Saturday, January 27, 2018

Watergate Salad

                Being 27 and single in a Southern Baptist Church leaves you in a nebulous category unmet by the confines of Sunday School offerings.  I’m too old to feel a connection with the other members of the College and Career class, as it is more college than career; most people my age are married and in the Young Couple’s class.  I’m far too young to really fit in with what I call the Old Man class as they are, at the youngest, in their early 60s.  I am theoretically an outcast.  I could teach a class of junior high or high school boys, but what am I going to teach someone about Jesus, having only truly given my life to Christ in the last year.  I was baptized in 4th grade, but only out of fear, when my church watched the end-times movie, Like a Thief in the Night.  I suppose I could fake it, but I don’t think that’s a great premise to share the love of God, do you?

                I attend Parkview Baptist Church and I am a full-fledged member of the Adult Choir.  I sing tenor, if that’s important for you to know.  I am the only member of the choir who is under the age of 50, apart from Christine Holly, a single young lady who shares an adjacent age bracket, which is uncommon here in Whispering Pines, Mississippi, about 20 minutes west of Hattiesburg.  Parkview was aptly named 50 years ago when there was a park to view.  These days there is only a view of the grocery store in the shopping center, but we keep the name as apparently Piggily Wiggily Baptist Church would be a trademark infringement.

                I mention Ms. Holly not solely because she is the only other junior vocalist in the choir; she is also the reason I am in the situation I currently find myself, which is a food crisis.  Ms. Holly is 25, having just completed her reign as Miss Perry County after a Top Ten placement at the Miss Mississippi Pageant last summer.  A talented vocalist, she and I frequently find ourselves partnered, especially at Christmas, being the only two young enough to convincingly portray Mary and Joseph in the duet, Breath of Heaven. 

                We often joke about being the 'babies' of the choir when we share coffee after practice at the little café across the street from the church.  I would love to share dinner or a movie or anything that would move me from ‘choir buddy’ to ‘boyfriend’ but it seems Christine doesn’t have eyes for me.  Or at least she doesn’t seem to; I’m not good at reading those things.  My mother always said I was handsome, but I’m thinking she was biased.  I once asked my older brother, Ethan, if I was good-looking and he only laughed and said, “Not as good looking as me.”  

                In an effort to appear more adult-like, I signed up to bring a homemade dessert to the potluck at church.  It seems like a line to cross from young person to adult; bringing food instead of just eating it.  I don’t want to be the one who never brings anything.  People will talk about you.  I don’t know if that will make a difference to Christine, but it’s worth a try.  And it has to be homemade.  Even bachelor’s can’t get away with bringing something store-bought to a potluck.  It’s just not done, at least not a Baptist Church.  I tried to think of something that would be delicious and easy and impressive, and I remembered my mother used to take Watergate Salad and it was a fairly simple recipe and included pecans, the most grown-up of the nut family. I wrote it on the sign-up sheet and my choice was blessed by Ms. Leotha, after she quizzed me on the origin of the recipe.  She seemed comforted to know it was from a good old Southern Baptist family. 

                Some people call this recipe Pistachio Salad, but most know it by its scandal-adjacent nickname, Watergate Salad, possibly because it was invented during the winddown of Nixon’s Presidency.  There are only a few ingredients including pistachio pudding, cool whip, pineapple and pecans.  Should be a breeze to make, even though I don’t have a recipe card in front of me.  I mean, how hard could it be?

                I go to the Piggily Wiggily and buy the ingredients and remain loyal to this recipe even though I discover pecans are really expensive.  Well, expensive to me.  I’m just starting out my career and am working as a clerk in Human Resources at the hospital.  It’s a great first job but the pay isn’t great, so I must be on a budget even though Mississippi isn’t an overly expensive state.  I set about to make the dessert, so it can refrigerate overnight as my mother did.

                After I made the pudding (per the directions on the box) and added the rest of the ingredients, I noticed something was wrong.  It looked…off.  It wasn’t fluffy and light.  It looked like green pudding with fruits and nuts; a weird unappetizing green.  This would not pass muster with Ms. Leotha, much less Ms. Minnie or any of the other members of the Hospitality Committee. 

                My mother served on the Hospitality Committee, too, and it was her I needed to call to see what was wrong.  I reached for the phone and realized I couldn’t call her; she’s been gone for almost three years.  She died at 54, way too young and it hasn’t quite registered.  I wonder if it ever will.  Every couple of weeks I need to talk to her and I reach for the phone and then realize what I’m doing.  I upsets me and embarrasses me, and I usually end up calling my sister-in-law Michelle instead.  She was close to my mother and it sometimes feels like I’m talking to my mom when I talk to her.

                Needing some cooking advice, I go ahead and call Michelle.  When my mother died, Michelle got her recipe box as she was the only female on our side, sons being the mark of the Fortenberry family.  I figured if anyone could help me with a recipe, even from five hours away in Columbus, it would be Michelle.  She and I have been friends longer than she and my brother, Ethan, have been together as I met her one night at a fraternity party at Ole Miss and I introduced them the next morning at breakfast.

                Michelle and my mother were like partners in crime; both loved Jesus, coffee and chocolate, in that order.  People sometimes ask how they were so close, as Michelle is somewhat liberal, and my mother was so conservative.  One thing people don’t realize is my mother was, in all actuality, and not for political advancement, a compassionate conservative.  She truly loved people; she didn’t get into the specifics of their lifestyle.  She always said, “That’s between them and Jesus.  We’re supposed to love everyone.”  In the early 80s, when Evangelicals abandoned the Democratic Party to support Reagan and never returned, she remained a staunch Democrat the rest of her life.  The only time she was even remotely judgmental was when it came to food, especially food that would be on display at a Baptist Church potluck, the religious equivalent of a trial by jury; not twelve angry men but twelve experienced and opinionated women, blessed by the Lord with culinary prowess.

