CALIBAN O’DOULE

There was once a very old man who lived deep within the dense dark forest. He liked to eat morels, mushrooms, berries and the little rodents who had the misfortune of getting themselves caught in the very old man’s traps. But the most delectable meals for him were plump little boys and girls lost in the woods – a rare but finger-licking scrumptious delight.

Or so the legend goes.

One unseasonably warm and sunny day in late November many years ago, young Ethan Collingwood and his even younger sister Penelope were on a journey, an expedition of sorts. It was really just an assignment handed down by their mother – to gather the chestnuts that grew near the dark forest and bring them home for Thanksgiving dinner.

The woods were once abundant with huge chestnut trees which were greater than 100 feet tall and more than ten feet wide. The nuts they produced in late fall were small, about the size of an acorn, and sweet with a flavor almost like a carrot when eaten raw. After roasting, the flavor got nuttier and took on an almost candied sweetness. Besides Mrs. Collingwood’s perfectly cooked juicy and tender turkey, the roasted chestnuts were the highlight of their meal. Ethan and Penelope’s mouths watered at the thought of Thanksgiving dinner just one day away.

With strict orders from their mother not to go too deep into the dark forest, the siblings chatted happily on this warm November morning, baskets dangling from their hands for collecting lovely chestnuts. But when they arrived at their destination there were no chestnuts to be found. All the trees near the dirt road were barren.

Let’s go into the forest just a tiny bit further” Ethan suggested.

Penelope protested. “But mother said…” and Ethan cut her off with a wink and a shrug. 

Just a tiny bit further. As long as we can see the road, we’ll be fine.” Ethan was, after all, one year older than his sister and big brothers always know best. And so Penelope agreed.

And Ethan was right, for only twenty steps deeper into the woods, chestnuts covered the ground. Brother and sister began collecting the delicious nuts; for each one they put in their baskets, they popped one into their mouths. They kept chattering away as they walked, collecting and eating chestnuts with every step they took. In no time they had gobbled up so many nuts, they grew tired and needed a rest. They propped themselves against the mighty trunk of a chestnut tree and quickly fell asleep.

Time went by as time is wont to do. Day had turned to night and the warmth of the sun had been replaced by a biting wind.  When the young ones awoke, they were disoriented and cold and their baskets were only half full. Mother would be so very disappointed. But Ethan, being a bright lad, had an idea.

Let’s return home and fill our baskets with chestnuts along the way! Mother will be delighted when she sees all the nuts we collected and will forgive our tardiness.”

Penelope sprang to her feet, cheered on by Ethan’s plan, but as she looked around, she realized she had no idea where they were. Penelope burst into tears and Ethan inquired why she was crying; surprised by her answer, the boy looked around and saw that they were indeed lost. Ethan felt like crying himself but refused to let his sister see his fear. 

Don’t cry, Penny. All we need to do is follow the trail of chestnut shells we discarded and we will find our way home.”

Encouraged by this brilliant idea, the siblings began retracing their steps but when they spotted a tiny ramshackle of a hut hidden among the trees, they knew they had walked in the wrong direction. The children realized this was the home of Caliban O’Doule, the very old man who liked to eat plump little boys and girls lost in the woods, and they were sorely frightened.

The moon began creeping out from behind a cloud, casting strange and horrifying shadows wherever the young ones looked. Low hanging branches took on the appearance of bony arms and fingers ready to snatch them away. As the crooked limbs inched closer, Ethan and Penelope turned to flee but were stopped dead in their tracks. Looming before them was Caliban O’Doule himself. He wore an ancient, threadbare cloak and his long, scraggly grey hair and beard reached his knees. His eyes were piercing blue and cold as a tomb. Brother and sister were too terrified to move.

Licking his lips, the very old man raised a gnarled hand and patted the top of Penelope’s blonde head. His stomach rumbled and he grinned. “Well, what have we here? Guests! And just in time for dinner.”

Ethan and Penelope screamed loudly, scaring off the hundreds of bats hiding among the branches. “Hush now or you’ll wake the dead” warned the very old man. “Why all the fuss, children? You are lost and far from home … so far that no one can hear your screams.” And grinning once again, the very old man placed a gnarled hand on each child’s shoulder and turned them around. “Please join me in my little hut. I’ve not had company in ages. Please. I insist.” And he gave them both a little shove.

Clutching their baskets and each other’s hands, Ethan and Penelope slowly walked to the hut. The very old man reached over their heads and pushed the door open. “After you” he said, chuckling. Ethan and Penelope cried silently as they entered the hut; they knew they never should have disobeyed their mother and now their fate was sealed. The very old man lit a stubby little candle and pointed to a wooden bench in the corner. Ethan and Penelope scrambled to the bench holding onto each other for dear life. Their round faces were flushed and stained with tears.

The very old man shuffled over to the bench and took their half-full baskets away. “Tsk, tsk! This paltry sum will never do! I prefer a large portion of chestnuts with my meal, don’t you?” he asked and laughed softly. Penelope and Ethan stared in petrified silence as the very old man walked to a large bushel and filled their baskets with chestnuts. Turning, he handed each one their basket and said “Now, up with you and come with me. Don’t try to flee; you’ll only end up deeper in the dark forest. And for pity’s sake, stop weeping like babies!”

Penelope and Ethan did as commanded and the trio walked for what seemed an eternity. “Keep walking, younglings, eyes forward. We’re almost there.”

They followed the moon-lit path which grew brighter with each step. They began walking a bit faster; the faster they walked, the brighter the path became. Then suddenly the very old man yelled “Now, run!” and the children bounded out of the woods holding their chestnut baskets tight. 

Ethan and Penelope looked around in bewilderment; they were on the road leading to their house and the very old man was nowhere to be seen. They raced home as fast as their little feet could carry them and nearly fell through the door into their cozy, sun-filled kitchen. Mrs. Collingwood let out a startled squeal and dropped her cooking spoon onto the floor with a clatter.

“My heavens, children, you scared me half to death! You’re home so soon! Hardly an hour has passed! Were you racing each other again?” their mother asked a breathless Ethan and Penelope.

