Francesca

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They expected to be met by a single business like, efficient custodian to usher them around, take their deposit, and give a receipt. They expected their holiday Tuscan villa to be a rental residence swept clean of unnecessary clutter. They expected an elegant place, sporting bare essentials, decorated with a few nondescript pictures of the sort which adorn the walls of most hotel rooms. Instead, the family of eight were met by a mottled triumvirate of three made, up of a middle-aged gentleman in nondescript clothing, a sleek young man who retired behind his companions and a stocky black man who spoke broken English. The three seemed to fit well into the miscellanea of objects festooned around the villa. As far as the visitors could determine the middle-aged gentleman owned the place while the black man was custodian. They were unable to determine the status, or role, of the young man. He seemed as out-of place as many of the ornaments and objects strewn around the villa.

Our group of eight settled in quickly although familiarity only served to further their curiosity. Why was the villa so cluttered? What did this collection of objects have in common? Why were there so many pots, pans, and cooking utensils? Why were there so many sets of glasses and China? Who was the beautiful lady whose portrait dominated the two main living rooms? Was the boy whose picture lurked in a side corner the middle-aged gentleman who appeared to be the owner? Why was the door which they were required to use as a front door quite obviously not the front door? Why were certain areas closed off by curtains? At dinner, they discussed these conundrums.

The mystery of the doors was quickly solved. The ancient villa had an associated support building which must, at one time, have been the carriage house and servant’s quarters. The original ‘grand’ entrance was under a portico which connected the two structures and provided an upper-level bridge between the two. The support building was now inhabited by the custodian. The curtains and screened off areas of the villa were an attempt to disguise and shut off the custodian’s activities. Since the clutter in the main, villa did not include anything, such as toys or other furnishings associated with children, the visitors assumed that children, if any, must have been raised, Victorian style, in the associated building. They speculated that placement of the tiny painting of a small boy confirmed the notion that children were not welcomed in the main villa.

Among the magazines festooning the coffee and side tables the visitors found an April 1992 issue of “Villa Giardini” (numero 269) in which they found an article headed “Casa Nelson Verde.” It described the 1962 renovation of the 1770 villa under the guidance of architect Alberto Bartalini. The photographs showed sparingly furnished elegant spaces. They recognized the furnishings which still occupied the rooms together with the accumulated clutter of objects and pictures, which now covered every wall and surface. They deduced that the additional objects must have been gathered during the 56 years after the 1962 renovation. They wondered why it had taken thirty years for a 1962 renovation to make it into the magazine.

The visitors spent their evenings under the gaze of a portrait of a blond-haired lady in blue evening dress and long black gloves. She stared down with a lurking mischievous smile. Surely, they thought, this dominating lady with impish personality, was responsible for the clutter of objects in the villa. They were tempted to name her Anna Maria Luisa after the last Medici heiress who donated her family’s art collection to the city of Florence to become the much-visited Uffizi museum. However, Anna Maria Luisa is too much of a mouthful and didn’t fit the lady of the portrait so her name became Francesca. They noticed that the villa’s collections appeared to have several biases. One such bias covered horses even including a riding trophy. These, the visitors decided, must have been Francesca’s. Another bias covered ships and sailing which they assumed must have belonged to Francesca’s husband. They named him Tito. Then there was the collection of over 100 hand-painted botanical images –perhaps the work of Francesca herself? Intermingled and suffocating these pictures and items was an accumulation of eclectic paintings squeezed onto every wall space; with an equal accumulation of art books crammed into the book shelves. Where these Francesca’s or her and her husband’s or a later man’s, perhaps the artist to whom she gave her whimsical smile as, he painted?

Since the villa offered its clues in Italian and our visitors only spoke English, they finally created their own story, which follows:

In the early 1962s when they got married Francesca gave up riding and Tito gave up ships and sailing, for they wished to forge a life together unsullied by outside interests to which only one of them espoused. Everyone who knew them declared that the marriage was bound to fail. Those who felt kindly toward Francesca suggested that she had fallen for his intellect, and that it was to be a union of soul mates. Those who were less empathetic gossiped behind the couple’s backs and postulated that Francesca, a beautiful young woman of thirty, only married Tito, thirty years her senior, for his money, in the expectation that he would pre-decease her leaving her a rich widow. Everyone agreed that Tito, had fallen for Francesca for her beauty and a chance for he, himself, to have children and to cheat the onset of old age. In actuality, Tito’s wealth was an illusion reduced, at the time of their wedding to one Tuscan villa surrounded by producing vineyards. He didn’t regret his itinerant past but was now happy to give up ships and the seas, along with their associated costs, in favor of a quiet family life. Francesca, on her side, knew that her damaged right knee meant that she had to give up riding. She hoped to parlay her new status into one of gracious hostess. Most weekends she invited house parties to the villa. They ate lavishly with elegant settings of china and glassware. Francesca felt it only proper that they should have a variety of table settings. Whenever her cook produced a dish which displeased Francesca, she blamed her tools, and Francesca responded by buying new ones for her – hence the large accumulation.

