A Social Visit

“You were saying…” the strange woman prompted. 

Maggie sighed and shifted.  The woman had sat too close to her on the sofa.

“Come on, tell me what’s bothering you,” coaxed the unwanted guest.

Maggie had hidden from Another One the day before, but this lady had pounded the front door with her knock-knock-knocking. Maybe she’d go away if Maggie answered a few questions.

“My children don’t care about me,” said Maggie.

“That can’t be…completely true,” said the visitor.

“What’s your name again?  Why are you here?” Maggie demanded. “Are you with social services?”

“I’m Mary.  I sang with you in the choir.  Don’t you remember?”

“Oh yes, Mary.  Your boy ran off to New York,” said Maggie.

“That’s right.  He went to New York, but now he’s in New Orleans.  Do you remember the rest?” said Mary.

“He changed his name and danced on stage as a woman,” Maggie stated.  “He called himself Lulu.  Or was it Lola?”

“Lulu,” said Mary.

“And didn’t he go to jail?” asked Maggie.

“Lulu did a few bad things, but she’s turned everything around now,” said Mary.

“Lulu.  You actually call him that?  He’s always been Robert to me and he always will,” Maggie insisted.

“I do call her Lulu.  She prefers that.  I got used to the new name, and it suits her,” said Mary.

“I’m sure it does,” sneered Maggie.

Mary let the rudeness hang in the air for a minute.  She changed the subject:  “Did your husband leave you before or after your boys graduated from high school?”

“After,” muttered Maggie.

“Why did he leave?” Mary persisted.

“That’s none of your business,” Maggie rasped.

“I understand.  Sorry to intrude.  How are your two sons?”

“Fine.  They’re fine, but they never come to visit,” Maggie complained.

“Why is that?” asked Mary.

“I don’t know,” said Maggie.

Mary snorted a short burst and covered her mouth.

“You think that’s funny?” Maggie snarled.  “Wait till it’s your turn.  You’ll get old too.”

“But I am old,” Mary said.  “I’m older than you.  Don’t you remember?”

“Which Mary are you?  There were three Marys in the choir when I started.”

“Mary Schumacher.  I sang mezzo one row behind you.”

“Oh, I thought you died.  We sang for your funeral.  The church was half empty, and I thought, ‘Doesn’t that lady have any family?’”

“That must have been some other Mary,” Mary said with a smile.

“No, I’m sure it was you.  You had that queer son and a trampy daughter with five kids by three men.  She only married the last one after she got sick.  Did she die from leukemia?”

“Why yes, she did.  And Tom raised all the kids after she was gone,” Mary said.

“I wondered about that.  Only one of them was his,” said Maggie.

“Two, actually,” said Mary.

“Are you all sure about that?” Maggie smirked.

“What does it matter now?” asked Mary.

“Matters to some more than others,” said Maggie.

“Two are Tom’s:  the cute little girls, Katie and Laura,” said Mary.

“Well, some think that Katie’s pretty, but Laura has a flat nose and mousy brown hair,” said Maggie.

Mary said, “That’s right.  But we all love Laura for her sweet personality.  Her kindness makes her beautiful.”

“And she’s fat,” Maggie contradicted.  “Fat girls have to be nice or no one pays attention to them.”

“And skinny girls can say anything they want?” Mary ventured.

“Only if they’ve got big boobs,” declared Maggie.

“I see.  And did you have big boobs?”  Mary inquired.

“Course, I did.  Still got ‘em.”  She placed her hands under her breasts and pushed them up.

“That must be wonderful for you,” said Mary.

“Would be if I weren’t 87.  Now I’m just dried up and old,” said Maggie.  She let her breasts drop and wobble on her stomach.

“You won’t be old…forever,” said Mary.

“ I’m not as old as you and I’ve kept my looks better than you have, but I’m old,” said Maggie.  “I’m so old I feel every year in my bones.  I tell Kevin that I’m ready to go, but I keep living on and on, miserable and more miserable.”

“Well, I feel better every day,” said Mary.

“But aren’t you dead?” said Maggie.  “I sang for your funeral, and the church was half empty.”

“So, your boys don’t visit.  Why is that?” Mary redirected.