“Oh, mother!” cried Penelope. “You’ll never believe…”

“How many chestnuts we found!” interrupted Ethan, stepping in front of Penelope. He balled his hands into fists behind his back – their secret signal to stop talking. They proudly gave their overflowing baskets to their delighted mother who rewarded them with mugs of steaming cocoa and freshly baked sugar cookies.

Ethan and Penelope never again mentioned that day in the woods or their encounter with Caliban O’Doule; but every time they walked on the dirt road by the entrance to the forest, they paused for a moment and peered inside.

NAR © 2022

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

NB – In 1904, a gardener noticed that a chestnut tree in the New York Zoological Park seemed to be suffering from a mysterious blight. The disease was ultimately traced back to a variety of Asian chestnut that had been imported to Long Island, but by then it was too late. The blight spread, and within 40 years, nearly every American chestnut was dead.

ROY G. BIV

“Mommy, who’s Roy G. Biv?” my five-year-old daughter Colleen asked holding up a lesson folder I’d just finished preparing.

“Roy G. Biv isn’t a person, honey; it’s an acronym” I replied, clearly getting ahead of myself judging by the confused look on Colleen’s face.

“What’s a acrimin?” she asked, her freckled face all scrunched up.

I couldn’t help laughing at her mispronunciation. “Acronym, pumpkin. It’s an abbreviation formed from the first letters of a group of words and pronounced as one word.” I explained, forgetting I wasn’t teaching my 4th grade class.

Colleen cocked her head, looked at me quizzically and uttered “Huh?”

Okay, I think I needed to try a different approach. 

“You know how sometimes a rainbow appears in the sky when the sun comes out after the rain?”

Colleen nodded enthusiastically, her ginger pigtails swaying from side to side.

“Well, if you take the first letter of each color of the rainbow you get Roy G. Biv. Look, I’ll show you” and I opened the folder for her to see:

Colleen’s gleaming eyes opened wide and she exclaimed “Oh, yeah! I get it! It’s like LOL, right?”

“Um, close enough” I agreed. “Why don’t you get your big box of crayons and you can draw pictures of rainbows?”

Colleen was meticulous about her crayons, each one going back in its proper place after being used. One by one she picked out the seven colors of the rainbow and began drawing while I finished grading assignments.

When she was done, Colleen ran to show me her picture; it was both amazing and mystifying at the same time. She had drawn a little girl, obviously herself, with a giant bubble coming from her mouth, a beautiful glittery rainbow and a liberal smattering of the ROY G. BIV acronym inside the bubble.

“This is great, honey!” I declared. “Please tell me all about it.”

Colleen was happy to oblige.

“Sure, mommy!” she squealed and jumped onto my lap. “You see this girl down here? Well, that’s me. My hair is red and my freckles are orange! Up here is the yellow sun and down here is the green grass. Blue is for my eyes, all the letters inside the bubble are the color indigo and right here by my feet are violets. Do you like it?” Colleen looked up at me with those crystal blue eyes searching my face for approval.

“Pumpkin, this is the most beautiful picture I’ve ever seen” and I meant it with all my heart. 

“Yay! I’m so happy you like it. I made it for you!” She handed me the drawing and I hugged her ever so tightly.

“I think a picture this wonderful should have a name” I suggested. “Do you have any ideas?”

“I already named it, Mommy.”  And turning the drawing over I saw the title that truly touched my heart: “The Secret Language of Color”.

NAR © 2021

RULERS OF THE CASTLE

Scorching weather we’re experiencing, Maureen. Quite odd for June. You and Jamie should consider postponing your holiday. As you know, your Aunt Camilla detests air conditioning and I fear you will be terribly uncomfortable. Perhaps September would be a more suitable time to visit. Do let us know your decision. Hope all is well in New York.”

I stared at my uncle’s email in dismay. It had been eight years since I visited England. My husband Jamie’s family is from Scotland and we spent our honeymoon there, setting aside a few days to visit my aunt and uncle in Kent. I was looking forward to a return trip and an early summer vacation. Now Uncle George was complaining about an oppressive heatwave.

We had just booked our flights that morning and made reservations at some of the many attractions in the area. Our plans included a visit to Canterbury Cathedral, Port Lympne Animal Reserve, Chiselhurst Caves and Hever Castle with its incredible labyrinthine gardens. I could just picture our five-year-old daughter Josie running through the vast field of mazes, giggling at every dead end.

If my aunt and uncle agreed to watch Josie for a few hours, Jamie and I could go on a tour of Shepherd Neame Brewery. I must admit after years in New York I preferred my beer served ice cold in a frosty mug – not at the traditional ‘English cellar temperature’. I never did care for the taste of a tepid brew.

After telling Jamie about my uncle’s message, he reminded me that we had 24 hours to cancel our flights and reservations without incurring a penalty. The first thing we needed to do was check with the airline, then we could look into our other plans. Luck was on our side; we were able to reschedule our flights and all our activities without any problem. In fact, our new agenda was going to be even better than originally planned.

Hever Castle had recently opened an area called “Adventure Playground” where kids ruled the castle. Josie could discover and explore Tudor Towers with its 2 metre high willow structure, a giant sandpit and grassy mounds with hidden tunnels. There were secret dungeons, moats and turrets plus climbing frames, swings and slides. Josie would never want to leave!

I began having serious thoughts about moving back to England permanently. My parents chose to retire in Spain and I had no other family here in The States. Jamie, I knew, would love the idea of being closer to his relatives. Josie had just finished kindergarten and Jamie’s firm had a branch office in London. It would be an experience of a lifetime and the perfect surprise for our families to learn we’d be living in the UK again.

Good news, Uncle George! We were able to change our travel plans to September. Josie can’t wait to finally meet you in person and I’m looking forward to being with family again. We also have a big surprise planned which I’ll share with you very soon. Try to stay cool! Maureen”

Hever Castle Gardens

NAR © 2021

SPEAKING WORDS OF WISDOM

If there’s such a thing as a “religious mutt” that would be me:

• Born and raised Presbyterian (totally laid back)

• Attended Lutheran school for 12 years (spiritually ardent)

• Married a great Catholic guy and converted to Catholicism (not a huge leap from Lutheran but a billion light years from Presbyterian)

Though diverse in many ways one basic tenet these three religions sanction is the existence of heaven and hell. 

