Yet Do I Marvel – explication

I’ve always been a little bit sad that I didn’t get to have that college experience. So now it’s my time!! It’s different attending college when you’re 44…

School is starting – not just for my kids, but for me, too. I started school at Weber State University last spring. I joined the Marine Corps right after high school, walking away from several scholarships to pursue a different path, one that has blessed my life immeasurably! But I’ve always been a little bit sad that I didn’t get to have that college experience. So now it’s my time!! It’s different attending college when you’re 44 (and I’m sure I missed some fun stuff that I would have experienced at age 18) but it’s also pretty cool. I’m smarter than I was. I know more about the world. I’m more formed. And I care more about what I’m learning because I see and have experienced a broader context for it. Last semester, in my Intro to Lit class, we explicated sonnets – meaning explaining how the poet used words, punctuation, and poetic devices to add to the meaning of the poem. In honor of the start of school, I’ll share one of those today: Cullen’s sonnet followed by my explication.

Yet Do I Marvel – by Countee Cullen

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,

And did He stoop to quibble could tell why

The little buried mole continues blind,   

Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,

Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus

Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare   

If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus

To struggle up a never-ending stair.   

Inscrutable His ways are, and immune   

To catechism by a mind too strewn   

With petty cares to slightly understand   

What awful brain compels His awful hand.   

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:   

To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

The Song of a Black Poet – by Josie Hulme

Sixty years after the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and forty years before the Civil Rights Act, Countee Cullen, an African-American poet, wrote “Yet Do I Marvel,” a sonnet imbued with the difficulty and confusion of a race unsure why their rightful place in American society continued to be denied them. Using his own story as a mirror for the rest of his race, Cullen assures the reader that God is good before ironically listing several examples that belie that assertive statement. However, in the last couplet, he ends his list with the most audacious of all God’s creations: a Black poet in a world that is just beginning to listen.

Although “Yet Do I Marvel” is not a classic romantic sonnet, it does follow the Shakespearean form with a slight change in the classic rhyming pattern of the last sestet, using, instead: e e f f g g. Though it has several exceptions, the poem is written in iambic pentameter. Cullen brilliantly uses the sonnet form to examine the tension between God’s “goodness” and the treatment of African Americans. On its scaffold, he both questions God, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, about His wisdom and builds a case for his own identity.

First, his use of a variety of gods is interesting. He starts with what, it could be assumed, is a reference to the Protestant God that was most prevalent in American society and among African-Americans at the time. Then he turns his attention to the Greek gods who cursed both Tantalus and Sisyphus in ancient mythology. Lastly, he uses the word “catechism,” which is most readily affiliated with the Catholic church. It is perhaps telling that he uses no African gods in this list of “good” things God has done, referencing only gods originally worshipped by Caucasians. Even though there is irony in his lengthy list of unfair things that a “kind” God has done, the reader can use the same logic to see Cullen calling his identity as a Black poet ‘godly’ in origin. He is, in essence, saying, ‘If these things listed in the poem are God’s creations despite their imperfections, then so am I.’

Cullen uses a number of poetic devices to accomplish this. The first quatrain is remarkable for its monosyllabism. In the first two lines, there are only two words with two syllables (“meaning,” “quibble”); the rest are single-syllable words. In fact, in the first forty syllables of the poem, there are only thirteen that are not single (“meaning,” “quibble,” “little,” “buried,” “continues,” “mirrors”). The first quatrain is also littered with spondees: “ uI /doubt /not /God” and “/well-/meanuing” and “/could /tell /why” as well as the powerful end to the first quatrain, “/Him /must /some /day /die.” Both of these—the abundance of monosyllables and spondees—naturally slows this first quatrain and allows time for the idea of an all-knowing, well-meaning God to settle firmly in the reader’s mind. Cullen’s use of the words “stoop” and “quibble” in the second line signify God’s greatness and majesty, showing He would need to bend low, or descend, to share His reasoning about such trivial issues with the speaker. The fourth line also reminds the reader that while humans may have been created in the image of God, they are far from Him in power.

The first quatrain contains three end-stopped lines and one line that, while enjambed, still has something of a natural pause at the end. In contrast, the second quatrain contains no end-stopped lines and has a caesura in its second line: “…by the fickle fruit, || declare.” Besides the three enjambed lines, only fourteen of the forty syllables in the second quatrain are monosyllables, almost opposite the first quatrain. Also, Cullen begins his ironic list of things God needs to explain slowly, with a humble “little buried mole.” Then, through the use of polysyllabic words and enjambment, he rushes—explodes!—into the second quatrain, as if the doom of Tantalus and Sisyphus is too horrible to dwell on. He uses emphatic words with harsh consonants like “tortured,” “baited,” “fickle,” “brute caprice,” “dooms,” “struggle,” and “never-ending” to create a dissonance that steps up the rhetoric. ‘A kind god?’ he seems to ask incredulously. ‘Are these words you would ascribe to a kind god?’

Another difference between the first and second quatrains is found in the use of poetic sound devices. While some are used in the first (“mirrors-must,” “day-die,” “not-God,” “mirrors-Him-must-some”), the second quatrain is drowning in them. Alliteration: “tortured-Tantalus,” “fickle-fruit,” “struggle-stair.” Assonance: “make-plain,” “baited-declare,” “struggle-up,” “never-ending,” Consonance: “fickle-declare,” “merely-brute-caprice,” Hiatus: “dooms-Sisyphus.” Both the first and third lines of the second quatrain end in a dactyl: “/Tanutaulus” and “/Sisuyuphus.” This change in the rhythm softens the reader’s feelings toward these unfortunate men. After the harsh, almost cacophonous, noise of the rest of the quatrain, we end these names with a whisper of reverence for ones who have unfairly garnered the wrath of the gods.

All of this is accomplished in one sentence, comprising the entire first octave. The third quatrain is another sentence, the first three lines enjambed; and the first line contains another caesura: “Inscrutable His ways are, || and immune.” This breaks the second sentence into two parts: the first, a simple statement about God, and the second, a far more detailed and perhaps sarcastic comparison between God’s mind and the speaker’s.

 Unlike the first and second quatrains, this one is almost even with mono- and polysyllabic words. It’s also an even mix of smooth and harsh sounds with very few sound devices. It feels as if the speaker is now acerbically sulky after his outburst in the second quatrain. The last line also repeats the word “awful.” The double meaning of that word, emphasized by the repetition, perfectly wraps up this poem. From the first line, with its small and certain words talking about God’s undoubted goodness and kindness, through the discordant and stormy middle, to the bitter and whiny end, the reader is left with a feeling of unbalance. What does the speaker believe? Is God awful, meaning extremely bad and terrible? Or is God awful, meaning solemnly impressive and inspiring awe?

