Author Archive | Melissa Bartell

Sunday Brunch: Melancholy

The days may not be so bright and balmy—yet the quiet and melancholy that linger around them is fraught with glory. Over everything connected with autumn there lingers some golden spell—some unseen influence that penetrates the soul with its mysterious power. ~Northern Advocate

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_ajalbert'>ajalbert / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

As much as I often protest that September is still summer, at least until the equinox occurs, the reality is that fall begins to displace summer sometime in August. Where I live, in north-central Texas, that displacement is a gradual one, and for me, it’s tied to the way the sunlight begins to seem thinner, and that a 90-degree day in late August has an underlying crispness to it that you never find in a similarly warm day in early June.

But it’s not just the light that heralds the change of seasons. For me, there’s also a combination of wistfulness and melancholy.

Most years, it’s the wistfulness that dominates my being. As my friends’ children return to school (many before Labor Day – that seems so wrong to me) and the rhythm of my neighborhood changes to accommodate earlier nights and earlier mornings, I find myself longing to be back in that dance of school days and work days. I imagine myself braiding the hair of the daughter I never had, or making sure my non-existent son has his shoes tied correctly.

Most years, the sense of melancholy is a subtle note among the harvest gold and darkening reds of changing leaves, and the soft blue-black of cool night air. That annual melancholy manifests itself in me as a sort of restlessness. My feet get itchy, and I feel a bit suffocated in my life, despite the fact that I’m living the live I chose, with a man who both adores and understands me.

This year, the melancholy is dominating, and it tastes like grief and loss and absence.

While the annual die-off of plants, the sloughing off of leaves, the shriveling and drying of grasses, represents change more than death, it is death that is prevalent in everything I see, this season.

Why? Because this year, death is close to me.

My mother-in-law died about a week ago. My husband has lost his mother, and I lost one of the many women who surround me with love and wisdom and stories.

We buried her on Tuesday. We spent the week in Sioux Falls, SD, surrounded by Fuzzy’s family.

This isn’t the first family death I’ve experienced. My grandfather died when I was twenty-one, and my grandmother died about a decade later, but somehow this death, this loss, struck me differently. Perhaps it’s because the funeral was two days before my husband’s birthday, or perhaps it’s because seasonal melancholy is making it worse, or perhaps it’s because I had my forty-seventh birthday a few weeks ago and am feeling my own mortality in a way I haven’t before.

Death is never convenient. Loss is never easy. No matter how prepared you are for an event like this, it stabs you in the gut, and rips a hole when the blade is pulled out.

For me, grief comes in random waves of tears. Sometimes they’re a quiet trickle, but sometimes they’re sobs that come as a roaring waterfall, like the falls on the Big Sioux river that runs through the town that may not be the family’s true hometown, but is certainly its adopted one.

For my husband, the same grief comes in a deepening sense of broodiness and his need to play hermit for a few hours, or days. Both of us balance the grief with humor and laughter and fond memories, and we seek physical contact with each other more than is typical.

Tuesday night, after all the relatives had dispersed, we left our hotel room, went for a quiet dinner, and then drove to look at the Falls that Sioux Falls, SD is named for. There was a full moon in the sky, and an autumnal bite to the air, and as I watched and listened to the rushing water, I had a moment of peace, and the sadness was temporarily eased.

Melancholy will remain with me for a few more weeks – it usually dissipates by the beginning of October, when fall is fully present – but grief doesn’t last forever, it fades like a soft, slow, late summer sunset.

And, at least for another couple of weeks, September is still summer.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Grocery Store Flowers: Crosswords and Sunflowers by Melissa A. Bartell

Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

The old man’s eyes were growing dimmer with each passing year, but he still completed the crossword puzzle in the paper every day – and the big one in the Sunday Times – as if it was some kind of a ritual. He needed a magnifier, now, to see the grid, but he didn’t seem embarrassed to use it in public.

Daisy knew this because he often worked his puzzle sitting in the café at the front of the grocery store on Wednesdays, while his wife did the shopping. “Nita doesn’t like it when I help her shop,” he’d shared. “She says I do it wrong, just because I want to go up and down every aisle and see what’s new.” He’d tried to seem insulted, but she could tell he loved his wife, and didn’t really mind having an hour or so to sip a decaf coffee and ink in – he always used ink – the letters, fitting them into the correct boxes.

Daisy had gotten into the habit of taking her break at the same time the old man – Frank was his name – showed up. At least, she did so whenever she could. Some Wednesdays there was a rush at her kiosk, people needing flowers for birthdays or anniversaries, Secretary’s day or back-to-school. There were any number of reasons, and, she made a point of asking each customer who they were shopping for and what that person liked, doing her best to find the perfect blend of giver, receiver, and occasion.

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_stockbroker'>stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo</a>She was surprised, therefore, when Frank beckoned her over one Wednesday morning, and said, “You’re the flower girl here, aren’t you?”

From anyone else, being called a ‘girl,’ would have caused Daisy to respond with a correction that she was over eighteen and was the floral manager, yes. But Frank was sort of a friend, and he was from the generation where ‘girl’ wasn’t meant offensively.  Context, she remembered a line from a favorite miniseries. It’s the difference between roadkill and a nice dinner.

She dropped into the other chair at Frank’s table. “I am,” she said. “What can I help you with?”

