By Any Other Name

The older woman had white hair dyed pink. It looked pretty, but a tad unusual. She held out her right hand and introduced herself, “Hi, I go by the name Pinky!”

In my line of work, I felt free to ask personal questions. Glancing at her hot pink sweatshirt and black jeans, I questioned with interest, “Pinky is an unusual nickname. How did you get it?”

Grinning broadly, Pinky explained, “When I was a toddler, my Mama had a baby, so my sister and I stayed for a week with Grandma and Grandpa. One afternoon Grandpa wanted to take us to the park. My sister and I were excited but had to change clothes to leave the house. I insisted on wearing my pink pinafore, but Grandma couldn’t find it. I had a huge tantrum and refused to leave the house. It was the pink play suit, or nothing. For the rest of Grandpa’s life, he called me Pinky. Eventually so did everyone else. Most people don’t even know my real name.”   

I laughed, “I like your family story.” Looking at her pink tresses, I added, “I also like how you’ve embraced your nickname.” Pinky proudly patted her pink head.

A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, according to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But in the bible story about Job, chapter 34 verse 3, Elihu said, “The ear tests words, as the tongue tastes food.” That verse rings more to the truth to me.

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Dinner on the Run

Four of our largest kettles filled with water sat on the stove. The burners beneath them glowed red. Mom ordered, “Let’s hurry up and eat. The water will be boiling by the time we’re ready to scald the chickens.” I glanced at the stove after Daddy, Mom and I finished blessing our meal. I saw a small thread of vapor rise above one of the kettles.

In half the usual time it took to eat, Daddy put down his fork. Anticipation had taken away my appetite. As Mom began to clear the table, Daddy commanded, “You come with me, Kathy. I don’t want you underfoot when we carry out the boiling water.” He led me out into the farm yard where he had placed a large block of wood next to the driveway. He instructed, “Stay right here. Mama and I will be with you soon.”

The cotton scarf tied under my chin felt loose. I pulled it tighter and looked around. Clouds in the sky blocked out the sun and a cool wind made the day feel as if it wasn’t really spring. There were long stalks of browned grass along the barn and house foundations. They nodded and dipped with each breeze.

I felt sorry for my brothers and sisters, they were at school and missing out on today’s butchering of the chickens. It made me feel sad that next year I would have to attend school, too. Staring at the block of wood, I wondered what it was for and what Mom meant when she said she’d scald the chickens.” 

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Last Thorn Apple

Red, sweet, juicy thorn apple/berries shown on a branch with green leaves and a large thorn. Thorn apple are also called hawthorn.

Pushing his dinner plate back, Daddy addressed my oldest brother. “I’m going to use dynamite to get rid of that big old thorn apple tree in the center of the cow pasture this afternoon. I need your help in clearing away rocks and roots after the explosion. I plan to plow that field next year.”

Nodding, my brother Casper stood up and left the house with Daddy. Hating to have anything changed or come to an end on the farm, I turned to my sister Mary and questioned, “Why is he getting rid of that tree?”

With her seven-year advantage over me, Mary confidentially explained, “The thorn apple tree is the last one on our farm. It used to have large, sweet fruit. But for the last few years the apples on it have been small and wormy.” I nodded. My brother Billy had picked some for me once. They were more like berries than apples and although bright red, they were bitter along with being wormy.”

Mom went to the basement to wash clothes. My sisters Betty and Mary cleared the table and ran water in the sink, so I slipped quietly out the back door of the house. For once I remembered to not let the screen door slam behind me. I wandered into the farm’s orchard and when I came to my favorite crabapple tree, clambered up into one of its branches.

Gazing at Mom’s nearby, well-weeded garden, my mind pictured the thorn apple tree’s extremely long thorns and craggy branches. I fretted about the world losing its last thorn apple tree. The sound of dynamite exploding announced the deed had been done.

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Meter Readers

A large, fluffy cloud sailing slowly across the sky covered the sun. I looked up gratefully from where I sat in the shade. The hot June weather the last few days limited the time I spent outside. Now would be a good time for me to walk out to the roadside mailbox. Standing up, I stepped away from the shade.

