Thursday, October 29, 2009

B-B-B-Bats in the Belfry!

My family is having meetings about my "mental state".
Word has it, Dad has called my siblings expressing deep concern for my well-being, and my sister has not-so-subtly suggested anti-anxiety medication and legally removed me from the list of people who would care for her children in the event of her demise.
My mother now calls to check on me daily: "Everything okay, sweetheart? Are you having a good day?" Even worse, my seven-year-old son is illustrating his feelings about me in drawings that would make a therapist cringe, and my 12-year-old daughter is telling her friends they can't come over because "Mom needs quiet and rest."
Psssssshhhhh. They're overreacting.
Just because I had one panicked phone exchange with my sister, locked my children in a bedroom with stern instructions for them to stay in it "no matter what you may hear" and startled my parents by opening the front door to greet them on an unseasonably warm afternoon wearing a toboggan and snow suit while brandishing a broom and whimpering that I was going to die... well, that's no reason to be overly alarmed.
What happened to me could happen to anyone (excluding rational, calm and psychologically healthy populations).
Folks, I was attacked by a horrifying chimney critter!


My ordeal began one late summer evening, as I was relaxing on the back porch. My quiet time was interrupted when my children ran out the door, panic-stricken, yammering about "noises" in the living room.
"Mom!" they cried. "There's... s-s-something in the fireplace!"
"It's probably nothing," I assured them, but the fear in their eyes urged me to go inside and inspect.
I quietly approached the living room fireplace, which has a partially open damper near the bottom and a flue at the top. The flue had broken during an ice storm last winter, so I realized it was entirely possible something had indeed found its way into our chimney, which was not capped.
As the children stood anxiously beside me, I put my ear to the fireplace and listened intently, but I didn't hear anything. I tapped on the hearth and listened again. Nothing.
"We heard it. There was scratching and weird chirping in there," my son said.
"There really was, Mom," my daughter echoed. "I heard scratching, too."
I reassured them that the noise most likely was birds on top of the chimney -- not in it -- but I did ask my spouse to retrieve some cardboard from the recycling bins in the basement to seal off the damper at the chimney's bottom, just to be safe. If something had made a home in our chimney, I didn't want it to find its way into the house through our open fireplace. He laughed and said he didn't think any critters would come into the house, but I stuffed the large piece of cardboard up into the bottom of the chimney anyway. Convinced it was secure, I told the children that nothing was coming in through the fireplace and they could rest easy.
Rest easy we did … for a while.
But then the bite marks appeared.


About a week after the children had heard the mysterious fireplace noises, I woke up one morning and threw back the sheets to discover two tiny red holes about three centimeters apart on the inside of my thigh. I hadn't noticed them when I went to bed the night before. Concerned, I roused my husband and said, "What do you think this is?"
He looked for a minute and jokingly said, "A vampire bite?"
At this point, I should tell you that I am a huge fan of the new wave of vampire stories. I relished the Twilight books and had recently discovered and thoroughly enjoyed the campy HBO vampire series, "Trueblood". I often joked that I was leaving my bedroom window open at night with the hope that Edward Cullen would find his way inside and give me a nibble or two.
So I laughed at my spouse's remark for a second, but then I remembered the odd chirping and scratching my children had heard in the fireplace the week before. My giggle caught in my throat. My heart began to pound. I jumped out of bed, raced into the living room and looked up into the chimney. Sure enough, the cardboard I had shoved into the damper was loose and displaced. It also was covered with debris that had fallen from the chimney when -- gulp -- some critter had inspected the fireplace.
My hands began to shake. Only then did I notice that my daughter had traipsed downstairs during the night and was asleep on the living room couch, completely uncovered.
"Oh, no!" I moaned.
I rushed over to her, jerked her off the couch and immediately began to inspect every square inch of her body for potential bat bites or scratches.
"What?" she said, now fully awake and obviously alarmed by her mother, who was standing in the living room without pants and a serious case of bed head, and pulling her off the couch. "What in the world are you doing, Mom? What's going on?"
My concerned spouse also came in at this point and asked why I was tormenting our daughter.
With shaky hands, I pointed to the fireplace.
"The cardboard… it was displaced. It looks like something came in from the chimney," I said. "You were only joking about the bite marks, but what if it was a…b-b-b-bat? What if a bat bit me last night?!"
My daughter and husband both looked at me for a second then burst into giggles. "A bat?" Kelsey said. "Mom? Have you lost it?"
My husband couldn't stop laughing. "Jen,it wasn't a bat!" he said. "You probably have a spider bite."
But all I could think about were the news articles I had read about people who had died from the bites of rabid bats. I remembered one story in particular about a bat that had flown in through an open bedroom window and bitten a young man while he slept. He sadly died a few weeks later from rabies.
Therefore, I insisted my husband call a chimney sweep that very morning to inspect our chimney and repair our broken flue. I also carefully screened both children for any critter marks and launched a thorough search of our big, old home that unfortunately, has plenty of nooks and crannies that could house a wayward bat...


