Monthly Archives: November 2015

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 17

Six weeks later, I was ready to implement step two:   beautiful surroundings in which to live.  I’d pinched and stretched forty-five dollars out of the weekly grocery money.  I’d flipped through back issues of Better Homes and Gardens at the library.  I’d identified three decorating principles I felt certain would transform our tiny apartment into a less expensive version of the homes I saw on those pages.

Making the first of those principles, the absence of clutter, real for Sharon and me required two weeks of intense effort, using every spare minute I could squeeze out of the day.  I had all but given up on making our home attractive, accepting that being poor meant our home could not be beautiful.  That habit of mind had become a habit of living with clutter.

“No matter what I do,” I remembered thinking, “we’re still going to have that swaybacked old loveseat and that rickety end table with the huge scratch down the middle.  It would not even make it in a thrift store.”

Well, that was true.  It was also true that we would likely never have a goose-down sofa, covered in blue and gold-striped velour, or real china, or plush carpet.  But we could have a  clean and tidy home, without a stack of bills on the coffee table, no withered potted plant and no skyscraper stack of books in the corner.

With all surfaces cleared and cleaned or polished, with all damaged items discarded, and with no stacks of anything on the floor or elsewhere, our front room suddenly looked larger, much larger.

“Now it doesn’t look so sad,” Sharon astutely observed.

I winced.  “Yes, you’re right, baby. It looks much cheerier, doesn’t it?”

I could have stopped with simply cleaning up.  Cleaning up alone was a dramatic improvement and spending money on decorating felt like throwing it away.  But I had too many scenes stored in memory of the Wexel’s home and its ambiance of comfort, ease, and beauty that seemed to fill the very air, and all the senses, with peace.

“How wonderful if Sharon could grow up in a home like that!  And what if she loved her own home as much as she loved that second-hand bicycle?”

One Thursday afternoon, with forty-five dollars in five-dollar bills in my purse, I picked Sharon up after school.

“Mommy, are we still going shopping today?”

“We sure are, baby, right now.  And we’re even going to stop and buy a snack if we get hungry.”

The department store at the corner of 56th Street and Busch Boulevard was our  store when we had to purchase a necessity not in the weekly grocery money, like an alarm clock for $3.99 or a new teapot for $4.59.

“Here, Sharon.  Put your purse next to mine in the baby seat.  You can hold the list and mark off what we buy.   I’ll push the buggy.  But first, we have to walk around the whole store. ”

“The whole store?”

“Yes, sweetie, the whole store.  We’re going to buy a lot, you know, so first we have to reconnoitre.  That’s a French word for scouting out a situation.  We need to see what’s available in this store for the items on our list, starting with tablecloths and place mats.  And if we see something else that looks good and we like it, we’ll buy that, too, just because it’s pretty to look at.  So, let’s go reconnoitre ”

We did, indeed, reconnoitre that entire store.  Then we retraced our steps, picking up items on our list as well as some we hadn’t thought about, like blue cushions with peach-colored flowers for the folding chairs, a predominantly blue picture of ducks for that kitchen wall between the table and refrigerator, and a few other things that were simply pretty to look at.

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 16

Chapter Four

Changing Actions

            The air was cool on my face as I stepped outside and locked the door behind myself.  I took a deep breath and zipped my jacket up to the neck.  My twenty-minute walk might be fifteen tonight.

            Dusk had already seized the edges of the horizon and dimmed the bright blue of the sky.  By the time I finished walking, full darkness would have descended, street lights would be illuminating my steps, and there would be complete silence.  There would be no sounds of agitated parents, returning from a long day, lugging groceries inside all the while yelling at their sulky teenager to come help and then take out the garbage, and no TV so loud you could hear it through a partially open window.   Such as apartment living.

I squinted, then smiled, as wind gusted through the row of apartment buildings. It was only mid October, and this was the second night during which the temperature was forecast to drop to the fifties.  With luck, this could be a real winter, like the ones I had known growing up .  Although my small hometown was less than a hundred miles north, the difference in latitude meant that as a child I wore sweaters for weeks on end, rather than a day here and a day there as I had done since moving to Tampa.  As a child, I remember some freezes hard enough to make the grass crunch under your feet and the frost linger til mid morning in shaded and low-lying areas.

