Rose Cosca was seventeen when she and her family drove thirteen hours from Baltimore, Maryland to Lansing, Michigan, where she would be presented as one of the many bridal candidates at the annual festa. She had absolutely no desire to marry anyone then. But she was “of age,” and in 1958, it was expected. Each year, young men from her family’s village in Calabria made their way by boat, in third-class accommodations, from Italy to Canada, then would cross the border, ending up at a rented tract of land adjacent to St. Fazzio’s Church.
Extended families would visit from as far as California, setting up tables with their signature dishes. The rich smells of baked zucchini, fried eggplant, stuffed peppers, and meatballs and sausage carried across the field on the warm breezes, inviting hungry young suitors up to the table, perhaps to try a helping of manicotti and meet the daughter.
Obligingly, Rosie was helping “Nanoots”—her grandmother—dish out stuffed peppers when her Uncle Paul pulled her over to him and she stopped face-to-face with a young man at his side. Louis Donotaglia wasn’t tall, but taller than she was. He was lean, with thick, black, wavy hair, and he had a kind face. He had a sweet smile that belied his age, which was six years older than Rosie. The way he said “Hello,” Rosie could tell that he didn’t know much more English than that. She knew that one of her first wifely duties would be to teach him.
By June of 1973, Rosie had long since perfected her grandmother’s recipes, and she was now known for her stuffed peppers. They would be a staple at her husband Louie’s new restaurant, Nanoot’s. If he could just get Joe Bono to invest for the rest that they hadn’t saved for. Joe had worked side-by-side with Louie for ten years on a four-color printing press at American Bank Stationery before inheriting his father’s auto repair and parts shop. Joe felt that it was too much of a mouthful for Americans he might do business with to pronounce Guiseppe Bonofiglio, so he went by Joe Bono, which the guys at the presses had already been calling him for years.
The restaurant was a gamble, but Louie promised Rosie that with his business sense and her authentic Italian cooking, they couldn’t miss. Louie had enjoyed Rosie’s cooking for their whole marriage, and before, even though she couldn’t recall one time his “business sense” gained them anything beyond securing an extension to paying off their Zenith television. But once Louie committed to this idea, Rosie found that she, too, wanted this restaurant, perhaps more than Louie. It had once been a dream of hers, long ago, and—until recently, when Louie told her this idea—forgotten. He wanted to be a business owner. Rosie, however, wanted something else. Yes, to make people happy with her food, but also for a chance to shine as the real reason that restaurant would succeed. And not for praise at the local bar or social club or in the gossip on the marble stoops. Just because it’s what she wanted, and that should be enough.
Louie could feel Joe was interested in investing, but he just wouldn’t commit. His “plan,” he told Rosie, was to “fill Joe Bono with wine and stuffed peppers at the festa and casually bring the restaurant up again while he was in a festive mood.”
“What’s holding him back?” Rosie asked. She found now that she was becoming overwhelmed with anxiousness by the idea of the restaurant, the menu, her menu, and even naming it after her grandmother, which she had fantasized about well before Louie Donotaglia emigrated into her life. And after fifteen years, she felt she had earned it, having given up her dream, raising two kids, keeping house and taking her place as Louie’s wife and, too often, surrogate mother. She loved Louie, now, of course she did, she had little doubt. Still, this restaurant, this chance, could make the years ahead more...not bearable, that’s not the word. Welcome. Yes, she wanted to welcome the future again, like she had done as a girl learning how to cook, standing closely to her nonna in her cuchina.
“I don’t know. I’ll soften him up,” Louie assured her, as he ran his hand over his now grey-streaked hair, pressing it back in place.
“What if I—”
“Please, Rosie. I’ll take care of it. You just make the food. You do your part, and I handle the rest.”
“I was just—”
“Ahp, ahp!” Louie sounded, his fingers spread at his mouth, “C’mon. The kids are already there. We’re going to be late.”
Rosie stood with her hands on her hips, absorbing the lion’s roar, her master’s voice. She wanted to call him back and hash things out a little more, but she knew it was no use. That wasn’t part of the bargain. In fact, there was no bargain. And he wouldn’t have it. That wasn’t her role, to offer guidance in matters of business. In her world, her neighborhood, things were a bit behind the curve, especially for first-generation immigrants from the old country and their young, blindly betrothed brides.
Helen Reddy’s roar had yet to breach the Formstone-covered brick walls of Little Italy. And bra burning? Not at the current price of bras, even if Hochschild Kohn's were offering a three-for-one sale. Not a chance. Not these good Catholic ladies. That’s not to say that progress wasn’t being made on the feminist front. It’s just that the terrain was a little different and a bit trickier to navigate in some Baltimore enclaves and warrens than perhaps a college campus. The playing field wasn’t in the streets and in the boardroom, it was in the bedroom, at the dinner table, and in the kitchen.
Rosie gathered up her Pyrex casserole dish and a covered pastry tray and followed Louie out the door and down Exeter Street to St. Leo’s. For years, it had been expected that Rosie would bring her peppers to the Italian Festival, which had been celebrated each year following the 1904 Great Fire of Baltimore, to thank St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost or stolen items, who it was believed to have helped spare Little Italy. Of course, she wasn’t selling her peppers from one of the stalls outside St. Leo’s, along Exeter and Stiles streets, lined with the booths serving typical Italian and festival fare, sausage and peppers, spaghetti and meatballs, fried dough, and plenty of beer and wine. Rosie cooked for the real feast, which was in the basement hall, for a select number of families, close friends, a few parishioners, and Father Francesco. Rosie’s stuffed peppers were a staple. As well, Rosie’s turdillis were a “given” to take first place again in the dessert contest, which was laid out upstairs in the main Fellowship Hall. It was judged each year by Father Francesco, whose palette was sophisticated enough to recognize quality, old country flavor.
No one outside three or four women, Rosie imagined, stood a chance to unseat her turdillis. Although it was just a friendly baking competition, there was a hierarchy based on baking prowess recognized among the older women. A reputation to uphold. While the men were rated by way of providing for their families, these women had to find other avenues to pursue and achieve status.
Rosie would lament that nowadays, too many of the young women didn’t put in the care or the time in their baking. She heard the other women’s boastful complaints: “I had to get up yesterday at four in the morning to start my bombolone to get the flavors just right for today”—said with a flourish of the hand. But this was June, and Rosie had begun her turdillis in February.
Though she had heard women in the neighborhood make turdillis with grape juice, Rosie would Pfft! in dismissal. “If you want it right, you have to use Moscato wine in the dough, not that bambino drink. And the dough,” she would add, “the dough has to be pressed on a gnocchi pagaia. You know, the board thing. The paddle. Gnocchi roller paddle! They use a fork, and it’s lazy,” she said, pointing to the neighborhood.
Her real twist was using grape jelly, but “only from Welch’s, of course,” and just a dollop of honey, because she had found that more people than not actually didn’t like honey.
“What is your glaze?” the women would ask.
“Just something a little sweet, dolce, but not too.” She would pack the little oval pastries in a Hills Brothers coffee can and keep them hidden down in the cellar for the next four months until the night before the festa.
As the festival was underway, the hall beneath St. Leo’s was pulsating and warm with activity. All those bodies and baked dishes, the fans dotted around the perimeter doing nothing more than blending the aromas into one great Italian stew of smells. The men sat around the tables, scraping their plates clean, absorbing every last drop with fists full of fresh-baked bread, and guzzling red wine and cold beer from the pitchers at the center of the tables. Some had already unbuttoned and unzipped their trousers, reclining back to let their unencumbered bellies digest. Intermittent belches could be heard, an old-country compliment to the cook. Had they been at home, their wives would have happened by, kissed them on the head, and thanked them.
