Sunday, December 31, 2017

Auld Lang Syne and other New Years thoughts

I'd been approaching the new year with trepidation. In my mind, all I could picture was the fact that neither of my parents had made it to 2018. It would be the first full year that they weren't around at all together or apart. And I grieved for all that was lost. But then I began to look back, way back. To a time when I was a little girl. I thought about the days leading up to New Years, and how special they had always been.

I remember when I was little, in the week between Christmas and New Years. Mom always donned a festive tablecloth over our table, and upon it were cut glass bowls of fruit, silver trays of nuts in their shells, and the nut cracking implements laid off to the side. There were Torrones, the little Italian boxes piled high on a plate, dried figs, and scads of her homemade cookies on a tiered metal holder. These stayed throughout the week, lest a visiting relative miss out on a table made ready.

In our fireplace colorful, discarded wrapping paper was waiting for the fire that my father would soon build. My toys lay scattered under the tree, a mixmash of dollies, games, and other assorted items, blending in with the manger set; the camels, wise men and holy family. And don't tell me you never played with the set under your own tree. Mary, Joseph and the shepherds had quite a few adventures under ours!

Our large picture window which faced the road, was painstakingly hand-painted by my father, adorned with all the wonderful decorations of the season. Through it, I could watch the falling snow, the passersby, and my cousins as they filed out of their cars so they could play with (and sometimes break) my new toys.

Aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents would visit during this most festive time. Talk was lively and loud--true Italians do not merely talk with their hands. Everyone tried to outdo one another with gift-giving tales, stories of food, and memories of their own youth.

We also would venture to the homes of other relatives in that week. My mother would insist that I stop playing with my precious new toys and that I could not bring them with me to our outing.Though I never complained, I longed for the new Playdoh set, favorite doll, or latest family fun game while it seemed like forever that my parents talked and talked and talked to the relative we were visiting.

New Years Eve would arrive, and though my parents were not drinkers, it was the one time, perhaps that I would see each of them with a tiny glass of wine to toast the new year. I was given ginger ale or some other childlike substitute. The song Auld Lang Syne always brought a lump to my throat even then.

As the years passed, the special holiday week leading up to the new year was filled with new memories after my brother arrived. Then marriage would follow for me a few years later, and then my own child. I sit here now wondering where the time has flown to, for it feels like yesterday that I was the child.

With fresh hopes and dreams in mind, we each face the ticking of the clock, the countdown of the crystal ball on Times Square. Auld Lang Syne still will bring a tear to some of our eyes, and we, too, will become the memory for our own children and grandchildren.

A good friend had this to say when I told her how sad I felt about my parents not seeing the new year:
Your parents were such love birds. Just think. They will never have to begin another year separated from one another.....

Yes, I believe that.  And what of your own losses? What of the changes of life, the ups and downs of health issues, the fact that we all must leave our youth behind and memories that held our family together?  I believe they, too, go on . . .

Modern English version of Auld Lang Syne:
Should old acquaintances be forgotten,
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintances be forgotten,
And days of long ago!
For times gone by, my dear
For times gone by,
We will take a cup of kindness yet
For times gone by.

 Pictures from my youth. You'll notice the picture window that my dad hand painted.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

A Bittersweet Christmas Visit

Tomorrow my brother and I will visit the residents at the care facility which housed our mom for several months this year bringing them a little Christmas cheer. It will be the first time I've been back there since she passed away, and a very bittersweet visit for me. For I'll picture Mom around every corner, in all her usual places. The dining room where she sat with other ladies, enjoying small parties that were held there. The hallways we wheeled through, and even walked when she was still able. The outdoor seating area where I would take her for little rides round and round with her wheelchair, as I talked about the chirping birds, blue skies, butterflies--anything to share with her.

I'll see her petting the resident dogs, becoming so animated when they were near. And then I'll envision her sneaking morsels of food to them while another lady yelled for her to stop. There should be familiar faces: the nurses and aides who gave tirelessly of themselves to her. Some of the residents we had gotten to know well and spoken with, each with their own life story.

But when it comes time to walk past the last place I spent time with my mother, her room, I know my heart and soul will grow quiet, for it will almost be holy ground for me. I will picture myself touching her hair and face lightly while singing songs that she sang to me as a child. I will watch her chest rise and fall, every breath precious as she began the process of leaving this world. I'll remember how her eyes were focused above her--on things I could not imagine.

I'd pictured what Christmas might be like this year before we knew we were losing Mom. How the holiday would be so different without her at home, and how we would cope with celebrating in a nursing home. I thought we would have her much longer. I couldn't imagine what life would be like without her. Yet here we are now, facing the first Christmas without both of our parents.

I feel her near many times. I've dreamed beautiful dreams of her, some that feel like she is right there with me. And I hold fast to items she once held dear: a wedding band, a cat necklace, simple clothing and many pictures.

