Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cigar Box Christmas

Fighting tears, Peggy watched her husband leave the house, as he had every night for the last month with what was left from supper.  He would come home a short time later smelling of tobacco and the night air.  She didn’t know where he went, or what he did when he got there.  And she was a little afraid to find out for sure. 

All she knew is the money she put in the cookie jar kept disappearing.  She had expected to use that money to buy presents at the mercantile.  But found herself making Christmas presents for the children instead.  

Billy wanted to be a pirate.  So she made an eye patch and a pirate’s hat from a large scrap of felt and embroidered a dragon on the front.  Then she copied the dragon onto an old wooden cigar box.  Hours and hours of painstakingly painting the dragon till she got it right.  An old string of beads, a few tin foil coins, and an ugly cameo broach turned the box into a perfect treasure chest.

Discipline kept her from crying as she cut apart a stained pink dress that she had found abandoned in the attic, left by the previous tenant of their small rented house.  Located on the right side of the tracks, Peggy tried very hard to keep up appearances determined that her family would be seen as well-off, given her husband’s position as supervisor.  It frustrated her that his paycheck didn’t seem to be enough lately.  She was worried that his nightly outings would be seen sooner or later and the neighbors would begin to talk.  Small towns were so gossipy. 

A second cigar box, this one painted white, would serve as a bed for Katie’s baby doll.  Sniffling Peggy created bedding for the doll bed.  Sheets, pillows, a little blanket, and a small bedspread.  She was even able to make a little dress and apron for the doll from a sleeve.   She was not a seamstress, so this gift was truly a labor of love, working secretly while the children were at school. 

By scrimping on the amount of meat she bought and serving more stews and soups than normal, she had managed to buy a small pouch of her husband’s favorite pipe tobacco.

Nevertheless, she felt inadequate.   In his old job, there had been plenty of money and they had all become accustomed to lots of presents under the tree.  The three small presents were a stark reminder of the tough times of the depression and of how her husband was apparently squandering their precious resources.  But she loved him.  And so said nothing.

Arrrrrrgh !  Avast ye Mateys
The children opened the presents that she had carefully wrapped in pages of an old Life Magazine – snatched from a burn pile before a neighbor noticed.    Katie loved her baby doll’s new bed.  After jumping up to kiss her mother, she wandered off to play in the corner, while Billy put on his eye patch, and went around all day saying “aaargh.” 

But there was no present under the tree for her.  She just looked at Floyd with quiet sadness as he sat there smoking his pipe, thoughtfully.   He was a man who had molded himself into a tower of strength.  In his young life he had been a cowboy in Oklahoma, a gandy dancer laying track across the Illinois prairie, and a professional boxer, hanging up his gloves after he won his third purse, having proved himself to the rough Irishmen that worked alongside him.  He took this confidence into the hard work of laying telephone lines across the countryside, unafraid of the creatures that walked about on two legs.  But he didn’t know how to talk to his young wife.  Didn’t understand that her strength came from understanding why sacrifice was needed.

Hiding her emotions, she bustled about the kitchen, fragrances of roast goose, stuffing, fresh bread and apple pie filling the house.  The adults ate quietly, while the children chatted excitedly about their presents.   While he was outside getting more wood for the fire, Peggy packed a picnic basket with an extra pie for whoever it was that her husband visited.  Leaving the basket on the table, she went to their room.
 
Floyd heard Peggy cry herself to sleep.  He knew she didn’t understand.  Someday he would explain.  It had been hard to watch his brother and sisters starve as his mother took in boarders in an effort to keep the family together.  He believed his little sister would have survived, if he’d been able to put enough food on the table for her.  But with his father gone, he’d been the man of the family at ten.  And he just couldn’t do a man’s job, or get a man’s wage.  Though he did try.


But he was a man now.  He had tears in his eyes as he picked up the basket his wife had made and when out into the blustery night, his Christmas bonus tucked safely away in his shirt pocket.

A half a mile outside of town the lonely cabin stood, on the wrong side of the tracks.  Christmas was here, and Sarah had nothing to put under the tree for her children.  She had put them to bed with bread and milk, having nothing else to feed them.   

