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It Was Wednesday

A couple of years ago, my Grandma Lila was shopping for some childrens’ toys. She went into a  toy store near her house and looked around for a while, but everything they had there was weird. She couldn’t imagine any of her great-grandkids wanting to play with any of this stuff. The lone sales clerk in the small store, a woman, approached her and asked, “Can I help you find something, ma’am?”

Grandma told her matter-of-factly, “I’m looking for some baby toys. Do you have any of those?”

The woman seemed confused. “I’m sorry. We don’t really have anything for babies. Um… Uh… What do you mean?

The store, which had the words “Toy Box” on their sign outside, was an “adult” novelties shop. Somehow Grandma managed to escape without them alerting the authorities.

Momma Ethel, Grandma Lila’s mom, used to make the world’s best chicken and dumplings. Although this was undocumented in any literature that I am aware of, nevertheless I’m quite certain that it was true. Certainly I’ve sampled enough variations on chicken and dumplings in my lifetime that I know for sure. When I was little, Grandma Lila made two things that everyone in our family loved: chicken and noodles, and banana pudding.  The pudding she used to make was that kind with actual, real banana slices cut up in it, Nilla wafers stood up all around the edges like a crust, with Nilla wafers both whole and crushed on top. Several years ago, she was making a batch of it because family was coming over, but it just kept getting thicker and thicker until finally she couldn’t even move the spoon anymore. She set it in the fridge for a while to do some other things, thinking she’d come back to it later and figure out what was wrong with it. When she got back to it, it was literally a solid chunk. She decided the pudding mix must have gone bad, so she took it out of the cabinet to throw it away. When she turned it over to check if it had an expiration date, she realized that it was actually powder for wallpaper paste.

Many years earlier, Grandma decided she was tired of the colors in her kitchen, so she resolved to repaint the cabinets herself. After the first coat, the color she picked didn’t seem to have covered thoroughly enough. So she painted over them again, hinges and all. By the time she was finished, the cabinet doors were so thick with paint that they literally wouldn’t close all the way. Undeterred, over the years, she would repaint her kitchen cabinets several more times. They positively were growing as they aged. She never once felt the need to strip them first. In my memory, you could press your fingernail against those cabinet doors, and they had a soft, putty-like texture, almost what I imagine the cool flesh of an alien might feel like.

She had a giant wooden spoon and fork that hung on the wall in her kitchen that fascinated me as a child. In the handles of each were carved elaborate, kind of scary, tribal-looking faces. I remember being frightened of them when I was small, but I simply couldn’t peel my eyes away either. Their horror was such a curiosity that they called to me, compelling me to sit and stare. I always thought that Uncle Roger had brought them back to her once when he came home from a trip in the Navy, but I’m not sure that’s accurate. I don’t care, though, really. That’s what they were to me.

Awesome Plate, Better Than My Sisters’Also on the wall in her kitchen, she prominently displayed a plate I had made in kindergarten. “BRAhhOh,” it said, with a house that looked more like a lighthouse or a rocket because of its height and thinness. I think she had plates from my older sisters, as well, but theirs were ugly and mine was magnificent.

Grandma had this series of weird, staggered cabinets that sort of divided one end of the kitchen from the living room. They just kind of hung there, almost magically suspended in the air on spindly little poles. Because they were open to both sides, that corner of the living room was the worst possible place for a chair. But that was where my Grandpa’s chair was, because it let him sit and watch the TV and still keep up with what was going on in the kitchen. Also, the shelf was a convenient place for him to put his ashtray—and his teeth when he took them out. When I was really little, Grandma had a bunch of plastic and glass figurines all over those shelves that you weren’t allowed to touch. But of course I did, and I broke (at least) my fair share of them. Okay—more than my share. But it was not on purpose. And on that you have my word.