I think about tomorrow and realize that the care home is only a building, nothing fancy or special. But it's the place where beautiful souls sometimes have to wander before their final journey home. My mother journeyed there, but didn't stay very long. God called to her, and Dad waited for her. And when she said the words, "I want to go home," God answered.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

'Tis Almost The Season: A journey of grief and healing

Today at the dental office where I work, I saw an elderly dementia patient clutching her little bag of freebies as if they were the greatest thing she ever received. Even when her daughter tried to take the bag from her, she held it closely because to her, they were her possessions. She may not have much left in her memories, but at that moment, those little dental "gifts" became the most important thing to her. A lump formed in my throat, and a few tears sprang to my eyes. How that reminded me of my mother.

I think back to this time last year when Mom was still living in her own home. When all of us tried to do our very best with making sure she ate, keeping up with doctor visits and being sure she wasn't alone very long. She may have lost many of her memories, but she had small routines that meant something to her. Cats to feed and care for, and a dog that she adored. She would pull her driver's license out of her purse and her health insurance card and read them over and over. She read the small love notes from my father time and again. Oh how we rolled our eyes when she would begin these routines, never realizing how important they were to her, and how in small ways, they were keeping her memory going.

It may have been one of the most difficult times in our family, but we had the strength to go through it. I often wonder now how we did, because thinking about it now makes me feel exhausted. But when we needed it, God supplied exactly enough of His mercy and grace to us all.

Now Mom is gone four months. How I miss those little nuances of hers.What I wouldn't give to hear the same stories once again. And now the season is upon us that bring memories of family and traditions.

Halloween was tough for me without Mom because it was a holiday she had enjoyed so much. And now with Thanksgiving a week away, I can't help but think that even though it wasn't my favorite holiday, it was one of hers. How Mom loved her kitchen! The fact that she'd begin baking days in advance, planning her usual feast, and having it all turn out perfectly. A few years ago, even with Alzheimer's, she managed somehow. But last year was different, and she allowed us to take her to a restaurant for the day. I like to think she still enjoyed herself with her family surrounding her because she smiled and beamed through the entire meal.

Today I was thinking about where I am at this moment. With colorful decorations soon to be everywhere, joyous songs and yearly traditions, I feel a bit blue. No, I won't ruin it for others, and I certainly can dig inside myself and find a little Christmas cheer, but I can tell I am not the same. I don't feel the need to make dozens of lists: of cookies, shopping, cleaning and planning. This year, time means more to me than ever. The time I will spend with my our children, my brother and family, and dear friends. This year, I want Christmas to be different. I will not over do my spending, for I will be more thoughtful now. There is no quota to meet, no amount more precious than a kind word to a loved one, giving of myself, and feeling thankful for all the blessings in our families.

And I must remember to be kind to myself. I lost two parents in the span of nine months. No, I may not feel like celebrating this holiday season. I may be quieter than usual, a little less festive. I may not put up every single decoration that I have from years past. And that is okay. I'm giving myself the gift of time too. Time to grieve and remember. Time to reflect. But mostly, I'm giving the gift of time to heal.

I hope that family understands where I am this year. That it is nothing against them. It's a process that will bring happiness and sadness; memories good and bad. But I hope they all realize how much I love them, and though I am changed, my heart can still hold all the love it's always had for them and even more.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

I Must Bloom

The other day, I glanced out my side door. A tree sits in my front yard dormant now for the upcoming winter. Some of that tree is hollowed out where countless birds and squirrels have made their homes for many years. One particular branch actually seems dead, as a huge portion of it came crashing down in a wind storm several months back. But on that branch, that place where no life should be during the fall season sits two pink blossoms. I had to go outside and see if I was hallucinating. But there they were, full of new life, beauty and promise. I felt a sign had been given to me, and wondered what it could mean.

The letter from the healthcare facility sat on my counter last evening. I'd been waiting for the results of a bone scan for a few weeks thinking it would come by phone. I tore the envelope open, hoping against all hope that the tests wouldn't show what I feared. And then there was the word: Osteoporosis. The dreaded word that many of us ladies over fifty have had to deal with.

A few weeks ago when I'd been at the facility shivering in my little paper gown, I had first gotten word that I lost an inch in my height. At five- foot- one, all my life, that didn't come as particularly happy news. The nurse began the scans and I asked her questions. Because I'd been told I had osteopenia a few years ago, I already had a sneaking suspicion.

So this morning I sit here writing out my feelings. What do I feel? I feel old all of a sudden; washed up and a "has been." I feel like, here we go, now it's my time of having "older" people issues. The reality however is that it was not a cancer diagnosis. There are so many of my friends and acquaintances who have far worse going on with their health. A brave friend has Parkinson's, other ladies I know have dealt with breast cancer and worse.

