I’m on a plane. I paid for the WiFi. I’m taking advantage of it and writing another installment. I think we left off with a priest showing up through a priest hole in my closet, like Narnia but in reverse. And without the goat-man.
We emerged into the dining room to find a folding table set up against the front window of the house. Our house faces north of that means anything. I never did tell you Fr.‘s name. And I cannot remember it now. We’ll call him Fr. Chad. Upon Fr.’s request my wife produced alter linens ala table cloths. But linens alone do not an altar make. “Fr.,” I asked, “I’m no expert but I sort of am but don’t you need like a chalice or some other things for mass?” At this moment Sister walked past me with a crate of “mass supplies”, set them down, and silently returned to a chair at the back of the room.
“I gotch-u, baby,” said Fr. with all the air and confidence of a 1970’s street pimp.
Yes, it was at this precise moment that I gave up and decided simply to go along with all that almighty God had planned for me. Clearly I have no clue.
“Introibo ad altare Dei.” *”I will go unto the altar of God.”
With these words, Fr. began the holy sacrifice of the mass. As he continued on through the Confiteor, I glanced beyond him and out the large picture window over the “altar”. The snow was now coming down heavily. It really was a beautiful sight. Reminded me so much of my childhood growing up in New Jersey. the only difference here is that elm and split leaf maples are swapped with crepe myrtles. But the fresh-fallen powder on the barren branches is still magnificent.I
I have always loved the snow. I think it has something to do with the peacefulness of it all. Even the noises of the atmosphere are dampened by a blanket of snow. Everything is almost silent when it falls. People can’t venture far past their streets. Families “huddle” together. And then there’s the child-like sense of wonder in me. As a kid, I loved seeing something fall from the sky that was so beautiful. As a man, I can’t help but think back to my boyhood and the true happiness I felt when we’d get a significant snowfall. Imagine if you will the combination of a picturesque scene out the window and the eternal, super-beautiful reality taking place just below it.
“Ite, missa est.” *”Go, the mass is over.”
We prayed the Leonine prayers, took a few moments to offer our thanks to God, and headed to the kitchen for lunch. Even Sister looked pious while kneeling to pray.
By now (after our meal) it was getting to be later in the afternoon. I stepped onto the porch to see how much had fallen. It was 12 degrees. I know this is Texas and the weather is schizophrenic but this is truly crazy. I noticed about six inches on the ground. The little kid in me got real giddy. I can’t help it. I’ve been in Texas almost a decade. We never see this. I went back inside to find that Fr. had vanished. I asked him to use the door but I think he went back through the priest hole. In fact I know he did due to the presence of a draft in my house. The re-pointing of hose bricks won’t be cheap. But Sister was at least still with us. And she had set up a board game at our kitchen counter.
We rounded out our afternoon in the typical fashion. We played Yahtzee and I shotgunned a gin and tonic. Sister played the oboe (did I neglect that detail?) and the children danced. It was “Flight of the Bumblebees”. Stupendous.
We all drifted off to sleep this peaceful night with no clue of what lie/lay/lain ahead of us. Yeah, I couldn’t figure the correct form. Whatevs, shuge.
In our next installment we enter the darkness. Hope you’re ready.
We did not stay awake for Sister. No, my own sister, my wife, and I all went to sleep around 1 AM after the following text exchange with Sister.
Sunday February 14, 2021
I rose extra early this morning. Part of me just wanted to be prepared for the snow and to assess whether or not I would actually be able to drive my sister to the airport or would have to call her an Uber. The other part of me, for there are only two parts and neither is very impressive, wanted to arrange the few Valentine’s surprises I had purchased for the family on our kitchen counter. I’ve been trying to be more attentive to little details. By this I mean I’ve been trying to shop for gifts and generally be better in the thoughtfulness department lately. Let’s face it. If anything ever happens to my wife, I’m screwed. Better get on board now with trying to copy her moves so it doesn’t resemble a complete disaster. So there was a large box of chocolates for her and smaller boxes for the kids, one for my niece who lives with us, one for my sister, one for Sister, and some Valentine’s cards I had picked up.
I had just finished placing the last of the heart-shaped cardboard containers on the counter when my sister emerged from her bedroom. “What’s the situation?” she asked. I explained that I had been listening to the weather reports and had been outside already. It was definitely going to be bad. Already the temperature was in the teens and there was a strange feeling in the air that one knows by heart if one grew up in a northern latitude. Snow was at the doorstep. I scheduled an Uber and told my sister of my regret that I couldn’t drive her personally to the airport. She understood but still it didn’t feel right. I always make it a point, ever since I could drive, to personally pick up and drop off my guests at the airport. For starters, we’ve always lived relatively close to a major airport. I joke that I like to be able to make a quick exit if the need arises. Even as a kid, though, I was always fascinated with airports. It’s the five year-old boy in me. Not to mention, this is my sister. She deserved to be seen off with a personal touch.
Just as I informed her that I had scheduled the Uber – two hours out – the familiar sound of giant, clanking, wooden beads came down the hall. “Why Sister,” I exclaimed. “Nice to see you among the land of the living.” “Coffee,” came her reply. “How was the conference?” I asked. “Stand out of my way please,” were the six words I was not expecting; yet they were said in an almost helpless way. “Long night?” I asked, forgetting for a moment that I had awoken at 2:15 AM to the sounds of a sub-woofer dropping the beat to “The Sign” by Ace of Base in my driveway. Life really is demanding without understanding. “Listen,” she said, “I just need a hit of the wakey juice and I’ll be good.” Then, turning toward my sister, “Oh hey! Glad you’re still here! We have so much to catch up on.” I explained to Sister that the other sister would be taking leave of us soon. Sister agreed that they must arrange a get-together in the near-future. “It will be so much fun,” she said as she slipped back into the sign language that had been absent from my life for the weekend. And to be honest, I’m not sure how both hands raised as if holding steins is the proper sign for any of that. “I just love the way you tell a story and I’m dying to hear more about the hoes.” In case anyone has forgotten, that’s a reference to the Irish dance moms from the previous installment. “Definitely have to meet up again and,” turning to me, “also I’ve arranged a priest to come and say mass in your house if that’s OK. He’ll be here in a couple of hours. Figured it was the least I could do since I think all the local masses are canceled due to the storm rolling in.”
