Birthday Letter to the Grand Finale

Dear Jenna,

Today is your 11th birthday. You are our Grand Finale. Our Swan Song. Our Camel’s Straw. You’ve been told that you were a BIG surprise. From that, you’ve interpreted that you were an accident. It is a joke around the house. And while it’s true you were a huge surprise to me (HUGE), I think it’s far truer that you were 100% planned. By God. You were and are a miracle.

As you complete your 11th year on earth today, here are 11 things you need to know about you:

  1. You were allergy tested before you turned 1. You tested as highly allergic to every food except three: chicken, lamb, and white potatoes. I cried all way home from that appointment because you were going to starve and so was I. On your first birthday, we had a party and you ate a banana in place of the cake you couldn’t eat. You were allergic to the banana too, but less so than cake.
  2. At 20 months, you discovered Sharpies and repainted the house black. It only took you 6 minutes to do it. Walls, tile floors, carpets, kitchen table. You colored everything you could contact in the 6 minutes it took me to put away a small stack of laundry.
  3. At 2, Grandmama and Granddaddy named you The Destroyer. You broke more glass trinkets in a year than I have broken in a lifetime.
  4. You sing like a canary but your expression never matches. When you sing, you look angry and vengeful. People are frightened. Maybe you have more of a radio face.
  5. You were so easy in so many ways. Potty training was not one of those. It was a nightmare fit for a docuseries. Potty training you was an emotionally jarring, deeply scarring process. This can only mean one thing for you: you are in for it when I’m old and in my own set of diapers.
  6. You are funny. Very funny. Funny to adults and kids alike. You can play creative social games with adults and keep up like you own the joint. You will get funnier as you age and I look forward to being in the front row of whatever performance you are commanding.
  7. You are creative. Always thinking of your next poem or story or song.
  8. #7 causes a lot of mess trails in my house. I can always tell what type of project you have going, where the project started, and where it ended right before you got up and thoughtlessly walked away from it. You should never try to commit a felony unless prison time is your goal. You’ll get caught by the trail you leave.
  9. You are my most snuggly child. You put up with whatever I toss at you, almost never rejecting me because you are tired or grumpy. That takes away about 1/3 of the pain of potty training you. Maybe we can negotiate forgiveness of the other 2/3.
  10. You get away with far more than you should. This is my fault, not yours. Still don’t commit a felony. Because of the trail.
  11. You are equal parts anxious and confident. You are absolutely fearless in putting yourself out there or being alone or trying new things. You are absolutely terrified of vomiting, or anything even 6 degrees removed from it. Tonight as you were going to bed you said that you are never going to be fixed. To that I say, you will be helped, but you don’t need fixing. You are amazing as you are.

I wasn’t young and fresh-faced when I had you, a fact you remind me of whenever you start doing graduation math or wedding math or anything of the like. And it wasn’t my idea to have my two youngest children be 18 months apart. But if I’ve learned only one thing in life, it’s this: God’s ideas are perfect. And you were His idea. Clearly. So tonight, I celebrate you in all your peculiar glory. Happy Birthday. I hope you enjoyed your banana.



Through the Plate Glass

My life has been riddled with catastrophes. Some of them I walked into unwittingly. Some I caused. Some are exaggerated for the sake of a bonfire tale. Some you can’t exaggerate enough. There was a sizable one when I was 2 and another when I was 10. The first of them was definitely not my fault. The second, well, it was also definitely not my fault, though perhaps slightly harder to prove.
All I will have to do is tell the story. 
None of it was my fault.
You’ll see.

In September 1973, I was 2 years old. I was closer to 3 really, but still very much an unlicensed driver. My online dating profile might have read something like: Great smile, speaks broken English, recently potty trained, enjoys cuddling, good fine motor skills, especially good with busy boxes.

