The Estate Sale by Bernie Brown

Ella wanted to be a blithe spirit, a la Noel Coward, but she couldn’t rest, join her beloved, and escape this limbo existence until her three most precious treasures found happy new homes. That was why she was hanging out at her own estate sale watching people buy her belongings.

The moment the estate agent unlocked the door, the bargain-hunting crowd hurried in. A short, pear-shaped woman made a bee line for Ella’s gold-spangled evening jacket, the one she wore at the Berlin Pediatrician’s conference. That’s where she met Johan, with whom she had a fling lasting several months and involving a trip to Bavaria, a cruise on the Rhine, and some jaunts to remote Alpine villages.

The woman slipped on the jacket, running her hands admiringly over the spangles. She beamed a smile as bright as the spangles, twirled around, stopped and said “I just love it,” to no one in particular. The jacket’s dramatic line needed someone more statuesque to do it justice, but it so clearly brought the woman joy that Ella wanted her to have it.

This was going to be easy. The jacket had already found a happy home only minutes after the sale began. Next up, the needlepoint pillow Archer, another fling, bought her at the London conference.

A man over six feet tall examined the pillow with its elaborate floral pattern and the saying “You can never be too rich or too thin” in filigree script. A flawlessly tailored jacket on his long, lean frame and Italian leather shoes on his elegant feet proved he had both the financial resources and the body type to appreciate the pillow’s message. He smiled at the man with him, a shorter, more muscular fellow, and Ella guessed they were a couple. She hadn’t considered a man owning the pillow, but this man was the perfect match. At this rate, she’d be on her way by dinnertime.

Two blonde, giggling twenty somethings were leaving with the pink leather Gucci bag and the embroidered satin evening clutch from Milan. Ella wasn’t as emotionally attached to those bags, but it pleased her to know they would have a fun life.

Ella sighed in satisfaction. This was going well. Her career as a pediatrician, her life of travel, her carefully chosen belongings, all had brought her pleasure. Each held a memory. But now, she wanted others to enjoy them, to find life the joyous adventure she had found it. So far. So good.

There was still the painting. When the right person claimed the painting, Ella could go. She could leave everything else to fate, but the painting must go to someone very special.

It was called “The Doctor.” In the scene, a doctor sat next to a bed in which a sick child lay. Light splashed on him as he sat, chin in hands, studying the child. The distraught mother prayed at a dark table in the background, her head down. In the shadows, the father hovered, haunted and bereft. Darkness nearly filled the room, except for around the doctor and an arched window. Through the window, sunlight spilled onto the green plants on the sill. The light in these two places meant hope to Ella, hope that the doctor would find a cure and hope that the child would thrive like the plants.

The painting was her most treasured possession because it not only featured her profession, a doctor of children; but the man who had given it to her, Clark, had been the love of her life. The others she’d dated like Johan and Archer, they’d been fun—lots of fun—but Clark had been much more. Although Ella had never married, never wanted to, Clark changed her mind.

They were both in their fifties when they met. That was the year the conference was in New York. As they got to know each other, they made repeated trips upstate to country inns, ski resorts, and antique shops. When they saw the painting in a Rhinebeck shop, they simultaneously knew they had to have it. Both of them had been in the doctor’s position, calling up all their skill, knowledge, and experience to help a sick little one and relieve the anguished parents.

And then Ella had lost Clark, lost him before they could get married. A heart attack took him away with cruel speed. After that, she had withdrawn, no more fancy trips abroad, no more designer clothes. She spent her extra time volunteering in free clinics.

And now she had a second chance to be with Clark, not the way they had planned, but together again, all the same. But Ella couldn’t complete that journey until the painting was held by deserving hands.

A couple stood in front of the painting. “The frame is perfect. We could just cut out the picture. It’s so depressing, anyway,” a gum-chewing man said to the overly-bleached blonde woman with lipstick on her teeth.

The idea appalled Ella. Nothing doing. Cut out the picture, indeed. Ella whipped between the couple and the painting and hissed. “Ssssssss. Ssssssss.” They backed away, their eyes wide and searching, probably for a snake. She hissed again, longer, more fiercely. Ssssssssssssst. They nearly stumbled over each other trying to leave the room. Ella dogged them until they were gone. Sss.Sss. Sss.

She had better stay right here on guard if lowlifes like that were around.

Several people stopped, studied the painting, murmured appreciative sounds, and then moved on.

Two middle-aged women looked interested. One carried a tote bag with “Support Community Theater” emblazoned on it. “This would be great for the set,” she said. “It casts just the right dark mood.” So, they meant to use it on a set for a play. Not exactly purgatory, but not exactly personal. What happened when the play was over? Would it be stashed and forgotten in some storeroom?

Ella considered this prospect less odious than the previous customers, but still not a desirable destiny for her precious painting. No, it just wouldn’t do. As much as she had enjoyed the theater in life, it was not the right home for “The Doctor.”

She didn’t want to frighten these well-meaning women, but she had to discourage them.

She could tickle them, but tickling wasn’t severe enough. She could scratch them, but she didn’t want to hurt them. She had one more idea, which she really hesitated to carry out. It just wasn’t her style. Still, the painting was at stake.

As the women studied the painting and reached into their purses, Ella farted.

Not one of those super nasty, wave-your-hand-in-front-of-your-nose farts, more like a baby’s toot. Being polite women, they ignored the smell, probably assigning it each to the other. They showed no signs of discouragement about their purchase. Ella realized she would have to be more dramatic.