The back door swung open for more ice delivery, and music burst in like a drunk. A nearby accordion was playing a rousing version of “Funiculì, Funiculà,” which could just be heard over Al “Madman” Baitch’s saxophone from the main stage, blaring like a buzz saw, soaring across the Inner Harbor, almost to Fort McHenry.
In the kitchen, the women stretched cling film and tin foil over the leftovers. Rosie scraped crusted bits of red gravy and green pepper out of the Pyrex baking dish, the sounds and the smells transporting her back to Nanoots’ kitchen where her nonna, heavy-footed and slow, slid her graceful little steps back and forth across the floor between the spice rack and the stove, tossing pinches and punches of spices and herbs into a big steel pot. No recipe book, no measuring spoons, just touch, smell, taste. She always hummed the same old folk tune, up-tempo, and from time to time would sing words in Italian and broken English. Something about a man who drove some sort of cart was all Rosie could pick out. What Rosie wouldn’t give to be back in that room just once more, being groomed to be a pioneer, she felt, not a housewife only.
Just then, her vision focused on the table with Louie, Joe Bono, and Joe’s young wife, Patricia. Among many of the women, her name wasn’t just Patricia. It was Joe’s-young-wife-Patricia. She was fifteen years younger, in fact. She wore her dark hair long and straight, as though she had emigrated from Haight-Ashbury, not Overleigh. She wore a tight t-shirt and denim shorts. Child! Rosie thought. And those pizzelles she made. Pfft! Wouldn’t use them for drink coasters. Though one thing was clear to everyone: Joe was absolutely gaga.
Rosie watched Joe watch his young bride. Rosie then watched Louie watch Joe’s young bride. Rosie placed the dish on the counter and crossed to their table, her hips weaving in between the diners, her eyes unblinking and locked in on her target. Approaching the threesome, Rosie mouthed to Louie, Well? And he responded with a discreet head shake No. Rosie heard Joe finishing his sentence, something about Nixon as she reached the table, and she waved her hand out. “That man—cretino!”
Louie and Joe both swiveled their heads and stared at Rosie, mouths open, eyes wide. Joe looked at Louie and then back at Rosie.
“Rosie, I couldn’t swallow another bite,” Joe said to her. “Those
peppers! Squisito!” “Really tasty,” Joe’s young wife added.
“Grazie mille!” she smiled down to her. “Louie, have you seen the kids?”
“I just gave them each a few dollars for St. Anthony and the nickel wheels.”
“I need you to help me with a can out back.”
“I’m full of f—“
“I really need you to help me with a can out back,” she repeated without blinking and smiling the same tight smile she thanked Patricia with.
Louie buttoned his trousers and zipped up his fly and stepped in behind Rosie, who didn’t speak a word until they were outside. Just down the walkway, men were at another side door, carrying in the statue of St. Anthony, covered in layers of paper money from being paraded through the streets behind altar boys and girls dressed from the old country, looking now as though he had been tarred and dollared.
“What!” Louie demanded.
“Don’t start that tone with me,” she said, her index finger in the air. “I saw you looking at Joe Bono’s young wife.”
“What? No. I— I—”
“‘I, I’ nothing. I was watching you!”
“We were talking! We were all talking….”
Rosie wasn’t the least concerned whether he was staring at Joe’s young wife or not. Lots of men stared. She thought she might even be worried if he didn’t. But that was neither here nor there. She just needed Louie on the defensive.
“And what is the hold-up? He’s had his peppers! He’s had his wine! He’s got that little piece of stuff giggling in his ear, when she should be helping the rest of us, but the good Lord and everyone else knows she can’t boil a noodle. And you! YOU!” Rosie was pointing into Louie’s chest now. “What about your plan? Mr. Business! We need this. I need this!” she said, pointing into her own chest now.
“Basta! Lower your voice! I got everything under control. Oobatz! What’s wrong with you?” Louie looked side to side, running his hands over his head from his forehead to the back of his neck, pressing his hair down, back in place.
“‘Oobatz?’ Me oobatz? I see you sitting on your culo, stuffing your belly with peppers and wine, laughing it up with Joe Bono and his young little wife and her cantaloupes while I’m in the kitchen wet through. Maybe you’re right, I am the crazy one.” Rosie was still tugging at her dress, emphasizing its weight from her sweat,
Louie placed his hands on Rosie’s shoulders and kissed her forehead. “I take care of everything. Come back in. Have some wine. Trust me,” Louie whispered and turned to go back in.
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. C’mon.”
“In bocca al lupo!” Rosie said to the back of his head.
“You mean that?” Louie turned.
“Sure I do...Good luck, Rockefeller!”
Both waved a dismissing hand in the air.
About to enter the kitchen again, Rosie saw, out of the corner of her eye, Father Francesco walking in the door in the far corner of the hall, chewing and brushing crumbs off his shirt.
“Ma certo!” Rosie said aloud to herself. “How could I have forgotten?” Rosie snapped her fingers and casually disappeared through the door Father Francesco had just entered, knowing she didn’t have much time.
Two minutes later, Rosie walked back in, tucking in bits of her hair, looking as though she were finishing what she would have started if she had gone to the ladies’ room. She walked the perimeter of the room and reached her table just as Father Francesco was passing. “Have some wine, Father,” Louie said up to him.
“No, no. Thank you. I am stuffed to my collar from sampling all those desserts upstairs. The judging is done. You all should go up and open the doors to let the others in to eat.” Father Francesco seemed to be saying the last two sentences just to Rosie, the sweat causing what little hair that was left on his head to curl into little dark ringlets.
“Oh, let’s go, Joe,” Patricia said, tugging on Joe’s short sleeve. “We need to stretch anyway. Let’s go see Rosie’s blue ribbon.”
“You want to go?”
“Okay, okay. Let me do my belt.” He stood up, zipped up, did his belt, finished the rest of the wine in his plastic cup in one gulp. Joe Bono’s young wife took his hand and led him and the others through the crowd and up the stairs.
In the main Fellowship Hall, there were folding tables with white paper tablecloths outlining the perimeter, creating a giant horseshoe, each with trays and platters of baked Italian delicacies. Their steps and voices reverberated off the old hardwood floor. Rosie walked over and opened the doors to let outsiders in who had been waiting for Father Francesco to finish. “Mangia, mangia!” Rosie spouted to the kids darting in, knowing her own would be rushing in at any moment. Patricia, Joe, and Louie started at one end and began wending their way around, delighting in the pastries and cookies, creams and colored frostings.
Next to several plates were white “Honorable Mention” ribbons. Next to Theresa Spaniolo’s ricotta cookies was a gold ribbon with “3rd Place” on it. Further on was a red “2nd Place” ribbon next to Mary Coscarelli’s sfogliatelle. No surprise there. And in the center of the horseshoe were Rosie’s turdillis.
Rosie approached the others just as they reached her tray. They were silent as she joined them. The four of them stood there, looking down at her small pyramid of glistening pastries. But no ribbon. It wasn’t on the floor. It hadn’t blown behind the table. It was nowhere. She hadn’t won. They turned to Rosie, who seemed completely calm. Louie’s puzzled expression seemed to be directly in response to Rosie not seeming puzzled at all.
Just then, Patricia pointed to the end of the line, “There! There’s the blue ribbon.” She began walking over to it, picking up speed as she moved closer. She practically slid to a stop, grabbed the blue ribbon with both hands, spun around to the other three, holding her clenched hands up and out, as a prizefighter would after winning fifteen rounds. “I won!” She started to hop up and down. “I won, I won, I won!”
The other three sped to her, and Joe Bono grabbed and kissed his young bride on both cheeks. “Brava! Brava! Let me see.”
Louie turned again to Rosie, his expression grave, as though anticipating a volcanic eruption. Just then, Father Francesco joined them. “What is all the excitement?” he asked.
“Well this, of course,” Patricia said, waving her blue ribbon at him.
