Lillian

She stood in a patch of sun, away from the shrubbery and flower beds. Bare feet in the grass, eyes closed, and arms wrapped across her chest.

“Mom?”

“Not now.”

Lillian stood here every day that the sun shined, and always around noon. She stood to face the direction of her decreasing shadow and watched it move closer to her feet. Once it slipped under her, she closed her eyes and held herself.

It is a ritual of remembering – by gathering herself into the precious, private place of memory. Once her eyes closed, her mind opened a door to one, and only one, thing that had happened some time before.

It was a test of her recall and concentration abilities. It was a brief and deliberate attempt to stay in touch with the past while being firmly planted in the now.

Her memory for today had been carefully selected while eating breakfast in her room. It was a quick choice using very few words. Nothing more, so as not to spoil the story coming at mid-day.

These encounters with her past gave Lillian a place of belonging in the midst of adjusting to new surroundings.

What do they call these places anyway? Nursing Homes? Care Centers? Assisted Living Facilities? Whatever the name, it was now ‘home’ to Lillian. And it wasn’t so bad. She had a nice room, comfortable bed, recliner with a stack of books nearby, artwork on the walls, a television to remind her of the world beyond these walls and mattered little to Lillian. She kept it turned off and after a while, decided to hang a patchwork quilt over the dark hole it created at the foot of her bed.

Lillian’s clothes, towels and bed linens were changed and laundered weekly. The clothes were brought back to be hung and placed in drawers. She would have liked to iron them. It was the one chore she loved doing but was denied. Handling a hot iron was dangerous, an accident waiting to happen in the hands of the elderly. Still, she missed it.

And often after a staff member hung the clean clothes back on their hangers, smiled politely and left, Lillian would take them off the hangers one by one and lay each in turn on her table to smooth with gentle strokes of her palm before putting them back in the closet.

Maybe tomorrow if the sun was shining, she would remember the ironing. With all the irons and ironing boards she had used. How she started with the left front sleeve of a shirt to get it flat and move the iron over to the shoulder before flipping the shirt over to repeat on the right side. Oh! And locating the inseams of pants to match up with outer seams and holding them all together to work the iron from ankle to waist. Stop! Mustn’t use tomorrow’s memory up today. Todays has already been chosen.

And it would be spent with the dry red sands of the Australian outback and how it felt drifting through her fingers.

Lillian is there now as she holds herself and remembers. Remembers the bending down to put the vastness of the view out of sight and focus on her dust-covered shoes and what she was standing on. Tufts of dry grass, small stones, an interesting stick… Some of it found its way into her pocket to be carefully drawn in a sketchbook later. After looking around the horizon for the graceful waving of a Eucalyptus tree to photograph, Lillian closed her eyes to the outback, held her arms tight to her sides and breathed it all in, pulling the sounds of birds, rustling leaves and calm deep inside to a hollow kept for the best. Later in her life it would be carefully brought out to think about and smile at before going back down deep, waiting to be needed in the times of longing yet to come.

And today was one of those times. Here in the sun Lillian was smiling as she turned slowly around, opened her arms, and gently released the memory to a shadow beginning its journey away from her.

The end

 

The Sock Drawer

 

Fred was taking it slow this morning. And why not? He had time and lots of it. Minutes go by so slowly and yet months and years disappear rather quickly. Why is that, he wondered. It must be an age thing. He turned eighty-four just last week and had already shoved the occasion into last year’s and the one before that.

Birthdays were a day to eat cake. A good slice of layered chocolate cake from the bakery. Then sit quietly at a table near the window with a cup of hot black coffee to go with it and look out at the people walking by. How many years of birthday cakes had they had, how many were chocolate, and when did they stop having someone bake one especially for them?

One week later he is standing before the bathroom mirror in his shorts and t-shirt. He looks pretty much the same as last week except now there is a stubbly start of a beard. Fred had decided a few days ago that shaving was no longer a necessary.

He used a straight edge razor for years. The kind with a swivel head that followed the contours of his changing jaw line. He liked lathering up with all that white foam that disappeared with each swipe of the blade, taking away those bits of hair that seemed to only grow while he slept. Then someone, likely his daughter, thought he should try an electric razor, the kind that buzzed along on dry sagging skin, lifting and shoving his face in all directions while sucking the hair into some hidden compartment within.

But shaving that way didn’t do a proper job. Not like his straight edge Gillette razor. So he tried going back to the old razor only to find that he was sticking bits of tissue to tiny cuts that bled even though he wiped some spit onto them. Shit! Why bother? And besides, those pesky hairs that grow on the tops and sides, and often inside the nose and ears don’t show so much with a face full of hair. It was a smart decision.

