A New Year Declaration

Kayla looked at her cell phone mournfully. Justin was calling again, which meant it was about Mom or Dad. Otherwise, he just would have texted. She pulled out her cell, hoping that whatever the issue, it would wait until next week, when after-Christmas sales and New Year’s celebrations were finished.

“Hey Justin. What’s going on?” she said into the phone.

“You gotta come down here!” Justin exclaimed. “You’ll never guess what Mom is up to now.”

“You’re right. I can’t guess. Just tell me.”

“Well, you know how Mom has been trying to get Dad to let her wallpaper the living room?”

“Yeah. She’s been at him for ages. Don’t tell me she’s doing it by herself.”

“Worse!” Justin said. “She decided that since Dad’s not coming home from the hospital until tomorrow, she would do it herself, before he’s released.”

“So, she is doing it by herself,” Kayla said.

“Worse!” Justin exclaimed. “She’s gluing old Christmas cards to the walls!”

“She’s what?”

“I’m not kidding,” Justin said. “You know she’s got years of old Christmas cards. She’s cutting the fronts off and she’s gluing one after another on the wall facing the kitchen. And that glue is pretty stinky. I couldn’t stop her, Kayla! I tried!”

“Oh crap! Mom is such a packrat. She probably has enough old Christmas cards to paper half the house,” Kaya lowered herself to the sofa. “What do you mean you can’t stop her? Take away her scissors! Get rid of the glue!”

“Kayla, you know how stubborn she is. She’ll just hitch a ride with one of her friends and go buy more of anything I get rid of. She won’t listen to me. And I’m worried she’s gonna get on a ladder to reach higher on the walls.”

“Oh, please tell me you took the step ladder! She’ll fall and crack her head open!”

“I did! When I couldn’t talk any sense into her, I went right out to the garage and grabbed it. It’s in the trunk of my car. She saw what I was doing and took after me with a fly swatter!”

“Okay, that’s funny!” Her brother was three inches over six feet, and strong as any two men she knew. The mind picture of Mom chasing after Justin with a fly swatter was enough to send her into peals of laughter.

“Kayla! Stop it! She’ll just go buy another step ladder, or borrow one from the neighbors next door. This is serious.”

Kayla sobered instantly. She knew Justin was right. “I’ll get the Franklins to watch the kids. I should be there in a couple of hours. In the meantime, don’t let her get hurt!”

“Hey, I’ll do my best. But it may just be putting off the inevitable. Do you have any idea what Dad’s reaction is gonna be when he sees red Santas all over the walls?”

“Oh damn! I hadn’t thought that far,” Kayla said. “Will Mom let you back in the house?”

“I’m at the store now, buying white-chocolate peanut butter cups. By the time I get back, she’ll take the bribe and let me in. Maybe. I think.”

“I’ll be there as fast as I can.” Kayla ended the call and yelled to her kids. “Pack your pajamas. You’ll be sleeping next door tonight!”

In less than half an hour, Kayla had dropped the kids at the Franklins next door. They were really good friends, thank goodness. She could hear their laughter as she ran to the car. She gave them a familiar finger as she drove away, prompting more peals of laughter. Praying for good weather and no law enforcement, she stepped hard on the gas and pushed the old car to well over 80 on the highway.

Kayla ran through countless scenarios on the trip south. Mom falling and in the hospital with a concussion. Dad worried sick over Mom’s glue-sniffing adventure. Dad having a heart attack when seeing sleigh rides and manger scenes on the walls.

They can recover in the same hospital room! I am in no mood for this!  She turned on music and watched the white lines on the road slip away.

The door was ajar when Kayla pulled up to the house. She ran up the front walk, then took a step back and coughed. Glue fumes came wafting out the open door. What the hell is she using? Airplane glue?

“Mom!” Kayla yelled. “Justin!”

She walked into the house. Glittery pictures of sleigh rides, elves, holly, angels, bells, every Christmas scene imaginable reached head-high on two walls. A riot of color—reds, greens, golds, blues, silver, accosted her eyes. And the glue fumes kicked off a long coughing fit.

Kayla called out again and heard her brother’s response from the patio. She hurried out the back door to see Mom in a lawn chair, and Justin holding a cloth on the back of her bent neck.

