Friday, February 17, 2012


He was a quiet man, a carpenter, a builder of houses and maker of furniture. I grew up in the house he built and live now in my own home surrounded by the furniture he made for me: the tall grandfather clock in my living room that chimes every quarter hour to the delight of my young grandchildren, my bedroom suite of lovely Honduras mahogany, scarred over the years by my careless spilling of perfumes, the ranch oak twin beds my boys slept in, the spinning wheel that actually spins. All of this and more my quiet father made.

He built the basement of his house, patiently, one cement block at a time, and we lived in that basement as he built the rest of the house, slowly, paying for building supplies as he went. Aunts, uncles, cousins would gather every weekend to help with the house. The men held nails in their mouths, taking them out only to smoke Camels and Lucky Strikes. The women carried pitchers of iced tea to the men and made sandwiches with thick slices of home-made bread. At the end of the day of labor, my father would build a bonfire and we would roast corn on the cob in their husks. The corn was from my father’s garden, planted in long arrow-straight rows. I remember the sweet-charred smell of that corn and the warm, wet feel of melted butter on my fingers.

After dinner, I would settle in to read my Trixie Belden book but would lay the book aside to watch and listen to the adults discuss, debate and – finally - loudly argue who was a better president, FDR or Truman, the chances of the Pittsburgh Pirates to win the pennant and the quality of Chevrolets versus Fords. The conversations grew more intense, more animated, swirling around the table, little tornadoes of sound. My father sat at the head of the table, quietly whittling a piece of wood, rubbing his thumb on the surface, smiling, a crooked little grin that turns just the left side of his mouth up. He listened to the debates but stayed outside of them, on the fringe of the noise and the laughter. Even when my mother would demand his opinion, he would just smile and shake his head. 
I remember sawdust in his hair, on the backs of his hands, on the top of his shoes.  I remember the smell of wood like an aura around him. Pine. Oak. Maple. But what I remember best and treasure the most is the gift he made for my son.

My son, born with congenital heart defects, suffered a head injury at age thirteen and a subsequent cardiac arrest.  He was resuscitated but was in critical condition in Intensive Care with an intracranial pressure monitor screwed into his head.

His prognosis was poor, we were told. Even if he survived, he would suffer brain damage, “Diffuse cerebral edema,” the doctors said in mournful voices, shaking their heads. The nurses swabbed his shaved scalp, cleaning the skin around the intracranial pressure monitor screw and then patted me gently on the back.

My father refused to visit him in the hospital. Quietly but stubbornly he refused, shaking his head, simply saying he would wait until later to see him.  There might not be a later, I wanted to scream. I didn’t, couldn’t understand. I was angry and hurt by his refusal. It wasn’t until later that I was filled with awe at the faith of my father.

My son, indeed, did recover. The barbaric pressure screw was removed from his head.  His blonde hair began to grow back, stubble covering the scar. The respirator was slowly weaned away. He came home, thin and weak, but alive and alert.  He came home to sleep in the bed my father had made for him.

When he came home, my father came to visit him.

And he brought the most amazing gift, a testimony from my father to my son. While my mother, my husband and I hovered at the bedside of my son, my father had labored in his work shop. He had measured, cut, constructed, sanded and varnished a desk for his ill grandson. Sawdust in his hair and hope in his heart.

A desk of golden oak and a matching chair.

He carried the heavy desk with ease, into the house, smiling, this quiet man in his bib overalls and flannel shirt. He carried it up the steps and into my son’s room and then carried the chair.  He helped my son from the bed to the desk chair and knelt beside him to hold him steady.  My son has blue eyes, the same clear blue as my father’s. They smiled at each other, the same crooked little grin. I then understood why my father would not go to the hospital.  He had better plans, in his workshop defying the prognosis, defying despair, defying grief.

He believed his grandson would be able to sit at that desk.  He turned that belief into a testimony. A desk. A chair.

My father. My hero. A builder of houses, a maker of furniture. A man of faith.

The above was published in My Dad is my Hero anthology. I have also been published in Voices from the Attic (a Carlow University Anthology),Pittsburgh Magazine and the Tribune-Review, I also received an honorable mention from an Atlantic Monthly, fiction contest.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


