Photographs and memories,

All the love you gave to me

Somehow it just can’t be true

That’s all I’ve left of you.

–Jim Croce, “Photographs and Memories”

When I was younger, around twelve or so, my parents would sometimes be out of the house and I would be free to explore that magical repository known as “their closet”.  Unlike some kids, my interest in my parents’ closet had nothing to do with finding something that shouldn’t be there, but rather with unearthing what should be there.  Like an archaeologist, I would sift through the old clothes and boxes in search of what I was really after.

History.

In the closet, my dad kept (and still keeps–I checked) various bits of nostalgia such as slides from the time he spent in Korea while serving with the Army.  He was too late for the war, but those pictures of a much younger him never failed to fascinate me, particularly against such an exotic backdrop.  He showed them occasionally when I was in elementary school, and I was even allowed to take them to school during the sixth grade to tell, thanks to some handwritten notes, about his experiences there.  There were also pictures, mostly of me and my brother when we were younger, but also of my parents when they were younger, filling in the vast space before my memories began to take root.  There were papers, none of which I understood at the time, but that I knew to be important simply because they were in the closet rather than in the trash.  Other items, such as my mom’s crafts abandoned craft projects and my dad’s airplane magazines collected there as well, not important enough to keep out, but too important, at least to them, to throw away.

During one such exploration into the Closet of Wonders, I discovered a couple of notebooks that I had never seen before.  They were tucked in the very back at the top of the closet–the area where other parents might hide a handgun or a porn collection.  Inside the notebooks were the opening pages of a handwritten manuscript, began, then abandoned, by my mother.   I read through the pages and was not surprised that they were the beginning stages of a romance novel.  My mother read every book Harlequin put out for a couple of decades, so it was only natural that she might try to express her love for those stories by trying one herself.  Even at that age, I could see a few problems with spelling and grammar, but I had recently learned about the differences between a “rough draft” and a “finished piece”.

So, I asked her about them.

My mom, for those of you who didn’t know her, was as fearless as anyone I’ve ever met, but at the mention of her aborted manuscripts, she shrugged off the question, somewhat embarrassed.  She had been a stay-at-home mom and babysitter until my brother and I were both in school and, having the time, she thought she’d give it a try.  It turned out to be a lot harder than she expected and, aware of her own limitations, she gave it up.  She told me, though, that she had always wanted to be a writer.

Now, we come to the present.  She has been gone two years today and in that two years, I’ve done what she had only dreamed of doing–become a published author.  This fall, I will have two more stories published, bringing my total to six, and my only regret is that she has not been here to tell me how inappropriate they are and how proud she is that I wrote them anyway.  Also, I made a commitment to writing my Christmas stories without ever realizing that I was writing them for her, Santa’s biggest fan, even though she’ll never read them.  They are a tribute–however silly or sad or gross they are–to the woman who showed me that even working in retail during the holidays cannot dampen the joy one can find in the holiday season.

According to the old saying, time heals all wounds.  It’s true, but tell that to the amputee who will never hold anything with his missing hand again, or the cancer patient who has parts removed as if she was an old station wagon, or the son who will never share his victories with his mother, victories in battles that he has fought for them both.  Yes, time does heal all wounds, but sometimes the scars left by time are almost too horrible to behold.

I miss my mother.  She could be a pain in the rump sometimes, but no one would have been more thrilled by my published stories, even the ones she really didn’t like (I can only imagine the eye-rolling response I would have received for “Santa’s Worst Stop).  She was my first fan, the one who read my stories in elementary school and told me how good they were, even when they weren’t, and no amount of success, no mile-long line at a book signing or movie deal, will replace her.

Okay, that’s enough crying for this year, I think.  Time to go work on a Christmas story.  Mom would have liked that.

I had planned to write something today about my mother, who passed away a year ago today, but instead of repeating what I have already written I will instead post what my wife said here:

One year ago today, the world lost a remarkable woman. Anna Lois Smiley was my mother-in-law by title. Yet, she was so much more than that. Lois was the person whom you knew would ALWAYS be there, no matter what…and then she was gone.  For the last year, I have wrestled with the guilt of not being there the moment she died. I had to work the next day and decided to stay home while Lee and the kids went to visit Nana. She was sick, but she had been before…and she always got better. She was a fighter, and she hated being in the hospital. So I was certain I’d see her in a couple of weeks when she came down to see us. 

