and the book:
Steeple Hill (January 1, 2009)
Title: Mom's The Word
Author: Marilyn Griffith
Publisher: Steeple Hill Cafe
They come softly, like the kiss of
newborn skin. Words, brushing my
Heels as I head for the kitchen, bruising my
Heart as life reaches for my hand.
Stirring the morning against my
Belly, I listen as they sift through my
Fingers, stories I’ve never heard,
Places I’ve never known.
Pouring into the pitcher of my
Day, they blow by. I open my
Hand, trying to catch a phrase,
To hold what cannot be held.
Love beckons, Purpose calls,
Drowning out the whisper words
Skating, out of place like fall leaves
Across the summer of my soul.
Truth swallows Hope, drowns the
Words. I squint against the glare
Of throaty screams and scarred
Earth, listening, wondering
If they’ll ever come again.
the morning the new neighbors moved in
“They’re ruining everything.” The words tangled in Karol Simon’s throat.
She watched in horror as a backhoe bit into the tree house she and her family had constructed with their former neighbors and best friends Hope and Singh. The rest of the yard, including Hope’s prize-winning roses and the strawberry bush the children had planted, lay in heaped mounds of roots and blooms.
To Karol, it looked a lot like her life.
Her tears, few at first, now streamed down her face as she watched butterflies and birds flee into her yard to escape the destruction of their homes and so many of Karol’s memories. She wanted to run to her husband, to collapse into his arms . . . Instead, she pulled the curtain back further, using it to wipe her tears.
“It looks like a cemetery,” she said without turning around, certain Rob wasn’t listening.
He was. “Get away from the window, Kay. It’s rude for one thing. It’s depressing for another. Do you think I don’t know how much you miss Hope? I miss Singh too. But the Lord led them to another place, to another job, to other—”
She held up a hand. “Don’t say it.”
“I will say it. To other friends. Hope and Singh are going to find new friends. A new church. A new life in North Carolina. That doesn’t mean they’ll forget us here in Tallahassee. It’s just a chance to share them with someone else.”
Rob laid aside his Linux Pocket Guide and stood. Four strides brought him to the window. His weekend work boots struck the floor with the same confidence she heard in his voice. Not so long ago, Karol had heard the same assurance in her own voice.
Was she the same woman who’d once run Vacation Bible School and the women’s ministry committee? These days the only running she did was from herself . . . and from God. She’d expected to miss Hope, to be sad for a little while, but this was more than that.
Karol needed her.
She hadn’t realized how much her friend helped her be a good mom, a good wife. Hope had a houseful of children, seven in all, and taught her children at home. She’d taught Karol a lot about being a mother and being a friend.
Now that the crew next door had moved away though, Karol couldn’t just pick up the phone and call. Their busy schooling schedule had been easier to interrupt when it only meant walking next door and waiting for a break in the action. Now when Karol called, she got the answering machine indicating the family’s school hours.
In the evenings, Hope was tired with moving in at first and then Karol started to unravel and didn’t want to call and detail her failures. She called her friend less and less these days and seemed to lose it more and more. And her husband was starting to notice.
That was the part that made her heart pound as Rob took her hand. Her pulse quickened too, both in anticipation and fear. Things had grown awkward between them. Rusty. She wasn’t ready to deal with him quite yet, though Lemon Pledge and sawdust were a hard combination to ignore.
He knew it too. Rob stood close behind her, running his hands over hers until she released the curtain. He brushed away her last tear with his thumb before lacing his arms around her waist. She closed her eyes as his stubbled face prickled against her smooth one, waiting for the kiss that was sure to come. It’d be a soft one, right in the curve of her neck most likely. Even after three kids, he still knew how to buckle her knees.
He kissed her ear instead, first with his lips and then with a whisper. “I know this is hard, honey. We all knew it would be. I get up every morning and reach for the phone to call Singh to pray or to borrow a tool from him, only to realize he’s gone. I know it’s even deeper with you and Hope, but maybe God has a purpose in this, for us as well as them.
