Table for Three

   My Nanny and I went to visit Mrs. Ruby the other day at the nursing home. She is one of the happiest people I know, while also being honest. She was born ninety-six years ago during a snowstorm in North Dakota, into a community of Norwegian immigrants. After the war, she and her husband returned there and built a house together, and she misses it.

    We brought blueberries, one of her many favorite things, and sat on the bed and talked to her. We talked, mostly, about her room, which, even in her pleasantness, fell from perfection as totally as the demons themselves. She has lived here eight years and it has taken her that long to tire of pretending that she likes it. There is not enough space for her few possessions, the door has no lock (enabling old men to wander in at all hours) and the windows overlook the congestion of downtown Augusta’s medical complex. She is not allowed to hang anything on the walls.

    “What would you say that was?” she asked, pointing to the one abstract and mass-produced picture.

    “Maybe goldfish?” I said, squinting, head cocked.


    There was a mirror over the little sink, but directly in the middle of it was a large metal paper towel holder.

     “I can’t see myself,” she said, moving on, clockwise. “That blocks my face completely. I asked them to move it. They just smiled and nodded. I may be old and senile, but you have to be some kind of stupid to design something like that. But the worst, the worst, is the food. It’s horrible to see what they do to vegetables. It’s a massacre, that’s what it is.”

   Visiting her in this place, even with the offering of blueberries, was not enough. Mrs. Ruby wanted out. The difference I’ve found, between girls and women, is the wherewithal to follow through.  I had all sorts of plans as a little girl. The plans continue to be hasty and ambitious, but results follow, and people even move in response, most of the time. It is so hard for the aged to lose this ability. It is a special, tenuous gift to be able to say, “Let’s get out of here and find some place good to eat!” and then accomplish it, in a matter of minutes. If this doesn’t seem like a marvel, you can neither remember your childhood, nor imagine your old age, and you’re missing out.

    So I found myself driving through lunchtime traffic with two of my favorite ladies, two delightful and fragile and trusting ladies, crossing the river bridge, getting a little corner table at Antonio’s and ordering pizza and salad. Nanny and I held hands and prayed, unable to get Mrs. Ruby’s attention, and then foolishly ate like Marines. For the next two hours, we sat and watched as Mrs. Ruby feasted. She ate the onions first, then the cucumbers with the dressing, then the pizza, picking it up with her hands, then the lettuce, all the while moving slowly, carefully, pleasurably, forgetful of us and absorbed in the experience. She ate it all, every last bit.

    I had just read that morning the verses in Deuteronomy about the Feast of Tabernacles. If there ever was a dispersed Israelite, living in a makeshift present, Mrs. Ruby is that one.  “Thou shalt rejoice in thy feast,” it says, and she did. With joy for what was— the home in North Dakota, the pheasants and moose, her own kitchen full of vegetables treated right, her husband and children. With joy in what is— the little table at a downtown pizza joint. And with joy in what’s to come— soon, a better feast than any she has known.

    There was a routine cognizance test waiting for her when we got back. The nurse had a list of mechanical questions. Can you spell ‘world’ backwards? Can you draw two octagons overlapping? Would you write me a sentence at the bottom of this page?

     Mrs. Ruby took it bravely on the chin. I thought of a few questions of my own. Could you leave your home in the vulnerability of your old age, cheerfully? Could you be bossed, herded and institutionalized and still have the heart to love blueberries and onions and cucumbers? Still have the pluck to enter the outside world and return again, unshaken? Could you wake up every morning in one of these unfeeling rooms and exhale thank you?

    As the nurse turned to leave, I looked over her shoulder at the clipboard. At the bottom, Mrs. Ruby had written in her clear, familiar script:

    It is a beautiful day to be in Augusta, Georgia.


When Mama Was Born Again

(For the prompt “Hope” and in honor of Mother’s Day.)


Shirley pulled back her light brown hair and laced up her boots. Her new-found dog whined and paced on the little porch.

“I’m a’coming, Sport,” she said.

They set out together on the one lane dirt road to go see brother Bill, who recently bought a piece of land further down Sprouse.

She noticed everything as she walked to reach the road. She was made that way. She knew the names of every tree and remembered each flower and bird as she looked it up in a book or asked someone.

This was a good bit of earth. Hadn’t she told Dave that when they first saw it?
“Your crazy if you don’t buy this piece.” she had said.