When I got the call that she was "really bad," I went for a walk. It was a beautiful but still day with not even the hint of a breeze. As I walked, I talked to God…out loud. I asked him if I needed to get in the van and drive to KY. As soon as I asked the question, the wind began to blow. It stopped me in my tracks. I thought surely that couldn’t be God answering me. The wind stopped, and I continued walking. Again, I asked God, "Should I go?" Again the wind began to blow. At that point, I did not walk, but rather ran, back to the house.  I packed some clothes and hastily grabbed a suit for Lee, knowing he wouldn’t need it. I got in the van and began to drive. Twenty minutes later, I received a message on my phone: She’s gone.  

Two words that changed my life. Two words that said so much more. Two words that translated to a million different things. "She’s gone" meant no more encouragement from the woman who took me as her own daughter. It meant no more days of "Let me take the kids so you and Lee can have a night together." It meant no more giddy excitement from a grown woman at the thought of putting up a Christmas tree. Those two words also translated, in my mind, to "Why didn’t I go with them?" "Why wasn’t I there for her and Lee and the kids?" "Why was I so selfish?"  

A few days ago, my feelings of guilt were eased a bit when a friend pointed out that if I had gone, Lee may not have been there in time. You see, he arrived at the hospital just a few short minutes before Lois left us. I think she waited for him. Had I gone when he did, I may have used up those minutes getting ready for the trip. I may have asked to stop on the way. I may have never been able to talk to God like I did during my walk. 

There were so many gifts given to the family by those who loved Lois so dearly, but the one Lee and I both treasure the most is a set of wind chimes that now hang on our front porch. You see, I don’t think it was a coincidence that those were given to us. Just as I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that as I sit here writing these words, the wind has begun to blow. Those chimes are a constant reminder to us that Lois is still here with us. That she is still in our corner, cheering us on through the good times and comforting our hearts through the bad. 

To say that I miss her would never be enough. To say that I love her more than I ever thought possible would be an understatement. And yet, here I go: Lois, I miss you like crazy and love you so very much!! Thank you for touching my life for the first time over seventeen years ago and for continuing to remind me of your love for us every time the wind blows…
 

Here it is, the third and final of my new Christmas short stories for this year. Short, however, is a term I use loosely for this tale. It does run a bit long, but it’s only as long as it needs to be to tell the story..

Again, I fall back on my Santa theme this year as I pay tribute to my late mother, although this story shows a different side of my writing. Sometimes, I write dark, somewhat offbeat tales such as the aforeposted “Santa’s Worse Stop” and “An Inconvenient Christmas”. Sometimes, however, I delve into the realm of uplifting emotion and hope I don’t get any on me. Part of me is Stephen King, part of me is Nicholas Sparks. What can I say other than I hope you enjoy “The Many Santas of Shepherd’s Hollow”?

I hope anyone reading this has an enjoyable Christmas and the promise of a wonderful new year.

ETA: Due to the length of this piece, I added a cut at the bottom of this entry. Just click where it says “Read the rest” and it will show you, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.

THE MANY SANTAS OF SHEPHERD’S HOLLOW

The snow began December 23rd, flurries sliding in from the west as though they were ordered especially for the holiday. White Christmases were rare in central Kentucky and the gray skies with their white flakes offered the first promise of one in years. Children looked out their windows and smiled, pointing and declaring with the authority granted to them during the holidays that this year, finally, there would be snow on Christmas Day.

Their parents also looked out the windows. They did not smile. They had seen the weather forecasts and knew what was coming.

Becky Garrison had not seen the weather. Waiting tables at the only restaurant in Shepherd’s Hollow, she had overheard vague conversation about the weather, but there was always such talk at the Corner Café. Old farmers and older retired farmers, deep into their sixth refill of free coffee, sat at the small tables all the time and talked about the weather, the tobacco crop, deer hunting, and the occasional Kentucky basketball game. Becky only paid attention to the basketball talk, the rest fading into a dull drone that formed the soundtrack of her working day.

