Thursday, December 23, 2010

Santa's Hands

For several years during the holidays, my dad worked as a Santa Claus for Goldsmith’s Enchanted Forest. The Enchanted Forest was an indoor winter wonderland, a family attraction that featured hundreds of extravagantly decorated Christmas trees, thousands of lights, kid-sized gingerbread villages, and a metric ton of fake snow. Murals featuring Christmas characters covered the walls; scenes like elves standing on each other’s shoulders to place a wreath around a reindeer’s neck. But the elves were sinister-looking and had a Nightmare Before Christmas quality to them. It was festive in a creepy sort of way.

But children and parents were willing to overlook the weird art and stand in line for an hour to see Dad. I mean, Santa. And he made a great Santa. He could be extremely jolly when the occasion called for it, and he loved the kids. Of course, neither of my parents told me at the time that he was playing Santa, but in retrospect, his coming home smelling like peppermint and urine should have raised some flags.

One Saturday, Mom promised to take me to see Santa. Like the hundreds of others there to see him, we waited in line for what seemed like days. As the line snaked around the North Pole Village, I could see children climbing onto his lap to make their requests. Some smiled shyly and whispered their Christmas wishes in his ear, while others screamed bloody murder until their parents apologetically whisked them away.

When my turn came, I climbed up on his lap like a pro. His right arm instinctively slid underneath my right arm, his left hand resting on my right knee. It felt familiar, but before I could put my finger on it, he launched into his Santa spiel, booming out a Ho! Ho! Ho! and asking me what I wanted for Christmas.

I knew exactly what I wanted — the Fisher Price airport, the one I had seen on TV a million times — but I was too distracted by his hands. Like his lap, they were strangely familiar, and not at all like what I expected Santa’s hands to look like. Santa’s hands would be white and pasty from doing nothing but eating cookies and ordering elves around. But these hands were brown and weathered, with small scars from past cuts and scrapes. They were strong, yet gentle, like iron wrapped in leather. I knew these hands.

These were the hands that kept me out of the reach of our cousins’ hateful German Shepherd. The hands that brushed soapy foam on my face so I could pretend to shave, and guided my hands as I learned to polish my shoes. Hands that would keep me steady as I learned to ride a bike, and hold me up in the waters of Sardis Lake, teaching me to swim. Hands that folded in prayer for me every night of my life, then and now. These were my father’s hands.

As I climbed down off of his lap, I gave him a knowing look, one that said, “I know who you are.” And I think he understood. As Mom and I walked back toward the parking garage, she asked me how my visit with Santa went.

“That wasn’t Santa,” I said matter-of-factly.

“Sure it was,” Mom said nervously. Mom was always a horrible liar.

“No, that was my daddy.”

Later that same Christmas season, Santa visited my kindergarten class just days before we were to be out for the holidays. He burst through the door and issued an authentic, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!” All the other children shrieked and rushed to surround him. I simply put my hands on my hips and rolled my eyes.

“Daa-aad,” I whined, as if embarrassed by his presence. “What are you doing here?” Instantly I was swept out of the room like the president being whisked away by the Secret Service after a failed assassination attempt. I was encouraged (read: threatened) to play along. Which I did gladly after Mom and my teacher Mrs. Simms explained that Dad was here as a favor to the real Santa Claus, who couldn’t make it because he was, of course, busy making toys.

Merry Christmas!


Monday, November 29, 2010

A Quick Thanksgiving in Memphis

It was a little after midnight when we pulled into the dark driveway. Six hours on the road had left Mary and I glassy-eyed and sore. As we opened the back hatch on the car to start unloading, the porch light came on and Mom stuck her head out the back door. They’d waited up for us. They’d both been excited that we were coming to stay with them for Thanksgiving this year. Mom had been cleaning since August when I’d told her we were coming.

We usually stay with Mary’s parents when we go to Memphis, which is becoming an increasingly rare trip due to our work schedules. It’s not an intentional slam against my parents by staying with Mary’s; it’s just where we usually end up. But this year things would be different. Just how different we were yet to discover. Mom and Dad are in their late seventies, and it takes them a little longer to do things.