“We’ll see them soon enough. Charlotte isn’t that far away. They mentioned coming down for Ryan’s birthday, remember? And we’re taking Mia over for Mia’s party next month. Until then, I figure we can work on some things between us—you and I. For starters, I was thinking that maybe I could be your best friend again.”
Karol swallowed hard and closed her eyes, drinking in this closeness with her husband. There had been a time before, when Hope and Karol had been close, but she and Rob had been closer. He had been her world. Then storms came and shook their little marriage tree, blowing away some of blossoms, shaking off much of the fruit.
Hope had helped her push things down in the soil again, prayer by prayer, day by day. Now Karol would have to do that alone. Rob wanted to help, to be friends, but there were things that she used to tell Hope that she just couldn’t say to her husband. What would he do if he knew that sometimes she didn’t like her life or herself? What would he think if he knew that sometimes she just wanted to run away?
He’d think that you’re human, Karol. He is too.
When women from church had come to Karol for advice about their marriages, she’d reminded them that they’d married sinners, broken people who continued to need forgiveness once the honeymoon was over. It had all made so much sense to her back then, until the stitches on her own marriage had loosened. Before then, she’d never understood those couples who disappeared and showed up with other spouses, the ones who lived in the same houses but drove to service in separate cars.
Those were the couples who had once been friends with Karol and Rob, part of the couples ministry that had met at Hope and Singh’s. One by one, those couples had disappeared: divorced, separated, moved away… They had discovered, as Karol had, that family came at a cost, that love required effort.
Rob kissed the top of her ear again and tightened his hands around her. She rested back against him and wondered if he wasn’t trying to get her to hear him. To really listen. Sometimes that was so hard to do, even though Karol tried.
She was blessed to be this man’s wife, the mother of her children. And now here she was, coming undone over new neighbors. Once more, she lifted her hand to the curtains, a green gingham set Hope had taught her to make during the months after Mia was born, the summer of darkness. At the thought of those hard days, her worst postpartum depression ever, Karol let the fabric fall from her fingers. Nothing was worth going back there.
Her husband ran a hand through her hair. “I mean it. I want to be your best friend.”
She turned to face Rob, trying to ignore the creaking sound as the tree house toppled to the ground next door. Would these strangers burn the wood they’d all signed and decorated or should she go over and beg for it? No, it was their house now. She had to let it go. All of it.
Karol tried to laugh but it came out more like a groan. She punched Rob’s shoulder lightly, then squeezed it.
“You are my best friend, silly. You’re just not acting like it. Hope wouldn’t take their side against me.”
Rob’s dimples appeared but his eyes went dull. She’d chosen to stay on the surface of things, skimming across the hurt he wanted to dive into. He joined her in the chit chat with a reluctant smile. “Whose side? The new neighbors’? Or the kids’?”
“Both.” Karol stared at him, once again wondering how he’d ended up with her. He had a careless beauty about him, a bearing that made him look like a king in a pair of jeans. Three kids had moved her body parts to new zip codes and left her face looking more like her mother’s than she wanted to admit, but except for the sprinkles of gray in Rob’s beard, he looked the same as the day they’d wed. Unless you looked close at the years in his eyes, he didn’t look much different from the husband of the young couple who’d moved in next door. Was this how the two of them had seemed to Hope and Singh? She peered through the window again, trying to convince herself otherwise.
The woman, “Dianne with a y” as Hope called her, shouted over the noise for the men to dig up a shrub they’d missed. No, she and Rob hadn’t been quite like this. This was a new kind of crazy. And from the way things were going in Carol’s house, it must be contagious.
“The kids are definitely out of control. It seems like they’re screaming at me every minute now. Like they’ve totally forgotten how to communicate.”
Rob’s look conveyed his thoughts but he voiced them anyway. “Maybe we’ve forgotten how to communicate, Hon. Things have been hard lately. They lost their best friends too. There’s no one to play with. Naturally they’re going to be a little out of sync.”
Out of sync? “Judah tried to put Mia in the dryer yesterday, Rob. Ryan hid in the closet reading a book so that he didn’t have to deal with his siblings during the whole ordeal. When they found him, he shut them in there!