“Two things,” he answered. “First…what’s a five-letter word for ‘how daisies bloom?'”

Daisy grinned. She knew this one, being based on her name, and all. “Aster,” she said. “Daisies are asters. It means the flowers are star-shaped.”

Frank penned the letters into their blanks, and grinned. “Perfect. And second… Nita’s been a little blue lately. Our granddaughter was supposed to visit, but she got into a special music program for the summer, and won’t be able to come until later.”

“Aww, I’m sorry to hear that,” Daisy interjected. “I mean, you must be proud of her, but still…”

“We are proud of her,” Frank assured, “but Nita, she was really looking forward to some girl time. It’s hard for her – our daughters are all over the country, and don’t visit much, and most of the other grandkids don’t want to hang out with old folks anymore. But she and Katie have always had a special bond… I think because Katie’s the only one who went into music.”

“Was Nita a musician?” Daisy asked.

“She was. She still is. Plays piano for the church choir at St. Agnes. But when we met she was singing in her father’s restaurant. You’re probably too young to remember it – the opera café down on fifth?”

“I’ve heard of it,” Daisy said. “It closed before I ever had a chance to go. Tell me how you met?”

“Well, now… Nita was singing and I was there with my buddies. It was a counter serve place – you made your order at one end and took a tray and picked up your food at the other. Like that Frenchy place all the kids go to now… the one with the girl’s name?”

“La Madeleine?”

“That’s the place. Anyway, it was spaghetti night, and I took my order – spaghetti and meatballs, salad, and the best garlic bread that was ever on this earth, and I was walking to a table, when all of a sudden, this dark angel – black hair, eyes the color of cinnamon toast, warm olive skin – opened her mouth and started singing, and I was overcome… I stood stock-still right in front of her, just staring, and my buddy Jack came crashing into me.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Daisy observed.

“No, it wasn’t. My tray went flying, and landed upside down all over her feet. Good thing it had cooled off some while I was dumbstruck or she would’ve been burnt.”

“But she wasn’t…?”

“Naah, she was fine. Madder than a wet hen, but fine. Her father came running, even replaced my meal, but she glared at me for the rest of the night.”

Daisy chuckled to herself. She could just imagine. “So, what did you do?”

“Well, after we finished eating, my buddies and I left, but I knew I wanted to see Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_onepony'>onepony / 123RF Stock Photo</a>her again. So, I told them I’d catch up with them at the pool hall, and I picked a bunch of yellow sunflowers that were poking out of someone’s fence on the corner. Then I went back to the café and gave them to her. Asked if maybe I could take her to dinner somewhere to apologize.”

“And she said yes?”

“Actually, she said she’d think about it. So, I showed up there on spaghetti night every week for a month, bringing sunflowers every time. After a while she gave in. We’ve been together ever since. Had three daughters, seven grandchildren, and more dogs and cats and parakeets than I care to count up.”

“That’s so sweet,” Daisy gushed. “So, you want to get her flowers today?”

“If I could, yes. But not roses or anything. I get her roses for her birthday and our anniversary, but… I saw you had some sunflowers in a bucket?”

“I do,” Daisy said. “Do you want me to put together a bouquet with some baby’s breath or stock?”

“Well now, that’d be just perfect,” Frank responded, giving her a cheeky grin. “Let me just finish the puzzle and I’ll be over there to pay for them.”

Daisy grinned right back at the old man. Getting up, she leaned over to peer at his puzzle, and poke a finger at one of the clues. “That one – seventeen across – ‘still waters do this?’ The answer is ‘run deep.’

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Welcome to Issue #7: Light & Shadow

“I see only forms that are lit up and forms that are not. There is only light and shadow.”
~ Francisco Goya

You open your eyes to a sunny day, and notice that the light is changing along with the seasons.

You change the way you’re standing in front of the mirror, letting the changes in light and shadow change the way your see yourself.

You turn your back to the sun, and see the shadow you cast on the ground. You turn around, face into the glare, and your shadow disappears.

You wake in the middle of a moonlight night, see the shadows of tree branches on the blinds.

You unleash your imagination and let the branches become the limbs of strange beings from other worlds.

You grow and change and come to realize that both light and shadows come in many flavors. You learn that light isn’t always ‘good’ and shadows aren’t always ‘bad,’ but that each gives dimension to the other.

You snap a photo, paint or draw a picture, write a scene, compose a song, and you find beauty in the contrast.

“Our job is to record, each in his own way, this world of light and shadow and time that will never come again exactly as it is today.”
~ Edward Abbey

Welcome to the 7th issue of Modern Creative Life:
Light & Shadow

When we planned the calendar for this year’s themes, we had no idea we’d be launching this issue on the day when much of North America will be witnessing a solar eclipse. Still, it seems as though the universe was – is – in synch with us as we make the transition from summer toward fall (or from winter toward spring).

For me, light and shadow aren’t opposites, but companions. Without one the other has little meaning.

As makers, as creators, we explore both, we appreciate both. We use the shadows in our lives to give the light times more dimension, and we embrace the light when the shadows encroach too far, or seem too dark. Art, in all its forms, is full of, and formed by, this duality.

We invite you to explore it with us.