And so he did. He bought it for the both of them. Neither one had ever had a place of their own and now they did. Shirley turned to look back as she neared the road. Her land.

She had hoped it would satisfy her hunger and fill that craving she had always known. But it had not. Her uprootedness and homelessness was over, yes, but nothing had really changed.

The deep loneliness was still there. Even with Dave. Oh, yes, she thought for sure getting married would be the thing… that would bring the fullness. But again, her hope was misplaced. Dave was a good husband, but nothing had really changed. Well, she had stopped biting her fingernails, but inside she was the same.

Sport followed close behind. She reached back and patted the brown, smooth head.

So, here I am. Shirley thought. 25 years old: a land owner, well employed, happily married. And empty as can be.

She stepped out onto the road. It was straight and narrow. She breathed in sharp to see the light coming through the trees. Oh, how beautiful, Sport.

For the last few months her craving had grown almost unbearable. She needed something she didn’t have. Something just ahead and beyond her reach. So she started reading the Bible. Then she went to the church- the little white church, with the arched windows and hardwood floor that slanted downwards (towards the pulpit) and there she heard the Gospel, again and again, week after week.

She had been overwhelmed… everything she was reading and hearing, meeting inside with every experience of Christianity and every Christian she had ever known…. and these things wrestled or rested or just waited for some clarity. What was the deal with the commandments? How come some Christians don’t live that way? You mean our bodies are actually going to rise again? You think God cares about every little thing? He sees me all the time? How could he forgive my sin? Why would he do that? And over and over again.

A cardinal flew by low and Shirley laughed in delight.

“Did you see that, girl?” she asked the mutt.

As her eyes settled back on the road, she wondered- Now, why was I going to see Bill?

She couldn’t remember. Maybe there was no reason.

Maybe there’s a loving God.  It was painful in it’s pressing.

Yes. She knew it to be true.

But was it a question or a demand?

Standing there on the road, Shirley’s heart broke right open.

Was it while she was looking at the bird? Or was it last Sunday in church? She would never know, at least in this life, for sure. But here on the dirt road surrounded by trees, she confessed and opened her mouth for all to hear. She sang:
“I have decided to follow Jesus
I have decided to follow Jesus
I have decided to follow Jesus
No turning back, no turning back
Though none go with me, still I will follow
Though none go with me, still I will follow
Though none go with me, still I will follow
No turning back, no turning back.”

Never were those words sung in such truth and earnestness as they were that day, by my mother.

Everything she had ever hoped in had failed her. But no more. No more would she feel that God-shaped hole, churning and craving a fulfillment. No more would she cry out with no one to hear or despair in life or death.

She is still on that road. No, she hasn’t turned back.


The Hole in the East Wall

Written for a prompt from Sarah.

Once upon a time, in the Land of Squares, there lived a little girl.

She was happy sometimes and sad sometimes, she was good sometimes and bad sometimes, she laughed sometimes and cried sometimes and all of these sometimes could (and would) happen within the same day, indeed occasionally all within the same hour.  She was, as you see, very much like all little girls in every land.  In fact, the only way she was any different from you, gentle reader, is that she was a square, having been born, after all, in the Land of Squares, so this fact did not serve to make her special in her own country.

But in one thing she was peculiar.

There was a high stone wall around the Land of Squares- a beautiful wall, growing moss and ivy and succulents.  This wall was a permanent fixture in their world, they did not question it; it was like the sky and ground to them.  The philosophers and churchmen and poets could make much of it, but as the old Square said: it did not change what showed up on the dinner table.

This wall was solid, except for a small round hole on the east side.  Around this hole, was built a series of houses, and here the squares would send their sick or grieved for a season, as the air in this place seemed to be especially good and it was said that looking through the hole, would do you good-  more than any medicines or tinctures-  and give you comfort-  more than any food or wealth or worldly cheer- but the duties of the Land of Squares would prevent any one from lingering there too long.

Except for our little square girl.  Her home was wonderfully situated just a few miles from the hole in the east wall and she was wonderfully fast. Indeed she grew ever faster, for always she raced against her day’s duties to the wall, to peak through the hole into the garden- for that’s what it looked into. Not only a garden, the little girl knew, for she could swear she caught the scent of salt air through the opening and one evening she heard a whippoorwill inside, so she knew there was a sea and a forest there too.  The garden was ten thousand times more beautiful than anything she had ever seen in the land of squares- which was not an unlovely place.  No, the Land of Squares could be very nice when there were diligent gardeners and skilled craftsmen and learned architects and gifted artists all working together.