For instance, one of the first mornings we were there, as I was on my way to the shower, Mom told me that Dad wanted me to take a look at the showerhead. “He said it’s leaking water all over the back of the wall. If you have time today, take a look at it,” she said. I told her I had plenty of time and I’d check it out. When I went into the bathroom, Dad was waiting for me. I turned on the shower, and as it ran, one single bead of water brimmed up over the lip of the handheld fixture and ran down the hose.

“See that leak?” Dad said. “I was thinking we could put some of that, um…” he trailed off. Dad forgets his words sometimes and it takes him a while to express a thought, so I tried to help.

“Teflon tape?” I offered.

“No, uh, we need to put some, uh…oh, you know…” then he walked off midsentence. I felt bad. He couldn’t think of the word he needed and was too embarrassed to continue. Moments later, though, he returned with a caulk gun.

“Caulk!” he announced.

“You want me to caulk the showerhead?”

“No, I want you to caulk the top of the knob fixture so water doesn’t run in behind it.”

Never mind the fact that it already has a rubber backing on it to protect it because it’s in a shower; I caulked it. Poorly. (Sadly, I’ve never been much of a caulker.)

Later, Mom told me she wanted me to show her how to make the asparagus dish I had made last time they visited us, asparagus, red onion, and mushroom sautéed together with butter and herbs. Sure, no sweat. I mentioned picking up some asparagus, and she said she already had some — in a can. I must have made a face when she said “can” because she added, “Well, I don’t know how to cook the fresh kind!” How do you get to be seventy-seven and not know how to cook fresh asparagus? I told her it was super-easy. She wanted to know how long it would need to cook. Would it need more than a half hour or so? I explained that it would only take about ten minutes.

“Ten minutes?” she asked, wrinkling up her face. “Will it get done?”

“Yes. It’s asparagus, Mom, not raw chicken.” Why do they think it takes so long? Then I remembered the broccoli they prepared in my childhood — cooked until it was limp and gray.

Then she said she would be cooking a ham. She had bought one of those big spiral-sliced jobs that come fully cooked. All you have to do is heat it and add the packaged glaze that comes with it. Mary and I went out for a while to run some errands. When we returned later that afternoon, the ham was resting on the counter. I lifted the foil, expecting to find succulent pink meat. Instead, the ham was bone dry, reduced to an almost jerky-like state.

Mom called from her chair in the living room, “That ham may be a little dry. I cooked it like it said, but it dried out.”

“How long did you cook it?” I asked, flicking a crusty spiral-sliced flap.

“Two and a half hours,” she replied.

What?! Mary and I looked at each other in alarm, with that look that says both, “Oh my God!” and “Don’t speak!” all in one. Two and a half hours? It was an eight-pound fully cooked ham. It had languished, uncovered, in my mother’s oven for more than twice the amount of time it needed. And now it lay on her counter, charred and withered, like a tiny little burn victim.

One of several things she wanted me to do while I was there was clean the light fixture that hangs over their kitchen table. “It shouldn’t take more than an hour,” she reassured me. An hour? In what atmospheric conditions? We’re cleaning a light fixture in your kitchen, not repairing a damaged rocket booster during a spacewalk.

“An hour?” I asked.

“Well, don’t we need to take the fixture down?” she said.

“No,” I said with a shrug. “We’ll just wipe it with a damp rag.”

“Oh,” she said. She sounded almost disappointed. “I guess that’ll work, too.”

I wrung out a wet rag and wiped the fixture, the globes, and the base, replacing the dust with shiny polished brass. It took about ten minutes.

It was a good visit. I enjoyed getting to spend time with Mom and Dad, talking about the old days and reminiscing about family. But unlike all the other things that week, it didn’t take nearly as long as I would have liked.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Memoir Excerpt – Dead in the Street

It was only a few weeks after providing medical treatment at a wreck that I drove up on an accident that had just happened on my street. I saw a girl lying in the road and a crowd forming at the curb. I pulled over and hopped out of the truck. I had been on a high since helping out at the first wreck, and I expected to swagger up and be the hero again. As I got closer I spoke to a crossing guard, an older woman who had come over to keep the onlookers back.

“I’m a medic in the Army. What happened?” I asked in a very official tone.