In this issue, you’ll get a peek into the daily lives of other creative folk in our Studio Tours and Typical Tuesday series, and meet people walking fascinating creative pathways in Conversations Over Coffee. With photos and fiction, poetry and prompts, essays and enlightenment, you’ll find a deeper understanding into all the ways in which we all create.

“Life is a mixture of light and shadow, calm and storm, and it’s all good.”
~ Susan W. Krebs

As always, our mission at Modern Creative Life is to honor the pursuit and practice of joyful creativity. We believe that the creative arts enrich our everyday living, enhance our environment, create lasting connections, and sustain our souls. Please join us as we look to other creatives for ways in which they find peace in the shadows, or succor in the sunshine.

As we share the stories of other makers, we invite you to use their experiences as a guide on your quest for your own Modern Creative Life.

What lessons might you have to share with the world? Share your stories with us, serving as the example for others to learn from, and inspire them to explore the light and shadows in their own lives. We are open to single contributions as well as new regular contributors. Email us at moderncreativelife@gmail.com.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

 

Sunday Brunch: Negative Space

In art, the term ‘negative space’ typically refers to the place where an image isn’t, and to the way the space around that image can produce an image of its own, an image that either enhances or serves as counterpoint to the original. Sometimes this is intentional. Sometimes it is not.

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_eugenesergeev'>eugenesergeev / 123RF Stock Photo</a>But there is another kind of negative space, the kind that has nothing to do with art, but a lot to do with stifling the creativity of the artist, the writer, the musician…

In my house, this latter kind of negative space is represented by a door.

As doors go, this one is outwardly innocuous. It’s a white, four paneled, interior door of the kind found hinged into the thresholds of many a suburban bedroom. This particular door, however, leads to my office, my studio, the room I refer to as the Word Lounge and my husband calls my Abode of Writeyness.

I love my writing haven. I’ve filled it with mermaid art and pop-culture figurines. There are decorative twinkle lights strung along the top of the picture window that looks out onto the street. I have my mother’s faded denim couch in there, and my weight machine, which because its brand logo reads “Marcy,” I refer to as Marcy Playground, after the band.

But in the past four years, I’ve crossed its threshold fewer than ten times.

I’ve told myself, and my friends, that I like to write at the kitchen table, with the door open and the dogs running in and out.

I’ve told myself I’m still recovering from a knee injury.

But if neither of those statements is entirely false, neither are entirely true.

You see, for four years, my studio, my writing lounge, has been enshrouded in a fog of negative space.

It began with an act of generosity. A good friend of ours had gone through a nasty divorce, gotten sick, lost his job, and was essentially squatting in his condo in a midwestern city with the power turned off and winter approaching.

We offered him a room, a fresh start and a plan: take a couple weeks to get healthy, get a job, get a new life.

It was never meant to be four years of him skulking in our house when he wasn’t working his overnight shift for a major delivery service.

And his depression (not officially diagnosed though it runs in his family, admitted as a likelihood, and untreated) was never meant to affect me.

It began as soon as he arrived. Thinking one tiny guest room was too small for one person, I’d moved my studio to our current guest room. It’s smaller, and my weight machine couldn’t be moved with the rest of my stuff. Nor could my couch.

For six months, our friend hung out in that room, tainting it, watching Netflix and claiming he was applying for jobs.

We talked to him. We made him demonstrate his attempts. We coached him.

And I began to resent that he was sitting on the floor in my space. I felt like I couldn’t use my weight machine. “Just send me out,” he said. But his energy had already pervaded the space.

When my parents announced an impending visit, I took the opportunity to reclaim that space for my office, and I also removed the guest furniture from the room he was using. He’d brought a futon on a frame. We moved that into his room.

But his energy continued to be a damper on my creativity. I felt like I couldn’t exist in my own space, because it might keep him, hiding in his room directly across the hall) from sleeping (his mood got blacker when he lacked sleep). I even stopped swimming – something we mermaids should never do – because his room overlooked my back yard.

I don’t think I was – or am – clinically depressed. Instead, I feel like I’ve spent four years in a sort of psycho-spiritual muzzle.

Last weekend, after weeks of will it/won’t it happen, our friend moved out of our house, and into a tiny apartment with a mutual friend, and from the first night he stopped sleeping here, even though he still has belongings to retrieve and a room to clean, I immediately felt lighter.

I’ve written before (elsewhere) about how I often face a creative slump in the first weeks of August, leading up to my birthday on the seventeenth, but this year, despite greeting the month with a nasty sinus infection, my brain is pinging with ideas in ways I haven’t experienced in years.

In art and design, negative space is meant to enhance and expand the central image. A flyer without a lot of whitespace (which, incidentally, does not have to actually be white) is too busy, and people have difficulty parsing the message.

For me, the negative space around my office door, and seeping into the rest of my house, has been more contrast and counterpoint than complement. I’ve reveled in every moment our friend was out, whether it was for work, or to socialize. I suspect some of my sleep issues were a reaction to knowing my house was mine during the overnight hours when he was at work.

I don’t wish anyone to believe it was all bad. There were moments when having a third person in the house was helpful, and even pleasant. Our friend shares my love of kitchen improv and ethnic foods, while I often joke that my husband has the palate of an eight-year-old. There were also many winter weekends that we all spent playing board games that Fuzzy and I couldn’t play with only the two of us.

But those moments were less and less restorative as the time ticked on. As I recently quipped to a friend, it took less time to successfully rehome a difficult-to-place foster pit bull than it has to rehome our friend.

