Friday, November 25, 2011

Billy

My husband's eldest brother died in World War II. He was 20. My husband was nine months. He's been dead now twice as long as he lived, but memories of Billy are repeated at every family gathering.

I have the letter my father-in-law wrote his son just before Billy was shipped over seas. It's filled with family news and written on notebook paper. It closes with "I know you'll acquit yourself well." The understated emotion behind this sentence always brings a lump to my throat.

Billy was a bombardier. His plane was hit over Belgium. The crew had been trained for this possibility. There was a proper procedure for parachuting out of the plane, but one of the crew got tangled up in the webbing of his seat. Billy and another crew member worked to free him and pushed him out. The burning plane tilted sharply in the next instance and threw Billy away from the door.

Billy was listed as "Missing in Action" for over a year. His parents went to New York City on a sales trip during that time. They bought tickets for "Oklahoma", but my father-in-law couldn't stand to watch it. He said the sight of all those young men singing and dancing on the stage was more than he could bear.

Billy's mates who survived spent months in a prisoner of war camp. When the war ended one of them wrote my in-laws with the details of their fatal mission. No one was surprised. Billy had been the quiet one in a boisterous family; always supportive and never the center of attention.

I have a picture of one of Billy's great-nephews walking through the cemetery in Belgium in search of his grave. It's a snowy day with black clouds and fog. Row after row of white crosses stand in a field of snow. The black figure of my nephew is in the far distance walking with his head down as he reads the names on the crosses.

Billy died before I was born. I've learned to love him from the family stories so frequently repeated. The older I grow, the more dear this photograph and the framed letter become. Billy was a low-key tender hearted kid who died and became a family legend.

As always,
Jackie Lee

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Isn't That Lovely?

My name is Jackie Lee Ellis. I grew up on a cattle ranch in Bastrop County, Texas. I spent my childhood watching where I walked to avoid the excrement of animals.

My adult life has been spent in the suburbs as a corporate wife where I dealt with the verbal version of "BS" on a daily basis.

Our mother taught us to really listen to people; to study their body language and facial expressions, consider the situation, and determine what the speaker really meant. Many were saying, "After my family and I get a little more than our fair share out of life, everyone else should be treated equally."

Truman Capote said boring people are fascinating. Sit and study and listen to them. Just what is it that makes them so boring?

My husband's profession occasionally required my presence at business functions where I knew no one and had little in common with anyone. I learned to enjoy meeting strangers. Most of the time it was a positive experience.

Once in a while I was caught in a dull spot and had to listen and act interested when I would rather have been at home cleaning the oven. "Isn't that lovely" and "Bless your heart" were two diplomatic statements I frequently used. Both are noncommittal but provide the appearance of a two sided conversation.

I found myself in one extreme situation years ago when someone cornered me in the gate at an airport. I was forced to devise a one player game. It was a matter of survival. I called the game "Give 'em enough rope." The object was to see how long the speaker would dominate the conversation with anecdotes from their personal life without once asking me a question.

It was two hours and 15 plus minutes of torture. Good manners can only be stretched so far. If there's ever another time like that one, I'll develop a highly contagious intestinal bug and go hide in the women's room.

As always,
Jackie Lee

Young Lady

You know you're over the hill when a salesman or waiter addresses you as "young lady." You're obviously an old woman in his eyes, and he's trying to be flattering. It happened to me this morning, twice.

As always,
Jackie Lee

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Chocolate Pecan Pie

My name is Jackie Lee Ellis. I grew up in Cedar Creek, Texas. They grow the best pecans there.

One of my high school buddies sent me a package of whole shelled pecans last week. They arrived just in time to "participate" in a special project.

Our third daughter lives in New Jersey and will not be with us for Thanksgiving. Her favorite Southern food is pecan pie. It isn't just any old pecan pie. It's chocolate pecan pie with praline liquor flavoring.

I baked the pie last Thursday night and left it to cool over night. First thing Friday morning I double wrapped it in foil and put it in the freezer. That afternoon I packed it carefully in a disposable pie carrier with strips of bubble wrap and shipped it to New Jersey via UPS.

The weather is in our favor. The pie is traveling in cold weather and will still be fresh when it arrives some time today.

The $18.00 it cost for shipping also bought a special memory. Pecans grown from the trees back home in Texas and baked in a pie in Tennessee to be eaten in New Jersey. People and the love they hold for one another make a home. In this case, the roots extend across half the country. But what can you expect from Texans?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Temp

My name is Jackie Ellis Stewart. I was born on a cattle ranch in south central Texas. No matter where I go or what I do, the values ingrained in me as a child always manage to crop up. (Pun intended.). A long-time friend once said, "You'll always have mud between your toes." It pains me to admit she was right.

When my husband was transferred to New Jersey in the early 1990's, my children were old enough for me to consider re-entering the workforce. I started by signing up with a temporary agency that assigned me to a number of short-term jobs in large corporations.

Smith Kline Beecham was not happy with me as a temp receptionist. I admired an old barn on the property and made the thoughtless remark that it was obviously of historical significance. The company was thinking about closing that facility. Most of the people were in danger of losing their jobs. Their top research scientist had a stroke as a result of the stress. The last thing they needed was someone from the state preservation commission interfering with their use of the property or its sale.

