On the Importance of Toasters

An excerpt from

 

Paula and Iris are drinking ‘coffee’ in the office kitchen.

“We’re giving them a toaster”, Paula says.

Iris spins away, spilling her vanilla mint cappuccino.

“What?” Paula asks.

Iris turns back, tears in her eyes, unable to speak.

“What is it?” Paula asks.

Iris breathes deeply, shakes her head, then breathes deeply again.

“I'm sorry. It's just that. I’ve often thought that. If Stan and I had had the right toaster, our marriage might have been saved.”

Paula moves closer.

“What makes you think that?”

Iris wipes her eyes.

“Stan used to get up in the middle of the night and make toast. The toaster we had would leave crumbs on the counter and he would never clean them up. So every morning for seven years, I would get up and clean up the crumbs on the counter. And every morning I would complain about the crumbs, and we’d start to fight and finally he left.”

Paula sighs.

“Did he take the toaster?”

Iris shakes her head.

“I gave it away. Too many memories.”

Paula sits back. She entwines her middle finger around a cheese doodle. Tiny doodle grains fall to her palm, forming images on her hand, pictographs in an incomprehensible junk food idiom. Possibly a ring. Or a circus. Or an octopus. She gazes at the inscrutable figures, wondering at their meaning. Doodle grains. Toast crumbs. There is a significance, a serendipitous collusion of metaphor, that she can’t quite grasp. She knows a marriage depends on it. But whose?

“We gave you that toaster, didn’t we?” she says finally.

Iris rallies, and comforts Paula.

“I don’t blame you,” Iris says. “If it hadn’t been the toaster, it would have been some other appliance.”

Paula and Iris hug. The other employees in the kitchen leave silently and quickly.

“I'm so sorry,” Paula says. “We didn't know.”

Iris sighs.

“Neither did we,” she says. “Neither did we.”

 

Copyright

© Copyright Stephen Evans © 2017 All Rights Reserved.

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Friends

I don’t know how my mother came to choose the little blue house at 7 Bowie Court. But in choosing it, she changed her life, and the lives of her children.

From 1957 to 1967, we lived in that house. The Copelands were next door at 5 Bowie Court. And unlike the other houses in the court, our front doors faced each other. That access and proximity facilitated a friendship between my mother and Mrs. Copeland that lasted almost 60 years, a relationship that continued and even grew in closeness after we moved across town. As I grew up, and after, they taught me what friendship meant.

Somehow, despite (or because of?) raising seven boys between them, they seemed constant companions. This included 20 plus years or so swimming in the mornings at the Rockville Pool and 35 years of Meals in Wheels (my Mom driving, Mrs. Copeland delivering).

My mother (on the left in the photo) loved to drive and Mrs. Copeland loved to explore, and they took countless trips together, usually just afternoon drives out into the country (there was country then) or up to Westminster for tea. One very special trip they both talked about for years after: down to Asheville North Carolina and over the mountains to Gatlinburg Tennessee. It was one of the things that my mother remembered longest.

Mrs. Copeland (I never could call her Ann) loved music and the arts, and had a fine soprano voice. She would frequently accompany my parents to my performances in Annapolis or elsewhere, and was well known to my performing friends. She had a discerning ear, but was effusive with her praise. When I turned to writing, she was just as supportive. And with her generous heart and love of arts and beauty, she was a continuing inspiration.

After Mom died, Mrs. Copeland would continue to call us, always apologizing for not calling sooner, asking how we were, deflecting our questions about her health, encouraging me to write, and always with the spirit and warmth and humor we had known all our lives. We have now lost a cherished presence, and a link to our past. But for me, the memory and lessons of their friendship will not fade before I do.

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Is a Friend in Need Still a Friend in Joy?

“A friend in need is a friend indeed.”  We all know that one.  That a true friend stands by you during adversity, is an accepted, unquestioned assumption in, I dare say, all cultures.  Does the same friendship remain unshaken during your times of triumph?

