My Grandmother and the Gas

My grandmother, Nance, was a tiny lady with diamond and emeralds and sapphires on her fingers and a piled-up coiffure of blue-tinted white hair.  She looked as if she should be riding in a horse and buggy, but Nance loved to drive a car.  She always volunteered to chauffeur her non-driving old-lady friends to appointments or shopping trips, and she especially enjoyed a long afternoon spent exploring back roads around the little town where she lived.

Nance had a lot of confidence in her driving ability and in her sense of direction.  She was a very optimistic driver.  She never worried about a flat tire (although I remember more than one) or getting lost (also not uncommon) or about running out of gas.  Especially not the gas.  When the needle stood smack on top of E for empty, she’d drive right past a gas station.  “Oh, we don’t need to stop.  We have plenty of gas to get home on.”

Sometimes we made it back to her house with a few tablespoons of gas still in the very bottom of the tank.  Sometimes we had to coast down all the hills to save gas.  Unfortunately, the southern shore of Lake Ontario is quite flat.  And sometimes we ran out.

Kind motorists would rescue us, or my grandmother would knock on a farmhouse door and borrow the equivalent of a cup of gas for the car.  She always got a scolding from her oldest son, my Uncle Jack, when she let him know what he had been up to.  But after one scary episode that involved a late night, a deserted country road, and a scary watchdog, Uncle Jack was alarmed.

He knew he didn’t have a hope of keeping his mother out of the car, and he didn’t think he’d have much luck breaking her of her no-gas-needed habit.  So he gave her a watchdog of her own:  me.

When we set out on a trip, Uncle Jack would glare at me (as if it was my fault) and say, “Mary Alice, do NOT let your grandmother run out of gas.”  He was a six-foot-tall and intimidating person, and I was seven years old and always a little scared of him, so I’d take up my post in the back seat and watch the gas gauge instead of whatever scenic wonders we were passing.

I’d start feeling nervous when the needle fell below the halfway mark.  Gas stations were rare in the countryside in the 1950s, and I wanted Nance to stop at the first one.  She never gave in willingly, but with a lot of nagging and a few tears, I kept her out of trouble.

Many, many years later I’m married to a man whose motto could be, “We have plenty of gas to get home on.”  And although we’ve coasted down at least one exit ramp to fill an empty tank, we’ve never actually run out of gas.


Sky Watch

I’m going to school in the dark again.  When I leave home at 7 a.m., the sky above my head is middle-of-the-night blue, with stars.  To the east, a faint rim of paler, smoky blue lies behind the still-leafless trees.  Along the way, mist lies heavy and soft in low fields; the stars fade.  When I step out of the car at school, morning is inching up into the sky.  Above the low, shallow bowl of the sports fields, filled with creamy mist, a stripe of soft apricot edges the eastern horizon.  The air is still, no wind. And quiet, no kids yet.  It’s going to be a beautiful day.

An Empty Mind

I’m sitting in my classroom with half an hour before a meeting, and although I’d really love to write an SOL, my mind is empty.  My students must feel like this often, but I need to keep them out of my head for a few minutes.  All the teachers I know (and that’s a lot in 43 years of teaching) are constantly mining their experiences for little nuggets they can carry to school.  Or maybe we’re constantly searching for worms and grubs of experience to stuff into the craws of our students.

One of my goals for this year is to create for myself, not for classroom usefulness.  But it’s hard.  Right now, I’d tell a student in my barren state of mind to look at the “life map” in the back of her writer’s notebook.  And I could certainly do that and write for a while about knitting, or cherries, or my sons, or New York City.

But that’s not what I want today.  I want something unique and personal, an idea I haven’t been carrying around in the back of my notebook for years.  I want to open up a new thought like opening a present.  Where should I go, though, to find one?


It’s Sunday morning in our two-teacher household.  And Sunday morning around our house means schoolwork.  My husband is back in his study, hammering out comments for his third-quarter seniors.  I’m at the dining room table, ready to give my grades for the quarter a last look before I press the button to load them into report cards.  But I’m sharing my space with the next job on the list:  ironing.

I love to iron, the same way I love to cut grass.  It’s the very opposite of most housework, where the “after” looks pretty much like the “before.”  Out of two big heaps of wrinkles and creases and crumples, I can create smooth order.

I love the sounds of ironing.  I pour water into the iron and wait a few seconds for the hiss and burble that tells me it’s heating up.  I even love the curvy French lemonade bottle I use to fill the iron.

I love the smell of ironing.  Warm cotton smells like toast.  It’s the scent of comfort and neatness, a little swatch of perfection in a messy world.

I love the colors of ironing.  Under my iron today will pass checks and stripes and pink flowers, soft denim and crisp poplin, cherry red and lavender and blue.

In an hour or so, I’ll be done.  The clothes will hang, smooth and ready, in the closets.  I’ll feel a bit smoother and more ready too.  Bring on crazy Monday.  I can deal with it.

There are slices and slices

Some days my slice of life feels thick and juicy, like the hefty cross-section of an orange in the SOL logo.  Some days, it’s more like wafer-thin ham from the deli, so insubstantial it crumples up on its own.  That’s how I feel today — not enough of me to go around.

