Shepherdess

“There, there little one,” Marianne skidded her strong, calloused hand down the back of the bristly kid at her feet. “It’ll be OK.”

It was Marianne who was fretting and needed the soothing, not the goat nor the rest of her herd as she kept watch on the hillside that night.  She imagined her poor husband David back at their tent in the village trying to stifle that incessant cough of his that could keep the whole tribe awake.  She hoped the poultice of medicinal herbs she had fixed for him would lessen his symptoms and allow him and the rest of the community some much needed rest.  Rather than have David run himself even more ragged in the cold night air, Mary Ann volunteered to fulfill his duty of watching the village’s flock until he was well.

The night was still and cold.  Marianne drew her tan wool shawl around her shoulders and gazed at her fellow herdsmen.  Malcom was stretched out on top of a rock.  What a slacker, Marianne thought.  It was no secret that Malcom had fallen asleep on his watch on many occasions. Those who pulled the night shift with him often grumbled amongst themselves.  No one pressed the issue though, because Malcom had political connections with the census takers.  Somehow Malcom managed to keep half of the community’s head count off the tax rolls.  Nico, son of the village elder who lead them in prayers, was kicking at a decaying log.  A young and restless one.  His betrothed had been sent over to Nazareth to help care for her ailing aunt and poor Nico didn’t’ know what to do with himself.  His father thought that having Nico guard the sheep and goats would help to pass the lonely, nocturnal hours.

Marianne really didn’t mind taking David’s shifts.  It gave her time to think.  She wondered about the meaning of her life as she sat feeling very small under the night sky.  What is it all about? All of her life she had listened to the prophets in the market square.  A Savior was coming, they’d say with such conviction.  Sometimes she was inspired and shared in their excitement.  Other times she felt flat.

Marianne yawned and stretched.  I must stay awake, she shook herself.  She was responsible for the village’s dozen goats that needed their heather and sweet clover on this particular hill.  It would make the richest, creamiest milk for Marianne’s communal task of making her wonderful cheese. She proudly used her grandmother’s methods and spices.  The cheese was a coveted commodity at the market in Damascus.

All at once, a blast of light flooded the hillside as if it were day!  Marianne gasped and rose to her feet.  What in the name of Heaven?! She scanned quickly to her left and to her right.  Both Malcom and Nico stood facing the beam, shading their eyes.  They followed the star moving steadily over the hill towards nearby Bethlehem.

“What was that?” Nico blurted as they converged at the foot of the hill. Malcom shrugged. Marianne was the one who suggested they follow it. “It looks brightest just over there,” she pointed to the glow beyond the hill.

“Let’s go,” Nico agreed.  Malcom opted to stay behind.  “Let me know what you find, I’ll, I’ll stay with the herd.”

Marianne and Nico began running up the path. They breathed hard as they climbed to the summit.  At the crest, they looked down directly to where it shone.  A humble stable was illuminated beneath as though it were on fire.  “Oh!” Marianne gasped and reached for Nico’s tunic.  She felt him shaking, or was it she who was shaking? In her peripheral, Marianne noticed several other shepherds were gathered around them now.  They stood in awe as a halo of shimmering colors pulsated around the structure.

Marianne, Nico and the others were frozen in their tracks as an angel in white and golden robes appeared before them floating in midair.  Marianne clutched her chest and felt her heart beating wildly. Is this the end? She looked quickly to Nico whose eyes were bulging, his mouth agape.  Am I to die here with my neighbor?

It was as though the angel read her thoughts. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

Marianne was greatly assured by the angel’s proclamation but was startled anew as a multitude of the heavenly host burst forth praising God saying,“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the Marianne said to Nico, “Let us go see this!.”

They quickly descended the rocky path and sprinted across the field toward the radiant stable.  Quietly they stood shoulder to shoulder in the shadows as not to disturb a very young, beatific mother and the tear-stained, but sturdy father, who knelt in the hay beside the new born Child.  A warm, golden glow emanated from His small, cloth-wrapped body.