“They are more than out of sync. And don’t start with that ‘we’ve forgotten how to communicate’ stuff. I know what you really mean. You mean I’ve forgotten how to communicate.”
Rob scratched his head. “I didn’t mean that, but since you mentioned it—you have been screaming quite a bit lately. It seems like we’re going back in time. I have to catch myself. Yesterday, I almost started screaming too.”
Karol rolled her eyes. As if. “You did not.”
More dimples. “Okay, so I didn’t, but I thought about it. Anyway, I am on your side, both with the kids and with the neighbors. I just don’t think you’re seeing the big picture right now because you’re hurting over losing Hope. Singh got a good opportunity there. He prayed about it and chose, with Hope, to make this move. Don’t forget that. We will get through this. I’d rather come out of it with a good relationship with our kids…and our neighbors.”
Karol couldn’t help being stung by the truth in Rob’s words. The move had been unexpected, an near parallel offer for Singh with a possibility of advancement. A slim possibility. And yet, Hope hadn’t thought twice about leaving her behind.
was right, of course. Singh was her husband. Hope’s only contradiction had been the house. None of them had believed that it would sell—for so much and so quickly. It was a deal they couldn’t refuse. A God thing. And yet, Karol couldn’t help feeling as though someone had ripped the rug out from under her.
More like the security blanket.
“You want to have a good relationship with those two? Even if they’re insane? I mean look at them.” She pointed out the window. ”They’re so…so…”
Rob planted his chin on her shoulder. “What? Young?”
“Skinny!” Karol said, louder than she’d meant to. Was the window still cracked from airing out the living room after Mia’s pull-up explosion this morning? Surely not. Her husband chuckled and she laughed too, in spite of her efforts not to. “I’m serious. They’re skinny and young and weird and they have no kids.”
“We were skinny and young and weird and when we moved in next to Hope and Singh, Kay.”
“I was never skinny,” Karol said, taking a deep breath.
“Thank God,” her husband whispered, slipping a hand in her back pocket. “But I was definitely weird. Remember how I slammed the door on Singh that first time he came over?”
“Well, in your defense, not many people serenade their new neighbors…especially people who are tone deaf. If he’d just handed you the pie, things would have gone much smoother.”
Her words slowed as her new neighbor, dressed in a celery-colored suit and tangerine pumps, tripped over the wood pile Singh had kindly left behind. “Dianne with a y” stared down at the timber in confusion and shook her head before motioning for someone to cart it away.
Karol shook her head too. “Okay, so we were a little goofy at first, but these people are unbelievable. She looked at that wood pile like it was going to come alive and eat her. Surely she saw the woodstove when they bought the house. It’s one of the best features.”
Rob stroked her hair. “It’s not Hope’s house anymore. Let it go, Mom.”
Mom. It’d been funny when Rob first started calling her that, but now it’d worn thin. She’d started it first of course by calling Rob Dad, only to abandon it when he returned the favor. Where had she gotten that from anyway? She closed her eyes.
Hope and Singh.
It fit them. It didn’t fit Karol. She wanted, needed, a name again. “I’m trying, Rob.” His name rolled of her tongue before she could call it back, say it better. Say it like she used to, in the sweet, husky tone he loved. Instead, it came out nasal and high pitched, almost as piercing as the cry from upstairs.
He gave her a funny look and lifted his head as if he were going to ask her something before their youngest child and only girl Mia let out one of her signature siren screams.
Karol pinched her eyes shut. Her four-year-old-going-on-fifty was either going to be an opera singer or a very good referee. Either way, naptime was over. Not that it had ever started really, but after little Mia’s poopy finger painting incident this morning and five-year-old Judah’s egg juggling at lunch (“I thought they were boiled!”), her three children, especially the oldest who only liked to encounter body fluids on the page of a book, had gladly escaped to their rooms.
Now they were up and ready to roll and she’d been too busy staring at the mess next door to get together an activity for them. After a morning of Saturday cartoons, Karol liked to keep the TV off in the afternoons. Until lately anyway.