In the most indelicate way, she let one rip, its odor permeating the corner where the painting hung. The first woman leaned in closely and sniffed the painting.

Just to be safe, Ella again passed gas worthy of a farm animal, and the baffled woman drew back.

The tote bag carrying one said, “Maybe the paint has spoiled or something, or it has been stored someplace inappropriate.”

Her friend, less tactful, said, “Face it, Evelyn. It stinks to high heaven. It smells like a port-a-potty at a construction site. We aren’t wasting our meager budget on something like that. The actors wouldn’t appreciate it.” And they moved on.

Ella watched them go, wishing them well.

The afternoon wore on, and the crowd thinned out. Lots of merchandise had marched out the door with customers, but her precious painting still hung, lonely and alone in its corner.

Ella second guessed herself. Maybe she should have let the theater ladies buy it. At least it wouldn’t be ripped apart.

The estate agent started consolidating the remaining merchandise. Ella realized Clark would have to wait. She couldn’t complete her journey yet.

The door flew open and crisp fall air preceded a tall, thin bespectacled woman, and a short, round bald man came. Their presence, chatter, and laughter enlivened the room.

Ella perked up. She liked the looks of them. Academics, maybe.

They looked around, picking up a Venetian glass bowl and admiring how the light shone through it. Ella watched anxiously. Would they look at the painting?

Just then the estate agent removed “The Doctor” from its hanging spot and carried it across the couple’s line of vision.

“Wait,” the man said.

The estate agent stopped, smiled, and held up the painting for them to see better. “It’s wonderful, isn’t it? I thought of buying it myself,” she said.

The wife said, “It’s more than wonderful. It’s a chapter in our lives.”

“What do you mean?” the agent asked.

The husband offered, “Our daughter was critically ill with meningitis when she was six. She wasn’t expected to live, but she did.” He stopped to wipe away a tear, and his wife opened her purse and handed him a tissue. He went on. “Thanks to brilliant doctors, she pulled through, and grew up well and healthy. We have just come from visiting her and our granddaughter.”

By now, the estate agent was sniffling and getting misty, too. “Here, take it. It’s yours.” She thrust it at them.

“No, no that wouldn’t be right,” the wife said with a gentle laugh.

“Well, then, I’ll reduce the price.”

They agreed on the price and talked some more, but Ella was no longer listening. Blithe at last, she took one backward glance from the doorway at the remains of her life, and fulfillment flooded through her. It was time to go. Clark was waiting.

About the Author: Bernie Brown

I live in Raleigh, NC where I write, read, and watch birds. My stories have appeared in several magazines, most recently Better After 50, Modern Creative Life, Indiana Voice Journal, and Watching Backyard Birds. My story “The Same Old Casserole” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Modern Creative Life. I am a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center, which is the perfect spot to work on my novel-in-progress.

Instrumental: That’s What Friends Are For by Bernie Brown

You can find them online. You can find them offline. In the grocery store. Or living next door.  In a singing club, or a quilting class, or a PTA meeting.

I’m talking about friends. The places they are found are as varied as the friends themselves, who differ in size, color, and adornment like sea shells on the beach. Different as they are, they all have qualities that make you cherish them and grow a little larger in their company.

Friends make you laugh. They may be great joke tellers, chances are they aren’t, but you both see the world through the same crazy pair of glasses. You both thought feng shui was a kind of sushi. And neither of you really get The Onion. You can admit you have liked Barry Manilow all along, and though they might not share your taste, they still like uncool you.

When success comes to you in small or large ways – you lost three pounds or your story won a writing contest—a friend cheers you on. And their good fortune doesn’t diminish yours. With a friend, joy is doubled, and troubles are halved.

They’ve seen you cry and put their arms around you while you dampened the shoulder of their brand new designer sweater. They don’t try to fix whatever is bringing on the water works, they don’t even have to understand why the bad thing is so bad. They are sad because you are. They don’t tell you to “get over it,” they just hang around until you feel better.

Griping! Venting! Sounding off! A friend will let you curse your boss, the government, the traffic. They will let you say the F word and make your ugliest face. And agree, agree, agree. The jerk! The collective stupidity! Insane drivers rule the roadways. They don’t try to get you to see reason.

You can tell a friend your dreams—a year in Paris or visit to the space station— and they won’t laugh at you. You can tell them your most unreasonable fears, and they will tell you theirs.

But sadly, sometimes friendships wither away. There is no animosity,  you just grow in different directions. She wants to run for political office, you want to train to be a yoga instructor. Calls and lunches become less frequent and after awhile, yoga classes fill your days and you’ve made a host of new buds.

At sadder times, a friendship goes bad. You realize this person is trying to hold you back, to undermine your goals. They don’t have your best interests at heart. Worse still, they make you feel bad about yourself with barely concealed remarks, “Oh, you’ll probably never go back to school. It’s just a passing whim. You’d be older than all the others, anyway.” When going back for your master’s is a dream you have always had.

Or you may feel this person is manipulating you. She joins a committee at school and then somehow you find yourself going along because she “needs a friend” and you really, truly hate committee work.

Some friendships just never get off the ground because you discover early on you aren’t going to click. The person is a whiner and whining gets old fast. Or they are a hypochondriac and bring you down. Or they constantly reschedule, throwing your calendar in an uproar and you begin to know they can’t be counted on. Save yourself further pain, and don’t encourage more contact.