Thank goodness, the children were mark-free, and we didn't find any evidence of a bat in the house; however, I was still concerned enough to tell my sister, who is a nurse, about the marks on my thigh at a family gathering later that day. I also told her about the strange noises in the fireplace and the displaced cardboard seal.
My sister is a rational person and a great nurse. On hearing my plight, she said, "Do you really think a crazed, rabid bat came into your home, flew into your bedroom, found its way under the blanket and sheets and bit your thigh, without waking you up?!"
"It's possible, isn't it?" I said.
She couldn't resist sharing my fear with the rest of my family, who immediately began to laugh and give me grief about my obsession with Edward Cullen and vampires. My brother ribbed me by saying, "Jen, you said the marks are on your inner thigh? Face it, sister. No bat is THAT freakin' desperate."
But when my sister inspected the odd marks at my mother's house that afternoon, she couldn't explain them and asked my mom for a magnifying glass. Soon several family members were looking at the tiny puncture marks on my thigh through the glass and shaking their heads. My sister finally said, "I honestly don't know WHAT that is. I agree that it is very strange, but it could be spider bites. Put hydrocortisone and antibiotic ointment on it, and let's watch it for a few days and see what happens. "
Great. Let's allow the rabies to fester. My siblings never liked me that much, anyway.
See, if you are bitten by a rabid creature, you only have a very brief window to begin the rabies shot series before the disease takes hold of your body. I learned this the previous summer, when my nephew was attacked by a stray dog authorities were unable to locate. As a result, he had to endure rabies shots. I shared this concern with my sister, who informed me that no doctor would put me through the somewhat risky rabies series without proof that a bat had indeed been in my house.
I tried to rest easy, but I couldn't help but wonder what would happen to me if they were wrong.


In the meantime, my husband called in a chimney sweep, who supposedly inspected our chimney and repaired our broken flue; however, he instructed us to leave the flue open for two days,so the mortar seal holding it in place could dry. Because the chimney was still open, I replaced the cardboard at the bottom of the damper.
Still nervous about the open flue, I inspected the cardboard every day to make sure it had not been disturbed. It appeared fine. And before my husband went out of town on a work-related trip, I asked him if he closed the flue, as instructed. "Oh yeah," he said, as he walked out the door. "I closed it."
"Did you make sure there wasn't anything in the chimney before you closed it?" I asked.
"Ummm, yeah. Sure, I did that," he said, and off he went, dropping my makeshift cardboard damper in the trash before he took off.


Whew! I finally felt I could relax. The mysterious marks on my thigh appeared to be healing fine; I wasn't foaming at the mouth; and our chimney was repaired and closed. Ahhhhhh. It felt good to unwind. In fact, later that afternoon, when the kids were engrossed in a game and miraculously not fighting, I grabbed a good book and curled up in bed. Our cat, Cleo, always looking for an excuse to nap, soon joined me.
I was just about to put my book down and drift into a nice siesta when Cleo suddenly jumped up from her nap and began to growl, low and deep in her throat. Then I heard what sounded like scratching in the living room. I thought I had imagined it, until our dog, Freddie, began barking like mad. Cleo's ears perked up, and every muscle in her feline body tensed. She sprang off the bed and took off through the house like a bullet.
Oh, no, I thought, as I sat up in bed. Something is wrong here -- terribly, horribly wrong. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I watched goose bumps pop out on my arms. Over the barks from the dog and the growls from the cat, I heard … unmistakable flapping.
I wanted to throw the blankets over my head and hide in bed, but I remembered that my children also were in the rear of the home and my husband was out of town. Whatever was in my house, I would have to be the one to deal with it.


My mothering instincts urged me from the bed, and I ran down the hall to see what had my pets in such a twitter. Freddie was standing at the opening to the laundry room barking like crazy, while Cleo fought something behind the dryer. Much to my horror, a black, pointy wing suddenly appeared from underneath the appliance.
No! No! No! No! No! It couldn't be! I was right all along. There was a bat IN MY HOUSE. And my cat had it trapped under the dryer. And, oh yeah, I was going to die from rabies. But I wouldn’t let the rabid bat get my children. They would live, dammit!
I immediately ran into the family room, grabbed my kids and screamed for them to run into Kyle's bedroom and shut the door. Alarmed by the look on my face, they didn't hesitate. "It's okay," I tried to assure them, but the tears streaming down my face said otherwise. "There is a bat in the laundry room, and…"
My daughter screamed bloody murder, which made my son scream, too. "I'm going to get the bat," I said. "I have to trap it. Stay in here, and do not come out -- no matter what you hear. Do NOT open this door until I tell you it's okay."
"Call 911," my daughter urged. "Mom, please, don't do this!"
"Call the fire department!" my son yelled, as I shut the door, just in time to see my cat, with the awful black beast in her mouth, run into my bedroom. I rushed down the hall and closed my bedroom door, trapping the cat and her prey inside.


