Mary Louise and Santy
Mary Louise could hardly contain herself as she sat by candlelight, sitting as still as a child on Christmas Eve could sit while her mother brushed out her hair. It was the middle of the Civil War and their plantation home in South Carolina was in ruins, but Mary Louise just knew Santa Claus would answer the letter she wrote.
“Now, don’t you go wishin’ for the moon, young lady,” her mother lectured her as she began to tie pink ribbons in Mary Louise’s brown hair, making two, perfectly divided pigtails.
“But if Santy got my letter….”
“I didn’t send Santy’s letter,” her mother said abruptly. “He couldn’t run the blockade anyway if I had sent the letter.” She finished tying the second ribbon. “Blame the Yankees if you don’t get no Christmas this year. It’s their fault.”
Mary Louise knew not to argue with her mother when she got into one of those moods, and she seemed to be in one of those moods all the time recently. After her mother left the bedroom, she scrambled to her desk and pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil and proceeded to write the very same letter over to Santa Claus. She had but one wish.
“Please, Santy, let me see my daddy one more time.”
Folding the letter neatly, Mary Louise went to the window, opened it and tossed it out in the cold night air. Her mother always told her Santa Claus was magical so she knew her letter would reach him on the winter wind of Christmas Eve. Content she had done all she could do to ensure a merry Christmas, Mary Louise closed the window and ran to her bed where she buried deep underneath the many layers of down-filled quilts. No time had passed since she closed her eyes, it seemed, when she felt a cold blast, a gentle ho ho ho and the familiar baritone chuckle of her father.
“Daddy! Santy!” Mary Louise whispered excitedly.
Jumping from bed she ran to give her father a big hug. She knew it had to be her father because no one could hug as well as he did. She sniffed. Yes, it was the smell of his sweat and a slight hint of his favorite Cuban tobacco. But Mary Louise detected another scent, unfamiliar, acrid, almost taking her breath away.
“I can’t stay long, darlin’,” her father said. He pulled her away. “Let me look at you. You’ve grown an inch since I last seen you. And still got that purty smile.” He hugged her again. “Always keep that purty smile, darlin’.”
“Oh, Daddy, I just have to give you a Christmas present!” She turned to Santa Claus. “Isn’t that right, Santy?”
“Yes, Mary Louise, that’s right,” Santa replied.
“And I know just what to give!” Mary Louise stuck out her hand. “Give me your tobacco pouch, Daddy.”
Her father pulled a leather pouch from his tattered, soiled gray trousers and handed it to her. Mary Louise ran downstairs to the parlor and opened a drawer in a large old desk. She gently lifted the lid off a humidor and carefully scooped out the last of the fragrant Cuban tobacco into her father’s pouch. She quickly returned and proudly presented it to him.
“It’s the last, Daddy. I knew you would want it.”
“That’s mighty kind of you darlin’. I’ll never forget it.”
“It’s time to leave,” Santa said.
“But I have to give my little darlin’ something.”
“Oh, Daddy,” Mary Louise said in a soft voice, “just you being here is all the Christmas I need.”
She watched her father’s eyes fill with tears as he pushed his long dark hair from his forehead. Her nose crinkled as she noticed his hair had begun to turn just a touch of gray. Mary Louise’s head cocked when he pulled his pocket knife out and opened it.
“I know. This will be from me to you for all the Christmases in your rest of your life.”
The next morning Mary Louise jumped from her bed and flew down the stairs to the kitchen. She felt one side of her neatly parted hair fly free of the pink ribbon, but she did not care. She had to share with her mother the happiness of her visit with her father, all thanks to Santa Claus.
“Oh Mommy, Mommy! It was wonderful last night! He came! He came! Santy came and he brought Daddy with him!”
Her mother looked up from her cup of coffee as she sat at the table. Her hands covered a letter.
“What on earth are you talking about, Mary Louise?”
“After you left me last night, I wrote another letter to Santy and threw it out the window. And he got it. He woke me up with his ho ho ho and when I opened my eyes I saw Daddy!”
“You were dreaming, child.”
“No, I wasn’t dreaming! It was real!”
“That’s foolishness! Now sit down and eat your breakfast.”
“No! I’ll prove it!” Mary Louise ran to the parlor, brought back the humidor to the kitchen table and put it down. “See, all the tobacco is gone.”
“That was the last of your father’s favorite tobacco. Very expensive tobacco from Cuba. What did you do with it?”
