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Carolyn HowardJohnson

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Milk Glass, An Excerpt from
By Carolyn HowardJohnson
Friday, January 17, 2003

Rated "PG" by the Author.

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This excerpt from Carolyn's most recent award-winning book is an example of the new genre creative nonfiction. It's true but reads like a story.

(This is an excerpt from the award-winning Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered.  It is available in its entirety on pedestal bowl had been the object of desire from the first time my mother laid eyes on it.  It was the whitest of whites with opalescent flutes, like a piecrust, around the rim.  It sat serenely on her marble-topped coffee table, next to magazines, carefully aligned with an ashtray, carefully emptied of my father’s cigarette stubs and carefully washed.  When there were guests it held hardtack.  At Christmas it would contain ribbon candy, folded and pinched, much like its own ruffled edges.  Either variety was inedible, tasteless and artificially colored.              “It’s a beautiful bowl,” my mother had said.  “Exactly what I wanted,” my mother had said.  My mother had pointed it out in the display.  It was sitting among other milk glass.  A Cinderella slipper.  A Tom and Jerry set.  Eight matched tumblers pressed with a pattern of clustered grapes.  This bowl was the prettiest.  It had the shine of ice in the moonlight, a depth that consumed the light.  This was milk glass with grace.  A piece of art.   I had determined that I would buy it that very moment and I’m sure Mother knew that I would. The bowl cost exactly thirty-two hours of baby-sitting, including tax.  A quarter an hour.  It was meant that I should buy it for her for it was still there when I took a deposit in to Auerbach’s to put it on layaway.  Every other week I made the trip in to town--forty-five minutes in, forty-five minutes back and a forty-five minute wait if I missed a bus.  Riding the bus was a new privilege I had been allowed, a new freedom.  I relished the time alone, a secretive trek with bits of change stashed into a wallet I had made from a leather craft kit.   This was an important thing to do with my money, unlike the silly things I used to buy like a Mexican straw hat I never wore or Evening in Paris perfume that I would have been better off not wearing.I finished paying for the bowl just about the time that red and green lights and star motifs were strung across Main Street.  It was dark by five and the colors reflected in the black ice on the streets.  I had the bowl courtesy wrapped in a red bow and I asked the woman to add a cluster of tiny glass balls for shine.  My nose was red and dripping from the cold by the time I maneuvered this present through the front door.  The bow was uncrushed, the paper uncrinkled.   I made a gift enclosure from cards Mother had saved from the year before and put the entire presentation under the tree.  I sat looking at it; the lights from the tree puddled onto the sheen of the bow, settled and lengthened their images across the wrap.  The room was dark and smelled like pine and there was a hush in the air.     On Christmas morning, as mother unwrapped the package I chattered.  “Do you like Auerbach’s new wrap?   The bow is so pretty.  Isn’t it lucky that it didn’t sell before I could get it for you?  Do you want to put it on the coffee table where you thought it would look nice?” That night I sat in my father’s lap.  We listened to Mario Lanza sing “Oh, Holy Night” and he patted my knee.  I didn’t have any Christmas memories of him.  Whenever I asked Mom-Bertie where he was she always said, “He had to work late tonight.”  She always looked at her watch when she said it and then again and again.  But I was old enough to remember the Christmas I gave mother the milk glass bowl and I remember that my father was home and smelled like Old Spice. Another year a similar Christmas scene was replayed.  Packages were toted home so as not to crush the bows.  Lights were strung in merriment across Main Street and the department store windows were so beautiful that people went downtown just to see them.  Shoppers puffed clouds like cotton candy into the bitter air and tradition played its notes into the night.  As I pushed the front door open with my bottom, bags full of gifts trailing in behind me, something was different.  The milk glass was in pieces on the floor reflecting red and blue light from our tree. Milky thumbprint indentations molded the luminous holiday colors into their own oval shapes.  There was a piece of tinsel icicle dripping over the bowl’s pedestal, shattered edges separated from the bowl itself.   Ribbons of hard tack were scattered across the living room carpet. Some were crushed into the woolen pile.  The coffee table was on its side, two of its carved legs kicking in the air at unfamiliar angles. I rushed to the pieces, kneeling among the shards.  The sounds of Christmas were around me.  Yelling.  Accusation.  The smell, too.  A stale morning after odor, not quite perspiration, not quite cocktail.  The hand that had pushed the coffee table over was now flailing helplessly at my father’s face.  He held her by her wrists at arm’s length.            I couldn’t breath.  Wet slid into the corner of my eyes.  My chest filled with the smell of stale pine needles and flat punch.  I carefully placed the puzzle pieces on the floor together, this point against this bezel, lightning shaped fractures of colored light.  The parts fell away refusing to assemble in my hands. The sounds of chaos became garbled and I heard nothing. Christmas lights in milky white, calcified stalactites.  Emptiness. As my mother watched me her body slumped from anger into submission.  My father released her wrists. “Go to bed, Carrie,” she said like she used to say when I was a child.     For Easter that year mother got another milk glass bowl with blue opalescent frills on the edges.  It was not as white and reflected no light.  I don’t remember the trip to town at all.  I do remember thinking the bowl should remain empty rather than filling it with something no one ever ate anyway.  It sat serenely on the coffee table, the only decoration excepting for magazines, precisely aligned and staggered like a drill team, and an ashtray, sterile and unused.-----------------------------David Leonhardt of Midwest Review calls Harkening "...captivating..." It is a collection that tells the story of a charming, dysfunctional family with enough peccadilloes among them to keep the story roaring along. A heartwarming threat stiches the stories into a novel-like whole."  

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Reviewed by Mary Fallon Fleming 8/23/2007
Hi Carolyn,

Loved this. Enjoyed. It's truly literary.

Reviewed by Reginald Johnson 6/28/2007
I enjoyed it, immensely!
Reviewed by Elizabeth Taylor 2/28/2006
My, this brought back memories. At Christmas I purchased some pretty ribbon candy. I hate the stuff, but it looks so pretty on the Tiffin cakeplate from the turn of the century. Carolyn, every line brought back a memory.

Reviewed by m j hollingshead 3/5/2003
well done

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