A to Z Challenge: Xander, Yancy and Zeke

Character sketches that are fictional, but based on real people like you and me.

They were born two years apart, giving a hierarchy of sorts but also giving them enough in common to make good playmates out of them. It would be wrong to say that there was no competition between them, but as brothers go, they were more inclined to stick up for each other and get along. They grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, which as it turned out, was a pretty good place to grow up.

Xander was the oldest. On his own for his first two years, he may have acquired more of an independent spirit. Also being the first son, he got to do many things first, before the others. Sometimes this was a privilege, but other times it felt more like a restriction. When you are the first to be taught to drive a tractor it is pretty heady stuff, until you have to drive that tractor making hay while others are playing. As a child, Xander was an endless well of grandiose ideas. His aspiration at the age of eight was to ride his bike down the road with three ice cream cones in each hand. That took imagination.

Yancy and Zeke were sometimes thought to be twins. They shared a spot in the family behind their older brother and spent a lot of time together. Zeke grew faster than Yancy, and almost surpassed him in size. They both had sandy brown crew cuts, which would bleach out to near blonde in the summer. The sandy part was not just descriptive of color. One of their favorite pastimes was playing in the soft sand of the driveway, throwing it up in the air and letting it fall on their heads. The layer of sand on their scalps was thick enough for Mom to scratch off at bath time.

All three boys were often dressed alike since it was easiest to buy, or make, the same shirt in three sizes. Getting them dressed up for church was always like a circus act. One would get finished up, but before the second one was half done, the first one would spill something on his pants or decide to take shoes off. Given enough time, the miracle would occur and all three would make it into the car mostly dressed.

These three young boys were a force in the neighborhood, and at school for years. Bike riders, lawn mowers, basketball players, and friends to young and old. But as they developed their unique interests, their paths were tending to take very different directions. What would they do to maintain their sense of family closeness and their unity as brothers? Would it take something intentional, and what would that something be?

A to Z Challenge: Wesley

Character sketches that are fictional but based on real people, like you and me.

Wesley was 90 years old. Some people would have said he had no business being on a tractor, much less on a tractor, with other people, showing them how to drive it. But this was the Wesley who collected old farm machinery and got it running, the Wesley who was caregiver for his somewhat older wife who had Parkinson’s, the Wesley who cut and burned wood to heat the house, the Wesley who was used to being as healthy as a horse. They were having a great time on the tractor until he fell off.

Of course, things like this are not planned or practiced, they just happen. And they happen rather quickly. The people who have accidents like this probably can’t even tell you how the event happened because they are too busy watching their lives flash before them in an instant. Wesley thought he remembered how this fall came about – he was standing beside his granddaughter, who was driving, and as he leaned forward to pull a lever, he lost his balance and down he went.

Down he went between those huge big wheels on the back of the tractor. Even the thought of it is scary. Wesley, however, was a man of faith and calmly accepted the gift of getting to live another year. He tucked and rolled, appearing from under the tractor, completely intact and not at all run over. His shaken family members who got to watch him, insisted on taking him to the local hospital to get checked out. He did have a broken collar bone from landing on it too hard. He was a bit sore the next day.

He did a lot of downplaying the whole thing. He was a man of few words anyway. Whereas some people would have bragged and made sure everyone knew about their close call, Wesley was more worried that someone might actually tell his wife. She had no love for old tractors and would not have understood the desire to ride on one. Fortunately, she was not among the watchers as this went down. No one gave her any details.

There comes a time when even the most capable elders start to worry about their ability to keep themselves and others safe. Wesley is completely prepared to give this issue some serious thought when he gets older.

A to Z Challenge: Valerie

Being in a choir was not the usual thing for Val, although she did sing pretty well. This particular choir was quite a large group. They were practicing a moderately difficult program to be performed over the course of a week at a conference. There were singers from all over the world who had come for the music and for the fellowship. They were a faith based group, which made it possible for Val to feel a small degree of comfortable, but that wasn’t saying she was all the way there by any means.

