In between ice cream and frozen peas, Anna heard the familiar tune blaring deep from the bottom of her purse.

She was hung over from the night before and trying to grab a few groceries for dinner tonight, and the blaring ring tone made her cringe. It better not be Robert, she thought.  Fumbling, she pulled her phone out of her purse, while her five-year-old son wrote his name, “Issac” in the frosty glass door of the frozen veggies.

It was dad. She smiled. Lately dad was so much smarter than he used to be. Funny how that happens. “Hey dad,” she said.

“Hey hun.” Uh oh. Immediately she sensed “the tone.” Not the “you’re-in-trouble-tone,” that she remembered so well from her horrific teenage years. But the “something-isn’t-quite-right-tone” which immediately sent another wave of nausea through her stomach and caused her knees to buckle under her body weight. Her son looked up at her, holding up his hands, red and icy. “What’s up?” Anna asked.

“Well…” he began “I thought I better tell you that Sissy died today. I found her in the flower beds. At first I thought she was just sleeping. I went ahead and buried her. Just thought you should know.”

“Awww…well, she was old…” Anna stumbled on her words. She never particularly liked the cat. The mushy hairballs, annoying mewing, and white hair all over my black pants never exactly improved her quality of life. Even though she didn’t care for the cat, a twinge of sadness pierced her. The white ball of fluff had been there. Really been there for almost as long as she could remember. Sissy had wandered into their lives in the spring of 1994.  Anna and her twin Elizabeth were in the fifth grade and they lived in a wooden A-frame house nestled deep in the mountains of Ohio. It was not uncommon for people to drop dogs and cats off on the side of their windy road. Normally, her parents would call the humane society, but this particular cat stuck with her family. Sissy’s low maintenance, stay-out-of-my-way-I-will-do-my-own-thing personality probably increased her chances of a home.

A year later Anna found her guarding a fluffy orange kitten. For weeks, Sissy wouldn’t let anyone near her baby. She drug him around and hid him in tight places like window seals or in piles of winter jackets. Eventually, she awarded the family visitation rights. He became an easy-going, energetic ball of orange which earned him the name Tigger.

Hanging up the phone, she began aimlessly wandering around Harris Teeter. “When are we going to leave?” Issac whined.

“Please chill,” she said a little too abruptly and then silently reprimanded herself.  She pushed the grocery cart through the coffee aisle. Her temples ached. How much had she drank last night?  Five glasses of wine? Six? She needed to slow down, but Robert stressed her out so much.

She remembered Sissy perched on the porch railing, glaring at everyone who walked by, analytically criticizing the world. Then she would drag dead chipmunks to the front porch welcome mat, causing Anna and Elizabeth to scream in disgust. Sissy would sit up straight, proudly licking her paws. “It’s the way she shows us she likes us,” mom would say. Sissy lingered throughout their lives, playing a small role, but a constant role. She was there. Anna realized this through old pictures of birthdays, graduation parties, and holidays where Sissy was in the background, perching proudly. She may have kept a low profile, but her presence comforted. She observed every step of their lives, while perched on that porch rail in those Ohio mountains. Anna missed those days.

So even though she was at least fifteen years old, and lived a long full life, Anna cringed at the thought of dad finding her in the flower bed. A tear slipped from her eye; She tried to catch it but it was too late. “Mommy! What’s wrong?” Issac asked, now hanging from the cart.

“Mommy’s fine honey. Sometimes grown-ups get sad.”

“What are you sad about mommy?”

“A cat,” she replied, wondering how silly how silly she sounded. Issac looked puzzled.

Finally, with a full cart, they headed to check out our groceries, but not after Anna grabbed two bottles of merlot for the evening. Her phone blared from her purse again. This time it was Robert.

 

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Love Poem No 6

Let’s weave together a life,

A tethered quilt, warm,

patchwork to show us

where we’ve been, so we might

know where to go.

Love Poem No 5

We watch the stars tonight.

They burn fiercely

against the black canvas.

 

“Look, the little dipper,” you say.

“Which one?” I ask.

You laugh.

 

We sit beneath the magic.

Two humans, wondering,

pondering for answers.