It's a time for change then. I look back to a blog I wrote last year about eating healthier and feeling good. That lasted for all of two weeks for me. Going through all of my mom's problems earlier this year, I went over the top with feeling sorry for myself and turned to all sorts of bad foods for comfort. All of my wonderful ideas for becoming a new me went right out the window.

Until I'm able to speak with my doctor, I have nagging concerns though. Because of my scoliosis, I've always worried a little more about my spine. It hasn't been an easy road with curvature of the spine; it's been an uphill battle feeling different from others and knowing a long metal rod runs the length of my back. That I have scars like road maps and frightening memories of weeks in Children's Hospital. That I was made fun of and had to learn to hold my head up though my heart was breaking. These thoughts plague me until I silence them.

 I have aches and pains that weren't there just a few short years ago. I can hardly get out of bed in the mornings, but once I get going, I'm okay. It's easy for someone like me to get lost in all the negative emotions that something like this brings. I can easily let my thoughts spiral out of control until I'm sitting there crying. But I must pick myself up and dust these old bones off and not let it get the best of me. I refuse to sit in a rocking chair crocheting--though I do love to crochet. And I absolutely refuse to picture myself in a wheelchair. Though there are things I shouldn't do any longer such as pick up my nieces, I can still run around a playground with them and carry on like a child. 

I talked with God. I will get through this as many others have. I'm planning on purchasing a stepper exercise machine. Though I do walk several times a week, I will need this for the winter months especially. And I must start eating better. Now that I have a reason to do so, I may find it easier to cut out the junk.

I think about the sign I was given--the stunning pink blossoms in the midst of what seemed dead on the tree in my yard. And it brings me hope. Life is not over until it's over. The dormant part of me can blossom forth like those lovely blooms against all odds--aging, health issues, loss and death. I, too, can push forth from the dead wood of my own mind as those flowers have, and turn my face toward the sunshine. What hope this has brought me! I still walk over to the tree and glance upward at the crackly, old branch and view the delicate petals upon it. And like those little beauties, I will spring forth and defy the odds at the most amazing times.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Terry's Halloween Gift

Dear Readers:

Since Halloween is my family's favorite time of the year, I wanted to share part of a short story I'd written years ago which is included in my book "Reflections From my Mother's Kitchen." This is called "Terry's Gift" and for those of you who love "To Kill a Mockingbird," you may see my tribute to that wonderful book in this small tale.

I tried to paint a picture of old, small town life as it was growing up in an old steel town with a creepy Halloween flair. Hope you enjoy!

     The year was 1969. Katie Martino, nine years old and her best friends in the world, Carol Garbinsky, Diane Nelson, and the only boy in the neighborhood, Tony Prichard, tagged one another, “You’re it!” then ran to the safety of the telephone pole, the “base” where no one could touch you. They had invented a hide-and-seek sort of game out of the usual “It tag.”
     Growing up on the main drag of Duss Avenue in the small steel town of Ambridge, Pennsylvania had its challenges. A busy thoroughfare, cars and trucks sped by at all hours. There were no playgrounds nearby to play in and the closely- packed homes had only small patches of grass as their front yards, and sometimes even tinier, weedy patches in the back. Cement sidewalks ran the length around the blocks with faded hopscotch in chalky pinks and yellows.The children learned to use their imaginations in the small, cramped quarters, and there was never a lack of things to do, or mischief to get into.
     A steel town was an interesting place for kids and like all small towns, had their secrets.
     Halloween and autumn hung in the air with the smell of wood smoke, tart apples, and dried leaves. The days were getting shorter, the streetlights coming on long before the children wanted to say goodnight to one another. Nighttime had a slight nip to the air, and sweaters came out of last winter’s storage.
     This Halloween would be extra special for Katie. Dad had promised he’d think about letting her go out alone with her friends for trick or treats.
     Mom always made such a big deal out of Halloween. Every year she would begin planning Katie’s wardrobe weeks in advance even though the local five and dime had shelves stocked full of costumes, princesses, pirates, and super heroes. She could have been any of these, but Mom insisted on elaborate, hand-sewn items, cleverly put together.
     “What’re you gonna be for Halloween this year?” Tony asked Katie, as he huffed and puffed running alongside her before scrambling into the bushes to hide from Carol.
     “I’m going to be a fortune teller,” Katie called back over her shoulder, and quickly ducked into a small alley behind some trashcans. She counted to twenty when she heard Carol’s voice calling in the distance.
     “Okay, I give up guys. Where are you?” Carol screamed out.
      Katie emerged first, dusting dirt from her dungarees. Diane and Tony gave up their hiding spots, coming from opposite directions.
     “This game’s boring,” Tony said, approaching the girls. “We need to find something else.”
     Diane, the tomboy of the group, and one year older, agreed. “Let’s ride bikes,” she offered. “My parents got me a new one, and I’m dying to try it out. It’s supposed be the fastest bike ever.”
     “Yeah,” Tony said, rubbing his hands together with his best mad-scientist impersonation. “Then we can ride past the Gardner place and see which one of us will be the brave one today.”
     “So, what are the rest of you gonna be for Halloween?” Tony asked. They were standing in front of Katie’s house and he picked at the hedge bush in the yard, flinging bits of greenery at the girls.    “Katie’s gonna be a fortune teller,” he crooned and stuck his tongue out at her. “I’m gonna be an astronaut, Neil Armstrong,” he proudly stated.
     “That’s boring,”Carol chimed in. “I’m too old for all this ‘Halloween stuff’ anyway,” she said. “My parents want me to hand candy out this year.” Her voice had a steel edge to it.
     Katie looked at her friend, feeling badly for her. Carol’s parents were odd. They seemed to want her to age before her time. She never played with dolls, and her mother made her do chores like a grown up. I’m glad my parents aren’t like that.
     “Yeah, it’s baby stuff,” Carol said, kicking at a rock with her toe.
     “Don’t you still want to go with us, though?” Katie asked.  “We’ve got the rest of our lives to hand out stupid candy. Your parents shouldn’t force you to stay home.”
     Carol’s face darkened, and she took off running from the group. Her house was down the block a little way,and she disappeared into her front door with a bang.
     “Ha, ha,” Tony laughed. “You made her mad again, Katie. When’re you gonna learn?”
     Katie looked down the street after her friend. The house was closed up tightly like a fist. It struck her as odd that none of them were ever invited there, and they never played in front of her house.
     “Go get your bike, Katie,” Diane said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with mine.”


