My Great Aunt

According to Mark Twain—or at least those who’ve studied him—comedy is tragedy plus time. Having spent decades taming and twisting tragedy, trauma, and personal torment into something funny and less frightening, it’s fair to assume that I would not disagree.

On the other hand, having spent some considerable time trying to write about my beloved Auntie Charlene, who passed away on July 16th, I’m moved to wonder: how MUCH time exactly? By that I don’t mean “how long before I stop missing her?” but rather, “When will I feel like making people laugh again?”

Don’t think for a moment that Auntie wouldn’t approve. She may have been the person who hoped and prayed the hardest for me to find Jesus, but she was also the one who suggested I attend the church Halloween party dressed as Salome. It was also she who provided the scarves that served as the seven veils for my costume, as well as the Styrofoam wig stand that served as the head of John the Baptist.

Auntie Charlene—aka Cha-Cha and, later, Chachi—may have loved her lord and savior, but she also loved to laugh. It was she who introduced me to Carol Burnett, Erma Bombeck, and the comic strips Peanuts and Ziggy. She also taught me how to craft the groan-inducing puns that pepper this and other publications, and affectionately advised me on the appropriate application of alliteration. (Nailed it!)

When she wasn’t contributing to the development of my sense of humor, Chachi was subtly encouraging me to develop my mind. As the first person in our family—that I know of, anyway—to go to college, she was an anomaly to some, but an inspiration to me. As the only woman I knew—besides my teachers and school nurses—who had a college degree, she was my idol. In the meantime, she introduced me to crossword puzzles, logic problems, and Scrabble, and by her example, taught me to be helpful, considerate, and responsible.

Charlene tried to teach me several other things that, sadly, I couldn’t quite grasp at the time—if ever. For example, as a bird lover, she would scold and chase the cats that that lived on my grandparents farm for having the unmitigated gall to hunt birds the way nature intended. Although from this I did learn that cats are (fortunately) a lot faster than people, I never did learn to give a d@mn about the birds. In my opinion, if they don’t want to get eaten by a cat, they should build their nests higher. So on the matter of birds and cats, Charlene and I had to agree to disagree.

The same was true when it came to the purpose of Bible Camp. Now I may have been young, but I was not entirely stupid. So I fully understood that the mission of the staff at Camp Evergreen was to save my soul from eternal damnation. My question was, did that have to be our ONLY goal? Could we not kill two birds (yes!) with one stone, as it were? Could we not talk about salvation AND develop a killer backhand? Could we not learn about sin AND meet a few cute boys?

Apparently not.

But Charlene loved me, even if we did not see eye to eye on birds or Bible Camp. I know this because she stepped in after my mother died when I was four, and helped my father take care of me and my two baby brothers. Although others stepped up to help as well, Charlene was like the North Star. A constant. A guiding light. She fought for me, and taught me to fight for myself. She taught me how to sew, and that it was bad to lie to get out of trouble but okay to lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.  You know—the important stuff.

Charlene worked as a teacher, civil servant, and nursing assistant. She later went back to school to become a registered nurse. When she wasn’t working, she went out of her way to brighten the lives of others by visiting them, taking them to lunch or church, or just sitting down to a cup of coffee, a game of Scrabble, or a few hands of Cribbage. She talked to her sister every day, and called her brothers every weekend. She never married or had her own kids, but she was like a mother to me, my brothers, and to almost every one of my cousins.

Over the last few years, the tables had turned somewhat. Charlene couldn’t get around very well, and was having trouble taking care of herself. She needed help with errands, cleaning her house and getting to and from doctor’s appointments and such. But her friends did what friends do, and took turns picking up her groceries and prescriptions. And family members did what family members do. We drove her to her doctor’s appointments and the family reunion, took her out for lunch, and took her car to get gas or to have it washed. We did all the things Charlene would have done for anyone else had she been able.

