The Golden Door

 

statue of liberty

Jemma and Sam were hungry. Their day of hunting had been unsuccessful. They’d scouted for rabbits, but found only berries which they were afraid to eat until one of the Wise Ones pronounced them safe. Instead, they ate leaves; it helped fill their painfully empty bellies for a little while, but they knew leaves wouldn’t last long. They were both growing, or trying to, and they were hungry all the time.

The elders made food stretch as far as possible, often going without so the young ones could have more. Everyone looked forward to summer when they’d plant seeds carefully hoarded from last year. The resulting plants tasted delicious, although the elders said they were different from what grew in the past, just as the children were different with their extra fingers and webbed toes.

Sam and Jemma joined the group at the fire, hoping to be distracted from their gnawing bellies. One of the Wise Ones was always there tending the flames, and at night everyone sat in a big circle for warmth, companionship, light and safety.

“Shall we look at it again?” Jemma asked. She didn’t need to specify what.

There was only one book in their settlement, although they’d heard rumors that other tribes had more. They planned to visit those places as soon as the Wise Ones said they were old enough. Fascinated by the stiff covers and thin sheets full of little black shapes, the children studied the book for hours. The Wise Ones could tell what the shapes meant, but no one else could. Still, the children liked to hold the book in their hands and think of the stories held magically between the frayed covers. Best of all was when the oldest Wise One, who said his name was Leo, would talk from the book.

“I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country…”

Leo said the name of the book was Robinson Crusoe, and what he was doing was reading. That meant he knew what the black shapes meant. Sam and Jemma could recite much of the story right along with Leo, but reading it for themselves was something they’d never even considered. All their daylight hours were spent foraging for food.

What little they knew about life before Now came from Leo. He told them about a place called a city where millions of people – millions, how could that be? – lived in structures higher than the tallest trees, so tall you couldn’t even see the tops on cloudy days. The children agreed between themselves that Leo might have made up that part. He told about people with skins all different colors, colors like midnight, dandelions, snow. Those people once lived right here, he said, in this place where Sam and Jemma and their tribe lived.

“What happened to them?” Jemma asked.

“They fought with each other,” Leo answered.

“Why?”

“Oh, some didn’t like where others came from, or their skin color, or their language, or what they believed.”

The children shrugged. It made no sense, but that was adults. You could never figure out why they did things.

There was only water where Leo said the city had been, but occasionally something would surface. Once it was a huge green hand that Leo said was made of metal. When it washed up on shore, he had the children touch it and they marveled at the texture and density. Everyone gathered to look at the hand before the rising water took it again.

One day Sam and Jemma were hunting on the edges of the great water when they stumbled on an object hard, jagged and flat. Cautiously, they touched it.

“Metal,” they said, nodding wisely.

It was covered in slime, but when they rubbed their hands over it they saw there were shapes like in the book. Panting with effort, they carried it to Leo.

“What does it say?” they asked.

Leo was silent for a long time. Then, haltingly, tracing the letters with his finger, he read,

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The children didn’t understand why Leo wept.

 

 

 

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Jesus is Calling

Jesus is Calling

When Callie’s Aunt Norma died, there was nothing else to do but gas up the car and head for Alabama. Callie’s husband, George, might have had other ideas, but he wasn’t consulted. Family deaths meant you turned out for family funerals, and that’s just the way it was, so off they went on the long drive between Atlanta and Bugshuffle, Alabama.

Picturesque as a postcard, the Bugshuffle Church of the Assembly of Saints nestled among the towering pines beside an unpaved, one-lane road. Callie and George were greeted at the door by effusive hugs from the church ladies, and tantalizing aromas.

“Dinner on the grounds,” Callie whispered by way of explanation.

The church ladies had been cooking non-stop since Norma’s demise. Out back under a tin roof stood long pine picnic tables, soon to be laden with fried chicken, fried okra, fried catfish, barbeque, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, sweet potato souffle, potato salad, cornbread, corn muffins, corn fritters, corn casseroles, congealed salads in every color of the rainbow, and then there were the pies and cakes and banana puddings. George felt his salivary glands salute. Things were looking up.