As a teenager at our quaint Presbyterian church I taught Sunday School to kindergarteners. We read Bible stories, watched animated videos about Jesus, sang songs, did religious arts and crafts. It was uncomplicated – until one of the children asked what happens when we die. 

“You go to heaven, unless you’ve been really bad. Then you go to H-E-L-L!” another kid chimed in. 

“Thats right but only the girls get turned into angels and then God tries to do the best he can with the boys” claimed an intrepid little girl.

That’s not true” yelled the boys.”Everybody in heaven is an angel and God is the head angel!” 

Suppressing a laugh I figured I better take back control of my class and start asking some questions.

“Who thinks they know what heaven is like?” I asked.

The girls all agreed that “there’s lots of singing and dancing to harp music and everyone wears flowers in their hair.” 

But the boys had different opinions, especially about wearing flowers in their hair. “Boys have halos just like Jesus and they help feed the animals in heaven.” 

One boy raised his hand and answered very seriously “There are no doctors or lawyers in heaven because God does all the healing and all arguments are against the law.”

“There’s always angel food cake – not devil’s food cake” giggled a blue-eyed tyke. 

A little girl was next to answer the question. “God sits in heaven but he isn’t on a throne or anything like that. He sits in a garden playing with the children, puppies and kittens and lets them climb on him. And the grownups just do stuff like they used to do at home.” 

I asked another question: “How did heaven begin?” 

Silence. 

Then one timid diminutive girl answered quietly “A really long time ago a lot of kids were crying because their grandmas and grandpas were dying so God said ‘Don’t cry. I’m going to make a beautiful place way above the clouds where all the grandparents and parents and pets can stay forever’. And so he made heaven.” 

I felt a lump in my throat, perhaps thinking of my own grandparents, but in all honesty I’m sure it was the simple yet pithy answer of that sweet girl. I coughed a bit to mask the emotion in my voice and asked another question. 

“Is there a special test to get into heaven?” 

I was rewarded with a resounding “NO!”

I countered with “No? Well if there’s no test how do we get into heaven?” 

An adorable red haired boy covered with freckles quickly raised his hand and said “When you get to heaven God whispers one question in your ear.” 

“He does? What’s the question?” I asked

 “He asks ‘Do you love me?’ It’s really not a hard question. And when you say ‘Yes’, God kisses you and says ‘Come on in!’” 

Intrigued by that answer I asked “And how do you know this?” 

Displaying a toothless grin he declared “My grandpa reminds me every time I talk to him. That’s what God asked my grandpa when he got to heaven and he said ‘YES!’” 

And all the kids shouted “YES!!” 

NAR © 2020

SELF-PRESERVATION

Settlers or Sellers”, that antiques show is coming on. Wanna watch, Doug?”

Just then the phone rang. It’s our daughter Chrissy talking about how tomorrow’s going to be a gorgeous day and our five grandkids really want us to go to the beach with them. 

“Ok, honey. Sounds wonderful. We’ll see you in the morning. Yes, we’re looking forward to it.” 

Doug, who had been happily watching “Seinfeld”, was now sitting imperially on the edge of the couch scowling at me. 

“What was that remark ‘’we’ll see you in the morning’’? I don’t know about you, Helen, but the only people I’ll be seeing in the morning are my golf buddies. We’re going to rent a couple of carts, play 18 holes, drink martinis with lunch, talk sports and smoke cigars. I’m begging you, Helen. Don’t take my day away!” 

Oh, don’t be so dramatic! You can play golf any day. When do we get to go to the beach with the kids.” 

“As infrequently as possible!” Doug groused. “And I’d like to keep it that way.” 

“Oh, come on! Summer’s almost over and the kids are so looking forward to a day with us.” 

“And I’m looking forward to seeing my buddies! We’ve had this outing planned for a week. Helen, must I remind you what hell it is going to the beach with the kids?” 

Doug, you’re making it sound horrible.” 

“Helen, my love, it is horrible! We’ve been to the beach with the kids exactly three times. Do you know why? Because it’s HELL!” 

“But Doug, I hate to disappoint them.” 

“And that, my dear, is your Achilles Heel. We start off excited for a great beach day and within an hour it turns into hell. Chrissy brings so much stuff we’re like the Israelites crossing the desert. Who complains the sand is too hot?  Who needs a diaper change? Who drops their lunch in the sand? Who fights over the sand toys? Before you know it, everyone’s crying, they want to go home and our wonderful day at the beach is kaput.” 

And you’re the one crying the loudest, Doug” I laughed

Damn right I am, woman.  It’s a nightmare and you know it! Listen, why don’t I call the guys and suggest our lovely wives join us tomorrow? You haven’t played in months. How about it?”  

The idea was very appealing. “Doug, do they still serve those delicious Celtic Guey Cocktails and Waldorf Salads?” 

“You bet they do! I know they’re you’re favorites. Are we on?” 

We most certainly are on! You call the guys and I’ll call Chrissy. I hope the kids aren’t too disappointed.” 

Doug kissed the top of my head. “Honey, it may not seem like it now but you’re doing us all a favor. The kids will be just fine – and so will we. Now call Chrissy.” 

Feeling just a wee bit guilty, I dialed Chrissy’s number. 

Chrissy, sweetheart. About tomorrow. So sorry to disappoint but your dad just reminded me ……”

NAR © 2019

FLORENTINE FOOT WASHING

When my sister Rosemarie graduated high school in 1965, our parents surprised us with a trip to Italy and Sicily. 

First stop was Rome where we visited my mother’s cousin Concetta. She lived in a quaint apartment building with a balcony. The first thing Rosemarie and I noticed was Concetta had a pet chicken on the balcony. Having never seen a live chicken, we spent a good portion of the day playing with it. After a while, my parents suggested we go shopping. We didn’t want to leave the chicken but our parents made us go. 

