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

Seven Wonders in Every Wonder

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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.

If you want to learn how to write well, write for the student newspaper

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“The Bluffer” staff (Poplar Bluff High’s high school newspaper). My dad is the one with the glasses in the back of the room.

There have been times I’ve wondered if I’d gotten on the newspaper staff in high school (rather than the yearbook), if I would’ve decided to major in journalism (rather than the culinary arts, which was a colossal waste of time and money). I don’t even remember seeing our high school newspaper around, except once (for fifty cents or a quarter), and I thought, We have a newspaper?

Even though there was a permanence about the yearbook (encased in hardcover, like a coffee-table book), the staff meetings were just another class. What’s more, I don’t even have any of my old yearbooks. I’m a nostalgic, sentimental kind of gal but not for my high school days. 

Maybe it was because I was shy and didn’t have any school spirit (I always begged my dad to check me out of the pep rallies, because why should I cheer for a bunch of misogynistic athletes?). Though I was involved in the Art Club and “The M.O.B.” (Ministry of Believers), I often found myself feeling like I was stuck in hell for seven hours a day where the bathrooms were never clean enough. In fact, I found the bathrooms and the food utterly disgusting.

I remember writing stories for the yearbook, but I don’t remember what any of them were about. Because my creativity wasn’t nurtured or appreciated, I thought any writing career other than a creative one wasn’t for me. My teacher, Mrs. T., didn’t like kids and was only concerned about putting out a product (and probably winning awards); she also didn’t have much of a sense of humor and neither did she have any passion about the process—she just wanted to get the damn thing done.

Though yearbooks are becoming a relic with the advent of social media, I still see the intrinsic value of a printed book, but would I buy one now?

I don’t think I would. 

However, there will always be a need for newspapers, even if they are only online.

~

My dad was the sports editor of the Poplar Bluff high school newspaper staff from the fall of 1968 to the spring of 1969. I asked him what it was like back then. He remembered that the girls far outnumbered the boys, and that one of the girls was what they called a “morgue editor,” meaning she cut out articles and pasted them into a book. For the Christmas issue, the whole paper was printed in red—something that would never fly now.

Being the family historian, I record not only my memories but the memories of others. I love to document, and newspaper writing does just that. Through writing features, I record other people’s experiences but with humor columns, I’d be documenting my experiences in a way that would resonate, or connect, with people.

A couple of days ago, I texted the Editor-in-Chief on The Corsair (our college newspaper) that the only way I’d ever become a journalist would be as a humor columnist, reason being that I’d never get accused of disseminating fake news. (Advice columnist would be second best, and I wouldn’t go all “Judge Judy” on people. That is one rage-filled lady.)

Through my run (so far) of being on the paper staff, I’ve found not only what I love to write the most but what I’m good at, too. 

Ernest Hemingway and Margaret Mitchell started off writing for newspapers—maybe writing for a newspaper is in my future. (I’m trying greeting cards, as well, even though most English professors think they’re shit.)

Though I don’t love interviewing people (people are like a box of chocolates—some are Roman nougat, and some are orange cream, which are slightly less horrendous than peanut butter kisses), as that involves transcribing (I prefer to make eye contact with my subjects rather than try to scribble down exactly what they say, so I don’t misquote them), I enjoy talking to them and have learned a lot from doing so. I wouldn’t have met many of the people I have had it not been for interviewing them for The Corsair, and the best friends I made in college, I met through The Corsair.

Though I’m not majoring in journalism (and you don’t have to, to write for a newspaper), my journalism experience has helped me become a better writer, for all writing experience is valuable experience. I’ve learned, through analyzing my blog statistics, that my non-fiction posts far outpace my fiction ones, so technical or business writing will be my day job, creative, my night.

I’ve had a lot of creative writers snub the opportunity to write for the paper, but they are doing themselves a disservice, because it was through writing for the college newspaper that I became a better writer all the way around. You will learn more by writing for the paper than you will for any comp class; what’s more, when you’re a student reporter, you’ll have the chance to win journalism awards that you can put on your resume, with published clips that you can add to your online portfolio. 

Don’t waste an opportunity because it doesn’t fit your niche. You will find it (or something close to it). After all, it was through the newspaper that I learned how to write humor.