                My mother was one of the anointed.  I know this because she was allowed to bring an entrée if she desired.  Not just anyone can do that, particularly if you have one of the Deacons who is skilled at roasting or grilling a variety of animals; vegetarians, Baptists are not.  And there is a hierarchy that plays into who can bring what and you must pass muster, or you will be denied.  Those who in the highest rankings get first right of refusal.  They are either known for their particular item (Andrea O’Quinn’s rolls, Linda Bell Moore’s broccoli casserole or Mary Nell Herrington’s potato salad) or have the ranking to bring what they want, or even, in a rare and shocking show of power, bring nothing at all. 

My mother was famous for side dishes and desserts as she was not inclined to put as much money and time into an entrée, unless it was a quick, inexpensive casserole.  When you have a reputation, people ask specifically for your dish and depending on their rank, they get what they want.  My mother’s Watergate Salad was always on the list as Fred Rushing, Chair of the Deacons, was a huge fan.  Mother always took him a small bowl to take home, just for him.  She always told him with a grin that he didn’t have to share it with anyone, even his wife, Ruth Ellen. 

                Anyone new and untested was asked to bring drinks or store-bought rolls, which is the only acceptable store-bought item besides napkins.  May God truly bless your heathen heart if you bring store-bought cookies, which will be served only to the children and only after a series of head shakes and tsk-tsking has taken place.  That I was allowed to bring a dessert was a sign that either (1) they were much more liberal here in Shady Elms or (2) they assumed an unmarried man would bring store-bought cookies, which would save them the judgment as men in the Baptist Church are usually offered a full portion of grace when it comes to such things.  However, I was determined to impress everyone, most especially the lovely, angelic Christine.  If I didn’t shame myself or my family, the Hostess Committee would tell ever single female in the church what a catch I was, and this sort of divine intervention would be more than welcomed.  

                It’s not my goal to have Trey Fortenberry’s Watergate Salad always expected at future potlucks.  I just want to show I can take care of myself and, possibly, someone else. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach but I’m hoping it’s the same for a woman.  Christine doesn’t strike me as the type who has any inclination to cook.  This will show her she doesn’t have to worry about that with me around.  Time to consult those in the know.

                When Michelle answered the phone, I asked if she had ever made Watergate Salad and she admitted she hadn’t, but said she thought she had my mother’s recipe card.  We chatted while she looked for it and when she found it, she read the instructions out loud and we both laughed when we realized I was supposed to sprinkle the dry pudding mix on the Cool Whip instead of actually making the pudding.  I winced at my mistake thinking about how much it was going to cost to but more pecans. 

                I told Michelle, “I feel so stupid for making that mistake.  I don’t want to bring shame on the Fortenberry name.”

                Michelle just laughed and said, “Your mother always told me if I made a mistake in a recipe and it was still edible and not embarrassing that I should just tell anyone who asks that it’s an old family recipe.”

                “Really?” I said, not quite believing my mother would have said that.

                “Yes.  As long as it’s delicious, it won’t (she laughed) bring shame on the family.”

                “I find it hard to believe mistakes can be yummy.”

                “Do you like my banana pudding?”

                “Well, yeah.  It’s the best I’ve ever had,” I said, hastily adding, “Don’t tell Aunt Angie.”

                “Well, it was a mistake.  I accidentally added sour cream instead of Cool Whip, way back before Ethan and I got married.”

                “Really?  It’s so delicious.”

                “Yes, it is,” she laughed.  “Your mother said to pretend it was an old family recipe from North Mississippi.”

                “Well, then I’ll just take what I made.”

                Michelle laughed and said, “Oh no, what you described sounds awful.  Don’t shame the family.”

                I’m headed back to the Piggily Wiggily now for more pecans.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  Say a prayer if you think it’ll help.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Smoke and Memories


                It's interesting how the random presence of cigarette smoke can evoke a memory, an emotion, and transport you to a place in your childhood in such a quick manner.

                I left the front gate of my apartment complex headed the one block separating my home from the beach.  I take a nightly jaunt to ensure my 10,000 pledged steps on my Fitbit, so I can remain honest in my bedtime text to Ben, who asks each day, “How many steps Booboo?”  He calls me BooBoo for reasons neither of us can remember but he asks me about my steps because I told him I am naturally lazy, but can be shamed into exercise simply through a daily inquiry.  It is a promise he made and keeps.

                As I exited, I walked past the maintenance man who was finishing his cigarette, one of the few remaining Californians who continue the habit, and the smell of smoke immediately took me to a motel room in Opelousas, Louisiana, in the summer of 1979.  I assure you, it was nothing seedy; I was eight years-old at the time.  My Dad was working as a rig welder for Tiger Drilling and we (mother, sister, brother, dog) went down to visit him for the summer, back when school children actually got three full months off from school.  He had been staying at the Polka Dot Inn and it was as interesting as you would imagine something with that name would be.

                As he was, at that time, a two-pack a day smoker and, as he remains to this day, someone not known for his cleanliness, the room reeked of stale cigarettes, empty fried chicken containers and, well, loneliness.  My mother did her best to air out the room, but we spent much of the first day at the pool, like you do when you are a pre-teen with no exposure to water other than through a garden hose, a ditch or in a bathtub.  When we made it back to the room to get ready for supper, it smelled very strongly of bleach and Charlie, the fragrance I had saved my allowance to buy my mother for Mother’s Day.  I chose it because I liked the fact that the woman in the commercial was young like my mother, beautiful like my mother and wore pants like my mother.

                By the end of the week, my mother had apparently had all of the Polka Dot Inn she could handle and rented a house for the rest of the summer.  Well, not so much a house as a trailer at Thibodeaux’s Trailer Park, but a nice one with brown leather couches and a pool at the house next door.  The neighbors, with the pool, had a son named Chance and all I remember about him was he let us swim in his pool and once, when he threw a rubber snake into the pool near my sister, she made him get out of the pool and sit and watch us while we swam as she found no humor in his prank.  I don’t blame him for obeying her.  She was almost as tall as my mother even though she was only 11 years-old.  To this day, she is deathly afraid of snakes.  She’s probably mad right now that she just read the word ‘snake’ and if she is reading it on her phone, she probably just threw it.  I promise to tell you if she calls me tomorrow to complain.