Who even knows what a busy box is anymore? Now our 2-year-olds can swipe at Netflix and bring up the latest episode of Daniel Tiger. Then, we swiped at busy boxes that had plastic levers and rotating knobs and dials. I had the Kohner 1971 Busy Box. I could drive that thing like a herd of cattle. My parents knew this. After all, they provided me with it. I didn’t have a job.

For a toddler, I was skilled. Sometimes people underestimated my skills. One Wednesday night in particular, I was severely underestimated. And for a 4 minute period, I was also severely undersupervised.

We were trying to leave for church. As usual, I was the only one ready, waiting around for the others to get their junk together. The car had been having some engine troubles, so my dad had started it, popped and propped the hood, and left it idling so it would be good to go. My mom was trying to help my brother get his shoes on and my dad ran back in the house for the BIbles. I was standing on the front lawn waiting. Waiting.

Then I saw the car there. It was idling–waiting just like I was. My legs were kinda tired. I was carrying a little extra weight in the thighs at the time. That vinyl seat looked cozy. But that’s not what really attracted me. The real attraction was the steering wheel. I loved me a good steering wheel. I didn’t know what was taking them so long, but I climbed into the front seat to wait them out in comfort. I was shorter than the average adult, so I had to get on my knees to see over the steering wheel. Even on my knees there was nothing to see, as the raised hood was blocking my view of the house. Still no family. I put my hands at 10 and 2 and pretended to head into town, taking the corners nice and slow. But nothing was really happening and after a couple of minutes, my busy box instincts kicked in. I reached for the gears.

These days, a 2 year old reaching for gears isn’t going to get them far. Your foot has to press the brake to set a lever in motion. In 1973, all you had to have was one free hand and some gumption. I had both. I put my left hand at 12 o’clock and wrapped my right hand around the cool plastic of the knob that was sitting in Park. If they weren’t going to come to me, I could go to them. With a downward yank on the lever, I put my simple plan into motion. It had been idling high for 10 minutes, so the sage green Buick lurched forward with awkward power, racing through the boxwood bushes that were trying to line the sidewalk and hopping the 6 inch lip of the porch with ease. From there, it was a short journey through the plate glass window. I don’t remember the impact, but I’m told it sounded like a train wreck. My mother dropped my brother’s shoe and came running. My father dropped the stack of Bibles and came running. My brother stayed right where he was and screamed loud enough to be heard over the shattering glass. I climbed out of the car, with the door still open, and was walking circles on the lawn crying.

They thought I was dead.

Of course I wasn’t.

Only the plate glass window was dead. And the hood of the Buick. And maybe the boxwoods.

When they found me most definitely alive, they scooped me up and celebrated. And when the celebration settled down from the panic, my dad gave up all hope of making it to church and rifled around for the Insurance Company’s contact info. I’ll bet that was a fun call to make.

Insurance Guy: Wait, WHO was driving the car?
Dad: Our daughter was.
Insurance Guy: Sir, your daughter isn’t listed on your policy as a driver.
Dad: I know that. She’s 2. It was an accident. She doesn’t drive.
Guy: Toddler, driving. (he was muttering while writing in his file)

I never saw my 1971 Kohner Busy Box again. Maybe it was because my Dad threw it out, deeming it too dangerous to my development. Maybe it was because I outgrew it, having tasted the raw power of a real gear in a revved Buick. Either way, Insurance Guy replaced the windows, but not the bushes, and raised their premium, citing Gross Neglect and Child Endangerment with a Motorized Vehicle.

I made that last part up, but I know for a fact that I was cleared of all wrong doing. It’s all the in the file.

It was definitely not my fault.

Some things change, some things remain the same

I am reposting an old entry because I went searching for it last night and laughed until I cried. My husband is the only sane one in the bunch of us, followed closely by my oldest son. Eight years have passed since I first recorded this very true account. But in some ways, not one thing has changed.

September 2011 — Wednesday was a really bad day. It was a frustrating, exhausting day full of Whinese and overreactions.  By 7 p.m., I was pretty much done with the kids. Done with listening to them whine. Done with answering questions that had no answers (why do I have to read?). Done with requests that were stated as demands. Done.

