight with e-readers; I’ve never looked closely at one to see what it actually offers.)

I’m not prepared to make the switch right now, but I can no longer say I’ll never have an e-reader. Instead, maybe one day I’ll succumb to technology. Maybe.

What about you? Anyone else taking a stand against e-readers? Anyone recently succumb to the temptation and find themselves the proud owner of an e-reader? Leave me a comment and let me know your thoughts!

Chalkboards

I have always loved chalkboards. I love the feel of the chalk in my hand, the sound of chalk tapping against the chalkboard as letters, words, sentences appear on the black surface. I love the ease with which an eraser can wipe a chalkboard clean.

Perhaps I should’ve been a teacher.

My parents probably don’t remember my desire for my very own chalkboard. I doubt I asked very often, but it was there, that wish for one of my very own.

In California, I was friends with a guy named Dan. He was a very tall guy and he had three sisters – or maybe it was four – but all of the kids had names that began with the letter D. His childhood home had a pool and gorgeous views of Los Angeles. He lived in the guesthouse until he married a reporter, whose name escapes me right now, and they moved to an apartment in the Hollywood Hills.

But the reason I mention Dan and his family is because in the kitchen of his mother’s house, they had one narrow wall that from floor to ceiling was a chalkboard. And growing up, they all used it. His mother would write her grocery list on it; his dad would write info pertaining to his work on it; he and his sisters would draw on it or leave notes for each other or take phone messages… An entire chalkboard wall! I was completely fascinated.

Fast forward to me living in Wilmington, NC and working as a technical writer. I somehow managed to score a chalkboard from an old storeroom for my office. No one in the company understood my desire. Who uses chalkboards anymore?

I admit I rarely used it, but I loved it. And then when the company downsized, closing their Wilmington office and moving all work to their home base in Charlotte, my boss told me to take what I wanted – within reason of course, not the computers, printers, copiers. The Charlotte office had all they needed and so whatever the company couldn’t sell and the employees didn’t want, would be put in the dumpster.

The only thing I wanted was that chalkboard. (That and a couple of clipboards as I also have an odd, though lesser, love for them.)

Do you share my love of chalkboards? Or is there something you love that perplexes those who know you best? I’d love to hear about it!