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Female Engineer

Most of the companies that hired me for engineering jobs during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, were willing to give me a chance to work for half pay while they reaped the benefit.  Texas Electric Service Company (TESCO) was consistent with that behavior, but in other ways was an outlier.  I signed up with them during a lull when engineering jobs were hard to find, and the country was flirting with economic recession.  Its corporate culture was decidedly Neanderthal, supervision applied with a sneering cynicism, co-worker camaraderie a thing only good-old-boys aspired to.

I knew I was in for a rough stretch when my first day, on the job and ready to work, the plant secretary introduced me around as “our new female engineer.”  I found out soon enough that I was to have no work assignments.  My job was to sit and draw pay.  A visit with plant manager, Ralph McCullough, clarified the situation.

“Why are you complaining?” he asked.  “That other woman we hired, the electrical engineer—she doesn’t do anything but knit in the ladies room.  That’s all I want her to do.  Get it?”

 “I can’t do that!”  I retorted, my face getting redder by the second.  “I’ve got to do something useful.  Something where I can learn about the operation.  I can’t just waste my time here.”

Mr. McCullough leaned back in his big executive chair.  He stretched, flexed his arms, and locked his hands behind his head.  He gave me a fish eye and bared a toothy rictus.

“How about you spend six weeks in every department?” he postulated. “When you get through with that, maybe you’ll know a little something about what we do here.”

I readily agreed and got out of there in a hurry.  The next six months, I spent climbing all over the rigs.  It was an education.  TESCO operates generating stations throughout the state, and the Fort Worth site was just completing construction on its third gas-fired turbine generator.  It was an interesting time to be given free access to a complex and busy site.  I climbed everywhere.  Up and down ladders.  Into tanks, storage lockers, and control rooms.  Through maintenance facilities.  This was before the advent of office cubicles for each person.  Except for top management, all technical staff occupied one open bay, lined up in rows of benches.  Twenty-two people shared one phone.

Primitive office accommodations didn’t bother me.  I spent all my time checking out the facility, learning how it made electricity and how it transferred that energy to run a vibrant metroplex economy.  I made sketches, charts, and drawings of lessons learned, hoping they might help other newbies someday suffering in my same situation.

Mostly I stayed out of everybody’s way.  Hardly anybody questioned my activity.  I seemed to know what I was about, so they left me alone.  I managed to convince one group manager to let me learn to calibrate meters—a major victory.

When #3’s new turbine was ready to come on line, a festive occasion was planned and executed.  The mayor was duly invited.  On the designated day, a whole group of city officials showed up for a tour of the facility and the ceremonial throwing of the switch that would connect Plant #3 with city power.  As a member of the technical staff, I was included in the festivity.  I watched, listened, and learned.  Having accepted that at TESCO women were best seen but not heard, I kept the quiet peace.

The culmination of the ceremony was gathering the entire visiting retinue in the open sided shelter in front of the plant, speaking certain ritualized statements, and then moving the big main power switch to the “on” position.  The atmosphere was festive.  Visitors chattered and asked questions.  Mr. McCullough was in his element.  It was his time to be the man.

The group gathered under the roof shelter that protected the main plant power switching array.  Explanations followed.  Accolades were intoned.  Credits were acknowledged.  Persons of import were praised.  Then the lead power supervisor stepped forward.  He positioned himself right before the switches and placed his hand on one of the massive lever arms.  McCullough gave the official word.  Everybody held their breath.

That’s when I yelled, “Stop!  Don’t touch that switch!”

Manager McCullough turned eggplant purple.  “What are you talking about?” he growled.

“Look,” I pointed, “That’s the wrong switch.  You’re getting ready to turn off #2.”

McCullough spun around, did a double-take, and ordered the required change.  The power supervisor wiped his brow and moved his hand to the correct switch.  He pulled hard, moved it to the “on” position, and we could hear TESCO Turbine #3 lumber into service.  Later, the supervisor contrite but thankful explained that I had saved all our lives.  If he had actuated the wrong switch, effectively opening the circuit on an operating power plant, there would have been a massive explosion.  Many would have been killed.

Having completed my six months of visiting departments, I returned to the plant manager’s office.  I suggested advancing the company’s position by offering to initiate sensitivity training to help integrate all the women who were being hired by TESCO statewide, but then paid to do nothing.