“One says he’s busy.  He calls me every so often but gets off the phone as fast as he can.  And he cuts me off in midsentence whenever I say mention his ex-wife,” said Maggie.

“The one who cheated on him?” Mary inquired delicately.

“Yeah, that one.  He doesn’t want to know anything about her and acts as if his first marriage never happened.  She still lives in the neighborhood and I see her at Publix.  She tells me what she’s been up to, and I pass it along to Kevin,” said Maggie.  “You’d think he’d take an interest.”

“Didn’t Kevin remarry?” Mary asked.

“He did,” Maggie said.

“Is he happy now?”

“I guess.  But her family lives up in Jacksonville, and Kevin moved there.  Ursula’s Mom and Ursula’s Dad and her two brothers and her nieces and nephews are important,” Maggie growled.  “I’m not that important.  I only see him twice a month if that woman lets him out of her clutches.  And then he stays for an hour, keeps glancing at the clock like he’s got more important places to be, jumps into his car and races straight back to her.”

“I’ve heard that he comes every week and brings groceries,” Mary said.

“Where’d you hear that?” Maggie demanded.

“And doesn’t he mow your lawn and gas up your car?”  Mary asserted.

“Only when he feels like it,” Maggie groused.

Mary put a hand on Maggie’s shoulder, and the old woman shrank away.

“My God, your hand’s so cold!” Maggie cried.

“Really?” Mary replied.  “Your house is so warm I’d think my hand would feel toasty.”

“Your girl died of leukemia,” said Maggie.

“Why, yes she did.  You like to talk about that, don’t you?  I remember that you brought that up a lot after choir practice,” said Mary.

“Did I?  I don’t remember,” muttered Maggie.

“Oh yes, you did,” Mary said.  A pleasant smile played across her lips.  “You had a theory that you often shared about her illness.  Do you remember your idea?”

“No.  Theory?  No.” Maggie stammered.

“Oh yes, you do,” Mary insisted.  “You wondered whether her pill addiction caused the leukemia.  You passed me an article about drug abuse and hepatitis.”

“Hepa—”

“—titis.  You never seemed to be able to distinguish between hepatitis and leukemia, but you were very sure that Chrissy caught cancer from dirty needles,” said Mary.  “And you wouldn’t believe me when I told you that Chrissy never shot up.

“Needles…I don’t want to talk about that,” Maggie snapped.

“You seem sensitive about needles. Are you afraid of them?,” asked Mary.

“Kevin’s sensitive…I’m not sensitive about anything,” said Maggie.

“What’s your other boy up to these days?” Mary asked sweetly.

“Not much,” Maggie whispered.

“Brett’s been away for a long time, hasn’t he?” Mary nudged.

“Not so long.  It seems like he left yesterday,” replied Maggie.  “I sang—”

“I heard a rumor that the police found him in Miami.”

“Miami?  Brett’s in Miami?” asked Maggie.  Her eyes teared up.

“They found him in a dumpster in Little Haiti.”

“What was he doing in a dumpster?” asked Maggie.  A drop rolled down her cheek.

“Still had a tourniquet wrapped around his arm,” Mary continued. 

“Shut up!” barked Maggie.

“The needle was gone, but there was a fresh puncture wound.”

“Bitch!” Maggie screamed.

Mary patted Maggie’s shoulder and said, “There, there.  Did I say something to offend you?  I’m sorry.  Folks get so upset these days about the least little things.”  Mary smiled sweetly as if she truly felt apologetic.

Maggie tried to pull away, but Mary clenched a bony forearm and held tight.  Maggie began to shiver.

Maggie said, “Who are you?”

“I’m Mary Schumacher from the choir.  I sang mezzo one row behind you.”

“But why are you here?”

“Just for a social visit.  You seem lonely,” Mary said gently as she tightened her grip. 

Maggie didn’t pull away.  Her arm felt numb, and the ice flowing through her veins had become soothing.  She nodded her head and began to slump.

“That’s right,” Mary soothed.  “You’ll feel better soon.”

“Didn’t you die?” slurred Mary.

“Not so much,” Mary offered.

Maggie straightened and swatted at Mary’s hand.  She couldn’t dislodge it from her arm.  She sank again and groaned.