The scarlet fever had nearly done Sarah’s husband in.  He was starting to get better, but it had been touch and go there for a while.  Since he had taken sick, every night someone had secretly left a pot of stew on their porch. 
Some nights there were a few coins next to it.  Sarah didn’t know who the angel was that watched over them, but was grateful that someone in this town cared.

That night Floyd didn’t run out of sight after he knocked on the door.  He placed the basket in her hands and pulled his Christmas bonus from his pocket. 

“Ma’am,” he said quietly.  “Your husband works for me.  I’m glad that he’s getting better.  But I can’t keep coming here.  The Company is sending me and my family south for the winter.  It’s getting too cold to do the work.  There’s enough here that you should be able to live for a couple of weeks, if you’re careful.  Or take a train somewhere warmer for the winter.  Maybe go live with relatives or something.”  He fell silent, unsure what to say next.  Taking in Sarah’s confusion, he continued.

“My wife, is a good woman; she fixed you up a nice Christmas dinner.  She made an extra pie for you.  And she doesn’t even know you. I think she believes I’m having an affair.  But she did this anyway, because she just wants me to be happy.  I didn’t tell her about your husband being sick and all.  She’s the kind of woman who would have come to take care of him and you, and probably gotten sick herself.  So I have got to go fix the mess I made.  And explain the struggles I’ve put her through.  If you were my sister I’d tell you to go home to your family.  The trains will be running tomorrow.  And I’ll have one of my men come give you all a ride to the station if you’re going.  Now I’ve got to get home and fix it with her.” 

He tipped his hat and turned to leave.  She asked him to wait and ran to the pink cigar box she kept her precious treasure in.  She scribbled a quick note and placed it in the box.  Returning she asked him to please give it to his wife as a Christmas gift. He tipped his hat once again, and walked off into the night.

Taking off his overcoat, he silently poured himself a shot of whiskey and lit his pipe.  Then he went into their bedroom and woke his wife.

“Tonight, I gave a family a chance to survive,” he smiled grimly. “People are so proud.  It’s so hard on men when they can’t work.  But it’s even harder for the women and children; they’re so thin.  And when we try to help them, they get all prideful and won’t take what they so desperately need,” he said quietly.  “Honey, I gave them my Christmas bonus.  So they can go home to her parents.  I know it’s been hard for you, with money so tight. And I thank you for not complaining, for we have so much more than most.”

“She asked me to give you this,” he said handing the cigar box to his wife.  Inside she found a delicate ladies handkerchief with tiny pink and white embroidered flowers.  And a simple note that read:  “Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.  You saved us all.  Sarah.”

“I know I should have told you.  And I hope I didn’t ruin your Christmas, Peggy,” he wiped a tear from her cheek.  “I had hoped to take you to your mother’s for the holidays.  But I just couldn’t manage it.  I’m sorry.  I love you.”

“I love you, too.  Come to bed,” she said as she kissed him.







Some of the details are pure imagination.  But the presents were real and my grandmother died never knowing that those meager gifts were the most cherished things my mother and uncle ever received. 



Monday, March 18, 2013

Story - A Reality Takes Shape


She wasn't positive, but she thought she might be dreaming, or dead, meaning she'd crossed an exit point for her old life.   The world was a softer place than it had been the day before.  The weather warmer, the traffic noises sounded further away, and the creek she took her morning walk alongside of was uncharacteristically trash free.  She noticed she was was more relaxed than she had been in a long time.  So she figured she must be dreaming, or in that place people go when they’re between one life and another.


Her ‘old life’ had been difficult, full of unrelenting mental work.  While she had been given a top of the line brain, she liked to mix it up a bit.  Splitting her time between solving problems, reading, writing, time spent with family, friends and patients, and getting out into the wide world breathing in and breathing out - just being without doing.  The unrelenting nature of her studies had gotten old.   Grateful that she was able to get the education at all due to her advancing age, Katie none-the-less was noticing signs of inner rebellion growing at the irrelevance of much of it.  Sighing, she knew that the minutia came with the territory.  But that didn’t mean she had to like every facet of it.  Though she grudgingly admitted perhaps the very contrast made her appreciate the good stuff even more.