I know I’m not the only one who has had to deal with such situations. Perhaps for others they are less extreme, but we all have ‘energy succubi’ in our lives – people who don’t just live under a personal black cloud, but unwittingly allow their clouds to metastasize into full-blown fog banks, or worse, thunderstorms.

Ultimately, this experience has taught me a lot about boundaries and margins. I’ve learned that while I’m not a true introvert, I do require the freedom to fill my own space as I need and want.

That I can – and do – quite happily share space with my husband says a lot about our relationship. I suspect that in his life, I’m the source of negative space, my creative personality leaving me prone to moodiness from time to time, but it’s not the same. His energy complements mine. My energy connects with his.

Two friends from completely separate circles in my life have suggested that once our friend clears all of his belongings from our house, we have the space smudged with sage, and I’m pretty sure we will be doing so.

In the meantime, the negative space in my house is slowly being filled with positive things. The sense of darkness creeping down the hallway, and preventing me from entering my studio has been pushed back and continues to retreat, to dissipate, to disappear.

Perhaps, in time, I will no longer think of negative space as the cloud of darkness that shrouded our friend’s sojourn in our home.

Perhaps, in time, I will be able to appreciate the counterpoint and the contrast once more.

For now, I’m taking a leaf from Eat, Pray, Love, wishing our friend love and light, and trying to let my resentment go.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Getting Sleepy

“Sleep is still most perfect, in spite of hygienists, when it is shared with a beloved. The warmth, the security and peace of soul, the utter comfort from the touch of the other, knits the sleep, so that it takes the body and soul completely in its healing.” – D.H. Lawrence

Happy Couple Sleeping by Antonio Guillem

I wrote a short story a few months ago about a father and daughter at bedtime. It’s funny how much ritual and care we put into that winding-down part of the evening. It’s routine, right? Going to bed? But how do our bedtime rituals inform us, and how do they change over the course of our lives?

I should begin with a confession: I’ve never been a good sleeper.

In fact, to put it crudely, I kind of suck at sleep.

As a child bedtime initially involved my mother reading to me, but that ended when I was six or seven, and grew impatient to find out what happened with Jo and Laurie in Little Women. Even without being read to, however, my mother was still an important part of my bedtime routine.

She would ensure that I had a glass of water on my nightstand, and help me arrange all my stuffed animals and rag dolls (Winnie-the-Pooh, my favorite, was usually closest to my head, but the others had their own hierarchy depending on which was in favor. The two-foot-tall koala sat on the floor at night.)

But, as soon as my light had been turned off, as soon as my door had clicked shut, I was hiding under the covers with a flashlight, determined to get to the next part of whatever story had me hooked.

As I got older, and no longer needed to be ‘tucked into’ bed, my nocturnal life expanded. I set aside the flashlight for the boldness of the lamp on my nightstand, and even kept the radio turned on for company while I read. More than once, I fell asleep with my glasses crooked on my face, and a book folded open over my chest, only to wake up, disoriented and time-lagged, in the wee hours.

By the time I was a teenager, bedtime was no longer a fixed hour, though there was a time at which I was expected to be in my room on school nights. A life-long possessor of a vivid imagination and a tendency toward nightmares, late-night radio became my new bedtime ritual.

I’d set the sleep-timer on my ancient, white, clock radio – the one that was so old-school the numbers flipped like calendar pages instead of being liquid crystal or LED – to the maximum allowable period (fifty-nine minutes), keep the volume so low I had to strain to hear it, and let myself be pulled toward sleep.

At some point, I gave up listening to music at night, partly because I heard the Paul McCartney & Wings song “Let ‘Em In” one too many times, and it’s creeped me out every single time, and partly because any song that I liked would make me want to leave bed, and sing and dance in the middle of my (admittedly hazardously messy) room. I became addicted to Larry King’s radio show – the one from before he was on cable tv, and even before his heart attack – and even though I was rarely familiar with the guests, it worked, sending me into sweet oblivion until my alarm went off the next morning.

Some nights, when my imagination just would not let go, I had to hit that sleep timer multiple times, but most nights, the initial fifty-nine minutes were enough.

Adulthood brought new ingredients to my rituals for falling asleep, among them, white noise generators (which have since morphed into apps on my iPad) and a bedmate, in the form of my husband.

The former is the thing I now cannot sleep without, as it gives me a place for my imagination to reside, at least at the beginning of sleep, and distracts me from all those ‘house’ noises that would normally spark irrational fear.

As to my husband, while I can sleep without him, and sometimes prefer the luxury of having the entire bed to myself for an afternoon nap, I’ve determined that D.H. Lawrence was right on the nose. On my worst nights, I can nestle into his arms, and let his solid warmth form a sort of cocoon around me.

Science would insist that I’m either surfing on my husband’s delta waves or responding to increased levels of oxytocin created by physical contact, and I’m sure both are playing their parts. Nevertheless, I think there’s also something about simply not being alone to face the shadowy denizens of the darkness that soothes my wild mind more than any sleeping pill, herbal or otherwise, could ever do.

And of course, we have our own rituals… we usually find ourselves laughing right before we turn out the light, and sometimes for several minutes after. Even though we both work from home we use those starlit moments to reconnect, to talk about the little things that don’t get mentioned over dinner, and just to be.

