Ugly Thoughts

There are things that gnaw away at you; chew you up until all is rotten inside.

There are things that blacken what once was pure.  Burn it up, then watch the ash fall to the ground.

There are things that gnarl your edges, tangle your roots, twist you, warp you into something that you were never meant to be.


You gnaw and chew,

blacken and burn,

gnarl and tangle.

You build walls,

construct stumbling blocks,

sit back and wait for rot to set in.

You warp me into something

I was never meant to be.

You suffocate me.


The Kind You Don’t Forget

Knock, knock.

I looked up from the cords that I was unwinding from the vacuum in preparation to clean the front hall carpet that had been trampled down the day before by many pairs of muddy feet on their way to commodities (the food bank that we have at our office once a month).

At the door was a very familiar face.  It was Mary.  She laughed out loud in recognition as I pushed open the locked door.  Mary has a very contagious laugh…the kind that you can’t help but smiling when you hear.

“Well, hello, Mary.”

“Hello!  I just got my mail, so I thought that I would stop by to get my commodities.  You know, I’ve really missed you girls.”

We had worked on Mary’s house in the late fall and early winter months.  She was the kind of participant that you don’t forget.

Mary’s house is in a bad state.  So bad, in fact, that C.A.P. would like to build her a new house.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet because they’re waiting for a grant to come through.  But, they were able to get a camper for her to live in in the interim.  It’s not perfect, but it’ll keep her warmer than her house at least.

I had heard about Mary before I ever made my way down her road to help set up her camper.  She is one of Debbie’s participants in the elderly program, and Debbie had described her as just about as good-hearted as a human can get.  My first reaction when I parked my truck at the top of the downward sloping, muddy driveway that led its way down to the camper in the valley was “Wow.  This place is beautiful.”  (I would love to see it in the spring/summer – the whole area, according to Debbie, is Mary’s garden).


Mary’s house was on the other side of the road, on top of the hill.  She came down on that first day to meet us.  An older lady with the gray hair that comes with the passage of seventy-odd years bundled up in a dress and a pink ‘boggan (Michigan translation:  winter hat) that both covered her head and  wrapped around her chin, she came down to check in on us more than once that day.  On one occasion, she came down with a photo album to show us her pictures.  There were pictures of her as a child with her classmates from her one-room schoolhouse (most of her classmates, it turns out, were her cousins or her nieces). There were pictures of her children and grandchildren.  She took especial care to point out the pictures of her son who had been shot and killed a few years ago.  He is buried in her family cemetery up the hill from the camper, next to her husband who died last year.

As the days passed and we continued to work at Mary’s, she continued to visit us.  As we dug a trench for wires and water lines, as we measured and cut Wonderboard for the underpinning around the trailer, she was there.

One day she came down with a Walkman radio.  “I just love country music.  I like to sing and dance to it when the school bus goes by.  The neighbor kids think it’s funny.  Do you like country?”

One day the neighbor kids come for a visit.  Whenever the school bus goes by, Mary always waves, and there are always multiple hands that wave back from the yellow-trimmed windows.  On this day, there is a crackling amongst the bracken on the edge of the property after the school bus has left, and three kids come tumbling out…two boys and a girl.  She introduces them to us.

“This is Brooke.  She likes to sing.  She sings with me sometimes, don’t you Brooke?”

Brooke smiles shyly.

One of the boys, probably in his middle school years, grins at us mischievously and looks at our work in the mud.  “Having fun?”

Mary is there on the warmer days, with a shovel and a rake in her hand, smoothing out the driveway, filling in the small trench that we dug for the electrical wires.

“I don’t like being stuck in the house.  I wish it was summer.  Then I’d be out here all the time, in my garden”

She tells the story of when she worked in the tobacco fields with her husband, pulling their baby son behind her in a stroller as she progressed through the field.

She tells other stories, stories that make your heart ache.  As we sit on old lawn furniture, eating our lunch in the pale November sun, she tells us the story of the day her husband died.

“We were always together, even when one of us wasn’t doing so well,” she says.  “Whenever I would come to work on the garden, he would come out with me, even when he wasn’t feeling well.  It seems strange, him being gone.  I always had more health problems than him.  Right before he died, he tried to say something to me.  I wish I knew what it was.”

