Strawberry Yields Forever

All right, y’all! There’s strawberry pie for anyone who can get here before it’s gone! Yes, yes, I’ll dress it with whipped cream when you’re served. But you’d better get here soon because my grandson and his roommate were eyeing the pie before they left to see a movie. They’ll be back, and I suspect, will enjoy this as a midnight snack.

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Now don’t look too closely at the pie … in my preparation, I didn’t make the Martha Stewart effort to have all similar sized berries. And slapping the whole mess into the pie shell, well, that’s pretty much the way I did it. I’m generally a slacker when it comes to presentation, so it may not look as pretty as Martha’s, but I expect it’ll taste as good!

I don’t have a huge strawberry bed. The plants I set in 2009 have mostly died out, but I set in a few new ones every spring and they’re going like gangbusters. I’ve managed to keep the slugs at bay … so far.

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Here’s a picture of today’s harvest. That’s a fourteen-inch square box lid and the berries are three or four deep in the box. That’s the crazy thing about strawberries: it’s either feast or famine.

Because I’m not a natural gardener − I prefer the lounge chair or a golf course for my leisure time − strawberries are the perfect crop for me. I can enjoy a generous harvest without having to break my back tending and coddling the plants!

I also have a raspberry bush that’s beginning to display the promise of a generous crop (soon). After four years of cultivating raspberry plants and having them die every year, I was pleased that I could finally coax one of the bushes to maturity and it’s looking good. Like the strawberries, though, harvest appears to be a feast or famine. Last year, we managed to get about two cups full of dime-sized raspberries. I’m hoping we’ll do better this year, but time will tell.

Now listen, y’all. Two young men are going to see that movie (I think they’re seeing the latest installment of X-Men) and be back here in a flash. If you expect to get a slice of that pie, you’re burning daylight! Hope you make it in time.

Two Is The Beginning

Tomorrow, we will celebrate our first-born child’s 40th birthday. It seems almost impossible to imagine that fact is reality, but there’s no denying it … nor the corollary − that her daddy is considerably past his 40th birthday! (Okay, if I must admit it, me too.) How, I ask myself, is this possible?

I posted a poem here about my early days mothering this beautiful, strong-willed child. She was born in Dallas, a Texan through and through. Because I carried my babies longer than most, she was delivered on May 31 … my due date was May 12. (Back then, inducing was rare.) She weighed a hefty 10 pounds, 8 ounces! Like most parents, she gave us plenty of moments when we puffed out our chests with pride … and likewise, there were the troubling moments with many tears shed and serious questions about how her future would turn out.Mandy

We should not have doubted or worried. Today, she is a lovely and poised woman, wife to a fine man and mother to four living children. (I posted here about her child who died in utero.) She is a business woman in process of starting her own company. (Without being too cryptic, I’ll one day share more about her. I suspect the details will offer comfort and hope to other parents.)

Ah, she’s all grown up now!

Author J. M. Barrie‘s story of Peter Pan resonates with me, in part I think, because my parents took my brothers and me to the summertime outdoor opera (St. Louis Municipal Opera) that presented the story. (Years later, it was shown on tv many times.) Though we attended other productions, Peter Pan was my personal favorite.

Two songs from the production seemed to be written just for me:  I Won’t Grow Up and I’m Flying. Both songs stroked my imagination with the defiant possibility of approaching reality in a completely unconventional way. (Watching a female in the title role … Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, Cathy Rigby … didn’t hurt either. Their performances facilitated my ability to identify with them. A deep, bellowing voice would never have been believable to me.) If anyone is inclined to take a stroll down memory lane, there’s a YouTube video running the entire 1960 production, starring Mary Martin.

Alas, Peter Pan was the only child who didn’t grow up. Wendy and Peter and John, me and my Beloved and our offspring eventually grew into adulthood. There’s a passage in the book where Barrie notes:

“All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.” 

I don’t remember having that realization when I was two (late bloomer?). I’m not even sure I realized it the day I married. But when my delightful eldest daughter was born, I suddenly knew I must grow up. And now, in like fashion, my daughter has done the same.