Last night our local library sponsored a panel discussion by three people who work in children’s book publishing; the consensus of the panel was that anyone can become a published writer if he/she will commit to the work.  Inspiring, huh?

So today I decided to make time to work on the manuscript of the novel I wrote last November for NaNoWriMo.  It’s my practice piece; I’m trying to teach myself all the steps of novel writing on this project, which I’ll then hide in my closet while I try to transfer the skills to another, possibly marketable project.  Of course, in the meantime I’ve gotten attached to my characters and am having fun adding and rewriting scenes.  I’ve never found revision fun before, but I can while away a lot of time on this project.

Today I was determined to add some revisions to a scene, but I sat down at my laptop as if I were taking a keyboarding speed test, just trying to get that slice of my day done so I could . . . well, clean house, take the recycling, do my SOL, pick up prescriptions — a lot of little slices that, taken together, don’t amount to anything.

Tomorrow will be better!

I Love . . .

I’m really crazy about my children.  I think about them and worry about them a lot, even though  they’re all grown men.  (The youngest is 32!)  My husband and I spend a lot of time reminiscing about things they did when they were younger — maybe too much?

I love cities!  Truthfully, I’m not too crazy about nature, but I love looking at all the things people can make.  I love to walk along a city street, windowshopping and enjoying the buildings and gardens.  In Charleston, I like to peek into people’s windows.

I love to read.  I’m not comfortable unless I have a few books going at a time.  I have books stashed all over my house.  I read when I’m doing dishes.  I read when I’m knitting.  I read when I’m brushing my teeth!

I love my house.  It’s over a hundred years old.  We have high ceilings and pine floors and big rooms.  We have a screened porch where we eat dinner every night from April to October and a deck that’s like a treehouse.  We have big old windows and a big yard full of trees.  We’ve lived in this house for forty years.  First it was empty, then we filled it with three kids and their friends, then it emptied out again.  Now it’s just the two of us again.

Balloon War

I adore water balloons!  I love the way they shift and sag in your hands like friendly jellyfish.  I love their danger:  the balloon skin barely holds in the water.  You know you could get drenched any second.  I love the rubber stretched so thin that light can almost pass through it.  I love the heft of a big water balloon.  Think:  your hands are full of water!  It’s impossible.  But for a few minutes, it’s true.

I love filling water balloons on a hot day.  Water splashes over you and soaks you while you’re standing at the tap trying to fit the tiny neck of the balloon over the wide rim of the faucet.  I love carrying water balloons out on the deck, raising them high over my head, and dropping them twelve feet to the grass below with a thud and a splash.  I love getting struck by a water balloon.  Cool water soaks into my T shirt and beads up on my skin.

Only one thing I don’t like about water balloons:  picking up their sad, skinny, pink and blue and orange rubber corpses when the balloon war has ended.

Desks, Imagined and Other

I should be sitting at my desk in my classroom, but I’m huddled over a student desk because it’s a better spot to plug my laptop into all its little helpers (document camera, TV screen).  I’m contemplating desks because I have some long-lasting fantasies about them.

My fantasy desk is polished wood.  Its glossy surface reflects the slender glass vase with a single fresh flower.  Today I’ve chosen a pheasant-eye narcissus from the garden I can see outside my window.  A flowered china cup holds a fountain pen and a few razor-sharp pencils with pristine erasers.  A leather-bound notebook (blank pages, please) awaits my thoughts.  A banker’s lamp with a green glass shade sheds a spotlight on the space where I take up my pen and . . .

My real desk is a round table with a woodgrained plastic top.  At this moment, it contains: a coffee cup (empty) and a water glass (also empty), two black and white composition books, a clipboard of reading records, 7 file folders stuffed with my life’s necessities, a three-ring binder, a cup of pencils (mostly without erasers because those are the ones I pick up off the floor), a cup of pens and highlighters, a book of Mad Libs, a red leather box of post-it notes, a glass paperweight, and a tiny painting of Westminster Abbey.  There may be more underneath, but you get the picture.

Guess which desk I like better?

A Sunday Slice

It’s Sunday afternoon in South Carolina:  blue skies, sunshine, a crock of daffodils on the dining room table where I’m working.  Spring is here, for at least part of every day; we wake up to temperatures low enough to ice the windshield, and by afternoon we’re thinking about turning on the air conditioning.

I spent the morning reading my students’ memoir drafts.  They’ve been working hard, and they’ve done some terrific writing.  Best of all, they are wonderful writing teachers for each other.  I keep finding little pencil notes in the margins, one student congratulating another on a turn of phrase, suggesting a better word, gently asking for more detail about some point.

We’ve been practicing “Silent Share” all year:  whenever we finish a piece, I collect all of the papers from both 6th grade sections.  Students pull out a stack of sticky notes and read each other’s work, leaving a personal, specific, positive comment for the writer.  I think these notes have helped them be specific and thoughtful when they read each other’s drafts.

Now to do the same for myself.