Grandma has been staying at Mom’s for several weeks now because she had been sick and needed some help. Last night, Grandma went to sleep in my mom’s house. This morning when she woke up, she was not in her room. Grandpa and Uncle Roger and Aunt Nona and Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Ardith and Uncle Herbert and Aunt Maudie and Momma Ethel…and I’m sure a lot more people, some I’ve forgotten, and far more that I never knew, probably several from Dillard’s department store, certainly many more than just the handful she left behind here…were all really glad to see her today. In my mind’s eye, I picture them all sitting around a big table and smoking cigarettes and telling stories and laughing together, looking forward to when we will join them. And I find that somehow comforting today.

Grief is such a personal emotion. This is just a tiny glimpse into the life of a woman we will miss this Christmas Eve. We will memorialize her. And then we will go back to my mom’s and eat and open presents together and play games and laugh and enjoy our children and each other. No questions today. Share if you like. Merry Christmas, everybody. Love your people. :)

The Procedure

In the early spring of 2005, when our daughter Evie was still just a brand-new, shiny beautiful baby, I had a vasectomy. I’ve mentioned this particular procedure before, but I promised then that I’d tell you that story sometime. Today’s your lucky day.

I don’t know if all urologists are like this, but because mine, Dr. Samuel Little (everybody make your own joke) was awesome, he put us through a grueling consultation beforehand. Basically, he did everything in his power to try to talk us out of it. I don’t know if dudes get vasectomies and then have second thoughts after it’s too late, but that was totally not going to happen in our case. He said, “Have you seen those billboards between here and Dallas that advertise reversals? That doesn’t work. With the procedure that I use, it’s a done deal. When you…”

I interrupted, “Enough small talk. Let’s light this up, Little. You need us to sign anything?”

He said, “I’m serious. It’s important that you realize this is completely final. You really need to take time to think through…”

I cut him off again. “Hey doc, let’s me save us all some time here. Here’s what we’re gonna do: You’re gonna cut into me, and you’re not gonna just snip things and tie them off. What you’re gonna do for me is you’re gonna completely remove whatever plumbing you find in there. Just totally rip it out. Whatever you do with what’s left over after that is your business.”

He looked at us gravely for a moment. Then he smiled. “That’s all I had to hear. Let’s do this thing!”

When we tried to explain to our boys that Daddy was “having some work done,” we even told them we were doing it because we didn’t plan to have any more children. Kenny, our oldest, asked, “Why not?” I told him, “Because Mommy and Daddy only wanted a girl. And we had to go through two boys to get one. Now that we finally have her, we just can’t risk any more boys. Do you understand?” He nodded quietly. He really seemed to get it.

A friend who had already had his procedure told me that I should ask for Valium to settle my nerves. I’m here to tell you: That’s always good advice. Dr. Little (smirk) wrote me a script for exactly 1, and he told me to take it on the morning of my procedure on my way to his office. Check and check.

By the time we got there on the day, I was already feeling pretty good. (I’ve told you before how much I enjoy a nice Valium.) During our consultation, Kendra had asked if she’d be allowed to watch the procedure, and Dr. Little (hee hee) told her it was fine with him, as long as I didn’t care. I didn’t, so as Kendra and I strolled into the little examining room together, baby Evie in tow, sleeping peacefully in her teeny car seat, we discovered a lovely set of icy stirrups all ready for me. Events are a little hazy, but I’m pretty sure I was buck-naked and looking around for a gown before the door was even closed behind me.

A very polite older woman (who I assumed was a nurse) explained that she’d need to dry shave me a little (gesturing slightly)  “down there in your area.” She asked if that was okay, and I was all like, “Who am I to argue? We’re all professionals here, right?” (Honestly, it’s a shame that aspect wasn’t covered in the orientation video; I would gladly have managed that little pre-prep task myself and saved them the trouble. Probably not dry, though—more likely moisturized and Aloe-scented.)

When Dr. Little came in, a big grin on his face, we were pretty much ready for launch. He surveyed the manscape, made sure he had all his favorite tools (syringes, scalpels, knitting hooks, scissors, hammer, chisel, Brandy, that sort of thing). We bantered a little to set the mood. He asked if I was ready, and I said, “I guess so. Although usually, by the time I find myself in stirrups like this, my date’s already treated me to a nice steak dinner and a bottle of wine.”