A Is For Aardvark

Because some of my silly verses have been enthusiastically received, I thought I’d offer another one today.

I’m often struck by the variety of interesting and unusual animals in God’s creation. Thinking about the animal kingdom often spurs my imagination and verses like the following are what come from my musings.

aardvark, antipasto, cantaloupe, eggplant parmesan, light verse, poetry, poem
Poem: Road to Antiquity

The Right To Live

Their names (in alphabetical order) are:  George Chen (age 19), Katherine Cooper (22), Cheng Hong (20), Christopher Michaels-Martinez (20), Weihan Wang (20), and Veronika Weiss (19). Two women, four men … daughters and sons, each with a unique story of hope and potential … and each one’s life abruptly ended by the soulless act of a self-absorbed narcissistic killer. Their pictures (shown from an online tribute) show carefree, smiling faces, typical examples of eager, playful young people unafraid of tackling their lives head-on. I doubt a one of them anticipated this.


Following the deaths, one of the parents quickly raged − “Why?” − and then he added an even stronger reaction for the media to immortalize. In part, he said:  “What about [my son’s] right to live?” No doubt, he verbalized thoughts each of the parents had agonized over. I can’t imagine I’d have been capable of speech (certainly not coherent speech) at such a time, and I am dumbfounded to think of the pain of their losses.

However, as a life member of the NRA (on whom the parent cast partial blame), I think a measure of balance is essential. Why is it we in America choose to be so narrow-minded about firearms? Yes, narrow-minded and inexplicably naive. We think if we surround ourselves with Gun-Free Zones that we − and more importantly, our children  −  will be instantly sheltered from possible harm. Yet time after time, it is the very “gun-free zones” we’ve blocked off, zones populated by our precious children (whether at an elementary school or a college) where bad actors insist on perpetrating their crimes!Franklin on duh

Further, this murderous individual engaged in a crime of opportunity and designed his rampage for its most sensational impact. All three of the man’s roommates were apparently close at hand; news reports reflect he killed them in the apartment where they lived. We teach our children to beware strangers, but shouldn’t living arrangements for college-aged men and women be scrutinized for similar stranger-danger? Parents make a foolish assumption that sending their adult-children to college means they’ve moved beyond the age of danger. Not so … as this tragedy proved.

Another aspect of this crime of opportunity:  the secured door of a sorority house effectively convinced the gunman to go elsewhere in search of more convenient and readily available targets. The murderer was looking for easy targets. Because his “aggressive knocking” was ignored, he walked away, wandering just around the corner where he came upon other lives to destroy.

I hate talking about this man and his heinous behavior, but I think it’s crucial that we remember the young people who died at his hand. They did have the “right to live.” That right was stolen from them! They are not the first  − nor the last  −  to have their lives carelessly snuffed out by a bad actor. We must not forget them.

But here’s my most important point:  Do not give this knife-wielding gunman a pass! DO NOT! Blaming his behavior on the NRA or “craven, irresponsible politicians” or even blaming his parents is an open invitation to other bad actors to continue committing such crimes! They won’t be blamed. They’ll have a moment of infamy and a place in history books, but their crimes won’t be directly imputed to them:  they were abused in childhood, their parents (or school teachers) treated them cruelly, their siblings (or school mates) made fun of them. It’s always someone else’s fault that the bad actor chooses evil, don’t you know? Perhaps if we would just take the time to understand them and their deeds, we’d be able to prevent future bad actors?

NO! NO! NO! That’s something this individual apparently never learned! Daily appointments with a therapist didn’t resolve his bad behavior. He had plenty of “understanding.” His social alienation seems to have grown, even as professionals continued their efforts to understand him! Such nonsense!

In this case, the murdering perpetrator was given a pass repeatedly, all his life. Parents, nannies, siblings, therapists and teachers all made allowances for a child who aged into boyhood and eventually to manhood without ever having to be culpable of anything! He aged, but he never developed as an adult with strong adult impulse control! The willingness of professionals to give this boy-man a pass, in spite of his clearly harmful, antisocial actions, allowed him to become an egomaniac who never had to answer for his own behavior. Do not give him a pass!

