Dancing with Angels

Sunset on the sea

A Tim Tidwell (age 9) escapade: The tide was going out, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and Tim and his little boat, which he'd taken without permission, were just a dot on the horizon, halfway to China

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Raising Tim

Terri Tidwell had gone completely gray by 40. To be fair, Tim Tidwell, Terri’s son, didn’t put all those gray hairs there, just most of them.

Fanny, the author

I, Fanny McElroy

Terri has three other children, now grown, and had two husbands: Chip, whom she divorced, and Arthur, Tim’s daddy, whom she buried. Arthur was dead at the time, as luck would have it. Three days earlier he’d been walking across the street and was run over by a drunk driver (who was uninjured), someone traveling on the highway who didn’t slow down when he reached the narrow brick street in downtown Hilltop.

It was sad, because Arthur was a fine fellow, but I think his untimely death kept Terri out of prison, because she was on the point of murdering his dreadful mother, who, after Arthur died, went to live with Arthur’s brother and his family. God bless ’em.

Everyone likes Tim…

Confident young man, handsome

Sister Alma Rose says Tim is 'too foxy for his own good'

…even the three mothers of his three children. He’s approaching 30, but since he’s been drinking since junior high as a way of dealing with pretty much everything, he’s emotionally stuck in junior high—at least that’s Sister Alma Rose’s assessment. So he’s kind of everybody’s little brother — handsome, funny, full of mischief, and, when he’s been drinking, either game for some escapade beyond mischief, or else just plain mean.

When Terri feels like she wants to run his life or else “enable” him in some way, she talks to Sister Alma Rose. “Y’all stay out of God’s way,” Sister Alma Rose tells her. “God has big plans for that boy.”

A recovering codependent

Attractive middle-aged woman

Terri, after her makeover that included collagen cheek implants; Sister Alma Rose says, "You go, Girl"

So, with Sister Alma Rose’s constant support, Terri doesn’t enable, and she doesn’t tell Tim what to do; she gives him calm advice when he asks for it and leaves it up to him whether or not to follow it. She doesn’t make appointments for him to see therapists (as she used to), and she doesn’t call him every day to make sure he’s not in jail. She has surrendered Tim and his fate to God, so she’s learned to stop worrying. And she doesn’t feel guilty or wonder what she might or might not have done during his childhood that could have made Tim happier and more well-adjusted.

And he’s not a happy guy, and Terri suffers with him. That’s a habit she hasn’t been able to shake.

Angels or hysteria?

Last week, Terri had a bizarre experience that she told Sister Alma Rose was either an encounter with angels or a very elaborate hallucination.  We were sitting at Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wicker table on her grass-green wraparound porch, and Terri had made copies for each of us, which made me feel very grown up, of her poetic account of the incident:

Peach rose

Terri's poem

Pink rose

“Sister Alma Rose,” I said, after Terri had left, whistling cheerfully as she walked toward the road, because Sister Alma Rose and I not only affirmed her experience but also shed a few tears with her, in the way of women, of sisters, which I am just beginning to understand —

Medieval rendering of angels; source unknown

Medieval rendering of angels; source unknown

“I mean, I know that Terri’s angels were real, she’s not crazy or making things up, and I know she’s feeling reassured about Tim being in their ‘custody,’ — and maybe it shouldn’t matter, but I just wonder where this all took place. In a room in her house, or in her mind, or a dream, or was she transported to heaven, or what?”

“Fanny, my love,” said Sister Alma Rose, placing her broad, brown forehead against my freckled one, “y’all’s training starts right now. There are many dimensions y’all have never experienced, or else you weren’t aware of it. Scientists, now, they work in dozens of dimensions, but only in the realm of math and physics.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

The classic fantasy novel for kids AND grownups, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

“Y’all remember the experience in your daddy’s hospital room, when y’all saw your future self and you were standing above the room and walking down them stairs?”

Oh, wow, did I ever. “That’s something I’m never likely to forget,” I said.

“Well, now, I’ve been in that hospital room dozens of times, and I’ve never seen it with the ceiling gone out of it and a flight of steps leading up to nowhere.”

“Oh!” I said, understanding. “It was really us, and it was really happening, but it was in another dimension. Like we slipped through a tessaract,” I added, thinking of Madeleine L’Engle‘s book A Wrinkle in Time, one of my favorites.

“Sort of like that,” Sister Alma Rose agreed. “And Fanny, do y’all remember the young man who was standing beside your grownup self?” she asked with a twinkle.

“Oh, sure,” I said, “because I remember it flashed through my mind that he looked a lot like Matthew McCon— Well, I’ll be a flat rabbit on toast,” I said, looking with wonder, and a little embarrassment, at Sister Alma Rose.

“It was Henry,” I whispered in awe. “The man in my future is Henry.”

