True South

Dog Days of Winter

Because, well, outside dog

By Susan S. Kelly

You knew that sooner or later, there’d be a column on dogs. February may seem a strange choice, but when it comes to my dog — a black Lab named Babe — it’s appropriate, because February is a cold, dreary month, and I get a lot of grief about Babe because she’s always outside, no matter the weather. Listen, you strollers and walkers and joggers and drive-bys: She is an outside dog.

My husband and I had a knockdown drag-out about this years ago, with a different Lab, named Sis; so much so that I called the vet to find out the facts. “A Lab is made for cold weather,” he said. “They can go down to 2 degrees.”

We’ve tried, I promise. We’ve had the wooden doghouse, with the cedar shavings inside. We’ve bought the expensive plastic “Igloo” house, outfitted it with towels and more cedar shavings, pitched bones and peanut butter-coated chew toys inside. We’ve put a fluffy bed inside the tool shed, next to the water heater, and left the door open so she can come and go. We’ve tried dragging her indoors by her collar.

But . . . no dice. Babe has extreme canine FOMO. Babe is like Ariel in The Little Mermaid: She wants to be where the people are. The mailman. The UPS guy. The garbage men. The yard armies. And especially the dog walkers. They know her by name. They bring treats. They let their dogs off leashes so they can rodeo around the front yard with Babe. One dog walker, whose name I’ve never known, moved from the neighborhood but still drives over weekly and brings her French bulldog specifically to hang out with Babe.

Babe has more friends than I do. I have to give them Christmas presents. My husband’s daily walks with her around a six-block radius is so regular, making Babe so familiar, that when he’s out of town, and I’m left with the walking task, people stop and ask me if my husband is sick. Babe doesn’t want to go to the dog Hilton if we go out of town. Besides, a legion of neighborhood kids have depended on Babe’s needs for adolescent income.

Of course, having an outside dog, especially if the dog is a will-eat-anything Lab, has its problems. Collateral damage, if you will. The French drains, chewed to plastic bits, piled in the monkey grass? Dog. The screen door whose lower half is brown from fur dirt? Dog. The terrace furniture cushions, whose corners are raveled and spilling upholstery guts? Dog. The dirt clods scattered all over the driveway/front walk from a recent dig? Dog. The Pieris japonica shrub in death throes with a hollowed-out cavity at its root base? Dog, seeking shade from the summer sun. The multitude of slobber-encrusted, thread-dangling knotted ropes and bristle-bones and otherwise unrecognizable pet toys in the natural area/driveway/patio? Dog. Never mind the ruined hoses, which look like 20 yards of bubblegum to an outside dog. Because you can have a decent yard, or you can have an outside dog, but not both.

Same applies to packages. A neighbor called to report that the front yard was dotted with scraps of blue fabric and bubble wrap. That was my Rent-the-Runway dress for a black tie party. (Despite a dangling cap sleeve, I wore it anyway.) The teeth marks all over the $2-per-card stationery. The borrowed-and-returned books with no covers left on them — hardback and paperback. I need a delivery drone that aims for chimneys instead of doors. And if you are delivering, watch where you place your feet, because . . . dog. Go, Dog, Go.  And they do. Anywhere. Everywhere.

Through five decades of dogs, I’ve always wanted one that, like Lassie, would put its head on my lap and do that “I love you” whine. I’ve finally got one. Babe is such a people-person dog that I can no longer sit on the (raveled, ruined) terrace furniture with a (coverless, chewed) book because she’s got her head in my lap, doing the “I love you” whine and jiggling my arm, and therefore my glass, and I’ve got a half-dozen wine-stained shirts to prove it. It’s been said before in this column but bears repeating: Be careful what you wish for.

Still, she’s perfectly happy to gobble down all my boiled peanut shells. She’s perfectly happy to gobble ice cubes, for that matter. And I have a yard full of birds who feel perfectly safe raising their young in my pyracantha and wisteria vines because Babe in the yard means no cats or snakes in their nests.

You know those T-shirts that say my parents went to wherever and all I got was this lousy T-shirt? My Master of Fine Arts cost $20,000 and the only thing I really learned or remember is this advice from a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor: No one wants to read about dreams, dogs, or how you lost your virginity.

Well. Two out of three’s not bad.

