I grew up as a crooked girl who dealt with a mild case of cerebral palsy. In a small Cajun town during the 1960s, I relied on my little sisters' support and energy to give me confidence and our grandma's movie theater to help me escape when life's "pas bon" moments overwhelmed me.
Even while we isolate and avoid close contact, some people send messages in nontraditional ways. Whether it’s scratched on wet cement or drawn with colored chalk, people express themselves.
During my neighborhood walks, I started noticing the sidewalks. First, I saw the writing in the scratched initials or names that said, “I was here.”
Sometimes the message was angry.
I loved one section of a child’s footprints. Was this accidental or intentional? I imagined a mischievous kid being told by a harried mother, “Get up in your car seat.” The three-year-old makes a wild dash down the wet cement while his mom deals with her fussy eight-month-old. The kid gets in a two yard run before, “I said ‘Get in!’” pulls him back to the car.
During the spring of the pandemic, chalk artists shared their whimsical renditions of Disney characters, and they did not mind that a short rain would wash it all away.
Now more than ever we need to look for life’s artistic touches in unexpected places. It’s proof of the creativity and goodness among us. Sidewalk messages feel like hope to me. They communicate feelings and ideas even during a pandemic. I search for these symbols etched in concrete. I feel connected to others, even if I never see who sent the message.
As the sun rises, I walk down a quiet shady street. No sidewalks – a long road with eerie undertones.
When I first discovered this spooky street, I saw no one out so early in the morning. I passed double-wide trailers with front porches that were permanently planted in large lots. Most yards were mowed and cared for while a few looked like a dumping ground for Frankenstein cars and forgotten toys. A house and a two-story duplex broke up the pattern of mobile homes. One residence had a rusted bike mailbox stand with several vintage cars parked in its side yard. Another place had a huge unhealthy palm tree that looked like a Dr. Seuss drawing and a yard crowded with cacti and tired metal chairs. Near the end of the street a poop-brown trailer had a “Zombie Crossing” sign in a window. Next to that dwelling was the huge Boo Radley house that looked abandoned. It lurked on a deep long lot behind a slanted chainlink fence with several crooked trees and an abundance of trash in the yard.
For weeks, I saw no people during my walks. Each residence had between two and seven vehicles parked on its property, so I assumed they held multiple families. I guessed at the trailers’ secrets. Why was no one ever outside in the mornings? Drug dens or meth labs? Late night partiers? Werewolves, vampires, or aliens? (zombies were too obvious a guess).
The first human I saw during my walk was a skeletal old woman wearing a loose house dress who appeared behind her screen door. She glared at me before slinking away and slowly closing her front door. The next week I spotted a young woman carrying a lunch box and purse heading to her car. She saw me and hurried back into her house. Had she forgotten something, or did she not want to blow her undercover CIA assassin disguise?
As I made up backstories for the street’s assorted residents, I pushed down my nervousness of walking alone on an empty street. Then one morning a dusty & battered brown pick-up clunked onto the street as I moved onto the street’s grassy shoulder. The driver slowed to a crawl and stopped next to me. His window creeped down, and he brushed dirty fingernails through a scraggly grey and brown beard that touched the top of a faded flannel shirt collar. “Need a ride?” he said.
I gave him my best fake smile. “No thanks.”
He nodded, said, “OK,” and drove down the road like a person with no place to go.
I called Gary as soon as the truck was two houses away. “Listen up. I’m on the Spooky Street and some guy in a truck tried to give me a ride. Keep talking to me until I get to a busier street. Ok?” My husband’s voice calmed me down as I walked and talked. When I was almost at the Radley house, I noticed that the old truck had backed into the driveway of the neighboring trailer. The man was still sitting in the truck, smoking a cigarette. I walked faster and made it to a street with sidewalks.
“You alright?” said Gary. “Still there?”
I nodded and whispered into the phone, “ I think so.”
I’m 87% sure my fears are wasted on the Spooky Street. The brown truck guy is more quirky then threatening. A month later developers tore down and hauled off the Boo Radley house. Four small modern homes of different colors with garages and private yards now take up the huge lot. The slate blue, whisper grey, smooth olive, and eggshell white houses look out of place on the Spooky Street, and the stray cats who once roamed that area have moved across the street.
I think FDR was right about being afraid: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” And I like the lyrics of the “Ghostbusters” song. These days I need to face my fears, keep walking forward, and stay connected to those who love me most.
Grandma Keller had a nickel slot machine in the hall next to the front door of her home. Several times a day she’d use her walker to reach a stool set in front of the machine and feed it nickels from a metal cup she held.