Francesca and Tito’s age difference did not affect their fertility, so, by the time that they returned from their prolonged honeymoon, Francesca was pregnant. She found the prospect of motherhood in a remote Tuscan villa repugnant. To cheer her up, and to lure her into a full commitment to their proposed home, Tito agreed to an extensive renovation. Francesca took up the task of renovation with gusto. She added expansive exterior terraces overlooking the associated vineyard and a large swimming pool. She added a surreptitious back elevator for her to use when her knee acted up. Tito enjoyed watching Francesca working with her architect, but his main focus was on her pregnancy. He categorically refused permission for the renovation to be published, and urged Francesca to focus on her advancing motherhood for he couldn’t understand why she appeared so ambivalent. After the baby was born, they retained a Swiss nanny who took care of raising their son.

Tito arranged for Francesca to sit for a portrait for him to hang in his library along with his nautical memorabilia. The artist turned out to be an attractive young man of Francesca’s age, what he lacked in talent he made up for in wits and amusing banter. Francesca enjoyed her sitting sessions and was tempted to engage in more intimate relations with him. She decided to restrain herself as Tito’s age was already beginning to slow him down. She pretended to disregard the Tito’s signals of aging, and kept up an active social life intertwined with extensive travel. Tito worried as he watched the final remnants of his estate dwindle away. Before it was all gone, as so many had predicted, his body collapsed. One afternoon, on the road between Pisa and the villa, Tito had a massive fatal heart attack. The nay-do-tellers nodded their heads. Francesca had what she wanted; wealth and position, or did she, for she soon discovered that she had little wealth, only a villa which was rapidly disintegrating under her.

At this point, Francesca made two decisions; she immediately contacted the magazine to publish the story of the villa renovation and she called the artist who had painted her first portrait and to invite him to return for another sitting. One result was the picture which dominates the main living room and watched over the renting family. The other result was that the artist moved in with Francesca. He brought his household possessions to mingle with hers; his kitchen paraphernalia, collection of nick-necks, eclectic paintings and books about art. They quickly sold off most of the villa’s estate to create capital to live on. They never got married, but, co-existed in their clutter of possessions compulsively adding as they felt moved. They died within a year of each other leaving the middle-aged gentleman whom the family met on their first day as their sole inheritor for he confirmed, through his custodian interpreter, that,

“Yes, the lady in the portraits is my mother.”

Oh, to speak Italian and learn the true story!

The Hidden Treasure

When his father died of a sudden heart attack, twenty-one-year-old Kent joined his mother in a search for what they regarded as his father’s hidden treasure. The mystery began during the last six months of his father’s life when the old man developed a paranoia founded on his belief that the entire US financial system was about to collapse. Both Kent and his mother had watched him systematically liquidate his assets. He talked incessantly about his mission. However, just as he shared his fears for the future and his active response, he never told them what he did with his accumulated cache of money. They both knew that he neither gambled nor used drugs and were sure that he had hidden the money somewhere.

After a short period of mourning Kent and his mother sat and discussed the missing funds which they estimated to be in the order of a hundred thousand dollars. Together they went through his papers but found nothing. They searched for hidden cash, under, and in, his mattress. They turned the house upside down; they made inquiries about a possible deposit box at his favorite bank; and they talked to his lawyer and his handful of friends. They found nothing.

Each year afterwards Kent and his mother dreamed about the missing hoard and speculated what they would do if they ever found it. As time passed they both recalculated and dreamed letting their estimate of the value of the hoard grow. It held a spell over them tighter than the spell of the lottery. Kent’s mother stayed in her small house while Kent moved into a one-bedroom apartment, both dreaming of a time when they would suddenly become affluent.  By the time, a few years later, that Kent’s mother died of diabetic complications they both believed that finding the lost treasure would make them millionaires.

Now that his mother had passed away Kent resumed his search in conjunction with his duty, as sole heir, of disposing of her possessions. He was assisted by his mother’s cat Mack who came with the rest of her tiny estate. Each day he spent his spare time in her small house cleaning out her cupboards and shelves. Mack always joined him and would settle down in a comfortable location close to where Kent was sorting and watch him with glass-like yellow-green eyes.