I was.

They weren’t.

So on the way to church, Brady piped up for the 44th time that day that he didn’t like reading, didn’t understand why he had to read, wasn’t supposed to read books that were too easy, didn’t have any appropriate reading material among our 156,000 books for all ages, and didn’t like reading. Did I already mention that he doesn’t like reading? I’ve considered electric shock therapy. Truly. This is all just as wrong as it can be. At any rate, this little miniature tirade from the back of the van on the way to church set me off. And as I am prone to do on occasion, I spouted off at the flapping gums. What happened next is a perfect representation of every single member of the family. And here is how the next 3 minutes went:

“Brady, I don’t want to hear another word about this. I am so tired of talking about this. All of you guys have been ridiculously whiny today. I can totally understand why God just got mad and smacked the Israelites around when they started whining. I understand why He sent them into the desert for 40  years. In fact, if I could send you guys into the desert right now, I would.”  Wow, right? I know. Not that I need to clarify this point, but I was the speech maker here. Todd was shaking his head at this speech and I think maybe his hand was on his forehead in exasperation.

There were four distinctly different reactions to my speech in this exact order:

Andrew: Did not react at all. Silence. He blew me off, as he probably should have. He knows enough now to know that sometimes moms get mad. Just let them be mad. Let the moment pass. Don’t speak. He’s a smart boy.

Brady: “You would send ME into the desert to wander for 40 YEARS??!!” He was now wailing so hard he almost couldn’t get the words out. I felt terrible. Mostly.

Jenna: Mama would never send ME into the desert. She would not do that ever.

Lucy, looking over at Jenna, said in the very firm, rhythmic voice of authority: Oh, yes she would.

Right about then, Todd pulled into the parking space in the church parking lot and said:

“Get out. All of you.”

And we did.

So many crusties…

Open Letter to Shop-Vac

Dear Shop-Vac,

Wednesday night we had a cataclysmic toilet flooding event in our home.
You were there for us.
Well, almost.
Sort of.
I truly believe you wanted to be.

I’m going to tell you the story and give you a chance to improve your products for the next toilet-flooded family. Please do so quickly, as the next family might not be so lucky.

We had only been home from church for a few minutes when I started trying to route the girls to bed. Lucy, who is still only 12, seems to think she’s earned a free-for-all bedtime. I feel lucky when she’s down by 9:30. Jenna goes to sleep at 8:30 but when you don’t get home until 8:20, you can be sure 8:30 won’t happen. People were meandering toward the upstairs. I remembered that I had washed Jenna’s sweatshirt and it was in the attic where we have a makeshift laundry room. I went toward the attic and as I was walking down the hall, I heard water running in the hall bath. It seemed like an unusual instance of water running. It wasn’t a bath or shower. It sounded like Brady washing his hands. Brady is the cleanest person in the house. But his door was cracked and he was sitting on the side of his bed looking at his phone. No one was in the bathroom running water. And yet, water was running.

“What’s the sound?” I asked Brady, feeling a little panicked all of a sudden. “What’s the water source?” Brady got up to check his bathroom, while I walked around the corner of my room into my adjoining bathroom. I didn’t have to form the words twice, because I stepped into ankle deep water in my bathroom. The toilet had overflowed and a kiddie pool was forming in my room. Holy cow. I screamed for Brady to go get his dad.

“He’s in the shower,” he answered.

“Get him out. Tell him the bathroom is flooding.” I turned off the water behind the toilet, which at least stopped the water level from rising further. Then I went running. Like a gazelle, I ran. Like a gazelle in the Olympics. It was truly spectacular how fast I moved. I ran downstairs, into the garage, grabbed two shop vacs and was back in my bathroom in just seconds. Meanwhile, as I ran through the dining room, double fisting my shop vacs, I heard more water. My dining room had become the Rainforest Café.