                My mother is a great cook and she made meals from scratch most every night, except Fridays.  That was the only day my Dad was able to come home and eat dinner with us and we would either go to a restaurant in Lafayette that served crawfish six or seven different ways, or we would go to the Dairy Bar next to the trailer park where they served pork chop sandwiches, which were simply fried porkchops on white bread.  Delicious!

                The trailer was always happy, just like every space my mother inhabited, and it never smelled of cigarette smoke or burned welding rods as my mother would have my Dad take off his shirt and boots outside and immediately shower when he came home.  He was not allowed to smoke in the trailer, either.  Only outside.  And he never complained; he seemed happy just to have us there.  He typically worked three weeks and was home for a week.  So, seeing us every night, even if we didn’t eat supper at the same time, seemed to brighten his mood.  He wasn’t known for smiling much, but he would each time my mother walked in the room.  He’d grin really big and call her Mama, just like we used to do until she asked us to call her Mother; she liked the sound of it better, I guess.  He loved us and was happy to see us, but he never looked at us with a smile as big as the ones he had when she walked into the room.    

                My mother could usually get my father in good mood, a feat considering his normal personality was grumpy, manifesting as alternately sleepy (from 16-hour shifts), hungry (which was most of the time) and constantly searching for chores for us (mostly me as the oldest son, my younger brother a mere four years-old at the time).  Idle children are one of my Dad’s biggest pet peeves, right along with preachers who smile too much, boys who don’t play football and the smell of Green Apple Jolly Ranchers.  I can only imagine what it would be like to work for him.  I know I didn’t enjoy it, although an employee I was not, as no money was earned; indentured servant would be a more apt description.  I'm not being melodramatic.  "Did you eat?  Did you pay the light bill?", was the response from my father when I ventured to inquire about the idea of being paid for mowing the yard.

When my mother wasn’t around, and he was left to his own devices, it seems the cleanliness stopped, the home-cooked food ceased, and the smell of cigarettes returned.  I don’t know if he just didn’t care that it smelled or that he needed something to fill the space she (and we) left, but whenever I smell cigarettes, my immediate response is melancholy, with the urge to call my Dad, who is at this very minute filled with his version of loneliness, which includes living with his youngest son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.  It seems the only thing that made him happy left us almost eighteen years ago and he wears his suffering as a badge of honor.

Monday, November 13, 2017

When a Belle Robs a Bank

                My son Spencer likes to compare me to Sally Fields’s character, M’Lynne (from Steel Magnolias).  All Southern women have a little bit of each of the characters deep inside, even ornery ol’ Ouiser, but out of the cast, I suppose I am most like resilient and calm, M’Lynne, with one notable exception.  My hair is not a brown football helmet; it is ash blonde, courtesy of Miss Clairol every three months or so.  I can’t afford to go to the beauty shop for anything other than a basic cut these days.  Since my husband, Mac, hurt his back working on an off-shore oil rig, our finances have been tighter than normal, and they weren’t very loose in the best of times.  Those who used to live smack dab in the middle of middle class, is now, in 1993, now reside in the upper reaches of the lower class.  Fortunately, we live in a small southwest Mississippi town where few are visibly wealthy, and people are more apt to not treat you any differently if you seem ‘not poor’.

                We are what I call ‘well’; well-spoken, well-fed and well-dressed, in the sense we are always clean and pressed.  No one really knows we have money issues, except the bank, our landlord, the Treasurer at First Baptist Church (who sees our tithe check) and the secretary at the school where Spencer and Olivia, my youngest daughter, secretly eat reduced-rate lunches.  By secretly I mean, their weekly lunch cards look just like everyone else’s.  My oldest daughter, Catherine, refuses to eat lunch in the cafeteria; instead she uses the money she earns from her part-time job at Prenson’s, the only clothing store in our town of less than 2,500.  Catherine, not a big eater to begin with, subsists on Doritos and Diet Sprite because, and I quote, “Only children and dorks eat in the cafeteria.”  And, yes, she means Spencer is a dork, at least in her world, where the only people that matter are, sometimes me and Jesus, but mostly only her best friend Claire and boyfriend Joel.

                As both Catherine and Spencer are in high school (Senior and Sophomore, respectively) they are unfortunately very aware of our reduced finances and dealing with it as best they can.  Children shouldn’t have to worry about money and Mac and I try to keep it from them but there are only so many times you can hear, “We can’t afford that” before you realize something has changed.  This couldn’t have come at a worse time as Senior Years are expensive and Spencer, my little genius, keeps getting academic awards and invitations to pre-college programs and these require, at the very least, travel and money for food.  It costs money to be that smart and most honor students are from wealthier families, at the very least middle class.  I’ll be the first to admit a welder and a homemaker who didn’t finish college aren’t typically the parents of someone invited to take college courses while a sophomore in high school.

                This is where I find myself today, a reliably normal Wednesday, but normal only in the sense that in our town everything closes at noon on Wednesday, so people can attend night services at church.  I am unsure of the percentage that actually does this, but it is a tradition and we will stick by a tradition whether it makes sense or not.  I have to figure out how to pay for this program at Mississippi State University to which Spencer has been invited; Mac calls it a 'Smart Kid Camp'.  Even though he received a partial scholarship due to his grades and extracurricular activities, we still have to pay for room and board as he will live in the dorm in Starkville for eight weeks and that is around $500, a lot of money in 1993.  My excitement for him has been tempered by the knot in my stomach that any talk of money continuously tightens.  Spencer didn’t want to tell me he got accepted but he was too excited.  When he did tell me, the look on his face was painful to see; like he was waiting for me to dash his hopes and tell him we couldn’t afford it.