If I wake him in the middle of the night with an affectionate (but still adamant) request to, “Roll onto your side; you’re snoring,” well, that’s just part of our routine, just as, half way through any given sleep period, I’ll wake up freezing and accuse him of stealing the covers.

“No, I didn’t,” he’ll say, waking up just enough to help rearrange the blankets and sheets. “You gave them to me.”

And maybe, subconsciously, I did.

Just has he’s given me endless, steadfast protection from my nightmares.

“And if tonight my soul may find her peace in sleep, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.” – D.H. Lawrence

 

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Scents of Summer

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

Soaking in the bath last Saturday, I opened a dwindling jar of Noxzema, and inhaled the sharp medicinal odor of eucalyptus. If it’s possible for a substance to smell clean, that white cream in the classic blue jar managed it perfectly well.

It also transported me back in time, to childhood summers at the Jersey shore.

Summer Scenes

I use Noxzema year-round, replacing the jar when necessary. They’re selling it in plastic now, and while I’ll concede that it’s probably safer for something I typically keep on the side of the tub, I miss the heavy glass.

I often wonder if all beach glass comes from Noxzema bottles.

Despite the fact that many of our childhood remedies have been proven not to work as promised, Noxzema really is one of the best things you can use to soothe a summer sunburn.

In the kitchen, I opened a jar of coconut oil – I’ve been experimenting with using it instead of butter in some baked goods – and immediately I was six, eight, ten, twelve, walking across hot sand with a rolled towel, a beach bag, and an insulated lunch bag – the square kind that looks like a small, zippered cooler and holds one sandwich, one napkin, one bag of chips or carrot sticks, and one cold Coca Cola, along with an ice pack to keep it cold – slung across my chest.

I wore heart-shaped sunglasses and a polka-dotted bikini with ruffles, and my hair was twisted into two tight braids.

As a girlfriend and I recently discussed, they don’t really make suntan lotion or suntan oil, anymore, but my childhood summers were filled with the salty-sweet aroma of Coppertone and Sea & Ski – the former more pungent than the latter – and my mother’s snarky comments about “sizzling meat” in reference to all the older teenagers and young adults basking under the summer sun, trying to get as dark as possible.

Modern sunscreen that goes up to level sixty SPF tends to have a floral scent, not a warm aquatic, and definitely not coconut.

Yesterday in the shower, I used the last of my favorite shampoo. It smells like orange creamsicle, and every time I catch a whiff I’m seven years old, standing with my grandfather at the edge of his driveway, waiting for the ice cream truck to stop.

Nutty Buddies were my early favorite, but there’s something so magical, so summery, about cold, creamy orange that it’s the “frozen novelty treat” that’s ingrained in my senses. I was this|close to sending my husband to the grocery store to track down a box of those tubes of citrus-flavored joy, but, ultimately decided against it.

Still, I know there will come a time in the next month or so, when the rain stops again and I’m spending afternoons in my backyard pool, when I’ll long for those smells: coconut, orange, and eucalyptus, the same way I long to swim in salt water and laugh at the fact that I now pay money for hair texturizer made of the same – after half a lifetime of doing everything possible to get salt crust out of my hair.

I will wake up with the remembered scent of line-dried clothes and the cheery sight of colorful bathing suits waving in the breeze, and I will lean back against the pillows and close my eyes, and return to the beach in memory and imagination.

And then after a bit, I’ll pad into the bathroom, enjoying the feeling of cool tile under my bare feet, and reach for my jar of Noxzema. Just because.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Holding Hands

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

When I imagine my mother, she’s always holding cup of coffee. Her hands are square-ish, sturdy, with the calloused fingers and tiny cuts to the palms that are inherent to women who often work with fabric. (She calls herself a ‘sewist’ these days, because a ‘sewer’ is something where dirty water goes, and a ‘seamstress’ implies that she works in a hot, noisy factory.)

Coffee is one of my mother’s touchpoints. I was practically weaned on the stuff, and I have more than one memory of choosing a mug for her as a gift, making sure to pick one with a handle large enough to comfortably fit three fingers.

Woman holding coffee cup

If you asked me, I would tell you that she prefers her hair short, that she likes tailored cuts the same way she likes tailored clothes, that her eyes are brown and that her brows are shaped in soft arcs, unlike mine, which are angled like flattened carats.

I can hear her voice in my head, but when I think of her, it’s her hands that I think of first. I remember (vaguely) the way her hands kept me upright when I was learning to walk, and the way her grip kept me close when we went out together.

I am familiar with the length of her fingers and the Dutch Tulip color of her nail polish and the blue tinge of the subcutaneous lump on one wrist, the remains of some childhood accident.

What I don’t remember, though, is when I became ‘too old’ to hold her hand in public, and when I finally became ‘old enough’ to reclaim the practice.

I remember holding hands with my grandmother no matter what my age was. Her hands were nothing like my mother’s. She had slender fingers, the tips slightly angled from age and arthritis, the nails incredibly strong, and ridged from base to tip.

“Your hands are so warm!” She would say, folding hers into mine, as if she could absorb all the warmth I had to offer.

“Cold hands – warm heart,” I would tease her.

(We never talked about the opposite. Did my warm hands make me somehow evil, or just mischievous?)