When he began on the bedroom Kent realized that his mother had never disposed of her husband’s clothing.  He felt a moment of excitement. Although they had both been through his things Kent speculated that the clue to his father’s missing fortune could be concealed amongst his old garments. He abandoned his mother’s side of the closet and began to systematically go through his father’s side. He patted every seam and went through every pocket prior to neatly folding each garment. He stowed the searched items into bags to take to charity. On the second day of his work he became so immersed in his task that he lost track of time, suddenly he glanced at his watch.

“Oh no, it is two-thirty already!” he exclaimed, “I’ve only got another thirty minutes before I need to be at work, and still nothing.”

He glanced at Mack, angry at himself for talking to a cat, who, on this occasion, sat on the bed and watching him with unblinking eyes. Mack returned Kent’s stare and continued to purr gently, apparently oblivious to both Kent’s comment and his change in ownership. Kent accepted Mack’s feline disinterest and continued,

“Go on, you ugly ball of fur, tell me what he did with it.”

Mack remained silent.

“You know don’t you, you mean creature. How could a man of sixty-two, cash in all his assets and then die leaving no clue where they went?”

Mack blinked at Kent and slowly got up and approached him with a look which said that Kent’s insults didn’t affect him. He arched his back and rubbed himself against Kent’s left arm. He purred, letting his coat brush against Kent’s watch to send stray hair strands into the air. Kent sneezed.

“All right, out!” Kent pointed to the door.

Mack stalked out his tail waving gently to register his annoyance at his dismissal. Kent glanced at his watch again and continued with his task.

The next day Kent was back again sorting clothes. Out of the entire closet of clothes and shoes all he found was a key lodged deep in a Christmas waistcoat pocket. He set the key on the bed-side table. Mack left his spot on the bed to amble over and sniff it. He opened his mouth to use his vomeronasal, (Jacobson’s), organ. Kent watched.

“Leave that alone.” Kent moved quickly to the table and snatched up the cat. He held him up high and looked him in the eyes, “Go on, you, insufferable creature, tell me what he did with it!” Mack began to lick Kent’s watch. Kent dropped him resulting in a snarl. Mack left the room.

Kent took the key to the locksmith in Home Depot. The man examined it and announced that it was not a key to a bank vault box or a door into a storage facility; rather it was a cheap key to a small home lock-box, the type sold in Walmart. The next day a crew from the Salvation Army arrived to take away furniture which Kent was donating to charity. A small lock box fell off the top of the TV wardrobe. Kent pounced on it with a cat-like leap. He could scarcely contain his excitement but managed to wait until the movers left. Then he set the box on the kitchen counter and tried the key. It opened. Inside, wrapped in tissue paper, were a pair of gold cuff links and tie pin and a scrap of paper on which was written;

Sam’s Estate and Jewelry, 615 South Lamar

Kent went to 615 South Lamar but there was no Sam’s Estate and Jewelry instead a store with a huge neon sign announced “Pete’s Pawn Shop” and “We pay top dollars for gold.” Kent went inside. He asked the man behind the counter whether he knew what had happened to Sam’s Estate and Jewelry. He was told that Sam had died and his children had closed the store. Disappointed, Kent was about to leave when he remembered the gold cuff links and pin which he carried in his pocket. He drew them out and placed them on the counter and asked the man what he could give for them. The man took the articles and examined them with his jeweler’s monocle.

“Gold.” He announced, “I need to weigh them in the back then I’ll give you an offer.” He returned a few minutes later.

“They are quite nice, cost about $150 new, I can give you $75 for them.”

Kent gasped, “I was hoping for more.”

The man shook his head,

“I’m sorry that’s the best I can do.

Kent sighed and against his better judgement said, “OK, it’s disappointing, but I need the cash so I’ll take the $75!”

As the man counted out $75 he went on talking, “If you need cash, what about that watch which you are wearing. I can see that it is a nice one. I could probably give you a couple of hundred for it.”

Kent clutched his wrist, stared at his watch and then looked at the man. He felt a surge of pride for his watch and thrust his arm across the counter for the man to have a better look. He explained,

“It was my Dad’s. It is all I have to remember him by. He bought it shortly before he died. He really loved this watch.” Kent paused and gently rubbed the face of the watch with his right hand. He looked up at the man, “Ma wanted to bury him in it but when I saw it on his wrist in the coffin I broke down. I knew that it would be the best reminder of him that I could ever possess. I’m sure that he would have wanted me to wear it. It gets lots of complements, every time I look at it I think of him!”