But more times than not when you find yourself sitting over coffee, hot chocolate, or a glass of wine, and three hours have passed laughing, confiding, and setting straight the world, and you still have more to say, you are with a friend. You may have to go home and do laundry, but the laughs keep you smiling while you fold towels, the confidences have lightened your secret burdens, and the discussion has broadened your understanding of the world and yourself.

After all, that’s what friends are for.

About the Author: Bernie Brown

I live in Raleigh, NC where I write, read, and watch birds. My stories have appeared in several magazines, most recently Better After 50, Modern Creative Life, Indiana Voice Journal, and Watching Backyard Birds. My story “The Same Old Casserole” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Modern Creative Life. I am a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center, which is the perfect spot to work on my novel-in-progress. .

Red Galoshes by Bernie Brown

It all started with a pair of red galoshes I got for Christmas. I wanted them for backyard work, planting begonias, and feeding bluebirds and their friends. North Carolina is home to copper heads and other nasty creatures, and I didn’t want to step on any surprises and die of a fright-induced heart attack while feeding and planting.

Above the small bank that defines our little yard lies a bit of woods, just the right size to call a woods, but not big enough to get lost in. Although our subdivision lies smack in the middle of a bustling suburban area with traffic noise, it is a peaceful harbor with an arch of magnolias shading its main street.

Back in the woods, you’d think you’d landed in Sherwood Forest, and Robin Hood himself might tip his hat to you.

I have often ventured a little way back in the woods to toss a handful of weeds or empty a pot of dirt. Until the appearance of the red galoshes, I had never explored any further. But when January produced a gleaming snowfall, the woods called to me. I donned my bright boots and fuzzy hat to learn what they had to say.

I traipsed. I tromped. I tramped. It was not at all like a straightforward walk on the sidewalk. Low spots hidden by leaves and snow surprised my feet. Thorny vines grabbed my legs. Trees standing tall and straight, or small and bent, invited me to study them, to stare at the blue sky through their branches. Twining together, they made artistic arrangements.

One big tree, perhaps having been trimmed by a woodman, had a thick elbow of a trunk, a perfect forty five degree angle. Other small, brave, green shoots peeked out of the crystal snow. The white ground glowed, throwing back the sun’s light. Squirrels scurried out of my way. Fallen trees made handy benches where I sat and let the crisp beauty soak in.

Since that snowy first visit, I have returned to the woods often. I wander back and forth with no real goal in mind. I retrace my steps, stop and look at the sky, the way the sun shines through the trees. The sights are new every time. Though I may have passed a certain clump of trees before, they don’t look the same from a different angle or at a different time of day.

I still find satisfaction in clocking distance as I take more deliberate paths on neighborhood sidewalks. But now, as I grow older, I want to know the freedom of not measuring, of not knowing how many steps I walk or how much distance I cover. Letting go of these measurements is difficult. I use them as measures of my self-worth, my discipline, my productivity. And when those are the things I hunger to know, they satisfy. The account keeping is good for my body.

Walks in the woods are good for my spirit. They teach me to do a thing for the sheer pleasure of doing it, for each step, each glimpse of the sky, each time peace floods through me at the vertical pattern of trees against the horizon.

Warm weather arrives early in North Carolina, and with it, those nasties I mentioned earlier. The threat of snakes may keep me out of the woods come summer. That is something I will have to learn about myself and the woods. But I do wonder what small growth I would find there in growing season. What wildflowers? What birds making homes for their young families? Will the thorny bushes and higher undergrowth make walking too troublesome even for my red galoshes?

I won’t spoil the experience by turning it into a challenge.

Challenges strike me as “un-Zen,” though I confess to not knowing what Zen really is. In the meantime, my flowers and the backyard birds will feed my spirit, too. When I care for them, I will look out through the woods and appreciate how summer’s light dapples the trees, how the riotous undergrowth and leaf-decked trees soften the scene, and how the extravagant green makes me smile and fills me with unreasonable happiness. Come fall, I’ll pull on my galoshes, fasten their buckles, and they will take me exploring the woods’ secrets all over again.

About the Author: Bernie Brown

I live in Raleigh, NC where I write, read, and watch birds. My stories have appeared in several magazines, most recently Better After 50, Modern Creative Life, Indiana Voice Journal, and Watching Backyard Birds. I am a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center, which is the perfect spot to work on my novel-in-progress. My short story, Same Old Casserole, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Birthing at Hitchcock House by Bernie Brown

Ezra turned and reached for Orelia, who was doubled over in pain. “Come on, baby, I’m here. House is just up there. See the lights in the windows.” They scrambled up the bank, and the small boat paddled away, making its way through the icing creek. “Mrs. Hitchcock she ready for us. We in Iowa now. They’s a free state.”

“How do you know, Ezra? Ohhhh . . .” Orelia doubled over again.

He didn’t answer her. Ezra knew he had to get her through the snow, up to the house, and down in the cellar. All as quiet as mice. And her having pains so early.

Orelia slid down again as another pain hit her. “Ohhhhh,” she moaned.

“Honey, can you be quiet now? We don’t want to get anyone hearing us.” He pulled her to the top of the bank where they sat in the snow waiting for her pain to subside.

Ezra wadded up a faded blue kerchief. “Here now, next time a pain hits, you bite this.” He tried to stuff it into her mouth while she sucked in air.