Before we got started, he said, almost as a random aside, “I have a doctor interning with us who hasn’t gotten to watch a vasectomy yet. Would you mind an observer?”

I said, “No problem. The more, the merrier. Bring him in. And if you’ve got anybody else out there who’d like to watch, I’m cool with that, too. I had the sense your receptionist was kind of checking me out. Maybe some folks from the lobby.” (I’m not making any of this up, by the way.)

Dr. Little said, “Great! Thanks.” Then he opened the door and invited in the hottest lady doctor I’ve ever seen in my life, probably all of 28 years old. (Apparently she’d taken a couple years off of supermodeling to knock out a medical degree.)

Before we go any further, let’s take a quick head count of all those present, shall we? We have myself, Kendra, Evie, the older lady nurse, Dr. Little, Dr. McHotterson (not her real name), and of course my two knobby knees, which at this point felt a little like they were floating up and scraping up against the ceiling. Add a few red plastic cups and some nice electronica, and we’d have a full-on frat party.

The actual procedure probably took just a few minutes. We continued visiting throughout, and at one point I remember Dr. Little telling me I was the most entertaining patient he’d probably ever had. (What can I say? If you slip me a narcotic, roll me over on my back, hike up my skirt, and break out the knives, my brain-to-mouth filter goes haywire. Honestly, it’s a lot like when I write for my blog, only I’m not wearing pants. No, wait a minute… It’s exactly like when I write for my blog.)

Because my view was blocked by draping, I just kind of had to take the audience’s word for it that everything was working according to plan. Kendra asked if they had a mirror they could bring in so I could watch, like she did when our babies were born. I assured them that wouldn’t be necessary. (As if I haven’t already spent enough of my life checking out my business in the mirror! Am I right? Who knows what I’m talking about?) Anyway, at one point, Kendra said what Dr. Little was pulling out looked kind of like spaghetti. I guess I can picture that—of course that wasn’t the first time I’ve been covered in pasta below the waist.

Dr. Little (woo hoo) held up a section and offered to let Kendra snip it. She considered, but only for a second. She’s much more frugal than I am, and I think she wanted to be sure we were getting our money’s worth out of this guy.

He finished up, cauterized something, tucked some things back in, and buttoned my accoutrement all back up. The entire show was apparently a great success. I can only presume the applause was for his work and not for my contribution; I’ve never received that much “golf clapping” at any other time that I can recall. In any case, nothing too dramatic must have happened because Evie managed to sleep through the whole thing.

The assisting staff gathered up all the medieval weaponry and the buffet leftovers, cleared out the room, lowered me off the rack, and finally gave me, Kendra and the baby a little privacy, so I could collect myself and re-gird my loins (what was left of them, anyway). I was a little sore that day, but I slept a lot, so I don’t remember much of the rest of it. What I do remember was the next morning, when I awoke feeling like Donkey Kong had throttled me with a hockey puck slapshot to the pills. But that’s where my original story picks up anyway, so I can stop here. Besides, just between you and me, I think I’ve probably told you quite enough already.

Have you ever had a procedure with an audience? How did it go? Did everything come out okay? If you have one, what’s your narcotic of choice for having work done? Why do you think it is that you never see a really hot doctor unless it’s on TV or when you’re at your most vulnerable?

Regional Champion (Part 3 of 3)

(This is part three of a three-part series. Part one is here and part two is here.)

In the weeks leading up to the State Spelling Bee competition, I began to get more serious about the gravity of the possibilities. And by getting “more serious” of course I mean my mom had a heart-to-heart talk with me about what I really wanted from life and whether I thought this might be a door opening, an opportunity to be somebody. Certainly I didn’t feel at all that she was pressuring me or trying to live vicariously through me or trying to get me to do what she wanted. She genuinely wanted to understand what was motivating me and then decide what steps we could realistically take to make that happen.