                I’m a Christian and I pray every day and I know God provides for our needs but it’s something I struggle with especially since Mac is pessimistic and angry at our circumstances and blames himself and even God.  Trying to keep him on an even keel and putting on a smile for the kids saps my energy and normally optimistic outlook, leaving me with a lessened faith.  As my Daddy would say, “It’s hard to put lipstick on a pig”, but I am as determined as a Mary Kay consultant trying to get her pink Cadillac.  That pig will wear this lipstick, voluntarily or otherwise; not unlike my tomboyish cousin Willadean on her wedding day.  I told Spencer his Daddy and I would take care of it, telling God in the same breath, “You’re up!”

                Mac and I discussed the situation, behind the closed door of our bedroom, and decided we would have to go to the bank to ask for a small loan.  Even though I wasn’t experienced in doing this, we agreed I would handle the possibility of a “No” better than Mac, who might revert to his heathen ways and try to fight someone.  With his back injury, his bark is definitely worse than his bite, but that bark might make you hurt yourself trying to get away.  Mac is scary to other people, but I know how to handle him.  I have the gift of 20 year’s practice and the knowledge that he loves me and would never hurt me.  I said a prayer, got in the car and drove to Magnolia Savings and Loan, where we bank.  Even in a town of less than 3,000, there are multiple banking options.  Besides Magnolia Savings, we have Walker County Credit Union and Merchant’s & Farmer’s Bank, which is one more finance option than we have for food.  Sonic and Sharla’s Burger Barn are the only places to eat in this town, unless you count the truck stop or the Kwik Mart, which I most certainly do not.  I will admit to eating my fair share of Frito Pies from the concession stand at the football field, but we're getting off track.
 
               I don’t remember why we picked Magnolia Savings when we moved here 15 years ago, but we did, and we have stuck with them.  Even though we have been in town for 15 years, we are still considered ‘new people’; more a part of the community than actual new people, but still considered ‘not from here’, which doesn’t help the situation.  Family histories, like credit histories, are long and permanent here in the South, and both of ours are populated with embarrassing stories and mistakes that are difficult to overcome.

                I knew this as I headed to keep my 10:30 appointment with Doyle Vanderlin, the loan officer at Magnolia Savings.  I don’t know him well as he attends the Methodist Church and we are Baptists from way back.  It’s not that Baptists and Methodists don’t socialize, but we truly don’t, as a rule.  So much of our free time is involved in church-related activities, outside of sports and the occasional event like Homecoming or Christmas parade, we tend to cluster in our respective religious circles.  That may be a metaphor for something; what it would be, I can’t begin to tell you.  It shouldn’t make a difference but when you have a connection, some commonality with another person, it’s easier to ask for help.  Then it’s more a favor than a handout.  It takes the stress out of it, or at least reduces it.  Anything related to money or credit scores, in the last few years since Mac got hurt, has induced anxiety.  And, yes, I know stress supposedly means a lack of faith in God but I’m not perfect, so I do worry.  This is an important event in Spencer’s life.  It could possibly alter his future.  He deserves to enjoy the results of his talent and hard work, doesn’t he?  He’s already had so many money-related disappointments.  I have to do this for him. 

                As I walk into the bank, I hope I’ve hedged my bets and Mr. Vanderlin will be right in the middle of the shortened work day; not sleepy at 8 when the bank opened but also not ready to leave around 11:30, right before they close.  I’m not scared or nervous, really, just apprehensive.  I guess that’s roughly the same thing, but I just want everything to go well, which is a hope more than a fear, so that’s different, right?

                I say a quick ‘Hello!’ to Audrey O’Quinn, who is one of the tellers and in my Sunday School class at First Baptist.  She is one of the sweetest ladies and her 1,000-watt smile gave my attitude and outlook a boost.  Audrey is such a kind soul, five feet and ten inches of Jesus coming at you, typically armed with a hug and smelling of fresh-baked goodies, from her perfume, Vanilla Fields.  I was so uplifted I was able to smile at Ramonica Dalley, who work for Mr. Vanderlin and is the only unpleasant Pentecostal I have ever met.  Pentecostals are usually the kindest people this side of the Amish and I always assumed they were happy because they were ‘God’s Chosen People’ (according to their church sign).  Ramonica, on the other hand, is the exception.  When she says, ‘God Bless You’ it sounds like a stranger begrudgingly interacting with a homeless person after a sneeze.  I braced myself as I approached her desk, about ten feet from Mr. Vanderlin’s door, not remembering if she was a Secretary or Assistant or whatever people call themselves these days.  The last time I worked in an office was in 1971, right after Mac and I got married and I was a stenographer at the Courthouse in West Carroll Parish in Northeast Louisiana, right across the river from Vicksburg.

                I smiled my sweetest smile and said, “Good Morning, Ramonica.  How are you?”

   “Well, hello to you, Mary Ellen McAdams,” she said with the formality of a judge or substitute teacher, with no prior knowledge of who I am, as if she only knows my name from Mr. Vanderlin’s appointment calendar.  I can’t count the number of times we’ve bought meat from her husband’s butcher shop near our house.  I mean, I turn down Butch Dalley Road on the way to town, literally every day.  It’s named after her husband, a fixture in our community.  Unnamed or numbered roads were named after the most important or longest-living residents in small Southern towns, once they instituted the 9-1-1 system, in the late 80s.  It is a testament to our limited means and lack of local family history that we now live on Travis Fairchild Road.  If they had named it Mac McAdams Road, most people from around here would have said, “Who?”  Well known we are not.  But it's 1993, and the South remains the South at least in our little corner of the Bible Belt.  While we are not exactly sitting on the buckle, we are at least in the vicinity of the first belt loop, responsible for holding up those Christian pants ensuring nothing untoward happens on our watch.

                Looking away from me and back at her typewriter, Ramonica said flatly, “He’s not ready yet.  You can sit over there.”  She pointed to a chair as far away from her desk as possible to still be considered sitting inside the bank.