The man nodded, “Suit yourself,” he said, “But if you ever want to sell I’ll give you top dollar for it, on second thoughts I’ll up my offer to $500.”

The offer intrigued Kent but the man seemed too willing to buy, and so he left, determined to research the true value of his watch. He went to a reputable jeweler in town and they inspected it, called in experts and eventually confirmed it to be a rare antique Omega 1980’s (reference 345.0802) Speedmaster Professional in 18 carat gold as worn by James Cooney.  They declared it to be in in pristine condition, and told Kent that they could give him $100,000 for it.

Kent wasn’t sure whether he was pleased with this information or not. He hurried home determined to give Mack more respect and to ponder his options

Nick’s Indecision – a short story

Nick awakes to bird song. He stealthily wiggles out of his warm sleeping bag careful not to wake Alice who sleeps on. He takes time to gaze at her. He thinks to himself how pleasant it is to see this vibrant demanding, nay ofttimes, domineering woman, at peace. Her face is relaxed into the semblance of a smile, a Mona Lisa smile, thinks Nick. He knows that if he lingers too long he will be tempted to stroke her luxurious hair, and then kiss her lips. Past experience warns him that if he woke her up she would probably be annoyed and the morning would erupt into a cacophony of human activity. Right now Nick needs time to think. He peeps out of his tent.

Their camp site looks orderly. It is located on a flat swale at the head of an inlet of Horsetooth Reservoir. A few feet away are the tents of his future parents-in-law and his future brother-in-law and his wife; closer is a park picnic table and residue of last night’s camp fire. The lake waters lap gently at his future in-law’s boat partially beached among the reeds; while behind stand their three vehicles with their orderly stow of supplies.

Nick stands and inhales to absorb the magnificence of the dawn. The reservoir is nestled into the foot-hills of the Rockies. Each of the surrounding hills is capped by a fold of red Dakota sandstone. From Nick’s vantage point, next to the water, the land looks as though it is covered by a giant’s petrified folded red cloth. Under the folds the land, covered with green scrub, stretches down to the water’s edge. The rising sun silhouettes the folds of sandstone and highlights isolated shoreline trees. The lake waters shimmer. The calm before the storm, thinks Nick, for soon an assortment of pleasure craft be on the water making headway for the further reaches of the reservoir where speeding and surf-boarding is permitted.

Nick wonders why he feels so uneasy. Six months ago when Alice invited him to move in with her he’d been happy enough to comply. He tells himself that it has been a good six months even though he, at times, felt trapped. He remembers his mother giving him her engagement ring for him to give to his future wife and how he had carried it in his pocket for weeks. When Alice proposed he had drawn it out and given it to her. He remembers her happiness which momentarily eclipsed his feeling of betrayal, or was it entrapment? He thinks back to admit to himself that his whole life had been that way. Didn’t he always comply with the suggestions of others, and let himself be subjected to their whims? He never asserting himself. He questions whether this makes him less than a man even though, he concedes, that most often he doesn’t know what he wants or what he’d do if he did assert himself. He thinks of himself as being on an unstoppable roller coaster.  Tomorrow they are going to Steamboat Springs to meet up with Nick’s parents and a few friends for the celebration of his and Alice’s ‘destination’ style wedding to be held at the bottom of Fish Creek Falls. It is a place only accessible by foot.

A couple of hours later the campsite is a hive of activity. Everyone is awake and have feasted on freshly cooked bacon and eggs and drunk copious amounts of coffee. Now they clean up in preparation for a boat ride. Nick prefers gentle coasting with the boat moving smoothly through the water making as little impact on its surface as possible, his idea of a quiet communion with nature. His future in-laws, however, love speed and as soon as they are beyond the ‘no wake’ zone his future father-in-law revs up the engine to a roar and they speed throwing up a white plume of water behind them. The boat is tilted with her bow raised as she slices through the water. Other boats are doing the same thing and so they jump each wake wave which meets them. The reservoir is now nosier than a busy traffic intersection at rush hour. Nick’s future father-in-law, although tall, perches uncomfortably on the top of the back of the driver’s seat to be able to see out over the speed induced tilt of the boat.

