Category Archives: Flash Memoir

Publication of my flash memoir,”My Oldest Brother”

The Provo Canyon Review wrote me the other day and said:

Hi Len,

We are delighted to say we would love to take your latest submission, if it is still available for publication.  Please also furnish the bio and photo you’d like to accompany your piece.
Congratulations again for a job well done.
Chris and Erin
Here is the link:
provo
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A Letter to a Long-Dead Friend

I was thinking about your death the other day. About how you had been reluctant to let me know you had lung cancer, and then pretended you were getting better just before you died. I was disappointed that you didn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth, or was it that you just couldn’t tell yourself the truth? I guess I’ll never know. It seemed more than coincidental that you died on the day that your propane tank ran out. But then again, you always were a practical sort.

We arrived two days later in the dead of winter in north eastern Missouri and met your sons at your home. They had missed your death by a few hours because they had gotten stoned on the way to the Houston airport and missed their flight. Your daughter-in-law who stayed at home swore she saw you walking in her back yard at the exact time that you passed away. I wondered about that since you had made it clear to me that she wasn’t high on your list of favorite people, and as a new ghost couldn’t you have chosen instead that old Chevy van your boys were driving ever so slowly? They would have been happy to see you.

I think you would have been pleased with the turnout of the Amish who came to pay their respects. They clearly appreciated the time you had spent driving them to and fro to town or to weddings or funerals in your van. They came that cold night in dark blues and blacks, the women in their bonnets and shawls, the men in their waist coats and dress pants, the children little miniatures of their parents. They stood in a circle round your dining room table where you lay in state in one of their homemade pine coffins. They remained there in silence for several minutes before the women turned and started serving the pies and cakes they had brought and filling big mugs with steaming coffee that we had brewed up for the occasion. The Amish were in no hurry to leave. They stood in small groups and chatted among themselves, leaving us “English” to do the same. After an hour or so, they headed out into the cold to their horses and buggies and quietly climbed inside. The sky was cold and clear with no city lights obscuring the view of the Milky Way or Orion. The air was clean as it had followed the same path you had when you’d tried to outrun your past, first in Canada and then in the US.

Back inside, I sat with your family and friends around the kitchen table and we told stories of you and your exploits. How you’d pulled drowned rats out of the cistern of that very house when you’d moved in and only boiled the water for a day or two before deciding that was good enough. How your dog had kept you warm when you’d fallen two nights prior, before a friend had discovered you prone on your kitchen floor, in the coma from which you would not emerge. How when my husband and your younger son were moving your body from the undertaker’s van into the house, your son broke down in tears and left my husband holding all 5’ 8” and 150 pounds of you in his arms, dead-weight. “She had the last laugh, for sure,” he said, knowing too well what a love/hate relationship you two had had.

I couldn’t believe you were dead so soon, only 64, when you had survived so much: World War II in Germany, the dual suicides of your parents when the Russians invaded, the “scales falling from your eyes” when the camps were liberated and a Jewish woman knocked on your door to ask if you had a comb, the years post-War as a German woman in England with a sadistic new husband who hated your German sons. How could something as small as the endless cigarettes you smoked finally succeed in bringing you down?

You knew I was angry that you had harshly disciplined my oldest daughter when she had “misbehaved.” You narrowed your eyes when I said, “If you ever touch her or any of my children again in anger, I will throw you out of my house without a word.” Perhaps that’s why you didn’t want to tell me about your illness. Maybe you thought my reaction was overly dramatic. After all, your second husband had thrust your oldest son in a water barrel and held him there by his heels. You said you picked up a brick to hit him, but he brought the child up out of the water just in time. Perhaps you thought that spanking with a board or a light slap to the face were nothing in comparison. You surely could tell that I didn’t give a good god damn what you thought when it came to the welfare of my children.

The day of your funeral was cold and gray and filled with the sound of horses and buggies as the Amish formed a procession to their cemetery. They had already dug your grave in that cold ground before we came and then used ropes to lower your casket into the earth while we watched. Each person walked by and tossed a handful of dirt on top of your casket and then all the men grabbed shovels and quickly filled in the hole. I knew you’d be pleased that you were on top of a hill looking out on pasture land; that the Amish made an exception and allowed you, an English driver, to be buried among them; that your closest family and friends were there to see you properly planted.

I do miss you. I miss your passion and vigor; your gypsy nature and sense of adventure. Your big laugh, gold-sprinkled front tooth, your deep-blue eyes.
You were the first woman I’d ever met who lived life like a man, never limiting your vision or considering a task too big. I loved that you travelled cross-country without a thought; kept a German shepherd as a guard dog so you could walk at night whenever and wherever you pleased. I admired how free you were of all the fears that women share. Of strangers, dark alleys, and breakdowns on a lonely road.