Taking a break from her studies,  she made her way into the Antique Mall, feeling as though she had stepped into a different reality.   She wondered if somehow the upscale flea market was a way station of sorts.  Where people chose their next life by the things they wanted around them. Katie believed that things are an outward expression of the inner beliefs and rules that one lived by.   It wasn't always true to form, but she had found that those who chose their surroundings deliberately tended to reflect their inner landscape surprisingly well. 

She had always loved wandering around looking at ‘shiny things’ that one found in the nicer shops, having grown tired of garage sales early in life.  She enjoyed mentally trying on a potential new possession (or way of life) the way some women try on shoes.  Mostly she enjoyed the exercise in imagination.  But it had taken on a different quality this time.  It was at once more vivid, and more detached.

Most of the things surrounding her were well worn, and would make for an authentic setting if she were a ‘staging expert’ like her friend who set up empty houses for resale.  She looked with curiosity at a booth  crammed with the detritus from estate and garage sales.  The vendor had gathered items that had a high resale value, but had haphazardly mixed decorating styles.  Katie would have grouped the things differently.  Placing the stainless steel toaster, plug in percolator, the kitchen utensils with the black bake-o-lite handles, and a white plastic canister set on the chrome and vinyl table.  The tea kettle, fine tea cups, and lace tablecloth would be arranged elegantly on the butler’s side table, and the Shaker chairs would be hung on the wall above the plain wooden bench.  But she liked to have things grouped by era.  Not mixing Danish Modern with 1950's Chrome and Formica.  

Some of these styles her mother had had at one point or another in her life.  All of them were attractive in some way, but she didn’t want to duplicate her mother’s home. She wanted her own style, wanted to reflect a softer, kinder life.
 
Moving on, she found a booth where the vendor had chosen the items to blend together, reflecting a style that Katie could only describe as pink, frilly, frivolous.  She hadn't known that lace came in so many shades of white, cream, and pink, much of it attempting to hide what was underneath.  Dripping with ribbon, flounces and ruffles, crystal chandeliers, the booth was 4000 cubic feet of total fluff.  Lampshades covered with what looked like bits of  lace tablecloth and tulle. Ornate lamps, silk ivy garland wrapped in order to hide the ugliness beneath,  shades heavy with crystal beads, mountains of pillows, buckles, buttons and bows.  It was rather overwhelming, all that fluttery stuff.    For a tidy sum Katie could have the kind of room she might have liked for about fifteen minutes when she was thirteen.  There were a few things in the booth she liked:  a quilt here, an old powder box that would hold jewelry, little things that would remind her of her femininity without requiring the extraordinary steps to keep the dust at bay. 

Right next to this wash of pink was an art-deco booth lined with movie posters, flapper dresses, retro faux mink stoles, spike high heels, and a number of little retro women's hats.  She slipped one of the hats on, and stopped to admire herself.  A single glance in the mirror had her snatching it off,  for she looked like her grandmother.  When had she grown that old?  The beret  was definitely not her style, never had been, never would be, no matter how cute they looked on the model.

Ah but then she saw a soft wool fedora, in black, she could not resist trying it on. Over the shoulder of the elegant woman in the mirror she spied a patch of black, hiding behind a hideous red, vinyl raincoat.  Pushing aside the offending bit of plastic she found a well, tailored, cashmere coat.  Slipping it on, she admired the way it hugged her curves.  Paired with the fedora she would not be out of place stepping out of a taxi at the Met.  All it needed was the right scarf.  Silk or soft knit, in red, dove grey, or cream depending on her mood.  After a last look at herself, she reluctantly placed the hat back on the wall hook, and the coat on its padded hanger.

She knew that she would find these things again someday, probably in better shape.  But now was the time to dream, not buy.

She fell in love with a vase, clean elegant lines, rainbows showing through the cut crystal edges.  It was beautiful even without flowers.  A red and white quilt there, some blue and white china, and a cut crystal sugar bowl.  There were baskets and boxes.  Dressers and damask drapes.  Brass fireplace tools, a fender, and antique brass andirons for a larger-than-life fireplace.  There original oil paintings, and candlestick lamps.  Crystals and occasional chairs.  An old hutch made of mismatched wood caught her eye, reminding her of one her grandfather had lovingly made from an abandoned wardrobe. 