“Jim,” Becky called to the kitchen as she pulled off her apron, “you need anything else before I take off?”

Jim Cantrell, wearing a grease-stained Santa hat instead of his usual grease-stained chef’s hat, looked up at her. He smiled at her, the warmth of it a bittersweet reminder of her father, dead of lung cancer the previous April. Jim had been her employer since high school and the only man she really trusted since Robbie had left her, four months pregnant with his child, to go to college out west.

“No, hun, you go ahead,” Jim said. “You and Beth have a good Christmas and be careful.”

“I will. Thanks.”

Becky tossed her dirty apron into a cloth bag beside the kitchen door, spun on her coat, and made for the front with a casual wave at the last four customers in the restaurant, all regulars she had known since childhood. Thee of them returned her wave, throwing in a “Merry Christmas” along with it, but the fourth, the oldest of the group, stood up and motioned for her to wait.

“Hold on, Becky, before you go,” Mr. Cosley said. A withered-looking man in his mid-eighties, Mr. Cosley looked even smaller in his tan coveralls, zipped halfway down to reveal his customary v-neck tee beneath, and his heavy, insulated boots. He hobbled through the tables and chairs to Becky, reached in his pocket, and pulled out a fifty. “You can’t leave without your tip.”

Becky stared at the money, but didn’t move to take it. “Mr. Cosley,” she said, her voice low, “that’s a fifty. I think you grabbed the wrong bill in your—“

“Ain’t the wrong bill, either,” the old man said. He reached out and stuffed the bill into Becky’s reluctant fingers. “You take it and have a good Christmas with that little girl of yours.”

Tears stung the corner of Becky’s eyes and she did the only thing she could to keep the sweet old man from seeing them, wrapping her arms around his shrunken shoulders and kissing him on the cheek. She held him there for a moment until she was sure her voice would work properly.

“Thank you,” she said. “And Merry Christmas to you.”

She kissed Mr. Cosley again, smiling as the pasty skin of his ears turned bright red, and waved again at the others before nearly dancing out the door into the parking lot.

Outside, Becky realized for the first time that it was snowing. Her mood higher than it had been in some time, she stood and watched the bits of white drift down, swirling in the yellow lights of the parking lot. Night had fallen, still and quiet in the small town.

Becky found her car, an older model Toyota, covered in a light dusting off snow and brushed off her windshield, not minding the cold bite on the exposed skin of her hand. She worked fast, only clearing off enough to drive safely the few miles to her home, and sat down in the car, flexing her frozen fingers as she dug her keys out of her purse. The car started on the fifth try and as it idled, she reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out the wad of cash. Singing along with a Bon Jovi song on the radio, she smoothed out the bills and laid them into stacks on the passenger seat, organizing them by denomination. Then, she started with the fifty Mr. Cosley had just given her and counted the stacks, her spirits rising as the total rose to and past what she had hoped to save by today.

Yes, she decided, it would be enough.

Tucking the money back into her jeans pocket, Becky put the car in gear and pulled onto the quarter mile of Highway 650 that became Main Street as it passed through Shepherd’s Hollow. The street, like her car, wore a blanket of white marred only by a few sets of tire tracks that were already starting to disappear under the steady accumulation of powder. Becky traveled slow, her headlights soon replacing the street lamps as the only source of illumination on the two-lane road out of town. Her father, a truck driver until the illness took hold, had taught her how to handle slick roads and she felt no fear as she handled the curves and rolling hills, only a cautious confidence that she would make it home to her Beth.

The radio station came out of commercial and the DJ started the weather forecast. Becky reached down, her eyes locked on the road, and switched stations until she found Kenny Chesney and joined him in a mid-song duet.

Reaching her turn, Becky did as her father had instructed and began braking very early, allowing the car to come to a near stop on the icy road before allowing it to coast onto the gravel road. Even with such caution, the Toyota’s back end slid a bit as she turned, causing Becky to stop singing abruptly and grip the wheel tighter, even as her foot automatically let off the gas to allow the vehicle to correct itself. The back tires caught traction again and, reaching the relative safety of the gravel, dug in for a better grip.