Charlene died after a brief stay in a skilled nursing facility. She had fallen at the beginning of June and was learning to stand and walk again. She was in constant pain, but four days before she died she had kicked my you-know-what at Scrabble, and a week or so earlier had beaten my brother John at Cribbage.

I never imagined that those days would be Charlene’s last. Nor did I imagine as I was writing last month about the mock funeral I had helped my best friend plan for her mother, that only days later I’d be planning one very real funeral for the woman I called my second mom. How’s that for timing?

The funeral has since come and gone, and Charlene is no longer in pain or feeling frustrated and helpless.

She was a great aunt. And she is now, as they say, at peace.


The Big 5-0

How does it feel to be 50?

That is a question I never thought I’d have to answer. It’s not that I didn’t think I’d live to be 50; although, given that neither my mother nor my mother’s mother lived to be 45, I’ve always harbored some doubt as to whether I would make it this far.

And yet, here I am. It has taken a few weeks, but I’m getting used to it. And it definitely beats the alternative.

I remember s-e-v-e-r-a-l years ago when my friend’s mother was turning 50. LaVon was adamant about making it a memorable event, just as she had done for her dad when he turned 50 a few months earlier. Only better.

So we planned a mock funeral, complete with flowers and a papier mache casket. Then we rented a limo to drive the family around town with the funeral flag flying on the hood, and invited all of her mom’s relatives, neighbors, and friends (including her boss, whom she had expressly directed us not to get involved in whatever shenanigans we had in mind) to surprise her at the house when they got back. Silly woman. She would have been better off not saying anything at all. The funeral spray from her boss was the biggest of the bunch.

I got to be the funeral director who turned LaVon’s parent’s home into a funeral parlor while they were out. Music. Flowers. Casseroules from all the sympathetic neighbors. The whole nine yards.

LaVon’s cousin Dolly played the angel, who greeted the family at the door, led Yvonne (LaVon’s mom) to the “viewing room,” and informed her that the people gathered there couldn’t hear her anymore because she had “crossed over.”

Yvonne’s own mother—LaVon’s grandmother—gave the eulogy. It was crazy awesome. And Yvonne said she would never forgive us if she lived to be 100—but she said it with a smile on her face, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

That was a l-o-n-g, l-o-n-g, l-o-n-g time ago. So long, in fact, that the Jarhead and I were in college, El Noble was a toddler, and a Princess Primrose had yet to exist.

Then a few years pass and suddenly—BOOM! Along comes May 2016, and within one week I became a 50-year-old mother of the groom with a houseful of relatives, and a wonderful new daughter-in-law.

No mock funerals. No limos. Just a big wonderful, weekend that started with a vintage-themed outdoor wedding on Friday, continued with a picnic and pool party on Saturday, and ended with Alaskan salmon, halibut, and King Crab—flown in by none other than LaVon—on Sunday. It was the best birthday weekend ever. To paraphrase Yvonne: if I live to be 100, I will never forget it.

A few days afterward, I saw a picture of Christie Brinkley on the cover of a magazine where I shop for groceries. The caption read “Christie Brinkley at 62!”

And for a moment, all I could do was blink and look for the word that would complete the headline.

Did it say “dead at 62?” Pregnant at 62? Married at 62? Divorced (again)at 62?

No. Nope. None of the above. It was just a photo of a woman, age 62, and who apparently looks different from what one would expect her to look at the age of 62. That was the headline. Hm.

I won’t bore you with a list of all the thoughts that flew through my head at that moment. Suffice it to say that sexism is alive and well in women’s magazines, because I’ve yet to see a photo of a famous MALE celebrity with a caption that suggests he looks surprisingly good for 62. Again, hm.

But as for 50, it’s pretty great. My mug won’t be gracing the cover of any magazines any time soon, but maybe it will be by the time I’m 62. You never know.

In the meantime, you can see me chatting about books and writing with fellow writers Tom Cannon and Dixie Jarchow on their local cable access show, Author Showcase. To view it, click on the link below.




