Friday, August 14, 2009

Tucker and Bunny - A tale of unlikely bedfellows

Pictures trap moments of time on shiny pieces of paper that forever after echo as memories in your heart. Each one holds a story.

“Please can I keep her,” my youngest daughter Jenni cried, holding a ragged stray kitten. She always longed for a pet, but I had to say, “No,” because of my allergies. Truthfully!
Jenni, however, made up for her pet loss by acquiring an overabundance of stuffed creatures. Walruses, seals, elephants, giraffes, dogs, cats, bunnies, several bears and an assortment of endangered animals adorned her bed and every available bit of shelf space in her room.

Each time we went to the Mall she gazed longingly into the local pet palace and browsed among the cages while I kept a happy distance from the furry creatures and their offensive fur, hair and dander.

But when Jenni was nine, as a super surprise for Christmas, I bought her a pretty, blue parakeet complete with cage and accessories. I had been assured that feathers wouldn’t affect my eyes, nose and breathing apparatus as hair and fur did.
Jenni was so excited. “I’ll clean the cage, Mom, and put water and seed in the dishes every day. I promise!”

Of course, we all know who kept the cage clean but Petey was a cute, smart, non-allergenic pet and our pleasant life continued, almost pet-less. He became a member of the family with his cage door open most of the time so that he could visit at will. One of his favorite foods was peas, plain, cooked, then cooled, green peas. He’d stick his beak into the center and eat the soft middle, neatly dropping the hulls on the floor of his cage.

Then Jenni grew up a bit and enter the boyfriend who, without seeking parental permission, presented his little ladylove with a black Lab puppy! Now it was my turn to say, “Jen, you know we can’t have a dog.” But she argued that she would care for Tucker and I wouldn’t be bothered with his hair or dander because he was never going to come into the house. “I’ll keep him downstairs and I’ll clean the playroom. Promise.”

Now could a loving mother turn that offer down? Of course not. So Tucker moved into the basement and Jenni took over the responsibility of not only a dog but the housekeeping of the almost-finished playroom. Kind of.

I, however, retained the bird maintenance—a small chore I had to admit I loved because Petey, at the advent of clean brown paper on the bottom of his cage and fresh water and seeds in the plastic cups, was sent into a frenzy of happiness.

I had to admit that Tucker was an ideal pet and even though I had to go through the playroom to the laundry, I did so without any adverse reactions to the presence of yon dog. Once again peace and harmony reigned in our household.

That might have been the end of the story but there is more. Not long after Tucker joined the family, lo and behold, young ardent boyfriend arrived with another pet for his ladylove. This time it was a rabbit, named Bunny. How original.

“Are you out of your mind?” I cried. “The dog will eat the rabbit.”

“Not so,” the young romancer said, “I’ve brought a cage for the rabbit and we will paper train her to go in the cage.”

Huh, I thought, an unlikely event. A dog and a rabbit that have free run of the room? And a paper-trained rabbit? But, wonder of wonders, the rabbit was cage trained and Bunny and Tucker became fast friends. On occasion I would descend to the lower level of the house and watch in amazement as the rabbit and dog shared a water bowl or playfully romped around the perimeter of the cage—carefully cleaned daily by grateful daughter. I watched Jenni feed some homegrown clover or a stalk of celery to Bunny while holding Tucker in her lap.
Tucker was a typical puppy—robust in energy, cuddly when the occasion presented itself and slipping off to sleep when there wasn’t anyone, or a certain rabbit nearby, to wheedle into action.

Bunny was a funny animal; funny in the way she behaved. While maintaining her rabbit-aloofness, she was very un-rabbit-like at times. When we returned home after an outing, not only did Tucker run to meet us, circling our feet in enthusiastic welcome—so did Bunny. Perhaps she thought she, too, was a dog. But there were limits to her sharing what she considered her domain. If Tucker intruded, she quickly retreated to her cage and smugly pronounced her independence from the foolish frolics that Tucker tried to entice her to join. She had her dignity to protect.

