The Last Day©Averyell A. KesslerIt’s the last day of school, my final day as a six grader at Power School. My brain is pacing back and forth like a caged tiger. We all are. Even Miss Latham, our teacher, has a faraway look in her eyes as she tries to hold back an imminent explosion of joy. Outside, the custodian and his crew are mowing and the fragrant aroma of just-cut clover drifts through the open windows in my classroom. The brown grass edging Riverside Drive is turning lush green, and pink puffs are falling from the mimosa trees on the front lawn. It’s summer. No one can hold it back. I feel it in every inch of my body, tingling like an electric current, or the stomach-churning rush of a descending elevator. After today, I’ll be free. A stay up late, run through the sprinkler, bubble blowing, bike riding, dive and splash summer stretches out like a golden road. I pay no attention to the sweat dibbing into my socks.About a mile to the east, the swimming pool folks at Riverside Park are preparing to open. They are sweeping the remains of winter debris from the empty pool, and stocking the concession stand with Tootsie Rolls, Life Savers, and Bit’O Honey bars. They’re revving up the snow-ball machine too. If I’m lucky, they’ll purchase a cotton candy machine. If I’m truly lucky, Mama will buy me a new swimsuit and a bathing cap covered with flowers. No chin strap!But the day is moving like molasses. Bright afternoon sunlight pours into the classroom and warm air covers me like a wool blanket. Desperation sits in the desk beside me, staring with laughing eyes. Gotcha, it says. I am trapped, held prisoner by the oversized wall clock hanging over Miss Latham’s desk. I am surprised when she stands, looks at her watch, and makes a stunning announcement.“I think we still have time to check the spelling test we took yesterday.” Oh no! I’ve been dreading this, hoping beyond hope that she’d forgotten about yesterday’s 45-word monster. Instead, she plows ahead, methodically passing out papers so that no one gets his own test. I sit squirming as Jimmy Evans’ test falls on my desk. Then it begins, Miss Latham patiently calls out Arizona – A-r-i-z-o-n-a, Kentucky – K-e-n-t-u-c-k-y, misery – m-i-s-e-r-y, despair d-e-s-p-a-i-r. Finally, she says, freedom – f-r-e-e-d-o-m. I rejoice. Jimmy scores 100, because I have not looked at a single word on his test. Miss Latham collects the papers. I doubt she will even glance at them, but the last torment is over. I look at the clock again. Hallelujah, it’s almost time for the bell. No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks! In five minutes, I’ll be gone forever. Gone? Forever? I remember the day it started. It’s only a whisp of remembrance, but it’s there.In August of my 2nd grade year, the new Power School was finally finished and ready to welcome its first students. A modern yellow brick marvel, it was a sprawling, one story building settled in the middle of 5 acres fronting on Riverside Drive. The campus included a softball diamond, a basketball blacktop, hopscotch patterns, and a wide lawn for games. Our new desks were even footed (no rocking) and without initials carved on top or concrete globs of bubble gum stuck under the bottom. The black boards had become green boards, and the windows opened wide to receive fresh air. Everything was fresh and clean, the walls were spotless, and seamless linoleum floors were polished to a high gloss. On that first day, we gathered around the flagpole with our teachers and parents, as Miss Briscoe, the principal, welcomed and blessed us. We sang a loud, off-key version of My Country Tis of Thee and recited the Pledge of Allegiance as the flag was raised for the first time. Here we come, ready or not. After everyone walked inside for punch and cookies, our parents wrangled us into our classrooms and kissed us goodbye. The new school had opened, and we settled in to learn the latest and greatest from a cadre of teachers, both young and old. Anything was possible.Now it is ending. This is my last day at Power School, my final stroll down the long hall leading to the cafeteria, my last time to slink past Miss Biscoe’s office and hope she doesn’t catch me sprinting across the front lawn. Bailey Jr. High was a gleaming star on a high hill, an exciting unknown adventure, with new friends, new teachers and the tantalizing prospect of lipstick and high heels. I couldn’t wait.I am thankful for my Power School teachers. They taught for the love of the job and of the kids too. They would rather have endured a three- hour root canal than miss a day of school. They called our parents when we were out with measles and intervened if anyone was being pushed around on the playground. They patched up skinned knees and helped us button our coats on freezing winter days. They had rules, could control a giggling classroom by clapping their hands, and God help the poor child who stepped out of line or cut up in the cafeteria. They smiled when we did well, and worried when we didn’t. Not just because of our failure, but because of theirs also.I hope there are still good teachers out there now, people who teach because they love learning and slog through difficulty to make sure everybody learns to read, understands fractions, and can write a proper sentence with a minimum of difficulty. The good ones open sleepy eyes and help fledgling adults emerge from the chrysalis of childhood. They are a parent’s best friend, and an ally in learning. They lead us forward, point to the stairsteps of learning, and say, “One step at a time. Take my hand. We’ll climb together.” They are a blessing. I remember them all.