The twenty plus years I spent raising foyur children, registering voters, planning programs and fund raising for the church circle and conducting tours of one of the local museum houses were not adequate preparation for the real working world. I was eased out of Smith Kline Beecham and sent to replace another temp at a small software company. I was replacing another temp who had held this position  for over a year and loved it. The purpose of my assignment was merely to hold her place while she had minor surgery.

It took my husband and me two hours one Sunday afternoon to find the location of this assignment. It was a gigantic mansion in an historical residential area.

My new employer kept me standing on the front porch for ten minutes the next morning before he answered the door. He was dressed in blue jeans with an open necked shirt and bare feet. He lead me up the stairs and through the bedroom wing of the house to my office in an attic closet.

I could feel my mother whirling in her grave as I followed this stranger, but I was over 45 and harbored no delusions regarding the man's intentions. He was obviously only interested in my computer skills and how many words a minute I could type. The other two employees were young men in their twenties who were thrilled with their working environment. I thought it was creepy.

About mid-morning I had to find my employer to answer a question, and after considerable searching, finally located him seated behind an ornate desk in the library. A massive painting hanging behind him of the president and chairman of the board of the company.

I was somewhat taken aback by the painting. It was of an Indian wearing magnificent robes in opulent surroundings. My new supervisor looked me straight in the eye and informed me that this company was financed by a Maharishi through his motel chain.

The rest of my day was spent fielding phone calls from creditors and opening the mail. There were at least two letters from obviously elderly investors who wrote to express their continued belief and support in the company but needed to confirm the number of shares they owned.

I didn't have a cell phone. At the end of the day I drove home as quickly as possible to contact my employer. "If this company can't pay it's stationary bill, what makes you think they're going to be able to pay your fee?" I asked.

I then learned that despite the rigorous testing I'd undergone in regard to my computer skills, the temp agency had not bothered to give me any orientation regarding employee safety. The first rule was to not assign anyone to work in a building without identifying signage.

I ended the call with my resignation. I went to night school and became a medical transcriber. It was definitely a jump from the frying pan into the fire of managed health care.

I am relieved to be back in Memphis and categorized as retired by the Social Security Administration. (We all know housewives never retire.) I had to avoid too much real manure as a child to tolerate the figurative stuff as an adult.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Stand on My Head and Stack Greased BBs

As an anal retentive eldest child, the ultimate goal of my life has been to be perfect and please all the people all the time.

It doesn't work. I'm too human to be perfect. I've also learned perfection is boring. It's the quirky behavior that makes a person interesting.

The chemistry between some people just doesn't mesh, and there are others who will not be pleased. It would be easier to stand on my head in a corner and stack greased bbs than to gain acceptance from someone determined to be distant.

 It's easy to get in the habit of trying to please all the people all the time. I was middle aged before I realized what I was doing and backed off from several relationships. It wasn't hard. I just assumed a polite but more distant approach. The results would have been comical had they not been so sad. One or two obviously missed the attention and were frustrated when I stopped "dancing attendance" on them. One came close to saying, "Get back over here. I'm not done abusing you."

I've lost a couple of people from my circle of friends and close acquaintances. There's a hole in my life where one or two once belonged, but perhaps they didn't belong there in the first place. I've also gained my self-respect.


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

183 miles

My name is Jackie Lee Ellis. I grew up in central Texas but have spent most of my life away from home and the people and traditions that endeared it to me.

This past weekend three people I've known since the eighth grade along with two of their spouses came from back home to spend a long weekend with my husband and me. We had been anticipating and planning this expedition for months.

I rented a minivan for us to tour comfortably. I wanted everyone to be together as much as possible. I thought it was important for us to be in the same vehicle and have the same experience at the same time during the entire trip.

I was tempted to write "class of '64" across the side panel of the van in our school colors but got lazy at the last minute. It would be too much trouble to have to wash the van before returning it to the rental agent. Old age must really be catching up with me. I didn't even make my former classmates sing the old fight song as we sped along the interstate.

Our first stop was Graceland where the husband of one of my former classmates did not try to hide the tears he shed at Elvis's grave. The plastic flowers and weather-worn teddy bears were appropriate symbols for an entertainer with roots in the local housing projects.

We had all been just a few years younger than Elvis and had grown up with the excitement of his persona and the development of rock 'n roll. Now we are on the cusp of being elderly and realize how much we lost when he died at 42. We were all cheated terribly by his isolated life-style and drug addiction.

We drove from Graceland to Sun Records and took turns having our picture taken behind the microphone used by Elvis and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel watching the ducks parade from the lobby fountain to their nightly nest on the roof.

The next morning we visited the Stax Museum. Blacks and Caucasians worked there side by side on every level creating music until the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King made everyone conscious of their racial differences. It ended the Stax era. The realization of what we lost sent me out in search of a Kleenex.

The rental agent spent considerable time inspecting the van's body for possible damage and recorded the mileage when I returned it. "You only drove 183 miles." she announced with surprise in her voice and asked, "Where did you go?" Apparently, there's no odometer on Memory Lane.

As always,
Jackie Lee

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Pun du jour

I work hard to maintain a mature facade, but every once in a while the truth slips out.

Yesterday I visited momentarily after a round at the bridge table with a woman who recently endured carpal tunnel surgery. She's greatly improved but somewhat miffed that a man in our bridge club had one of his arms in a bright blue cast the same time as her hand was bandaged, and he got all the sympathy.

She was obviously outcast.