I shivered a little as the wind penetrated my worn-out  thrift store  sweatpants.

“Yes, it might be a real winter this year.”

Again, I thought of the Little House books, the leit motif of our lives.  Being outside in the cold, all bundled up while Sharon was inside, safe and warm, I thought about Pa Ingalls trudging through the snow to return to his family.  As I walked, my hands and feet grew colder while my back, as well as my mind, grew more relaxed.

“Why” I asked myself, “Why do some people have it so easy and others have it so hard?  Why were some people born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouth and silk clothes on their back when Sharon and I had to struggle so. . . ”

I abruptly stopped my thoughts.  I knew why we had to struggle so much financially.  We were little different from other single-parent families except perhaps, for those at higher income levels.   Being without child support payments, except for the first few years after the divorce, didn’t make us unique either, and neither did being in what I came to call functional poverty.

My income exceeded the official government guideline for receiving aid but our standard of living–by virtue of receiving no help from any source–was lower than that of families earning less and therefore receiving government aid.

I knew I thought about finances too much; it was hard not to worry.  I frowned and shook my head.

“Help me, Father, please help me not to worry.  I know You love children living in difficult circumstances just as much as you love little girls and boys living in affluence.  I know You want them to have the same things children in wealthy families do, Father, like a nice home to grow up in and a happy daily life filled with all the little pleasures that delight a child’s heart.  As Sharon walks, in all her precious innocence, through the weeks and months and years ahead that will end in adulthood, help me give her the life You want her to have.”

With all that said, I felt better and occupied myself with enjoying my walk, noting out of habit but with genuine pleasure, the sights and sounds of being outdoors, sensual treasures like the brief glimpse of the river, the long arms of the grandfather oak tree, the crunch of acorns under my feet, and the occasional comforting coo of a mourning dove.  As I walked, I kept thinking about what children growing up in wealthy homes had that I wanted to give to Sharon.   It was still hard to be grateful sometimes when our lives were ones of unceasing thrift and hard times.

One by one, I listed in my head the advantages having plenty of money could provide, assuming priorities were right.  Bit by bit, thought by thought, I began forming a plan.

As I predicted, it was, indeed, dark as I rounded the farthest apartment building and headed home.   Once again, I shook my head and smiled.  God had already helped me implement step one of my grand plan to give Sharon the same advantages children in wealthier families enjoyed—no fear of being provided for—when He helped me stop complaining.  Trusting God with my most treasured earthly possession – my Sharon – was hard but I was getting better as I saw her respond to my efforts to respond to God.

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 15

As Sharon snuggled into my shoulder and we waited for the
“coming on part” to end, I breathed a deep, contented sigh.  In a few minutes, I was answering questions.

“Mommy, why are all those little tiny planes flying next to the big one?”

“Well, sweetie, the little ones are called fighter planes, which is what this move is all about.   Remember the title?  The fighter planes stay close to the big cargo planes because the big planes are too big to turn around fast.  When enemy planes come near, the fighter planes turn around and fight to keep them away.”

“Oh, I see.”

I was grateful for the chance to look wise in her eyes and grateful I could help her build a basic understanding of some aspects of the adult world she would soon enter.

“Just like Daddy,” I thought, “and how he used to explain things to us kids on family vacation trips, things like how truck drivers blinked their lights on high beam for a few seconds to let cars following them know it was okay to pass on a two-lane highway, and how, once the car passed, the driver blinked his lights, too, to say thank you to the truck driver.  ”

I smiled as I thought about my dad and realized how much he and my mom had lived by the principles I’d discovered so recently.  I had rarely heard them complain.  They had lived with a family of five, in a tiny house, for five years before buying the 3 bedroom home I remembered moving to at the end of third grade.  They had never spoken with envy of families with bigger houses and yards and the so-called finer things.

Best of all, we had fun when we were together, whether it was Saturday night hamburgers Daddy fixed on the grill or playing slap jacks and Monopoly around the rickety table in the beach-side cottage we rented one summer vacation.