She spit it out.

“No, baby. You gotta do it. You listen to Ezra now. There can’t be no hearing us or this whole trip for nothin’. We’ll never reach the promised land.” He stuffed it back in and barely pulled his fingers out in time not to get bit.

Orelia struggled and ran in a painful lop-sided way, holding her belly, the holes in her homespun shawl lit up by moonlight. A distant owl hooted. A quiet growl came from the brush.

A lump of hurt choked Ezra as he watched his wife, at least that was how he thought of her. They’d get married proper when they got to Canada.  He couldn’t stand seeing her run that way.  She stumbled and he put one arm behind her knees, another on her back and tipped her up. He grunted. She was usually so small, but the baby made her off balance and clumsy to hold. She buried her face in his shoulder.

Up ahead he saw the flicker of three lanterns in the windows. That meant they was expecting three runaways. Old Simon had fell out the boat into the icy black river. He didn’t bob up, not even once. So there was just him and Orelia and the baby.

The sight bucked him up. He staggered faster. Orelia screeched into the cloth, into his shoulder. Her teeth sunk into his flesh, and he winced. At last he reached the open cellar door, ready to receive them.

The steep, uneven steps tripped him up, and he bumped Orelia’s head against the frozen dirt wall. Orelia’s pain made her punch him hard on the arm in return.

At last they were in the cellar. He had to put Orelia down on the dirt floor. “Just for a minute, baby.” Around them, jugs of preserved foods lined crude shelves. Dusty bottles of wine lay on their sides in a rack. Above, he could hear a piano playing a lively Christmas tune. “It must be Christmas Eve,” Ezra said.

Thumps on the floor be dancing. “That party noise keep ‘em from hearing us.” Even so, he moved the shelves ever so carefully to reveal the safe room. He didn’t want to leave no marks in the dirt floor. Then he returned to Orelia, panting now, and helped her to a straw pallet. He found matches and lit the candle before lifting the shelves back in place.

“Baby’s comin’,” Orelia spluttered between pains. Then she pushed so hard her whole body shuddered as she groaned a mighty, low groan.

Ezra had to open her legs to see. He hated doin’ that, but they was beyond being shy now. It was a necessary thing. He’d seen his mammy birthing babies back on the plantation.

A bloody bony head appeared, almost purple. Joy wiped away the struggle, the fear, the constant fear. “Baby’s head,” he whispered.

Orelia thrashed, grunting and shuddering and clawing into his shoulder.

He grasped the slippery roundness and pulled best he could, slow, steady.

Out it slipped, a wiggly bloody little one.

It were the baby. It were born. “Orelia, honey, it be here. It’s a little girl.”

He took Orelia’s shawl and wrapped the baby in it.

Above, the music had changed tempo. He recognized “Silent Night.”

The baby gave out a newborn mewing cry, and they exchanged their scared look. Could such a little sound be heard upstairs? They might be in a free state, but it was still illegal to hide runaways.

“Let’s call her Christmas,” Ezra whispered.

Orelia smiled down on the bundle and whispered, “Christmas. Our very own Christmas.”

The shelves moved. Had somebody heard them? Come to arrest them? Take them back South? Both Ezra and Orelia sucked in breath.

A lady stood in the flickering candlelight. “I’m Mrs. Hitchcock.” She came to the straw pallet. “Oh, dear God, it’s a baby. A baby on Christmas Eve. Oh, she’s lovely.”

Orelia said, “She cried once. We was afraid y’all heard.”

“We did hear. The mayor was here, but he said the night was so magical he had heard the newborn Jesus cry.”

“Praise be to God,” said Ezra.

Mrs. Hitchcock left to bring water to wash the baby, and food and blankets to keep them warm.

“Orelia, honey, our baby, she born free.”

“Free,” Orelia repeated what Ezra had said. A fierce, proud light shone in her eyes as she looked down on the tiny child.

It were a holy night. Oh, holy night.

About the Author: Bernie Brown

I live in Raleigh, NC where I write, read, and watch birds. My stories have appeared in several magazines, most recently Better After 50, Modern Creative Life, Indiana Voice Journal, and Watching Backyard Birds. I am a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center, which is the perfect spot to work on my novel-in-progress. My short story, Same Old Casserole, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Bernie Brown


If you plan on breaking your wrist anytime soon, don’t do it all alone in a one-hundred-year-old twenty-room mansion at 6:30 in the morning.

Just sayin’.

I tripped on the bathroom threshold at the Jim Boyd mansion at the Weymouth Center for the Arts during a much-anticipated writing residency. Falling sideways into the bathroom, I curled cozily around the toilet and broke my wrist. All on a beautiful April morning.

A dear friend to whom I will always be grateful came to my rescue, first aid book and ice pack in hand. Bless her beautiful heart. I will spare you all the details of that day and the four months, two Urgent Care visits, four splints, two surgeries, one ruptured thumb tendon, three casts, and countless doctor and therapy appointments.

What I will do is filter out what I have learned from this saga.

The Good Stuff.

Let’s start with the people in white coats, or green scrubs, more likely. They astound me.

An orthopedic hand specialist? Didn’t even know one existed. In the first surgery, he installed the usual pins and plates. A piece of cake to this guy. Second surgery offered him a bit more fun. He transferred and wove a tendon from my index finger into my thumb tendon. A few steps up from weaving potholders.