Blame this man for his crimes … he wielded a knife, machete, or ax to kill three men, wielded a pistol to dispose of another man and two young women, all of them unsuspecting and pretty much defenseless (as well as others who were injured). Forget his name, expunge it from any history book or newspaper, and never speak the name again. He wielded the knife and he pulled the trigger; he did so with malice aforethought. The inanimate tools he used did not commit crimes; a man committed these crimes. Never forget the difference, and …


Start Afresh?

As with other poems I’ve posted in the past, I must offer a word of disclaimer on this one … lest readers jump to the incorrect conclusion that something is amiss in the “O” household. Written many years ago, this sonnet reflects (as with a couple of other sonnets I’ve posted — here, here) my grief and empathy for others who’ve shared with me their tales of marital distress and pain.

divorce, other woman, love, I do, Eden's apple, Paradise, sonnet, poetry, poem
Sonnet: To the Newly-Married Man

Remember Me

Poet Christina Rossetti wrote a beautiful poem titled Remember. Today, our annual day of remembrance signified as Memorial Day, we honor those who died in service to our country.

My grandfather (Charles Frederick West, 1887-1932) didn’t die on the battlefield but his exposure to mustard gas in the trenches of World War I brought about his death after years of suffering. His grandfather (Samuel P. West, 1832-1864) died during the battle at Spotsylvania Courthouse (Virginia). Both of these men left wives and children behind. (In the picture below, my grandfather appears at right with three soldiers from his company.) FredFrankWestAs I research who I am through the annals from which I came, it’s impossible not to notice the stout character of the men in my past and the stalwart resolve of the women they left behind. Men do not go off to war without acknowledging the stark reality they may not come home. Women (whether mothers, wives or both) can’t fail but know, when releasing their men to serve, that some will not return. Continue reading “Remember Me”

Failure Is Always An Option

Think about the failures you’ve experienced during your lifetime. When I consider my own, I’m always amazed by the important lessons I’ve learned thanks to my most spectacular failures.Failure

Thinking about the horrible events that occurred in Santa Barbara CA over the weekend, I thought briefly about the perpetrator’s life (laid out in his personal manifesto running over 107,000 words). I couldn’t read the entire thing; it’s far too self-indulgent and narcissistic. This young man, who seemed to believe life should be “fair” and who tells about his love for luxury and opulence, will become a footnote in history. Authors and experts may devote volumes trying to understand his damage and why he acted as he did.

But this I know:  his journal clearly shows he was consumed by a huge void of loneliness. He sought to blame someone, apparently anyone other than himself. I’m reminded of the biblical Cain who, having murdered his brother Abel, is given specific judgment by God (read the narrative in Genesis 4.) Cain hears God’s judgment and cries, “My punishment is too great to bear!”

Failure such as Cain’s may indeed carry bitter and unbearable punishment. But this isn’t the end of Cain’s story. The Genesis account tells us Cain had sons, the first of those offspring being Enoch. This is itself a reiteration of Hope … the bearing of children beautifully underscores:  Life Goes On!

Genesis relates that after Enoch had lived 365 years, “Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more because God took him away.” In other words, Cain’s punishment manifests hope and deliverance. Through Cain’s son Enoch, we glimpse the promise of sin and death being − once and for all time − defeated. Enoch was no more because God took him away.

The unfortunate failure of this young murderer from Santa Barbara brings no hope and no deliverance for him (unless one believes his escape from the discontent and misery of this human existence is a positive thing). His life and death  − his spectacular failure, if you will  − may offer a cautionary tale for those who knew him. But what a waste. More than that, what a tragedy for those whom he randomly killed and for their grieving families.

Failure is always an option. What we learn from our failures, from the public shame and disrepute that we suffer, has the potential to bring us great good and redemption. Bill Whittle offers this reminder in his video below.


Before They Come: Part 2 (of 2)

This is Part 2 of a short story I wrote back in the late 80s or early 90s. Read Part 1 here.