I pulled Sharon closer to me and craned my head to kiss the top of her head.  Accustomed to such spontaneous displays of affection, Sharon responded with an absent-minded kissing sound.

“Love you, too, Mommy.”  She never took her eyes off the dog fight between the Americans and the enemy.

“Why do they call them dog fights, Mommy?”

I smiled.  I had so much to be grateful for.  How could I complain?

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 14

As I opened the door and stepped into the laundry room, a voice came from the bedroom.

“Is it time yet?”

“No, but in five minutes it will be.  Come on and you can help me fix the blankets.”

The apartment manager’s brochure had called the tiny room leading off the kitchen a laundry room by virtue, I supposed, of its possessing a washer and dryer hookup.  I have seen larger walk-in closets, but I cherished each inch of that five and a half by nine foot space.  Functionally, it gave us another room.

I ignored the fact that the yellow and white striped wallpaper on two of its walls clashed with the gold and white paisley on its other two.  I also ignored the fact that the water heater sat against the back wall, copper tubing meandering out of its top like two oversized chromosomes escaping out of its head.  Jutting out of the wall beside the water heater were the red and blue-painted steel spigots for hot and cold water for the washer.  Next to the water heater stood my beloved old bookcase; its presence alone would have made that tiny room special.  That bookcase was an ancient relick  that had long ago outlived its sturdiness but by no means its usefulness.

Only two if the bookcase’s five original shelves remained affixed to its pasteboard interior.  The other three stacked behind it bore silent testimony to my lack of carpentry skills.  However, I made good use of the top.  It held two jewelry boxes Sharon made for me in daycare by gluing elbow macaroni to cigar boxes and spray painting them gold.  I treasured those two boxes as much as the bookcase, of course, but for different reasons.  The hand-made boxes were mementos of Sharon’s childhood; the bookcase was a memento of my own.

When I was thirteen, I had saved allowance money to buy that bookcase, unassembled and unfinished, from the Sears and Roebuck catalog.  When it arrived, I spent the whole of one cool autumn Saturday on the carport, putting it together and antiquing it, all by myself.  It had remained in my bedroom for all the years of junior and senior high school, holding my small library of reading books, my school books, and the big red dictionary I used when I began writing and studying seriously, sometime in tenth grade.

That battered old bookcase reminded me I could do things I didn’t know how to do and hadn’t been taught how to do, like assembling and finishing a bookcase, and that I could do them by myself.  Besides that, it brought back memories of long winter afternoons and evenings in junior high school when I first discovered there was pleasure in learning.

I came straight home from school and spent hours in my room, doing studying and reading beyond what was required for class.  I read about Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theater so that I could understand Much Ado About Nothing, which our class was reading.  I even learned to like parts of history and trigonometry.

I discovered the joy of writing about the same time, finding pleasure in using my mind creatively.  I read all 712 pages of The Web and the Rock by Thomas Wolfe.  And, although only one of Thomas Wolfe’s novels was required for my English lit paper, read the 743 pages of You Can’t Go Home Again late at night, with a blanket stuffed under the door.

Throughout my junior and senior high school years, that  bookcase stood next to my desk, holding my big red dictionary, my Complete Works of Shakespeare in Two Volumes, and well-thumbed copies of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, You Can’t Go Home Again, O Pioneers!, and classic works of other novelists whom I dreamed of someday emulating.  As a mere hint of wind transforms an ember into a strong orange flame, just looking at that bookcase made me feel my dreams might just come true someday.

Besides pleasant memories of my childhood, that laundry room held more recent memories, memories forged during times Sharon and I watched movies together, lying on old thick blankets and quilts, snuggled together like two little kids, like tonight.

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 13

Thirty minutes later, supper was eaten and the dishes were done.  I smiled as a genuine housewifely type of pride welled up at the appearance of our tiny kitchen.

The dishes were resting in the drainer, the mixing bowl had been returned to the oven, and the tiny counter was cleared.  With the overhead lights out, the entire back wall that was the kitchen was dark.  The silver toaster, its cord carefully tucked out of sight behind itself, glowed softly in the dim light from the range hood as it sat upon the circular cutting board Sharon had bought for me last Mother’s Day.  The counter looked larger with nothing on it.  The yellow sponge rested in its proper place, just so, to the right of the sink.  Over on the card table, the place mats were perfectly lined up on the edge of the brown and white gingham tablecloth and the fan, for once, was perfectly quiet, its near-futile attempts at cooling the air unnecessary as nighttime coolness descended upon our little house.

