“Why are you late?
My mother said that almost every time I walked in the door. Sometimes I was down the street at a friend’s house. His family had the first television on the block. Mickey Mouse Club came on at 4 p.m., and was an hour long. The first half was singing, dancing and acting silly. It was all right. I was too young to appreciate fully Annette Funicello at that time. When I was older she became Annette Full of Jello and much more fascinating. The second half was a serial. My favorite was Spin and Marty, two boys at a summer camp. Spin was a city street kid, and Marty was a naïve rich kid. At first they didn’t like each other, but by the third season they were buddies. As soon as the final song–“MIC, see you real soon, KEY, Why? Because we love you”—finished I was supposed to be out the door and headed home. In the winter the sky was getting dark at that time of time. Everyone knew if you were caught outside after dark, something terrible was going to happen.
The only situation worse was to be out of the house in the dark and dark clouds rumbled with thunder and lightning. My brother was bringing me home from the movies. He always resented having to pick me up places. It cut into his cruising time up and down the main drag of down. On the average I’d have to wait about thirty minutes on the street outside the theater. When I decided to start walking home, he became even madder I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.
“Why are you late? Didn’t you see the clouds in the sky? Didn’t you realize it was about to rain?” my mother said with a particularly angry exasperation.
Yes, I knew it was about to rain. I knew she was going to be hysterical, but there wasn’t much I could do about it since my brother continued to scour Main Street for a girl desperate enough to go out with him. Of course, I would never get away with saying that so I instead went into my sniveling little coward role and whined, “I’m sorry.” I suspected she gave up her tirade because she didn’t want to listen to me whimper. On the other hand, my brother jutted his chin up and out as he walked right past Mother without acknowledging her.
As a child I seriously debated myself whether I wished to bother to try to date when I was a teen-ager. The appeal of the young ladies hardly seemed worth the inquisition. If my brother came in after ten o’clock, she would greet him at the front door with her hands on her hips. She knew the movie downtown never let out after nine o’clock. You could drive a young lady home anywhere in town and still be home by ten.
“Why are you late?”
He tried to ignore as was his custom, but she blocked his path. Squinting she pushed her nose into his face.
“Let me smell your breath.”
“Aww, Mom.” He took a quick step to the left and escaped into the next room.
“Are you having sex with that girl? You better not get her pregnant!”
That imperative statement contained two major ironies. One, my brother did start coming in staggering from a few too many beers, and when he did Mother just stood there giggling, finding the way he lost his balance and fell on the sofa to be quaintly enchanting.
However, Father was not amused at all. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re scaring the hell out of your little brother!”
The other irony was that by the time he finally got a woman pregnant I was married and had impregnated my wife, and I was six years younger than he was.
The fear of being on the receiving end of the withering question “Why are you late?” tended to make any situation worse. One year for Halloween my mother took me downtown to a five and dime so I could buy a mask for the school festival. She sat out in the car while I was supposed to rush in to pick out the mask. I stood in front of the table and froze. Not only did it infuriate Mother for me to be late, she also blew up if I spent too much money on foolish things such as Halloween masks. I saw ones I liked but they were too expensive. Dithering for too long a moment, I finally decided on the cheapest thing I could find. By the time I paid for it and ran out to the car, it was too late—Mother’s face was crimson.
“Why are you late? How hard was it to pick out a simple mask? Now I have a splitting headache!”
Well, that took the thrill out of Halloween, and it was the last one before entering junior high school. Once you’re in junior high you’re too big to wear silly Halloween masks.
I soon found out the reason Mother had such a short fuse. She had cancer and died before I entered high school. All dread of the scoldings went out the window. After a while I kind of missed them. It wasn’t any fun staying out after midnight on a date because Father went to bed at 9 o’clock every night and didn’t know when I came in or even that I had gone out in the first place. In fact, I was usually home by ten o’clock anyway. After all, the movie was over by 9:30. We could make the drag a couple of times to see who else was out that night, drop by the local drive-in for a quick soda and still be home in time to make Mother happy, if Mother had been there.