The answer may be found in the last couplet’s opening word, “yet,” used as a coordinating conjunction showing contrast. It means “but” or “nevertheless,” effectively undoing the previous argument. Cullen’s sarcastic beginning statement, “I doubt not,” is thus transformed into one of admiration and astonishment, “I marvel.” The word “curious” connotes an inquisitive, childlike wonderment. These words, together with the uneven, perhaps childishly clumsy, meter of this line, “/Yet udo uI /maruvel uat uthis /curuious /thing:” bring a feeling of reverential awe, an almost bewildered amazement. The line ends with a colon, causing the reader to lean forward into the last line. Then, for the first time in his poem, Cullen brings up race as he offers us a glimpse into his life. After the rollercoaster ride he’s taken us on, he concludes his poem with the spondee “/bid /him /sing.” In effect, he says, ‘It is God’s command, and I dare not—cannot—stop the music.’ But he doesn’t end there. He adds an exclamation point, as if he can’t believe how lucky he is.

Cullen’s brilliant sonnet, “Yet Do I Marvel,” is more than a fine example of Harlem Renaissance poetry. It embodies the conflict, the questions, and the joy of being Black in America. He takes the reader on a whirlwind journey through faith, doubt, frustration, anger, blame, and bitterness, then on to delight and pleasure. He leaves the reader with a sense of respect and appreciation for Black fortitude as he walks away with a grin and a wink.

Poems About Working in the Yard

While my hands were busy in the dirt, my mind wandered on creative shores…

I took advantage of the cool, overcast weather and spent the day outside working in my yard. As anyone who has driven past my house at anytime in the last two years can tell you, we’ve been ‘putting in’ our yard. Even though the comment we most often get when giving tours of our house is “Wow! It just keeps going!”, I can attest that there is still plenty of our long, skinny half acre that is not house. Today I put the last of the sprinklers in the front. While my hands were busy in the dirt, my mind wandered on creative shores…

Clay Sucks – by Josie Hulme

Clay sucks.

My shovel groans

as I stab its blade

into the hard earth.

The tip grates on rock.

I move to the other side

and try again.

I scrape and pry—

Different angles,

Different directions.

Until, at last, the small

rock pops free and smirks

at me from the bottom of my hole.

Gravel sucks, too.

Laying Sprinkler Pipe, a haiku – by Josie Hulme

The pickax speeds down—

Me and gravity, a team.

The trench grows longer.

The Joy of Hard Work – by Josie Hulme

Hard work brings peace to your mind,

Puts your troubles behind

you for a bit.


Hard work makes you one with God.

You can’t help but applaud

His creation.


Hard work let’s you see your feat—

Visual, real, concrete—

Your mark on the world.


Hard work is good for your soul,

Though it does take a toll

on your body.


Mirror, Mirror

It’s not till the early morning hours, as I lie alone in my cold bed, that I realize getting rid of her won’t solve the problem. There will always be someone younger and more beautiful, and I can’t kill them all.

This piece of flash fiction tells an alternate version of the classic fairytale, where Snow White isn’t quite as innocent as she seems. Flash fiction is all about writing a compelling story with all the correct elements (conflict, rising action, character development, climax, etc.) in very few words. The League of Utah Writers, the association I’m affiliated with, sets their max at 1,000 words. I’ve written micro fiction as small as 100 words. This one weighs in at 981.

Mirror, Mirror – by Josie Hume

I step from the bath and walk to the ornate mirror, leaving a trail of wet footprints across the marble floor. I wipe a circle clear of steam. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” I murmur as I lean close to its reflective surface, “who is the fairest? Me or that bitch, Snow White?”

The mirror doesn’t answer, of course, but I don’t need it to. I already know the answer. Despite all my effort, time has left the footprints of its relentless march across my face.

My breath fogs the glass until I’m only a blurred shape again. Indistinct. Invisible.

“Still as vain as the day I met you.”

The deep voice startles me. I hadn’t heard him come in. I force myself to ignore the instinctive desire to cover up and turn to face my husband. Even after all these years, his handsome face causes my breath to catch and my skin to flush with desire.

“It’s not vanity,” I say. “It’s…survival.” I walk toward him, searching his eyes for the heat that used to burn so brightly in those midnight depths. I yearn for that fire, for those war-rough fingers to trace my body again, for that smoky voice to murmur exciting, explicit words telling me how much he desires me. Back then, we wouldn’t leave the bed for days.

I’d been hated. Called a witch—what else but witchcraft could keep the king from his duties. But I knew the truth. He was too full of passion, of life and ambition to do anything by halves. When he warred, he warred whole-heartedly. When he entertained, he entertained lavishly. And when he loved, he loved to the exclusion of everything else.

I reveled in it—wallowing in hours of bliss. Entire days lost in a sexual haze.

And I feared it, even then. What if someone else caught his eye?

I was right to fear. He watches me now with the impersonal glance of an auditor tabulating nothing more intimate than numbers. Still beautiful. Still thin. No longer young.

I skim my hands up to cup my breasts, eyes on his, desperate to see something—hatred, disgust—anything would be better than the cold dispassion he shows me now.

But he turns from me. “Get dressed. The guests are arriving.”

He walks out.

I call my servants with straight shoulders and dry eyes. Queens don’t cry. An hour later I’m resplendent in a violet dress, its wide sleeves trimmed with black fur. The white collar frames my face before cutting past my jaw in a sharp vee that plunges between my breasts to my navel, displaying a sliver of creamy skin. It’s daring, it’s scandalous. It’s gorgeous.

The noise in the hall falls silent as I make my entrance. All eyes are on me—men with desire, women with judgement and jealousy. But my triumph is short-lived—there is only impatience in my husband’s gaze as I meet it across the sea of bowed heads. Any hope I have left is snuffed by the ebony-haired beauty at his side.

Snow White.

She stares at me as she sinks into the barest curtsy, her hand resting possessively on my husband’s arm.

I wrench my eyes from her blood-red smirk, but my mind won’t stop conjuring pictures of his strong body moving over hers, his tanned skin contrasting with her alabaster hue, hands touching her the way he used to touch me.

Is she the first? Or just the most recent?

The feast passes in a blur. I was born to this, and my mouth is on auto-pilot. I charm, I flirt—a sympathetic hand here, a pointed glance there. But my mind is busy with a thousand different ideas on how to kill Snow White—venomous combs, suffocating corsets, poisoned apples.

It’s not till the early morning hours, as I lie alone in my cold bed, that I realize getting rid of her won’t solve the problem. There will always be someone younger and more beautiful, and I can’t kill them all.

So, what to do with the real problem—my husband.

I throw the covers aside and begin to pace.

I can’t bring him back to my bed. Despite countless beautifying rituals, he’s still taken his lust elsewhere.

I can’t change his mind. I briefly consider blackmail then dismiss it just as quickly. It may stop the infidelity, but it won’t bring him back to me. Bribery, deprivation and fear tactics are useless for the same reason. So, how can I make him need me? How can I stop him from seeing other women?

Then it comes to me. So simple, really. I don’t know why I haven’t thought of it before.

