Friday, October 20, 2017

Terry's Halloween Gift









Dear Readers:

Since Halloween is my family's favorite time of the year, I wanted to share part of a short story I'd written years ago which is included in my book "Reflections From my Mother's Kitchen." This is called "Terry's Gift" and for those of you who love "To Kill a Mockingbird," you may see my tribute to that wonderful book in this small tale.

I tried to paint a picture of old, small town life as it was growing up in an old steel town with a creepy Halloween flair. Hope you enjoy!





     The year was 1969. Katie Martino, nine years old and her best friends in the world, Carol Garbinsky, Diane Nelson, and the only boy in the neighborhood, Tony Prichard, tagged one another, “You’re it!” then ran to the safety of the telephone pole, the “base” where no one could touch you. They had invented a hide-and-seek sort of game out of the usual “It tag.”
     Growing up on the main drag of Duss Avenue in the small steel town of Ambridge, Pennsylvania had its challenges. A busy thoroughfare, cars and trucks sped by at all hours. There were no playgrounds nearby to play in and the closely- packed homes had only small patches of grass as their front yards, and sometimes even tinier, weedy patches in the back. Cement sidewalks ran the length around the blocks with faded hopscotch in chalky pinks and yellows.The children learned to use their imaginations in the small, cramped quarters, and there was never a lack of things to do, or mischief to get into.
     A steel town was an interesting place for kids and like all small towns, had their secrets.
     Halloween and autumn hung in the air with the smell of wood smoke, tart apples, and dried leaves. The days were getting shorter, the streetlights coming on long before the children wanted to say goodnight to one another. Nighttime had a slight nip to the air, and sweaters came out of last winter’s storage.
     This Halloween would be extra special for Katie. Dad had promised he’d think about letting her go out alone with her friends for trick or treats.
     Mom always made such a big deal out of Halloween. Every year she would begin planning Katie’s wardrobe weeks in advance even though the local five and dime had shelves stocked full of costumes, princesses, pirates, and super heroes. She could have been any of these, but Mom insisted on elaborate, hand-sewn items, cleverly put together.
     “What’re you gonna be for Halloween this year?” Tony asked Katie, as he huffed and puffed running alongside her before scrambling into the bushes to hide from Carol.
     “I’m going to be a fortune teller,” Katie called back over her shoulder, and quickly ducked into a small alley behind some trashcans. She counted to twenty when she heard Carol’s voice calling in the distance.
     “Okay, I give up guys. Where are you?” Carol screamed out.
      Katie emerged first, dusting dirt from her dungarees. Diane and Tony gave up their hiding spots, coming from opposite directions.
     “This game’s boring,” Tony said, approaching the girls. “We need to find something else.”
     Diane, the tomboy of the group, and one year older, agreed. “Let’s ride bikes,” she offered. “My parents got me a new one, and I’m dying to try it out. It’s supposed be the fastest bike ever.”
     “Yeah,” Tony said, rubbing his hands together with his best mad-scientist impersonation. “Then we can ride past the Gardner place and see which one of us will be the brave one today.”
     “So, what are the rest of you gonna be for Halloween?” Tony asked. They were standing in front of Katie’s house and he picked at the hedge bush in the yard, flinging bits of greenery at the girls.    “Katie’s gonna be a fortune teller,” he crooned and stuck his tongue out at her. “I’m gonna be an astronaut, Neil Armstrong,” he proudly stated.
     “That’s boring,”Carol chimed in. “I’m too old for all this ‘Halloween stuff’ anyway,” she said. “My parents want me to hand candy out this year.” Her voice had a steel edge to it.
     Katie looked at her friend, feeling badly for her. Carol’s parents were odd. They seemed to want her to age before her time. She never played with dolls, and her mother made her do chores like a grown up. I’m glad my parents aren’t like that.
     “Yeah, it’s baby stuff,” Carol said, kicking at a rock with her toe.
     “Don’t you still want to go with us, though?” Katie asked.  “We’ve got the rest of our lives to hand out stupid candy. Your parents shouldn’t force you to stay home.”
     Carol’s face darkened, and she took off running from the group. Her house was down the block a little way,and she disappeared into her front door with a bang.
     “Ha, ha,” Tony laughed. “You made her mad again, Katie. When’re you gonna learn?”
     Katie looked down the street after her friend. The house was closed up tightly like a fist. It struck her as odd that none of them were ever invited there, and they never played in front of her house.
     “Go get your bike, Katie,” Diane said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with mine.”

