Carpe-ing the Diem

fish

The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time – Abraham Lincoln.

Most of us worry about the future. And why not? After all, we’re brought up to believe that what we do as children and young adults can affect what happens to us—and others—in that nebulous place not yet seen. Sometimes we even capitalize it. The Future…and add whatever applies: space travel, education, technology, medicine, the world as we know it. The future lies in being tech-savvy, moving to the right job at the right time…and then leaving that job when a “future offer” seems more enticing. Sometimes, the Future is an edict…as in “your future. Son (or daughter) is in the family business. Why do you think we paid for that education?” Daunting, right? Do we have a choice? Are we driven to make choices based on what might happen?
The truth is…as President Lincoln said so well…that our futures do come one day at a time. Each day is a step forward if we want it to be, or we can make no move at all. The interesting thing is that we can also use that future day to repair or enhance the events of the prior day…or days. We have the opportunity to make ourselves better or worse, to take a minor detour to enjoy some unexpected delight that may never happen again, to decide to put on blinders to hide what happens around us, to create, to destroy, to laugh…even cry. It’s in our power to make our day the best one it can be. Whether we choose to use that power is up to us.
One thing I’ve learned is that focusing too much on what ‘may be’ rather than on ‘what is’ steals our time on this planet. Yes, it’s prudent to take steps to prevent those catastrophes we can and make the good things even better, but it is just as important to recognize what we can and can’t control…or even predict. We too often say “Well, I can’t do anything about that” when in fact we can. One little step forward, one kind act. It doesn’t take much. And we feel better for it.
Mae McEwan never studied Mr. Lincoln…or if she did it was only in passing as the Scots taught History in school. She does however subscribe to his belief that we take things one day at a time. Take the opportunities life gives, deal with the disappointments, do what good can be done. Go to sleep each night thankful for the day and know that the next one will be a clean slate on which to write.

Mae

The sun was up by the time my old alarm clock buzzed to life. One thing I was never sure of in this city was which way was east and which was west, but there was enough light filtering through the stained and dusty window blinds to let me know I needed to be on the move. Sylvain had mentioned taking Drummond to Our Lady to finish doing the yard work, so my mind was easy on that score. Left to himself me brother is a magnet for everything New Orleans flaunts, but work was the one thing that gave him some sense of who he used to be back before the whisky. I bent over to give him a kiss on the brow before I tidied myself up and assumed the identity of Mae McFarland once again.
It took less time to make my trip to the mansion…the Rodrigue mansion if I remembered the name right. Sylvain knew it, that was sure. And if he didn’t like his sister being in the middle of it, well neither did I. I let myself in the back door to find Lila bustling about like a fox in the hunt.
“Mornin’, Miss Mae,” she breathed as she swept by me to put some chopped vegetables in a huge copper pot. “Busy time today. The Missus gave me a menu this morning for the soiree she and the Mister are hosting tonight.”
“Tonight? Isn’t that a wee bit late notice?” I dropped my bag in the coat cupboard and found a clean apron. I would have asked what a ‘swaree’ was but figured I should know that having been in service for the de Villiers.
“The Missus apologized after she told me. Evidently there’s to be an important meeting with some business associates this week. She hasn’t been able to entertain since they moved here, not really. The Mister told her this would be the perfect way to welcome everyone. Some of them…”
“Gossip doesn’t do anything more than waste time and air, Cook.” Neither of us had heard Marie-Therese enter the room. “We have only a few hours to make this place shine.” She looked at me and I knew she blamed me for Lila’s lapse of concentration. “Miss Mae, we will indeed be having guests and some of them will be staying with us for a time. Please make sure that every room sparkles. The tapestries are being freshened this afternoon, so you might tend to the other rooms on this floor first and then do the bedrooms upstairs. All of them. I am sure Mr. and Mrs. Rodrigue will appreciate the extra effort on your part.” That Marie-Therese expected extra effort every day was a given, so I nodded.
“Will I be needin’ additional supplies for the third floor as well so I can tend to those guest rooms?” That would be one way to get up there and see what I could discover.
“No. The rooms on the second floor are adequate for the number of guests, Miss Mae. I had the houseboys carry the area rugs out to the back to hang. They’ll beat them and then let the warm air work her magic to freshen them. If you would be so kind as to buff the wood floor with that soft mop, they can replace them before the dinner guests arrive.” She peered at the watch she kept on a long chain around her neck. “My driver should be waiting. I find I will be gone most of the day so I must trust you and Lila will honor the schedule. Lila, I have your list and will have the grocer deliver what you need in more than enough time for preparation. If you find you find you need something more, please call me. I will see the item is added to the order. In the meantime, you may assist Miss Mae if she needs you.” Having said her piece, Marie-Therese turned and walked out of the kitchen towards the portiere where ‘her’ driver was probably wishing for anything but her company.
I told Lila I’d let her know if I needed help and to do the same with me and then grabbed my tray of supplies and started with the dining room, the absence of those tapestries making the room appear much brighter and larger. I put my skills on autopilot and tried to figure out how I could use Madame Marie’s prolonged time away from the house to my advantage. By the time I had polished and vacuumed and dusted and plumped the rooms on the first floor I had the glimmering of a plan to scout out the forbidden third floor. I needed to do that quickly, so I hustled myself and my tools up the stairs and placed them in the first room to be cleaned. Taking extra care so my heels would not click on the wood flooring, I made my way to the stairs leading to what I hoped would be the answer to Sylvain’s problem; Celine in one of those rooms more than ready to be rescued. And maybe enough evidence to get my temporary employer and his men out of circulation.
I’d learned as a child that old steps tend to squeak. Got meself caught a time or two trying to sneak out to do some mischief and found that staying close to the railings made for more quiet progress up and down. Served me well through the teenage times and when I snuck out the final time to follow me brother. Keeping that in mind, I took the staircase one step at a time and was rewarded by total silence. And a gate of sorts stretched across the posts at the top. No problem. Since the staircase sat at the midpoint of the house, there was a hall on either side, with a railing that stretched from the end of the stairs to the front of the upper level. Doorways, six on either side, beckoned me. Most were open, with the light shining through swirls of dust and…dust. I looked at the floor before me. Aside from a tattered runner stretching toward the rear of the building, there were no rugs. And enough dust on the unpolished flooring to track anyone who stepped off that piece of carpet. Shite. My eyes studied the area and found one room off to the left with a closed door. Close to the rear of the house, my guess was that it sat right above the kitchen-mud room area, far enough away from any activity that sounds would be muffled, or not heard at all. That’s where I’d keep someone I didn’t want free, I decided. Now how to get there.
“Off limits,” a voice growled behind me. Shite again. “Didn’t I tell you not to snoop?” The hand on my shoulder was not as forceful as yesterday.
“Benard,” I whispered.
“The same.” He used his hand to turn me toward him. “And just what are you up to? This wasn’t part of the plan.”
“Opportunity knocked,” I said. “Plus I’d like to find Celine before something happens to her. You said she looked ill. The sooner I’m out of here, the faster you can get back to your own business.”
“You won’t find her if they catch you where you’re not supposed to be, Mae. Let me do what I said I would. I’ll ask Mr. Cameron. He’s a part of this, but he married her because…well, love happens even with the bad guys. I was looking for you when I saw you climbing the stairs. Neat trick that, staying to the sides. I’m supposed to go with him to the airport to pick up some of the associates. You get your work done before that dragon lady comes back and be helping Lila in the kitchen. Poor woman is ready to poison the gumbo.”
What could I do? The third floor was dusty and as quiet as a tomb. If Celine was up here, she wasn’t moving or moaning, and I couldn’t risk being discovered either. That Benard had managed to catch me unawares rattled me. He was right. At least I’d satisfied my curiosity about the place.
“I see your point, Benard. I don’t like it, but for now I’ll back off. I’m no good to Sylvain if I’m fired. This is between us, though. No one else needs to know.”
“Of course.” He stepped back to let me past him. “Just don’t push the envelope. But if you see anything that might help me in my job, I’d appreciate it. I’d like to stop shaving my head every day.” He chuckled. So did I. Just then a door banged open somewhere on the first floor and we both scrambled down the third floor stairs.
“Benard! Kote ou ye? We’re going to be late!”
“Mr. Cameron,” Benard whispered. “On my way, sir!” He patted my shoulder. “Watch for me later.”
“Hurry, man!” Cameron was almost at the stairs.
“Coming!” Benard clattered down the stairs just as his boss stepped on the first one. Crisis averted. “I was having a word with the new housekeeper. About tonight.” Advantage Benard.
I listened until I heard the door close behind them and considered the work that lay ahead. I’d done the guest rooms yesterday, so I concentrated on those in use by the family and then used the remaining time to freshen the air and plump the pillows everywhere else. I soft-buffed the floor, surveyed my work, and caught sight of the footprints Benard and I had left on the stairs to the third floor. I swept them away, figuring a clean staircase was less noticeable than a dusty one with shoe marks. That done, I breathed a sigh of relief and headed down to find Lila.

