It Happened One Night in Poplar Bluff

The Not-So-Great Missouri Robbery

Clipping of the newspaper article from The Daily American Republic in Poplar Bluff, MO.

Poplar Bluff, Missouri, is the kind of small town that rural America is made of. P.B. (what the locals call it) is just past the Bootheel after you drive out of Arkansas. There is one high school—the Home of the Mules—so generations of children grow up together. It is the kind of place where the names in the newspaper mean something to you. If you didn’t run into someone you knew, you’d run into someone who knew someone you knew. Violent crime is out-of-character for this town that isn’t on every map, and is often mispronounced by city slicking anchors as “Popular Bluff.”

A lot of the outdoorsy residents like to go to Black River to hang out, and Wal-Mart is the biggest non-wild game in town. The newspaper, The Daily American Republic, comes out in the evenings, and is more of a large pamphlet than a newspaper; there’s very little breaking news in this hilly region of the heartland. This area of Butler County is where life has an ebb and flow to it like Pensacola Bay at low tide.

If you want a good barbecue, you have to go to Dexter Queen in Dexter, Missouri, where they put shredded cabbage on the sandwiches and the inside looks like a throwback from a teenage hangout in The Fifties.

P.B. is all built up now, but in the early eighties, it was home to my parents. Dad had grown up there, and Mom had moved in and out several times. Their first place was an apartment on Fairmont Street where my dad’s tenth grade Spanish teacher would bang a broom handle on the ceiling to let them know they were being too loud.

I remember when I became a nanny in Sidney, Montana—eastern and hilly, rather than western and mountainous—I called my aunt Cheryll that first night after my mom left to board the Greyhound bus cross country. Those first few days I was on my own in a strange house with two little girls who were my responsibility, I was rereading my favorite book, Small Town Girl by LaVyrle Spencer, set in Wintergreen, Missouri, where Poplar Bluff is mentioned once.

I was never homesick for Pensacola but for my summer place, for I hadn’t yet established a presence there.

Poplar Bluff was like my Disney World, for so many kids I knew saw their grandmas every day, whereas we had no ties to this touristy, military town on the Gulf Coast.

It often seemed like the only memories of which my parents were fond or nostalgic for were the ones that hadn’t been made in Pensacola; I suppose that made me nostalgic, too.

Maybe that was why the first episode of Bewitched resonated, for when Samantha tells Darrin (played by Dick York, and the only actor I acknowledge as being the true Darrin Stephens, whose name I always thought should’ve been spelled Darren Stevens—much cleaner) that she’s a witch, and he says something like, “I’m from Missouri. You’re just going to have to show me.”

Being from the “Show Me State,” I suppose that’s why we’re all as stubborn as mules and have to prove we’re right about everything (often via Google).

Grandma and Grandpa Booker’s house was like going back in time—from televisions that were a giant block of wood with convex screens in them to the library-orange, hardcover Childcraft books (which included the politically-incorrect legend of “Little Black Sambo”) to vinyl records of The Andrews Sisters. Grandma and Grandma still had the seventies-style paneling in their downstairs basement that was as big as a private bowling alley, with furniture in forest-green and burnt orange, and carpet that looked like autumn leaves after a rain.

I would play away the hours going through Grandma’s Better Homes and Gardens magazines, tearing out all the pictures of the porcelain dolls and writing their autobiographies or just exploring, though I never went in the closet under the stairwell, for it smelled like rubber from all of Grandpa’s boots.

Their house seemed ginormous, with Grandpa’s desk that looked like it belonged to a judge and Grandma’s double closet stuffed with hatboxes and fur coats—relics of women in her time.

The smell of coffee and bacon permeating the air brings me back to Grandma’s downstairs kitchen that is as clear to me as if I were sitting there with her, eating cold cereal late at night. That kitchen was where I had my first scoop of peanut butter with Karo syrup (still the only way I can eat p.b. that isn’t drenched in chocolate). Their house seemed like the land of plenty, for whereas our cupboards were sometimes bare (like Old Mother Hubbard’s), their pantries and deep freezer were always stocked like a famine was coming.

Grandma and Grandpa would sit on their porch swings outside the kitchen door, and I’d be way down the hill, sometimes barefoot, laying in the clover and soft grass while the martens and wrens built their nests in the Jetson-like birdhouse apartments.

Even at twilight, when the lightning bugs would come out with their lime-green glow, my grandparents never worried if I was out of their sight.