                                                                 #

     “I dare you,” Tony said, whizzing past Katie on his Schwinn Stingray for at least the tenth time. “Just run up and knock on the stupid door. You’re such a chicken, Katie. I’ve done it a zillion times.”
     Katie sat upon the blue sparkled banana seat, the one her daddy had recently put on her bike. Deep scooped handlebars with blue and white streamers dangled from the ends. “Leave me alone, Tony,” she said, flying past the place Tony had referred to, barely glancing at it.
     The dark, creepy insulbrick house stood off to the right, its’ weeds waist high, and hedges surrounding it like sentinels. The shutters were drawn and no furniture adorned the front porch. The sagging roof, in need of a few shingles, had a chimney that leaned to the right at a crooked angle. No cars were ever parked nearby. Nobody ever saw a soul walk in or out of the place.
     Tales had gone around the neighborhood that a crazy man lived there, so deranged, so ugly, his elderly mama wouldn’t let him leave the house in the daytime. Gardner was the last name, but other than that, nobody knew much else. The neighborhood children would play silly games, seeing who would be brave enough to knock on the door and run. Other times they would wait until after dark, sneaking around the back of the house to catch a possible glimpse of the madman that lived there and supposedly roamed at night.
     Some evenings, in the darkness of her bedroom, Katie peered out the window, the one that faced the back of the Gardner home. She pretended she’d see someone come out onto the back porch, maybe howl at the moon or turn into a bat. At other times, though, she would obsess over the poor, tortured soul who never showed his face. She felt sorry for someone so lonely and wished somehow she could befriend him.
     “I’ll go knock on the door then,” Tony said, a mischievous grin on his face. “It’s not like anyone’s gonna answer.”  It was getting a bit darker now, the sun going down quickly, thunder rumbled in the distance and a light, misty rain began to fall.
     Diane dismounted her shiny, new bike, and stood beside it. “Go ahead Tony,” she said. “Show Katie it’s no big deal.”
     “Come on, guys,” Katie said. “We’d better be getting home.” Katie didn’t want to bother the people who lived there. As frightening as the house looked, her mother had always said that everyone had a story. Who knew what might be going on inside?
     “Baby,” Tony taunted. “Katie’s scared,” he said, while propping his kickstand up, and approaching the steps to the drooping front porch.
     Thunder crashed overhead, and Tony abandoned his plan.
     “Ha, ha,” Katie laughed. “Who’s scared now?” But she shivered a bit, staring at the darkened windows before her. She could have sworn she saw a blind lift ever so slightly.

                                                                    #

     The next morning Katie buttoned up her jacket, picked her book bag from the chair in the living room, and kissed Mom quickly on the cheek. Diane was waiting for her outside and they walked the short distance to Carol’s house. Usually standing on the porch, she was nowhere to be seen. The girls stood there a few minutes.
     “We’ll be late for school,” Diane said, hefting her books higher in her arms. “What’s taking her so long?”
     A scarecrow thin woman, apparently Carol’s mother, opened the front door a crack and whispered in a barely audible voice, “Carol’s sick today.” She closed the door quickly. Raised voices punctuated the morning silence from inside the house. Even with the windows and doors shut, someone was screaming loudly from the sound of it, a man’s voice, barking harshly.
     Katie flinched, looking at Diane for answers. “Come on, let’s go,” Diane said, shrugging her shoulders.
                                                                       #

     It bothered Katie all day. Even at recess, when the others were playing dodge ball on the playground, she sat off to the side, wondering about Carol. What was it she’d heard this morning?
Carol lived alone with her mother and father. She had two older brothers who moved away years ago. Katie saw Mr. Garbinsky, Carol’s father, on several occasions walking home from the steel mill disheveled and irritated, a scary-looking man. He kept his head down and didn’t speak to a soul as he passed their home. When Katie called Carol’s house to talk with her friend, if her father answered, he would growl angrily into the phone and hang up on her.
     Katie asked her dad about him, but Daddy would always shrug it off and say things like, “Don’t worry your pretty little self about that man, honey.”
     It was hard to concentrate in the afternoon and several times one of the nuns smacked her desk with a ruler, bringing her out of the reverie. At the end of the day, when she met Diane, it still nagged at her.
     “I have some homework from arithmetic class for Carol,” Katie said. “I’m going to bring it to her.” She hitched the book bag higher on her shoulder.
     “Oh my,” Diane said. “You sure are brave going into her house.” Diane shivered. “Did you know her dad is mean to her mother?” Diane had a smug look on her face as if this type of top secret knowledge made her very important. “Oh yeah, my dad works with him. Says he doesn’t talk to anyone much, but overheard him bragging one day about hitting the missus.”
     Katie looked over at her friend, horrified. The thought of anyone hitting a woman was too much for her. Her own dad was so kind and gentle. The best man she knew.
     “Don’t say anything to anyone,” Diane said in a hushed voice. “I wouldn’t want to get Carol in trouble.”
     A chilly wind, the icy fingers of a beckoning winter blew as the girls walked along. The skies hung low and gray when Katie walked up the steps to the Garbinsky home.
     “Go ahead, Diane. I’ll see you in the morning.”
     “Are you sure, Katie?” Diane looked concerned.
     “It’s okay,” Katie answered, and knocked lightly at the front door.
     After rapping several times, the door opened a tiny crack. Carol’s face was half -visible and her eye widened in surprise.
     “Hey,” Katie tried to sound cheerful. “Hope you’re feeling better. I brought you some homework so you won’t be behind tomorrow.”
     The door opened just a bit farther. Carol’s hand snaked out to grab the papers. She was already closing the door when a voice whispered from inside, “Who is it?”
     The stick thin woman from the morning opened the door wider and a ghost of a smile touched her lips. Wonderful smells emanated from inside the home, some type of home baked bread or muffins.
     “You’re Kate, right?” Mrs. Garbinsky asked, unable to meet Katie’s eyes.
     “Yes, ma’am,” Katie answered. “Nice to meet you.” She put out her hand as her parents had instructed her to do.
     A tiny, cold hand shook Katie’s. “Would you like to come in for some banana bread?” The woman spoke so quietly it was hard to hear her.
     “I’d love that,” Katie said. “Would you mind if I called my mom though to let her know where I am?”
     Mrs. Garbinsky led her to a telephone on a stand in the dark hallway. Katie looked around at the d├ęcor of her friend’s home. Pretty glass figurines adorned shelves between stacks and stacks of neatly piled old books. Aside from the dim lighting, it appeared Carol’s home was rather warm and inviting.
Carol showed her friend to the kitchen, pulling out a chair for her, while her mother took the heavenly- smelling bread from the oven. Carol and her mother spoke in hushed tones, and it was apparent they were trying to be extremely quiet.
     “Father’s sleeping,” Carol indicated toward the stairs, almost like she’d read Katie’s mind. Mrs. Garbinsky sliced into the bread, laying a pat of butter off to the side of the dish she put in front of Katie.
     It struck Katie as odd, the fact her friend called her dad, “father”. It sounded stiff and formal.
An hour quickly passed, Mrs. Garbinsky apparently so happy to have someone to talk with, she made Katie promise to return sometime. Even Carol seemed to relax as their conversation had gone on.
     That night, Kate asked her mother about the Garbinsky family. Mom knew nothing about the strange, quiet family and told Katie the usual: Everyone has a story.
     Katie switched tactics and tried prying facts from her mother about the Gardners who lived behind them. Was their son really so ugly and crazy to boot? Mom told her to mind her own business and stop fretting over the neighbors. “Remember,” Mom said again. “Everyone has a story.”
     Later, as Katie lay in her bed unable to sleep, she imagined becoming friends with the strange man inside the Gardner home. What would it be like? Hello there, sir, I’m Katie. Mind if I sit and chat with you for a bit? Yes, that’s right, I won’t hurt you.
     She stared into the darkness. There probably wasn’t anyone really living in that house anyway.
                                                                       #