Every word that would be used in the competition (at least up through State) was provided in the little booklet that we had received. So if we really wanted to, we could technically pore over it and memorize every last one. I can’t say for sure how many words were in there, but it was at least hundreds, perhaps over a thousand. And so we practiced, me lying on the couch, my mom sitting in her chair, reading me words out of the little book, and me trying to spell them. If there’s anything worse—or more nerdy—than participating with ambitious intent in a spelling bee, it would have to be actually studying spelling words for a competition.

It was grueling. I don’t remember how long I lasted, but I’m gonna say maybe two days. At which point I told my mom, “I just don’t care anymore. If I win, I win. If I don’t, I don’t care. This studying is not worth it to me.”

I would like to say I was possessed of an enlightenment approaching Zen-like wisdom, or even that I had just had a solid education in the arts. But more likely I was just too lazy. The State contest was to be televised on our local PBS station, but that didn’t really faze me. I legitimately counted the cost and decided, meh.

Even the prizes were several notches higher than anything at regionals. The runner-up would receive an AM-FM stereo system with a killer cassette deck, which was, let’s say…tempting. But the coup d’état was that for first place—besides the trip to D.C. and all the fame and fortune and everything that goes with it—the winner would also receive a portable TV! This was huge to a seventh grade boy in 1981. I didn’t have my own TV, so that would have been like winning the lottery (presuming my parents would have allowed me to keep it if I won).

And then the worst thing that could possibly have happened, happened. Just a few days before the competition, I got sick. Really sick. Like, Brachiosaurus bronchitis and Grim Reaper cough and a persistent temperature north of 102° sick. But the show had to go on. I can remember crying in the car that night on the way to the TV station because my head hurt so badly. It was yet another of those times when under normal circumstances I probably would have been terrified out of my mind, but as it was I couldn’t even think about all that.

And then the moment was upon me.

Nobody at State seemed to have any tricks beyond the same stock techniques I had seen displayed at every other level. That is to say, if you weren’t certain about the spelling, stall. Try to give yourself some time and space to think. Ask for the definition. Ask to have it used in a sentence. Ask the judge their favorite color. You could ask pretty much anything you wanted except for them to spell the word. These were not practices that I admired nor used. For me, if I didn’t know a word, no amount of time was going to help me sort it out.

I only wish that one of the questions that you could have legally asked was, “So, pray tell me, judge: Where, exactly, do you get off asking a seventh grader from a small rural school in the United States of America to spell a word that’s not even in the English language, and in whose universe and on what planet could that ever be considered fair or appropriate, and how do you sleep at night, and I’ll bet you’re a sad, bitter little person whose life didn’t work out how you planned so now you like to take out your frustrations on helpless little kids…am I right?” (I had to change it up there a little at the end to keep it a question.)

Guipure.

That was the word. We were down to just eight kids remaining, and other kids were still getting words like Brachiosaurus and segregation and abysmal, and they gave me guipure. Honestly, had you ever heard that word before I just shared it with you? I hadn’t. (It’s French, by the way.)

I would torment myself for hours and hours later, watching and re-watching myself on that stupid video, but no matter how many times I watched it, I couldn’t go back in time and repair the damage.

Later that night, on the way home, my brain still throbbing and the top of my moppy hair wet with perspiration, partly from fever and partly from the suit I had to wear, my dad said we had to run an errand before we could go home. He seemed in kind of a rush. I just wanted to get home and put my pajamas on and go to bed and cry myself to sleep. But we stopped at the mall, and my mom and I stayed in the car so I could lie down in the back seat and rest while he ran in. When he came out, he was carrying a portable black and white TV, brand-new in its box. It even had an AM-FM tuner and came with headphones. It was perhaps the kindest, most thoughtful gift I can ever remember receiving in my life. I would watch that TV in my room for the next six years, and I loved it even after it died.