But the land on the other side of the wall…. it was so different.  How can we say it?  It was truly alive and healthy.  It was glorious in every way, thoroughly and forever.  Nothing could the little girl see that was not perfection.

And so it happened, that in her faithful loyalty to the other world and her continuos desire to go there, the little girl slowly became different, for the cares of life never kept her from sighing into the pillow each night: “Lord, let me go there.”, and the joys of life never kept her from singing on festal days, “Lord, let me go there!”.

Although she hardly knew it (sometimes she dared to hope it!) the little girl was loved by the great Lord of every land, who lived in the world behind the wall.

And so, because of this, something terrible happened.

‘An accident’ the squares called it.  ‘A dreadful nightmare’ is how they remembered it.  Our little girl stumbled one day and fell. She fell down a sharp cliff and over a waterfall, she was carried down a river, tossed into the rapids, beat upon the rocks and washed up on a dirty shore.  The wind blew on her and the rain fell.  She was lost for seven days and nights.  When they found her, she was grotesquely changed.  They carried her home and tried to bind and fix her, but as the weeks passed they realized there was no healing in the Land of Squares deeper than her hurt.

The little girl’s mother was appointed to tell her the news.  She sat down on the bed beside her sore and swollen daughter.  It broke her mother’s heart to see the little girl like this; she had been a beautiful baby- such clear lines and a sharp chin.  “My little precious girl,” she said, “I must tell you… you are no longer square.  The damage done in the fall beat away your corners.  You are (sniff,sniff)… A circle.”

The little girl opened her black eyes (they were green eyes, with black bruises).  “A circle?”, she asked.  “About how big would you say?”

Her mother made a round shape with her arms, to show her daughter.

The little girl sat up and grinned.

“I’d say that was just a little smaller than the hole in the east wall, wouldn’t you?!”


The Lion Story

painting 8

The Lord made Mr. Benny’s bottom lip strong and capable of protruding farther than normal, so that his cigarette could sit on it, secure, and both hands could be free for his work.

Mr. Benny had a heap of work.

He didn’t let that rush him, though. He was the last of the Salt of the Earth and everyone knows that the Salt of the Earth do not make haste. Or if they do, they make it slowly.

He was scooping out watermelon hearts the day I met him.
“I done grown so many in that long bottom,” he explained. “Sara said she’s bout sick of ‘em. So I just cuttin’ the hearts out. That’s all we eat anyhow.”
He stabbed the juicy pink flesh with his Old Timer knife, cut a circle of meat and handed it to me.
“I came to hear the lion story, Mr. Benny,” I said with my mouth full and then wiped the sweet-water off my chin with the back of my hand.

He didn’t say anything at first, just kept steady working through his melon pile.
I was thinking maybe he didn’t hear me and getting up the courage to ask again, when he leaned back, reached into his shirt pocket, rolled a cigarette and stuck it in his lip-shelf.
Then he began:

“Well now, I gotta tell you ‘bout another world first. The world I grew up in, it ain’t like this here world. I reckon you know what I’m talkin’ about. The road into Augusta was a one lane dirt road, with farms scattered down to the river, then we’d cross Fury’s Ferry barge and head downtown where all the action was, about 20 miles it was. We’d walk our cows into town to sell ‘em. We’d go with Mama shoppin’ sometimes, and then we’d get to use the wagon. No, it ain’t the same world…. I remember when they first came up with income tax,” he narrowed his eyes and clenched his jaw, so that his moist cigarette bent in two.   “Ain’t had no peace since them d— revenuers.”

After a long pause in which Mr. Benny chewed on that poor cigarette, I was afraid his train of thought had been derailed for sure. I’d heard some colorful stories about the Dang Revenuers, as they were unaffectionately called around these parts, but that wasn’t what I came to hear.
As if he read my thoughts, Mr. Benny looked up sharp and his bright blue eyes met my hazel ones.

“Sos, one day,” he said, “We heard tell that the World’s Traveling Zoo was coming to Augusta.”

He paused again. I nodded and smiled, as if to say: “That’s good. Keep-a-going!” But Mr. Benny didn’t take the hint. The pause wasn’t finished yet.