By the time we returned it was early evening and Concetta had prepared a wonderful dinner of stew and homemade bread. All the curtains were drawn and we felt very grown up as we sat at the candlelit table sipping wine just like  adults. The next morning Rosemarie and I were anxious to play with the chicken, but she wasn’t on the balcony. When we asked where she was, Concetta laughed and said “What do you think dinner was last night?” 

We were shocked and started crying but our parents explained the chicken wasn’t a pet; Concetta bought it as a special treat for our dinner. Needless to say, it took me and my sister a very long time to eat chicken again!

Our next stop was Florence and we stayed in an exclusive hotel. My parents had one room and Rosemarie and I shared another. The rooms were exquisitely decorated with expensive furnishings and rugs. In the bathroom was a claw-foot tub, an elegant sink, a toilet and an odd-looking fixture we’d never seen before. It was about the size of the toilet with faucets and a small sprinkler in the middle of the bowl. When we turned the faucets on, water shot out straight from the  sprinkler. We immediately turned off the water trying to figure out what this thing was. 

After much thought we decided it was for foot washing. Tossing off our sandals we turned on the water and bathed our feet. We dried our feet with small paper towels and pulled the lever expecting the towels to flush away. Well, they didn’t. In fact the foot washer filled with water and overflowed as Rosemarie and I tried desperately to stop the water. Before we knew it the entire bathroom floor was covered with water which leaked out into the bedroom, soaking the rug. We watched helplessly as the flood entered the hallway drenching the carpet. A maid saw what was happening and began screaming at us in Italian. People came out of their rooms, including our parents. The carpet was ruined and our parents had to pay for the damages. It wasn’t until a week later when our parents relayed the story to relatives in Sicily that we learned what a bidet was. Everyone had a good laugh at our expense! 

Talk about embarrassed! What did we know about bidets? I bet they’re still talking about us in Florence! 

NAR © 2019

DEEP BREATHS

Within the course of the next several hours, Pastor Roger Adams will have trouble accomplishing his goal for the day: writing his Sunday sermon. And how do I know this? Because I’m his wife, Kate, and the same thing happens every Saturday – Roger gets caught up in projects or family activities which isn’t difficult because we have six kids. As a pastor and busy dad, weekends for Roger are anything but relaxing. 

So why should today be any different? The schedule rarely, if ever, changed. It’s taped to the fridge and looks something like this: 

•.  7:00-8:00 – Breakfast

•   8:30-10:00 – Trevor – Soccer Practice

•   9:00-10:00 – Lauren & Lyla – Ballet

•   9:00-10:00 – Abby – Gymnastics

• 10:00-11:00 – Sam & Matt – Cub Scouts

• 11:30-2:00 – Soup Kitchen Duty

•   2:30-5:30 – Chores & Homework

•   6:00 – Dinner 

Crazy, right? Even with two drivers we’re barely able to get everyone where they’re supposed to be. Roger always says there’s a method to his madness – while the kids are doing their homework he’ll write his sermon. Sensible, logical plan  which usually falls apart after ten minutes. Trevor will ask Roger to name an astronomer and could he please help him do a little research, to which Roger should say “Google” but what kind of father would he be? Then Abby asks Roger to quiz her on the multiplication table and Sam and Matt need help with their volcano science project. And Roger helps them all because he’s a patient and loving dad who really enjoys being apart of our kid’s lives but who’s woefully behind on his sermon. 

After a full and active day, dinner is done, the kids are watching a movie and Roger comes searching for me, finding  me folding a days worth of laundry. Do you know how much laundry a family of eight produces in one day? Well, let’s just say “a ton” and leave it at that

Absentmindedly picking up a pair of shorts and folding them, Roger asks me the same question he asks every Saturday night: “Where does the time go, Kate? It’s already 9:30 and I’ve written about two paragraphs of my sermon. Too many things to do and so many kids!” 

“I have an idea” I offered hopefully. “Why not take one of your old Palm Sunday sermons, tweak it a little, and use it tomorrow?” 

Oh no! Tomorrow’s Palm Sunday and I never ordered the palm branches! This is a disaster!” Roger was truly beside himself. 

“Honey, deep breaths. Your secretary ordered them weeks ago. Didn’t you see my note? They’re already at the church.” 

Roger thanked me and kissed my forehead. “What would I do without you, Kate? Too many things to do and so many kids but I love our crazy busy life!” 

Smiling my best Cheshire Cat grin I said sweetly “Pastor Adams, it’s a good thing you didn’t say ‘too many kids’ because our crazy busy life is going to get crazier and busier and bigger. I’m pregnant!! Deep breaths, honey, deep breaths!”

NAR © 2019

CHRISTMAS MUNCHKINS

It had been a busy night at my bar and I was cleaning up after the last guest left. It was Christmas Eve and most people headed out a little early to get home or do last-minute shopping. I locked up, turned off the lights and went upstairs to the apartment I shared with my wife Nicole and our little girl Mariah. 

It was quiet in our apartment but I could see a dim light coming from Mariah’s room. I peeked in to see my girls saying their evening prayers. My daughter’s sweet voice was hushed but I heard her say “And God, please tell Santa the only thing I really want for Christmas is a kitty”. 

I sat in the living room staring at the Christmas tree. Nicole came in and sat beside me. “You heard?” I nodded and said “You know, Nic, she’s such a good girl, never asks us for anything. I have to see if I can find her a kitten.” 

“At this hour, Kevin? Where are you going to go?” 

“Honestly Nic, I have no idea – but I have to try.” 

Every place I tried was either closed or sold out of kittens and puppies. Even the humane society and animal shelters had no kittens. I drove up to Westchester and down to Brooklyn with no luck. Time was running out and I was getting more and more depressed with every passing minute. I just wanted to make Mariah happy; disappointing my little girl on Christmas was not an option. 

As I was heading back home, Nicole called. “Kevin, did you have any luck?” 

“No luck, Nic. I’m tired, I’m frustrated and I’m really bummed out. I’m gonna stop for a quick cup of coffee and I’ll be home in a few. Love ya.” 