He and Callie made their way into the sanctuary where Aunt Norma lay in state. Approaching the open casket, they beheld her going-to-glory get-up: tightly curled iron-gray hair, spectacles firmly in place over closed eyes, liver-spotted hands crossed primly on her navy-blue clad middle.

“Don’t she look like she’s just sleeping?” a fellow mourner said softly.

“She purely does,” Callie replied, her voice suddenly a honeyed drawl, “like she could open her eyes any minute, as natural as can be. Bless her heart.”

George looked at his urban wife in surprise, wondering where this country girl had been hiding. They turned to inspect the floral tributes. The ones he liked best were the garden flowers, pink peonies nodding fragrant heads and spears of blue iris arranged in Mason jars. But pride of place clearly went to a huge red and white wreath of mums supported by its own easel.  Nestled in the flowers was a little toy telephone and a purple ribbon reading, “Jesus is Calling.”

George tried to turn his snort of laughter into a cough, but Callie knew him too well. Her sharp elbow bruised his rib and she hissed between clenched teeth, “You behave yourself, you’re at a funeral!”

They took their places in the front row with the rest of the family and settled down to hear the sermon. Unfortunately, the preacher had decided to use Jesus is Calling as  his recurring theme, and every time he said it, George grew more hilarious. He hid his face in his hands, but his shoulders shook with what he could only hope looked like weeping from behind. He believed he might have at least two broken ribs from Callie’s jabs, but even the pain didn’t dim his mirth.

Finally, the preacher wound up with an old-school altar call. “You could be the next one a’layin’ in a coffin,” he told the mourners solemnly, “for we know not what hour may be our last. Yes, brothers and sisters, heed His call, for truly Jesus is calling.”

And at that moment, George’s cell phone – which he’d forgotten to turn off even though Callie’d told him to – at that very moment, it rang. Worse yet, his ring-tone was the opening bars of the University of Georgia’s rally song, Glory, Glory, and there he was in the midst of a crowd much more likely to Roll Tide right over him.

Options flashed through George’s mind: make a run for it; pretend to have a heart attack; actually have a heart attack; but then he was struck by genius. He answered the phone.

“Hello, Jesus? Yessir, she’s ready. We’ll send her on directly. ”

The congregation murmured a soft chorus of “Amens”. Beside him, he heard Callie say, “Bless your heart.”

 

 

Anonymity

anonymity 2

“Yes, sir, right away, sir,” Ethan said. He smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. His job was to be at the service of anyone who came in the door. If he wanted tips (and he did), he had to be pleasant and friendly. All day long. To everyone.

Sitting in his darkened room with only the glow from the computer screen lighting his way, he typed furiously. It felt good. He might have to be cheerful and compliant at work, but that ended at five p.m. Social media, look out. He’d tell those idiots out there a thing or two about politics and religion and race. You can say what you really think when it’s just you and the keyboard.

*All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?

Weekends never failed to disappoint even though Mia’d looked forward to them for five days. The relief of not having to get up early and fight traffic gave way to the reality of a list of chores that seemed to stretch out the door.

“Excuuuuse me!” she barked at the white-haired woman who was blocking the grocery aisle. She bumped her cart, rattling the contents and the woman, who scurried to get out of the way. Nothing made Mia madder than when someone stood gazing at the crowded shelves, debating on prices or reading nutritional information. Old people! They had weekdays to get their cat food and Rice Krispies. Why did they have to bumble around on weekends, when she had a thousand things to do? She was careful not to make eye contact.

All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Luke couldn’t remember feeling rested. The new baby started crying every evening and kept it up most of the night. No matter how little he’d slept, Luke had to show up for work every day. Sometimes he felt like an overinflated tire; just one more puff of air and he’d explode.

BEEEEEP! He lay on the horn. That blue Honda had been tailgating him for miles, and now it was trying to cut in front of him. Well, not happening, jerkface. He stomped on the gas, never letting up on the horn, missing the Honda’s back bumper by a hair. He smiled when he saw the other driver give him the one-finger salute. Oh, it’s on, he said aloud, swerving toward the blue car, accelerating to pass, then braking sharply. The adrenalin rush was intoxicating. For a moment he felt energized with rage. He’d never see that guy again.

