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Creola Moon was butterscotch in color and built like a biscuit, the flakey kind of biscuit that has lots and lots of layers. She and her family had come to Georgia from the exotic realm of New Orleans. Creola's distinctive grin--missing a tooth--filled most of her pie-round face. Her zebra-striped hair made her easy to spot each morning as she walked the short block down the tree-shaded Georgia street and into my anxious arms. I was a small white girl, and she was the large black nanny who raised me.
Creola was the first and most dear friend I made. She remained in my life for nearly fifty years as a confidante, mentor, encourager, and advisor. It was Creola who taught me the art of storytelling. I called her Crellie.
Crellie rarely called me and my sister by our given names, Harriette and Mary Pearle. She coined Moonbeam as her special name for me, while my sister became Priceless Pearlie. We girls loved the fun and the mystery of having unique names. I, most especially.
To me, she was my Crellie. I was her Moonbeam.
I admit it: I talk to her spirit. A grown woman, talking to ghosts. For one thing, I'm old enough that I don't always sleep soundly. Years of listening for babies to cry and for teenage drivers to pull up in the driveway laid that groundwork.
Today, for example, I woke up in my suburban Atlanta home well before the sun. My husband, Beau, was away on a business trip. Woke up. That's a lie. I'd been awake most of the night tossing and turning, thinking, making trips to the bathroom, drinking water, and returning to bed to repeat the pattern. My decision was firm.
Slidingout of bed, I jumped into my warm-up suit and running shoes. I grabbed my latest manuscript from the bedside table, tiptoed down the hall, and hurried out the kitchen door. Lifting the garbage can lid, I hurled the papers into a smelly stew of last night's meat loaf, coffee grounds, egg shells, rice, and butter beans.
"Good riddance to you!"
Flashlight in hand, I headed out for a long, quiet dawn walk. I needed the exercise. I also wanted to remove myself from the temptation of going back to rescue eight weeks of fruitless writing. The truth be told, my book of short stories read like garbage. The hodgepodge, whose sole connection was the same typeface, Arial, belonged in a galvanized can.
Two hours later, I stood sipping hot green tea and watched as the sanitation worker dumped the trash into the back of his truck. The always warm and cheerful man secured his load under the tarp and grinned at me. His white teeth gleamed in the early morning sunshine.
"'Mornin', Miz Newberry."
What my heart heard him say was, Sure you want me to take this to the dump? After all, you did work eight long weeks on it.
Stop! I almost shouted.
What came out was, "Good morning to you."
Beep, beep, beep, beep. His truck rolled backwards down our drive. Several pages of my manuscript flew out from underneath the tarp, gravy-stained and peppered with flecks of coffee grounds. I noticed the print was faded to a blur.
A blur. The perfect analogy.
A squirrel scampered across my feet. Surprised, I jumped back. Then I addressed the bushy-tailed rodent, admitting the truth to him-or-her, and to myself.
"I never could knit together those dern stories." Balling up the escaped pages, I tossed them back into the empty trash can. Slam dunk. Hooray.
I went back inside, walked to my desk, turned on the computer, and pulled up a file. Mouthing a drum roll--Da, da DA--I pressed delete.
Honey Butlar Newberry's book of short stories. Gone.
I wondered, do other writers respond to failure with such drama? If I could author an entire book, why couldn't I perform the simple feat of weaving together a few stories about my family and our house? In the beginning, the idea sounded easy enough.
Then I freaked out.
Regret gripped me. I considered the numerous events I'd missed because of my self-imposed commitment to get those stories published. Alas. Neglected visits with friends and family, lost time with my husband, ignored art shows, and far too many unseen movies. Egads, I'd even bailed out of our bridge club's annual girls' trip. A major mistake.
My remorse intensified as I tallied up the calories ingested from boxes of crackers, nuts, and cookies, not to mention the harmful caffeine in the gallons of tea and diet cola drunk. My net weight gain was eight pounds or one pound per week. Groaning, I clutched my well-defined love handles. Pinch an inch? What rhymes with "fistful?"
And fun? None.
All for what? My project was en route to garbage hell while its computer file floated aimlessly in cyberspace.
After a few moments of irrational planning, I vetoed going out to the Fulton County garbage dump. Honey Newberry, a fifty-some-odd-year-old writer with three-inch roots of gray hair, climbing over mounds of other folks' refuge, did not paint a pretty picture. Having my hair colored was something else I'd failed to schedule during my writing binge.
I then chastised myself for not recycling. If I'd only separated the paper from the cans, like a good citizen, then I could have so easily driven out to the county's recycling center to retrieve the manuscript. No smelly garbage to crawl through, just paper, mounds and mounds of it, but paper, nonetheless.
Sadly, recycling was no longer an option for the Newberry family. My fault, too.