                “Of course,” I said, still smiling as hard as I could, “I’m a little early.”  I’m glad to have a minute to gather my thoughts and organize my arguments, although I hope it’s not too long.  I don’t want to work myself into a tizzy as anticipation is often worse than the actual event.  I need to stay positive yet here I am thinking of arguments and he hasn’t even said no.  He might say yes.  I don’t know off-hand what our credit score is but I’m guessing it’s not great; lower than Mac’s cholesterol level.  I’m not sure what the lowest number you can have is but I’m betting we’re pretty near there.  When Mac got hurt, his Worker’s Comp checks were significantly lower than his paychecks and we got into a hole and we haven’t quite been able to get ourselves out.  I say a quick prayer, reminding Jesus He is needed in the bank at this very moment.  I look for a magazine to distract my mind but don’t see any.  Not having sat down in a bank before I don’t know if this is normal or not.  Is it different from the doctor’s office, I wonder?  It could mean that no one has to wait long so there’s no time to read or it may mean Magnolia Savings doesn’t think they’re necessary.  If they don’t spend money on magazine subscriptions, they have more money to lend mothers of smart kids of limited means.  Yes, that must be it.  See, I knew I liked this bank and Mr. Vanderlin.  Oh, his door is opening.  Maybe it’s just that people don’t have to wait.  Either way, it’s show time!  This will work!

                Seeing me, he bypasses what I imagine is protocol with Ramonica, based on her facial expression, and extends his hand, along with his very own 1,000-watt smile (hopefully also filled with Jesus) and takes my hand saying, warmly, “Hello, Mrs. McAdams.  Welcome.”  He leads me toward his office, asks me to have a seat in one of the comfy chairs in front of his desk, rounds his desk to take his own seat and asks, “What can Magnolia Savings and Loan do for you this fine morning?”  Such a nice man.

                “Well,” I began, suddenly realizing I haven’t done this before; ask for a loan, I mean.  I’m not sure how this works.  Why didn’t I ask Mac?  He got the loan for the car and the house and my Daddy got the loan for my first car.  It never occurred to me to practice.  Do you just come out and ask?

                “So…I, uh, we, I mean, Mac and I, would like some…money,” I manage to stammer.

                He chuckles and says, “Wouldn’t we all.”

                Startled, I laugh suddenly and say, “I mean, we would like to borrow some money.  A loan.  A small one.”  And then, remembering my upbringing, hastily add, “Uh, please.”  I laugh again and try to smile.

                “A loan?  Well, we do offer those.  What sort of loan are you requesting?  Auto?  Home?  Signature?”

                “Um…well…not a car loan or a house.  It’s only for a little bit.  My Spencer.  I mean, my son Spencer was accepted into an academic camp and even though he got a scholarship there’s still the room and board and books and we just don’t have the money.”

                ‘Ah, yes, Spencer.  He’s in the same class as my daughter Victoria.  From what I understand, he’s a very nice young man.  Very smart, it sounds to me.  Where is this camp, if I may ask?”

                It’s at Mississippi State.  This summer.  He’s going to take two classes with actual college students.  He’ll already have six credits on his transcripts when he starts college in two years.”

                “That’s wonderful.  Mississippi State is my alma mater.  I sure am glad it’s not at Ole Miss.  I’d have to turn you down flat,” he says and chuckles again. 

                Something fires in my brain and I say, “That’s right.  Go Bulldogs!”  I hope I’m right.  I started to add something about a cowbell, but I must be mis-remembering that.  Do they use cowbells?  Is that a thing?  I don’t watch college ball.  Mac does all day on the weekends and I guess it seeps into your brain simply by being in the room.  The TV is on non-stop sports and even though I spend my time reading and thought I was tuning it out, thankfully I didn’t completely ignore it.

                It must have worked as he’s still smiling.  He pulls a folder from a stack on his desk and says, “I pulled your accounts to have a look-see.  You and your husband have been loyal customers for a number of years.  We appreciate that.”

                “Oh, yes,” I replied, “Magnolia Savings is a great bank.”

                He silently smiles and then says, “Your credit score isn’t strong, however.  How much of a loan did you say you needed?”

                “Only $500.  That’s all.  Not much.”

                “Hmmm.   For that amount, we usually do a signature loan.”

                I interrupted and said, “Yes, that’s what Mac said we’d need, a signature loan.  What is that exactly?”

                “Well, we don’t require collateral.  A signature loan means you simply promise to pay us back.”

                “Oh,” I said, “Of course we’ll pay you back.  Um, how long would we have to pay it back?”

                “Normally, we give you six months. The interest is typically fairly low depending on your credit.”

                “Oh, great.  No problem.  Of course, you’ll need your interest.  That’s fair. That would work.  Thank you!”  This was much easier than I imagined.  Why do people get so nervous about asking for a loan?  I never realized it that simple.  Thank you, Lord!

                He sits back in his chair and looks at me and then at our file again.  This time he grimaces.

                “What’s the matter?” I ask, afraid to know the answer.

                “Well, Mrs. McAdams, to be honest, with a credit score like yours and without a positive loan history, it would be a risk for us.  My job is to mitigate risk.”

                “Risk?  How is it a risk?  I told you we promise to pay it back.  I’m a Christian.  Do you think I wouldn’t pay it back?”

                “It’s not that we don’t think you would pay it back.  Its…”

                I interrupt him and say, “What is it then?” a little more loudly than I wanted.

                “Mrs. McAdams, can I call you Mary Ellen?  Mary Ellen, my job is to make sure my employer is safe from losses on risky loans.  I am simply trying to decide if you are a risk worth taking.  I’m unsure.”

                He sits back again, this time steepling his hands, looking at me like my old English professor, Dr. Watkins at Louisiana College my freshman year, before I quit against Daddy’s wishes and married Mac, against Mother’s wishes.  Not so much condescending as unsure of my character; like he was deciding if I was worthy, if I could be trusted.  Rude is what is was!  I guess I had worked myself into somewhat of a tizzy because before I could stop myself I stood up and practically yelled, “I said we’d pay you back!  I wouldn’t lie!  I’m a Christian, Mr. Vanderlin!  I’m a Sunday School teacher at First Baptist.  I cannot believe you don’t trust me!  That you think I would steal your money!”  