His response was simple and decisive.  He fired me on the spot.

As I packed up my personals, the power supervisor came by to shake my hand.  He bent over and whispered, “He had to get rid of you, you know, because you saved his sorry ass.  No good deed goes unpunished.  Sensitivity training was just an excuse.  You’ll do ok on the outside.”

“Yea, I know,” I agreed.  Most other companies were greedy.  Some were insensitive.  But I never met another one that so perfected the art of being both mean and perverse.

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Humility

On Sunday June 2, 2019, the Right Rev. Thomas Breidenthal visited the Church of the Redeemer in Hyde Park where he preached and celebrated baptism, confirmation, and membership with a goodly crowd making those significant commitments.  The group was considerable since it joined congregations from West Chester and Indian Hill as well as Hyde Park.

It had been exactly a year since I had made my own decisions of confirmation and membership at the same altar, blessed by the same cleric.  As I listened to the words repeated again and again, I zoned out, sifting past remembrances.  Last year each confirmand knelt on the floor at the seated bishop’s feet; this year they stood.

My eyes closed, trying to obliterate the memory.  At seventy-nine I had been dreading the knees-to-floor posture but was sure I could handle it.  All those years of yoga and gymnastics were surely good for something.  It was, after all, just a graceful folding to the floor and then a little hop back up.  I tried it at home with decent results.

During the service all went well.  The bishop’s hands were duly laid.  The words were said.  I was officially a confirmed Episcopalian.  Then all Hell broke loose.  As I executed my little hop, my feet didn’t quite clear the floor as they sought their rightful purchase.  The result was a lunge that propelled me right into the bishop’s lap.  With my face planted firmly in his crotch, I prayed for the earth to open and swallow me.  But God wasn’t answering.  I was on my own.  Hands were necessary.  I groped for something to provide leverage to my situation.  All I could find was knees—his.  I daintily grasped both ecclesiastical knee knobs, hoping to appear apologetic, and withdrew from my dastardly face-plant.  During the ensuing months, I had dreaded meeting my Bishop yet again.  He would never ever forget me—nor I him. 

Given that painful memory, I thought the vestry might import a prie-dieu to provide more graceful kneeling for the ceremony, but none was employed.  Standing, indeed, worked well enough.

Playing through the year old memory, it occurred to me that it wasn’t completely my fault.  I had a strong role model when it came to not being physically age appropriate.  When at fifteen I went to live with my father and his new wife, we were all trying to get to know each other as a family.  I was heavily into school gymnastics.  I loved to turn flips, do back bends, and hand stands.  Once when I was showing off my latest flip, my Dad announced that he, too, could do that.  He, a sedentary thirty-nine, planted his hands on the ground and swung into a decent hand-stand.  Then he fell over and broke his leg.  Six weeks in a cast reminded him that it might be a good thing to act his age.

The bishop’s sermon was excellent.  His after service talk-back session was even better.  I sat behind a very tall man counting on using him for cover.  I had some questions but dared not ask them.  In this lifetime I will not be asking any questions of this bishop.  I learned my lesson all too well.  I could have asked for help getting to my feet, but no.  I was sure I could do it all by myself.  My grandmother’s most insistent question of me was all too often, “How can a girl as smart as you be so God damn dumb?”

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I, Eye, Aye

The gaze between persons is powerful.  I have watched it work as human individuals process the possibilities of relating.  Because my mother taught me well how to read her eyes and face, I am adept at reading others’ faces.  I look at you and see you looking at me.  There is a lock.  I read your feelings, as I feel my feelings, now the products of our interactive gaze.  You read my feelings.  I read you, reading me, reading you, reading me—all the way to infinity.  There is bottomless depth in a gaze, like two mirrors reflecting between each other in endless images.  I am changed by what I see in your eyes.  I see that you perceive me to be an interesting, perhaps even capable, person.  I am inspired to become an even more interesting and more capable person.  You read my feelings of happiness and interest and appreciation and decide to like me.  I see that you read me, and I feel even happier.  You see my happiness and I see yours.  We are pregnant with each other’s happiness.  There is mutuality.  That’s how strangers become friends.

