Kittie Howard


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Louisiana Beckons; Lots of Links

Louisiana beckons!  Saturday morning we begin the drive from Northern Virginia to the Bayou State.  Hub and I also get to visit briefly with dear friends in Marietta, Georgia.  I'm really excited about this trip!
So, with this post, there's a holiday pause.  From our house to yours, my husband and I wish each of you a joyous holiday and a happy new year!  May you enjoy life's many blessings!

But, before I plug in the Christmas tree and crank up the music, I'd like to give a big thank you and warm welcome to my new followers.  I'm really appreciative you're here, as I am with everyone who has faith in me.  There are times, when I can't get a word just right, and think, wow...you believe that I can...and, so, I think harder.  A big Thank You and a bigger Hug to each of you (including my "Anonymous" family and friends) for reading my blog and for leaving such motivational comments.

Some weeks ago, The Blogger Formerly Known As ...graciously awarded me the Cherry on the Top/Life is Good Award for a good read ...and also had me blushing for this gal in the U.K. is an amazing writer with amazing stories. Thank you Blogger Formerly Known As....  You're terrific!  If you haven't checked out her blog, hmmmm, you're missing out.  Before passing on this delicious award, I've got to tell you several things I'd change in my past:

                                          1.  Even though I took a lot of risks for my generation, I wish I'd taken more.
                                          2.  I wish I'd bought that emerald ring in Hong Kong.  Drats!
                                          3.  I wouldn't have worried about stuff that faded into nothing.
                                          4.  Even though I am aggressive, I would have been more aggressive.
                                          5.  Even though I danced till the wee hours, I would have danced till dawn.



The recipients below are requested to pass the award on. (More awards follow this list; keep scrolling.)

Lyn (Torquoise Moon) at http://daily-turquoisemoon.blogspot.com/

Kimberly Franklin at Confessions: The Secret Life of a Writer

Jayne at A Novice Novelist

Rachel at Rachel Morgan Writes

PK at PK Hrezo

E. Elle at The Writer's Funhouse

For some time I've wanted to initiate an award but didn't know how to design one.  I got lucky at e-how.com where I discovered an award that anyone could use.  A freebie I can handle, yay!  So, to those who commented on my last post (as of this blog's posting), this Smile Award is for you.  There are also lots of new followers in this long list, so I hope everyone will click away and gain some new followers as well. Followers and Comments are a lovely combination!!

Recipients, please pass on the award as you like:




Shelly Sly at Stories in the Ordinary

Project Hyakumeizan at One Hundred Mountains

Rachel at Sweet and Sour Realism

Katherine Magendie at Writing from My Mountain

Shirley Wells at Shirley Wells

Morrow at Practicing Poetry

Jane at Gaston Studio

Linda Starr at Blue Starr Gallery

Marguerite at Cajun Delights

T. Anne at T. Anne Adams

Pam Torres at So I'm Fifty

Zara at Gypsy Village

Ann Best at Long Journey Home

Talei at Musings of an Aspiring Scribe

Kristy at Koda's Totems

Cricket at Cricket and Porcupine

Steve at Out on the Prairie

Jackee at Winded Words

Erica at A Novel - Hypothetically Speaking

Louanne at Louanne's Kitchen

Decca at A Case of Myth-taken Identity

Rezden at Randomnesws for Now

MT at Michelle Teacress

Francine at Francine Howarth

Mary Aalgaard at Play off the Page

Manzanita at Wanna Buy a Duck

Inger at Desert Canyon Living

Roland at Writing in the Crosshairs

Stephanie at Hatshepsut: The Writing of a Novel

Talli at Talli Roland

From the Kitchen at From a Writer's Kitchen

Tracy at My Thoughtful Spot

Su at Cheekyness

Tsipise at Tsipise

Hilary at The Smitten Image

Stella at Tales of a Super Nova

L'Aussie at L'Aussie's Writing Blog

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Into the Holiday Spirit

The Thanksgiving holiday worked its magic.  I'm definitely into the spirit of the season.  I learned long ago my inner child can't sit around wishing for laughter and good times.  She's gotta exert some energy to make it happen.  And so it is.  Hub and I and the inner children (for he has an inner child, too) will be taking a trip during the Christmas holidays.

But, first, before I share the excitement, a warm welcome to my new Followers.  Lots of new blogs to enjoy, yum!  However, if you don't hear from me, it's because I can't link to your blog.  Please, please check your profile page to ensure there's a link!  (I can usually link to you, tho, if you drop a comment.  Hey, I don't pretend to understand Blogger!)

Speaking of Blogger, some of the blogs I follow are back on the sidebar.  These blogs will be rotated so that everyone gets linked (and, hopefully, readers will click over and say Hi!)  How the selected blogs came to be was very scientific:  I scrolled through the blogs I follow and clicked a blog when hub said 'stop'! 

I love comments, read each one, and thank you for taking the time.  I also enjoy the interesting info you share.  Fantasy author N. R. Williams commented that he was descended from the Pilgrims, the ones who didn't come here for religious reasons, but from the Mayflower's crew, many of whom married within the religious group.  Wow, what an interesting family history! 

My southern tummy purred when I read Baroness Radon prepared Okinawan sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving.  I adore sweet potatoes and, having lived in Okinawa, Japan, for two years, could taste the delicious sweet potato that is purple!  (If you haven't checked out her blog, tsk, tsk!)

Near and dear to my LSU (Louisiana State University) heart, Grandpa commented from Malaysia that "many agriculture graduates from LSU" work for the company he works for there.  This company is headquartered in North Carolina.  It's amazing -- and really fabulous -- how the world links up!

Besides meeting nice new people like you, blogging has encouraged me to stretch myself.  I surprised myself when I decided to enter a fictitious story before December 7th for the optional writing half of Erica's Blog Fest. This is a stretch I'm enjoying because I haven't dipped into the fictitious world since some writing courses at LSU years ago.  You're very kind readers who've given me the confidence to relax with a character I've come to love and I thank you for that.  HUGS!
Now, about that trip hub and I are taking during the Christmas holidays. It's to New Orleans, not exactly a surprise.  But, wait!  Instead of staying with family (they will visit us), we're staying in the French Quarter.  Here's why (and why I'm beyond excited):

Some posts ago, I introduced you to my great-grandmother in a two-part story, A Rose by Any Other Name Is Paint.  Grandma Oubre was approximately four years old when she came to the United States, from Spain, in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was president.  Her parents were among the 3107 who died in the yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans in 1867.

Spanish Carmelite nuns saw my great-grandmother begging for food on a street corner, coaxed her in their carriage, and brought her to their convent, specifically for her to become a Catholic nun.

Great-grandma, then a little girl, lived in their convent, in what were called 'cells', along with the other novices.  However, great-grandma chose another path.  One day, while standing at her cell window and looking down at Bourbon Street, a young French sailor whistled to her.  She was now 13 years old and whistled back.  A few weeks later, she slipped out of the convent, met the young sailor, and married him that day.  My grandmother was the youngest of their eleven children.

Hub and I will be staying in that convent, now the Bourbon Orleans Hotel.  As far as anyone knows, the French Quarter boutique hotel is the only such converted convent in the United States (outside of places for retreats and the like).  During the Civil War, the hotel was a Confederate hospital. 

I've been in the hotel more than a few times, each time awed by how my great-grandmother came to live there and the history of what followed.  It's been a long-held dream to stay in the Bourbon Orleans.  But the room had to face Bourbon Street.  The dream comes true this Christmas.  I want to stand at the window and feel the history.  I honestly can't wait!  (Be still, Inner Child; you must!)

(And, one of these days I'll tell you great-grandma's secret.  You're gonna go, say what?  But you must wait!)

Monday, November 8, 2010

When It Rains It Pours

There's a family situation that needs me There, not Here.  It's not a life-threatening situation.  Basically, one of my sisters needs an extra set of hands to help out.  This is what sisters do, so I'll be winging my way There in the Friendly Skies.  Everything's going to be fine, just one of those things.  But I won't be able to post for a bit...don't think there will be extra time. 

I'll catch up with you later :)))

XOXO Kittie

Friday, October 22, 2010

Fun Challenges; A Lion Lives in an Oak Tree (Louisiana Stories)

You may not know this about me but I rarely enter contests.  Today, though, I've entered Rach's Second Crusader Challenge, a fun writing challenge as I had to weave the post's opening phrase (in italics) and three specific words into today's story.  Can you find the three words??

What you do know about me is that I love sharing links.  Madeline's got a fun link-up post at Scribble and Edit.  If you've got a sec, please drop by and join in!

A big hug for Marieke, a YA writer, at Marieke's Musings for being my 200th Follower!  Whoot!

And, now, today's Louisiana story:
* * * * *
The four of us huddled beneath the Live Oak tree and stared at the spoors.  We worried a lion had hidden among the tree's massive branches and would see us, but were too curious not to look at what had to be lion droppings.  We whispered because we didn't want Mama to hear us.  She was working in her flower garden. It overflowed with mounds of fall chrysanthemums.

Word had spread along the bayou that over a million lions had escaped from the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. The ferocious animals had taken up residence along our twenty-five mile stretch of country road in South Central Louisiana.  Parents wouldn't allow kids to play outside unless chaperoned. Farmers, like my grandfather, had moved cattle to different pastures.  Fences had been checked, repaired and re-enforced where necessary.  Dogs had been let loose at night to sound the alarm.