Then the engine is cut and Nick sighs inwardly. They are going to wake-board. His future brother-in-law goes first. He is expert, he jumps the wake and performs acrobatic leaps and somersaults.  When he tires, Alice has her turn and is equally spectacular. His future brother-in-law’s wife takes a spin. She is hesitant and, although able to stay upright, does not perform maneuvers.  Nick, unable to say no, takes to the water. He vows to himself that he will be safe and content himself with keeping upright but as he sails along his confidence builds and soon he is weaving back and forth across the wake. He is exhilarated. When they cross the wake of another boat Nick flounders and falls. They turn and pick him up. He groans as he is dragged on board his ankle hurts, he wonders if he has broken something.

Back on shore Nick’s future brother-in-law, who is a doctor, examines his ankle and declares that it is a bad sprain but not broken. He bandages it up and recommends that Nick keep it elevated. Nick accepts this counsel and is happy to skip their planned afternoon boating activities. Alice, although solicitous, asks Nick if he faking it to mess up their nuptials of the morrow.  He spends the afternoon in solitude reading and daydreaming. Is this, he wonders, his opportunity to call off the wedding? He evaluates his options, for yes, although his ankle hurts it is not as bad as he is trying to imply.  He now has his own choice to make. He can ‘miraculously’ recover sufficiently to walk to his wedding location at the foot of Fish Creek Falls or he can claim himself unable to walk and call off this marriage. He is not sure that he likes this feeling of power but knows that this time, whatever he does, he will make sure that it is his decision and his alone.

The Funniest Joke

At a recent Christmas party, our host commented that you are the funniest person he knows. On our way home I told you that I didn’t find you to be unusually funny. You responded,

“It’s a dry humor. Perhaps it is mundane to you because you’re British.”

“Hmm,” I said, “now your brother has the dry part down pat. Do you remember…”

I didn’t have to say any more as we chorused his punchline of some five years ago and we both laughed. I laughed so hard that tears rolled down my cheeks.

Afterwards I wondered why we found the memory of this innocuous, not very funny, punch-line so hilarious. I postulate that, like all good humor, it was timing and delivery. To this day I recall the set-up. It was the weekend after Thanksgiving when both our brothers were visiting.  As the day was balmy as Austin, Texas can be in November, you three men had taken up residence on my sister’s patio. Ostensively, you were slow-cooking a brisket on the BBQ although I recall that large quantities of beer were being imbibed. Your brother sat on the right, mine in the middle, draped rather than sitting, with his feet upon the wrought-iron patio table. You sat on the left, rising from time to time to baste the brisket or to get more beer. We, women, were inside chatting and preparing accompaniments for the brisket.

Then my brother began to laugh. A good rich belly rumble of a laugh. His feet came off the table and he rocked back and forth in his mirth. You echoed his laughter and your brother, who looked somewhat surprised at the reaction to his joke, joined in. It was at least half an hour before we, women, could get one of you to stop laughing long enough to share the cause of your mirth. My brother pointed at yours,

“Out of the blue he asks, ‘What did the mother turkey say to her disobedient children?’ No warning, nothing.” At this point you all three took up laughing again. We wondered what that punch line could be, and waited for you to regain composure.  At last you spoke to your brother,

“Go on tell them!”

Your brother, in his dead pan voice gave us the line “If your father could see you now, he’d turn over in his gravy!”

Of course, the mirth resumed again and, we, the women, joined in, chuckling, not at the joke, but at our men-folk.

The Doc Salvages the Past – a short story

The wind drifted up the valley and ruffled Anna’s hair. She pushed a stray lock back behind her ears and momentarily closed her eyes to enable her to concentrate on the landscape’s aroma; pine needles, freshly cut grass, wild flowers, sun-tan lotion. She breathed in deeply. She relished the crisp mountain air as it filled her lungs and gave her hope. She whispered a quiet prayer to the breeze:

“Please, oh, please blow away my demon. He is consuming me! Please show me what I must do to banish him.”

She stood near the Donner memorial statue in the Donner Memorial State Park; her gaze was out to the north-west and down to Donner Lake. Even as she worried about her problem, she couldn’t help but admire the vivid blue of the water’s smooth surface. The color drew richness from the harmonizing surrounding green slopes. Anna had studied reports about this place and knew that the lake filled an ancient valley, carved by a glacier with the glacial moraine serving as a dam on the western end. The peaceful vista satiated her with admiration and gave her hope.