One day I slipped downstairs to see what was happening—it was much too quiet. Mothers of teenager daughters worry about quiet. To my surprise I found Jenni and her boyfriend sitting on the couch watching television. But even more surprising was finding Tucker and Bunny lounging in a chair—together—watching television with them. Talk about strange bedfellows. It was a picture begging to be taken.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Except from award-winning novel, Secrets

The air is crisp and more invigorating here in the mountains and Eve breathes deeply as she walks up the brick path to the wide double doors that are appropriately painted black.
The lingering scent of old flowers and dust greets her as she steps into the vestibule. Soft music comes from a hidden source and yet a hollow silence surrounds her. She hesitates, then looks to the left when a door opens quietly.

The thin, slightly stooped man who stands in the doorway is well into his eighties. His hair and face are almost the same shade of gray but alert, dark eyes peer out from beneath shaggy brows and his face crinkles to a pleasant greeting as he steps forward, “Good morning,” he says, recognizing a stranger. “I’m Edgar Krouder. Been here in Mountain Springs for seventy years. Mortician for forty-some years. My two sons help in the business. You must be Helen’s daughter.”

Again a chilling feeling of being completely out of control sweeps over Eve. How in the world…?
She mumbles agreement and watches him move silently toward her. His black suit, dulled with age is crisply neat. Nothing in the room or about him seems capable of making any noise.
He touches her hand with icy fingers. “We are so very sorry for your loss. We’ve been expecting you. Please, come into the office and we can talk. But first, do you want to see your mother? She’s in the last room,” he points down a dimly lit hallway. “It’s the biggest room we have because we expect a great many mourners. Your mother had so many friends.” His eyes crinkle with pleasure; as if the mere thought of all her mother’s friends gathered together will be a welcome occasion.

Eve is smothered with indecision. Did she want to see her mother so quickly? Maybe she needs a minute to gather herself. Maybe she’ll feel better if she knows what plans have already been made and who made them. “Thank you. I think I’d like to talk first.”

They move into the office, another quiet room with a small desk, a neat line of notebooks marshaled at one end. Eve sits in a comfortable chair facing the desk. Her eyes take in a tall bookshelf to her right that contains more notebooks and several ornate urns. Probably for ashes, she thinks trying to bring her thoughts into focus.

Mister Krouder eases himself into the leather chair behind the desk. His thin fingers straighten a few papers, then he looks at her. Forty-some years of controlled compassion cover his face and guide his words.

“Death is always a shock, even though we all know it is inevitable.” He smiles again, pulling himself effortlessly from solemn to friendly. “Your mother was a wonderful lady. Well loved in the community, active in church, involved in charity, but then you know all that.”

No, I don’t, Eve thinks. I don’t know anything about my mother. Well, not exactly ‘anything’ but not enough. She feels tears prick at the back of her eyes and she bites her lower lip to keep it from trembling.

Mister Krouder takes this sign of emotion as normal and pushes a box of tissues toward his visitor. “She was also very thoughtful and kind, as was her husband. About a year before Joe died, they came in here and made all the arrangements for their demise. Everything is taken care of. She eased the way for you.” His words drift off the ends of his sentences as if a listener can add whatever he wants.

“I’m surprised. She never suggested to me that this was what they had done. When I got news of her death…” Eve stumbles and then goes on, “I thought I’d have to make the arrangements. I don’t even know the man who called me in Washington…” This time Eve’s words ebb away, leaving room for conjecture on the part of her listener.

“Austin Campbell,” he supplies. “Yes, a nice man. Lives on some land he leased from Joe, oh, some years back. They were friends. Or, as close to being friends as you can get with Mister Campbell. Kind of a recluse, he is.”

Eve listens to the muted music and the ticking of a clock somewhere in the office. “I don’t recall Mother mentioning him.”

“Well, not surprising. He’s very quiet. Came right here about your mother though. He found her, called the doctor and waited until they examined her, then followed the ambulance in. Said he’d call you.”

How did Mister Campbell know my name and telephone number, Eve wonders silently?
She sighs. What a contradiction her mother’s life was. Irresponsibly disappearing for months or even years at a time, going off on crazy ventures, yet organized enough to plan for her own funeral.

“Maybe I should see Mother now.” Her words shock her. She hadn’t planned to say that so quickly. But then again, what is the sense of waiting? They rise and she feels his bony fingers take her elbow as they walk down the dim corridor.

“I’ll leave you alone. Take whatever time you need. I’ll wait for you in the front.” He melts away closing the door so softly Eve turns to see if he has really left.