Since Sugar Bowl now had to sleep in the open and not in his doghouse, I worried a lion would eat him.  Not everyone loved Sugar Bowl like I did.  My black mutt ran in circles and howled until we kids shared sugary treats (which wasn't often in the 1950's). Maybe a lion would think Sugar Bowl looked like a treat.  He'd eaten a lot of sugar yesterday.  The ornery dog had snuck into the house, somehow toppled the sugar bowl and licked the kitchen table clean.  Mama had been really mad at the mess she said he'd made.

Louis, Jr. scoffed at my worry.  His lofty attitude had become an umbrella response to everything now that he'd entered first grade.  My neighbor's son didn't think a lion would eat Sugar Bowl because Sugar Bowl was a boy.  Lions feared boys.  At the slight, I narrowed my blue eyes and scrunched my nose.  Louis Jr. laughed at the pugnacity, but bolted from the group.  Baby Joe, also my age, five-years-old, ran toward his friend, all the while daring Sarah and me to catch them in the open pasture.

The chase began as my mother dropped her gardening trowel into a basket.  The clank of metal upon metal caused Sarah to stop.  My three-year-old sister wanted to help Mama gather stems of orange and yellow chrysanthemums for a vase in the living room. Mama preferred that Sarah played and got some exercise.

Crocodile tears gushed from Sarah's big blue eyes and rolled down rose-petal cheeks. I tugged on her hand.  Again, Mama encouraged Sarah; they'd gather flowers later.  A bit peeved, Sarah shook her mop of sandy curls, then snuggled into me to ponder the options while Mama walked to the porch.  Sarah's brown Teddy bear dangled from her hand and brushed my bare legs.

It was one of those corn silk afternoons when birds chirped, bees buzzed and sunbeams blurred time.  October's pumpkin sun had muted South Louisiana's searing heat and softened long afternoons into an autumnal skeleton that danced on gentle breezes.  Mama's shoulder-length blond hair shimmered like golden topaz in the porch's reflected light.  My mother, a city gal from New Orleans with a German, not Cajun heritage, settled herself into a white rocking chair.  The view overlooked an expanse of flat delta and bayou she had yet come to love.

When Sarah refused to leave my side, Louis, Jr. and Baby Joe laughed that she couldn't run with a Teddy bear.  To everyone's surprise, Sarah dropped her beloved companion and lurched forward.  The boys, who had sisters, knew how to play into the game. They allowed Sarah to catch them, then impersonated defeated roles to much applause and good-natured laughter.

After Sarah joined Mama on the porch,  Louis, Jr., Baby Joe and I played tag.  Sugar Bowl chased us as we ran barefoot across flat-lying sticker plant without fear of being stuck by white pincers.  We ran and ran, from one side of the pasture to the other, from my grandparents' house to my parents' house.  We ran and tagged each other for the sheer joy of having fun.

When our little legs grew tired, we returned to the porch.  After Mama tethered Sugar Bowl in the backyard, she surprised us with homemade sugar cookies and cold milk.  (Yes, Sugar Bowl received a treat later!)  Louis, Jr. and Baby Joe then walked home, along the country road that fronted our fenced-in farm, but both houses within easy sight.

That evening, after supper (Kartoffelpuffer or German pancakes topped with applesauce) and after Sarah and I had prepared for bed, Mama said that we couldn't leave our bedroom (except to go to the bathroom.)  A Louisiana Black bear, sometimes called a Honey bear, had wandered out of the densely wooded area at the deep end of the farm. 

Men, including my father, would lie in wait for the bear to appear that night.  A veterinarian would sedate the bear with a dart.  The bear, thought to be a grown male, had been seen during the previous week, always at dusk.  He hadn't appeared malnourished and was thought to have a serious infection.   The veterinarian wanted to check for festering sores, also the bear's teeth.  The possibility existed the bear had contracted rabies and would have to be put down.  But the men who'd seen the bear didn't think the situation would come to this.  The bear hadn't exhibited rabies-induced behavior.  Still, the men would be armed.

Parents had spread the rumor about escaped lions because most of us kids had a Teddy bear.  Parents worried that kids would think the bear was cute and harmless and try to pet it.  Although the bear hadn't entered front pastures during the day, the mature animal had learned to navigate front pastures during the night.

Sarah and I slept through the excitement.  Around midnight, the bear had appeared in the pasture behind the Live Oak tree where we kids had huddled, was sedated and found to have an infected cut.  After cleaning the infection and injecting the bear with antibiotics, the men left the bear to sleep off the sedation and returned home.

No one saw the bear or any spoor in the pastures again.

When winter came and leaves had fallen, my father and others searched the skeletal forest.  They discovered the den where the bear hibernated.  They let him be.

In the spring, my grandfather allowed some cleared acreage that bordered the forest to return to its natural state. 

Epilogue:

The Louisiana Black Bear, a sub-species of the American Black Bear, inhabits parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, southern Arkansas and Eastern Texas, though in greatly diminished numbers today.  It is now listed as 'endangered', the result of habitat lost to cultivation.  Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries works with farmers and others to restore forested land (as do departments in Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas, a multi-state cooperative effort, actually).  Some (but not enough) progress has been made in the four states. 

Within Louisiana, statistics are encouraging in the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge (as they are within protected areas in neighboring states.)  If you've got a few minutes, you might enjoy surfing this site.  The entire Atchafalaya River Basin area is one of Nature's crown jewels.

And, yes, you will encounter the 'lion' in today's story again.  Within our family, the 'lion' came to mean What doesn't exist can get you if you let it, the result of us kids having active imaginations and playing fun tricks (so we thought) on each other, a popular form of entertainment in an era when television and gadgets didn't dominate lives.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lovely Spa Visit and Quick Story

Ahhh, life is good!  Gertrude (Big Mama computer) and Zoe (baby HP) returned home a family picture of glowing health.  Her parents (that's us, the ones with the checkbook) also got lucky.  An older and very experienced computer technician found and corrected the glitch that had eluded others.  We didn't switch to Windows 8.  Why?  $500.00! 

Much of what we thought had been included in our insurance turned out to be either obsolete or one-time promotions that it would have been more productive to buy a new computer.  This computer is only a year and a half old.  I firmly believe leaves grow on trees, not money.  So, with our insurance covering the glitch that gave Gertrude rosy cheeks, we said thankyouverymucy and brought our kids home.  When the time comes to have another kid, its name will be Mac!

In the meantime, I'd like to share with you a consumer's house of mirrors story that occurred three weeks prior to our visit to Eastern North Carolina, where my husband and I have a house, presently rented until spring.  This house has a recessed area in the back, off the kitchen, and measures about 150 sq. ft.  After the renters left, we wanted to bump this out and extend to the right and left for a screened-in porch.

The realtor who manages the property offered that the builder who had built her house had done a fabulous job but needed work because of the recession.  I thought she jumped into my gig a bit quickly but also thought obtaining a bid would provide insight as to how prices fluctuated in this semi-rural area, an area we knew from frequent visits but not from living there, a major difference in the South.  Since we plan to move into our house this spring, it was time to get to know the locals from the business side of the house, so to speak.

So, okay, a week passed.  We didn't hear from the builder.  Another week passed.  Nothing from the builder.    I sensed this guy was playing with us, wanted to see how eager we were.  In the real South it's never good to appear eager.  So we waited.

At the end of the third week, the realtor e-mailed the builder's bid.  He chose not to bump the porch out as we had requested.  What he chose to do was to bump out the recessed area about five feet.  (This would in no way affect the existing square footage.  That remained intact.) 

The builder's proposal bid was $17,800.00.  If we wanted to brick the supporting cinder blocks, that would cost an additional $3,000.00.

Of course I laughed at this.  I mean, duh!

What made me really laugh, however, was that the builder had submitted a drawing of a lean-to, basically a screened-in shed.  A lean-to kit can be purchased for $1,000.00.  (Construct a lean-to yourself for about $500.00.)

But what made me laugh until the tears fell was that the builder had flanked his proposed lean-to with -- are you ready for this? -- very tall Greek columns!

When the laughter subsided, however, a nagging question emerged:  why would a builder with a sterling reputation (I checked) but one who also needed work to keep his small business alive be so arrogant (ignore what the consumer wanted) and get so greedy?

The nagging question lingers.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11, 2001

On September 11, 2001, my husband and I flew from Rome, Italy, to Istanbul, Turkey, on Turkish Airlines, an airline we had flown before to Istanbul. After a glorious week in Rome, where we, two Americans, had once lived for six months, we were pleasantly tired from playing tourist, a bit plump-cheeked from all that delicious Italian food and gelato, and, well, peacefully happy.

After the plane gained altitude and leveled off, my husband and I chatted about how much we looked forward to seeing long-time Canadian, British, American, and European friends at a reunion that had been organized by a Turkish colleague, all students years earlier at an international school in Rome.  Before joining our friends in Bodrum, a spectacular seaside town a brief plane ride from Istanbul, Dick and I would first spend three days in Istanbul, at a boutique hotel near the Grand Bazaar, our ultimate shopping destination.

