She’s Not Here, A Short Story

phoneThe young girl sat up in her bed, rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, threw her hair off her face in one easy motion, and scrambled out of bed.  It was an early Saturday morning in May. The house was hushed.  With the stealth of a burglar she tiptoed down the hallway and carefully descended the creaky stairs.

After some domestic disarray, the ten-year old clung to the solid comfort of this familiar routine.  She turned on the stereo, adjusted the tuner, and turned the volume to its lowest setting. Grabbing some throw pillows, she dropped to the floor inches from the speaker, flat on her stomach, her elbows in the pillows and her hands cupped under her chin.

The next two hours brought radio programs for children.  Thirsty for story, she drank in the drama while the rest of the house slept. Midway through the last show the jangle of the telephone pierced the quiet.  Like quicksilver she jumped up and grabbed the receiver before the phone rang again.

“Hello,” her high childish voice could barely be heard.

“Hi! Is your mommy there?”  the other voice trilled.

“Mmm…no,” she whispered tentatively.

“Would you leave her a message, please?”

“’kay…,” her voice wavered.

“The chair she had reupholstered is finished and is ready to be picked up at the shop.”

 “Thanks. Good-bye.”

She replaced the receiver and returned to her position on the floor.

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~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

The next Saturday was the same. The family slept while the young girl listened to Aunt Bee, Ranger Bill, and Sailor Sam. She took every precaution to listen without waking them.  Once again, the clatter of the telephone shattered the solitude. She darted to the dining room side table and grabbed the phone before the second ring.

“Hello.”

“Hello!  I’d like to speak to Nellie Harper!”

 The girl paused; she finally said, “She’s not here.”

 “Well, listen hon, this is the upholstery shop calling, and I called last week and left a message.  I told her when she brought it in that it would be ready in two weeks, and this chair has been in the shop for a month now, and I really need your mom to pick up this chair.  Would you puh-lease let her know?”   Her voice was a mixture of artificial sweetener and ill-concealed irritation.

 “Hmmm.”  came out in hushed tones.

 “Thanks, hon, I really appreciate it. You have a good day, now.”

~     ~     ~     ~      ~     ~

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A week went by.  The light was lasting longer, birds were chirping in the trees, and  school was winding down.  Summer had almost arrived, though the markers of seasonal change were little noted in that house.  Again, the young girl woke up early Saturday morning, crept around the squeaky spots and kept her rendezvous with the radio.

She wasn’t surprised when the phone rang; she answered it as she had done before.

“Hello,” spoken softly, so softly.

 “Hi!”  spoken in the tone of one eager to check off items on her list.

 They both recognized the other’s voice; they both had the script memorized.

 “Honey, look, is your mommy home this morning?” came the coaxing plea.

 “No.”   The single syllable dangled in space with nothing to support it.

 Exasperated, the woman on the other end of the line raised her voice.

“Well, where is she?  I’ve called, I’ve left messages, and still Nellie has not picked up her chair.”

She clipped each word shorter than a buzz cut.

The moment of truth could be delayed no longer.  The words that were stuck in the child’s throat, words that could not be spoken the previous Saturdays, words that were impossible to say, even today, were forcefully dislodged.

 “Ummm………she………well……..ummmm.   She died.”

 “Ohmygosh, she died? She died?  Your mommy died? What happened?  Oh, honey, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.  Was she in an accident?  She died?  I had no idea.  Oh, honey, I’m so very, very sorry.  Oh dear.  I–am–so–sorry.”

 “No…..she…….just……died.”

The silence was more uncomfortable for the girl than for the woman.  She sensed the shock, the awkward drop, the conversational vertigo of the voice on the other end.  The ten-year old knew she would have to bridge the gap and end this call.  The girl found her voice and began to comfort the caller.

“It’s all right.  You didn’t know.  It’s okay. No one told you.  I’ll tell my daddy about the chair when he wakes up, okay?  He’ll come to your shop and get the chair.  It’s okay.  You didn’t know… Good-bye.”

She walked back to the stereo, turned the radio off, sat down on the floor and sobbed.