In the Cold©Averyell A. Kessler(I wrote this during a weekend of extremely cold weather. I decided to post it again today, because there is shouting in the streets.)
Father, I pray for all who suffer in the cold,For those who know you, and for those who do not,For those whose eyes are open, and those who have closed theirs and walked away,I pray for those who are called by your name, and those who will never know it,I pray for all your creation,Continue reading “In the Cold©Averyell A. Kessler(I wrote this during a weekend of extremely cold weather. I decided to post it again today, because there is shouting in the streets.)”
Up to No Good with WG©Averyell A. KesslerSaturday reprise – This is the first story I wrote about my grandfather.When I was eight, going on nine, my grandfather, WG Avery, taught me how to shoot craps. The lesson occurred in his office a few weeks before I entered the third grade. I was already an expert at Parcheesi and Chinese Checkers so when he opened his desk drawer and lifted out a pair of shiny red dice, I was entranced. A new game!“Where’s the board?” I asked.“You don’t need a game board for this,” he said. My eyes widened. This was not Candy Land or Shoots and Ladders. “Close the door,” he ordered.At that time, WG’s office was in an old worn out house at the corner of Mitchell and Northwest Street, and so close to the railroad tracks that the building shuddered when freight trains clacked into town or the City of New Orleans roared by. The windows were coated with a fine patina of dust and cigar smoke. The floors boards groaned when the front door squeaked open and the walls were infused with the faint aroma of motor oil. But this was his territory, his home, the make or break center of his business. For some obscure reason, Mama dropped me off to stay with him while she ran a few errands. We were best buddies. What could possibly go wrong?“OK,” he began. “You shake the dice hard and toss’em on the desk. If you get 7 or 11, you win. If you get 2,3, or 12, you lose.“What about the other numbers,” I asked.“We’ll get to that in a minute,” he replied. “Let me show you.” He rolled the dice back and forth between his hands, tossed them onto his desk, and shouted, “Gimme a big red, come on big red.” A pair of 6’s landed on top of a copy of the Wallstreet Journal.“Boxcars, dadgummit,” he said.It didn’t matter; we kept going. We played until Mama returned. By this time, I knew the important terminology, “bones, snake eyes, and crapping out.”When Mama discovered my new game ad it’s singular vocabulary, she was horrified. A second lesson occurred in the car on the way home. I would not tell my father, my teachers, or anyone at Sunday School. I would not explain this game to my friends or sneak dice out of the Monopoly box. I would not peek into the secret gambling room at the Jackson Country Club.“But it was so easy,” I exclaimed. “And I won.”“Sometimes, your grandfather teaches you things he shouldn’t,” she said. “Craps is a bad word. Don’t say it again.”She failed to mention that he taught her how to smoke a cigar in the basement of their home in Detroit, Michigan. She was ten.WG wasn’t a total ne’er-do-well. Just an interesting man from another era. He taught me important lessons too, “Don’t follow the mob, work hard, most politicians are weasels and pole cats, and you can do anything you want to do (an important lesson for a female child in the 1950’s). He also taught me craps. So, don’t take me on in a game!When WG was approaching 90, he taught my sons how to shoot craps also. They were 6 and 8. I never said a word.Update for next week – I’ll be posting a reprise story on Thanksgiving Day. I’m the family pie maker and there won’t be much time for writing. I’m also in charge of cornbread dressing and roasting ducks with a recipe from Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Have a happy, festive, and thankful day.