The machine was green and spun pictures of cherries, oranges, plums, bells, and bars for the chance to win the $7.50 jackpot. You could win five nickels for two cherries or a cherry and a bar. The machine never hit the jackpot, and 18 nickels (for three bells) was the most it ever paid out. Like other one-armed bandits, it was programed to keep you playing without emptying its whole stash of coins.
Grandma loved to gamble! From betting on the horses at the New Orleans Fairgrounds to playing poker or bouree with her lady friends, she loved games of chance when money was at stake. And like most of us, she hated to lose. After depleting her cup of nickels at the slot machine, she’d mutter, “Crooked as a barrel of snakes,” before she’d limp back to her favorite arm chair in the living room or her large wooden rocking chair on the front porch. Then she could let a cup of coffee or a Salty Dog (depending on the time of day) help her forget her losses.
For me, dealing with technology is like pulling that slot machine’s long metal arm and hoping my nickel was not used in vain. When I try to reformat a document or navigate a spreadsheet, my head watches those wheels of cherries, plums, and oranges spin. Will my revised document look centered and pleasing to the eye? Will my saved numbers on my spreadsheet make it to my employer correctly? Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.
At times the document I spent seventy minutes working on disappears, or the info I emailed to work gets me a reply that explains how I entered information incorrectly.
I’m not a total idiot. Before I retired from full time teaching, I managed my online grade book, and most of my assignments were linked to class calendars. However, I could no way navigate the current issues of a virtual classroom! When I successfully shared my screen during a Zoom meeting with some student teachers I work with, a twenty-one year old had to remind me, “Ms. Gannaway, your mic is on mute again.”
My oldest son helps me with blog posts, and he tries to remember that patience is a virtue. But I hear his deep sighs and see him comb his hair back with his palm before saying, “Mom, what did we do last time we edited an image?”
Back in the ‘90s someone told me, “Don’t be afraid. You won’t break the computer or permanently lose stuff.” Well, I don’t know about that! I often have no idea whether clicking on a link or pressing a return button will have the result I want. The slot machine gears keep spinning and it’s all a game of chance!
I hate the fear and uncertainty COVID has created in our lives. Yet technology and social media put me on uneven ground years ago. SnapChat made me nervous when those weird animated photos all went away in 24 hours. But it’s also unnerving that FaceBook stuff never goes away.
I don’t understand or trust the Cloud and I wish texting had not become my go-to form of communicating. Since I seldom see people in person, I miss hearing their voices.
I’m still more optimistic than pessimistic, so I’ll pull that cold metal arm that sometimes sticks a bit and trust the technological slot machine of life as I say, “Please, Lord” while I cross my fingers and watch the blur of fruit and accept the whirring, spinning uncertainty of now. I never know when several coins will clatter into the pay-off slot.
In March I started 7:20 a.m. walks through my eclectic neighborhood.
Early mornings I pass subsidized apartments, an elderly elementary school, a head shop, a short strip mall that includes a convenience store with an impressive mural of Ice Cube on its side wall, a local take-out pizza joint, a Mexican restaurant, and a hair salon. A mental health hospital is a few blocks away, and a very unpopular Sonic is across the street from us.
I begin my walks down a sidewalk-less street with mostly trailer homes. I turn onto a shady street of duplexes and small houses. Later I follow a busy street towards a tiny park with lots of trees and a few backless stone benches. I pass a Korean Catholic Church before I head back home down a wide street with bike lanes on both sides. After I pass the elementary school, I turn onto my own street of apartments where people work on their cars and hang out after work. I hear music and conversations more often in Spanish than English.
Lots of cats roam my street, and one cat gives me the willies; I call it the opossum cat because of its weird white face and its pointed nose and menacing stare. A black dog with huge balls and stubby legs appears some times. He wears a frayed grey collar without tags that was once blue. He’s a curious guy without menace. His walk is brisk and reminds me of Tramp from the early Disney movie; he’s resourceful and scrappy and free.
After I’d been walking for several weeks at the same time each morning, I began connecting with some people. Brisk Walking Woman was my first connection. She lives close by, makes fast laps around the streets, and wears a wide-brimmed orange floppy hat.
Near the park I pass Scraggly-bearded Man in a motorized wheelchair with a small white dog on a leash. He is often barefoot, and I once helped him untangle the dog leash from his wheels while the dog sat in his lap and barked at me. The man and I both wore face masks; I was equally fearful of his dog biting me as I was of catching the virus.