Becky lifted her voice again, joining Kenny for the last chorus and singing along with Reba as she sang about a girl named Fancy. “Fancy” was one of Becky’s all-time favorites, the story of a young girl living a life of poverty who rises up, through sacrifice and hard work, to a life of luxury. The song gave Becky hope, something, like money, that a single mother working at a local diner rarely had in surplus.

But as she pulled into her driveway, the lights of her rented trailer winking through the increasing snowfall, she had just over two hundred dollars in her pocket and the kind of hope that only Christmas can bring.

She pulled the Toyota beside the Dodge pickup already in her driveway, the larger vehicle’s features all but vanished beneath the blanket of white. Doing a twirl in the gravel before she went inside, Becky placed a tentative foot on the first of the two steps leading up to the front door and, finding it slippery, grabbed the rail for support. The sound of laughter, unusual coming from her, accompanied Becky as she pulled her way up the steps and turned the door knob.

The trailer was small and old, but thanks to Becky’s knack of decorating on a tight budget, it felt cozy and inviting. She had strategically placed pieces of furniture, rugs, and pictures of Beth to cover up the various burns, stains, and holes left by the previous tenants. Instead of the smell of smoke and urine that had greeted her first visit to the place, the trailer now smelled of pumpkin spice and apple pie thanks to the aromatic candles she kept burning in the kitchen. This year, she had even placed a Christmas tree for the first time, a live one she had cut herself in the nearby woods and hauled back as a surprise for her daughter.

“Mommy!”

Beth met her at the door, her footie pajamas sliding on the snow-slick tile. Her hair, still damp from her bath, stuck to Becky’s frozen cheek in warm strands that seemed to radiate the love between them.

“I was starting to worry about you,” Paula said from the kitchen where she was finishing the dishes from dinner. “Roads look like they’re getting bad out there.”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Becky said, putting her daughter down. She looked at Beth as she took off her coat. “What was for dinner?”

“Fish sticks,” Beth beamed. They were her favorite, a staple Becky could count on at least three nights a week. “I ate nine.”

“Wow,” Becky beamed back, “that’s a lot.”

Beth held out her flannel-clad belly, leaning back so that it protruded as much as possibly against the snowman designs. “I know. Look.”

Becky reached down and rubbed her daughter’s belly. “Wow,” she repeated. “Now, you go get in bed and I’ll be in a few minutes to tuck you in.”

Beth took off in a sprint for her bedroom down the hall, Becky watching her go.

“She’s pretty excited about the snow,” Paula said, drying off her hands and reaching for her coat. “Can’t say that I second that emotion, but I remember being her age.”

Paula had been Beth’s sitter since Becky had been able to go back to work following childbirth. Her husband, a contractor, made more than enough money to support them, but Paula loved being around children and saw Becky’s situation as a perfect way to get out of the house and feel needed. To Becky, she was a saint who had been more than a blessing to her and her daughter, she had been like a wise older sister, one she could ask for advice and count on for whatever she needed. Paula had been there many nights in the beginning, mopping the tears from her eyes or the morning sickness from her lips, and she was still there, as much a part of their family as either of them.

Becky reached into her pocket and pulled out the wad of bills and thumbed through them as Paula came into the living room.

“You put that away,” Paula said.

“I told you I’d pay you today,” Becky protested.

“And I said put it away,” Paula said. Her tone made it clear that the matter was not open for debate.

“But—“

“You use that money on Beth,” the older woman said. “You can make it up to me later.”

For the second time in less than an hour, Becky was rendered speechless by gratitude. She reached out and hugged Paula hard, kissing her cheek. This time, she did not try to check the tears that flowed down her still-red face. Paula had seen them enough to not be shocked by them.

“Thank you,” Becky told her.

“Merry Christmas, girl.”

They let go of each other and Paula opened the door to let herself out.

“Watch out for those steps,” Becky warned her, “and the roads. I fishtailed a little pulling onto the gravel.”

“I’ll be alright,” Paula said, using to handrail to slid down to the ground. “You shut that door so you don’t let all the heat out.”

