Friday, April 20, 2018

Through the Drinking Glass: My Trip to Heather Land-land


               Last weekend I had to the unique opportunity to attend a comedy show with literally every woman in Red River and Lamar Counties (in Texas) along with four or five of their inebriated spouses.  I say inebriated as they were selling beer along with sangria, margaritas and hurricanes.  I wasn’t surprised, I guess, people love a good drink at a concert.  The crowd was, in a word, lively.  And seeing as how Heather Land herself was wearing a head band, Def Leppard t-shirt and ripped jeans (an interesting look for a 42-year-old mother of two, said my inner old lady), it seemed to fit. 

                I am somewhat familiar with Ms. Land’s comedy.  I say somewhat when what I mean is I have seen one of her videos; you know the ones where her eyes and mouth are disturbingly large, and she complains about stuff and it’s funny.  And she always says her catchphrase, which was splashed across black t-shirts she was selling, “I Ain’t Doin’ It!”

                The doors opened at six and the show was supposed to start at 7:00 so by 6:53 the audience had started to get “tow up” and I had the time to take my eyes away from the magnificent hairdos all around me and noticed a keyboard on stage.  Does Ms. Land sing, I wondered aloud?  No one seemed to know.  Everyone was wearing flowy blouses, tight jeans, chunky jewelry and buying a disturbing amount of Ms. Land’s unimaginative “I Ain’t Doin’ It!” t-shirts.

                As the clock neared 7:15 I was hungry as we hadn’t eaten in at least two hours during this marathon weekend visit/book tour (buy my book ‘Almost Odis’ on Amazon right now, y’all) but the only option for food was the ubiquitous nachos often found in these venues.  I wasn’t in the mood, so I ate the contraband Reese’s Peanut Butter Egg I had stowed in the inside pocket of my sport coat.  I am prepared like a Boy Scout, people.  Well, more like Chunk from "The Goonies", but whatever.

                Finally, at 7:20, Ms. Land came out and she was truly funny.  I didn’t really know what to expect but I laughed a lot. She didn’t say her catchphrase, but she had great material, excellent timing and I was enjoying the show. One of the more elderly and intoxicated in the audience started talking out loud and disrupting the show and Ms. Land tried to intervene and stop her.  At one point this woman got down on the floor (to crawl? to faint?) and when some guy came to remove her, her friend (clothed in a nautical striped blouse with bell sleeves) abandoned her friend and decided to stay. 

At one point she mentioned her unsuccessful music career and I realized she was about to share with us a song or twelve.  I felt a little apprehensive, like when you go to see a one-hit wonder from the 80s and you expect them to play their one good song and they start with, “How about something from the new album”.  No, members of Yes, I don’t want to hear a 22-minute progressive rock song, I want to hear, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”.  

She begins to play piano and sing, and I was pleasantly surprised that she had a beautiful voice.  As she had been high energy in her routine, I was expecting something vaguely happy and/or bouncy.  What we got was a post-Lilith Fair Sarah McLachlan with songs so plaintive and haunting it made me want to go out and adopt a shelter puppy.  I mean, even with her obvious talent, this music was melancholy, y’all.  Then she played what she said was another song, but I couldn’t tell the difference.  Then she had an intermission.  At a comedy show.  Maybe she was overwhelmed from her own songs.  Who knows. 

                As this intermission was unexpected most people just stayed in their seats which gave me a clear path to the concession stand.  By this time, I was actually hungry, so I had resigned myself to eating nachos.  When I got to the stand, I discovered I could get a combo plate of nachos and meatballs and gravy.  On a paper plate.  Not in a nacho boat or a bowl.  Because that’s what you feed people at an event where there are no tables and they have to eat in their lap.  Do they think they are Ikea?
                After the intermission she returned for more comedy, this time it had a bit more bite as it was about her divorce and life afterwards, but it was also about church and Jesus.  I guess those things pair well in Heather Land-land.  Then there were more songs so heartrending it sounded like the soundtrack to a Nicholas Sparks movie, except, if possible, more sad.  Then she played a Christian song which I’m okay with but bookending Jesus with sangria didn’t seem very Evangelical, which this audience most definitely was.  But they were really into it.  

                At the first note, after Heather said the song was about God, Miss Nautical Bell Sleeves (friend of the removed drunk) immediately stood and raised her right hand in praise, having gotten The Spirit mixed in with the spirits.  It was a bit much to take but I was too weighed down by the meatballs to protest.  At the beginning of the second verse, a foursome of friends drunkenly stood, arms linked in an awkward cheerleader/sorority Jenga fashion and it apparently inspired Sister Bell Sleeves to go full on touchdown for Jesus with both hands in the air, in praise or for balance, I wasn't sure.

