Writes With Pencils

fiction, memoir, essays and poetry

Tag: Family

The Grace of Holiday Illness


In this busy season
of hall-decking, shopping
windshield-scraping, visiting, and baking—
a cold that settles
into the chest
to rumble
and wheeze,
slows the days enough to
feel the hair
of a red-headed boy
under my chin while watching Elf
and to host an early pajama party
to ring in New Year’s
on East Coast time.
On the year’s first day
we had no need for black-eyed peas,
and simmered instead a pot
of chicken soup to soothe and warm—
our bowls overflowed with luck already.

Memorial Day



Flags were waved
at his memorial service
he was hailed a hero
who died for his country
the ultimate sacrifice.

Flags were waved
as his young widow cried
as his mother cried
and his father stood stoic in shock
at this unnatural order of things.

Flags were waved
as the color guard marched
speeches were made
and 21 guns
were fired in salute.

Flags were waved
as planes flew by,
five in formation,
until one banked right
and flew off alone.

I waved no flag
as I stood there in anger
listening to platitudes
one dimensional, false
and incomplete.

Where were the stories
of teenage drunkenness,
cockiness, violence,
and bullying abuse?
The slamming of doors,
so hard it once broke
the stained glass window
my mother had made?
The yelling, the screaming,
the holes punched in walls?
The bumps, the bruises
the bloody noses he gave me
the ones no one noticed?

Heroes don’t hit girls, I thought
as flags were waved.
It was safe to be angry
he couldn’t strike back.

But in the years since
away from the flags
I stopped tearing him down
having felt pure forgiveness
having felt his amends.

He’d broken my heart,
how dare he leave me alone,
and it came out as anger
the alternative had been simply
too much to bear.

I remember now mostly
my favorite brother
who was the glue between
me, as the youngest,
and the rest of the clan.

The Golden Boy
who, when we were children,
was so full of smiles
a Daniel Boone
to my Indian squaw.

The goofball
the jokester
the daredevil
the clown.

As his co-adventurer
I was sneaking through fences
building rock dams
straddling canons
and climbing sand dunes.

He was sweet and funny
troubled and mean
generous and selfish
loving and cruel,
so imperfectly human, as all heroes are.

It’s easy to remember
and honor with flags
the final act of a hero
his noble sacrifice
and his fall.

I choose to also remember
all his faults and his failings
to admit and embrace them
to love and accept,
because long before he was called hero
I called him John.

Evelyn Louise


Everything that reminded Daddy of Mama was his favorite. He never let me forget her. I lived her through all of her favorite things. Books of all kinds she adored. She’d loved them so much that she’d gone to college to study literature. She was only one of a handful from Chester High School to go off to college. All the way to Chapel Hill she’d gone. Jane Austen and the Brönte sisters were particular favorites but she believed every book was a treasure and the printing press the greatest invention of mankind. Said it raised the possibilities of common folks to rise to higher thought through access to ideas and information. Or so Daddy told me. Most of what I know of my mother I learned through his eyes and voice. I know she was human with a beating heart and lungs that breathed because they stopped, and she was gone. But through his eyes she was an apparition, not quite a saint because she had a fun-loving, devilish side, but an otherworldly creature that inspired love and admiration for her in those she touched.

After I’d left Watson to pursue my life and tried unsuccessfully to form a family of my own, I wondered whether he would have loved her so much if she’d lived past 33. If she’d lived to argue with a disorderly son and hate the new neighbors who moved into the pale yellow house at the end of the lane. If she’d lived would she have become common in his eyes, just an ordinary, good woman? Would he have adored her so deeply? She’ll always be young and beautiful to him. She’ll always be full of fire and sweetness. No one will ever match the tone of her humming voice as she washed the dishes after supper while he read the paper or added up the accounts. She was preserved at the perfect age of 33 at the height of her bloom, like a prize winning garden rose hung upside down at the peak of its blossom, setting its petals into a permanent rouge. You’d think that would be hard to live up to, to have a perfect woman for a mother, but I was a part of her left behind, her growing legacy and greatest work Daddy said. If such a thing is possible, he almost loved me too much, enough for two.