Drunk History

Several weeks ago, I promised—or threatened, depending on your point of view—to post an entry entitled “One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer (or, How I Survived the Holidays).” I made this promise in part because I’m a fan of George Thorogood, but also because some members of my extended family are somewhat less fond of me than are others, and having at least a small amount of alcohol at hand when visiting those who adore me makes dealing with the passive aggression and simmering hatred of those who don’t just a bit more bearable.

That statement may sound to some like a plea for sympathy—or a cry for help, depending (again) on your point of view. But I assure you: I’m not seeking solace and I don’t have a problem. To be honest, there are just three people on earth who make me so uncomfortable that I need to steel my nerves with drink, and only a couple of others whose company I can’t stand unless I’m practically falling down drunk. The rest of the time, I drink because I want to, of course. Or because of peer pressure. My friends can be quite persuasive, after all. And I have been known to lack a spine now and then.

In case we’re acquainted and you’re wondering if you’re among those who drive me to drink, here’s how to tell: If you’ve ever seen me completely sober and it wasn’t in a school, car, church or synagogue, you’re probably okay. On the other hand, if you’ve ever seen me completely loaded and it WAS in a school, car, church, or synagogue, you may want to work on your attitude or your interpersonal skills. Ditto if you’ve NEVER seen me completely sober—regardless of the location.

Unless we’re both usually drinking, of course. It’s difficult to say what it means—if anything—that we don’t spend a lot of our time together sober. I would hope it’s because we like each other and drinking is part of how we up the blast factor. But even if it’s because you make ME uncomfortable, or because I make YOU uncomfortable, or because we make EACH OTHER uncomfortable, if we’re drinking together, we’re probably having a good time. Or at least a better time than we would otherwise. Either way, it works for us. And as the saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Meanwhile, if you don’t CARE if you’re among those who drive me to drink, that’s cool. It’s also bad karma, but that only matters if you don’t have it to spare. Me, I like to bank as much karma as I can and I prefer to use it sparingly. Which is why, when it comes to people who are routinely and unjustifiably rude or unkind to me, I’d rather have a good time despite them than let it bother me. Because the ruder people are and the nicer I can be in return, the more likely I am to become a bestselling author, and the greater their chances of accidently driving into an icy river and dying of hypothermia. Especially when I’ve given them every chance to tell me what I’ve done to annoy or displease them, and tried everything I can to make amends or win their affection, it doesn’t make sense to keep beating my head against the wall or to continue kissing their backsides.


That being said, I confess I didn’t drink as much or as often as I had expected to do this past holiday season. The upside to that is a hard to spot but the downside is that it left me without a post honoring George Thorogood or his cover of the boozy blues number.

I’d like to say that it’s because the people who drive me to drink are gone from my life but that’s not true. (That’ll probably cost me a few karma points, but my account is still comfortably in the black.) Nor is it true that those people have learned to pretend to like me.

No. The truth is I don’t know why I spent so much more time sober this Christmas than I have in years past. The only plausible explanation I’ve come up with relates to a run in I had with a bottle of gin right before Thanksgiving. I won’t bore you with the details (for a change) but I will sum it up like this: it was better going down than it was coming back up. Although that was far from the first time I’ve found myself looking down the barrel of a trashcan, it is the first time in probably ten years that I’ve done so in the absence of food poisoning or the stomach flu.

So I’m probably feeling a little gun shy when it comes to the drink these days. Sort of like the person who is afraid to get behind the wheel of an automobile after a terrifying car accident, I may have become a bit risk-averse.

But I’ve never been one to let fear rule my life, so if that is in fact the problem, you can bet I will strive to overcome it.

After all, to paraphrase Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, well-behaved women seldom make drunk history.

NOTE: The title of this post pays homage to one of my favorite programs, the hilariously educational Drunk History with Derek Waters. Check it out on Comedy Central, and wherever fine videos are sold!


A Very Special Cat

The topic of today’s post is autism. By that I don’t mean the developmental disorder that affects humans, baffles medical professionals, and warrants serious study and discussion. I mean the mental disorder that afflicts my cat, confounds my friends and family members, and warrants only laughter and derision.