And a hand physical therapist? Imagine a large room filled with nursery school toys, peg boards, putty, beans in bowls, things to wind up and squeeze. And then put in some therapists who know how to use these toys to help patients regain the use of their hands. What a satisfying profession and what a brilliant person my therapist is. Many times she gave me emotional therapy along with physical therapy.

It is almost cliché to say one has learned to appreciate one’s family. I had to live it to learn it.

My husband brought me People magazine, and trays of food, and doses of medicine, and glasses of wine. He helped me into the car and chauffeured me to endless doctor and therapy appointments. He tried to cook, though we were both happier when he brought home fast food. We learned all the take-out menus within a five-mile radius of our house. The thing he most hated to do, but did anyway, was put lotion on my left arm after a bath. I could use my left hand to put lotion everywhere else, but not on itself. And my sweetie gets kind of creeped out by lotions. It’s just a thing he has.

Our son, who lives with us, opened jars of jam, buttered my toast, and tied my shoes. One day he caught me scooting down the stairs dragging the laundry basket, which I couldn’t pick up, down with me. He looked at me in mild disgust. “Give me that,” he said. “Look, Mom. It’s a temporary situation, all you have to do is ask.”

Blessed, that’s what I am.

When I was able to supervise some cooking, both he and my husband chopped things very nicely. We even invented a tasty dish of chicken sausage, roasted potatoes, green beans, and grape tomatoes, which we named Therapy Stew.

When our daughter completed all the end-of-year demands her teaching job required, she came home and brought our adorable two-year-old granddaughter to brighten my spirits. While I reveled in my Gigi role, our daughter cooked, shopped, and took me to the store to buy soul- satisfying things like nail polish and eye shadow. In the afternoon, while her daughter slept in her arms, we enjoyed a glass of wine, and she talked me through my experience as only a daughter can. Later that evening, she filed my fingernails and painted my toenails, other things my husband just couldn’t get the hang of.

My long distance family asked about my sleep and how was the pain and what did the doctor say, and cheered me on with phone calls, emails, text messages, cards, and bouquets of flowers.

The day I hit rock bottom, the day I cried all morning, turning my eyes stoplight red and my face puffy as a yeast roll, a dear friend came by. She came through the door of my bedroom like a guardian angel carrying an enormous bouquet of sunflowers and lilies, and an overflowing bag of chocolate truffles, mango cookies, and caramel popcorn. She listened to me lament, “Will I ever be pain free? Will I ever be able to write and sew?”

Other friends sent me emails and asked me to dinner. Ten of us had a jolly time at a Cast Away party, bringing food enough to carpet my table and wine enough that we are still enjoying it weeks later.

That’s the Good Stuff, skilled professionals, devoted family, loyal friends.

Now the Bad. Let’s talk pain.

I learned different kinds of pain. There never was the screaming kind of pain, but there was the all-encompassing, deeply penetrating ache, relentless as a heartbeat. And then came nerve pain like creepy crawlies beneath my skin. I used ice. I used heat. I had drugs, even the heavy duty ones, but pain never disappeared entirely.

Pain brought me down. It wore me out. It made me old. I walked slow, with a shuffle. I moaned and sighed like a tired old creature.

Foolishly, I thought when I had the cast removed life would be easier. Well, yes and no. I didn’t have to cart around a rock hard vice any longer, but now I learned about surface sensitivity. When skin has been traumatized by two surgeries and encased in a cast for six weeks, it becomes sensitive to  – – well almost anything, simply being exposed to the air. The top of my hand felt like the skin was burning. Although most of the ache and the nerve pain have dissipated, the burning sensation remains. I look forward to the day it is just a memory.

Fear is the Ugly.

If this could happen to me, could it happen again? Or something worse?

I now have a real fear of falling. I grab stair rails tightly, watch where my feet go with every step, and have anxiety about things I used to anticipate gladly. My dependence made me afraid to leave home. Even our first road trip to our daughter and her family, a trip that normally filled me with joy, worried me in a vague free-floating way.

Getting behind the wheel of the car again. Fixing my own hair. All these ordinary things filled my head with worst case scenarios.

In a few weeks, we have a plane trip planned. Can I still navigate an airport security line, get on a plane full of people who hurry and bump, and stow my carryon under my seat? Can I retrieve my checked luggage from the turntable?

Each fear has to be corralled and subdued. So far, I am pumping my fist at each small victory.

Were there aha moments when the good, the bad, and the ugly insights came to me? Not so much moments, more growing realizations.

Things I had always known at some level now moved to the forefront of my mind and heart. Will this knowledge stay with me? Flawed as I am, I can’t be sure. When my hand is no longer stiff and sore, will I take for granted this five-fingered wonder on the end of my arm? I know I will take my husband for granted, because that is just what married people do.

I do know this: when I walk down the street, or into a restaurant, or visit the mall and see someone in a sling, or on crutches, or in a wheelchair, I send them silent wishes for recovery and good health.Rich or poor, highly educated or barely literate, old or young, we all belong to the same club where the membership is injury and pain.

I learned empathy for people whose lives will never be pain free, refugees who spend years in squalid camps, who starve and go unwashed for lack of water, who have inner and outer wounds that will never heal. I pray for them and for all people who endure the agony of cancer, or sick children or the death of a loved one, who suffer bravely and silently day after day.

And I feel humbled and fortunate.