I am now older than my mother was when she died. I’m still home by ten o’clock. I never had to stand by the front door demanding why my children were late coming home. My son hardly ever went to movies unless it was Star Wars, and my daughter always dated guys who had earlier curfews than she did.
With luck I have a few more years. Boring people like me usually live a long time. It’s too strenuous to do anything exciting. But I do know that when my life is up and I finally am reunited with my loved ones in heaven, my mother will be standing at the Pearly Gates with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her lips.
“Why are you late?”
Anyone who has been to one of my storytelling sessions knows I like to say, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Imagine my mortification recently when I discovered I didn’t make that up at all. Mark Twain did.
This is not the only instance when I think I’m clever enough to create a snappy turn of phrase. For example, I also tell people, “Don’t let facts get in the way of the truth.” Not mine. Maya Angelou said it first.
I’m not the only person to make this mistake. Of all people Helen Keller got caught writing a poem that had already been written. It’s not like she was eavesdropping and decided to take the words as her own. Her conclusion was that someone recited the poem to her when she was a child. As an adult when she thought she was composing it, she was just remembering it. Needless to say, she was as humiliated as I am now with my mistake.
When you think about it, all the good axioms were created by Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin or William Shakespeare. Just who did these people think they were, hogging all the best stuff for themselves? It’s hard to get credit for anything these days.
In addition to claiming ownership of bits of wisdom, I have also embarrassed myself by misquoting these smart guys.
For example, I gave Alexander Pope credit for writing, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell.” It seems Pope didn’t say that. John Milton wrote that chestnut for “Paradise Lost.” Even more embarrassing was the fact that Milton had those words coming out of the mouth of the devil himself. So this sentence is not meant as words to live by, but as words of encouragement to the folks already living in hell.
Speaking of Alexander Pope, I also recently discovered that I had been misquoting one of his actual sayings most of my life. I thought the expression was “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” He actually said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” It seems most words coming out of my mouth are dangerous things.
I shouldn’t be let out of the house without of a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations under my arm. I can take solace in the fact that all those guys are dead so if I take credit and/or misquote them it’s not a big deal. What they can’t know won’t hurt them.
Another way to look at my misappropriation of quotations is to acknowledge that it is really good for me. After all, who can be impressed with something an old guy in Central Florida says? Who’s he to think he’s so smart? But if they know I am quoting the best writers who ever lived, then they can think, “Wow, he’s spent a lot of time studying literature. He must know a lot.”
At least that’s my defense right now. Maybe I’ll think of a better excuse later. After all, tomorrow is another day.
Darn it, I did it again.
A leisurely drive through Cades Cove
A trip to the Great Smoky Mountains is not complete without a visit to Cades Cove. It has a sad history. Cades Cove, noticeably flat in the middle of the mountains, was a viable farm community since who knows when. Then we decided to create a new national park during the Depression, and these folks were told to go live somewhere else. Anyone born there could still be buried in one of the three cemeteries. They could be dead there but not live there.
You can take the one-lane road around the perimeter, visit three old churches, hike five miles to Abrams Falls, inspect a museum of how life used to be and maybe even spot a family of deer or bears. For your own safety you shouldn’t try to get out of your car to take close up photos of the animals or try to feed them. The speed limit is only 10 or so miles an hour. If you’re in a hurry stay on the Interstate highways and out of the park.
My son and I found ourselves behind a van with a retractable roof and four little girls. No one minded the stop and go traffic moving like molasses because, after all, this was Cades Cove. It was our first visit since my wife Janet died. But if she had been there she would have had a conniption fit.
Three of the little girls in front of us stood up through the sunroof, danced around and waved their arms like they were in a photo shoot for deodorant. What would have upset Janet was the thought that if the car had to stop abruptly or if it had hit a major pothole those little girls would have gone flying out of the sunroof like Peter Pan without the pixie dust. They could have busted their pretty little skulls or fractured their fragile spines. Then their happy memories would have been pre-empted by a dash to the closest hospital about thirty miles away.
When we thought it couldn’t get any worse, a slightly older girl slid her butt onto the open window and joined the joyous ballet of waving hands. If the door wasn’t locked she could have made a thrilling plunge into the majestic pastureland. And to top off the circus of fools, one of the smaller girls climbed out of the car window too.
