Rainy Day Dominoes

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It was raining yesterday morning when my wife  and I left the house for our round of Saturday errands.  We decided to stop at a doughnut shop.  After being served we took our sugary treats and coffee to a table where we settled into reading the newspaper.  In the background were the sounds of the bustling enterprise, and the conversations of families with children.  

Putting down a section of the paper I looked up to see a couple at the next table engaged in a game of dominoes.  As I watched, their interactions took me back seventy or so years to domino games with my Grandpa Harris.  He had a Double Nine set and always seemed ready to challenge me to a few matches whenever I visited.    

At the time, we lived in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati.  Grandpa and Grandma Harris lived fifty miles east at Mowrystown.  He had a 16-acre farm where he rented out land to neighbors for grazing or raising crops.  He also kept some chickens and a milk cow, and had a pond where he taught me to fish.  A field behind the barn was perfect for flying kites on windy days.  

Several summers my folks dropped me off for a two-week “vacation” there.  I spent hours of free-range imagination time on a swing grandpa put on the branch of a large tree outside the kitchen.  We fished with a bamboo pole he made for me.  Sometimes we went shopping or took a picnic lunch and visited the Native American burial mounds.  But the thing I always enjoyed most were the domino games.

We’d start out vying for who had the highest number of dots on a single tile in order to go first.  We built roadways of linking numbers across the table, always looking for the double nine and a chance to play it.  We laughed at each other when we had no usable tiles and had to raid the “bone pile.”  It was fun.  I never tired of it, and it seemed, neither did he.

All of this came back to me in the doughnut shop Saturday.  It was obvious from their conversation that the man was playing dominoes with his grandmother.  In our hurried world, it seems rare to find someone unhurriedly and gently nurturing a caring relationship with a simple game at a table.  The rain poured outside, but the sun shone inside.

I spoke to the couple, “Would you mind if I take your picture?”

“No, go ahead.”

I did, and then asked if they would mind me sharing it on Facebook.

He said “No.”

Soon after that we gathered our papers and got up to leave.  I thanked them for sharing a little of their world with us.  He looked up and smiled…Grandma matched her six to the six on one of his tiles.  We waved goodbye.

Maybe we could all use a few more rainy day domino moments in our busy lives.

    

 

Clouds of Confusion

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Sometimes I feel bombarded by clouds of confusion that masquerade as communication.  It happens on those morning talk shows where co-hosts engage each other or guests in trivialities with increasing volume.  One speaks, the other interrupts to shift the focus, two or more people talking past each other.  Sound bullets fly randomly through the airwaves, striking unknown listener targets. 

I recall a live fire exercise during my army basic training.   Walking through a field with loaded M-1 rifles (I know, I’m an old guy!)  we were to fire at pop up targets when they appeared.  On one occasion a  guy behind me fired without a clear view of the target.  I actually heard the bullet whiz past my helmet.  The training sergeant chewed him out and a moment of confusion became an occasion for clarification.

Sometimes our words are like that bullet, flying right past someone’s ear.  Words aimed for effect, not connection.  Sound bytes rather than discourse.  One-up-manship.  Nobody listening.  Nobody framing fresh insights from cognitive clarity.  Perhaps this is the new normal for conversation.  We talk past each other.  We listen only to ourselves and our own thoughts.  We trade words and miss relationships.

For several years my wife and I have enjoyed Saturday breakfast at a local fast food restaurant.  We take our newspaper and read it while we eat.  Recent renovations resulted in digital kiosks where the staff prefers customers place their orders.  I tried it once, but found I still had to get in line at the counter to pay with cash.  So, I still go to the counter to place my order.

One Saturday when I stepped up it felt like the clerk dismissed my words.  She pointed to the kiosk.  “You can order over there.”

I replied, “Actually, I’d rather…”

“I can show you how to use it.”

I began to explain why I preferred ordering at the counter.  Mid-sentence she broke in, “It will take your card.”

“I understand that, but….”

Impatiently she interrupted again.  “It’ll take your debit card.”

Now I was the one getting impatient.  “Look, I just want to place my order here.”

With an exasperated expression she said,  “So, what do you want?” 

She entered my order in the computer.  I handed her the cash, and she gave me my receipt and a placard with a number on it.  “Put this on the table.  We’ll bring it to you.”

I went to the table and began reading the newspaper.  In the background I heard various numbers called as they brought orders out.   Suddenly I realized we should have been served by now, so I went back to the counter.

“Excuse me, can you check on my order?”

With a blank expression and flat tone she said, “You’ll have to get in line, Sir.”

I dutifully worked my way back up to the counter and handed her my receipt.  She took it, disappeared for several minutes, then returned.  “Your order was served.”

“I’m sorry, but it wasn’t.”