And for the record, I am returning to the scene of The Great Fall for another week of writing at the Weymouth Center, but this time I am going with a friend. When I get there, I am going to sit down in the hall and have a good long talk with the threshold that brought me down on that April morning four months ago, and we are going to come to an understanding.

Just watch me.

About the Author: Bernie Brown

berniebrownI live in Raleigh, NC where I write, read, and watch birds. My stories have appeared in several magazines, most recently Modern Creative Life, Indiana Voice Journal, and Watching Backyard Birds.

I am a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center, which is the perfect spot to work on my novel-in-progress.

Same Old Casserole by Bernie Brown

Thanksgiving Dinner

“Aunt Sissy isn’t going to bring that tired old broccoli and rice thing with Cheez Whiz, is she?” Phyllis’s daughter Marin asked her as she snuggled her cell phone between her chin and shoulder. She plunked a Keurig coffee pod into place and set the machine in action. “We’ve got free range turkey and organic vegetables and she brings freakin’ Cheez Whiz, for Pete’s sake.” Marin continued her plea.

“Well, I’m not telling her, if that’s what you think. That casserole is one of her proudest creations. She takes it everywhere. It’s Thanksgiving after all. Thankfulness is in order, not snobbery.”

“Yada. Yada. Yada. Please, Mom. You know she worships you.”

“She worships me because I let her bring her broccoli and Cheez Whiz any place she darn well pleases. And you should, too, young lady.”

Marin laughed with the confidence of a daughter who got just about everything she ever wanted. “Please, Mommy.”

“Okay, I’ll think about it, but I’m blaming you.”


“Yeah, look who’s calling who a coward.”


Phyllis loved Sissy. They’d stuck together during their parent’s divorce, during both their husband’s deaths, during the trying years of squalling infants, stubborn toddlers, and smart-ass teenagers. Besides, Phyllis kind of liked the broccoli casserole. The dreaded free range turkey was dry as dust and didn’t have much more flavor. Give her a Butterball any day. Looked like the day of thankfulness was turning into an exercise in diplomacy even Henry Kissinger would find challenging.

She might as well stop stalling, she knew she’d do whatever Marin asked. Pressing the home button, Phyllis called forth Siri to help with her dirty work. “Call Sissy cell,” Phyllis said with resignation.

“Hi, Phyl, what’s up?” Sissy’s voice was chipper, making Phyllis’s job even tougher.

Phyllis paused, thinking how to begin, but Sissy knew her too well, the pause gave Phyllis away.

“Okay, little sister, what gives?” Sissy didn’t wait for an answer. “You won’t go with me to that Tupperware party. I know you hate that kind of stuff. ”

Phyllis jumped in. “Marin wants you to bring something instead of your casserole to Thanksgiving.” There, the cruel words were spoken. She almost heard Sissy’s feelings get hurt right over the phone. A moment’s uncomfortable silence, and Sissy said, “Thank God. I’m sick of that old thing, too.”

Had Phyllis heard right? Sissy was faking it. “Oh, come on. You can’t fool me. You feel bad and you’re just being noble. Come on, make me feel guilty. I deserve it.”

“You think I can’t be all trendy? I’ll bring something with keeeenwhaaaa in it. I bet Marin will even ask for the recipe.”


On the big day, the decorating at Marin’s house did Martha Stewart proud: bowlfuls of fall fruits and vegetables spilled out artistically on the sideboard and the coffee table. Pumpkins in descending size marched down the front steps in puddles of fall leaves; and place cards sat in tiny branches covered in berries.  Not a fold out Hallmark tissue paper turkey in sight.

“Mom, Aunt Sissy, Happy Thanksgiving!” Marin gave them each a sweet-smelling hug and a smile as real as her decorations. It was easy to see why people went out of their way to please her. Her husband Bill, a handsome guy whose brilliant technical mind hid inside a guy who was happiest playing touch football with the kids, relieved them of their dishes.

Sissy whispered to Phyllis, “I bought it ready-made at Whole Foods.”

After a few glasses of wine, Marin announced the turkey was served. Sissy and Phyllis sat next to each other prepared to boost each other’s courage in the face of a tough bird.  The platter circulated, and Phyllis put the smallest piece she dared on her plate. The quinoa followed, and again Phyllis served herself a dainty portion. When the mashed potatoes she had brought made their appearance, Phyllis heaped a small mountain on the bare expanse of her plate. Let Marin believe mashing potatoes with the skins on was brand new, Phyllis knew differently. Her grandmother used to do it to save time, saying, “The skins are where all the vitamins are, anyway.”

Phyllis watched as Sissy cut off a minute piece of turkey, and said, “Wish me luck. Here goes.” And she put the bite on her tongue. Her wary expression turned to surprise.  “This is delicious. How did you fix it?”

Marin said, “I thought it was kind of dry last year, so I Googled this honey mustard marinade.”

The platter passed a second time and had to be refilled half-way round.

Phyllis watched Bill take a bite of quinoa, and with a full mouth, he said, “Good work, Aunt Sissy.” Phyllis followed his lead. Not bad. Kinda nutty. The funny name had made her suspicious, but quinoa was really pretty non-threatening.

“I’ll have to get your recipe,’ Marin said.

At that, Phyllis and Sissy sputtered and elbow-nudged. Sissy nearly choked, suppressing her laughter, and reached for her water glass.

To their utter bewilderment. Marin served Pepperidge Farm heat-and-serve rolls with her   chemical, preservative, additive-free feast. Sissy and Phyllis and even Bill shared a look, the women rolled their eyes, and Bill refilled their wine glasses to the brim.