She was standing in the alto section without being sure that was where she belonged. It was better than trying for notes up in the stratosphere. She was standing near another singer who didn’t seem as timid and unsure as she was. She decided they should become friends, and set about making it happen. She was good at that job even though she came across as being the quiet type at first. It just took her a while to get warmed up.

Valerie, who preferred to be called Val, was a Virginia girl with a slight southern twang to her speech. Like everyone else, her family had its share of dysfunction, but it was still a supportive, intact family. Val had finished high school and her first year at university when she met her friend in choir. They found out they shared a high love for adventure. Val also had a dry wit and a sense of humor that drew friends. She looked at life with an expectation of fun, and who wouldn’t want to be around that?

After singing in each other’s ears for a week the conference ended. They went their separate ways, but their friendship started its long distance phase. Letters went back and forth frequently. There’s something about the safety of writing to someone far away and not having to deal with judgment, for at least as long as it takes for a return letter – they became very well acquainted with each other’s personal lives. They were both writers, who actually preferred the written word as a means of working out their everyday angst. Their bond deepened.

Val was working on her degree in elementary education which left her somewhat free in the summer. Her friend had children who were old enough to be self-sufficient. So it came about that in the summer of 1996 her friend, Louise, invited her to do a trip out west with her. They would meet at Louise’s home in Florida and travel to Colorado in Louise’s aging Dodge van, camping as they went. Val went for it.

Patterning themselves after the duo of “Thelma and Louise” of Hollywood fame (well, except for the illegal parts, which make up most of the movie, oh, and the ending…) they set off to have an adventure. They had a great time traveling the Florida panhandle the first day. Safely reaching the campground Louise had lined up for the first night was their first triumph. They managed to set up their tent, have a walk on the beach and survived their first camp meal out of a can. It was the next day they were excited about and spent some time discussing. Neither of them had been to the city they were coming to next, and they had a list of what had to be seen and done.

“Thelma and Louise” in New Orleans, yeah, it had a good ring to it. Let the adventure begin…

A to Z Challenge: Uriah

Character sketches that are fictional but based on real people, like you and me.

He couldn’t figure out why his mother had named him Uriah. It was a perfectly good biblical name, she explained. It even meant “God’s light”. But why did she have to name him after a guy too dense to figure out why he was being sacrificed in battle – unwilling to think that the king could have been fooling around with his wife. Early on he adopted the nickname of Ri. Maybe people would assume he was a Ryan.

He had been a busy kid, grown into a busy man. He liked being busy. It was more interesting than being idle. It was true, he had become more balanced, mainly due to his wife’s influence, but it still drove him crazy to sit and endure small talk. He would start to fidget and then excuse himself to leave and get something done.

There were ample excuses. He was always involved in three or four projects of his own, in addition to his role as mayor of his small town, his own business, and his family. Oh yes, and there was the church board, his elderly mother’s estate which he kept track of, and the condo association and property that he managed. He was always surprising people with his newest idea to improve, clean up, organize.

Many people are busy because of their desire to advance themselves, but undergirding Uriah’s constant motion was his generosity. He almost never met a person he didn’t want to help, if they needed it. He was aware of his own abundant blessings and felt that he should be distributing his energy, his time and his wealth wherever his faith directed. As a result, God was always dropping something or someone in his path for him to consider.

And then, unexpectedly, his wife got sick and died. It was a devastating, unthinkable blow. For a while it was even more necessary to keep busy. He tore through the house, every drawer, cupboard and closet to make sure he knew what was there and that it all had a purpose – for him, now that he was alone. And then a gradual apathy settled in. The urgency was gone and he was looking, not for energy, but for motivation.

He didn’t need money. His business almost ran itself. His two children were out of the house. He had not been in this stage of life before, and had not imagined being in it by himself. It called for some deep introspection and he decided to give himself some time. Time for others to speak into his life, and most certainly for God to direct him.

But as so often happens, God directs people according to their personalities and the talents they already have. Uriah was at the church for a meeting one night when childcare was being provided for couples with children. The girls managing the nursery decided to take the children outside to play. The small play yard, fenced and lighted, had an unusual structure with a slide built in it. It was a ship, representing Noah’s ark. One of the girls noticed that the chain had been cut on the locked gate. Someone had moved into the ark and set up housekeeping.