Becky laughed and waved at her friend as she climbed into the big Dodge. She mostly shut the door, leaving open a crack while the big V-8 roared to life and the truck backed out into the road. She continued to watch it until the red tail lights were lost in the heavy snowfall and then she shut the door, locking it against the winter cold.

“Mommy!” came Beth’s voice from down the hall.

Becky slid off her wet shoes near the door and peeled off her damp socks as she hopped down the hall to her daughter’s bedroom.

Beth was in bed, her pink comforter piled on top of her like whipped topping on a sundae. Becky smoothed out her covers and sat down on the edge of the bed.

“You two have fun?” Becky asked.

Beth nodded. “We played Uno and watched Wheel of Fortune and I ate nine fish sticks.” To emphasize the point, she held up eight fingers, looked at the result, furrowed her brow, then added one more and held them out again.

Becky laughed again, unable to remember when she had felt more like doing so. After so many years of struggling, so many nights when everything in their lives seemed uncertain except for the constant fear that they would not have enough to survive, Becky finally felt like they were finding some traction, gaining some ground on that paralyzing terror that she was not the mother Beth deserved.

“Does Santa come tonight?” Beth asked, her eyes wide.

“Not tonight, honey. Tomorrow night.”

“And he’s bringing me presents?”

“Have you been good this year?”

Beth narrowed her eyes. “Mommy,” she said, as though she were the parent, “you know I’ve been good this year.”

“I know,” Becky agreed. “And I’m sure Santa knows, too. Now, you go to sleep and when you wake up, you’ll be one day closer to those presents.”

Beth closed her eyes and gave a mock snore.

Becky leaned over and kissed her daughter on the forehead, barely able to contain another outburst of mirth. “I’ll see you in the morning, you faker.”

Leaving her daughter’s room, Becky thought of going into the small living room and seeing what was on television, but her feet screamed at her from the cold and from being on duty all day, so she turned left into her own bedroom and shut the door. A few minutes later, she was in bed, thinking of all she had to do tomorrow. Even though the Corner Café was closed for the holiday, she had to drop Beth off at Paula’s so she could go to Wal-Mart and pick up the things on Beth’s Christmas list. The girl had not asked for much and, for the first time since they had been together, Becky could afford to get what she wanted.

She watched the snow falling outside as snuggled into her warm bed, thinking of how her daughter’s face would light up on Christmas morning.

“Mommy!”

Becky ignored the familiar little voice that called her name. Clutching her comforter closer to her chin, she rolled over and stayed asleep.

“Mommy,” the voice said again. This time, it was accompanied by a shaking of the bed and an insistent prodding of her left shoulder.

“What, baby?” she muttered, still unwilling to open her eyes.

“Mommy,” Beth said again. She was nearly breathless with enthusiasm. “Come look at the snow!”

“I’ve seen snow before.”

Beth tugged at the comforter. “Prolly not like this. There’s so much!”

Something pinged at Becky’s mind and she opened her eyes. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll come take a look. Then I’m getting back in bed.”

Beth jumped down and vanished out the door, her tiny feet thumping against the floor as she ran down the hall.

Becky looked up at the windows above her bed, but could see nothing through the thick glaze of condensation that had settled on them overnight. She rubbed her eyes and stood up, throwing her robe on as she slid her feet into a pair of white bunny slippers Beth had gotten for her, with Paula’s help, as a birthday present. She left her bedroom, passed her daughter’s, and turned into the bathroom. Again, the glass was frosted over, but she could see a lot of diffused white in the tiny dots of moisture clinging to it. She emptied her bladder, flushed, and went out into the living room.

Beth was standing on the couch, her little hands pulling apart the curtains so she could stare out through small space she had wiped clear on the window.

“Look, mommy,” she said. “Look outside.”

Becky yawned and went to the front door. She turned the knob and pulled, expecting to see an inch or two of snow, just enough to cover the ground and excite a five-year old into near hysterics. Instead, what she saw drove her to near hysterics, though not ones caused by excitement.