“Deep breaths Mom,” Justin said. “Deep, slow breaths!”

“Oh my God!” Kayla exclaimed. “Justin, did you call 911?”

“Already done, little sister. They’re on the way.”

It was then she heard the sirens in the distance.

“Why didn’t you call them after talking to me?” Kayla asked.

“Mom didn’t feel dizzy until just a few minutes ago,” Justin answered calmly. “And you know there’s no way I could stop what she was doing, short of picking her up. Frankly, I didn’t want to fight that tiger.”

“Do you know where she got the glue? I’ll bet it’s outlawed in 10 states.”

“She told me she bought it from a yard sale.”

“Mom!” Kayla knelt beside her mother. “Mom! Can you hear me? How are you feeling?”

“Of course, I can hear you,” Mom answered, then giggled. “I feel fine . . . a little light-headed.” Mom leveled her head and looked at Kayla. “Why are your eyes so big?”

Kayla looked up at Justin. He shrugged. “She’s been talking weird since I got her out here.”

“Mom, you’re high,” Kayla said.

Mom began to laugh loud and long. Leaning her head back into the chair, eyes squeezed shut, she shook with laughter, then coughed. Justin pushed her head back down to her knees.

“Le tme go!” she mumbled, laughing between coughing fits. “Let me go!”

Justin helped her straighten, and she looked, bleary-eyed, at Kayla. “Do you know how often I’ve said the same thing to you?” Mom sunk deeper into the lawn chair and continued laughing. “High . . ..” she chortled. “High . . ..”

“I’m going to pack her an overnight bag for the hospital,” Kayla said. She made her way to her parents’ bedroom and immediately flung open the windows.

“Justin,” she called out to her brother. “You might want to call 911 back and let them know about the glue fumes.” Not airplane glue. Back alley-industrial-strength-super-bonding-respirator glue! What the hell is the matter with people, selling this kind of stuff at a yard sale?

Kayla retrieved a bag from the closet, quickly packed a few necessities, found her Mom’s medications on the kitchen counter, and threw them in the bag as well.

The sirens grew loud and then stopped abruptly. Half a minute later, she heard a call from the front door. “Hello?”

“Come on in!” she told the paramedics. “Through here to the back yard.”

One of them barked a quick laugh as they passed through the living room. Both smiled as they followed her out the back door. They set the bag down next to her Mom and began their examination. Justin hovered close by.

The EMT conversed with the local hospital as they administered oxygen. Stationing herself at the front door, Kayla heard a second siren and watched an ambulance pull up to the curb. Two paramedics unloaded a stretcher. She ushered them through the house to the back yard.

“Is she going to be okay?” Kayla asked.

“The doctor needs to examine her. She’s breathed some pretty hefty fumes,” The EMT explained. “Do you have any idea where she got ahold of that glue?”

“Yard sale,” Kayla answered.

The EMT raised an eyebrow at Justin. “Does your Mom have a history of substance abuse?”

“Of course not!” Kayla answered indignantly.

“Is your Mom married?”

“Yes. Dad’s in the hospital, due to be released tomorrow.”

“One of you needs to come to the hospital and explain things to your Dad. If she needs to be admitted, he’ll have to do it. She’s in no condition to sign the paperwork.”

“You go, Justin,” Kayla said. “I’ll close up here and then be right behind you.” She really didn’t want to be in the room when Dad got the news. Not that he’d be done expressing himself by the time she got there.

As the ambulance pulled away, Kayla shut the bedroom windows and locked the back door. She set two floor fans to blow out the living room windows. If burglars break in, with any luck they will pass out before they can take anything. Poor Mom! I hope she’ll be okay! Kayla climbed in her car and drove to the hospital as fast as traffic and speed limits allowed.

Dad was standing at the admittance window when she arrived. He had a walking cast on his left leg. She ran over and hugged him tightly. “Where’s Mom?”

“In examination room three,” he answered. “I’ve signed everything. Finish filling all this shit out, will you? I’m going in to be with your Mom.”

She took Dad’s place at the window and watched him hobble quickly toward the ER double doors. He turned back toward his daughter, “When things settle down, I’m gonna find those fuckers who sold your Mom that glue.”