Well that was a surprise indeed! I wondered who this collared man of mystery would be. Someone I know? A priest from a religious order? Maybe a Carthusian! Maybe a bishop in disguise!! My morning had just gotten very interesting. I took a shower and got changed and then stood on the front porch. In those 30 minutes I was grooming, mostly trimming my beard, the flakes had materialized. And now there was a solid half-inch of packed snow on the road. The untreated road. The road that would not reveal its pavement for another week. Good bye, road. It was nice to see you. I stood there waiting for that Uber. In fact I had the app open and watched as the clock counted down for me.
It gave me similar messages for the next four minutes. And then… Nothing. The app went blank as though I had never scheduled a thing. Well that’s not good, I thought to myself. Let’s try just ordering one and see what happens. And… Nope. There’s the problem. There were absolutely zero Ubers on the road. It’s odd because so many of my fellow Texans own four wheel drive pick up trucks. Someone ought to be making a killing in this weather. But here we were. Looks like I would have to drive my sister after all. We checked one more time that her flight hadn’t been canceled, she said goodbye to my wife and kids, did some weird “up high, down low” high five with Sister, and we took off.
The airport terminals are fifteen minutes from my front door.
The drive took us an hour. It was bad out there. Slow going doesn’t begin to describe it. White knuckle driving is a bit more accurate. “I’m gonna’ need a Xanax” driving is probably best. I walked my sister into the terminal and discovered that she would be on the last flight out of this place today (and indeed for several days). We said our good bye’s and she slipped past security. As a parting gift, when we rebooked her flight, my wife put her in first class. As I walked away from the terminal I texted her.
Another hour later and I was slowly skidding my way back into the driveway. Sister was on my front porch smoking a Camel. I know, right? She stamped it out as I approached. “I didn’t know you smoke,” I said with an impish grin. “I don’t,” said Sister as serious as a heart attack. “Fr. will be here soon. I hope you don’t mind but he only says the Traditional Latin Mass.” “Don’t mind at all, Sister. That’s what we go to,” I said. “Also there are some quirks,” replied Sister. As she said this she raised both hands in front of her face and flung out all ten fingers like they were glitter or confetti or something. As she did this, she literally said, albeit in a whisper, “Poof.”
I noticed my daughter had made biscuits and gravy and they were warming on the stove. I can’t turn down good Southern cooking so I fixed myself a plate. Sister slapped the fork out of my hand just as it was about to enter my mouth. “Fr. will be here SOON,” she said excitedly. In my hunger I had almost forgotten about the pre-Communion fast. Then again, “soon” doesn’t specify a time and since he was coming to my house to say mass I figured he might be able to delay the start of the mass until we were all good and ready. “Also, wouldn’t we need to have time to set up an altar, chairs, an entire chapel,” I wondered? Reading my thoughts, Sister said calmly, “Fr. does all that. Do not worry.” Nevertheless I felt it incumbent to get changed into my suit. It matters not whether it’s at home (which is very rare) or in a gothic cathedral. Sunday mass is a cause for dressing up for the Lord. I walked into my bedroom and toward my closet. Opening the closet door I just about had a heart attack. A slightly-built man in a long black cassock and a biretta to match was just emerging from the other side. I’ve learned not to ask anymore. About anything. Ever. And it’s also good I had already disarmed myself when I walked in the door from the airport.
“You must be Father?” I said half stating the obvious and half out of genuine curiosity. The answer, the words that came back at me… I have a beautiful voice. I’ve long been told I should do voiceover acting. I’ve done some radio spots. I love to read to people. I sang in a choir. This voice? If Barry White and Perry Como had somehow spliced their genes, they couldn’t have made a more perfect voice. Deep, relaxing to the point of inducing torpor, spellbinding. And that voice said simple, “Yes.” So the obvious next question was “Why the closet when we have a front door, Father?” To this my closet cleric said simply, “These are dangerous times. Sister gave me a coded map. I followed it. It led to that opening over there.” He said this as he pointed to the daylight pouring in from behind my linen suits (for Summer). I walked over to inspect. Sliding the suits over on the bar I could see clearly what was taking place. “Father,” I asked somewhat hesitating, “Did Sister create a medieval ‘priest hole’ on the back wall of my house?” I completely ignored the questions of how she got in there and cut through plaster and brick as quickly as she had. By the way, kudos to her. The small 3’X3′ square was cut with such precision as to be easily placed back without any notice. And this is what Father and I did promptly. You know, because it was snowing and it was also a load bearing wall.
On our way out of the bedroom (I never did get changed into my suit) Father and I talked briefly. “What are these ‘dangerous times’ of which you speak?” Father, who appeared in the light to be somewhere between 40 and 85 years-old, leaned in close. “Masks,” he whispered. “I don’t wear one and the people who seek me out don’t either.” “So let me get this straight, Father,” I asked. “You’ve made a cottage industry catering to Traditional Catholics who wish to remain maskless?” “Oh my son, it’s more than that.” He had better be closer to 85 if he’s calling me “my son”. Father paused briefly before adding, “But mostly that, yeah.”
And that seems like a good place to leave off for now. Come back for part 7 where the Hill of Calvary and Elizabethan England somehow merge in my dining room in Texas.
When last we met, Sister (the ex-nun) and sister (my actual sibling) had finally crossed paths. Sibling sister had arrived for her first visit in Texas with her favorite brother while International woman of mystery Sister was rounding out her fourth day in the Lone Star State. The initial meeting seemed to go well. And now it was time for the nun to take a temporary leave. You know, kind of like she’s doing with convent.