“She got hit by a car.” She put a hand on my shoulder. “She’s dead. You can’t do anything for her, honey.”

I kneeled over her body, and the gravity of the situation was like a vacuum, sucking every thought out of my head, every word out of my mouth. She was already dead and there was nothing I could do. A wide trail of bright red blood, still wet and glistening, painted the path in the street where her body had slid after the impact.

“How did it happen?” I asked quietly.

She was thirteen, a seventh-grader at the local high school, a dingy white building just two blocks from where her lifeless body now lay in full view of the horde of students that peeked over and around each other to get a good look at the only dead body some of them would ever see outside of a funeral home. She had gotten out of school only moments earlier and was walking with her friends when she spotted the car of an older friend coming and decided to play a prank on him, something she would never live to regret.

As he approached, she crouched between two cars parked on the side of the street, waiting until he was only twenty or thirty feet from her before leaping in front of it, arms flailing, a move that she had hoped would scare him and make him swerve wildly, but he couldn't swerve — or stop — in time. Now she lay in the street, her petite body buckled, eyes open and staring at nothing, textbooks and notebooks strewn about, a thin river of blood trailing from her head and pooling at the base of the curb.

I went home, got in the shower, and cried. I squatted down in the tub and as the water ran over me I cried deep, hard sobs that forced the air out of my lungs until I was almost heaving. It was the oddest time to notice that I was actually thin enough now to squat sideways in the shower, and I laughed through my tears for a moment. Then her ashen face came back to me and I sank again and wept for a girl I had never met.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mennonite Date Night

“A Mennonite restaurant?” I asked, looking at Mary with my head cocked to the side.

“Yes. It’s supposed to be wonderful,” she said. “They have kind of a limited menu, but it’s all homemade and I’ve heard just . . .” hands over her heart now, “incredible things about it.”

Neither of us had ever been to a Mennonite, well, anything before, much less a restaurant. We’d seen them at the craft fairs or around town, women in modest shin-length dresses, sparse makeup if any, and the traditional black or white covering on the back of their head. But a restaurant run and staffed entirely by Mennonites? We weren’t sure what to expect.

“So, do we need to brush up on our early American vernacular?” I asked. “Do I need to be like, ‘Wife, what wilt thou have for thy entree?’, or, ‘Miss, couldst thou top off my sweet tea when thy time affords thee an opportunity?’”

“You’re an idiot,” Mary said. “For one thing, I don’t even think I’m supposed to talk. I think you’re supposed to order for me since you’re the man.”

Then a look of concern spread across her face. “Are they going to make me wear one of those doily things on my head?”


“You know, those doily thingies they wear on the back of their head. Am I going to have to wear one of those?”

“What, do you think it's going to be like those restaurants that require jackets on gentlemen?” I asked. “You think they’re going to have spare doilies for heathen women that come in without them?”

Mary pouted, “Shut up, I don’t know.” Then she giggled. “Do you think the schedule is posted on the bulletin at their church?” Then: “Or that we’ll have to put our tips in an offering plate?” She snorted to herself while I shook my head.

“Thou art indeed a heathen, wife.”

So it was with mixed expectations that we visited The Wooden Spoon in Gentry, Arkansas. It’s a small restaurant, but very charming. A small area with gifts and baked goods lines the inside of the front wall. Zucchini bread, scones, Rollkuchen (fritters), and streusel cakes were just a few of the items available. And our apprehension about how to behave was lifted when we saw one of the modestly-adorned waitresses texting on her iPhone.

Once we were seated, we perused the menu. It was limited to less than a dozen selections. Catfish, chicken, pasta, standard fare. We each ordered a cup of potato soup and the catfish dinner. The soup came in a coffee cup, which, like all the other dinnerware, was speckled enamel. We discovered after she’d left that our waitress had forgotten our spoons. Trouble was, we weren’t sure which one she was. They were all built and dressed so similarly.

“Is it her?” Mary asked, pointing to a young woman carrying a tray of food.

“I have no idea,” I said. Sadly, I couldn’t have picked her out of a police lineup if she’d stolen my wallet. And describing her would be equally useless. “Yes, officer, she was tall, fair-skinned, light-haired, wore a long, plain dress, and a black doily on the back of her head.” Every waitress in the joint fit that description.