     Halloween was just two days away. Katie tried her homemade costume on for at least the tenth time. The flowing patchwork skirt, and peasant blouse was perfect. She had a turquoise bandana to tie upon her head, large dangling hoop earrings, and an armful of colorful bangles. She would be the gypsy queen for a night. Katie pranced and flounced in front of her mirror talking with a strange foreign accent.
     She looked up to see Dad standing in the doorway, a camera ready in his hands. Just at the right moment, he flashed a picture of his little girl. Katie took a graceful bow, breaking into a fit of giggles.
“Dad,” she said, serious now. “Are you going to let me go out alone for trick or treat this year with my friends? I am nine, you know.” She batted her eyes at him. “Tony will be with me and Diane. I promise not to go too far.”
     Her father appeared to be in deep thought. The camera dangled in one hand, while he stroked his chin with his other. “Well, we’ll have to see, won’t we?” he said. “I think you could go to most of the nearby streets with your friends if it’s alright with your mom, that is.”
     Katie ran over to her dad, giving him a big hug. “Thank you, Daddy, oh thank you. I feel so grown up.”
                                                                      #

     The wind picked up a bit on Halloween night. It was six p.m. Pumpkins glowed on porches, the sweet smell of candles inside them. Porch lights came on one by one, and a light drizzle began to fall.
Katie pouted on her front porch. Why did it have to rain tonight?
     Diane approached, dressed as an Indian Princess, with Tony tagging along behind in his astronaut gear. Just seeing her best friends in the world, Katie’s spirits lifted. Who cared if the weather wasn’t perfect? They were going to have fun tonight!  The best part, it would be their first time alone without any parents to supervise. Each of them had gotten dire warnings from mothers and fathers. Don’t go near strangers. Only go to houses you know. Don’t eat any candy until it’s brought home and gone over.
     Other children were already milling about, ghosts, goblins, witches, fairy queens. They came with their pillow cases ready to be filled with treats, oh so many treats.
     Katie and her little group struck off, while she stole a glance down to Carol’s home.