“I gave it to Daddy. I put it in his pouch. I wanted him to have it,” Mary Louise said softly.
“You dreadful child! You threw away your father’s tobacco as part of this cruel joke that he was here last night!”
“But it’s not a joke, Mommy. Daddy was really here. Santy brought him.”
She watched her mother sink into the chair, dissolve into tears and hold up the letter on the table.
“Because this letter says the Yankees killed your father at a place in Maryland called Antietam. I got this letter three weeks ago, so there’s no way your father could have been in this house last night! And why would he have come home and not….” Her voice choked. “…and not visited me?”
“Maybe,” Mary Louise whispered, “because you didn’t write a letter to Santy.”
Her mother arose abruptly and shook Mary Louise’s shoulders.
“You terrible child! How can you be so mean to me, especially here at Christmas?” She stopped and reached out to touch the loose strands of hair on the side of Mary Louise’s head. “And you lost one of the ribbons from your hair. Do you know how expensive ribbon is now?”
“I’m sorry, Mommy.”
“I’m so angry I can’t stand the sight of you! Go to your room and stay there all day!” She stepped away, picked up the letter and folded it. “I shall spend the day in prayer, asking God to give me the strength to forgive you. Perhaps all will be better tomorrow.”
Mary Louise turned and without another word went to her room. There she decided she would never write another letter to Santa Claus again. It was not that she no longer believed in Santa; no, it was because she decided there was no use in asking Santa to give her something if no one believed her when it happened. She pulled out a lock of dark hair streaked with gray tied with a pink ribbon. It was her present from her father. Mary Louise was afraid to show it to her mother because she might throw it away, and Mary Louise wanted to keep it forever.
Her mother forgave her the next morning and gave her extra jam to go on her biscuits. Her mother never celebrated Christmas as long as she lived. This is not to say Mary Louise never had a merry Christmas again. She had a life-long love affair with Christmas, starting with her eighteenth year when she relented and wrote another letter to Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, folded it and tossed it out in the winter wind.
“Dear Santy, Since Mommy hates Yankees so much, please bring me a nice Yankee boy to marry.”
On Christmas Day, a school friend, who knew Mary Louise’s mother never celebrated the holiday, invited her over for dinner. In the parlor was a tall, willowy young man with long straight dark hair and soulful eyes.
“Mary Louise, I want you to meet my father’s new assistant, Thomas. He’s from Ohio.”
Mary Louise was impressed with Thomas’s strong but gentle handshake. By that evening they were sitting close to each other by the parlor fireplace. Instinctively she leaned into him and he placed his arm around her shoulder. With her head on his chest she sniffed. His sweat smelled like her father’s. She sniffed again.
“Do you smoke a pipe?”
“Yes,” Thomas said. “It’s my only vice. I buy the tobacco from Cuba.”
Mary Louise and Thomas were married by the next Christmas. On Christmas Eve she pulled out the strand of hair tied with the pink ribbon and told him the story of her Civil War visit from her father. She also told him about her letter asking for a nice Yankee boy. He believed her. They had five boys and three girls, each carefully taught to write letters to Santa Claus, fold them neatly and throw them out the window onto the winter wind of Christmas Eve.
Three fir trees on the edge of the forest were chatting one morning in early December.
A huge fellow, about twenty feet tall and wide at the base, ruffled his limbs. “I don’t know what you two guys are planning for Christmas but I expect to be center of attention downtown this year. Oh yeah, on the square overseeing the Christmas parade. Anybody who is anybody will be there with their kids watching the parade pass in front of me. I’ll be lit to the max with lights and a star on top.”
“That’s nothing,” a ten footer with lush green boughs replied. “I mean, if you go for that common man scene where they let absolutely everyone near you, I suppose that’s okay. As for myself, I’m selective about my company. Not saying I’m better than anyone else, but let’s just say I have discerning taste. I’m winding up in the grand foyer of a millionaire’s mansion, decorated with only the most expensive ornaments and lights. I’m talking Waterford crystal here, and I’ve got the branches to hold them.”
The third tree, not more than three feet tall and with scrawny limbs, just stood there without much to say.
“What about you, junior? What do you expect to be doing on Christmas morning? Brunching with the chipmunks?” The middle-sized tree blurted forth a forced ha-ha-ha. A nice baritone but shallow as could be.
“Now, now,” the largest tree chided. “We shouldn’t make fun of our inferiors. We all can’t be the best, most important Christmas trees in town. Not even second best, like you who will be charming to a small group but not as the official town tree.”