She turned and walked to the visitors’ center to read about the Washoe people and, of course, about the ill-fated Donner party. She hadn’t expected the manner in which the park established a memorial to them; and had not thought that their cannibalism could have a compelling explanation, one which reasonable people might understand, even to the extent of memorializing their journey in the naming of a State Park. She speculated that the child depicted in the trio of the huge memorial bronze statue might be her ancestor who crossed the Sierra Nevada as part of the Donner Party in 1847. She gazed at the statue for some time. It was mounted on a twenty two foot plinth; reputed to be the depth of the snow that fated winter of 1846/7. She raised herself on her to reach up and touch the bronze memorial plaque. Even on this summer day the metal felt cold; at touch she felt a surge of emotion coursing through her body.

“I’m sorry, so sorry.” She murmured and then, since dusk was descending she walked to the camp grounds to find her tent. The adjacent site was occupied by three friendly brothers. Earlier, they had helped her erect her tent. Now Liam called out to her:

“Hey Doc Anna, come and join us for toasted marshmallows!”

All through medical school Anna had been a loner, but now something about Liam’s voice, not to mention the recollection of his piercing blue eyes when he had earlier helped her erect her tent, drew her in. She paused and smiled,

“I’d love to!”

They sat around the fire roasting marshmallows and making smores and talked of many things. Everything was so friendly that Anna lost her reserve and told the brothers about her long, lonely, years of medical school resulting in her present status as a urologist specializing in renal failure. They were astonished and told her that it seemed odd that she should be a specialist in the very affliction which was taking their father. They told her that he had AB negative blood, the rarest blood type of only three in a thousand. Consequently, he had been waiting for a kidney donor match for too long. Dialysis was only just keeping him alive. They feared that he would die before a match was found. Anna offered her deepest sympathy.

Later, they discussed their reasons for visiting Donner Memorial State Park; and the brothers, almost proudly, told Anna that they were descended from one of the Donner Party survivors. To her surprise, she detected no remorse, sorrow or embarrassment in the brother’s boast. She inquired whether they felt regrets or lingering embarrassment relative to their heritage. They laughed at her inquiry pointing out that everyone has something odd in their family’s past.

“Indeed,” Liam said, as he stuffed in another marshmallow, “no one can escape Cain and Able!”

Perhaps it was the location, or the fact that these men were complete strangers, but something about their exchange opened Anna’s reserve, and she began to tell them her story. As her tongue loosened she knew that she was going to tell them about the horrible demon who haunted her sleep, a night-mare so terrible that she couldn’t seek help because disclosing the truth would be too humiliating and painful.

“You see,” she said, “I admit that I am also descended from one of the Donner party survivors. In my dreams, I come to this place every night. It is cold, there are deep snowdrifts everywhere. I am little, frightened and starving.’ She sighed and was about to halt her revelation when Liam drew close and gently put an arm around her.

“So, you are here now; and, a beautiful woman, I might add. Didn’t you tell us that you are a urologist? So, here you are, a successful person living the American dream, the very dream that the Donner Party sought. Isn’t that reassuring?”

“No, it isn’t” she shook her head. “For, you see, after anatomy class in medical school, my dream always ends the same way. Driven by hunger I go outside our make-shift animal skin tent and there, standing in the snow, is a huge vat of formaldehyde. You know, one of the vats that they have in medical school anatomy labs. I’m a medical student again. I smell its pervasive odor. It is pungent. I tremble and try to wake up, but I can’t. Instead, I go and put my hand into the murkiness of the vat and pull out a kidney. I wake up in a cold sweat as I start to eat.”

The three brothers were silent. Overhead Anna heard the tree leaves rustling in the wind. She heard the flames eating the logs in the fire pit. She heard her own heart beating abnormally fast. For what seemed like an eternity she felt isolated alone knowing that her confidence was a mistake. Then Liam was rocking her back and forth like a small child. His touch was gently reassuring.

“It isn’t you! It is only a night-mare. One hundred and fifty years have passed. You are not to blame.”

Anna felt emboldened and so she spoke again. “The problem is that I know that it is a night-mare, but I can’t stop it. It has got to the point that I fear going to sleep. Some nights I just don’t sleep. Of course, eventually I get so tired that I have to, and then it comes again, ending at moment that my lips touch the kidney..”

This time even Liam was unable to offer a platitude.  The four sat in silence, letting the fire consume the logs and die down. The stars glistened in the dark sky, and the moon threw shadows around them. Anna, savored Liam’s closeness. She began to doze off. Suddenly, she jumped up and flung her arms in the air, her voice loud and happy,

“I’ve got it! I’m AB negative. The tests will prove that there is a full match. I know it. This is a miracle. The debt will be paid. We will both be cured” She looked deep into Liam’ astonished blue eyes,

“For, you see, I am to give your Dad one of my kidneys.”