The flurries from the night before had grown into an impenetrable curtain of white. Snow flew sideways beyond the storm door, so thick that she could not see more than a foot or two beyond the frosting glass. The Toyota, which she knew to be no more than ten feet or so from the bottom of the front steps, was completely concealed by the maelstrom of snow. Now that she was more awake, she could hear the wind howling around the corners of the trailer, a baleful moan that Becky began feeling inside herself.

“Isn’t it great?” Beth asked from the couch. She was bouncing up and down on the cushions. “Can I go out and play in it?”

“No,” Becky said. The word came out sharper than she intended and Beth stopped bouncing.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?”

Becky looked outside again, her high spirits from the previous night draining out of her. She hit the latch of the storm door and tried to open it, but a drift of snow, nearly rising the two feet or so to the bottom pane of glass, held it back, forcing her to push hard to open it out over the top step. Snow blew in harder than rain and, in just a few seconds, formed a growing drift around her bunny slippers. A gusting wind seized the door and, if she had not been gripping it with such firmness, would have ripped it from her hand and likely off its hinges. She pulled hard, shutting the screen door with extreme difficulty, the aluminum base dragging in another pile of snow onto the small patch of tile at Becky’s feet.

“Why can’t I go out and play?” Beth asked.

Becky forced herself to smooth the edges off the word before she said it again.

“No, baby,” she said, closing her eyes. “Not right now.”

Beth, not a child given to tantrums, sank onto the couch and said nothing.

Becky went to the television and turned it on. A map of the region sat beneath the women of The View, all the counties shaded in white while the crawl beside it listed them alphabetically. Beneath the map were two words Becky never thought she’d see in rural Kentucky.

Blizzard Warning.

Read the rest

My mother passed away on September 6th. I haven’t really talked about it on here yet because, well, I didn’t really know what to say. Even at this point, nearly three months on, I am having a hard time encapsulating in mere words what this loss means to me. Still, I’ll give it a go. My mother was never, ever at a loss for words, and even though most of those words were often inappropriate, tactless, and always humorous, they were there. Now, we find ourselves in the same place, uncommon ground for both of us. A place of no words.

Still, in keeping with her spirit, I’ll attempt to say a little something about her. God knows she talked about me enough.

My mother, for those of you who didn’t know her, was a force of nature. Despite a life filled with bouts of sickness and extended medical care, she was one of the most vibrant people I have ever known. She never fell into the trap that claims so many adults who believe change, of who and what you are, is for younger people. My mother constantly reinvented herself, constantly seeking to be a person we and, more importantly she, could be proud of. We watched her transform herself again and again until, at last, she seemed to finally be comfortable with who she was. For the first time in her life, she lived the life she wanted to, one of friends and family and God. My mother, in the last few years of her life, found a contentment she had never known.

To me, my mother was like gravity. I don’t see her in a lot of memories of my childhood–I was a rather independent kid–but, like that invisible gravity, she was there, exerting her force wherever I went. She was there at the awards ceremonies. She was there at the sporting events. She was there all the time to give that little push or that big shove to get me going. More importantly, she, like gravity, kept me grounded. Whenever my head got too big from the straight A’s or the diving catch at shortstop, she was right there to tell me I wasn’t as great as I thought I was, but never to say I wasn’t as great as she thought I was.

Ironically, my mother was partly to credit/blame for my wanting to become a writer. When I was younger, I found a memo pad in their closet (rummaging through there was like archeology without the dirt) and opened it up to find the beginnings, rough though they were, of a romance story. Just eight or nine pages. My mother was a HUGE romance fan and, she told me, always harbored aspirations of writing her own novel. As all parents hope their children’s accomplishments eclipse their own, I believe my mother was very proud of me for completing, if not publishing, the three novels I’ve written so far. Moreover, when I finally break into the ranks of the published, I will not be surprised if her hand is somehow cosmically involved.

So, Mom, wherever you are, I hope there are unlimited margaritas and buff, shirtless men in cowboy hats to serve them to you. Thank you for everything you did, for everything you said, and even for that little memo pad in your closet. It’s okay that you didn’t finish the novel. Sometimes, as I have learned, the story is just too hard to tell to the end.