To say Lila was at her wit’s end would be charitable. Four boxes of groceries had landed courtesy of the neighborhood gourmet grocery and she was trying to sort through them with one hand and stir something pasty looking with the other.
“Miss Mae! You are the angel from God. Might I ask you to stir the roux while I find the filets for tonight’s main course?” She offered me the wooden spoon in her right hand. “It must be done over a very low flame and stirred until quite dark. Please. It will only be for a moment while I marinate the beef and let it rest in the cooler.” The gratitude in her smile seemed more suitable for a knight in shining armor than for my whisking a mixture in a pot, but I took the utensil from her and gently stirred the thickening liquid. I knew what a roux was. We had made them at home, although never to this shade of brown. Lila found the filets and placed them into a shallow glass dish already half full of a burgundy mixture of spices and…wine I think. After turning them several times, she placed them in the huge refrigerator and rescued her roux from my inexperienced hands.
“What else can I do to help you, Lila?”
“Pray for me, Miss Mae.” She softened that request with another smile. “If you would unpack the groceries for me that would be a great help. I tried to ask Madame Marie for an extra hand. It is so short a time to expect so much to be done. And the beef must be prepared just as they finish their first course or it will be dry.”
“No worries, Lila.” I looked inside the boxes. The packer had organized them so that all the cold food was in one while the others held the non-perishables. “It won’t take me but a minute to sort through these things and get them put away. How many are you cooking for?”
“The Missus told me to make enough for twelve. She will be there of course, and the Mister. Mr. Cameron and his wife if she’s well enough. That is four. Benard is to be there. The others are coming in this afternoon. Why?”
“Just me being nosy,” I joked. “Still, that is a lot of work for you. Not that I’ve been asked but I expect Madame Marie will want me to stay and help serve.” That explained the starched apron and cap I’d seen hanging in the cupboard. “But,” and here I paused. My next question was a dangerous one. Oh what was the worst that could happen. Lila could tell Madame Marie but nosiness was no crime.
“But?” Lila prodded me.
“You mentioned that Mrs. Cameron might not be well enough. Is she very ill?”
“I do not really know other than I have had to make her broth and plain custards ever since they’ve arrived. She stays upstairs mostly. When she has come down it is only for a short time. Surely you’ve seen her as you clean?”
“No, but then I don’t know the schedule of everyone in the house so perhaps she is out with Mr. Cameron or the Missus when I tend to their room.” Lilia didn’t need to know there was no indication that Celine ever spent any time in the bedroom she supposedly shared with Cameron.
“She rarely goes out, but that is possible. Perhaps to the doctor?”
“That must be it. I’m sure I’ll see her at some point. Now,” I turned the subject back to the tasks at hand. “Is there something I can chop or shred or dice for you? “ It wouldn’t help to have Marie-Therese walk in to discover ‘her’ kitchen in disarray and me chattering away.

Entertaining in New Orleans is an art. Temporary staff is hired, the liquor cabinet restocked, the linens not only pressed but mildly starched, and the tables in the parlor are filled with unusual delicacies. The Rodrigue soiree was no exception in all but one area. Not a temporary bartender, server, or butler to be found. By the time I had finished my prep work with Lila, Marie-Therese had sent me to lay the table, set small trays in the parlor for the appetizers, make sure there was ice for the drinks, and plump the pillows on the sofa one last time. Then she had directed me to the cupboard to get the apron and cap I’d seen earlier.
“I’m sure you’ve done this in your service with the de Villiers,” she said. “This is a small party, so you should have no trouble. Just do as you did the other evening. Keep the platters filled, offer to refresh their drinks. Benard will be our bartender this evening. You may want to discuss the details with him. He’s also greeting guests, so do not worry yourself about the door.”
I hadn’t seen Benard since our meeting on the stairs. He’d told me to find him, and Madame Marie had just given me the perfect excuse to talk to him throughout the evening. No time like the present, I decided.
“Then if you’ll excuse me,” I said in my best servant voice, “I’ll find Benard and let him know I’ll be staying. And ask him if he needs anything special for the bar.”
“The guests should be arriving shortly, Miss Mae. Please do not dawdle over the details. I’m sure Benard will let you know as he needs things.” She waved me away and turned her attentions to Lila’s creations. I left the room, anxious for the evening to begin. Maybe I would finally see Sylvain’s Celine. The chimes from the front door announced the arrival of the first guest. Benard’s voice echoed in the foyer as he welcomed someone in. A moment later I saw him striding toward me.
“What the hell are you still doing here?” He looked at my new apron. “You’re kidding of course.”
“No. Madame Marie has pressed me into maid service. This must be some dinner.”
“You don’t want to know,” Benard muttered. “By the way, Mr. Cameron assured me his wife is fine, thank you, and she will be with him tonight, at least for dinner. Good news, no?”
“Not when Lila’s been making her broth and custards for the past week. Something’s not right.”
“Just don’t meddle. Once the after dinner cigars and brandy come out, get your butt out of here. I already have enough to worry about.” His voice turned bossy. “And make sure my ice buckets are kept filled. Now go and find the cocktail shakers.”
“Ah, Benard there you are.” The Missus, exquisitely dressed in a floor length sheath of violet and blue, put her hand on Benard’s arm and squeezed it. “Would you assist me for just a moment? In the parlor?”
“Of course, ma’am.” The look he gave me told me that his undercover work was not the only ‘thing’ he had to deal with. Oh how I wanted to be a meddling mouse on the wall. But, I sighed, first things first.

Making my way around the front parlor was like running through the brush. Other than the Missus, who was holding court by the screened fireplace, everyone was male. And big. I’ve never seen so many men who looked like they could lift a bull in each hand. Still, I managed to avoid being crushed. Sadly I could not avoid being pinched. I did step on a few designer shoes in retaliation, always excusing myself in my best Dundee accent. Then above the baseline of male voices, I heard Benard from the hallway.
“Mr. Cameron. Mrs. Cameron. The others are in the parlor.”
Moments later, Cameron Rodrigue and his wife entered through the open doorway. He was clad in black formal attire much like the rest of the party. His hand rested over that of the petite, dark haired woman who clung to his arm, her face as pale as the new moon. Around her neck hung an antique locket. I had found Celine.

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There Is No “I” in Soccer

Soccer
World Cup. Everyone knows what it is even if they aren’t sure exactly what it means. Like the Olympics, it enters our consciousness once every four years for approximately a month of universal competition; that it involves the sport of soccer may speak to only a certain group, but every nation participating has an investment in watching, cheering for the national team, and hoping for victories that will make their team the ultimate best in the world. It’s a team effort, from the people who clean the uniforms to the goalkeepers who contort their bodies in order to make “saves” to the fans who cheer, cry, and travel thousands of miles to celebrate in one of the biggest world parties—this year in one of the world’s premier vacation spots. The party is important of course. Who doesn’t want to have a good time at any sporting event? But the TEAM is the real reason for being there. People from different countries, ethnicities, cultures, all come together in celebration of the sport of soccer. The United States is a relative newcomer to this sport; fútbol is definitely European in origin. Although the ancient Chinese did have a sport which translates as ‘kickball, 900 AD rings in as a possible origin date in modern times. Still, we understand team sports as well as the next guy. It’s called ‘working together for a common goal’. No one person can make a team, although lack of leadership can sink one faster than a leaky dinghy.
“So,” you may ask, “what does this all have to do with anything? My team lost, I don’t care who wins, give me a break. Soccer? Who cares?”
Well, take a step back and translate that to any sport you enjoy. Almost all of them are team sports at some time or another; they require commitment, cooperation, compassion. Still doesn’t make sense? Then let me be blunt. TEAM. Working together. And the confusion as to why, when we can come together as friendly rivals for sporting events and often cheer on other teams as they move forward after our own has been defeated, the word often disappears from our daily lives to the point of us making our own time on this planet less pleasant. Our way is the only way. We’re right and no one else understands that. Any number of expressions used daily from the halls of Congress to our own living rooms. Every nation is guilty. Some call it National Pride. Me? I’m old enough to have seen and heard things that make me wonder. I’ve learned that not all can be taken at face value. Actions don’t always suit words, words sometimes mean one thing in a certain context and have another definition altogether in another one.
I’m not on a soapbox here, although I do believe we can look at life in many different ways and profit from what we see. Working with others, listening their point of view (whether we accept it or not), trying as a group to make things better…to ‘win’ if you will…may enhance our experience and give us opportunities we never would have had otherwise. Mae knows that…and while she’s been thrown a curve again, she’s wise enough to find a way to convert that curve into something other than a foul ball.