Marin and Bill’s three boys, who had shared their own table, cleared the plates under Bill’s supervision. They returned from the kitchen walking as carefully as if on a high wire bearing dessert plates holding cranberry clafouti with real whipped cream. Both Sissy and Phyllis knew that clafouti was just a French name for cobbler. They also knew it would be to-die-for, and were grateful it was not the rubbery pumpkin pie their own mother had always served.

Bill placed cups of coffee next to each place, and they all nibbled and sipped like bears preparing for hibernation. Bill shooed the boys into the family room, the women into the living room, and he insisted on tackling clean-up duty on his own.

Amid the clatter and splash of cleaning up, the women heard the announcer and crowd noises and Bill’s occasional cheers and curses while he watched Vanderbilt’s game on the mini flat screen in the kitchen. His clean-up offer had included a scheme to catch up on his alma mater’s game.

Phyllis, Sissy, and Marin collapsed on the living room’s comfy furniture. The sisters told Marin about the Caribbean cruise they planned to take after the holidays.

Marin listened carefully and then, her eyes twinkling, she smiled and said, “Well, I hope you’ll both be around in May. I’m going to need your help.”

“What are you talking about, Marin?” Phyllis asked, a little concerned in spite of Marin’s smile.

Marin pointed to her stomach, holding up four fingers, she said, “Number four.”

Phyllis and Sissy gasped, then all manner of tears and hugs and laughter broke out. “Another baby. Oh, I love babies. Of course we’ll help you, honey. We’ll be your slaves.”

Bill picked that moment to join them, and the three boys came crashing through the room with toy laser weapons, shouting, “Pitchoo, pitchoo,” The youngest fell behind and climbed on his grandmother’s lap.

Phyllis gave him a cuddle and a kiss. “Didn’t your mommy fix the best Thanksgiving dinner ever?” she asked her grandson.

“Yeah, it was really good, but where was that Cheezy Wheezy stuff? I wanted some of that.” Then he hopped down and ran off in search of his brothers.

Marin looked surprised, then caught her aunt’s eye, and blushed. Phyllis and Sissy did not hold back their laughter this time. They exploded. Bill joined in, but seated himself on the arm of his abashed wife’s chair. He put an arm around her and pulled her close.

Marin buried her red face in his shoulder, and then joined in the laughter.

Phyllis watched her much-loved son-in-law plant a kiss in her daughter’s hair, and knew she had much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

And Henry Kissinger got the night off.

About the Author: Bernie Brown

berniebrownI live in Raleigh, NC where I write, read, and watch birds. My stories have appeared in several magazines, most recently Modern Creative Life, Indiana Voice Journal, and Watching Backyard Birds.

I am a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center, which is the perfect spot to work on my novel-in-progress.

Studio Tour: Bernie Brown – Thimblelina & Me

Modern Creative Life Presents Studio Tours

The floor is the best surface ever invented for cutting fabric. Nothing falls off it.  There is always more room.  The only drawback is pins end up sticking into the carpet as well as my pattern pieces.

My sweet little Viking sewing machine has been my trusty soldier for over thirty years.  The last time I took it in for its yearly tune up, oiling and timing—which synchs the bobbin thread and the needle thread to form a clean stitch —the repairman said, “Don’t you ever use it? It’s perfectly clean.”

I replied, “I use it all the time and clean it after every project.”

And he said, “It’s a good thing because if it ever breaks, I can’t get parts for it anymore.” If that day ever came, I would weep and moan. I would tear my hair. Emergency vehicles may need to be summoned.

My sewing things live in a loft corner of our third floor family room. The arrangement has never varied for thirty years. Everything is positioned where I can reach for it without even looking or knocking it over.

I learned to sew by watching my mom, who used a thimble like a natural extension of her finger. I never mastered the use of this little tool with the funny name. I kept one at my house for Mom’s visits, and now that she’s gone, I keep it because it reminds me of her. The charmingly ugly little figurine with a thimble for a hat is called Thimblelina. During a brief stint as a stock boy at Hallmark, my middle-school-aged son bought her for me, a spontaneous gift I treasure.

My high school stone-age curriculum required Home Ec for girls. We struggled with our basic shirtwaists with varying degrees of success. Mrs. A, our beloved teacher, scolded me, “You press things to death.” I’m afraid Mrs. A never cured me of that. I can’t sew without an iron by my side. A skillful press job hides many a sewing sin. Near my workaday iron are two beautifully carved and etched antique irons from a Dutch flea market. They are from the era when hot coals put inside them provided the heat. Next to them sits a doll size ironing board and iron that my dad made for me in his woodshop. I love it not only because he made it, but because he got the pleasing angles of the ironing board legs exactly right. And the small iron is crafted of layers of wood, which give it character and interest. So, my sewing area includes not only working tools, but decorative models of them, too, which add a whimsical touch for me to admire as I work.

I have an accordion rack where I hang a number of scissors. Not sure how I acquired so many pairs. And there is all the other stuff a seamstress accumulates: elastic, pins, needles, measuring tape, thread, bobbins and a drawer overflowing with fabric scraps and dress patterns.

Thimblelina and I welcome you to my sewing corner. Just be on the lookout for pins on the floor. They tend to stick in the carpet.


My antique Viking. Long may she reign.


Bernie Scissorhands.


One woman’s thimble is another woman’s hat.