Two days later, Kayla carried both her parents overnight bags as Justin and a ward assistant pushed Mom’s and Dad’s wheelchairs toward the hospital exit.

“I can damn well walk myself out!” Dad grumbled.

“We’ll be out in two minutes,” Justin answered him. “Then you can drive home if you want.”

“I damn will drive home!” Dad exclaimed. “Making an invalid out of everybody . . .!”

Kayla barely listened to Dad’s continued protests. Thank goodness Mom is back to normal, more or less. Her doctor had cautioned them to return to the hospital if she showed any changes in mental acuity or stability. Kayla sighed as she pushed the break on the wheelchair with her foot.

Kayla and Justin helped their parents into the truck. Then Kayla followed in her car as Dad drove home. She couldn’t stop thinking about the living room walls. They’d broken the news to Dad, who was so completely preoccupied with Mom that she wasn’t sure he’d paid much attention. But describing it and seeing it were two different things.

The glue fumes had dissipated by early that morning, and she had attempted to remove one of the cards. Every one of them was amalgamated to the walls. She wondered if the drywall would have to be torn out.

Dad didn’t even glance at the living room when Justin opened the door—just walked Mom slowly into the bedroom and helped her into a clean pair of pajamas. “Do you want anything, Mama?” The kids heard Dad talking quietly. “Are you hungry?”

“Maybe we should go,” Justin said.

“You go if you need to,” Kayla answered. “One of us should stay here to see what help Dad needs to fix the walls.”

“There’ll be no removing these cards,” Dad commented as he exited the bedroom. “Justin, you and I are going to finish this job for Mom as soon as she’s feeling up to cutting her Christmas cards. I’ll tell you what kind of glue to buy.”

What?” Kayla and Justin exclaimed in unison.

“We thought you’d hate it!” Justin said.

“Yeah!” Kayla added. “We thought you’d go ballistic!”

Dad took a few seconds to stare at the sparkly walls. “Well . . . I might have. Except your Mom could have died on me.” He was silent for a long moment. “She’s everything to me.”

Kayla and Justin stared at their Dad. His eyes were red.

“The walls don’t matter,” he said. “Nothing . . . nothing is as important as she is!”


Later that evening, kids tucked in bed, Kayla sat with her husband. “You know what I want, Honey?”

“What’s that, Babe?” he asked.

“I want you to love me like this.” She held out her cell phone—her parents’ living room glittering in a mishmash of brighter-than-bright colors.


© 2017   T J Barnum

Whatever It Takes

Sometimes she explodes. It’s not pretty.  She buys several mirrors to watch for signs of approaching combustion.  She enrolls in yoga classes, starts kick-boxing, gets a Buddha tattoo. Friends tell her everyone has bad moments.

She reads books: It’s habit. It’s buried pain. It’s bi-polar. Re-frame. See a counselor. Pray.  She gets her tongue pierced as a reminder to stop.

One day a stranger at a market hands her a key. “Why are you so mad at yourself?”

She starts conversations with the person in her mirror. At first it sucks.

After awhile, they both smile.


© 2017   T J Barnum

Initially published by http://www.thedrabble.com/



“Your children are not your children . . .

 . . . They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.” 

I was 14 when my Uncle loaned me “The Prophet” by Kahil Gibran. The verse above carried deep meaning for the life I lived at the time. My jaw dropped on the first page and stayed on the floor through the entire book. I reluctantly returned it to my Uncle a week later, having read it at least a dozen times.

It remains one of my favorite books. Sometimes at night when I am most restless, I find a particular section and let the words from a man who lived a hundred years ago and half a world away, tell me what I need to hear. Doesn’t matter that I’ve read it a thousand times.

Good books are like that. Music is like that. Something in me is starving, broken, or unforgiving maybe. And someone else knows what it’s like to feel that way. Or they don’t know, but they’re trying to know. So they speak in amazing words, in voices so new and unfamiliar that I light up, just hearing those sounds, that music.

I write to learn how to do that. I write to learn to do what so many of you already know how to do.

And I write because it keeps me sane.


Copyright © 2017 All rights reserved.