Mama had been the promise of her parents’ dreams. She was born healthy and bright-eyed when they were already in their fourth decade. They’d long since given up hope that they’d ever be blessed with a child after Granny Taylor suffered five miscarriages early in their marriage. So after Mama had proved her robust constitution by putting on nearly two pounds in the first month, Granny and PawPaw Taylor presented her at the West End Missionary Baptist Church over in Newbury to thank the Lord for his blessings. When the pastor asked the baby’s name, they told him Evelyn Louise, meaning life and renowned warrior. Knowing the grief they’d suffered, he smiled his approval, held her up for all the congregation to see, and preached on how the Lord bestowed life that should never be taken for granted, that we needed to fight for it. She’d been given a strong and noble name, but instantly became known as Evie Lou to everyone who saw the good natured infant. When she grew up it still stuck, but it never really suited her; she was too elegant and had a far away vision. She was an only child, like me, but had her mother her entire life. When Mama died Granny Taylor said her own inner light went out, that there was no more oxygen to feed it. She said it wasn’t natural for a mother to outlive her child. Even though she’d always been a hardy woman, she was gone in less than a year at the age of 74.

The women in my family don’t last very long. They’re not weak or sickly; they just live so fully and burn so brightly that they burn up. At least that’s what Granddad says. And their men mourn them and carry on alone; there being no other women ever be able to fill the places they left bare and empty.

Daddy always called her Evie. He thought the Lou was too country for his literary lady who’d gone to Chapel Hill to study English and became Watson’s librarian shortly after her arrival. His Evie had shoulder-length chestnut hair and a welcoming smile that started in the left corner of her lips and expanded until her eyes sparkled.

Every year on the date that marked their anniversary, Daddy would raise a glass at supper and retell the moment he first laid eyes on Mama. She’d been new to Watson, having grown up in the next county over. Along with two suitcases, six boxes of books, and a freshly-framed diploma with the letters B.A. after her name, Granny and PawPaw Taylor delivered her to Widow Norton’s place two days before she was to start as the assistant librarian at the County Library, the pride of downtown Watson. The widow had placed an ad in the regional paper seeking a tenant for her attic apartment, and my grandparents thought that was a good place for their only child to call her first real home away from home. The two rooms tucked into the over-sized dormers under the roof were furnished with a pair of reading chairs and a side table, a kitchenette and dinette set, bookshelves and a single bed. Widow Norton didn’t meddle in her tenant’s business like some old ladies would. The apartment was private with its own entrance reached by a stair up the outside of the house, but she was a pious Baptist lady and so had furnished the place to discourage gentleman guests. After delivering her few belongings and Granny fussing over the hanging up of clothes, the three of them walked the six blocks over to Jenny’s Kitchen and Cafe on the widow’s recommendation to share a final supper.

That’s where Daddy first saw her. They’d settled into a window table after being greeted by the single waitress who’d invited them to seat themselves. He’d finished afternoon deliveries and was on his way to meet up with Shep Beaumont and Stevie Garrett when he walked right by the picture window that framed Mama just as she looked up from her plate of baked ham and corn pudding and laughed at one of PawPaw’s jokes. He always said that the light in her eyes and sparkle of her smile nearly blinded him, they were so bright. I guess they did because he stubbed his shoe on a crack in the sidewalk pushed up by the roots of one of the elms that lined Lee Street, and would have fallen flat right there, had he not managed to keep upright thanks to an exaggerated Jerry Lewis move. And that’s the first time Mama noticed Daddy: eyes wide, mouth agape and arms flailing.

Outer Banks, part 1

an excerpt from a novel in progress


Back Camera


My orphancy was a mantel, a style that was unknown in Watson, at least to me. I wrapped it around me, trying to make myself as invisible as I felt, my life story no longer my own. A made-up life based on secrets and half truths had led me down a predictable path whose destination now felt foreign. As I walked it, I met only questions, all without answers, or any that I’d own at least. Did Daddy know? “He must,” I’d think, but immediately dismiss that as no answer at all, only a hope I had of still belonging somewhere, belonging there in that house I shared without kin. “Granddad sure didn’t know; why would he?” I’d ponder and just as quickly let go of that half certainty, unsure of everything. My whole world was built on dunes like these Outer Banks where I’d come to find the comfort of childhood. Even though Watson was back on solid ground, its foundation planted deep in the fields and orchards, it was a false solidity for me. The stones of our house kept the basement dry even in high weather and held firmly to the soil, but inside everything seemed to shift and blow and settle in a different and strange landscape daily.  Each new thread I pulled to look at caused the wind to shift and bury all that seemed newly familiar. I woke up each morning in a new home within the same four walls kept dry by the same roof Daddy and I had re-shingled one summer back in high school. Everything looked the same, but nothing was. And it never would be again.