Homelessness was on the rise in Uriah’s small town and this was not the first time it had affected the church. But this time the situation was going to land on Uriah’s plate. God needed to act through an energetic, generous person. Uriah was about to become busy again. Very busy.

A to Z Challenge: Todd

This character sketch is not fictional. Todd was real and although I have trouble remembering some of the details, this is my best recollection.

It feels right to use his real name. Todd is no longer with us. He left far too early. Everyone at the service was aware of that reality, and the church was full. This is only part of his story, but it’s the part I know best.

I first saw Todd in our backyard, at night, in the back row of people gathered around a small bonfire. He was part of the youth group that was re-enacting the experience of the persecuted church. They had come, one or two at a time, being very quiet and trying not to attract attention. It was my first witness of Todd’s faith and his willingness to express it. He was not the average young person there.

My husband started talking with Todd that night, and he started appearing at our home. He was a football player in a high school nearby, but was also a serious enough student to want to do well academically. My husband had taught math and sciences and Todd wanted help from time to time. He would appear after practice, around supper time, but wouldn’t come to eat. It took a few years until he felt comfortable going into the refrigerator or joining us at the table. He was extremely polite and unassuming. Gradually he began to feel more like one of the family.

There were quite a few people who saw a promising character in Todd. His high school coach, youth leaders, families like ours and friends. He wanted to overcome a troubled background, and he was doing it.

Todd did well in school and was something of a celebrity at graduation time. He was accepted at a state university, recruited to play football and declared a double major in social work and criminal justice. On breaks and in the summer he would come back to the hometown and work, stopping in to see us (or to do laundry). Like any young person going to college, he needed money and other kinds of support. My husband and I felt almost like proud parents when Todd graduated college and invited us to the ceremony.

Todd and another friend (Carroll) stopped by for dinner. A normal sized man fit neatly under Todd’s arm. He was quite a presence.

After his team won the national college football championship Todd played NFL football for the Titans and the Packers but was plagued with injuries. He finally left the sports scene and came back to our hometown. He had a heart for youth programs, coaching and motivational speaking. He desperately wanted to be a role model for young men.

As I think over our time with Todd, what I see that he was trying to find was family structure. He was looking for a father and a family, a place where he belonged that didn’t depend on his physical or academic skills. He loved being able to come to us whether he was expected or invited. He would sit and talk with my husband for hours into the night. When his back was against the wall financially he wanted someone to care enough to help. He wanted a place to leave his “stuff” in between jobs and residences. He wanted a safe place to come when he was sad or disappointed. He wanted someone to listen to his news when it was good and be glad with him, and someone to listen when it wasn’t good.

Todd didn’t tell us he wasn’t feeling well. I don’t think he was aware of how serious a problem he was experiencing. He was found dead in his apartment at the age of 35. We weren’t blood relatives and had no access to results of the autopsy, but to our knowledge it was not drug related. That would not have been in his nature. God gave us a lot to think about through our relationship with Todd, and we are grateful for the time he was in our life.

A to Z Challenge: Sam

Character sketches that are fictional, but based on real people, like us.

I knew his car had been stolen – the agency had the decency to call and tell me that yesterday morning. By why hadn’t he shown up last evening. Surely he could have found another ride in that amount of time. Where was Sam?

I depended on Sam for most of my husband’s care. Since having a stroke six months ago, the husband’s 200 lb. body had been in bed, at home, most of the time. He was on tube feedings, incontinent, and unable to communicate clearly. I had been lucky to find Sam during a time when shortages were causing crisis in all the local hospitals and nursing homes.

Tall and husky, moving easily and obviously strong, Sam had been a godsend. He not only helped clients move physically but he had an air of authority that produced mental compliance as well. My husband never gave him any trouble but Sam was full of stories of those who did. “Marines are the worst.” he would say. “They don’t want to follow doctor’s orders and are just plain ornery.” Or sometimes it was family members who thought they knew better. Sam enjoyed inviting them to take over if they would like. Most chose not to.