Beyond acknowledgement of gaze is its analysis.  Gaze is a combination of eyes plus surround.  A bare eye is only a stare.  Humans are revolted by stare.  They feel assaulted—visually raped.  A stare is looking without any softening hint of expression.  Nothing is as repulsive as an eyeball extracted from its socket and positioned on a neutral surface poised to watch—watch you.  It is a metaphor of perfect irony.  It sees nothing; in seeing nothing it sees everything. Contemplation of a naked eyeball makes it easy to understand how it’s the surround that defines nuance.  The soft texture of the face is a subtle canvas that offers as much to human intellect as does the rainbow of smell to the articulate nose of a dog.

What can be read in a face is mostly about soft tissue, which explains why humans are so repulsed by the less-than-loving gaze of an insect.  The Praying Mantis is a favorite due to its fortuitous posture, not its soulful expression.  The common housefly, so universally hated, carries a cap of many eyes that see in all directions, wary of incipient swatters and wanting only to evade the precipitous denouement of the squash.  There is no facial nuance to accompany its approach to survival.  It’s all live; let-live is immaterial.

Bare skin is best constituted to convey expression.  Soft thin tissue that surrounds the eye most closely is associated with the gentle tension of “concern.”  It is there, waiting to be accessed by observing eyes—eyes that “want to know.”  The eyelids are less subtle but equally articulate.  They tighten with suspicion and report wariness.  While a dog, with its whole body covering of hair is more circumspect about tissue tension projecting concern, the movement of human eyelids is near central for all to see and interpret.  Brows, whether bare or hirsute, contribute much to expression.  It’s easy to read “suspicion” in canine brow elevation.  It might even be underscored by a not-so-friendly growl.  Elevating both brows evinces surprise, while one brow lifted suggests a question is brewing at the center of things.  Our hoity-toity word “supercilious,” i.e. above the hair, speaks to a single brow raised in suggested irony.

Moving outward from the windows of the soul, nose sniffs ambient air and offers backup to lid and brow statements.  An odd odor twitches the nose while a cheek might lift to suggest something is perhaps amiss.  Even the chin gives a little jump to underscore the supposition.  If an odor is approachable but still ill-defined, the nares will expand; an indication that what is smelled is not wonderful but is not totally repulsive.  A deeper inhalation might resolve the thing entire.  All this activity is there to interpret for watchers who have eyes to see.

Mouth is second only to eyes as great communicator.  Not only does it conjure endless auditory signals but modifies its very shape to indicate whatever feeling accompanies what is being said.  So much is it utilized that its physical shape is literally formed by a lifetime of function.  Drawing lips back baring teeth advertises aggression as readily as it expresses sheer happiness.  No wonder mammals are confused in their communication.  Lips that self-posture in a petulant purse are seldom asked to express generosity of feeling.  Odd labial arrangements, such as the confusion of the Trump mouth, forever memorialized on Saturday Night Live, are excellent examples of this description.  The mouth is being used to advertise openness, while its corners are drawn up, completely at cross-purposes to what is portrayed, while the jaw, usually relaxed as an indicator of open honesty, in the Trump jaw is firmly clenched.  Who could believe any word that escapes from such a mouth?  This is surely the face of a liar!

Even beyond the head, the entire body acts as a surround for the eyes, as meaning is conveyed—eloquently in some cases—not so much in others.  A speaker juggling the need to move on and dodge annoying questions, often conveys more than intended as hands paint an irrefutable picture of ”just wanting to move on—for God’s sake—why are you bothering me?”  Hands can say even as much as eyes and mouth.  They are supremely articulate, especially when the presenter is intelligent, sensitive, and insightful.  That makes a spectacular triumvirate of expression. 

Otherwise brilliant politicians sometimes suffer when their great policy ideas are derailed by wacky arm and hand gesticulations, waved amid calls for voter support not likely to be achieved.  Eyes that don’t give in to even an occasional blink are suspected of being just a bit too crazed to lead men.  Listeners who overdo eye-contact to the extent that the orator is put off by their gaze do a disservice to the orator.  Speakers do best heard by quiet balanced audiences who evidence interest in the subject but exhibit no involvement in the presenter as individual.  But politics is crazy; that’s a given.  I adore Elizabeth Warren as a policy wonk but fear giving her my vote.  Nowhere is reading of eyes and faces as important as in electoral politics.  How else are we to decide whom to elect?