By the way, did you accidentally drop your white, knitted toboggan in my yard? Here it is, resembling Swiss cheese. Because . . . (outside) dog.  OH

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

True South


A kind of grief

By Susan S. Kelly

This is the month that I turn 65. I suspect I’ll have a breakdown.

I don’t put much store by birthdays typically. As a child, a July birthday meant that my friends were away on family vacations, so no one was around for a party. A summer birthday meant no cupcakes in elementary school, or care packages from Hickory Farms — the standard-but-thrilling gift — at boarding school. As an adult, I seem often to be at the beach, where my mother annually suggests that we have a “nice piece of fish” to celebrate my birthday — a roll-eye refrain the entire family now uses whenever we’re referring to celebrations of any kind.

My sister has a breakdown every time we leave the beach, crying and honking the car horn until she’s out of sight. She’s worried that by the next time we’re all together again, someone will have died, divorced or been irreparably altered in some way.  Cheerful, no? I made her a Breakdown CD full of mournful songs from James Taylor, Pachelbel’s Canon, the themes from To Kill A Mockingbird and The Thorn Birds, so she’ll have background music to wail with during the four-hour drive home.

The last time I had a breakdown birthday was 3 1/2 decades ago, when I turned 30. I was waiting at a stoplight and was suddenly just  . . .  overcome. I bowed my heard and laid my forehead against the hard, ridged, steering wheel and wept. I did not want to be 30 with children and a mortgage and a yard. I wanted to be a sorority girl wearing Topsiders and drinking beer at The Shack with my hair pulled back in a grosgrain ribbon on a Thursday afternoon. There was nothing for my despair but for my husband to take me to Chapel Hill for the weekend. But The Shack was a parking lot. Beers at the gleaming wood bar in Spanky’s didn’t cut it.

The good part about A Big Birthday year means that my friends are turning 65 too.  Bridge buddies, hiking homies, college pals, boarding school classmates — all of us. Meaning that every day brings a veritable blizzard of emails filled with dates, pleas, opinions, rebuttals, suggestions, complaints, reminders, asides, and the occasional joke, all in the service of organizing what I term Girl Gigs. Girl Gigs deserve a column of their own, but I’ll give you a teaser: One friend, for a Girl Gig in the mountains every January, flies in from Greenwich, Connecticut, and brings nothing but a mink coat and 3 pairs of pajamas. Stay tuned.

I don’t care a whit about getting old, or dying (proved by my Funeral File, a topic addressed earlier in these pages). I’ll admit to a fear of my house smelling like old people, and wondering whether it’s time to go ahead and lock into what one friend calls a “terminal hairdo,” the one you wear to the grave. And I drive a Mini Cooper, which seems to be the universally acknowledged car for females of a certain age. But otherwise, nope. No fear, no dread, no anxiety.

I also have zero regrets about those things in the past that I’ve done or left undone, or shoulda, woulda, coulda. Furthering my career? More me time? Taken that trip, accepted that offer? No, no, and no. Do-overs don’t interest me.

Wherefore the melancholy, then?  Just this: 1,277 photographs — give or take a couple dozen travel pictures — on a digital frame. A New Year’s resolution labor of love with a scanner that rotates continuously all day, every day, showing me 1,277 times what I cannot have back. That summer twilight evening of my oldest in his tacky polyester pajamas blowing dime-store bubbles in the driveway before bedtime. That child wearing a mask while he watches television, oblivious that he’s even wearing a mask. That child blowing out candles on what is surely the most hideous homemade birthday cake ever, shaped and iced like a sharpened pencil. The grin the day the braces came off. A husband mowing the lawn with a toddler draped around his neck like a pashmina.

What was I doing during these ordinary, everyday moments?  What was I saying, thinking, hoping, cooking, even?  I don’t want to time travel, to swallow a magic youth pill, to go back and re-live. What stops and saddens me is the simple yet incontrovertible fact that, no matter what, I cannot get that Tuesday morning in that picture, where the child with the trike, or the new backpack for the first day of school, or that Sunday afternoon when a young husband tosses free throws at the driveway basketball goal — long since vanished — back. Not a single, commonplace, inconsequential second of them. Nothing I can do will return them to me. No begging. No money. No who-you-know. No good deeds. No nothing.

Thornton Wilder knew the kind of grief I’m talking about, and in his play, Our Town, has Emily Webb, who’s dead, ask the Stage Manager, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it . . . every, every minute?”