And there was that day.  The day when she was waiting by the truck door as soon as we arrived.  The day that you could see the loneliness in her eyes.  The day that she told us about the night that her son died.  The day that we were sorry to leave her there alone, sitting on her front stoop.  Mary loves people and there are old memories that creep up on her during these winter days when she lives alone.

Of course, she is not completely alone.  Mary has a cat and two dogs that live on the hill.  One’s name is Lady Bug.  The other’s name is Fuzzy Britches.  As they look down at us from the top of the hill and bark their disdain at our intrusion into their territory, she tells us the story of the day she saved Fuzzy Britches’ life.


The first day that Mary can live in her camper, she goes in and sits down on the little camper-sized sofa.  She smiles that beautiful Mary smile.  “You know, I never thought that I would live in a place this nice!  I can’t thank you all enough for what you do.”

(No, Mary.  We can’t thank you enough for what you do.)

One day, she invites me inside her new temporary home and shows me her collection of novelty jack knives (or, I suppose I should say, “pocket knives”, as “jack knife” is not a Kentucky term).

One of the things that she is most happy about in her new home is the built-in radio.  She sits in a chair by the window as we work outside, and turns the music up loud enough for us to hear.

“George Jones!”  She announces the singer as the music starts.

As the music plays, we are at work building her a little landing outside of the door. We are struggling, as neither of us has ever done this before and there is no Clarence around to tell us what we’re doing wrong.  Mary stops the music and comes out to see us.  Amidst our frustration, amidst our feelings of what-in-the-dickens-are-we-doing-wrong, come Mary’s words: “Well, that looks really good, girls!  See, I always say, girls can do anything the boys can.  You two are just a regular pair of carpenters!”

No.   It’s not every day that you get to meet a soul as beautiful as Mary’s.

And that is why, as I stood in that hallway with my hand on a vacuum, I was able to say, quite wholeheartedly:

“We missed you too, Mary.”




The Little Girl in the Window

It was a February day, clear and a trifle chilly.  Pencil and paper in hand, tape measure at our sides, we were checking out houses in preparation for Workfest.

We pulled the truck into a drive belonging to a little gray house with a crooked fence.  Clarence went inside to talk to the homeowner while Kristina and I set up the ladder in preparation to check on the roof.

Ladder set up, we started to head towards the house.  But we were quickly thwarted.

The little gray house had a guardian.  A territorial dog with a bark and a growl that she used not at all sparingly.  One of her legs was hurt and she held it up and glared at us on her three good legs.  We were not terribly frightened by her (the wag of her tail suggested that she may be more bark than bite), but as she apparently did not want us to go in the house, we waited by the truck.

It soon became clear that we had not inspired curiosity in the dog only.  A little girl peered out the window from the house.  I waved to her, and she stared back.

Clarence came out and we measured the roof, then headed into the house to do some measuring there.  Three-legs the dog, upon discovering that her owner was welcoming us into her house, suddenly became friendly.

“If SHE likes you, then I like you!” Three-legs put her head up for a pet as we entered the kitchen.

The little girl from the window came barreling into the room.  Her dress was pink and her hair was light-brown and disheveled as only a child’s hair can be.  She rattled off a greeting with a child’s lisp.  I couldn’t understand most of it, but I deduced that she had been watching us from the window, wishing that we would come into the house.  She found a ruler on the floor and handed it to me, then rushed into the living room.  She came back with a black cat cradled in her arms and held it up for us to pet.  Its sibling was hiding under the table.  As Clarence inspected the damaged ceiling, she ran to the living room once again and brought  back two more gifts for me:  a toy gun and a toy vacuum (complete with attachment!).

We headed through the house to the back bathroom and the little girl followed, pointing out her room and all of the cool things in the laundry room (clothes, towels, and canned goods!).  She got distracted by a smear on the bathroom mirror and asked me how it got there.

We headed back into the living room, where her sick father sat on the sofa.  She ran to the kitchen and came back, bearing another gift: two cans of Dr. Pepper, one for me and one for Clarence (she had already given Kristina one in the kitchen).  As we measured the door, I tried to balance a can of pop and copy down measurements in my notebook at the same time.  By that time she had dug into her toy box.  She handed me a bracelet.  “For you!”