With a sigh, “They brought it out and called your number, but you didn’t respond.  They thought you’d left.”

“Perhaps I didn’t hear it then, but the placard was on the table in plain…”

“Your order was served,” she said, looking past me to the next customer.’

“May I speak to your manager?”

She abruptly left the register and returned saying, “What did you order?  We’ll do it over.”

I told her and she replaced the order, got it filled and handed it to me on a tray.  When I got to the table my wife noticed one of her items was missing.  Reluctantly I returned to the clerk who was methodically directing customers to the kiosks.  She gave me a bored look, then went and got the item.  As I took it back to the table another server approached, handing me a tray with the same thing.”

I smiled and pointed to my tray.  “Thanks, but we have everything now.”

Looking past me she said, “This is yours.”

“But I already have my order.”

“We owe you this because you didn’t get your order.”

And so it went.

Sometimes I find a lot of conversations going this way.  It’s like we’ve become a computer-programmed population of people who no longer connect brain with tongue.  We rattle off our word bullets randomly, primed by programmed responses, never connecting.  Then I wonder, is anybody really listening?  Do we ever really hear each other?

Perhaps the problem is that we’ve allowed ourselves to be programmed into the stratosphere of digital responses.  Desensitized, we’ve become lost in clouds of confusion.   I wish sarge was here…maybe he could restore some clarity.

 

 

A Cozy Timelessness

Remembering the life of Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016

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“Missy, you’re gonna wear that swing out,” called Mary Ellen’s mother from the kitchen.  “I need you to set this table.”

“I’m coming!”

At age ten chores were an interruption in her imaginative world, but Mary Ellen dutifully slid off the porch swing and slammed the screen door as she entered the house.

Her mother turned from the stove, hands on her hips.  “Do you have to slam that door?  I’ve asked you a million times not to do that.”

“I’m sorry.  I forgot.”

Her mother shook her head.  “Well, I hope you haven’t forgotten how to set the table.”

“No, Ma’am.”  Mary got to work.

Decades earlier what was now the kitchen had been the Townsend family’s original log cabin.  It had gradually been expanded to include a dining room and parlor on the first floor, and three bedrooms upstairs.  The kitchen was arranged around a table with chairs in the center, and cupboards, a wood stove, an ice box, and a sink against the surrounding walls.  To Mary Ellen there was a cozy timelessness about this room that she liked–even though it was uncomfortably hot when the wood stove was fired up.

Mary had learned to give her mom space when her words grew abrupt or short.  Her mother’s maiden name had been Merle Kemp Smith, and she had some Irish blood in her.  She often told the children stories about her mother, Romina, who had come to America from Ireland.  Her father was a doctor, which became an important connection when Merle came down with tuberculosis.

A family friend, Dr. William Savage, was studying to become a surgeon..  He was one of several doctors who were exploring a theory about using ether to treat TB.  Merle’s case gave him the opportunity to test the theory.  He periodically administered either through a face cone, spacing treatments with rest periods.  It took a long time, but Merle recovered with only some scar tissue in her lungs.  There were no lasting effects beyond that.  She went on to give birth to her youngest boy, Bud, and learned to drive a car.  She became active in organizations like the church, Mother’s Club (a forerunner to the PTA), and the Order of the Eastern Star.  Her husband, Elmer, came to refer to her as a “joiner.”  She would live to be eighty-nine.

The TB experience spanned an entire year.  Elmer built a sleeping porch on the back of the house to isolate his wife.  She stayed there day and night, sleeping in a hooded, down-lined sleeping bag on a twin bed.  Elmer slept on the other bed to be available if she needed something during the night.  The room had screened windows on three sides, with heavy canvas blinds that were rolled down when it rained hard and during the winter months.  All of that had been a harrowing time that Mary knew she would remember clearly for the rest of her life.

 Having life centered around TB didn’t prevent Merle’s children from being normal kids.  Mary Ellen’s sister, Helen was a typical sixteen-year-old.  She had an attitude that seemed to put her in conflict with people around her, especially her mother.  To her family this was balanced by the fact that she had developed rheumatic fever at age three which resulted in having to wear a brace to walk for eight years.  Mary thought that had a lot to do with her attitudes.  Helen wasn’t around much now.  She had a boyfriend down the road and spent a lot of time there.

Mary’s twin brothers, John and Gene, were fifteen and created frequent havoc with their behavior.  They had jobs caddying for golfers at the country club where their father was a member.  Merle felt they spent too much time at the clubhouse picking up bad ideas and habits.  Mary thought that was probably right.  The two boys seemed to stay away from the house as much as possible.

