Thursday, October 30, 2008

Grandma’s ghosts

In honor of Halloween, pull up a comfy chair, fix yourself a cup of hot cider, roast some marshmallows for s’mores, and I’ll tell you a true ghost story.


When I was about 10 years old, Grandma’s neighborhood was going downhill. She was considering selling her house, encouraged by my dad and my aunt, who wanted her to live somewhere safer. But Grandma was dragging her feet about the move. She'd raised my dad and my aunt in that house. My grandfather had died in that house. It was her home.

When a man bit off a policeman’s ear in Grandma’s front yard, she decided it was time to go. She sold her house and moved to a “better” neighborhood. The next month, when she was out of town for the weekend, her house in the better neighborhood was robbed. She came home to find they’d taken everything. The refrigerator stood open, and the food was gone; drawers were missing from the dressers; the handmade antique clock that had marked time on her mantle for years had disappeared; clothes, jewelry, sheets and towels had to be bought new.

But when we went to see Grandma a few months later (we lived in Alabama, she lived in North Carolina) she seemed to be doing well in her new house. She’d replaced her stuff and met her neighbors. And when she tucked my sister Susan and me in bed that first night, she said, “I’m going to tell you girls a true ghost story tonight.”

Grandma turned out the lights and sat down on the end of the bed. “Now, you know how I didn’t want to move out of my old house?” she asked.


“It’s not just because I loved the house,” she said. “It’s because your grandpop visited me there.”

Susan and I snuggled deeper under the covers. Grandpop died when I was six. How could he visit?

“Many times since he died, he’d come to see me in the night,” Grandma said. “He’d sit down on the end of the bed, kind of like I'm doing now, and ask me how I was. Then he’d tell me he was watching out for me. I’d fall asleep with him by my side.

“I was afraid that if I moved, Grandpop wouldn’t be able to find me,” she continued. “Since he died in the house, I thought maybe he couldn’t leave there. I didn’t know how being a ghost worked.”

Susan and I scooted closer together. We didn’t know how being a ghost worked either.

“Then I moved here. I got robbed, and I didn’t know the neighbors, and I was really lonely. And your grandpop didn’t visit me,” she whispered.

We scooted closer to Grandma, whose huge smile showed up even in the dark bedroom..

“Then about a month ago I was in bed. I looked up and there was your grandpop standing in the door to the bedroom.” She turned toward the door, almost as if she could still see him standing there.

“He sat down on the side of the bed, patted my leg and said, ‘Don’t worry about moving. Wherever you go, I’ll always find you. He’s been back to see me two or three times since then. And I’ve met some really nice neighbors. And I got all new stuff. “ She rubbed the new sheets through her fingers. “I think I’m going to like it here.”

As I grew up, I didn’t think about Grandma’s ghost story very often. I knew she believed, but I’d never seen a ghost and wasn’t sure I believed. Grandma died a few years back. Not long after her death, I was in bed, thinking about her, and there she was, in the doorway to our bedroom.

She sat down next to me, patted my leg and said, “Don’t worry about me. I'm fine, and I’m looking out for you. Wherever you go, I’ll always find you.”

What I want to be when I grow up

This opinionated, this funny and this eloquent. There's some discussion in the comments about whether or not the bloggers really are in their 80s, but maybe that's beside the point. Given the number of hits and comments they're getting, they've struck a chord with a lot of people.

Meet Margaret and Helen.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Donkey with a death wish

At the edge of the caldera, in the tiny town of Fira, on Santorini, my sister, Susan, and I peered out at the Agean Sea, marveling at a blue they created just for Greece. Our eyes traveled to donkeys ferrying people and things up from the boats docked at the old port below.


I don’t remember which of us thought it would be fun to hike the zigzagged path to the port, then ride a donkey back up, but it was a terrible, scary, asinine, stupid idea.

It was still fairly early in the morning when we started down the thousands of wide, uneven, cobblestone, horror-movie steps. But the sun that beat on the island in August didn't have a clock. We'd finished our water and worked up a sweat before we hit the half-way point.

At the port we poked into gift shops, bought a couple of trinkets and drank more water before seeking out our animal transport. We climbed a few steps, handed over our money and sat down on the next donkey that waited beside the top step.


A mother and her two teenage sons from Germany led our group, next Susan climbed aboard her ride. Our guide, a loose term since the donkeys all seemed to know the way to the top, would follow me. I watched Susan and the German family amble away as I sat down on the donkey from hell.