As for me, just looking back and seeing the patio light on was all the reassurance I needed.

I didn’t know fear then, but I would learn it.

Now I know I could never live without it, for it is that thing that becomes a part of you— like your shadow; I would go so far as to say it’s like a guardian angel—a gift. My fear of forgetting to be aware of my daughter’s location and surroundings has been with me so long, I don’t even think about it. It’s just the price I pay for living in the modern world.

Times were different then, and Poplar Bluff seemed like the kind of place where nothing bad would ever happen, but it did.

It was the last day of May in 1981, when my parents were robbed at gunpoint at the Mansion Mall Cinema where they worked as night managers. I was there, gestating, hovering between conception and birth. Even though I wasn’t cognizant of what was going on, that experience changed my mother, thus changing me. My mom became more aware, and thus taught me to be more aware.

I grew up as one of the most observant teenagers in America.

That night of the robbery, my mother had tried telling my father that something wasn’t right; throughout the day, a car kept changing places in the parking lot, containing Stackhouse and Patterson (both named James)—two men who had worked for them. These ex-employees had records, and one, my parents had even given rides home to. (“The one with the personality,” Mom told me.)

They were changing the marquee when “the nicer one” approached them with a gun, demanding money. (The other was parked in the alley, serving as the getaway.) He settled for my mom’s purse, containing less than twenty bucks (the story of my parents’ lives), and a Cross pen and pencil set that Mom’s parents had given her for graduation. The nice guy wanted to take them off somewhere, but Mom refused; her grandfather had taught her never to go off with anyone—that to do so would mean certain death—and so she taught that to me.

The robbers were caught at the local Broadway Cafe, eating off the money they had stolen. They’d worn masks, but my dad had been able to identify their voices.

Mom, always wanting to make a point, wore a tee shirt that said “Baby” with an arrow pointing down when she testified. (It’s interesting to note that every time my parents turned on the lights when I was a baby, I’d hold up my arms like I was part of a “stick up”).

My mother would tell me years later that she made sure Grandma Booker knew that the robbers had been white, what with her being an old-fashioned Southern Democrat. (She even had funny ideas about “The Italian” who sold tamales, of all things, from the back of his truck—tamales she’d insisted were made of cats.)

From that night on, my parents had the local sheriff escort them to the bank for the night drop, just as now, I call a security guard to escort me to my vehicle after a night class (unless I am surrounded by classmates).

Because of that robbery, I grew up, always aware of when a car followed me after more than two turns, after which I would take an abrupt or unusual turn. I’ve grown up, appreciating the beauty of the world on its surface but also being mindful of the dark net below—that if I’m not careful, I could be caught in it.

I rarely talk on the cell phone while walking, and I don’t own a pair of earbuds. I have unilateral hearing loss, so I never use anything that further cuts me off from the world. I do nothing to make myself more vulnerable to those who would do me harm. Because of my mother standing her ground, I am walking on it today.

When my mom taught me to be observant, I believe she helped me save my own life more than once—in ways I will never know.

Navy mom

Since this was written in October 2017, my mom, the lady you see here, passed away, but she left behind a legacy of love.  One thing she always told me (and showed me) is that no matter how old your children get, they always have a place to come home to if they need it.

Updated 1/17/2020

Fiction Friday: Micropoetry from the Book

mormoni

With any other youth group,
the idea of dating a lot of different people
seemed like cheating,
but in Mormonism,
until one felt ready to marry,
it was better not to get fixated on any one person,
for that might lead to falling in love
& that just might lead to sin.

Tony had been willing to give up his reputation for Kath
but not Elder Roberts.
Tony had sealed his fate with his beloved by impregnating her,
whereas Elder Roberts had denied himself
by denying me.

It was a jubilee of sorts—
the tinkling of our fluted stems
signaling the beginning of the New Year
& the best years of our lives to come.

A cool gust, a warm breeze,
stirred me from my slumber
like a ghostly lover beckoning me.
I just stood back and watched him,
enjoying him,
& when he spoke to the sky,
it was then that I realized that he was speaking to the God
I thought he didn’t believe in.

I would never know if David lied to himself,
so he could lie to Mother,
but they would have a year before the temple
for her to fall in love with him
without all the trappings of Mormonism,
before she would expect him to take her to the temple
& promise things that he would never do,
not even for her,
even if she were me.