The mother invited them to draw near. Marianne and her companions, overwhelmed in Presence of absolute love, fell to their knees.  A holiness she had never known suddenly filled her with great peace.  So profound and so powerful, Marianne stayed in that Place for the rest of the night.

It was nearly daybreak when Marianne rushed into her tent.  “David! Oh, David! Wake up! Wake up!”  She knelt at his pallet and shook him.  Her mere touch infused him with such vigor that he sprang from his pallet.  “I feel great!” he laughed.

“Oh, David! We must hurry and bring some goat’s milk and some of our best cheeses to them!” Marianne scurried with the earthen bowls.

“Bring cheeses to whom?” David asked, fastening his sandals.

Marianne stopped for a second and looked directly into her husband’s eyes. “The One!” her whole being seemed to smile.  “He is here!”

A Prayer Around A Hole In Deep River (An excerpt from my memoir)

My sister and I rode along in nervous chit-chat and pull into the lot at the Deep River Congregational Church. We followed signs to the church office and met the secretary.

“There it is.” The soft-spoken woman gestured to the cardboard box sitting on the table.

I stared at the light brown package with the many cancelled stamps. If you didn’t know, it could be just about anything.

“Do you want to open it here or at the cemetery?” she asked.  “The urn is inside.”

“I guess here would be easier, thank you,” I said. She handed me a pair of scissors.

I worked at the parcel, tearing off the envelope on the front.  My sister read it.

“It’s a proof of purchase of the burial plot,” she said.

The inner box was wrapped tightly in cellophane and I peeled the sides away.  Finally, I got to the white ceramic square. It was smooth and plain. I lifted it out of the debris.

Eerie!

“Hi, Grandma,” Brenda said.

We got directions to the cemetery down the road.

“Is there a place nearby that we can get some flowers?” I asked. The secretary gave us directions to a nearby flower shop. We thanked her and Brenda carried the urn to the van pretending once to drop it.

“Should we put her in the back seat with a seatbelt?” she giggled.

The flower shop was closed.  We wound up finding slightly-aged, off-white roses at the nearby supermarket.  On the way to the cemetery, we passed Grandmother’s old apartment complex where our father would take us to visit her in the late 70s — and where she ignored my sister. “There’s were you used to live,” Brenda said as if she was talking to one of her preschoolers.  “Should I hold her up to look out of the window?”

What a bizarre caper this was, my sister and I retrieving and now preparing to bury our grandmother’s ashes! My father’s side of the family wasn’t close— in fact only three of Grandmother’s five children bothered to attend her memorial service in Florida.  We adult grandkids didn’t go.  Yet when my father called from somewhere on the road again, and told me that his mother’s ashes were being sent to be interned by some church sexton, something inside me winced.  She was blood, after all, and my sister and I lived only twenty minutes away.  I had called Aunt Carol to ask permission to intern them.  “That would be very sweet, Dolly,” she replied.

“Can this be the one?” I parked my mini-van on side of the road at the sparsely-filled cemetery. Two women were photographing a child playing with a Golden Retriever rolling in the clumps of daffodils.  It seemed an unlikely final resting place for such a cold, meticulous woman.

“This has to be it. There are no other graveyards on this street,” Brenda said, checking the hand-drawn map the one the church secretary had given us.

We waded through shin-high grass to a single granite structure in corner of the yard with the yellow roses from the local grocery store and Grandmother’s white ceramic urn.   Brenda compared the names on the sheet of paper with those on the brass plate affixed to the side of the monument.  “I guess this is it.  But there is no third ex-husband listed here, like Aunt Carol thought.  Grandmother’s name is here, but only as a single plot.”

“Look,” I pointed with my foot towards the dingy plywood square a few feet away from the monument.  I lifted the board and inhaled the fresh dirt.  I surveyed the shallow hole and then spread the roses on their plastic wrapper beside it.