Mary felt a close bond with her younger brother, Bud.  He often became her charge..  While she hated doing household chores, she never rebelled about caring for Bud.  At age three he had developed a serious illness.  It was during a time when the family enjoyed trips to a wicket dam called Fernbank on the Ohio River near Cincinnati.  It had been constructed the year Mary was born, 1911, to deepen the water channel for navigation.  Families visited the dam and children loved to drink from a public water fountain with a pedal you stepped on to make the water flow.  Mary’s parents became convinced that Bud got sick from that fountain.

The doctor disagreed.  The family had a well outside the kitchen with a bucket they used to pull water up from an underground source.  The doctor had the well tested and found it was filled with bacteria.  The well was closed and Bud recovered–Mary Ellen said–without becoming bossy like his sister, Helen.

Mary set the table as asked, then her mother sent her into the parlor where Bud was playing on the floor with a metal farm set.  She picked up a toy chicken.  “Well, well, you forgot to lock up your chickens.”

“No, I didn’t!”

He grabbed for it.

“Time to put everybody in the barn so we can eat supper.”  Mary made a game out of playfully helping Bud put away his toys, then took him to the sink and washed his hands.  Helen came in and helped her mother serve the plates, then they settled into eating.  Merle had fixed Mary’s favorite dish–vegetable beef soup.”

“Ugh!  Not this again,” said Helen in a sulking mood.

“It’s good for you and you’ll eat it, young lady!”

“I like it,” said Mary.

Helen made a face at her.

“Now, children, that’s enough of that,” said their mother.  “I think I smell a rhubarb pie in the oven.  Everybody who finishes their soup gets a piece of pie.”  She looked at Helen.  “If you don’t finish…no pie.”

That resolved the soup issue.

Mary’s dad came in after dinner was over.  She ran to him.  She loved hugging him around his legs.  He reached down and had her put her feet on his shoes, then walked her around the room.  She wished he could work there on the farm instead of at the dairy downtown.  She wanted to be with him more often.  Elmer’s job required so much time that he frequently left for work before Mary got up, and came home after she was in bed.

This particular night Mary Ellen was glad her daddy had gotten home a bit early.  When he tucked her in bed she fell asleep with pleasant thoughts to round out an adventuresome day.  For the dairyman’s daughter, life could not have felt more comfortable.  She had learned to adapt to challenges, knew when to stay in the background, and was quite adept at simply being herself.  Mary Ellen couldn’t imagine that things would ever really change.

She could never have dreamed that thirty years later she would have her own kitchen in a farmhouse in Virginia that would remind her of the cozy timelessness she felt at age ten in her mother’s kitchen!

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(An excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter,” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

A Conversational Door

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I’ve had a lot of fun at book store signings asking people as they walk by, “What are you reading these days?”  As you can imagine, I get a lot of different answers.

Some will stop with an expression that lights up their face. They’ll mention a book title or an author.  Usually that’s enough to strike up a conversation that is mutually satisfying.

When I asked one man what he was reading, he looked at me as though with x-ray eyes, searching for my thoughts behind my words.  He countered my question without looking at the books or display.

“What are you writing?”

“Christian fiction.”

His brow clouded.  “What does that mean?”

“It means my faith is central to how I understand life, people, things that happen.  I build a story around that, offering it to folks for entertainment, and maybe more.  Maybe someone will find encouragement or hope through my faith perspective.”

“Ah, that’s not for me.  I’m an agnostic.”  He waved his hand as he started turning away.

I shrugged.  “That’s your faith perspective.”

He turned back toward me.  “No, I don’t have a faith.  I don’t believe in a god or any of that.  I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t work for me.”

“Then your faith perspective is that life is hopelessly confusing and without purpose.  It’s all pure chance, or maybe unknowable.  I don’t believe that, so I write from a different perspective.”

He picked up a copy of A Change of Heart and thumbed through it.  “Nah, that’s not for me.”  He put it back on the table.

I reached to shake his hand.  “Maybe not.  Maybe it will be later.  Have a blessed day.”

As he walked away he said over his shoulder, “You, too.”

That was a surprise, perhaps to both of us.  It’s one of the fascinating conversations when I asked “What are you reading these days?”  There have been responses quite the opposite.  Some people have answered very quickly, without even pausing, “The Bible!  That’s all I need!”

Bang!

Gone!

If given a chance I might mention that each of my books is built around a Bible passage.  Sometimes in conversation I reveal that I’m a retired pastor and an artist.  I write from the worlds I know from my own experience.

I believe a book is always a form of conversation.  I write fiction because it gives me the freedom to structure interaction with people around situations, personalities, circumstances, and often decisions that are deeply personal.  All my life I have found in fiction a pathway for validation of my own experiences and reflections in life.  I hope I can help that happen for others.

“What are you reading these days?”  I think I’ll keep asking the question.  There’s nothing like sharing a good read to open a conversational door.  Oh, and often the conversation sells a book or two!