I pulled into a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts and ordered a coffee while the store owner’s cat rubbed up against my leg. “Adding insult to injury” I thought. At this God-forsaken hour the store was empty. I asked to use their restroom and as I walked to the back of the shop, I noticed a box in the corner. Normally a box wouldn’t interest me but this box was whimperingI gently flipped up the top and to my amazement saw four kittens in the box. Forgetting my need to use the restroom, I raced back out front, startling the owner. 

“Sir, I’ve been driving all night looking to buy a kitten for my daughter for Christmas. Please, I’m begging you! Can I possibly buy one of your kittens?” 

The owner looked at me and said “Aw, no man. They’re not for sale.”

I stared at him blankly, not knowing what to say. I was exhausted and frustrating and finding a box full of kittens was a miracle. At this point I did’t care about my pride – all that mattered was Mariah – and I was willing to beg. I slowly got down on one knee.

The store owner looked shocked and even a little embarrassed. “Aw, come on man! What are you doing?” he asked incredulously. “Get up off the floor. I already told you I can’t sell you a kitten.”

I stood, looking him square in the eye. “I know, sir, but it’s my little girl. She … ” and he cut me off in mid sentence.

“I can’t sell you one” he repeated emphatically. “But I’ll gladly give you one for your kid.” 

I swear to God, I could have kissed him. Grinning like an idiot, I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Bless you, sir. Merry Christmas!”

Sit down and drink your coffee” he said as he shuffled off to the back of the store humming “Jingle Bells”.

Christmas morning Mariah excitedly ran into the kitchen and saw the mugs of hot cocoa and the Dunkin Donuts Munchkins box on the table. “Yay, Christmas Munchkins!” she squealed as she reached for the box, her big green eyes opening wide when she saw the tiny kitty staring back at her. 

Yeah … this is the best Christmas ever.

NAR © 2018

AND SO THIS IS CHRISTMAS

Graphic by Mckenna Richy

Yay! Daddy’s bringing down the boxes of Christmas decorations from the attic! There’s a bunch of plastic tubs with a million trillion ornaments in them and a ginormous box with the tree. Daddy’s saying bad words ‘cause the box is heavy and Mommy keeps slapping his arm and telling him to be quiet. Mommy said it’s Christmas Eve and we gotta put up the tree and cook all this stinky fish for dinner. Yuck! I wanna have pizza but she said no ‘cause fish is the Italian trabition, whatever that is. 

Oh no! The tree is broken!  Why can’t we have a real tree like my friend Susie? Her family cuts a tree down and I think it smells just like the forest. Daddy says it’s ok. The tree isn’t broken. It comes in pieces and we gotta put it together. I’m gonna go watch cartoons now. I don’t wanna put the tree together. It boring. I just wanna hang ornaments. Daddy always lifts me way up high to put the angel on the tippy top of the tree. 

Daddy’s calling me. Wow! The tree is covered with lights and it’s time to hang the ornaments! Mommy has a box that nobody’s allowed to touch ‘cause it’s got all her special ornaments. I don’t know what’s so special about them. I’ve got a fluffy unicorn. Now THAT’S special! I gotta use the step stool to reach the higher branches. Mommy says I better not fall in the tree like I did last year. Boy, did she get mad! Finally it’s time for the angel and Daddy lifts me way up high to reach the top. She’s the most beautiful angel I’ve ever seen and I just wanna stare at her all night. 

Ding! Dong! Yay! Grammy and Poppy are here! Poppy says the fish smells delicious. Pee yoo! I’m not gonna eat it. I’m just gonna have some pisgetti. After dinner Mommy says we gotta get dressed for church. I don’t wanna go but Grammy says we gotta go. 

Oh man! There’s no place to park and Daddy’s saying more bad words. Mommy’s slapping his arm again. FINALLY we park and go inside. Whoa! It’s so pretty! So many candles and twinkly lights. And there must be a zillion people! Poppy says they’re all a bunch of phonies. Boy, Grammy gave him a really big swat! We squeeze onto a bench and I snuggle into Mommy’s fur coat. It’s so soft and warm. I just wanna go to sleep. Maybe I can nap for just a little while ‘cause Santa’s coming tonight and I’m gonna stay up all night and wait for him. 

Woohoo! I did it! I stayed up all ni….. 

Wait a minute. How’d I get in my jammies? And I’m in bed! It’s Christmas morning and I missed Santa! I run down the stairs and Mommy’s making bacon and pancakes. Yay!! Santa came! Santa came! Look at all the presents! Mommy says breakfast first, then we can open the presents.

I never ate so fast in my whole life!! 

NAR © 2018

CALAMITOUS JANE

Confusion and mayhem seemed to follow Jane Connors wherever she went. She was a bright, inquisitive girl with a bit of a stubborn streak and insisted on doing things her own way. Most times they didn’t turn out very well. As far back as people can recall, Jane had a knack for making trouble, finding trouble or getting into trouble. 

One spring day while Jane was out picking wildflowers, she spotted some daisies in her neighbor’s garden. She opened the gate, plucked a handful and went on her merry way – forgetting to close the gate. The neighbor’s dog trotted out, sniffing the air until he found the source of the delicious scent  – a drying rack of smoked salami and sausages in a backyard across the street. In the blink of an eye the meat was swallowed up and the dog happily ran home for a nap. And Jane was totally oblivious.

Then there was the time Jane’s dad didn’t approve of ‘those juvenile delinquent characters’ she was hanging out with. “Oh, don’t worry” said her mom. “They’re good kids and remember, we were young once.” Well, they might have been good kids but one cigarette carelessly tossed from their car burned down Old Man Walker’s barn and most of his farm. Jane and her friends didn’t even realize what happened. 

Jane’s mother made all the costumes for the high school Christmas pageant and gave Jane explicit instructions to deliver the box of costumes to the auditorium. The door to the auditorium was locked but there were other boxes piled against the wall so Jane added her mother’s to the collection. The next night at dress rehearsal, the costumes were nowhere to be found. Jane was asked about the missing box and replied that she had put it with the other boxes. It was quickly determined that the pile was actually trash which had been picked up and disposed of. Needless to say, the pageant was not the same without costumes. 