“Someone cared for you. There’s a sensitive man under that tough-guy shell.” She wasn’t just flattering me. I was quite sure of that. I straightened my shoulders more than a little bit.

A happy picture came to mind. “My high school teacher, Sister Mary Margaret. She looked after me some.”catholic-church-11

“She must have cared a great deal because it shows.”

“Yep, she was special. Thought I’d be a great writer someday.” I laughed. The idea was ridiculous, as ridiculous as my former ambitions to go to college.

“It’s never too late, you know. If she thought you could do it, you probably ought to try,” Cathy suggested. She was always so matter-of-fact.

I shook my head in disbelief. Working for The Man was a far cry from William Shakespeare! Still, I wished I could start over. Maybe I would try. Cathy had a way of making me want more from life.

“Where’s your father?”

“I’m not even sure who he was.” This fact had never mattered before. Now that husky feeling was back. I shook it away. My uneasiness mounted as I remembered the cruel taunts I had suffered in earlier years. “It’s not worth talking about. Tell me about you.”

We talked and laughed some more. When I told her how my kid brother drowned at thirteen years of age after neighborhood thugs beat him up and tossed him in the spring-swollen creek, she even cried. It astounded me — her crying over someone she’d never known. I hadn’t ever cried for him. She cared for people that much.

We saw each other every night after that. I was drawn to her. I found myself thinking of her happiness instead of my own. And in spite of my previous reputation, I struggled to keep my appetites in check even though the animal in me was ravenous to bed her.

gangster_4It wasn’t long before I was seeking honest work. The Man was none too happy. In the short while I’d worked for him, I’d come to know about the inner workings of his slimy organization. He threatened me saying I knew too much. But I don’t scare easily so I ignored him and hired on at the shoe factory. It was assembly line work, and godawful dull, but I had determination. For her, I told myself. She deserved more than a bum who bullies for a living. Besides, she was a first-class lady, and I wasn’t going to have her exposed to the criminal types I’d come to know. So I kept on, saving cash to buy a ring — and that before I’d slept with her!

She was proud, though I’m damned to know why with such a small stone as my wages bought, but she insisted it was fine. Two weeks later, we stood in front of this preacher man. I told myself Sister wouldn’t mind Cathy being Protestant. I was certain she’d have liked Cathy as much as I did.

For days afterwards, every time Cathy looked at me with her sunshine smile, I felt I’d finally done something worthwhile.

Cathy stayed on at the café while I slaved at the factory. She didn’t mention nursing school again, but I decided she’d get there and finish, and without moonlighting in some dingy eatery. One night I told her so but she gave me this strange look. It wasn’t for sure, she cautioned me, but she thought she’d probably be busy nursemaiding come January of ‘53. It took me a minute to understand. Then we mooched a bottle of wine from a next-door neighbor and had a bang-up celebration.

With me almost a father, crazy instincts crowded my brain. It would be a pioneer effort, but I was excited for the little guy’s appearance. (She would kid me about that — I was sure we’d have a boy.) It was for them — Cathy and the first of our ten kids — that I found a second job at night. We needed money for the hospital and baby clothes and all. More than that, we began to have hopes of a different life and our dream was to buy a farm somewhere way out in the country. We wanted a good place for raising kids.

I knew The Man had been watching me, but God help me, I never figured he’d hurt Cathy. Late one night I came home to find our apartment all in flames! I rushed inside the smoke-filled hell. She was slumped on the kitchen floor like a limp dishrag. When I got her outside, The Man was standing across the street, looking pleased with himself. I’d have killed him on the spot but for Cathy. I carried her the two blocks to Doc Gennaro’s house. She was barely breathing when I laid her on his front room couch. He shoved me into the hall where I waited, knowing her chances were slim. Finally, Doc came out, shaking his head. All hell exploded in me.

When I found The Man, killing him was easy. He was a runt, and no one tried to stop me. His neck cracked like a small chicken’s in my grip, but I didn’t feel the gladness I’d expected. I was thinking about Cathy’s life choking away in that smoky fire. I dropped The Man’s lifeless body and walked away. Knowing there was nowhere to go, I sat down on the curb and balled like the baby we never had. People thought I was ashamed.