She spent the next several hours wandering about finding things she would enjoy if she were to completely refurnish her home. 

Stacks of soap made in Scotland that smelling like ‘home’ spilled lazily down a display of charming wooden boxes. English lavender dresser paper, and handmade cotton quilts thrown over the foot of a bed caught her eye.  Natural fibers, old time fragrances, and well-crafted wooden furniture out shown the garish synthetic fabrics that so many merchants were pawning off on the ignorant public.  An overstuffed wing back chair and ottoman were crammed into a corner next to a fake fireplace, begging to be set free.  A small wooden dresser buried under a mountain of linens whispered of the lingerie that it had once held.  A bent teakettle hung from a hook above the coffee grinder that was missing the bowl.  And she smiled to herself for the one she owned looked better and still worked.  Katie had made coffee the old fashioned way when the power went out – in the old metal pot hanging in the fireplace while beef stew simmered in the Dutch oven and snow storms raged outside.

The rows of old glass medicine bottles in the next booth reminded her of her grandmother’s vinegar cold remedy.  Tasting of garlic and something that kicked like a mule, she smiled as she remembered that it had broken up every cough she had ever had.  She moved on, nudging a square bottle back into line.

And then she saw the wooden humidor.   Sanded till it felt like satin, someone had lovingly crafted the maple piece, fitting it perfectly with an airtight insert lined with a cork sheet.  When she lifted the lid the aroma of cigar tickled her nose, and she was washed with a wave of homesickness.  And she knew that this was why she had come.  None of the other ‘stuff’ mattered.

She knew He had smoked the cigars that the humidor had held.   Wherever he had journeyed to make his fortune – this time it was up to him to find her.  She didn’t know what his name was. Or the details of his life… but she had a sense that he was looking for her… and that he had left the humidor for her to find, which meant he had been there.  As she thought about it, she wondered if he had been leaving little things that would remind her of home for years.  That would wake her up enough to recognize him when she saw him.

And then she realized that perhaps it had not been him that had gone away, but her, because she had needed to find out who she was independent of him, and whether she still wanted to mingle her life with his.   And over time, she had forgotten much of their life together.  And yet she had been driven by a yearning to get back home.

Was she dreaming?  Or finally awake?  Ready to enter her new life?  

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Story Begins -- In the Beginning Was the Word


The stage is almost set.  Choices made for costumes, lighting, and most of the cast.  Looks like an interesting weaving of storylines.  The director walks around the stage one last time, and gets caught up in the story.

The furniture is different.  I've come to expect that from a dream.  We have less than 24 hours.  It is moving day. Or perhaps it should be better said it is packing day. And in less than 24 hours it will be moving day.  Six a.m.?  Nine a.m.?   I don’t remember now.  But it is time.
I am uncertain if we will be able to get everything out.  I certainly don’t have boxes or even enough time to pack everything up.  And yet I am calm.  Moving through the house to see what absolutely positively has to be taken, I have to walk around a stuffed bear with long eyelashes and a hint of femininity.  This is not a baby bear.  She's the kind that you can really cuddle up with on the couch. 

There are stuffed velvet kittens and some plastic sharks in a goldfish bowl.  A six foot Labrador standing on his hind legs and a floppy eared mutt down on all fours crowd in the hallway.  Standing next to them is a funny big nosed stuffed person, all head with itty-bitty arms and legs, about waist high.  He is cute in a cartoon character sort of way, and red.  In fact there are two of them, the one standing next to the dogs in the hallway, and another one tucked almost out of sight behind the couch with her arm around a brown mare.   A saddled black horse with white mane and tail is kneeling near the front door looking toward the couch.  I don't remember owning any of these stuffed animals, have never seen them before.  

Surfacing up out of the dream I remember that the props crew goes to a lot of work to find things that will fit into the set of my dream dramas.  The details vary from dream to dream, just as the stories that weave together into the tapestry of each imagining are different.