Ah, look at all the lonely people…

 

*From Eleanor Rigby by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

 

 

No Time for Sergeants

 

I’ve been asked to continue to story of Joseph, whom you met as a first-grader in a story called The Sojourner. You can find it posted on Feb. 11, 2018, at dorisreidy.com.

amish man and boy

Laughter from down the hall exploded into the room. Heads were raised from school books. Rueful smiles were exchanged. They were missing out, but they knew they should be used to it by now. Amish kids never saw movies.

Joseph squelched the guilty thought that he’d like to be with the rest of his class in the gym watching No Time for Sergeants. It sounded like fun, although he was told it was sinful. The population of the rural Indiana public school that compelled his attendance in 1958 was made up of predominately Mennonite and Amish students. None of them were allowed to attend a movie in a theater, but somehow it was deemed acceptable for the occasional film to be shown in school assembly as a special treat. Acceptable for Mennonites, that is. Amish kids were herded into one classroom where they were told to read quietly. Usually, the movies were religious in nature, but somehow the Andy Griffith comedy had sneaked in under the radar. Joseph and the rest of the Amish eighth-graders knew they’d be treated to a blow-by-blow description of the entire hilarious event with some scenes reenacted. They’d smile politely, but it was never that funny second-hand.

Eighth grade was the stopping point for Amish education in public schools. The grade would be repeated as many times as necessary until the legal leaving age of sixteen was reached. Joseph enjoyed his school years despite occasions like today, when he was reminded that he was different and would never really fit in. He was smart, Joseph was, and learning came easily to him. His report card was made up of straight A’s. Once he’d overheard his new, young, science teacher speaking confidentially to an older colleague.

“It’s just a shame that Joseph Hostetler can’t continue in school. He’s college material, sure to win an academic scholarship. The only way I can keep him interested is to let him work ahead of the class. If he had access to a top-notch science program, there’s no telling what he could become.”

“Just let it go,” the older teacher advised. “It’s not going to happen, and you don’t want to get crossways with the Amish community.”

Anyway, Joseph knew what he’d become: a farmer working in fields and barns and woodshops alongside his Pop. He’d known that since he was a toddler. His sisters would work with Mom, and they would all learn how to be sober, God-fearing Amish adults. It had seemed like a good life until about the time Joseph reached sixth grade. Then his mind seemed to catch fire. He wanted to know. He wanted to learn, even if he never had the occasion to use that knowledge in real life. His parents noticed and were concerned. They talked to him earnestly about the temptations of the English world and the importance of staying true to the Amish faith.

“This is where we belong,” Pop said. “ We aren’t better than anybody else, but always remember that just by living our lives as Amish, we are setting an example.”

It was a long speech for Pop. Joseph didn’t mention school much at home after that.

Anna May Miller caught his eye and smiled shyly. A couple of years ago, she would have winked or made a funny face. But now they were almost of courting age and it was no longer proper for her to do that. He smiled back. She was cute, with her blond braids in a coronet under her sheer white head covering. Joseph knew she liked him. They might even get married some day, if their parents approved. But that was a long way off, and meanwhile, they sat together in isolation, protected from the temptations of the world. Sometimes Joseph felt like his nose was pressed up against the window of that world.

“Do you ever think you’d like to go high?” he’d asked Anna May once. “Going high” and “being English” were Amish terms for those who left the church.

“Oh, no!” she answered, her eyes round with horror. “And be under the miting? Never go home again, never eat at the table with my family, or talk to my Mom and Pop? Oh, no, I’d never want to do that.”

Miting, or shunning, meant Amish families wouldn’t talk or eat with those who left the faith. It was a scary prospect, and although Joseph didn’t want that either, he couldn’t help envying his classmates who had so many options open to them. What if he could be a doctor? Or a school teacher? Those were the loftiest careers he could imagine. But he didn’t voice his thoughts to Anna May. No point in scaring her.

The English kids were returning to their classrooms, boisterous and loud as they repeated the jokes and acted out the funny scenes they’d just seen.

