On caregivers, faith, family, and writing…

Published in the Rains County Leader on April 7, 2020:

empty cereal aisleLast week I wrote about what will probably be my last trip to the grocery store until the coronavirus siege is over. When self isolation was relatively new, my son had put a post on Facebook listing things he had learned in the last few days. One was that cereal is a miraculous food. So when I saw the empty shelves on the cereal aisle, I snapped a picture and texted it to him with a note that said, “Apparently a lot of people agree with you about cereal.”

He apparently didn’t think it was as funny as I did. He responded with a note that said, “For the record, I don’t like you being out at the store.” He went on to outline his reasons for feeling that way. I responded with, “Noted and thank you.” Probably a little bit of payback for the times when, as a teenager, he sighed and rolled his eyes when I offered advice. Anyway, we talked a bit more with me trying to reassure him that I was being careful and him diplomatically talking about alternatives to in-store shopping. Read the rest of this entry »

Tatia had trouble choosing someone to emulate. There were not many heroes or role models in her life.

For the past few weeks I have been sharing sample chapters of Tatia’s Tattoo. Links to previous chapters are at the end of this post. Following is Chapter 7. Chapter 8 will be posted on Thursday.

Final_Tatia's Tattoo Cover trim size

CHAPTER 7: IMAGINATION STATION

On Wednesday, Tatia’s group finished lunch and went to the camp post office to check for any new messages. After reading her three notes, Michelle plopped down next to Betty on a bench and asked the most common question at camp: “What do we do next?”

Betty consulted the schedule on the back of her name tag before she answered. “We have forty-five minutes before we’re scheduled for Imagination Station. Let’s go to the patio. We’ll be right next to the Station, and there are three crafts to choose from.”

Both girls had time to make a spin-art picture, and while they were drying, another teen helper showed them how to weave a key chain with multi-colored strands of plastic. Betty stood back and smiled as she watched her giggling campers continue to forget their problems and enjoy a normal childhood for a few days. When the girls each had about a three-inch start on their chains, Betty glanced at her watch.

“Okay, ladies! It’s time for Imagination Station. Let me put your chains in my bag and let’s move in that direction.”

“But what about our pictures?” wailed Michelle, who was a bit of a drama queen.

“They need a few more minutes to dry. We’ll pick them up on the way back to the cabin to change for swimming.”

“Okay,” said Tatia, handing over her project. “What is Imagination Station anyway?”

“It’s a little hard to explain,” said her counselor. “You’ll see for yourself in just a minute.”

The trio followed several other campers into the large room that normally served as the dining hall. The tables had been pushed back against the walls, and some of the chairs had been arranged in a circle at one end of the room. On the raised platform on the other end of the room, a Cheval mirror stood in front of a lone chair. The space between was filled with several hanging racks filled with fancy dresses, uniforms of various first responders, jerseys from a number of sports teams, and a selection of super hero costumes. There were also several tables loaded with shoes, purses, jewelry, and all sorts of accessories.

The counselors took seats and settled back with looks of anticipation on their faces, eager to see what their children would discover about themselves in the next few minutes. The curious campers were greeted by a tall, solid woman with shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair, deep brown eyes, and an enthusiastic smile that put the girls at ease.

“Good afternoon, ladies!” she said. “My name is long and hard to pronounce, so you can call me Mrs. G. I’m sure you’ve seen me around, helping out here and there, but my favorite part of camp is Imagination Station where, for a few minutes, you are all encouraged to let your minds run free and imagine all the opportunities that are open to you in the years ahead. Does that sound like fun?”

Some of the girls, especially those who had been at camp before, nodded enthusiastically, but others like Tatia looked skeptical. Mrs. G continued.

“How many of you have ever played ‘dress up’?” she asked. A couple of the girls raised their hands while the rest shook their heads. “Well, now is your chance. I want each of you to pick out an outfit, complete with accessories, that represents something you might like to be in the future. After you get dressed, our photographers are waiting to take your pictures, and then I will visit with each of you for a few minutes in front of my Magic Mirror. Sound good?”

She was greeted by a chorus of excited agreements, and the small herd of children flowed by her as she stood out of the way. However, Tatia hung back, reluctant to join in the fun. She half-heartedly fingered a few of the costumes while Michelle donned a slinky black dress that was slit up one side, and Jane, another girl from their room, held up a pink satin dress, announcing that she wanted to dress like Jennifer Lopez. Mrs. G watched Tatia and recognized the symptoms of an imagination that had been crushed by too much hurt and too many disappointments.

“Hi, Tatia,” she said gently. “Is there someone in your life that you admire – someone you would like to be like one of these days?”

“I don’t know,” Tatia almost whispered.

“Well,” encouraged Mrs. G. “Is there someone on TV or the movies that you like?”

“No, I really don’t want to be famous.”