 

Our faces lost in the blackness,

Our eyes twinkle.

The frogs croak. The crickets chirp.

 

I lean my head against your chest.

You rub my hair.

You feel like home.

Head of the class

I teach commas and stuff. Some of my students are high schoolers. Some are grandmas. More are in between. Nothing thrills me more than a classroom of students who are ready — or not — to hear about where the semicolon goes or where it absolutely doesn’t belong. Nothing thrills me more than when a student asks, “Ms Phile, could you look at this paragraph? Does it flow?” or “Hey, Ms. Phile, look at this sign I saw at the gas station. It’s missing an apostrophe. If I had a Sharpie I would have corrected it.”

Then there’s that point in the semester when all the papers, projects, and tests need grading.  Final exams are pending, grades are due. Everyone is exhausted and irritable and I begin to wonder why the hell I started teaching in the first place. I spend every waking moment —at my son’s baseball games, waiting at restaurants, sitting in meetings, at the stoplight— grading papers. Emails flood my inbox:

“Ms. Phile, can I have an extension on the paper?” (No way. You have known about the due date for six weeks.)

“Ms. Phile, Sorry I won’t be in class today. My pigs got loose. I’m not even kidding.” (True story.)

“Ms. Phile, I can’t come to class today or the rest of the week because my grandmother died.” (Hmmmm . . . that’s the third time she’s passed away. Obviously a very, very serious illness.)

“Ms. Phile, I know I haven’t done much this semester, but can I get extra credit?” (You can’t get extra credit when you didn’t get regular credit.)

“Ms. Phile, I know I didn’t turn in the past four papers, but can I turn them in still? I promise I did them.” (I can’t even reply to this one.)

And my favorite how-to-endear-yourself-to-the-teacher, cringe-worthy question:

“Ms. Phile, sorry I missed class yesterday. Did I miss anything important?” (Ouch.)

At this point in the semester I’m thinking I may go back to school for something else, maybe carpentry or piano tuning or snake charming. But, the truth is the magical moments when a student lights up and “gets it” make my job amazing. The moment when a student’s writing improves; the moment when a student overcomes the fear of talking in front of others; the moment when I notice students teaching each other. Those moments keep me from getting a basket and a flute.

Let me invite you into my classroom: Research papers, which they have been working on for 6 weeks, are due tonight by 11:55 p.m. I walk into a room of talkative students and one, who I will call Matt, pipes up from the back row:

“Ms. Phile, what will it take for you to extend the due date until tomorrow? Money? Donuts? Reese cups? I know how you love Reese cups.”

“Matt, you’ve known the due date for six weeks. It’s in stone.”

An older student in the front row, who probably finished his research paper two weeks ago, rolls his eyes and mumbles under his breath, “I don’t envy your job.”

My 11 years of teaching flashed through my brain — whirlwinds, valleys, mountains, mostly mountains.

“I don’t know why not. You should,” I said.

 

Found

I seek you in the smell

of freshly cut grass.

In the peppermint certs

you carried in your pocket.

I seek you in worn pages

of your NIV Bible.

I seek you in freshly brewed coffee.

In basketball games

outside the garage.

In reruns of The Three Stooges

and Gilligan’s Island and

you move me, dearly.

I seek your smile that always

filled my soul with warmth.

“You are my sunshine,

my only sunshine…”

you sang to me.

I wish my love for you

was strong enough to

make you stay.

But then again, it was,

and you did.

Poem for Gramps

A Night Out

It was a brisk Saturday night and we ventured up to Raleigh. Destination: The Cheesecake Factory.

“Shouldn’t we make reservations?” I asked.

“Nah, we should be good,” he said.

The drive was uneventful until we pulled into the parking lot of the Crabtree Valley Mall. The cars maneuvered like ants marching to a fallen morsel of chocolate chip cookie. After 20 minutes we found a spot deep in the parking garage’s Siberia section — nestled between a blue SUV and a white Ford Ranger. Taste buds at attention, we hiked to the mall and upstairs to The Cheesecake Factory. Men, women and children littered the hallways, many sitting on the floor. The noise overwhelmed my brain.

“They must be waiting for take out . . . or something,” I mumbled.