Updated 2/2/2020

Journalism Conference Notes

The Not-So-Great Missouri Robbery

So I’m in Dallas at a journalism conference (being not just the copy editor, but also an article writer for the student newspaper); I’ve always believed that a news story lasts a day, but a book lasts long after the writer’s body and soul have separated.  I remember in one of my English composition classes, my professor asked us to name a news story that changed our life; no one spoke up.  He then asked us if we could name a book that did, for which several had answers.

That said, I like to believe some newspaper articles mean something to someone (besides the writer), so I try to write them with that in mind.

My parents saved every article I was ever mentioned in, which I’ve scrapbooked.  Some articles do stand the test of time, if for no other reason than a person’s name is mentioned.

*

The above article, written in May of 1981, for the Daily American Republic of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, wasn’t very well-written.  But, like a snapshot, it captured a memory (one my parents would rather forget, I’m sure); I have an interest in it, because my mom was pregnant with me when she and my dad were robbed at gunpoint.  (But that’s another story for another day.)

I’m glad my parents kept this little write-up, for thirty-six years later, it gave me the idea I needed for the personal essay/narrative category I entered in this year’s college writing contest, entitled, “It Happened One Night in Poplar Bluff.”

*

So I’ve been poring over college newspapers from all over the country, and it’s amazing how much I learn from them.  My head is so full of ideas, it’s hard to take it all in.  I’ve also been attending different speaker sessions, and am supposed to leave with ten takeaways.  (I already have quadruple that because I pay attention and take notes–it’s as easy as that.)  What’s interesting isn’t so much what they say, but how what they say sparks ideas.  I’ve been outputting so much lately, it was time to get some sauce for my noodle.

I’m learning about layout and design (not my strong point because I’m already in front of a screen enough), photography (again, not my forte, unless it’s taking pictures of my daughter or pretty things I’ve baked), and that’s because I don’t have a very good camera; I don’t have the proper tools.  It’s like trying to bake with a crappy oven.

For now, I really like being a copy editor.  I feel like I’m the finishing touch fairy, and one great piece of advice I got when we got our paper critiqued was that with copy editing, “the eye is good for catching grammar, the ear, for content.”  Read everything you write out loud, because your eyes will fill in the blanks.

*

I was in Dallas with one of my fellow journalists yesterday when President Trump came to town.  Downtown Dallas is like the city of rose gold, a veritable concrete jungle; I stood out there in the dry, Texas heat for almost two hours among protesters and beating drums, with cops surrounding us (that I don’t mind–I felt much safer), as well as the local news gal in her royal blue dress and flip-flops.  All this we did, just to catch a flash of what we thought to be the car President Trump was in disappear into what we assumed to be an underground garage.  I was thinking, I am so not this kind of reporter.  I am such a columnist!

Being a weekly humor columnist would be my dream job.  It’s hard to know what you want, not knowing quite how to get it, but I know I will always be doing what I love, and that is writing, no matter what job I get (whether it be copy-editing or medical whatever).

*

Even though I’m not cut out to be an editor-in-chief (I don’t want it badly enough) or a hard news journalist (I prefer a little more creativity and not “just the facts, ma’am”), I am learning how to become a better writer by writing all kinds of stories–from volunteer columns to book and restaurant reviews to human interest stories.  That said, the only type of article I’ve yet to write is a sports piece–the thought of which makes me cringe, because I loathe sports.

However, if ever there’s another Intramural Archery session I can cover, I’ll make that the one sports story of my life.

Once, and done.

The Processes of Seed and Clay

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In the process of moving and going through old boxes, I found a medal I’d won my eighth grade year for “Excellence in English,” and I thought, Just when was it I knew I wanted to be a writer?

Paper had always been such a part of my life.  Before I was old enough to draw, I spent hours cutting it up.  (I believe snowflakes were my favorite creation.)  Once, while my dad was asleep, I cut up every paper in the house, causing him to throw my red Roger Rabbit scissors against the Butano heater in our Spanish apartment, breaking them.