“I don’t underst—”
“Father!” Rosie turned to him, “Why don’t you spread the word downstairs to the other ladies in the kitchen to come up before everything’s been eaten.”
They stood, looking into each other’s eyes for a moment, Rosie’s facial muscles frozen. “Yes,” Father agreed. “That’s a good idea.” And he turned on his heel and walked away.
Rosie reached over and picked up one of the pizzelles from Patricia’s plate and took a big bite. “Mmmmm. Mmmmm!” Rosie sounded, staring right into Patricia’s face. She swallowed the bite, hoping she had masked her struggle to do so. “Patricia, mio caro! I can see why you won this year,” Rosie said, holding up the rest of the cookie, marveling at it, as though seeing it for the first time. “If you don’t give me your recipe, I’ll never forgive you.”
“That is so sweet,” Patricia said. “You just want it to get an edge over me for next year.” And they both laughed.
“I know,” Rosie looked to Louie, holding up her index finger on her other hand. “When we open the restaurant, why don’t we put these on the menu?” she said, now pointing to the cookie still held high in the air.
Louie was about to speak, but Rosie continued, as though inspired, “‘Patricia’s Award Winning Pizzelles!’ That’s what we’ll call them.” Rosie looked back to Patricia. “What do you think, caro?”
“Joe, did you hear that? Oh my God, oh my God! My cookies at a restaurant!”
Joe, who was glowing along with his young wife, looked to Rosie, his expression switching to a complete inverse. “Yes, I heard.”
Rosie added, “They’ll fly off the plate.” She turned and walked away through the growing crowd, saying, “Now where are those bambini?”
Back in the kitchen, as Rosie was giving one last wipe-down to where her dishes had been, Louie appeared beside her. “Joe Bono told me to come by his shop Monday after work and talk about the restaurant.” He leaned in closer to Rosie and whispered, “See? I told you I take care of everything.”
Rosie turned and tossed her rag into a bin.
“Don’t you have anything to say?”
Rosie collected her Pyrex dish. She had kept one of the turdillis for herself. She now popped it in her mouth and began to chew. As she tasted the soft pastry, she remembered she hadn’t actually eaten one from this batch. She smiled, having forgotten how good they were, especially when made just right. She stepped in front of Louie and led the way out of St. Leo’s. She swallowed the last bits of pastry and started to hum, here and there singing the words. Louie followed her, that puzzled look back on his face. He was listening to her tune now and could just understand what she was singing, something about a man who drove a car.
top Photo by: alice pasqual/Unsplash.com
DOUG LAMDIN teaches English at Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore, Maryland. He has had prose and poetry published in several journals and magazines: The Baltimore Review; Bay to Ocean; Smile, Hon! You’re in Baltimore; Urbanite; The Baltimore Sun; Boots N All; Snapshots; Teacher Magazine; Chattels of the Heart; Travelers' Impressions; The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling; Modern Haiku; in the anthologies Listening to the Birth of Crystals and A Lovely Place, A Fighting Place, A Charmer: The Baltimore Anthology.
You Can Find Cousin Stan on Line Twelve from Bay to Ocean Journal2022
They stare at me as they slice their slab of Easter ham, eyeball me when settling into the couch to watch the Clemson game. Wondering where they will next find themselves. In stanza three, or maybe the title? Possibly a limerick about the time they covered me, just a newborn napping in my crib, in stuffed animals. My siblings. They are on to me. My niece and nephews, too. Tired of reading how Daniel has the biggest heart. And Mom isn’t sure how she feels about me loudly lamenting her loss of vision, or my profound, too-public mourning of my father. How he appears in every other poem. It’s a tad too much. Being that we are a chin-up, buttoned down family. Still, I watch. Spy cousin Stan from Tennessee steal the cookies, all of them, from my father’s funeral reception. Aluminum foil sticking out of his suit pocket. I know my kin saw me as I headed to the reception hall restroom. Ready to take out my pen and properly place Stan on line twelve. And sixteen.
top Photo by: kateryna hliznitsova/Unsplash.com
CAROL PARRIS KRAUSS is a teacher and poet from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. She likes to use place as a vehicle for her poetry themes. Her poems are rich, slow, and descriptive. In 2021, her first book of poetry, Just a Spit down the Road, was published by Kelsay.
Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writer
Winnie’s Big Adventure from Bay to Ocean Journal2022
I really didn’t care that the bishop died the day before. I had a feeling, though, that I should, so I pretended to feel sorry. All the other kids put on a sad face when Sister Mercedes said we should pray for Bishop Guilfoyle’s immortal soul. This prompted her to launch into a full-blown rosary.
History class resumed until an announcement came over the loudspeaker telling us that we would be going to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament to pay our respects to the bishop the following day. We would be walking the mile or so down the hill to the Cathedral parish. The hulking gray building with a big Vatican-like dome in our small Pennsylvania town was the pride of the diocese. We were told to be sure that our uniforms were clean and pressed. We also needed to bring the mandatory head covering.
As the day went on, the visit to the Cathedral to see the dead bishop became more and more of an occasion. We were all so excited to be able to get out of the school for a few hours and maybe not have to do some of our homework that night for the classes we would miss.
I decided that since this whole dead bishop thing had become such a big deal, it was only appropriate that my beloved hamster, Winnie, should be included in the excursion. Winnie was going to see this bishop.
I knew exactly what to do. I had a small woven wicker purse that measured four inches wide, about seven inches long, and seven inches high. The purse had a lid that folded back to open it and a toggle made from the same wicker so it could be locked. Winnie would go with me in what we called his “traveling cage.”
The purse, with its wicker weave, provided Winnie with plenty of air, and most of the time my little nocturnal friend just went to sleep when we were on an adventure. My parents allowed Winnie to go on family outings when appropriate.
Unbeknownst to my mother, who was one of those distraught over the death of the bishop, I got up a little early. She certainly would not have approved of my plans.
She had said a couple rosaries the night before.
Just before leaving for school, I got a few Kleenexes and lined the bottom of the purse. I added some sunflower seeds and a piece of carrot. A piece of lettuce went in, too, because I knew it would keep him from getting thirsty. In stealth mode, I went to the basement to get Winnie. Into his traveling cage he went, ready for some excitement. I was sure he was up for it. If all went well, we would be home by lunchtime and I could return him to his cage. He could ponder the wonders of what he had seen that morning and get back to afternoon napping in his cedar chips.
My mother must have been in a fog of grief because her usual prison guard instincts failed to detect the more fashionable accessory accompanying my book bag. Girls in our school did not take purses to class. They usually didn’t take a hamster, either.
When it was time to go to school, I walked down the block, around the corner of the church, and past the rectory to the place on the sidewalk where my 6th-grade class was supposed to assemble. We had to line up two-by-two, and when the bell rang, we marched up the stairs to our classroom. Nobody asked me about my purse.
The nuns had a plan to get the whole school down to the Cathedral to show our grief and respect. Their logistics dictated that we would walk straight down the 13th Avenue hill to the flat part of town.
The scuffle of two hundred pairs of Oxfords hitting the brick-paved sidewalks was sometimes overwhelmed by squealing and laughing. Some fool was always tripping. Sister Mercedes was not pleased. This was a serious occasion, but then, most things were serious to her. We had been prepped that this was a solemn visit to the Cathedral. We had to be on our best behavior. Squealing and laughing did not fit into Sister’s idea of proper decorum.
As I walked, I wondered why the bishop was not at Jones Funeral Home just catercorner from the Cathedral. After all, my dead relatives were always displayed in funereal splendor at that fine establishment. The bishop was more special, I guessed.
Seeing dead people was no big deal to me. After our family moved back to my parents’ hometown, it seemed that we were at Jones Funeral Home at least once a week. The elderly of my grandparents’ generation were regular attractions there. It was mandatory in those days for the whole parish to appear at the funeral home to pay respects to the recently departed. Age didn’t matter.