Averyell A. Kessler Saturday Reprise – This piece was published in the Northside Sun in 2019. Barefoot is a simple and joyous concept. Might be a southern thing, I don’t know. Because I live in the age of high style, mega-bucks, multi-sports shoes, I’m not sure Reebok’s marketing department likes my assessment. I am certainContinue reading “Barefoot © “
Averyell A. Kessler Two days had passed since Mary Magdalene watched him die, and she was sinking in misery. She had not eaten or slept. She had not spoken a single word. The man who had transformed her life was gone and there was no hope. On that perilous day, her heart shattered as sheContinue reading “A Simple Question © “
An Easter Gift©Averyell A. KesslerMy Easter memories are especially strong. I remember Saturday mornings when Mama allowed me to spread discarded sheets of the Clarion Ledger over the kitchen table, drop Paas tablets into coffee cups filled with vinegar and water, and dye dozens of hard-boiled eggs, many of which would never be found or eaten. I was helping the Easter bunny. What could be better? I recall the Easter morning my grandfather rowed me across his pond in Avery Gardens to find eggs tucked into the grass on a small island in the middle. And always, a rainy Easter when a vicious thunderstorm forced Mr. Bunny to hide eggs inside I found all but one. Luckily, it turned up days six later, but it took weeks to banish the smell.I usually had a new Easter dress, purchased to last all summer, as well as a tiny purse and lacy socks. I recall Daddy trying to refresh my scuffed Mary Janes by scrubbing them with saddle soap and finishing the job with white shoe polish. Hats and I were not friends, so Mama completed my outfit with a perky bow surrounding my ponytail. After church we had a festive family lunch featuring baked ham, glazed sweet potatoes, homemade yeast rolls, and whatever vegetable I decided was edible that year. Also, a traditional gelatin salad. It had a cream cheese center, but no one told me. Dessert came from my Easter basket, Goldbrick eggs, jelly beans, and Mama’s favorite, Heavenly Hash. Daddy chose peppermint patties, my grandfather liked horehound candy – a bitter concoction we ordered from Vermont. But he also like turkey gizzards.Mama’s Easter orchid is my favorite memory. I spotted it in Morgan & Lindsey, a bustling 5 and 10 cent store near our house. The orchid was displayed among a variety of stuffed bunnies, ribbon decked Easter baskets, and a jumble of Easter candy laid out like squares on a patchwork quilt. “Easter Corsages” the sign read, “$1.50” Big words for a third grader, but I got it. The orchid was a small, pink and white replica of an exotic bloom somebody stamped out of plastic, tied with a purple ribbon, and enclosed in a sealed plastic box. “It’s beautiful,” I thought. “I want to buy this for Mama so she can wear it to church on Easter.” When I returned home, I went slipped into my room, emptied my bank, a bronze replica of the Stature of Liberty, and counted my assets. I had five quarters, seven nickels and a solitary dime, plus a silver dollar my Grandfather had given me. More than enough. I asked Daddy to help me with the surprise.When Easter Sunday arrived, our church was transformed into a flower garden by an abundance of graceful Easter lilies, pastel picture hats and little girls in fluffy dresses and shiny shoes. The boys had new shoes too, also jaunty bow ties and maybe a blazer in miniature. My mother walked in with a plastic orchid pinned to her lapel. It didn’t quite match the color of her suit or the elegance of the congregation, but she wore it proudly. A few heads turned when Mama and I settled into our pew, but no one said anything. Finally, an inquisitive chatterbox leaned forward, arched her eyebrows, and asked “My goodness, Paula, is that a plastic corsage you’re wearing?”“Yes,” Mama answered. “My daughter gave it to me. Isn’t it beautiful?”My mother wore the orchid only once, but she kept it in her jewelry box. It was a heart gift she chose to keep. As I grew, I forgot about it. When she moved into my home during her last years, I did not find it among her treasured possessions. It was an out of sight, out of mind object lost in the past. But wonder of wonders, I found it last week, hiding under a pile of napkins in an unopened dresser drawer. I hadn’t thought about it in years, but I recognized it instantly. Its pink petals had faded to gray, the white ones were dull and dusty. The purple ribbon was shredded, but it was intact and whole, just as it was on the day Mama wore it.It’s in my jewelry box now, safe and secure, a tiny trinket of little cost, but infinite worth. I’ll tell my children about it, the grands too, so they’ll know why I’ve saved this bedraggled relic. It reminds me that the best gifts, no matter how small or inconsequential, are those given in love. Big gifts too. Perhaps that’s what Easter is all about.