I was shaking like a Kentucky meth addict who had run out of Sudafed.
Think! I told myself. Calm down and think!
I knew I had to trap the creature somehow and preserve it. Since I had a bite, the bat would have to be inspected for rabies.
Extremely unnerved, I ran into the laundry room, where the dog was sniffing behind the dryer.
"Some help you were!" I muttered to Freddie, as he wagged his tail at me and grinned, apparently unconcerned. "You let the cat do all the dirty work!"
I suddenly realized I was dressed in only a t-shirt and shorts. If I was going to trap the bat, I needed to cover my body and protect myself from additional bites or scratches. I couldn't get into my bedroom for my clothes, so I had to find coverings in other parts of the house. That left the clothes in the dryer and the coat closet.
I opened the dryer and found a pair of pajamas, which I immediately whipped on over my clothes. I also found some long socks and pulled those over my bare feet. I saw the broom leaning against the laundry room wall and grabbed it. It was my weapon.
I was covered, but not enough. Bat fangs and claws could probably penetrate thin, summer-weight pajamas. I ripped open the coat closet door and started pulling out everything I could find. I grabbed a fleece sock cap and put that on and wrestled myself into ski bibs. And I needed that coat, too. And gloves! I needed gloves! I tore through the closet, emptying its contents into the hall until I found two gloves that would suffice (non-matching, of course, as gloves apparently run off with odd socks).
By the time I was finished in the coat closet, I resembled the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.
Body armor? Check. Broom weapon? Check.
But I also needed something to put the bat in once I had it. I shuffled to the kitchen as fast as my clothes, pajamas, ski bibs and coat allowed and opened the Tupperware cabinet. I immediately began pulling out all of my Tupperware, as I searched frantically for matching lids. Containers and lids were flying out of the cabinet and clamoring all over the kitchen floor, prompting my kids to scream and cry, "What's happening, Mom? Are you alright?"
Not sure I was okay at all, I cried back, "Mommy's fine! Mommy's fine! Stay where you are, guys! Don't open the door until Mommy has the bat! Mommy's fine! Mommy's fine!" (I hoped that if I said I was "fine" often enough, I might eventually begin to believe it. But in reality, I was already picturing my slow, painful, tragic demise from rabies).
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally found a piece of Tupperware and a matching lid that I hoped would hold the bat. Armed with the broom , I slowly, cautiously made my way down the hall toward my closed bedroom door. I stopped and put my gloved hand on the doorknob, but before I opened the door, I pressed my ear to it to listen…


The phone rang and I'm pretty sure I peed my pants a little, not that I could tell through the many layers of clothing.
I hopped back down the hall and picked the phone up from the desk. It was my sister. Upon hearing her say "Jenny?" I immediately burst into hysterics.
"Oh my God! Oh my God!" I cried, my words running together in my panic. "ItWASabat!It was a rabid bat! It's in my bedroom and Cleo has it and I'm going to die! I'm going to die from rabies. I TOLD you it was a bat. I told you. No one believed me, and now it's too late for the shots and I'm going to die!"
My sister tried to calm me down. She would have had better luck convincing Elisabeth Hasselbeck to French kiss Rosie O'Donnell on national T.V.
"Jenny, did you actually see the bat?"
"Yes," I whimpered. "It was in the laundry room and now Cleo has carried it into the bedroom. I shut the door."
"Okay," she said. "Let's think this through. You can't smush the bat. The lab will need its head intact for rabies testing."
I wailed, prompting the kids to begin screaming again.
"It's okay, babies," I sobbed. "Mommy is fine. Just fi-i-i-iiinnnnne!"
About that time, the doorbell rang. I figured the neighbors had heard our screams and headed over to make sure we were alive. I set the phone down on the table and swung open the front door to find my parents smiling. Their smile quickly disappeared when they saw my tear-streaked, pale face. They took in my appearance on a hot afternoon: fleece hat, jacket, ski bibs, broom and Tupperware container.
"What the hell?!" Dad said. He and Mom had been in town having lunch and had decided to drop by to say hello. That'll teach 'em to do pop-ins. My appearance nearly gave them heart attacks. They later told me they first thought someone had died, but they couldn’t figure out why that would make me dress up in a snowsuit and grab a broom.
I burst into a new round of tears and got the folks up to speed: I told them about the bat in my bedroom and how I was going to die from rabies. My dad assured me he was going to trap the bat and asked for a towel. He then grabbed my broom and headed for the bedroom.
"WAIT!" I cried, just as he was about to open the door, "You need to cover your exposed skin!" I ran back to the coat closet and grabbed a fleece jacket, a hat and another pair of mismatched gloves.
My mom heard the frightened kids crying in my son's bedroom and said she was going in to comfort them, but really, I think she was just trying to protect herself from the rabid bat.
Once my dad was covered from head to toe, I repeated my sister's instructions about preserving the bat's head. Then we opened my bedroom door. Brave soul that I am, I cowered behind my 71-year-old father. We didn't see anything, but we heard the cat growling under the bed.
"Careful," I whispered to my father. "Pleeease be careful!"
Dad crossed the room and kneeled down beside the bed and peaked under it, prompting my startled cat to take off down the hall. Dad looked up over the bed at me. "I see it," he said somberly. "I see the bat. I think it's dead. Hand me the broom."
Shaking, I gave my father the broom, and he proceeded to sweep the creature out from under the bed. He asked for the Tupperware.
"Dad, it might not be dead!" I warned, as I handed the container to him over the bed, unable to see the creature on the other side. "Don't take any chances!"
He assured me the bat was dead, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I heard him snap the Tupperware lid closed.
"I've got the bat," he said. "I have it. It's dead."