 

Gifts of Thanksgiving

Keith looked miserable when he shared his sad news with his smoking buddies. He was a charismatic character who generally livened up the group with his jokes and good humor. He could extract something to laugh at from almost any mundane office meeting. The smoker’s group stood in an otherwise unusable corner of the parking garage in the area defined by building management as ‘The Smoking Area’. It was equipped with a dismal-looking park picnic table with attached seating together with a large trash container. The smokers generally didn’t use the bench but stood looking out onto a patch of green weeds growing along the building’s property line. Today even the sunlit highlighted greenery looked forlorn while the rest of the spot with its hard-grey concrete surfaces made a gloomy back-drop much in keeping with Keith’s mood. The smokers inhaled desperately as they tried to draw calm out of the tobacco. Keith, the saddest looking of them all shared his news.

“Another miscarriage!”

The whole office knew his story; how he, and his wife Kitty, had been trying for years to have a child. Each time that she conceived they thought that this pregnancy would be different. But then their joy would be turned to sadness when she miscarried. Of course, they had been to numerous doctors but all the medical profession could tell them was that sometimes these things happen. It wasn’t reassuring. Everyone offered their condolences but no-one had a pat soothing platitude to offer; they had all been used up in response to Kitty’s earlier miscarriages. Keith dolefully told his colleagues, that although he and Kitty were in their late thirties, they were going to see if they could adopt.

Six months later, Keith blissfully announced that Kitty was now into her second trimester and was carrying this baby longer than in any of her previous pregnancies. The staff shared his happy mood. Kitty got to her ninth month. They staged an office baby shower, and when the baby was born all went to the hospital to view the cute baby dressed in blue, who, all agreed, already looked like his Dad.

When Keith returned to work after his paternity leave, he no longer came the smoker’s corner. Standing in the break-room holding a mug of hot coffee he explained that he had given up smoking in thanksgiving for the birth of his son. He received appropriate congratulations while all secretly monitored his actions to see if his vow was serious. He never faltered. Several of the other smokers took inspiration from his action and also gave it up. General office gossip endorsed his action with the additional rationale that it was a wise action as smoking doesn’t go with small children.

Nine months later, Kitty was pregnant again. The miscarriages of the past were in forgotten. Keith was ecstatic. He told the entire office that he, and Kitty had always wanted two children. In due course, a beautiful baby girl was born. After his paternity leave, Keith talked freely about his next act of thanksgiving.

“I want to give my daughter every advantage. I gave up smoking as an act of thankfulness and celebration for the birth of my son. I’ve thought about this long and hard. I know that I have to give up something as an act of thankfulness for my daughter. So, after due thought I am giving up alcohol to acknowledge the blessing of having a daughter.”

He explained that both, he and Kitty were second in the birth-order in their homes and had often felt twinges or resentment that parents become increasingly blasé with each successive child. They, neither of them, wished this to happen to their children. The office gossips discussed this decision of Keith’s. Some rationalized that alcohol also doesn’t belong with responsible parenting, while Keith’s drinking buddies sadly accepted that Keith’s increased home responsibilities would keep him away even if he hadn’t given up booze.

Nine months later, Kitty was pregnant again. Keith’s joy was less effusive as he said that he and Kitty had only wanted two children. However, when he returned to the office, he announced that for this child, his act of self- denial was to give up caffeine. He still frequented the break-room where he took to standing holding a huge mug of iced water and amusing everyone with his wit.

“No more children,” he declared, “We can’t afford three as it is; and besides, I’ve nothing else to give up in thanksgiving!”

The office gossips found it harder to pin an additional rationale onto the ‘no caffeine’ decision. Some observed that three children in diapers meant many sleepless nights, which might make caffeine a morning necessity. Others said that the nocturnal interruptions made anything, which inhibited sleep a ‘no-no” even in the morning.

Life has a way of taking over and about nine months later, Keith announced that Kitty was pregnant with their fourth. He didn’t ask for input on what he should give up in thanksgiving for this child, who he stated absolutely had to be his last. No-one helped him make his decision, although the topic was hotly discussed behind his back. No-one needed to tell him for he knew; of all his children, this child, his last, was to receive the dedication of his most significant act of self-denial.

WHAT A DAY

  I suggest that we let most of the days of our lives pass into blurred oblivion. Of course, some days are remembered due to unusual happenings. Thursday, May 27 1954 is a day from my childhood, which stands out vividly. It was a day packed with events each of which might have slipped into my hazy memories of growing up, but somehow their aggregate marked a day which I recall vividly.