Fortunately for us, she came back and asked if everything was all right. When we told her we needed spoons, she smacked her forehead with the heel of her hand and said, “Duh! I’m so sorry.”

Everything was wonderful: the food, the service, the relaxed atmosphere. And the dessert selections nearly outnumber the entrees. Bumblebee Pie (a mix of berries), French Silk Pie, Rhubarb Cream Pie, Coconut Pie, Dutch Apple Cake, Bread Pudding, and more I can’t recall.

Mary ordered the French Silk Pie and I the Bread Pudding. Both came quickly and were positively ginormous. Her “slice” of pie — a piece so large that if it were a rock it could be used to bludgeon a man — was drizzled with chocolate swirls and topped with a creamy whipped fluff. My bread pudding was just as big and smothered in a buttery, sugary, cinammon-y sauce that I am not ashamed to say I wanted very much to pour over myself.

It was a fantastic experience, and we will go back again and again. The staff was gracious and attentive and the food was fabulous. So the next time you find yourself in Gentry, Arkansas on a Friday evening, stop by The Wooden Spoon.

Thou wilt love it.



Monday, August 9, 2010

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Mary and I went to see Dinner for Schmucks this weekend. Allow me to give you a lightning quick synopsis so you’ll better understand the details.

Tim (Paul Rudd) is an aspiring executive who’s invited to a dinner with other execs at the big boss’s place. The catch is, everyone has to bring an idiot for the group to laugh at. Barry (Steve Carell), a man who creates dioramas with dead mice, is Tim’s idiot. OK, moving on.

It’s a matinee, so the theater is not crowded in the least. 2 ladies in their seventies hobble in and look around for a seat. There are over 100 unoccupied seats all over the theater, yet they choose to sit in the seat right next to me. Mary and I look at each other as if to say, “Seriously?”

Now, I’m a big guy. When I’m at the movies, I need a little space to spread out. And in a theater that’s less than a third full, that shouldn’t be an issue. But Granny Moses has already made herself comfortable, including commandeering my armrest. This is not going to be good.

As the previews begin, she says to her friend (loudly), “I hope this is good. Carol said it looked like it would be good. But she told us that that 2012 movie was good, and I thought it was just awful.”

Her friend looks at her and asks, “What 2012 movie?”

“You remember, the one about the end of the world.”

“Did we see it together? I don’t remember that.”

“Yes we saw it together! Don’t you remember? Carol was going to go with us but she didn’t get back from the doctor’s office in time to meet us.”

“What was she at the doctor for?”

At this point, Mary leans forward and gives them “the look,” which they completely don’t get.

When Steve Carell makes his first appearance, my seat buddy remarks out loud to her friend, “He’s so funny. I just love him.”

Mary squeezes my leg.

The movie progresses, and the screen fills with close-ups of Barry’s elaborate dioramas — dead mice dressed as little people in suits, ties, hats, and glasses, in realistic surroundings.

In the darkness I hear, “Awww… aren’t those cute? I’d like to have some of those to put out on my coffee table.”

Dear God, make it stop.

In one scene Barry says his wife left him because he lost her clitoris. When pressed for details, he explains, “I don’t know, but she was always mad because I couldn’t find it.”

Granny Moses leans toward her friend and says, “What did he say he lost?”

“I think he said he lost someone named Doris.”

“Oh. I bet that’s his wife’s name.”

By now Mary and I are in tears, shaking with laughter.

The movie eventually ends and as the credits roll, Barry brings the audience up to speed (with dioramas, of course) on what’s taken place since the movie ended. One of the happily-ever-afters is that Barry has a new lady friend. And with tiny dead mice in a bedroom diorama on the screen, he proudly reports that he’s been able to find her clitoris.

“Oh, good!” my neighbor says. “He found Doris.”



Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Girly Man

OK, I admit it. I’m a little different than other guys. Most of the guys I know like to talk about guy things. Manly things. Who’s playing in the PGA. How to repair a clutch on a ’79 Mustang. Which college team is the top seed (whatever that means). I don’t know anything about automotive repair and I loathe sports, so I’m no help in either of those areas. I am, however, knowledgeable and competent if you’re looking to repurpose a door as a headboard, find an area rug that goes with your artwork, or prepare a delicious pot of Coq au Vin.