“No,” the Stage Manager replies. “Saints and poets maybe . . . they do some.”

And I’m neither.

So, this July, if you see someone pulled over with her head against the steering wheel, it’s just me, in my Mini, in the breakdown lane.  OH

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

True South

Making the Cut

Not everyone qualifies for shelf space

By Susan S. Kelly

Not long ago someone said to me, “I’m cutting down on friends because I find it cuts down on expectations.” In the same week, my sister informed me that coffee table books are o-u-t. She knows this kind of thing because she lives in Charlotte. Both pronouncements indicated that, after hurriedly sweeping tables free of Irish Country Houses and Flowers for Entertaining and the like, I needed to take a good long look at my bookshelves.

Despite the fact that I’m an inveterate deleter — of photographs, recipes, clothes, emails (especially emails, and you would be too if your daughter had found the one in which you’d commented to your sister that, during your daughter’s semester in France, it was obvious that she’d eaten more éclairs than haricots verts) — I have bookshelves upstairs and down, in bedrooms, in halls, in the kitchen, in an armoire, in corner cupboards, even behind a desk against the wall where I can’t see the books themselves. Time to apply that neat-freak guru’s Does It Bring You Pleasure? dictate to my bookshelf contents.

First to go: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I don’t care if it was my mother’s. I don’t care if it has Mark Twain’s personal signature on the flyleaf. Nobody likes that book. Nobody. The very title makes me think of my son’s comment that melancholy instrumental music always makes him think of summer reading requirements, i.e., depressing. I so get that, and so farewell to Cry, the Beloved Country, too.

Here go the various books penned by my Master of Fine Arts teachers, because I thought that they’d notice I’d bought them and mention to their editors that I was worthy of publication myself. Brown-nosing does not get you published. Maybe, in a pinch, you’ll get a cover blurb, but of course you have to get published first. Out.

Here’s the shelf that makes me think: What was that about? Meaning not the book’s plot, but why I ever bought it. Take Ellen Gilchrist’s books. I thought she was a tough Southern broad and that if I read her stuff, I’d grow up just like her. OK, so that happened; no need to keep. This row of Leon Uris books, when I was on a Jewish jag. Poof. Begone, Barbara Kingsolver. So long Stephen King’s The Stand, the only book I’ve ever read that caused me to shake my husband awake at 2 a.m. because I was so terrified.

Wait, what is Jonathan Livingston Seagull doing here? And Rod McKuen’s Listen to the Quiet? Remnants of the soulful ’70s get no shelf space. Yet what does it say, pray, that I can’t part with The Preppy Handbook? It says that I Instagrammed a photo of it and the number of people who responded that they still had a copy was astounding. What this says about me, or them, is something I’d rather not delve into too deeply. But The Preppy Handbook stays.

Never mind the defunct coffee table books; what to do with all these “little” books? You know, the kind that were gifts or you bought in a museum store. First lines of famous books. Last lines of famous books. The kings and queens of England. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. Joan Walsh Anglund.

To keep: Eleanor and Franklin, because it was a U. S. History Prize, in high school, and I was so stunned that I won. I’m no history buff, but I’m very good at memorizing. Here goes Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Don’t care that it was a college graduation gift. Don’t care that it’s a Pulitzer. It’s boring, and unlike Annie Dillard, I never was much given to introspection, much to my husband’s dismay. Because here is row upon row of his Jesus books, with sleeping pill titles like Christianity and Culture, The Beginning of Wisdom, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. Lord, I rest my case. Guess I’ll have to keep the two-tome volume of Governor Reagan and President Reagan, since my spouse has never seen fit to even remove the shrink wrap cover.

During a stint as a librarian, I myself shrink wrapped my childhood hardback of Stuart Little because my daughter (see above) read the same copy aloud to me every night before bedtime while I played Tetris on Game Boy — and you’ve never read E. B. White if you haven’t heard it in an 8-year-old’s voice. Nor will I ever part with anything Tasha Tudor illustrated: The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. The four-volume edition of The Raj Quartet and Brideshead Revisited are keepers because I was so addicted to their versions on Masterpiece Theatre.