* * *


Lost and Found

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Hafez (or Hafiz) the Persian

Hafez (or Hafiz) the Persian

You are healed when you can say to yourself, “I matter, I belong, I am worthy, I am safe, I can express myself, I am loved. —Deepak Chopra, The Deeper Wound: Recovering the Soul from Fear and Suffering, 100 Days of Healing

While I am sleeping, you silently carry off all my suffering and my sordid past in your beautiful hands. —Hafiz

The Suicide Note

God is good,” says Pastor Alexis.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

Sister Alma Rose’s dear friend Pastor Alexis got ordained as a minister online and started her own church, Pilgrim Chapel, five years ago. Anybody can go there, it doesn’t matter what religion they are or what they believe about God.

Before she became a minister, Pastor Alexis thought constantly about suicide. “I once was lost,” she says with a grin, “but now I’m found.”

She wrote a long suicide note ahead of time, in case she ever did take the plunge, so to speak. This (below) is it… in all its sadness and beauty….

My name is Alexis, and I am sitting on the balcony of my apartment, twenty-three stories above a narrow red-brick street in a quiet residential neighborhood. My art-deco-era building is an anomaly among the tidy old frame and stucco houses with their privet hedges and children’s swing sets.

The wall that encloses my balcony is three feet high and about eighteen inches wide. I have sat on the wall many times, next to the pots of thriving geraniums and trailing lime-green ivy, my bare legs and feet dangling — half-hoping, half-fearing that someone will come along and give me a small shove. That’s all it would take: just a slight, accidental bump. I believe in reincarnation, and I am ready to be a child again.But I always swing my legs back over the wall, plant my feet on the warm concrete, sit at the pretty white wicker table, and drink the lemonade I have brought out in a large Thermos. I have remembered that there is something left undone. Perhaps I have not dusted, or finished a crossword puzzle, or called my niece this week. If my life is going to end, I want what I leave behind to be tidy.

I am 59 years old, and I am superfluous.

* * *

I had what most people would consider a happy childhood in a happy home. My parents were proud of me (I was an eager learner) and told me I could be anything I wanted to be – a minister, a U.S. senator, an arc welder — anything, as long as it made me happy. They were warm and affectionate, and I knew that I was loved.

That’s the way I see it when I look back, but there’s a layer of fear, like gray film, over it, as if I’m looking outside through a screen door. The fear began with my mother’s “nervous breakdowns” and my dad’s frequent business trips… with the times Mom spent a couple of weeks in the hospital, or when she’d check into a hotel for the sole purpose of drinking herself as near to death as she dared to go. She was sick for two years, when I was 4 and 5.

Sometimes, when Dad was out of town and Mom was sitting in the darkened living room, in the overstuffed chair, her legs splayed on the ottoman… drinking red wine, which turned her tongue and lips blue and carried her into oblivion… I pulled a blanket and a pillow out of the linen cupboard on the second-floor landing, dragged them downstairs and into the living room, covered Mom with the blanket, and tried to arrange her limp torso so that her head rested on the pillow. Then I put her cigarettes and lighter in a kitchen cabinet, so that she wouldn’t burn the house down.

I didn’t know that Mom drank because my sister had a serious heart condition and might die any minute, although she never did… and because my brother had barely survived polio… and because Mom’s own mother had died of pernicious anemia while Mom, too, was ill with polio… and because Dad traveled so much and was unavailable to share all the burdens. I just knew that I felt unprotected when Mom binged and Dad was out of town.

fcc_outsideI started going to the Presbyterian church two blocks away, alone, when I was 5 — drawn, I think, by the glorious music and the grand old sanctuary with its elaborately carved oak and its sparkling, intricate stained-glass windows, and also by the reassurance of ritual and continuity. The Sunday-school teachers, on the other hand, made Jesus sound like a jail warden, and I was afraid of him, and of going to Hell. But when he came to me in dreams, he wore Levi’s and a plaid shirt, and he was kind and comforting.

One midsummer evening, my mother announced at the dinner table that she was under doctor’s orders to quit drinking. She smiled broadly, dazzlingly, and said, “I have had my last drink.” It was the happiest day of my life.

It lasted for a few months, this feeling of security, this belief in happy endings, this euphoria. And then, early one Sunday morning, after I had spent the night at my cousin Lucy’s house, Aunt Cecily dropped me off on her way to church. She watched as I climbed the forty-seven steps to the big tile-floored front porch, and she waved goodbye as I pushed open the gleaming mahogany door, which was never locked.

I closed the door and inhaled a miasma of cigarette smoke laced with stale beer and something ripe and pungent. I am sure that my heart stopped, and that when it started beating again I wanted more than anything to turn around, go back out the door, and run. Anywhere. Just away from there. Away from what I might find when I turned the corner into the living room.