Not you.

Too bad your temper got the best of you when it came to my kids. That breach was not an easy one to mend no matter how deep our affection. After all, it required looking a situation straight in the face and naming what was going on.

Trusting in the truth.

I hope you wander across that pasture land and enjoy the open country and the bright shimmering stars. You deserve some freedom and peace after that life of yours. You deserve some peace indeed.

amish

Flash Memoir: The Train

A train is a means of conveyance that moves on a track from one place to another. Passengers wait on a platform before departing for their destinations. I remember sitting with my mother in her hospital room as she was dying. This was December, 1999. I sat in the darkened room while she slept. I didn’t want to leave her. I didn’t want her to leave me. I had come to Texas from California for our last Christmas together and here we were in this quiet impersonal hospital room, her rhythmic breathing the only sound. Her condition was worsening after she’d elected to stop all chemotherapy for the oat cell carcinoma that was spreading in her lungs. I didn’t blame her for that decision; quality of life seemed a reasonable wish. I was due to return to California after the holidays with my three children and husband. It would be another month before I could come back. I doubted she had another month in her, at least in this life.

The song, “People Get Ready, Cause the Train is Comin’,” started playing in a loop in my brain, and I understood in that moment that it didn’t matter if I stood on the train tracks with my arms stretched wide, that train was going to move right through me and keep on going. This train wasn’t for me, but for her and it wasn’t stopping for anybody, including a grieving daughter who didn’t know how she’d make it without her mama. Still, that image and that song brought me peace. This was bigger than I was, bigger than my grief. That train had departed from the station long before I was born and had a destination and timetable independent of my existence. I felt my shoulders relax as I sat there, knowing that my role was a minor one at this point. My mother knew how much I loved her; she also knew that I would be okay without her.

The next time I saw Mom was three weeks later, as she lay in a coma. I stood at her bedside along with others who loved her, each of us midwives to the next world. We all laid our hands upon her and muttered whatever words came to mind. After a short while, I leaned close and whispered in her ear, “Go to Jesus, Mama. He’s waiting.” She turned, took her last breath, and stared straight into my eyes. I could almost hear a distant whistle and the clickety-clack of that train as it headed on down the track.

 

“Old Ladyhood”

I have officially entered “Old Ladyhood.”

A few days back when I pulled into a 76 gas station with a Del Taco inside, I said to Ray, “You start pumping the gas and then go inside to order. I’ll finish up right after I wrap up this text I’m writing.”

Ray nodded, and headed over to start the gas.

I worked on my text and finally finished and sent it.

Then – this is where the Old Lady part comes in – I noted through the open window that the gas pump didn’t sound as if it was still running. With this bit of information, I concluded Ray had finished up the job while I was texting. “I better move out of the pump area,” I muttered to myself as I put the car in gear and headed over to a nearby parking space.

That’s when I heard the noise. A metallic scraping sound and then a bump. “Hmmm,” I said to Cordelia and Frankie who were lying on the back seat, “did I just run over something?” I jumped out to see.

I noted all the people at the other pumps were staring at me.

I looked around and then saw it: the gas nozzle still in my gas tank and the hose completely detached from the pump and lying about ten feet away.

A man scooped up the hose and put it over near the pump.

A woman in a red tee-shirt with 76 emblazoned on the front, rushed out the door of the station and headed in my direction.

My first words, “I can’t believe I just did that.”

Her response, “You’d be surprised at how often it happens.”

I had to go find Ray inside and admit I’d driven away with the gas nozzle still attached. I also had to tell him I now owed the 76 station $250.

He was remarkably calm. “I guess you better pay that,” was all he said as he picked up his order of two chicken soft tacos and a bean burrito.

“I guess so,” I said.

He did give me a lecture once we were heading on to LA about multi-tasking. “If you hadn’t been texting while waiting for the gas to fill up, you wouldn’t have forgotten what was going on.”

I admit that I didn’t note how long he stood by the pump before going into Del Taco. That’s where the distraction came in.

I felt dumb. What an old lady thing to do.

A man inside came up and tried to make me feel better. “I’ve almost done that at least a dozen times.”

Yes, well, I didn’t almost do it….

I promised Ray to hold off from answering texts immediately when I receive them.

“People can wait,” he said.

I can see how that might be true.

Besides, reducing my distractions might also save me from doing some real damage to my pocketbook, $250 dollars at a time.