All Alice McDermott books stay. All Julia Glass books stay. All Jane Smiley books stay. All John Updike novels and short stories stay, if only for the heartbreaking, last-line comeuppance in “A&P” and the marital depiction of “Wife-Wooing.” My copy of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! stays because it falls open naturally to the lines I’ve read so often: “Tell me about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” Here’s to the hard-drinking writers still trying to figure out their love/hate relationship to the South. I think I know one. Besides, don’t you love a great “hate” line? “Love Rebecca? I hate her!” Oh, Maxim de Winter . . . Rebecca, and all Daphne du Mauriers stay.

The $3,000 worth of bridge books stay. They’re an investment . . . that hasn’t matured.

I’m exhausted. Meaning I’m just going to pretend like Dr. Zhivago isn’t staring me in the face right beside Gone with the Wind. After all, tomorrow is another day.  OH

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

True South

Only in the South

When layaway simply won’t do

By Susan S. Kelly

Admit it: There are scenes and situations that could only happen in the South. I’m not talking about moonshine, magnolias, accents or tobacco. Collards, however, are involved.

Exhibit A:

One bitter-cold, sleeting January, my mother was hosting her luncheon bridge club gathering at her house (it’s worth noting, and also probably apropos to Only in the South, that my mother had lived in a different town for 18 years, and her bridge club had never replaced her; they’d used substitutes. For 18 years).

Never mind that these were the ’70s, they were still — again, Only in the South — the days of linen tablecloths, sterling silver, crystal goblets, and what I term girl food: lemon bars, asparagus spears, and a chicken casserole concocted with Campbell’s mushroom soup. Somewhere between the shuffling and the cleaning, the disposal backed up, the dishwasher broke down, and water from ice-damming in the gutters began running down the walls. The luncheon was not a success.

The minute the last guest left, my mother drove straight to Montaldo’s and bought herself a mink coat. (Also worth noting: All through my childhood, when I watched game shows on TV, and fur coats were the ultimate prize, my mother was very firm in her belief that no one under 50 should own a fur coat. She’d reached the required age, but only just.) However, she had to put the mink coat on layaway. That night, she told her mother, my grandmother, who lived in the ultra-sophisticated burg of Walnut Cove in Stokes County, what her day had been like.

The next morning, my grandmother drove straight to Montaldo’s, bought the mink coat herself, and delivered it to my mother. Not so much because she felt sorry for my mother — which she no doubt did — but because there was just no way that a daughter of hers was going to have anything on layaway at Montaldo’s.

Exhibit B:

A friend of my mother’s — we’ll call her Joan — was having a meeting at her house, necessitating finery, flowers, decorum, and girl food (see above). Minutes before the meeting, Joan smelled something awful. The maid had elected that particular morning to cook up a mess of collards (not girl food).

Joan panicked. “You can’t cook collards now, Myrna!” she scolded, revolted by the stench, and that a dozen grande dames were about to descend into her stinking living room. (Did I mention the meeting involved debutantes? Also Only in the South.) “You’ve got to get rid of those collards!” So, Myrna did what she was told. She took the big pot of greens off the stove and emptied the whole malodorous mess down the toilet. Which promptly stopped up and overflowed. And no embroidered hand towels in a powder room, or asparagus spears with hollandaise, can overcome a clogged commode, collards, and matrons clad in ultrasuede.

Exhibit C:

My friend Betty grew up with an irascible, alcoholic mother. A real character, who I loved, but was, nevertheless, a drunk. Years later, at a party, Betty was talking to a friend who was married to another adult child of an alcoholic, in a family that might have had even more dysfunction and irregularities than Betty’s. Still, the son — we’ll call him James — had survived and thrived. Thinking she was delivering a compliment, Betty said, “Look at James. He’s successful. Normal. Happy. With all that was going on in his house, how in the world did he turn out so well?”

The friend didn’t miss a beat. “Just like you did, Betty. Good help.”

Debutantes, collards, Montaldo’s, and good help. Only in the South.  OH

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

True South

All Pumped Up

Or just wait until the urge passes

By Susan S. Kelly

And now, a few concise words about exercising: I loathe it.