That Thursday was Ascension Day, and as such my Christian School gave it special recognition. We had no classes; instead, we were instructed to go to school later than usual, in order to attend a church service after which we were given the balance of the day off. On a normal day, my father drove my sister and I to school on his way to work. I have vague recollections of these drives with an associated long wait at the Framwellgate Bridge traffic light so that we could drive up winding, narrow, one-way Silver Street. By the time that we got to the bridge Dad was diligently quizzing my sister and I on the dates of the Kings and Queens of England or some other facts which he wished us to memorize. If you look to your right as you cross Framwellgate Bridge going into town you get a stunning view of Durham Castle and Cathedral standing high on their promontory, shrouded in the greenery of the banks of the River Wear. I don’t recall ever having done this on my way to school. Looking back I wonder if it was familiarity or perhaps the view wasn’t good for a child in the left-hand side seat of a car.

For some strange reason, I walked to school on Ascension Day 1954. During my entire childhood, this is the only day that I ever remember walking the two to three miles to school. I was almost nine years old, which explains why my sister, who would have been seven, was not with me. She started at the “Big School” the following academic year. The other odd thing about that morning was that I was accompanied by Robert Mulkerrin. This day is the only day of my entire life that I remember Robert Mulkerrin. He lived with his mother about a block further down our street. Their house always had roses in the garden, but I generally hurried past as quickly as possible because Mrs. Mulkerrin was one of our school teachers. I don’t know why Robert was with me – perhaps it was circumstantial, and he was going to meet his mother at the school or maybe my parents had arranged it; I just don’t know. All I know is that he was there. I recall that we were engrossed in conversation and although only nine I have a vague memory of my being somewhat flirtatious. 

Half-way up Silver Street, crammed onto the sidewalk on the south side of the street, we came to a ladder leaning against one of the ancient buildings. It bridged the sidewalk and had its toe in the gutter. Robert checked the traffic and deftly walked around the ladder. I walked under it.

“Jane, don’t. Walking under a ladder is bad luck!”

“Pooh, that’s just an old wife’s myth.” 

“Maybe,” Robert was staring at me, “but why tempt fate?”

“I’m not afraid. Now if there had been someone up the ladder, I agree that it might not be a good idea to walk under.” I was giggling, thinking of a tool or paint falling down. Today was a propitious day, and I felt exuberant.

My next recollection from that day is when our mother drove my sister and I to go fishing. She had promised to do this as a treat on our afternoon off. It is also a first because our mother had never ever taken us fishing before. She had just learned to drive and drove us in my grandfather’s old red VW. We joked that she bought kangaroo petrol because the car jumped and started every time she changed gear. I vaguely remember the Lake. It was reached by long drive through an avenue of trees and was next to one of the hospitals which my father visited. Apparently, he had obtained permission for us to fish there.

Our equipment was homemade; stakes from the garden, twine, hooks made from hair pins, and bait in the form of chicken parts. We stood on the grass, which I recall is being very green, and cast our lines into the murky water. Within no time, I had a nibble and hauled in a small fish about eight inches long. I hadn’t even got it off my hook before my sister also had a bite. Instead of being a traditional fishing trip, in which one waits and watches the water for hours, the fish rewarded us by taking our bait every time we cast. Within an hour, we had caught twenty fish. By now, I recall that our mother was becoming anxious and declared, “Enough is enough,” and that we needed to go home.

We always ate dinner at about 7:30 PM. That day was not to be an exception. Our mother volunteered to clean and fry the fish so that we would eat them for dinner. My sister and I were becoming boisterous and housebound, and so she sent us out to play on our bicycles in the street. They were always several children outside, and we often played games on our bicycles. That evening Robert Mulkerrin joined us. Of course, I teased him and told him that instead of bad luck the ladder had rewarded us with an incredible fishing trip. He smiled and even then seemed unconvinced.

We played tag. The one who was ‘it’ carried a stick and chased the others to touch someone so that they became ‘it’. Our road was paved for the block near Robert’s house but towards our house, it was narrower, steeper, and unpaved. That’s where I had the accident. I was swerving to avoid being tagged and spilled putting my right arm to the ground to catch myself. It popped. I had dislocated my elbow and was hurriedly driven to the hospital. I remember going in feeling very cold and in pain and being given a sedative. I shall always remember the contrast, for when I awoke I was pain free and cozily warm. To me, it was a miracle.

Mother cooked the fish, but I never ate any. To this day, I wonder what they tasted like. I also wonder if Robert Mulkerrin went home convinced that he had irrefutable proof that walking under ladders is bad luck.