The littlest tree felt like he was about to ooze sap out of sadness but knew it wouldn’t do any good. The other trees were right. Who would want him except for kindling for the fire? He wasn’t big enough to make a decent Yule log.
Just at that time a caravan of cars leading a large tractor-trailer truck pulled up in front of the three trees. A group of important-looking dignitaries crawled from their cars and circled the largest tree as the crew pulled its equipment from the truck.
“Oh, yes, I think this one will do fine,” a large bald man announced as though he was thoroughly practiced at making important decisions.
“Oh yes, Mr. Mayor, this one will be more than fine.” The others standing next to him quickly agreed with him.
The crew started its chain saw, chopped the fir down and laid it on the flatbed truck.
“See you never, suckers!” the biggest tree called as the municipal procession disappeared.
“Commoner!” the middle-sized tree replied.
A couple of hours passed before a long limousine with shaded windows rolled up to the two remaining firs. A chauffeur jumped from the driver’s seat and opened the door for a couple elegantly dressed in fur and leather. The woman, with her artificially colored blonde hair piled on her head, sipped from a champagne glass, while the man fixated on his cell phone.
“Oh, Maxim,” the woman cooed. “You did a wonderful job scouting out the most beautiful tree in the forest.” She ran her fingers across the chauffeur’s broad shoulders. “Of course, you do everything well.” She turned to the man on the phone. “So, what do you think Joey? Is it big enough for our grand staircase?”
“Yeah. Sure. Whatever.” The man didn’t look up from his phone. “Max, cut it down.”
The chauffeur cut down the middle-sized tree, carefully tied it to the top of the limousine and they got into the car to drive away.
“Good luck, shrimp! You’ll need it!” the tree called out as the car disappeared around the bend.
At the end of the day, the sky darkened, and a small old car rambled up to the small tree and stopped. Three small children poured out of the back seat and ran to the little tree.
“Oh, daddy, this one will be perfect!” they sang as a chorus.
“That’s good,” a young man in ragged overalls said. “Anything bigger wouldn’t have fit in the car.”
A wispy haired young woman came around the car. “Stand back, children. I don’t want you close when your daddy starts using that axe.”
“Oh, Mommy, you worry too much,” one of the children said with a laugh.
On Christmas Eve, everyone in town gathered on the square to watch the Christmas parade and ooh and ah over the beautiful lit giant tree. Floats rolled by, and the people on them pointed and shouted at the town’s big Christmas tree. Bands with drummers, tubas and more marched past. Each one made the tree feel prouder and prouder.
On Christmas Eve night, elegantly dressed couples gathered in the millionaire’s mansion and oohed and awed over the beautifully decorated tree by the grand staircase. They all drank champagne and nibbled on appetizers served on a silver tray by Maxim who also turned out to be the butler. The ladies in their lovely gowns asked the millionaire’s wife when they were leaving for their estate in the Bahamas.
“Midnight,” she replied. “We always spend Christmas day in the Bahamas. It’s our family tradition.”
Also on Christmas Eve night, across town in a small wooden house, the family decorated the little tree which they placed on a table in the corner of the living room. The room smelled delicious from the freshly popped corn which they strung and hung on the tree. The children kept busy coloring, cutting and hanging the new ornaments on the little tree. The room was alive with the constant giggling of the children, and the little tree decided this wasn’t a bad place to be.
The next morning, everyone in town was home, opening presents and enjoying Christmas dinner with family and friends. The large tree downtown had already been forgotten. It kept hoping to hear another oom pa pa coming down the street but it didn’t. The enormous fir shivered first from the cold wind and then from the loneliness. It couldn’t decide which was worse.
In the millionaire’s mansion, everything was dark and still. All the elegantly dressed people were gone. Numbing silence replaced the insincere wishes for a happy holiday season. The middle-sized tree decided all that Waterford crystal was making its branches droop. Not even Maxim was there.
Meanwhile, in the small house across town, the family gathered around the tree to open presents. The children tore away wrapping paper to see new socks and underwear and hugged their parents gratefully for it. Then they cooked their modest Christmas feast and settled back around the tree with their plates in their laps and ate every bite of it.
Now you tell me. Which was the grandest Christmas tree of all?
Clarice had serious moral reservations about having fun based on her genetic inability to smile or laugh. The best she could muster were slightly upturned corners of her mouth which her church friends interpreted as sweet and gentle. Those relatives who were required to observe the traditional Sunday dinner and afternoon gossip session knew that expression was neither sweet nor gentle.