When we walked up and down her block, or on the beach, or wherever, my grandmother would never wrap her hands around my palm. Instead, she’d grip my fingers, mashing them together until they were crossed over each other, and circulation became impaired.

Last month, my husband I spent a few days visiting my aunt – my mother’s younger sister – and her husband in rural Connecticut, and reaching for her hand as we walked around her town, seemed like the most natural thing in the world. After years of not seeing each other, we still fit.

My aunt’s hands are a blend of my mother’s and my grandmother’s. She has long, elegant, fingers, but she also has the tell-tale signs of a person who (like me) does a lot more work with computer keys than fabric and notions (although, my mother also writes).

My hands, like my eyebrows, don’t look like any of theirs. They’re small and plump and no matter what fresh foods I eat or supplements I take, my nails are always breaking just when they’re at the ‘perfect’ length.

My grandmother died the year my parents moved to Mexico, but sometimes I’m certain that I feel her hands, so cool, so gentle, smoothing the hair away from my forehead when I’m sleeping.

My aunt lives half a continent away, but visiting her didn’t feel weird or awkward, and I would have liked more time.

And my mother. My mother is one of the two constants in my life (the other is my husband, who has musician’s hands, but this isn’t about him). Sometimes, when I visit her, and we’re walking along the malecón in La Paz, we’ll hold hands, and in those moments, I’m five years old with bouncing braids and sun-browned skin, and everything is innocent and safe.

Most of the time, when I think about my mother’s hands, they’re wrapped around a coffee cup.

Then again, most of the time, when I’m thinking about my mother’s hands… so are mine.

Woman with coffee and laptop

Image Copyright: amaviael / 123RF Stock Photo
Image Copyright: morganka / 123RF Stock Photo

 

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Grocery Store Flowers: Jack by Melissa A. Bartell

Photo by Neirfy via 123RF.com

Daisy Morris ran a tired hand through her long red hair, grimacing when the ring on her left hand caught in her braid. The day before Mother’s Day was always crazy-busy, and her flower kiosk had been the epicenter of a steady buzz of traffic. She lowered her hand to glance at her wristwatch. It was four-thirty and the kiosk didn’t close until seven.

Taking advantage of the brief lull, she walked through the seasonal fruit and pastry display to the espresso bar in the grocery store lobby. “Our Daisy isn’t looking to fresh,” quipped Jolene, the wrinkled, gray-haired woman who claimed she could ‘still sling espresso shots with the best of them.’

“Not feeling so fresh, either,” the younger woman admitted. “Every year it’s the same thing… all these men and boys coming to buy cards and flowers as if Mother’s Day is some kind of surprise. Makes you wonder how they cope with the rest of their lives. Can I get a – ”

“Grande soy no-water chai,” Jolene finished with her. “Sure thing, honey. As to Mother’s Day… at least they’re getting something. My husband was a soldier… so many years holidays went by without any kind of acknowledgement because he was deployed. These days, these youngsters in the service have email and facetime and skype and sat-phones but in my day… ”

Daisy grinned, listening to Jolene’s mini-monologue as she watched the older woman expertly crafting her drink. “Oh, come on, Jo – you are not that old.”

“I’m older than you think,” she replied, handing over a cardboard-wrapped paper cup. “And this one’s on me. You have a customer waiting, and I think you’re going to need the fortification.”

Following the barista’s gaze, Daisy turned to her flower stand, and saw a boy who looked like he was about ten hovering around the carnations and daffodils. “I’ll be right there,” she called to him. “Thanks, Jo. Really.”

“Aw, it’s nothin’ but a thing,” Jolene said. “Now, scoot!”

Laughing around the rim of her cup, Daisy took a swig of her drink, savoring the spiciness of the chai and the comforting warmth of the steamed soymilk. It had been a wet spring, and a chilly one, at that, and she was constantly in and out of the refrigerators where the more delicate flowers shared space with prepared arrangements.

The boy was still hovering as she returned to her station. She tucked her cup behind a roll of ribbon on the work-desk below counter-height and smoothed her apron. Then she went to check on the kid. “Hi,” she said gently. “I’m Daisy. Are you looking for something special?”

They boy’s gray eyes betrayed the kind of hurt that was usually only evident in older faces, but he managed a faint smile. “I’m Jack,” he said. “I need to get flowers for my mom,” he said, with a hint of a quiver in his voice. “But I only have eight dollars.”

Daisy did some quick accounting. For that money, the boy could get a bunch of mini-carnations, or five irises or… “I think we can work with that. Do you know your mom’s favorite flowers?”

“Dad used to get her roses, when I was little.”

She swallowed her grin. She’d initially thought the boy was ten, but now, noticing the softness of his sandy-brown hair and the sprinkling of freckles across his cheeks, she thought he might be eight or nine. Definitely an age that still qualified as ‘little’ in her estimation. “Is your mom with you in the store?”

“She’s paying for groceries. I said I’d meet her at the door.”

“Okay,” Daisy said. “Well, for eight dollars we could do three roses and some baby’s breath and greens…” She could see the boy deflating in front of her. “You don’t want to do roses?”

“Sometimes when Mom sees roses, she gets sad,” the boy said.

Daisy couldn’t help it; she started inventing scenarios in her head. Maybe this boy’s father had been a soldier, like Jolene’s husband, and had died serving his country. Or maybe it was something much more prosaic: a separation or divorce. She shook her head, realizing that the kid was still talking.