Hair Solution

I colored my hair today, an every third week ritual that sometimes stretches to a month. When I miss this self-imposed deadline, my wide swath of white hair looks like a cap made from skunk fur. I can stand in the middle of the street at midnight and headlights reflected off my head will bring every car to a screeching halt.

As I prepared the exact mix of chemicals, my son stopped in the doorway. He teased me about the white line, growing a good half-inch wider as we talked. He suggested I let it “go natural” so as to save myself time and trouble. My grandson, who nosed in between his dad and the door, commented sincerely, “I like the two colors! Don’t change it!”

My grandson also likes Mohawks and purple hair, and has a 10 year old’s predilection toward haphazard grooming.

His plea reminded me when I was ten. Back then, almost everyone looked, dressed and sounded more or less the same to me. I remember liking anything that was out of the norm: an unusual hat, a handlebar mustache, someone very short or very tall, unfamiliar music, the lights and siren on a police car. Fires.

I used to hate conformity. So why am I still dying my hair? Are women really staring as if mesmerized by the top of my head? Am I actually seeing men blink rapidly when I remove my hat, then move hastily out of range, as if I am about to launch some kind of rocket out of my scalp?

Yes, I am totally convinced all this is true. My family snaps a picture, and I see a street wide gap between the right and left side of my head.

I’ve got a new plan. I’m going to shave my scalp and have the entire surface tattooed black. Then as the white hair grows back in, it will look like I dyed my hair white, on purpose!

I’ve always wanted a tattoo.


I remember my two older brothers making a game of jumping from the roof of an old horse shed. I must have been six at the time. I watched for awhile, wondering how they could throw themselves off that impossibly tall building, all the while shouting and laughing, landing surefooted without a single tumble, only to climb back up, and do it again. Looked scary. Looked like fun.

I wanna do it!” I called to Steve.

Well, come on up then!” Steve was three years older, and at the age where a girl wasn’t worth anything if she was timid.

I climbed to the top of a rickety fence and reached up, not quite tall enough to touch the sheet metal roof. Steve leaned over and hauled me the rest of the way.

Walter was only a year older than I, and hadn’t yet learned to be as unforgiving as Steve. “Now watch what I do,” he said. “And do it exactly the same way.”

He jumped. Steve jumped. Then both scrambled up the fence and to the roof. I stood back awhile, watching the rotation continue, my brain working overtime.

Why don’t you fall down?” I asked.

Because we land on our feet,” Walter explained. “Try it! It’s fun!”

I walked to the edge of the roof and straight into space. I landed hard on both feet, pain shooting up my legs and spine.

You did it!” both boys exclaimed.

But it hurt!” I shouted, tears sliding down my cheeks.

You gotta bend your knees!” Walter said. “Didn’t I say watch me?” He jumped again, and sure enough, for the first time I noticed his landing, knees bent, feet flat on the ground.

I scrambled, and was hauled, back to the roof. More determined than ever, and still sniffling, I walked to the edge, bent my legs a few times as a test, and jumped as both boys watched.

This time I slamed my chin into my bent knees. I spit out a mouth full of blood and a tooth. Walter looked distressed, and asked me to watch one more time as he demonstrated a bent knee landing, with knees apart!

It was no good, I was all done in and crying uncontrollably. Steve look disgusted as both he and Walter walked with me back to the house. The boys got a whipping for letting me do something so dangerous for a girl my age. I was exempt from the whipping only because I could easily produce a mouth full of blood.

It took me a few years to realize why Steve didn’t want me around.

There was the time I got a splinter in my behind on Easter Sunday from sliding down a perfectly good, old board that the boys had been using for more than an hour. The splinter was so deep that Mom had to pile us all in the car and meet our family doctor in his office. I actually had stitches, and the boys got a whipping.

And the time I went sailing out of a swing while trying, on a dare, to reach as high as my brothers. I was banged up and bruised. The boys weren’t allowed to use the swing set for a week.

I can’t remember how old I was when I joined them in a game of Nazi-hunting, only to find myself left behind as they ran after our imaginary foe. It seemed we’d wandered pretty far and I hadn’t a clue in which direction was home. After some time Steve found me and promised to take me home, if and when I quit crying.

Misfiring slingshots, digging holes in sliding mounds of gravel as tall as a house at the town water department, hide ‘n seek games in old refigerators, being lowered into a storm drain to retrieve a dime before the rain got any worse.