On one particular Sunday, an attendee squirmed in the silence which had lasted five minutes or more had the audacity to speak up.
“Did anyone see the story on television last night about the little boy who sneaked into a balloon which his father launched over Los Angeles? It seemed the whole thing was a hoax. He hid under the bed while his father pretended to be horrified that his son would be killed in the accident. The plan was to land the family its own reality television show based on the adventures of the real-life Dennis the Menace son.”
Clarice arched an eyebrow. “I watch the Christian station from Pensacola. It has such nice music, and the pastor is a Bible scholar.”
Properly chastised, the relative lowered her head and remained silent the rest of the afternoon along with the other monastics seated around the room, one daughter, her husband, two children, an aunt, uncle and a couple of cousins.
“I don’t understand why my grandchildren don’t want to sit next to me. After all, they don’t know how long they will have their grandmother with them.”
The mother elbowed her son and daughter and nodded toward the dining room where the most elegant and uncomfortable chairs waited to be carried into the living room and placed around Clarice’s lounger. When the children finally managed to squeeze the chairs around the oversized recliner and sit, Clarice sighed.
“You didn’t have to go to all that trouble. The children could have just sat on the floor.”
Another hour of silence passed before Clarice announced it was time for her nap. The cousins were the first to escape through the front door. Aunt and uncle were next. Before her daughter’s family could make it out, Clarice sighed again.
“You could nap in the spare bedrooms and then we could have leftovers for supper.”
“The children have homework, Dan is expecting a call from his parents, I have laundry to do, you really need your rest.”
“If you really don’t want to stay I won’t force you. But I did buy those games I keep in the spare closet for the children to play, and they’ve never played with them.”
The following Sunday, upon instruction from their mother, the son and daughter pulled out the games and tried to engage their grandmother in a rousing afternoon of Monopoly.
“Do we really need to use all these pieces?”
A couple of years later, when the relatives arrived for Sunday dinner, they found Clarice dead in her bed from an apparent heart attack. The aunt and uncle cried, the cousins comforted them and the mother was the one who sighed. All of the relatives and church friends attended the lovely funeral and spoke incessantly of Clarice’s sweet smile and how they would miss it. By the time the last car pulled away from the cemetery, Clarice’s ghost returned to her home where she was appalled to see that her daughter had already begun packing up her heirlooms and marking each one, “Salvation Army”.
This was not the last indignity Clarice was to suffer. After a year of rambling through her empty house, Clarice observed her daughter finally selling it to a nice couple with children. The very first act of impudence by the family was painting each room a different bright color. Clarice was astonished that they didn’t realize that white made a house look more spacious. As the family members talked among themselves Clarice was further confounded that this was the very same family that had pretended that its son was on the balloon floating over Los Angeles. They had moved to Florida and now resided in her house which had always been a monument to silence and grace.
The son was now a teen-ager with shoulder length hair. The father converted the garage into a rock and roll studio and coached his son on how to twist his head around so his hair would fly in all directions.
“My dear Lord,” Clarice whispered, “why did you allow this family to move into my home?”
Immediately she heard a voice.
“Because, unlike you, I have a sense of humor.”
Many things didn’t measure up to Maude’s standards. If she didn’t like the way her daughter Janet made her bed Maude would remake it herself before Janet came home from school. When Maude retired to Florida and had a heart attack, Janet and I moved to live close to her. We spent the first weekend after Thanksgiving decorating her house for Christmas. The next time we came over we saw that all the decorations had been changed by her housekeeper. Maude explained it had to look just right in case her church friends came to visit.
When things didn’t go exactly the way she wanted, Maude’s feelings were hurt, although she always insisted nothing hurt her feelings. I pressed that I could tell something had gone wrong. She snapped, “Of course my feelings were hurt.” I should have had the good sense to know her feelings were hurt without forcing her to say so.
But she was haunted only one time, and the haunting lasted for years.
She and her husband Jim flew down to Texas for Christmas when our son Josh was about two years old. Janet and I found Tonka trucks on sale and bought two for him. They were almost big enough for him to ride. When Maude and Jim saw them, they had to buy three more.
Call me old-fashioned, but I felt like I was spoiling Josh by getting him two. Now he had five, and I don’t think he exactly knew what to do with them all. Janet, better acquainted with her parents better than I, gave me strict instructions to smile and thank them for buying him enough trucks to start his own landfill company.