As my brain developed, I began to illustrate the stories in my imagination, my fascination centering around the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (especially the Hanging Gardens of Babylon).  Then, my third grade teacher, Ms. Cahoon, had us keep journals.  I always wrote about my summers in Poplar Bluff; I was never interested in keeping a diary (I preferred to write creative nonfiction without the gushy stuff.)  I didn’t like writing about my feelings, save through the medium of poetry, so that no one could read this or that and say for sure, “That’s Sarah.”

Through poetry, I could reveal everything in plain sight.

I don’t know when it is that we know what we want to be–whether it’ll be in athletics, academics, or the arts.  I only remember my parents’ encouragement, never their pressuring me to be interested in any one thing (though my dad would only help me with history homework because it interested in him; if it was math or science, I was on my own).  Mom and Dad simply exposed me to what they could afford to; lucky for them, I was always drawn to books, such as the Berenstain Bears, Encyclopedia Brown, The Baby-Sitters Club series, and any books by Roald Dahl, as well as all the Newbery Medal award winners.  Books were my way out of poverty (literally and figuratively).  For years, I fancied myself as Francie Nolan from the movie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; I could write lies that weren’t lies because they were stories.

I am so grateful that my parents just let me be (I call it the Libertarian approach), which is why most of my daughter’s playtime is unstructured.  I see how she ignores the television (thank God) unless there’s music, during which she is immediately transfixed.  Maybe that’s why I enjoy singing to her so much (though it does get a bit daunting trying to come up with a different melody for every nursery rhyme).

When she starts kindergarten, I’ll enroll her in piano lessons (as music works every part of the brain).  My husband prefers classic instrumental, though I always balk a bit at that, because I’m a writer, so of course, lyrics matter (though I wanted only “Canon” played at my wedding).  I see lyrics as telling a story, the melody, making you feel that story.  With classical music, there is no story–you just feel. 

Poetry, for me, is the flip side of instrumentals.

Everyone should have something–something that encourages mindfulness, something that draws them outside themselves.  My craft does that for me; I will lose myself in it, yet I will find more of myself I hadn’t known was there.

Because I know how much fuller my life is with writing, I want my daughter to have an outlet (so far, it’s ripping up paper).  Children come to us a blank slate, and it’s our job, as parents, to shape them as if they were clay–to mold them into good human beings–but they’re also seeds that need to be watered with nurture so they can reveal what they are meant to become.

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The Magic of Childhood

Me

So I’ve been working on a piece to enter in this year’s college writing contest (which I plan for a year in advance, except for the nonfiction portion, just in case it had a theme). I’d already had a piece picked out–a personal narrative about my childhood summers in Poplar Bluff; however, it was too long, so I wrote a new piece, built, in part, from secondhand memories.  Writing it made me think of this foreword I’d written a few months ago for that too-long piece–a foreword which I’d like to share now.

Childhood memories are some of the strongest, for we don’t have other memories competing with them.  Everything is new, magical, and exciting.  It is why I am often nostalgic when I smell bacon grease or when I hear the “Bewitched” theme song.  I’ll never forget the day my husband was cooking bacon in the oven and I walked back in from the patio and I was hit extremely hard and incredibly close with walking into Grandma’s kitchen with the white porcelain and white-painted cabinets.  Sometimes, I imagine when I smell a smell like that, it’s almost like the spirit of a loved one, letting me know they aren’t really gone.

There have been times I’ve talked to a stranger longer than necessary, because they remind me of them.  My husband laughs like my granddad sometimes—a cross between a chortle and a snicker—and it gives me a chill.  

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that memories such as these become more real, my short-term memory becoming an unreliable narrator.  Memories help shape us into the person we become, and I believe those summers I spent in P.B. showed me that contentment—that spending a summer afternoon on a screened-in porch, chatting away the day—was its own sort of magic.

Writer’s Digest Wednesday Poetry Prompt #397: Land of (Blank)

If a New York minute is thirty seconds, then a Southern minute is ninety.
–from “Poplar Bluff: A Memoir”

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The Land of Dixie

Selling their messages on street corners are
Bible-bashers, cardboard-carrying hobos,
and dancing people wearing sandwich signs,
while cars plastered with Bible quotes
or slapped with a COEXIST bumper sticker,
coexist on the streets,
passing the temples of capitalism,
the cross-bearing churches that
capitalize on the guilty man’s soul,
seeking deep, silver-lined pockets.