Like people with autism, this cat—whom we call Vlad—is uncomfortable in social situations. Although he will stare out of the window at people and other animals as they make their way along the road that runs along two sides of our property, he heads for the hills the when someone knocks on our door or rings the bell. If he happens to be nearby when a visitor approaches or walks through the front door, he’ll stand frozen in place as if hoping to go unnoticed or pretending to be a sculpture. If he manages to either escape notice or pass himself off as a work of art, he will remain in place until the newcomer moves to another room—when he can slink silently off to watch from behind plant or piece of furniture and await the chance to make a clean getaway.

In addition to being uncomfortable with visitors, Vlad is unnerved by change. Although most cats are rattled to one degree or another by strange smells, sounds, or scenery, Vlad takes fear of the unfamiliar to a level I’ve not seen in any of the 20+ felines I’ve lived with since 1985. When we moved to our current home four years ago, he would pee on virtually any box we opened but did not immediately unpack. In his defense, it was his first and only experience moving, but reloca-phobia doesn’t explain why he wants to dampen every package that comes through the door. Nor does it explain why he doused the Princess’ new boots last fall after she returned from a visit to her grandparent’s home, or why he saturated the lovely baskets I bought to stuff full of wine, chocolates, candles, and other goodies for three of my friends. They say change is hard, but it’s even harder when you’re wired weird.


Also among the many manifestations of Vlad’s feline autism is an avoidance of eye contact. While even unfriendly cats when looked at will stare back at you with a sort of casual disinterest or disdain, Vlad won’t look at your face—never mind your eyes—as long as you are looking at him. This makes it hard to communicate with him, which I guess is the point since he has no interest in any interaction he does not instigate. And while most cats will look at you when you talk to them or call them by name—before ignoring you, scoffing at you, or deigning to move in the direction of your voice—Vlad will do none of the above. From the position of his ears, the terror in his eyes, and the visible tension in his body parts, you will know he hears you and understands your intent—that is, to get him to look at you or join you on the bed or sofa. And you can pretend he’s just being coy or taking his time responding like a snooty celebrity or star athlete on a power trip, but in truth he’s just eyeing all the exits in case you decide to express your interest in him physically, and preparing to initiate countermeasures.

That’s not to suggest he won’t allow anyone to touch him. In fact, Vlad can be quite loving when he wants to be. It’s just that again, it must be of his own volition and at a time and location consistent with his mood. Unfortunately, this usually means five o’clock in the morning or eleven o’clock at night when the Jarhead and I are trying to sleep and can barely make out his long, midnight black body in the dark. If he’s lucky and one of us is awake, he will get the attention he needs. If he’s not, he’ll get gently booted from the bed. If he persists, he may succeed in convincing one of us that it would be easier to pet him and get it over with. Unless, of course, it happens to be a weekend and we have nowhere to be in the morning, in which case one of us will muster the energy to pick him up, set him in the hall, lock the door, and go back to bed.


Now and again, Vlad will visit me during more convenient times, such as when I’m in the bathroom or at my computer, but if it isn’t dark and you’re not busy, you can almost always forget about petting Vlad. This poor guy finds the idea of uninvited physical contact so repulsive that he’s learned to thwart any attempt to touch him almost before you’ve mentally committed to making the effort. Assisting him in avoiding unwanted affection is his coat, which features insanely long and sensitive guard hairs that allow him to feel your aura, and which prompt him to flatten each section of his body from his head to his tail as your hand moves through the air above him.

If he does—by some miracle—allow you to pet him, for God’s sake don’t look at him while you do it. You can look at Vlad or you can pet Vlad but if you try to do both you will overload his circuits and he will bolt. And once he bolts, don’t bother to look for him because you will not find him. The cat is not graceful but he is quiet and patient so he can tuck himself away and avoid detection until you’re sure he has succumbed to dehydration.  Moreover, if you do spot him don’t try to catch him because you’ll fail and, more importantly, your attempts to do so will only drive him deeper under cover. So talk to him without looking at him or touching him. Or pet him without looking at him or talking to him.  But for the love of Mike, never do two of these things at once.