Midway through the trip -- a beautiful flight across a bright blue sky above sparkling blue waters  -- flight attendants demanded the return of coffee cups, insisted purses be stored in overhead bins,  and wanted all seats in upright positions.  Like other passengers on the sparsely filled flight, we complied, not sure what to think, a bit nervous, though, for a tremor of fear raced that the aircraft had problems that would force a water landing. 

The normally polite and courteous attendants refused to answer questions.  They walked up and down the aisles, constantly surveying passengers.  Anyone going to the bathroom had to be escorted.  The aircraft flew in eerie silence.

To our relief, we landed in Istanbul and cleared customs without incident.  However, we were surprised that the bustling international airport, polished and gleaming with every amenity possible, serviced few people.  But our airport pick-up waited.  We hurried outside.

We recognized the young man who waited from a previous stay at the boutique hotel.  He greeted us warmly, and bags loaded, off we sped to the hotel.  When asked if there were a religious holiday, for Istanbul's normally crowded streets rather mirrored the airport, the young man replied by referring to all the problems in the world.  The unexpected and vague answer muted us.  And, unusual for Istanbul, the radio had been turned off.  Again, we didn't know what to think.

When we entered the hotel, we saw that about 20 people had gathered around a flat screen television near the far wall.  Since no one stood behind the check-in counter, we walked toward the group.

I lack the words to describe the raw horror we felt when we saw what had occurred in New York City.  And continued to happen.  Minutes later the second tower fell. 

Like others in the group from around the world, we remained in front of the t.v. until late into the evening and experienced every emotion imaginable.  Like others, we wanted to be home, to wrap ourselves in decency and fend off this insane monster at loose, this evil thing that chilled the soul.

The Canadian doctors among us had traveled to Istanbul for a medical conference.  They were frustrated at not being able to help the injured, and, with fear spreading that a major Canadian city could be hit, they wanted to get home where medical skills might be needed.  Young doctors.  Brave young doctors.  The hotel staff went to great lengths to get them to Toronto, but to no avail. 

 Nothing moved while evil lurked. The world had coalesced into one.

The next day, hungry, for the hotel lacked a restaurant, and in need of fresh air and a walk, we headed toward the food court at the Grand Bazaar.  En route, we lost our appetites.  Unlike in the United States, photos in British, European, and Turkish newspapers are graphic.  I remember staring at a photo of a woman leaning out of a window waving a white shirt, desperate for help.  I still feel the tears falling, knowing she would die, like thousands of others, horribly so. 

But hope also emerged that the evil that had inflicted this terror would be reigned in.  As if emotions had spiraled between extremes, I lack the words to describe the warmth and graciousness shown by the Turkish people that day.  Of course we bought nothing -- How could one think of shopping?  We had forgotten about food. -- but we hungered for a nugget of information, that the terror had ceased, that sanity had regained control.  Turkish merchants refused payment for newspapers.  They even translated headlines and articles we couldn't read, plied us with tea, offered food, cried with us, condemned what had happened.  Not only the merchants.

In the Grand Bazaar that day, September 12, 2001, people from nations around the world collectively recognized the face of evil and stood together as one.  Hope reigned.  Very briefly.  But it reigned.

I don't have to tell you what happened during the ensuing years.  You know. 

But, nine years later, I yearn for a return to that moment when hope and sanity triumphed.

We've got to get our act together.  We've got to recognize self-righteous bandwagons, wherever they are, for what they are; focus on the greater good; quit blaming everyone else for being self-indulgent and greedy; and stop clawing at each other.

I'm totally sick of being in a situation where someone comes up with a great idea only to hear some pip squeak worry it might rain and watch what could have worked fall apart.  That's because I read fairy tales but live life.  We each make adjustments to get along.  If not, well, a house divided cannot stand.

In memory of those who died on 9/11 and those who still suffer from 9/11, I resolve to be a better person.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Betty Grable's Over Here, Over There (Louisiana Stories)

(Notes:  South Louisianians are passionate about family, food, football, politics, and religion.  As one would expect, these passions sometimes collide, the kernel within today's story.  For those of you super sensitive about religion, I hope you'll stick with the story as equilibrium returns.  I used the term 'preacher' throughout as that was the proper form of address during this period.  It later evolved into 'minister' and 'preacher' being interchangeable.  I never named the preacher because I don't remember a name.  Kids during that era always referred to a religious leader by proper title, a sign of respect parents enforced.

To the post's right is a photo of Betty Grable, the famous World War II pinup.

But, before today's story, in the previous post I had a typo.  Marie Rust's beautiful nature blog can be found here.  My apologies, Marie!

And, now, today's story.)

* * * * *

Life on a farm sneaks up on you. 

That's what Mama, a city girl from New Orleans, always said. 

Actually, Mama sounded wise beyond her twenty-five years.  Uninvited guests arrived at our South Louisiana farm in half an hour.  In the early 1950s, friends and family visited without formal invitations all the time.  But people met once who announced a visitation and had a specific agenda, that threatened.

The problem began two weeks ago, the first part of October, when a handwritten card arrived in the mail.  The Baptist preacher and his wife announced they'd arrive for morning coffee at a specific time, 10:30, on a specific day, today.  Circumstances around the unsolicited visit escalated into all hell breaking loose yesterday. Tensions now smoldered into this morning's wait for the guests and the formal, living room social.  To pass the time, Daddy sorted through papers on the back porch. Sarah, my three-year-old sister, and Dan, my year-old brother, napped in the middle bedroom off a long hall that led to the porch.

I watched Mama pace.

Her brown pumps tapped on the hardwood floor when she crossed the living room.  Mama wore a dark yellow shirtwaist dress accented with a cluster of canary-yellow flowers appliqued on the pointed collar and a fabric-covered brown belt ringed with the dainty flowers.  A strand of pearls at the open neck and matching earrings accessorized the ensemble.

Long-legged and slim, with a narrow waist, Mama walked model tall.  She had big blue eyes and full lips in an oblong face.  Thick blond hair, tamed into loose curls, brushed her swan-like neck and framed a fair complexion with naturally rosy cheeks.   Mama looked pretty, like a movie star.  But she didn't look happy.

Mama surveyed the living room with a practiced eye:  Coffee cups, saucers, and serving essentials positioned on great-grandma Peterson's marble-topped coffee table; cross-stitched pillows, a collage of nature's pastels, fluffed to attention on the  forest green sofa; cherry wood side chairs with damask cushions angled for shared conversation.   Creamy rich draperies, loosely tied back at the four long windows, permitted autumn breezes to circulate.  Though muggy outside, the room felt cool.

Pleased with her artistry, my mother leaned against the door frame and lit a cigarette.  She exhaled, eyes to the high ceiling, then looked at me, as if a five-year-old kid understood how a farcical situation had turned into a value's statement.  Not knowing what to say, I stood muted in front of the linen chest. Sarah said I looked like a freckled-face alligator with bangs when I got bug-eyed and my mouth fell open.

But, really, I didn't understand what happened yesterday, why that fat woman at Mr. Luke's grocery yelled at Mama for wearing shorts.  Nor did I understand what had happened two weeks ago, why the Baptist preacher and his wife had invited themselves to our house or why their card had thanked Mama for joining the Baptist Church, when she hadn't.  Even worse, the card had said the preacher and his wife looked forward to ministering to Mama's needs.  At this insult, Mama, a private person, had exploded.  She had torn the card into a thousand pieces and showered the living room with confetti.  Just as Ma walked in.

My father's mother lived in The Big House across the pasture from our house.  She had a history of manipulating circumstances to pressure my Lutheran mother into converting to Catholicism.  When Ma learned about the preacher's visit (from Mrs. Picard, a cousin who lived near Mrs. Guillroy, the postman's neighbor), Ma decided to pay Mama a visit.

What followed turned into legend along the twenty-five mile strip of country road that fronted an old bayou.  When Ma told Mama that Baptists wouldn't pester her if she were a Catholic, Mama, who normally brushed aside Ma's proselytizing, retorted with pent-up fury.  She told Ma to mind her own business, stormed out of the living room, and slammed the door. 

No one had ever told Ma to mind her own business, an eyebrow-raising event Ma ignored when she complained to eager listeners what had occurred.  Many along the bayou chuckled.  And, though Catholics themselves, friends whispered Ma went too far, always trying to push her beliefs on Mama.  For, generally speaking, Louisianians preferred to live and let live. 

Besides, Ma had created a bit of trouble among the Catholics along the bayou.  She wanted to worship in a proper church.  A traditional Catholic Church didn't exist in our area.  About every two months a priest came from Baton Rouge to say Mass in a private home, a well-attended event, especially the picnic afterwards.  Ma and a few others had regularly petitioned the Baton Rouge diocese to build a church.  Attempts always failed. 

The overwhelming majority of parishioners liked the system the way it was.  Folks wanted to relax after the Mass with a cold beer, Jack Daniel's or cherry bounce, a potent homemade brew.  These picnics were too much fun to relinquish.  That's what Mama and Daddy said, for they sometimes attended the picnic.