     “I dare you,” Tony said, whizzing past Katie on his Schwinn Stingray for at least the tenth time. “Just run up and knock on the stupid door. You’re such a chicken, Katie. I’ve done it a zillion times.”
     Katie sat upon the blue sparkled banana seat, the one her daddy had recently put on her bike. Deep scooped handlebars with blue and white streamers dangled from the ends. “Leave me alone, Tony,” she said, flying past the place Tony had referred to, barely glancing at it.
     The dark, creepy insulbrick house stood off to the right, its’ weeds waist high, and hedges surrounding it like sentinels. The shutters were drawn and no furniture adorned the front porch. The sagging roof, in need of a few shingles, had a chimney that leaned to the right at a crooked angle. No cars were ever parked nearby. Nobody ever saw a soul walk in or out of the place.
     Tales had gone around the neighborhood that a crazy man lived there, so deranged, so ugly, his elderly mama wouldn’t let him leave the house in the daytime. Gardner was the last name, but other than that, nobody knew much else. The neighborhood children would play silly games, seeing who would be brave enough to knock on the door and run. Other times they would wait until after dark, sneaking around the back of the house to catch a possible glimpse of the madman that lived there and supposedly roamed at night.
     Some evenings, in the darkness of her bedroom, Katie peered out the window, the one that faced the back of the Gardner home. She pretended she’d see someone come out onto the back porch, maybe howl at the moon or turn into a bat. At other times, though, she would obsess over the poor, tortured soul who never showed his face. She felt sorry for someone so lonely and wished somehow she could befriend him.
     “I’ll go knock on the door then,” Tony said, a mischievous grin on his face. “It’s not like anyone’s gonna answer.”  It was getting a bit darker now, the sun going down quickly, thunder rumbled in the distance and a light, misty rain began to fall.
     Diane dismounted her shiny, new bike, and stood beside it. “Go ahead Tony,” she said. “Show Katie it’s no big deal.”
     “Come on, guys,” Katie said. “We’d better be getting home.” Katie didn’t want to bother the people who lived there. As frightening as the house looked, her mother had always said that everyone had a story. Who knew what might be going on inside?
     “Baby,” Tony taunted. “Katie’s scared,” he said, while propping his kickstand up, and approaching the steps to the drooping front porch.
     Thunder crashed overhead, and Tony abandoned his plan.
     “Ha, ha,” Katie laughed. “Who’s scared now?” But she shivered a bit, staring at the darkened windows before her. She could have sworn she saw a blind lift ever so slightly.


     The next morning Katie buttoned up her jacket, picked her book bag from the chair in the living room, and kissed Mom quickly on the cheek. Diane was waiting for her outside and they walked the short distance to Carol’s house. Usually standing on the porch, she was nowhere to be seen. The girls stood there a few minutes.
     “We’ll be late for school,” Diane said, hefting her books higher in her arms. “What’s taking her so long?”
     A scarecrow thin woman, apparently Carol’s mother, opened the front door a crack and whispered in a barely audible voice, “Carol’s sick today.” She closed the door quickly. Raised voices punctuated the morning silence from inside the house. Even with the windows and doors shut, someone was screaming loudly from the sound of it, a man’s voice, barking harshly.
     Katie flinched, looking at Diane for answers. “Come on, let’s go,” Diane said, shrugging her shoulders.