Friday February 12, 2011
I let my sister sleep in today, figuring that she had a long, late-night flight and that she’s a grown-ass woman and she can set her own sleep schedule. Sister and I made our way to the oratory for mass. As soon as mass was over, Sister said goodbye. In addition to her trip to Texas, Sister had arranged to attend a conference in nearby Kansas. True, Kansas is not exactly the most proximate state to Texas. Still, finding herself only 450 miles from a conference like this one, Sister could not turn up the opportunity. She had rented a car and would drive north for the weekend, returning to us on Sunday to round out her vacation. Her plan was to spend one final overnight with us and fly home on Monday the 15th. Oh, I almost forgot. The conference which she could not miss? It was a two day seminar entitled: “Cold Wind A-blowin’: Energy Reliability and Variable Rates in the Age of Monolithic Windmills”. Sister has long been known among her closest friends as an amateur energy industry buff and a huge fan of medieval Dutch power supplies. As she sat down in the driver seat of her car, I waved goodbye. “Fare well, Sister,” I said. “God be with you!” Sister froze. She had barely put her finger on the push-button starter. She looked up at me with a mix of indignation and fear. Pointing toward the sky with her right index ringer and to herself with her left thumb, she said, “He. Always. Is.” Sister also has the most disarming smile. It seems to say at one and the same time, “I’ve been told I should pray for your soul and yet you bore me.” This smile was on full display as she slammed her door, backed out of the driveway, and sped off. From her car as it rolled quickly out of sight one could hear the faint sounds of Jay Z’s Hard Knock Life.
I returned to the house to find my sister had woken up. She was in the kitchen, sipping her coffee. Assuming she might want more than coffee, I asked her what she’d like. “I’d like my husband back,” she said. We’re cut from the same cloth, she and I. I knew this statement of hers, though completely true, was also meant to invoke laughter. And so we laughed. “Seriously lady, tell me where you want to go and we’ll go there.” My sister is one of those guests who says that she’ll be truly happy doing whatever and literally means it. So off to the JFK 6th Floor School Book Depository Museum and Commemorative Gun Range we went. As we drove downtown I wondered if any of the displays would have changed since I last visited two days ago. Then I remembered that the entire museum has remained exactly the same the entire time I’ve lived here.
This tour of the museum, as you might have imagined, was a fairly “normal” one. Again, though, the sky looked very ominous. From the sixth floor of the Book Depository Building, the south side of the building, one has the privilege of gazing through very large windows with an almost unobstructed view of the plaza below and, since Texas is flat, of everything clear to the Gulf. Something just wasn’t right about this sky. We left the museum after about an hour. I asked my sister if she wanted to explore downtown Dallas. It was now about 35 degrees. She preferred the warmth of a car ride home where we could watch a movie or have a drink. Just prior to leaving the museum I received a text from my wife. It said (essentially):
This was followed with:
God has blessed me with an iron stomach in these situations. After stopping for bleach wipes (and bridge mix), I entered my casa. I told my sister and my children to avoid the area around the bathroom door. I, for once, donned a face mask (for the smell was wretched), I opened a door that may as well have had yellow caution tape on it… and I stepped in to a horror show. I closed the door behind me and set to work. Within 20 minutes I had accomplished my job. As a reward, I was allowed to eat dinner this night. And that’s what we did. We ordered take-out, watched a movie, and rested.
Saturday February 13, 2021
This morning the weather outside was neither frightful nor delightful but a basic understanding of bipolar disorder and Texas climate can help to understand what I mean. I am in the habit of going to daily mass. I learned this from my dad who went literally almost every single day of his life. In the four years since his death I have been blessed to grasp more and more just what he was trying to teach me. Fortunately I live in a place where I can go to mass every day without much difficulty. Being locked out of the sacraments for a time this past year (thank you, pandemic), I definitely took note of the need to go whenever I can. And I determined that I can go whenever God gives me the grace AND I will to go. That being said, Saturdays are the worst. Every other day of the week my parish offers a mass in the noon hour or later. On Saturday, the only mass is at 9AM. I struggle since this is the one day of the week I feel that it’s OK to sleep in a little, and that says a lot since I’m a homeschooling dad. But struggle I do. Last night I asked my guardian angel to push me out of bed in time to get to mass. In fact, I asked him to do it a bit earlier since a friend had invited me to a men’s prayer/study group at 7:30. Guardian Angel tapped me on the shoulder at 5:45. I love him, truly I do.
At 7 I stepped out of my house to discover the black ice from a few days earlier had returned. It was now in the 20’s and the air was bitter. I started out for the prayer group, made it a mile, turned around, and gave up on both that meeting and mass. A note on that prayer group. I have lived in the same house and neighborhood for close to a decade. For most of that time, unbeknownst to me, many of the men I have considered to be friends have all been meeting at this prayer group monthly. The man who hosts is someone I have only recently met. About a year and a half ago, another friend moved to town. He quickly became friends with all the same people. He started going to these group meetings and eventually asked me why I was never there. It’s hard to go to something you didn’t even know was taking place. Pity party aside, I do not now feel the obligation to attend something I’ve been left out of for years. So there, I win (said with burning interior self-loathing). Look, no one ever said that comedy doesn’t come from a dark, dark place. My mind? Let’s say I haven’t paid the electric bill for years.
Having opted out of my spiritual exercises for the morning, I prepared breakfast for my sister and my wife and our kids. Then my wife, sister, and I went out to do a little grocery shopping. By now, the forecast – usually completely unreliable – was as tight as my daughter’s wallet. The girl knows how to save a dime. In fact, every forecaster was predicting the same thing to where the 9 inches of snow the following day really seemed believable, despite this being Dallas. Don’t get me wrong. Texas, being enormous beyond belief – shut up, Alaska – has plenty of places that get significant snowfall each year. I’m thinking of the Panhandle and just about anywhere within a few miles of the Red River. But Dallas? No. That’s a usual NO. This? This was different. Snow was coming. My wife still insisted that it would come but not be as much as they were saying. I wasn’t sure but I know this much. Texas with even a trace of snow is bad. Roads would become impassable almost immediately. And although no one wanted to think about it, there was a possibility that power lines might freeze and come down. My sister made the decision, much to our dismay, that she should cut her trip short and fly out Sunday morning. The snow was predicted to start around 3PM on Sunday. This could only mean one thing. We should maximize our last day together.