I read somewhere that hearing is the last sense to go. It’s true because I can still hear. I can’t see.  I can’t open my eyes.  I can’t talk.  So I lay here, hearing.
                When this all started I could still see. The doctor with the gray, bristly moustache, looking worried. The nurses, one red-head, one blonde with her hair pulled up in a pony tail that swished back and forth as she bent to start my IV’s and hook up my monitor. She smelled like soap, minty and clean. I could still smell. And feel. The IV hurt going in.
                “Got an eighteen in the antecube,” said the blonde nurse.
                “Hang dopamine. Get another line.” Doctor talking. Atropine. Epi.
                “Need a 7.5 endo.” Someone is pushing something down my throat. I hear a machine pulsing next to my head.
                “Call a code.” Who said that? I can’t see clearly.  Everything is misty gray. Heavy fog.
                “Charging. Two hundred. Everyone clear.”
                Two hundred what?
                Incredible pain in my chest.  Like lightning, an electric shock.
                “Charging three hundred. Everyone clear.” I can hear that.
                Three hundred what? I can’t see. I can’t smell the soapy smell of the nurse.
                “Charging three sixty. Everyone clear.” I feel nothing.
                Then I hear “Nothing. Time of death, 3:40 pm.”
                The deep voice I hear now is Mr. Mortimer. He’s the owner and director. The other voice, higher, is the young man I saw vacuuming the hall carpet while I sat with Mr. Mortimer. 
                I was an event planner.  Back then.  I told Mr. Mortimer that when I planned my own event with him.  We were in his office.  A very sedate office with dark furniture.  Of course, what would you expect in the office of a funeral director?  Wood floor. Cherry?  A nice Persian carpet with blues and greens. Walls a pale, corn silk yellow. A large blue and white Oriental vase in the corner with blue hydrangea that looked real.  They weren’t, though. Some things are real. Some things just look like they are.
                What’s he saying?  The background organ music is faint.  It’s turned down low, real low. I hope it’s not Amazing Grace, for heaven’s sake.  I put Rock of Ages on my list.  Wait! It is Rock of Ages.  He got it right.  He followed my list.
                My list was complete, no detail omitted. What cosmetics to use and I even gave him a supply. Bisque foundation, cream based delicate rouge, pink lip tint. A photograph of me so he could have my hair arranged the way I like it. A creamy long-sleeved silk Ralph Lauren blouse with lace along the neck line and at the wrists. I watched him hang that in a closet. Of course, it was in a monogramed garment bag with my initials for Deborah Olivia Armstrong. A necklace of perfect small seed pearls that have just a tint of pink.  A good event planner never forgets even the smallest detail.  I never did.  Any event I planned was perfect.  I did all types. Twenty-fifth silver anniversary parties. Weddings and receptions. Baby and bridal showers.  My planning was always perfect.  At least on my end. That’s what I said to him that day.
                “Oh?” Mr. Mortimer said, with his eyebrows raised. So I had to tell him what could go wrong at an event.
                “People,” I said. “People can ruin events. Every time. Brides spill red wine on their gowns before the ceremony.  Grooms smash wedding cake into the bride’s face. Oh, there are stories! Like the surprise twenty-fifth silver anniversary party the grown children planned but the parents, the honorees, didn’t show because they were at the lawyer’s getting a divorce.”
                He smiled and nodded as I talked.  He didn’t say anything but I knew he understood.
                He helped me choose a casket.  I didn’t like anything he had in stock so he showed me his catalogue. What a high level catalogue, very impressive.  Burgundy leather, smooth to the touch, with laminated pages.  I chose the Sunset Bronze model with rounded corners and a soft velvet almond interior.  That would be a good background for my silk blouse.
                Of course I paid him for everything. The flowers (white roses with Maidenhair ferns and Baby’s Breath) were already pre-ordered and paid for at the florist right next to the funeral home. I gave Mr. Mortimer the receipt for the flowers as proof of payment.  I own a plot at Allegheny Cemetery on the North Slope, facing the Allegheny River. I gave him a map showing my plot location and a ground’s map. I opted for an angel statue as a head stone; the cemetery had it in storage. I owed it to myself to plan my own final event. That’s why I chose Mr. Mortimer. His reputation was excellent in the community. Event planning every detail.
         What’s he saying? Something about me being an event planner.  I can’t hear every word, wish he would come closer. He’s saying something about people.
                The boy’s voice is louder. “That’s a strange thing to say.  People ruin events?”
                I can’t make out Mr. Mortimer’s answer.
                It must not yet be viewing hours.  I don’t hear any voices except Mr. Mortimer and his assistant.
             They’re coming closer.  Their footsteps are soft on the carpet.
                “Time to lock up,” Mr. Mortimer said.
                Lock up? Already?
                “I’m surprised nobody came to the viewing,” said the assistant.
                The viewing was over? I heard a lock turning with a click.
                Mr. Mortimer must be walking near me, his voice is louder. “I gave her what she wanted. A perfect event.”
               “How so?”
                “I put her death notices in newspapers on the other side of the state.”
                “So no one would come. She planned a perfect event. I didn’t want it ruined by people.”
                Oh, didn’t I choose him well!
                Their footsteps faded away and I heard a final click of another door being locked.
                There was nothing left to hear.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Wisk together:
    One 15 ounce bottle Orville Redenbacher popcorn oil (in popcorn aisle)
    One tablespoon dry dill
    One tablespoon garlic powder
    One package dry Hidden Valley ranch dressing
Pour the above over:
    Four packages butter-flavored twisted pretzel sticks 

Stir every four to six hours until absorbed or put in sealed tupperware container and turn it over every four to six hours till absorbed.