We stood solemnly for a moment.  Brenda recited some of the 23rd Psalm and I joined in.  We trailed off in a murmur because we didn’t know the rest of it.

“I’d like to pray,” I said.  We bowed our heads.

“Holy Spirit, our grandmother’s life was one shrouded in mystery and in pain. Please use us to understand and find compassion for the sadness in her life and that of our extended family. We are asking that grandmother’s soul receive your healing.”

I reached for the urn and paused with it over the opening.  It dropped into the hole and it hit the bottom with a thunk.  I picked up a rose and dropped it in. The stem planted itself upright in the soil next to the urn.

“We also ask for healing and for comfort for our father, Anthony,” I said, dropping in another rose.  It too, stood on end.

Brenda took my lead, “We ask for healing for her daughter Carol.”

“For daughter Jane.” I dropped another rose.

“For son Gerald.”

“For daughter Louise.”

“Spirit, I ask for healing for myself,” I said, dropping my rose into the hole.

“For me, and my children,” Brenda whispered as she dropped hers.

“Yes, for our entire family.”

We paused and looked into the grave. A ring of roses encircled the white square beneath.

We each took a final rose.

“To new life,” I said, laying it on the grass beside the hole.

“To new life,” Brenda echoed.

We walked across the grass and got into my van in silence.  “That’s one for the books!” I said, putting the key in the ignition.

“Wait a sec,” Brenda said, “I want to show you something.”  She pulled out an envelope from her pocketbook.  “Dad sent it to me from wherever he is in Florida.  I got it in yesterday’s mail.”

I glanced over and saw photocopies of news clippings on a sheet of paper with Dad’s scrawl around it. “Those Grandma’s obits?”

“Uh-huh. You will not believe this, but there are two different ones and one totally lies!”

“What? What do they say?”

“Check it out.” She handed it to me and I scanned the two and quickly noticed fake.  “Marion and her husband Edward? moved to this area (Florida) in 1989 from Deep River, Connecticut.’ What the—-? Grandpa and Grandma were divorced in 1961 and he died in 1974, for Pete’s sake!  Why the crazy lie?”

“I knew you’d freak out over this,” Brenda laughed.  “I did a little investigating and I called Aunt Carol yesterday. She said that she and her sister were actually going to make up three separate obits, besides the real one.”

“Huh?”

“She said each write up would have Grandma in different scenarios to be sent to three different newspapers.   The last one was for the Riverton papers saying that Grandma had lived in Deep River with her third husband until he died, and then moved to Florida.  That did happen, but why would any of her ex-in-laws in Riverton give a rat’s ass?”

“Who would even care about the many faces of Marion?”  I sat stunned.

“The many husbands, the many last names,” Brenda laughed. “Mary Day, B-, Van Zant, again Van Zant, and then final, O’Neal…”

“God, so much dysfunction!  So much pain!  I just want to know why and what happened! Don’t you?”

Brenda nodded.  “But how?  It’s all so messed up, how would we find out?”

My reporter instincts were shifting into overdrive.  “There’s got to be a way to find out. Why was Grandmother allegedly like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest? What happened to Grandpa if what Uncle Gerry said in his letter is true—-that  he beat Dad to a point of psychological damage?”

“Why didn’t any of their kids take over the family business?” Brenda asked.  “We’d be a lot better off if Dad did.  We at least deserve to know what happened since we have had to deal with all the fallout bullshit now,” she said, twisting a bulbous zirconium ring.

We sat quietly for a minute.  “I’m on it!”  I said, pulling the van onto the highway heading toward home.  “I’m going to find some answers.”

Moriartys in an Irish Bar Fight!