Jane volunteered at the local women’s hospital; caring for newborns was the highlight of her day. One unusually quiet Saturday morning Jane decided to bathe the babies. There were only five little ones – not a difficult task. Starting with the first, she carefully undressed it, gently removed the name bracelet, bathed the baby, dressed it in a clean onesie and returned it to a bassinet. When all the babies were bathed and swaddled, Jane suddenly noticed the stack of name bracelets by the wash basin. Panic set in when she realized she had no idea which baby was which! How was she ever going to match each baby with its correct bracelet? “Well, I’ll just have to take my chances”, she thought and randomly reattached the bracelets. 

Later that day pandemonium had erupted. “Get over here, Jane!” demanded the head nurse. “The mother of baby Jesse is screaming that he’s not hers and all the other moms are frantic! It’s bedlam here, Jane! What on earth have you done now?”

NAR © 2018

OH, JOHNNY! OH, JOHNNY! OH!

Promenaders?” Christy looked up from her homework, a confused look on her face. “Wow! Such a weird wordWonder what it means. Mom, are you listening to me?” 

Julie, Christy’s mom, stopped preparing dinner and turned to talk to her daughter. “Yes sweetie, I’m listening. I know the word and you do, too. Just think about it for a minute, Chris. Anything come to mind?” 

Christy’s face was skewed in a bewildered expression. “It sorta sounds like that weird fruit, the one  with all the red seeds in the center which you’re supposed to eat. How bizarre is that .. eating seeds? Ya know what I’m talking about, mom

Julie laughed. “You’re thinking of pomegranates, Chris!  And yes, it’s a little strange but the seeds are really delicious. I’ll get some for you to taste. Now, back to your homework .. ‘promenaders’. It’s a word you’ve heard before. Try again.”  

Christy absentmindedly chewed on her pencil, deep in thought, then smiled as though a huge secret had suddenly been revealed. “I know! Promenaders are teenagers who go to proms!” 

“Very clever, Christy girl, but not quite right. Wait .. you’ve just given me an idea! Let’s see if this jogs your memory.” Julie dashed out of the kitchen and returned with one of Christy’s old yearbooks. “Remember when everyone took square dancing in 7th grade?”  

“Sure, but what does that yearbook have to do with anything, mom? That was ages ago when I was twelve. I’m fifteen now!” 

Julie rolled her eyes. “Yes, I know .. you’re so very grown up now! Here, humor me and take a look at this picture. It’s from one of the square dances you used to go to. Read the caption.” 

Christy heaved an exaggerated sigh, took the yearbook from Julie and recited the verse:

*Then you all promenade with the sweet corner maid singing “Oh, Johnny! Oh, Johnny! Oh!”*

Christy’s eyes opened wide. “I remember that song! That’s the part of the dance when we strolled around the dance floor. So promenaders must be people who stroll!”  

“There ya go, kiddo! You got it!” Julie exclaimed. 

Christy jumped off the kitchen stool and started heading toward the stairs leading to her bedroom. 

“Hey .. where you off to? Dinner’s almost ready” Julie called out after her

I’ll be back down soon, mom. Gotta finish this essay.”  And she ran up the stairs singing “Oh, Johnny! Oh, Johnny! Oh!” 

NAR © 2018

AND THE BAND PLAYED ON

Promenaders strolled down the sun-streaked boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Ladies twirled their parasols while the gents tipped their straw hats as they passed each other and stroked their handlebar mustaches. It was Labor Day weekend, the unofficial end of summer, a perfect day with sunshine, blue skies and children laughing.

Margaret Wilson and her boy Sam came from Philadelphia for the fresh sea air, to gaze in awe at the hotels built like fairytale palaces along the seafront and to admire the piers dripping with neon lights. The most famous was the Steel Pier, known for its dance bands, water circus and other such attractions. In fact, it was revealed that the famous composer John Philip Sousa and his band would be performing that very afternoon. 

There were barkers selling salt water taffy and cotton candy, minstrel shows, fairgrounds and the famous Diving Horse, specially trained to charge up a 60 foot ramp to a platform atop the Steel Pier where a woman clad in a smattering of sequins leapt onto its back just before it plunged off the pier. Horse and rider flew through the air, hitting the water to the applause of delighted throngs waiting below.

But one didn’t have to venture far from the boardwalk to sample less wholesome activities. In venues like the Paradise Club, tourists could watch nearly naked women dance to jazz music. And if they wanted something not just risqué but illegal, they could visit the brothels catering to every taste, gambling dens and slot machines. There was the criminal element, too, with occasional holdups and shoot-outs. 

However today was a holiday. Children played gleefully, the start of school the furthest thing from their minds, while their parents strolled in their most fashionable clothes, making small talk. Nothing could spoil a day like today. 

Suddenly the cacophony of gun shots rang out. People screamed and scattered as gun-wielding robbers ran from the pawn shop, shooting wildly. They jumped into a waiting car and took off. All was silent until a piercing wail rose to the heavens and everyone turned to see Margaret Wilson cradling the body of little Sam, shot in the heart by a stray bullet. In his jacket pocket was a folded essay, now stained with innocent blood – “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”. 

The police arrived, removed mother and child and the band played on. 

NAR © 2018

PAINT IT BLACK

It is raining. Little Joseph, only four years old, is riding in the back of a big black car, his mother Carla by his side. They are following a long flower-covered car. Mommy said daddy’s in that car but Joseph can’t see him. Their car stops; other cars arrive. Everyone is dressed in black. They’re all crying. Everyone follows some men carrying a long black box into a grassy field. ‘Is this a picnic?’ Joseph wonders. The men lower the box into a large hole in the ground and mommy tells Joseph to “say goodbye to daddy.” He is confused but follows her lead,  tossing a flower into the hole. They return to the car. Carla lights a cigarette, smiles and tells Joseph daddy won’t be coming back. Joseph is sad and doesn’t understand why daddy would leave without saying goodbye. Looking out the window he waves bye bye with his little hand. 