Now, on our procession, we were clumped together by grade and each student was expected to walk with a partner. I was paired off with my friend, Kathy. I was bursting to tell Kathy about my little stowaway but something told me to be discreet. She didn’t ask about my purse.
My younger sister and two cousins were in the fifth grade class. I knew that I needed to avoid them at all costs. If they saw the purse, they would guess what was in it. They might rat me out.
Led by the eighth-graders, the St. Leo students shuffled down the hill without incident to the entrance of the Cathedral. No skinned knees, nobody tagged for detention. The seventh graders brought up the rear to make sure none of the younger children got off the path to righteousness.
We were instructed by our principal, Sister Eulalia, that we would be expected to march up the center aisle, genuflect when we got to the casket, and make the sign of the cross. After saying our prayer for the dead prelate, we were instructed to veer off to the right and left by the front pews and return down the side aisle to the front door. St. Leo’s students were accustomed to these maneuvers at ceremonies in our church.
Just as we entered the nave, despite the almost overwhelming incense, I caught a whiff of the unmistakably acrid smell of hamster urine. That little trooper, Winnie, was so excited he could not contain himself at the thought of seeing the former bishop. I guess I built it up too much when I explained to him where we were going.
Kathy whispered to me, “That sure is some strong incense. Yuck.” I didn’t comment. I was more concerned that nothing vile had dripped out of the purse and onto my school uniform. My mother would not be so consumed in grief that she would fail to notice an extra uniform jumper in the laundry. I only had three.
The line backed up as we got closer to the coffin and finally halted. I was ready to give Winnie the thrill of his little rodent life. It was hard to wait.
Finally! When the two kids in front of us pivoted to the left and right, it was time for Winnie and me to see the bishop. In front of the brocade-draped casket, instead of saying a silent prayer for the immortal soul of the bishop, I opened the toggle and pulled back the lid of the purse. Winnie pushed out his little pink nose and placed his tiny paws on the rim of the basket. His whiskers caught the gleam of the candlelight as he took in all the new scents. Then, I guess, taken aback by the thrill of his adventure, he backed into the safety of the basket and resorted to the comfort of food as he shoved the last bit of carrot into his pouches.
Kathy saw Winnie and gasped at the sacrilege of a hamster seeing the dead bishop. She went left and I went right.
Back at the staging area in front of the basilica, Kathy was reluctant to be my walking partner for the trek up the hill. She didn’t like hamsters, she declared, and on top of that, she was appalled that I had brought him to church in my purse. The temptation to get Winnie out and scare her was almost overwhelming. Some fast talking calmed Kathy down and prevented attention from being drawn to us. At one point in her diatribe, she threatened to tell Sister Mercedes. I should have known better than to team up with her. She was always a wet blanket.
The trip back was quiet. Kathy did not talk to me except to complain about the steep hill that separated the Cathedral from St. Leo’s. When we reached our school we were dismissed to go home for lunch. I walked around the church on the corner, then half a block to my home.
Our house had three doors: one on the front porch, one on the side porch that led to the kitchen, and another side door where the stairs led directly to the basement. That was the one I chose.
In the dark of the basement, I coaxed sleepy little Winnie out of the purse and into his nice familiar cage. He went immediately to his bathroom corner and relieved himself. Next, he waddled over to his water bottle and had a nice long drink. I then realized that he was not overly impressed by his big adventure. He snuggled into his nest of cedar chips and torn up paper and was asleep even before I could snap the clothes pin on the door of his cage.
My mother called down the steps, “What are you doing? Stop messing with that hamster. Come up here and eat your lunch. I made your favorites. BLTs and Campbell’s Tomato Soup.” I knew I wouldn’t be getting my favorites for lunch if she found out about Winnie’s big adventure.
In the interest of discretion, I decided to leave the purse, with its stinky Kleenex, sunflower seed shells, and hamster poop under the stairs. I’d get to that after school—and I did, undetected.
When, as a teenager, I finally told the story about Winnie going to the bishop’s wake, my parents laughed and passed the story on to amused relatives. I knew, though, it wouldn’t have been the least bit funny that day back in sixth grade.
top Photo by: mateus campos felipe
CAROLINEBURKHART is a frequent contributor to The Quan, the newsletter of the America Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, a WWII veterans organization. The non-fiction stories are about the experiences of the men and women who were captured and held by the Japanese in the Philippines and Japan. She is currently working on a book based on her father’s time as a POW. Caroline is also a painter specializing in abstract florals. Her art can be viewed at carolineburkhart-art.com . She lives in the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore. firstname.lastname@example.org .
Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers
Jane Edna Mohler
Did You Pause? from Bay to Ocean Journal2021
for my beloved teachers Mary Edwards Shaner, 1942-2021 Christopher Irwin Bursk, 1943-2021
Did you pause, your thumb upon the latch, to equivocate, to hold the memory of your love’s face, or was it clearly time?
Did you savor your slow suspension as a red rock balanced against a cerulean sky, no fear of crumbling on its fall?
I don’t think you rushed into the jet night gleaming ahead. I hope you coasted, the way a heron teases the lake that waits to embrace it.
top Photo by: mike van den bos/Unsplash.comi
JANE EDNA MOHLER is a Bucks County Poet Laureate Emeritus (Pennsylvania) and a two-time Pushcart nominee. Kelsay Books published her collection Broken Umbrellas (2019.) Recent publications include Gargoyle, American Journal of Poetry, and Quartet. Jane is Co-Editor of Poetry for the Schuylkill Valley Journal. She has been on faculty of the Bay to Ocean and Caesura conferences for multiple years.
Adventures in Forgetfulness from Bay to Ocean Journal2022
…as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones. ― Billy Collins
My reading glasses are missing. The pair with green frames. I’ve looked everywhere. Well, clearly not everywhere. I have at least ten pairs of reading glasses stashed around the house – bedside, desk, kitchen, bathroom. Anywhere I might need to distinguish the AA batteries from the AAA, to press the right buttons on the TV remote, to learn if my blue sweater can survive the dryer.
I try not to obsess. Still, I look multiple times in the most obvious places, search the car twice, rifle through pockets in the jackets I’ve worn in the last two weeks. They’ll turn up. Probably when I’m looking for something else. That’s how I found my favorite pen. In a pants pocket where I thought I’d left my keys. The keys are another story.
Things turn up, other things go missing. The questions remain. Where did I put it? Why isn’t it where I thought I put it? Where I remembered putting it?
I’m in my sixties when I notice my short-term memory isn’t what it used to be. I struggle to remember the title of a book I recently read, the name of a favorite Chinese restaurant, the model year of the car I drive. “Senior moment,” I learn to say with a sheepish smile. My friends do it too. Nothing to worry about. Right?
But I can almost feel the emptiness in my brain where useful and useless information used to hang out. Sometimes I remember the first letter or a sound-alike. I tell myself the rest will come. And occasionally it does. The name of the restaurant arrives while I’m cooking dinner or walking the dog.
Three years before he died, my brother Phil phoned to tell me he’d been diagnosed with “mild cognitive impairment.” Every day I think about what he said next: “A few years ago, I thought I was having memory issues. The doctor said it was nothing to worry about. But there was something wrong with my mind back then. I could feel it.”
I wish I’d asked him what that felt like. I wish we’d talked about our mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and her mother’s dementia. But mostly I wonder if he sensed blank spaces where facts and figures once were stored.
Each time my memory fails in some trivial pursuit, I question my competence. Any small lapse causes me to wonder, Is this what Phil felt?
Did I feed the dog? Or is the visual image I have of scooping kibble into his bowl a holdover over from yesterday?