“I thought I’d die laughing when all those toilet seats went up!”

“And the manual dexterity test! ‘He did it completely wrong!’”

“And when Will had to take over for the radio operator!”

Joseph smiled and nodded, but he thought if he could change places with an English kid, he wouldn’t waste his time on films.  He opened his history textbook to the unit on World War II and read a favorite quote from Winston Churchill: “It is not good enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required.”

That seemed to sum up his life. So far. Could it ever be any different?

O Holey Night

insomniaCallie usually slept okay. Not great, but okay. However, there would be the occasional night when, at three a.m., she’d wake up. After the mandatory trip to the bathroom, she’d be wide-eyed. Curling up on her left side, then right side, stretching out on her back, then stomach, Callie chased the elusive dream of sleep. Sometimes she’d realize she must have made a short trip to dreamland, because where else would Megan Markle with that little black bear on a leash have come from? But then her eyes would pop open again.

Grimly, she’d count the hours: “If I fall asleep right now, I’ll only get four, no three, hours of sleep. I’ll be a wreck tomorrow. Towards morning, she might doze for a few minutes, but there was that big black hole in the middle of the night.

Okay, I’ll use the sleepless time to think, to plan, she resolved. But her mind behaved more like a trash compactor than a computer. Instead of reviewing her To Do List, she’d review the day before.

I wonder what my boss meant by that. Did I say something to offend her? Should I apologize or just let it go and hope she forgets? Maybe she wasn’t offended at all, so why bring it back up? Why am I such a jerk?

Or she’d wander down Memory Lane. I was so mean to Marilyn back in third grade. I made her cry. I bet she’s never forgotten it. That was bullying. I was a bully. How awful!

Fluff pillow, flip to cool side. Repeat.

Oh, my gosh! I forgot to lock up the personnel files at work. Should I get up and go to the office right now? No, the security guard might call the police. But I’ll go in early, do it before my boss gets there. So I need to go to sleep right now…

Concentrate on breathing. In…out…in…out.

Ah, she was falling asleep…she could feel herself drifting…drifting…wait! Is that the neighbor’s dog barking? Why is he outside at this hour? He’s barking like he means it.  Is someone trying to break into their house? MY house? We should have a plan in case of a home invasion. We should have a safe room. But we can’t afford to build one right now. If we spend that kind of money, it should be to get that big pine tree taken down. Wonder what that will run. A thousand? More? And then there’s nothing to show for it except a pile of sawdust. But what if it fell on one of the neighbor’s houses? Or ours! It’s right over this bedroom.

Bathroom trip again. They say you should get up and do something when you can’t sleep. But then I’ll wake everyone else. Besides, I might go to sleep any minute. Any minute now. What’s wrong with me? What have I done with my life? Would anyone even miss me if I was gone? Where is the joy? Isn’t life supposed to be joyful? I read that someplace.

Callie’s nightgown was twisted around her like a strait jacket. Her cheeks burned from rubbing on the pillow case. Various parts of her body took turns aching, so no matter how she arranged herself, something hurt. She was too hot; too cold. Covers were pulled up to her chin, covers were thrown back. Her husband groaned. She tried to lie completely still. It was torture. She had to move her legs, they were twitching. What if she held them straight up, reversed the flow of blood?

Maybe there’s something bad wrong with me. Blood clot?  Early-onset dementia? Cancer? I’ve had a couple of bad headaches lately. And there goes that darn mosquito bite, itching again. Do not scratch; do not scratch. Think of pleasant things. Remember that time you got that nice bonus at work? Yeah, and it bumped us up into another tax bracket.

Okay, what about that wonderful trip to Paris? We should go again. But the logistics! Book plane tickets, schedule time off work, take the kids or find a baby-sitter, do kids need passports – I can’t start thinking about the logistics or I’ll never sleep. Count backwards by threes from one hundred. Ninety-seven, ninety-four, ninety-one….

At last, Callie fell into the deepest, most refreshing, dream-free sleep of her life. The kind of sleep that “knits up the raveled sleave of care,” as Shakespeare put it. The kind of sleep that makes a person sane and happy and…what’s that awful noise?