This reminded me of the idiotic meme on Facebook about if you survived riding in the back of an open pickup truck in the fifties type in “It was fun!” and share. No one stops to think about the kids who fell out of pickups and died. They’re not here to share the meme on Facebook. I know the reply would be that they never heard of a child actually dying in the back of a pickup. That may well be true but we were children back then. We didn’t read newspapers and we didn’t listen to our parents whisper to each other about how terrible it was that the little Smith boy died. Just because our parents shielded us from bad things didn’t mean they didn’t happen.
And I could hear Janet complaining and cussing about this very topic as we watched the girls’ carelessly defying death as their parents giggled about how cute they looked. Thankfully by the time the van reached the regular two-lane road leading back to Gatlinburg, McDonald’s and Hillbilly Golf, the children returned to their seats and hopefully buckled up. Their adventure had come to a safe conclusion.
But Janet would have been cussing out the parents for another thirty minutes. Ah, the memories.
Reaching for the clouds on Clingman’s Dome.
I remember the first time Janet and I hiked up Clingman’s Dome in the Smoky Moutains. We were on our honeymoon. From the parking lot to the observation tower at the top it was only three-quarters of a mile. And paved at that. What could be easier? Then we saw the incline of the path—must have been thirty-eight to forty percent angle. We were just in our early twenties but it winded us.
When we got to the top the only thing we could see were a few pine trees directly below us. Who knew it would be cloudy up there on the highest point of the Smoky Mountains? The trip back down wasn’t so bad. We didn’t care. We were in love.
A few weeks ago on what would have been our forty-sixth anniversary I attacked the trail up Clingman’s Dome with my son. He didn’t mind I had to stop every few yards to catch my breath. I was very proud I even made it up the three-quarter mile. After all, I got a stent in my heart. What more could I expect? The sky was clear so we got to see more than just the pines under the tower. We were descending the spiral ramp when a teen-ager began up the ramp and asked us, “Is there a gift shop up there?”
When we said no, he replied, “Oh,” and he turned and went back down the mountain. I laughed all the way to the parking lot.
I think Janet would have too.
A couple of weeks ago my son and I went to the Smoky Mountains National Park for a week of hiking, eating, sleeping and no cell phones.
This location had been our favorite vacation destination since my wife Janet and I went there on our honeymoon forty-six years ago. I remember a funny story about the first time we took our son with us. He was about a year and a few months. We went with my in-laws. He was pretty much a daddy’s boy. He liked it when I carried him. Sometimes he would put his fingers in my hair and pat the back of my head. He also knew that I was the one who put him in his stroller and pushed him.
If you have been to Gatlinburg you know one of the favorite activities each night is to eat out and walk up and down the street until you are ready to collapse. One candy kitchen gave out free mini candy canes at some point so you had to stay up long up long enough to get your candy cane.
One evening my mother-in-law decided that my father-in-law should be the one to push the carriage so, of course, he did. I began walking next to the stroller where my son could see me. He casually glanced over and then did a double take. He stood up in the stroller, looked around to see who was pushing him and then settled back down.
My son and I decided to go on this trip and at this particular time because the end of July coincided with the forty-sixth anniversary. Cancer took Janet a year and a half ago, and we both still miss her.
We missed the way she liked the arts and crafts shops best. The T-shirt stores could make her giggle. She didn’t like candle and incense shops because the smells gave her a headache. She liked the candy kitchens. We liked to listen to her complain about stepping on the tree roots and rocks on the hiking trails.
By the time our daughter came along everything had become a ritual of what we did first, not at all and must do before we went home. Our daughter is now married with a child of her own, a husband and a job, so she was too busy to join us on our adventure into the past.
My son and I amused ourselves by trying to remember which rock Janet sat on to rest on the trails. I sat on all of them just to make sure I was sitting where she sat.
Of course, we would have preferred to have had her with us. But we can’t have everything we want in life, can we?
Excuse the quality of the photo of my son Josh. I used an old instamatic I found in a drawer.