I have an idea where this mindset and behavior might have come from. I was the youngest of 4 children, the one child that my mother had vowed to raise herself, without help from her mother. Consequently I spent a lot of time with Mom doing things like laundry and cooking. When I graduated from US Army boot camp, I was the only one of 50 or so guys who knew how to iron my Class A uniform. And the first week Mary and I were married, she was shocked that I hung my clothes up or put them in the hamper instead of leaving them on the floor or the couch.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not apologizing for being this way. I love the fact that I can tell a female coworker her shoes are cute and mean it. I think it’s great that I can breeze through the grocery store while other guys are hopelessly lost because they don’t know what a leek looks like or where the sliced almonds are. I find humor in the blank looks on other men’s faces in flea markets and antique shops as their wives chatter excitedly about finials and chargers and curios and settees, and the husbands’ faces practically shout, “What the hell is she talking about?”

Not only do I know exactly what the wives are talking about, I know that the punched tin lamp and the Victorian quilt she’s buying are going to look positively hideous in the contemporary bedroom she’s been talking about. Fine. I admit that I have definite opinions about interior design. I also admit that I like to shop (yes, really). I admit that I get excited about French imported soap. And yes, I admit that I’m dying to see Eat, Pray, Love.

At the end of the day, though, I’m still a guy. I still love a good action movie with plenty of gunfire, explosions, and naked women running around, but I’m equally happy watching Phantom of the Opera. I still play air guitar — badly — to .38 Special and Aerosmith, but the beauty of the theme from Schindler’s List brings tears to my eyes no matter how many times I hear it. I still love pizza and an ice-cold beer, but I get positively giddy when my crème brulée turns out just right.

I consider myself fortunate to enjoy both ends of the spectrum, both hemispheres of the delicate yin/yang balance. I'm sure some of my manly-man friends will have trouble understanding that. Some men have preconceived notions about guys that like to shop and decorate and cook. But that's OK. They're entitled to their opinion. I'll even help them out the next time they're in the grocery store and can't find ginger root.



Sunday, July 25, 2010

Spice, Spice, Baby...

God bless my wife, Mary. When I’ve repeatedly promised and forgotten to do something, she doesn’t yell or nag. She simply gives me a gentle reminder that it needs doing. Such is the case with our ever-expanding spice cabinet. In an effort to broaden our culinary horizons by preparing different cuisines, I’ve been adding to it consistently for some time now. We started off with the spices everyone has in their collection: Thyme, Parsley, Garlic Powder, and the like — what I like to refer to as the khaki slacks of the spice world, meaning they go with most anything.

But when we wanted to make Mexican one night, I bought Cumin. Then there was French night, which meant I needed Tarragon. Then I found an Italian recipe that called for Rosemary. With each new dish came the need for a new spice or two. More and more of them kept creeping into the cabinet. Basil, Curry Powder, Marjoram, Coriander, Garam Masala, Chives, Dill, Turmeric, Celery Seed, Ginger (ground and candied), Onion Powder, Chipotle Powder, Sage, Paprika, Chinese Five Spice, Cardamom ... and that’s only the bottom shelf. Mary asked me to clean it out, organize it, do something with it.

I looked at spice racks at different stores and online, but 1.) they all come with spices. I don’t need more spices. I don’t have room for the spices I have. 2.) The most I’ve ever seen a spice rack hold is 20 jars, and I passed that number long ago. I considered buying individual empty spice jars, but at three to five dollars each I’d have to sell a baby on the black market to collect enough to contain the culinary arsenal spread across my table now. But the other day a wonderful thing happened. Mary sent me a text saying that she had gone out and purchased three different types of spice racks. When I got home from work, she said, I could decide which one I liked, keep all three, get more of one, whatever.

This is what she does. She takes care of me so well and there are no words to tell her how much I appreciate her patience. Maybe I’ll cook her a nice dinner. I have a great recipe for Jamaican Jerk Chicken. I just need to get some Allspice...