The alarm.

 

 

 

 

The Moai

moai

“Could we try it with our kids, do you think?” Frannie wondered, rocking the baby carriage with her foot. She watched the other four young mothers to gauge their reactions. They’d just been discussing a Japanese custom called moai, a group of five friends who support each other throughout their lives. Traditionally, parents put their newborns into a moai and those friends stay with them for life. Himari explained that the custom originated in Okinawa and was a powerful tool for combating social isolation.

“Do you think it’s coincidence that Okinawan women have a life expectancy of ninety years, the oldest in the world?” Himari said. “They never feel alone. I talk to my moai friends a couple of times a week, although we’re scattered all over the world now. If I needed them, they’d come; I’d do the same for them.”

The moai seemed foreign and artificial to the other women. Friendships just evolved, didn’t they? Like with them – they’d become friends simply by seeing each other every day. They took their babies out for fresh air, ending up in the neighborhood park. It was pleasant for the mothers to rest their legs and chat for a while. They were the park moms; that’s what they had in common, what brought them together. A purposefully structured framework for friendship would feel unnatural. But still, it was an intriguing idea.

“So how does a moai work?”Jody asked.

“Just like any friendships, I guess,” Himari said. “The members of the moai enjoy life during good times and support each other during bad times.”

The women considered their babies, between two months and one year in age, who were variously cooing, sleeping, or kicking their legs. “But what if they don’t like each other,” Caroline said. “You know, sometimes mothers are good friends, but their kids don’t feel the same connection.”

“We can’t predict what will happen in their futures,” Himari said. “All we can do is give them a strong framework and see what develops.”

And so the Eighth Street Moai was formed as a sort of social experiment. The babies grew and climbed out of their strollers and carriages to play together in the sandbox and on the playground equipment. They received many little lectures on being a friend, helping each other, and playing nicely. Their mothers continued to chat with each other, but always with one eye peeled, ready to jump into action at the sound of a certain cry.

One day Caroline didn’t show up at the park. They figured she’d forgotten to mention a doctor appointment or out of town company. But she wasn’t there the next day, or the next, and the group grew concerned. Jody and Paula went to her house and found Caroline in a sodden heap on the couch, her home in chaos and little Jake needing a diaper change.

“What’s wrong?”

“He left me. He just walked out, said he’d met someone else. I can’t think what to do.”

The group rallied around Caroline. They tended Jake, made chicken soup, and cleaned the house. After a while – no one was watching the clock or the calendar – Caroline felt better and was strong enough to start her new life as a single mother.

Jody’s turn was next. She completed her college degree, a long-time effort stretching over about eight years. Despite her self-deprecating shrug – “Oh, no big deal, you all did it in four years, the way you’re supposed to” – the group had a hilarious, wine-drenched celebration that lasted a lot longer than a typical Mommy’s Night Out. They insisted Jody cast aside false modesty and claim her joy.

When Frannie got the scary mammogram report, they all went to the follow-up doctor’s appointment with her. They whooped in relief when further tests indicated the report was a false positive.

Himari’s aged father died in Japan at a time when her finances didn’t stretch to such an expensive plane ticket. The group pooled their Frequent Flyer points and their money and Himari buried her father properly, as a daughter should. Members of her Japanese moai were waiting for her in Japan; the park moms saw her off at the airport and picked her up when she came home.

Paula was the only one who never needed the group’s support. She seemed dauntingly self-sufficient until the day she told them she suffered from depression, an abyss so deep and so black sometimes she thought her family would be better off if she was dead. They took turns staying with Paula around the clock until she could get to a psychiatrist and the anti-depressants kicked in.

By now, the babies were sturdy six-year-olds, ready for first grade. They played together as naturally as a litter of puppies, but soon their worlds would open up to many other possibilities for friendships. Their mothers hoped the moai would hold.

“But you know what?” Frannie said, “I got to thinking, it’s kind of like we have one of our own. We never exactly set it up, though, so I don’t know if it counts.”

Himari smiled. “Oh, I think it does. I think it definitely counts.”