Mankind has always feared the evil eye, inspiring cultish need to fight its power, never to express fervor of devotion.  There is no religion boasting of devotees dedicated to the eye’s worship and adoration, yet there is no protective fetish more ubiquitous than the one that promises to ward off its evil.  Traveling throughout Turkey, I saw everywhere items for sale warranted to protect the owner from its gaze.  A favorite fabric pattern displays a field of endless eyes—a universe of seeing.  These items are so well-accepted that they are an intrinsic part of the culture, bought and sold as near-currency.

Reading people’s eyes and faces can be discomfiting to subjects of such scrutiny.  Assuming we know what another is feeling is the ultimate arrogance.  Others pass through their days expecting to be fairly circumspect behind natural defenses.  Maybe blind would be better.  I am juggling several nasty ophthalmological diagnoses.  Maybe one of them could make me into a nicer person.  Who knows?

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Daddy

I want my Daddy!” dreaming-me cries to whatever enclosure encapsulates what’s happening.  It doesn’t listen.  Night terrors are interesting company but do not substitute for the real people we miss and want to revisit.  I need to write about that larger than life man but strangely procrastinate.  I don’t want to tell about his shadow side, not that it ever wished me ill or caused me harm—purposefully that is.  So I put off doing what I want to do.  I have shared story snippets of that whimsical father, Kelsey Martin at home, sharing family fun with adoring progeny, tutoring daughter longing to stride in his steps, caring for aging mother.  That is much easier than explaining how he forgot to divorce my mother before he married, one after another, four other women, and asked that I call them Mom, or when he left me and my mother destitute—me forever afraid—her left with a child to support, having no marketable skills save poetry and piano playing.

But daytime memories are different:  I open my front door and moan, “Just look at this mess.  There’s no way I’ll ever get it set to rights.  It’s impossible!”  That’s a lie we tell ourselves all too often when presented with a formidable task.  Of course a large and complex assignment is daunting.  Big jobs are like that.  They challenge; they intimidate; they terrorize— but they all have a secret weakness that is waiting to be exploited.  They can be subdivided into accessible units.  I learned this gem of wisdom from my inventor father, Kelsey, when, during one joint endeavor, I quailed at the prospect of turning a complex electronic schematic into a printed circuit board etch pattern.

“I’m not that smart,” I protested.  “It’s too complicated.”

“You’re smart enough,” Daddy insisted.  Anyway, you don’t have to be smart—just tricky.  He slid a pen from his always-at-the-ready pocket protector and began laying lines on the drawing.  When he was finished, the fraught circuit was understandable as several simpler, much less intimidating ones.  He labeled them for me so I could visualize how they interacted: Power Supply, Splitter, Invertor, Oscillator, Amplifier.  Suddenly I perceived the job as something doable.  Divide and conquer is more than an art of war.  It can focus energy to accomplish otherwise impossible tasks.

Back to the mess, detritus of a human family doing what it does so well.  As I dealt with the inherent mayhem of parenting three small children, I often reached back to access practical guidance remembered growing up in a tech-savvy family.  Daddy analyzed everything; only then he proceeded with what must be done, but he always gave it his own special twist. 

A typical example was fly-catching in the Martin household.  When the annoying drone of the buzzing invaders reached exasperation level, Kelsey Martin, fly-tracker beyond compare, donned his safari hat, plugged in the Hoover Porta-Vac, with its extra-long extension tube and set out on the hunt of the nasty critters.  He delighted in this creative play, experiencing the thrill of the hunt, the suspense of creeping up on an oblivious prey, and the final denouement of the kill, one more dastardly house-fly sucked into oblivion.  He would crow with triumph at every winged trophy sucked into and careening down the tube, through the hose, into the dust bag of history, consigned to non-existence as an entity that had lived for the sole purpose of annoying Kelsey Martin.

This escapade always attracted a following.  As Daddy prosecuted his war on flies, we kids trailed behind, a rowdy retinue, cheering, jeering, getting in the way, tripping over power cord and vacuum hose, wanting only to be part of this Pied Piper’s parade.  It didn’t matter that there was only one vacuum cleaner, and that it was only Daddy who wore the safari hat; Our merry band followed, laughing all the way.