Anyway, after two weeks of Mama and Daddy fuming over the preacher's visit and Ma and Mama not speaking, reality approached.  Mama had to prepare for the next day's social.  But a minor mishap turned the preparation into a disaster:  Mama dropped the ceramic coffee canister on the floor.  Splinters of red glass and dark brown Community Roast coffee splattered the kitchen floor like measles on a hound dog.

Not willing to ask Ma for coffee and unable to contact Daddy in Baton Rouge, Mama made a decision that reverberated:  She herded Sarah, Dan, and me into her old Ford and drove to Mr. Luke's grocery. Too harried to change into a shirtwaist dress, how respectable women appeared in public, Mama left the house in shorts.  Specifically, in white shorts not really short and a green and white polka dot blouse.

My mother bought the coffee but returned home in tears.  Ma waited in a rocker on our front porch.  She accused Mama of wearing shorts to the grocery to show off her Bettle Grable-like legs.  With tears falling, Mama hustled us inside and slammed the front door shut.  Ma rushed to Miss Mary's house, her opposite neighbor, for solace.

By the time Daddy returned from Baton Rouge and stopped at Mr. Luke's grocery for gas, word had spread.  The men congratulated Daddy for marrying Betty Grable's cousin.  The women ignored him, except for Cousin Antoinette, a distant relation.  When Daddy approached the cash register to pay for the gas, Cousin Antoinette burst into tears.  Cousin Antoinette had worked at the cash register when Mama had entered the store wearing shorts.

Cousin Antoinette wanted Daddy, now an attorney and no longer a student at Louisiana State University, to press charges against the Baptist preacher's wife for her criminal behavior.

Shocked at seeing Mama in shorts, the matronly woman had run from the store shrieking about Mama's lack of morality and how Cajuns lived in sin.  However, Cousin Antoinette wasn't  upset Mama had worn shorts.  Nor did she care that Mama resembled Betty Grable, the serviceman's favorite World War II pinup.

The preacher's wife had left the store without paying for a bunch of bananas.

Cousin Antoinette thought the woman should serve two years in the state penitentiary at Angola for shoplifting.  Morals had deteriorated too much, she complained to Daddy, after a long sip of cherry bounce to calm frazzled nerves.

When Daddy arrived home, he told Mama he wanted to drive half-way to Baton Rouge, to the Baptist Church, and cancel the next day's social.  But my mother had cried herself out and regained control. She had decided to take the high road and serve morning coffee to the Baptist preacher and his wife.

So, when my mother saw an unfamiliar car turn into our long driveway and the dreaded event now upon us, she rushed to get Daddy.  I heard them lock the inside door to the back porch, so Sarah couldn't wander if she awakened.

Even though I'd been told to remain in the kitchen when the guests arrived (I wore a smock, Mary Jane shoes and socks; guests liked to meet the oldest child, who then disappeared), I unhooked a tie-back, slipped behind a drapery panel at the far end of the living room, and wrapped the fabric around me. From my cocoon, I could peek out at the seating arrangement.  I giggled at the excitement that awaited.

Mama and Daddy rounded the corner from the hall into the living room just as the preacher stepped heavily onto the porch.  Daddy buttoned the coat to his blue suit before opening the door. My parents greeted their guest with bright smiles and warm words of welcome.  However, the bespeckled preacher with slicked-back, thinning grey hair ignored Daddy's proffered hand, hooked his black hat on the coat rack, and walked to the center of the living room, his wife in tow.  Ignoring the insult, Daddy ushered the reticent couple to the sofa.  After an awkward exchange of morning pleasantries laced with  silence, Mama excused herself to make drip coffee in the kitchen.

The preacher, about fifty years old, wore a black suit, starched white shirt and grey bow tie.  His wife, also about fifty years old, wore a plain black shirtwaist dress, a black hat, and sensible black shoes. Sitting stiffly on the sofa, they looked like two old people in a funeral parlor, afraid to talk for fear God would hear them.

Daddy, though, talked about the weather, anything bland to fill the silence.  Mama returned with the silver coffee server and a plate of sugar cookies.  The Baptist preacher and his wife accepted a cup of coffee and a cookie with formal politeness.  Cups and saucers tinkled too-loud in the silence that followed.  Wrapped like a mummy in the drapery panel, I felt hot and sticky.

But just when I thought to slide to the floor and crawl into the dining room, Sarah ran around the corner, from the hall into the living room, laughing and giggling.  She held Daddy's Betty Grable calendar in her pudgy hands.  The keepsake had fallen from the wall behind the hall door when Mama and Daddy hurried to lock it and rush into the living room to greet the preacher and his wife.

At the sight of Sarah holding Daddy's Betty Grable calendar, the movie star poised with her back to the camera, wearing a one-piece swimsuit, the preacher's wife shrieked.  The preacher bolted to his feet. Cups and saucers shattered.  Mama, in the side chair nearest the door, lunged to protect Sarah from hot coffee that splattered.  While Daddy rushed to wrap his arms around Sarah and Mama, the preacher and his wife left in a huff.

When Sarah stopped crying, she ran to join me in the dining room.  Before I led my sister into the kitchen for milk and cookies, Mama retrieved the notebook-sized Betty Grable calendar from beneath the over-turned side chair.

Years later I learned that my mother had given her husband this calendar before he shipped out to Iwo Jima during World War II.  Because Daddy bragged Betty Grable reminded him of Mama, she wanted him to carry that reminder.

While on Iwo Jima and during a period of strict censorship, Daddy had recorded the dates of letters written and received, war-time events (from bloody combat to the fear of waiting to war's end), names and addresses of guys in his military unit, and the names and dates of those who had died.

Epilogue:

A week after the calamitous social, Mama deliberately wore her white shorts and polka dotted blouse to Mr. Luke's grocery.  Folks chuckled but got the point.

Approximately five months later, the Baptist preacher and his wife rotated to an out-of-state church. Whether the transfer resulted from members of his congregation complaining about  the preacher's over-zealous techniques or he was positioned for a routine transfer, no one knew.

However, the new preacher and his wife brought joy to everyone, embracing not only their congregants with warm, caring hearts but also non-Baptists within the wider community.  They even attended one of the picnics after a Catholic Mass.  Yes, they drank sweet tea, that Southern favorite.  But so did many of the regular attendees.  Live and let live.

Ma and Mama never really patched up their differences.  But, hey, what did you expect?  Dis ain't no fairytale (a common expression along the bayou.  Sometimes what you experienced is bigger than what you thought.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Welcome Aboard; An Experience with An Agent

A Louisiana story awaits, after a bit of spell checking and so on.  You know the drill.  In the meantime, I'd like to extend a warm welcome to new Followers.  I'd also like to thank Emma Michaels (http://emmamichaels.blogspot.com/) for the Blog Hop that brought most of us together. 
I've tried to be thorough about following you as well.  If I missed you, please drop a comment.  You're only a click away!

This was my first Hop, and WOW, what a positive experience! You did a great job, Emma! Thanks! 

And a big thank you and hugs to the pre-hop Followers for hanging in there.  I had problems with the HPmini/wifi in Europe (probably of my own making; a computer genius I'm not) and couldn't keep up as I had hoped. 

Anyway, as I guess you've figured out, yes, I plan on doing something with my stories.  Just not yet.  In true Southern fashion, my stories will lead (eventually!) to a twist that will have you saying, "Huh", just as I said when Ma (my grandmother) told me the family secret some years ago.  This is why I had to introduce you to her mother in the two-part story, A Rose by Any Other Name Is Paint.  I knew the stories were a bit long.  But no way around it to move the blog forward.  (And, no, I'm not revealing the secret this year!)

As with any dream, albiet a new one, reality must prevail.  I need to sharpen my skills and learn more about the industry that swirls around writers.  This happens daily, when I open the writers' blogs.  I thank all of you for sharing your experiences, for being so candid.  And, like you, I rejoice when a writer secures an agent and/or a contract (which seems to be happening regularly these days, yay!)  I'm constantly impressed by the talent in Blogville...no, more in awe of the talent out there.

This honesty and sharing are important.  Publishers and agents work to make money.  While most are professional and work hard, I personally feel the business in general sucks too much from the writer, ie, others can't do it but can tell you how to do it.  My sensing is that publishers and agents look for the finished product, a fast way to print. 

Of course the bottom line is money.  A book is a commercial product for sale.  Discounted books/e-books and so on have cut into profits.  I understand this.  What I don't like is this pushing for a finished product when there are others in the food chain who need to earn their keep.  I've read so many posts about agents and how so many feel sorry for them.  Well, I don't.  Not a bit.  If an agent is harried and overworked and can't deal with the caseload, then, there's the door.  Find a new profession.  I mean, either do what you're doing with a smile on your face or bye-bye.

Unfortunately, my hub says this whining, finished-product attitude is going on in the sports world.  This weekend we met a father with his son, a 6'8" guy 18 years old who wants to play professional hockey.  The perceived road to riches these days is for the athlete to by-pass college, pay for his training camps, then audition for the pros.  Coaches want a finished product, the e-jock reading for opening night.

Anyway, back to writing:  When we lived in Hawaii (and just prior to our living in Macedonia for two years), I wrote a couple of kids' stories about our cat, Chester.  A writer's conference came up.  Top agents in Honolulu would be there.  A friend who had published several books urged me to showcase my stories.  So I went.