Did I lock the door? Or did I just close it and leave while checking my jacket pocket for the grocery list?
Did I turn off the oven? Or was I distracted by putting the meal together before the food got cold?
Google “memory problems” and some “expert” will advise you to make lists. Really? You think I haven’t thought of that?
A list is only as good as the memory of the list maker. For example: • In your haste to leave the house, you leave the grocery list on the counter. • You’ve omitted something important from your list. What is it? • The list is in your pocket or purse, but you neglect to consult it. • While shopping, you put the list down somewhere and forget to pick it up.
What does it mean that I can’t trust my memory? I see myself stuck in an endless game of Where’s Waldo? fruitlessly searching for misplaced objects and random words.
Heredity plays a role in almost all diseases. Alzheimer’s is no exception. Experts say the risk increases if more than one family member has the disease. I remind myself that my mother’s two older sisters lived to be 88 and 92 with no serious memory issues. My mother and brother were both smokers, a risk factor in many life-threatening diseases. I never smoked. But last year, I turned eighty.
Where did my words go? They’re not so much on the tip of my tongue as just out of my reach like the wine glasses on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet. If I struggle for a word while writing, the thesaurus becomes my friend. It suggests replacements for “struggle” – strive, try, strain – until I decide that “struggle” is best.
The other day I needed the word for making something sound better than it really is. An “ism,” but that was as far as my brain would take me. The thesaurus couldn’t help, so I waded through websites that offered whitewash, romanticize, glorify, sugarcoat and spin before arriving at “euphemism.”
I can’t carry a thesaurus to lunch with friends when we fill our conversation with whatchamacallit, what’s-his-name, thingamajig. We resort to creative imagery – “that dial on the dashboard.” Someone calls out “speedometer” as if she’s a contestant in a quiz show.
My mother was in her eighties when she stopped playing cards. “I was making stupid mistakes,” she said. Why wasn’t I alarmed? A lifelong card and Mah Jong player, Mom loved the swift interplay between her brain and the hand she’d been dealt. Probably I thought it a temporary lapse. Soon she’d be able to play again. I hadn’t yet learned that aging is not like catching a cold.
A few years ago, while I was visiting my parents in the dining room of their senior living community, a woman pushing a walker approached one of the servers, a teenager with several earrings in each ear. “Pam,” she asked, “did I eat lunch?”
“I don’t know, Mrs. M. Are you hungry?” Pam signaled to another server who came over to assist.
Three women at a nearby table took in this scene. “There’s what’s-her-name,” one said. “Poor thing. Doesn’t remember if she ate.”
I did not want my mother to be like Mrs. M. I didn’t want her card-playing buddies thinking “poor thing” if she mistook a nine of hearts for the six of diamonds.
I don’t write any more. At least not the way I used to. I have trouble telling a story in order from beginning to end. I jump back and forth, pinball from past to present, swivel from serious discussion to flippant remark, the way I desert the half-emptied dishwasher to do a load of laundry or rummage in the freezer for something to defrost for dinner.
Since I can’t always find the right words, I mine, repurpose, recycle, cut-and-paste from older work as if piecing together a mosaic from broken cups and plates. It’s the way one might assemble a meal from leftovers – the way yesterday’s meatloaf plus jarred salsa and grated cheese can become a plate of nachos.
I’m not writing. I’m Scarlett O’Hara making a dress out of draperies. Or am I Carol Burnett imitating Scarlett making a dress from drapes but forgetting to remove the curtain rod?
The last time I saw my mother, she was sitting in a wheelchair wearing a robe and nightgown, waiting for transfer to another room in the nursing home. Her piercing green eyes darted right and left. I knew that look – part worry, part intense concentration. If you didn’t know she had fewer than 36 hours to live, you might have thought she was working something out – composing a grocery list or trying to remember where she’d left her favorite sweater.
Two months earlier, she’d had a fall that left her complaining of constant pain. A team of specialists plus CAT scan, x-ray and MRI found no physical origin.
“We’ve tested your mother thoroughly,” her doctor said, flipping page after page of her file as if the quantity of paper spoke for itself. “Here.” He handed me the thick folder and left. Standing alone at the nurses’ counter, I heard the loudspeaker paging doctors, patients calling nurses. In the air the aroma of grilled meat mingled with the pungent scent of disinfectant. On a neurologist’s report printed on shocking pink paper, the word “diagnosis” jumped out at me: Alzheimer’s-type dementia.
Had the changes been too gradual to notice? Was this like the fable about why frogs don’t jump out of a pot of simmering water? Foolishly, I’d blamed failing eyesight for her card-playing problems.
I left the folder on the counter and went to visit my mother. She lay in bed, hands crossed on her chest. I kissed her cheek. “Hello, darling,” she said. She called all her loved ones “darling.” Still, I wondered why she didn’t use my name.
Where is the line between losing your eyeglasses and losing yourself?
At the Alzheimer’s Association website, I find information on “typical age-related” changes in memory and behavior. “Misplacing things from time to time and retracing steps to find them” is a common occurrence for seniors like me. But a person living with Alzheimer’s Disease may “put things in unusual places” and be “unable to review their steps” to find them (emphasis added).
I think of a scene in the movie Away from Her, the story of Fiona and Grant, a couple married almost 50 years. We learn Fiona is afflicted with Alzheimer’s through an early scene where the couple clears up after dinner. Grant watches Fiona hum softly to herself while she washes and dries a frying pan, then places it in the freezer.
Where, I wonder, will I find my eyeglasses? I can only hope they’ll be someplace logical – in a drawer or on the floor – but please not in the microwave or refrigerator.
I think about my recent lapses: discovering I’d poured myself two cups of coffee for breakfast, finding my keys in a zippered purse compartment after “thoroughly” searching the purse. How many slip-ups do you get before people start referring to you as “poor thing?”
I’m late to meet a friend for our weekly walk in the park. My keys are not on the table near the front door, where I almost always put them.
Why does so much forgetting revolve around keys? Is it because they control our comings and goings? Because losing keys to house, car or office can be a major inconvenience – the expense of a locksmith, the embarrassment of seeking help from family member, friend or stranger, the frustration of feeling incompetent?
Who are we without keys that signify we have a home, an automobile, a post office or safe deposit box? It’s no accident that we offer lovers the keys to our hearts.
Without my keys, I am helpless, locked out of my life.
We guard against this possibility. Hang keys on special hooks, keep spare keys, share keys with neighbors. I grab my extra car key, and I’m off to meet my friend. When I return, I retrace my steps and (yes!) find the missing keys in the pocket of the jacket I wore two days ago when I last used the car.
Ask Google a serious question about age-related dementia and you’ll find plenty of research and serious discussion to shed light on the subject. You’ll also encounter a selection of quips, jokes, wisecracks and witticisms that range from clever to tiresome to tasteless.
Right now, I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time – I think I’ve forgotten this before. – Steven Wright, comedian
There are five great things about having dementia: 5. You never have to watch reruns on television. 4. You are always meeting new people. 3. You don’t have to remember the whines and complaints of your spouse. 2. You can hide your own Easter eggs. 1. Mysteries are always interesting. – AHAjokes.com
A doctor recently told me that I have cancer and now he’s saying that I also have dementia. At least I don’t have cancer. – Anonymous
What’s so funny? What could be amusing about watching the same movie over and over, because you can’t recall seeing it? If this happened to someone I knew, I’d find it unspeakably sad.
Things I Don’t Forget/Things I Can Still Do • Grandchildren’s birthdays • Medical appointments • Pay bills on time • Drive places (supermarket, library, friends’ houses) • Prepare and file taxes • Teach writing classes • Write (well, sometimes)
A two-column chart from the National Institute on Aging distinguishes “normal aging” from Alzheimer’s disease. Forgetting what day it is but remembering it later, or sometimes forgetting which word to use are considered “normal.” But losing track of the date, or season, or being unable to carry on a conversation are symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
My brother told me he took a test to assess his dementia status. The doctor asked him to remember three words, say, house, pencil, pie. After answering a few questions and following simple directions, you either can or can’t remember those three things. He couldn’t.