Finally that blessed day came when we drove them to the airport. At the gate I handed Josh over to say good-bye to Grandpa and Grandma. I think he misunderstood my intentions because when he was ensconced in Maude’s arms he turned to look at me and, with tears in his eyes, said, “Good-bye.”
“Oh no, dear, you’re not saying good-bye to your mommy and daddy,” Maude explained. “You’re saying good-bye to us.”
When the situation was made clear, Josh leapt from her arms back into mine. He started stroking the back of my head. With a sweet smile he looked back at his grandparents and said, “Good-bye.”
Okay, I have to admit I liked having him pat and stroke the back of my head as we returned to our car. This was going to be one of those memories tucked away in the recesses of my brain and brought out when I needed a nice smile.
Of course, with Maude, that was not to be. For the next several years when we gathered together she would talk of the time when Josh was handed to her and he thought he was going home with them instead.
“Oh, the look in his sad little eyes,” Maude emoted, “and then the look of joy as he jumped out of my arms to his father. It just haunts me.”
A couple of years later when we visited them in Virginia, Maude purposely told Janet and me to stay at their home while she took Josh to her husband’s office. When they returned, Maude was elated. She told us that as they walked in, my son squealed, “Granddaddy!” and ran into his arms.
“The look on Jim’s face was pure joy. The women in the office ‘oohed” and ‘ahed’ about how much Josh adored his grandfather.” Maude inserted a dramatic pause worthy of any tragic actress. “That’s why I was glad Jerry wasn’t there. Otherwise, Josh would have stuck to his father and not gone to Jim.”
She repeated the stories of the haunting throughout the years until, against my better judgement, I asked her why it bothered her so much that Josh clung to me as a child.
“Oh, it didn’t bother me.”
“But the word you chose to describe it was ‘haunted’.”
“Well, I just meant it stayed with me.”
“That’s not what the word haunted means. Haunted means it covered you with gloom.”
As she often did when a conversation turned in a direction she didn’t like, Maude looked off into space as though she were talking to someone who didn’t exist.
“I just can’t say anything around him without him becoming upset.”
Marina Oswald awoke in a vodka-induced haze the morning of Nov. 22, 1963. Rolling over, she reached for her bottle, only to find it empty.
“Lee Harvey Oswald,” she slurred in a sing-song voice. “I need some more vodka.” When he didn’t respond, she repeated, a little louder, “Lee Harvey Oswald, I need some more vodka.”
“Huh?” He had a distant air in his voice as he cleaned his rifle.
“I need more vodka.” Marina giggled. “Don’t you understand good old American English? I want vodka.”
“Oh.” Lee stood, walked out of the bedroom and reappeared a few minutes later with a full bottle. “Here you go, honey.” He handed it to her with a smile. Then he sat and resumed cleaning his rifle.
“You are so good to me, Lee Harvey Oswald.” Marina put the bottle to her lips and sucked down as much as she could before it began dribbling from the corners of her mouth. “Why are you so good to me, Lee Harvey Oswald?”
“I guess because I love you so much.”
Marina remembered the first time she saw him bundled up in a fur coat on a Moscow winter morning. The only object she saw was this cute round face sticking out, all twisted up and shivering. He had the most delectable lips she had ever seen on a man. By that night she had him in her apartment and peeled off each layer of his clothing until he was naked. Her hands ran over his thin torso.
Before she knew it, they were married and living in a place called Dallas, Texas. Marina gulped vodka as she regarded him sitting on the edge of the bed cleaning his rifle. His slender arm muscles rippled as he rubbed a cloth up and down on the barrel.
“Lee Harvey Oswald, you are a sexy Marine man, do you know that?”
He chuckled. “Oh, I haven’t been a Marine in a while.”
“You still sexy Marine man to me, Lee Harvey Oswald.” After her third slurp, Marina carefully positioned the bottle on the bed stand and crawled across the sheets to him. “Why do you have to go to work today? I am—what do you call it—I am horny, Lee Harvey Oswald.”
“I’d be glad to stay home, honey, but this is a special day.”
“What makes it so special?” She ran her hands across his back.
“Well, President Kennedy is coming to Dallas today.” He paused wiping his rifle. “His car is going right past my building.”
“Oh, who cares about the silly old president? I don’t like him. He’s an old man.” Sighing deeply, the young woman wrapped her arms around his waist. “I like young man. I like you.”