                “Mrs. McAdams, please don’t be upset.  I haven’t said no, I’m simply trying to work with you.”

                “Oh, you’ve already decided.  It’s in your face and in your hands!  My Spencer will go to that program!  He’s smart and he deserves it and it’s not his fault we’re not rich!”

                “Mrs. McAdams, please sit down and let’s talk about this,” he pleaded.

                “Look, I already talked to God about this and He is on board, so unless you want to me to rob this bank, you need to get out your checkbook and give me that money!  Do you want to go against God’s wishes, Doyle, can I call you Doyle?  Do you?  You'll have to answer to God, I hope you know!  I’m going back out to the lobby and I’ll wait for my check!”  I turned and ran right into Ramonica who had opened the door and asked, “Is everything all right in here, Mr. Vanderlin?  Should I call someone?”

                We both looked at him and he stood there, open-mouthed and said, “Uh…no…Mrs. Dalley.  Everything’s fine.  I’m just going to complete the paperwork for Mrs. McAdams’s loan.  She has offered to wait in the lobby.  Can you get her a glass of water or something?”

                Looking at me like I was crazy, Ramonica said, nervously, “Sure, Mr. Vanderlin.  Mary Ellen, would you like some water?”

                Still flustered and red-faced, I answered, “Yes, Ramonica, that would be nice.  Thank you.”

                I walked out to the lobby, sat in the chair, ashamed that, apparently, the Steel Magnolias character I most resemble is Ousier.  I absent-mindedly looked for the magazines I forgot wouldn’t be there and pretended no one was looking at me and that I hadn’t just threatened to rob a bank.  Oh, I'm gonna have to pray for forgiveness tonight.  

                Mr. Vanderlin quickly brought a check and some paperwork to sign and I left very quickly, telling Audrey, “I’m fine, thank you” when she asked if I was okay.  Lord help me, I have made a fool of myself, but it was worth it.  Spencer can go to his smart kid camp. 

                I got home and told Spencer “I took care of everything, sweetie, you can go to MS State this summer.”  I didn't tell Mac anything.  He doesn't know anybody in town and rarely leaves the house, so he'll never find out, thank goodness.

               Spencer was so excited, hugging me and repeating, “Thank you Mama!”  I couldn’t help but smile and get a little teary-eyed.  He will make something of himself, I just know it.  And in the end, it will be worth the gossip and embarrassment and all manner of things said behind my back.  At least I still live in a place where no one says anything negative to your face.   At least they better not;  apparently I have a temper.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Is Pennywise a Fashionista?


                It’s October and my friends and neighbors of the heathen variety have begun decorating for their favorite pagan holiday.  I’m kidding, of course, but I always say an extra prayer or two for these particular sinners this time of the year.  Namaste, or whatever.

                Talk of Halloween always leads to talk of fear – what scares people, why, how can (you) scare someone without getting beat up, etc.  I have some very specific but not uncommon fears:  clowns, small dark spaces, white people in large groups, flip flops and jeans.  Wait, that last one is a pet peeve more than a fear, but it’s awful nonetheless.  Other pet peeves include forced small talk in social situations, people who laugh at their own jokes, wasted potential and vegan dishes with the single exception of the Vegan Chocolate Cake from Whole Foods.

                The reason I was thinking of scary things was I noticed the storm drains while walking to my favorite breakfast place in my neighborhood, Chuck’s Coffee Shop.  I am consistently hyper-aware of storm drains ever since I watched Stephen King’s It on VHS in college; it messed me up, y’all.  That was in 1992 and I still cannot walk past a storm drain at night without moving to the middle of the street.  Even in the day time I am loath to walk directly by them, ever alert to the possibility of a clown, balloon or both. 

                It occurred to me that you could scare many people by simply tying a red balloon to a storm drain, not to mention if you placed a clown mask just inside the drain itself.

                I have seen the commercials for the new, updated movie, It.  I have also seen numerous photos of the restyled Pennywise the Clown, sent from my thinking-they-are-funny-but-they-are-not friends.  Of course, he’s terrifying at first glance.  However, one thing caught my eye the last time I quickly scanned the photo before screaming and throwing it across the room.  When I am frightened, I do not freeze in fear.  My first instinct, when scared, is to hit/throw and then run, like if Mike Tyson and Usain Bolt had a child, except pale and out of shape.  Okay, maybe not like Mr. Tyson and Mr. Bolt.  How about if Lord Grantham (from Downton Abbey) and Beverly Leslie (from Will & Grace) had a son?

                What I noticed was Pennywise’s outfit.  It’s an odd mix of styles.  It’s King Louis XIV meets Moulin Rouge meets Gene Simmons (from Kiss) preparing to sit for a portrait by Vermeer.  I mean, who decided mid-calf ruffles and bows would inspire terror?  And wouldn’t a cotton or lace ruff (that fluffy cravat-gone-awry) inhibit you from properly unhinging your jaw like any self-respecting creature intent on killing and/or maiming?  Not to mention, who wears white in the sewer?  Even the proud lineage of wash-n-wear polyester has its stain-resistant limits.

                The ensemble looks very specific, almost as if it were custom-made.  Wouldn’t that be an interesting design consultation?  Did he and the designer argue whether or not three red puff balls down the front of the outfit was more menacing than four?  Was he attempting to use the high waist and peplum as some sort of treatise on the torturous rule of French Royalty or did he simply think something so fashion-forward would frighten the tacky masses?  Suffice it to say, whatever Mr. Pennywise wanted, he got.  You would be forced to say yes to that particular style of dress or have your soul eaten or whatever he does to people, I’ve purposefully forgotten.