A few weeks prior, as I'd hurriedly backed out of the driveway in my Jeep, I rolled over the regulation green plastic bin, completely destroying it. I replaced the bin with a blue one from the hardware store, but it seems that was unacceptable. They only pick up what's in their containers, which ended the Newberry family's single environmentally correct habit. Ever since, all the trash, plastics, old newspapers, spoiled food, and dead chipmunks had been relegated to the same dismal destination--the galvanized can outside the back door.
At present, the computer felt like a heavy ball and chain to me. Thoughts of putting my fingers back on the keyboard made me cringe. I was far more enthusiastic about other activities. There were friends to meet for lunch, the kitchen to paint, my family to enjoy, a new sofa to purchase, and my most favorite work-related activity of all, giving talks. My calendar had several scheduled. I checked. Ah hah. I had one on Thursday week.
Feeling out of control--likely due to a total lack of sleep--I attempted a more productive dialogue with myself. A therapist might call it an affirmation. To me, it was simply Creola talk.
Look at you, Miss Moonbeam! You're running around this house acting as foolish as a goose. You best quit second-guessing yourself. Now, get busy and show folks exactly what you can do! Get back to your writing!
"Not this time, ma'am," I said aloud. "I have a speech to give."
Typically, my audiences are made up of adults, generally adult women, many of whom have already read my books. Some are even eager to meet the author. I feel like something of a rock star on those occasions.
This was different, however; these were children. Children are unpredictable. They unnerve me. When I give speeches to children, I am a wreck.
Not only is my audience children, they were middle-school students. For me, it's much easier to talk with two hundred adults than it is to communicate with five young people. There I stood at the podium with three-hundred-fifty pairs of eyes--teacher-coerced eyes--politely awaiting my appearance.
Shaking in my shoes, I certainly intended to do my best. Children are scary, yes, but they are also ever so important to me. There could be a promising writer, another Margaret Mitchell, in the group. I had a responsibility.
Carry on, Moonbeam, I could hear her saying. Her encouragement sustained me.
My friend Martha, the teacher who'd invited me, began her introduction. "Mrs. Newberry is our Career Day speaker, a special lady, and a real author." As Martha continued, I smiled confidently and secretly wondered about whom she was saying such nice things. I laughed to myself. If only those trusting teachers and their bright-eyed middle-schoolers had witnessed my recent creative meltdown, they'd have bolted from the school auditorium.
Martha was about to conclude her part of the program. How was I to act? Surely as a professional. Down to earth, approachable? Or should I behave like a famous person, one who is completely "cool and with it?" To begin with, I didn't feel famous. Secondly, using those words, "cool and with it" told me I definitely was not. I ultimately went with being myself.
As any practiced speaker feigning confidence will do, I took the microphone, looked pleasantly into the sea of faces, and began. I talked about creative writing, about the value of keeping journals, about being persistent in the face of rejection, about character development, and so on. Things went fine. I concluded my talk and asked if there were any questions. Pleasantly surprised at the teenagers' enthusiasm, I happily responded to their queries concerning the characters in two of my books.
Had I a favorite character?
That was easy. "My grandmother, the heroine in my first novel." I urged the audience, students, and teachers alike, to write their own stories about older persons they loved.
A hand flew high, and a young lady breathlessly announced, "I already have, Mrs. Newberry. I wrote a story about my dad, who is reeeallly old. When he was a little boy, he only had three channels on his TV!"
The young people ohhhed and ahhhhed.
I countered, "Guess what? My family didn't even own a television until I was six-years-old!"
I may as well have told the audience I'd arrived by ship. Was it the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria?
Perhaps in a generous effort to help me salvage my reputation, one thoughtful eighth grader changed the subject by asking another question. "Mrs. Newberry, who inspired you when you were in school?"
Another obvious answer for me. "Why, my high school English teacher, Miss Kate. She was also our school newspaper's sponsor, and because of her, I worked for several papers before I began writing novels. Look around in this auditorium. I'm certain many of you have special teachers of your own. Thank you for the question; a good one!"
The students followed my advice. Some smiled at teachers, who glowed in response.
I was back on a roll.
A young man, a handsome fellow who bore a striking resemblance to Harry Potter, raised his hand. "Tell us please, Mrs. Newberry, what are you working on right now?"
I'd been caught. I wanted to interrogate him. Young man, exactly who encouraged you to ask me that question? Was it a teacher? Was it my friend Martha?
Wait a second; it was Creola, wasn't it! I'd always believed my beloved Crellie was more compassionate than that. Spirits are supposed to be compassionate, aren't they? Hold on, young man, do you know my sister? Ah ha, it was my older sister, Mary Pearle. She's been after me for months to finish my book of short stories. I just know Mary Pearle ordered you to push me. The conniving shrew!
What I did say was even worse. I responded, "Another good question. Actually, I'm going to the beach next week and will return at summer's end with a book of short stories."