“Jenna, find water. Get pots. Mop dining room!’ Jenna is 10. But she was a rock star during our fiasco. I kept moving.  Every time I passed a kid in the hall, I yelled out, “Who used my toilet?!” Upstairs, a massive operation was underway to suck up the water that was flowing onto the dining room table below. I was sucking up water with the shop vacs, towels, paper towels. The dog. Loofahs. Anything I could find. When the towels became too wet, I tossed them into the bathtub and started fresh.

Jenna was downstairs doing her magic. I never saw any of that, because I was on upstairs duty. Todd was working on the toilet clog that had caused Bacteria Splash 2019. We aren’t going to talk about that. Ever. No one has confessed. Some truths are better left buried. Deeply.

But, Shop-Vac, here’s where I want to get serious. Personal. Eye-to-eye. Here’s where you let me down.

Your CORD.

Your CORD. Please. What in the world? Your cord is less than 5 feet long. And unless you have an outlet on the floor, which 99% of the shop-vaccing word does not, you use 3 of the feet getting from the bathroom counter to the floor. That left me with about 20 inches of cord. At one point, I actually got trapped between your machine and my wall, by a cord that was literally shorter than some of my boot strings.

Is it 5 feet to keep from choking the babies? Babies don’t hang out where shop-vacs are stored and–news flash–5 feet of cord can still choke a baby. Maybe not a very, very obese baby, but come on, man. There’s no logic behind your short cord. And man, when my bathroom is raining sewage onto my dining room table, I need a longer cord.

After a very intense 90 minutes, I was leaning up against the kitchen counter to decompress when my 17-year-old son walked in to get a bowl of cereal. He pulled the milk out of the fridge and casually said,

“What was going on in here tonight?”

“Are you kidding? Just a massive flood from the upstairs bathroom down to the dining room. A fat lot of help you were!” I answered. I wasn’t really serious.

“Well, I’m sorry,” he said in a tone of indignant defense. “Nobody said a word to me.”

“Did you not hear Brady running through the house screaming for Daddy?” I asked.

“Someone goes running through the house—esPECially Brady–yelling a name that isn’t mine, followed by a whole bunch of commotion. How is that different from every other day? That happens daily around here,” Andrew argued. I paused and thought through his statement.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I conceded. And he was.

It stinks to be us sometimes.

In summation, Shop-vac, thanks for sucking (water) and longer cord, please. Maybe go crazy and do a retractable. Soon.

Carry on,


The Tube Socks

I wish I had a dime for every time I was told “don’t judge a book by its cover.” I’d have at least $10 now. If you break the statement down, we all know what it means. You can’t judge a book by its cover, because sometimes the cover is ugly. Just because a cover is ugly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the words.

I think the whole concept is a little too participation trophy for me, because sometimes an ugly cover is trying to tell you something: Don’t waste your time. Then again, sometimes the cover is FANTASTIC and masks hundreds of pages of misery. I picked up Beartown by Fredrik Backman (sorry, sir) because the cover was beautiful. And there was some quote of praise on the front by someone more important than me. What I got was hundreds of pages about hockey, hockey sticks, hockey players, hockey towns, drab weather fit only for hockey, hockey-obsessed men, followed by some punk teens doing things not worthy of hockey’s honor. I quit before the punk teen stuff (I had flipped ahead looking for a glimmer of hope) and threw that sucker away. I didn’t even donate it. I care that much about other people who shop at Goodwill.

I judged that book by its cover and got burned. So I guess you shouldn’t.

With books.

But what about people?

I grew up with a beautiful mother. I heard that I lot. “Your mom is so pretty.” When I was little, people still dressed up to do everything. If I had an ear infection, my mom would put on a dress, hose, and heels. She was never caught outside the house without the makeup that would take her 30 minutes to apply. I was mesmerized by her makeup process, because I loved the smell of the creams she applied. And I loved that her foundation started as 400 tiny brown dots on her face. She started out like a plague and ended up like a princess.