I didn’t know a lot about Sam’s life outside of work, just that he had married a woman a little older than he was, who had six kids. She must have been something special to get him to take on a tribe of that size. One of the kids was old enough to have a young one of her own. She lived at home. So at 30 something, Sam already had a grandchild in his house. He obviously had a thing for kids, even if they weren’t his own.

Somewhere along the line Sam had become a caregiver. He drove trucks for a while, and having a love for machinery of all kinds he started mowing lawns and doing yard work for people when he wasn’t driving truck. His family ran a service much like Visiting Angels so it was natural that he started picking up work doing home repairs, cleaning and doing errands for their clients. Once in a while an emergency came up where he actually had to sit with a client who was sick. He gained experience and so it happened that he started doing personal care for those who didn’t mind that he had no credentials. Their company was always up front about his status. There was such a shortage of workers in the healthcare field that people were glad to have Sam help them. He was way better than no help at all.

“I’m going to pull you towards me and then roll you over, buddy”, he would say. His voice was always a couple notches louder than any other noise in our house so he had a way of waking a place up and getting the work going. “Work with me now. Put your arm into this sleeve.” These explanations were part of why my husband liked Sam. There were no surprises to startle him.

He liked to talk while he worked, telling stories about his kids mostly. They knew what he did but I got the idea that it didn’t win him a lot of respect in their eyes. Just the other day he had told the youngest boy what he did at work and the kid said “Eeew, you have to change people’s diapers?” Sam told him, “yeah, and I changed yours too, so what?” That shut him up.

He was also big on apologies. He hardly ever did anything really wrong. He apologized for misunderstandings, for being confused, for not being quick enough, even for heading toward a doorway at the same time I was. I heard him say “sorry” so many times it started to jump out at me, so I told him to quit it. He apologized. I guess it was all his mom’s fault for being a stickler about politeness. She got a lot of credit for his work ethic too. He was quick, thorough, and had an air of kindness.

So where was Sam and why wasn’t I hearing from him? It was not going to be fun looking for a replacement.

A to Z Challenge: Roy

A character sketch of a real person I wish I had known better.

Roy was my grandfather. I am trying to think if it’s anyone’s fault that I did not know him better. How well does communication ever cross that much generational gap? I remember behaviors, but I was always left guessing as to what they meant. My grandfather is a series of snapshots in time.

In my childhood he was the smallish, white haired man who sat reading in his chair in the corner of the living room. We visited for Sunday dinner every week. While the adults visited or napped, I would read exciting stories in Grandpa’s Sports Illustrated and do sketches of deer.

His other place was a certain chair at the table – always the same one. The refrigerator was behind him, with the radio on top of it. Before meals, he would come in from working outside and wash up at a small sink just inside the kitchen door. His razor strap hung on the wall beside the sink. He would look at himself in the mirror on the wall. These snapshots do not have words to go with them. I don’t remember hearing him speak – ever, although I’m sure he did.

Although I don’t remember him laughing or talking with me, I don’t remember him as being fearsome or unkind either. I have no idea what he thought of me. He evidently did not mind having me around because I remember being allowed to go with him and Grandma to visit relatives overnight.

As a teen, I was often at my grandparent’s house but grandpa was usually outside working in the barn, fixing things. I would be sent to fetch him for a meal. Did I ever wonder what he was fixing and ask him questions? Should I have?

He let me use his car on the day I took the test for my driver’s license. His car was newer than ours and had an automatic shift and power windows. I had not driven it before that day and had no idea how to release the parking brake. I didn’t pass. I wonder if he was worried about his car. He must have cared about me to let me borrow it.

When Grandpa started having trouble with macular degeneration he got even more silent. He didn’t talk about it in my presence but he began to seem frustrated and angry from that time on. He couldn’t read anymore and couldn’t drive (legally). When Grandma died, he still insisted on staying on at the farm. Sensory deprivation may have been taking its toll on him, hastening signs of dementia. Someone would stop in and set out some lunch for him, which he would eat. Someone else would come a little later and set out lunch for him again. He would eat that too, and not recall having two meals.