Sweet Little Nothings

Do YOU chocolate

She was as much Leave it to Beaver
as she was Married with Children.
She wrote children’s nursery rhymes by sunlight
& Southern Gothic horror by lamplight.
She loved her technology
but loved her childhood without it.
She loved the finer things,
enjoyed with the common people.
She was, as Maureen O’Hara would say,
“tis herself.”

Seven Wonders in Every Wonder

Me and Kel.jpg

Through my child eyes,
the ordinary was made extraordinary—
the ivory delicacy of snow in a Florida winter,
the heat that made roads shimmer like infinity pools,
the chocolate milk that came from “How Now Brown Cow,”
the kaleidoscopic rainbow of a pepper mélange under a microscope;

stargazing in the backseat on the way to
Poplar Bluff, Missouri, counting the diamonds,
collecting seashells that washed up like
mermaid Christmas ornaments,
blowing the dandelion seeds
to twirl like tiny pinwheels,
the fascination of lying under a Christmas tree,
the candy lights sprinkling me like a cupcake;

spinning in a chair ‘til I got dizzy,
sliding down the hall in fuzzy winter socks,
swinging in the air, head back, flying with eyes closed,
jumping up and down on the bed
‘till the box springs broke,
falling back on a pile of pillows,
taking the breath from me;

singing songs through the fan on the floor,
my words rippling like music notes on a page,
the feel of bubbles, like glassy mother-of-pearls,
popping like a raindrop rainbow on my sunburned face,
blowing on the window and drawing swirls and smileys
and hearts with names inside them;

the feel of the wheels rumbling up my legs during a hayride,
standing on a stepladder and seeing things as my father did,
running through the sprinklers in bare feet on freshly mown grass,
sitting on the screened-in porch swing with Grandma and Grandpa,
watching the lightning merge day and night in 30 microseconds,
feeling like I was inside-out and outside-in all at once;

watching a helium balloon float to the moon while I imagined it
landing on Mars with my name on it for an astronaut to find,
the underwater ballets at Weeki Wachee Springs,
butterflies, hummingbirds, and things that glowed in the dark.

As a child, there were Seven Wonders in every wonder,
and through my child’s eyes, I live the magic all over again.

as published in the Dec/Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Bella Grace Magazine.

A Memoir of Mother Goose

All I ever really needed to know, I learned long before kindergarten, from the adults who loved me.

Mother Goose was my first exposure to literature. I grew up with my dad reading it to me, and now I read it to my child. I’ve found that having a child is not like reliving my childhood, but enjoying, in a different way, the things I once did.

1991 (4).jpg

My dad, when I was a little girl.

For more than twenty years, I didn’t swing on a swing (just in porch swings, like my grandparents) or jumped on a trampoline. While my daughter colors with crayons or plays with Play-Doh—smells that bring back memories of burnt sienna and purple meatballs—I am not brought back, but rather, the past is brought to me.

That rhyme about the old woman in the shoe, who had so many children she didn’t know what to do? I remember the mother kissing them all sweetly and sending them to bed, not “whipping them all soundly,” as I have since discovered was the original rhyme. The children were also going to bed hungry, with nothing but broth and no bread to soak it up.

I grew up on Disney and its sanitization of fairy tales.

In that way, I had a magical childhood, and that is what I strive to give to my daughter. There is time enough for her to learn the not-so-good things that exist in our fallen world.

Childhood is precious and fleeting, for when else do we get to be kids, to believe in Santa Claus and friendly animals and always-happy endings?

Whenever my dad read me “Little Boy Blue,” before he would get to the part about the boy crying (if awakened), I would beg him not to finish it. When you’re a kid, you never cry because you’re happy—that’s what laughter is for.

Now I can understand why “Little Boy Blue” would cry if someone woke him up, as I feel like crying when my alarm goes off in the morning.

Rub-a-dub-dub,
Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick maker,
They all jumped out of a rotten potato.
Turn ‘em out, knaves all three.

When I was a “sack of potatoes,” as my dad called me, my uncle Bill would run me through the rhyme above, just to hear me say, after the first line, “Three foul balls in a tub.”

I’m sure he taught me that.

Bill.png

My uncle, as I knew him when I was a child.

This was the same guy, after all, who said there was a certain hair in your nose that was connected to your brain, which would kill you if you pulled it.

I think we do things for our parents because we want to please them, but in the case of my uncle, I think I liked the laughs.