I ran from the room and tore open the door to my son's bedroom. "Granddad got the bat!" I yelled triumphantly. "You're safe!" I embraced them, as my dad came down the hall with the beast safely enclosed in Tupperware.
Then reality hit me.
I had a bat, and I had a bite.
I told my parents we needed to find out where to send the bat for testing. I said I should call the health department, and I wondered if a doctor would now begin the rabies series on me … or if it was too late.
My mom looked stricken by my words. And then my Dad shook the Tupperware container and proceeded to open the lid.
"What are you doing ?" I said, thinking of the ending of every horror flick I'd ever seen. "Don't do that! What if the bat isn't really dead? What if it was only stunned or playing dead, and it gets out?"
My dad ignored me, lifted the lid and peered into the container. He looked up at me and smiled.
"Jenny," he said. "This is not a bat. It's a … bird!"
Say what?
"It's a little chimney swift, from the looks of it. They're black with pointy wings, so it looked like a bat, but it's just a bird!"
Come again?
About that time, we heard laughter -- hysterical, maniacal laughter. It was coming from the phone. In my haste to answer the door, I had set the phone down without hanging up on my sister first. She had been listening to the entire event unfold over her cell phone. In fact, she was on her way over to the house, afraid my dad would have a heart attack induced by his younger daughter's panic and she would have to perform CPR.
I picked up the phone.
"Don't laugh," I said. "There's a poor dead bird sitting in Tupperware on my buffet. It's not funny," but even as I said the words, I, too, erupted into peals of relieved laughter. Mom and Dad were doubled up laughing, and at last convinced that their mother wasn't going to die, the kids began to giggle, too. We laughed until tears streamed down our faces and our sides ached.
"I guess I don’t have bats after all," I said to my sister, when we finally caught our breath.
"Oh, you have bats alright!" my sister declared, from her end of the phone. "Bats in your damn belfry!"


That might be true, but until my husband returned from his trip, I wasn't taking any chances. As soon as my parents left, I shoved several layers of cardboard into the damper, covered the opening of the fireplace with another layer of cardboard, topped that with a vinyl shower curtain, and secured the entire thing with a roll of painter's tape until a wildlife specialist could humanely remove any other chimney critters and cap our chimney once and for all.
I might have bats in my belfry. But by gosh, I wasn't going to have any in my house!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pass the Cornbread, Ya'll

As fall settles upon us, I find myself thinking more and more of my grandmother, Gladys McCalvin Greenfield, who would have turned 91 this week.

The nights are cooler, so I sleep under the heavy butterfly quilt she stitched by hand. The garden needs to be put to bed for winter, so I work the soil with her garden tools. And as the days get shorter and darker, I crave comfort food -- the kind my grandmother so lovingly prepared for her family every weekend.

I lost my grandmother in 2003, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't miss her. I would give anything to once again sit at the maple kitchen table in her cozy, warm kitchen, and fill my plate with pinto beans, potatoes, green beans, corn, macaroni and cheese and her delicious buttery cornbread.

To keep my grandmother in my life, I have tried to prepare all of her "special" foods, the ones that remind me most of her. I'm no chef, but through trial and error, I've learned to bake homemade pies and biscuits and prepare her savory vegetable soup and country vegetables. I miss all of her treats, but I miss her cornbread most of all...and that's how the following essay was born.


(c) 2007 By Jennifer Jenkins Reese

My grandmother was dying.

She had been slipping away from us the past few years, each ragged breath one closer to her last as she wearily battled chronic emphysema and congestive heart failure. Age and disease had shrunk her from a statuesque, silver-topped Southern queen, to the skeleton on the hospital bed before me.

Her hair, once coiffed weekly at Poggy's Beauty Salon, blew in thin, white wisps about her from the fan on the bedrail. Her face­--not unlike mine with deep-set eyes and sharp angles--was covered with an oxygen mask, the mechanically produced air pumping into failing lungs.

Her hands, so strong they could open a sealed Mason jar with half a twist, shook as they tried to find mine. I clasped her long, bone-thin fingers between my palms and gently rubbed them back and forth, back and forth.

Though baby-soft now, her hands were "working hands", every wrinkle marking a groove worn in the road of life. These were the hands that labored on a farm in the hills of Appalachia to raise younger siblings after losing both parents when she was only 11. Hands that survived the Great Depression and great wars. Hands that toiled for 32 years in a hosiery mill, stretching cotton into socks. Hands that buried two husbands, one in the dawn of her life, the other in the dusk. Hands that comforted children, grandchildren, great, and even great-great grandbabies. Hands that could grow anything in a pile of dirt and made legendary cornbread, biscuits and banana pudding.

Hands I could have held forever.

I needed to tell my grandmother how deeply she had impacted my life, how childhood memories of her little gray brick house comforted me on sleepless nights.

On my two-hour drive to the hospital, I braced myself for this farewell. I would tell her she was part of me--the part that found joy in simple pleasures, like fresh-baked bread, a robin's nest and azalea blooms.

But as I looked at her, seemingly transparent on the sterile white sheets, words were lost.

Her "story", The Bold and the Beautiful, played on the TV above me. A nurse entered the room, white shoes squeaking, and adjusted IVs. My mom, so weary from long days in the hospital, patiently removed an oxygen mask to apply balm to my grandmother's lips. I watched silently as the lines between mother and child blurred.

I glanced at the clock above the bed and wished it away. I needed to go soon, to return to my husband and young children in a town miles away, but I couldn't find the strength to approach the hospital door: to open it would close a part of my life forever.

