Tag Archives: Holidays

When He Was Small

It must be the graduations, the birthdays, the moving-ons that are swirling around me lately…for whatever reason, I am feeling nostalgic. I look at my kids and I think, “Stop! This is all going by wwaaayy to fast!” I look at my younger ones and I want to take a picture of every, single, ridiculous little moment so I can remember it all. And I look at the older ones and think, “Where did it go?” And… “Why didn’t I put all the old photos of their ridiculous little moments into nice, neat albums like I always said I would?”

I see them all growing, getting taller, bigger, moving onward. Struggling sometimes with figuring out how to become themselves, and it is hard to watch this bumpy journey.  Hard to know that there are some things I could help them with, if only they would let me, and some things I cannot …even if they ask.

One of my children is about to enter into that magical land we call middle school, and one is just leaving (Thank God!). My mother always said that she thought fifth grade, the grade before middle school, was really the last true year of childhood and as usual, she is right. It is the last chance.  The last chance we all have just to be kids. Just silly, playful, carefree children before all the social pressures and hormones of adolescence kick in.  Before the toys and imaginations are put away to gather dust in the corner as these once happy-go-lucky youth begin to worry about things like fitting in and pimples and wayward hair. Before they all start struggling to cross over that treacherous divide, that bumpy road, that long bridge into adulthood.

I’ve noticed that the girls usually seem quite eager to cross this bridge.  They just prance on over, all excited and proud…many sadly making the journey before they are ready, a false sense of maturity driving them onward, but the boys…well I think they tend to stand in the middle, one leg boldly planted on either side jeering at old father (and mother) time, “Oh yeah! I am the king of this bridge and I dare you to try and make me cross over! Come’ on, I dare ya!” (And this type of inflated bravado never really goes away, does it…)

One of my children has a birthday this week. Another year marked on the calendar, another foot towards maturity. I wrote this piece below about him, about saying goodbye to childhood.  It’s all-true, and shhhh… if you see him around say Happy Birthday but DON’T tell him you read this! It’s too sloppy and gloppy for a man-boy who is standing with one leg firmly planted on either side of the bridge scoffing at the world, “Come-on I dare ya!”

When He Was Small…

When he was small, he would ask me to sleep with him every night.

“Please sleep with me Mom.”

And most nights I would. I would snuggle in next to him, feeling his small body pressed against mine, an arm thrown across my neck as he burrowed in so close our noses would touch, his breath minty and sweet against my cheek, his hair still damp and fresh from the bath. He would whisper his dreams and silly rhymes in my ear as the room slowly darkened, a gently stillness seeping in, his chest rising and falling in time with the soft whir of the overhead fan and all thoughts of the piles of laundry that needed to be washed, the already late bills to pay, the sticky dinner dishes that should be rinsed floated sleepily, gratefully, away as I lay with my arms around my child, both of us drifting into sweet, sweet slumber.

And some nights I wouldn’t.  On those long, hard days when I just needed some space to think, wanting some peace and solitude to collect my thoughts and mull over the day. Those nights when I all I could dream about was a soft chair, a cup of hot tea and a good book, or a piece of the couch, a mindless television show and a glass of wine.

“No, not tonight. I am busy. I don’t have the time. ” I would say impatiently.

On those nights there would be tears and pleading; “Can I just have a  glass of water… maybe one more…can you turn on the light in the hall…open the door just a little…now it’s too bright…please can’t you lie down here…just a few minutes”…and then, finally, thankfully, he would fall sleep, alone.

Those days of asking are gone now.

Gone.

Funny, I remember the last time he asked.

The asking had slowed down, becoming more sporadic over the years as he grew, separating from me, as he needed to, but still, occasionally… after a scary movie, a hard day at school, a lost baseball game, he would ask… and I might.

Then came the dark, dismal, cloudy days of preteen rolled eyes, low mutterings, and out right defiance; days of arguing, yelling and talking back. He came to me after one of those long days; one of those days that left me still seething hours later from his insolence, the bitter taste of disrespect rolling around my mouth, the heavy buzz of his surliness ringing in my ears.

“Can you lie down with me for a few minutes?” He mumbled, his eyes shifting first to the window, then to the ceiling and down to the floor.

“What!” Anger boiled, bubbling and popping inside my chest. I was too annoyed to care that this humble asking was his best apology. To angry to see that this might be the time he needed me the most. I snapped and snarled,  “No! I’m busy! I don’t have the time for that! Go to bed!” dismissing him with a dark glare and a wave of my arm.