                                                                      #

     House after house, Katie, Diane, and Tony trudged up long walkways, and steep stairs. After an hour into the night, Diane said she was tired. They neared her house and saw Mrs. Nelson sitting on the porch, a basket of Hershey bars and Mallow Cups on her lap.
     “Hey, Mom.” Diane said. “I think I have enough candy, so I’ll stay and help you now.” She sat down with her mother, removed the Indian headdress, stretched out her long legs, and kicked her moccasins off.
     Mrs. Nelson tossed a few candy bars into Katie and Tony’s bags. They waved goodbye and started off down the block.
     “Wow, we got a ton of stuff,” Tony said. He held up his bulging sack of treats. In his other arm he carried his space helmet which had been off most of the night.
     “Mmm, I know,” Katie said. “I can’t wait to spill mine out. Of course my dad will pick through and steal his favorite candy first.”
     They were nearing Tony’s house now. “You gonna be okay?” Tony asked. “I mean, walking the rest of the way to your house, or you want me to walk you there?” He kicked at the ground with his foot.
     “Oh my goodness, Tony.It’s only around the block. No big deal. There’s a lot of people still out. I’m not scared. See you in school on Monday.”
     Katie walked away, not realizing which direction she was pointed in. The Gardner home stood off to the right, its pointy shrubbery swaying lightly in the wind. Out of the corner of her eye, Katie realized the porch light was on. She would have missed it if she had gone the other way.
     Nobody was on the porch; no kids were walking up to knock on the door. There was a single candle burning in a small ceramic pumpkin at the top of the stairs. Katie gulped. Would she be brave enough to walk up to the door? Would her curiosity win and she’d get her wish tonight? Decisions, decisions.
     She noticed other families walking across the street.  She looked at her watch. Seven forty five. Halloween would be over in fifteen minutes.
     With heart hammering in her chest, mustering all her courage, Katie began mounting the crumbling cement stairs to the Gardner porch. The door and windows looked sealed securely, like the entrance to a tomb. She didn’t think anyone would really come to the door.
     There was no doorbell, so she rapped lightly upon the outside wooden door frame. Nothing.Katie knocked again ever so lightly and waited. As she was about to give up and turned to walk away, the door creaked open and a wizened old face smiled toothlessly at her. The woman was bent over from age, her gnarled fingers wrapped around a bowl filled with candy. The door opened wider, and a youngish man, probably in his twenties, stood next to the old lady. He was heavyset, and pasty white skin filled with freckles covered his face. His mouth drooped at an odd angle.  Blue eyes stared out at Katie, and a wide smile broke out onto his homely face.
     “Go ahead, Terry,” the old woman said. “Give the young lady some candy.”
     The young man scooped his chubby hands into the dish, pouring several large candy bars into Katie’s treat bag. She could hardly breathe and wondered if she was dreaming. His grin widened, and he said “Happy Halloween” in a voice which sounded like a child’s.
     “Thank you, honey,” the old lady said, more to Katie than to her son. “I wanted my boy to see the kids on Halloween night. It’s been a long time since he’s been outside, he was pretty sick there for a while. You’re the only one who came tonight, bless you, young lady.” A tear fell from the corner of the crinkled eyes. She put a trembling hand out to Katie.
     “I’m Elsie Gardner,” the woman said. “This is Terry, my son.” Again, the biggest smile filled the young man’s face, eyes dreamy and faraway. Katie shook his hand, thanking him for the candy.
     “Well, happy tricks or treats to you,” the woman said to Katie, as the door began to close.
     Katie walked down the steps in a daze. They’d never believe it. Tony, Diane and Carol would never believe she’d been there. She glanced back in the direction of Tony’s house, but it was locked up for the night. As Katie walked the rest of the way home, swinging her bag of candy, her step felt light and her heart glad. Mom was right, there were stories going on behind closed doors. Some you may never know. But tonight she’d gotten a glimpse into the life of a man who would never be “normal” whatever that was. Never again would she look at the Gardner house the same way. They were just people after all. Like her, Mom, Dad, Tony, Diane and Carol.
     Katie’s house was in view. She seemed to be the only one out this late. As she neared her next door neighbor’s house, a man stepped out of the bushes. It was Mr. Garbinsky. He had startled her, and she took a wide berth around him. It was then she noticed him staggering and cursing under his breath. His hand reached out to grab at her skirt, and Katie screamed.
     He pulled her roughly toward him, his breath smelling strongly of alcohol. Katie tried to scream again, and found she had no voice. His rough whiskers scratched against her cheek as he bent to her face. In a blind panic, Katie tried kicking his shins, and wriggled to break free of his grasp. He held on tightly to her, words emanating from his mouth that Katie had never heard before.
     Just as Katie felt surely she’d pass out, another man approached, yanking Mr. Garbinsky off Katie. He shoved the man roughly, and Katie almost fell with him as Mr. Garbinsky tumbled to the ground. She looked up into the face of Terry Gardner, the young man she had met only moments before. He motioned for her to run, and kicked Mr. Garbinsky in the ribs with his workman’s boots. “Call cops,” he murmured in that childlike voice of his.
     Katie ran as fast as she could, forgetting all about her bag of treats. Mom was waiting at the door, and her expression changed to panic as she saw her daughter’s face and torn skirt.
     “My goodness, Katie, what happened, Honey?”Mom grabbed her tightly, hugging her.
     “A-a man jumped out of the bushes, Mama.” Katie scarcely could breathe and she started to shake. “I- I ran as fast as I could.” She was crying now.
     “Ray!” Mom screamed. “Ray, someone’s been after Katie.”
     Dad ran into the room, a sick look on his face. A look of regret and pain.
     “Call the police, Ray,” Mom said, cradling the sobbing Katie in her arms.