Her oldest son, Ryan, must have been thinking the same thing because he switched off the TV and started reading his younger brother and sister a story. Though only few weeks shy of his eleventh birthday, Ryan had an old soul. His younger brother and sister drove him crazy and often interrupted the book he always seemed to be reading, but Ryan always knew what everyone needed—especially Karol. She mouthed a thank you to him. He replied with a curt nod, which meant she’d probably have to make it up to him with brownies.
Karol wrapped an arm around her husband’s, bare to the elbow and hairy as ever. Her mother called him Sasquatch. To his face. She was not always a kind woman. Karol thanked God that Rob was a kind man. Too kind sometimes. She pinched her eyes tight, shutting out her new neighbors, her old memories and the sound of her two youngest children tumbling down the stairs.
“I’ve got it, Mom.” Ryan said quietly, still holding the book as he collected the two gymnasts. “Keep talking. Nobody’s hurt.”
Karol was headed to check anyway, but Rob pulled her back. “Ryan wants to grow up a little. Let him. Besides, you need a break. I’ll go and take them all out in a few minutes.”
“I don’t deserve you,” she whispered into Rob’s shoulder.
He lifted her chin and leaned in, finding Karol’s lips this time. The brevity and passion of the kiss took her by surprise. Rob’s love was like that: quiet, but powerful, coming alive when she least expected it. When she most needed it. “You don’t deserve me, Kay. You deserve better.”
She slumped against him, never knowing what to say when he was like this. When life was like this. Paint rubbed off on her arm as she twined her hands behind his neck. Her eyes narrowed, first at her husband and then at the window. She’d repainted enough kid-dingy walls to know white washable paint when she saw it. This wasn’t it. It was ecru or eggshell or some other frou frou color. A color for city people who bulldozed yards and ran off friends… “Are you helping them?”
Rob didn’t answer. He shrugged instead. Inwardly, Karol did too. He could only be who he was, her husband. He didn’t know how to be anything but giving and kind.
I wish I could say the same for myself.
Right now, Karol wasn’t sure who she was. Her middle son was glad to clear that up for her.
“Mom!” A pair of hands slipped between the two of them, adhering to the front of Karol’s shirt. The very front. Though she’d weaned her son Judah years before, he still seemed to find a use for the parts which had once fed him. The current choice? Doorknobs into Mommy world. Very effective, Karol had to admit.
Rob peeled his son from Karol’s shirt and lifted him into his arms. “Judah, don’t touch your mother there, okay? And go wash your hands—”
“No buts, son. Mom and I were talking. Use your manners.” He winked at Karol and took one step before the next child, little Mia, barreled into the room, wearing her bathing suit from last summer. Hadn’t they given that to Eden, Hope’s youngest girl, before they moved away?
“Moooooom! Judah ‘it me!”
Both adults stared at the oldest brother, Ryan, who’d just entered the room, hoping for a translation of their only daughter’s language. Only he knew this latest version of Mia-latin. She removed the first consonant of all incriminating words. In this case, the first sound meant a big difference. While hitting his little sister was enough to get Judah into a mess, biting her would be even worse.
Karol rubbed her arm thinking of how bad his biting had been when he was a toddler. Hope had helped her through that too. Her middle child hadn’t bit anyone in three full years now and she prayed that losing his friends wouldn’t start him up again.
Ryan’s translation skills didn’t disappoint, but their budding young man looked plenty frustrated. Sharing a room with his little brother was ‘stagnating’ or at least that was the latest update he’d given Karol and Rob before putting his little brother’s things into the hall to make room for his books. Puberty came a lot earlier these days evidently.
“She said hit not bit. But Mom—”
A banging sound echoed from down the hall. Karol and Rob looked at each other and at Ryan with panic in their eyes. Judah unattended usually meant disaster.
Rob moved first. “Where did he go to wash his hands? Bathroom?”
Karol screamed. “Kitchen!”
If there was ever a sure way to catch up with the plumber, it was Judah alone in the kitchen. Karol picked up Mia, taking a wide step to leave room for Rob, who ran to check the bathrooms just in case Judah was clogging some fixture instead of scrambling eggs on the kitchen floor.