“… and it’s been a year since he moved out, and I just want her to smile.”

Her smile was soft and wistful. “That’s very sweet. Well, okay, no roses. Do you know her favorite color?”

“Yellow.”

“Yellow,” she repeated thoughtfully. “Hmm. Yellow. Okay, Jack, how about we do a bunch of these…” She led him around the stand of fresh flowers to the bucket of daffodils. They were on special – only a dollar. “Or maybe two bunches. And then add an iris or two for a little punch of color.”  She went to the fridge and drew out two of the long-stemmed purple flowers, glanced at the boy, and then added a third. “Three would look better,” she explained. “Does your mom have a vase at home?”

He nodded. “She has lots of vases.”

“Good. Let’s wrap these in tissue then.” Daisy paused a moment. “Do you want a card to go with these?” Before the boy could answer, she tacked on. “The floral cards aren’t very big, but they’re free.”

The boy nodded, grinning. “Yes, please.”

Daisy took the flowers to her work-desk behind the counter, pausing to sip from her all-but-forgotten chai. Still warm, she thought. Good. Selecting a handful of small cards, she handed them to the boy.

He handed most of them back. “This one,” he said, holding up a card that had yellow tulips and the words Happy Mother’s Day printed on the front.

“Do you need a pen?”

“Yes, please.”

Jack was too small to reach the service counter. “Come around here to the opening and you can lean on the end of my workbench to write, okay?”

“Thanks.”

Daisy grinned, and resisted the urge to reach out and ruffle the boy’s hair. Softly, she said, “Jack, do you mind me asking… you said your dad used to bring roses to your mom?”

“They got divorced last August,” he said. “He has another family now.”

Oh, poor kid.

“I’m sure he still loves you,” she assured the boy.

The boy shrugged, the way young people sometimes do when a concept is just too big for them to truly understand. “I guess.” He put down the pen. “I’m done.”

Daisy took the card with its topsy-turvy lettering, and slotted it into a plastic card-holder which she tucked into the tissue wrapped flowers. She cut two lengths of ribbon – yellow and purple – and tied the bundle together.

“Alright, Jack, let’s ring you up.” Daisy punched buttons on the register, then looked up to see Jack’s stricken expression. The total had come to $8.64.

“Can we put one of the bunches of daffodils back?” he asked quietly.

Daisy hesitated. “We could, or… hey, Jack… do you think you could lift that empty bucket… the one near the sign that says, ‘Mother’s Day Bouquets?’ Because if you could bring it to me, you’d be helping out, and I could give you my employee discount.” In a conspiratorial tone, she added, “It would bring the total down to just under seven dollars.”

The boy didn’t answer. He just ran to get the bucket, and bring it back to the counter. “Here.”

“Well, thank you, Jack.” She punched another button on her register. “Six dollars and ninety-two cents, please,” she said.

Jack counted out seven wrinkled dollar bills. “I’ve been saving my allowance,” he said.

Daisy grinned. “I wasn’t very good about doing that, when I was your age. It’s nice that you’re getting flowers for your mom.” She handed him the nickel and three pennies that were his change, and then came around the counter to present him with the wrapped flowers.

“Tell your mother, she’s lucky to have you,” she told the boy.

Jack grinned. “Oh. She knows.”

She watched him turn and catch the eye of a woman standing near the door with a cart of bagged groceries, saw him place his tissue-wrapped bundle in the child-seat part of the cart, and smiled broadly when his mother, tired face suddenly suffused with delight, pulled her son into a rough embrace right there in the grocery story lobby.

Yeah, the day before Mother’s Day was always crazy-busy, and she was pretty sure there was going to be another rush between five-thirty and seven, but sometimes… sometimes she got to see love in action, and that made everything worth it.

Image Copyright: neirfy / 123RF Stock Photo

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

A Letter to Spring by Melissa A. Bartell

Little Flower Crocus

Dear Spring,

I have to confess, I’ve developed a sort of love/hate relationship with you over the years. It was inevitable, I guess. I mean, no one stays in love forever, right?

As a child, the coming of spring meant that I got to put away heavy winter coats and thick tights that were always too long for me. I could wrap my feet in sneakers instead of boots and sometimes, I could even wear sandals.

Even now, you bring with you some important rituals, like changing the wreath on my front door to one that celebrates flowers, birds, and butterflies. After a winter of wearing shoes and socks inside the house, your return sends me to the nail salon for a luxurious pedicure with time spent soaking my feet in hot wax and then getting pink polish on my toes. Sometimes, even with a flower.

And then there’s the first new pair of flip-flops of the year. I found mine at the grocery store this time – no, really! – but usually Target is my go-to source.

There are certain aspects of you, Spring, that I never want to miss: dancing on the deck in a warm rain-shower, the return of fresh, seasonal fruits to my store, the opening of the local farmers’ market.

But then there’s the flip-side.

The part of your arrival that beings out the hatred in me.

I mean, yes, I love spring rain, but I live in North-Central Texas, which means that we get days on end of weather that threatens – promises – rain, but never delivers. The gray light and thick skies go right to my head, and I’m forced to retreat to a cool, dark room until the tension breaks and the water cascades down.