I was never on a sports team. No one wanted to double-Dutch jump rope with me as a partner. I’m so uncoordinated that I tend to fall down just putting on my underwear. In high school, while I kind of coveted the flippy kilts my field-hockey playing classmates got to wear, I preferred the passive, less-participatory exercise of wearing a weighted belt Velcroed around my waist under clothes. Worked just fine until you drank a glass of water. After study hall, we’d “walk” down the long dorm hall linoleum on our butt cheeks while listening to Cat Stevens singing “Wild World” from the Tea for the Tillerman album. An effort, in retrospect, that would have probably been a lot more effective if we’d just ceased and desisted with toast-eating contests at breakfast.

Despite years of sitting in stadiums, I never understood football until I watched Friday Night Lights on Netflix and had to figure out first downs to follow the plot. As for tennis or golf, why would anyone do anything that requires putting on sunscreen, much less sweating? I’d be perfectly content never to put on sneakers again — and I realize they’re not called sneakers anymore. In my opinion, anyone who changes the sheets on a king bed has had ample exercise for the day, what with all that walking around from one side of the bed to the other.

In defense of all this inactivity, I’d like to point out that I wear no ace bandages anywhere, have no joint, tendon, muscle, back, knee or other issues, and have no idea what an ACL or meniscus is or where they’re located; all of which I attribute to the fact that for five decades I never engaged in anything competitive or, well, physical, when you come right down to it. Just sayin’. And I do like to think that balancing on one foot while brushing my teeth counts for something. At least it beats my friend who’s figured out that she can set the treadmill speed at 3.8 before the wine starts sloshing out of the cup holder. Never mind my friend who’s eating Big Macs because the people at Weight Watchers told her she’s not fat enough to qualify.

Still, when a fitness facility opened up practically in my own backyard the year I turned 50, I decided it was Time To Get With The Program, as my father would say. Not that I would even consider walking the one-eighth mile over there when I could drive. Please. It quickly became clear that I don’t have the personality for yoga. The first time the instructor told me to quit wearing baggy tops — so she could correct my position — was the last time I went to yoga class. Besides, the whole time we were supposed to be clearing our minds or assuming the Savasana pose or whatever you’re meant to Om, I was thinking about all the things I needed to be doing and wishing the session would just end so I could get on with it. One friend’s husband wanted to go to yoga class with her, so she gave him a set of sessions for Christmas. Unfortunately, his first class became his last class, because, as is often the case with yoga, he publicly pooted. There’s no namaste for that. Somewhat similar to my sister’s issue with a chocolate power bar in her back pocket that melted and squished and looked — well, let’s just say it’s best to always wear black exercise clothes.

Beware of classes disguised as cults, in which Fitness Barbies and Kens are demoralizingly superior to you. I’m sorry, but if you have makeup on at the gym, I don’t care how long you can plank; you’ve lost all credibility. But I do like the way, in a class, the teacher will run down the quick-quick chop-chop single-syllable system checklist of to-dos or have-dones: quads, pecs, lats, delts, abs, glutes, biceps, etc. They come in handy for doing crosswords. (While sitting down.) The main argument for classes with scary titles like Pump It Up, Power Flex, yada yada, is the punch line to that old joke about why the guy keeps hitting himself on the head with a hammer: Because it feels so good when you quit.

Best, then, to stick with the treadmill, where you can multitask otherwise sedentary activities like online bridge and Netflix. At 79, a friend’s father began memorizing T. S. Eliot to pass time on the stationary bike. He’d repeatedly take a laminated card from his pocket, consult it, put it back, and pedal on. The discipline proved so popular to fellow cyclers that he formed a club with seven other men who meet three times a week to recite. In case you’re wondering, “The Waste Land” takes 40 minutes to recite.

Me, I’m reveling in a smaller triumph: The nurse who administered my flu shot asked, “Do you work out?”

“How did you know?” I returned.

“Your arm muscle,” she replied.

Score!  OH

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and proud grandmother.

True South

Regrets, I’ve Got a Few

The penitence of parents

By Susan S. Kelly

Lent looms and then — BOOM — the season of gloom is upon us, those 40 days and 40 nights during which one is meant to repent. But if you’re a parent, guilt knows no season. It’s just always around, or in literary lingo, omnipresent.