Any task that Daddy despised, he redefined.  He turned boring into fun.  Perhaps most memorable and long reaching was putting on his pants.  I would have learned the best way to put legs into trousers long before I was fifteen had I not been living with my aunt and uncle in Texas.  Soon after arriving at my new Long Island home, Daddy enlightened me with respect to the art of putting on pants both legs at once.  “It’s an improved method,” he explained, “More efficient, easier on the low back, and fun to boot.”  He demonstrated: Sitting on the edge of the bed, positioning trousers waist agape, he folded knees to chest and leaned far, far back, thrusting both feet into their proper pant legs as trousers sailed aloft.  When he rolled forward into starting position, his pants were as good as on.  All that was needed was to stand, draw up, button, zip, and buckle.  “There,” he exclaimed.  “That’s how it’s done.  It works the same for under drawers or panties.  Leaning forward while you’re lifting legs one at a time, can strain your back.  Not good!”

OK.  I got the picture.  During the ensuing sixty-six years, I have, every morning, put on my panties, bloomers, leggings, jeans, shorts, or slacks two legs at a time.  It’s impossible to daily reenact this bit of whimsy without a smile, as I remember my dad earnestly explaining to a wide-eyed adolescent, how taking a mindful approach to life and living can be the birthright of even a lost-and-found daughter.

All these many years later, I still despise housecleaning.  It’s boring.  It has to be done over and over again day after day after day…a quotidian quagmire.  No-one asks you to take a bow for how well you scrubbed the floor or folded the diapers.  It’s a thankless task and not a bit fun.  But then I invented “The Housecleaning Game.”  It changed everything.  Since it was a game, I convinced my children to play it with me, Tom Sawyer style.  That contrived to assure their cooperation, and it was easier and faster with extra hands helping.  I did learn from my Dad that work ought to be fun.  Any way a job can be structured to achieve that goal is worth any amount of up-front creative sweat effort.

So—I drew a floor plan layout of the entire house including furniture, and superimposed a grid over the entire drawing.  Next, I labelled each grid square.  Those labels, I copied onto paper squares, and loaded them into a tall, opaque vase, along with additional whimsical assignments such as: Eat five M&M’s; Take a 30 minute nap; Mop the kitchen floor; Sing a song; Run around the house twice; Have a spot of tea; Count three of your many blessings.

So far so good.  Each player must choose, eyes closed, a slip of paper from the dark interior of the vase.  There’s the possibility you may be instructed to munch sweets or do push-ups.  More likely you will get a grid square number.  This is the point at which you feel the weight of the impossible task lift from your shoulders.  You must address what is in your grid square and only that.  You may not do any work outside of that square.  Like an observant Jew savoring the Sabbath, you are relieved of the guilt that naturally accrues to not performing the whole impossible task.  Even God rested on the seventh day.  Must you do more?  I remember the fun of carefully making up the lower right quadrant of the bed, carefully eschewing the remaining three quadrants, which must in the benevolent order of things await their turn.

Most things aren’t impossible, only lacking imagination, an ingredient which is always in generous supply.  But having an endless source of vision can be daunting, as night after night of dream attests and revisits.  My job is to integrate both fathers—the one in my dreams—and the one in my remembrances, into what is right and real.  Then he can indeed rest in peace, and so can I.

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Old Love

As wishes turn into kisses,

And longings turn softly to sighs,

The lust in me stirs

and remembers

How tender, how sweet were our cries.

 

Old lips still touch and linger.

Old eyes meet, still shimmer and shine,

That old earth still stops—

and waits in its turning,

While old hands and old hearts intertwine.

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Isetta

My husband Jim was big on toys.  He had nine guns, and at the time in question, three cars.  Had we been affluent, that might have played, but we were quite poor.  On that day Jim insisted that I should take the Isetta in to town since the Fairlane’s transmission was down, and he must of course have the truck.

Why did he own an Isetta?  I don’t know.  I’m not sure even he knew.  It was a fraught vehicle.  To get in, you must swing open the entire front of the enclosure, a door that pivoted on hinges that lined up out of any perpendicularity with gravity, which made the opening and closing of it a problem.  Whatever.  Once in and seated, the task was to motivate it to proceed.  How to do anything was a question since everything was unusual—located in a unique and ambiguous place.