My grandmother sensed my apprehension. We only half-heartedly joked that there was a psychic, visceral connection between the women of my family. Mom Greenfield, who had an uncanny ability to read minds and forecast the future from dreams, was raised in the mountains to believe in the signs. If her nose itched, company was coming. If the woolly worms were black, a hard winter was in store. If she dreamed of water, or if a bird tapped at the window, death was close at hand.

In past weeks, I had dreamed of my grandmother, standing with my late grandfather, by a moss-green lake, gazing longingly at the water. As she struggled for breath now in the hospital, I searched for the words to tell her it was all right to go to the cool, green pool that beckoned her.

Instead, all I could say was seemingly menial: "I've always wished I could make cornbread like you."

Surprisingly, my grandmother waved off her oxygen mask and spoke for the first time since I'd entered the room, her voice so hoarse I leaned in to catch her words.

"A cup and a half of cornmeal, the white kind," she said.

I wasn't sure I'd heard her correctly, but she continued.

"One egg slightly beaten, and stir in about two tablespoons of flour."

I motioned frantically for my mother to fetch a pen and paper.

"I put a good teaspoon of sugar in there, too," my grandmother said, smiling ever so slightly as she revealed her secret. "Get your oven good and hot and melt you a big spoonful of Crisco in an old iron skillet."

Mom and I looked at each other in disbelief as I took notes on the back of a deposit slip fished from her purse. In this, the final moments of her life, my grandmother was sharing her cornbread recipe.

Golden, buttery, perfectly crisp on the edge and moist in the middle, Mom Greenfield's cornbread was heaven in a skillet. A staple in her kitchen, it was served with every meal.

Family members tried for years to get her recipe but gave up in exasperation, as she'd shrewdly guard it with phrases like "Oh, I just put in a bit of this and a tad of that." She kept her recipe close to her heart, rising at dawn to make the bread (partly to have it ready when someone arrived, but mostly to keep her ingredients hidden.)

My grandmother's food was her lure. We were drawn to her house to visit, sure, but also to eat. Soup beans. Stewed potatoes. Macaroni and cheese. The sweet chocolate and pecan confection my Papaw had dubbed "honey squirrel cake." And cornbread. Oh, sweet Jesus, the cornbread.

I blinked back tears as Mom Greenfield continued to tell me--each breath a chore--how much buttermilk she used and how she poured melted shortening into her batter just before baking.

My grandmother wasn't the most demonstrative woman emotionally. She grew up in hard times, when food on the table was a great blessing, a gift. So she celebrated her family by cooking. If you loved chocolate meringue pies, and she had one cooling on her counter when you arrived, it said everything.

She couldn't have told me more now if she'd quoted great philosophers. Cornmeal, Crisco, and cast-iron skillets were all I needed to know.

At last, finished with her recipe and out-of-breath, Mom Greenfield motioned for her oxygen mask and leaned back against the pillow, exhausted. Her eyes sought mine, and they spoke volumes. I clutched the deposit slip with the scribbled ingredients tightly in my palm. It was my treasure.

I took Mom Greenfield's hand, kissed her forehead, told her I loved her.

I promised to bake her cornbread and serve it often.

And I found the strength to walk out the door.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Happy Dance!

Just wanted to post a quick note to thank those who are following my blog. Your support means the world to me. In fact, I do a little happy dance each time I get a new follower or an encouraging comment (so I probably should go apologize to the neighbors for not keeping my blinds closed more often).

Anyway, thank you for joining me on the porch. I'll try not to disappoint.

There's always a spot on the swing for you!


Friday, October 16, 2009

Balloon Boy Ain't Got Nothin' on a Jenkins Kid

Like millions around the world yesterday, I sat in front of the television transfixed by news reports that a six-year-old boy was aloft in a giant mylar balloon. As the mother of a boy about the same age, I held my breath, praying fervently for the boy's safety as the balloon zipped across the sky and rose to alarming altitudes. I desperately hoped it was all a big misunderstanding and little Falcon Heene was nowhere near the helium-filled balloon, which looked like a hybrid of Jiffy Pop popcorn and a UFO. Thankfully, millions of collective prayers were answered when we learned the boy was never aboard the run-away craft, but safe and sound the entire time, hiding in his parents' attic.

It remains to be seen if the stunt was all a hoax by attention-seeking parents. Regardless, the boy is safe. That is a blessing.

But I dare say -- if the balloon scenario had played out in 1976 in my parents' backyard -- it might have been a different story altogether...

You see, I grew up the third of four children. Being smaller, younger and easily bribed with snack cakes and ice cream sandwiches, my little brother and I often were the guinea pigs of my older brother and sister and their "experiments." After the stunts they pulled on us in the 1970s, it is a miracle we are alive and well today ("well" being up for debate).

One of the older siblings' favorite pastimes was inventing ways to test the hardiness, bone density, skull thickness and lung capacity of the younger siblings. No, no. Of course they didn't see at as such. I don't think they were ever out to kill us or even do us bodily harm, though I could have sworn I once heard them debating who would get my Big Wheel if I didn't survive being repeatedly pushed down the stairs in a box.

That's right. The "box down the stairs" game was a regular occurrence in the Jenkins house throughout the mid seventies -- so much so that I would shudder when my folks brought home new appliances. New appliances meant new boxes. And new boxes meant fresh tumbles down the stairs.