It is raining .. again. Joseph wants to play with mommy but she says “No .. I’m busy on the phone”. He goes exploring the cellar where there are lots of boxes .. great for climbing and building. Joseph spots a small box among the big ones and decides it’s perfect for the top of his fort. Just as he’s placing it on the tippy top, it slips from his hands, scattering torn  photos of daddy. There’s a newspaper clipping, too, but he can only read a few words – ‘BOAT’ .. ‘LOST’ .. and ‘ROMANO’ – his surname. Joseph doesn’t understand any of it but he instinctively knows mommy would be mad at him. He puts the box back where he found it and goes upstairs. 

It is raining but Joseph hears laughter outside. From the window he can see mommy and a man kissing under a tree. The man takes a suitcase from his car and he and mommy run to the house. They throw open the door, dripping wet, still laughing. Joseph thinks it’s all very strange for grown ups to act this way. Carla looks at Joseph and scolds, “Naughty boy! Don’t you know it’s rude to stare?” But Joseph just stands there, looking at them. “Well, silly goose”, purrs mommy, “say hello to my friend. He’s your daddy now.” Laughing and hugging, they ran up the stairs, leaving Joseph alone in the hallway. Slowly he walks to the window and starts to cry. Will it ever stop raining? 

NAR © 2018

THE GRAND CRAYONYON

Other brands of crayons can be found in every toy or arts and crafts store around the world – various sized boxes containing a multitude of colors – but none can compare to the “King of Crayons” – CRAYOLA! 

Originally all that was available was a thin mustard-colored paper packet with drab green lettering which contained eight crayons – one each of black, blue, brown, green, red, violet, orange and yellow .. fine, reliable, steadfast colors indeed .. the proud forefathers of what was to come. 

As time went on, more colors were created and updated boxes were designed .. until finally in 1958 the crown jewel of crayons made its debut. Nothing compared to the new bright yellow and green box with red letters emblazoned across the front shouting out “64 DIFFERENT BRILLIANT COLORS WITH BUILT-IN SHARPENER!” This was indeed The Grand Crayonon”! 

One peek inside the magic box revealed to curious and imaginative kids everywhere a rainbow battalion of wax soldiers standing at attention in their cardboard armories ..  a plethora of pigmentation, a confluence of chromaticity, a legion of luminosity .. colors galore! 

No longer were kids confined to a measly eight colors. Now, instead of one red there were four, five hues of orange, eight varieties of yellow, six choices of green, a profusion of eleven blues, five purple shades, an assortment of eight pinks, an incredible selection of ten browns, two grays and one each of silver, gold, copper, black and white. One of the blues was called cerulean, which everyone thought sounded more like a gas than a color! 

The artistic possibilities were endless: the sky was no longer just blue but actually sky blue and midnight blue. Trees weren’t plain old green – they were forest and pine green. Flowers were carnation pink, brilliant rose and periwinkle. Lemons and olives were, believe it or not, lemon yellow and olive green!  

And just when you think the pinnacle has been reached, along comes the totally unexpected .. washable crayons, erasable ones, scented, fluorescent and even glitter crayons. Now oranges, grapes and cherries smell like fruit, tulips and violets smell like flowers and reflecting stars sparkle and shimmer in the Pacific Blue. 

It’s no wonder why something as ineffably magical as playful, colorful crayons should have their own theme park .. The Crayola Experience .. a fabulous place where kids and adults can participate in “The Power of Creativity”.  

Thank you, Crayola, for coloring our world!

NAR © 2018

CRIME OF THE CENTURY

Monday after school my friends and I are in our usual hang out .. Carroni Brothers Grocery store. We go for snacks, gum .. typical things 10 year old boys like. I want chips but I forgot my money. My friends don’t have any to loan me so I just walk around the store .. but those chips keep calling me. Next thing I know, I snatch the bag of chips and bolt out the side door. Instead of running as fast as lightning, I toss the bag into a nearby milk crate and squat down next to it. Whew! I made it! Suddenly Mr. Carroni is looming over me. He grabs the bag of chips and snarls at me “Get out of here, you little thief, and never come back!”  

That night I prayed Carroni’s would burn down. No such luck.

Every day that week I gazed longingly at the store from my school bus. 

One thought kept haunting me: Sunday morning .. when Dad and I take our customary walk to Carroni’s for fresh Italian bread, a box of macaroni, cannoli and the newspaper. Maybe I should just run away from home. 

Sunday arrives and Dad’s calling for me to “get a move on!” I keep making up excuses why I can’t go but he’s not buying them. 

Dead man walking. I’m dilly-dallying the whole way .. watching caterpillars, kicking pebbles, stopping to tie my shoelaces … again. 

“C’mon, kiddo! What is this…a funeral?” Yeah. Mine! I start crying, blubbering gibberish. Taking hold of my shoulders, Dad looked me square in the eye and said “Ok, what’s going on?”  

Sobbing pathetically, I told Dad the whole sordid story. Taking out his handkerchief, he wiped my face, held it to my nose and said “Blow. Listen, kiddo, what you did was wrong but it’s over. Now we go apologize .. and not a word about any of this to your Mom. This stays between us guys.” 

We walked into the store, picked out our usual items and walked up to the counter. “Mr. Carroni, my son has something to say.” I managed to squeak out “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll never steal anything from you again” and extended my hand. An eternity seemed to go by but to my shock, Mr. Carroni took my little hand in his meaty one, gave me a solid handshake and nodded in agreement. 

Anything else?” he asked my Dad.

“Just this” responded Dad as he tossed a bag of my favorite chips onto the counter. 

To this day I don’t think Mom ever knew. 

NAR © 2018

THE IVY GARDEN

Out our kitchen window I can see my little girl Nell playing with her new best friend Gina. Since moving to rural Vermont two months ago, the girls have become inseparable. They are both four years old and about the same height but that’s where the physical  similarities end. 