“How long before the movie, Mommy?”

“Oh, after I take my shower it’ll be almost time.  Why don’t you read a little bit until then.  That’ll make the time go by faster.”

In the bathroom, the two notes taped to the bathroom mirror—“Don’t compare” and “Enjoy what you have”—fulfilled the purposes for which I’d taped them there two weeks before.  Like lines securing a ship in safe harbor, they kept my mind from drifting into negative thoughts again as I dealt with another of the daily difficulties economics created in our life.

Our toy-size bathroom had its own peculiarities that required constant adjustments and coping.  Like the kitchen, the principal peculiarity was its dimensions. It’s four by three feet of space contained a sink so shallow you could not fill an eight ounce glass of water under its faucet.  The cabinet under the sink extended exactly one inch beyond the sink’s overall perimeter, leaving four isosceles triangles of countertop, measuring a mere two by two inches, at each corner.  The toilet stood less than a foot away from an almost child-size combination bathtub and shower, a tiny linen closet with a bi-fold door that could be opened only with the outer door closed, and one towel rack, which meant one damp towel always hung over the shower rod.

Getting two people, even though one was only nine years old, ready to leave the house at the same time required organization and advance planning, much like preparing a meal in the kitchen.    As I buttoned my nightgown and combed my hair, I stared hard at the two notes.  The edges had already become wrinkled from repeated exposure to steam.  The letters, written in felt-tip pen, had begun losing their distinctness as the red ink ran.  The messages, however, remained clear and piercing.

“Don’t compare.  Enjoy what you have.  Don’t compare. Enjoy what you have.”

I repeated the words over and over.

“That means don’t think about the Wexel’s three bathrooms.  Be grateful you and Sharon have an apartment all to yourselves and that you don’t have to share it with four other people.”

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 12

I put the aluminum brownie pan on the burner, on low, and dropped in three tablespoons of margarine.  By lifting the edges of the pan every few seconds, I managed not to burn the pain or the margarine and also not to mess up a pot, and consume more space, in which to heat it.  When only a slender sliver of yellow remained in the glistening gold, I dropped in the package of graham cracker crumbs, tossed till damp, then pressed the moistened crumbs into the bottom and sides of the cleverly-pre-greased pan to make the crust.  When I put the completed cheesecake into the fridge to chill, I had added only four more utensils to be washed:  The fork for the crust, the small mixing bowl (brother to the larger bowl), the wire whisk, and the measuring cup with its translucent film of white milk.

As I washed the dishes and wiped the counter, I pictured how Sharon would smile when I brought out dessert.  Her smile always engaged her whole face, beginning with expressive eyes containing a full and spilling over measure of the genuine goodwill that graces childhood, and ending with a hint of dimples and a mouth and chin shaped like my own.

I frowned.  I could create many opportunities to see that smile I loved so much or I could make it seldom and only fleetingly seen.  I could let her think about the many good things in our life, like cheesecake when she didn’t expect it and picking her up after school.  Or. . .  I could make her listen to me complain every night about how hot the kitchen was and how sick I was of living in a crowded apartment.  I could let her childish heart be utterly and completely enthralled with staying up late on Friday night to watch a movie with me . . . or I could complain that we couldn’t watch movies whenever we wanted because we didn’t have cable or a videocassette recorder, like “everyone else” did. I could let her savor each bite of tater tots and ground beef hamburger or . . . I could make it turn to sawdust in her mouth because it wasn’t steak and hearts of palm salad like the Wexel girls had already learned to enjoy.

I could give her a happy childhood or . . . I could weigh her exceptionally tender heart down with adult-size worries until her sweet little face assumed that haunted look of despair seen on posters for Feed the Children.  My attitude, not the actual circumstances of our life, would determine the emotional atmosphere that molded her heart and set the course of her future.