     It bothered Katie all day. Even at recess, when the others were playing dodge ball on the playground, she sat off to the side, wondering about Carol. What was it she’d heard this morning?
Carol lived alone with her mother and father. She had two older brothers who moved away years ago. Katie saw Mr. Garbinsky, Carol’s father, on several occasions walking home from the steel mill disheveled and irritated, a scary-looking man. He kept his head down and didn’t speak to a soul as he passed their home. When Katie called Carol’s house to talk with her friend, if her father answered, he would growl angrily into the phone and hang up on her.
     Katie asked her dad about him, but Daddy would always shrug it off and say things like, “Don’t worry your pretty little self about that man, honey.”
     It was hard to concentrate in the afternoon and several times one of the nuns smacked her desk with a ruler, bringing her out of the reverie. At the end of the day, when she met Diane, it still nagged at her.
     “I have some homework from arithmetic class for Carol,” Katie said. “I’m going to bring it to her.” She hitched the book bag higher on her shoulder.
     “Oh my,” Diane said. “You sure are brave going into her house.” Diane shivered. “Did you know her dad is mean to her mother?” Diane had a smug look on her face as if this type of top secret knowledge made her very important. “Oh yeah, my dad works with him. Says he doesn’t talk to anyone much, but overheard him bragging one day about hitting the missus.”
     Katie looked over at her friend, horrified. The thought of anyone hitting a woman was too much for her. Her own dad was so kind and gentle. The best man she knew.
     “Don’t say anything to anyone,” Diane said in a hushed voice. “I wouldn’t want to get Carol in trouble.”
     A chilly wind, the icy fingers of a beckoning winter blew as the girls walked along. The skies hung low and gray when Katie walked up the steps to the Garbinsky home.
     “Go ahead, Diane. I’ll see you in the morning.”
     “Are you sure, Katie?” Diane looked concerned.
     “It’s okay,” Katie answered, and knocked lightly at the front door.
     After rapping several times, the door opened a tiny crack. Carol’s face was half -visible and her eye widened in surprise.
     “Hey,” Katie tried to sound cheerful. “Hope you’re feeling better. I brought you some homework so you won’t be behind tomorrow.”
     The door opened just a bit farther. Carol’s hand snaked out to grab the papers. She was already closing the door when a voice whispered from inside, “Who is it?”
     The stick thin woman from the morning opened the door wider and a ghost of a smile touched her lips. Wonderful smells emanated from inside the home, some type of home baked bread or muffins.
     “You’re Kate, right?” Mrs. Garbinsky asked, unable to meet Katie’s eyes.
     “Yes, ma’am,” Katie answered. “Nice to meet you.” She put out her hand as her parents had instructed her to do.
     A tiny, cold hand shook Katie’s. “Would you like to come in for some banana bread?” The woman spoke so quietly it was hard to hear her.
     “I’d love that,” Katie said. “Would you mind if I called my mom though to let her know where I am?”
     Mrs. Garbinsky led her to a telephone on a stand in the dark hallway. Katie looked around at the d├ęcor of her friend’s home. Pretty glass figurines adorned shelves between stacks and stacks of neatly piled old books. Aside from the dim lighting, it appeared Carol’s home was rather warm and inviting.
Carol showed her friend to the kitchen, pulling out a chair for her, while her mother took the heavenly- smelling bread from the oven. Carol and her mother spoke in hushed tones, and it was apparent they were trying to be extremely quiet.
     “Father’s sleeping,” Carol indicated toward the stairs, almost like she’d read Katie’s mind. Mrs. Garbinsky sliced into the bread, laying a pat of butter off to the side of the dish she put in front of Katie.
     It struck Katie as odd, the fact her friend called her dad, “father”. It sounded stiff and formal.
An hour quickly passed, Mrs. Garbinsky apparently so happy to have someone to talk with, she made Katie promise to return sometime. Even Carol seemed to relax as their conversation had gone on.
     That night, Kate asked her mother about the Garbinsky family. Mom knew nothing about the strange, quiet family and told Katie the usual: Everyone has a story.
     Katie switched tactics and tried prying facts from her mother about the Gardners who lived behind them. Was their son really so ugly and crazy to boot? Mom told her to mind her own business and stop fretting over the neighbors. “Remember,” Mom said again. “Everyone has a story.”
     Later, as Katie lay in her bed unable to sleep, she imagined becoming friends with the strange man inside the Gardner home. What would it be like? Hello there, sir, I’m Katie. Mind if I sit and chat with you for a bit? Yes, that’s right, I won’t hurt you.
     She stared into the darkness. There probably wasn’t anyone really living in that house anyway.