Iron’s plain and fancy.


This darling model would make any dress look good.


I wonder if the naked lady in the background would like for me to make her a dress.

About the Author: Bernie Brown

berniebrownI live in Raleigh, NC where I write, read, and watch birds. My stories have appeared in several magazines, most recently Every Writer’s Resource, Still Crazy and the Raleigh News and Observer. I am a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center. Get to know me better my website and connect with me on Facebook.

Studio Tour: Bernie Brown

Modern Creative Life Presents Studio Tours

My stories are born in my head, hands, and heart; but some practical tools are necessary to bring those inner visions to life. I have a pleasantly cluttered desk where I sit and write and think and procrastinate. Favorite reference books rest close by: a thesaurus, a dictionary, and an emotional thesaurus – the best book ever!

Each main character in my novel has a file, and I track when and where scenes take place by making notes on a calendar. Pictures of my family and friends sit close by to make me smile even when my writing makes me frown. And when I really feel discouraged, I look at my brag shelf to remind myself of past successes.

And every writer needs a widow to gaze at while they are dreaming up plots and dialogue, good guys and bad guys.

Welcome to my writing desk. You’ll find me here almost every morning.


At my desk with my trusty Acer.

I can’t write a paragraph without these three books.


Other essential resources: character files, calendar timelines, and pictures of writer friends.



My brag shelf holds all my published stories and essays.


I look out these windows when I’m stuck.



About the Author: Bernie Brown

berniebrownI live in Raleigh, NC where I write, read, and watch birds. My stories have appeared in several magazines, most recently Every Writer’s Resource, Still Crazy and the Raleigh News and Observer. I am a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center. Get to know me better my website and connect with me on Facebook.

Threads by Bernie Brown

Like hunger, the urge to create nags me and growls at me until I satisfy it. I know that any creative project will bring me just as much pain as it does pleasure, but my imagination works overtime, anyway. And sooner or later, what is happening in my head demands to be turned into reality.

Let me tell you how one sewing and one writing project both frustrate and fulfill me.

My heart beats a little faster when I walk into a fabric store: the Hawaiian prints, the embroidered denims, and the Needleandthreadslush velvets all put possibilities in my head. Even the neat little packages of zippers, thread, bias tape, and buttons—arranged rainbow-like—delight me. I want to buy them all, but time and money won’t let me. So I work one project at a time.

Two years ago, the sweetest, smartest, most adorable granddaughter on the planet arrived in our lives, our Helen. When she turned a year old, I imagined sewing a custom-made playhouse for her, a cloth cover that would turn an ordinary card table into a magical cottage with windows, a door that works, a roof, a bird’s nest, some flowers, butterflies, ladybugs, a mailbox, and a few garbage cans. Then I pictured Helen crawling in and out of this playhouse and wearing a smile that lit up my heart. For the past several months, that masterpiece has been taking shape.

At the same time, I have been writing a novel. Sitting down at my computer to write is like a visit to a fabric store. Just like all the bolts of fabric tempt me, a blank computer screen begs me to fill it with the stories of love affairs, family squabbles, heroes, villains, suburban homes, and country cottages. But I can’t write them all. I need the characters, setting, and conflict that will tell the story of Weaver Days.

Most days I help the book and the playhouse move forward, side by side. But some days, my projects disappoint me. Something just doesn’t click, doesn’t match my vision. That’s when I have to step back, even when that’s the last thing I want to do.

The first chimney for the playhouse, made of fabric printed with puzzle pieces, didn’t look at all like the whimsical chimney I envisioned. Instead, it just looked like a colorful box stuck to the roof. I fretted over the loss of several evenings’ work and my inability to bring my vision to life. But the thing had to go. My sewing machine whirred and I said naughty words and cried as I cranked out a second, more ordinary chimney of plain red cloth.

The novel proved equally uncooperative at times. In the first draft, several chapters near the end took one of the small town characters to a big city for spring fashion week. How could that go wrong? Up to-the-minute clothing styles filled the scenes. An eccentric, minor character enjoyed a bittersweet annual romance that would win readers’ hearts.

But no. The fashions and the eccentric’s love affair weren’t the real story. Like the colorful chimney, they had to go. In a bold move, I gritted my teeth and cut five thousand words, whimpering the whole time. I had spent countless precious writing hours and creative energy on those chapters.

Each time I stepped back on the sewing or the writing project, the finish line looked further and further away. But soon I found my rhythm again. I knew that someday I would finish both. I will watch Helen crawl in and out of her custom cottage, talking to imaginary friends, involved in adventures she created. And some day I will hold a published copy of Weaver Days with my name on the cover. In each case I will shout, “I did it!” and dance around the living room.

The thrill of personal goals achieved will satisfy me for weeks. But sooner or later, after I tire of resting on my laurels and patting myself on the back, other projects will take shape in my head, projects that demand attention. In spite of plans going awry, in spite of backslides and sidetracks, in spite of cuss words and tears, I won’t be able to resist the siren songs of the fabric store and the blank computer screen.

And I will ask myself, “What next?’

And the whole painful and wonderful process will start all over again.[hr]

About the Author: Bernie Brown

berniebrownI live in Raleigh, NC where I write, read, and watch birds. My stories have appeared in several magazines, most recently Every Writer’s Resource, Still Crazy and the Raleigh News and Observer. I am a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center. Get to know me better my website and connect with me on Facebook.