I’d like to believe I could. Most of the time I can remember what day it is, can retrace my steps to find missing objects. When requesting a book from the library’s website, I type in my 13-digit account number from memory.
But my eyeglasses are still missing.
top Photo by: redowan dhrubo/Unsplash.comi
Before retiring to Rehoboth Beach and discovering the joys of writing creatively, SARAH BARNETT had careers as teacher, librarian and lawyer. She is vice president of the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild and enjoys composing essays and stories while walking her dog on the beach. In 2020 she received a Delaware Division of the Arts Fellowship as an emerging writer in nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus, Brevity Blog, Delmarva Review, Delaware Beach Life and other publications. Sarah was recently a guest blogger for Brevity magazine. You can read her essay, "Writing in my Ninth Decade," here.
Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers
Nothing of Insignificance from Bay to Ocean Journal2020
Sitting on the foyer floor, Kate Monroe felt her frustration rising, the familiar burn starting low in her abdomen, working its way past her chest, slowly climbing to her throat, burning, burning. Why had she offered to help Emily when she barely knew her? Wait, that was not quite accurate. She knew a lot about Emily--where she had grown up, her childhood accomplishments and disappointments, her relationships with her siblings, even her artistic ambitions.
Kate had met Emily months earlier at a weekly workshop, “Writing Your Memoir”, facilitated by a local author who had just published her own life story. And during those workshops, Kate had listened to the arc of Emily’s life as she described her childhood to adolescence. Sadly, too often the workshop sessions disintegrated into protracted readings by bitter souls seeking sympathy for their tales of injustice, criticism, and imagined offense. But Emily had seemed different, more thoughtful, more satisfied, and her writing bordered on the lyrical. So, during the mid-morning break, when Emily mentioned that she was going through a divorce and would soon be moving from the family home into a local condo, Kate had offered a few hours of her time to help with the packing and schlepping of lightweight boxes. Kate herself had been divorced for years and knew the stress could be overwhelming.
On this January Thursday, Kate found herself sitting on the hardwood floor at the foot of the stairs in Emily’s foyer. As she looked around, she realized she was in trouble and should have made an excuse when she first arrived, feigning either illness or a forgotten dentist appointment.
To the left was a living room where no living had occurred for years. The space was crammed with towering piles of plastic boxes, some empty, most full, piled under and over other cardboard boxes, a few from the local liquor store, giving Kate hope that Emily would take an occasional drink to calm her nerves. There were hundreds of makeshift containers, anything with a bottom and sides that could hold “stuff,” most purchased, some gifted, all excessive, providing safe harbor for clones, duplicates, and facsimiles. Why have only one item if you can have forty-three? In this maze, Kate recognized Quaker oatmeal cylinders, metal coffee tins, abandoned jewelry boxes, shoe boxes, baskets, and hundreds of plastic bags emblazoned with the names of local retailers--Target, Pier One, Harris Teeter, CVS, Marshall’s.
At the opposite end of the room, five shelves of built-in bookcases suffered the weight of DVDs, figurines, vases, dried flowers, CDs, pens and pencils, notebooks, and even a book or two. A small portable TV huddled inside the kneehole of the desk. The living room offered no safe passage. Although a sofa and four chairs hugged the walls--at least Kate thought she glimpsed four chairs--there was no place to sit.
To the right, Kate saw a narrow path leading from the foyer through the dining room to the kitchen, where no countertops were visible under the mass of foodstuffs, dishes, water bottles, and papers including a Baltimore Sun from last month. Scattered notepads, appliance instruction booklets, and lists of never-attempted tasks covered the center island. Around the corner, stacks of books, piled ten to fifteen high, were precariously parked against the window seat just below the bay window. Had these books been banished from the living room bookcases to make room for more decorative items? Kate guessed that not much food preparation occurred in that kitchen and even wondered what might have been stuffed temporarily into the oven and microwave, only to be later abandoned.
In the dining room, hundreds of breakable items–water glasses, wine goblets, china plates, and pottery--infested every flat surface including the windowsills and floor. The credenza and a hutch were crammed with linens and additional china sets, while housing six complete sets of silver cutlery. A small non-working crystal chandelier perched in the corner atop three cardboard boxes, its electric cord wrapped around its stem, two bulbs missing.
So this Thursday morning, Kate found herself sitting cross-legged on the only cleared space available, the foyer floor. Despite her misgivings, Kate had decided to stay, and she watched as Emily began pulling hats from the foyer closet’s upper shelves, mostly winter hats, woolen, blacks and browns, promising to warm the head, threatening to destroy the hairdo. “How many hats do you have?” Kate asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Emily replied as she swept around the growing pile. “There are more upstairs.”
Emily was tiny with a short, gray-blonde pixie haircut, porcelain skin, bright azure eyes and a ready smile. Her voice wavered as she spoke, rasping her words from her throat past her lips, not stuttering but somehow tentative, as though her words were probationary, waiting for acknowledgement and even acceptance. Even so, there was a tinge of lemon in her voice.
Kate recalled that when she first offered help, Emily warned that she was a hoarder, but had qualified her statement: “But I am a clean hoarder.” When Kate probed further, Emily described her “collecting” as piles of papers, sets of dishes, assortments of photos, the un-organized assemblage of memories from a 32-year marriage. Still, Kate was not prepared for the overwhelming volume of stuff engulfing the home’s first floor.
“There are more hats upstairs.” Emily glanced hopefully at Kate.
“Well, let’s get them all down here so you can make informed decisions,” Kate said. “Your job now is to find every hat you own and bring them here.”
“First, I need a bottle of water,” Emily deflected. Kate soon learned this was Emily’s tactic to delay the inevitable. For Emily, decisions were hard, if not impossible, threatening her with an uncomfortable finality, no matter how trivial or insignificant.
Fifteen minutes later, after multiple trips to upstairs bedrooms, the pile had grown to ninety-two hats--straw, brimmed, fedoras, berets, bonnets, even a cowboy hat, mostly muted colors, with an occasional hot pink or cerulean blue whimsy thrown in the mix. In what would become her routine, Emily plucked each hat from the pile, slowly caressing and inspecting it, conjuring all the reasons it should go into the “keep” pile. Kate hoped the hat corral would be an easy place to start. “After all,” she thought, “how much attachment can you have to a hat?”
Mustering her calmest voice, Kate set down the first rule. “You do not need ninety-two hats, Emily. You may keep ten.”
Although arbitrary, Kate felt “ten” was reasonable and knew she had to start strong. This reduction rule would become the foundation for any progress that day or in the coming weeks. A stack of 142 picture frames? You can keep twenty. A pile of 714 audio cassettes? You can keep fifty. There was neither rhyme nor reason to Kate’s required percentages, just an inexorable winnowing of “too many.”
Kate sympathized that Emily had suffered a painful childhood with an unavailable mother and bullying siblings and was now struggling with an acrimonious divorce. The marital animosity became glaringly evident within minutes of Kate’s arrival that first day, when Emily’s husband, Malcolm, poked his shaggy, bearded face around the corner to carp about their hat-sorting activity.
“Em-i-LEEEE” he whined, “do you HAVE to put all those hats on the floor? What if I need to get to the front door to get out? What if there’s a fire?” Kate considered retorting “What if you need to get to the kitchen?” but thought better of it.
Of average height, Malcolm’s hunched-over posture made him appear even smaller, beaten down, shuffling through the kitchen and dining room with neither energy nor purpose, eyes downcast. Over the next several months, Emily would remain the target of his sing-song, obscure criticism.