Perhaps, even then, a funny seed was planted, and a funny bone was developed.

I just wouldn’t know it was there until many years later.

Hearts, like doors, will open with ease
To very, very little keys.
And don’t forget that two of these
Are “I thank you” and “if you please.”

Every summer, from ages nine to thirteen, I spent my summer vacations in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, with my grandma and grandpa.

My Grandma Booker, a mother of two boys, always told me roughhousing was for outside and to chew with your mouth closed. She showed me the only palatable way to eat peanut butter, which was drizzled (or, in my case, drenched) with Karo syrup. She taught me that a word was only a curse if God was in front of it, which I didn’t really understand, because my parents never used the Lord’s name in vain.

Grandma and Jacques

My grandma, as I knew her when I was a child, with their dog, Jacques.

Even though she also said drinking coffee would turn your feet black, and if you swallowed a watermelon seed, melons would grow out of your ears, she still possessed plenty of wisdom. Even though I wouldn’t understand everything I heard until adulthood, I did understand when she said the three most important phrases were “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome.”

It is from your elders that you learn your manners, which are the earliest form of soft skills.

When I was a nanny in Sidney, Montana, I was chastised for calling my boss “sir,” and he said something like, “I know in the South, you do all that sir and ma’am business, but we don’t do that around here.” That was the first time I had ever been criticized for my manners.

Since I was not comfortable calling him by his first name (even Alice called Mike and Carol Mr. and Mrs. Brady, and she was practically part of the family), I just didn’t call him anything.

Now, when someone calls me ma’am, like the math tutor who is technically young enough to be my son, it makes me feel old, but I don’t ask him not to call me that, because it is a sign of respect—just like holding the door open for people, regardless of gender, is having manners.

The two signs my daughter knows more than any other is “Thank you” and “Please.” (“You’re welcome” in American Sign Language is the same as “thank you.”) I still remind her to mind her manners.

A wise old owl sat in an oak,
The more he heard, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Why aren’t we all like that wise old bird?

In high school, I was the Bashful Dwarf, but one of my fondest memories was during my sophomore year. I had a such huge crush on an Environmental Science teacher—a man who looked like a Ken doll (except heterosexual)—that I chose a zero over getting up in front of class. Public speaking always made me break out in hives.

That said, it was all worth it not to look like a fool in front of Mr. Bauer, for whom I would’ve learned to become a botanist.

High school graduation night at Mr. Manatee's

Me, May 1999, at my high school graduation celebratory dinner at Mr. Manatee’s restaurant, which is gone now.

Years later, I would learn it’s the smart people that listened more than they spoke. Maybe that was why the other kids always assumed I was the brilliant one.

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,
Had another, and didn’t love her;
Peter learned to read and spell,
And then he loved her very well.

When I graduated from high school nineteen years ago, I didn’t know it, but I was looking for a place to belong; I thought I’d found it in the Mormon Church.

The Mormons say that the glory of God is intelligence. I always thought it was love, but when you think about it, intelligence increases compassion. I think that was why Jesus was so compassionate; He could see into people’s souls.

He knew why they were broken.

It’s strange, but when I was a Mormon, and a college education was encouraged (whereas a career outside the home, for a woman, was not), I was more interested in finding a husband, for a woman’s worth was so tied into being a wife, and especially a mother. It wasn’t till years after I left the Church and had a husband and one-year-old daughter that I was ready for that college education and learned that a woman was no more selfish for having a career and a family than a man was.

Perfectionism is stressed to Latter-day Saints, and whereas men take it in stride, women take it to heart. The irony is that when I stopped trying to be perfect I was happier, made more progress, and even felt closer to the God they’d recreated in their image.

Hannah Bantry, in the pantry,
Gnawing at a mutton bone;
How she gnawed it,
How she clawed it,
When she found herself alone.

I was almost thirty-two when I had my first child. It took me three days to get used to the idea (I was three months along before I knew), for I’d grown up seeing women with young children looking harried and unkempt; I didn’t want to become that, but the first time I saw my Hannah Banana in the ultrasound, I was transfixed.

For me, teaching and nursing were callings, but motherhood was a sacred calling.
I couldn’t find my cell phone half the time, and every plant I had ever owned died (so much for a botany career), so I wasn’t sure about having to keep up with this little being all the time, but a mother’s instinct kicked in when I held her for the first time.