 
[Originally posted November 2006]

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The Gift of Deep Friendship

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I’m back from the fourth reunion of childhood girlfriends since 2010. We were born in the same year; three resided in the same neighborhood; our parents were friends; we were raised in the same faith; we know each other’s siblings. We’ve been friends since kindergarten.

Along with all these similarities are differences. Geographic, to be sure. The closest link between any two of us is over 800 miles. We differ in economics, vocations, passions, politics, tastes, theology, and in all the other ways people change.

The thing is that we six were not bff’s growing up. I think the phrase friendship by proximity describes some of our early years. Sometimes we hung out together because that’s who was available. Now that our friendship has come of age, we are repeating stories! (We = me, sigh…)

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This treasure, these friendships, are more precious to us than diamonds. Other than checking our phones and taking calls from husbands and children, our time is unplugged. We don’t watch movies; we don’t go shopping (except for groceries). It is time to attend, to be present, to listen, to share, to truly know each other. We laugh and guffaw, we cry (even the non-criers among us), we eat, we swim, we sing.

We established a protocol at our first reunion that we always follow. We could (and do) have a fabulous time cooking communally, grabbing a cuppa, letting the conversation meander like a river. But eventually we have a formal time of focus. One friend shares her heart: what’s good, what’s hard, what’s changed, what’s real. This is a time of transparency and trust. We take notes, ask questions. It can also be a time of discovery, when the perception of girlfriends translates truth we didn’t before see. Then we pray, asking God to help, to intervene, to strengthen, to bless our friend. Then we sing the songs we grew up singing that are imprinted on our souls. Rinse and repeat.

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These friendships are for each of us a bonus. We all have sisters — not just sisters, but close sisters with whom we regularly share our lives and hearts.

Two stories. Meeting in the airport has always been an exciting moment. We’re giddy and goofy and garrulous. This year, however, Ruth’s father died the Monday before our gathering. She drove to Virginia on Tuesday, buried him on Thursday, and flew out to Phoenix on Saturday. My plane arrived five minutes before hers. I parked myself in front of the gate to welcome her. Sitting at the back of the plane, she was one of the last passengers to deplane. Seeing each other we burst into sobs, running into a hug. It was a spectacle, but we didn’t care. All our griefs to share.

Eileen’s plane came in later than the others. Nancy’s sister Kathy picked her up from the airport. Eileen didn’t want to inconvenience her. Are you kidding? Kathy replied. When we were first married, we flew to Chicago, but couldn’t rent a car because I was under 25. We called my mom in Phoenix and asked her what to do. She told us to call your (Eileen’s) dad. We called him, he dropped everything and drove to O’Hare to pay for our rental. I am only too happy to give you a ride. More tears, and the gift of an previously unknown story about her dad.

One evening the Gibson sisters joined us for an old-fashioned hymn sing. I guess reading the lyrics on your phone wasn’t old-fashioned! Those girls (ahem, women) can SING!! Lots of nostalgia and gorgeous harmonies and rejoicing in a heritage of music.

After four girlfriend gatherings, I remain astonished at the profound transforming power of this deep friendship. It has all the hallmarks of grace: unexpected, unearned, unsought, undeserved.  Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.

Our 2010 Reunion
Anticipating 2010 Reunion

This Is How We Roll

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In March my husband installed new flooring in our kitchen, covering up the 1993 white vinyl which remains the worst consumer purchase of my life. Silly me, I thought laminate was indestructible. I think not, Finknottle!

Curt started murmuring something about a plastic floor protector mat. No offense to you in the floor mat family, but they are, in my opinion, uglier than the underside of my kitchen vent hood.

We compromised with a low, backless shop stool that had safe-to-the-floor wheels. Since March, I’ve been hunching over!

I had no knowledge of the office wheel world, that there was even a difference between bad wheels and good wheels. I guess the hospital where he works is choosing these wheels for their chairs. He got rollerblade style rubber wheels and I have never been so happy with an office chair in my life! Smooooth ride! My grandsons love to get in the chair and scoot around. I’m thinking rollerblade wheels just may be the key to happiness!