Who said that? Not me! Had I been possessed by Creola? I wanted to back away from the podium and sidle off the stage. Hundreds of eyes were on me, including the eyes of the teachers. They can smell the truth, I thought. I'd thrown the stories away. My tentative beach trip was planned exclusively for rest and relaxation. I was in trouble. Honey Newberry had told a big, fat lie! Now I was going to be forced to write more stories during the summer, because I'd made the announcement to an entire room full of trusting children!
Three weeks later, off to the beach I went. To rest. To work. To escape those probing eyes.
I could hear Creola chuckling.
I stood in a condominium overlooking the beautiful Gulf beaches of Florida, but my attention was on myself. I'd left Beau at home in Atlanta, thankfully. Naked, I gazed into the bedroom mirror. Students, teachers, writing, family, war and famine, world chaos--those concerned me not. A crime had been committed. Someone had stolen my youthful body and replaced it with one of an aging fat woman.
The tag on my Magik-Slim promised my brand-new, magically slimming swimsuit would take off ten pounds. I was a desperate woman. I took the bathing suit from its shopping bag. Right foot, left foot. I stepped in, wriggling and tugging, until up over my thighs rolled the black, floral-splashed suit.
"Curses on all cookies and crackers. Curses on sitting too much, munching and typing. Curses on summer." Sucking in my stomach with a gasp, I jerked upward until my ample form compressed into the slim suit. "It's magic all right. It's turned an ordinary woman into a giant bratwurst."
I wandered into the bathroom and viewed myself in that mirror. It was not a pretty sight. Each of the suit's orange, pink, and purple tropical blossoms had been strategically positioned to emphasize every major figure flaw--my ample butt, my small boobs, and my fat belly. Thank you, Magik-Slim.
I squeezed 50 SPF sunscreen onto my palm and slathered it over my lily-white body. Actually, that's lily-white with brown splotches, more akin to the hide of a giraffe. I remain determined to hold my own against a lifetime of well-earned sun damage. A childhood of unprotected play outside, coupled with the slathering on of iodine and baby oil, followed by college years devoted to tanning on the roof of the sorority house, had accomplished its mission.
That said, it frequently occurs to me that, were all the age spots to run together, I might just have the perfect tan. My unyielding dermatologist, Dr. Cox, vehemently disagrees with the concept.
Only when covered from forehead to toe with the cream, he insists, am I sufficiently protected from the rays of the sun. As usual, Dr. Cox wins. Donning my floppy straw hat and long-sleeved white shirt, I paused to again view myself, this time in the entry hall mirror. Was I expecting an improvement?
I would lie to myself. Employ an affirmation.
"Fetching, Honey Newberry, you are positively fetching."
I sighed and headed outdoors. How I longed for the simplicity, and good skin, of my childhood at the beach.
But that was a story I'd thrown away.
1956, The Year of the Bathing Cap
When I was a little girl, my older sister, Mary Pearle, and I could simply put on our bathing suits and run outside, slamming (always slamming) the rickety wooden door of the beach cottage's screened-in porch. Free as the wind, the two of us would charge through sugary white sand and splash into the cooling waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
There was no sunscreen for us and there was no need for hats. Nor, in the Fifties, was there any threat of a shark biting off our toes. Of course, sharks had always been around, but those frighteningly dangerous sea creatures never came near the pristine Gulf waters off St. George's Island where, for nearly two decades, we, the Butlar family, took our annual two-week vacation.
Wear hats? Not ever! That was true, with the exception of the summer of 1956, The Year of the Bathing Cap. A few weeks before our trip to the beach, Mary Pearle and I were thumbing through one of our mother's fashion magazines when we came across a lush tropical beach scene, one with swaying palm trees, pounding surf, beach umbrellas, and gorgeous models lounging about in sugar-white sand.
The models were wearing rubber bathing caps, but much to our surprise and admiration, these were not the frumpy black kind that older women like Mother wore. These stunning women sported fancy caps in a rainbow collection of color that coordinated with their swimsuits. Mary Pearle, at age thirteen, simply had to have one.
Wanting to do everything just like my older and more sophisticated sibling, I had to have one, too. I was eleven.
Mary Pearle went along with my wishes not because she respected my fashion sense, but because she was not about to be the only girl around wearing the trendy accessory. I was her ready disciple.
Giving in to our fervent and relentless pleadings, Mother agreed to take us shopping. As expected, however, such a chic item was hard to find in the modest stores of Humphrey, our small, middle-Georgia town. Much to our dismay, we came home empty-handed. Fortunately, however, only a couple of days before we were to leave on vacation, Mother hit pay dirt.
Mary Pearle and I were sitting on the living room rug putting together a one-hundred-piece puzzle, which, coincidentally, was a tropical scene. My sister and I--I especially--always daydreamed about the beach.
Mother burst in through the front door. She stopped and posed in a victory stance. Her high-heeled feet apart, in her gloved hands she triumphantly clutched a shopping bag.