Back in the bedroom, Fred opens his sock drawer and reaches in. When Emma was alive, she sorted his socks not only by pairs but how worn or discolored the socks being sorted looked. Then she’d lay out one flattened sock with the heel off to the right. When she found another that matched it in size and worn-ness she placed it on top, then folded the two in half to be put aside while she did the same to the next sock to come from the pile. Emma showed Fred how to do this for when he might be faced with the laundry when she went off to help their daughter or just to get a bit of traveling in.

Emma liked going places, especially by herself. An old lady alone invites kindness. Doors are opened, smiles are offered, and extra time is given when she’s trying to decide what to order for lunch. And best of all there is no one else’s wishes that need to be considered. She could go to a movie, a museum, look in the shops, whatever she felt like doing Emma could do. And once back home she could tell Fred all about it, stretching her little adventures even further.

Fred tried, maybe once, to match his socks the way he was shown, but found it easier to simply put two together and make a loose overhand knot with the “pair”. He only had to put his hand in the drawer, and without looking, reach around until he had a fistful of softness. But today there were not any balled up, knotted socks in the drawer. This meant only one thing. It was time to do some laundry. And it also meant that he had more t-shirts and shorts than he had pairs of socks. That just did not seem right. Either he or Emma had not been paying attention to the dwindling number of socks.

One last stretch into the back of the drawer and he felt it! The last pair of socks that Emma had carefully matched up. Good. Once out and separated, Fred laughed out loud and sat down on the bed. This pair of socks were the ones Emma had stitched eyes onto, just an inch or so up from the ends. These were the “say what’s on your mind” socks.

Emma came up with the idea. When they were headed toward harsh words of anger, frustration, hurt feelings, whatever, these socks were for her and Fred to put on with the thumb catching into the heel while the fingers stretched out into the toe of the sock. Two haphazardly stitched eyes were meant to glare at each other while statements were made and acknowledged as the puppet socks opened and closed their silly, complaining mouths or were held tight in a sneer or frown while the other sock talked. And as Emma had intended, they would both end up giggling at the absurdity of such arbitrators of disagreement.

Fred smiled to himself and put a sock on each hand.

“Hi Em. I miss you.”

“Same here, Fred.”

It went like that for the next half hour. Fred and Emma talking to each other as he sat there on the bed in his underwear, elbows resting on his knees.

They caught up on all the news. She told him how surprised she was who was up there with her. Some of them both her and Fred were sure were headed for the other place. But here everyone was kind. It was a nice place.

Fred asked what she thought of him growing a beard. She approved; said he’d fit right in when the time came. He told her how their daughter and grandchild were getting along. But she already knew that.

Emma asked how his birthday went. He said same as last year and the one before that, dark chocolate cake at the bakery. Emma laughed and said it was hard to get devil’s food cake up there. Most everyone had developed a taste for angel food. They both laughed at that.

She told him it was a good thing he caught her early because soon she was going off by herself for a few days. Yes, it was a nice place to end up, but if talking eternity, a bit boring at times. And it was so easy to just catch a ride to somewhere else for a day or so. Fred made the unnecessary comment to stay safe.

He told Emma he was going to count his shorts and t-shirts before going to the store to make sure that he bought enough new socks to keep the counts even. And promised to only wear these particular socks today. Tonight, he’d wash them carefully by hand and put them together the way she had showed him before sticking them back in the sock drawer. She smiled in approval. They both did.

They said their goodbyes and kissed each other before Fred took the socks off his hands and put them on his feet. Their eyes looked up at him while he put on his shirt and pants, then disappeared into his shoes.

The end

Loose Threads

On the second Thursday of every month a small group of women come together to visit and work on their hand sewing projects. It began as a social gathering with the stitching giving them something to keep their hands busy while they caught up on one another’s news. Early on these meetings would take place at the community center but now, with only five remaining, it is simpler to take turns going to one another’s houses.

Today is Dora’s turn. All she needed to do was tidy up a bit, get George out of the house before everyone showed up and arrange chairs around the dining room table. Once the others arrived, serve tea or coffee and lay out her platter of homemade scones. Easy enough.

Maybe one of the girls will ask for her recipe. Maybe no one will. If someone did ask then it could mean that the scones were actually good and she’d make them again. George ate anything put in front of him so it was hard for Dora to know one way or another if what she created in the kitchen was worth the effort.