I’ve been going through a lot of old pictures lately which have brought back some wonderful memories. There are some pictures, though, I won’t find because I don’t think they were ever actually printed.
Janet took them the first night we met. She was the public relations officer for an education cooperative and had organized this banquet for all the school officials in a four-county area. I was there covering it for my newspaper. I had introduced myself and then ended up at a table being polite to a group of strangers for the next two hours.
What I didn’t notice was that Janet was walking around the room taking pictures of everyone for a news release. It wasn’t until we were married that she told me she had taken several pictures of me just for giggles that night. When she developed them later she realized I had a napkin to my mouth in every photo. She didn’t bother to print any of them.
She had caught on film one of my little tics. When I am in a situation of eating with a group of strangers and trying to be charming I self-consciously wipe my mouth after every bite. There’s nothing worse than talking to someone at dinner and looking at a smear of food on their lips. I didn’t want to be that person.
I’m sure a psychologist could have a field day analyzing that bit of behavior. Perhaps the doctor could have made a few conjectures about Janet taking covert photos of a person she had just met. That doesn’t matter anymore, I guess, because it was forty-five years ago. Maybe it just proves oddball people belong together. Even though cancer took Janet away, memories like this one keep us together.
I’d still like to see the napkin pictures, though.
Recently I went to a birthday party at a local beach club. Janet and I had been there a few years ago for a community orchestra performance on the lawn along the sea wall.
The orchestra played well, and the sun was going down so the heat wasn’t unbearable. We knew several people there so it was like a picnic with music. As the sun lowered closer to the horizon over the Gulf of Mexico we realized the quandary we were in. The music was beautiful but so was the view. We decided to risk a chance we might be considered boorish and turned our backs to the orchestra to watch the sun go down. We still heard the music and got to see the blues, yellows and pinks where the water met the sky. I don’t think the musicians even noticed.
Since that evening my life has changed. Janet underwent the pain of chemotherapy, double mastectomy and radiation and then died of brain cancer.
At the party I sat with some nice people, and I was enjoying myself when I noticed the sun was going down. I suggested to my table mates that we go outside to witness the sunset. They all agreed it was a good idea, and we headed to the terrace, along with several other people who had the same thought.
There were the blues, yellows and pinks, just like before, and I experienced a sensation I’ve felt many times in the last year and a half. My wife was still with me. Instead of our backs to the orchestra we had our backs to the party, which I don’t think anyone minded.
As the last glimmer of the sun disappeared below the horizon, I smiled and whispered, “This is for you, Janet.”
Every holiday has its own memories of a loved one who has passed away, and Fourth of July is no different. Every holiday with Janet was special.
I don’t even remember Fourth of July before Janet came into my life. My earliest recollections were of my brothers lighting firecrackers and throwing them at me. They thought it was funny when I screamed and jumped away. Then after my mother died of pancreatic cancer when I was fourteen we never celebrated any holiday again.
My favorite memories with Janet when we were young were watching firework displays. On July fourth 1976 we lived in Killeen, Texas, and drove out to Fort Hood to watch its fireworks from the highway. What we didn’t realize was that they were doing a full-out pageant of American history inside the stadium before the light show began. If we listened carefully we could tell from the music and sound effects where they were. I loved Janet’s commentary:
“You mean they’re still on the Revolution? Why don’t they go ahead and defeat Cornwallis and get it over with?”
“I hear Battle Hymn of the Republic and Dixie so they’re up to the Civil War. Oh good grief, another hundred years to go!”
“Great! An Elvis salute! We’re almost to the fireworks!”
Our son, who was only two years old, was asleep in the backseat. We woke him up with the display began.
“Ooh, pretty!” he said.
Years later we moved to another town and our house was just down the street from the mall where they set off fireworks every July Fourth. We could watch them from our lawn chairs in the front yard. Some years we ate homemade ice cream, others we had watermelon.
The last few years we settled into the typical old folk’s way to celebrate the Fourth. We sat in front of the television and watched the Capital Fourth celebration on PBS and then on some network station the Macy’s fireworks over the Hudson.