The next night, I hide in his chambers. Through a crack in the wardrobe door, I watch Snow White prepare for my husband, primping in a sheer negligee. My husband enters. I watch him pour his whiskey—such a creature of habit, so easy to drug—and share it with her. I watch him kiss her, strip her, touch her.

I smile as confident hands begin to fumble and forceful movements become sluggish, until heads droop in unconsciousness.

I creep from the wardrobe and stare at their naked bodies still entwined upon the bed. A shadow slips into the room. My huntsman. He gathers Snow White and leaves just as silently. He’ll take her to the forest. The dwarves are always looking for slaves. They’ll pay well for her.

I dismiss her from my mind and examine my husband. It’s a sin to mar such perfection, but it’s the only way.

I pull a small vial from the purse on my belt and uncork it. The smell of the acid inside the flask stings my nose.

It’s true, I can’t kill every beautiful woman, but I can stop him from seeing them.

I pull back his eyelids.

Ever After

With a sigh, I close my laptop. Life beneath its cover seems so much easier. Cleaner. The story ends, summed up in three little words: happily ever after. For a moment in time, everything makes sense.

The diarist, Anais Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” I’m always surprised to find my characters saying things that I haven’t thought. I often read what they’ve said and think, “That’s deep. Thanks for sharing that thought with me. I hadn’t thought of it in that way before.” But of course, I must have. My fingers just typed it. It’s not actually my character saying something, it’s the quiet part of my brain that’s been busily chewing on a problem finally churning out the answer. I write to discover what I believe. I write to understand my life. I write to understand others’ viewpoints. I write to live. And I live to write. Life is an amazing adventure and I love to capture its shades and shadows in words.

Ever After – by Josie Hume

Story. It’s there, trembling on my fingertips, dancing in the front of my brain. I can glimpse greatness, but so far it’s ephemeral. A hollow outline waiting to be filled. My character stands before me, arms folded, head thrust forward. “So, tell me what to do.”

I scowl. “Be patient, I’m thinking.”

The blank page mocks me. Glowing white, the cursor blinking. On. Off. On. Off. Waiting for me to type something. Anything.

My fingers move. Haltingly. Words I know I’ll never keep. They feel like progress, anyway. Water to prime the pump. Okay, here we go. A little better, a little smoother. Still nothing brilliant, but the plot is moving forward. I know I’ll be able to come back and revise. Edit. Erase. But for now, I’m content to push forward.

And it is a push. A physical effort. Brute force.

Things are plodding along when suddenly I stall. There’s a word I’m looking for. A certain word. It feels vitally important to find it now. Now, while I know what I mean to say. I click on my Thesaurus and comb through hundreds of words. No, not that one. Close, but not quite.

Ah. There it is.

I sit back, pleased with myself until I realize Newton’s first law of motion is in place. I am an object at rest. I have lost all momentum. It’s uphill again. My character rolls her eyes. “You shouldn’t have stopped.”

I grind my teeth.

I start again. Forcing creation. Shoving my character around. Dragging her, kicking and screaming, where I need her. “Knock it off,” I demand. “Stop acting like a teenager!”

She flips me the bird.

I have to smile. She’s a rebel. She’s strong and smart, and exactly how I want to be. That’s what this is: two strong personalities fighting each other. One of us has to be the adult.

“Fine,” I say. “Then you do it.”

And she does.

Now it’s flowing. Now I’m not a writer—I’m a stenographer, a reporter. I’m watching and recording—language, inflection, action. My fingers are flying over my keyboard. It’s coming so fast words are misspelled, and punctuation is missing. But all the right words are there, on the page.

I can see my creation, the one who is me—part who I am, and part who I hope to be. Alive. Acting independent of me, the creator. I’ve taken a backseat. My creation is dictating things now. It’s not my book, it’s hers.


And then, finally, silence. Exhaustion. I have no idea how much time has passed while the movie in front of me played out, while my fingers raced to keep up with the action. But now the colors fade and time slows. Reality reasserts itself. Dinner still needs to be made. Kids need help with homework. The list of things I meant to do today is still waiting on the kitchen counter.

My character winks at me. “See you again tomorrow.”

With a sigh, I close my laptop. Life beneath its cover seems so much easier. Cleaner. The story ends, summed up in three little words: happily ever after. For a moment in time, everything makes sense.

My life is messier. I lose my omniscience and have to bumble my way through my own first-person present-tense story. It’s full of starts and stops, wrong decisions, and the endless minutiae of living.

Rarely greatness, but often goodness and kindness and laughter.

There’s no happily ever after in the real world. No way to skip the boring parts or know how it’s going to end. But even here, I’m still the writer. I decide what stays and what goes. And maybe the best story is just in front of me: here, today.

I’m on the edge of my seat.

Joyfully, crazily, excitedly ever after.

On The Lake

But the grandeur of this natural marvel isn’t the only reason I love it. I have come to realize that Lake Powell is more than just the sum of its parts.

I grew up going to Lake Powell every year. First with my mother’s aunt and uncle and cousins when the lake was first filling up, and then with my own Aunt when that first group got too big. (Who are we kidding? That group started out too big! But eventually, when all those cousins started having kids…) Now we go on alternating years with my sister and her family – and I’m so grateful for them for continuing the tradition for my own children. There’s no place like Lake Powell, and although the argument against the Glen Canyon dam is compelling and reading about the wonders that were buried when it was built breaks my heart, there’s still a love for the ease, enjoyment, and beauty of spending a week on the lake with family.

On The Lake

God was having a good day when He created Lake Powell. I am in awe of its beauty and stand in reverent gratitude for the men and women, both past and present, who have worked tirelessly to preserve and improve this incredible area. But the grandeur of this natural marvel isn’t the only reason I love it. I have come to realize that Lake Powell is more than just the sum of its parts. On this lake I have found

People as varied as the tumbled rocks, separate but together, a strong anchorage

Laughter as endless as the starry sky

Friendship as steady as the red rock cliffs

Love as deep as the river

Family as constant as the waves lapping at the sand beach, never-ending and eternal

Wonder as fantastical as the winding corridors

Faith as peaceful as the morning water

Joy as bright as the sun

Chasing Tomorrow

I see her silhouetted against the night-city dusk at the end of the alley. It steals the color from her, painting her in grays and blacks—tumbled curls, straight shoulders, slim waist, long legs.

I start to run.

Have you ever had a dream you wanted so badly, chased so hard, cried and screamed and yearned and fought for so much, and yet it always felt just out of reach? That is exactly how I feel about publishing a novel!! I’m not giving up, not by a long shot. I’ve got some published short stories under my belt, so that’s a good start. And I’ve won a bunch of contests. And I WANT it! This is one of the short stories that won and is published now in a League of Utah Writers anthology titled ‘Chasing Tomorrow’ (after my piece). It’s a story about wanting something always out of reach and never giving up. Hope you enjoy.

Chasing Tomorrow

Her footsteps echo off the midnight alley walls. A cold breeze gusts down the narrow corridor bringing a hint of rotting garbage and dank corners. Fear crawls up my spine and settles, cold and clammy, at the base of my skull. I pause a moment, but the tap of her feet draws me into the dark.