The sound of the shower stopped.  Quickly, I stepped to the front door and picked four of the lazy susans growing by the fence bordering our apartment complex.  By the time Sharon sat down, the flowers were in a juice glass, in the center of the table, the lights were out, and candles flickered next to the flowers.

“Oh, Mommy!” she exclaimed. “It’s just like the movies!”

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 11

Operating in that small kitchen proved excellent training for not only Sharon but for me as well — even before my current emphasis on not complaining.  I found the experience fertile ground in which to grow the good fruit of patience, especially when preparing a meal.

We both liked simple foods, a fact which should have prevented having to spread ingredients all over the counter.  Like so many single parents, though, I leaned toward short-order cooking of two separate meals, one of traditional children’s foods and another with foods more appealing to my adult taste and adult need for lower calorie intake.  So the end result,  preparation-wise, was identical.  I may as well have been preparing an involved, complex meal.

Cooking a typical evening meal might begin with hauling out a bag of carrots, cutting board, knife, and scraper.  The carrots had to be done first, because their preparation took up the sink and two-thirds of the counter space.  With the carrots scraped and chopped and back in the refrigerator to chill in their yellow plastic container (a former economy-size margarine container), I cleaned the counter, cutting board, and sink. Next, I hauled out ground beef, salt and pepper, eggs, milk, and bread to mix up hamburger patties.  There was not one inch to spare, and quite a few inches too few, by the time all that was sitting on the  miniature counter.

I used the ever-faithful, ever-useful large mixing bowl to mix the patties.  With two hamburgers sizzling in the frying pan, I packaged up the rest of the patties in aluminum foil, put them in the freezer, cleaned the counter, and started a can of green beans heating on the back burner.  Next, I took the cookie sheets and broiling rack out of the oven, put them on the floor by the card table, a further impingement on floor space, then arranged tater tots on a small pan and put them into the oven to heat.

I tried hard to see the humor in all the necessarily careful planning and timing and patient rearranging of bowls, food, pots, and pans.  At times, though, like tonight, the best I could manage was a caricature of a grin, a resigned slow shaking of my head, and a tight-lipped silence as I fought hard not to complain out loud.

“It’s so unfair,” I thought as I turned the burgers over and put the ketchup squirter and mustard bottle on the table.

“The Wexels and people like them have so much and we have so little and…”

As I closed the refrigerator door I saw the words, written in red, I had taped above Sharon’s first grade picture and her latest example of penmanship.  “Be patient with difficult circumstances.”

I smiled, not much, but a little, and with that, the tension began to ease.  I shook my head and laughed, this time a real laugh, as I turned down the heat under the burgers.

“If I hurry,” I thought, “I can get one of our special cheesecakes in the refrigerator before Sharon finishes her shower.

Unjeaous Heart, Chap 2, Post 10

Here in the kitchen area, as in the living area of the front room, furniture devoured what scant breathing room existed.  The seven by 11 feet of floor space in the middle of the kitchen shrank to a mere five by eight feet in the presence of our card table, the fan, and the alarm clock, all of which were on the floor.  That card table, as our ersatz dining table, had permanent, undisputed rights to a corner of the kitchen area.  It was pushed next to the wall and the bottom of the room divider, which left only two usable sides.  Sol, if Sharon sat on the side next to the refrigerator when I was cooking, I could not open the door until she scooted her chair, and most of herself, underneath the table.  Even then, the refrigerator door would only open partway and when I leaned into it to retrieve milk or eggs or whatever, I bumped myself in the head and bumped my glasses as often as not.

That loud-mouthed fan had also staked permanent claim to part of the kitchen; its spot was on the floor opposite the room divider.  It’s characteristic asynchronous clatter jangled my nerves nearly as much as the stifling hot summer air it moved in half-hearted fashion.   It was unsightly there, with its cord in an untidy heap beside it, but it had to stay there; it served both kitchen and front room.   A little alarm clock, its cord also in a heap, was the fan’s permanent companion.  It, too, had to remain where it was; there were no empty plugs elsewhere, and it served front room and kitchen, just like the fan.