                                                                       #

     “Young lady,” the cop with the kindly face said. “Would you please tell me what happened?”
     Katie sat at the kitchen table with her mother’s warm, crocheted afghan pulled tightly about her, a cup of hot cocoa before her. Mom and Dad sat on either side of her, while Dad said over and over, “I never should have let her go alone.”
     Katie didn’t want to tell on Mr. Garbinsky. Apparently when the cops checked the spot near the next door neighbor’s house, he was already gone. What would happen to her friend’s father if Katie told? What would happen to Carol and their precarious friendship? Yet she knew in her heart, lying was wrong.
     The biggest surprise was her backward hero. Had Terry Gardner really come to her rescue, like something out of a movie or book? Nobody would believe her, not even her parents.
     “I-I’m not sure,” Katie said. “It w-was a strange man. I never saw him before,” she lied.
     “There’s a lot of crazies out on Halloween,” the cop said, scratching some notes into his note pad. “Probably not anyone local.”He looked into Katie’s eyes. “Are you sure, young lady?”
     Katie nodded, holding onto her hot chocolate with both hands, not looking up at the policeman.
                                                                           #

     On Monday morning, Katie told her parents she didn’t feel well and would they mind if she missed school? She didn’t think she could face Carol.
     It had been a strange weekend. Mom and Dad questioned her over and over yet she wouldn’t say much about what had happened Halloween night. What should she do about it all? She sat on the edge of her bed and said a little prayer.
     “God, I’m not sure what I did was right. You know the truth, and I feel just awful about lying to my parents. But I don’t want to get Carol in trouble, either. Please help me do the right thing.” Katie clasped her hands before her, eyes squeezed shut. She shivered thinking of Mr. Garbinsky and his foul-smelling breath. She was suddenly frightened that he might come after her again. Katie crawled back under the covers, hearing her parents talking in hushed tones in their bedroom. Dad would be leaving for work shortly.
     A knock sounded at their front door, and Katie sat bolt upright in bed. It’s him…. Don’t be ridiculous, her mind told her as she heard her dad’s footsteps down the hall.
      “Huh, it’s the strangest thing,” she heard him saying. “Nobody was there, but Katie’s Halloween bag was at the doorstep.” He walked into Katie’s room.
     “Honey, this is your bag, right?” Dad held it up in one hand. Katie nodded, but her stomach turned over. “I think someone left it on our porch,” Dad mused. He looked thoughtfully at Katie then walked out of the room carrying the bag with him.
     Katie lay back down, snuggling under the covers. Terry Gardner must have picked up her precious bag of treats the night she was attacked. Her odd hero had come through for her once again.
     All day long, Mom fussed, taking Katie’s temperature, giving her ice cream in bed. Katie finally got up and walked into the kitchen, finding her treats neatly stacked on the kitchen table.
     “I thought you might want some of these,” Mom said, coming over to her, pushing her bangs out of the way with her hand, and caressing Katie’s face tenderly.
“But look, here’s the strangest thing.” Mom motioned to the pile of candy, and sitting on top was a crudely drawn card made of construction paper, colored with red, yellow and orange crayons. On the front of it, someone had drawn a picture of a girl carrying a sack. Her hair looked like the way Katie wore hers. When she opened the card, the words thank you were scrawled crookedly in black crayon.
     “Katie, what’s this all about?”
      Katie smiled. Her new friend had given her the greatest gift anyone could ever give: her safety. And he had shown her that differences in people weren’t so bad after all.
     She told Mom about the Gardner home then. She told her about Halloween night and how she met the scary man who lived there. How he had been the one who helped her.
     Katie also told her parents the truth about Carol’s father. Cops came to the Garbinsky home, and took him away to a rehabilitation facility for a time. Katie lost one friend, but knew she had gained another.
     She would see Terry Gardner a few times after that. Katie told the neighborhood kids he wasn’t the creepy ghoul everyone had imagined. He became a sort-of legend in their town. Children stopped tormenting him and he began to come out onto his porch as they rode their bikes. His crooked smile and homely face didn’t scare them any longer.
     Small steel towns have their secrets. And sometimes they are wrapped up in the strangest of packages masquerading as friends. . .

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Halloween Memories









 Halloween has always been one of our family's favorite holidays, for we are all big kids at heart.
Take Mom for instance. The above photo is from last October twenty-eighth. I had been visiting for the day, and my nieces were painting pumpkins. Mom wanted in on the fun, and we gave her one of the bigger pumpkins and a few paints. Though I thought the design on hers turned out a bit silly and I'd grown frustrated of hearing her repeat the same questions over and over to my nieces, I never would have said a thing to her. She glowed as if painting a masterpiece smiling her missing-tooth grin and singing crazy songs; as content as my nieces were.

Back in the day, Mom spent plenty of time and money choosing really good candy to give away for the special night though much of it would end up in her belly, and we'd have to purchase new bags by the time the day rolled around. She would also help orchestrate the spooky porch and walkway to their house; every bit the "manager" as she pointed to where the gravestones should be, and the other assorted frightful objects.

I think back to those elaborate decorations of years past; I remember countless little children who seemed too afraid to come to Mom's porch to receive their candy until my son Matt would unmask from his Michael Myers or Samara costume, to show them it wasn't real. I remember Mom sitting outside in nicer autumn weather, a bowl of candy balanced on her lap as she greeted each child with a smile and a "Happy Halloween." Creepy music played from the hidden tape recorder stashed underneath the large bush.