Before I could get a grip on the saddle horn, my donkey launched himself like a rocket. He aimed for the first zig in the zigzag path, slammed to a stop at the knee-high-to-a-donkey wall that bordered the path, hung his head over the wall giving me a donkey's-eye view of the edge of world, then turned sharply as if to scrape me off his back along the cliff, and raced to the next zag in the path. I clutched the saddle horn, my water bottle and my camera, with which I’d assumed I would take pictures from the back of the donkey, with one hand. The other hand held my hat on my head.

Moving at a gallop, we passed Susan on the second straight stretch. Her donkey strolled at a pace that allowed her to take pictures, enjoy the view, sip from her water bottle and laugh as I flew by on the demon. Once again, as he did at every zigzag in the path, the donkey stepped on the brakes with such force that I thought I’d be pitched over his head and crash to the rocks below.

On the third straightaway we passed the German family, who turned completely around on their nice, calm donkeys to point and laugh as the demon and I barreled by, doing what for a donkey must have been Mach 1.

Susan shouted from miles behind, “Take my picture. Turn around and take my picture.” Then she cackled, knowing there would be no turning around, no pictures on her placid critter as a reminder of how she’d lost her only sister in Greece: Death by donkey.

The demon slammed to its final (for my ride anyway. Despite its many attempts, it didn’t kill itself.) halt at the top of the path long before anyone else in our group rounded the last turn.

The Greek “guide” began to scream at me as he turned the final corner. I believe he was telling me to get off the donkey, but he was screaming in Greek, so I wasn't sure. And it didn’t matter. I couldn’t move. Somewhere around the fifth zig or zag, I had become one with the creature.

I sat, facing the cliff wall, trying to remember how to breathe, as Susan joined the yelling of the donkey man. “Take my picture, now. You’re sitting still, take it now.”

I managed to let go of my hat, grab the water bottle and saddle horn with one hand, my camera with the other and do as she asked. But I couldn’t turn. It was as if my butt was glued to that donkey. I aimed the camera behind me and without looking I took this awful picture.


Serves her right for laughing at my donkey with a death wish.

Don't forget to visit Angela Nickerson’s blog, Just Go. She's got goodie bags! From there you can visit other participating blogs.

Halloween Blogapalooza

flying pumpkin

I've been too busy to blog lately, but this week I'm going to try to make up for it.

Tomorrow I'm part of a blogapalooza put together by Angela Nickerson at her travel blog Just Go. Participating blogs will all have stories about a harrowing journey, just in time for Halloween. She's also got goodie bags to give away to several lucky comment-leaving Trick or Treaters.

My post is about a ride on a "Donkey with a Death Wish." Check back tomorrow for that and hit Just Go for more on the goodie bags and to see who else has had a harrowing journey.

On Friday, in honor of the spooky day, I'll post a true ghost story about my grandmother, called, appropriately enough, "Grandma's Ghosts."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Little & cute, then what?

When my nephews were little and cute, I can remember wondering if I'd still love them when they got to be big. What if they grew up and weren't any fun? What if they were mean? What if they were boring? I wasn't even going to venture into what if they became ax murderers, or worse. I was just worried about not liking them.

They are now 14, 11 and 9, teetering between childhood and adulthood. When I called their house last week, Eli, the 14-year-old, answered, and because they have caller ID, he launched immediately into, "Aunt Karen, there's an air show this weekend. Don't you want to go?"

Since Chris (my non-workaholic, he says, but constantly working husband) had to work, and my sister and her husband viewed this as an opportunity to ditch their offspring for a few hours, I took them on my own. The day was beautiful, sunny and warm, but not hot.

We rode a shuttle bus that arrived at the show just in time for us to see the F-22 Raptor through the bus windows. WOW! What a show that plane (that flies undetected by radar, so Eli tells me) put on. Stalls, flying straight up and straight down until I was sure it was going to crash into the crowd of people, then "walking" on its tail--its body vertical, but moving forward.

Next was an aerobatic bi-plane. The youngest nephew's favorite--he's into all things old right now. Lots of loops and spins and falls straight down, too.

Meanwhile, we also got to climb on and in a C-130, a C-5, and lots of smaller planes, including a "mosquito"--some World War II trainer--where the boys were allowed to sit in the cockpit, while a very nice, patient man told them all about how the controls work.

The grand finale: the Thunderbirds.