In July after I’d said hello to Young Gardener tending her raised bed of flowers and vegetables, she offered me fresh tomatoes! Score!! I later gave her blueberry muffins, and after swapping names, we now swap fresh produce and baked goods.
There’s also Wonderful Woman who carries a cane for protection and has a sunny smile to match her bright disposition and bold colored wardrobe.
I also wave to Tie-dyed Lady who wears her dog leash around her waist and Tall & Handsome Guy who walks a hyper black and white puppy that gives my hand puppy-nips when I pet him.
Recently I encountered Tiny Woman who has grey and black curls and walks her dachshund near the elementary school and waves at me across the street.
Waving to my walking friends reminds me of a Dan Hertzfeldt’s cartoon: “Billy’s Balloon.” In the cartoon, a stick figure kid gets lifted into the sky by his red balloon, and while he’s floating into the clouds, he sees another kid being carried upward by a yellow balloon. They wave at each other from across the distance. They smile. Then an airplane ploughs right through the kid with the yellow balloon.
My walks connect me to others, and when we wave hello and make mundane comments about the high humidity or the welcome breeze, life seems almost normal. Yet underneath the brief bits of friendliness lie the uncertainty and fear that never fully go away.
My face mask hangs from my left ear when my sidewalk is empty for blocks ahead. About fifty percent of early walkers I see have masks.
Last week Wonderful Woman was on my side of the street, and after I said, “Feels like fall,” when I passed her, she pulled down her mask and said, “ What? I can’t understand you.”
So standing a few feet from her, I pulled down my own mask and we had a one minute conversation as I shoved worry and fear into a back room of my mind next to paranoia and uncertainty. I feel the need to connect to others as much as I feel the desire to stay safe. May we handle our connections with equal amounts of compassion and safety.
Momma always kept a balled-up Kleenex in her right hand (or in her pocket).
She used this all-purpose tissue to wipe her drippy nose caused by what she called her “hay fever.” When we were kids, she also used her Kleenex to wipe a snot-nosed child’s face or to stop a scraped knee from bleeding. In the 1960s right before entering our Catholic church for mass, she could use a not-too-crumpled tissue as a make shift head covering for a forgetful daughter who had left her chapel veil at home. I still remember her pinning the white tissue atop my head using a stray bobby pin from her purse. No need for her to fuss at me for my memory lapse. My pin-scraped scalp was punishment enough.
In a way always having the Kleenex on hand is a “Mom thing” – a being prepared thing. (for small spills, runny noses, dirty faces, fresh lipstick blots, minor cuts, or sudden tears).
When Momma was wheelchair-bound and barely talked, she still kept a Kleenex in her hand. After she died, I looked through the small leather purse she had carried everywhere she went. Inside I found her wallet, which held My Daily Rosary prayer card, her drivers license, and her library card. Also, there was a tiny round frame with a picture of my sister Kelly, a half-used Wine with Everything lipstick, a nail file, Double mint gum, and a couple of balled-up tissues. I smiled.
I’ve been going on long walks around 7:15 each morning, and I take along a Kleenex in my pocket. I use the tissue to open the black iron gate that surrounds our apartment complex, to scratch my nose, and to wipe my forehead when the temperature gets in the 90’s.
After my walk, the tissue is ragged and sweaty. It seems to symbolize my fears and uncertainty these days. The tissue keeps me from touching my face or some random object. The Kleenex I shove into my pocket before I venture out (for a walk, to the grocery, on an errand) feels as necessary as a face mask or hand sanitizer.
Either I’m turning into my mother or channeling a parent’s attempt to be prepared for life’s surprises and disasters. If a balled-up piece of tissue gives me comfort, I’ll take it. And I’ll focus on not tripping on the cracked sidewalks while I listen to birdsong and car horns.
An epiphany hit me like a couple of rusted TV trays and a stolen ash tray from Caesars Palace (circa 1966). I do like old stuff! Mama Joe’s pie safe where Momma stored mismatched glassware and playing cards; Dad’s beat-up paint stool that my cousin found on Grandma’s back porch; stacks of brittle love letters between Reggie and Gerry (my parents) when they were courting in the 1940’s; a partial set of Shakespeare plays, faded, bent and water-logged, that an intuitive student gave me right before he graduated. “I found these in our attic and thought of you,” he had told me.
Also, my tastes in movies are in the “old” category: Casablanca, High Noon, and Rear Window. Likewise, two of my favorite books are Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights. I adore my turntable and stereo receiver from 1972. The U.S. city I most love to visit- New Orleans – is a place where the past clings to everything like the moss in the live oaks.