It bears mention here that we don’t always follow this rule ourselves. In fact, although we know it’s wrong to tease the disabled, sometimes we can’t help but tease Vlad. Like when we pet him and tell him how much we WANT to look at him. Or when we look at him and talking about how we would LOVE to pet him. We know it’s unkind to torment the less fortunate, but we simply can’t help ourselves.

Meanwhile, we spoil him just as we do our other cats with love, treats, and catnip. And he shows his appreciation by bringing four to six freshly ‘killed’ bouncy balls, fabric mice, and other prey to our room each night for us to admire when we wake up in the morning.

It occurs to me as I write this that these objects may not be the gifts we’ve taken them to be, but rather warnings of what could happen to us if we don’t watch our step. With that in mind, we may have to change our ways. Because, although I’ve yet to hear of anyone being murdered by their own cat, as I’ve said many times in this very forum, one can never be too careful.

An Emptier Nest

El Noblé has left home. It’s the second time in six years that he has flown the coop but this time I think he means it.

He didn’t take off in a huff, it must be said. Although I’m sure he’s relieved to be on his own again, it wasn’t an unfriendly or unexpected parting.  His work keeps him in another town about 30 minutes away most days, so it made more sense for him to live there than with us, and his new place is only minutes from his office which will allow him to both get a lot more done AND get a lot more sleep. Because he lives and works so close, we still have dinner together about once a week, which is about how often we saw him when he was racing back and forth from our place to his office anyway, so it’s not as if he’s out of our lives completely.

Still, it smarts a little to see him go. I was so happy to have him with us again when he pulled up his stakes on the East coast and moved in 20 months ago, it’s almost harder to say goodbye this time around. Maybe that’s because this time it happened just before the holidays. The last time he moved out was in the spring, and he needed his own place because the Jarhead and I were leaving Pennsylvania to live in Minnesota. At the time he was nineteen and had ties to the Keystone State that left him totally disinterested in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. So essentially we left him behind.

Or maybe it’s harder this time around precisely because he’s the one who’s leaving. Sure, technically he left our house last time, but that was only because we were selling our home and thought it would be better if his stuff was out of the house while it was on the market and/or when the movers came to pack up our things. At that time, I didn’t think I could feel any worse than I did knowing I was leaving my baby boy behind to fend for himself in the big city, but to my surprise, I do.

Or maybe I don’t feel worse than I did then. Maybe it just feels that way because six years have passed since the last time he left. Maybe, like the pain of childbirth, the agony I’m feeling now will go away with time and be replaced with the joy and pride I’m trying to feel knowing he’s ready and able to be on his own again. Maybe in six more years I’ll have helped him to celebrate so many successes that I’ll have forgotten my sadness.

People more experienced than I tell me it will be even harder when the Princess leaves home. They say that, although it’s rough when the oldest leaves, it feels much worse when the youngest one goes; that you feel it acutely when the last one moves on and that nest is truly empty.

I suspect they’re right about all that. I tend to believe them because, although I cried like a baby the morning I walked the eldest to the school bus for his first day of kindergarten, I cried like a baby every morning the week my youngest started school. And while I sobbed when El Noblé learned to ride a bike, got his driver’s license, got his first job, and graduated high school, I was a total basket case as Princess Primrose reached each of these same milestones a few years later.

Now again, there may be reasons for this other than the fact that she is the youngest. Part of it may be that I was so exhausted by her hair raising temper tantrums by the time kindergarten came around, I cried out of a sense of relief that, even if her terrible twos had lasted longer than those of most children, they were now—if for only five or so hours a day—someone else’s problem. And as for the driver’s license, job, and graduation, I know that at least some of my tears can be attributed to the pride and joy I felt over having seen her through to adulthood without having killed her or myself.