It was easier before George retired. Dora only had to think of making coffee and toast, a quick sandwich for herself, then late in the afternoon cook some chicken or red meat with mashed potatoes and a canned vegetable. Now it seemed all day, every day was spent in the kitchen trying to fill George up. Her only opportunity to try something different, be creative, was when she hosted the sewing group.

One time Dora tried a quiche. She liked the word. It sounded sophisticated. So she looked up a recipe and included some of her own ingredients to the frozen pie crust. It wasn’t as good as she thought it would be. Maybe the half can each of cream corn and green beans were too much to add to the cheese, egg, spinach and ham that the recipe called for. Later in the kitchen scraping the plates, Dora assumed it must have been the green beans clinging to a wet pie crust that was the reason no one asked for her recipe. Maybe today her scones with just a small amount of crushed corn flakes worked in and served with a rosemary flavored honey butter would be a better offering.

All of the women in the sewing group were over sixty-five, some unwilling to share how much over sixty-five but it was easy enough to tell who was the oldest. Margaret.

Stocky and firm-footed in her sensible low-heeled shoes, Margaret commanded attention just entering the room. There was something ex-military looking about her although she never served in the armed forces. She wore dresses, no slacks, and certainly no jeans. Her dress was covered with an apron as though she was going to take over household chores wherever she went. She looked a person in the eye when they were talking so as not to miss anything. Many don’t do that. They will find a spot close to the right or left of the speaker’s face to focus on and wait for a pause so they can reply quickly and move on to wherever it was they were hoping to take the conversation.

Margaret liked being the elder of the group. Others listened to her when she spoke and would often seek out her opinions if not her company. She kept her distance and sent signals that she preferred it that way. Needless chit chat annoyed her and she would have left the group long ago had she not realized that this was her one and only social occasion with any regularity.

The book club was too demanding. Who would want to read a book you knew you wouldn’t like?

She was the only one to ask that question out loud last year and took offence when they suggested reading it might broaden her horizons. Her horizons were just fine where they were, thank you very much! Margaret left her copy of the book in question behind when she suddenly remembered she needed to be somewhere else and left.

When Margaret’s husband passed away she stopped going to church and singing in the choir. What was there to sing about now!

Her neighbors stopped dropping in to see how she was doing.

“How are you, Margaret?”

“Fine.”

No need to say more. So she didn’t and the neighbors went back home.

For now it came down to the sewing group being the only place left for Margaret to have a conversation. It was ideal actually. If Margaret did not want to be chatty and answer a question she could pretend she was concentrating on her stitching until one of the others filled the gap. Women are like that, unable to leave much in the way of empty spaces.

When the sewing group had more members, the women all talked at once. Now with only the five of them it was mostly Charlotte filling in the pauses. Margaret found this irritating and tended to tune out the sound of Charlotte’s voice. Why couldn’t that woman simply be quiet for a bit longer and let someone else pick up the slack?

Charlotte was simply too cheerful. She smiled. She laughed. She wore bright colors. And once Charlotte got her needle threaded she jabbed it through patch after patch of hideously bright-colored scraps of cloth until she had enough to cut out one of her doll forms that the following month would be brought in for all but Margaret to appreciate. Charlotte called them her “Happy Dolls”. Of course she did.

Her dolls took a simple form. They were loosely stuffed so that the outstretched arms could be curved around a person’s neck if they wanted or needed to feel an embrace. Margaret could in no way imagine grasping the hands of these garish little creatures and pulling it close enough to have its arms around her neck. To do that her mouth would be against a red-stitched smile with button eyes looking into hers. Ghastly!

Being on guard to not hurt Charlotte’s feelings was challenging but necessary if Margaret wanted to continue coming to the sewing sessions. So when the latest Happy Doll was passed around Margaret gave a quick nod to Charlotte and handed it off for Emily’s appreciation.

Emily brushed the crumbs from her fingers and took the Happy Doll. She loved it! The cheerful pinks and blues all held together with hand stitching. Charlotte had even put a row of small buttons down the front and a bit of lace around the doll’s neck. Emily could hardly wait to feel the arms around her own neck and pulled the doll to her.

The women went silent and watched out of the corner of their eyes as one lone tear rolled down Emily’s cheek. Charlotte was quick to tell her that she should take the doll home. There were more than enough to donate to the Care Center and it would make no difference if this pink and blue one found a different home. Emily smiled back and quickly stuffed the Happy Doll deep inside her tote bag. Picking up a strand of embroidery floss, Emily concentrated on threading her needle and gave herself over to memories of other dolls and small-armed hugs around her neck.