So we hit the liquor store after stocking up on groceries. Texans are funny in that they don’t know to clean out the supermarkets of bread, milk, and eggs when snow is coming like us Yankees do. That being said, I could not find a single tortilla at the Kroger. After afternoon cocktails and a movie at home we made a decision that would change our lives forever. We decided to hit the bingo hall.
The first thing to know is that my sister has an affinity for pari-mutual games of chance. Chinese auctions, scratch-off lottery tickets, you name it. There is a bingo hall not far from our house. We’re talking an honest-to-goodness, step-back-in-time, smoke-filled bingo hall. Who doesn’t like to trash things up once in a while? And besides, it could be fun and we might even win some cash! We were under several misguided opinions as we entered the doors. First, we thought they sold beer and wine in this place. They don’t. Second, we thought it would be relaxing. It wasn’t. We immediately walked past six tables where every seat was taken by women and men who had died many years prior and were now simply zombies with dabbers in their hands. On the tables spread out before the undead were many multi-colored sheets with jumbled numbers from 1-75 printed on them. Surrounding these sheets were ashtrays with burning Misty lights, Marlboro Menthols, and unfiltered Camels. Protecting each ashtray and each sheet were multiple good luck talismans ranging from troll dolls to more troll dolls. Necks did not move. They simple stayed craned over the sheets while arms mechanically raced at a speed that did not belong with the bodies attached to those limbs, the hands rapidly dotting out numbers almost before they were called.
To say I was frightened, despite all the death I’ve seen in my life, is an understatement.
“Come on, sis’,” I said. “Let’s figure out how to join this freak show and then get the hell out of here.”
My wife, my sister, and I tiptoed to the back of the hall like a trio of Bob Fosse dancers, lithe and easy. When we reached the counter, my wife noticed a sign that said:
Buying bingo cards is hard, yo. I am convinced they use some kind of black magic in order to confuse the hell out of everyone standing at that counter. Either that or I just can’t do maths. Regardless, we asked the following questions .
“What’s the deal with the birthday special?” and,
“What’s the deal with the electronic boards?”
To these questions we got the following responses.
“Is any of y’alls birthday this month? The month of February? Then your board costs a penny. And I’ll spot y’all the penny,” and,
“The electronic boards are $20 per unit and y’all can pick one up over on that table yonder.”
OK, maybe she didn’t say “yonder” but you get the point. I was intrigued by the electronic boards so I purchased one. Also, it happens that my dear sister who is eternally not 60 years-old was about to turn 60 years-old just five days hence. It also turns out that when you buy the birthday special it comes with a piece of cake! There’s nothing I love more than a supermarket sheetcake cut into millionths and served on a paper plate by a toothless drug addict.
We gathered our sheets and my electronic board, a device resembling a heavy-duty iPad, and took a seat near the door. I immediately discovered that one could “BYOB” but that they did not serve alcohol at this joint. My sister and I each lit cigarettes as I texted my niece who was home watching the kids. “Go to my bar cart and bring me the gin, three glasses, a few bottles of tonic, and a bucket filled with ice. Oh and limes.” Then I texted, “Scratch that. Bring me some beers and some White Claws for the ladies.” The world of a bingo hall is a confusing mess of bizarre bullshit. In other words, this was the one place on earth most resembling my daily life. I turned to the man at the end of our table. He seemed to know what he was doing. “Sir,” I asked even though he hardly looked like he deserved the title. “What’s the deal with this electronic board? Do I have to do anything special?” Came his reply, “Look man, you put your code in. That’s on y’alls receipt from the lady at the window. Then you just watch that bitch go to town.” Keep in mind he had four of these boards resting behind his eight paper boards and 22 trolls. What’s with the trolls? “Oh and y’all don’t do nothin’ with that board. Keep an eye on it like a woman you expect to cheat on y’all. You know, watch it real sultry, see? Then prepare to slap her when she steps outta’ line.” He said “line” like this: “laaaaaaaahhhhnn”. “One last thing, brother,” he said. I fought the urge to explain genetics to him. “When that bitch says ‘YELL BINGO’, y’all yell BINGO.”
My niece showed up with the hooch and texted me from just outside the door. I retrieved the booze like it was a back alley drug deal. We played 8 games of bingo – straight bingo, four corner bingo, postage stamp bingo, blackout bingo, and something called ball buster bingo. We didn’t win any of them. And yet I think I discovered my new preferred method of playing this crazy game. Next time, I’m going with six electronic boards. I literally sat there drinking and smoking with an eye on a screen hoping to see “YELL BINGO”.
We left the bingo hall never having received our birthday cake. My sister even forgot to wear her “60 never looked so good” glitter sash and ball cap so it truly would have been wasted. Truth is, she could be turning 160. She’s my sister. I love her to death. She saved my life. The least I can do is show her a glimpse into the strange world of Texas bingo.
We made it home just in time to get a text from Sister.
She abbreviated “leaving” yet found room for “unmitigated”.
I received a message today from a friend who informed me that her mother was “on the edge of her seat” awaiting the next installment. I will take that as high praise from a reader and offer to you now the fourth installment. NB: These “parts” might cover more than one day at a time as we go forward.
Thursday February 11, 2021
Sister came out of her room this morning and poured her morning coffee. Mercifully for her, the convent had not taken that simple ritual away from her. She lifted the mug to her lips, took a long draw, and then slammed the coffee cup onto the counter. “Hooooly Mutha! That’s some damn good java,” she said. I believe Sister had found her voice. Sister then picked up her small, black copy of the 1962 Roman Missal and stepped out onto the front porch to pray her morning prayers. I mean, I do have heat in my house but whatever. Meanwhile I mulled over our options for the day. I needed to be back at the homestead by 9 PM to pick up my sister from the airport. “Perhaps,” I thought, “I can one day make a movie and I’ll call it When Sister Meets Sister.” I had gotten as far as making them detectives and pairing them with a quadriplegic man servant (comedy gold right there) when I remembered that Sister had wanted to travel to Waco. If you thought she had a JFK obsession, you should ask her about the Branch Davidians.