Take my 38-year-old son, who not long ago revealed to me that as a child, he used to stand over the trash can while eating cookies so he wouldn’t drop crumbs on the floor. Oh, what this casual confession says. I never told him to do this; he just wanted to avoid the problem, or hearing about it. That he was so amenable pains me, the way he was when I just took him out of one school and sent him to a magnet that required a 45-minute bus ride. This would be the same son who, as a 2-year-old, kept waking at 3 a.m. for so many consecutive nights that I finally took him out of the crib, set him on the floor with a cut-up orange, and said, “Fine. Have fun. See you in the morning,” and went back to bed. No wonder that, later, when he woke up sick in the middle of the night, he always walked around my side of the bed to wake his father instead. Can I catch a little slack here? I remember when I was answering so many children’s questions and child-related telephone calls that I couldn’t take my own temperature because I couldn’t keep my mouth closed around a thermometer for three consecutive minutes.

At least I managed to rescue his brother, whom I happened upon in his room with the mini-blind cords wrapped around his neck because he’d been playing “Pirates.” The same child who, because I told him to visit the dermatologist, wouldn’t do anything about his warts except wrap three fingers on one hand in duct tape for six weeks because he’d heard it would make warts go away.

Confession may be good for the soul, but on the whole, I think I prefer yesteryear’s Lenten mite boxes, where all you had to do was part with some of your allowance. Though I probably failed in that department too, since I once discovered a child trying to extract a nickel from between the car seats with tweezers. Those kinds of memories can be assuaged with this one: How short a space in time elapsed between my daughter telling me tearfully that she didn’t want me to die (“Don’t worry, honey. It will be a long time before I die.”) to telling me that she wished I was dead. That was probably about the same era that her phone’s voicemail message was “My give-a-damn’s busted.” At least I escaped another friend’s fate, who discovered a pamphlet titled “How to Take Care of your new Tattoo” in her daughter’s Kate Spade pocketbook.

Oh, the countless little deaths I delivered, including, say, the April Fool’s morning that my daughter danced into the kitchen and merrily, mischievously, announced that she hadn’t done her homework. I barely looked up from the bagged lunch I was fixing in order to comply with her school’s eye-rolling rule of packing no disposables, only recyclables. Would it have cost me anything to play along, to acknowledge her 7-year-old April Fool’s effort? Two decades later, I still cringe at the memory.

Thank heaven that friends’ stories go a long way in the “I’m Not the Only Mean Mother” department. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty, but one friend who’d reached the end of her parenting rope with her tantrum-throwing 5-year-old picked up the phone, mimicked dialing as he writhed on the floor, and said, “Hello? Yes, is this the adoption agency? I have a child available . . . ” And this from another mother’s shame vault: The afternoon she took the car keys and got in the car and began backing out of the driveway, all the while calling, “OK, I’m leaving now, hope you can take care of yourself,” while her child wailed with despair. One acquaintance told me that when her son was disconsolate about a terrible grade he’d made on a test in fourth grade, she’d taken him in her room, sat him down, and said, “Listen. You were planned, and I know a lot of people in your class who were accidents.”

Still, surely for every painful-to-recollect instance, there’s a corresponding instance of sweetness, and I offer these up not as defenses, but to keep myself from weeping. Such as the child calling during his first week at boarding school, desperate with fear, panicked and frantic because he was washing clothes for the first time and “the washing machine in the basement is stuck and I’m required to wear a collared shirt to dinner and they’re all in there wet” — and my assurance, four hours away, that the machine was simply between cycles, wait a few minutes and it would begin chugging again. The same child I sang “My Best Beau” to, from Mame, when I was rocking him to sleep as a baby. I sang “Baby Mine” from Dumbo to his sister in the same rocking chair. The three children whose old-boyfriend box of letters and memorabilia, whose Jack Daniel’s bottle filled with sand from the summer job at the beach, and whose slab of crudely painted wood commemorated a summer camp mountain bike competition, are all still in their bedrooms somewhere, though the three themselves are long gone. You take comfort where you find it, in the baby album entries you made so as not to forget the child who said, “I did that later ago,” meaning already, or “I won, now you try to win me.”

And when that doesn’t work, there’s always the adult child to give an old scenario a new spin. “Relax, Mom,” the tweezer-wielding son reminds me. “It was a double-headed nickel.”

Terrific. Allowance issue absolved. Back to atoning.

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and proud grandmother.