The rapture’s coming soon for some
in this land of Deep South Protestantism,
where hearts are blest,
where everyone’s either saved or going to hell,
or just plain don’t know what the hell’s going on.

Pensacola Beach is the jewel,
set in fool’s gold turning green,
with its sand like ground pearls,
water vacillating between
emeralds and sapphires,
and homes the color of Jordan almonds.
The flip-flap-flopping of their footwear is their answer
to Australia’s slip-slap-slopping,
beating a rapid tattoo on the boardwalk.

Such paradise is everyone’s playground,
home to the earthly blest,
where few transplants are rejected,
their organs pumping the lifeblood
into the economy,
for which the tourists are both
donors and recipients.

I look around at my side of town,
at the heat waves shimmering off the asphalt,
the mud-filled potholes,
the never-ending road work;
I still see conflict and war,
deconstruction alongside reconstruction—
a rebirth of conservative nationalism.

I am home.

Note: Slip-slap-slop is a real thing: http://www.sunsmart.com.au/tools/videos/past-tv-campaigns/slip-slop-slap-original-sunsmart-campaign.html

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 397

For more on Pensacola:

https://sarahleastories.com/2014/02/19/daily-prompt-west-end-girls-2/
https://sarahleastories.com/2015/04/10/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-9-theme-work/
https://sarahleastories.com/2016/11/23/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-23-theme-when-blank/

Summer in Spring: Love in the Afternoon

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Though I love the holiday season with all its glitz and glam, it is the warm season I long for, with its relaxing vibes.  I like to say eighty-two degrees with a breeze is my ideal.  I spend at least three hours a day outside during the summer.  If I could, I would live in a bikini, cover-up, and flip-flops year round, with my hair thrown up into a messy bun (the other kind makes me look bald).  I like not having to warm up the car, or bundle up before going outside, or having to worry about blow-drying my hair after a shower.  Summer is low-maintenance.

I guess you could say I have spring break fever.  I spent the late afternoon sunbathing on a sand-colored fleece blanket on our weedy grass, my neighbor playing “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack on the radio.  The late afternoon sun waned as I waxed philosophical, thinking about life’s unanswered questions (like “What exactly is a peanut-butter haircut?” and “If the whole world was naked, would we be skinnier?”), while my  three-year-old daughter fed sticks and leaves to the A/C fan unit.  It was the ultimate relaxation, saturated with sunshine that turned my creamy skin into brown butter.

So often, I’m doing, and I forget to just be.  I didn’t even bring a book to the blanket.  I don’t need constant stimulation.  I was letting myself have some quiet time and my daughter, some unstructured play.  I delight in the way she loves the outdoors, though she still turns into a glassy-eyed zombie with a hearing problem when she plays with our old cell phones.

I suppose that’s why I love the warm so much, because when it’s cold, I don’t spend any more time outside than I have to.  Even bundled up, it’s not comfortable to be wearing so many layers, and fun in the water is out of the question.  I love the season of chocolate bars melting before you get to the car, of ceiling fans cutting through our thick, humid air, and stroller walks at twilight, the smell of meat grilling on the back porch.  As I walk through our neighborhood and pass each house with a lighted window, I think of them as their own separate universes–our neighborhood a solar system.  It’s like walking in space.

While I walk (today, it was while I sprawled), I thought about a butterscotch milkshake I had once.  It was at Spencer’s Drive-In in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, but the place is just a memory now.

 

When my daughter and I went back inside, I take a cooler shower than usual.  When I dry off, the smell of bleach from my white towel makes my nostrils smart.  (Bleaching whites are part of my spring cleaning routine.) My face feels deliciously tight, and I am ready to make my kitchen cabinet casserole (what I call spring cleaning the fridge) while my daughter, freshly-bathed and smelling of lavender and innocence, jumps on my grandmother’s love seat with the cushions out.

All is calm, all is right, until she sneezes, and I am running from the next room, scrambling around to find a wipe while begging her not to touch “it.”

 

Creative Writing Prompt: The Object of the Story (or the story behind the object)

One thing I wanted to do on this blog (at least for the month of January) was to share some of the creative writing prompts I participated in last semester’s creative writing course.