The silence was broken by Vera clattering her way through the back door with her dog in tow. No one minded Vera bringing fat old Suzette along with her. They all felt sorry for the weepy-eyed French poodle with painted nails. Truth be told it is hard to tell who they felt sorrier for, Vera or her dog.

The two of them on their own near the center of town in a large old house with beautiful gardens and a well-kept lawn surrounded by a high iron fence. Vera’s daughter wants her to move into an assisted living complex where they are prepared to care for the impending needs of her mother’s age and diagnosis of declining health. Vera is going nowhere until Suzette passes. Then, and only then, will she think about it. This determination on the mother’s part resulted in more regular visits from the daughter…a solid win for the mother.

Vera pulls out the dog’s pillow and puts it under her chair where Suzette settles into a snoring, wheezing slumber. She considers the scones on the table but pulls out her sewing instead. First she lays out a palette of threads with each color looped through one of the holes circling the edge. Once these are given a quick shake and laid aside she retrieves the cross stitch pattern of a French window and door with cascading blooms that fall from a vine crawling up the wall. Out comes the half-finished cloth stretched in an embroidery hoop. And finally her perfect little needle case and embroidery scissors. These last two items were actually bought in France several years ago when the widowed Vera was emerging from a deep state of grief with the help of a new companion who bought them for her.

Now everyone is here. Polite inquiries have been extended and noted.

Not one of them is thought of as a friend by any of the others. They see each other only in this setting of refreshments, dining rooms, and the sewing that acts as a barrier to their private lives and thoughts. Yet each one of these women cling to the ritual of coming together once a month to share a space where they can be in the company of others who desire the same thing….the sound of women’s voices muffled by cloth to retreat into how things could, and used to be.

 

The end

The Broadcaster’s Wife

 

Emily woke early and without disturbing Jim, headed down to the kitchen.

She wanted to think. Something was going on with her that needed quiet time to work out.

There was no one to talk to about it because frankly everyone she knew was part of the problem. This was the sad reality she faced when alone, having her coffee, and planning her day. But an hour or so later it would be shoved to the back of her mind as she was swept into another day of routines and obligations that defined her. She was Emily, wife to a successful news broadcaster and mother to twin boys now off at college. She filled her time with whatever was expected and suggested by those who knew her value to the community in which they all lived.

After a few weeks of suppressing conflicting thoughts Emily had come to the conclusion that she absolutely hated her life, hated what she had become and hated herself for letting it happen.

Somewhere along this road to self-discovery she missed some telltale signs of anxiety. Like how her hands on the steering wheel of the latest car Jim thought she would look good in, had moved from the left hand loosely on the steering wheel while the right adjusted the rear view mirror to see herself, to the traditionally cautious two hands on the wheel at ten and two o’clock positions with her body leaning forward. She hated that car and the messages it sent – rich, superior, well maintained.

Lately she preferred to use “the family car”, the one she drove the boys to ball practice with and then delivered them to college in. She missed them and felt closer to them using this car. Well that was what she told Jim when he wanted to know why the Miata was now parked in the garage. Her hands had now moved to eleven and one o’clock.

She also wasn’t conscious of how often she was using paper napkins instead of linen. And how she was making excuses to miss out on the workshops offered to members of the country club. Did it really matter whose Ikebana arrangement was judged superior to another when sooner than later the pedals would drop off and the perfectly placed leaf would curl up and ruin everything. Every single one of those arrangements of forced control was going to be defeated by the very Nature they were presenting. How she spent her days was not making much sense to her anymore.

And she began coming up with excuses for not playing tennis with Donna on Wednesday mornings and mahjong with Maureen on Thursday afternoons. What used to be fun with the ones she had considered to be friends was becoming predictable, then boring and finally tedious.

Emily wanted out of those friendships, out of the club and truth be told, out of her marriage.

She had fallen hard for Jim twenty-five years ago. He was handsome (still was), came from a “good” family, or so her father told her, and was hell-bent on getting Emily to marry him. And it worked. She helped him advance his career in broadcasting by keeping herself as attractive as possible in a community where everything was about appearances. She gave him two healthy boys to brag about, kept a perfect house for him to come home to, performed admirably and smiled along the way. The benefits of all that effort was being appreciated and well-cared for….maintained in the manner to which Emily had become accustomed. And it was all good for many years.

That is until Jim made his way to the top of the heap in conservative cable news. The way he could look his audience in the eye through a camera and spew vitriolic commentary was surpassed by none. This was his game and his to lose if he could not do it convincingly. He was good. This was his calling.