True South

Be My Valentine ‒ for Life

You may get a good laugh out of it

By Susan S. Kelly

I don’t know how you’re spending Valentine’s Day, but if you’re feeling blue, hie yourself to the Harris Teeter around 5 p.m. and hang out around the flower counter. Just watching the clerks pumping out last-minute arrangements for all those lost men scrambling to purchase posies is bound to make you laugh. If that fails, call a single friend to regale you with fun facts about dating after 40. A favorite is my pal who has a “guillotine realization” for blind dates. As in, “He was wearing a necklace.” Chop. Another has a Jesus clause in her marriage: If he ever gets religion, she’s excused. And for those of you eyeing that 10-years-younger mate, remember this: You’ll have to take on all their 10-years-younger enthusiasms too, for organic food and exhaustively researching kindergartens. Ugh. Makes reaching the point in a marriage where you get up every morning, ask each other how you slept, and actually answer each other seem far preferable.

Valentine’s is an industry now, but then so are weddings, and if you don’t believe me, ask my friend who went around at his daughter’s reception offering $20 bills to people if they’d just go home. Now, even “the ask” is elaborately planned for some mountain top or sunset beach scenario. As opposed to, say, the way my husband asked me to marry him, in the parking lot of the SAE house, where we’d gone with the rest of a frat friend’s reception carousers because we’d broken every glass at Hope Valley Country Club in Durham. It just doesn’t get any more romantic than that, unless you count my son’s friend who let everyone know he’d gotten engaged by sending a mass email with “Man Overboard” in the subject line. My husband and I — well, OK, my mother — set my wedding date depending not on weather or venue availability, but by asking the folks at Tiffany’s how long it would take to get the invitations printed and counting backward from there. My sister was so jealous of my getting married. She said, “Just think. Now you can do anything to your hair and he still has to love you.”

And then, happily ever after. Or as my other sister put it, “I’ve loved him ever since he had that awful The Price Is Right furniture.” Forty years on, I’m still wondering if I get marital points for putting on mascara for my husband just for dinner. But I gave up on wishing for a What Now? day many anniversaries ago. A What Now? day is a Saturday when your husband just follows you around all day and says, “What needs doing now?” Although I once read the lips of a new bride dancing that first dance with her new husband. “Turn me now,” she instructed him. Wonder how that’s going.

Ah, the nuptial valleys and peaks. Not the toothpaste caps, or shirts put inside out in the laundry basket, rather, the day my father came home for lunch, as he did every day, and it wasn’t ready.  “What have you been doing all morning?” he asked my mother. For the first and last time, I bet. Or my sister, who once proclaimed, “All we talk about are calendars.” Yes, at one stage, marital conversation gets pared down to timetables.

And while toothpaste tops may be a cliché, the bathroom does seem to be the locale for many a Grrr moment. Take this direct quote from an email: “This amazes me. We’ve had the rug on our bathroom floor for 10 years. D (name withheld to protect the guilty) steps on it when he gets out of the shower, stands on it while brushing his teeth, ponders on it while on the commode. Today when I asked him to bring the rug up from the dryer, he asked what bathroom it belonged in.”

Still, the bathroom moment I recall most fondly took place not in a bathroom, but in an aisle at Lowe’s. It’s a weeknight in a nearly vacant, fluorescently lit, concrete-floored, utterly charmless big box store. My husband and I are debating a new shower door for a bathroom renovation. Most decisions are easy: a towel bar on the outside, a grab bar on the inside. Small house and aging issues we’re used to, and don’t even blink.

We look at those doors a long time, slide them back and forth, compare, dither.  I’m leaning toward the clear, see-through panel — contemporary, clean, trendy — and a significant departure from our old frosted one. My husband nods, thinks, and finally says, “You know, I just don’t think I can go there.” 

I laugh. “Who do you think is going to be looking at us besides each other?”

He laughs too, then, admitting to an idiotic objection, after 28 years. Never mind that both of us had nine years of two to four roommates before we got married, and have experienced countless shared-bathrooms oops moments on family vacations.

But then, I lift my shoulders and say, “You know, I can’t go there, either.”

And there, in the middle of Lowe’s, on a weekday evening, under fluorescent lights, the pair of us double over, giggling at our ridiculous, bogus-modest, long-married selves. If that ain’t the essence of romance, I don’t know what is.

And they’ve lived happily ever after. With the clear shower door.  OH

Susan Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and proud grandmother.