My father was very close to his dad and was worried sick about him being alone. I tried to have Grandpa spend time with me and my family, but that ended up with him being frustrated and embarrassed. One day he went into the bathroom and couldn’t remember that the light switch was on the wall. It was dark, his eyesight was poor. He flailed around with his hands where he knew the fixture was and hit the hanging lamp and broke it, sending glass all over the floor and counter. He was so upset he stomped out of the house, across the field and up to the woods. Dad had to hunt for him and bring him back.

Grandpa finally, unwillingly, submitted to moving into a care center. Eventually he broke a hip and died from complications. I don’t know if my grandfather was satisfied with his life, whether he had hope for a life after death or any relationship with God at all.

They say that everyone you ever meet in life has a part in making you who you are, even apart from genetics. I think my time with grandfather has made me want to notice the young people around me and make sure they can know me if they want to. I’m going to write and talk about how I feel about life, my relationships, my faith. I don’t want my descendants wondering who I was.

A to Z Challenge: Petra and Quinn

Character sketches that are fictional but based on real people, like you and me.

They were interesting children. Quinn, the oldest, was used to doing the planning, as in what and where they would play. Petra didn’t mind being the follower, having a lot of the same likes and dislikes, but she also added her own creativity at times. Both of them spent most of their time around well behaved adults, which resulted in their own pretty good behavior. But they were kids. Sometimes they were a bit lazy, distracted, willful, and as such were considered normal.

Both of them were cared for by parents who didn’t spend a lot of time following fashion trends and were fine with them wearing whatever hand-me-down or thrift shop outfits were available. They grew up in the country where clothes didn’t stay clean long when playing out in the garden or the woods anyway. They were appropriately dressed for what they did at home and were quite happy, through ignorance mostly. Later, they would say to their mother “what were you thinking when you let me wear that? And you had to take a picture too!”

They had long, straight hair with bangs. Petra often had a rat’s nest in the back from bouncing her head on the back of her car seat or her favorite “rocking couch”. That was her preferred method of handling boredom or discomfort. Quinn was less patient and would tell someone when she had a problem, or better yet, think of a way to correct the situation. Quinn was usually the one to get in trouble, playing with car keys and losing them, carving her initials in the furniture. Petra lived quietly in big sister’s shadow. They never fought and seemed to have a compassionate regard for each other, rare in children.

They both had a fierce love of animals of all kinds. They loved kittens, dogs and especially horses. Petra even loved insects and befriended the ants that congregated in the bathroom sink around the toothpaste. The two girls would spend hours with their toy horses, making stalls out of cardboard and listing the names of all their steeds and their pedigrees. On family walks, they rode imaginary horses that often reared and took off on them. The point was that they had wonderful imaginations and to all appearances were enjoying their childhood.

But, as usually happens, things changed. The day they heard that the family was moving to the other side of the United States, they didn’t realize what that would mean. The adventure side of things was clear. They were going to be in a mid sized city with access to cultural events, new learning opportunities, a new house, maybe new friends close by. The loss side of the move was yet to come.

It reached the point of pain, on the day of the yard sale. They had been told that they could have money from the sale of some of their toys. But to see the furniture from their rooms out on the lawn, and being loaded into other people’s cars started to be a bit traumatic for them both. The farm would be left behind with its large yard, tree forts in the wood lot, the barn and hayloft, the kittens, and even the grandparents. THE GRANDPARENTS.

Quinn was trying to keep busy. At eight years old, she was the oldest and was in charge of selling the toys but the situation was beginning to weigh heavily on her. Especially when she looked at Petra. Petra, a 5 year old, was beyond focusing on the activity of the sale. She was sitting on her beloved “rocking couch”, repeatedly bouncing against it’s back with tears streaming down her cheeks. She was singing a sad, little goodbye song as the loveseat sized rocker creaked and groaned with her movement, it’s price tag taped to its arm. Clearly, a crisis was brewing…

That was the day that two little girls discovered their own personal super-hero. Someone came along who understood the impact a move was having on them and made the decision to lessen the trauma. The price tag got marked SOLD, and Grandma sat down between Petra and Quinn. They rocked together as they discussed how rocking couch could probably fit somewhere on the moving trailer. It wasn’t the first time Grandma came to their rescue, and it wouldn’t be the last either.