Sadly for Sister, neither a trip to the Branch nor to Magnolia nor to the Dr. Pepper Museum (a very real place in Waco) were in the cards today. You see, an ominous weather event had swept through overnight. No, it’s not the fabled blizzard you tuned in to read all about. Patience. Rather this was that blizzard’s harbinger. And what a tragedy this brought with it. I started to look at news on my phone and was stunned at what I was seeing. Apparently every school district in North Texas had closed for the day due to weather. I looked out my window assuming that Sister might have gotten buried in a drift. Instead of a blanket of white I saw a white woman in a white habit under a literal blanket of white. Sister had grabbed a fleece on her way out the door. But not a flake in sight. I went back to my phone. Turns out this system had produced patches of lethal black ice. Here I must state with love that Texas drivers are not good drivers in decent weather. Also, the local governments lack the equipment to treat the roads as they would have been treated where I grew up. Rather, towns will send out police in squad cars to park at the bottom of highway entrance ramps in a blocking fashion. This does not work, though, when someone is already on the road when it gets closed. Sadly, that morning 135 vehicles were involved in one of the worst mass accidents ever just to our west in Fort Worth. Several people died. Please say a pray for them.
Sister and I drove to mass at a local oratory that had been kind enough to host us all week. Normally we would have gone to our parish but Sister knew some of the members of this particular community. I noticed that the roads were indeed slick but I wasn’t too concerned. I wasn’t getting on any highways. We arrived and went in for mass. In the quiet of the chapel I attempted to meditate on the Passion. The door swung open. The door slammed into a crucifix on the wall. That crucifix fell and hit me on the head. Meditation complete. Our Lord ALWAYS hears our prayers. The door had been flung open by the children of a mutual friend to Sister and me. The family had come to join us for mass. Afterward we all went out to lunch at a local Mexican restaurant. Sitting at the table I asked Sister if she wanted a drink. It was lunchtime and we were at a place known for their margaritas. Sister locked eyes with the waiter and spewed something at him in flawless Spanish. I picked up something about a drink, a chimichanga, the Argentine Dirty War of the 1970’s, and bull castration. My Spanish is a little non-existent. Juan, our waiter, turned pale. He fumbled with his pad and pen. In his eyes, a glaze of sheer terror. Sister lifted her head back up (for she had dipped her eyes back to the menu) and said calmly, “¡Andale!… or should I say… Raus?” Juan backed away swiftly from the table, never turning his back to Sister, and then ducked into the kitchen. I had no idea she was a polyglot! What fun! Before I could say burrito Juan had returned to our table. He was now dressed in finery. Deep red velvet bolero jacket with tassels. Golden embroidered sombrero. His hair was now white so there was that. He was attended by three similarly dressed servers carrying trays of the finest selections of chips and queso. I honestly thought it all came from a food services truck. Each of the servers had hair blonder than mine and the bluest eyes. The last of Juan’s assistants handed Sister an envelope. “Third Secret of Fatima,” she said. “Can’t reveal until the year 2000”, as she tucked the envelope into her sock clearly having buried the Millennium in her subconscious.
I think something happened to Sister when she put that new hat on yesterday. I think it unlocked something of her youth. I think it tripped something within her personality as if her brain suddenly said, “Sister, it’s OK. You don’t have to be scared anymore. You can come out and play. You do you!” Or maybe it was the Yankee Candles.
I returned home to get my daughter ready for choir practice. Sister remained with friends a while. She may have had Juan arrested for some old Nazi war crime. Perhaps she just got more queso. Some things are better left unthought. Unfortunately for my daughter, choir practice was canceled due to ice that had already melted away. She and I had our own choir practice at the piano. A few scales for warm up and then we rehearsed the song “Dance Ten, Looks Three” from A Chorus Line. I don’t know if it will ever make it into the Latin mass rotation but it sure is fun to play on the keyboard. Don’t worry, I had her hum over any “colorful” lyrics.
I looked around my house and noticed it didn’t like quite as “fresh” as it had a few days ago. Should I call Alma again? No, not enough time. Instead I went around and swept, mopped, cleaned toilets, etc. It’s kind of what I do. I gravitate to my own kind. That’s why I spend time cleaning toilets and taking out the trash. Because I am garbage. After I finished I put together another gift basket to place in one of the bedrooms. This one was very special to me. It was a basket of Texas goodies and other treats for a very special person who was coming to Texas for the first time. In fact, if it weren’t for her I wouldn’t be in Texas to make this gift basket. Truth be told, I wouldn’t be anywhere but in the ground. When I was a young boy of 4, my older sister saved my life by tossing me from the second floor of a burning building. This part is 1000% true in case you were wondering. I’ve always been close with this sister and I was so happy she could make the trip to see us. Sadly, her husband died a few short months ago. He was one of the absolute best human beings you would ever want to know and we have all been saddened by his loss. I hoped that in bringing my sister for a visit, she might be able to see that there is fun in life still and share some of that fun with us.
I headed out to the airport and waited at baggage claim with a sign that said “Welcome back from rehab!” She slapped the back of my head when we met. We drove home. Out came the cheeseboard, crackers, and bar cart. We were celebrating life. Sister asked my sister if she wanted a Yankee Candle. I explained that whole mess to her. She stuck to her rum and coke. After a while my sister began to regale us with a tale of her children who are champion Irish dancers. They frequently attend competitions that take place in hotel ballrooms and the like. “Sister,” said my sister, “You don’t know what this shitshow is like. You got these older, I don’t know what you’d call ’em, ‘dance moms’, right, Sister? These ladies use these dance things as their night out on the town, ya’ know, Sis? Know what I’m sayin’?” Sister was intrigued. I could see her attempting to formulate into hand symbols my sister’s flawless Jersey. Then came the phrase that pays. “Sister, nah, Sister… listen to me. We’re talkin’ hoes on heels here.” Sister couldn’t find the right symbols for that one.
And then we all went to bed.
In tomorrow’s installment we’ll get my sister’s take on JFK and we’ll venture into a genuine Texas bingo hall. B-I-N-G-O, friends, Bingo was his name-o.