"Eureka!" She emptied the bag and produced two identical swimming caps. Covered in pink petals and topped with green leaves, their design was even prettier than the ones in the magazine.
"Ohh, Mother, thank you, thank you!"
We jumped up, scattering the sand and surf puzzle pieces everywhere. My sister and I squealed with glee as we stuffed our long brown ponytails into the flowered caps. We hurried to admire ourselves in the hall-tree mirror.
Mary Pearle preened. "Look, Harriette, it will match my suit puuurfectly."
Our mother beamed.
Our father, as he usually did, teased us, "We'll surely be able to spot the two of you out in the water. Our darling daughters will be the only roses floating around with all those fish!"
"Oh, Daddy, you just don't understand," complained Mary Pearle. She was more anxious for his praise than for his good-natured teasing.
I had another concern. "I forgot about the fish, Daddy! I can't stand it when they swim into me. I wish we could have our Gulf without those slimy fish."
"Darling girl, it doesn't work that way. Besides, those fish are more afraid of you than you are of them."
"They couldn't be."
My sister wasn't worried about fish or me. She was too busy prancing about in her cap. It was five o'clock in the afternoon, nearly supper time, and good gracious sakes, if she didn't go and put on her swimsuit!
Daddy laughed at her. "Mary Pearle, are you expecting a flood?"
"D* * * *dddeee! Mother, make him quit!"
Mother laughed, too.
Though still three years away from getting her driver's license, every time Mary Pearle Butlar wore her pink floral bathing cap she believed she was every bit as glamorous as her favorite movie star, Elizabeth Taylor.
I only prayed my cap wouldn't attract fish.
My days of fearing fish are long gone. In truth, I believed Dr. Cox and his warnings about skin cancer. The sun was my enemy. The "well-seasoned" woman I'd become was far more focused on lotions to ward off that villain and on hats to make certain its rays didn't alter my newly quaffed and colored hair. Yes, I'd made it to the hairdresser before the trip to the beach. I no longer looked as if a calico cat sat perched atop my head.
During one Memorial Day family beach trip, Mary Pearle and I talked about aging. While Beau played golf, we sisters talked, we laughed, we ate, we shopped, and we delighted in our favorite activity--walking the beach. Despite some major disappointments in her life, my sister still maintained her deliciously dry sense of humor.
"Mary Pearle, have you noticed that your boobs are getting, hmmm, are they getting bigger?"
We were walking on the beach at the time. Mary Pearle stopped and turned to me. Putting her arm around my shoulders, she assumed a serious posture and cleared her throat. "No, little sister, they're not getting bigger. Just longer."
For the rest of her visit, merely mouthing the word longer turned over my tickle box and Mary Pearle's as well.
All in all, I yearned for childhood, for its effortlessness, for the old cottage of those simple days, and mostly for my family, the family who had so contentedly vacationed inside.
I grimaced as I pushed the button for my condo's elevator. "Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if a shark were to take a small nip out of me. Depending on where he nibbled, of course." The fierce fish might trim a pound or two from my mid-section. A free liposuction of sorts.
The possibility of my losing twenty pounds of baby weight had long since passed. I have two children--a daughter, Mary Catherine, and her younger brother, Butlar. Butlar will turn twenty-four on his next birthday. I've carried those extra pregnancy pounds for a quarter of a century.
"Diet? Drat, I forgot my diet drink," I scurried back inside the condo. On the way out, I grabbed a handful of cheese crackers. "Energy for a brisk swim."
The smell of mildew hung like a damp cloud in the elevator. I attempted to hold my breath for the four-floor descent. "Can't," I gasped. I coughed in the dampness. Continuing my pattern of complaint, (perhaps due to my own sense of guilt for spending money to be there for the entire summer?) I thought about how cumbersome it was to carry all my necessities.
As a child, an old inner tube and favorite beach towel--the one with a pink poodle romping in the sand--were all the equipment required. Now I carried a towel, a folding chair, a drink, snacks, an umbrella, a new novel, lip-gloss, sunscreen, and my ever-present cell phone.
I reminded myself of an overburdened burro making the long trek into the Grand Canyon.
I caught my reflection in the elevator doors. Mirrors seem to be everywhere when one is feeling fat. "Am I shrinking to boot?" I wailed. "When did I become, well, so compact?" Alone in the smelly elevator I made yet another observation, "My bottom half is rising while my upper half is sinking."
The elevator stopped on the second floor.
"And good morning to you, too!" I responded to the cheery couple as they stepped on. "Yes, it's a perfectly marvelous day. I couldn't be better."
The elevator stopped on the first floor. "Go ahead," I motioned for them to exit ahead of me.
Taking another glimpse at myself, I muttered, "A pear on popsicle sticks, that's me."