MAE
“There’s biscuits in that tin with the plaid lid,” I said. I had the feeling this was going to take more than just an apology to satisfy me and I wanted something to keep my mouth busy while these two recent interlopers in my life cleared the mud from the murk. “Get a plate while you’re standin’ there, Sylvain. If that’s really your name.”
“Keep those hackles of yours down, Mae. I am Sylvain Lionel. No fear on that score. This rather oversized person with no hair,” and here he looked a bit puzzled, “is my second cousin on my mama’s side, Etienne.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am,” offered up our intruder with a slight bow. “Etienne Besson from Grand Isle at your service.”
“At my service? Maybe you’d better sit yourself down before you say anything else. And the name is Mae, or did you forget that?” The bruise on my shoulder told me different, but I needed to be the one asking the questions, s o I kept going as Sylvain waited for the kettle to boil. “When you tried to push me down the stairs this afternoon?”
“In truth, I meant you no harm, Miss Mae. But had I not acted to stop you…”
“Why did you interfere, Tenny?” Sylvain brought the pot and a third cup to the table. “And where is your hair?” He seated himself, muttered something and went back to get the biscuit tin. I reached for a crisp shortbread cookie and nibbled a bit, quite ready to listen to whatever tale he wanted to spin, as long as he said his piece and got out. I wanted nothing more than to lie down, mull over the day, and make me own plans for that mysterious room before I had to rise and get back to Marie-Therese and her orders.
“It’s my cover, Syl. We’ve been watching Rodrigue for over a year. Trying to tie him to money laundering for the guys up North. Money that comes from drug sales. He looked at me. “This goes no further, ma’am.”
“You don’t have to concern yourself with Mae,” Sylvain said. “She already suspected something after just one day.”
“Then tell me why she’s in there, cousin, and why you’re involved at all.”
“Celine.”
“Beb Celine? Las time I saw her she was all braces and braids, Syl. What does she have to do with any of this?”
“”You don’t know?” The disbelief in Sylvain’s voice hung in the air like a dismal fog. “She’s in that house. And I sent Mae to try and get her out.”
“And that’s why you were jigglin’ at that knob this afternoon? No one in there, not since…”
“Just how long have you been on the inside, cousin? “
“I told you. Since last year. Are you sure?”
“Dead sure. She married into the family. Last I heard from her she was here in New Orleans. Called me from a shop in the Quarter. I could hear the fear in her voice. By the time I got to where we were supposed to meet up…she never came, Tenny.”
“Oh hell.”
I could see by the expression on Tenny’s face that he’d remembered something. Or someone. But I kept taking bites of my cookie, waiting for the whole story.
“Etienne? We don’t have time for this. You know something. Look at me.”
“I never thought….I mean….I knew the boss’s brother had married but…aw merde, Syl. She looked familiar but she didn’t say a word to me. Kept her eyes down mostly. They lived in the cottage next to the main house in Baton Rouge, Syl. I never really saw her after that one time. And it was always Missus Cameron when the staff talked about her. Last time I laid eyes on her was right after the family moved here. She was…she looked ill. Wasn’t my business. Y’know?”
Last time?” Time for me to put myself into the mix. “Just when was that? Today maybe? After you…”
“I told you Miss Mae how sorry I am that I gave you a difficult time. But you didn’t have to make such a noise about it.”
“When did you see her, Tenny? Where?”
“Mr. Cameron was helping her up the stairs to their room. I offered to help but…”
“You didn’t see him take her inside?” Sylvain’s words were almost an accusation.
“No. The boss called me back to discuss an upcoming meet with a “linen supplier” from Tucson. Sounded as though we might be able to actually…”
“I don’t care, Tenny. You and your boss can meet with suppliers from New York to Chicago and back. Not my circus. My sister wanted,,,needed,,,my help, and I let her down. Now I’ve got to get her out of there before it’s too late.” Sylvain banged his mug down on the table.
“Get yourself in check, Sylvain,” I said in as loud a voice as I could without waking me brother. “Tenny here has his agenda and it has nothing to do with yours. Yet.” I took a sip of lukewarm tea to wash down the last of my cookie. “And mind my mug. I can’t just buy a new one every time you want to make a point.” To his credit, Sylvain reddened a bit as he muttered a “sorry” but the anger in his eyes was still flashing. “Now I want you two to listen to me.”
I told you before, didn’t I, that I can’t let a good “meddle” pass me by. As soon as ‘Benard’ warned me off that room, I knew there was something bad going on. Sylvain’s sister probably stumbled onto it and was being ‘taken care of’ in more than one way. Celine needed to be saved, that was sure, but now we had the added complication of Tenny’s involvement as an undercover agent. Sylvain couldn’t see that the two missions could be made into one….good results for all. So I said my piece.
“If you, Sylvain, can keep yourself from verbally beating up your cousin,” I saw him shrug, “and you Etienne can stop apologizing for what you had to do”, a slight nod, then I have a plan.” Sylvain groaned.
“Just wait until I lay my hands on Morales,” he growled.
“Morales?” That was Etienne.
“Never mind,” both Sylvain and I said in chorus.
“Now it’s a rough plan, and we may have to make it up as we go, but if it works, we can get the job done and not get hurt. Any of us.” I had their attention at the last.
“Go on, Miss Mae.” Tenny was the first to speak, Sylvain having calmed himself with a gulp of tea. “I’ll tell you what I can. The sooner we can get enough evidence to stop Rodrigue, the better. And,” he turned to Sylvain, “If Celine knows as much as they think she does, we can protect her too. If she’s willing to testify…”
“Let’s get her out of that house first, cousin,” Sylvain muttered. “while she’s still alive.”
“First things first,” I said, sensing another round of familial fighting in the wings. “Tenny, or I should say ‘Benard’ since I don’t want to let something slip tomorrow, you’re the front line. I need you to find out just where ‘Missus Cameron’ is. No first names, even if you see her in the hall or at table. Obviously she didn’t recognize you or you’d have been contacted before Sylvain here.” He nodded. “Once you find out, give me a signal…maybe mention “that redheaded maid” to Marie-Therese while I’m in the vicinity. Doesn’t have to be fancy. Maybe an insult would be better since we’ve already traded blows.”
“Then what?”
“Wait about an hour or so and then find me. Ask me to do something, tell me to leave the room, whatever seems right at the time. I’ll bump into you, apologize and you can give me the location before you tell me off.” I had to laugh as he shot me a look. “I promise not to kick you again,” I said.
“What about me?” Sylvain had been drumming his fingers on the table as I spoke.
“You wait. Find a Safe place…not here,” I added as he looked around the room. “This is my and Drum’s haven. Do they know Celine’s family connections?”
“I doubt it,” he replied, some sadness in his voice. “Celine didn’t like where she came from, so if anything she made herself an orphan from New Orleans. We didn’t know she was married until we saw the society page in The Times Picayune. Why?”
“I’m think you might take her home. Let your mama take care of her until she’s needed to testify.”
“But…” came from both men.
“It’s as safe, maybe safer, than those blasted secure houses your police are so proud of. Do you trust your bosses, Tenny? All of them?”
“We have to trust someone,” Tenny said. “But I see your point. Sylvain?”
“I don’t see why I can’t just go and get her.”
“First idiotic thing out of your mouth in the time I’ve known you, you dolt,” I said. “All they’d do is tell you she’s not there and if you kept after them, well….things might happen.”
“And if this scheme of yours doesn’t work?”
“It will. Although I’m thinking that Benard may have to get knocked about a bit. Not by me of course. Hate to put his manhood into question.” I chuckled at the possibility he’d have to explain how one little maid could take him down. We’ll get there when we get there. Any questions?” Both men looked at me and shook their heads. “Good. Let’s all get what sleep we can. Sylvain, you and Drum make arrangements with your family. Go see them. No phone calls. Drum can use the time away from the temptations of Bourbon Street. Benard, you go back to your boss and tell him whatever. You followed me home, waited to see if I went out or met anyone, or you stopped for a drink.” I got up and walked them to the door. “Benard? You first. Sylvain? There’s a back way, right?” He nodded. “Good night then.”
After my co-conspirators left, I went back to the table and stared into my mug. What bothered me? Celine hadn’t been in her bedroom when I cleaned. If she was ill, there should have been some traffic, doctors, her husband, even Marie-Therese ordering someone to take up a tray. Nothing. If she wasn’t in that small room, and Benard’s reaction told me she wasn’t, that left either the third floor or someplace not visible to me. No cellar. New Orleans’ water table is so high they bury their dead above ground or weight down the coffins with cement coverings. I’d have to do more snooping than cleaning if I wanted to find Sylvain’s sister before her ‘illness’ became fatal. I checked the hot plate, stacked the mugs in a metal pan for washing later, checked the dead bolt on the door and headed into the room where Drum slept. Saying a silent prayer that we would all come out of this in one piece, I tucked myself in and let the sounds of the night lull me to sleep.