A musty heaviness fills the air, sinking to the bottom of my lungs with each gasp, muffling my breath, filling my ears with my heartbeat.

A single naked bulb, hanging drunkenly from a rusty fixture, throws a circle of light on the ground. The alley’s broken pavement is like jagged teeth nipping at her ankles as she skirts the light. I see a flash of sky-high red heels and a flutter of her delicate dress before her creamy calf is swallowed again in the shadows.

I speed up. She’s not getting away this time.

But when I get to the light she’s long gone. I push farther, faster, eager to finally feel her heat, her vitality under my fingers.

I see her silhouetted against the night-city dusk at the end of the alley. It steals the color from her, painting her in grays and blacks—tumbled curls, straight shoulders, slim waist, long legs.

I start to run.

She doesn’t know I follow her. She’s never seen me, never felt me watching, never perceived my yearning. Now, she steps to the right, moving away again, intent on what’s in front of her instead of what’s behind.

Hurrying forward, I trip over a box and sprawl to the ground. Whatever was in the container rolls hollowly across the pavement. My cheek is pressed to the grit and grime of the alley. A cellophane wrapper crinkles under the fingers of my right hand, and I prefer not to question what the warm, wet substance that coats my left hand is.

I scramble to my feet and rush around the corner headlong into a chest as wide and hard as a brick wall. I bounce off and hit the pavement. Blinking from my new seat on the ground, I peer up at the hulking figure in front of me. He looks like a prison warden, which I guess is appropriate—hair buzzed high and tight, body like a tank, and eyes that see everything and show nothing. Words like schedule and priority and order are important to this guy.

I curse silently, but I keep my face pleasant. “Hey, Time. What’s up?”

“Today.” He says my name like it’s a bad word. “Where are you headed in such a hurry?”


“Really.” Time doesn’t say it like it’s a question, but his gray eyes stare at me like he’s waiting for an answer. I keep quiet. I’m no dummy. Finally, he says, “Guess who I saw pass by here a minute ago?”

I stand and dust off the seat of my jeans. “Who?” I give him what I hope is a casually curious look.

“You can drop the innocent act,” he says. His hands are fists at his side, and he’s the kind of guy who would use them. “I’ve told you before not to chase after her.”


 “But nothing. You’ll never catch up to Tomorrow.”

“Please, Time,” I say. “She’s so beautiful and mysterious.”

“It’s hopeless, Today.”

“No, it’s not.” I shove my hands through my hair. “If she’d just look behind her—if she could only see me—I know she’d feel the same way I do.”

“You’re too different,” Time says. “I know you both. Tomorrow’s full of optimistic hope for the future. You’re the painful, inescapable present. It won’t work.”

“I can change,” I say, “if she’ll just give me a chance.”

I try to walk past him, but he plants a hand on my chest.

I turn my head, not casual any more, and give him my own unbending stare. “I have to try.” His mouth is granite and his eyes are steel, but he drops his hand.

I run down the sidewalk, sprinting past barred windows impatient to dazzle passers-by, weaving through empty tables forlorn without their twenty-somethings sipping flavored coffees. I pass street lights shining for an audience of one. Me.

But no, there are two of us here. I see Tomorrow ahead, flitting through the puddles of light, feet barely touching the ground.

And I follow, like I always have.

Farther and farther she leads me. Hours and miles through the night. The city falls behind, the suburbs, the scattered houses that fringe civilization. Fields of wheat roll by, corn and grass, soybeans and rice. Oceans and mountains and deserts and wide open spaces that only small, furtive creatures call home.

Finally, light breaks in the east. I see her pause, eyes forward. The first rays of sunlight finger her golden hair, turning it into a tumble of fiery curls.

Now! I think. Now, while she stands on the threshold.

I double my speed. Close. Closer. I reach out as the sun bursts over the horizon. But I’m too late. My fingers brush the red-gold tips of her hair as she skips ahead once more.

My toe catches on the uneven ground, and I stumble. Spin around.

My heart leaps in surprise. What’s this? Someone behind me with her hand outstretched, reaching for me. I meet Yesterday’s eyes—pleading, wishful eyes—for one brief moment. Then I gain my balance, shake it off, and turn again to chase Tomorrow.

Puttin’ on the Ritz

The older we got, the more items took up residency on the long bathroom vanity. The countertop was cluttered with curling irons, curlers, crimpers, blow-dryers, hairbrushes, banana clips, towels, hair elastics and headbands, lotion, feminine products, makeup, toothbrushes, toothpaste, contact lens solution, breakfast (if we were running late), articles of clothing, books, a roll of toilet paper (used for both nose-blowing and makeup-smudging—though not at the same time), and a whole array of hair care products including mousse, hairspray, gel, and the occasional box of do-it-at-home hair dye.

Do you remember those hectic days of getting ready for school? The agonizing choice of what to wear, the careful timing that allowed the maximum amount of sleep while still maintaining enough time to look your best and eat something and finish that math homework you never got around to the night before? There are many mornings when I watch my own kids go through that still-familiar routine that I say a silent prayer to an all-wise God who allowed us to eventually leave those rocky teenage shoals.

Puttin’ on the Ritz – by Josie Hume

I grew up as one of the three “big girls.” Hannah was the oldest, born in 1975, Kate, the middle, in 1976, and then me in 1977. The next sibling, Landon, wasn’t born until 1981 followed, in time, by three more siblings, hence the moniker. With the nearest neighborhood kids our age more than three miles down the road, we were each other’s playmates, conversationalists and confidants. As we entered our teenage years, my mother looked on with a Madonna smile, congratulating herself on her wise family planning. My father built a bigger bathroom.

School mornings were hectic at our house: alarms blaring; kids dancing outside the occupied toilet room door or jockeying for showers; shouts of “Hurry up!” and “Don’t use all the hot water!” and “Can I wear your …” and “Has anyone seen my …”

The older we got, the more items took up residency on the long bathroom vanity. The countertop was cluttered with curling irons, curlers, crimpers, blow-dryers, hairbrushes, banana clips, towels, hair elastics and headbands, lotion, feminine products, makeup, toothbrushes, toothpaste, contact lens solution, breakfast (if we were running late), articles of clothing, books, a roll of toilet paper (used for both nose-blowing and makeup-smudging—though not at the same time), and a whole array of hair care products including mousse, hairspray, gel, and the occasional box of do-it-at-home hair dye.

After scrubbing, polishing, buffing, shaving, waxing, tweezing, styling and primping, we descended en masse to eat breakfast and make lunches. On the weekends, my dad would make the best french toast for the family, but on school mornings, breakfasts were generally “if you can find it, you can eat it” kinds of meals. Cereal, pie, toast, leftovers, cottage cheese, eggs… bites of which were consumed while finishing homework, putting the final touches on school projects, making sandwiches, stuffing chips and treats in brown paper bags, or cramming for tests.

