Long Distance Relationships Are Better Off Staying Long Distance

Photo by Carol Jeng on Unsplash.com

Back in the days when Mark Zuckerberg was using a Sippee cup, my mother had pen pals all over the world. For those of you born with a smartphone in your hand, check this out. People used to write letters and mail them to each other via the United States Postal Service. We used stamps and everything. There was no e-mail or instant mail. We didn’t slide into DMs or post on anyone’s wall. Friendly folks like my mom would write a physical letter to another person and then that person would (hopefully) write back a couple days or weeks later. Antiquated, I know.

One summer day when I was around 12 years old, our house phone (I don’t have the energy to explain what a house phone was) rang one morning. As was usually the case, Mom answered. She then heard an unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line. One of Mom’s pen pals, a woman in her mid-40’s,had arrived via Greyhound bus to Cleveland without any type of prior warning and declared she was staying with my family for the next week or so. To any other family, this moment might have seemed strange. But to ours? Hell, it was just Tuesday. As my older brother likes to say, we quit being normal the moment he and my older sister moved out when I was around 8. So, with Mom being Mom, she was overjoyed at the thought of Ms. Crocodile Dundee shacking up at the house for a week. Dad being Dad, he just shook his head, went to work and rolled with it. 12 year old John being 12 year old John, I was trying to figure out how in the heck a strange-talking lady claiming to be from the Land Down Under ended up in our living room. Our visitor realized she had dropped in (from another effing continent!) unannounced, so she was adamant we should carry on with our lives as if she weren’t here. Do what you would do any other day, she said. Those days, Mom’s days usually consisted of running errands around Cleveland, so Mom just drove around Cleveland all day all day with her Australian sidekick in tow.

We were in the middle of June, and the sixth month might mean winter in Australia, it brings a sweltering summer in the Mississippi Delta. Deltans have learned to swim in the humid air, and once the brutal sun set, we were joined by the local mascot, the buzzing and biting mosquito. I had a Dixie Youth baseball game that evening at Bear Pen Park, and everyone knows the yellow baseball lights are a shiny beacon to insects like the Batsignal in Gotham City is to Bruce Wayne. The captive audience of parents and friends gathered around a mini-diamond was like manna from heaven for the bloodsuckers. My parents usually brought lawn chairs to the game, and Dad, being a Southern gentlemen, offered his chair to our guest. She swatted in her chair more than my team swung at the plate. She got up and walked around to try to avoid the buzz and bites. She coated her body in Off! mosquito spray like she was a 14 year old boy slathering on his dad’s cologne before his first school dance. She might have been from Down Under, but I think she would agree there was little difference, in her mind, between Hell and the Delta at that very moment.

Once my game ended, we came home. Our guest stood in our kitchen with tears in her eyes. Her hair was dripping with sweat, and her clothes were soaked with that familiar mixture of repellant and perspiration. Welps and bites covered her body, along with red marks caused by her constant self-inflicted slaps. For our part, Mom, Dad and I acted normal because, hell, it was normal for a Deltan.

“You know, the real mosquitoes don’t come out until July,” Dad said with a sadistic tone in his voice.

An icy glare was the only response. If she would have had a skewer, Dad would have been roasted on the Barbie.

At 6:30 a.m. the following morning, Mrs. Dundee woke up my parents with some startling news. Her plans had changed, she said. Sure enough, she had her bags packed by the back door and needed a ride to the bus station. She would continue her trek around the United States, but she had logged enough time in the Mississippi Delta. Apparently, one day of Delta hospitality was enough. I can still see the sly smirk on Dad’s face as he walked out the back door to take our guest to the bus station.

In hindsight, I think she and Mom quit writing to each other shortly thereafter. I guess sometimes long distance relationships are better off remaining long distance. But who knows? Maybe that poor lady’s fingers were too swollen to write anything else after she left us.

  • A version of this post was previously published in The Bolivar Bullet on July 28, 2021.