My parent's house was the hub for many of our friends through the years to gather since the connecting roads and houses sat pretty close and walking always felt safe in the neighborhood. There was something magical on our Halloween nights. The air seemed to smell of chimney smoke, crisp, tart apples and the warm, cooking scent of jack-o-lanterns lit with the small stubs of candles on neighbor's porches. The swish of  fallen, crunchy leaves underfoot as we ran from house to house.

I think back to the time when my own children were small, and the Halloween exchange as we called it, with their bags of booty dumped out on the floor so we parents could check it over first. Then the trading would begin; each child finding their favorites to barter with. Countless haunted houses my brother and his friends fabricated in my parent's basement--all good clean fun!

 And was it all that long ago that my father walked my little legs off when I was a child; practically pulling me along to get more, more, more candy while I sweat beneath the old plastic Cinderella mask with its stretchy elastic band, hardy able to see through the small eye holes, barely able to breathe through the tiny mouth hole?

This year, the house is silent and partially empty. No creepy masked cement deer in the front yard, or yards of fake spider web stretched all over the porch and bushes. No porch witch stirring her plastic cauldron, no Styrofoam gravestones.

We will miss Mom during this holiday for we know how much she enjoyed it. I will miss the annual phone call I placed to her each Halloween from my home an hour away so that I could hear how their own night was going--all the fun they were having. I will miss the sound of the movie "Halloween" playing loudly in the background, and my father saying "It's all over but the shouting. Shut it down," as he switched off the outdoor light barring any late stragglers from knocking at their door.

I will content myself with memories; warm, cozy memories, and in my heart I will feel the love and fun in the Halloween legacy Mom left behind.




Sunday, September 24, 2017

A New Life






This past week I lost a beautiful friend. This woman knew the true meaning of kindness, gentleness, selflessness and love. She stood for what is good and right. She had a heart for God and her fellow man. I never saw her angry. I never heard an unkind word come out of her mouth. All I heard were positive statements, encouragement and prayers. I once was the recipient of one of the strongest prayers anyone ever prayed for me or a family member from her.

One morning, as we got together to discuss our writing projects, my friend asked if we could pray out loud together before we chatted. She asked if I had anything specific on my heart. When I shared a recent hurt with her, not only did we pray about it together, but she made a point to pray as if the situation was already resolved. She thanked God for taking care of it. She spoke confidently and boldly in one of the most powerful prayers I'd ever heard.

This woman also had a generous spirit. As an author, I know only too well how difficult it is to make a small profit from writing. When we purchase our own books for events, they are costly, and we try to perhaps make a few dollars with each sale. The book she'd written was centered around women who wanted to change their lives. Each of them had issues, a group of friends who met and encouraged one another. It was a wonderful story, and lives were changed by it. My friend would attend author events and announce at the end of her talk that if anyone wasn't able to afford her book, she would gladly give them one for free. She was like that. Nothing mattered except to be a blessing.

I want that legacy. I want someone to write words about me that I lived for others. Oh, I know I have had a good heart for people from time to time. But I find myself annoyed when called upon to go above and beyond lately. I think things out, and decide on the easier option--the more comfortable one. But what if I made a huge change? What if when I went to work, I looked for more to do instead of less? If I searched out things in the office to make my co-workers lives easier. What if I made that phone call to someone lonely instead of putting it off because I didn't have enough time to myself after a busy day? What if I listened to the still, small prompting that God places on my heart every so often to go out of my way for someone else?

This morning was one example. I've been praying since my friend's death for God to use me each day. I've been praying for the desire to be a blessing to others. I got up for church, hubby had to work, so I knew I'd be going alone. But I like my alone time. The drive is quiet and pleasant. It's time for me to reflect and talk to God from my heart. And sitting by myself in church feels wonderful, because I can speak quietly to the Lord without distraction. Today was different. I learned a valuable lesson: never ask God about being a blessing to others if you aren't prepared for an immediate answer. I thought about a friend up the road who had just undergone knee surgery about a month-and-a-half ago. I knew she hadn't been back to church recently. It bothered me all morning about texting her, asking if she'd like for me to pick her up and go with me. So I listened to the voice in my heart and phoned her. She was ecstatic. She emphatically said "yes," and the extra twenty minutes or so it took out of my private little morning was well worth it.

We had great conversation. She smiled and thanked me several times. She told me I'd made her day. Yes, that was much better than my selfish little cocoon that I sometimes weave myself into. It's not easy to give up parts of who we are. Especially when moments are so limited when we work full time, or are a caregiver or wife and mother. My time is precious, for it is time to write--painting pictures with my words, inventing fictional towns and characters to inspire others. But what good am I if I don't live that sort of life--the true reaching out to others type of living that goes the extra step, leaves the zone of comfort and becomes a light to make someone else's world a little brighter?

By the way, the prayer my dear friend prayed so strongly for me that day so long ago did get answered in a major, powerful way. It wasn't overnight, but it was in God's timing; a perfect timing no less.