Kate sat patiently, hunched over the pile of hats on the foyer floor in the two-story brick colonial, on a heavily treed lot of oaks and maples, backing onto lush open space—prime real estate in that Maryland community. Kate worried that helping Emily would require digging deep into her own shallow well of patience. She began to think of this activity as an exercise in psychological karate. She needed to disable Emily’s deep-seated hoarding habits while at the same time building up her confidence and self-esteem.
Kate, whom everyone considered organized, knew how to get results, worshiping at the altar of the Four Piles of Decluttering--Keep, Sell, Donate, Recycle/Trash. She would soon learn that Emily would need to add two more piles: Gifts I Once Bought to Give to Friends and Still Need To as well as Items I Bought for My Son Jack but Never Gave Him. Not a good sign.
“Oh, but I like the color of this one, such a pretty rose” or “Look at this cute kitten on the hat brim.” Emily pleaded for each hat, cap, beanie. A color or a memory or a family gift or an unreasoned “but I like it” constituted her persistent defense. Every hat was important.
Kate took a breath and in her gentlest tone, repeated “Emily, you can keep ten hats--only ten--and donate the rest for others to enjoy.” Kate watched Emily’s face fall and then slowly transition to a fragile determination suggesting she would be able to do this … maybe … hopefully … with help.
Over the next few weeks, Kate would return to the colonial on the lovely lot, always limiting her assistance to two hours, for the magnitude of the task had become emotionally overwhelming. Emily’s devoted attachment to things was the anchor for her personality. Kate realized Emily feared she might actually disappear without the physical evidence that she had lived, that she had travelled to Japan, that she had listened to CDs, that she once married and had a son, that she had cut out important articles to read later. Nothing was insignificant, not paper clips or broken pencils or inkless pens. Emily needed to touch each item, tell how each became part of her life, and finally evaluate its usefulness or beauty or value as a memory trigger.
The next few weeks, Kate was reduced to repeating the rules and covertly slipping broken items into the trash pile before Emily began describing all the ways she could fix things. According to Emily, she had scores of friends for whom she had bought gifts, never delivered but now ready. Kate thought Emily would need to live to be 110 in order to glue all the china, read all the saved articles, and frame and hang all the artwork she wanted to keep.
Kate also knew she served as a buffer to Malcolm’s incessant criticism and whining as he hovered in the next room. What had started as an innocent offer to help someone during a difficult time had left Kate frustrated and irritable, often admonishing Emily to “Pay attention. Stay focused. You do not need forty-six eight-by-ten wooden picture frames. You do not have that much wall space.” And Emily would comply, temporarily, only to return to her routine of touch, remember, evaluate.
For several days, they continued to catalogue their way through the center of the living room. One day Kate turned to a five-foot-tall Regency walnut bachelor’s chest on the south wall, its five serpentine drawers sitting atop four clawed feet. Kate, knowing full well what the answer would be, asked “Is that chest already emptied?”
“Oh no,” said Emily, “I am sure it is full.” And to Kate’s dismay it was—filled with greeting cards, most bought and never sent, folded and faded, gaudy and glittered, and by Kate’s estimate numbering more than 600. Quick calculations at $3 per card, a conservative average over the last twenty years, and the unopened contents of that bachelor’s chest equaled nearly $1,800 in wasted opportunity.
Kate, sapped of every drop of patience, turned to Emily, sitting across the room happily sorting through ancient audio cassettes and mumbling tales of why each was her favorite. “Do you know how many greeting cards you have here? You could start your own Hallmark store. Have you ever thought of the time and money wasted when these cards were stored and then ignored for years?”
Emily looked up, hurt. “I don’t think about it at the time. And I told you I was a hoarder. This isn’t helpful.”
And suddenly Kate remembered that, yes, Emily had warned her. And then surprisingly, she remembered her former husband’s piles of paper, piles upon pile, and collections of books, stacked on the floor and tables throughout their small apartment during the early years. And how “stuff” continued to accumulate, relentlessly, even after they moved into a much larger home in the suburbs. Kate had almost forgotten the unending clutter, buried the memory deep. And now she wondered if her offer to help Emily was a counterfeit penance for her inability to save her marriage, to clear the physical and emotional disarray of their lives. No time to think about it now.
Kate pressed on, frustrated after weeks of biting her tongue, deflecting Malcolm’s snarky comments, and bolstering Emily’s confidence for imperceptible progress.
“Doesn’t this make you mad? Or at least sad? Money spent on these cards could have been a trip to Paris off-season. Or a week in Florida last winter when it was so horribly cold and stormy.”
Across the room, Emily became smaller, teared up, and refused to answer.
Drained, Kate knew she had to leave and that she could not return. She had hoped to help, and she had in some ways, but Emily’s patterns were too deep-seated, her world view too narrow, her emotion too raw. Progress had been made. Kate had to admit that. But Emily was still months from getting the house presentable for sale.
As she headed for the door, Kate turned, admonishing Emily as gently as possible.
“Look, you have made good progress here over the last two months. And I want you to channel my voice and questions as you continue to get rid of your stuff. You’ve certainly heard me enough. Let me know how you’re doing and good luck!” And she meant it.
In April, Kate visited Emily’s new condo, helping her unload bulky rugs from her small SUV, into the newly painted and freshly washed condo. It was a lovely ground-floor unit with floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto a small patio, just the size for a small table and two chairs. It bordered a park. But Kate was saddened to see that already the ghosts of accumulation and indecision had permeated every single inch of what could have been Emily’s fresh start.
While they continued to text each other, Kate knew she could not face the condo’s re-creation of the gathering of objects as a cure for loneliness, just in a smaller space.
Then in early June, she received a long text from Emily, “We have a family coming to see the house on Saturday!!! But I have not made enough progress. Malcolm and I both marveled at how effective you were working with me. Would you be able to help me for a bit tomorrow going through my stuff? I already have donated a ton but need to do much more.”
Kate demurred at first but offered two hours the following week, selfishly curious as to the progress Emily had made.
Kate had come to believe her sympathy for Emily stemmed from Kate’s own parents, who had lived through the Depression and never threw away anything that could be of use to anyone. After her father had passed, Kate discovered a box of 116 light bulbs in his garage: refrigerator bulbs, oven bulbs, projector bulbs, clothes dryer bulbs, incandescent, fluorescent, halogen, CFL, LED. Kate mused he had probably even saved a bulb that would fit Emily’s forsaken dining room chandelier. But where her dad had saved functional items from necessity, Emily hoarded from emotional need.
And the more Kate thought about it, the more she wondered about her own failed marriage. Was there a deep emotional need on her husband’s part that Kate was unable or unwilling to fulfill? She now admitted she had ignored the clutter and had mustered neither the skills nor the dedication to resolve their issues. And she was sad.
Kate realized she did not know how to deal with Emily’s issues either. She could only give her rules, offer her skills, and hope that somehow Emily could channel Kate’s voice as she continued room by room, closet by closet. Kate was soon to find out.
Three days later, Kate appeared once more at the front door of the colonial, hoping for clear floors and usable furniture, and she was pleasantly surprised. While some boxes and baskets still hugged the walls of each room, gone were the piles, the bags, the stacked and discarded detritus of a life never quite enough. Malcolm was still shuffling and whining throughout the house, but at least now he could move safely without fear of tripping or falling.
“Wow, this is quite a difference!” she complimented Emily who grinned in response. “What is on the agenda today?”
“Upstairs bedroom closet!” Emily trumpeted, proud that she had graduated from entire rooms to a lone closet.
Having never been on the second floor, Kate feared what she would find. But all floors were clear, boxes neatly stacked, except for the closet, which reminded Kate of the old Fibber McGee closet, which when opened, buried Fibber with its contents. This was not quite as bad. Kate was in no danger, but the closet had no nooks or crannies that had not been filled.