A pleasant breeze tousled my hair and fluttered the leaves of a nearby tree. Looking at the sky, I noticed thunderheads and a few smeary mare’s tail clouds overhead and thought, “It’s going to rain, but that’s not too surprising after all the heat.”

Enjoying my leisurely amble, I tried to remember the scientific terms for thunderheads and mare’s tail clouds. I recalled, “Thin, whispy clouds high in the atmosphere that look like a horse’s tail are called cirrus clouds. The huge, mountainous thunderheads formed by water vapor carried upward on strong currents are called cumulonimbus.”

Reaching the mailbox, I found my electric bill and a grocery store flyer. Curious to know if all the fan and air conditioner use for the past month had made my bill soar, I ripped the envelope open. Glancing at the dates, I realized the bill was for the period before the heat wave.

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Throw another Potato

I nibbled on apple wedges as I read the electronic newspaper in the computer. Sadie, one of my copycats sat curled up snoozing in my lap. I clicked on the next page and found the advice column. It’s always interesting to find out what sort of dilemmas are currently bothering mankind, so I leaned back to read the first letter.

The writer complained bitterly about his relatives who dropped by his house unannounced, uninvited and unwanted. He furiously noted, “If they stop in at meal time, they expect to be invited and don’t take the hint when we fail to set a place at our table for them!”

I caressed the cat in my lap. Sadie’s fur was very soft and she began to purr. Jerry, Sadie’s copycat brother suddenly leapt onto my lap. Snuggling together, Jerry began to lick Sadie. I mused, “You didn’t need an invitation. You’re welcome whenever you feel like dropping in, aren’t you?”

The letter was followed by several other letters from people also complaining about family members who felt it was their right to drop in whenever they wanted. Reading these letters made me laugh and think of Daddy.

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Birthday Blast

I had exciting news and couldn’t wait to tell my teacher, but when I arrived at my fourth-grade classroom, I found that we had a substitute teacher for the day. I was surprised because our regular teacher was uncommonly healthy. She seldom missed a day of school. It didn’t matter though, I decided. I’d tell the substitute teacher my exciting news.

Sidling through a group of students standing at the teacher’s desk, I waited for her to look at me. When she did, I blurted, “My big sister had a baby boy last night!”

Her response surprised me. She exclaimed, “How wonderful! I know who your big sister is. I went to school with her. What name did she give the baby?”

My regular teacher was old. She probably would have just said how nice it was my sister had a baby. This teacher was the same age as my sweet sister, ‘Babe’. I babbled, “David. She named him David!”

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A jumble of plants crowded together, all vying for a spot in a patch of weak, early spring sunlight in the far corner of my kitchen. Suddenly I noticed my mystery tree appeared to have blossoms. Stepping closer for a better look, I quickly realized the unexpected white blossoms belonged to the spider plant on the shelf above. One of its dangling spider babies hung perfectly within the cluster of the mystery plant’s green leaves.

Shaking my head, I vowed to put most of the plants crowding the counter, including the mystery tree, outdoors as soon as the weather was warm enough to plant my garden. As I began to make breakfast, I debated leaving the mystery plant outdoors next winter. Would it survive? Did that matter?

Two years ago as I was preparing the garden for winter, I’d found the mystery plant growing in one of the rows. The small tree already had a woody trunk. Its leaves were a deep, glossy green. To my surprise, I discovered sturdy thorns at branch points. I consulted Google, asking it what sort of plant would have these characteristics. Google answered, “Most citrus trees have thorns.” Of course, that meant I just had to put the plant in a pot and take it indoors.

Each summer I enrich the garden soil by burying scraps from my kitchen: potato peels, egg shells, banana skins, apple cores and juiced lemons. The two bags of Meyer lemons I’d bought earlier in the spring came to mind. So, I knew why a lemon might have started to grow in my garden. One of the seeds I’d buried along with other scraps must have thought it had been planted.