We all can remember similar moments of excitement and pain. And we learn along the way how our childish ignorance kept us from knowing just how often we were close to real catastrophe.

Those moments with my brothers came back to me last weekend while I was teaching my grandson how to use grass sheers around the flower beds.

My son Cliff stopped mowing and hurried over to us. “Mom! Why are you letting Furio use those? He got stiches in his hand from plastic scissors he used at school!”

Cliff has only one child. He suffers from a vast pool of limited perspective.

He’s ten!” I said. “You gonna wait ’till he’s 20?”

He almost cut our internet cable!” (Ah! The real issue!)

Which is why I cautioned him to pay more attention to what he is doing.”

He was six inches from cutting it!”

He was a good twelve inches,” I quibbled.

To avoid further panic I redirected my grandson to trim around the flagstones.

As I washed my garden tools, I thought about how closely I’d watched my son grew up. I had one child. My mother had seven. Maybe after an unknown number of bloody noses, skinned knees, childhood diseases, doctor visits, piles of dirty laundry, teenage angst, broken hearts, and the occasional police officer ringing our doorbell with one of my brothers in tow – maybe Mom understood that she could only do so much. Maybe she had to let go a little.

I never thought I did enough, although I really like the man my son has become.

I don’t think he’s figured out yet that there is a limit to what a parent can do. You teach, admonish and guide, and then you trust your child and Providence to make it safely through the day. You pray they reach adulthood. And then you pray you die before they do.

Then tomorrow you do it all over again.

Copyright © 2017 All rights reserved.

Plant Charms

Both my grandmothers were born and raised in Texas. And both of them grew amazingly beautiful flowers. There wasn’t anywhere they couldn’t grow something. They grew herbs in pots, rusted cans, broken coffee cups and old shoes. They planted abundant beds of lupines, bells of Ireland, coleus, daisies, roses, irises, asters, purple cone flowers, and dozens of other things I don’t know the names of. They cultivated under shade trees, in bright sun, against the house, next to the road, in and around rocks. They coaxed lovely, voluptuously full, green growth up trellises and wire fences, down narrow breezeways, out of the hard – packed dirt or sandy soil – name a spot, it probably had something blooming in it.

   Either one of them could take a limp, unidentifiable, half-dead twig, break it into three pieces, and in a month’s time have a rose, a lily, and a fig tree reaching for the sky.

You would think one of them would have shared that particular magic with me before kicking the proverbial flower pot. 

But, no. 

My pattern is to ask four different people working in a nursery really important questions, like: what will grow in this part of Texas? Sun or shade? How often do I need to water? How long will this plant last before I kill it? 

And it’s not like the weather cooperates. If I water, it will rain for three days. I’m the one to blame for spring flooding this year. If I hold off watering because the forecast predicts major downpours, the day will turn blazing hot, glaringly bright, and by late afternoon my plants will be crawling out of the ground in an attempt to reach any available shade. And yet, I dare not water in the evening or they may get a fungus or leaf spot, or some kind of flesh eating bacteria.

Having said this, I must confess that my perennial torture chamber continues outside my back door. I have lambs ear that wilts in the sun and drowns in the rain. There is a Lantana with big blooms and no leaves on spindly stalks, spider plants that alternately bloom one day and turn brown the next, a two foot tall aloe that left a two inch baby behind before sinking into itself and forming something that looks like a 2,000 year old mummy, and a gardenia that’s racing all of them to the compost bin. Some last longer than others, but I swear I can hear all of them gasping.

I should quit killing things; I know! But my head is full of pictures of Texas desert oases created by these amazingly gifted, tight-lipped, old women who are separated from me by only two generations and a few dozen years. Where are my green genes? What incantations did they whisper before retiring at 7:30 each night? And what concoction might they have been putting on their plants at 4:30 in the morning before everybody woke up?

Maybe if I dig up my grandmothers, fly to New Orleans and bring back a Voodoo priestess, she can do something to get the truth out of them. Okay, I know it sounds crazy. It’s a long shot, but I have to do something! Even the weeds are starting to lean away from me as I walk through the back yard.

Copyright © 2017  All rights reserved.