Not without nervousness.  I pulled the agent with the toughest reputation in the state.  The room drew quiet when she snapped open her case and gave me her card, with the words, "Call me."

I didn't drive home.  I floated. 

Reality turned into a nightmare.  This agent tried to get me to sign over my stories and another MS I worked on with an imperial nature that, I thought, tried to intimidate (and I'm not easily intimidated).  She also wanted money, $3,000.00.  I didn't sign a thing, didn't give her any money, and told her to take a hike.  However, I tucked away the experience and am cautious about going where angels fear to tread, if you get my drift.  Information and education provide a powerful foundation.

Anyway, my husband's business soon brought us to Macedonia.  I put my writing on hold until we returned to the States and got back into the routine.  Blogging seemed like a great way to learn more about the writing industry, polish my skills, and, above all, meet others with like objectives.  However, my initial posts weren't Louisiana stories, more ad hoc.  Then, Fate intervened.  My nieces, as I've written before, showed a lack of interest in their family legacy that bothered me.  I got the idea to blog these stories for them to read when they're ready (not any time soon; they still don't get it.) 

Along the way, encouragement from so many of you led me to think that perhaps others would be interested in my stories.  Each Follower (that's you!) brought a bright smile to my face.  However, I'm not ready to think about finding an agent, need more stories, need more time.  And I don't want to feel rushed, that I have to produce.  When I sit at the computer, I zone back in time to that Louisiana farm, feel the hot sting of that August heat, feel how it was, and let the fingers fly.

I've brushed aside several opportunities to showcase my work (even as a guest on a tv program, of all places) because the little girl who grew up on that farm has major input into my stories and can't be commercialized right now.  I still need to feel, if that makes any sense. 

I live near Washington, D.C..  My little girl's heart is on that Louisiana farm.  Still a free spirit with so many interests that bring smiles of discovery.  One of these interests is a love for the outdoors, from a gentle rain to the sweet smell of freshly turned dirt...even like squiggling my toes into the tip of a crop row...and have been known to walk barefoot (oh, happy day!)

I enjoy all of the blogs I follow (read thoroughly, don't scan).  Many are about Mother Nature's delights and challenges.  If you want to feel good about small moments in Nature that warm the heart, click on over to:

http://onthepondfarm.blogspot.com/
http://sempiterna-me.blogspot.com/
http://marierust.blogspot.com/
http://oko-organic-clothing.blogspot.com/
http://atasteofdenmark.blogspot.com/
http://onehundredmountains.blogspot.com/
http://swamericana.wordpress.com/
http://www.lakemarymusings.com/
http://teresaevangeline.blogspot.com/

AND, if you're hungry from being outdoors, if you like food, mouth-watering food from South Louisiana, click over to http://cajundelights.blogspot.com/  Marguerite's a real Cajun with some real Cajun recipes who posts recipes she's putting into a cookbook.  Talk about a treat!

Just a bit more -- thank you for being so kind about the photos I posted.  I was a bit nervous, I mean, I don't know much about taking photos beyond snapping away.  Lots of credit goes to my Nikon digital camera and, of course, to the fantastic scenery in Greece.  (Also miss the hospitality.  So many Greeks sent foods to our taverna table for us to enjoy!  YUM!)

But, to give balance, we also enjoyed our days and the scenery in Tirol (Tyrol), Austria.  My husband took the header photo above from the top of a ski slope behind where we stayed in Achensee.  I think he captured a certain free spirit.  Great job, sweetie!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Photos, You've Got Photos

Patio plants, Greece



One of Greece's famously narrow roads; olive trees forever.


Everywhere we went in Greece there were lemon trees, fresh lemonade, too, at small restaurants (tavernas).

One of the many fresh water spigots to fill up the water bottles.  The green at the bottom has no relation to the fresh water.  

Every small town in Greece seemed to have a plaza with folks sipping coffee and talking beneath a shady tree.

The stadium at Olympia.
King Leonidas I; Battle of Thermopylae; trees in background are for decorative purposes; in back of the trees are the battle plain, the super highway, and the rail tracks.  I didn't have a wide-angle lens to capture the enormity of the plain.  It's just a flat, nothing stretch of land.  However, as I think you've figured out, it was this precise nothingness that impressed me the most.  All of those men died because armies had nothing to do but fight, and warriors don't pick olives. 

Greek olive trees, mountains, sea  *sigh*

Very small part of the magnificent ruins at Delphi

Old fishing boat, Greece

Side street, Greece; vegetables for sale; honor system for payment


Patio grill and grape leaves

Side Street in a small town, Greece

View from our room, Hotel Navarone, Peloponnesian Southwest  Coast, Greece



Saturday, July 31, 2010

Pertisau, Austria; Off To Vienna Tomorrow, Then Home on the 4th

Pertisau, Austria, hugs Achensee, an alpine lake about 3,000 feet above sea level in the Austrian Alps.  Approximately 500 people live in Pertisau, Tirol (Tyrol).  The picturesque homes and shops have the traditional flower boxes and stenciled designs near windows, all very similar to the lifestyle in Bavaria, Germany (which Tirol (Tyrol), an Austrian state, borders,)  If you've seen The Sound of Music you are inside a postcard with me.  No one would think it odd if the von Trapp family walked down the village street singing "The Hills Are Alive with Music."  For they truly are.

This is our second trip to Pertisau.  This morning Dick and I hiked the trail that follows the lake.  And what a fabulous morning it was -- the soft sun, the emerald green lake, the alpine mountains, the wildflowers along the trail, and the fresh mountain air.

Yes, I have photos for you and long to share them.  But this must wait until we return to the States.  Which will be August 4th.  It's hard to believe we've been on the road almost two months.  For awhile time seemed to stand still.  We neither knew nor cared which day of the week it was.

When we lived in Skopje, Macedonia (or Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia, whichever name floats your boat), we transited through Vienna.  So, it will be nice to enjoy a couple of days re-visiting old haunts.  

Upon our return, we're attending a wedding at The Homestead in Virginia, not far from Richmond.  I remember when Jenny was a toddler (which sometimes seems like yesterday).  She's marrying a very nice young man, and we wish them life's every happiness.

In the meantime, I want to thank you for your comments, for hanging in there.  I've got a bit of catching up to do with your blogs and plan to do just that after the wedding on the 7th. I'm looking forward to seeing what you've been doing.  All of you have such interesting blogs.  And, a year later, there's a comfortable rhythm that warms the heart.

Until then, I'd like to share with you a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche that the hotel posted this morning at breakfast:  The hurry in human life is a flight from oneself.    XOXO, Kittie  

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Statue in Thermopylae, Greece

A larger-than-life bronze statue of a Spartan icon, King Leonidas I, stands in an eclipse near a wide, long, and dusty plain in Thermopylae, Greece.  The king's raised right hand holds a javelin.  The downward left hand grips a shield.  A Spartan helmet, with its now famous Mohawk swoop, covers the warrior's head.  Otherwise, King Leonidas I stands naked.  The Spartan king fought naked.

Leonidas died at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, more specifically, at the Pass of Thermopylae, where, in the combined area of mountain pass and lower plain, Leonidas and his 7,000 soldiers held off Persia's King Xerxes and his 2,641,610 soldiers for several intense days.  When the ferocious fighting ended, only two of the 7,000 Greek soldiers survived.  The victorious Persians, though, eventually tasted defeat at the Battle of Plataiai in 479 BC., where history also changed course.

But, for the moment, I'd prefer not to trod another war-torn path, but remain at the Battle of Thermopylae, one of history's most studied and respected battles.  However, without the drama of war, the Pass of Thermopylae rises above the extended battle plain below and appears more a snapshot of Greece's spectacular mountain scenery than an extended setting for one of history's bloodiest battles.

The battle plain below, large enough to hold over two and a half million men, lies flat, like a discarded remnant, as if Mother Nature had created a rugged masterpiece and dropped the scrap of land to perfect a turquoise-blue sea to lap the peaceful shoreline.  If not for the Battle of Thermopylae, an historical quirk, the long plain would simply exist, neither pretty nor ugly, just there, a wall flower among Greece's more imposing battle sites.

But, trapped and out-numbered by Xerxes, Leonidas refused to surrender, basically said to the Persian king, "If you want me and my men, come and get us," and, so, Xerxes complied.  Leonidas and his men fought to the bitter end with heroics that earned the Greeks dictionary definitions of honor, valor, courage, and bravery, definitions that have since translated into the world's various militaries with equal respect.  For there are times when something so powerful occurs even sworn enemies agree to agree.

So, today a statue of Leonidas faces burial mounds and thousands of soldiers who died on that dusty plain.  Behind Leonidas, in the far distance, a modern highway and parallel rail tracks cut through a land that once ran scarlet with blood.  This morning, however, the hum of fast cars and heavy trucks whirs like gnats on a hot day. Save for an occasional chirping bird, diesel- and gas-powered modernity is the only sound one hears.  For it is hot.  Perspiration runs from the brow like a salty river.

I look at the statue of Leonidas and wonder about history's enormity: The millions of men gathered to kill, the armada of ships in the sea needed to transport the soldiers, the why of it all.  True, the Peloponnesian Wars eventually followed the Battle of Thermopylae, wars that produced innovation and change modern military leaders follow, but the Battle of Thermopylae seduces today's warriors primarily for the raw courage that prevailed.