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Not My Circus

circus tent

If you haven’t seen the phrase, “Not my circus, not my monkeys” on Facebook or other social media—it’s an old Polish proverb—then you may not realize the words are just another way of saying, “Hey, it’s not my problem.” Or “leave me out of it”. One way to deal with difficulties to be sure. Ignore them, avoid them, wish them away, but never confront them. Of course it also means “I don’t care. Don’t bother me. I have my own baggage.”
What with all the social commentary so available to us in so many ways, news programs online and on air, sound-bytes exhorting us to do this or give to that, and to get involved in good causes, it’s understandable that some people simply want to tune out. Compassion overload. But the problem is that we do need to be involved in something, even if it is simply ourselves. Compassion and empathy are, I believe, parts of the human condition. We go through life….most of us anyway….trying to make things better; for us, for our children, for the country, and yes for the world as well. We learn this at an early age from our parents, on the playground, whenever we see a person help another person. Helping is a good thing. Right?
As we get older and more self-focused we can lose sight of the bigger picture. We tend to classify people as those who “should be helped” and those who “brought this on themselves”. In the real world that doesn’t always apply; something we discover as we age a bit more and have had to dodge life’s curves and calamities. When we ask for help and someone says “Not my circus” it stings. If we have helped that someone in the past, it stabs us in the back. And it makes us wonder if helping anyone other than “us” is even worth the effort. Not that we expect things in return for our helping hand. Do we? Because wanting credit for doing good things can also be part of being human. Our sense of self-worth thrives on thank you’s and applause. Even just dropping some coins in the red kettle at Christmas gives us a bit of a glow.
So, if helping is a good thing and ignoring the problem is a bad thing, why are there so many problems running rampant without being solved? Solutions take time. Most of us will tell ourselves there isn’t enough time in the day as it is. The thing is, there is enough. Maybe we don’t have time to go to a foreign country and dig wells or go to disaster-stricken areas after every earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, but we can do our part. Donate supplies when we can, offer to spend one evening on a telephone tree, help build or rebuild a house for Habitat. Mentor a child one day a week and possibly change his or her life. There are many opportunities in this world which cost only time and caring. We can all be a part of those opportunities if we look for them. Because, in spite of everything, the world is our circus. It’s up to us to make it the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
By the way, our friend Mae knows this well. Better than most. She gave up her way of life to make sure that her brother didn’t endanger his. With one exception. Mae also gets involved with other circus trains along the way….

Mae
I hadn’t counted on being late back to my new place. Trouble is I didn’t take into consideration what happens in New Orleans after dark most nights. Music and more music, crowds in the streets dancing, and me finding myself caught up in a Second Line going in the same direction I was. Now I was never much of a dancer, though I can do a decent Reel if the music and the whisky are right, but there’s something about the tunes of this city and her people that makes you want to move with the rhythm and strut to the beat. So I did, all the way down Frenchman to where the Old US Mint stands. Then I headed over to the building Drum and I were to call home for a while. There in front of the entry paced Sylvain, his eyes scanning the area, his face a study in worry.
“Dear God, Mae! I was about ready to call 911. Where have you been?”
“Och, man, I’ve been comin’ home from work, that’s where I’ve been.” Telling him I’d been dancing in the streets did not seem prudent. “If ye wanted me here soonest, you should’ve sent me a cab.” I moved past him but not before he’d taken my arm.
“Do you know how dangerous this city can be after dark? You could have been attacked or worse.”
“Aye, right,” I scoffed. “I look like a rich tourist with no brains. I thought you said Morales told you about me. I can handle myself. But my feet can’t handle me bein’ in these shoes much longer. And I want to see Drum’s settled in before we talk.” I didn’t wait for a reply, just took myself and walked into the building. A moment later I heard the thunk of his boots as he followed me up the stairs. “Ye didn’t lock the door?” I stared at the opening to my crib. “Did I not warn you about…?” I slapped his arm just as Drum’s voice called from the main office area.
“That you, Mae? I’ve been waiting to see you before I take my rest.”
“In a moment, dearie.” I looked at Sylvain. “Find me kettle and make us some tea, while I tend to me brother. We can talk at the table. You’ll find some biscuits in the red tin.”

Not long after, I’d gotten Drum tucked in for the night in what now was a combination sitting and sleeping area. Sylvain and Drum had between them managed to acquire two day beds as well as light blankets and pillows and a small table for books and papers. Better than the crates I’d had in Charles City, that was sure, but I missed those crates just the same. I made my own bed ready, since I planned to send Sylvain packing in not more than thirty or so minutes by the old pocket watch on the table in the makeshift kitchen. And I found me slippers, took off my working clothes and decided I needed the other set for tomorrow’s duties, and threw on my comfy chenille robe. Then I padded back to Sylvain.
“Did ye steep the tea right?”
“Don’t sound so skeptical, Mae”. Sylvain’s Cheshire Cat grin should have warned me.
“I’m right particular about my brew,” I said. “It takes a tender touch to get it done to my liking.” I reached for the cup he held out to me, prepared to have the liquid pucker my mouth with the bitterness that comes from over-steeping or too hot water. I took a cautious sip. “Holy heaven!” The warm beverage slid smoothly down my throat like honey from a hive.
“My grand-mere was quite the stickler when it came to tea, Mae. Loose-leaf, never bagged, and always always at the proper temperature. I learned early how to please that palate of hers. So, see? I do have a use or two other than moving man, Drum-watcher, and friend to Alex.” He laughed and then took a long drink from his own cup. “So? How was your first day? Can I hope for an answer to Celine’s location?”
I won’t make you sit through a re-telling of my day, but I didn’t leave anything out, including Benard and that room by the stairs. I had a few choice words about Marie-Therese as well, but that was more to get her out of my craw than anything else. Sylvain sat silent, reacting only when I mentioned my first encounter with Benard outside that ‘storage’ room.
“So you think my sister might be kept in there, Mae? Why else would it be considered off limits?”
“It seemed too quiet,” I said. “No movement, no nothing. And it was the same in the evening as earlier. I’d expect a noise or something, especially when I first rattled the doorknob. Besides, I have my own ideas.”
“Such as?”
“ Patience, man. Remember I was supposed to be live-in help? With a room on the third floor and all?” Sylvain nodded. “Well, once I told them I needed to tend Drummond so didn’t care to stay on the premises, the third floor just happened to need repairs and such and I shouldn’t concern myself about anything up there. So this is what I think. Maybe Celine was kept in that little room by the stairs and maybe not, but now I’d wager a pretty pence or two that she’s somewhere on that forbidden floor. If she’s in the house. And that’s not all.”
“That’s enough for me, Mae.”
“I don’t like the place, Sylvain. Too perfect. Except for Benard. He’s like a square peg in that round hole. That off limits room is hiding something. I want to know what it is.”
“Find Celine, Mae. That’s all I want you to do. Alex warned me about you. A meddler, he said. With a nose for trouble.”
“I told you I can take care of myself. And Drum. Been doin’ it for a fair while…since before I met Morales. And I’ll be doin’ it after we move on from here too. Don’t you want to know what your sister’s messed up in?” I stared at him, wondering if he’d admit to the fact.
“Once she’s out of there, Mae, I don’t care what goes on.” So he said. I could read it in his eyes that he wanted nothing more than to stomp on the people who’d wronged his kin.
“Wrong answer,” I said. “You can’t have it both ways. We can rescue Celine…if she wants to be rescued…” His head came up at that and he glared at me, “Or we can rescue her and make sure she never has to deal with the likes of these people again. That means meddling, Sylvain.”
I poured myself another cup of tea, lukewarm now but still flavorful, and waited in silence while my companion wrestled with his conscience and his emotions. The sounds of the River came in through the partially open window, and there were noises as the building settled down for the night; the creaks and groans of wood and metal and…Sylvain was on his feet before I could put my cup on the table, moving quietly toward the door we’d locked behind us. He held up a hand to stop me from joining him, so I simply stood by the table, ready to do whatever was needed. We both watched as the knob on that door turned slowly from one side to another. Someone wanted in.
Sylvain looked back at me and then moved his hand to unlatch the safety chain and turn the key to release the lock. He placed one hand on the knob, jerked it firmly and pulled the door back. I might have done the same meself I have to say, but watching someone else do the deed sent a shiver up me spine. Because there framed by the door jamb stood Benard.