Just Another Normal Christmas Tradition

The Christmas Noosky in 2020. I found it when we were cleaning my parents’ house before it was sold earlier this year.

“You wouldn’t know what to do with me if I were normal.” Those were my mother’s words whenever I would get frustrated with her behavior.

“Normal is boring,” is another one. Like most things in life, in hindsight, I have to admit she was right.

This time of year, the world is in a state of chaos making holiday plans. Christmas decorations have been meticulously hung around our houses, and families come together to spend a couple days together in celebration. Every family has their own holiday stories, and a lot of those stories involve loved ones who are sadly no longer around to celebrate. Some families probably tell about the time their kooky uncle, filled with too much Christmas cheer, told inappropriate tales about their aunt. There’s always that one relative who can’t help but give the absolute worst gifts. Me? I have a bittersweet relationship with Christmas. We’ve had some wonderful times in our family, to be sure, but not without some bumps along the way.

My Christmas memories start like most who came of age in the mid Seventies. It wasn’t Christmas until I dog-eared pages and pages of toys from that most hallowed of holiday publications– the Sears Roebuck Wishbook. Thanks to the Wishbook, I would rise at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day with the hope Santa had left a ton of Minnesota Vikings gear in my living room. As you might imagine, all of the Vikings swag made me the envy of every elementary school kid in Cleveland, Mississippi. (Or not.) My parents would wipe sleep from their eyes, and slowly trudge to the den where we would open presents just like every other family. My dad would always get cookbooks and shirts, and my mom would almost always get a new bottle of her favorite perfume. Besides my Vikings gear, I remember my older brother giving me his collection of Hardy Boys books one Christmas, but not before leading me all over the house on a scavenger hunt. I never knew my mother’s father but I know he used to give Mom $100 every year on a whiskey bottle. How do do I know? Because Dad used to put a $100 bill on the same bottle of V.O. every year and wrap it under the tree for Mom to keep alive her father’s traditional gift. Our Christmas traditions were our Christmas traditions until they weren’t. (For many years, we visited relatives and clients all over the county on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for various holiday gatherings. I remember one year Dad brought me downtown to Rubenstein’s Department Store on Christmas Eve around 4 p.m. to “shop,” but I don’t recall him buying anything. I do recall him having a couple drinks with his friend Irving, and I had around 10 cookies waiting for them to stop talking. That same Christmas Eve, we then made a trip 25 minutes west to Rosedale to my dad’s aunt’s house for her family’s Christmas party, and Dad and I were able to get a little more bourbon and cookies, respectively. We ended the evening enjoying the Aguzzi family’s annual Christmas party, and I don’t recall anything eventful happening there. Well, other than I am fairly certain that last stop also involved more bourbon and cookies. As I recap that night now, I finally know why Dad never wanted to rise at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning.) At some point, Mom decided Christmas brought forth too many painful memories from her past, so we had to abbreviate the holiday festivities.

[Before going any further in this little story, I should first probably make everyone aware that my parents were extreme “cat” people. Growing up, we always had two or three cats around the house and my mother was known for feeding stray cats downtown by my father’s law office. Mom even had the local newspaper write a long article about her feeding the downtown cats- the pinnacle of small town fame. When I was about 15 years old, one of our cats had a litter of six kittens. Usually, despite his love of cats, Dad made sure we had homes for those kittens almost simultaneous with their birth. But this time, one of the kittens, a grey striped tabby tomcat with a pink nose, took a liking to me. From the moment the little cat opened his eyes, he gravitated to me. Every night, I would take my usual television viewing spot on the floor in our den and this little grey ball of fur would lay on my chest and purr loudly while I rubbed his back. After a couple weeks of this exercise, Dad told Mom we were keeping this new little cat because “that kitten should be able to stay with the boy he loves.” (Notice Dad framed it in favor of the cat, and not his son.) We named the tabby “Nagin Avalonni” after an Italian pen pal of Mom’s, and the cat quickly took over our home as if he were in charge. (The foreign pen pals are another story.). Nagin strutted around our house and ate pretty much anything and everything. He grew to be quite obese, mainly due to his aversion to outdoor exercise. As his waistline grew, so did his demands. He would jump up in my lap, and immediately start pawing at my hand to rub his belly while he purred and passed noxious gas that would almost make you choke if you were in the general vicinity. At some point, Dad coined him “King Noosky,” and explained to Mom and me the Nooskies were a special breed of striped fat cats throughout the world and Nagin was their King. As I look back, Dad’s creation of the Noosky legend is probably solid proof of the old adage “if you can’t beat them, then join them.” Rather than fighting, Dad just joined in the craziness that was our house.