Old stuff comforts me. It connects me to some of my best memories. When I use Momma’s bent-up aluminum bun warmer she got as a wedding present in 1954, I remember homemade biscuits in the kitchen with family gathered for a holiday. I smell coffee from a well-used pot on the stove and hear kids and adults vying for space and talking over one another. I recall the taste of hot boudin from Johnson’s Grocery.
Lately, I’ve been obsessed with old pictures. I especially love the black and white photos, the ones from before I was born and the ones of me as a child. Life seemed simpler and easier. I’m not sure that’s accurate, but that rose-colored tint does slip over my memories before puberty hit and sent me to the land of pimples and self-doubt.
According to the CDC guidelines for the coronavirus pandemic, I’m “high risk” and I could go to the local grocery store’s early hours for old folks. I suppose Gary (age 75) and I (64 today) are old people.
Too bad our society does not extend a love of old things to old people. No one I know looks forward to old age. We fear the weak mind and frail body as much as the loneliness and incontinence. I wish I felt the same comfort and peace when I hold someone’s wrinkled and arthritic hand that I get when I run my fingers over the dents of a bun warmer or the rough paint flecks of a wooden stool.
I’m not one of the enlightened. I wish these uncertain days with lots of time for reading and praying and thinking might guide me to an appreciation for old stuff that includes old folks. As much as I like my fat-faced images when I was two, I should be kinder to the 64-year-old I see in the mirror now. She’s doing the best she can with what she’s got, and that needs to be enough.
I opened the shoe box gently to show Kelly my treasure.
“Just tree mess,” said Kelly as she moved the leaves, twigs, and moss around.
“Couillon! They’re hiding from us.” And I gently picked up a green and brown insect. Its whirring whine made my three-year-old sister say, “Coooool,” as she petted its folded wings.
“Careful,” I said and replaced the insect as my sister searched and found the box’s true treasure – a poopy-brown thing.“Lookit this.”
“It’s dead,” said Kelly. I set it on the oak tree trunk whose shade we sat in.The brown bug took slow-motion steps up the trunk. Kelly could only stare.
“Looks like a seratops.”
Kelly reached to touch it with her index finger, but my larger hand covered my little sister’s whole hand.“Leave it. Just watch.”
Our heads moved close, close to the bug on the tree. We watched it mummy-move some more.Then it stopped.
“It’s dying,” said Kelly as she put her arm around my neck.
“Watch,” I repeated.
It took one and a half minutes for the younger girl to lose interest. “It’s really dead now,” she whispered into my ear.
“Shhhhhh,” and I squeezed Kelly’s shoulder and pointed.Kelly moved her head closer in. Did the brown bug’s back crack? Why was it killing itself? Then slow, slow a wet thing backed out of the cracked bug. Kelly remembered cartoons where a baby bird pecks its way out of an egg. She leaned in and almost kissed the tree bark.
I held her shoulder and brought my face over my sister’s.As the new bug emerged, it paused to allow its folded wings to unfurl. The green translucent beauty of the wings brought soft gasps from both of us.
“Now he’s gotta dry off,” I said, and we both froze to witness the new and improved insect glowing atop the broken carcass. It seemed to be sunbathing in the broken sunbeams.
Kelly held her breath and I nodded my head. After awhile the cicada made its whirring, clicking whine to flyaway. Both of our heads tilted up to watch the miracle depart.
Then I carefully took the split-open brown thing and placed it in my shoe box.
“Cool,” said Kelly.I nodded and put an arm around my sister’s shoulder.
These days, except for the triple-digit temperatures, it doesn’t feel like July. COVID19 has stolen the summer tradition of family vacations for many people. I have been looking back at my childhood and our yearly trips to the Florida beach.
In 1964 I held Kelly’s left hand in my right and Gayle’s right in my left. In our new two-piece bathing suits we faced the bright white Florida shore with our backs to the Gulf of Mexico. Gayle and I stood in thigh-high water while Kelly jumped up and down so that the water went from her waist to her thighs. Our game was simple. Keep your head straight ahead and do not turn around to see the approaching surf. Listen for the sounds of the breaking waves and be ready to jump when the salt water slapped your backside. Also, do not break the holding-hands chain! I tightened my grip on Kelly’s hand as the four-year-old continued to bounce up and down like a human Tigger. “Stay still,” I said. “You need to concentrate and listen.” Kelly started to jump higher and shake her skinny hips.
“She loves you! Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” sang Kelly.
Gayle echoed, “Yeah,Yeah, Yeah!”