Then there was me.

I struggled to transition out of the plague thing. I didn’t want to. I didn’t see the point. My mother regularly offered to take me shopping.

“No, thank you, I’m good,” I would say.

“But, Missy, other girls your age…” she would follow up.

My answer usually ended in a shrug. I didn’t want to go shopping. I had white t-shirts, shorty shorts from the 1970s, slouchy tube socks with double navy striping, and dirty canvas sneakers. What else did I need? When I got into middle school, I didn’t ask her if I could shave my legs. She asked me if I please would.  I mean, I guess so. Sheesh. That whole thing started and ended on the picnic table in the back yard with a single bladed razor and a garden hose. It took like a week.

But I’m jumping ahead. I didn’t even consider changing my appearance until 1982. I didn’t make an actual change until 1983. Today’s Snappshot is from May 29, 1979. I was 8 years old. The school year was less than 2 weeks from being over, which meant a couple of things: (1) It was hotter than McDonalds coffee, and (2) they were cramming in the last of the field trips, projects, and performances.

May 29 was the last day of the gifted program called College for Kids. Back then, they actually rewarded a person for being gifted. Now it just means extra worksheets and higher-level testing. We spent one day a week on the campus of Florida A & M (FAMU). We took a bus there, spent the day with our best friends, and got to learn about things like exotic animals and cinematography. I loved it.

I don’t remember much about May 29, 1979. If my mother hadn’t snapped this photo, there would be no record of the day at all. But this picture tells quite a story.

My mom labeled the photo with the date and the description that it was the “College for Kids Pet Show.” And she brought my mutt, Benji, to be shown off. It’s hard to know what to focus on. The dog is clearly on a string that we found on the floor of our garage, not a real leash. He is embarrassingly furry.  He never once got a haircut from anyone but us. As for me, I’ve seen better shoes on people who live in cardboard enclosures.  The tube socks, though, are the real shining stars here. Two fat navy stripes that just scream, HEY I’M WEARING TUBE SOCKS. Those socks announced my arrival a good 6 minutes before people noticed the shorts or the hair. Once my fellow students got past the cover, I’m sure our book was equally disappointing.

“Hey everyone, I wanted to introduce you to my dog, Benji. He’s 2 ½ years old. He’s a mutt. We have no idea what mix he is, but we think there’s poodle in there somewhere. He lives in a cardboard box in the utility room of our garage, right next to the hot water heater. We got him when he was a puppy and named him after the popular film star dog, Benji. Are there any questions?”

“Does your dog have any special skills or tricks?” one kid asked.

“No,” I shook my head. “No, he does not.”

“Does he shake?”

Nope. Doesn’t shake.

Roll over?


Come when he’s called?

Sometimes. If I’m holding pork tenderloin.

Does your dog do anything?

He can play dead.

He can?


Benji and I deserved each other and I know he was just a little bit jealous of my socks. But one day in 1983, I looked down at those socks and saw for the first time what my mother had seen from the regrettable moment she bought them and handed them to me. I saw them. And when she offered again to take me shopping, as she had 35 times before, this time I said yes.

I remember my mother’s joy at my response and how quickly she put together a shopping trip to save my life. She was radiating the glee she felt. She was thinking about the Christmas cards she could send out next year. She was getting ahead of herself.

We bought 3 outfits that day that she and I were mutually pleased with. We bought two pairs of shoes to replace the canvas ones I had worn every day of my life since my third birthday. I put one of the new outfits on for the first day of 7th grade spring semester. And I put one of the new pairs of shoes at the bottom of my picnic-table-freshly-shorn legs. I looked down at myself and said, YES. This is good.

But my old shoes were sitting in the corner next to my bed. Man, those things were comfy. I didn’t have a lot of time to make decisions before heading to the bus stop, so I scooped up my old shoes and shoved them into my back pack and skipped downstairs to eat breakfast.