Just the thought of what might be happening made Karol’s heart pound. She wanted to scream at him so loud that the people next door would hear and run away screaming too. But inside her head, Hope was there, as sure as if she was sitting on that battered couch in the corner.
Man’s anger doesn’t achieve the righteousness of God, Kay. A mother’s anger doesn’t accomplish much either. You have the authority. Use it wisely. Don’t waste it screaming.
Another tear salted the corner of Karol’s eye and she rounded the corner in time to catch a glimpse of Judah’s superhero cape fluttering away from the scene of the crime. Karol tucked her daughter under one arm like a football and headed for the kitchen. Her socks glided across the laminate and into a pile of . . . hamburger, the meat for the church potluck. Rob ran into Judah in the hall and grabbed him up just as he was about to take a bite of meat that he’d taken as a souvenir.
Karol froze, unable to do anything but stare as she calculated the cost of the food her son had fed to the floor.
And just when I’d splurged on the grain fed beef too.
The perpetrator returned. “Mom! See my burger? My bur-ger!” Judah cried, wiggling in his father’s arms and pointing to the bloody mound on the floor.
Karol paused, looking into Rob’s eyes, the same eyes she’d looked into on her wedding day and she could swim in their chocolate depths forever. Back then, love meant flowers and candy. Now it meant capture and cleanup. Lines etched those eyes now and a frost of wisdom sprinkled Rob’s beard, but he’d never looked better to her.
“Do you want to deal with meat or munchkins?” he asked.
Neither. Today, just want to sit down in the corner and have a quiet talk with my friend.
Karol smiled. Outwardly anyway. The never-ending discipline that Judah seemed to require wore her out. She’d let Rob be the bad guy today. “I’ll take hamburger. And let’s blow up the pool. I know they’re used to being outside all summer. I have to go outside some time.”
Something like sunshine spread over Rob’s face. He slapped the back of her jeans. “That’s my girl.”
Judah made a gagging sound and ran ahead of his dad up the stairs. “Cover your eyes, Mia, they’re gonna kiss!”
“Ewwww!” Mia said before shielding her face from such the horror.
Ryan pulled a book from the pocket of his cargo shorts and walked away from all of them. He probably wouldn’t surface until dinner, when he’d have started another book with a similar cover—dragons and swords—but a different name. Every now and then he showed up with a book of theology or philosophy, which probably worried Karol more than the dragons. Ryan was growing up too fast. They all were. And she wasn’t keeping pace with them.
As Rob’s lips met hers in a fake kiss just to freak out the kids, Karol laughed softly. Laughing was definitely better than crying.
Rob gave her a wink that meant the real kisses would come later. She watched as he left the kitchen and started toward the stairs. He stopped halfway and turned back. “I know this is hard, Kay. But it’s going to be all right. Really. I just feel it in my gut.”
What gut? Any knowledge held in Rob’s six-pack was less than reassuring. If there’d been a feeling in Karol’s non-existent abs that might really be something. It’d be hard to locate, but it’d be something. Still, she knew he meant well and was probably right. He usually was.
“You’re right, honey,” she said, reaching for a trash bag and hoping that what he’d said was true. Anything could happen. The new neighbors might even turn out okay.
Not for Karol anyway. For Rob, well, everything would be fine. He’d already gotten over losing Singh as though he’d barely known the man. Sure the two of them were better about email—Hope wasn’t much of a computer person—but still the two men didn’t talk anywhere near as much as they once had. The kids still asked for Heidi-Katie-Lizzie-Tony-Aaron-Annie-Eden-and-Bone-the-dog at least once a day, but their pleas were much less urgent. They’d be fine too.
Karol might not be fine, she was starting to realize as the manic mama feelings tumbled in her stomach. There was none of Rob’s confidence to settle it. The clump of ground beef slid easily into the bag, but scrubbing the floor proved harder. Everything seemed harder. Had the past ten years been a dream? Had she ever had Hope’s consistency or Rob’s calmness? She’d thought so until the moving van took her best friend away. Could she be a good mom without Hope?