 

The Estate Sale

doll house

When the estate sale sign went up in front of the beautiful old brick home, Ellie took notice. She always gawked at the house when she went by, wondering what it was like inside, and here was a chance to find out. Not that she needed a thing; she’d just look. It would be a distraction from the sadness that was always with her. She swung her car into the drive and parked on the grass beside other vehicles. A lot of people were already here.

Ellie wandered through spacious rooms made disorderly by the wares laid out for inspection. An estate sale company was handling it all, so there were display tables and proper price tags. Sunroom, family room, living room, kitchen, dining room, library, office, bedrooms, bathrooms…as she walked and looked, Ellie imagined the family that had lived here.

The lady of the house must have gone to a lot of fancy parties, because formal dresses hung in one room. There were evening bags and costume jewelry and fluffy wraps. The sounds of laughter and popping champagne corks lingered around those dresses.

The kitchen and dining room seemed filled with the aromas of good food. Conversation buzzed and forks clinked on plates. A welcoming blaze crackled in the fireplace; she could almost smell the wood smoke.

Upstairs she entered the master bedroom. At first, she thought it was vacant, but then she saw an elderly gentleman standing at the window, gazing out over the lawn. He turned with a smile. “Come on in, my dear,” he said with old-fashioned courtesy. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”

“No, just poking around,” Ellie said. “It’s such a lovely house, I’ve always admired it. What happened to the owners, do you know?”

“Oh, I expect they got old and needed a smaller place,” he said.

She stooped to see the price tag on a large framed mirror leaning against the wall, and when she looked up, he’d gone. Ellie worked her way through tables of glassware, dinner plates, linens and curtains. She could tell everything had been chosen with care, but now wore the patina of age. A decorator would say the home needed updating, but Ellie thought it must have been perfect.

In the sunroom stood a huge dollhouse, almost as tall as she was. It was furnished in detail, complete with tiny tea sets and rugs the size of postage stamps. The old gentleman stood beside her again.

“It would be fun for a little girl,” he said encouragingly. “Do you have children?”

“No. No, we want them, but it just isn’t happening.” Ellie heard the quaver in her voice. What was wrong with her, blabbing to a stranger about the most personal sorrow of her life? But somehow she continued, “My husband is one of six and he really wants a big family. He’s so sad that we can’t seem to have a child. I hate to keep disappointing him.”

“Oh, you’re going to have your family,” the old man said. “You know, it would be a good idea to take this doll house home, be ready for that first little girl when she gets here. I know she’ll like it.”

Ellie tried to laugh. “There might never be a little girl to play with it, though.”

“What you seek is seeking you,” he said firmly.

He seemed so sure that Ellie blinked back tears. When she turned to speak to him again, he’d moved on. Fascinated, she stood before the dollhouse; she couldn’t seem to walk away. Don’t be silly, she admonished herself. What would Jake think if she dragged home such a huge toy for a child they didn’t even have?

But in the end, it didn’t matter what he’d think; she simply couldn’t leave without it. The old man had spoken with such quiet authority and his words reverberated in her mind. She manhandled the dollhouse to the table where the clerks sat.

“I’ll take this,” she said. “An elderly gentleman convinced me I need to buy it. Say, would you happen to know where he is? I’d like to thank him for something he said.”

“What does he look like?” one of the women asked.

“Oh, a little taller than me, but a bit stooped, white hair, glasses, wearing a green plaid shirt.”

The women at the table exchanged looks. “You say you spoke with him?”

“I did. Do you know him?”

“Not exactly, but we’ve seen him around.” From beneath the table, she pulled a photograph of a smiling couple. The engraved picture frame said World’s Best Grandparents. “Is this him?”

“Yes. Why do you have a picture of him?”

“This was his house. He died six months ago.”

~*~

Jake was as puzzled as she thought he’d be when she arrived home with the big dollhouse crammed in the back of the car, but he gamely helped her unload it. They set it in the garage, took a step back and regarded it together.

“Why in the world did you buy this?” he asked.

She smiled up at him with perfect confidence. “It’s for our daughter. She’ll be along soon.”