The preacher man visited yesterday, asking me to make my peace with God. When she was alive, I used to think there might really be a God. If anybody could convince me, Cathy could have. It was like she had divinity flowing from every smile, every kind word. Maybe God was jealous sharing her with me, but to have her die like that, and the kid too. It makes no sense.

I don’t like the idea of walking some long, last corridor but it’s not because I’m afraid to die. I just fancy making the decision myself for when it will be. Some people say it’s the ‘honorable’ thing, the condemned man getting to choose the time of his fate, but the way I look at it, it seems more like the dishonorable thing. I mean, in a life of shortcuts, cheating the hangman from his due ought to be expected. It just follows.2467-Vintage-Tie-58

The preacher, poor sap, left me his tie. He kept asking me to pray with him but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. If I never prayed before for God, seems there’s no reason to do it for some man, even a man of the cloth. I told him I wanted to dress up and didn’t have any other clothes with me, and he must have figured leaving his tie was the least he could do for me. He gave me the silk tie right off his neck! It’s probably the finest piece of clothing I’ve ever worn. Maybe that’s as it should be, considering the occasion.

I’ve got nothing but this tablet to leave. What I valued never made it through the fire. Without Cathy, there’s no reason to live. It’s just as well they didn’t leave me that choice. Much as I wanted to try my hand at fathering, I’d likely have been lousy at it.

This is it. All that’s left is to fix this tie and wait. It won’t matter when they come in the morning.

Before They Come: Part 1 (of 2)

This is a short story I wrote back in the late 80s or early 90s. 

Back at St. Ignatious Parish School, Sister Mary Margaret predicted I’d be a writer or politician. She had high hopes for me even though I gave her nothing but trouble. She hounded me to finish school, encouraging me with her talk that I was gifted, that I should go to college. Damned if I didn’t almost believe her! She promised to find a scholarship for me as long as I made it through until high school graduation. So I did.nun

Hard as it was to stay off the streets, I did my best. I’d have gone to any lengths to keep from letting Sister down. But the week after graduation, Sister died in her sleep and any hopes I’d had for college died with her. Instead, like most men my age, I joined the Army.

But Sister would be proud because I’m finally writing. Most likely I never would have, but when Cathy came along, things turned around for me. I couldn’t put my feelings into words exactly, precisely, and yet I wanted to do so. I began writing love poems to Cathy! That’s how different life was; for the first time, I believed it was good. Cathy gave me that much.

It was after my stint in the Army. I’d come back home but I couldn’t find steady work. Having some extra time on my hands, I wandered around town until I arrived at an old hangout, the East Side Billiard Room. Many things in the neighborhood were different but this place hadn’t changed.

Johnny “The Man” Garozzi was still running the joint. We’d never been too friendly, but The Man greeted me like a brother. When I told him I was out of work, he offered me a job working for him. At first, I refused it. I’ve caused my share of trouble, but I’m no criminal. I’d heard enough over the years about The Man to know he was plenty dirty. But the money was good and keys to a black sedan came with the job. So I took it, telling The Man that I figured it would only be temporarily.

gangster_4Right away, he put me into action tailing this young punk who owed him some money. I followed the creep to the Shreveport Café.

That’s how I met Cathy. She was waiting tables and when she waltzed up to my corner booth, her smile knocked me dumb. It was like opening my eyes to sunlight. She was gorgeous with cream-and-coffee-colored hair pinned up and sparkly hazel eyes. Not more than twenty, I guessed. I got so caught up with her, I never even noticed when the punk walked out the door. Ordinarily, I’d have been steamed. I knew enough about my boss to guess he would chew my butt, this being my first time out for him. Somehow, it didn’t matter.

When she left the café shortly after midnight, I was waiting in my car to give her a lift home, but she balked, looking sideways at me to see what my angle was. Finally, she said, “I don’t usually go with strangers but I’d like to think I can trust you.”