Historians like to point out that most wars or significant battles began because of economics or a need for land, truisms that socialists say exist today.  However, the Battle of Thermopylae happened because it could.  Leonidas and Xerxes didn't really want to fight each other.  Attempts to prevent the conflict didn't work because Leonidas and Xerxes had nothing else to do.  As my husband, a military history hobbyist, said, "Warriors don't pick olives."

So the armies fought.  Men died.  And time moved on.

Sad, actually.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Greece's Navarino Bay

Greece's Navarino Bay, near the western tip of Peloponnese, offers more than spectacular Mediterranean vistas, pristine beaches, olive groves, and white stucco houses with red tiled roofs.  The sun-drenched bay, with its turquoise-blue waters, shimmers not only beneath open blue skies but within Greece's heart.

On October 20, 1827, at the Battle of Navarino, naval forces crushed a fleet of Ottoman ships, an outcome that ensured Greece's independence after 350 years of Turkish rule.  History documents this rule as harsh. The Ottomans governed with a cruel whip.  Greeks lived in abject poverty under tyrannical conditions, free only to dream about tomorrow.

Three and a half centuries is a long time to hold onto a dream, to work toward throwing off the master's yolk, to retain one's identity, as an individual and as a country.  But this is exactly what happened.  After the downfall of the Ottomans, the Greek culture re-surfaced, wiser and stronger, determined not to be subjugated again, by the Turks or anyone else.

The Greek language, once a language that traveled the Mediterranean -- and beyond with Alexander the Great, retains its purity, if localized to Greece these days, still, though, a remarkable feat after 350 years of linguistic onslaught.  The Turks had worked to erase the language from the world's lexicon.

Unlike in Bosnia, where, basically, an entire country converted to the Muslim religion to avoid mass slaughter, Greek Orthodox Christianity thrives throughout Greece. (To be fair, the Ottomans didn't threaten the Greeks as such; however, lifestyle improved greatly if a Greek converted.  Few did.)  Regardless of one's religion, the fact that the Greek people preserved their spirituality deserves a certain respect (about which I'm not the first to write -- but more fully understand now -- as historians have long linked the Greek's preservation of their religion to much that is Europe today, not necessarily in a religious sense.)

However, I think the inner determination to retain core beliefs, all the while occupied by a voracious empire, speaks volumes about the strong character of the Greek people.  (And I would write the same if the Greeks had occupied Turkey, if the Turks had retained their identity under such brutal conditions.

Because the character of the soul is more than a religious symbol.

Because wanting for the sake of wanting destroys an individual, brings a country to its knees, as it destroyed the Ottoman Empire (and others throughout history).  It is the recognition of needs greater than simple wants that fuels the forward motion that protects society from itself.

As such, from occupied to free again (for Greece has a deep history, a rich history that gave birth to democracy and rational thought and so much more), the country's genealogy continued, families held together by stories of tragedy and hope, a freedom attained, a dream realized, a tomorrow that shimmers like the waters in Navarino Bay, mostly calm and inviting, but sometimes a bit harsh -- for Greece struggles, like other countries, with today's recession -- but always, the waters in Navarino Bay lap the shore and whisper the dream that lives.

In an era of globalization, we can still be who we are, not robots made in some factory in China, cheap goods sold on a mass market, made to fall apart after the first wash, imitations with a commercialized logo that screams for attention.

So, as I sit in a quiet lobby in a lovely hotel in Peloponnese, I am rejuvenated.  Regardless of nationality or religion, regardless of the day's challenges, regardless of fears that work to mute the soul, our ancestors whisper that dreams live.

If only we'd listen.

If only we'd want more of what can't be bought.

If only we'd get our hands dirty from doing our own work, honest work that laps the soul, like the waters at Navarino Bay.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Arivederci, Italia!

Arivederci, Italia!  Tomorrow evening we sail to Patras, Greece, two nights and a day aboard a Greek ferry, slicing across the Adriatic Sea.  New memories await.  And, to be honest, I possess the traveler's eagerness to explore new frontiers, to experience Peloponnese's Mediterranean terrain, to visit Delphi and Sparta, to sip the local wine and nibble green olives, to walk quiet villages, to feel what is and imagine what was, how it all came to  be, this miracle called democracy.

But I'll miss you, Italia.  Your serenity.  Your beauty.  The patient and understanding lifestyle.  The optimism:  How piave, rain, nourishes more flowers than floods; how food feeds the soul, not just the body; how doing nothing can trump doing something.


I'm going to miss morning walks down narrow lanes, the afternoon siesta, the after dinner strolls in the piazza with my husband, and, later, sitting on our balcony, mesmerized by the moon's white shimmer on calm waters, enthralled by twinkling lights on cruise ships that approach Venice, and, talking into the night, about this and that, nothing important, just enjoying each other's company.


And, of course, our four trips into Venice or nearby islands, like Lido Beach, where the Duke and Duchess of  Windsor frequented, or Burano, the quaint and colorful island where lace was made (but now imported from China), or Murano, the home of that magnificent glass, still made locally.  Since this is our fourth year at the same hotel, we've come to treasure the routine:  Bus No. 5 to Punta Sabionni and the ferry ride to the day's adventure.


And returning to our hotel room, tired but pleased with the day, happy to crawl into a book.  Readings this year included Thuborn's Shadow of the Silk Road (almost brilliant); Harris's Pompeii (contrived); Ericksson's Girl with a Dragon Tattoo (too dark); and Gregory's The White Queen (interesting).  I learned from each.


We also rode the bus to Treviso, into the countryside, to an old Italian town, locals gathered in the sleepy piazza, eating pizza, drinking beer.  We walked the side streets, ancient streets filled with shops, probably like they were hundreds of years ago.  But too many shops had shuttered, also the reason too many locals gathered in the piazza.  Italy's economy struggles.  Unemployment's high.  House after house is for sale.  New buildings stand empty.


And I wish I could say that the situation with the Russians at our hotel had a happy ending.  It doesn't.  Last night, at dinner, tempers flared over the food grab.  It wasn't pretty.


Nor has the pool been peaceful.  There's no lifeguard, but international signs say No Diving, No Running, No Soccer Balls, No Topless.  Only the latter has been followed.  Small kids run alongside the pool, everywhere, actually.  Older kids dive into a rather shallow pool.  Teenagers play rough with a soccer ball, yelling to each other.  One father decided to make a game of tossing his kids into the pool, turning and flinging them into the water.  On-lookers complained, worried about injuries.  Management's intervention had no effect.  The Russians continued to do as they pleased.  This morning, some guests checked out early.  They'd had enough.

For we've also had a problem with crime.  Last week, at 0235 and 0315, someone tried to gain entry to our room.  We flipped on the lights and started talking to scare them away.  It worked.  However, several rooms in the hotel next to us had been robbed.  Police out front that morning.  A desk clerk said police are looking for three Russians on our floor who'd checked out that a.m., before the police arrived.

The other night, fake whistling like birds awakened us, and others, at 0300.  Police out front that morning.  


More police this morning.  Someone robbed the money exchange in the piazza.


True, Italy has a pick-pocket reputation.  And, it's not totally unfair.  One has to be careful.  However, this is all a bit much.  I mean, this is a very nice hotel, not exactly cheap. Nor is there a downtrodden beach area along the strip.  Everything looks respectable, very neat, very clean.  Then, again, according to the lady at the money exchange, the couple who robbed her looked very respectable.


Sigh.  


I still want to visit you again next year, Italia.  Ti amo.  I love you.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Italian Language Sings

The Italian language sings.  This was the topic of after-breakfast conversation around a table on the hotel's terrace.  British friends said that when they're shopping, back in Liverpool, and happen to hear spoken Italian, they stop briefly, just to enjoy the language's beauty.  "We haven't a clue what anyone's saying," Brian said, "but, for a few moments, we want to get lost in the beauty of a language that sings."

I couldn't agree more.  Sometimes, when I'm walking, I'll pause on a bench simply to hear the beauty of passing conversations.  I love how the vowels stretch, how phrases roll higher, then down into a sentence that mellows out, like a bell that tinkles, the last sound a dainty reverberation that soothes the soul.  I can't imagine a really angry person speaking Italian and retaining the anger.  Of course, it must happen.  People are people.

Still, for the wandering tourist, snippets of conversation here and there, greetings in stores, background commentary on television, all merge into a language of beauty, a language that sings "Co me va?" (How are you?) with such purity one has to feel good or at least better, if only for a moment.  And, sometimes, it only takes a moment for a day that has started out poorly .... kids crying, a rough e-mail ... to turn around, for a smile to reach upward.

The hotel solved the problem of the disappearing food last night by bringing out more food: a second round of beef (like one sees at huge receptions), more lamb chops, huge piles of French fries, more pasts, double the cut fruit selections, increase ice cream flavors, and so on and so on until one looked at these mounds of food with a weakened appetite.  For it's not normal, I don't think, for this much food to feed what in reality are few people, about 100.

But, not knowing the increases would appear, others didn't rush to stand in chow lines, but held back, maintained a firm grip on the leisurely pace of dinner traditions.  This is a part of the Old Europe it took centuries to reach.  No one was going to forsake tradition for a lamb chop.