“What the…Sylvain?” Benard’s words were as much of a shock to me as Sylvain’s presence was to him.
“Etienne?” Okay, so now I was doubly shocked. These two knew each other? Sylvain’s next words did nothing to make me any easier. “Where did you come from? Last I heard you were up in Shreveport. And you had hair!” Time for someone with sense to jump in, so I did.
“I take it you two are acquainted.” Not the best opening, I admit but it was late, I was tired, and Benard had tried to throw me down some stairs not twelve hours earlier. “Care to fill me in? Before I find something to use as a weapon?”
“You’d better come in, Tenny,” Sylvain said. “She means it.” He stepped back to let the intruder in and motioned the chair he’d just vacated. “Take a seat. I’ll make more tea.”
“Tenny?”
“Forgive me Mae. My manners have totally deserted me in the face of this unexpected meeting,” Sylvain replied as he took the teapot and went over to the small double hotplate he’d brought over to replace my elderly one.
“Unexpected?” I couldn’t get more than one word out of my mouth. And that a question. I turned my attention, and a hearty glare, towards our guest. “Etienne?”
“Yes, ma’am. Although I realize you know me as someone else. And for that, and my lack of manners earlier I do apologize.”
I sat back in my chair, feeling as though Lewis Carroll had dumped me through the Looking Glass along with Alice and I was now a guest at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Any second now, I thought, and someone would yell “Off with her head”.

monkey

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“….Is the Word”

Fill in the blank in my title for this post and you’ll have a good idea of where I’m going. And you can thank The Jersey Boys, the latest movie to re-visit the days of music past. And bring the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to an entirely new group of listeners.

We’ve been playing The Best of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in rotation as one of our in-store plays at the bookstore and when we do, one of two things usually happens: a teen or twenty-something female walks in and says “You’re playing The Jersey Boys, right?” and seems confused for a moment when we smile and say something like, “No, this is the original Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. You know, the show was based on them.” Or someone, and here age and gender don’t seem to matter, walks in and says, “Do you have anything by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons? I just saw Jersey Boys and loved it! Have you seen it? You need to.” When we have the CD(s), we find them for the customer…but it doesn’t take much to deplete our stock. One bright note? We finally have the movie soundtrack in stock as well as the original cast recording.

My point? Every so often this generation of music-lovers, whether they love Maroon Five or Birdy, Sarah Brightman or Alfie Boe, feels the tug of the music that went before. If you listen, you can hear the influence of Chuck Berry on The Beatles, Bob Dylan on folk and protest songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s, even the classic tenor of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. But more importantly the music itself resurfaces thanks to movies, Broadway’s new crop of musicals, even Pandora.
Grease brought back the doo wop and rock of the early sixties coupled with the now almost extinct Drive-In and high school hangouts…bowling alleys, drag races, and young love. The music was fantastic for those of us who’d been there back in the day as well as our kids. Eddie and the Cruisers with a young Tom Berenger and Michael Pare as members of a band making the transition from oldies to hard rock showcases some great music written by John Fogerty. Dark Side is still one of my favorite tracks from this one. Hair and the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night brought an entire generation into the late ‘60s with music influenced by the times and earlier artists but still unique. Today Broadway offers everything from Sweeney Todd to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and the latest Rap musical based on the writings of Tupac Shakur. In between we can discover both old and new music in movies, television series, and the plethora of radio (yes, radio) stations, FM, online, Sirius, the aforementioned Pandora, and iTunes.

Me? I was extremely fortunate to have parents who believed in music. I’ve listened to everything from Big Bands to Ragtime to Elvis to whatever artist is playing right now in the coffee shop where I write. I love it all, sing along as much as I can when I can, look for ways to hear it live. I cannot imagine a world without music and melody. And neither could Plato…“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination
and life to everything.” What about you?

PS. Mae will be back…she got sidetracked on her way home by a late-night Second Line on Frenchman’s Street, but never fear. Mae dances whenever she can but never forgets where she needs to be.

second line

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Hamlet Had a Point

Branagh hamlet

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So says Hamlet to his friend. And it’s true. It’s also true, as Hamlet should have known, that things can change in a heartbeat, reality can throw curve balls, and the way to decision can be murky even when we think we know all the answers.
Everyone has heard or read “Expect the unexpected!” at least once, whether it advertises a new movie, a grand opening of anything from an amusement park to a new shopping ‘experience’ or a three ring circus. We may be tempted to laugh at the silliness of a new surprise or astonishment being attempted in this day and age. So much has become commonplace; technology is still a mystery to some but used every day by most. We’re not surprised by anything, right? Perhaps we should be. When all is said and done, Life is the unexpected.
Sounds rather heavy, doesn’t it? The responsibility we have to navigate the churning waters of good and bad times, happiness and sorrow, sometimes flowing with the current, often paddling like hell against the wind. It can be daunting. Not worthy of the effort. Easy to hand the blame for our failures off on others. Especially when we do it all ourselves. I posted an earlier blog about friends so I’ll try not to repeat myself here, but the truth is this: friends and family make the journey through the unexpected easier to deal with most of the time.
But Hamlet, whether he meant to or not….and being in a perpetual state of melancholy not is probably more likely…also makes it clear that Heaven and Earth hold opportunity as well as obligation. While he entreats his friends to swear they will not disclose what they have seen, Horatio is struck by the strange wonder of it all. That possibilities exist outside his life experience so far amazes him. No matter what comes after…and of course we know it isn’t going to be good…Horatio at least knows there’s more to be had.
Even today we can and should share in Horatio’s sense of wonder. His friendship to Hamlet is a good one, his heart true. He is a prime example of good; even when surrounded by doubts he stands by his friends. He is also willing to take a chance now and then rather than sit back in the wings and watch the play go on without him. If he meets obstacles, he tries harder. When he fails, he mourns the failure and then goes on. When he succeeds, he celebrates and shares his good fortune with his friends. At least I’d like to think so, for while Hamlet has a point so does Horatio. Trust, believe in yourself and your possibilities, be a good friend, and look for the wonder of the unexpected. The caveat? Be prepared for the tragedy as well.

Of course this all can be said of Mae. Never one to sit back and let things happen, she takes the reins and acts to make things better, protect her brother, and help her friends. If it lands her in hot water, well…

Mae
Never push a Scotsman. Or Scots-anyone for that matter. I may be little but I’m fast, and I wasna’ about to be manhandled by someone whose manners needed changing. So I kicked him. Hard. Would’ve been harder if I’d been wearing me boots, but it did the trick. His low pitched voice rose three octaves and would have shamed the most respected coloratura soprano in England. It also brought Madame Marie-Therese striding through the doorway from the dining room to the foyer.
“Mon dieu, Benard! Such noise is not allowed in this residence. What in the world possessed you to…”
“He attacked me” from me and a “She kicked me” from Benard assaulted her ears at the same moment.
“I was just doing my job, Madame,” I said in me best manner, giving her just enough worship to keep her on me side as I flew down the stairs. “He snuck up on me and grabbed my shoulder. Gave me a bruise I expect. And then tried to murder me.”
“Murder you?” Well, maybe I’d taken it a bit far considering the tone in Marie’s voice.
“Oh Madame what would you think if someone you’d not laid eyes on before started grabbing at you and pushing you toward this long steep staircase? I feared for me life, I did. But I managed to get away long enough to kick him. In his…”
“Never mind, Miss Mae,” she cautioned me, “I will deal with Benard. Have you finished the family quarters?” I nodded. “Then you have my permission to take some time to collect yourself. Cook has prepared some tea and sandwiches for us in the garden. I’ll join you shortly and you may tell me exactly what transpired here.” She turned to my assailant, still slightly bent over and holding on to the railing as he took the stairs one at a time. “Benard, I will see you in my office.”