I pulled and squeezed Kelly’s hand as our middle sister said, “We gotta be ready, y’all!” Kelly continued singing, but in a hesitant whisper of a voice. I held my breath to focus on the sounds behind us eleven seconds before the rushing roar of the waves announced water higher than all three of us. The wave pounded over our heads and all we knew was water. We screamed in unison as the frothy water pushed us forward and roared its dominance. We all lost our balance and our feet left the sand. Gayle and I stayed connected, but Kelly got pulled away and sent rolling in the surf. She got a mouthful of salt water and the waves sent her face into the sand. I rushed to Kelly’s rescue, dragging my other sister with me. I reached for my youngest sister’s arm, but my fingers squeezed a long ponytail instead. I yanked the dark chunk of hair over my head and pulled her to her feet. Her bikini top was askew and covered only one nipple. Kelly was too shocked to cry and reached for my waist to steady herself. I released her hair and Gayle reached over to help keep Kelly standing. With both Kelly’s arms around my waist and a wiggling Gayle on the other side, I did my best to walk my sisters to the shore. Soon we all three sat on dry sand.
“I ’bout drowneded,” sputtered Kelly as Gayle said, “You ok now.” I sat in the middle and placed an arm around each sister. Together we looked at the watery wildness we had escaped. After thirty seconds of concentration on the power of nature and the suddenness of disaster,Kelly stood to straighten her bathing suit. “Let’s build a sand castle,” she said as she walked to the beach chair Mom was sitting in. (Momma had been too preoccupied with rubbing baby oil on her legs to witness her daughters’ water misadventure). Gayle followed Kelly, but I stayed there staring at the waves. Just a couple of minutes before I had feared for my little sister’s life! I closed my eyes and breathed in and out, in and out.A helicopter moved overhead and pulled a banner that proclaimed the freshness of “Dougie’s Shrimp Baskets.”
I stared at the pounding water on the shore four feet in front of me.The steady rush of water as it spread over the hot sand and the wave’s retreat into the gulf hypnotized me. How could the water have such power?It was loose and liquid and allowed kids to float atop it. It called out to folks to join in its cool beauty, its wild excitement, its thrilling danger. I closed my eyes and listened to rhythmic sounds that soothed me until I decided to help my sisters with sand castle creations.
There was a massive oak tree with a long, low limb. A 6’4” dad would put his oldest daughter on his shoulders and let her scramble into the crook of the tree’s limb where she could hold on to small branches and settle into the oak’s saddle. The tall dad would then grab the limb’s end and pull it down, down to the ground. Anticipation made the girl’s grip tighten. The dad would bend his knees down and up, down and up to the tune of an old nursery rhyme:
“Here we go down to Bangberry Cross
To see a fine lady ride on a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She will have music where ever she goes.”
Then the dad added an “Ole!” as he released the limb to make the girl fly up high as long as the tree was free to boing, boing back into place.
Head and hair surrounded by branches and leaves, she felt equal to the free-flying blue jays that hung out in their backyard. That eight-second thrill was a perfect balance of joy and fear.She looked down on her siblings from her queenly perch as they did the “Me next!” dance and she gave the mere mortals a slight smile before she accepted the huge hand that helped her dismount her tree throne.
Besides the wooden roller coaster at the beach, the Bangberry Ride was her favorite ride. With a rhyming song, a heavenly seat, a father’s love, her sisters’ envy, and a stomach’s tickle the ride was perfection.
For over two months fear has been part of my daily life. As COVID19 continues to kill about 1,000 people a day in the USA, I’m adapting to living during a pandemic. Then sixteen days ago an eight-minute and 46-second video shocked the world and stirred up other worries. Now protesters march in cities all over the world and demand justice for George Floyd. Everyday holds uncertainty and fear for so many people. Important change is rarely easy or peaceful.
I watch and read updates about the unrest and the impassioned calls for justice. Cardboard signs on the fence around an elementary school two blocks from my apartment show support for the ones demanding change.
The protesters are a mix of people from different age groups, different races and different countries. Most marches are peaceful; some involve violence. But all show bravery and determination. Change has to happen! I love the verbs used by rapper Killer Mike. We must : “Plot. Plan. Strategize. Organize. Mobilize.”
Even as I wear a face mask and practice social distancing when I leave my home (and I know the virus is not going away for a long while), I feel hopeful for our future because people are coming together for change, for justice, and for a better future. A friend in New Orleans sent me a beautiful picture of protesters in Jackson Square. He said he felt a sense of love and energy and hope! Amen to that!