In the end, there was nothing else to do, so I stepped into the living room and all but tripped over Mom’s feet. She was passed out, face down, on the ottoman, her toothpick legs sticking out on one side, her head and arms dangling from the other side, a pool of vomit between her hands where they brushed the floor.

Feelings whose names I didn’t know suffocated me: revulsion, disappointment, panic, and something worse. I think of it now, perhaps melodramatically, as a loss of innocence.

That summer morning, I had no time to rage or mourn. I knew that my older brother and sister would be of no help; they were still asleep, and in any case they were inured to Mom’s binges. Dad was somewhere in western Nebraska doing a bank audit. I was on my own.

Something in me pitied my mother and was terrified. When I tried to wake her, she rolled over onto the floor. Her arm landed in the vomit, which splashed onto my feet and my white cotton pants, covering most of one leg.

Dr. Prentice, Mom’s psychiatrist, lived two doors away with Mrs. Prentice and their son, Frankie, who was my best friend. I ran out of our house through the back door, up the alley, through the Prentices’ back yard, and into their kitchen. Dr. and Mrs. Prentice were sitting at their white-enamel table, reading the Sunday paper and drinking coffee. Vomit dripped off my pants onto the shiny red linoleum floor. I stood there panting, unable to speak.

“Is something wrong with your mom?” Dr. Prentice asked gently. I just nodded, and he got up, kissed the top of my head, and left the room. Mrs. Prentice took me upstairs and helped me wash my feet and gave me a clean pair of Frankie’s pants to wear. She said that I could play in the guest room until Frankie woke up and that I could eat lunch there and play with Frankie all day. I looked out one of the guest-room windows and watched Dr. Prentice, carrying his black doctor bag, walk across the front yard and down the street toward our house.

An old-fashioned kitchen on display in Dover, Delaware

An old-fashioned kitchen on display in Dover, Delaware

Late that afternoon, Dad came to the Prentices’ to pick me up. Mom was in the hospital, he said. Thelma, our housekeeper, would stay with us until Mom came home. Thelma had worked two days a week for us since I was an infant. She was big and brown and solid and safe. She liked to refer to herself as my mammy. That’s the way things were back then.

Secretly I hoped that Mom would stay in the hospital forever. With Thelma, there were cheerfulness and peace and order. She ironed our sheets, and they felt smooth and smelled wonderful. She baked homemade bread and sweet-potato pie. My clothes were always clean and pressed and folded neatly in my dresser drawer. Thelma vacuumed and dusted, and she scrubbed the blue-linoleum kitchen floor and waxed it by hand, then polished it until it shone. And in the evenings, she sat me on her ample lap and held me tight and told true stories that her grandmother had told her about life in the Old South.

Mom was in the hospital for a month, and when she came home she’d gained a few pounds and her cheeks had some color that had been missing before. She had medicine she could take if she felt overwhelmed, but she didn’t use it very often. I knew, because when she had taken the medicine she slept late and we had to fix our own breakfast. She didn’t quit drinking, but she kept to her daily limit of two glasses of wine. Dad went to work at a different CPA firm, where the head partner promised that there would be no out-of-town travel.

At last, when I was about to start school, there was beginning to be an atmosphere of normalcy and predictability in our home. I buried my fear, but it never went away. I was always steeling myself against the next disappointment.

Our house was a gathering place, as some houses tend to be and no one is sure why. Mom enjoyed a houseful of kids — my sister’s friends, my brother’s, mine. Everyone loved her. She had become strong and healthy and competent. And still I was afraid.

It wasn’t until I was a wife and mother myself that I understood Mom’s despair. When I suffered my own breakdown at 22, Dr. Prentice and Mom helped me through it. Some time during my high-school years, Mom had become my hero, my role model. Dad had always been my rock.

Once, when I was in my early 20s, I heard Mom tell Aunt Cecily that, if anything happened to Dad, she knew that I would take care of her. I never had to. Mom died of a stroke when she was 59. Dad had a fatal heart attack five years later.

* * *

I married Lou when I was 24, four years before Mom died. Together Lou and I raised three happy, healthy children. Lou was a philanderer, and I knew it, but he was also a wise and loving father and we made a fine parenting team. We needed each other for that, and the kids needed us both, and, for me, that was enough.

Lou died of cancer five years ago, and I grieved. The children are married, with families and careers. They are scattered throughout the country, and I see them twice a year. My grandchildren are always shy with me at first; they don’t know me, and they certainly don’t need me.

I am 59 years old, and I am superfluous.

lemonadeAlmost every day I take my coffee or my lemonade onto the balcony. I sit on the little wall and wonder, with some detachment, what it would be like to just push off with my feet and go sailing into the air. Maybe tomorrow, I think. Today I need to launder the bedding.

* * *

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