It’s the little things…

The Little Things

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It’s the little things, right?

One autumn a friend closed her café and gave me a restaurant-sized bag of Big Train Chai to thank me for my help. That winter I had a delicious, steaming, comforting cup of chai every night. Without changing any other eating habits, I gained eight pounds in two or three months. One little thing.

I’m done with diets.* It’s easy to believe I can take off twenty – thirty pounds if I focus hard on a plan—pick one, any one— and execute it. But I know that as soon as I go “off” the ‘plan’ that weight huffs and puffs, red-faced and straining, and catches up with me.

So I’m looking for little changes that over the long haul will add up to loss. This summer my daily drink is Mint Lime Water. I clip some mint and put that at the bottom of my 32 oz. cup. I squeeze a half a lime into it. (Or, pull a snack bag with the juice of one lime out of the freezer.) I add one package of Truvia. (I know, I know, it’s not healthy, but I’m going to finish my supply before I give it up.) Fill the cup with ice and then water. Suddenly, it’s easier to drink my water. And I’ve taken a leave of absence from caffeine.

Curt’s cousin encouraged me to try a sprig of rosemary in my water. I like it!

What is your little thing? I’d seriously like to glean some other ideas that friends/readers have found helpful.

Do you have a fun substitution or a new twist on something? Does anyone out there use a standing desk? My friend at work does squats while she blow-dries her hair. I’d love to do that, but I’m not willing to give up reading a book and I don’t think I could manage both!

I’ll wait for your comments. Thanks!

* Until the next new one seduces me.

Cleaning before Being Cleaned

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There’s something radically new in my life: a young woman comes every other week to clean my house. It’s pretty weird. But I’m getting used to it.

I was telling my husband about a book I was reading,  The End of Your Life Book Club — the story of Mary Anne Schwalbe and her son Will, and the books they read and discussed during her final two years. As I explained their background, I said, Well, they lived three doors down from Julia Child. And Mary Anne worked full-time, back when moms typically didn’t work. But she must have hired a housekeeper because all they did was read on the weekends and you KNOW that someone had to clean toilets.  And Curt, bless his heart, leapt into this opening he had been waiting for to suggest that we hire a house cleaner.

So Jamie comes and I gather scattered books so she is cleaning and not picking up. I work on a deep-cleaning project while she’s here. To me, it’s akin to paying a piano teacher when you mostly need accountability to practice.

But, here’s the thing: the instinct is so strong to clean up myself before I get help. It’s neat to clean (Next to Godliness is my favorite soap from Trader Joe’s) but this is more about self-protection and perhaps some self-deception. I see this tendency in my life in other areas. After I lose 15 pounds, I’ll go to the doctor, I promise myself.

Years ago, I participated in a foot-washing ceremony. A group of women circled their chairs and the friend on the right got on her knees and dipped my feet in a large bowl sudsy with warm soapy water, washed, rubbed, and dried my dirty, stinky feet — a profoundly unforgettable encounter. It struck the same emotional response in each of us. We were happy (happy! happy!) to wash a friend’s feet, but our heart screamed No! when it was our turn to be washed.

Awake Thou Wintry Earth

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Chives growing in my garden, February 12, 2016

Awake, Thou Wintry Earth is almost a life anthem. I came to Thomas Blackburn’s poem by way of Bach’s Cantata 129. When I heard it, I came to understand in a new way that spring is an annual demonstration of resurrection. Listening to this still gives me shivers. Singing it means I end up whispering to tell that dead is dead over a voice that is breaking.

I took a walk around my backyard this morning and was delighted to hear garlic and chives laughing at winter, death, decay.

Awake thou wintry earth,
fling off, fling off thy sadness;
ye vernal flowers laugh forth,
laugh forth your ancient gladness.
A new and lovely tale
through-out the land is spread;
it floats o’er hill and dale
to tell that death is dead.

Here is a joyful organ. 1 1/2 minutes that will lift your day high. Sing along! It’s pretty loud; turn your sound down. Or don’t. The organ is a dominating instrument and its volume is glorious!