Here's how it worked:

The older siblings would ask for the box, which my parents were more than happy to part with, as it would keep their four children occupied on a Friday night while they popped open a bottle of wine and watched "Dallas."

My sister and brother would then line the box with pillows and hoist it to the top of the stairs, where they would arm themselves with duct tape and call for me and my little brother. Once we arrived, they would attempt to persuade us to get into the box.

Now, we were not stupid kids. Not really. We always protested at first, but the older kids knew our weakness: namely, sugar.

Yummy, sugar-coated, chocolate, cream-filled anythings are hard to come by when you're one of six. Mom would make the weekly trip to the grocery, unpack a box of Little Debbie or Hostess cakes, and before you could say "Chocodile", they would be devoured. The Jenkins kids were on sugar faster than a vulture on roadkill. Occasionally, Mom tried to hide the treats, but we could smell them. (If a child had disappeared back in those days with a candy bar in his pocket, officials should have called in the Jenkins kids. If he was within six states, I think we could have tracked the scent.)

Somehow, the older kids always knew how to find the hidden treats (it wasn't unusual to find a cupcake or fruit pie wrapper hidden in the trash in the bathroom, the only truly private place in our house). But occasionally, they would exercise tremendous restraint and save goodies to bribe us into playing their games.

After we climbed the stairs and adamantly refused to climb into the box, one of them would say, "Did you look inside the box? Did you see what is in there?"

Hesitantly, we'd peek over the edge. Inside, propped on pillows, we'd see a Hostess yum-yum of some sort. Oh, delicious, chocolate, cream-filled cupcake! I'd swear to this day the treats were bathed in heavenly light and accompanied by a chorus of angels.

"Get in the box, we'll tape you up, and you can have the cupcake. Mom won't be going to the grocery for another week! This one can be allllll yours," they'd insist. "Just. Get. In. The. Box."

Let me see: Our lives? Or a cupcake? Really, there was no decision to be made. Into the box we'd go.

Immediately, the older kids would close the box flaps and begin to secure them with duct tape. Over the ripping of the tape, we'd hear things like, "Be sure to put your head between your knees!" or "You might want to cover yourself with that pillow!" Next thing you know, from the dark confines of the box, we'd hear a count: "And a three... two... one...BLAST OFF!" and down we'd go, tumbling end over end -- badum/badum/badum/badum/ -- all the way down the 17 stairs.

At that point, one of the older siblings would scream, "YES!" There would be hooting and hollering and high-fiving, as we waited to be released from the death trap. Once released, we'd shake it off, thankful to be alive but mostly grateful for the cupcake we were about to devour.

It was worth it.

There were other experiments, too -- like the time the siblings used a garden hose to construct a makeshift pulley up to the carport roof. They tied a stick to one end of the hose, looped it over something they'd nailed to the edge of the roof, and suggested I sit on the stick. I would put one leg on each side of the hose, while they pulled the other end of the hose and hoisted me up to the roof.

I noticed that they didn't build the pulley along the grassy side of the carport, where I would have stood a chance of surviving should the contraption fail in its inaugural launch. Oh, no. That wouldn't have had the danger factor that building it over the concrete patio had. My older siblings might have been a lot of things, but they weren't afraid of a little risk.

I balked, of course, and refused to be their guinea pig. That's when they showed me the box of Little Debbie Fudge Rounds at the top of the carport. Happy Birthday to me! Onto the stick-hose pulley I went! Really, it was kind of fun, seeing as how I lived and got to eat chocolate cakes on top of the carport and all.

I think they told me I could get back to the ground safely by taking an umbrella and leaping off of the roof. As long as you say "Geronimo!", they insisted, "You won't get hurt." Turns out, they were right!

So imagine if my siblings had constructed a giant mylar balloon, attached a little basket to the bottom of it and filled it with Chocodiles.

Unlike little Falcon Heene, who had the good sense to hide in his attic, I would probably still be up there, somewhere....

Face it. Balloon Boy ain't got nothin' on a Jenkins kid. Or maybe his parents don't buy the good snack cakes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Haunted House

The hardwood floors buckle and bend
Moaning and writhing beneath me
Pushing against bare feet, splintering soles.
How do you walk to me unscathed?

The roof sags and leaks
Staining the ceilings, splitting them like fault lines
Betraying the shingles you carefully layered above me.
How do you stop the rain?

The wind rattles the window above our bed
Screaming her dark song
Screeching and howling against the cold glass, crying for me.
How do you sleep beside me unstirred?

Rusty water courses through pipes
Rushing toward faucets in torrents
Bursting forth, drowning me.
How do you wash and feel clean?

The stove renews its fire
Burning and smoldering
Licking and teasing, taunting me with heat.
How do you stand in this kitchen and shiver?

Life bulges inside these walls
Ripping through layer after layer of plaster and history
Covering me in dust, cracking my resolve.
Why must you patch these fissures?

The front door opens
Revealing a path laden with fallen leaves
Beckoning me to come and play, come and play.

You close it.

© 2009 by Jennifer Jenkins Reese


Quick note: Okay. I admit it might have been a little early to post my melodramatic poetry (kind of like leaning in for a kiss on the first date). But I promised myself that if I was going to do this blogging/writing thing, I was going to do it right. And that means taking risks. There are those who will tell me to stick to only one form of writing, but how can I choose? I love so many different genres. For me, writing is like a big ol' playground. I can't be content to stay on the monkey bars, when the slides and swings look so darn fun.