Polecats and Weasels©Averyell A. KesslerMy grandfather told me that all politicians are polecats and weasels. I can’t say that today for fear of offending polecats and weasels aka the Quadruped Community. For me, his humble opinion is a steel-tipped arrow into the heart of today’s tedious political yip-yap and gotcha games. He solved the polecat problem by contributing to candidates from both parties because “I want’em to answer the phone when I call. Dadgumit!” Not a bad idea. Fortunately, they did not visit his office at the same time.Since my twenty first birthday, I’ve voted in every election that came along, including one featuring a Mississippi gubernatorial candidate who was pictured naked in a bubbly, heart shaped bathtub before he drifted into the weeds of political embarrassment. My mother taught me about elections when I was six, and she took me with her to vote in a city-wide election for mayor. At that time, the neighborhood voting station was on the campus of Belhaven College. It was a modest affair, two folding tables, a group of metal chairs and several three-sided booths made of slapped together plywood boards. Inside, a small uneven shelf supported by chains. No one else was there when we arrived. Mama signed in and received a paper ballot and a pencil. There was an intense discussion about whether I would be allowed to accompany Mama into the voting booth. She won. She explained the ballot and I watched her vote, then drop her ballot into a slotted box with a lock on the cover. Simple and quiet.Daddy taught me too. We were driving to the farmer’s market when his car radio announced that President Eisenhower had suffered a heart attack. My father was devastated. He pulled over and stopped the car while he regained his breath and collected his thoughts. After that, he explained what would happen if the famous general didn’t survive. It was a rough but practical lesson in constitutional law. My first.My next political adventure occurred when my best friend Martha’s father, Mr. C, ran for the state legislature. He was a Democrat because that was the only political party in Mississippi. His timing was spot on, as one else had entered the race. Campaigning was simple, he spoke at rallies and shook hands at civic clubs. Mrs. C, my friend and I spent many afternoons, tucking printed campaign cards under the windshield wipers of parked cars. His qualifications for office were simple – married, Baptist, two children. He was a lawyer too, but the card didn’t reveal that until the end. On election eve, the neighbors gathered in a garage on St. Mary Street to watch the returns on a black and white portable balanced on a metal TV tray. Except for stepping around a tangle of extension cords, and a shortage of potato chips, it was a pleasant evening. We cheered when he won. Again, simple, and quiet.Mississippi politics have always engendered a special kind of craziness. Small town gossips told the story of an enraged wife armed with a pink umbrella confronting her candidate husband mid-speech as she shouted, “How dare you!” His mistress was sitting on the front row. When the police arrived, the wife as well as the mistress were taken into custody. The candidate escaped by slithering into the crowd, jumping behind the wheel of a Chevy pick-up, and roaring away in a cloud of dust. There’s a lesson here, if you allow your mistress to open a charge account at an upscale clothing store, make certain your wife does not receive a duplicate copy the bill. The Clarion Ledger either. One of our former governors also suffered from duplicate bill syndrome.My all-time favorite for nefarious Mississippi activities was the black-market tax. “Can’t sell liquor; but if you do, you gotta pay.” A nonsensical solution to the dry state problem before an infamous raid at a society reception ended it all. My mother was serving champagne punch when axe wielding deputies arrived. Her only regret was her failure to take a cup herself before all &^*& broke loose.I hate to see the old Sun and Sand motel falling victim to growling bull dozers. So many scandals, so little time, so much cash passed around in paper bags. Sadly, cell phones did not exist at that time. I missed my chance at that too. While enjoying a delicious steak dinner at a popular steak house on County Line Road, I heard a snore louder than a buzz saw. It’s origin – a big wig from the state legislature, whose glass was always full and whose brain was frequently empty. Quick! Dial 1-800 – National Inquirer. I opted for discretion and my cell stayed in my purse. Luckily, his sycophants hustled him out before he collapsed.Over the years, I’ve seen a steady coarsening of politics, as it has slowly degenerated into a death battle of us against them, even in my small state. As always, money and power, plus a healthy dash of narcissism are indisputable motivators. Political combat is here now, snarling and snapping like an enraged werewolf seeking his next victim. I choose to meet the challenge by maintaining a sense of humor, protecting friendships with people of varied opinions, and remembering that there are two sides to every story. The Englishman who wrote the powerful phrase the pen is mightier than the sword, also wrote It was a dark and stormy night, one of the most ridiculed phrases in literature. Lucky for me, the plague of robot calls has diminished, but they’ve been replaced by cut and paste political chatter on the internet. I’m weary of it. Perhaps this is the proverbial millstone hanging around our necks. In the meantime, I’ll stick with WG’s opinion and his problem-solving advice. If a weasel is hiding under your front porch, run him off!The more you observe politics, the more you’ve got to admit that each party is worse than the other – Will Rogers