I made my way toward the beach, following a wooden walkway across a sand dune. At the base of its wooden steps, I passed a shower and stepped onto the sand. The convenient beach shower is a modern marvel to me. No longer do vacationers have to deal with sand in their sheets and everywhere else! I admire that innovation every single time I pass an outdoor shower, because I can still hear my mother's constant vacation lament, "Harriette Ophelia Butlar! Mary Pearle Butlar! I just finished sweeping. Don't you two children be tracking any sand into this clean cottage!"
I was named for my mother's maiden aunts, Harriette and Ophelia. As a teenager, I believed with all my heart that, had the two dear old ladies been given more modern names, neither would have remained a spinster.
I must admit I was always envious of my sister's name, Mary Pearle. How often I wished that I'd been the firstborn and thus named for my glamorous aunt on our father's side, Mary Pearle Butlar Armstrong, who worked in the fashion industry in New York. Rarely had Daddy's baby sister returned to Georgia, but the couple of times she came, in the late 1950's, it was as if royalty had come to visit Humphrey.
I could hardly tolerate my sister during those few days. Being around her namesake aunt inflated her ego even more than usual.
"Mary Pearle Butlar, you are acting like you are the fancy lady from New York City," I'd complain. "You are nothing but a plain little Georgia girl, a little girl from Humphrey, exactly like me!"
Didn't do a bit of good. She'd stick out her tongue and priss away with her nose stuck straight up in the air.
I loved Aunt Harriette and Aunt Ophelia. Those fine Southern ladies could not have been any dearer to me, but never once did I plan to turn out like either of my namesakes.
When I grew up--having spent the first twenty-two years of my life as Little Harriette, or, on days when I displeased my parents, Miss Harriette Ophelia Butlar-- I was eager to change my identity. The Lord above was to provide the perfect solution.
If only that story weren't at the county landfill now.
I was a sophomore at the University of Alabama when I met the charming, funny, and very popular Beau Newberry. We were introduced at a sorority-fraternity pledge swap. The next three years raced by as we juggled classes, football games, fraternity parties, sorority dances, and make-out sessions in the university's main library parking lot. Beau Newberry and I were married just after our graduations.
The date was selected through a lottery system, as each of my engaged sorority sisters lobbied for those all important Saturdays in June of 1967. (We wanted to be in one another's weddings, so we drew numbers.) I secured June 24. My former roommate, Ruth Anne Oliver, stopped speaking to me and hasn't spoken to me since.
Ruth Anne, bless her heart, was divorced one year later and blamed the whole debacle on me. A noted fortune teller in Tuscaloosa had given her the third weekend of June as the perfect lining up of the moon and stars for Ruth Anne and her fiance's astrological signs. But, according to our lottery rules, Ruth Anne's wedding had to occur on the second weekend. Who knew?
I am sorry, Ruthie.
Beau and I married in the very same church in Humphrey where Mother and Daddy had married some three decades prior. It was the big event of the summer for Humphrey. Eight bridesmaids and twice as many groomsmen marched into the standing-room-only congregation. Mary Pearle, already married and, thankfully, only slightly pregnant at the time, served as my matron of honor. My attendants, with their tightly teased, lacquer-sprayed, helmet-like hair, wore soft green dresses with fashionable A-line skirts and short, white gloves. Each carried a bountiful bouquet of gardenias with English ivy that streamed down onto the church's floor.
The young men, tuxedo-clad and sweating profusely, performed admirably as they clearly wished for the ceremony's end. The boys were more than ready for the festivities at my parents' country club. Most of them were still trying to recover from overindulging at the rehearsal dinner party the night before.
My groom was a nervous wreck. Beau sweated more than anyone else in the church, but to me he appeared as calm, cool, and as dashingly handsome as a knight in shining armor.
As my sister had three years prior, I wore Mother's gown of antique, ivory lace. I carried peach roses and beamed as Daddy walked me down the long, green-carpeted aisle. Mother and Creola, both dressed in shades of pink, stood together on the front row and took turns weeping and making fun of one another for doing so.
Mother said our ceremony was the second most joyous day of her life, the first being her own wedding.
Creola added, "If only Miss Moonbeam and Beau weren't still such babies. I can't believe my Moonbeam's all grown."
"You look like a princess today," Daddy whispered in my ear. My father's eyes were teary. As much as my family approved of Beau, it was obvious that none of them were ready for their last little girl to grow up.
Everything went off as planned at the church and at the reception, with the exception of minor mishaps. A waiter stumbled and dropped the sterling silver punchbowl in the center of the ballroom. Mother was horrified but also extremely relieved that none of our guests' outfits were splattered with raspberry punch. Daddy, his buddies, and Beau's fraternity brothers were elated that it was the non-alcoholic punch that got spilled.
My parents had arranged for a uniformed driver to whisk Beau and me away in grand style after the reception. We were to ride across town in Daddy's brand-new, 1967, midnight-blue Oldsmobile. We would then pick up Beau's car in the shopping center parking lot and be on our merry way to the Smoky Mountains for our honeymoon.