In Part 1 of this adventure I introduced you to several characters. There was Alma, the Salvaruvian housekeeper who pulled a “Mary Poppins”. There was the liquor store lady who introduced me to a swirling mess of crap in a glass new cocktail. There was Airport Drunk who clearly wasn’t paying attention during the safety video. And there wasSister, the gregarious ex-nun who chose to spend her vacation in the warmth of our Texas winter. Now I should like to tell you about Sister’s adventures proper. Buckle up.
Tuesday February 9, 2021
I awoke to find the highballs from our Yankee Candles (the bijou cocktail lest you forgot) sitting in the sink, and a few empty bags of Whataburger in the trash can. It was like the aftermath of a frat party where Mother Teresa was the pledge. Now it was time to show Sister the sights. My wife prides herself on being able to find the most unusual places to visit. These are places that exude just the right amount of local flair without seeming too “kitschy”. And every visit to Dallas should begin with a trip to… Fort Worth, the “Gateway to the West”. That reminds me of the first time I visited Detroit as a television producer. I found myself in the driver’s seat of a rental car driving a 92 year-old black woman around town on our way to our location shoot. Struggling for small talk because I’m apparently not down with the swirl, we found ourselves discussing the local flavor. After a few moments of silence I said to my guest, “Oh, I went over to Windsor [Ontario] last night and saw a few bars and casinos.” To this the old lady replied, “I’ve been livin’ here almost a century and I always said the best part of Detroit is Canada.” And then she pulled out a guitar and sang three verses of the folk tune Freight Train. And then she died. And what might be in Fort Worth, you ask? For starters, we went to a pickle museum. No, that’s it. A literal showplace for pickles, nature’s cruelest joke right after progeria, that disease where children rapidly age. I did not know such a place existed before this day. I did not know that an entire room, let alone 10,000 square feet, could be filled with the wonders of pickles. There were pickled food products such as cotton candy (gross) and, well, basically that was it other than the actual pickles. For the record, I despise pickles. A pickle once tried to kill me. I did take a picture with a mock-up of a pickle though. It’s called facing your fears. Sister seemed to enjoy the place, though, so it was cool. And they had a gift shop! My daughter bought a shirt with a pickle on it that side something like “I like it dirty” or something.
Right next to Pickle-o-rama was a Western wear outlet. Surprisingly we found nothing that we liked. But the seed was planted. I’ve lived here close to ten years and have yet to embrace this local attire. True, many people in Texas actually do dress like cowboys. Some of them actually are cowboys. I am a Northerner who has never truly felt like I belonged here. But my children have insured that I have little hair left on top of my head and I’m a sucker for a nice hat. Sister wanted boots. She tried on 1200 pairs, turned to my wife and me, and said, “Nothing fits. What’s for lunch?”
After a lovely meal, we ventured into the Fort Worth Stockyards. We listened to Sister’s eclectic selection of music. How a recently kicked-out ex-nun has any music on her phone is beyond me. It was mostly pop music and some classic country which I’m totally cool with. The Stockyards is an historic district just north of downtown Fort Worth. It is famous for housing an honest-to-goodness cattle market. Apparently cattle need daily exercise so twice a day a group of cowboys “stampede” about 12 sickly longhorn steers down Main St. to the delight of the tourists. I took out my phone and played the Aaron Copeland symphony Rodeo. You might remember it from the old beef industry commercials. One of the cows dropped dead. Sister and I laughed. As the song finished we both said in unison, “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner.”
After failing to find anything more than another bar at the Stockyards we headed to the home of other friends who have know both my wife and Sister for years. Along the way we stopped at another Western outlet. This time, Daddy found what he’d been looking for. Say hello to my new black felt Stetson. And they had my size too! It’s hard to find a 7 9/8. Possibly another reason I don’t fit in here. My father always told me I had a larger skull to accommodate a bigger brain. Sister’s hat size is even larger. She did not find a hat. I was sad for her. To alleviate my grief I also bought a pair of jeans and a graphic tee with a picture of an oil derrick that says “I like it crude”. My wife now officially hates me.
Remember that lovely lunch we ate? Yeah, something about the spices they used at that Mexican joint wasn’t sitting well with me. I had been uncharacteristically experiencing heartburn all afternoon. We forgot to stop at Walgreens for Tums on the way home so I asked my wife when we walked in the house if we had any in the medicine closet. It really wasn’t that bad, just an annoyance. Also I’m 43 and now believe that every minor malady is a heart attack. Welcome to maturity! “Honey,” she said, “just take one of these,” as she handed me a prescription bottle. I must state this off the bat. I ALWAYS trust my wife. For some reason this time, however, I did not. I took the bottle as she walked away and quietly slipped into the pantry where I Googled the medicine’s name. My wife believed in her heart she had handed me an antacid. In fact she had even written the word “antacid” on the bottle with a pencil. But drugs.com said otherwise. Staring back at me from my phone was the following.
“Sweetness,” I called into the other room. “Um, you know these ain’t Tums, right?” I showed her the website and she just about died laughing. Wondering what was so funny other than that she had tried to give me, a MAN, something to stop a nonexistent yet heavy menstrual flow, she said, “I’m pretty sure I gave those to my sister’s husband like three or four times on different holiday gatherings.”
Our laughter was only interrupted by two words I never thought I’d ever hear in my house, certainly not in such an elfish tone.
With that I dutifully returned to my bar to whip up a few bijous. And all were happy.
In Part 3 you will travel with us into the heart of Dallas’ obsession with the 35th President of the United States and discover the moment when Sister finally finds her hat. Don’t worry. The snowstorm and blackout eventually show up.
The following story recounts the past two weeks of my life. I am a husband and father to two wonderful pre-teen children. I live in a modest house in the Dallas, TX area. I intend no politics, am not assigning blame, nor am I writing to convey anger over the blackouts. I am simply a man who lives a bizarre life and likes to write. With that being said, here now, part 1.