When someone saw the bus round the bend at the bottom of the canyon, everything kicked into hyper-drive. The bus trundled up the canyon at 7:15 five mornings a week—and five mornings a week we were never ready on time. Frantic questions like “Where are my shoes?!” and “Will someone grab me some chips for my lunch?!” and “Who took the last cookie?!” and “Has anyone seen my backpack?!” echoed through the house followed by what I am sure was a blissful silence as we made the mad dash up the driveway.

How my mother must have sighed with relief when we all ran out the door! Maybe she snickered at the spectacle of kids trying to shove papers in school bags, carrying one shoe and hopping on the other foot while eating a banana and balancing a paper-mâché mobile of the solar system. Or maybe she rolled her eyes at us big girls as we picked our way through the snow in sandals because sensible shoes didn’t go with our outfits, secure in the knowledge that she was never so foolish when she was young. There must have been many times she growled when she noticed three lunches still sitting on the kitchen counter and had to race after us so we didn’t go hungry.

But I like to think that most of the time she had a smile on her face as she stood in the kitchen we’d built and watched her children tramp up the driveway, laughing and joking with each other, lending a helping hand when needed, excited for the day ahead of them. And then she’d turn back to the one or two small children still at home with a sense of peace, knowing that she’d done her job and done it well.

Breathing Room

My new room had two windows, a large closet, a desk, and a bookcase that doubled as a dresser. It didn’t have a heater yet, but it was mine and mine alone, and being able to see my breath in the winter didn’t seem that daunting of a prospect if I was the only one seeing it.

Do you remember the first time you got your own room? Perhaps you’ve never had to share? Perhaps you never had your own? I remember mine. It had wine-red carpet, cream walls and two windows, one on each side of the corner. My view of the mountains was spectacular, and I often opened the windows to breathe in the sweet morning air. Life in my room was good.

Breathing Room – Josie Hume

For most of my growing up years I shared a large room with my siblings, all six of them. We were like the dwarves in Snow White—seven beds all in a row. I was in high school when we finally built an addition to our house that included individual bedrooms.

My new room had two windows, a large closet, a desk, and a bookcase that doubled as a dresser. It didn’t have a heater yet, but it was mine and mine alone, and being able to see my breath in the winter didn’t seem that daunting of a prospect if I was the only one seeing it.

Besides being cold, the room was also aptly named “The Bee and Fly Room.” Wasps and flies lived in the attic above my new domicile and wouldn’t go away, no matter how many times my father sprayed. Being attracted by the light and heat of the bulb, the insects would crawl into my room through the light box. On chilly mornings, dozens of tiny but deadly black and yellow bodies, sluggish from the cold, littered my floor like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. They stayed there, a wriggling carpet, until the sun crested the mountains and warmed the air enough so they could start their busy day of tormenting their co-resident.

After several stings, I developed the following precautions:

  1. Remain covered up—bees won’t worm their way under the covers, but if you invite them under, they’ll accept.
  2. Keep arms and legs (and head) inside the blankets at all times.
  3. Check the bedspread for wasps before you uncover in the morning.
  4. Keep a pair of shoes or slippers beside the bed so you don’t have to walk barefoot across the treacherous floor.
  5. Check your shoes or slippers for insects before you slip them on.
  6. Always make your bed in the morning so nothing can make it their home during the day.
  7. Look where you plan to sit before actually doing so.
  8. Don’t leave clothing on the floor or something else might try to wear it.
  9. Shake out your clothes before you put them on, even if they’ve been folded in the bookcase.
  10. Pause a moment outside your room and assess the situation before entering. Ask yourself the following question: Is what I need inside really worth it?

It is a testament to just how badly I wanted my own room that I put up with these “roommates.” I hadn’t realized how stifled I’d been. All of sudden, I had my space. If I wanted to be alone, I had a place to go. If I wanted to stay up all night reading, I could do it without keeping anyone else awake. I could listen to my radio, tape posters on the walls, do my homework, or have a friend over for a private giggle about boys or a slamfest about teachers. The door to my room didn’t shut me in—it shut the world out.

I experienced a lot of firsts in that room. I cried my first tears over a boy and dressed up for my first prom. I read my acceptance letter to The Netherlands Rotary Exchange program when I was sixteen, then packed up the closet and the shelves to leave my family for the first time. I returned a year later and a decade older. Those walls heard my laughter and my prayers, my sobs and my whispered dreams, and they sheltered me as I muddled my way through the tangled emotions of high school.

That was the last time I had my own room. I joined the Marine Corps after high school and shared a squad bay with sixty other girls at boot camp, then moved to my next duty station and into a double room in the barracks. Eventually, I got married and have shared a room with my husband for twenty years now. Even though living with him has brought me more joy than my teenage self ever imagined possible, we all need some alone-time occasionally. Everyone needs some breathing room. A space to be ourselves, to let our hair down—to think outrageous thoughts and scream obscenities and laugh till we cry. A space where the only eyes watching us are our own.

So go ahead, take a minute. Shut the door and breathe.


I’ve been knocking for ten minutes. I know you can hear me! 2AM is NOT an appropriate time to blare One Direction! Our bedrooms share a wall, you know. Whatever kind of crazy hours you keep, please keep them to yourself!

My husband leaves me little love notes around the house. I have a binder of them I’ve saved over the years. I opened it recently and was swept back to the falling-in-love stage of our romance. I hope you enjoy this cute little story about two neighbors and the notes they leave for each other.

Noted – by Josie Hume

April 20

Note on the door of apartment #409 – pink lined stationery with a daisy border

Welcome to the building, neighbor! I’m having a little get together with the rest of the 4th floor Friday night—nothing fancy, just sandwiches and stuff. We’d love to have you come! Apt #411, 6:00 pm.


April 23

Note on the door of apartment #409 – pink lined stationery with a daisy border

We missed you at our party tonight. (Mrs. Neville, #410, says you were probably on a date since you’re “hot.”) Anyway, I have some chicken salad and chips left over if you want to swing by tomorrow and grab them.


P.S. Mrs. Neville is 83!

May 1

Note on the door of apartment #409 – printer paper ripped in half

I’ve been knocking for ten minutes. I know you can hear me! 2AM is NOT an appropriate time to blare One Direction! Our bedrooms share a wall, you know. Whatever kind of crazy hours you keep, please keep them to yourself!


May 1

Note on the door of apartment #411 – back of a Starbucks receipt

I was not “blaring” my music.


P.S. It was NOT One Direction!

May 2

Note on the door of apartment #409 – notepad from Jacobs&Warner law firm

Were too.


May 2

Note on the door of apartment #411 – back of a Benito’s Bellisima Pizza flier

Was not. The walls are thin. I can hear YOU moving around your room at night. It keeps me up.


May 3

Note on the door of apartment #409 – back of a quote of the day calendar (quote on the front: “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” Albert Einstein)

I never heard Mr. Tao when he lived there. And what do you mean, it keeps you up?