Those closest to him were sure it was an act, a live performance of theatrics. It was part of the job and no one bothered to question the integrity of what he was saying. No one seemed to grasp that he was talking to an audience that was becoming more and more unwilling to seek out opposing points of view. If the ratings were up, it meant more viewers. More viewers meant more job security. It was the perfect connection for Jim’s arrogance and his audience’s ignorance.

And of course with the club they belonged to being predominantly conservative with the built in biases of any closed, members-only community, Jim was quite the man to be admired. After all he was saying things out loud that most of them previously had the good sense to keep to themselves.

Emily and the boys went along with it, privately believing it was all an act. And a very good one. Of course they could believe whatever they wanted in the protected bubble they all lived in. No one could possibly be in disagreement with what Jim and his news network were doing if you stayed inside that circle or others like it.

But that all changed when the boys went off to college. Here there were so many points of view to be tossed about, discussed, and conclusions come to. Education is exposure to knowledge that is just sitting there waiting to be absorbed by open minds. Then put to use in ways that deepen understandings of how things are, were, and could be. The boys took to this learning opportunity like they had been wanting it without even knowing it existed.

The result: fewer trips home to try and get their father to understand how many people his words affected. But they were unsuccessful in getting this through to him. Jim was the classic example of, if you say it enough then it becomes true. His sons were dumbfounded by the way their father had lost all rational reasoning, all interest in seeing how much he manipulated people into closing off any discourse. They saw how their father had managed to get the very people who put him in this position of power to either become believers or simply be replaced.

He was someone they no longer admired. Frankly, they saw him as an asshole, pure and simple. If he wanted to cut the funding for their college education when they told them how they felt, then go ahead, they’d just go public with what they thought of him. Jim’s ego and arrogance could not take a blow like that coming from his own children so he set up accounts for them to finish their education and after that as far as Jim was concerned, he was done with them. It was a solution each could live with. Unfortunately their mother was still residing in the bubble she helped create from the day their parents married. The boys accepted the fact that it would likely remain that way.

 

So now here she is, sipping her coffee in the silence of early morning, wondering when to leave and how to create some damage in the process. His arrogance would have to be his undoing. His genuine belief that he was infallible, that his words were all that mattered and his audience would remain as gullible as he counted on them to be. Without the blind stupidity of others her husband was nothing. How pathetic that thought struck Emily.

She hated being the wife that stood by him all the way to this. And hated more the thought of looking like those loutish politicians’ wives, medicated just enough to stand close through their husbands’ public apologies.  No, Emily was not going to be any part of Jim’s attempt to salvage the image he had created. He’d be standing alone in that final attempt to manipulate an audience. But how to make that moment happen?

 

And then it struck her! She would write a book! A book that could be directed to the tastes of Jim’s audience. A confessional of sorts with the promise of redemption. Yes, that’s it! It would have to be a slow careful delivery of words to have it sink in. There could be no nuanced meaning, nothing open to interpretation, simple words telling a story of how a person can suffer under the influence and control of another. How easy it is to be the victim of one’s own desire to feel that they are a part of something.

Keeping it simple. Keeping it slow. With constant repetition of the salient points. The only difference in the delivery of her written message and Jim’s spoken words would be that she would give her audience the opportunity to pause, reflect, and read again….maybe even to a neighbor or family member.

And if it took the form of a confessional diary? Believers would follow. Diaries are secrets exposed. Diaries bear witness to truth. And diaries lend themselves to a slow paced-out delivery that creates anticipation in the growing followers. Yes, this would take him down and get her free.

A few weeks later Emily had confirmed with a lawyer that slander was unlikely if her writing took the form of serial fiction under a pseudonym. She could describe Jim in many ways but not use his name. And even if Jim might want to file suit after seeing himself in Emily’s writings, his ego would prevent him from taking an action that would most certainly identify him as the character in her fictional diaries.

So what was the best way to reach the public?

Considering what Jim’s audience was most likely to read besides the one liners on their cell phone feeds, Emily came to only one conclusion. It had to be a magazine that was right in front of them as they stood in line at the grocery store, a popular weekly magazine with a concentration on society news….what celebrities were up to in their private lives.

An appointment was made by Emily and her lawyer to discuss the proposal. The editors quickly agreed to the terms of anonymity and looked forward to Emily’s first installment of “Diary of a Broadcaster’s Wife”.

“………and our dinner must be perfect. The salmon cooked the way he likes it, sitting on a bed of romaine with mango chutney. A nicely chilled chardonnay. Everything the way he likes it, the way he expects it. I take a sip from my glass and wait for him to arrive, telling me again tonight how grateful he is that people no longer read but wait to be told…….”

 

The end