And then there’s the mud. All those storms mean tons of it, and, you know, I have dogs who won’t go outside if there’s the merest hint of a drizzle, but if they realize there’s mud, all bets are off. Two of my dogs are mostly white, though if you look at them between March and June, you’d never know it.

The mud doesn’t just stay on the animals, either. They track it everywhere – the floors, the couch, my bed. Seriously, if our country ever goes to war again, they should just weaponize mud. It’s cheaper than nukes, and less harmful to the environment.

Of course, a letter to you, Spring, would have to include a word about tornadoes. I don’t know what you’re trying to prove with those twisting funnels of instant mayhem. None of us really believe that you can get to Oz that way, and frankly, they feel like a desperate grab for attention.

Seriously, Spring, must you be so needy?

It should be obvious, oh Season that transitions Winter into Summer, that my relationship with you is laced with ambivalence.

You bring so much destruction, but you also apologize for it with radiant blooms of colorful flowers – daffodils, tulips, daisies – all harbingers of happiness.

And so, Spring, I leave you with this thought: these mood swings of yours are not healthy. Do us all a favor: seek therapy. I know, I know,  you’re going to say that it’s we humans who have made you this way; that you’re only reacting to what we’ve done to your Planet.

And maybe that’s valid.

But couldn’t you at least meet us half way?

Image Copyright: ljubomirtrigubishyn / 123RF Stock Photo

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

 

Sunday Brunch: Carousel of Memories

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

Calliope music, tinny and over-loud coming from the speakers, doesn’t quite drown out the sounds of human voices: small children squealing in delight, parents warning them to hold on and be careful. The lights blur as I ride by, my painted pony leaping upwards and gently descending as it chases other ponies (and sleds) around and around in an endless circle.

Asbury Park Carousel

The music slows.

The lights resolve into individual incandescent bulbs.

The ponies stop.

With watery legs, I slide off my stalwart steed, jump from the platform and launch myself at the adult who has been watching me. My grandfather, most likely, or maybe my great-aunt Violet.

“Did you see? I caught the ring!” I ask, and their answer is a blend of weariness and positive reinforcement.

I am five, six, seven years old, and I’ve just ended a day at the Asbury Park boardwalk with a ride on the carousel.

* * *

Outside the carousel house, the twilight of evening is melting into full darkness. The scent of hot dogs and cotton candy mixes with the salty brine of sea and sand. The lights on the rollercoaster are reflected upon the glassy ocean.

The night feels made of magic.

I am twelve years old, and I have no idea that it will be the last time I see the boardwalk with its rides active, with children running back and forth, with indulgent parents and grandparents handing over money in exchange for pretzels with mustard, paper cones full of popcorn, or wax-coated bags of salt-water taffy.

On that night, surrounded by the teeming throngs of little kids racing for the teacups, kids my age who are at once too cool to be seen with their parents but not quite ready to be away from them, and older kids – teens, really – making out in the gondolas of the Ferris wheel, I cannot even fathom that such a thriving place – an icon of the Jersey Shore – will be a dead husk just a few years later.

* * *

It’s 2009 and my husband, my parents, and I are on the east coast because my aunt – my mother’s younger sister – got married a few days before, and we’ve extended our trip to visit family none of us have seen in years.

The October wind blows cold through the two layers of sweaters I’m wearing, but I turn my face into it, and let it push my hair back behind me. The ocean is deep blue and steel gray, primal and fierce, crashing its fists of white foam on the cold sand.

The boardwalk is empty, save for a few hard-core athletes, sheathed in thermal exercise gear and clutching their dogs’ leashes as they pound down the slanted, weathered boards.

We leave Asbury Park, and head to the next town over, Ocean Grove, where the cute shops are open for business, hoping a few errant tourists will wander in.

My mother and I lived there for part of a year when I was nine, and walking those so-familiar streets fills me with bittersweet nostalgia. I liked my life when I was there, when it was just Mom and me in our apartment on the second floor, where you could see the ocean from the bathtub.

Even so, thirty years later, I must acknowledge, that her life and mine are both happier with all the changes that have taken place since then.

* * *

It is last Wednesday of March, 2017, and I’m in Asbury Park again, with just my husband this time.

We woke early that morning to the total darkness of the power being out, and the insistent keening of tornado sirens, drove to the airport feeling a bit shell-shocked, then landed, several hours later, under sunny skies.

Our hotel room has a view of the beach and vintage photos of the Jersey Shore on the walls, and after we have dinner – truly sinful burgers made of ground beef mixed with ground bacon – at a local pub, we go to the boardwalk.

The sun is low in the early-spring sky, and the air is chilly, but I find a bench and enjoy the peace of the waves, and smile at all the people walking their dogs, or just enjoying the pre-tourist season calm.

The city has changed since I was last here.

What was once a dead town is alive again.

Many of the Beaux-Arts buildings have been lovingly restored. The old Arcade is now home to small boutiques and a coffee roasting company (with a brewery right next door). Restaurants line the waterfront, and the town hosts many trendy eateries and bars – ethnic, Vegan, brunch – including (as their sidewalk sign proudly proclaims) “The Best Gay Bar in New Jersey.” (I take their word for it.)

My husband walks off to explore the Arcade, to take pictures at my behest, and I stay on my bench.

It’s probably just my imagination, but I can hear – very faintly – the sound of calliope music.

Asbury Park Carousel House

 

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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