Here's to you, Michele, dear friend, beautiful lady, big heart, and kindhearted person. You made my world a better place. You left a legacy of such a good, good life behind. May I begin to follow in the footprints you indelibly left behind to make such a mark in the world.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Ask






We sat riveted to the television set yesterday and Facebook yesterday for Hurricane Irma updates. My husband's son, Michael, had decided to stay and ride it out with his beloved dog Ella. Though he encouraged his wife and little daughters to flee to safety, he left us with concerns and anxiety over his outcome.

Standing in church yesterday listening to the words of the songs, powerful Holy Spirit-filled lyrics brought comfort and a deep centered peace to my innermost being. It was in that moment with arms raised to my God that I gave Him my all. Trust, honor, worship, adoration. In the middle of the storm, literally and figuratively, I knew His desire was for good and He would see Michael through as well as so many others we'd been praying for.

It may seem too easy to some--this complete letting go. A trust that you have deep inside your soul that God's plans are for you and not against you. I've seen it many times, you see in my life. Too many times to deny that His mighty Hand was at work and that prayer was heard.

As a young child, my mother had severe depression and anxiety issues. It wreaked such havoc on her health that she was hospitalized many times. Though I didn't completely understand, the innocent child that I was, believed. I never envisioned life without Mom. When things looked their bleakest, when family members doubted that she might return home, I always felt a sense of everything working out. I may not have prayed as I do now, but a quiet trust became such a big part of me.

When a few years later, Mom was well, our family knew that a miracle had occurred and our lives would be better for it. Never again did I see my mother go down the path of fear or darkness. My father was a praying man too, you see. And his father, my Nonno, another who prayed.

I would learn through the years to ask God for situations that would arise, if I should continue on a certain path, or let go. When I would strike off on my own, confusion set in. But if I remained steadfast in prayer, an answer always presented itself. Maybe not the one I wanted, but in time, I would see how the outcome was for my good.

There was prayer during my year-long battle with scoliosis. Prayer for my brother, a change-of-life baby that Mom was told to terminate due to health issues.

A difficult time for my son in his late teens almost got the best of me. Fear and worry began to engulf me, threatening all that was good. The prayers of so many would carry us through this battle, and nothing harmed us.

I prayed in my forties about a man I met. I would have to move away from the town, friends, and family I loved. God's signposts pointed the way: Go. But I never knew that there was a reason even deeper than love that would bring Jim and I together.

Jim grew up with drinking as a normal every day occurrence. I hadn't been around this sort of behavior before. I didn't understand his issues with binge drinking, or the need for alcohol every day of a person's life. But I would see him begin to change during these times. With my heart breaking, I wondered if I had done right by marrying this man. I loved him, yes, but it all became too much. He changed when he drank. And I wasn't sure I would be able to withstand all that the drinking brought on.

I began in earnest to pray. Not the usual, "Lord please bless Jim, amen" type of prayers. I'm talking about honest to goodness out loud prayer. Bringing all my fears, anxiety and concern before God. I knelt with my face in my carpet with tears streaming down at times. I rebuked Satan out loud and cast him away from my husband. Yet year after year, the behavior continued. Wouldn't God answer this prayer? Would He ever show me the way?

I'm happy to report that this December will be two years that my husband is sober. Without getting into the details of how he quit, I know that it was my Lord and Savior. For even Jim had been praying too. And the powerful prayers defeated the enemy--the bottle--and the hold it had on my husband. He often says that I helped save him. I like to believe we were put together for this reason and many others.

Years ago, I remember meeting an older gentleman in the dental office I worked in at the time. He spoke freely with me about God. He told me the way to God's heart and listening ear were to ask Him. I keep a prayer journal and occasionally I look back on what that man said to me, and all the prayers that were heard through the years. The Bible says: Ask and you shall receive.

Life has not been easy or perfect. I've had many defeats and battles that were lost sometimes due to my own making, and other times, they just happened. I lost both parents within nine months of one another recently. But my prayers were different then. I was able to truly ask what was best for them. With my heart shattering, I knew it was time to let them go. My prayers changed and became some of the hardest ones to pray.

Yes, I've learned to ask. I've learned to listen. I've learned that it's not always best for me to have everything I've ever wanted. This life is meant to live and we are not meant to be perfect. That, my friends, is for our Heavenly Father. For He is perfect. Just ask.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Finding Myself





Daughter. Caregiver. Right now, I am neither of those. I can't seem to find who I am, this new person that feels isolated and alone. I miss my parents so much. They were a huge part of my life and their passing has left an awful hole in my heart. How many days and nights were filled with sadness in this last year? I cried watching my parents aging and heading toward their final days. I cried because the task at hand was so difficult. I cried when I had to let go.

I made the decision almost twelve years ago to move about an hour away from my parents. Still able to see them once a week, and always ready to go to their side when an emergency would arise, I was fortunate it wasn't farther. But in the last year, weariness would take its toll. The trips back and forth almost every few days weren't easy, but I wanted to be there with them during each of their health trials. I was so very blessed that my brother lived close. He had chosen to stay at their house every night also, giving up comfortable bed and privacy to be there for them in case of emergencies or need. He became their strength when they became weak. Yet we both had days where we felt we couldn't take another moment.