     Halloween was just two days away. Katie tried her homemade costume on for at least the tenth time. The flowing patchwork skirt, and peasant blouse was perfect. She had a turquoise bandana to tie upon her head, large dangling hoop earrings, and an armful of colorful bangles. She would be the gypsy queen for a night. Katie pranced and flounced in front of her mirror talking with a strange foreign accent.
     She looked up to see Dad standing in the doorway, a camera ready in his hands. Just at the right moment, he flashed a picture of his little girl. Katie took a graceful bow, breaking into a fit of giggles.
“Dad,” she said, serious now. “Are you going to let me go out alone for trick or treat this year with my friends? I am nine, you know.” She batted her eyes at him. “Tony will be with me and Diane. I promise not to go too far.”
     Her father appeared to be in deep thought. The camera dangled in one hand, while he stroked his chin with his other. “Well, we’ll have to see, won’t we?” he said. “I think you could go to most of the nearby streets with your friends if it’s alright with your mom, that is.”
     Katie ran over to her dad, giving him a big hug. “Thank you, Daddy, oh thank you. I feel so grown up.”

     The wind picked up a bit on Halloween night. It was six p.m. Pumpkins glowed on porches, the sweet smell of candles inside them. Porch lights came on one by one, and a light drizzle began to fall.
Katie pouted on her front porch. Why did it have to rain tonight?
     Diane approached, dressed as an Indian Princess, with Tony tagging along behind in his astronaut gear. Just seeing her best friends in the world, Katie’s spirits lifted. Who cared if the weather wasn’t perfect? They were going to have fun tonight!  The best part, it would be their first time alone without any parents to supervise. Each of them had gotten dire warnings from mothers and fathers. Don’t go near strangers. Only go to houses you know. Don’t eat any candy until it’s brought home and gone over.
     Other children were already milling about, ghosts, goblins, witches, fairy queens. They came with their pillow cases ready to be filled with treats, oh so many treats.
     Katie and her little group struck off, while she stole a glance down to Carol’s home.


     House after house, Katie, Diane, and Tony trudged up long walkways, and steep stairs. After an hour into the night, Diane said she was tired. They neared her house and saw Mrs. Nelson sitting on the porch, a basket of Hershey bars and Mallow Cups on her lap.
     “Hey, Mom.” Diane said. “I think I have enough candy, so I’ll stay and help you now.” She sat down with her mother, removed the Indian headdress, stretched out her long legs, and kicked her moccasins off.
     Mrs. Nelson tossed a few candy bars into Katie and Tony’s bags. They waved goodbye and started off down the block.
     “Wow, we got a ton of stuff,” Tony said. He held up his bulging sack of treats. In his other arm he carried his space helmet which had been off most of the night.
     “Mmm, I know,” Katie said. “I can’t wait to spill mine out. Of course my dad will pick through and steal his favorite candy first.”
     They were nearing Tony’s house now. “You gonna be okay?” Tony asked. “I mean, walking the rest of the way to your house, or you want me to walk you there?” He kicked at the ground with his foot.
     “Oh my goodness, Tony.It’s only around the block. No big deal. There’s a lot of people still out. I’m not scared. See you in school on Monday.”
     Katie walked away, not realizing which direction she was pointed in. The Gardner home stood off to the right, its pointy shrubbery swaying lightly in the wind. Out of the corner of her eye, Katie realized the porch light was on. She would have missed it if she had gone the other way.
     Nobody was on the porch; no kids were walking up to knock on the door. There was a single candle burning in a small ceramic pumpkin at the top of the stairs. Katie gulped. Would she be brave enough to walk up to the door? Would her curiosity win and she’d get her wish tonight? Decisions, decisions.
     She noticed other families walking across the street.  She looked at her watch. Seven forty five. Halloween would be over in fifteen minutes.