Our second night in Dublin, the last leg of our eight day country-wide tour, Sean, Erin, Chris and I ventured into Temple Bar.  This hotspot section of the city is known for its ancient pubs, eclectic street performers and odd shops.  After dark and too much drink, it can get little wild if not a little dangerous.  It isn’t uncommon to have extra Garda (Irish police) patrolling on the weekends.  On this particular Friday night, pubs were over-flowing with Irish and German soccer fans either celebrating or drowning their sorrows.  Germany had annihilated Ireland, 6 to 1 at the World Cup Qualifier Match that day in the city.

After dinner we ventured to the very popular The Temple Bar Pub http://www.thetemplebarpub.com/  in hopes to hear some real Irish music.  We stood shoulder to shoulder as a trio, who although Irish, were doing a few too many American covers.

Sean, blessed with the gift of gab (even before kissing the Blarney stone), struck up a conversation with an interesting 20s-something man sitting on a stool nearby. He wore faded jeans, a pin-striped button down dress shirt and wire-framed eye glasses. A pony-tail of thin, brown dreadlocks hung half way down his back.  I remember Erin and Chris commenting that he could be some kind of hybrid Rastafarian information technologist.

He asked Sean if he could please keep an eye on his woolen sweater as he went to the bar or toilet.  I urged Sean to take the seat and situated myself between his legs as we hoped to finally hear some rockin’ Irish.  When the band started playing Sweet Caroline by New York’s own Neil Diamond, I decided to wade through the crowd to find the ladies’ room.  Bumping and mushing into perfect strangers as I tried to find the loo just wasn’t as exhilarating as it was in my early twenties.

In the meantime, the guy, Louie, came back invited us to come to a nearby smaller pub where his band The Blaggards http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bWCLe0NcRM  would be playing traditional Irish music.

A little later, we found our way to The Stag’s Tail, a cellar-pub in the The Stag’s Head, http://www.louisfitzgerald.com/stagshead.  The Stag’s Tail has a rather non-descript entrance in a darkened alley.  Feeling adventurous, we headed down the stairway to a dimly lit room about the size of a city bus. The Blaggards were just setting up when Louie noticed us and greeted us warmly. We sat at a corner at a table on the perimeter of the room, against a wall.

As the traditional music played—old tunes, pipes, bodhran, and strings—we enjoyed the authentic music and special treatment.  Louie shouted out to us over his mic, dedicating tunes to “The Connecticut People.”  During one song, he pulled Erin out on the “dance floor”— a tiny space in front of the musicians– and swung her around.  Erin rose to the occasion and not only kept up with him, but she reached into her hair and pulled out her own two-year-old dreadlock she kept tucked into her curls as if to show Louie that she, too, was a kindred spirit!

As the night wore on, the little pub protruded with revelers.  A group of tanked-up German guys gathered in the middle of what had been the “dance floor.”  The air was hot and thick.  One of the musicians made a comment of how the Irish soccer team was beaten by the Germans but the ones to be angry at were, as is custom, the English.

Suddenly, two young men with their arms locked around each other’s necks came rushing right at Sean.  Our table tipped and and in a flash Sean—neck brace, mending shoulder and all— was up on his feet!  Like Popeye, he shoved those two idiots right in their chests and they sailed across the room into the browling gaggle.

“What the F…!” he shouted.

My lioness came out and I jumped up on the bench and threw my arm in front of Sean as though I could really hold him back if he was going to get into the fray.  “Hey! Cut the shit!” I screamed at the rolling mass.   Fortunately, sensible Irish and German boys quickly pulled the few guilty hot heads out of the way and defused the fight.

There was a mass exodus to the stairs.  Like a mother hen, I rounded my brood  and said, “Let’s get out of here!”

Outside, members of the band stood round us and apologized.  They were truly stunned.  We reasoned it was because of the soccer match and that it obviously wasn’t their fault.

The four of us walked down the street to collect ourselves. We stopped at a place that sold slices of pizza of all things, and had a slice as we relived the event.  “Dad can still kick ass!” Chris exclaimed.