“Probably,” he said.

We filed in, took spots at the end of the line and inched up slowly. My stomach growled.

“What was that?” he asked with a laugh.

“What was what?” I said.

Pictures of luscious cheesecake covered the walls. Strawberry, chocolate, salted caramel. My mouth watered.

Minutes ticked by. We inched deeper into the chaos. Finally, we arrived.

“How many?” the hostess asked.

“Two,” he said.

“OK.” She tapped something on the screen of her computer and handed us a blinky piece of plastic.

“How long will that be?” he asked.

“Oh, about an hour and 45 minutes.”

He looked at me. I looked back and shook my head. No way. My stomach screamed.

“We’re good,” he said and handed her back the blinky thing.

We walked out, picking our way through the standing, sitting and leaning bodies, past the pictures of cheesecake — salted caramel, chocolate, strawberry.

“Where do you want to eat?” he asked.

“Somewhere without an hour and 45 minute wait.”

He took out his phone and began to search.

I willed him to hurry. My stomach rumbled like the mating call of a moose.

“What the heck was that?” he asked, trying not to laugh.

I didn’t answer.

He tapped a number into his phone.

“Hi. Uh, how long is the wait for a table for two?” he asked.

“Two hours.” I heard a voice say. I gasped.

“Thanks,” he mumbled and clicked off.

“Let’s just go to McDonalds,” I suggested.

“No McDonalds. What are you craving?”

“Cheesecake.”

“What about seafood?”

“That too.”

He tapped his phone and began searching.

“Red Lobster is 3 miles from here,” he said.

“Good.”

After 20 more minutes freeing ourselves from the parking garage, we were on the road to our third choice.

We parked, shuffled out of the car and walked up to the hostess stand.

“How many?” she asked.

“Two, but how long is the wait?”

“Forty-five minutes,” she said.

I groaned, but at least there wasn’t an hour before the 45. We were handed another blinky piece of plastic, and the minutes ticked by as we sat by the lobster tank.

After the full three-quarters of an hour mostly spent staring at crustaceans with bad intent, we were seated in a distant a corner. An angel appeared, eyes bright and smile wide, movements fluid and secure.

“Welcome to Red Lobster! My name is Penny. What can I get you to drink? Oh wait, I always start with the lady first.” She turned and grinned at me.

She filled my soul with warmth . . . and cheesy biscuits, creamy seafood dip and chips, boiled shrimp covered in butter, sweet coconut shrimp, and garlic lemon tilapia.

“This,” I said in between bites of pretty much everything, “was worth the wait.”

He nodded.

She kept appearing to fill our drinks and bring us more cheesy biscuits.

He asked her if she was in school.

“No, I’m a mommy and I work here on nights and weekends.”

“Boy or girl? How old?” he asked.

“A little boy. He’s 6.” She pulled her phone out of her pocket to show us a gorgeous kid with her eyes and smile. He held a soccer ball and grinned back at us.

He tipped her way more than 20 percent that night, and when she realized it, she bounced back to our table.

“Thank you so much! No, really, thank you!” she exclaimed.

Then it was his eyes, that wonderful blend of blue and green, that sparkled.

 

 

Love poem no 4

We were seated in the back corner of Red Lobster.

The third place we had stopped that night.

The first was an hour and 45 minute wait, the second 2 hours.

We waited a ravishing 45 minutes beside the lobster tank, but finally we sat.

 

She appeared, eyes bright and smile wide, movements fluid and secure.

Welcome! My name is Penny. How are you all today? What can I get started for you?

Oh wait, I always ask the lady first. She turned to me and grinned.

 

She filled my soul as she brought those warm, delicious cheese biscuits,

creamy seafood dip and chips, boiled shrimp covered in butter, grilled tilapia.

We devoured our meal, and you chatted with her, asked her if she was in school.

No, I’m just a mommy and I waitress here. How old? You asked. Boy or girl?

Boy, 6.

Her eyes sparkled yet again.

 

You tipped her way more than 20% that night, and when she realized this

she bounced back to our table.

Thank you so much! She said, Really, thank you!

Then it was your eyes— that wonderful blend of blue and green—

that glistened and sparkled.