Beau's Chevy was there all right, exactly where he'd parked it the night before.
"Good Lord, Beau, look at that!" I yelled.
"Damn stupid jerks," he shouted, muttering much worse under his breath.
Beau's groomsmen had written all over his car with white paint. Their crude comments went far beyond the traditional, good-natured, Just Married wishes. My brain mercifully (for Beau's future relationships with these old friends) blocked out anything specific.
"Where's the nearest place we can get the car washed, Harriette?"
"Two blocks on the left. There's a gas station on the corner."
Beau gunned the engine. Moments later, the new Mr. and Mrs. Beau Newberry had resolved a good bit of our problem.
But that's not all.
Mother drove the same make and model Chevrolet as Beau's. I can only imagine her stunned reaction upon returning home to find her car covered with sexually specific graffiti. Seems that the pranksters, in their rush to embarrass us, managed to confuse the two automobiles. Time was of the essence, so they failed to remove the paint from Mother's car.
I always hoped the language on Mother's car was milder than on Beau's. It must have been pretty steamy, however, because, right after all the festivities were over and done with, my mother insisted that Daddy wash her car!
"And, dear, best do so in our driveway. Don't dare take it to the service station. People will talk."
Daddy, still dressed in his tux, stood with garden hose in hand, wondering what kind of boy his daughter had married. He prayed sincerely that the groom was nothing like his groomsmen.
Mother never mentioned the ill-fated practical joke to me, but Daddy confronted Beau the very first chance he had. My father was still complaining to Beau about the incident up until our first child was born. But Daddy was too gentlemanly to discuss such things in front of "the girls," meaning Mother and me.
As Beau and I drove north toward Gatlinburg, Tennessee on our honeymoon, the car radio was playing My Girl. We sang along, "I've got sunshine on a cloudy day..."
Other drivers were honking and waving at us. We finally realized why.
"Guess we'd better get another carwash," grimaced Beau. "Those idiots must have used enamel!"
"Whatever you say." By then, I was too contented to care about much of anything but Beau. I smiled. "I'm your wife. How strange is that?"
"About as strange as me being your husband."
"We're a couple of old married folks." My voice drifted. I admired the needlepoint purse on my lap. "Look, Beau. Can you believe I finally finished the bloomin' thing?"
I'd struggled to complete the needlepoint monogram and did so only with the able assistance of Aunts Harriette and Ophelia. God bless them. My new initials, done in yellow on a white background, were in block letters. They spelled out "H-O-N," for Harriette Ophelia Newberry.
Technically, it should have been HOBN, for Harriette Ophelia Butlar Newberry, but that simply didn't look right. "Too busy," explained the lady at the needlepoint shop. "Just use HBN." But Mother and I agreed that we couldn't offend Aunt Ophelia by leaving out her O. Also, it didn't matter to Daddy that I omitted the B for Butlar. He was far too wrapped up in the mounting wedding expenses.
"It's just a purse, darling daughter," he said. "Whatever makes my daughter and my wife happy." Always the diplomat, Daddy made that particular statement so often in April, May, and June of 1967 that he sounded like a robot.
So HON it was.
As we rode down the highway, Beau politely and enthusiastically made jokes over my handiwork. He proclaimed, "You're a real, HON-ey to me, sweetheart." He turned and quickly kissed my cheek.
I kissed him back.
"Honey, indeed. Honey Newberry."
I liked it. That was the last time anyone but my parents, Aunt Harriette, or Aunt Ophelia ever again called me Little Harriette.
Our first married Christmas was the only Christmas we spent apart. Beau was in Vietnam. I would never forget that night.
Beau had been oddly quiet throughout dinner that night. A great cook I wasn't just yet, but the roast beef tasted pretty good to me. Something was wrong with him, and he was obviously not ready to tell me what was going on. We went to a movie. As we sat in the theater watching Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles, Beau fidgeted, not making eye contact with me, not eating our shared popcorn, and not paying a minute's attention to the film. He continued to squeeze my hand again and again as if he were trying to resuscitate someone's heart.
Later on, Beau would admit that his initial reaction to the shock of the news was to take the afternoon off for a round of golf. He desperately needed the time to get his mind off what was happening and to figure out how to tell me about it. As a rule, he was a fine golfer, one who shot under eighty. Beau Newberry didn't break one hundred that round.
We pulled into the driveway of our small rental house. Beau put on the brake and turned to me. "I've got to go over there."
It was a warm summer night, yet I was suddenly chilled to the bone. We had waited two whole years to get married because we both wanted to graduate from college first. It had only been a few short weeks since our wonderful wedding. My entire body started to tremble.