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Repost: My Imaginary Friend, Tommy Wizzims

I told this story to some of the volunteers at the St. Thomas the Apostle Breakfast Club where we were feeding the homeless yesterday morning. Someone was saying she fell in love with a teenage boy when she was three. I had to tell her about Tommy Wizzims.

Here is that story written a while back, but it’s just as meaningful to me today as the day I wrote it back in 2012.

***

Today I was cleaning out a closet and I found a big envelope of clippings and pictures from my mother’s house, which I received after she died. I unfolded a newspaper and saw that I was looking at the obituary page. At first, I wondered why Mom had saved this paper, then my eyes focused on the face of a man who looked familiar. I looked at the name and it read, Tom Williams.

Tom Williams! Oh, goodness.

When I was a little girl, no older than three, Tom Williams lived two blocks away from our house on 13th Street. I thought he was the handsomest boy I had ever seen – and I added an imaginary friend to my life (along with another named Heidi). That friend’s name was Tommy Wizzims.

Tom Williams was my older brother’s friend so he was around our house a lot. He must have been nice to me because even now thinking about him I feel a warm feeling in my heart. He must have also known that I had an imaginary friend with his very own name, pronounced only in the way a three-year-old can. I can’t help but think that must have brought a smile to his face.

I read in his obituary that he died in a car accident when he was 58. He had been married, had four kids, and at the time of his death had a woman in his life, who had been his “companion” for several years. He ran a nursing home, and the obituary said that the residents’ faces would “light up” when Tom came into the room.

My eyes filled with tears. That’s just how I felt when I saw him when I was a little girl. Happy. Pure and simple.

I didn’t know that Tom Williams had died. I felt sad that his life was prematurely cut short. I thought about my little imaginary playmates, Tommy and Heidi, and how my mother indulged me by setting places for them at the table. Mom told me once that I would pull on her sleeve and say, “But they’re hungry!”

The kindness of one person can have a wide impact. It sounds as if that was the case with my Tommy Wizzims.

What a strange item to find today in my clean-up efforts. But it reminded me of one teenage boy who took the time to be kind to a little girl. What a lovely person he must have been.

Clearly, he meant something to Mom as well.  Enough for her to save that obituary.

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Repost: A Lesson from the Past

This is a post that I wrote back in July of 2012. Somehow it speaks to me today. I hope it will speak to you as well.

Len

One of the toughest moments I have ever witnessed in my life is when many years ago a beloved priest of mine unexpectedly lost his daughter, Ruthie, in a tragic event. She had gone to a party and had drunk too much, then came home and passed out in the back seat of the car. Her sister, who had been the designated driver, left her there thinking that she’d sleep it off and either wake up in the middle of the night and stumble into the house, or else come inside in the morning. Ruthie did neither. Instead, she aspirated while lying in the car and died. She was nineteen and had never been a big drinker. This was one of those horrible moments when a combination of one bad choice and an unexpected bodily response resulted in the unimaginable.

This all happened on a Saturday night, and on Sunday morning, we all gathered for church, unaware of what had happened. There was Father Forrest, the young girl’s father, there in his vestments, ready to celebrate mass.

He, of course, told everyone before the service what had happened and we all sat there aghast, not just at the injustice of such an untimely death, but also because here he was – this girl’s father – at church rather than at home grieving privately. He looked at all of us and said, “The mass brings me comfort. I need to be here this morning.”

I remember hearing him begin the service with “The Lord be with you,” and in that moment I realized that all of us needed the Holy Spirit more than usual that morning just to help us put that sad and senseless death into some kind of perspective. Father Forrest celebrated the whole Eucharist with a strong voice that day and I sat in awe of this man who could be dealt such a major blow and still find his way to church a few hours later.

I asked him in the ensuing days how he had coped that day when he’d discovered Ruthie in the car. He told me, “I just kept saying the Jesus prayer over and over.”

I said, “The Jesus prayer? What is that?”

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

“And what made you say that?” I asked.

“Because that’s the prayer I say over and over as part of my daily devotional. It is considered by many to be the perfect Christian prayer because it declares the faith in a spirit of humility. It saved me that morning when I found Ruthie.”

I went home and immediately put the Jesus prayer into practice, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. If this had served Father Forrest so well, then I felt certain it could only help me.

That was almost twenty-five years ago and I have repeated the Jesus prayer over and over for most of that time. I now know how this seemingly simple phrase “saved” Father Forrest that fateful day. Saying those words over and over becomes a mantra, sweeping the mind clear of all disquieting thoughts and images and leaving space for hope and healing.