Monday February 8, 2021
Perhaps the first thing you should know, especially if you are new to these pages, is that I homeschool my children. For over 15 years I worked as a high school teacher and later, a school administrator. Last summer, not looking forward to masks and temperature checks for myself or my children, I decided to take a shot at something I had always wanted to do. The moment was never going to be better than it was to treat myself to a year (hopefully more) of being the principal of my own school. Also, I kind of dig walking through my kitchen to get to my classroom. Another thing you should know is that my family and I are cradle Catholics. Some would even label us “traditionalist” Catholics. The Catholic faith and culture are as much a part of our life together as oxygen. True enough, we attend a Latin mass parish but that is what works for us. A final point of which you should be aware is that between my wife and me, we know thousands of people. I come from an enormous family (14th of 16) and my wife is just phenomenal at everything and loved by all. She could legitimately spend her days literally stomping on the knuckles of hangers-on trying to come within her sphere for warmth. She doesn’t. In particular, she has many friends with whom she has remained close since college. All of these facts will play a part in what is to come.
Several weeks ago my wife received a text from one such college friend. We will simply call her “Sister”. That’s because she’s an ex-nun. You’ve probably heard divorcees lament that “I didn’t leave my spouse. My spouse left me.” Well, Sister’s order left her. In fact, it disbanded, or it was suppressed by the Vatican. We’re really not sure. The point is, she’s not an “ex”-nun by choice. It was more of an indifference sort of thing. “My spouse left me” takes on a whole new meaning when one is a bride of Christ. Having spent the past fifteen years in complete silence, using only rudimentary sign language and finger puppets to convey her thoughts, Sister’s family forced advised her to take a vacation. Owing to the fact that every time we’ve seen her in the past few years we’ve invited her to come visit us in Texas, Sister’s first thought was to take said vacation in the Lone Star State. But of course, she would be our most welcome guest! Our preparation consisted of me 1) determining to “shuffle around some school work with the kids” to accommodate her visit and all the fun day trips we would make and 2) calling Alma. Who is Alma? Well, Alma is only the best kept secret in town. That may be because she is in the country undocumentedly. In truth, I do not know. What I do know is that she can clean a house like it’s nobody’s business. The process usually involves several unaswered text messages listing multiple potential days and finally a reply that says simply: “Yes.” I think she uses a burner phone. Having secured her scrubbing skills, I woke up early on this morning – it’s still the 8th if you forgot because of my verbosity – I unlocked the door and welcomed Alma. Alma politely brushed past me while looking over her shoulder. “Close door. I clean now,” she said most politely yet with a tinge of both fear and disgust in her eyes. “Also, don’t tell no one I’m here.” Looking at her earnestly I said, “But Alma, I don’t know anyone who knows you.” To this she replied, “Keep it that way,” and then she commenced vacuuming my drapes.
While Alma dusted and shined I suddenly remembered that one of my nephews – a young man in his early 20’s – had also asked to come stay with us this week. He had time off and wanted to visit one of my nieces – a young lady in her early 20’s who happens to live with us – and particularly to visit her lady friends. Ah, the mind of a young man… Always looking for, um, platonic friendship? Yeah, he wasn’t here to see us, to be sure. Nonetheless, I did have to leave Alma while I drove out to the airport to get the lad. On the drive I used my background in logistics to figure out where he would stay. I dropped him off at home, shoved him and his baggage into my daughter’s room, paid Alma her cash (unmarked bills), and watched her instantly vaporize through the chimney. “Don’t… tell… no one…” she said as she vanished. Boy she’s something else. Also, we don’t have a chimney so it was really magical.
Next up, I rolled a die to determine which of my children would be my favorite this day. Kidding. They’re both my favorite. The girl. Using reverse psychology, I took the boy and left daughter at home while I went shopping for Sister’s impending arrival. We went to a giant warehouse store. There are five of us normally under our roof and the one added guest has lived off of rice and donated donuts for two decades so this was going to be a challenge. I stocked up on cases of soda, mini quiches, and other things to make our exclostrated guest feel at home. Then I headed to my happy place, a liquor store called Total Wine, or as I call it, Wine Totale. I like to class it up sometimes. Sister had enjoyed her cocktails while we were in school. Let’s see if she can still hold her liquor. While roaming the aisles I overheard a customer and a sales associate discussing gin. And the fourth thing you needed to know about me is that I have had a love affair with Dutch Courage since college. I know my gin. And my gin knows me. The information being given the poor shopper by the young clerk was so wrong I absolutely had to interject. I told her about the wonders of gin, its history, and then helped her pick a bottle. “What are you making with it, might I ask?” I said. She told me it was for some “ancient cocktail” her husband had heard about called a bijou. The bijou dates to the 1890’s and contains equal parts gin, chartreuse, and sweet vermouth. I was intrigued enough to stock up on all of that. Looking into my cart at the already full supply of other gin, rum, and an assortment of Texas whiskeys, she asked, “And what are you making with all that?” My son, who is undeniably my son, shot back, “We’re not making anything. Just getting ready to entertain an ex-nun.” And we walked away.
I stopped at daily mass, came home, and made some finishing touches to the house. This included assembling our traditional “Texas Welcome Gift Basket” for Sister’s room. My wife and daughter had even made Texas-shaped chocolates for her. Finally the hour approached to return to the airport and collect Sister. I entered the terminal and noticed how empty it was. Air travel has really taken a hit this past year. It was in that emptiness that I was able to hear the little things that make my life more fun.
I turned around to see a middle-aged woman lying on the ground on top of a piece of rolling luggage. In her fall she had completely bent the extended handle of her suitcase. She came to rest in front of an elevator that I think she was attempting to board. I looked around, noticed two other people. We all looked at each other and then, out of a sense of human decency, approached the woman to assist her. As I got within a few feet I smelled the familiar waft of alcohol that has traveled through the bloodstream and, finding no room at the inn, decided to exit the body via the pores. This chick was sauced. My first guess was that she had enjoyed the hell out of first class and now could not find her way outside of a paper bag, let alone an airport terminal. We got her situated with some medical assistance and a bottle of water from a vending machine and I turned around just in time to see Sister walking toward the baggage carousel.
Sister is a character of epic proportions. She loves Texas, having spent some of her youth here. She is a bigger fan of pop culture, including the TV series Dallas, than even me. She loves a good meal, perhaps almost as much as I do. We got into my car. I connected my phone and the radio blasted the theme to Dallas. “So much fun!” she said. “Why don’t you go pick up Whataburger while I get my rental car and head to your house?” And that’s just what I did.