                At this, one of our companions (I won’t say his name but it rhymes with Tim Wood) abruptly stated, “I’m outta here” and left.  I concurred and followed as the show came to a close.  My first foray into Heather Land-land will be my last.  I have no issue with alcohol, sad music or a little bit of Jesus, but I’d rather have them individually, not grouped together.  I mean, what am I, The Grand Ol' Opry?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dead Men Don't Dust

          Have you ever looked around at your home and in your closets and wondered if an investigatory team like CSI or NCIS could parse out your life based on your furnishings and clothes?  What do you mean, no?  Having recently binge-watched X-Files, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and NCIS, I've been hyper-aware of how my life might look to others.  
          Before Ben and I started dating, he was hesitant to respond to my initial message as he thought I was too fancy, or high maintenance.  When we started dating, and he saw my closets for the first time, he even jokingly began to call me Imelda, as in Imelda Marcos (of the three thousand pairs of shoes).  He wasn't referring to my shoe collection, as the possessor of 'old man feet' I only have 14 pairs of shoes.  I do, however, have 37 pairs of colored chinos, in a variety of colors for all seasons.
Of course, over the past 15 months of our dating, he has witnessed and half-heartedly participated in my shopping sprees, so he has seen evidence that I am a lover of all things clearance-priced, a patron of high-end outlet malls and a skilled thrift store shopper.
          You could look at my new favorite cashmere sweater, which retails for $300, and think I either have lots of cash or lots of debt.  You wouldn't know, unless I spilled the beans, that I got it for $30 at an upscale thrift store in my little neighborhood in Long Beach.  And that's what I'm talking about.  Misinformation such as this might lead those who have been assigned to investigate my disappearance or murder down the wrong path and I couldn't share the truth as I would be dead or missing or both.  And you know I love to inadvertently solve crimes, if you've read my first book, A Gone Pecan.  
          Beyond the clearance sale luxury goods, other appearances can be deceiving.  My home appears unlived in most of the time, because I straighten as I go.  My landlord uses my apartment as the model she shows to prospective tenants as my décor is stylish and my home always tidy.  Everything is in its place and decorated to the Nth degree.  Sister Parish (famed interior designer) once said, "Behind every attractive room has to be a very good reason."  My reason is an unending need to be surrounded by bold, tasteful, erudite awesomeness.  
          However, as Ben (now my fiancé) will tell you, as he does each and every weekend, "BooBoo (my nom de amor), your house is so fancy, why is it that you do not dust?"
          Yes, it's true  I don't dust as much as I should.  If you were to glance about you might notice layers of me, covered in layers of me as everyone knows dust is but the remnants of your own dead skin.  It's science, y'all, it's supposed to be gross.
          I will share with you a mélange of house-cleaning conversations 'twixt my Benjy and me:
          Ben: BooBoo, why is it dusty in your living room?
          Me:  I stopped the cleaning lady from coming over.
          B:  Why?
          M:  I should be able to clean my own apartment.
          B:  Yes, you should.
          M:  But I don't want to.
          B:  But you can afford it.
          M:  I'm trying not to waste money.  We have a wedding to plan.
          B:  It's not a waste of money, it's a service.
          M: I just wish I could save money and have my apartment cleaned by someone else.
          B:  You could drink less Starbucks Iced Tea, to save money.
          M:  That's crazy talk!
          B:  So, clean your apartment.
          M:  You make it sound so simple.
          B:  It is, really.
          M:  I know.  That's what so annoying.
          B:  When I move in, I will help clean.
          M:  You'll dust?
          B:  No, I will mop the kitchen and clean the bathroom.  They need attention as well.
          M:  In my defense, my bed is made every morning, like clockwork.
          B:  It should be.
          M:  Don't I get credit for that?
          B:  You want me to praise you for doing something you're supposed to do?
          M:  Yes.  Yes, I do.
          B:  I will not.
          M: I guess I'll get to dusting.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Is 'Shame' a Setting on Your Microwave?

                I recently became aware of a peculiarity of mine.  I never really paid attention to this little quirk, but now I am cognizant and since we’re friends, I feel it bears discussion.  My shameful secret?  I always stop the microwave at one second; I don’t let it complete the cycle.  I don’t relish the ‘ding’, y’all.  As someone who is always curious about why people do the odd things they do, I had to do a little investigation of myself, thinking back to where and when it all started.

                My family bought our first microwave in 1979, when we lived in Tallulah, Louisiana, in the two-story house directly behind the post office.  It was an old, historical house, but my mother was determined to have a modern kitchen.  She bought a combination stove/oven/microwave unit from Amana, I think.  The stovetop was ceramic and would instantly heat up.  The microwave was affixed to the top and it was huge.  You, literally, could have cooked a full-size turkey, if so inclined.