Erin had wanted to go back and give Louie her email address (an equivalent of a phone number).  I sighed at first, but we were full of of bravado, pizza, and a bit of Guinness.  We marched back to The Stag’s Tail.  The band was milling around outside and the drummer (bodhran player) came right up to Sean and clapped him on the shoulder (luckily it was his good one!).  He was sitting closest to us in the pub and was especially impressed how Sean had tossed the drunken lads across the room.  Louie said we were legends!

To show we were good sports, and because much of the soccer madness had subsided, we did go back to The Stag’s Tail the next evening and enjoyed an uninterrupted night of traditional Irish songs and a bit of conversation with our Blaggard buds.  By the way, this group may be playing in an Irish pub in NYC this St. Patrick’s Day.  Want to go as part of their fan club?

Did I just say that?! Blooper alert!

Yesterday after a long day at work, I went to the veterinarian’s to pick up flea medicine for my dog and cat. I really misfired with my vocab! At the counter I  said, “I realized that both my cat and dog were out of flea medicine and wanted to pick up the aphrodisiacs before my house got infested.”  Aphrodisiacs?  I meant to say Prophylactics! The six foot four very manly vet was standing right there listening and grinning.  The  assistant behind the counter was doubled over.  “What’s on your mind?” the Vet said. I blushed, and laughed. “I am really scattered!  Wrong vocab word!”

I laughed out loud as I drove home.  I should have just said, “Gimme flea juice for my doggie and kitty so my house don’t get buggy.”

What was your latest or greatest blooper?  Oh, please share.

Mommas with Middle-Aged Children

Revised, From an assignment in 2006

She walks up my front steps and my heart races.

“It’s so good to see you,” I grab her up in a giddy embrace. Electricity flashes through me reminiscent of a school girl’s crush, but it’s deeper than that. It’s our souls reconnecting, if only briefly.

“I remember you,” they seem to say to each other. We do not rush to pull away just yet. Our twenty-something year history flashes through us in a nano-second. Without recanting every detail, our spirits silently acknowledge the posts.  We were newly marrieds when we first met. A few years later, she was a new mother and I was pregnant when our husbands went to war. We cleaved to one another almost like spouses. Oh, how we understood the other’s fears, frustrations, and loneliness.

Our five kids, born close like stair steps between our two families, have known each other since they were zygotes.  We mammas would run up phone bills exchanging remedies for teething woes and diaper rash, and daydreaming how not to how to lose our woman-selves in the midst of being wives and mothers.

It was her idea that we escape to the Norwich Spa. She was insistent. Our men could deal with the drool for twenty-four hours as we replenished ourselves in the swirling hot tubs after our massages.  She picked me up and we didn’t look back for a whole twenty-four hours.

Through the years, we celebrated holidays and took camping trips as families. Our kids grew closer than cousins. Now with lives so busy with work and multiple kid activities, we don’t see each other very often. Though we live only fourteen and a half miles apart, we might as well orbit in separate solar systems. On rare occasions we catch each other by phone at home.

So it feels like worship standing with her in my foyer. But if  I don’t physically disengage soon, I might start crying.

“Come on up! The coffee’s on!” I pull away and we walk up the split level stairs. She strolls over to my kitchen table and out of habit, takes her usual seat. I pour our coffee and remember her fickleness for sweetening it. “Two teaspoons of sugar, or just one and a skoach?” She smiles and holds up two fingers. We catch up with family news, our jobs, and our husbands. One cup of coffee leads to two, and then we finish off the pot. After what seems like minutes, but is really two and half hours, she says she has to leave. “Gotta pick a kid up from driver’s school.”

Suddenly, I am a desperate junky. “But you just got here!” I feebly suggest a road trip. “The Spa?” She gets that familiar, faraway look, but snaps back. “When? There’s soccer, and guitar lessons, and horseback riding…”

“Yeah. There’s basketball and volleyball,” I counter.

“Some day,” we sigh.  Our souls lament as we hug goodbye.