The wheels of my mind began to turn as I tried to figure out how to keep this from happening to him, to us. Pull strings? Who could we contact to get the orders changed? Perhaps the orders were wrong? Could it be a horrendous mistake? He'd enrolled in ROTC as a sound way to earn extra money for college. But Beau Newberry with orders to Vietnam? How could this be? Could I wish it away? No. Could I pray for it to disappear? I'd surely try.
"Are you certain?"
"Yes, there's no doubt about it. I got a letter. I couldn't make much sense out of the military mumbo jumbo, but a pamphlet fell out of the envelope. It read 'Familiar Vietnamese Phrases.'"
I had to laugh.
So did Beau.
Then we wept.
Beau left in six weeks.
I cried, I crumbled, I cocooned my crushed self. For days, either I couldn't eat a thing or I ate like a pig. Then I cried and I cried and I cried.
Beau was gone. I felt powerless and very, very afraid for him. His parents were terrified, too. Beau was still their baby boy. My parents, as much as they loved Beau, were as concerned for me as they were for my young husband.
Creola vowed to get back at the "Yankee" government. She was childless, and considered us her own. "I'll show them how I feel about them hurting my babies." She became a war protester, writing letter after letter to President Johnson. Creola once picketed in front of the army recruiting office in Humphrey. Her actions didn't help Beau, but it made her feel like she was doing something. I loved her for it.
I pulled myself together and landed a job as a newspaper reporter. It was interesting enough. I stayed busy. As a reporter, I was assigned to write feature stories. I also wrote about other people's weddings. I was jealous of every bride and groom. At the same time, I genuinely hoped Vietnam wouldn't separate them as it had us. I wrote letters to my second lieutenant every night. Never much of a writer before or since, Beau wrote back to me.
As the fall holidays approached I dreaded the sight of a grocery-store turkey because I saw the holiday bird as a depressing harbinger of happy times for everyone but me. I wanted to stomp Halloween pumpkins to pieces, and I knew full well that Christmas was going to be hell. I thought about carrying matches with me to set fire to anything that happened to be red, green, and festive.
On one particularly lonely afternoon in December, I came upon a woman ringing her Salvation Army bell. I dropped a dollar in her bucket. As I hurried away, my cheeks were awash with tears. The next morning, I actually walked into a street light pole while trying to avoid a store window with its ornamented tree, fake fireplace, and happy family of mannequins. Get a grip, Honey.
I thought about a conversation I'd had with Creola at Mother and Daddy's on the previous Sunday. After dinner, my parents were in the living room whispering something about Mary Pearle. Concerned, I walked in, but Mother quickly ushered me out.
"She's not your worry right now, dear. Everything will be fine. Besides, you have Beau to think about."
She closed the door.
"Come in here," called Creola from the kitchen. "You can help me clear off the dishes."
"But nothing. I need you."
Creola had set a trap and I fell right in. She started with tender concern, "Precious little bride, I know you miss your Beau. Of course, you do! Just as he misses you. Miss Moonbeam, there's an old saying that goes like this, 'The days are long, but the years fly by.' I've been around long enough to know it's true."
"I hope so."
Then Creola Moon got me. As angry as she was about Beau's being in Vietnam, my Crellie said, "I am a little surprised at you, baby girl. And I don't quite understand." She paused as I stacked the dirty dishes and she gathered the silverware. Then Creola charged, "Feeling sorry for yourself doesn't sound one bit like the brave little girl I raised."
"I just miss him so much, Crellie." I cried as I slumped down on a dining room chair. I buried my head in my arms, and in doing so, knocked over what was left of my iced tea. "Damn!"
Mother called from the living room, "Everything all right in there?"
Creola responded, "We're doing fine. I can take care of this." She blotted the tea with a dish rag. "No harm done."
She sat down next to me. "I know, I know your heart is broken in pieces. Saw that so many times when you were little. I just wish I could fix it as easy as I did in those days."
"Your Beau--our Beau--is coming home to us, safe and sound. I pray for him every day."
"Oh, Crellie," I threw my arms around her. "I hope you're right." How I wanted to believe her.
"Now, let's get the dessert and carry it into the living room. Best not to share our conversation. Your parents have enough on them right now."
"Tell me, Crellie. What's wrong with Mary Pearle?"
"It's that Edgar again. He's a fool. Tom-cattin' around, just like always."
"My brother-in-law thinks he's God's gift to women!"
"That's right. God's curse, as I see it," she frowned. "I pray for him in the opposite way I pray for our Beau."
"Now, don't you be letting on to Mary Pearle that you know about this situation. Your sister wants everybody, especially you, to believe things are fine, especially with her baby coming."
"I'm sure the baby will bring her and Edgar together," I affirmed.
The wise Creola knew better. She said nothing, just knocked on the living room door. "All right then, who's ready for some peach pie?"
The four of us ate dessert as if all were right with the world.