                We didn’t know how to use it.  For most of the first year, we only melted cheese with it; onto baloney or into sliced wienies, depending upon the preparer’s preferences.  We actually called it a “Cheese Melter”.  My classmates in Mrs. Green’s Fourth Grade Class at Tallulah Academy can attest to my bragging about the giant appliance purchased to melt cheese quickly.  I thought we were so fancy.

                When Christmas rolled around, we bought my mother a microwave cookbook at the S&H Green Stamp store with the stamps we had been collecting at the A&P Grocery Store all year.  With cookbook in hand, my mother began to experiment.  Grits, soups and warmed up leftovers were successes; turkeys and cakes were revolting failures.  However, I couldn’t remember having any ding-averse motivations as a child.  The ding was actually a welcome sound – it meant it was time to eat.  It was the 20th century equivalent of the dinner bell or dinner gong, if you were British and had a butler.

                Surprisingly, I still have my mother’s microwave cooking set, with two pieces I have never used, both cake-related (bundt and cup, to be specific).  I typically only use the large dutch oven to make haystacks at Christmas or queso when the mood strikes, which is about twice a year; more often and I’d be quite a bit chubbier than I am.  And then it hit me.  The reason I avoid the ding is shame. 

                I was always a chubby child, but never actually fat.  The reason was my food intake was monitored by my mother (to ensure a healthy diet) and my sister (to ensure equal distribution, mostly related to Nacho Cheese Doritos).  When I was in high school in Tylertown, Mississippi, and I was actually allowed to go ‘to town’ and participate in (mostly innocent) night-time activities that caused me to get home late, awake long after my family had gone to bed, I began to sneak snacks.  A ding at midnight would have been the clarion call of gluttony; Dusty was violating scripture by eating something outside of approved meals and snacks, knowing full well that I had already eaten something at The Sonic that, at minimum, had included a large order of tater tots and a Cherry Dr. Pepper.

                If I was ninja-like in my reflexes, I could slip into the kitchen, nuke some vittles, stop the process pre-ding and slip away in the dark to my bedroom to savor my ill-gotten gains, enrobed in darkness, hidden from judging eyes.  I guess I thought Jesus had poor vision at night.  It was a nefarious activity, on par with surreptitiously watching Cinemax After Dark or USA’s Up All Night movies.

                For some reason this habit stuck with me through college and into adulthood, even now as I am chasing 48 like it robbed me at the outlet mall.  And that got me thinking they should re-design microwaves, adding a ‘Shame’ setting next to ‘Popcorn’ that gives no notification when the cycle is finished, knowing the intended recipient of the covertly reheated casserole has not left his or her post, impatiently staring, practically stalking their twirling tacos and pirouetting pizza slices like Jack McFarland stalks Kevin Bacon. 

                Ooh, maybe I should go on Shark Tank to tout my idea.  This screams “America”, am I right?

Friday, February 23, 2018

I Got (Sorta) Kidnapped Once


            I remember most everything.  I can describe in detail events from my childhood and teens, college and graduate school.  I can give you details such as who was there, what they said, even what they wore.  I remember minutiae that most people overlook or have long forgotten. 

            My junior year in college, I was working the front desk of the men’s dorm, Fraser Hall, at Mississippi University for Women and received a phone call from a friend of mine named Marcy.  Marcy told me there was a young lady, I truly can’t remember her name, who had supposedly met me at a party and wanted to go on a date.  I asked her to repeat the name and coming up blank, asked her to describe her.  When I still couldn’t remember, I asked which party (off-campus fraternity party), location (the home of my fraternity little brother’s biological big sister) and day of the week (Saturday) as there were many parties to attend in my very active social life.  Still, nothing.

Despite the fact that I was stone-cold sober at all frat parties (I was never one to drink anything stronger than Mello Yello), I was unable to recall this person in any detail.  However, as I was single, I was happy to accept this dating invitation by proxy.

On the night of the date, I was asked to pick up this young lady at her home.  When she opened the door, I had literally no recollection of having seen this person at any point in my life.  She wasn’t even someone I vaguely remembered as a peripheral person in one of my classes on campus.  I said 'Hello' with as much familiarity as is possible when talking to a total stranger.  I then met said stranger’s parents.

Not wanting the night to be awkward, I never mentioned that I had no idea who she was, but she apparently knew me in some detail.  She knew my fraternity, friends, activities, hang-outs, etc.  It was so flattering that I didn’t question the level of staler-esque detail she had about your dear narrator.  The date was as enjoyable as one can be between complete strangers and I took her home after dinner and a movie.  I don’t remember which one.  Sleeping with the Enemy, perhaps?

I didn’t call her after that as the date was weird and awkward.  As far as I was concerned, we were done as a couple.  About three days later, she called me and wanted to stop by the dorm to give me a surprise.  I was cautious but curious as she had mentioned homemade cookies.   

I met her in front of the dorm, where she invited me into her car to get the cookies.  Naively, I got into the car.  I mean, there were homemade cookies.  My stomach is stupidly trusting, y’all.    