He leaned over and spit into the dirt. As if to say, “Easy does it sister. What’s your hurry?” I realized that I didn’t have to worry. Mr. Benny had started this story good and strong, and the Salt of the Earth don’t start what they can’t finish. I leaned back and (in lieu of a cigarette) grabbed another watermelon heart to suck on.

“Yes, sir,” he went on. “The peddler came and told us. Mama gave ‘em a chicken and he gave ‘er some fabric, a bag of brown sugar and 6 peppermints. One fer each of us. Then he told us ‘bout the zoo. Mama told ‘em we weren’t interested in that mess, she did. She said we had too much work fer that foolishness. But Stanley and I, we couldn’t sleep fer weeks, fer to thinkin’ on it. And when the day came, we could hardly eat our supper. But we did, cause Mama would’ve noticed. We went to bed in our clothes and waited. Seemed like Daddy never would go to sleep that night. Finally the house was quiet. We opened the window. We’d greased it real good. Yes, sir- we’d thought about this, sure ‘nough. Then we took off to Augusta. The miles never went so fast, I tell you. We saw things that night that filled our minds fer years. I’d never en’ heard of an elephant- and there we were, 10 feet from one! There were monkeys, a giraffe, foreigners – the whole shee-bang. It was something else.”

He stopped to put another cigarette in his mouth. I’m not sure what happened to the last one. It might have just dissolved.

“Soon it was time to head home, but before we left Stanley and I overheard some folks talkin’ bout the lion.
“Supposed to be a lion,” one said.
“Didn’t ye hear?” said the other. “The lion done escaped. This morning they went to fed ‘em and ‘e was cleared out. Chewed through the cage.”
My blood ran cold at them words. Stanley and I was pretty close, and when I looked at him, I reckon his did too, but he grinned. Stanley always did have a powerful grin! Daddy used to say he’s like a bird-dog. Good to have around, loud, fun-loving- but Stanley’s fer Stanley, if you know what I mean. I didn’t. Until that night.”

He paused for dramatic effect, as he heard his daddy and granddaddy do before him.

“That road back home was longer than it’d ever been before. We was so dog-tired, but we hurried on, cause we was trying to get home before Daddy woke up. There was a full moon. We met up with some friends at the Ferry, who took us as fer as Hell’s Neck in their wagon. Then we still had a few miles to go. Stanley decided we’d take a cut through and get off the main road. “Shortcut” he said. Though I still mean to pace it one day an’ see if he was right. No sooner did we take that deer path, when we heard It….. There was something behind us. It moved when we moved, and stopped when we stopped. And it weren’t no mans, feet neither. I weren’t no more than 12, but I knew’d a beast when I heard one.
“Coyote?” I whispered to Stanley. He don’t say nothing. “Panther?” He just keep walkin’ fast.
I was lookin’ fer to Stanley to call the shots and finally he says, “Run!”
We ran, lemme tell you, we ran. And all the time something on our tales, like a fox on a turkey. We was nearin’ the home stretch when my legs started given out. I was smaller ‘en Stanley then see. Well, I reckon this’s when the bird dog came out’a him. Stan, he says: “Benny, you can’t move no faster ‘an that, you might as well step aside!”

“No!” I exclaimed, “He didn’t!”

“Sure ‘nough, he did! And ain’t never acted sorry ‘bout it since!”

We laughed together and shook our heads.

“Well being caught in the back, so close to the home-place was ‘nough to make me move like I done never moved, before or since. Stanley an’ I was neck to neck when we reached the yard, jumped over the fence and fell on the front door. Our fear of Daddy weren’t no longer our strongest sen-sation. I was ready for a hundred peach tree switches, just as long as I could get inside.”

He laughed, low and long.

“Well?” I asked. “What happened then?”

He seemed surprised. He reached up and moved his ball-cap back.

“Did you get switched?” I asked.

“Well, you know…. I can’t rightly remember.” he said vaguely.

“What about the lion?” I asked desperately.

“Well, I reckon he’s still out there,” he said matter- of- fact-ly. He got up with a heave, picked up his watermelon-heart bowl and headed toward the house.

“Ain’t nobody seen him!” I yelled after him.

“Ain’t nobody not seen ‘em either,” he said mysteriously and spit over his shoulder.


(This is another piece born of a prompt from my friend Sarah.  Look for a Spring post soon!)