     With heart hammering in her chest, mustering all her courage, Katie began mounting the crumbling cement stairs to the Gardner porch. The door and windows looked sealed securely, like the entrance to a tomb. She didn’t think anyone would really come to the door.
     There was no doorbell, so she rapped lightly upon the outside wooden door frame. Nothing.Katie knocked again ever so lightly and waited. As she was about to give up and turned to walk away, the door creaked open and a wizened old face smiled toothlessly at her. The woman was bent over from age, her gnarled fingers wrapped around a bowl filled with candy. The door opened wider, and a youngish man, probably in his twenties, stood next to the old lady. He was heavyset, and pasty white skin filled with freckles covered his face. His mouth drooped at an odd angle.  Blue eyes stared out at Katie, and a wide smile broke out onto his homely face.
     “Go ahead, Terry,” the old woman said. “Give the young lady some candy.”
     The young man scooped his chubby hands into the dish, pouring several large candy bars into Katie’s treat bag. She could hardly breathe and wondered if she was dreaming. His grin widened, and he said “Happy Halloween” in a voice which sounded like a child’s.
     “Thank you, honey,” the old lady said, more to Katie than to her son. “I wanted my boy to see the kids on Halloween night. It’s been a long time since he’s been outside, he was pretty sick there for a while. You’re the only one who came tonight, bless you, young lady.” A tear fell from the corner of the crinkled eyes. She put a trembling hand out to Katie.
     “I’m Elsie Gardner,” the woman said. “This is Terry, my son.” Again, the biggest smile filled the young man’s face, eyes dreamy and faraway. Katie shook his hand, thanking him for the candy.
     “Well, happy tricks or treats to you,” the woman said to Katie, as the door began to close.
     Katie walked down the steps in a daze. They’d never believe it. Tony, Diane and Carol would never believe she’d been there. She glanced back in the direction of Tony’s house, but it was locked up for the night. As Katie walked the rest of the way home, swinging her bag of candy, her step felt light and her heart glad. Mom was right, there were stories going on behind closed doors. Some you may never know. But tonight she’d gotten a glimpse into the life of a man who would never be “normal” whatever that was. Never again would she look at the Gardner house the same way. They were just people after all. Like her, Mom, Dad, Tony, Diane and Carol.
     Katie’s house was in view. She seemed to be the only one out this late. As she neared her next door neighbor’s house, a man stepped out of the bushes. It was Mr. Garbinsky. He had startled her, and she took a wide berth around him. It was then she noticed him staggering and cursing under his breath. His hand reached out to grab at her skirt, and Katie screamed.
     He pulled her roughly toward him, his breath smelling strongly of alcohol. Katie tried to scream again, and found she had no voice. His rough whiskers scratched against her cheek as he bent to her face. In a blind panic, Katie tried kicking his shins, and wriggled to break free of his grasp. He held on tightly to her, words emanating from his mouth that Katie had never heard before.
     Just as Katie felt surely she’d pass out, another man approached, yanking Mr. Garbinsky off Katie. He shoved the man roughly, and Katie almost fell with him as Mr. Garbinsky tumbled to the ground. She looked up into the face of Terry Gardner, the young man she had met only moments before. He motioned for her to run, and kicked Mr. Garbinsky in the ribs with his workman’s boots. “Call cops,” he murmured in that childlike voice of his.
     Katie ran as fast as she could, forgetting all about her bag of treats. Mom was waiting at the door, and her expression changed to panic as she saw her daughter’s face and torn skirt.
     “My goodness, Katie, what happened, Honey?”Mom grabbed her tightly, hugging her.
     “A-a man jumped out of the bushes, Mama.” Katie scarcely could breathe and she started to shake. “I- I ran as fast as I could.” She was crying now.
     “Ray!” Mom screamed. “Ray, someone’s been after Katie.”
     Dad ran into the room, a sick look on his face. A look of regret and pain.
     “Call the police, Ray,” Mom said, cradling the sobbing Katie in her arms.