Although I may be sad when the time comes, I don’t plan to spend a lot of time worrying about how I’ll react when my youngest child leaves the nest. I say this not because it won’t bring me to tears, or cause me to lose sleep. Rather, I say it because, as it was with going to school, riding a biking, and driving a car, if she has her way, it’s never going to happen.

TV and Reality

Despite rumors to the contrary, TV hasn’t changed much in the past 40 years. Oh, you may hear a few words on the tube that viewers were not allowed to hear back in the seventies—like sex, pregnant, and lesbian—but as far as content goes, things are still pretty much the same.

Take the ABC drama Eight is Enough, which was basically a seventies version of Nineteen Kids and Counting only with better hair, cooler clothes, and about half the cast members. If you don’t know what I mean, I suggest you Google some photos of the Duggar clan, do the math, and then see for yourself whether the threads and coiffures worn by the Bradford family don’t somehow look MORE modern despite having been off the air for more than thirty years. In any case, both shows focus on the adventures of a large family, only instead of taking a bus, an RV, or multiple cars to town, the Bradford brood could travel by station wagon.

Not to brag, but my two brothers and I lived in an eight-child family long before the Bradfords made it to the small screen, thanks to our dad’s marriage to our first step mother, who had five kids. Let the record show that neither of my two step brothers looked a thing like Willie Ames or Grant Goodeve, and my two real brothers are still way cuter than Nicholas ever was. And our stepmother, Betty, looked and acted a lot more like Joan Crawford circa 1949 than Abby Bradford circa 1978.

Unlike Mrs. Bradford, who was a teacher, Betty did not work. I don’t know what she did before she became our step mom, but I suspect she would have made a great reality TV personality given her fondness for snapping her fingers and saying “What Betty wants, Betty gets.”

Actually, even back in the seventies, our version of Eight is Enough would have made for great reality TV. We had the rebellious oldest sister Lori, who ran away from home on a regular basis and once took her two sisters with her. And there was Heidi, who once jumped out of a tree and landed on the chainsaw my dad was using a few feet below her.

And if that wouldn’t make for enough drama, our step siblings were often grounded for committing what Betty referred to as ‘Night Raids.’  These heinous crimes, which involved one or more of her kids sneaking out of their bed(s) in the middle of the night and eating cake, cookies, or whatever dessert was left over from the day before, occurred at least weekly, and led to long, drawn out trials and sentences commensurate with how long it took the accused to fess up.

My brothers and I were never tried nor convicted of such atrocities. I’d like to say this was because we had exceptional criminal minds and were smart enough to either avoid detection or frame our step siblings, but the sad truth is that the three of us would sooner have eaten our own flesh than get out of bed without authorization, since doing so for any reason could earn you a lick or two of Betty’s favorite belt and a sentencing enhancement of no dessert for a week.

Like the TV series, our version of Eight is Enough had a short run. In fact, it was bumped out of its time slot by another drama called Johnson vs. Johnson, which did not star Dustin Hoffman or Meryl Streep but was clearly ahead of its time, having predated the critically acclaimed Kramer vs. Kramer by three years.

Not long after Johnson vs. Johnson ended its run, our dad married a woman with three kids, and my brothers and I got our own version of The Brady Bunch. As was the case with Eight is Enough, the Johnson Bunch differed greatly from the Brady Bunch. For example, we had four girls and two boys instead of three boys and three girls. Second, my brothers and I were all blonde and lovely, while our step siblings were all brunettes and wicked. And third, although I have no way of proving it, I’ll bet neither Mrs. Brady nor the person who inspired her ever sang in a honky tonk or raided their children’s piggy banks in order to pay for a bottle of Coffee Brandy.

Fortunately, the Johnson Bunch ran for fewer seasons than did the Brady Bunch. And while it was followed by several seasons of our version of One Day at a Time and Good Times, living in a single-parent home and/or in the projects with just my dad and two brothers was still better in my view than being part of Enough, or a Bunch of anything.