As Emily sat on a small stool, Kate began pulling the boxes, bags, and plastic containers, one by one from the depths. And Emily once again held each item, touching, telling, and evaluating. Used make-up that should have been discarded years before, Emily designated for the donate pile, until Kate reminded her of health restrictions. Multiple gifts for her son Jack, bought for an 8-year-old, Emily relegated to the keep pile in case her 22-year-old might possibly want them. But Kate’s final defeat was the eighty-five sets of shoulder pads, some rotted from the heat of too many summers stored deep in that closet. Evidently, decades earlier, Emily had carefully removed each set from fashionable jackets and blouses, and now, thirty years later, proclaimed all the reasons she should keep them. Kate knew now that she was truly done.
She finished up her two-hour commitment and wished Emily well, realizing that while her help might have been a band-aid, Emily needed surgery. As she walked down the sidewalk from the lovely colonial in the Maryland suburbs, she knew she had done her best. And now Kate had to let go of the hope that she could help Emily reduce her reliance on things to boost her self-worth and self-confidence.
Unexpectedly, Kate discovered her offer to help Emily clear out her suburban home filled with stuff helped Kate resolve the quiet guilt she had carried for fourteen years. She had always believed that if she had only been smarter and worked harder, her marriage would have lasted. Now she felt that lingering burden lift as she recognized none of it would have made a difference.
top Photo by: onur bahcivancilar/Unsplash.com
DONNA ROTHBERT is a retired corporate executive and former English teacher dividing her time between Delmarva and Reston VA. A native Marylander, she has lived and worked in Texas, Connecticut, and Virginia and has traveled to forty-eight of the fifty states. Her essays appeared in the 30th Anniversary Anthology of the Maryland Writers' Association, Thirty Ways to Love Maryland, and her short stories have appeared in Beach Dreams and Bay to Ocean 2020.
Tara a. Elliott
Deadrise from Bay to Ocean Journal2021
And so, I take you into the boat, flat-bottom flaking sharp & gray, into the steady vibration of engine, diesel fumes rising like broken wind in brackish air, into the brashness of summer sun burning shoulders crisp and fattening the morning shadows, the newborn screech of the gulls hovering as if attached by wire— the fresh sweat, the cheap beer, the rotting eels, the slick greenness of blue crabs mounting and scuttling in bushel baskets, the bright whiteness of hull against an unbound Maryland sky.
top Photo by: dave hoefler/Unsplash.comi
TARA A. ELLIOTT’s poems have appeared in The TAOS Journal of International Poetry & Art, Stirring, Gargoyle and The American Journal of Poetry, among others. The president of Eastern Shore Writers Association (ESWA), she is also the director of Maryland’s Salisbury Poetry Week, and serves as co-chair of the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference. She recently received an Independent Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council. For more information, visit: www.taraaelliott.com
Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight Writers
An Egret and His Property from the upcoming Bay to Ocean Journal2022
my childhood, the marsh across the sound appeared impossible to reach
without a motorboat or the skills of a bird. But the land’s slick,
emerald blades waved for me to come and explore its exposed shores. I
wanted to wade in the channel waters and step over shells like its
resident white egret.
measured distance grew more manageable in my young adult years. With
access to a bright red kayak, I answered the long-standing invitation
and paddled with strong strokes in the scorching sun from my sandbar to
the edge of the knee-high grass growing in the wetlands.
expected a soft arrival and a glide upon the sand. But thick, mushy mud
stopped my boat at the habitat’s edge, and the majestic bird I had
hoped to befriend took flight at my landing. His outstretched, pleated
wings and dangling stick feet navigated toward the very dock from which I
had launched my vessel.
have often thought I should not have encroached upon the stomping
grounds of the three-foot-tall bird without his permission. Innocent
invader that I was, he fled from me with suspicion. And in seeing that
we couldn’t share the verdant space, which I admired and he roamed, I
looked to end my trespass.
my boat from the sticky swamp sludge, sweat upon my forehead, muscles
stiff from my struggle with the oars, I retreated toward home across the
green, choppy saltwater.
Sea spray slapped my reddened face. The afternoon wind rushed my ears. Rocking swells threatened me with seasickness.
sure enough, my elusive friend the egret met my arrival. The aloof,
feathered ambassador paced among tidepools on the sand at the foot of my
cottage, which stood in the center of a row of ostentatious houses
along the waterfront.
I saw from afloat what the exotic loner witnessed daily from his prime property across the way.
line of dwellings were not nests hidden in the landscape. They were
monstrosities overgrown with cement driveways, tidy carpets of thirsty
Bermuda grass, and, at my house, a two-story oleander with green, pointy
leaves and enticing fuchsia blossoms swaying next to my rickety steps.
The flirty, toxic bush beckoned the elegant bird to wander closer.
I made my way up the yard, giving my boat several strenuous tugs.
sleek egret skipped through the air and landed a few cottages down on
the sandbar. He studied the nearby shallow water, and, as if using
chopsticks, captured a floppy minnow in his pointy yellow beak. The bird
swallowed the catch down his agile, thin neck, followed by a second
helping of fish plucked from the tide. The well-fed fowl shook his head
in satisfaction and paused as if in thought.
my full attention, the bird uttered a series of throaty clucks that
sounded like the slap of a playing card against a child’s bicycle
spokes. And before lifting his wings and heading back to his place in
the marsh, the creature poked his threatening mouth in my direction and
released a raspy call.
his frustration, I came to an unspoken understanding with the bird: I
will stay on my property so he can continue to live on his.
top Photo by: David Clode/unsplash.com
CAROLINE KALFAS writes from Woolwich Township, New Jersey. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various literary magazines including The Next Chapter, frogpond, Philadelphia Stories and several editions of Bay to Ocean. Most recently, she received third place (tie) in the ninth annual Golden Haiku Poetry Contest 2022 in Washington, DC. To read more about her work, visit carolinechatter.wordpress.com.
Problems with Diving from Bay to Ocean Journal 2021
Sometimes she’s afraid to jump. No, not on the blacktop playground, where she’s mastered Double-Dutch and excelled at Chinese jump rope. That’s solid ground. No, she’s afraid
of crashing on her head when she tries to hit the diving board, spring up in the air and slice through the water, arms and legs aligned in arrow-like perfection.
She freezes the day her father puts his arm across the board, a tan, muscled lever, a foot up in the air for her to clear. Tears well in her eyes, messengers of her failure, then shame rocks her body as her baby brother executes the dive like a dolphin.
Failing, failing in front of everyone at the pool that day. Yet in the woods with friends, she’s fearless. Standing atop a hill, grabbing the coiled metal ring
on the end of a bristly rope, swinging out over the rocky gorge, she moves in time to an inner metronome—then lands on beat, dropping down on the only patch of grass. Years later, she freezes at the thought of stepping onto a stage. Seeking out the feel of success
from her quarry-jumping days, she finds an extravagant mall that promises an indoor bungee jump. As if buoyed by an invisible parachute, she launches, unafraid.
top Photo by: Jess Zoerb/unsplash.com
ANN BRACKEN has published three poetry collections, The Altar of Innocence, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom and Once You’re Inside: Poetry Exploring Incarceration. Her memoir entitled Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery, will be published in late 2022. She serves as a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review, and co-facilitates the Wilde Readings Poetry Series in Columbia, Maryland. She volunteers as a correspondent for the Justice Arts Coalition, exchanging letters with incarcerated people to foster their use of the arts. Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, her work has been featured on Best American Poetry, and she’s been a guest on Grace Cavalieri’s The Poet and The Poem radio show. Her advocacy work promotes using the arts to foster paradigm change in the areas of emotional wellness, education, and prison abolition. Website: www.annbrackenauthor.com
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