“Leave me alone,” Maggie pleaded.

 Mary said nothing.

“Why did you come for me?” Maggie gasped.

Her voice faded on the last syllable.  Her eyes closed.

Mary held Maggie in her arms and rocked her until she stopped shivering.  A rattling sound briefly disturbed the settled quiet.  Mary stroked the white hair on Maggie’s scalp, put her blue lips close to Maggie’s ear and whispered, “Because no one else would.”

Sunday Morning WPPC

Winter Park Presbyterian Church

An eighty year old woman wearing a floral dress and red sweater crept along a sidewalk toward the Winter Park Presbyterian sanctuary. She smiled as she studied a white egret stalk with elegant steps across the lawn.

A mother and father wiped away tears after the youth minister described the trials their son endured after arriving three months premature. Minutes later the same minister baptized Oliver, now a handsome two year old. The boy sought out his grandfather for an embrace before the ceremony after kicking up a bit of a fuss, but he smiled when the reverend patted a wet hand three times on the top of his head. When it was all complete, he turned to the congregation and graced us with another smile.

The organist’s exit hymn started with a series of discordant notes that jarred until they sweetly evolved into a fugue reminiscent of Bach.

Two deacons sat down with me and offered advice as I asked questions about a new job at church. They offered, like other deacons before them, to field additional queries and to provide guidance as I took on new duties. They sensed my feelings of confusion and inadequacy and wanted to reassure me.

I ran into Will, Touckay and their two boys on the way out. Will had questioned me several months before about a “Super Chicken” t-shirt I had worn to a family get together. Now he said, “Every time I see you, I think about that cartoon.” Jackson asked, “What cartoon?”, and I explained that Super Chicken was a chicken with super powers who had a complaining lion for a sidekick. Jackson smirked at the happy absurdity of the premise, and his dad promised to show him some episodes.

Judy handed me a vase of tulips to carry out to the car. Oliver’s grandmother had circled the fellowship hall handing out bouquets to late lingerers.

Do It Yourself Wedding (With Help)

DSC_0410 (2)34 Years Ago

My wife and I did most of the work getting ready for our wedding.  Judy’s parents lived 12 hours away and couldn’t offer assistance on the spot.  So, Judy and I found a priest happy to marry us, booked a church and reception hall, hired a baker and chose a design for the cake.  Judy went solo and bought a dress she spied in a shop at the Dayton Mall.  We scavenged east side thrift stores for bud vases, located a restaurant supply store as our source for napkins, paper plates and table cloths.  Judy made her bridal veil and arranged bouquets using flowers from our garden.  She also picked Black-Eyed Susans for table decorations.  I designed the wedding program and folded forty origami swans.  (We placed the swans on the tables beside the flowers.)  We didn’t write vows, but picked out Bible passages, a poem and music for the service.

It felt like we did most of the heavy lifting, but we got a lot of help.  Jack, my groomsman, helped us get supplies and set up the hall the day before.  My Dad stepped in and paid the caterers at the reception.  Jack’s wife, Patty, shot the official wedding pictures as a present, and my brother-in-law, Dan, acted as a DJ at the reception.  My grandfather, Joseph Reger, sang a hymn at the wedding ceremony.

There were a few tense moments as we rushed around getting ready.  But Judy and I didn’t argue much.  We were caught up in the excitement of our first mutual enterprise.  And while we wanted the day to go well and to please our friends and relatives, we looked ahead with anticipation.  We reached forward for the real prize of spending our lives together.

judy-and-dennis

 

 

 

 

“Great Grandma Died. She Got Better”

My wife’s grandmother died in the winter of 1990 after a slow decline. Our daughter, Annie, was a few months shy of her second birthday.  Judy and I brought her to a small, dark church in Reading to meet relatives who’d never had a chance to see her in the flesh.  We figured that Annie wouldn’t understand the proceedings and be affected, and that the sight of her might dispel some of the gloom.  Relatives filtered in before the service began, and I attended to Annie as folks made their introductions and chatted together in small groups.