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First Nest

I didn’t glance longingly back at my bedroom’s blue ceiling with the hundreds of silver stars two of my big sisters had lovingly stenciled across it. I just picked up the suitcase I’d packed and took it out to the car my brother had loaned me. The day to move out of my childhood home had finally arrived.

All I could think about was the one half of a dorm room that belonged to me for the next month, and for the month following that if I wanted. The hospital where I would be trained as a Nursing Assistant had run a nursing school and owned a nearby student nurse dormitory. I was fortunate to have a place to stay so close to study and hopefully work afterwards.

It felt great to store my belongings in my half of the furnished room. Though small, it was my new home. I decided where things went and how to spend my time there. There was a desk and lamp across from the narrow bed. Near the foot of the cot was a closet with a built-in dresser. A bathroom with showers was just down the hall. I hadn’t thought about food when I rented this little nest, but the dorm building did have a large kitchen on the first floor. I loved my new home.

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Grandma for Supper

I dropped down in my office chair and opened my email. Every day I looked forward to hearing from my daughter Tammie. Her messages never failed to be full of interesting observations and descriptions of life at grad school in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  My daughter’s undergrad school had been a short, two-hour drive from home. When she decided to earn a master’s degree in library science, she insisted on going to the University of Michigan as one of the best in the United States.

That afternoon, her message described an international foods night at her co-operative house. She said, “I loved trying all the different foods, but one of the drinks offered was rose water. Mom, I took one sip, but couldn’t finish it. The drink made me feel as though I was drinking Grammie!”

I laughed. It was understandable that she associated my Mom with roses.

Grammie wore dresses that were rose-colored, shared bouquets of roses from her flowerbed with us and always smelled like roses. My daughters loved her. With her love of roses, it was easy for my family to buy Mom Mother’s Day gifts. Each year we gave her rose-scented body lotion, rose-scented candles and rose bushes from the greenhouse to replace the ones our Wisconsin winters killed. The mere smell of roses made everyone think of her.

When Tammie and her sister were four and eight years of age, my husband and I were living on a farm. We occasionally invited my Mom to stay overnight with us after I took her for a day of shopping. I remembered how excited my daughters were when I told them that we were going to “have Grammie for supper.” They knew what I meant. It never occurred to us that ‘having Grammie for supper’ sounded cannibalistic.

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Smoke Mama

No matter where I sit next to a campfire, tendrils of smoke follow me.

I tore the flap off a cardboard box, folded it and placed it between two logs of wood. After placing several twigs above it and bigger branches above that, I ignited the cardboard. A small orange flame licked tentatively around the edges of the brown corrugated paper for several seconds before it completely became engulfed in eager, leaping flames. I glanced around. What would burn fast and quick to keep the fire going until the logs caught?

         Nearby, laid a pile of small scrub trees I’d cut down last fall, the reddened Christmas tree, a mound of grass raked from the lawn and a bundle of asparagus fern from the garden. I didn’t plan on using the Frazier fir, since I only wanted a small, respectable fire. From experience I knew the Christmas tree would burn too hot, fast with high, leaping flames.

My daughter Tammie joined me by the blaze. Watching me tuck sticks into the embers, she observed, “You really love playing with fire, don’t you?”

I grinned at her and admitted, “I’ve always enjoyed tending fires. When I was small my family burned all our household garbage except bottles, cans and kitchen scraps. It was big excitement for us to all stand around and watch stuff burn. If I got too close to the fire, my brothers and sisters told me that if I fell in and burned off my head, I’d have to wear a kettle to replace my head and that my new name would be little Miss Kettlehead.”

Tammie laughed, “That’s a weird thing to tell a kid.”

I nodded and agreed, “Yes, it is. But when I was a kid, it seemed to make sense.

Sitting down on a small barrel, I watched the fire. Flames licked at a pile of grass next to it. I had raked the grass up this spring. Too damp to ignite, the grass sent up a plume of thick, white smoke. A breeze swirled the smoke towards where Tammie and I were sitting. Coughing, I jumped to my feet.

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