Thanks, Dad. I love you. I know that you were proud of me. But I’m at least equally as proud of you. You were—and are—the greatest dad in the world.

Love,
Brannon

(This is part three of a three-part series. Part one is here and part two is here.)

So who wants ice cream? Is it just me, or is guipure a crappy word to ask a seventh-grader to spell? Who was the National Spelling Bee champion in 1981? (I don’t know, either.)

The Pickup Criterion (2 of 2)

(Today’s post is part two of a two-part story. Part one is here.)

When we left Ken’s house, he leisurely drove us…directly to a supermarket. Although it was one I had seen before from the road, I had never been inside. Honestly, I never really even paid attention to it. It was kind of an upscale place on the edge of one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city. As we pulled into the parking lot, I noticed a smoker over on one side of the building. I pointed and said, “Hey! That looks like one of your smokers.”

It was a big, black and rusty metal, barrel-looking thing, welded onto a trailer frame, with a smokestack and a metal wraparound frame on top so you could cover it with an awning.

He said simply, “Yeah.”

When we parked and got out, Ken stood for a moment and looked around, like he was thinking about something. It was a lovely evening out, pleasant and warm. About 100 yards from where we were standing was the community’s city hall, police department and fire station. Two firemen were standing over a grill out in front of their station, flipping burgers, visiting casually.

I followed Ken into the market like an obedient dog—directly to the meats. He found the department manager and chatted him up for a minute, asking him a few questions about some mutual acquaintance of theirs. The manager said, “Well, he isn’t here right now. And, tell ya the truth, I haven’t seen him around in a while.”

Ken thanked him and said goodbye, then turned to me as we were walking out and kind of half-whispered, “That’s all I had to hear.”

As we climbed back into my truck, I said, “Sorry we missed your friend.”

He popped it into Reverse and said, “Not me,” as he backed us up directly to the smoker. He got it close and left it running. I joined him, a little disoriented, as he got out and slipped to the back of the truck. He grinned broadly as he set down his toolbox. “Looks like I guessed right on the hitch.”

I was confused. “Uh…What exactly are we doing here?”

“You were right. This is my smoker. But the guy who was smoking meat here hasn’t paid me for more than six months. He hasn’t been returning my calls, and he’s never here when I come to check up on him.” Gesturing toward the market, he continued, “I’m betting he probably owes them money, too, which means they’re gonna want to hang on to my smoker until they can get their money. But we’re not gonna let that happen…right?”

“Right?” I whispered weakly.

A Master lock was on the smoker. Because I’m an idiot, I asked, “Do you have the key?”

He opened his toolbox and said, “Sort of,” and produced a hammer. (It turns out there were maybe five things in that toolbox. I imagined it to also contain a single credit card—for jimmying a door lock—a slim jim, and probably a firearm. Maybe a Taser or a hand grenade.) Motioning his head toward the firemen, he said, “Kind of keep an eye on those guys for me, would ya?” And he went to work.

Did you ever see that old commercial on TV where they shoot through the center of a Master lock with a rifle, and it just stays locked? Let me tell you: That’s a preposterous scenario. The center’s not where the latch is. Here’s the precise moment I realized that fact…

Ken lopped up the side of the lock with a hammer. Whang!!! Nothing. Again, harder. WHANG!!! I peed. (But just a little, not so much that you’d notice).

He hit it again and again, louder and louder each time. He looked up at me with a big grin. “Man, this is a tough one!”

“So I guess you’ve, uh…done this before?” I whispered.

“I’ve had a lot of smokers over the years,” he said—as though that passed for some kind of answer—and he took another swing. And that was the one that snapped the lock. He kicked the chocks out from under the tires, attached it quickly to the hitch, and we were off. About seven hours’ worth of terror for me elapsed in less than two minutes.

When we were a few miles from the market and it was clear we had made not just a clean getaway—but more like pristine one—it was Ken who finally broke the awkward silence. “Does it smell like pee in here?”