Presto!If I had a magic wand, there are a few things I’d like to see and do again. Just once, to know if they were as wonderful as I remember. So, Harry Potter, lend me your wand, because I’d like to:Climb up the high board ladder at Riverside Park swimming pool and see if it still extends to clouds and I can summon the courage to cannonball into the deep end.Sit in the stands for a Friday night football game at Newell Field when Murrah and Provine are going at it hammer and tongs and I’m hoarse from the morning pep rally.Walk into the Paramount theatre on Capital Street with an overflowing box of buttery popcorn and an icy coke to find out if Psycho is still terrifying.Return to Kennington’s with my mother to shop for an Easter dress and new pair of Mary Janes.Trick or treat up and down the streets of Belhaven in my Fairy Queen costume, even though it made my legs itch.Feel the jittery butterflies of the first day of school, as well as the explosion of joy on the last. (Another delicious Power School cafeteria roll would be fun too.)Walk down the wide marble stairs of the Mississippi State Capitol building and be frightened by the “mummy” that wasn’t.Drive around town with my parents to see the Christmas lights, and visit the miniature Christmas village at the Baptist Orphanage. on Woodrow Wilson Street.Go skating at Leo’s.Swap secrets with my best friend.Watch Bucky Beaver fly by in his space ship and brusha, brusha brusha with new Ipana.Drive up North State Street in my Chevy convertible when the DJ announcer says, “Here’s the latest song from a new group. I kinda like.” – ”Oh yeah, I’ll tell you somethin’, I think you’ll understand. When I say that somethin’, I wanna hold your hand.”Jump up and down on the Empire ballroom’s “trampoline floor” at the Heidelberg Hotel during the Homecoming dance, while the chaperones yell “Stop! You’re going to kill us all!”Eat a pronto pup slathered in mustard at the Mississippi State fair, then bite into a crisp candy apple or a pineapple soft serve cone. (Yes, I know they’re still available, but my cantankerous stomach can’t handle that much fun).Dance to Lollipop, Runaround Sue, and for a sweaty cheek, body melding, ear nuzzling slow dance, In the Still of the Night.Relive the first time I watched Lucy McGillicuddy Ricardo explain the benefits of Vita Meatavegemin. “It’s so tasty too!”Settle into a wooden Adirondack chair on the wide front lawn of the Edgewater Gulf Hotel in Biloxi and feel the soft breeze flowing in from the Gulf. I’d brush sand off my toes and watch rainbow colored kites fluttering high above the beach. I’d like to dip my hand into a bag of salt water taffy and unwrap a piece of chewy goodness, as every muscle in my body goes limp and sleep tugs at my eyes.Obviously, this is a list of impossibilities, a litany of long-gone days which have vanished in the blink of an eye. Nothing can be retrieved or brought back by a miraculous second coming. But my memories haven’t vanished, not by a long shot. They’re still here, every bit of them, locked in my brain and nailed down tight. Memories are one of the few things in life that no one can ever take away. They hang around my neck like a string of pearls. The faces of my childhood friends will never be saggy and wrinkled, their voices will never be weak. I’ll always hear them laugh about an adventure we shared, or giggle about the time when we got up to no good. Time passes, but memories don’t. So, thanks Harry Potter, but I don’t need your wand after all. I’ll just take out my memories, place them in my lap like warm furry kitten, and listen to them purr.
Averyell A. Kessler In two short days, I saw for myself the stark reality of life in a communist country. This eye-opening adventure began on a cruise beginning in England then crossing the North Sea, with stops in Norway, Sweden, and Finland. We had knowledgeable guides who spoke many languages, and I learned a lotContinue reading “A Single Lightbulb©”
Saturday Reprise Averyell A. Kessler I grew up in distant days when the only electronic devices in our home were kitchen appliances, table lamps, and a Philco floor model radio. In a wild moment of splurge, Daddy bought a second radio for our kitchen windowsill so Mama could listen to The Romance of Helen TrentContinue reading “Unplugged©”
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