                The original Pennywise dressed like Bozo the Clown.  It was frightening in its familiarity underscored with malevolence.  He looked like any other random creepy clown at a circus, birthday party, driving a panel van for kidnapping purposes.  This new couture Pennywise is entirely something else, and I wonder if It’s actually scary.  If your entrance into a room would cause Tim Gunn to question your level of taste, as opposed to, say, flee in fear, you may have miscalculated your 'look'.

                Is Pennywise from the past?  The future?  Are flounces making an unwelcome comeback much like acid washed denim?  I love a turtleneck but I am not prepared to embrace the ruff, lace or otherwise.  And no one can pull off a peplum, y’all.  Seriously, no one.  Maybe Portia DeRossi DeGeneres, but even then I'm unsure.

                I am assuming his ensemble was a risky choice designed to lull his victims into an initial lack of fear so he could kill them more easily.  I don’t know if Pennywise was overthinking it or if I am but it feels like someone was trying too hard and that’s more sad than scary.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Just a Normal Wednesday at Work

          From time to time there are those who ask, 'What exactly do you do at work every day?"  It's an interesting question and I understand not everyone has an idea of what the Assistant Director of the VA Long Beach Healthcare System would do on any given day other than attend meetings, wearing a suit.  Truth be told, I do attend a lot of meetings and I do wear many beautiful suits with coordinating ties and pocket squares.  I sometimes attend pre-meeting meetings, which are actually a thing; luckily they are the exception rather than the rule.
          One of the things I get to do and one I enjoy is speaking to groups of people whether to support, inspire, educate or simply entertain.  The Dad says I should be thankful I "get paid to talk" and I am very thankful.  Days like today, I relish the opportunity to offer demonstrable support to the remarkable people who do wonderful work for our veterans.
          This morning, I was honored to represent VA Long Beach at the Annual Community Behavioral Health Summit in Orange County.  It is a collaboration between VA and our community partners to address mental health issues among our veteran population with this year's emphasis on ending veteran suicide.  I thought I would share with you my opening remarks.
          "Good morning.  It is my privilege to welcome you to the Annual Community Behavioral Health Summit.  This event is an integral part of our ongoing journey to end veteran suicide.  This year's theme '22' is a number with which we are all familiar and one we want to improve.  It's the number of veterans who commit suicide every day.  It's easy for people to say to us, "Let's end veteran suicide"; it is difficult to do, especially considering more than 60 % of the veterans who complete suicide are not receiving care at any VA medical center or clinic.
          Recognizing we cannot address this challenge alone, we seek to collaborate with you, our community partners, to develop creative, meaningful solutions to get our message of help and hope to our veterans wherever they live and whatever their circumstances.  We want to ensure those who need our services are helped in a timely and comprehensive manner.
          While VA has made strides with presumptive diagnoses for PTSD and TBI (in those returning home from the most recent conflicts) and expansion of tele-mental health programs.  Department of Defense is beginning to partner with us to share medical histories of those leaving service, but there are still gaps in reaching those who needs us, especially considering the veteran population is seemingly wired to believe that asking for help is a weakness.
          My father is an Army vet from the Vietnam Era and has suffered for years with depression and what seems to be undiagnosed PTSD.  He refuses to address his need for mental health services because he has said many times, "I'm Airborne.  I can deal with anything.  I don't need no shrink."
          We want you to know we know your work is an uphill battle and we applaud your willingness to tackle this challenge.  We also want you to know our support for your work will not waver and our trust in your ability to end veteran suicide is steadfast. 
          We truly thank you for what you have and will continue to accomplish.  We wish you Godspeed in these life-saving endeavors which continue here today and throughout what we know will ultimately be a successful collaboration to end veteran suicide in Southern California.
          But we need you to remember to practice self-care.  You are too important to forget about taking care of you.  You must do everything you teach others to do to ensure you are in peak fighting form every day.  This is a battle for the lives of our heroes and you are the key component in our strategy to win this battle.
          You are the deliverers of exceptional mental healthcare and if I can leave you with one thought, it would be this:  Never forget you are not alone in this fight for our veterans' lives.  We are here to support you so you can be there to save them.
          Thank you."


          There are many wonderful things happening at the VA every day.  I guess I don't share enough of the great work we accomplish each and every day.  I think I will start by giving you some insight into at least what we're doing here in Long Beach, California, where we have same day Primary Care and Mental Health walk-in clinics, just to give two examples.  It's how we are trying to meet and exceed the expectations of our Nation's Finest and I am so very proud to call this organization and it's many talented and compassionate employees, my home team.



Saturday, September 16, 2017

Why on Earth Do They Have Wings?


Recently my church put together care packages for the homeless.  In each package, there were items like a toothbrush and toothpaste, lotion, razors, shampoo, Q-tips, socks and a $5-10.  Along with those we had smaller additional bags with snacks, like trail mix and granola bars.  There were also additional bags with feminine hygiene products, for the female homeless we unfortunately have here in Southern California.  I don’t know why, but it bothers me much more when I see a homeless woman than when I see a homeless man. 

However, I was excited about these additional female-centric bags as I know of several homeless women who spend time in and around the shopping center parking lot, across the street from my medical center.  I go there almost every day to get my iced tea at the Starbucks located just inside the front door of Target.  Full disclosure, I go there six days a week and they make my drink (along with my co-worker Melissa’s drink) a soon as they see us enter the store.  I don’t know whether to be flattered or embarrassed, so I choose to be flattered.  I do not have an addiction to tea, he said defensively.

                I took five of the large packages as well as the snack bags as there are a surprising number of homeless on my drive to work, even though the commute is less than two miles.  I also took three of the female packages as I thought I might be able to help the ladies around the Target.  I refer to them as the Ladies of Target but I realize, as I type this, you might confuse them with the wonderful ladies who work at said Target and I don’t want to upset them, as they hold the keys to my happiness; mostly iced tea and the occasional bag of Pop Chips.