Nell is a green-eyed lanky Irish redhead covered in a profusion of freckles while Gina is a slightly plump Italian beauty with brown doe eyes, smooth tanned skin and lustrous black hair. 

As I stand at the kitchen sink I can see the girls playing in the yard. Their energy is boundless as they dash back and forth from the swings to the trampoline to their bikes. 

Moving around the house doing my chores, I can hear Gina counting, followed by a loud “ready or not…here I come”, then the hysterical giggles as Nell’s secret (but usual!) hiding place is discovered. 

The yard is fenced in and I’m completely conscious of where the girls are and what they’re doing .. most of the time. Occasionally they’ll wander into a concealed corner of the garden to pick wild flowers for me and Gina’s mom. Even though I can’t see them, I can clearly hear their conspiratorial mumblings as they go from one blossom to the other.  

“Buttercups and Lilys of the Valley” whispered Gina.

“And some of this pretty shiny ivy” added Nell. “Mommy likes shiny things.”  

All was quiet and I presumed the girls were waiting for me to come downstairs and present me with a freshly-picked bouquet. But to my amazement on the crisp white linen dining room tablecloth sat a short blue glass vase brimming with buttercups, lilys and ivy. It was breathtaking. I stood there admiring the green, white and golden cluster when suddenly I heard woeful whimpering and sobbing coming from the porch. 

And there, huddled closely under the wicker chair were Nell and Gina, their little bodies covered in itchy red rashes. Only then did I realize the vine in the vase with the flowers was poison ivy! 

“Come with me, my sweet girls. It’s nothing a little calamine lotion won’t fix. Thank you for the  flowers .. the most beautiful I’ve ever seen! Won’t daddy be surprised when he comes home tonight!” I said, smiling and chuckling wistfully to myself. 

And tomorrow we will rid our garden of all the pretty shiny ivy. 

NAR © 2018

THE BIG STING

Open a map of New York, go as far east as possible and you’ll find the town of Montauk – a laid-back fishing village kissing the Atlantic Ocean. I lived there with my brother and parents. Winters were harsh and barren, a sharp contrast to the summers teeming with tourists escaping madding NYC in search of the perfect wave, a golden tan. My favorite month was April – trees budding, flowers sprouting, the delicious smell of the ocean. 

Our house was off the beaten path, with only two neighbors nearby. One was a young couple with rambunctious five year old triplets: Timothy, Thomas and Theodore – ‘The Terrorizing Trio’. The boys had identical bicycles – one red, one blue, one yellow – which they rode with wild abandon throughout the neighborhood. 

Our other neighbor was snooty old Professor MacGregor, newly-retired teacher turned nature enthusiast. He was very particular about the upkeep of his yard and the glorious profusion of flowers attracting all varieties of birds and insects. His pride and joy was a tall redwood hive encasing eight honeycomb trays. Inside sat the queen, surrounded by her working and droning colony. Mac, our secret nickname for the professor, would don his protective suit every day and inspect the hive and the honey within – puttering, muttering – making sure everything was as it should be. 

And it always was .. except for THAT day when mom looked outside and saw a huge black swarm rapidly approaching. Closing all the windows and doors, we watched anxiously as thousands of buzzing bees hovered over our house, took a sharp turn and headed straight for town. Once we knew it was safe, we ventured outside only to hear the enraged obscenities of the professor. 

Dad and the triplet’s father ran over to see what was going on. There in his yard was a blustering Mac, wandering around the remnants of his beloved hive which were strewn about the yard, the redwood gouged and marred with traces of blue, red and yellow paint. The triplet’s dad groaned and raced out the yard toward his house, yelling out their names as he ran. 

Suddenly, we heard screams coming from the village as horrified townsfolk ran for cover from the buzzing horde. It took a long time for Montauk to settle down; the only one to benefit from that infamous day was the town doctor, busily tending sting after sting after sting.

NAR © 2018

THREE OF A KIND

Head cocked to the right, Jake waited impatiently as I read the article he had slipped in front of me. Having been born with microtia, Jake’s right ear was very small and malformed with significantly decreased hearing…..just like his idol Paul Stanley from KISS….so tilting his head to one side for better hearing was second nature. 

“Mom, can we go….PLEASE?” he pleaded. “The article says 50 dogs and cats will be euthanized next week unless they’re adopted. Please, Mom! I’ve wanted a dog forever! If I can get a dog for Christmas, I’ll never ask you for another thing for the rest of my life!!”

I slid my glasses down my nose and raised my eyebrows questioningly. “That’s a really long time, Jake! I’ll tell you what. Today’s Wednesday. If you finish that book report and clean your room by Saturday, then we have a deal.” 

“Really?? I swear I will, Mom!” Jake threw his arms around my neck. “I can’t wait until Saturday!” I couldn’t help laughing at his unbridled excitement. 

Saturday finally arrived and Jake was true to his word. His report was done and his room was clean. He even found an old frame in the basement for his favorite KISS poster. 

So I was true to MY word, too. We got to the shelter early and looked around, stopping at all the cages. After a while, I lost sight of Jake. I called out to him and got an “Over here, Mom!” in response. I finally spotted him in the corner, bending down and staring into a cage. There weren’t any other people hanging around that section and I wondered what type of dog caught Jake’s eye. I was surprised to see it wasn’t a dog but two tiny grey kittens. 

“Hey, buddy, what’s up? I thought you wanted to get a dog. Did you change your mind?” 

Jake looked up at me, his big brown eyes brimming with tears. “Mom,” he whispered. “Come look. These are special cats!” Bending down to take a look, I thought “what could be so special about a cat?” My question was answered when I looked in the cage; I gasped slightly at what I saw. 

“Ah, I see an introduction is necessary” said one of the shelter volunteers. ”These are our Scottish Folds. No one wants these little guys because of their folded ears. Everyone thinks there’s something wrong with them but that’s just the way God made them.” 

“Mom, they’re just like me! I love them. Can we take them home, please?” 

“We sure can, buddy” I managed to choke out. “What are you going to name them?” 

“That’s easy.” Jake smiled up at me. “Paul and Stanley.” 

NAR © 2017