He shuffled out, shoulders slumped and I sat, by myself, pretending to look at my book.

Minutes went by. The clock on the wall steadily ticking out the beat of time… passing… I heard him turning in his bed, but… he never called out. Never asked for water or a nightlight.  Never pleaded for me to open the door just a crack … and the dull space that had started in my head slowly wormed its way down to my heart and landed with a heavy thud in my stomach. The silence of the night surrounded me, and in the quiet, sliding through the anger, I heard a soft whisper.

Not much more time.

I put down my book, shut my eyes and listened to the gentle hum, the quiet warning.

Not much more time.

And alone, in the darkness, I remembered.  I remembered the little boy who dragged his yellow dump truck all over the house carefully putting it next to him on his pillow at night as he pulled up the covers.  The one that had me read the same dinosaur book over and over until we both could name and identify the eating habits of each creature.  The one that held tightly to my hand as we crossed the street, readily sharing his vanilla ice cream and always saving the very tip of the sugar cone for me. The one that showed me the joy of finding worms in the rain and how to collect baseball cards and tried to teach me to like roller coasters.  The one that snuggled next to me, his chubby hands on either side of my face as he whispered about what he wanted to be when he grew up; a baseball player, a rock star, a paleontologist, a dad.

Not much more time.

I walked across the hallway, over the dimly lit space that separated us, and stood near him.

“Hey,” I whispered. “Move over.”

I climbed in next to his awkward almost adolescent body, the faint smell of sweat surrounding him but…this time…there was no hand thrown across my neck, no noses pushed together or silly whispers in my ear, instead he moved away, turning to the wall… and we slept in uneasy silence, our backs pressed together.

And that was the last time. The last time he was small ….and the last time he asked….

A True Haunted Halloween Story

Did you have a haunted house in your neighborhood when you were growing up? I fear with all these Mc Mansion cul de sacs everywhere we may soon be saying so long to the traditional, eerie neighborhood haunted house.  Somehow a million dollar, well manicured, haunted house is just not as effective…. (By the way, we use to call cul de sacs  “dead ends.” I guess that is now considered offensive to dead people. Sorry dead people. )

Ours was the next street over.  A small brown house, it was neglected, overgrown and inhabited by an elderly woman who was rarely seen. We convinced each other that she had killed her husband and kept his body in her garage in a large crate. We would periodically dare someone to look in the window, the rest of us hiding in the trees.

Here is what happened to me at the Haunted House in the fall of 1978.

I never told anyone before, but it’s all true, I swear….

THE HAUNTED HOUSE

The haunted house was directly behind ours, the yards separated only by a thin chain link fence.  The old brown house leaned so far to the side it looked like it would fall over in a good breeze.  The concrete steps were chipped and broken, and the metal handrails that ran along the sides were rusted through. A few of the windows were broken; some ill fitted with pieces of cardboard to keep out the rain and winter chill. The trees and bushes were tangled together, their branches snaking up the sides of the thin clapboard. In the evening there was only ever one light on and a small television screen barely visible, flickering behind the dirty windows. The newspapers would sit outside collecting in the cracked driveway for weeks until the owner of the house; a tiny, twisted, ancient woman would shuffle outside.  She always wore a dingy grey sweater pulled tightly around her, even in the oppressive summer heat.  Shaking her head and muttering to herself, she would inch her way gingerly down the broken steps to collect the soggy bundles.

But it was not the house that fascinated us…it was the garage. The small building was almost lost in the overgrown, dense backyard jungle of intertwined trees and vines.  It too leaned to the side, held up by only a few cracked wooden beams. The windows were all smashed, probably by neighborhood kids throwing rotten apples at them, and at some point a tree had fallen over and landed on the roof, crashing halfway through, creating a hole that was never fixed. The hole let in just enough light that we could just make out some of the contents inside laying among the cobwebs; corroded cans of old paint, abandoned fishing rods, rusty tools…and one large wooden crate with a heavy lock and chains wrapped around it.

All the neighborhood kids knew what was in that box; it was the body of the old woman’s husband. She had put his remains in the garage, locked tightly away in that wooden coffin, so know one would find him.  There were many stories about how he died, some said she killed him by cutting off his head and then put his headless body in the crate. Some said she poisoned him by serving him rat poison in his food, and others said she didn’t kill him quickly at all but rather she had locked him up in the box, letting him slowly starve to death. Depending on which story you believed, at night you could sometimes see his headless ghost wandering around, hears his cries of pain, or listen to his moans of hunger.