I hold the strong belief that the overwhelming majority of humans is kind.  In my experience, if you trip and fall over in the street, strangers will rush to pick you up, ask if you are hurt, and offer help (and a cup of tea, if you are in England).  If you're ill, friends and neighbours will rally in a spontaneous support group that restores faith in humanity even in a misanthropic cynic like myself.  Time and again, when friends have found out that I had been through a difficult time, their reaction has been, “Why on earth didn’t you tell me? I would have come ‘round immediately.”  True, not everyone will help you beyond the limits of his/her convenience.  However, many, many people are willing to put themselves out to help you, if you are in any kind of distress.  The sight of another person’s trouble triggers a rescuing response in us, which bypasses cerebral calculation.  We act on impulse.

What about our spontaneous reaction to someone else’s joy or success?

Personally, I consider myself very lucky, in that I can think of a number of people I feel I can turn to if I need help.  Then, something wonderful happens to me – be it a triumph or a stroke of luck – and the number of people with whom I feel comfortable sharing the happy news, suddenly shrinks.

You may find that odd.

My hesitation originates in part from tact, in part from superstition, but mostly from experience.  I don't really want to show off my good news to a friend who is going through a difficult time.  I fear he or she may feel left out, and resent the apparently unfair contrast between our states of mind and positions at that moment.  Superstition is another reason.  Of course, officially, I am not superstitious.  I don't want to be superstitious any more than I want to be afraid.  However, the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern elements in  my upbringing are deeply rooted in my psyche.  If someone compliments you for having a beautiful child, you quickly pinch the child, or make spitting sounds.  You tell the person that your child is a bit naughty.  If a guest admires an ornament in your home, you immediately give it to him or her.  Hospitality, yes – but, also, you want them to take away the thing they may have left their evil eye on.  The green eye of envy.  In Han Suyin’s marvelous novel A Many-Splendoured Thing, the Eurasian narrator explains to her British lover that, in China, when you had abundant crop, you would wring your hands, shake your head and cry, “Bad rice, bad rice”, lest the gods got envious of your good fortune and decided to blight it.

Blight.  A word I heard during the Q & A part of a day for aspiring writers, held by agents Curtis Brown, in Foyles bookshop, in London, back in 2012.  Novelist Salley Vickers was on the panel.  People were discussing the importance of feedback whilst writing a novel.  Feedback from friends, from family, from fellow writers.  Taking criticism on board or not, and when.  Salley Vickers told us that – possibly because she is a trained psychoanalyst – while teaching creative writing courses, she notices frequent “blighting”.  People sometimes give negative feedback because they are envious, she said.  I wanted to cheer her.

We are brought up to accept negative criticism with humility, and the assumption that it is given appropriately and for our own good.  If we reject it, we are told that we are either arrogant or do not want “to hear the truth.”  I think, instinctively, we know when negative criticism comes from a generous heart, or if it is tainted with the bitterness of envy.  We just need to trust our gut feeling.

When I started my blog, in February 2011, relatively few of my friends read it.  Some said they had no time to read blogs, others, that it was “pointless writing for no money”, and one, that “nobody reads blogs, anyway”.  The same people were there for me, when I needed help, so I can't call them unkind.

How often have you told friends about a plan close to your heart, and had a reaction along the lines of, “be careful, don’t get your hopes up” or “I know someone who tried, and it went horribly wrong”?

A few years ago, one of my posts, The Delight of Hand Writing got over 4,000 views in twenty-four hours.  I told a few friends.  Some rushed with congratulations and expressions of joy for my success.  Many remained silent.  When, a couple of weeks later, I was complaining to a friend about a minor mishap in my life, she quickly said, “Well, after all that high over your blog, last week, you were bound to come down, sooner or later.”

Her remark slashed me, like a paper cut.  Yet she's a truly wonderful person and I know I can count on her, if I am ever in any distress.

Friends offer genuine sympathy and support when you are weeping over a man/woman.  Tell them – walking on air and your eyes all sparkling – that you have just met someone new and there will be one or two who will say, “s/he’s probably married” or “s/he’s probably nice to you because s/he needs your help”.  Crash.