We've talked about it recently, my brother and I. There's a twinge of guilt when we admitted that it's been almost a relief not to have that constant low grade panic in our stomachs at all times. There's guilt associated with harsh words spoken when we felt we couldn't give another bit of ourselves. There's reliving their last days, the things that were said, memories we wanted to hold tightly onto. There's laughter and tears, joy and fears, emotions so raw they almost bleed.

There hadn't been much time for friends or fun. Many times I had to say "no" when asked for a get-together because I knew my parents' time on this earth was waning, and I wanted to spend every precious moment with them. My brother and I gave up so much, but gained still more. We gained the knowledge that unconditional love and care may be the most difficult thing to go through, but when you open your heart wide to give, to let go of yourself completely, you become so full of love and appreciation that you want the world to know. No longer do you care about petty things; gaining a few pounds, getting another year older. Silly arguments with co-workers or friends become something to giggle about as they lose their grip on you. Foolishness that once gave you pause and caused many a sleepless night, falls by the wayside. True beauty shines in these moments. And it isn't in the form you are used to. Grey hair, bent bodies, gnarled hands and wrinkles become glorious. Each facet of your elderly loved one is just one more thing to love and appreciate. They are God's masterpiece.

Stories become precious as they are told. Little nuances and habits become memorized for posterity. All the things you hold dear, remain with you forever to become your own story to the next generation.

So, who am I? I am first God's child, beloved and special in His sight. I may not be a caregiver right now. I may have to seek new adventures to fill the lonely void left by the loss of my parents. I've lost a little of myself surely, but I will find her, that woman God is molding me into. And when I meet her, I bet she sounds a little bit like my mother. For certainly that is what we really take from our loved ones--parts of them that will remain with us forever.


Friday, August 18, 2017

Late Summer Memories











The other day, I'd heard a droning sound from the tree in my front yard. On and on it rasped, the chirr of a cicada or whatever late summer insect leered down from its perch up in the branches above. All of a sudden, a memory hit, so powerful in its wake as it brought back sounds, scents, tastes and emotions from a time in my youth.

Late summer had always been a magical time for me as a child. My Italian grandparents didn't have only one vegetable garden in their own back yard, but they rented plots of land in back of other people's houses as well. I would accompany them for tomato picking, and the fresh green tang of the vine as it rubbed against my fingers left an indelible mark on my senses. Curly lettuce, huge Roman beans, green peppers . . .  I could imagine Nonna, later in the day, a bandana wound round her head, and an apron stained with the juices of fresh veggies splashed all over the front. I would await the crispy, dried braided garlic and onions which hung from the rafters in her cool cellar. A gathering of Mason jars, freshly boiled and ready for homemade tomato sauces, pickled peppers, mushrooms and more. Her walk-in attic always held trays of parsley and basil, drying in the dark upon the beds up there. The aroma would have put a pizza shop to shame.

It always amazed me that my grandparents were able to discern a good mushroom from a poisonous one. But that is what they hunted in deep woods as we spent long hours in Economy Park and other highly wooded areas while my parents chose to pick blackberries.

We would dress in long-sleeved clothing and long pants, though the summer days were stifling and humid. It never seemed to bother me then. Mom would say, "You don't want mosquito bites all over you." Or, "Those blackberry bushes have thorns. You have to wear long clothes." So we never questioned the importance of our garb, and off we drove in a car without air-conditioning, the windows wide open and the scents of summer flying by.

It would be early in the day as Dad parked the car. The long, dry, un-cut grass near the trails we blazed into the woods tried to tickle my clothing as I waded into it. The cicadas sang their unceasing song above in the trees, rasping out sounds only they could understand. Each of us carried a plastic pail just waiting to catch all the treasures of the woods within. Not a breath of air stirred, but the birds called out warnings to one another that their perfect world would soon be invaded.

Dad always gave me a long stick as we began our trek into the woods. "For snakes," he would say, though thankfully I never saw one. Nonna and Nonno would go off on their own for mushrooms, while me and my parents found hoards of delectable blackberries, bursting ripe and juicy. Though a few made it into my mouth during picking, most plunked into the buckets with the promise of hot pies and jellies. The slightly tart, sweet taste will always bring back my youth. These were the best times. For they were time well spent with loving family, talking and joking with one another and working side by side, though it never felt like work at the time.

When we came out of the woods hours later, Dad would always challenge Mom to a game of "hit the apple on the center of the tree." There were several wild green crab apple trees, and the rotting fruit lay at their bases, all worm holed and oozing. My parents would count how many times each of them would hit the tree with the small projectile, and it became a contest every time. I never chose sides, but cheered each of them on, enjoying their silly taunting of one another and name calling.

After a small snack of crackers, cheese and Lemon Blend from a thermos, we would pack up Dad's trunk with pails and bushels, bringing home a few of nature's tiniest bug critters with us as they clung for dear life onto the stems of our prizes. I would look up into the trees trying to locate the singing cicadas, but never quite able to view one. I waved goodbye to another year, another trek into deep woods, feeling perfectly safe, innocent and very much alive.