May 3

Note on the door of apartment #411 – notepad from Big Al’s Body Shop

Mr. Tao was probably tucked in bed by 5:00. (Mrs. Neville says he was old—and she’s ancient!) But that doesn’t mean he didn’t enjoy the show when you were getting ready for bed. Showering, blow drying your hair, opening and closing your dresser drawers. Wondering what you have in those drawers keeps me up at night.


May 7

Note on the door of apartment #411 – yellow post-it note

Too offended to write back?


P.S. Anything black and silky?

May 7

Note on the door of apartment #409 – back of a shopping list (on the front: bananas, yogurt, granola, almond milk, chicken breasts, salad, nuts, whole wheat bread)

I am NOT offended. I would have to care what you thought to be offended. Keep your mind out of the gutter and out of my drawers!


May 8

Note on the door of apartment #411 – back of a Krispy Kreme to-go bag

Red lace?


May 15

Note on the door of apartment #409 – back of a business card (front of card: Jill Hughes, Interior Designer, Details Inc)

You’ll never know. Mrs. Neville says you’re a cop. As a policeman, you should know the penalty for voyeurism.


May 16

Note on the door of apartment #411 – back of an American Express credit card offer envelope

How do you feel about dating a cop?


P.S. Peach with ruffles?

May 17

Mark’s May 16th note re-taped on the door of apartment #409 – back of an American Express credit card offer envelope

Is this a hypothetical question?


P.S. Peach with ruffles?     (eye roll) Puh-leeze

May 18

Mark’s May 16th note re-taped on the door of apartment #411 – back of an American Express credit card offer envelope

Only if the answer is no.


P.S. Peach with ruffles?     (eye roll) Puh-leeze

Give a guy a break! I’m dying here.

May 19

Mark’s May 16th note re-taped on the door of apartment #409 – back of an American Express credit card offer envelope

I’m open to the possibility.


P.S. Peach with ruffles?     (eye roll) Puh-leeze

Give a guy a break! I’m dying here.     White cotton granny panties.

May 20

Mark’s May 16th note re-taped on the door of apartment #411 – back of an American Express credit card offer envelope

Good. You like Italian?


P.S. Peach with ruffles?     (eye roll) Puh-leeze

Give a guy a break! I’m dying here.     White cotton granny panties.

I bet you look sexy as hell in those. My new fantasy.

May 20

Note on the door of apartment #409 – back of Gentle Hands Massage Parlor Deep Breathing and Relaxation instructions

You better not picture me in white cotton granny panties!


May 21

Note on the door of apartment #411 – corner ripped from an evidence receipt form

Too late.


P.S. Friday?

May 21

Note on the door of apartment #409 – Lazy Caterpillar green paint color sample

Friday sounds great! I love Italian.


May 24

Note on the door of apartment #411 – floral arrangement card, Looking Forward to Seeing You in script printed on the front, a small daisy taped to the card

Can’t wait till tonight. Mario’s. I’ll pick you up at 7:00.


May 24

Note on the corner table of Mario’s Italian Restaurant – napkin

Just got an emergency call. Sorry for running out while you’re in the lady’s. I already took care of the bill. Be safe on your way home. I’ll check in with you when I can. If you have any problems, my number is 555-4892.


May 24

Note on the door of apartment #409 – corner torn from Mario’s brown paper leftover bag

Home safe. I had a great time tonight. I’ve got an early meeting so I’m going to sleep. DO NOT KNOCK!


P.S. This is NOT one of those things that girls do to screw with your head. I DID have a nice time. I’m FINE that you had to leave. And I really DO have an early meeting. See you later.

May 25

Jill’s May 24th note re-taped on the door of apartment #411 – back side of corner torn from Mario’s brown paper leftover bag

I had a good time, too. Let’s do it again. I didn’t get to kiss you good night.


May 25

Note on the door of apartment #409 – graph paper (room dimensions and quick sketch on reverse side)

Are you free tonight?


May 25

Note on the door of apartment #411 – page ripped from a small notebook



May 26

Note on the bedside table of apartment #411 – pink lined stationery with a daisy border

I was right the first time. Black and silky.


June 12

Note on the fridge in apartment #409 – notepad from Big Al’s Body Shop

Forgot to tell you last night – I’m headed home next weekend. Is it too soon to ask you if you want to meet my family?


P.S. If it is, pretend I never wrote this.

June 24

Note on the counter in apartment #411 – back of Nam-ASS-te – Yoga for Your Booty flier

I’m leaving you for your mom. Her porcini stuffed pork chops with a demi-glace were divine.


P.S. Turn about is fair play – my family is watching the 4th of July fireworks from a boat in the harbor, you game?

P.P.S. Warning: my mother is a terrible cook – steer clear of the chicken salad sandwiches.

P.P.P.S. Is this flier for real?

July 5

Note on the table in apartment #409 – in Sharpie on a flag-print paper plate

If you’re wondering where the sandwiches that used to be on this plate went, look in the garbage. How anyone can ruin chicken salad is beyond me. Your family is hilarious.


P.S. Still seeing fireworks.  

July 19

Note on the bathroom mirror in apartment #411 – red flower post-it note

Game night was great! Did you see the way Patricia and Dan were flirting? I’ll tell you what Dan says if you tell me what Patricia says…

Love, Mark

P.S. From now on, you are always on my team for Pictionary.

August 3

Note on the coffee pot of apartment #409 – back of Yu Wong’s Chinese Palace and Burritos takeout menu

Early meeting again. Didn’t want to wake you after your late night. Hope your case went well.

Love, Jill

P.S. You need more coffee. I’ll pick some up on my way home.

August 27

Note on the door of apartment #411 – page torn from Columbia Magazine

Missing you.

Love you, Mark

August 28

Note on the door of apartment #409 – back of Chicago to New York boarding pass

Missed you, too, so I came home a day early from my conference. Knock on my door when you get home.

Love you more, Jill

September 22

Note on the door of apartment #411 – on the back of The Pie flier advertising “The Big Apple” dessert pizza

Game night. Go Jets! You want to watch it together? I’ll bring beer, you bring pizza. (Hint: See front of flier)


P.S. Sorry about last time.

September 22

Note on the door of apartment #409 – clipped coupon for Orville Redenbacher’s Movie Theater Butter microwave popcorn

Only if you keep your snarky comments to yourself. Bring some popcorn too and you’ve got a deal.


P.S. You are forgiven, since my team is going to kick your team’s ass.

Go Giants!

October 20

Note trapped under a champagne flute on the linen-covered table of Bene – back of Jill’s April 20th note inviting Mark to her party, pink lined stationery with a daisy border

Happy six-month anniversary, darling! Everything I own, I give to you. Everything I am, I lay at your feet. Everything I hope to be, I trust to your hands. You are the color in my world, the joy in my life, and the promise in my future. Marry me?

Love you – forever and a day, Mark

December 3

Note on the door of apartment #410 – wedding announcement, personal note on the bottom of the card reads:

Please say you’ll come, Mrs. Neville! It wouldn’t be the same without you.