Not exactly answering, I offered, “You know what? It’s such a nice night, we should roll down the windows.”

I had just taken part in my first repo job. I knew I was in the family now, and all that that implied. Once you’re in the family, you can never get out. The only way I was ever leaving that engagement or my impending nuptials was in a body bag.

(Today’s post is part two of a two-part story. Part one is here.)

How did YOU know you were “in” with your in-laws? Was it a rite of passage? Or just something boring like a wedding? Did you honestly think that your adorable little padlock would protect your stuff? (That’s so cute.)

The Pickup Criterion

(Today’s post is part one of a two-part story. Part two is here.)

When Kendra and I first met, I was 19 years old, and she was 16. We dated for two and half years before marrying in 1991. (I used to like to tell people we had to get married ‘cause she got me in trouble—never mind that our first child would not arrive for six more years.) I had a GMC S-15 pickup, with an extended bed and a big V-6, which was an important criterion her dad was looking for in a potential mate for his eldest daughter. Evidently he had a lot of items that required towing and hauling, so a nice, sensible boy with a truck (and of course good parents) was just the ticket.

When I was younger, my mom had given me the excellent advice that when you’re considering seriously dating someone, a girl you think you might marry, you need to get to know her family intimately well. Because if she’s close to her family, you’re not just marrying her, you’re marrying all of them. My family was of the opinion that you don’t want to marry someone who’s not close to their family. Now, just to be clear, your mileage may vary. If your spouse’s family revels, for example, in getting hopped up on crack and moonshine and hunting endangered species with large, illegal artillery, probably it’s better if you guys maintain some healthy distance from those folks. (Just sayin’.) But my mom’s wisdom was spot-on for me.

I enjoyed hanging with Kendra’s family almost from the very start, from her mom’s perky exuberance and can-do attitude, to her dad’s viciously sarcastic sense of humor, to her tiny 8-year-old sister’s ability to plow through a dozen tacos in a single sitting—not unlike a commercial woodchipper, albeit one with long, blond hair and blue eyes. Kendra’s family and I were made for each other. And anyway, once I had fallen for Kendra, I had it baaaaad, and there was no turning back. Even so, I cannot lie: the fact that her dad owned at least four smokers and was himself an impresario of the occasional smoked meats extravaganza was a definite bonus.

I had already proposed to Kendra months earlier (as romantically as a clueless, inept 20-year-old boy knows how in an evening at the Olive Garden), and she had already foolishly accepted, when came what would become known to me as “the call.” Ken asked if I could come over and bring the truck. There was something he needed to go pick up. I said, “Of course.” And why wouldn’t I? (I had already made out with his firstborn, so it seemed a more than reasonable exchange.)

So I topped off the tank and headed over. ‘Cause that’s the type of sweet, innocent boy that I was in those days. When I arrived at the house, he had me park in the driveway as he shuffled around in the garage, looking for something. I innocently, dutifully obeyed and offered to help. “That’s okay. I’ve got it,” he said, as he came out carrying two trailer hitches and a toolbox.

He went to work attaching one of the hitches as I looked on, innocently. “So, what are we going to pick up?” I asked, rather innocently. He responded, perhaps not as innocently as would have made me most comfortable, “Oh, it’s a surprise.”

When he finished attaching one hitch after just a few minutes, he said, somewhat mysteriously, “We’re gonna take this other hitch, just in case. I’m not 100% sure the one I put on is the right size.” And he set the toolbox and the spare hitch on the floor in the cab. I started to climb in on the driver’s side, and he asked, “Hey, do you mind if I drive this time?” Of course I didn’t, so I tossed him the keys and walked around to the other side. And off we drove. Innocently.

(Today’s post is part one of a two-part story. Part two is here.)

If you’re married, what was your courtship like? What did you “bring to the party” that made you worthy of your beloved? How did you know they were “the one”? (Or “the two,” as my pastor is fond of saying.) Why do you think trailer hitches always have to be so flippin’ complicated?

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