True South

Father’s Day

A daughter’s tribute


By Susan Kelly

When I was 7, my father would stroll through the den on Sunday evenings where I was rapt before Lassie, anxious for Timmy’s fate in the well, or the barn, or the field. My father would pause, then say, “Watch: Lassie is going to pull on that rope (or apron string, or gate latch) and everything will turn out all right.” “How did you know?” I demanded afterward, when Timmy was safely rescued. “Because,” he’d say, “I write this stuff.”

When I was 9, my sleeping dog snapped at a neighbor’s child who reached to pat him, and my father gave the dog away. I never forgave him, and he suffered for it.

When I was 11, had a horseback riding accident, and had to have a kidney removed, my father said, “Do not worry your pretty little head. My pal Bynum Hunter lost a kidney in a sledding accident when he was your age, and he’s just fine.” (Bynum lived to be 92.)

When I was 12, and began parting my long hair down the middle, my father said, “You should part your hair on the side.” “Why?” I asked. It was 1967; everyone was parting their hair down the middle. “Because,” my father said, “a middle part makes your nose look bigger.” When I laughed at that, or some other pronouncement he made, he’d say, “You know why you’re laughing? Because I’m right.”

When I was 17, worrying how I’d know when I met the man I wanted to marry, my father said, “You’ll know. When you can barely breathe, can’t stand to be apart from someone for a single minute, you’ll know.”

When I was 19, coming to Greensboro for basketball tournaments and debutante parties, my father would say, “Why not drop by and see Nan?” — my glamorous Greensboro grandmother, who lived in a miniature castle on Kemp Road filled with untouchables. I never dropped by, and he never asked if I did. I hope he forgave me.

When I was 21, I called long distance, sobbing, summoning my father to the phone from a cocktail party because the man I was in love with seemed to be uncertain about our future. “It’s time to fish or cut bait,” my father said. (He fished.)

He was a son of the South, a Greensboro kid, whose own father died when my father was at boarding school. So when textile magnate Spencer Love told him to go into textiles, and a job would be waiting for him, my father went to N.C. State. Frat boy and varsity swimmer, he stayed faithful to “Cow College,” as he put it, even in a family sea of Tar Heels. “Ah,” he’d say, as I packed the car after a visit home, impatient to return to Chapel Hill, “back to the womb.”

For five seasons a year (summer, fall, winter, resort, spring) he went to New York Monday through Thursday, always returning with a present: a Steiff animal from FAO Schwarz, a Broadway soundtrack album (My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, South Pacific), or a wondrous Surprise Ball, countless yards of crepe paper wound tightly around trinkets at its core. When friends from school visited, he’d admire whatever they were wearing, ask, “You pay retail for that?” and examine the collar label. They adored him.

He loved bananas, drank Schlitz and Scotch, and every summer, reread A Summer Place, by Sloan Wilson. He peppered his speech with Yiddish from his time in the “rag trade” or “the dress business” — oy vey — and with lines from movies and songs. “Listen, Mack,” he’d begin a sentence, or, “All this and heaven, too,” when I was elated. “Looks like we made it!” he’d sing out from Barry Manilow, over a triumph, and when sorrow struck, “This too shall pass,” he’d tell me. “Fool’s names, as in fool’s faces, always appear in public places,” he’d remark at the sight of an overpass or bench layered in graffiti. He brooked no backtalk. “Don’t give me that thousand-yard stare,” he’d say during an argument. “These proceedings are over. Period.”  Sternness included shaming. “He cannot tell you he’s thirsty,” my father said when he came home one evening and found the dog’s empty water bowl. “It’s a dumb animal.” “Dumb” meaning helpless, dependent entirely upon me.

My father taught me to draw “Kilroy Was Here” cartoons without lifting the pencil from the page. He could waterski and whistle, do the jitterbug and the camel walk and a backflip like nobody’s business. I never heard him argue with my mother. I never heard him utter a swear word. He refused to wear a seatbelt because he refused to let the government tell him what to do, and he dropped his subscription to the Greensboro Daily News the day the paper dropped the “Dick Tracy” comic strip.  He refused to buy me a pair of Wallabees because he thought they were Communist shoes, but when I found a three-ring bikini in Seventeen that could only be found in New York, he moved heaven and Earth to get it for me.

Protector. Adviser. Jokester. Teacher. Nurturer. Molder. Thirty years on, for a death that came too soon, here’s my eulogy, finally.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.  OH

Susan Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and proud new grandmother.