“Oh, Missy,” my mom said, clapping her hands together under her chin. “You look darling.”

Bless her. I did not look darling. But I had stuck my toe into the land of mary janes and pastel-colored flats, and that was enough to give a mother like mine hope.

That morning, I navigated some unwanted attention from people who had seen the generic t-shirts, gym shorts, and tube socks for the last 8 years. I shrugged them off and continued on my way. Before the first bell rang, I took the most direct path possible to my locker and stuck my old faithful sneakers on the top shelf. Then I headed to 1st period. All I could think about in 1st period was my shoes. The ones in my locker singing a melody of loneliness and betrayal in a tone only I could hear. They were missing me as much as I missed them. I looked down at the pink plastic flats under my desk as the teacher rambled on and on about some place in Europe. Those shoes were the worst. It was like binding my feet up with thumb tacks and duck tape.

All I could think about in 2nd period was my shoes. The new ones. From the devil. The old ones. Waiting for me in my locker. Sheesh.

All I could think about in 3rd period was my shoes. And by then I’d had enough. So when the bell rang at the end of class, I slung my pack over my shoulder and took off running toward my locker.  I ran like I was recovering from a hip replacement, because one flat kept slipping off at the heel and the other was vengefully pinching the top of my foot. But I managed. And I kept running. I dodged a maze of students and staff and yanked open my locker to see those canvas lovelies sitting there at eye level. FINALLY. I pulled off the pink flats and threw them into the bottom of the locker. I pulled the canvas sneakers off the top shelf and—

Wait a minute.

I forgot my tube socks.

Ah, well. No matter. I wore them sockless.

Thirty-seven years have passed since that initial foray into the tiniest of transformations. And my mother continued to nudge me along as she sent out substandard holiday photos of her family’s fashion eccentricities. And 37 years later, I guess I do believe that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Whether or not you can judge a person by their tube socks is going to be entirely up to you.

But I think maybe you can…

The Boat Bailer – Part 2

The rain that morning was cold and nefarious. It seemed intent on hitting me directly in the eyeballs as often as possible as I carefully zig-zagged down to the water’s edge. But the rain was not my problem. And the bailing itself was not my problem. My problem was the water between me and the boat. The water that was the color of charcoal and seemed to be disguising a world of dark magic that I was sure to encounter the moment I stepped in past my knees. The water that had to be deep because my brain had stopped absorbing tide information this morning when my dad was trying to teach me everything he knew in 2 minutes or less. That water.

I was scared.

I stood there for a couple of minutes in the rain, staring at the water, before I convinced myself that the imaginary danger was worse than the reality. I looked down at myself before stepping in, perhaps to take inventory of the strengths I was bringing to this task. What an ugly bathing suit. I hate this bathing suit. If I survive this, they are buying me a new bathing suit. Not a clearance one. Full price. I took one step and I was up to my thigh. This was bad. This meant I was sure to be in water deeper than I was tall before I got to the halfway point. Shoot. Debris from the storm was pelting my legs under the water as I scuffled along. I took four more steps and the wild water was up to my neck. I couldn’t plant my feet on the bottom anymore and I threw my arms into it and swam for my life. It didn’t take me long to reach the bobbing boat, but it was turned with its nose to the shore. There was no way I could get in from the front in water this deep. I swam sidestroke around to the back, determined to keep my face pointed toward the beach. I wondered if Mama was watching from the porch. Of course she was. She’d have called the coast guard already but we didn’t have a phone. If I drown here, it’s going to be awhile before anyone finds out. And this is the bathing suit I’ll be wearing when they locate my body. I grabbed an anchor cleat on the back of the boat and tried to get my leg up over the back. I couldn’t get a grip on anything and only managed to submerge my head completely. Fail. It took 3 attempts, but I managed to hoist myself up using one arm on the top of the motor and the other on the back of the boat. I flopped inside like a snagged fish and waved toward shore so my grandmother could see me, After a few deep breaths, I grabbed the crusty white bait bucket and began to scoop the water that had gathered in the boat since early morning. It’s not that great a boat. I’m not sure why we’re trying to keep it from sinking. But I do like to ski. I kept scooping. I don’t like people. I do like old people and babies. But I hate all other people. My arms worked like a hydraulic machine, getting the water down to less than an inch before I felt like I could call it done for this round. I stood tall to stretch my back and thought about the fastest way to shore. There had to be a quicker way back. I decided to do my best long jump from the front of the boat. I didn’t think through the force of my jump, because along with whatever distance I achieved, I sunk like a concrete block and never hit bottom. I kicked upward and surfaced quickly, thrashing my way back into water that would allow me to stand. I blinked the salt water from my eyes and moved forward.