I figured out how to get it started, how to put it into and out of gear, and finally how to propel it down the road.  The days’ business in town at long last accomplished, I found the weird little automobile, easy to locate, since it stuck out like a blue and throbbing thumb perched on wheels and waiting in the parking lot.  Daylight Savings Time had ignored the pleas of dairy-farmers but was not yet in place, so it was imperative that I locate the running lights before attempting the drive home.  There was no button, switch, lever, or any actuator at all that might initiate illumination of progress for this very unique conveyance.  I looked simply everywhere.  By the time I was done searching, it was dead dark.

I had four miles to go before I could park this problem and call it a day.  Home seemed a long way off.  There was nothing for it but to go.  The engine purred.  Inside the vehicle, dash lights offered a green illumination of whatever wanted to be reflected within.  That was me and my somewhat sickly face, as I piloted the odd little cube of painted metal out of the lot and onto the road.

There was no moon, but I could make out road-signs due to their bright paint.  It felt strange to move down the asphalt, engine purring, assuming invisibility.  No need to fear the fuzz.  They couldn’t see me.  I was a phantom.   In town, the streetlights made all the difference.  As I pulled onto the highway, I decided to wait for a long space between cars before I committed to being there at all.  The half mile on US Route 50E passed quickly, and I was soon enough off onto Pullman Road where traffic was occasional.  County Road 74 was a tiny thoroughfare to Pullman, West Virginia, that used to be called “the nine-foot pavement,” which was a good descriptor.  When it moved from being a dirt and gravel road to being paved, all the County would allow it was nine miserable feet of width.  It was better than mud, but not much.  Sometime in the last decade, Ritchie County had given in to bitching, moaning, and complaining to the extent that the byway was widened to twelve feet.  I was rolling down it.  Meeting anyone at all required that somebody give way.  I was more than ready to move off the pavement should I meet oncoming.  How could approaching traffic possibly give way to what it could not see?

Obidiah Johnson was a drinker.  Everybody knew that.  His biggest aim in life was to put off getting sober.  That would be a problem.  Nobody knew what he was trying to forget, but it must have been a doosey.  He had, long ago, lost any permission to drive a vehicle, whether highway licensed or farm-to-market.  His daily trip into town was to get liquored up.  Everybody knew that as well.  It was only after his desired state of inebriation was achieved that he would slide off his stool and slither away into the night toward home.

The evening in question was not an exception.  He slogged his way down the highway, taking a muddy shortcut toward 74 where he would enjoy the pleasure of pavement all the way to his warm bed and oblivion.  Once on the concrete, he smiled, stretched arms and vertebrae, and looked up for the moon.  There wasn’t any.  “Oh, well.”  He proceeded to weave his way down the road toward the pleasures of home.

That was when our paths nearly crossed.  I didn’t see him, except to watch a slight green tinged body of light arc away from what might have been my right fender, if I had had one, and disappear into the ditch.  I did not Slow;  I did not Stop;  I did not pass Go; And I did not Collect anything but a lump in my throat.  Strange enough, I finally made it to Home without collecting anything at all—even a Ticket.

The next day Obidiah slogged in to his daily round at Slim’s Tavern.  It was just about the same as every other day, but there was something different.  He had a quickness to his step that wasn’t a feature of his usual gait.  When he found his accustomed stool waiting just for him, he claimed it with a flourish of authority.  He had something to add to the conversation.

“Gimmie my usual, “ he intoned.  A note of authority had crept into his usual whine.  When his pint arrived, he sucked a satisfying slurp of foam from around the lip of the mug, swallowed,  and pulled in a satisfying breath asserting,  “You’ll never guess what happened to me last night.  I was attacked by a spaceship.”

Slim and the usual crew all did a double-take.  Had Obadiah flipped his lid?  They gathered round, wondering what this could be about.  He wasn’t in a hurry and spent some time thinking as he alternated between raising his pint, sipping, then settling it carefully onto the napkin,  turning it round and round while he looked far and far away.