What does all this cat stuff have to do with holidays, you might ask. Be patient. You will find out very soon.]

After Mom had what I would term a nervous breakdown during my late teens, she decided we would no longer have a Christmas tree at our house. Her reasons were long and many, and I won’t delve into her reasoning in this story. I was at an age by then that I wasn’t wishing from the Sears Wishbook anymore, but I still wanted a Christmas tree. Everyone else had a tree, but I also knew that not everyone had my Mom as their mother. Dad resigned himself to no Christmas tree, and it was what it was. Like I said earlier, Christmas brought back bad memories for Mom, and we were all trying to do what we could to just get through the holidays without a disturbance. (As an aside, mental illness is real. Don’t forget that.)

After a couple years of our treeless Christmas tradition, Mom found a grey and white striped stuffed plush cat sitting on its hind legs one afternoon while she was shopping one afternoon on QVC. The cat’s stomach lit up in the middle like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial while its little paws flew up and down like a stuffed Chris Farley. Unbeknownst to any of us, Mom pulled this little creature out of a box as soon as it arrived at the house, put a little red bow around its neck and placed it on the couch in the den. We later found out she named it the “Christmas Noosky,” in honor of our cat Nagin who was still ruling the roost.

Dad and I were both unaware of the Christmas Noosky’s existence until a couple days before Christmas when Dad and I both came in the back door at the same time late one afternoon. He had a couple wrapped presents under his arm, so I held the door open for him. As was Dad’s custom after a long day at the office, he poured himself a tall drink in the kitchen, and then walked into our living room to unwind. I walked in the den shortly after he did.

Both of our eyes immediately went to the warm yellow glow emanating from the top of the couch. In the darkness of the den, we clearly saw the vision of a glowing, stuffed grey and white feline. At its paws, Mom had placed wrapped Christmas gifts.

Dad took a long pull from his scotch, and looked over at me.

“Son, your mother has put a stuffed animal on our couch.”

I nodded in return.

“And we are now putting presents under it instead of using a Christmas tree,” Dad finished.

“I noticed.”

Dad shook his head slowly, as if he had lost another one. He lifted his cup for another drink while he stared at the glowing tabby pumping his arms like a stuffed track star. Finally, Dad let out a sigh, shrugged and placed both of the presents in his hand at the toy’s paws.

“Well as long as you know what we are doing. It makes sense to me.”

Dad then sat down in his chair and began reading the evening paper with a bemused look on his face. Every now and then, he would peer over at the Christmas Noosky and chuckle. Mom came down the hall from her room shortly afterwards for dinner, and life was normal.

Or as normal as it could be around there.

Is This What They Mean by Customer Service?

Ask any successful person in the service industry and they will tell you the key to long term success is, and always has been, superior customer service. Quality products help, but a business going out of its way to put its clientele’s needs first will almost always succeed. People want to be treated in a certain way, the experts say, and are willing to pay handsome sums for that type of treatment. The best salespeople are always the ones who eliminate walls and build a certain rapport with their customer. As my Dad used to say, successful people tend to be the ones who “feign sincerity the best.” I guess that’s one definition of customer service. But not all customer service is good customer service. Consider this case with my mother. Continue reading “Is This What They Mean by Customer Service?”