     “Young lady,” the cop with the kindly face said. “Would you please tell me what happened?”
     Katie sat at the kitchen table with her mother’s warm, crocheted afghan pulled tightly about her, a cup of hot cocoa before her. Mom and Dad sat on either side of her, while Dad said over and over, “I never should have let her go alone.”
     Katie didn’t want to tell on Mr. Garbinsky. Apparently when the cops checked the spot near the next door neighbor’s house, he was already gone. What would happen to her friend’s father if Katie told? What would happen to Carol and their precarious friendship? Yet she knew in her heart, lying was wrong.
     The biggest surprise was her backward hero. Had Terry Gardner really come to her rescue, like something out of a movie or book? Nobody would believe her, not even her parents.
     “I-I’m not sure,” Katie said. “It w-was a strange man. I never saw him before,” she lied.
     “There’s a lot of crazies out on Halloween,” the cop said, scratching some notes into his note pad. “Probably not anyone local.”He looked into Katie’s eyes. “Are you sure, young lady?”
     Katie nodded, holding onto her hot chocolate with both hands, not looking up at the policeman.

     On Monday morning, Katie told her parents she didn’t feel well and would they mind if she missed school? She didn’t think she could face Carol.
     It had been a strange weekend. Mom and Dad questioned her over and over yet she wouldn’t say much about what had happened Halloween night. What should she do about it all? She sat on the edge of her bed and said a little prayer.
     “God, I’m not sure what I did was right. You know the truth, and I feel just awful about lying to my parents. But I don’t want to get Carol in trouble, either. Please help me do the right thing.” Katie clasped her hands before her, eyes squeezed shut. She shivered thinking of Mr. Garbinsky and his foul-smelling breath. She was suddenly frightened that he might come after her again. Katie crawled back under the covers, hearing her parents talking in hushed tones in their bedroom. Dad would be leaving for work shortly.
     A knock sounded at their front door, and Katie sat bolt upright in bed. It’s him…. Don’t be ridiculous, her mind told her as she heard her dad’s footsteps down the hall.
      “Huh, it’s the strangest thing,” she heard him saying. “Nobody was there, but Katie’s Halloween bag was at the doorstep.” He walked into Katie’s room.
     “Honey, this is your bag, right?” Dad held it up in one hand. Katie nodded, but her stomach turned over. “I think someone left it on our porch,” Dad mused. He looked thoughtfully at Katie then walked out of the room carrying the bag with him.
     Katie lay back down, snuggling under the covers. Terry Gardner must have picked up her precious bag of treats the night she was attacked. Her odd hero had come through for her once again.
     All day long, Mom fussed, taking Katie’s temperature, giving her ice cream in bed. Katie finally got up and walked into the kitchen, finding her treats neatly stacked on the kitchen table.
     “I thought you might want some of these,” Mom said, coming over to her, pushing her bangs out of the way with her hand, and caressing Katie’s face tenderly.
“But look, here’s the strangest thing.” Mom motioned to the pile of candy, and sitting on top was a crudely drawn card made of construction paper, colored with red, yellow and orange crayons. On the front of it, someone had drawn a picture of a girl carrying a sack. Her hair looked like the way Katie wore hers. When she opened the card, the words thank you were scrawled crookedly in black crayon.
     “Katie, what’s this all about?”
      Katie smiled. Her new friend had given her the greatest gift anyone could ever give: her safety. And he had shown her that differences in people weren’t so bad after all.
     She told Mom about the Gardner home then. She told her about Halloween night and how she met the scary man who lived there. How he had been the one who helped her.
     Katie also told her parents the truth about Carol’s father. Cops came to the Garbinsky home, and took him away to a rehabilitation facility for a time. Katie lost one friend, but knew she had gained another.
     She would see Terry Gardner a few times after that. Katie told the neighborhood kids he wasn’t the creepy ghoul everyone had imagined. He became a sort-of legend in their town. Children stopped tormenting him and he began to come out onto his porch as they rode their bikes. His crooked smile and homely face didn’t scare them any longer.
     Small steel towns have their secrets. And sometimes they are wrapped up in the strangest of packages masquerading as friends. . .

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Halloween Memories

 Halloween has always been one of our family's favorite holidays, for we are all big kids at heart.
Take Mom for instance. The above photo is from last October twenty-eighth. I had been visiting for the day, and my nieces were painting pumpkins. Mom wanted in on the fun, and we gave her one of the bigger pumpkins and a few paints. Though I thought the design on hers turned out a bit silly and I'd grown frustrated of hearing her repeat the same questions over and over to my nieces, I never would have said a thing to her. She glowed as if painting a masterpiece smiling her missing-tooth grin and singing crazy songs; as content as my nieces were.

Back in the day, Mom spent plenty of time and money choosing really good candy to give away for the special night though much of it would end up in her belly, and we'd have to purchase new bags by the time the day rolled around. She would also help orchestrate the spooky porch and walkway to their house; every bit the "manager" as she pointed to where the gravestones should be, and the other assorted frightful objects.

I think back to those elaborate decorations of years past; I remember countless little children who seemed too afraid to come to Mom's porch to receive their candy until my son Matt would unmask from his Michael Myers or Samara costume, to show them it wasn't real. I remember Mom sitting outside in nicer autumn weather, a bowl of candy balanced on her lap as she greeted each child with a smile and a "Happy Halloween." Creepy music played from the hidden tape recorder stashed underneath the large bush.

My parent's house was the hub for many of our friends through the years to gather since the connecting roads and houses sat pretty close and walking always felt safe in the neighborhood. There was something magical on our Halloween nights. The air seemed to smell of chimney smoke, crisp, tart apples and the warm, cooking scent of jack-o-lanterns lit with the small stubs of candles on neighbor's porches. The swish of  fallen, crunchy leaves underfoot as we ran from house to house.

I think back to the time when my own children were small, and the Halloween exchange as we called it, with their bags of booty dumped out on the floor so we parents could check it over first. Then the trading would begin; each child finding their favorites to barter with. Countless haunted houses my brother and his friends fabricated in my parent's basement--all good clean fun!

 And was it all that long ago that my father walked my little legs off when I was a child; practically pulling me along to get more, more, more candy while I sweat beneath the old plastic Cinderella mask with its stretchy elastic band, hardy able to see through the small eye holes, barely able to breathe through the tiny mouth hole?

This year, the house is silent and partially empty. No creepy masked cement deer in the front yard, or yards of fake spider web stretched all over the porch and bushes. No porch witch stirring her plastic cauldron, no Styrofoam gravestones.

We will miss Mom during this holiday for we know how much she enjoyed it. I will miss the annual phone call I placed to her each Halloween from my home an hour away so that I could hear how their own night was going--all the fun they were having. I will miss the sound of the movie "Halloween" playing loudly in the background, and my father saying "It's all over but the shouting. Shut it down," as he switched off the outdoor light barring any late stragglers from knocking at their door.

I will content myself with memories; warm, cozy memories, and in my heart I will feel the love and fun in the Halloween legacy Mom left behind.