To close out day one, I offered Sister a drink. “Sister,” I said, “Let me fix you a bijou.” She looked at me like I had just announced the death of the Roman pontiff on state-run TV. “I’m game,” she replied. Here I set to work making a cocktail I had never made, nor did I know would be potable. I did this with all the swagger of a bartender who’s served up drinks for years at the same establishment. As in, “Trust me, you’ll like it. There is no other option.” I poured two bijous and we toasted Sister’s arrival and visit. Sister took a sip. Sister put her glass on the counter. Sister said the following.
“Tastes like a Yankee Candle. From the 1890’s.”
And that was day one. “Where’s the snowstorm? What happened to the blackout?!” you ask. Patience, friends. All will be revealed.
I kind of did as well. I just checked and it seems that my last entry on this blog was posted March 1st, 2020. That’s “pre-COVID” if you hadn’t figured it out. I guess, like a lot of people, I was just focused on other things for the past few months. It’s the height of irony for someone who loves to document life. Think about it. The most bizarre year of any of our lifetimes comes along and I can’t bring myself to write a solitary word about any of it.
I believe in the silence, we sometimes find answers to the big questions in life.
These past five months have been a blessing for me. They have been filled with many wonderful memories – memories that, for now, will remain untold on these pages and bound up only in the collective mind of my family. You all know by now that this blog has been a way to document the life of my family as my kids have been growing up. Don’t worry, they’re not quite grown yet. There are many more stories to record and to share.
But I think these times God gives us – times like a national lockdown – force us to confront the question of what is most important in our lives. For me it has always been God. It MUST be God. He is at the center of all that I hope to do and be – “my first beginning and last end,” to quote the daily missal. To love is to sacrifice, to give oneself to God, whole and entire. We do this in giving ourselves to our spouses, our children, the Church, society. I have always harbored a desire to be loved. It is a desire with which I have struggled in many ways. And yet I know that it is far greater to love. I hope that my love for my wife and kids has shown through in the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve committed to this space over the years. But to love them means to sacrifice myself for them. Now I am preparing to embark, for them, on what is perhaps my greatest task in life fully realized. Let me tell you.
Two things in particular have happened in the past few months to spur this realization. First, there were the hours and days and weeks spent with the kids. My wife works from home in a cozy office off the back of the house. We try not to disturb her during the work day. But yours truly is a school administrator/teacher. We got shut down. Just like every other parent in America I found myself suddenly teaching my own kids. My situation was a bit different. For starters, I had always wanted to teach my kids in a formal setting. It’s why I went to work at the school were I did – so the kids would be with me and one day I would have them in class. I know, I’m that dad. Although they say they think that’s a “cool” idea now, I’m not sure how they’d feel in high school. And I have even reached “Master Dad Joke” level within the International Society of Dad Humorists so I was just waiting to lay puns and set snares with an intellectual bent that would make anyone’s head explode. Yet here we were, unexpectedly getting that chance; while I was simultaneously teaching other kids online and helping to run a K-12 school.
Three months. We did this for three months. We got creative and got plenty of exercise walking around the neighborhood or riding our bikes. We laughed. We cried. We struggled. But it was sooooo worth it.
Another thing happened recently. This one affected me more than the kids. Two weeks ago one of my older brothers committed suicide. He had a wife of 27 years and two grown kids. I will never understand why he did such a thing. Please pray for his soul and for his family. Something shook me about this. Did the lockdown mess with him? He was one of the most social creatures I’ve ever known? There’s no sense trying to find an answer, though. It is over. It is final. Pray for him. When I say something shook me, I mean that the fragility of life came to the fore of my own life once again. We’ve lost so many over the years. We cannot go forward as though all is doom and gloom. Yet at the same time we have to use these moments to focus on what is truly important, just like we might see good in the lockdown if we understand that we got more time together as a family. Don’t get me wrong. I think the lockdowns were useless and politically motivated and you can call me a nut but the curve was flattened a long time ago. Nonetheless, it gave me time and his death gave me pause to reflect.
I have one solemn charge in life and that is to get my wife and kids to heaven. I need to teach them their faith and about the world around them. I need to pray with them every day, go to mass with them every day like my dad taught me. I need to give them everything I have. And I’m the one to do it. Just look at me! Every moment of my life prepared me for this. And right now you’re asking what I’m talking about…
Wait for it…
After fifteen years in education as a teacher and administrator, after more than a decade of documentary blogging, after years of working in broadcast media, having served varied school communities, television networks, and a brief stint driving live lab mice to the airport; I am leaving it all behind. Starting in a few weeks, I will be the principal of my home. Since I was only ever vice principal, I guess I just gave myself a promotion. My two kids will be getting up with me every morning to do what is most important – praise God and live out our family life together – while I teach them the “Three R’s” and try to keep them away from Mommy’s office. I’m excited beyond belief. I know I can do this. I hope they’ll be cooperative when the going gets tough. And you my dear readers, both of you, already know that there’s no way I’m starting this new chapter in my life without chronicling all the gory details. Look for a new blog to start soon (either right here or under a new domain). And if you have any friends (like the million or so Americans who are also crazy enough to try this same stunt) who want to follow and read along, send them my way. The adventures of a now-former vice principal who quits his job to be a homeschooling dad might just be anybody’s cup of tea in these insane times.
Folks, I got off all that social media nonsense a while ago. Sorry but I'm not on Twitbook, Facepalm, YouHu, WingWang or any of the others. Maybe an event will happen to make me change my mind like Peter and Paul coming down with flaming swords and commanding it be so. Until then, read the blog and if you feel a comment is in order or you feel like sharing a tip or suggestion for a topic, email me at email@example.com.
Harvey is a funny, witty and interesting read. Want to know what's going on in the world of Harvey? Then make a point to subscribe to his blog! You just never know when those pesky Weebles will show up. Hmmm, speaking of Weebles - haven't heard from them in a while (wink). Seriously, you just never know what to expect and whatever you find, it never disappoints! -- Debbi Robertson @ Photos and Facets