With a bit of encouragement, Obadiah finally gave up his story:

“I was a’comin’ home last night, when what did I see, but a spaceship a’follerin’ after me.  It went behind, stayin’ close in case I got away.  I hurried, but oh it was fast.  It kept a’gittin’ closer, ‘til it fair caught up t’ me.  It was close.  Close as you to me.  I could see them-there critters inside.  Green they wuz, with eyes like you an me an a nose an a mouth to boot.  I was a’skeered o’ dyin’.  I jumped—near like unto I wuz a frog.  It tried t’ git me, but it missed.  I jumped fast—faster than it could hope to grab a’hold a’ me.  It missed me, and I landed in the swale down where Landen’s cow-path meets up with ol’ man Harper’s field o’ sweet corn.  I hid for a bit, waitin’ lest they git out and hunt me up and do who-knows-what ta who.  I don’t know what they wuz about, but I never let em git me.  I heert the sound of the ship a’goin’ away.  Quiet-like.  Jes’ a low growl.  Mad that it missed me and lookin’ for somthinorother somethin’ to grab onto and do whatever it was a’wantin’ to do to it.”

The group at Slim’s was accommodating and appreciative of Obadiah’s reporting.  They spent most of that night, and a bit of the next, asking him questions, listening to his opinions, and hanging on his suppositions as if they carried the weight of earth’s gravity newly ripped from the talons of celestial marauders.

I heard about the alien invasion next time I attended the Farm Woman’s Club monthly meeting, and was amazed along with everybody else.  I had been planning to complain to the other long-suffering wives about my husband’s penchant for collecting multiple vehicles, but decided to let well-enough alone.  How could I spoil Obadiah’s first, last, and only chance to be famous?

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Racist

I loved Lillie-Mae.  She was my second mother and owned a very special place in my psyche.  She didn’t act crazy and made the best liver and onions in the world.  When we talked she would look at my face, her eyes going deep, trading intelligence with mine.  She must have understood how eyes speak to each other.

 

She nursed me through measles, back before there was a vaccine, piling the covers deep and waiting for the sweat.  Months later, spying the forbidden gloss on my mouth, she handed me a Kleenex and warned me to “take off that color before your Aunt Judy gets home.”  I could tell her anything and could trust her to keep my secret.

 

It was Lillie-Mae who advised Aunt Judy it was time to buy me a training bra, when new and tender nipples responded to all that starch in my blouses.  I’m remembering a time when she loved me well enough to iron pretty ruffled blouses for me to wear, so I could head for school, all that starch and cotton announcing to the world, “Somebody special loves this girl.  Pay attention to her.  No matter what you think, she is worth something.”

 

It’s no wonder that the world wobbled when one day Aunt Judy announced, “Lillie–Mae says you think you are better than she is.”

 

“But I’m not,” I squawked.  “I’ve never said anything like that.  It’s not true.”

 

Judy explained that it was because of my attitude toward her.  “She can tell from the way you talk to her, as if you know more that she does.”

 

Lillie-Mae doesn’t love me anymore, was all I could think.  I must be a monster.

 

I never asked Lillie-Mae what made her decide I wasn’t her sweet girl any more.  It was too much to face.  I just kind of hid inside myself and waited—for what I don’t know.  When would it be safe to come out and ask what I had done that was wrong?

 

In 2012 Cincinnati I attended a meeting designed to heal racial differences.  It seemed simple, merely a scholarly update, especially for me, a person who loved black people just on principle, having so adored the Lillie-Mae of my youth.

 

The meeting leader announced that all white people are racist.  When I corrected her, she insisted that just because I loved my childhood nanny and liked “The Help,” I wasn’t pure of heart.  She said that I appreciated that movie because it reminded me of my days of privilege as a daughter of the south.  I walked out of the meeting—seething.  So much pain.  How could—how can—we live with it all?

 

Last week my Episcopal church worldwide began a year-long journey of addressing our country’s original sin—slavery.  I find myself asking some new and difficult questions:  If our congregation becomes truly diverse, how much will we have to change?  Can I enjoy worship in a style different from what I have always treasured?  Why does it seem that I like black people as long as they behave as if they are white?  Does that make me a racist?  Our country has elected a black president—twice.  The Anglican Communion has chosen a black leader, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, and I—I must face my Lillie-Mae quandary.

 

Somewhere in that place where loved ones wait quiet upon the wind, Lillie-Mae wonders when I’ll say, “I’m sorry.”  She has a big hug waiting—just for me.  We are sure to share a good talk, and an even better listen.  Maybe I’ll finally be a big enough girl to hear her own dear story, and give her the hug she has earned, and waited through both our lifetimes to wrap her arms around.

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