That said, the following prompt was inspired by a scholarship essay contest.  I had to write about scanners (of all things), and I thought, as I wrote, one could take any object and write a story about that object.  I could write about the remote control (and how my husband always manages to be in charge of it; I finally had to say something about him skipping over all the contestant interviews on “Wheel of Fortune”).  I could write about my car, and all the freedom it affords me .  I could write about my Michelle, the red-headed Cabbage Patch of my childhood, who I would drag around by the hair (my parents said I liked to “cuff around” all my dolls and stuffed animals, lining them up and yelling at them).  The possibilities are endless, for an object has little meaning, except for the meanings we attach to it.

So, when I had to write about scanners, I got creative, and ended up telling a true story about a childhood memory.

I would also like to hear from you–what objects (maybe in 140 characters or less) you would write a story about, and why.  (Looking at old photos can help with this.)

Scanners:  Reality in Real Time

The sometimes staticky crackle of police scanners brings back memories.  When I was a little girl, I spent every summer with my Grandpa and Grandma Booker in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.  Every night, my grandfather, who slept downstairs in the basement, would have the police scanner on—
what I like to call “blue noise”.

Poplar Bluff was a relatively small town back then (it still has only one high school).  I would sometimes open the door at the top of the stairs and listen to the sounds that made me think of walkie-talkies.  Sometimes, his snoring that was loud enough to wake undead would drown out the dialogue, or the cuckoo clock would pop out like an angry bird, scrambling my ability to decipher what was going on in the wee hours in P.B.  Listening to the scanner was like trying to see past the snow that clouded the premium channels.  It was a small source of fascination for me.

Turning the scanner on before bedtime was Grandpa’s nighttime ritual, like boxing and St. Louis Cardinal games were his entertainment during the waking hours; like watching the lightning bugs with their greenish-yellow glow in the evening, and noting the goings-on at the Slinkard house across the street in the afternoons.

Scanners are like an inconspicuous way of snooping one one’s neighbors—a gift for the lazy Gladys Kravitzes of the world; for ambulance chasers, and for those who like true reality, rather than the manufactured fluff, the alternate realities, made up for television.  What we hear on scanners is gritty, raw—like listening to a 911 tape.

My dad still remembers some of the stuff he heard.  There was a woman in Poplar Bluff who always spoke in a monotone and said, “Won’t start”, whenever a car had to be towed.  She would recite the address and that would be the end of it.  Sometimes there would be a weather alert.  There was also woman named Miss Wiley who was known at the time for always contacting the police about a prowler, the cops saying sarcastically, “Someone’s out there.”

Dad and Grandpa would listen to the Missouri Highway Patrol give license tags, always saying “B-as-in-boy” (I guess B-as-in-badass wasn’t acceptable), and, once in awhile, they’d hear the paramedics in ambulances give blood pressure readings (which seems like an invasion of privacy now).  Most of the time, scanners were a comforting background noise that didn’t distract like a television, flickering red and green instead of black and white.

Sometimes Dad would be lying in bed and the scanner would be completely silent, and then suddenly a BOLO alert would jolt them, startling them out of sleep or hurtling them out of semi-consciousness.

I remember when I came upon my grandpa’s old scanner with the silver antennae, and how I could make it go quiet when I pinched it between my fingers—that eerie sound of silence, like a blackout.  Scanners were as much a part of my childhood as Nick-at-Nite block party summers and the Hits Countdown with Casey Kasem.  Maybe someday, in my advanced age, they will become my white noise, lulling me to sleep.

Me and Michelle

Me and Michelle

 

Snapshots: A Life, One Line at a Time

Dad

Snapshots

The night you brought me home,
I cannot remember.

The day you gave me my first bath,
I remember only what you told me—
that I held my breath till I turned purple,
and then you splashed me (gently) in the face,
startling me.

The day I took my first steps,
you cheered me on,
like you’d never seen it done.
I know, for I’ve seen the pictures.

The day I got sick and almost passed away,
when I wanted nothing more than apple juice
and a ride around in a wheelchair
with my redheaded Cabbage Patch named Michelle on my lap.
I remember that.