It's a cold, rainy day here on the porch. The damp leaves strewn about my walkway reminded me of a poem I had written and stashed away. I dug it out and played with it this morning.

I adore writing poetry; I hope you tolerate reading it occasionally.

So thanks for the kiss. I liked it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Birds, Bees, Goats and Ancient Pyramids

Children ask questions -- all kinds of interesting, random questions. Some are easy to answer: What is snow? (Frozen precipitation that falls from the clouds). Why do we order pizza three times a week? (Mommy doesn't have time to cook and Facebook, sweetie).
Others, however, are much more difficult: Why does God allow bad things to happen? Why do people hurt each other?
Those certainly are challenging to answer for any parent. But there is one particular question that sends chills up and down the spines of Mommies and Daddies everywhere. It doesn't matter how unflappable you think you are or how many issues of Child or Parenting magazines you've read to prepare you. Even if you've DVRed every single episode of Oprah, there's a question that undoubtedly will catch you off guard.
One day, out of the blue, your sweet, rosy-cheeked little munchkin will put down his Legos, turn to you and ask, "Where do babies come from?"
That's when you-- Calm, Cool, Collected Parent Extraordinaire--will suddenly turn into a panicky, heart-palpitating mess of nerves. Everything you ever learned about parenting will disappear from your hippocampus faster than Hugh Hefner can pop a Viagra. In that moment, you'll forget that you are supposed to answer the question simply, honestly and in terms your little one can understand. You won't recall that you are not supposed to use incorrect terminology for body parts (no "peepees" or "woowoos", I'm afraid) or that you should only answer what the kiddos ask, without elaborating further.
Nope. Ain't gonna happen.
As a parent who has been asked that question twice now, I assure any newer parents that when Junior begins the birds and bees inquiry, you'll most likely get a little queasy; you'll probably look around the room nervously to make sure there are no witnesses; and then, there's an exceedingly good chance you'll lie.
When my oldest child was in kindergarten, we lived in a very rural area. On the way to and from school each day, we passed a farm that was home to a herd of goats. One warm spring afternoon, the daffodils along the farm were just poking their sunny heads up from the cool ground, and I couldn't resist pointing out the blossoms to my daughter.
"Look at those" I proclaimed, "Aren't they beautiful?"
"Mom?" five-year-old Kelsey said, "What in the world are they DOING?"
Something in the alarming way she asked the question let me know she wasn't talking about the daffodils. Only then did I notice that most of the goats on the farm had paired up and were going at it like it was a 1970s key party, and I had unwittingly pointed them out. Me and my stupid penchant for daffodils!
"They look funny, Mommy," Kelsey said. "Why are those goats on the backs of those other goats?"
I almost swerved off the road before I regained my composure.
Sure. I certainly could have answered her question honestly. I like to think I'm a fairly intelligent, rational, honest, conscientious parent. But when she asked, it caught me off-guard. I wasn't expecting it. And we all know that if I said, "Well, the goats are making babies," her next question was going to be "HOW are they making babies?" And since I wasn't allowed to use words like peepee and woowoo, I felt woefully unprepared.
So I said this, instead: "Why, sweetie! Those goats are playing leapfrog! Look at 'em go! What a big ol, fun spring game of leapfrog!"
It wasn't my proudest parenting moment.
As Kelsey giggled and said, "Leapfrog! Leapfrog!" I swore to myself that I'd buy her some age-appropriate books on the topic (of babies, not goat sex) and be honest and prepared the next time she asked. But I also secretly hoped she'd accept all the wrong baby-making ideas she heard on the school playground. Heck. Until I was in third-grade, I thought babies were made if the Mommy drank a glass of milk and then the Daddy touched her boobs (coincidentally, that is how my second child was conceived, but that's another story).
Thankfully, Kelsey didn't ask me the question again until she was in third grade, and by that time she had mostly figured out the process from the afternoon I accidentally left the television on MTV's Spring Break coverage (hint, hint parents).
After the leapfrog fiasco, you think I would have been primed and ready with child number two. I certainly told myself I would be. But children are like ninjas with those sex questions! You never see them coming until it's too late. Then you're trapped.
At least Kelsey asked in the privacy of our car. I wasn't so fortunate with my son.
When Kyle was six, I had to take him the pediatrician for a sore throat. Since it was the beginning of the school germy season, we were jammed into a packed waiting room with dozens of other parents and kids.
While the parents suffered through the Disney shows on theTV, the kids were busy doing what kids do in waiting rooms: sharing each other's sippy cups, chewing on books, picking at their runny noses, trading toys, and otherwise guaranteeing that if we weren't really sick when we went into the doctor's office, we certainly would be when we left it.
I had just called Kyle over to bathe him in hand sanitizer for the 76th time, when a nurse turned down the volume on the television to summon a child who had not answered her initial calls to go back and see the doctor (smart kid).
In that oddly quiet moment, my sweet, normally shy little boy looked up at me with his big blue eyes and proceeded to yell, "HEY, MOM! WHERE DO BABIES COME FROM?"
Suddenly, every eye in that room was on me quicker than CNN gets Anderson Cooper outside in a hurricane.
Time stood still.
The children looked expectant; the parents looked petrified.
Even the nurse stopped and stared at me, her mouth ajar.
For a second, I considered screaming, "That nurse just told me that every kid in here gets a shot today!", then grabbing Kyle and running out of the waiting room in the ensuing chaos. But that would be wrong . Plus, there were too many kids blocking the way.
Instead, I stammered, "Well, um, Kyle, you see…"
The children were all circling around me. I noticed that the shock had worn off for a few parents, who were frantically waving at me behind their children, shaking their heads and mouthing, "NoNoNoNoNoNoNo." Other parents seemed pasty, frozen and in need of more medical care than their coughing, runny-nosed kiddos.
"Kyle, you see, it's like when the, ummmm… "
A dad across the room looked like he might pass out at any moment.
"When Mommies and Daddies really love each other…"
My heart was racing, and I considered asking the nurse for oxygen -- or at least a lollipop to plug up my kid's mouth. Unfortunately, I didn't see any goats playing leapfrog, so I couldn’t use that again…
Thank goodness, Kyle began to speak before I could blurt anything about peepees and woowoos.
"Oh! Now I remember," Kyle said. "When Mommies & Daddies love each other, they pray for a baby, and then the babies come from the ancient pyramid! Right?"
I looked at the other parents, who suddenly snapped out of their stupor and began to nod their heads vigorously at me. Do it, they urged me. Lie.
"Yes, sweetie! That is exactly right! Babies come from the ancient pyramid!"
Miraculously, Kyle and all of the children in the waiting room seemed perfectly happy with that answer. They immediately went back to trading tissues and licking chairs.
Again, I'm not proud of myself. I know it was wrong to lie to a roomful of children about the birds and the bees and to give my child an inaccurate portrayal of the miracle of life.
I'll be prepared to explain it to him the next time he asks, which I hope falls sometime around MTV's spring break coverage.
In the meantime, knowing that I am woefully unprepared to deal with the tough questions kids ask, I'm not letting my husband anywhere near my boobs if I've had a glass of milk.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Pull Up a Swing...