Soon I was back at chest high water and slowed my pace to rein in my panic. I pulled my arms out of the water and tried to use them for momentum. Mostly I was flailing. At that moment, as I was just beginning to feel the weight of success, a streak of angry lightning started in the west and crackled east across the treetops. One second later, the thunder slammed out of the thick slate sky, chasing the last of the streak. I don’t know what happened in that moment. I can’t explain it. But I jumped out of the water like a cartoon and ran the full distance back to without touching ground again. I didn’t stop at the edge of the beach. I didn’t stop on the stepping stones. I didn’t stop until the screen door slapped behind me and I was safe on the wet porch. I leaned over against my knees to breath.

“Are you okay?” my grandmother asked.

“That was terrible,” I nodded.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a human move that fast,” she commented on my great escape.

“If we had jobs, this wouldn’t be happening,” I replied. “Let’s go to Panacea and see if they’ll put us on as bus boys for the day.”

“I don’t have my car,” she answered, as if that were they only thing wrong with my idea. We spent that day together inside, two unemployable beach bums. Reading. Coloring. Eating Vienna Sausages. I went out 3 more times to the boat, each time dreading it a little more than I had before.

When my parents walked through the back door that afternoon before dinner, my mother shook the rain from her umbrella and stepped inside quickly.

“Phew,” she said smiling. “It’s bad out there.” My dad stepped in behind her and looked toward my grandmother and me.

“How was your day?” he asked.

I squinted at him and weighed my response carefully.

“I want a new bathing suit.”

The Boat Bailer – Part 1

St. Teresa was my childhood Utopia; a little slice of the Florida panhandle that hugged the Gulf of Mexico just south of Tallahassee. In the summer of 1985, we planned to spend a couple of weeks at our cottage with a few weekends thrown in on the side. I was 14 that summer. We usually split the week-long stays with time at home. Anything longer than a week forced us to the washeteria in Carrabelle. My mother was fundamentally against going to Carrabelle for anything other than ice cream. I tended to agree.

Every summer when we arrived for the first time, there were chores to be done. All the dishes had to be washed before we could eat off of them. The house had to be swept, along with the stepping stones to the grass line. The windows had to be cranked open by hand. The car had to be completely unloaded and unpacked. After everything was done and we were given the all clear, we would skip out to the water line, flying over the stones we’d just swept. I always stood for a long moment with the water curling around my ankles and the salt air draped across my shoulders and let myself be alone with my old friend. We had catching up to do. 

That beach was the most forgiving place on earth to me. She held our summer kinship in the hollow of her hand. But like anything, St. Teresa had a dark side, a vastness that stretched out against the endless tide; a darkness that swept in unannounced. As quickly as a stripped palm frond could lean in the breeze, she could betray you to the dark side: her weather. In those moments, it was like a thunderhead grabbed the edge of the ocean and flipped it like a dirty welcome mat, taking the waves that had gently lulled a child along on a canvas float 10 minutes before and turning them into a steel gray chop that could toss boats like a discarded newspapers. I know a thing or two about the boats thing.