I can't say at which precise moment it happened .... perhaps the sight of so much food had a sobering effect, that no one in the room starved ... but civility returned, the rush abated, and order prevailed.  That one could feel a certain sense of harmony blessed a pleasant evening.  Except that there are murmurs prices will rise, that this hotel will be too expensive next year.  However, I don't think this will happen.  The British and the Germans and the Austrians are the hotel's core guests. Some have been returning yearly for decades. Without this nucleus, occasional Russian groups can't keep the hotel afloat.

A reader asked if I knew thirty-three from the Russian Federation read my blog?  And, in a roundabout way, if I worried about the political correctness of what I had written?

Yes, I knew about this readership, am grateful for their support, and have sometimes wondered who they were, what they did, where they lived in Russia (I've always wanted to visit Siberia, romanticized a reader lived there).

About the political correctness, no.  Actually, hell no.

When a group of people assumes others don't understand their language and makes ugly comments that can be understood, this is a xenophobia that can be called to task.  I wish I could say I'm alone in this but am not. A couple of weeks prior to leaving the States, we had lunch with a Russian speaker from one of the former Eastern Block countries.  Mariyan complained about the same issues I have written about but hadn't yet experienced.  "They give us all a bad name," he had moaned.

And I understand this helpless feeling.  Wasn't it Graham Greene who wrote about The Ugly American?  I can't say Greene was wrong.  Oh, but the times I saw my countrymen/women behave overseas in a manner they wouldn't think of doing back in the States and felt a sense of shame.  Time has seasoned most Americans to tuck their manners into the suitcase when traveling.  Still, the problem often persists, The Ugly American who needs to get his/her act together.  I'm not personally insulted when others are reprimanded.  The Russians I've known aren't either.

Like Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage...."

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Italy Charms

Italy charms.  Slowly.  Like a flower whose scent drifts, pulling you into an orbit of beauty, where bad happens in another place, another time, like yesterday's newspaper, left on a terrace table, the English gaining my attention, the headlines so dramatic, so far away I recoil from what threatens and walk away, preferring the scented beauty, the Italy that charms, the Italian language that seduces, like a lullaby, into feeling safe and secure.

After four lovely days in Munich (which I'll blog about after returning to the States, for something interesting happened which I'd like to share, hear your input), we're into our routine at Jesolo Beach, an hour's ferry ride across the bay from Venice, Italy.  It's a tourist area that shuts down in winter, reverting to the gray emptiness expected from a narrow peninsula victimized by seasonal winds and heavy rains.

In the meantime, tho, the sun shines in a cloudless blue sky, tourists wander the town's shaded streets, beach devotees have claimed lounges or locals go about morning errands.  The atmosphere is peaceful, very relaxing.  Dick's out by the pool, content reading a Daniel Silva novel, half-shaded under his umbrella.

I don't like sitting in the sun, umbrella or not, even with sunscreen, a hat, and so on.  I enjoy exploring side streets, taking photos, and walking and not really thinking, just absorbing.  Around noon, Dick and I meet at a   beach hangout popular with Italians (for most of the tourists here are Italian).  He usually orders a beer and a panini.  I don't order anything.  There aren't any calories in what I pinch from his plate!!  That sip of beer, too!

What I've noticed most about the area, is how generational the lifestyle is.  Sons work with fathers in the small shops.  Grandmothers push strollers (prams).  Long-time friends gather in the piazza and talk and laugh.  Small kids know to endure the pinch on the cheeks, the kisses, the exclamations about how beautiful they are.  Dogs know to flatten down, to wait until they can return to being dogs, tails up, paws moving, styling and profiling.  It's Italy.  Everybody and everything looks good.  Not a speck of dust on constantly washed cars.  Store windows sparkle.

Our hotel serves dinner at 7:30.  It's the only hotel in the area to include breakfast and dinner in the daily price.  Dinner includes a long salad bar, a soup and pasta bar, and a buffet of fresh vegetables and grilled (while you wait) meats and fish.  Dessert consists of a table filled with mouth-watering tortes, with a parallel fruit table, the cherries, strawberries, and melons that are in season.  One can top off the fruit with gelato.

And, so, for a week we enjoyed a leisurely paced routine.  Until a large group of Russians checked in.  Now, no one knows what to think.  Not just us, the lone tourists from the United States.  But the numerous Brits and Germans and Austrians.  We've begun to gather and compare notes.  Decide what to do.  When there's only one thing to do:  Come to breakfast and dinner earlier, change our leisurely routine.

If not, there's little food, with the hotel staff scrambling to find fillers.

It's beyond comprehension that a group of people can put so much food on plates (for each balances more than one filled plate), move as a group, not following the course order, piling on the really good stuff (for a menu is posted daily).  And they eat it all, every crumb, scraping plates clean, as if an eating marathon exists.  Then, they leave.  With the rest of us sitting there, wondering, what the hell was that all about?

There's a bit of sympathy, that that many people are that hungry.  But sympathy only goes so far.

For those of you new to my blog, my hub and I lived in Macedonia for two years.  I learned to speak Macedonian fairly well.  Some Macedonian laces Russian (or vice versa).  So, I understand a bit of these Russian conversations.  In short, they don't like us, look down upon us, enjoy talking about us.  By 'us' I mean those of us from the West, be it Austria or Germany or England or the United States or wherever.  I wish I could list exceptions and say this couple or that person was very nice.  I can't.  They move as a group with a group mentality.  Nothing individual here.  Not even a response to routine greetings in their language.

I wish I could say that this is the experience from one tour group.  Not so.  Out desk clerks say it's the same with Russian tour groups everywhere here.

And the Russians shop en masse, flush with euros (oil money), buying high-end designer items with the same abandon with which they fill dinner plates.

So, where am I going with all this?  Nowhere, really.  Except to say that I, like other hotel guests from England, Austria, and Germany, am a product of the Cold War.  We're a bit taken aback by this East-West divide we're experiencing.  For there are guests here from European countries who speak Russian.  I'm told overheard conversations get harsher when one understands Russian fluently.

One can't buy Paradise.  Reality always slips in.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Cheshire's Tale

Before today's story, I'd like to warmly welcome my new Followers.  Thank you, from the heart, for showing an interest in my stories.

And bear hugs to those of you who've stuck with me these past months. 

To everyone I'd like to say that if you don't see comments from me on your blog, please leave a comment so I can link back to you.  Some profiles lack a link.

When the Geek Squad set up my blog last July, there were Those in my orbit who expressed surprise that I would do such a thing, that I should settle into my years and crochet afghans.  Well, I did crochet afghans, six, to be exact, one as a gift, and five for a charity that benefited a Katrina relief program.  So, now, back to blogging. 

Thank you for your concerns about my smashed finger.  You truly lifted my spirits!!  Because, trust me, there were moments when I was quite angry at myself for being stupid not to watch more carefully what I was doing.

But a positive side of waiting is that I had time to think.  About today's story.  It's a ghost story.  I was a bit nervous about sharing a ghost story.  I'd rather be in Blogville than a Looney Tunes cartoon, if you catch my drift.  But what I wrote is what happened.  And, as President Clinton once said, "That's my story and I'm sticking to it."  And, so, I will.

So, Mundo I hope you enjoy this post.  Mundo is a Follower who lives in beautiful Indonesia.  Perhaps you've read his comments.  Mundo commented that my post about Wendy hit home, that Wendy could have been his cousin.  That touched me. So, when Mundo requested a ghost story (he blogged about perhaps having a ghost near him), I decided to let my healed fingers rip across the keyboard.

* * * * *

The ball of downy white fur mewed softly.  Moist blue eyes, sweet and trusting, turned toward my coos.  When a tiny paw reached for my finger, I cradled Chessy in my arms and rocked her asleep.

My little kitten grew into a brown-faced Siamese with sapphire-blue eyes and pointed ears.  Soft mews became stronger, never shrill, more like a feline drawl that floated on Hawaii's gentle breezes. 

Especially in the afternoon. In 1971, with few buildings air conditioned, afternoons meant the island paradise felt suspended in slow motion.  Birds circled lazily in open blue skies.  Bees snoozed in tropical gardens. A mellow sun streamed through open windows. Breezes off the Koolau Mountains carried the sound of silence into our Kailua apartment.

Chessy had been my Valentine's Day engagement gift, a bundle of joy that had added a kaleidoscope's sparkle to the diamond on my finger.  And while my fiancee, a captain in the United States Marine Corps, worked at the military base near Kailua, Chessy and I utilized my free time from teaching trice-weekly adult education classes to explore the lush stand of trees and flora near our apartment building.

My agile Siamese loved the spirit of the hunt.  Nothing stirred natural instincts like a mouse scurrying among the leaves.  Nimble paws ran and jumped ahead of the mouse, and, with back arched, blue eyes ablaze, ferocious hisses drowned pitiful squeaks.  Until the hunter walked away, not interested in the kill.

When a lone bird came into view, Chessy crouched low, brown and white markings the perfect camouflage, muscles taunt, ready for the lunge.  Then, she'd meow.  And the bird would fly away. 

Chessy possessed a hunter's appetite but an angel's heart.
 