I had introduced myself to the cook, a lovely woman from Lafourche Parish…she volunteered that once she asked where I was from. I could call her Lila if I wished. It was only in front of the Madame (she meant Marie-Therese and not the mistress of the mansion) that we must be more formal. I had heard most of her and her family’s history, although she’d heard none of mine, by the time Madame Marie came through the kitchen door and joined us at the wrought iron table.
“That will be all, Cook,” she intoned as she sat down. “There is dinner to consider. Both the Mister and Mistress will be in tonight, so the usual number will dine in the smaller dining room. I expect Miss Mae here will be able to assist you in setting up the room. That of course meant I would. I didn’t mind. Lila had been here long enough to know if there was anything strange going on and chatty enough to tell me if I asked. As long as Madame was occupied elsewhere.
“Well, Miss Mae.” Madame poured herself a cup of tea and regarded me with no little concern. “It seems you and Benard have gotten off on the wrong foot.” The left one, I thought but kept me humor to meself. “Benard is one of the Mister’s business associates. He did not know we had hired a replacement for the last housekeeper and so was quite taken aback to see someone upstairs attempting to enter a private room.”
I was only doing me job,” I said meekly. And I’m sure he was doing his, although that was another musing I kept to myself. “And he did attack me, Madame.”
“Yes. Well I may assure you that I have spoken to him quite strongly about his actions and he is now aware of your position in the household. He sends his regrets in causing you any fright or discomfort and hopes you will forgive his rash actions.”
“Of course, Madame. I regret my own response was so extreme.” Like hell I did. I knew what he was up to.
“I do however have to repeat his caution to you. That room is locked and will remain so. There is no one in residence there at the moment. It is quite small so we—the family—use it mostly for storage. There is no need to trouble yourself with cleaning the items in there. They’re nicely covered or crated. Now. Have we an understanding?” I kept my eyes downcast as I nodded. No way could she see that her caution had made that little room the one place I needed to see.

Lila and I worked well together in preparing the dinner. She showed me what preparations need to be done, so after I had set linen and flatware for six people I returned to the spacious kitchen and began to chop the vegetables for the evening meal. There was more food prepared by the two of us then I’d seen in a week, and that included the unexpected bounty at the shelter.
“Prime rib is the family favorite,” Lila informed me as she lightly basted the main course in a mixture of herbs and spice. “They insist on no seasonings, but I cannot serve any meat without some enhancement so I make this gentle marinade and …” she smiled, “you will see how little there is left on the platter.”
The activity in the mansion increased as the dinner hour neared. Of course, I had discovered that dinner was often served later in the evening that I had been accustomed to in other places. There was an extended pre-dinner cocktail hour, complete with small but savory crackers, cheeses, and something called cruditays. These looked like vegetable sticks to me, but evidently they were meant to be dipped in a sauce and then eaten. I tried to be as invisible as possible as I moved around picking up empty glasses and plates and making sure the table which displayed the snacks never went naked. Lila was still involved with the main course and the garlic mashed potatoes which had to be “as smooth as a babe’s bottom or Mister will send them back”. Madame Marie was nowhere in sight despite her elevated position on the staff, so I was free to observe my employers. I had never met either of them; the Mister a tall dark and athletic looking man whose eyes looked out at the world through tinted glasses contrasted sharply to his Missus, petite, auburn haired (although it was too perfect to be natural), and stylish in flared pants and a floral blouse and sash. Not Celine. Each acknowledged me with a nod but afterwards looked through me rather than at me. Suited my purpose just fine since I wanted them to know I worked there but not who I really was.

My duties after dinner were simple and quickly accomplished. Each night I was to turn down the beds in the occupied rooms, make sure there was fresh water in the cut glass pitchers on the nightstands, and leave a small light burning. I helped Lila with the post-dinner clean-up and then filled a large carafe from the filtered water machine next to the mammoth refrigerator. Making sure I had a soft cloth in my pocket to erase any fingerprints which might mar the polished wood, I headed up the stairs, wondering whether I could risk another try at the locked room.
“Good evening, Miss Mae.” Benard’s voice greeted me as I reached the top of the stairs. Damn.
“Sir, are you planning to attack me again?” I managed to look wary and frightened. In reality I was annoyed. “Or are you on your way to bed? If you are, I will turn your bed down first. May I ask which room it is?” He indicated the room directly behind him and even opened the door for me. I tried to pretend he was not there as I accomplished the various items that needed attention and only gave him a brief nod as I hurried into the hallway.
“Miss Mae,” Again? I turned and raised one eyebrow at him.
“Sir?”
“I have been instructed to assure you that I meant you no real harm this afternoon.” He leaned against the door jam to his room. “I hope you know that.”
“I do,” I said. No real harm? I could feel the bruise on my shoulder. It would be purple and green by the time I got home. “And I apologize for…defending myself so harshly.”
“Just remember to avoid the room by the stairs. I would hate to have to remind you.” Without waiting for an answer, Benard turned and went into his room. As he shut the door firmly behind him, I took a deep breath. Family business associate my eye. Family thug more likely. Maybe Sylvain could enlighten me.

It was 10PM before I walked out to St. Charles and managed to catch the next streetcar heading toward the Quarter. Everything hurt, especially my shoulder and a few other muscles I hadn’t used for a while. I had questions for Sylvain, not just about Benard but about the family into whose lives I’d been dropped. Neither one of us was going to get much rest until I got some answers to help me in my search. And permission to search for more than just a missing sister.

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Fathers and Daughters

There’s so much unsaid in the definition of “father”. Whether the word is defined as “any male ancestor” or “a man who has a child”, each person fitting these broad strokes adds his own unique qualities, good or bad. We murmur “what a good father” when we see a man playing with or tending to his children. We criticize if we think a dad doesn’t pay enough attention or spend enough time with his son or daughter. We can do all this without even knowing the person involved. Why? Because we tend to judge others by the same standards our parents had for parenting, good or bad. It happens.

It’s much the same with daughters. How many times have you heard “She’s her father’s daughter” because a female child has shown characteristics, interests, and ambitions close to her dad’s rather than closer to what her mom’s goals might be? Good or bad, we make the comparison and then go our own ways never bothering to wonder if someone is saying the exact same thing about us.

Sometimes I wonder how people would characterize me. It’s Father’s Day and I’m thinking about my dad and how much I miss him. We used to talk every Sunday, him in Florida and me in my kitchen. Before cell phones. We might not talk for long, but I always felt better afterwards. I was his first child, the one that came after so many tries and sadness, and I look like him. I have no problem with that. He was quite the good looking man back in the day, and I have a picture of him in his slacks, suspenders and jaunty hat that always makes me smile.
IMG_0090

He put on some weight as he got older, seemed to shrink a little, but was forever cheerful in our presence. His parents came over from Germany (or Poland or Russia, depending on who was ruling at the time) before he was born, at the beginning of the 20th Century. He was born in 1913, the third oldest of eleven children and spent most of his time helping his family farm before leaving school at 15 to go to work in the Big City as a teller for First National Bank of Chicago.1929. I can’t remember whether the First closed its doors on black Friday, but I know my dad was working there three days afterwards so my bet is no. It was his only job and he retired at the age of 62 having worked in most areas of the bank. Monday through Friday he’d ride the old Rock Island commuter line from the station at the end of our block down to the old LaSalle Street Station and then walk the few blocks to Clark and Dearborn where the old bank building stood tall. There is no more Rock Island (Metra), no more LaSalle Street Station (Randolph Street) and First National has over the years become a different entity altogether (JP Morgan-Chase), but I remember going to visit him at work with a clarity that amazes me. It’s more than likely why, even after going to college to become a teacher of Spanish, I got a job at a bank after I got married. So did my sister once she graduated from high school. Our father’s daughters? I’ve since found out that somewhere in our ancestry banking was a family profession.

Every summer, especially in June, I think about the vacations we took. Always Wisconsin, at least when we were small, right after school let out in June, when the fish in the Northern lakes were biting. Dad was a sportsman in his younger days. We have pictures of our uncles and him pheasant hunting in the west, but after we came along he stuck to fishing. The only proof we had of his prowess with a rifle was a stuffed pheasant that perched on one of the end tables in the living room. As kids we were bored, but fishing was a way to spend time with both mom and dad so we learned early on to bait hooks and sit quietly in boats, our bamboo poles over the side, our eyes fixed on red and white bobbers. I don’t think I’ve fished since I was eighteen, but I have some good memories…even if we did end up wearing winter coats one June.
Mom might have been the disciplinarian but you didn’t want my dad to be angry with you. He didn’t have to say much to let you know how disappointed he was in you. And he didn’t forget easily either. But he did forgive, and he was as supportive as he could be when he believed you’d acted in the right way, even if it wasn’t the most popular one. He always somehow had our backs.