“But I care about the president.” He disassembled his rifle. “I care very much.”
“Why don’t you stop playing with your gun and play with me?”
“I keep telling you. It’s not a gun. It’s a rifle.”
“Oh yes, I know.” She stretched her arms out to touch the weapon. “This is my rifle.” Marina lowered her hands to his crotch. “This is my gun. One is for shooting. One is for fun.”
She breathed on the nape of his neck.
“Marina, baby, you know what that does to me.” He emitted a guttural sound, but then he shook his shoulders. “You don’t understand. I’m making history today.”
“Don’t make history,” she whispered in his ear. “Make me.”
“The proletariat needs me.” Lee’s voice began to reflect his dwindling willpower.
“I am the proletariat. I need you.” Marina’s hands went up under his T-shirt to his chest. “Lee Harvey Oswald, Lee Harvey Oswald….”
He dropped the rifle to the floor and turned around. Marina pulled his shirt off him and proceeded to lick and kiss his stomach.
“You do this to me all the time,” he murmured as he lifted her head and kissed her lips. “You drive me mad.”
“I know. I love you so much.”
And that’s how John F. Kennedy would have lived to serve two full terms as president of the United States if Marina Oswald had been an alcoholic nymphomaniac.
I laughed (on the inside) the first time Janet and I visited her mother after we returned from our honeymoon in the Smoky Mountains. As is true of many newlyweds, Janet was kidding around about one of my human flaws. I have a sleep disorder so I am loud and twist and turn at night. I had warned Janet about it before the wedding, but it was worse than she anticipated.
Maude raised an eyebrow, an all-knowing smile perched on her pouty lips, and she lifted her coffee cup to take a sip.
“Well, you should have slept with him first, and then you would have known.”
Janet, who had lived with her mother for more than twenty years, knew better and said not a word.
I didn’t say anything either. But I did think I wish I had known about her cavalier views on premarital sex because we could have had a whole lot more fun on our dates. Not really. Janet and I always adhered to our own personal rules of behavior.
Janet clued me in that her mother often gave advice before considering all the ramifications of what she was saying.
It was a long time before I fully comprehended the extent of Maude’s penchant for quick judgements.
By the time our son was born, we were living in Texas so we drove to their little mountain town for a two-week visit. Each evening we would drive through every holler to visit Maude’s friends and relatives. By the weekend we had heard a litany of family problems and unfiltered gossip about the neighbors. We decided we needed a couple of days at Gatlinburg for fun time for our young family before starting week two of smiling and nodding as the rest of Maude’s family told us things we didn’t want to know.
After a couple of years like this, I foolishly asked if there were a way to have them all over at Maude’s house one evening so we could say hello to them at one time. She fluttered her big blue eyes.
“Oh, they work during the week, and you insisted on going to the Smokies on the weekend, so this is their only chance to see the baby.”
I wasn’t asking the kinfolk to take a day off from work, and I thought that Virginia mountain people were rugged enough to endure a drive to Maude’s house for an hour or two reception on a week night.
By this time I knew it was futile to discuss such issues so we decided to drop off at Gatlinburg for one day on our way to Maude’s house. But I could tell from the holy judgement in her eyes that she was not pleased.
Over the years I learned what Janet knew all along. It was easier to go ahead and do what Maude wanted in the first place.
Eventually Maude moved to Spring Hill, Florida, and immediately telephoned us to say she was terribly lonely living in her lovely, big new home. She begged us to move near her. We should have known better, but we did exactly what she wished. I still tried to defer to her better judgement. Our daughter Heather was about six or seven and wanted to go down the street to play with some friends, which Maude had selected for her.
“I’m sure your friends’ mother will have them wear a jacket,” she informed my daughter.
“What do you think, Daddy?” my little girl asked.
I lowered my head. My initial instinct was that the current cool in the air would dissipate in less than an hour (remember, this was Florida). I deferred to Maude. “Whatever Grandma thinks best, dear.”
“Oh no,” Maude said magnanimously. “Whatever your father decides will be best.”
Foolishly I believed her. “”It’ll be warm before you know it. Don’t bother with a jacket.”
“Of course, the neighbor’s children will be wearing their jackets, and we don’t want their mother to think we don’t care about Heather’s health.”
I put a jacket on her and send her on her way. I looked out the window to see that, indeed, the other children had jackets off. Within ten minutes all three jackets were on the ground, and none of the children suffered even a slight sniffle.
But Maude was right. Maude was always right.
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.