The room is cold. Two small wreaths of flowers are attached to wire stands at each end of the open coffin. There is room for more flowers and she wonders if the racks will be full by the time of the funeral. She makes a mental note to order flowers. Her mind whirls with details. Who will conduct the funeral? What time is it on Friday?

Her mother’s head rests on a satin pillow, her hands folded across the waist of a pale blue dress Eve has never seen. The peaceful expression she wears brings a sudden stab to Eve’s heart. She remembers that peaceful look. Not much upset her mother. She always had a way of dealing with setbacks. Why did Eve remember this now as she looks at her mother’s lifeless body? Why hadn’t that thought crossed her mind last night when she was struggling to remember things about her mother?

The coffin lid is split and the bottom half of her mother’s body is out of sight. Eve wonders if she has shoes and stockings on and then shudders at the senselessness of that thought. She moves closer to the casket, her hands gripped tightly in front of her. Surely there is something she should say, something she should feel instead of the rampant confusion that courses through her. Her throat tightens and she swallows with difficulty. Soft music continues in the background as Eve lowers her eyes from her mother’s face, feeling hot tears trickle down her cheeks. A padded kneeler is next to the coffin. Should she kneel and whisper a prayer? She prays in church on the Sundays she occasionally attends. But they are prayers the minister’s sermon provokes, familiar, nonspecific prayers, nothing she has to originate. Nothing comes to her mind in this silent room where she and her mother are alone for the first time in how long? Too long. Shivering, she pulls a tissue from her purse and wipes her eyes and cheeks dry. She turns her back to the coffin and stands still for a moment, then quietly leaves, not looking back, not praying, not sure of what she has done or should have done.

In the front office again, Mister Krouder opens a file centered on his desk. “Let me review what’s scheduled and if there’s anything you wish to change, we can go over that.” He separates several sheets of paper, spreading them carefully, lining up the tops of the pages, as if that is necessary before reading them. “As I said, we’ve scheduled the funeral for Friday at two o’clock at First Baptist Church, Followers of the Apostles.” He looks up as if waiting for an acknowledgement. Receiving none, he continues, “We chose Friday because one of my associates called the people in Helen’s address book. Since many of them said they wanted to attend the funeral and were scattered around the country, requiring some travel time, we decided Friday was the earliest convenient time.”

It is a long speech and he seems out of breath. “Do you want to add to this list?”

Eve shakes her head. Who would I add?

He pauses and again looks at her, his eyes hooded with professional sympathy, “Interment will follow the services. Reverend Mueller has a wonderful service, both in the church and at graveside.”

Eve stares at him. It sounds as if she’s listening to a package deal for a trip to Barbados. She shifts in her chair, trying to focus on what he is saying.

“We’ve scheduled the viewing from six to eight on Thursday evening. We….”

“No! No viewing!” The words burst from her stiffened lips. He looks startled by her impassioned tone. “No viewing, I couldn’t…my husband, my son… No, I’m sorry but I can’t have a viewing.” She closes her eyes, still the vision of two coffins is so clear they might be just down the dim hallway. The sickly scent of too many flowers, strange lips fluttering across her cheeks, the mumbled words—no, it is too much. Tears seep from beneath her closed eyelids and she takes a deep, grief-shattered breath. “I’m sorry, it’s too painful.”

“But, Missus Marshall, people will expect…”

“No.” It was final.

He watches her for a moment, clearly confused by this sudden turn of events, then resumes his role. “Of course. I understand.” But he doesn’t and he fumbles with the papers again. “We could have a short viewing before the services… At the church. For those who feel it is necessary to spend a few respectful minutes with their beloved friend.”

“Fine.” She is resolved, but relieved. Do whatever you want, go through whatever rituals you have, but don’t include me, not again, not again. Her nails bite into the palms of her hands and she releases her grip, stretching her fingers.

Once again he shuffles through the papers, handing her a sheet with some typed names on it. “This is the list of mourners we’ve notified—taken from your mother’s records, and a list she’d provided to us previously. As you can see, a couple of them are in California.”

Eve doesn’t read it, just folds it in half and slips it in her purse. Before leaving, she gets directions to her mother’s home, noting Mister Krouder’s polite surprise that she needs them.
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