The autumn after my mom died I went off to college, at his insistence because education was so important to both my parents. I didn’t see him every day. And when I did come home I spent more time with my friends than with him. He was forever going to be there, right? And he was. He was there through my wedding, the birth of his only grandchild, and all the ups and downs of my life. He was as close as a 2 hour car ride. It was easy to take it for granted that he would always be that close. And then one night he called to tell me he was getting re-married. And moving to Florida. Wow.
Our stepmom loved to travel, and got my dad back in the mood as well. Two or three times a year they would hop in their car and come north to visit. They always stayed with my sister…she had more room and most of the family was still in the suburbs…but we managed a few visits coming and going. It was good to see him happy again. And during that time, he got to know my daughter as she grew up into a fantastic young woman and married a wonderful man. More memories and more trips. One or two medical issues, but never really serious. It was my stepmom who passed first, and for three years he was alone in Bartow. We still talked, but we saw each other far less. My sister finally convinced him to move back up north. He never did.
Dad lived to be 91 ½ years old. From the time we knew there was something wrong until the day he died was a period of three weeks. And we got to be there to say we love you, goodbye and god-speed. He still lives on in us though….we are proud to be our father’s daughters and granddaughter. He taught us much, and I hope I’ve passed it on.

One last thing. In October, 2013 we met at my sister and brother-in-law’s Florida home. On the 11th, we went to my dad’s favorite restaurant on the outskirts of Bartow Florida, Catfish Country. To celebrate his 100th birthday. His picture graced the table, we ate catfish, and we celebrated the man who had given us so much. Love you Dad. Always.
IMG_0092

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In the Neighborhood

neighborhood

“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood”. Who doesn’t remember Fred Rogers donning his trademark sweater and sneakers as he invited us to share his neighborhood, a blend of fact and fiction based on some of Mr. Rogers’ own experiences. Introducing us to Mr McFeeley and Daniel Tiger.
Daniel Tiger

We went to the bakery, the post office, the school, saw people doing jobs we’d never seen but just heard of, and learned that any boy and girl is capable of doing great things and having fun. Every day.
My own childhood neighborhood mixed older people, newly married couples, parents of grown up children who still lived at home (back in the day it happened more often than not), and parents of growing children who used the street for everything from riding bikes to playing tag and sledding down the hill in winter. These days I tell people I grew up in the ‘burbs…Chicago to be exact, but as a kid? Blue Island was its own city, not an extension of the Big City to the north and east…the one run by the Daley clan and cohorts. Schools, churches, a wonderful main street which ran north to the Chicago “city limits” and south to who knew where, a lovely mix of almost every European heritage.(There were rumors we even had a branch of Da Mob in our little burg.) My own block housed families with Italian names, German names, a French name or two, and Polish. We had the distinction of being a melting pot twice a day Monday through Friday as commuters parked their cars along our curbs and hurried to the commuter train station at the end of our street, an added bonus for us because my father didn’t have to go far to catch his ride to work at the old First National Bank of Chicago. And, we could take the train on school holidays to see Disney movies, go to the museums, and meet my dad for lunch in the bank’s cafeteria or go to The Forum…one of the largest buffet restaurants (although it too was considered a cafeteria back in the day) in the Windy City. We rooted for the White Sox, the Cubbies, the Bears and the Blackhawks and any other team that happened to come along bearing the first name “Chicago”. But at the end of the day we went home to our own neighborhood, tired and happy to see the green porch steps of our own little house.
People talked to each other back then more than they seem to now. As kids, my sister and I used to fidget whenever Mom stopped to chat with someone. If their own children weren’t around so we could play while the adults talked, it was downright boring. Today, a lot of us are lucky if we know the names of the people who live two doors down the block. Unless we see a moving van, we may not even know a family is moving until we notice a new car or face passing by with a wave of the hand. We wave back, but I can count the names of the people I know these days on one hand. Times change. If your children are grown and gone, there’s not a lot to share with the young couple whose kids are looking for playmates. If you work full time, it takes an extra effort to connect with the people not right next door to you. It’s possible, just not always easy. Life moves at a faster pace.
My point is not as depressing as you might think given the wistful tone of the last paragraph. I’m one of those generations who can truly remember the “good old days” when Fourth of July parades meant following the last entry to the city park for picnics and fireworks and family reunions. Not planned, just impromptu get- togethers of cousins and grandparents and pick up softball or badminton. Neighborhood block parties with music and hamburgers and Jell-o salads. Summer carnivals at the three different Catholic churches in our area complete with Italian Ice and Tilt-A-Whirls. It’s just that our neighborhoods have gotten busier and bigger. And that can be a good thing. Instead of being insulated, we’re exposed to new places and people. We can learn there is a world beyond the end of our street just by watching PBS or going to a movie. Museums are still there, many more than you’d think, just check the listing for museums in Chicago. Champaign has her own share; art, natural history, Champaign County history. You just have to know where to look. And find the time to go. It’s important that we do, y’know?
One final point and then you can have another visit with Mae, who has also ventured into a new neighborhood on her latest adventure. Neighborhoods are all around us…and summer is one of the best times to explore them. Check out your news source (online or otherwise) for what’s going on around you. Some of it is free, some of it is in your own backyard. Festivals, summer theatre, the local water park….it’s all become part of the larger neighborhood. Enjoy!

Mae

If I take the time to describe my new place of work to you it’s only because you need to know the lap of luxury into which my feet walked that morning. Shining white in the mid-morning sun, two stories with a wide porch, windows from floor to ceiling on one side of the bright green door—I found out later that people used to enter and leave through these windows rather than use the formality of the front door—that led to the first parlor. Wrought iron fence restraining the glorious colors of the flower bushes and a live oak planted centuries ago showing its bones after the autumn leaves had dried and dropped to its roots. Ebony shutters—for protection from the hurricanes I was told but so ornate they served as decorations for the house itself. On the opposite side of the house from the small gate I was told to enter was a gated drive with two fancy cars parked on concrete that reached the length of the house.
I opened the small gate and walked slowly down the stone walk leading to the rear of the house, watching my steps and inhaling the fragrance of the trees that somehow still held their blossoms. Taking a deep breath, I pulled the ornate chain that hung to the side of a plain wooden door and waited. I glanced quickly to either side and got a quick glimpse of what looked like a small landscaped pond before the door opened and my work began.
“Good mornin’ to ya,” I said in me best Scots burr. “Me name is Mae McFarland, and I’m your new housekeeper.”
“We’ll see about that. Bring yourself inside. Wipe your feet. And I will be needing those papers from the agency that sent you” The woman’s tone implied there was no way in Hades I’d be in her domain any longer than it took to scan through the folder I produced from my bag and handed into the talon-like fingers of her right hand. “My name is Marie-Therese Bienville. Madame or Miss Marie to you. If you stay.” Oh I was staying. Madame indeed. I bit the inside of me cheek to keep me from telling her though. Sylvain was depending on me to at least find his sister and I couldn’t do that from street. She flipped through the papers so quickly I figured I’d be out the door through no fault of my own and then stopped.
“It says here you spent several years as head housekeeper for…really? The de Villiers of Lafayette? You don’t seem the type to…”
“Madame Marie,” I interrupted, “pardon my boldness, but Mrs. Rebecca would be the first to tell you that my looks and demeanor are far surpassed by my abilities and efficiency. Their home was,” and I paused a bit for effect, “far more ornate than this one, as lovely as it is and I had only one maid to help me most days. I’m sure you must have heard of the many parties and functions necessary to their social status.” I threw her a bone. “And I know your employers were probably guests there more than once during my employ.” I smiled my best smile and waited.
“Of course.” I could sense the indignation coursing through her stick-thin form at any suggestion otherwise. Even the tight chignon at the nape of her long neck quivered. “So. Mae…”
“Mrs. Roberta called me Miss Mae, if that meets with your approval,” I said.
“As you wish. As I was going to say, we have several rooms which have not been tended to since our last housekeeper departed. They were to be your audition. Standard protocol for employment here. However, with your references, I’m sure there is no problem. When are you available?” Her attempt at politeness was accompanied by a smile, although it looked more like a grimace. Her right foot betrayed her impatience as it tapped briskly on the parquet floor.
“If I may look around the rooms I’m to tend, I can decide which supplies I’ll be needing.” I held up a hand to stop her protest. “Mrs. Rebecca favored certain items for fine wood and such and I’m sure you wouldn’t question her taste.”
“Of course,” she said again, her tone flat. “We can tour the house now if you like.” Her jaws clenched, she led me through the mud room, the ultra-modern kitchen, all steel and glass, and into the dining room, walls deep red with brass sconces and wall hangings so heavy I knew one could crush me with no trouble. A heavy oak table reigned in the middle of the long room, chairs pushed against it in precise order. “We hire someone to clean the tapestries,” she informed me. “Here and in the parlor. Not for you to worry about.”
The rest of the house was explained in much the same fashion although there were two rooms near the rear of the first floor that were “not to be entered without permission” as they were the Mister’s offices. Piqued my curiosity with that, she did. I made a note in my brain to ask Sylvain whether I should try and again access. The second floor was “family” and “guest” quarters. Here I was to arrange times with the occupants as to when was most convenient to tidy their rooms. Odd, I thought, but then it might give me a chance to chat with each person and get additional information. Especially about Celine. No restrictions on entry according to Madame, and no small ones or nanny mentioned. I would have expected something if there was a woman being held here against her will. Another concern for Sylvain I decided.
“…And your room of course will be on the third floor,” was the sentence that brought me out of my musings. Stay here? No. And no. I must have frowned at that, so quick was her reaction. “You knew of course that the housekeeper resides here?”
“That was not mentioned to me, Madame. Had it been, I would not have come. At the de Villiers I was there from late morning until after the children had gone to bed, but I had my own small apartment. Not the ordinary situation, I know, but….”
“And not acceptable.”
“I have an invalid brother, Madame Marie.” Drum was not well, that was true. “We can afford daycare for his needs, one of the reasons I work of course, but I’m the only one who can tend to him at night. “ And I have to be able to report to Sylvain as well. Not easy if I was trapped on the third floor of a busy house. “If this is not acceptable, as you say, I give you my sincere regrets. Mrs. Rebecca…”
“Be here at 9AM tomorrow morning, Miss Mae.”
“If you’re sure.”
“I will clear this with the Missus and will have a decision for you then.”