More toy box digging ensued.  She handed me a little plastic purse with a toy dog stuffed inside.  I deposited it back into the toy box as she left the room to play with Three-legs the dog.

Measurements completed, we left the house and backed out of the driveway, saying good-bye (for now) to the little gray house with the crooked fence and to the little girl at the window, waving with all her might.


Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Morning

The season of Kentucky snow days is upon us once again.  I marveled at the amount of snow that they consider as meriting a snow day here when I first lived in Kentucky, but I have grown accustomed to it by now (weeeell, sort of).

The theme of this past week was snow days.  C.A.P.’s rule for their volunteer vehicles is that they are grounded when the schools are closed for bad weather.  Which is pretty much whenever there is ANY snow or ice on the roads.

Last Saturday we were grounded for half the day.  We awoke after returning from  a volunteer retreat to a thin blanket of snow.  It wasn’t much, but it was enough for me to build a little snowman and stick him up on the railing of our back deck.  As the day progressed, the snowman’s arms began to droop, one eyeball fell out, and his once plump self began to thin.  By the end of the next day, his head had disappeared.  However, his body stuck around until the end of the week.

Monday, as Kristina and I hopped into the housing truck and headed down the driveway, it started to snow again.  The flakes were falling steadily through the fading early morning darkness, flying silently towards my headlights.  It occurred to me that this was the kind of snow (well, any snow will do this really) that would get us grounded if we were still at the house.  And sure enough, shortly after arriving at the office, we got a call from the higher-ups that we shouldn’t be driving.

So we hung around the office all day, not being allowed to go to Brian’s to continue working on his trailer.  I drew a picture of a cow for the wall of Clarence’s office and wished that Gray Hawk (what we call the office building) had the abundance of bulletin boards that Eagle did (when I was in McCreary one of my primary snow day tasks was to spend copious amounts of time elaborately decorating the bulletin boards spread throughout the community center).

Tuesday was also a snow day.  But luckily, we got the call before we left the house.  I decided that it would be a good morning for a winter walk.  I started with a walk down the hill to the road, to check how bad it was (according to Michigan standards, not bad at all – but according to Kentucky standards, slippery and unsafe).  I stopped by the side of the road and looked out into the trees alongside the stream that follows the pavement.

Numerous birds were flitting here and there amongst the branches and the tall grass.  The cardinals, with their bright red plumage, were the easiest to pick out.  Cardinals always remind me of my Great Grandma (otherwise known as Grammy).  She enjoyed painting birds and I have one of her paintings hanging in my room at home;  a lady cardinal sitting next to a gentleman cardinal.  As I observed a plump little fellow sitting on a branch, I understood her artist’s fascination.  Winter is a season of browns, grays, and whites.  Cardinals add a splash of color to the landscape – a splash of color that lives and breathes and changes – a reminder that spring and colors will return in time.  Something that I’m sure my Grammy recognized.

I decided to hike Zig-Zag, a Camp AJ trail that climbs up to the top of the ridge overlooking camp.  I knew that it had the potential to be a slippery venture (I was climbing up the side of a snowy mountain in tennis shoes, after all) but I was ready to give it a try.

I climbed up to the top, surveyed the landscape, and headed back down.  Going down was the tricky part.  The snow lay on top of frozen leaves, which rested on top of mud.  Rather than fight it, I crouched down, arms splayed for balance, and slid down parts of the trail on my blue suede shoes.

For a moment, as I awkwardly propelled myself down the Kentucky slope, I was back in Michigan, sledding down the hill in the pasture.  The snow on the pasture hill was perfect for sledding – hard packed and ice-crusted.  I flew down the hill on my plastic blue sled while the wind rushed past my face, painting my cheeks pink.  In that moment, the past melded with the present and I tasted exhilaration.  I wasn’t slipping clumsily down a mountain.  I was conquering the slopes!

I can get really irritated with these Kentucky snow days and all of this paranoia over a light dusting of snow.

But on this day I relearned the childhood joy of snow days.  That joy that I used to get all the time before I started driving.  I was able to see the snow once again as a blessing instead of a curse.

So, I think that on the next snow day, rather than focusing on the fact that I could be getting some work done and getting annoyed over it, I’ll make sure to focus on the cardinals, on the snow dusting the tops of the trees, on conquering the slopes in my tennis shoes.

Snow day at Camp AJ