A to Z Challenge: Opal

Character sketches that are fictional, but based on real people, like you and me.

Not many people have an Opal in their friend list these days. I didn’t call her that either, because she insisted on being called Paulette, but Opal was indeed her name.

Opal was a little loud, with a laugh that would wake the dead. I encountered her on cleaning days. We worked for the same client and on cleaning days I had to make sure I was not needing to be in the rooms where Opal would start. It was important to be out of her way.

I would hear the door slam, followed by Opal’s screech as she ordered her daughter Shelley to bring in the mop bucket and mop. Shelley always came along because she was somewhat mentally impaired and Opal had no safe place to leave her.

Opal was single, which was not surprising.

Somewhere along the way Opal had become very distrustful of men. As a result she had an independent streak as wide as the ocean. She drove a big van full of power tools and cleaning supplies. She dressed in old T-shirts and coveralls. There was no task so manly that Opal would not try to do it herself. Yard clean-up was her specialty. She could rake, trim bushes and haul debris to the road for pick-up with the best of them.

I had no problem with Opal’s short “man cut” of her own wiry, gray hair but it bothered me that she did it to Shelley too. Just when Shelley’s soft brown curls were getting long enough to look like a hairdo of sorts, Opal would chop them off. It took me a while to realize that this was purposeful. She wanted Shelley to look as unattractive as possible, for her own protection. As I said, she was very distrustful of men.

But Opal had a loyal heart. It was her brash, assuming nature that often had people at odds with her. She would decide to do something she hadn’t been asked to do, with disastrous results. She would offend, and in turn be offended. But after an appropriate length of time, she would patch things up and reappear, as helpful as ever.

Like the time she decided to wash our client’s transport van with the pressure washer… or the windy day she tried to dock her pontoon boat, oh, or the day she set out to trap the raccoons. Yes, that was classic Opal.

A to Z Challenge: Nelma

Character sketches that are fictional, but based on real people, like you and me. We are now past the halfway point in the alphabet!

We were sitting in the living room of her small apartment, Nelma, her two girls and me. The girls were watching TV while their hair was getting braided. I was told it could take several hours to put in the many small, tight braids, with beads strategically placed in a pattern. The braids would stay in for a long time and would not just keep their hair neat but would make it look like they’d been able to afford exorbitant salon fees. Nelma was good at saving money.

I’d been wondering how she was doing since she had left the girls’ father. Nel was my employee, and really good at her work. I needed her to be okay. We had just finished a busy week in the public schools, teaching nutrition and exercise to grade schoolers – you can imagine how those subjects appealed to them. But Nel knew how to fool them into having fun. She had a large repertoire of line dances and once she put the music on, they exercised in spite of themselves. She knew how to have fun with kids.

Nel always came to work wearing something worthy of a second glance. Of course it helped that she was thin. Almost anything looked good on her. And she was one of the few people I knew in our hot, steamy climate who actually ironed her clothes. The ironing board, set up and ready, was a permanent fixture in the living room.

I was there that morning because I had some kid sized bikes that I thought her girls might like to ride. They were such cute little ladies, shy but curious, and with the kind of behavior that let you know their mom paid attention to them.

I was also wondering if she had found anyone to look into some car trouble she was having. Not being able to get to work had been a problem all week and I had given her a ride several times. She knew how to do a lot of things that surprised me, but fixing cars was not one of them. I was about ready to help her find a safer, more reliable vehicle.

We were the only two people working in our small government program, so we often talked for a bit in the morning while we prepared our sample meals. The conversation had turned to personal situations enough times that I knew she was struggling with a relationship. The girls’ father was a classic abuser and had not taken kindly to her leaving and getting her own place. He was harassing her, and she was afraid of what his next move might be. Sometimes he was just annoying, but there were hints of what he might do, given the opportunity.

That’s why I was glad I was there with them that morning when he knocked on the door.