Sometimes we'd sit in the shade by the apartment complex's pool, Chessy on one lounge chair, me on the other, umbrella up, under an overhanging tree's branch.  I'd fold over the towel beneath Chessy for additional shade.  As I did for myself. 

Since we were usually the only visitors, my pool-mate objected to lying around with nothing to do except watch me read. I worked to ignore a mewing brouhaha.  What I couldn't ignore, though, were the dramatic Sarah Bernhardt flourishes where Chessy covered narrowed eyes with a paw and howled.  So, we'd leave, the victor's tail up, blue eyes triumphant.

Chessy followed me everywhere, tail up, eyes watching, nose sniffing or paws racing when I'd break into a jog.  And when Chessy wearied of adventure, she'd stretch on the forest floor and stare at me, until I scooped her up for the return trek.  But the clever beauty would squirm free and sprint ahead with Olympian resolve, all the while glancing back to see if I followed.  I did.

Like every feline who'd ever walked the earth, Chessy had her tricks.  We understood each other perfectly.

Of course, with Hawaii being the land of Aloha, love snared Chessy.  I returned from an evening class to find her and another Siamese sprawled on the bed, their paws circling into coy flirts.  Startled by the intrusion, the suitor raced through the apartment, out the louvered window, and down the steps, never to be seen again. 

Unfortunately.  For this muscular dude wasn't a surfer bum but a prized show stud who'd fled masculine Nirvana for Chessy's modest pad. Fliers promised a $200.00 reward for the gorgeous hulk's return, a fortune in the days of cinder block bookcases.

However, the next day's scheduled visit to the veterinarian's clinic revealed Dick and I were expectant
grandparents, the exact opposite of the visit's purpose.

At my exasperated sigh, the vet apologized for not operating when I had requested and waived the appointment fee, an appreciated windfall that led to financial dreams:  How pedigree kittens could pay off a school loan, give us a honeymoon trip to Australia and New Zealand, perhaps buy a real bookcase. 

Oh, but the dreams were big - no, huge! - for Dick and I were young, and love swirls in dreams.  Those magical dreams where hearts thump and eyes sparkle and life's energy pulsates through your very being, those magical dreams where you look into open blue skies and think, Oh, God, yes!

However, the blessed event momentarily dashed fanciful dreams.  Chessy gave birth to five wiggly meows.  The sleek beauty had indeed fallen for a surfer bum, a live-for-today Tom with bold, black and white Aloha shirt markings who had strutted into the neighborhood. 

But Dick and I fell in love with the babies, just as Chessy had.  She doted on her kittens, smothered them with licks and warm nuzzles, and, just as Chessy followed me everywhere, five black and white kittens learned to follow their mother throughout our two-bedroom apartment. Soon, like goslings, the tonga line ventured onto the lanai (balcony).

Fortunately, Dick and I had five friends who wanted kittens.  For once the kittens reached the lanai, Chessy grew aloof, almost turned on her babies. 

After the kittens departed, I thought the apartment felt empty.  Not Chessy. She jumped onto the green sofa and meowed for me to join her for a nap, as she had done before the babies were born.  Relieved to be free, Chessy stretched her long, muscular body against my side, put her head on my shoulder, and fell asleep.

As such, time passed.  Dick and I married. The Marine Corps decided we'd move to Virginia.  And this was fine, except we didn't know what to do about Chessy

She had developed the annoying and destructive habit of not using the litter box.  Toiletry deposits appeared in shoes, behind the sofa, on the sofa.  We (and the vet) tried everything to break this habit, but stubbornness prevailed. 

Even though Dick loved Chessy dearly, I sensed she had become jealous of him, the husband who left on deployments that lasted weeks and returned for brief days.  For there were times, on the weekends when Dick was home, that she had meowed for us to take a nap, only to watch me leave with Dick.

When I closed the lanai door, Chessy would curl into a tight ball, face hidden, her back to the world.

But, at evening's end, when Dick and I pulled into our parking slot, we'd see our watch-kitty waiting patiently for our return (for she knew the sound of our car, could exit through the louver window).

The three of us would walk toward our second-story apartment, the light evening filled with meows about where we'd been.  But when we reached the steps, Chessy would stop. I always carried Chessy up the steps, her sweet face nuzzled into my neck, her soft purrs the perfect sundowner.

So, the day before we had to schedule Chessy for a flight to the Mainland, for we had no choice but to leave Hawaii, Dick and I sat at our small kitchen table and debated the options.  A friend with a large yard desperately wanted Chessy

Just as desperately, we wanted to keep her.  But her toiletry habit had become impossible.  My heart tugged.  As much as I loved Chessy, I wanted her to feel free, not restricted to what a townhouse offered.  For we'd be living in a cramped townhouse at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Virginia.

Our decision was that if Chessy used her litter box in the morning, she'd fly to the Mainland.  Just to make sure Chessy understood the ultimatum, I turned to my feline shadow and admonished, "Do you hear that, Missy?" and burst into tears.

The next morning, Chessy had used her litter box.

For 14 years, Chessy moved with us, whenever the Marine Corps issued orders, and there were many moves among the various bases and installations. Chessy adapted to Dick's erratic schedule.  Dick learned that Chessy like to have her ears scratched. And, so, the years passed. Chessy, like us, acquired a few grey hairs, suffered dental problems, and nursed aching muscles.  But we adapted.

Tired as she may have been, Chessy always greeted guests and followed them into the living room, watching, waiting, sometimes talking (as Siamese do) until the party's crescendo overwhelmed feline sensibilities.  Our hostess would then retreat to the kitchen for party treats:  five shrimp (boiled without salt, then peeled) and nine small potato chips.  After a big water slurp, eager paws raced upstairs, jumped onto the bed and slept the party off.

When my husband wasn't deployed, Chessy slept at the foot of our bed. 

During most deployments, Chessy slept curled up with me, as she had in Hawaii, with her head on my shoulder. 

When her body ached, though, and she had to stretch -- for Chessy now had a kidney problem -- Chessy would lie in the center of the bed and wait for me.  Meows encouraged me along. 

Finally, I'd turn off the lamp, snuggle under the covers, and reach for Chessy's extended paw.  When she felt my touch, she'd meow softly, curl her paw around my fingers, and I'd drift off to sleep.  And I was blessed.  Because whatever the military threw at me, I could handle the challenge. The night's demons never shadowed my sleep.

The vet assured us Chessy wasn't in pain and could live for months with a decent quality of life. But her failing health meant she couldn't accompany us on the long haul.  We had Marine Corps orders for back-to-back overseas tours:  Six months in Rome, Italy, and three years in Nairobi, Kenya. 

I sobbed buffalo tears when Chessy flew to my sister's home in Houston, Texas.  Before Dick and I left for Rome, I'd call my sister to hear Chessy's meow. I'd hang up the phone and try not to cry, not to sob tears that gushed from the soul, rolled down reddened cheeks, and splattered the tablecloth.  But I did.  Every time.

Still, life had to go on.  Our first year in Nairobi, Kenya, we joined friends for an Easter service at a traditional African church.  Traditional, that is, in the sense that the steepled church had a mud brick floor; open windows where white crocheted curtains fluttered; old, hand carved wooden pews with a patina that glistened in the morning sun; and an African choir that sang in Kiswahili.

It was during one of these hymns that the morning's peacefulness gave way to a sudden tremble.  I felt dizzy, nauseous, and broke into a sweat.  Concerned, Dick asked what was wrong.  My hands were cold; my face was ashen.  I didn't know what was wrong.  I didn't know why tears suddenly fell.  I didn't know until later.

Because, while the choir sang, Chessy had died.

At the news, I was devastated, pained beyond tears, hurt where I didn't think hurt existed, to the very core of all a warm paw had touched.  I ached -- do you hear me? -- I ached to hold Chessy one more time, to see her tail up, to know she was happy.

Gradually, though -- as anyone who has mourned knows -- I picked up life's thread and wove Kenya into my days.  When the time came to leave, I felt nostalgic before the plane lifted up.  If ever there had been a place that had nurtured my sense of freedom, it had been Africa, a curious statement, I know considering some of the continent's Orwellian habits.  (But live in Africa and you will understand.)

And, so, we returned to Northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C. environs.  At this point, very accustomed to moving, I soon had boxes unpacked, except for two boxes of miscellaneous items in the bedroom.

Knowing that we'd move again in a year, and ready for a mid-morning break, I flopped onto the bed. I debated whether it was worth my time to unpack the boxes when a shadow on the floor in the near distance caught my attention.  Curious, because sunlight filled the spacious room, I sat up.

I didn't know what to think when this shadow, now brown and white, swirled into the shape of a cat, and looked about, as if a transformation had occurred.  But, no, the room looked the same:  Dresser over there; comfortable chair in the corner; boxes where I had left them.  The sun streamed peacefully through the windows.  Nothing moved.  Except the shadow on the floor.

And when this cat ran in circles and jumped and caught its tail and rolled on the floor, I knew what was happening and relaxed into the moment.

So when this brown-faced cat jumped onto the bed and moved towards me, I held out a hand to touch a paw I couldn't feel but which shadowed through my hand.  I then felt a whoosh of air as the cat jumped over me and onto the floor. 

I watched as Chessy walked into the wall, tail up, and disappeared.