Love, Jill    and Mark

P.S. My Uncle Charlie asked if I was inviting any hot chicks to my wedding. I told him about you. He said to save him the first dance.

P.P.S Go easy on him.

Katie’s Christmas Dinner

The water from the tree stand gushed across the carpet. The papier-mâché star Mother had made when she was a little girl disappeared in a puff of smoke. The lace snowflakes, tatted long ago by some ancestor, began curling at the edges. The clothespin soldiers Uncle Walter crafted wore hats of flame. The plastic drums, a gift from Uncle Greg last year, began to melt.

I wrote this short story a while ago for a church activity: a progressive dinner focusing on the sights, smells, sounds and feels of Christmas. I was asked to present something for the ‘smells’. I hope you can smell your own Christmas traditions as you read this story about all the trouble Katie got into on her favorite day of the year.

Katie’s Christmas Dinner – by Josie Hume

The moon still bathed the snow-covered trees with a soft glow when Katie woke. She wiggled with excitement. It was finally here, the day she had been waiting for all year long. Today, the house would fill with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents–everyone gathered for this special day.

But the best thing about today was the food. There would be a feast, the likes of which had not been seen for twelve months. There would be a ham and a roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, rolls with creamy butter, green beans and corn, salads and pies, cookies, punch, eggnog… anything and everything you could possibly imagine spread out on the table.

Today was Christmas Day, and Katie couldn’t wait for it to begin. In fact, she’d make it start right now. She jumped on Sam’s bed, and then raced down the hall to to do same to the twin’s beds. Once Tiffany and Tessa woke up, there was no stopping it. Mother and Father stumbled from their room and the whole family gathered in front of the Christmas tree. Piles of presents drifted from beneath its twinkling boughs.

Katie ripped into her gifts with giddy glee. Wrapping paper flew about her like a snow storm. The whole family laughed, and Katie plopped on the floor, laying her head on her new stuffed animal with a blissful smile on her face.

The last breakfast dish rattled into the dishwasher just before a sharp knock on the front door brought squeals of joy from the kids. The relatives were here! Mom opened the door and in blew Great Uncle Walter and Aunt Bess, bringing with them the cold, crisp smell of a winter’s day.

“Isabel!” boomed Uncle Walter as he smothered Mom in a bear hug. “Merry Christmas, my dear.” He grinned down at Katie. “Hello, Katie,” he said and patted her head.

“Uncle Walter, Aunt Bess. Here, let me take your coats.”

Uncle Walter tucked his hat, scarf and gloves into the pocket of his great coat and handed it to Mother. “Isabel, dear,” Aunt Bess said in her creaky voice, “I’ve left the pies out in the car.”

Mother’s eyes lit up. “I’ll send John out for them. I hope one of those pies is cherry. Nothing beats your cherry pies.”

Aunt Bess clucked. “Just for you, dear.”

Mother laughed and whirled away with the coats. Katie followed Uncle Walter into the kitchen. He took a glass from the counter, opened the fridge, and poured a generous amount of eggnog into his cup. He took an appreciative sniff and winked at Katie. “Now don’t you be telling Isabel that I’ve started in on the eggnog. She thinks I drink too much of it already.” He took his glass into the living room and settled on the couch next to the fireplace.

Katie grinned. She’d watched Mother make an extra batch of eggnog just last night, muttering about Uncle Walter all the while. But she’d been smiling when she rearranged the fridge so the pitcher of eggnog was in front. And when she set the glasses on the counter she winked at Katie and said, “That should make it a little easier for him to sneak something to drink.”

Before long, the house was full of chatter and laughter. Kids dashed about, playing with their new toys. Adults caught up with the details of each other’s lives. And Katie weaved in and out of the crowd, lapping up attention.

“Look how tall you’ve gotten, Katie!”

“Aren’t you a pretty girl!”

“Oh, Katie. I’ve missed you!”

With each addition to the party came more of the wonderful food. The rich aroma of baking ham came in with Grandma Sue. She always half-baked the ham at home and let it finish cooking here. Cousin Ellen brought her crock-pot and set it on the counter. Soon the scent of roast beef mingled with the salty smell of ham. Uncle Greg brought a green bean casserole, the mushroom soup bubbling under the French onions. He was a bachelor and prided himself on his skill with this casserole, and since it was his only talent in the kitchen, he was asked to bring it every year. Soon the yeasty smell of Mother’s rising rolls joined the other aromas wafting from the kitchen.

Katie licked her lips trying to taste the wonderful smells. She followed her nose into the kitchen. The room was a hive of activity. The granite-topped island was white with flour as the women mixed sugar cookie dough, rolled it out, and cut it into Christmas shapes with cookie cutters. Most of the cookies would be given to friends and neighbors, but a large platter would be left on the table for everyone to share.

Already there were two sheets of cookies cooling on racks at the end of the table. Katie moved closer. Their buttery smell surrounded her as she inched her nose even closer. Maybe she could have just a tiny taste.

“Katie! No!” Mother’s voice broke the spell. Foiled, Katie moved away, and Mother went back to mixing the frosting.

“Could someone hand me some flour, please?” Cousin Ellen asked the room at large. Katie could see Cousin Ellen up to her elbows in cookie dough. Maybe Katie could help! A big bag of flour rested against the side of the island. Katie tried to slide the bag over the Cousin Ellen, but it didn’t slide. In slow motion, the bag tipped onto its side, spilling flour all over the floor like drifted snow.

Katie cringed and squeezed her eyes closed waiting for the scolding she was sure to get, but nothing came—no harsh words, no cries of dismay. Katie slowly opened her eyes and peered around. Everyone was busy. No one had seen! All she had to do was clean up the flour, and no one would ever know what had happened.

She started pushing the flour back toward the bag, but the more she pushed, the more the mess spread. If she couldn’t get the flour back in the bag, the next best thing was to get herself as far from the mess as possible. Katie casually ran toward the kitchen door.

“What in heaven’s name—” Mom began, and then, menacingly, “Katie!”

Katie stopped where she was and looked back, batting innocent eyes. Maybe she could fool Mother? But no. Her heart sank as she looked at the incriminating flour tracks behind her. The trail started at the flour bag and ended right at her own feet! She sighed and carefully shook each foot, then made her way out of the room, her head low, leaving the delicious smells behind.

In the hall, her nose caught another delightful aroma. Popcorn. She followed the smell to the playroom where children were stringing popcorn and cranberries to make a garland for the tree. Katie looked around at all the smiling faces. This was where she belonged; she would be able to help here. She walked over to the popcorn bowl but didn’t see the abandoned needle lying on the floor, waiting for an unwary foot to cross its path. She howled in pain, scrambling away from the sharp pain. In her haste, she stepped in the bowl sending popcorn flying into the air. The bright laughter faded and was replaced with accusing voices. “Oh, no, Katie! No, no!”

Katie ran blindly for the doorway, tripping over garlands and squashing cranberries. She ran down the hallway, followed by a chorus of complaints. She slunk into the living room. There was Uncle Walter, napping on the couch, his empty eggnog cup sitting on the end table.