You told me Dad was there, with me,
as you were outside the door,
for you could not bear to hear my screams as they gave me a spinal tap.

I’m glad I don’t remember the pain,
only frayed fragments in golden hues—
the good things that remained.

I remember Kelly Morgan, my brother, was born around then,
and how I wished he’d been a girl.

The hearing on my left side was gone, and I,
not understanding that my world could have become a silent one.

I was not afraid as you were,
for I knew not enough to be afraid.

I remember when you took me to the private school with the clean walls,
and the playground with the skyscraping, spiral slide that was a terrifying vortex;
the school where all the teachers wore dresses and
where our hands had to be folded at our desks during quiet time,
the sound of the principal’s heels echoing down the hall.

Every morning, Dad would take me to Delchamps,
for a chocolate milk and a brownie for breakfast,
because eggs made me gag and he always burned the bacon.

I remember the days you picked me up from the public school,
so I wouldn’t have to sit on the smelly schoolbus,
horrid in the humid, Floridian clime,
kids scrawling with their fingers on the grimy windows,
windows covered with condensation,
making the glass appear frosted,
the inside like a giant snow globe,
the weak sunlight filtering in,
hazy like snow.

I remember the green vinyl seats were sticky in the heat,
the muddied dirt tracked in the aisles, catching in the grooves—
the long space imbued with a damp, earthy smell,
like mold, and clothes that had been washed and left too long.

I didn’t want to sit with the boy with the perpetual comb,
I didn’t want to sit with Melinda Sue,
I wanted to sit with you.

I remember all the times you took me to the bookstore in the mall,
always wanting the newest Babysitters Club book.

You instilled in me a love for reading,
for you read to me all the nursery rhymes—
stories of birds flying out of pies
and children living out of shoes.

Whenever you’d read to me, “Little Boy Blue,”
and you’d get to the part where he’d cry,
I’d beg you to stop reading,
with a tear in my eye.

I remember you wouldn’t let me watch Married with Children,
but instilled within me a love for old movies and glamour long gone,
of country music that sounded like country.
I discovered ABBA on my own,
but I wouldn’t have had it any other way,
for many of those things you showed me,
I love still today.

You introduced me to Pollyanna and Shirley Temple,
Candyland and Rainbow Brite,
with some Strawberry Shortcake on the side.
You laughed with me at Bullwinkle, let me love Lucy,
and watch Nickelodeon, back when it was good.

I never had a dollhouse,
but neither did I go without.
The fewer things I wanted, but could not have,
the more my imagination grew.
I appreciate that now,
as I could not then.

Plain white paper became snowflakes,
snowing confetti on the floor,
so the living room became a wonderland.
I was like Elsa, before Elsa came to be.

Then there were the endless guessing games,
games that drove Mom crazy,
and all the times you helped me with school projects
that didn’t make any sense to me,
some not even to you.

I remember all the summers you drove me up to Poplar Bluff,
to let me stay with my grandparents and be near extended family,
so that I could experience what you once had.

I don’t remember all the burned meals you served me,
but I know they sustained me.
I don’t remember every time you took me to a friend’s,
but I remember how friends were hard enough to make.
I don’t remember all the times I made you angry,
but it was never enough to strike,
and that wasn’t because I wasn’t so bad,
it was because you were so good.

I remember my high school graduation,
but I more remember you taking me to Mr. Manatee’s restaurant downtown,
now gone after Hurricane Ivan,
just ashes a-blowing in the wind.

I remember the day you came to my wedding,
even though I cannot remember your face,
for so focused was I on Brian,
thinking that life would never be the same,
for it marked the day it was time to put away childish things.

I remember you coming to the hospital when Hannah Beth was born,
but it was just my husband I wanted in the delivery room—
so many different kinds of love in one room,
it was like everything wonderful and happening all at once.

I still see you so often,
for you live just down the road.
I am so glad you get to know Hannah.
I know now I love her in a way you love me,
and you love her in the way your parents’ did.

The times I was away and didn’t call and you worried . . . 
I’m sorry I didn’t understand your anger then.

No, I never knew how much you loved me,
till I became a parent myself.
But wait, that isn’t right . . . I knew all along—
the only difference now is that I understand.

Mom