This year I will be alone, my second July Fourth since Janet died of cancer. The State of Florida decided my son should celebrate Independence Day with an extra shift of guard duty at the local prison. Come to think of it I won’t really be alone. I’ll have my memories of Janet and her commentary on fireworks and the music.
And that makes me feel free.
Here are photos of us before we met. I think the picture of Janet was taken at her first job after college graduation. She was the public relations officer for an educational cooperative in southwestern Virginia. The picture of me was taken in college. As you can see, I had a drinking problem back then.
Actually, I didn’t have a problem drinking from public water fountains, but I had a friend who was a photojournalism major who liked to talk people into doing silly things in front of a camera. This one is not so bad. He talked another guy into lifting his shirt and contemplating his bellybutton. And, believe me, that person really should have kept his shirt down. A young woman in the journalism department told me it was beneath the dignity of the student newspaper editor to do anything that frivolous. I hated to tell her, but there was no dignity in being the editor of the student newspaper in east Texas. It was a part-time job that paid my tuition for one semester.
I never asked Janet what was going on when her photo was taken—it was a Polaroid—at her job. I don’t know if somebody was testing out the new office camera or if it was for a bulletin board with pictures of all the employees. Talking about a job with dignity, that was her job. The organization, Dilenowisco, pooled the resources of five school districts to get things done that would have been too expensive for any individual district. They were Dickenson, Lee, Wise and Scott counties and the town of Norton. I listed them not so you would know exactly which groups were involved but to show that after forty-five years I still remembered the details from Janet’s job.
When I look at her what I notice now is how delicately thin her arms were and the innately sad shadow across her face. Here we were, half a continent away from each other. I was so desperate to please anyone that I stuck my face in a water fountain and she—to me, at least—looked so lonely.
For forty-four and a half years I hope I was able to keep her from feeling sad and lonely, especially in those last terrible days when her cancer spread to her brain. The last day she was coherent Janet begged me to get her out of that hospital room because the woman in the next bed insisted on watching the television news station with all the “bloviators.” A nurse gave her a sedative and soon the bloviators didn’t upset her. When she was transferred to Hospice Janet seemed to be sleeping but when she heard my voice she grabbed my hand. On my last visit I didn’t know if she could hear me, but I whispered to her to get her rest because soon she would be busy as my guardian angel.
I didn’t know when the impulse would come over me to stick my face in a water fountain again, and I needed her to watch over me.
I came across a picture postcard of downtown Coeburn, Virginia, where my wife Janet grew up. If it had been a little bit larger the picture would have shown her house just off to the left.
My eyes, however, went to the main focus of the photo which was the downtown street with the stores on one side and the little mountain river on the other with a couple of arched bridges across it. Back in the late fifties or early sixties, the little river overflowed its banks and almost swept downtown away. That’s when the Tennessee Valley Authority came in and dredged the river, created a little park and put in the arched bridges.
By 1970 the town moved this old log cabin to the park and renovated it to be the community center. One Saturday afternoon the town dedicated a fountain in front of the center. I was the area editor for the Kingsport, Tenn., newspaper so I drove an hour up into the mountains to report on the gala occasion.
I stood on the bridge to take some pictures then moved in closer when the mayor’s wife broke a bottle of champagne on the fountain as the high school band struck up “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Coeburn only had two thousand people so turning on the water at the community center fountain was a big event.
Janet and I didn’t actually meet for another two months, but by happenstance she saw me that day. She and her mother attended the festivities—rather, her mother dragged her there because everybody else who was anybody was going to be there so they were too.
“Do you know who that man is on the bridge?” My future mother-in-law always had a sharp eye for details at major social events.
“No, why should I?” Janet replied.
On reflection after all these years I take comfort in her disinterest in a random stranger standing on a bridge. I also took comfort when she told me later she had been impressed with my writing in the newspaper. She said she assumed I was some forty-year-old man who was already married. It wasn’t until we met face to face and talked two months later that she took notice.
This is my advice to anyone going through a loved ones’ things after cancer or some other disease has taken them away. Don’t think of it as a sorrowful duty to be endured. Think of it as a new opportunity to experience the thrill of why you fell in love in the first place.