It is almost time to leave.  I don't know how I know this.  It feels as if I've been handed a script and the screenwriter has given it as part of the background. Regardless, somehow I have to pack all these critters into boxes to take them with me.  I don’t know where I am going.  How I will get there.  Or even if I am going alone.  I just know it is time to go. 

Wandering into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee I am stopped by a thick spider web strung across the walkway from the ceiling, though the creatures hanging in it aren't spiders at all.  Striped like a tiger, orange and black they have twelve pairs of legs.  And clearly they spin webs. They don’t look poisonous, but one never knows with a new critter.  Hanging in their web over the fridge, they have anchored a cable to the very center of the floor, making it hard to move around the kitchen.  

I really don’t want them jumping down on me, I’m not fond of that.  But their web is in the way.  Heart pounding, I disentangle the thread and one of them jumps onto the floor.  I do not want it scurrying under the fridge or worse - running up my leg.   I believe in 'catch and release' so I choose to trap it under a glass bowl from the counter.  The other spidiger thing seems to be tangled in the web and is easily caught in another bowl.  It must be really sick because the poor thing is just laying in the bowl on its back pretending to be dead.  

Looking around the kitchen there's an air of unreality about the whole thing.  There are two of these tiger-spidery things.  I return to the living room and began to realize that there a lot of the things are present in pairs.  Two red head guys.  Two dogs.  Two chairs.  Two canisters.  There are even two identical doors on the fridge.  It is bizarre.  And none of it is alive.  There are stuffed fabric animals, plastic bugs, dolls, drawings, stick figures, sculptures.  Two of this and two of that.  Pairs of things. Everywhere. 

Something very strange is going on.

Shaking my head, I go back into the kitchen and carefully release my captives, apologizing to the spidigers even though I now realize they are made of plastic.  I'm polite that way.  And even though they're not real, something says I could have hurt them.  Not wanting the props guys to be upset, I put the couple carefully back into their web and re-anchor the broken thread out of the way on the window blinds.

I need more information and wander into the bedroom.  The bed is empty, covers turned down, waiting.  But lying on top of a very long dresser is a bear, quite comfortably stretched on a white blanket folded for padding.  He reminds me very much of a brown bear puppet I had some years ago.  Only this one is human sized.  He is waiting for someone.  Me?  I don’t think so.  But there is a quiet smile and softness around his mouth as he dreams. 

“Do stuffed animals dream?”  I ask out loud to no one in particular.  And then an idea occurs to me.     I return to the living room and bring the feminine bear to the doorway of the bedroom.  She leans against the door jam, waiting.  If he wants her he’s going to have to ask her to join him.  And together they can go out into the forest - or discover the softness of the feather pillows.

Not your ordinary dream
I finally realize that I am seeing the equivalent of an ark.  In house form.  Or perhaps more properly the stage of an ark… a theatrical stage.

Perhaps of a new world in which animals live together, harmoniously.  They don’t eat each other, they don’t need to.  That somehow they absorb their energy from the world around them, without depleting it.  They build for beauty and usefulness.  They explore for the joy of exploring.  Play and work together.  Using the strengths of each to create their world.  The small and frail are as useful as the big and strong.

This is a world with peaceful rules.  And anyone who decides to bring violence and war to this world will be removed, and sent back to school.  Those bad behaviors are things we learned by watching too much television when we were young.  This is graduate school.  When they grow up and let go of the violence they will be allowed to come back.

As I return to the living room I can see through the window that a man is sitting in a glider on the front porch, waiting for me.

I now realize that I will not be taking these things with me.  That I was, am, supposed to leave them behind.  


And then I wake up.  And remember.

So now the real question is… is this the stuff that new worlds are made of?  What if... this is how it works?  We set a new stage, and then say "the Word" and the action begins.  What is the word that a director uses? 

Ah yes … “Act……”   But I don’t want to say it yet.  I still have a character that needs to be cast, the actor hasn't said he will take the contract.  But one way or another it won’t be long.

Action
In the Beginning Was the Word.



Gayle McCain, Fantasy Author
Sacrifice and Forest of Mists