When I got divorced, in 2000, a friend eagerly invited me out to dinner to “take me out of myself”.  Within a few minutes, she remarked that I looked well and not half as upset as she thought I would be.  I thought I sensed a shade of disappointment in her voice, but discarded it.  A little later in the evening, she said, “I don’t know why I bothered taking you out to dinner.  You’re not upset at all.”

No.  She was not joking.

And then there's the old favourite.  Tell friends about something brilliant that you are doing, and someone is bound to exclaim, “You lucky thing! I wish I...” A slight scratch.  Almost unnoticeable.

Is it a need to feel needed? Resentment at not being needed? Is there comfort in a session of mutual comforting and listing of problems? Does it feel safer to know someone who has problems worse than yours? Or is it something else, which I cannot yet fathom?

I suspect I might get a wave of comments from people protesting that they are always happy for their friends’ successes, and that they have friends who rejoice in their achievements.  If so, I am truly happy for you.  I can only share my experience on this point.  An experience which makes me more inclined to reach out for help to those precious friends of mine who are unreservedly happy for me when I get a lucky break.  I do not know why.  Just a gut feeling.

Scribe Doll

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Sumathi Mohan

We are friends on the net since 2008 but had never met face to face, though we are living in the same country but 1200 km far from each other. I in-boxed ‘Sumathi Mohan’ my old-time redroom.com writer friend about our visit to her city. To my dismay, she told me that she has been shifted to the other southern city with her husband since couple of years. But my disappointment transferred in to delight when I learned that at the same time she is supposed to come there to visit her son.

‘I will be glad if we can meet.’ She told me on the phone.’

 ‘We will meet for the sure.’ I replied, though I was not knowing if it would be possible in such a tight schedule of my five day tour.

To my shock, I learned at the ending part of my tour that she arrived in the city, but had a small accident resulting a fracture in the thumb. ‘Doctor says it will only be possible to fix it after the swelling goes away.’ She sounded pained and disappointed over the phone.

 ‘We must meet her,’ my wife said ‘you never know when you will get a chance again to meet her.’ To give a try I decided to meet her during the last four hours before my return flight. There was a heavy weekday traffic in the pick-time morning hours. After a couple of call exchanges to get true directions we reached at her son’s apartment.

‘Listen carefully, Sir, come back in 45 minutes or you will miss your flight, airport is 36 km from here.’ Cab driver warned us. I nodded to him in an affirmation.

We went upstairs by lift. As soon as I stepped onto the balcony she hurriedly emerged from the door to welcome us. She was smaller in height than I imagined. We hugged each other, there was the warmth of sisterly love in her hug. She hugged my wife and daughter too. We went inside and she introduced us with her son, and would be daughter in law. She looked stressed and fragile, but her face was glowing with high intellect and confidence. As a doctor I couldn’t resist myself by examining her thumb. I also checked X-ray which clearly showed a detached fracture of the first phalanx of the thumb. Her doctor planned to give her a flexible plaster after two days. I knew she was in pain, but was helpless to help her.

'Had it not been for my broken thumb I would have cooked a delicious south Indian dish for all of you.' She regretted. 'Don't feel sorry, meeting you is more valued to us.'I tried to console her.

We talked over a coffee, mainly about our redroom time, about her published book and about the progress of my novel. Time was slipping like a water of the fast flowing river. We took photographs. Exchanging multiple thoughts in so little time was impossible, but we tried to do our best possible. Her son and daughter in law were very generous and loving. I gathered that she is a brave lady living her life on her own, a loving wife and caring mother. While leaving, she came downwards up to the cab to say good-bye forgetting the pain. She shook our hands through the window of the car for the last time, a gesture only a loving friend can display. I am feeling proud meeting her, knowing her, having her as a friend. Thank you Sumathi for allowing us to be in your life to cherish those valuable moments. I wish you a fast recovery, health and happiness.

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Copyright

© Jitu Rajgor

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