As the island rolled toward the sea and darkness came, I felt the rhythm of the light before its beam punctured my own dark vision. It illuminated nothing, only marked the dangers of the coast to sailors out beyond the cape. Its light didn’t guarantee safe passage; it only alerted those in sight to dangers of the reefs and rocks below the water’s inky swells.

When I was little we used to come, the three of us together, to a cottage out here for the first two weeks of August. The steady air across the dunes had been a great refreshment from the sultry weight of our valley’s summer. Mama took to the beach as a mermaid sunning herself in between swims in the warm sea. We’d walk the beach collecting treasures: opalescent jewels that once were homes themselves. By the end of our coastal fortnight each year, all the window ledges of our cottage were filled with the sea’s treasures, shared with us upon the dunes. It was homey cabin and perfect place for sea horses and horseshoe crabs. We didn’t even mind the horseflies too much.

Its seaward walls were tidy but showed fifty years of gales and storms. The paint lasted three seasons at most, worn away by gritty crystals massaged and beaten against the clapboards by the salty wind. The house painters had an easy job of it as far as I could tell. Inland they’d need scrapers and heavy sanders to ready the boards for a new coat. Out here they let nature do the job. Every summer I can recall the cottage sat softly-white, perched on the dunes. But around the window trim I could see its mood had once been grey and also sea-foam green. No drastic change, but subtle differences were evident in its history. Its seaward wall had two large windows for eyes and a door for a nose between them. The eave over the porch formed their lids and the wind chimes hanging there, the lashes. It kept its expression plain but constant, as dependable as the sunrise it greeted every morning.

On the porch were four sturdy rockers to match the number of bed pillows the cottage furnished. They were white as well, but brighter with a little sheen except where palms and thumbs had rubbed away mainland worries. Rarely were all four set rocking at the same time, only when we had company after supper for pie or watermelon. Sitting and rocking is grown-ups’ sport, and as a boy I never stopped digging, running, or pirating long enough to complete a full swing of their arcs. One morning though, in the summer before I entered school and learned that big boys didn’t sleep with stuffed dogs or sit on daddies’ laps, I heard the porch boards creek in rhythm as the grey dawn warmed to blue. I crept from my bed and out the screen door, holding its frame against the pull of its tight springs, careful to close it slowly so as not to wake Mama. Daddy opened his arms to make room for me on his knee and handed me the field binoculars he was holding.

“Look Jesse, look up the beach just this side of the last cottage,” he directed me. I looked through the left eyepiece and then the right, my boy’s face not wide enough to see through my father’s eyes. Noticing my trouble, he reached down and pulled the lenses closer together to match my innocence.

“Okay, is that better? Do you see the last cottage?” he asked. I nodded. “Now look out just beyond the breakers. What do you see?” This was Daddy’s way. He rarely told me or taught me things directly, but was always asking questions, encouraging me to explore and figure things out for myself.

“The ocean,” I answered, uncertain why he sounded excited.

“Just wait, keep looking.” And then it broke the surface of the water, nearly its whole body reflected the morning light. And then another, just a few yards away, and then another. A whole school of dolphins were celebrating that summer wasn’t yet over. “They’ve been at it for about half an hour now. Started leaping as the light was coming up,” he informed me before settling back into the quiet. The field glasses were heavy and my little hands were cramping from clutching them to my face, but I couldn’t look away. Then I felt Daddy’s hands over mine as they took the weight of them and I settled in, my summer-shorn hair bristling against the underside of his chin. We sat like that together until the school moved on out to sea and we heard the clicking of the stove’s pilot light through the screen door. Except for us it looked like the rest of the beach was still asleep and that we were the only ones to have witnessed a marvelous secret. It was a magical kind of secret that was alright to share, not like when you see your cousin nab apples from the neighbor’s tree or find Granddad’s hidden cigars, and I couldn’t wait to tell Mama in between bites of bacon.

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