So, yeah, she kidnapped me. 

I mean, I got away, but it was still weird. 

Oh, and the cookies were yummy.

Yes, I ate them.

What?  It was free cookies.
I have always had my priorities straight.  Just saying.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

God, and Queen, may be skittish


               I grew up a Southern Baptist and an unabashed Anglophile.  These may sound like mutually exclusive interests but as I’ve been watching Season 2 of both The Crown and Victoria, I realized there are many commonalities amongst Baptists (in church) and British (in the Peerage), the most interesting being the apparent belief that God and royalty (be they King, Queen, Prince, Princess) are on edge and, therefore, one must not make sudden moves or appear to enjoy oneself in their house and/or presence.

                Southern Baptists, at least those of my youth and young adulthood, show no demonstrable joy while inside the church; not clapping, not movement other than mouths to sing, no hands lifted.  It felt somewhat somber, but more formal, as you are required to wear dark clothes, remember obscure rules concerning proper conduct, always nervous to have a misstep, as it could result in unbelievable and often creative punishments.  Not unlike being in a judicial court, except you had no lawyer in church unless you count the preacher as a sort of intermediary; an intercessor, if you will. 

Of course, Baptists believe we can talk to Jesus directly should we desire.  To be honest, I was always afraid I’d misspeak and the “Angry God” (introduced by British Colonial Theologian, Jonathan Edwards) would smite me.  At least Catholics are lucky enough to have the Mama of Jesus to request an intervention or whatever was deemed necessary.  As a note: Baptists are fond of , but do not pray to, Mary.   

Comedian Eddie Izzard is famous for talking about the Anglican Church, or the Church of England; a denomination created by Henry VIII, so he could divorce and marry another of the women unfortunate enough to have wandered into his orbit; an inauspicious origin to a church where Queen Elizabeth is the head and the American arm (Episcopalians) are typically the well-to-do in the cities and towns where they congregate.   That is to say, it's a pretty sketchy start to a very fancy group.

In his routine, Mr. Izzard talks about the marked lack of happiness when singing songs of faith and miracles and hope.  Now, Southern Baptists aren’t mournful in church.  They are more reserved than anything else, especially when it comes to the practice of clapping.  Old Guard Southern Baptists do not clap at any point during the worship service, unless there are children who are singing in a special performance.  They, and only they, receive applause, and even then, it is restrained to the point that the allotted “Amen” from the Chairman of the Deacons, could easily drown it out, depending on whether or not the battery in his hearing aid is working. 

Even though I have been singing in church pretty much since I broke forth into this world, I never received applause after a performance, between the ages of seven and twenty-nine.  The first time, as an adult, that people clapped after I sang, it caught me off-guard and I will admit that I flinched and looked confused; skittish, I suppose, if you had to assign a word.

When I was in high school, we attended a very small church outside a very small town in Mississippi.  There were 50-60 attendees on a regular Sunday, as many as 80 if there was a dinner on the grounds.  The youth group was small (my sister and two cousins comprising a good 40%) and the activities were few and far between.  I was resigned to this fate as we lived only a few miles from the church itself.  However, my senior year, we moved into town and lived only three blocks from the very large and very active First Baptist Church.

There were so many activities and so many young people in their youth group that I desperately wanted to be a part.  When I spoke to my mother about a trial run at the new church, if not for the whole family, at least maybe for me, I was told in no uncertain terms, “We are not shopping for a new church.”

                I responded, “But our church is boring…and small.  First Baptist is much more fun.”

                “We don’t go to church to have fun,” she replied in a very British way, except with a Southern accent, like if Queen Elizabeth had graduated from Ole Miss.  She couldn’t have sounded more Anglican if she had added, “It’s just not what we do; it's not who we are.”

                I attended my sister’s little Baptist Church in Texas over Christmas and I must tell you, the sense of déjà vu was strong.  The floor plan was so similar that I was able to find the restrooms without assistance, and even though I found a used adult diaper lying in the middle of the floor of the men’s room, which I then had to dispose of lest someone think it was mine, it didn’t dampen the nostalgia. 

                While I prefer the TV-version of Anglican services (morning coats, fascinators, the random minor royal), I did enjoy the comfortable familiarity of a Baptist service, with the men and boys wearing starched jeans, the women in their turquoise jewelry and outfits from Dillard’s and little girls with bows as big, if not bigger, than their heads.  Of course, the only difference between me as a teen and me as an adult was the fact that I was wearing plaid pants and sitting between my sister and my Filipino boyfriend.  As there were no strange looks or sharp intakes of breath when we entered, my guess is they assumed he was a foreign exchange student.

                And, true to form, we didn’t clap at any time during the Christmas service.  No need to startle Jesus on His birthday, I suppose.

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.