Welcome to my front porch!

I'm so glad you dropped by, though I can't promise you what you'll find here--other than a jack-of-all-trades writer sitting on the swing with a cup of coffee in hand (most likely in a Bad Ass coffee mug, 'cause I like to pretend I am one).

You see, I'm new to the world of blogging, and to be honest, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. As a former journalist and the daughter of a curmudgeonly newspaper editor who taught me the difference between "cute" and "clever" writing, part of me fears blogs cheapen the writing craft (anyone can have one -- right?). On the other hand, I have folders and folders full of the "this and thats" I've written through the years: personal essays, memoirs, short stories and, of course, melodramatic poetry (I write bad, bad poetry, but oh, how I love to do so).

Anyway, it has dawned on me that I am rapidly approaching 40, and I never quite realized my dream of becoming "a writer." The older I get, the more those folders taunt me.

Sure. I've written. I've even had work published here and there. But I never really had the guts to take the stuff in those folders and just... put it out there. Bottom line: I'm a chicken. When you write, part of YOU pours out onto the pages. The work might not necessarily be about me, but I can't deny that I'm in there somewhere--no matter the genre--because I gave birth to those words and ideas. The idea of taking the work I breathed my life into and sending it out to some anonymous, bored editor's assistant to "yay" or "nay" is daunting to say the least. So, for the most part, I haven't sent my work anywhere. Like I said, I'm a chicken (the KFC kind on steroids, though my breasts, sad to say, never got that big).

Anyway, the older I get, the more ridiculous it seems to hold onto those folders and keep them to myself (after you read some of my work, you might differ. Do me a favor, and keep that to yourself. It's just a blog, people!). Recently, I've been blessed to be encouraged by friends, family and fellow creative souls to get over my inhibitions and PUT IT OUT THERE.

Even my sweet little 7-year-old boy said, "Mom, I wish you would write stories again. I would really love to read them."

Dang. That kid got to me.

So why the heck not? It's not like I'm selling my body down at my local Crackhead Chevron, (though I haven't ruled that out if this blogging thing doesn't prove fortuitous). I can do this, right?

So -- here I sit on the porch (fyi: I'm a professional porch sitter and proud of it). I love my swing, where I sit, breathe, watch, learn and listen. It's where ideas are born for me; I invite you to share those.

You'll probably find a little bit of everything here on the porch. Honestly, I'm a writing slut. As I've followed a football coach husband around Kentucky, I've taken whatever jobs allowed me to write and still earn a paycheck. I've worked in newsrooms, liberal arts college public relations offices and middle school language arts classrooms. I've free-lanced from my kitchen table on numerous occasions, and most recently, I've perfected the art of updating my facebook status, though I haven't figured out how to get paid for that. (I haven't yet written a letter to Penthouse Forum, but I think I'd be good at it.)

Here on the porch, I might share sappy essays or memoirs; my daily goofy thoughts (I'm a veritable gold mine of those!); family notes; pissy rants about the demise of common courtesy and good TV; or poetry.

I don't know yet.

But I'm glad you've joined me for the experience, whatever it might be.

Pull up a swing, and get comfy. I'll pour you a cup of coffee.