Halloween of 1978, we were in sixth grade, too cool for costumes, but not yet ready to give up all that free candy. We roamed the streets scoffing at the little kids in their ridiculous outfits, rounded the corner of the block and stopped… shocked. We couldn’t believe our eyes.  Every light in the haunted house was on. The whole place was lit up like a Christmas tree, and there on the steps stood the old woman. There was a small, carved pumpkin sitting next to her with a candle flickering gently inside.  Her grey sweater was pulled tightly across her frail body and she held in her hands a tray piled high with homemade donuts.  The most wonderful smell of cinnamon and sugar wafted across the street, drawing innocent trick-or-treaters closer.

We looked at each other and screamed, certain that those doughnuts were steeped in poison.  We laughed, pointed, and jeered, “KEEP AWAY! HAUNTED HOUSE! POISON!”  We ran up and down the street loudly warning everyone about the crazy old lady, and telling them not to go near the house.

The old woman stood on those broken steps all night, proudly holding her treats and waiting for the children to come trick or treating at her house…but no one did.  Child after child, family after family scooted past, some politely nodding their heads hello, some looking away embarrassed or scared. No one stopped.

Later that night, after counting, and stacking and trading our candy, we climbed into our sleeping bags to tell ghost stories. One by one everyone fell asleep, except for me. I lay there, too frightened by the spirits of Halloween to close my eyes, and stared out the window into the back woods certain I would see the ghost of the murdered husband.

Then I saw it, a wisp of light, shining through the trees. What was that? I crawled to the window and peered out. A woman was running through the yard across the fence. She turned, looked around, laughed and headed towards the haunted garage. What if something happened to her? What if the ghost got her, or worse, that crazy old woman?  I had to warn her.  I tried to wake the others, but it was no use, so I snuck out the basement door and traipsed through the dark, cold October night, over the chain link fence and into the backyard of the haunted house.

I heard a giggle coming from the garage and snuck quietly up to the back, dropping in through in through a broken window. I landed softly on the floor and looked, there in front of me stood a young woman.

“Oh my,” She laughed. “You nearly frightened me to death!”

She was breathtakingly beautiful.  Her blonde hair cut short in a twenty style bob, her skin milky white and her eyes an icy blue.  She wore a flapper style iridescent, white dress, with loops of shiny beads strung around her neck, and a dingy grey sweater tied loosely around her waist.

“Did you hear us running in the woods? Sorry if we woke you. I was playing tag with him. I thought he came in here, but I guess he left…again. He always leaves.”  She pursued her lips together thoughtfully, and then clapped her hands together in delight.

“But now you came to visit!  I have been lonely for so long! This is wonderful! Come on, I will teach you how to Charleston and Shimmy. I’m Claudia.”

She took my hands and threw me around the room, dancing fast, singing and humming as she swept me away. Finally she stopped and leaned back against the locked wooden crate, breathing hard, catching her breath.

“Whew!  Wasn’t that was fun!”

She rubbed her hand along the crate lovingly.

“Do you know what is in here? It’s his piano.  He was a great pianist. So beautiful, no one played liked him…”

“And I was a dancer. A wonderful dancer.” She toyed wistfully with the beads around her neck.   “It’s too bad he left…” She shook her head sadly. “Why did he have to leave? I have been so lonely.”

“Hungry?” she said.

She grabbed a plate full of doughnuts that were sitting on top of the crate and shoved one in my mouth before I could protest.  I waited for the bitter taste of poison …but instead a warm buttery mix of cinnamon and sugar slid down my throat.

“Aren’t they just delish? It’s a secret recipe. They’re his favorite! I heard you and your friends screaming about them tonight during trick or treating, but I couldn’t quite hear what you were saying. I think you were saying how much you wanted one. Just think, now you can have then all!”

She began feeding me the doughnuts so quickly I couldn’t swallow them fast enough.

“Aren’t they just delish?” She kept saying as she pushed the treats in my mouth.

I felt them piling up in my throat. I couldn’t swallow. The doughnuts were landing one on top of another.  The smell of the cinnamon and sugar filled my nose, and I had trouble breathing. My hands clawed at my neck. I was desperate for air.

“Come on, dance some more, before it’s too late!”

Claudia grabbed my hands. She spun me around and around the room, crumbs and bits of sugary doughnuts flying out of my mouth, until together we dropped to the ground, and I managed to spit out the last bits of the sweet dough. I lay there gasping for breath as she chatted on.