With Hannah, I got a little more than I was expecting, though I didn’t know she wasn’t perfect, for she was perfect to me.

She still is.

Pink bundle

Me, with baby Hannah, fresh from the hospital.

My daughter is a Tuesday child, “full of grace,” and Hannah literally means grace. Hannah Beth Richards is a quirky kid, or “on the spectrum,” as some would say; I say she is every color in it.

She was so curious and into everything—opening the dishwasher and standing on the door, crawling into closets to play, and getting into the pantry, chewing through the onions and potatoes. A refrain that could often be heard was, “Hannah, out of the pantry,” though she probably thought, “Dammit, Hannah!” was her name for a while.
Though we no longer have a pantry, we have cupboards, and now our refrain is “Hannah, out of the kitchen.”

Multiplication is vexation,
Division is as bad;
The rule of three perplexes me,
And practice drives me mad.

When Hannah was a year old, I decided to enroll at Pensacola State College as a Health Information Technology student. Though I was married (and still am), I knew I’d need to make more money—I had an extra responsibility now.

I’d let math scare me away from college—just because I wasn’t naturally good at it.
When I went back to school, I took all my other classes first, pushing the math till the end. It helped to have “the wind at my back,” as my dad would say, because it was that wind that pushed me forward.

In the spring of 2018, I took College Algebra and Elementary Statistics (which was anything but elementary), so I could still qualify as a work-study student. If there’s anything I hate more than math, it’s looking for a job.

So, I stressed out for sixteen weeks, spending eighty hours in the Math Lab, ending up with two B’s; I’d never been so proud of B’s in my life.

My uncle said his brother was the only one he ever knew who went to college to “get an education.” Apart from a little substitute teaching on the side and doing taxes during tax season, Dad never used his degree for money.

Had I gone to college for the same reason as my dad, I might not have sallied forth.

For Dad, education was its own reward.

For me, it was as much about the education as it was about the experience, and the most important lesson I learned was that I was smart enough for college after all.

A dillar, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar!
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o’clock,
But now you come at noon.

241 (1)

Me, December 2018, at my college graduation.

An abridged version of this piece was published in The Kilgore Review (2019), having placed first in the nonfiction category of Pensacola State College’s annual Walter F. Spara Writing Contest.

 

Fiction Friday: Micropoetry from the Book

mormoni

With my hair in a French roll,
Caitlin’s in a challah braid,
& Mother looking good enough to eat,
we could open a pastry shop—
with David as the butter
that made us all better.

The pastor’s house looked a mansion in God’s heaven—
this house of seven gables from which the seven fruits of the spirit
seemed to guard & fight against the seven devils
that sought to penetrate this fortress—
this home that looked even more imposing than it had in its spread  
in Southern Belles & Whistles magazine.  
The Taylors were the creamy pillars of the community,
spreading the Word of God like butter
on the white bread that fortified “Our Town.”

They had written their own vows,
going beyond what was necessary—
just like the Mormons with their
“for time and all eternity”
that one-upped what all other religions
offered in regards to marriage.

Though he had allowed himself
to walk into the waters of baptism,
he would never walk
through the doors of the temple. 
She could have him in this life,
if only I could have him in the next.

For David’s joy alone,
I gave them my blessing. 
For him,
I would do every good
& evil
under the sun
but never in the name of the Son.
 

Fiction Friday: Micropoetry from the Book

mormoni

He had been there to see him leave the earth
but not to see him put into it,
& I was angry at the world
that had not magically changed
because someone was no longer in it.

In burying my father,
she had buried, it seemed,
the last facet of her old self.
She had gone from a grieving widow
to a blushing bride-to-be
in the matter of an hour,
& no one from the LDS Church knew
of the quickening of Patrick Nolan’s soul
to the Spirit World.

The first ceremony would be a civil one,
followed by a spiritual one.
Just like everything else,
the marriages of other churches
were the preparatory marriages,
& Mormon marriages,
the sealant.

Because my father had died,
my mother would live as she pleased,
but hadn’t she always?
For if one had already enjoyed the intimacy of marriage
without taking the vows,
then how special could making it legal be?
For what was marriage but a representation
of monotheism—
of being subject to one entity
till the death of oneself or the death
of the other.

I was a hollow vessel
where Mother’s empty words echoed,
taking no delight in what I had dreamt of
for as long as my eyes had beheld
the glory of David Dalton.