But what I loved the most was watching Eli be the leader. "Come one, Aunt Karen (because the younger boys followed wherever Eli led). We'll be able to see better over here." And watching the youngest one make his own fun. The noise of the planes and the sun shining in his eyes as he stared straight up got to be too much after awhile. So he sat in the grass and made a "whip" by tying together long, straight weeds. And the middle nephew was what he almost always is, interested in the planes, eager to see everything, and cracking funny jokes.

I've eased up a little on my worry that they'll grow up and I won't like them anymore.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Attack of the love bugs

Okay, it’s a stretch to tie a lovely wedding to the mess that’s all over my car, but since they both involved love and I have pictures, I thought I’d give it a shot. Sometimes you need a challenge.

So, in chronological order: Attack of the love bugs, Part I

I drove from my house north of Atlanta to south-central Georgia a couple of weeks ago. I write about economic development (an elusive concept these days) in various Georgia counties for Georgia Trend magazine and was headed off to learn all there was to know about Coffee County. The first thing I learned is that to get there in late September you have to drive through the mating love bugs. Not only do they swarm so disgustingly that you can hardly see to drive through them, but they dry on the car in an instant. Then it takes dynamite and a crowbar to get the nasty bits off.


I fretted a little about not making a professional impression, what with my car looking like a giant had upchucked on it. But at least two out of three cars in that area looked just like mine—or worse. Two weeks later, following a car wash and several windshield washings, I can almost see clearly through the glass again, though bits of love-bug goo remain to remind me of my trip.

Attack of the love bugs, Part II

This was less an attack than a romantic encounter. We went to the Wedding at the Farm this past weekend. Friends of ours, Shannon Wilder and Curtis Johnson, got married at her family’s farm near Gadsden, Alabama.


The wedding itself took place in a grove of pecan trees that seemed to have been planted years ago for just such an occasion. The space between them created an outdoor chapel with the sun peeking through the leaves. Following the ceremony, the guests all wandered across the country road to the tractor shed where the sweet smell of barbeque drifted on the sounds of live music and the laughter of kids and adults. We could all see why it was the bride’s “favorite place in the whole world” and the place where she wanted to declare before friends and family that the love bug had attacked.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Once upon a time ...

Every eye in the tent was on the woman sitting on a stool on a bare wooden stage talking about how she’d have lost her virginity if only the police hadn’t interrupted at a crucial moment the carefully researched and staged event. No one gasped or tut-tutted at the indelicate subject matter. We were too busy wiping the tears of laughter that ran from our eyes. Beth Horner, the virgin under discussion, was followed by Bil Lepp, who told us about how one of his college buddies, Paul, had built a submarine in his dorm room their senior year. The sub was so big they had to blast a hole in the dorm wall to get the pig-pink contraption out. (Bil won the West Virginia State liar's contest several years running.)

The National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, which comes up the first weekend of October each year, is like sitting around the Thanksgiving table enjoying a feast of the best family stories—with 20,000 of your closest friends and assuming your family includes the likes of matriarch Kathryn Windham, who barely leaned on her cane as she described her 90th birthday party this past summer, complete with comb chorus and a parade through downtown Selma, Ala.

Then there’s cousin Andy Offutt Irwin, you know, the weird kid who grew up to be the one everybody wanted to sit next to at dinner. Andy told about Aunt Marguerite, the 85-year-old founder of the Southern White Old Ladies Hospital, then Andy and his band, the Finger Monsters, played a song about his girlfriend Clarice who was a member of the Klan, and wouldn’t leave it, even for love. (That’s not clan like she was a family member, but Klan like the KKK.) We were all too busy laughing at the song to worry about whether or not it was politically correct for two African-American women to be singing backup on such a tune.

You know how some of your relatives are. Despite hearing from birth that it’s not polite to discuss religion, money or politics, some people just can’t help themselves. John McCutcheon is one who mixes all of the above with his music and stories, making most of the audience laugh and think at the same time. (Not to mention swoon. My mom and my aunt would have followed him home if I hadn’t been there to remind them that they’re both already married.)

While the National Storytelling Festival is like the Thanksgiving table of festivals, with its variety of the best the storytelling community has to offer stuffed down your throat until you think you can’t take another bite, smaller, kitchen-table festivals can be found all over the country. Just Google storytelling festival and your state, you’ll find something. Or visit storytellers’ web sites, where you’ll find links to their tour schedules. You can try just a taste of storytelling, rather than stuffing yourself at first with an entire feast.