I took Annie back to Judy’s parents before the minister made his appearance as we didn’t think that she could make it through the service without causing a disruption.  Annie rarely made a commotion in public, but liked to socialize with anyone sitting near her.  She peeped over the tops of booths in restaurants and once charmed a complete stranger into handing us ten bucks.  He told us to buy a gift for our little darling.  Judy and I imagined her crawling along a pew to canvas mourners for their time and attention.

We had a snack and played on the carpet with dolls and stuffed animals. Judy and her parents came home, and Annie seemed unfazed by her glimpse of death and bereavement.  But she must have absorbed some understanding of the seriousness of a funeral.  A few days later she asked Judy, “What happened to Great Grandma Alma?”  Judy told her that Alma had died.  Annie grew somber and quietly asked her mother, “Are you going to die?”  My wife made a quick decision.  She knew that Annie’s understanding of time, at that stage in her development, probably stretched forward about two weeks.  She could understand and anticipate upcoming events only if they occurred within a short span.  So Judy said, “No, Annie.  I’m not going to die.”  Then she asked, “Am I going to die?”  “No, Annie, you’re not going to die,” my wife reassured her.

That spring we drove to Judy’s parents for Easter.  Judy’s other grandmother, Lily, attended the family dinner.  Someone must have told my daughter that the elderly woman with white hair was her great grandmother.

Annie had developed considerable language skills by that age, but did not know that “great grandmother” could refer to more than one person.  During a lull in the conversation, Annie got her mother’s attention and pointed at Lily.  Annie said, “Great Grandma died.  She got better.”

 

 

Two Weddings and Three Funerals (This Has Nothing to Do with Hugh Grant)

My family drove to a country church in a small town southeast of Dayton. Sonny, my father’s boyhood friend, had a daughter who had chosen to marry young. The arrangements for the wedding had been rushed, and she may have been pregnant. At any rate, we were all aware that Sonny was not pleased, and the bride walked down the aisle with her eyes fixed on the planks of the wooden floor. The priest took his place before the couple and began the wedding Mass. He opened his sermon with these words: “The divorce rate in the United States is fifty percent. Half of the young people who stand before me to take their vows have chosen a doomed path.” The priest smiled, pleased by the shocked reaction of the crowd, then explored the pitfalls of wedded life in detail. After the service, I asked a regular congregant whether the priest always spoke so rudely. He told me that the man was known and loved for his direct manner.

A young priest married my nephew Dan and his bride Rachel. I had trouble paying attention to the ceremony as my eye kept drifting up to the mural painted on the wall behind the altar. Jesus crucified gazed up to heaven with one eye, and down toward Mary and a disciple with the other. These two suffered from a similar ophthalmological disability. Although they faced away from the cross, each attempted to look up and over their shoulders at Jesus while also gazing forward at the clouds above them. Lazy eye, according to the artist, was a common affliction in Jesus’ time. The priest stumbled along during the sermon, and pointed up at the mural and said, “Marriage is just like this painting.” He might have meant that a good relationship involves sacrifice and putting your spouse’s needs before your own, but I assumed he meant that marriage and crucifixion (a slow death so painful that one’s eyes no longer maintained unified focus) were equivalent. I shuddered as I repressed a laugh, and my wife gave me a warning glare that promised suffering long and hard if I failed to maintain proper church decorum. “By God,” I thought. “That idiot’s right.”

My grandmother died when I was nine, and the unfamiliar funeral rituals shocked me. I remember sitting in a pew in a dark Catholic church reeking of incense and flowers. Grandma rested in the wooden box before the altar. I studied the service bulletin as I listened to the priest intone, “May perpetual light shine upon her.” A narrow beam of light shone from the middle of the printed cross and split the blackness of the bulletin’s cover. I suddenly saw my grandmother’s soul trapped in a dark place. Only a thin glimmer of light offered her meager comfort. And then a wave of fear washed over me as I wondered if there was any light at all, or if my grandmother existed in any form anywhere.