That first week at St. Teresa in July 1985 ushered in a storm with enough raw power to change the landscape for the rest of the summer. It was after midnight when the first rumbles entered my consciousness, trying to work themselves into a dream about escaped tigers. My eyes flew open at the first streak of lightning, as they almost always did. I laid there in my bed, pressed up against the front wall of the cottage, waiting for the thunder to follow. In the minutes after the flashes, my world would lay dark around me. The sounds of wind and the cadence of the storm filled the dead space as I waited for the next round. The lightning flashed again, electrifying everything around me with a sinister strobe, so that I could see with clarity all the things I was afraid of. The live oak trees raised their twisted branches like approaching zombies, crawling out of the darkness. Only when the lightning would flash could you see what you were dealing with. 

I knew the patterns. The storm would threaten, then rage, with cycles of fury from the sky. And then my dad would get up from his bed in the other room and go out in it. I hated that. I could hear him talking to my mom, followed by the commotion of him getting himself ready. And then, I heard the gentle squeak of the screen door hinges trailing him as he disappeared into the night.

I sat up in bed and rested my chin on the stone window sill. The blue nautical curtains whipped around my head as I tried to identify shapes in the blackness. There was no going back to sleep until my dad was back in the house and we were all in bed again. My grandmother’s snoring hummed through the weather when the storm paused to take a breath. I didn’t know how she was sleeping through it, but I was glad she was.

Just when I was sure my dad was dead and had begun writing tributes to him in my head, he reappeared, running deftly up the stepping stones toward the house. He was soaked to the bone and wore a look of misery. Whatever he had been through out there, it didn’t matter. He was back. And I flopped back against my pillow into a deep, relieved slumber.

The night was short and the relief was short-lived. I was awakened at 7 by three people standing over me, annoyingly not dressed for the beach. This wasn’t an invitation to water ski. Through the slits in my tired eyes, I could see my mom, my dad, and my brother dressed to commute for work. It was Monday morning and the storm was still pounding outside.

 “Morning, Miss,” my dad said. He was alive. A little too alive for my taste.

“Morning,” I groaned.

“We are headed to town and won’t be back until after 5,” he replied. OK, I thought. Soooo….? I just waited him out. I knew there was a punchline. “We need you to watch the boat.”

Oh, there it was. I knew it. I KNEW IT. I just thought the misery of last night was over. And contained to my dad.

“Dad, why? WHY? Aren’t there bilge pumps for things like this? This weather is terrible!” I was pleading.

“We don’t have a bilge pump,” he answered. Of course I knew this. “You are the bilge pump.”

He had to go and add that. In the next 90 seconds, I was given instructions about how and when to bail the boat and how to manage the tides. Sigh. My grandmother was standing in the doorway listening to the instructions with a wrecked expression on her face. She was clearly on my side. And without the slightest apology, the three business casuals walked out the back door leaving a 14-year-old sleep-deprived girl and a 75-year-old grandmother with a bum knee to watch after a bargain boat that was bouncing around out front like a tethered rubber duck.

I plopped down at the blue kitchen table to eat a can of Vienna sausages for breakfast. This was the kind of day it was going to be. A cold, blustery, canned-sausage kind of day.

I watched the hands of the kitchen clock like a dire prognosis and when 10 a.m. rolled around, it was time for the first boat bail. I was to go out as close to 10, 12, 2, and 4 as the weather would allow. The storm was nowhere near passing by, but seemed calm enough to navigate. I pulled on my suit and walked out to the front porch. The concrete was wet from a night of rain blowing in sideways. The world in front of me was the color of a bad dream–the dull green of overboiled turnips. I had to squint to see the boat, which was a bobbing white dot that rose and fell amongst waves that were taller than it was. My Mama joined me on the porch. I looked over at her with a sneer on my face.

“Please be careful,” she said. “I don’t like this.” She didn’t need to tell me twice.

I pushed open the screen door and leaned into the unrelenting green rain.

To be continued…