I left the mansion the way I’d come in, making sure not to look back to see if Marie-Therese was watching. I knew she was. That last about not being a live-in housekeeper was a departure from the plan, but I wasn’t about to leave Drummond on his own for who knows how long, even if Sylvain promised to watch him like a hawk. New digs or not, Drummond had his ways of disappearing on me, and I knew him. Sylvain had no idea.

“You what?” I’d expected my partner in crime to explode when I mentioned the change in arrangements to him. He and Drum had met me at the church and walked me down to our crib; an abandoned two story building not that far from the shed I’d been in not long before. My trunk and Drum’s duffel were near a long scarred wooden table, an electrical outlet nearby so we could plug in the hot plate I carried with us. Old cabinets lined one wall, high enough off the planked floor to keep the creepy crawlers away. The far wall was split by tall windows overlooking the railroad tracks which skirted the narrow strip of land at the banks of the Mississippi. There was sun, but indirect, and each window wore a faded cloth shade with a long pull string. We could shut out the night or the day whenever we wanted. I thanked Sylvain for the rooms and then dropped my bombshell. His smile vanished, his face clouded in dismay. “That was not what we agreed, Mae.”

“I don’t recall me being apart from me brother any part of this arrangement, Mr. Lionel,” I said. “Especially when it takes 20 minutes on the streetcar and a good walk to get to him if need be. It’s my way on this, Sylvain. Family trumps all.”

I’ll give the man credit. The last sentence caught him in the gut. I could tell, but he didn’t do more than simply nod his head. I gave him a minute to digest my speech and then set about unpacking. “I see your point, Mae,” he finally muttered. “I don’t like it, but I see it. And you’re right. But it cuts your chances of locating Celine.” He perched on the edge of the table and watched me work. “If you’re only there during the day, I mean.”

“I see it a bit different. Even with entertaining, and from some of the dust I see in the parlor there’s not much socializing right now, I’m not off duty until after dinner. Marie-Therese wants her twelve hour day, so I start at 9 and end at 9. From what I noticed today, the house is bigger than they need. No children’s toys or any need for the number of bedrooms on that second floor except for guests. Once I’m there, I believe Marie-Therese will disappear, either into an office or out the door. She seemed edgy enough to have been cooped up doing the housekeeper’s job for long enough. My bet is once she sees I know my job she’ll make herself scarce. Since my job is to clean, my best chance to find out whether Celine is even in the house is when I do the bedrooms. Any jewelry or other something that she wouldn’t ever leave behind? And a likeness would be nice.”
“I don’t keep pictures on me, Mae. Just in case.” In case what he didn’t say, but it added to the mystery I’d felt in this man from the get-go. A friend of Morales’ maybe, but not too anxious to share more. “But Celine always took pride in her hair. Kept it in one of those twisty arrangements that take a week to do. Dark dark hair. Not black but so close. The one thing I know she would have with her is an old locket with a small picture of our grandmother. Celine was named after her. If she’s not wearing it, it would be on her bed stand. You’ll know it because it’s a rectangle rather than round or heart shaped. And she’s tiny. Petite. But she wears these ridiculous heels.” Sylvain smiled at that. “I used to tease her about being able to cross the River without getting her hem wet.” Then he sighed. “We have to find her, Mae. Before something goes more wrong than it already is.”

“I’ll do what I can, but you need to promise not to press me. And to keep an eye on Drummond. Maybe he can spend time with Artie and his friends and get some work done around the church. Kind of pay back for our food and shelter there.”
“Done.”
“All right. Then get yourself out of here so Drum and I can get settled in. I’ll need some supplies for cleaning…I mentioned that my previous employer had certain pricey preferences…and maybe another set of clothes or two. Who knows how much dirt I’ll find?”

And so the next morning, precisely at 9AM, I was back at the mansion. Evidently my prior employment had been enough to induce the Missus to allow me to do my job and leave when the job was done. Bless the de Villiers for their social status. Now to set my own schedule. I waited until Marie-Therese had given me the news and then gave her some news of my own.

“Please thank the Missus for me for being kind enough to allow me to commute. Now as to my schedule for cleaning…”
“What schedule? “
“Surely each room does not need cleaning every day, Madame Marie. Of course I will make exceptions when there is entertaining on the calendar, but I believe the rooms not in use on a daily basis can be tended to every few days. The bedrooms however…”
“What about the bedrooms?” I could hear a tinge of suspicion in her tone.
“Every morning and early afternoon, depending on the sleep habits of the occupant, it has been my habit to not only make the beds but check to make sure there are no stains or soil on the bedding or the floors. Mrs. Rebecca was quite particular about that. Each member of the family got fresh linen twice a week, both in the bedroom and in the bath. I simply assumed that was the case here as well.”
“Well, it hasn’t been necessary for….”
“I’m not referring to rooms not being used at the moment, Madame. But when guests come those rooms will be freshened as well. Don’t you agree?” I reminded myself not to have too much fun with this, but I admit to relishing the discomfort on her narrow face.

“Oh yes, of course. But the Missus…”
“…deserves a well-run and spotlessly clean house,” I finished for her. “Now I have my supplies with me, so if it meets with your say so, I’d like to begin with the master bedroom. Would you show me the rooms again?”

“You remember that the offices on the first floor are not to be cleaned without permission, do you not?”
“So you said yesterday. But they are cleaned occasionally?” In case I need an excuse to get in there. If Celine wasn’t here, it might be my next move.
“Yes. The Mister lets me know, and I pass on the information and the key to you on the day he designates. The third floor is now off limits. Since you are not staying here, there is no need to concern yourself with that level.” Which meant that I would of course concern myself.
The second tour complete, I assured Madame I would let her know when I was done so she could inspect my work and then ignored her. After watching me strip the monster of a bed in the master bedroom, she excused herself and went down the stairs, heels clicking on the polished wooden steps. I took a deep breath and walked across the carpet to the doorway. I needed a cuppa but that was out of the question. I took note of the scattered area rugs that dotted the hallway. Useful if I wanted to cross from one side to the other without making noise, which I did several times as I opened the door of each room to see if it had been occupied. If it had, I cleaned it, changing the sheets as I went. Madame had pointed out the linen closet to me of course, with sheets coordinated to the room colors. Wasteful, I decided. Drum and me, well… I squashed the thought and kept on going until I reached the last room; the one located near the back stairs. I turned the knob with no luck. Locked. The clatter of steps on the stairway alerted me, but it wasn’t Marie-Therese who appeared, but a man in a well tailored suit and patent loafers. His shaved head and the frown on his face reassured me not one bit. As I stepped back from the door, he reached me and grabbed my shoulder.
“That room is off limits. And who the hell are you?” Before I could open my mouth, he pushed me toward the staircase.

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