My great uncle Norby died when I was about twenty. I had become accustomed to memorial services and could follow the proceedings with more detachment. The monsignor celebrating the funeral mass had a pale, waxy complexion, and when he spoke he sounded as if he’d never had a moment of passion in his life. His monotone delivery gave away his underlying boredom, and he said nothing specific about the man who had died. Instead, he told us that Norby looked down from heaven and prayed for our sinful souls. If he had bothered to learn anything about my great uncle, the monsignor would have known about Norby’s wicked sense of humor, his occasional sarcasm and irreverence. If Norby witnessed this funeral, he would have laughed at us as we sat in the hard pews and endured the cold observances.

Another priest displayed a similar lack of knowledge about the character of the deceased, though the cleric spoke with greater warmth and care for the mourners. He recalled his encounters with my sister during the time when she still came to Sunday services. He’d asked her how things were going, and she’d reply, “Peachy.” Apparently, he remained oblivious to my sister’s dry sense of irony, and that “peachy” could mean just the opposite if one paid attention to her tone of voice. Or perhaps he didn’t see her reserve, her unwillingness to complain about her affliction. Or her habit of offering minimal feedback to folks who had no idea what her condition was like. The priest went on for a bit, and one would have thought that Carla was the Mary Poppins of ALS. He paused for breath, and Clare, Carla’s four-month-old granddaughter, let loose a loud splutter. She gave the priest the raspberries. Dan, Clare’s father, started laughing, and the folks seated around him joined in. At the reception after the burial, Dan told me that he was sure that Clare had delivered Carla’s rebuttal.

Sunday, Sunday

Aloma was wide open on Sunday morning, but a motorcycle came up abruptly and perched close behind my bumper before I’d traveled 100 yards west toward Semoran.  When we reached the light, he abruptly switched into the far left turn lane, made a U-turn and headed east.  A black sports car sat in the near left turn lane beside me.  A hairy arm rested on the top of the shotgun door, and a white script on the doorframe just behind him read, “Yeah, I know.  License and registration.”

A homeless guy wearing sunglasses,  a gray coat, and a tassel cap suddenly appeared at the head of the line.  He sported a thick but neatly trimmed beard and looked well fed.  He made his way between cars holding a “Please help me” cardboard sign.  He scowled as he ambled along, and I pretended not to see him.  Across the intersection a gaunt man with blond hair made similar rounds amongst the stopped cars.  He wore a heavy winter coat and walked with a pronounced limp.  I had seen him the day before on my way in to work, and then he had paced on the median without any sign of discomfort until a motorist pulled up to the light.

The motorcyclist growled to a stop in the far left turn lane once more (I recognized his green helmet and white and green striped jacket.), took another U-turn and headed east.  I said to Judy, “This guy’s doing laps.”  As we finally started up I saw a van blast through a red light four or five seconds after it had changed.  A guy in a low slung Beemer with gold plated drum wheels snarled by as we headed toward Winter Park, and cars tailgated and weaved in and out of lanes to cut each other off.

Church was calm, and the sermon did not particularly enlighten or offend.  I stood in line to get some coffee and water in the rec hall after the service ended.  An ancient woman toddled forward ahead of me, and a younger woman suddenly accosted her.  Younger said with a bright smile, “Wasn’t that sermon lovely?”  Ancient growled, “Today was all right.  Keep the stupid ones away.”  The younger woman’s smile faltered, and she quickly made her escape.  Ancient reached the coffee stand attended by a man in his eighties who kindly asked her if she wanted coffee.  Ancient glared at him and declared, “Not in those Styrofoam cups!”  He didn’t follow what she said and asked her again if she wanted anything.  She barked, “Not until you replace these cups!”  He didn’t comply, and she marched away with her chin held high toward a table laden with cookies and fudge brownies.

When we drove home the homeless guys had left their posts even though the wind had died and the temperature had risen five degrees.  Cars cut in and out, but no one seemed truly intent on maiming fellow drivers.  One sensed that an uneasy truce had been arranged.

Judy and I got lunch.  As we sat talking, I remembered a moment in the service that made our Sunday morning expedition worthwhile.  A three year old girl had sat attentively near the junior pastor during a “children’s moment” at the altar.  When the lesson ended, the junior pastor and the kids exited down the center aisle.  But the little girl wandered up the altar steps toward the lectern.  Her father hustled up, took her in his arms, and then led her in pursuit of the other kids.  I saw her mouth a few words to Dad as he hurried her along.  She said, “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”