My beloved friend, who is now a retired priest, by this point has outlived two daughters and his wife, and I suspect that he still makes use of the Jesus prayer in his daily spiritual practice. I imagine he might be uttering it in the last moments of his life.

As for me, I hope to follow in his good example and continue to make this one of my devotionals. His steadfast strength is a gift that he has given to me and to all those who have known him, and the comfort he received from the mass and from prayer serves as a guide to us all.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen

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Repost: Visiting Sarah in Corpus Christi in 2011

I reread this post tonight and thought, “Hmmm.  That’s worth sharing.”  I like this post because of its specificity.  At the end of it, I speculate whether I am boring people with this information.  I can’t speak for anybody else, but I enjoyed reading this five years after I first wrote it.  You can weigh in too, if you wish.

***

I am sitting in the closet, literally. The iron is on a shelf across from me and a mini-ironing board is leaning against a cardboard box. Two levels of hangers – sweaters and blouses on the top level and slacks on the bottom – are to my left. A folded up blue beach chair is right in front of me next to the iron, as I sit, cross-legged, my back against the side wall. The closet has beige carpet, which is two shades darker than the light beige sheet rock walls. A bare bulb in a fixture on the ceiling is the only light.

Why am I in the closet you might ask and I’d have to say that this has more to do with needing to be alone versus hiding though I suppose there is an element of that, as well. I have always loved closets, especially when I was little and would hide in them all the time. Again, I wasn’t hiding as much as just getting away, finding a space and time that allowed for me to simply be alone.

What is this need you might ask and I would have to say that it’s not so much to be anti-social as to be disconnected for just a little while. I end up feeling overloaded like a socket with too many plugs and occasionally I need to have those plugs pulled so I can cool off. Not that I’m mad or upset or anything like that. Instead, I am simply happy to be in a room – even a very small room without a window – for just a little while.

What are the positive benefits of closets you might ask and I’d have to say that they provide a separation from the world; a spot where others are definitely not allowed and where one can have a little breathing time. As a little kid, I grew up in a big family and these closet times were my time to just scoot to the back and enjoy the feel of my mother’s coat on my face or her smell coming from the clothes. Here I am in my daughter’s closet and I don’t smell anything in particular except for the slightly rancid smell of our dirty clothes sack, where underwear and socks are being stored until they can be taken to the laundry.

So, why am I in here besides having a bit of a respite? Because I can’t concentrate outside where the tv is on. The program, no matter how boring, will pull my attention to it and there I’ll be, staring at that screen like some zombie.

I am wondering what the point of this exercise is, after all. Just writing is something that’s good for fluidity, but not particularly interesting to read. Perhaps I just have to get comfortable with the idea of boring people to death with these ramblings. Of course, that’s not exactly my goal…

I am tired. We went to the beach today and walked in the sand, the very fine Gulf sand. We watched the white caps on the turbulent waves and felt the wind in our faces. The sky was gray; the water was darker today, a darker green, and the air was warm and humid. We wore shorts and short-sleeved tops and went barefooted.

Later, we drove to the tiny village of Fulton, where we ate at a restaurant overlooking fishing boats in a small marina. Working fishing boats with green and yellow nets and bins on deck to store the fish. We walked out on a fishing pier that went out at least 100 yards into the water and watched the waves all around us, lifting and shifting as the wind blew hard.

We ate all sorts of shrimp: shrimp gumbo, fried shrimp, grilled shrimp, boiled shrimp and stuffed shrimp. That along with a baked potatoes and salads and big glasses of water with lime. We ate outside on a second floor deck of a restaurant and as we ate we watched as a fishing boat came back into port and backed into one of the boat slips not far from where we ate. The three men secured the boat, then stood there talking for a long time, as if time wasn’t an issue for any of them and there was nowhere else better to go. They were still standing on the boat talking and drinking beer after our meal, after our walk out on the fishing pier, after a trip to the bathroom and after we got into our car and drove away. They may still be there as far as I know.

Our day was near perfect, though the skies were gray, not blue. Other than that, we walked, talked, ate, laughed and generally had a lovely time.

Now it’s time to go to sleep. Sarah starts a new rotation tomorrow. I will get up early and take her so we can have the car. I will make her some food she can eat the rest of the week when she comes home from the hospital after twelve hours there. Chicken enchiladas and turkey burgers that can be frozen and eaten as suits her.

Off I go to bed now. Another fine day with our daughter. My right leg is tingling from my cross-legged stance. I think it’s time I vacated this closet!

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