“Can you believe he just vanished? Like that!” She snapped her fingers. “But you won’t leave me ever…will you? You won’t just disappear?”

Just then the first rays of dawn began to poke through the hole in the ceiling.

“Oh shoot!” She pouted, “I have to go.”

Her eyes narrowed and not for the first time that night I felt afraid. Her hand reached out, her blood red nails digging into the flesh on my arm as she tightened her grip.

”How do I know you will come back? You might leave me like he did and then I will be all alone again. I couldn’t stand it!”

She looked around, her eyes resting briefly on the crate, “Maybe I should put you in the…”

Then she threw her head back and laughed, “Yippee!” as she twirled around in the early morning sun.

“Never mind, there is no more time. But you better hurry back. I am lonely here by myself. I will make more doughnuts for next time! Hurry!”

And with that she left, her sweater catching on a nail and falling to the ground as she slipped out of the garage.

I ran home, climbed over the fence and back into the basement. Everyone was still sleeping, as I slipped into my sleeping bag, exhausted, and fell fast asleep.

I opened my eyes slowly. Outside the sun was shinning high in the sky and I could hear kids shouting and playing. My head was foggy, and it took me a minute to remember where I was.  My throat was parched and sore. I licked my dried lips, gagging when I tasted bits of cinnamon and sugar.   I stood up and fell right to the floor. My legs were aching and sore, as if I had been running or dancing all night. I slowly crawled upstairs and sat at the kitchen table, shaking my head as I tried to separate my dreams from reality.

My mother came in.

“Good morning sleepy head,” she said. “You sure slept late.”

The steam from her coffee cup curled above her head as she glanced outside through the backyard.

“What in heavens is going on over there?”  I heard her murmur.

I looked outside through the yard and saw blue police lights flashing through the trees. I got up from the table and ran through the backyard, throwing myself over the fence.

“Hey kid! What are you doing?”

I looked up. It was a policeman.  He was carrying a flashlight and a box of tools, and was headed towards the haunted garage.

“What? Where?”  I gasped.

“Are you looking for the old lady that lives here,” he asked gently.

“Too late sweetie…she died, last night sometime. Looks like she choked on a piece of a doughnut.  Sure is a mess in there…she was cooking up a bunch of them for someone, that’s for sure. Don’t know who she was doing all that cooking for though…”

He scratched his head. “She didn’t have any family.   Poor old soul.  Claudia Jacobs was her name. Guess she used to be a famous show girl back in the day, a real beauty I hear. Became sort of a recluse after her husband ran off with another dancer. Well, that was the rumor. He just disappeared one day. No one ever heard from him again.  She lived a lonely life after that…an odd bird. … Hey help me out, I hear there is some old stuff in the garage we might be able to use for the policemen’s auction next month.”

He tore down a few vines covering the entrance and we entered the dark garage, knocking over a few cans and wiping away the cobwebs as we went in.

“Well, I don’t think there is much in here,” he said, waving his flashlight around at the boxes of trash.

“Just an old ratty sweater and a bunch of crumbs. Must be a family  of happy mice in here somewhere… Hey! Wait, what’s that? That might be something.”

He knelt by the old crate.

“That’s a pretty heavy duty lock.  I bet there’s something really valuable in here!”

I stood behind him.  Using his crow bar he pried the crate open and as the wood fell away, the last piece of Claudia’s love story was revealed.

The piano. It was shiny, a glossy black, with sparkling white keys.  It looked brand new, as if it hadn’t just been sitting neglected in an old, musty garage for all those years but rather had been lovingly polished and cared for on a regular basis.

“Wooooo,” the policeman whistled. “This must be worth a fortune! I bet it will get a high price at the auction.”

A few weeks later I sat at the dining room table struggling with my homework and listening to the bulldozers in the back as they took down what was left of the old house.

My mom called in from the kitchen,  “Interesting story here in the paper, honey. Remember that old piano they found over at the poor old lady’s house? Looks like they auctioned it off last week, and when the buyer opened the top he found a headless skeleton inside….”

My heartbeat quickened, my throat tightened and I suddenly smelled the faint scent of cinnamon in the air.

My mom entered, a familiar looking grey sweater thrown over her shoulders, and in her hand she held a tray.

“Doughnut sweetie?” She asked.

And that’s a true story!

I still think of Claudia every Halloween, and I still can’t eat cinnamon doughnuts.