On that count she was wrong, but I didn’t let on. I suddenly wanted to be trusted. That’s how she affected me! We sat on the steps in front of her Third Avenue walkup until nearly 6 a.m. Mostly she talked and I listened. I was spellbound by her beaming enthusiasm for everything.

“I won’t be a waitress forever,” she assured me. “But I need money for nursing school. I was lucky to get through high school after my parents died. But I graduated — class of ‘49. By next summer, I’ll have enough saved to start school and maybe even finish if I can land a night job close to the hospital. I can’t wait!”cafe

She talked on about what she planned to do after she finished nursing school. “I’d like to open a home for children, like those in the alley behind the café. They’re so hungry they actually fight over the garbage Cookie throws out!” While this surprised Cathy, it was something I’d known firsthand during my childhood.

“They’re sweet children. I watch their sad eyes and I get this overwhelming urge in my bosom to grab them and hold them close. Know what I mean?” she asked, crossing her arms as if to hug a child to her.

In spite of her innocence, the temptation was too much for me. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the warm supple flesh hidden under her wrinkled white uniform. “Oh yeah,” I agreed, leering at her. But an inner voice instantly rebuked me for these crude driftings.

She didn’t seem to notice my coarse inclination. Maybe she chose charitably to ignore it, giving me the benefit of the doubt that I never truly deserved, but she continued talking, “Children are inspiring, so full of life. Someday, I’ll have at least ten!”

“Are you kidding?” I searched her eyes. It astonished me to realize she was completely serious.

“That surprises you?”

“I’m surprised anyone wants to be a mother. My ma wasn’t much.” This honest statement threw me. Spilling my guts to a woman wasn’t my way. I felt suddenly uncomfortable. Laughing, I eyed her hungrily. “But if you’re that anxious to have a kid, I’m your man, Baby.”

This time, Cathy considered my comment, staring intently into my eyes. She examined my gaze until I had to look away in embarrassment. When she spoke again, it was in a whisper. “You think you’re Mr. Right, do you? I guess that remains to be seen, but I’ve never been the type of woman who tries men on like changing clothes.” Then, she yawned slightly. I half expected she was about to give me the brush-off.

Gimme a second chance, my brain screamed out. Realizing she wasn’t a loose sort of girl, I resolved inwardly to keep the off-color humor to myself from that point on. I liked her. I’d never met another girl like her, and I didn’t want to mess things up by getting started on the wrong foot.

Cathy was quiet for a time, looking around at the mostly-dark apartment buildings. She stretched her arms above her and then her hands fell to her hair which was still neatly pinned. With practiced fingers, she removed a couple hairpins and light brown waves tumbled to her shoulders. Immediately, I regretted my hasty resolve to good behavior. The temptation to touch her hair, and more, was simply fierce.

Finally, she spoke. “What was she like?”

For a moment I didn’t realize who she was talking about. When I did, part of me wanted to avoid her, to get up and leave, but another part of me dared to respond, making no attempt to hide the bitterness I felt. “Like? What’s any whore like? Spent most of her money on flashy clothes while we lived in this sleazy apartment over the tavern. If she had any money left after the drinking, dancing and carousing, we got dinner — our only meal — about midnight, after the tavern was closed for the night.”

“Every mother loves her children,” she defended. “Some just don’t know how to show it.”

“Hell, it don’t matter. She’s dead and I ain’t missed her yet.” A tight feeling in my chest told me I was lying.

… Part 2 tomorrow

The Diary

In Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, one of his characters says:  “Memory is the diary we all carry about with us.”

In the sonnet below, I was exploring some thoughts related to memories. I tend to be distracted by memory rabbit trails. Whether I’m exploring an aspect of family history and old documents or current family pictures, I sit down with the intent to spend only a set period of time. Then I’m completely engrossed and often amazed how the hours have disappeared before I realize it! All my “good intentions” have been for naught. If you’re like me, perhaps you’ll appreciate the perspective offered in this poem.

memory, remembering, reminiscence, daydreams, sonnet, poetry, poem
Sonnet: In Memory …