Katie climbed onto the couch and curled up next to him. She could always count on Uncle Walter—he was never mean or short-tempered. She rested her head on his arm. He smelled like peppermint. Peppermint and eggnog. She smiled. She could feel the heat of the fire and smell the cedar logs burning, the sap popping and crackling. The lights of the Christmas tree twinkled softly, the scent of its boughs filling the air with soft memories of years past. She heaved a sigh and closed her eyes. Everything was right with the world again.

Uncle Walter woke with a snort. Katie lifted her head. “Sorry, Katie, but I need to get up and…. Well, never you mind what I need to do, but I’d better not do it here or Isabel will skin me alive.” He got to his feet and took a few shaky steps. He stood blinking and swaying. “I think maybe I’ve had too much eggnog. Whadya think, Katie?” he slurred.

Katie watched nervously as he tottered past the fire, his arms held out for balance. He was almost past the fireplace when he suddenly swerved right toward the flames.

Oh no! Katie slid off the couch and ran straight for Uncle Walter. She crashed into him, sending him flailing backward, arms wind-milling, eyes wide and panicky. What happened next seemed to take place in slow motion. Katie watched in horror as Uncle Walter wildly reached for something to hold onto. He found the Christmas tree. Clinging to the prickly branches, he finally regained his balance, but was too late for the tree. It fell, with the crunch of smashing bulbs, right into the fire.

The water from the tree stand gushed across the carpet. The papier-mâché star Mother had made when she was a little girl disappeared in a puff of smoke. The lace snowflakes, tatted long ago by some ancestor, began curling at the edges. The clothespin soldiers Uncle Walter crafted wore hats of flame. The plastic drums, a gift from Uncle Greg last year, began to melt.

Father was the first to come rushing through the door, drawn by the crash of the tree and Uncle Walter’s cries of distress. Father pulled the tree out of the fire and left it smoking on the hearth. He stamped on the flaming ornaments, putting the soldiers out of their misery.

More people came to investigate, and sympathetic murmurs floated through the air as Uncle Walter told his tale. “It’s all my fault,” he said with a sheepish look at Mother, “I might have had too much eggnog.” He didn’t mention Katie at all, but she could tell what they were thinking: she had ruined everything else, there was no doubt this was her fault, too.

She went into the entryway and sat in a corner. Christmas was ruined. It didn’t even smell good anymore—it smelled like smoking boughs and melted plastic and wet carpet. She heard Mother and Cousin Ellen sweep up the ruined ornaments, and Grandma Sue cluck as she soaked up the water with a towel.

No one came to play with Katie. She put her head on her knees and sighed.

Father suggested turning on some Christmas music. Cousin Ellen said that sounded good so long as Uncle Water promised not to dance with any more pine trees. Mother laughed. The crisis was over. She and Aunt Bess went into the kitchen to make gravy. Uncle Greg was roped into mashing the potatoes. Gradually the house became joyful again, and the final flourishes were put on the feast.

At last, Father called everyone to dinner. Katie slunk into the dining room. Platters of meats, baskets of rolls and colorful casserole dishes loaded the table. Eyes sparkled as people sat. Lips smacked as rich scents were smelled. An expectant hush filled the air. But Katie didn’t enjoy any of it. All she could think about were the mistakes she made today.

Father welcomed everyone and thanked them for coming. He asked Uncle Greg to say grace, and Mother offered her own thoughts about family and the true meaning of Christmas.

Just as she was finishing, Cousin Ellen let out a shriek. “Rat! Rat!” she screamed. “There’s a rat in here!”

Uncle Greg squealed and leaped onto a chair. The women began to wail and grab their children, pulling them to the safety of the living room. Father rushed for the broom. Uncle Walter bellowed for his rifle.

Grandma Sue pointed to the corner. “There it is!”

A fresh round of screams was followed by a tense silence as Father bravely advanced, waving the broom menacingly at the gray beast.

“Be careful, John.” Mother’s voice quavered.

Aunt Bess fainted.

The rat’s feral eyes gleamed as it bared its sharp, yellow teeth. Its head darted from side to side, as it backed further into the corner. Father moved closer. Suddenly, the rat ran to the right, dodged to the left, and dashed straight at Father. Father was caught off guard. He raised his broom and swung for the rat. The broom’s bristles sailed harmlessly over its back as the sturdy wooden handle continued its arc and smashed into Uncle Greg’s shins.

Katie watched the scene in front of her with big eyes. Everything seemed to slow down. Uncle Greg was howling in pain. Mother was slapping Aunt Bess’s cheeks to wake her up. Uncle Walter was still roaring for his rifle, and Cousin Ellen was shrieking like a tea pot. In the midst of confusion, the rat took a mighty leap and launched itself straight toward the table.

In an instant, Katie saw all her dreams of Christmas dinner ruined. No roast, no ham, no potatoes and gravy. What would her family do? She couldn’t let it happen. Father was still trying to separate the broom from Uncle Greg; he wouldn’t be able to stop the rat in time! It was up to Katie.

She bounded toward the table, vaulted over the prostrate form of Aunt Bess, skirted Uncle Greg and leaped at the rat. She caught it midair, her teeth closing over its large body. Hot blood flooded her mouth as the rat struggled. She landed in front of Uncle Walter, shaking her head sharply to stop the rat’s movements.

She laid the rat on the floor and looked up at Uncle Walter. He smiled at her and scratched behind her ears. “Good girl, Katie. You saved Christmas dinner. Although, I still wish I’d had my rifle.” He winked at her.

Katie grinned, her tongue lolling out. A large group, all eager to scratch her belly and tell her how brave she was soon surrounded her. Father got some newspaper and picked up the rat. Aunt Bess finally woke and, once assured that the rat was no longer a danger, consented to find a seat at the table. Uncle Greg accepted Father’s apology and limped to his chair.

Soon everyone sat around the table. Mother tapped on her glass with her fork to get everyone’s attention. As soon as it was quiet, she turned to Katie, who had returned to her corner, her chin lying hopefully on the wide lip of her dish. “Katie, come here,” she said sternly.

Katie obediently padded across floor.

“Katie, you’ve made one big mess after another today. You’ve been into the flour, the popcorn and the Christmas tree.” She shot a glance at Uncle Walter, who looked guiltily at his plate. Katie hung her head and waited for the order to spend the rest of the day outside. “And now you’ve killed a rat in my dining room,” she paused and then smiled, “and saved Christmas dinner.” She picked up her plate. “And so, I’m dedicating this first plate to the bravest and best dog a family could ever ask for—Katie, the Rat Slayer!”

Mother put a slice of ham on the plate and passed it to Father who added potatoes and gravy. The plate went around the table, each person adding a tasty morsel. Soon the plate was loaded. Mother set it on the floor. Katie stood over the plate for a moment, just breathing in the aroma of love and family and forgiveness, before she buried her nose in the best Christmas dinner ever.

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