After deducting the space demanded by the card table and access thereto and the fan and alarm clock corner of the floor, I had an oval approximately four by six feet in which to carry out my kitchen duties.  That in itself was no great hardship; there was only one counter, its span a mere five by two feet, and the drainer and sink compressed four feet of that space, leaving a miniscule working area two by two feet.  These Lilliputian dimensions were further encroached upon by the toaster, which was used daily so could not be put in the cabinets (had there been any room anyway!)

Of course, with space so limited, I never started a meal with even a few dishes standing on the counter or in the sink.  That trained me to keep the dishes and the kitchen clean after every meal, and I pointed out to Sharon this was the way a house was supposed to be kept, anyway.  However, I was not so sure the way I washed dishes was a good example.

With only a single sink and a small one at that, I mixed up soapy dishwater in an old large mixing bowl, washed the dishes in that, and rinsed them in the sink.  After , I dried the bowl and set it back in the oven, its usual resting place due to, again, space limitations.  Our cookie sheets and broiling rack also stayed in the oven.

I reminded Sharon from time to time that most people did not employ such unorthodox washing methods and storage techniques and that one day we would have a large kitchen with everything in its proper place.  Although I worried sometimes that we might have to stay in that small apartment until she was grown and I would never  have the opportunity to show her what I meant by that, I tried to concentrate on the fact that she was receiving good training of another sort as she observed my inventive ways of coping.

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 9

“And what,” I asked myself, “had prevented Laura from being jealous of the rich Olson family?”

After only a moment’s thought, I decided she had absorbed four principles she saw in her parents’ lives, ones I should have copied from my own parents.  Laura’s parents, and my own parents, had taken the attitude of:  don’t complain; don’t compare; be patient with difficult circumstances; and enjoy what you have.

I looked at the four principles I had written and drew four smiley faces beside them.  There were many material things I would likely never be able to give Sharon, but I could, with God’s help, give her the gift of an unjealous heart.

Chapter Three

Changing Attitudes

I took a deep breath, brushed the damp hair back from my forehead, and frowned as I looked upward at a glob of wet bread crumbs clinging to my bangs.  I sighed, removed the offending particles from my hair, and looked at the two notes taped to the door of the kitchen cabinet:  Don’t complain.  Be patient with difficult circumstances.

Sweat trickled down my back and the asynchronous chugging of the little fan on the floor in the corner reminded me of an episode in the biography of Pappy Boyington, a World War II flying ace.  A Japanese pilot had tinkered with the carburetor of his plane’s engine so it ran with an irregular rhythm, almost stalling out, then revving up, whirring steadily for a while, then nearly stalling out again.  By flying his specially adapted plane with its irritating carburetor over the camp at intervals through the night, he had successfully kept the Americans on the South pacific island where Boyington was stationed from obtaining a good night’s sleep for three weeks.

“That plane couldn’t have been more infuriating than this fan,” I thought as I turned back to molding hamburger patties.

When you make up your mind to change an entrenched behavior, common wisdom says the hardest part of the battle is over.  Reality says, with roaring authority,  that an even harder part awaits, slinking stealthily along, two days ahead of your good intentions.  There, behind a rock it crouches, fangs bared and claws unsheathed, ready to pounce when you’re tired and discouraged, hungry and hurried, or whatever combination of circumstances and feelings has previously conquered your will.  In my fight to stop my entrenched behavior of complaining, dealing with cramped living quarters was the hardest battle of the war.

Our apartment was small, consisting of one bedroom and one bath, a tiny laundry area, and a front room that, with the demarcating aid of a floor-to-ceiling room divider, served as living room and kitchen.  Up to waist height, the room divider was solid on the kitchen side, with book shelves on the living room side.  From waist height up, it held open, etagere style shelves, with the center completely open.

Behind the room divider, the kitchen area, or what was actually a kitchenette, to be architecturally correct, occupied the back third of the front room; it measured seven by 11 feet.  Along the back wall of the kitchen stood our eggshell-white refrigerator, countertop, and range, with an oven underneath the range.   Even though it could have been otherwise by virtue of being so far away from windows, the kitchen was a bright area of our little house.   The white refrigerator and cabinets and those two long banks of fluorescent lights in the ceiling added and enhanced the available light.