The question that sprung to her heart in response took Karol’s breath away:
The question is, can you be a good mom without Me?
The ceiling fan whirred above Rob slowly, breathing the first breath of summer into his upstairs bedroom. Though it was only April by the calendar, summer was always a breath away in Tallahassee, drowned only by the rains that began in October and trickled through spring. The bright, hot victory of summer retaking her throne usually happened on a May morning, but on this night in late April, Rob felt the humidity that signaled the rise of the order of the sun.
Usually, he welcomed summer. It meant more time outdoors with fresh earth and the soft, brown skin of his wife and children. In the north Florida sun—which often seemed to have the red, patient glow of the peachy rays of south Georgia—nothing could be hidden or covered up. In the end, sweat and sweet tea trickled into everything, seeping between the finest fabrics, the best of plans. By summer’s end, there was never anything left unknown.
Not without a price.
As Rob slipped from his king-sized bed and stepped onto the still-cool cherry wood floor that he’d installed with his own hands, he wondered if the price would not turn out to be higher than his marriage could afford to pay.
He took the phone into the bathroom, thankful that Karol slept like a log, especially on hot nights like this with the smell of crepe myrtle syrupy and sweet in the air. For once though, he almost wished she’d wake up and overhear his conversation, saving him from being torn between his best friend…and the love of his life.
Rob’s fingers eased quickly over the phone’s keypad. Though his friend had been gone for weeks now, Singh’s cell phone number still stuck in Rob’s head like a familiar song.
Singh picked up on the first ring, probably in his bathroom too. “Hello? Rob?”
A sigh. “It’s me. Did you tell her yet? Hope, I mean?”
His friend didn’t answer which was an answer in itself.
“You’re killing me here, man. Kaye is going crazy. Today was really rough. On the kids too. Weekends are the worst. At least they have school now, but that’s only for another month and Mia’s here all the time—”
The words made Rob swallow hard. How many times had he called this number and said the same phrase in the past ten years? He and Singh were prayer partners, accountable to one another in their walk with God, their actions as fathers and husbands. So many times they’d both fallen short of being the men they wanted to be, but one of them had always been there to hear, to believe, to pray.
When the tables turned a few years ago and Singh was the one calling Rob asking for prayer, it had been strange at first. Though theirs had been a great friendship, Rob had always felt himself to be the student and Singh the teacher. He’d had to address his own sin of holding Singh up to a standard of perfection no man could meet. It hadn’t been easy to get over though and sometimes Rob still wondered if he wasn’t harder on Singh than he might have been toward some stranger who’d walked into the men’s ministry group asking for prayer.
And yet, those two words—forgive me—reminded Rob of his own humanity and weakness. He was no better than his friend. No better at all.
Forgive me, Lord, Rob whispered in his heart. Forgive us all.
“All is forgiven, brother. I love you. I’m just worried that this is going to turn bad for both of us if we don’t do what we agreed upon. We were both supposed to tell our wives by now. True enough, you have more to tell and it won’t be easy, but we both know it has to be done.”
More than a minute went by without speaking, but Rob wasn’t worried. He knew that Singh was praying. He was too.
Karol stirred in the next room.
“I’m going to have to go, man.”
“Yes. Me too. Quickly though. How is it with the neighbors? The man, Neal? I know that the girls are worried about the wife but I had a good feeling about him. Both of them. The same feeling I had when the two of you came.”
In the dark of the bathroom, Rob nodded to himself. Though the new neighbors weren’t very friendly and his wife wasn’t very fond of them, he had a feeling that somehow they would all end up as friends. What worried him was the future of their relationship with Hope and Singh.
“I hope we did the right thing.”
Singh grunted in agreement. “As do I.”
Without saying goodnight, the two men hung up and crawled back into bed with their sleeping wives.
One of them, however, was not sleeping.
From MOM’S THE WORD, by Marilynn Griffith, Steeple Hill
ISBN 0373786417, January 2009, Copyright © 2009 by Harlequin Enterprises
Limited. ® and tm are trademarks of the publisher. This edition published by
arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.