                As the week went by, I was able to navigate the appropriate and safe lane changes to come into contact with the homeless on my trips to and from work, errands, dinner and, let’s be honest, shopping.  However, I ran out of bags before I saw any of the homeless women.  I began to notice that I had not noticed them in the week or so since I became well-supplied to offer assistance.  I am unsure if they have found housing or moved away or something more nefarious has happened.

                Truth be told, since I have been out of town on a whirlwind speaking tour of Central Texas (and by whirlwind, I mean I spoke at one conference, but they paid me to speak so, yay me!) I had completely forgotten about the small bags filled with bags of tampons (and I apologize to my sister Shontyl, for having just typed that particular word) sitting on the floorboard in the back seat of my car.

                Their presence was brought to my attention this morning when Ben opened the back door of the car to place the groceries on the back seat after our jaunt to Trader Joe’s.  He asked, with great concern in his voice, “BooBoo (he calls me BooBoo), what is in this bag?”

                I replied, “Oh, it’s just tampons for homeless people.”

                He asked, “Oh?  Do they require these items?”

                I said, “Well some of them do but I couldn’t find them so I now have a bag filled with smaller bags filled with tampons and I don't know what to do with them.”

                And I truly don’t know.  Do I drive up and hand them, without any other items or explanations, to the first homeless woman I see?  Do I throw them away?  Isn’t that wasteful?  Do I take them back to church and turn them in?  Do I offer them to a female friend?  Is that intrusive?  Is it appropriate?  Wouldn't it be considered a great thing for someone who is cost-conscious? 
                Moreover, I don't even know what kind they are.  Are they the ones that make you ride a bike or go mountain climbing?  If so, do I need to inquire about the intended recipient's activity level before I offer them?  Are they the ones with wings?  Why on earth do they have wings?  Are there different kinds or have I fallen victim to predatory advertising?  Am I over-thinking this and just need to stop?  Am I the only person with these types of problems?  I’m at a loss, y’all.
                I’m up for suggestions.  Thank you in advance for your assistance.

               

Monday, September 4, 2017

An Open Apology to The Dad


               Throughout my childhood and even into adulthood, there were preferences The Dad had that I found annoying or ridiculous.  It sometimes seemed he was trying his best to be difficult with the specificity of his demands.  Requests such as extra ice in his tea, pockets on all his shirts, the eternal search for biscuits “as good as your mama’s” and irrational cravings for Zagnut candy bars, which I didn’t even realize they still manufactured.

                Now that I am sneaking up on 47 like I’m a ninja, I understand what he was talking about.  Over the last year, I have noticed that I order extra ice in my tea because it’s usually not cold enough.  Iced tea should mean just that; iced.  I have never ordered lukewarm tea.  I don’t think anyone has other than Amy Farrah Fowler in her inaugural appearance in Big Bang Theory, and, if memory serves, she asked for “tepid water”.  God doesn’t even like lukewarm things, like that Bible verse tells us so our preference is, at least, religious in nature.

I also celebrate when I find French-cuff dress shirts or polos with a pocket.  Now, I don’t store crochet needles, reading glasses and false teeth in my shirt pocket like The Dad does, but I do like to have a place to put my phone or writing implement when I need to use both hands.  You’d be surprised how often you need to use both hands.  At least I was surprised.  I also place my glasses there when I am outside and forced to wear my prescription sunglasses because my pupils are too large and my eye color too light according to my eye doctor.  I don’t want to be “blind when (you’re) old, Dustin” so I adhere to her suggestion of sunglasses when outdoors.  I really do wish someone would hurry up and invent tinted, air-conditioned tubes for transporting people to and from important places like the bakery or TJ Maxx.

The Dad also distrusts automatic withdrawals for bill payment and depositing checks via cell phone.  I’m okay with automatic withdrawals as I have only been burned once in 20 years with a double-charge, but I do not like the depositing check via phone.  I received a large check recently and went to the bank to deposit it in person.  The teller asked if the ATM wasn’t working.  When I told her it was fine, I just felt more secure depositing it in person, she looked at me with that mixture of condescension and pity, not unlike the look you give people who can’t operate a revolving door.  I wanted to protest her attitude but realized that would only confirm my “old man-ness” to her and I was already behind schedule for my trip to Starbucks and the thrift store, because it was Saturday and that’s what I do on Saturdays.

I will never find a biscuit as delicious as my mother’s but I, too, find myself ordering them when available and enjoying the treat much less than I should because they don’t measure up.  I should simply be happy I found a biscuit in the land of the gluten-free, vegan hippie bakers.

I don’t crave Zagnuts, but I do crave Oh, Henry’s and they are just as difficult to locate, although I have found a cute little boutique candy store which sells both and I treat us to one every couple of months.  Mine, I start eating on the way home; his I mail in his ‘happy box’ as soon as I have procured four or five books I think he might like to justify mailing something other than a candy bar.  A happy box from Uncle Dusty is one of the perks of being related to me.  Reading and puzzles is what has kept him sharp and ornery, so it’s good for him but not so great for the dynamic duo of my brother and sister-in-law, who have been housing him for the last year.  Their crowns will be large in Heaven, which I hope is a comfort to them.

The last thing I noticed is something which might surprise people.  My father and I are both introverts.  I am an extroverted introvert; he is simply an introvert.  I have no problem talking to people but as I’ve gotten older, it tires me much more quickly and I find myself, like him, with the overwhelming desire to be left alone (except Ben and/or my sister) but still privy to all information concerning available activities or outings should I decide I want to participate.  It’s an odd thing to try to explain.  Suffice it to say, I get it now.

So, I apologize, Old Man.  I thought you were just old and crazy when I was younger.  Now I realize you were simply requesting things you felt made sense because they made sense to you.  Now that I am older,  I am right there with you.  To say you are crazy would be to admit I have crazy tendencies and we are not getting into that discussion right now. 

For those who don't know, Ben’s native language is Cebuano, as his family is from the Philippines.  He has been teaching me random words and phrases.  One of the first words he taught me is buang.  Full disclosure, buang means crazy.  It’s a coincidence, right?