I worried about Mary Pearle and Edgar, but as promised, I said not a word whenever Mary Pearle and I talked. Besides, despite only two years' difference, my sister still seemed so much older to me! We weren't as close then as we would become during the next few years. I confidently told Mother and Daddy that the problem would surely resolve itself.
As Creola quoted, The days are long, but the years fly by. I was convinced that in a year's time, we'd all be one happy family.
Creola's harsh but well intentioned words about my "Vietnam attitude" made me realize how much worse things must have been for Beau. To think, just the Christmas before, we'd gotten engaged, celebrated with our parents, with Creola, and again with our fraternity and sorority friends on New Year's Eve. Would it be cold in Bien Hoa? Probably not, just rainy. But lonely.
Beau was half a world away from me, from his family, and from everything he knew and loved. Like me and like my family, Crellie, his sister and his dear parents were also grieving themselves sick with worry. It was Beau who needed consolation, not his bride.
I soon started to occupy myself with helping others. Instead of weeping at the sight of a Salvation Army volunteer, I rang the bell with all my might as a volunteer for the organization. I drove to Alabama and spent more time with Beau's folks. And, in addition to my daily letters to him, I determined to start sending my husband some cheerful surprises.
One such gift turned around as a joke on me. More of a revelation, it was. Until that point, I'd never thought of myself as having much of a southern drawl. A friend at the newspaper let me borrow her tape recorder. First, I practiced the mechanics of operating the machine. I then recorded a romantic and witty holiday message for Lt. Newberry.
After he listened to my gift, Beau wrote back to me: Dear Magnolia. I could practically hear him chuckling.
That was the last tape-recording from this Southern belle that the young lieutenant--and his insensitive army buddies--was to hear. Magnolia, indeed! Mad? Offended? Let's just say this Mrs. Newberry was more far comfortable with the written word, after that.
If this is a confession about my shortcomings, I must add that baking goodies had never been my long suit either. Nevertheless, I decided to send my soldier some Christmas cookies. These were to come from me and from me alone, so I stubbornly refused any assistance from Creola or from Beau's mother, Mary, a cook extraordinaire. For Magnolia, this was another mistake.
Oh, I baked the cookies, all right. My kitchen looked like there'd been a blizzard come through. It and I were covered in flour and butter. Tiny silver candies spilled and rolled into every nook and cranny of our house. At the end of the day, let it be written, those darn cookies filled two large tins and were ready for shipping. Proudly, I deposited the box at our neighborhood post office.
Two weeks later Beau wrote back. I could hear the laughter in his ink.
I love you. Thank you so much for the cookies. I know how hard you must have worked. They were delicious. There must have been some trouble in shipping. The guys and I had to eat them with spoons! Ha Ha.
I do love the baker with all my heart, Beau
Dauntless, I remained single-minded in my mission to help him celebrate Christmas. As my spoken word and my attempts at baking had bombed--other than to provide a few chuckles--I decided to mail my groom a fully adorned Christmas tree. Decorating has always been my forte.
A trip to the corner drugstore netted the perfect three-foot fake tree. I covered it with miniature ornaments and topped it with a gold star. Stroking my engagement and wedding rings, I added sentimental messages about our previous Christmas and shared my hopes for the many, many happy holidays to come.
I carefully boxed up the tree with all matter of packing materials and took it to the post office. Giving the package to the lady behind the desk, I mentioned the disastrous results with the cookies.
"Not to worry, ma'am," she assured me. "Your package will arrive in excellent shape. Trust me; I'll see to it myself."
I walked away convinced that my tree would arrive and be the delight of Beau's barracks.
The beaten-up thing was returned to me in February. A single ornament remained unbroken, a tiny plastic Santa. A good omen of sorts, actually, because years later, Beau himself would become Santa Claus. For the last five years, he has played Santa for the children of his office workers and for those of our friends. "That little ornament was spared as a sign," Creola told me. She was right.
Beau did have a good Christmas in Vietnam. He heard from family and friends. Best of all, he got to see Bob Hope in person. The USO show was telecast. My parents, Creola, and I sat glued to the television on that December night. No, we didn't get a glimpse of Beau, but we did see the faces of many, many young soldiers just like him, who were serving their country.
On Christmas Day, I, my parents, Mary Pearle and Edgar--who'd behaved well since their baby daughter, Susan, had arrived--gathered to spend the afternoon with Beau's family and members of the Newberry clan. Yes, of course, there were tears, many tears. Yet, there was also joy in the anticipation and the absolute belief that our Beau would be safely back home with us in a few more months.
I had Daddy take my picture in front of the Newberry's beautifully decorated Christmas tree. In the shot, I held out my empty arm indicating the exact place where Beau should have been. Thankfully, my life-sized Santa Claus returned home from Vietnam the following fall. On December 25, 1968, he and I posed in the exact same spot.
Beau was holding a plate of delicious holiday cookies, whole ones, silver candies in place, no crumbles.
He'd baked them himself.