“That’s okay. How about a special teacher or a doctor – someone who has helped you or been especially kind to you?”

A small smile tugged at the corners of Tatia’s mouth. “There was this one lady I met several times when Mama died and then when Grandma got sick. She was the only one who really paid attention to me and asked me what I wanted. Not that it mattered much since nobody wanted me anyway. I think she was a lawyer.”

“A lawyer! I think you’d be a great lawyer, and I have just the outfit.”

Mrs. G helped Tatia find a tailored dress and a pair of black pumps. Both were a little big, but the enthusiasm of all the other girls was infectious.

“I like it,” said Tatia with a shy smile. “I’ll look for a scarf or something to use for a belt, and it will be fine.”

“Great!” said Mrs. G. “I’m sure you’ll find the perfect accessories, and I’ll see you in front of the Magic Mirror in a few minutes.”

She left Tatia browsing through the jewelry and purses, and she began calling the girls to the platform one at a time. She sat in the chair and positioned each camper in front of the mirror and asked them what they saw. With gentle questions and suggestions, she encouraged them to see beyond the hurt and abuse in their past and see the truth of who they were and of the possibilities that lay ahead of them.

Tatia found a black purse that, with a little imagination, could pass as a briefcase, and a gold chain necklace that added the perfect touch of conservative bling. While she waited to be called by Mrs. G, she watched Michelle prance around and pose for the photographer as if she had been modeling all her life. Tatia found her know-it-all attitude a little irritating, but she couldn’t help but envy her confidence. While she waited for one of the photographers to be free, she continued to watch as Michelle took her place in front of the mirror. Tatia was surprised when the self-assured, I-can-do-everything tween refused to look in the mirror. Suddenly, she was a timid little girl with no sense of self. In a flash of insight, Tatia realized that, in spite of outward appearances, Michelle didn’t believe she was worth anything at all.

“May I take your picture?” said one of the photographers, rousing Tatia from her thoughts.

“I guess so,” she said.

Her first poses looked like she was having a driver’s license photo or a mug shot taken, but with a little encouragement, she loosened up a bit and let her beautiful smile and her personality shine through. When her turn in front of the mirror came, she was surprised at how mature and poised she looked. As she imagined herself standing in a courtroom, Mrs. G talked about her underlying confidence and how her strength would see her through even the hard times.

When her time in front of the mirror was over, Tatia reluctantly stepped down from the platform. Before she went to take off her lawyer garb, she stopped and turned back.

“Thank you, Mrs. G. I think if I ever do this again, I’d like to dress up like you.”

Mrs. G didn’t respond immediately, but Tatia could see tears shining in her eyes as she swallowed hard. Then she found her voice and said, “I’d be honored, Tatia.”

After she carefully hung the dress back on the rack and returned her accessories to the table, Tatia went and sat next to Betty, who was wiping her eyes, and Michelle, who was uncharacteristically quiet.

“You both looked wonderful,” said Betty. “How did you feel when you looked in the mirror?”

“I was surprised,” said Michelle in a tiny voice. “I really looked pretty good.”

“Yes, you did,” said Betty, giving her shoulders a quick squeeze. “Really beautiful. And how about you, Tatia? Were you surprised?”

Tatia ducked her head and covered a smile with her hand. “Yeah, kinda,” she answered. “I mean, I looked serious – like someone who could really make a difference.”

Betty gave her a hug and wiped her eyes again, and then Mrs. G joined the group. Once again, she spoke with each girl individually. She talked briefly about her impressions of each one of them, and she gave them a stone with a single word painted on the front and a Scripture reference painted on the back. When she came to Tatia, she once again mentioned the inner strength she saw in her. The stone she gave her said “strength,” and on the back, it said “Phil. 4:13.”

“Do you know what that verse says?” Betty asked her as Mrs. G moved on to the next girl. Tatia shook her head, and Betty told her. “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

Tatia turned the stone over and over in her hand as those words turned over in her mind. She didn’t understand what they meant, and she certainly didn’t feel strong. When Betty announced it was time to go on to the next activity, Michelle was out the door first, as usual, and Tatia brought up the rear. She was almost out the door when she heard Mrs. G call her name.

“Tatia, I’m not supposed to do this, but I want you to have this.” She handed Tatia a card with her name and phone number on it. “I have a feeling that you’re on the edge of some kind of trouble. I’d like you to keep this with you, and if you ever need help, give me a call.”

“Okay,” Tatia said, slipping the card into her pocket. “Thanks.”

# # #

Want to read more? Buy the complete book onAmazon in either digital or paperback.

Preface and Chapter 1 |Chapter 2 | Chapter 3| Chapter 4 | Chapter 5| Chapter 6

Blessings,

Linda

For the first time since Mama died, Tatia found a place where she was truly wanted.

For the past few weeks I have been sharing sample chapters of Tatia’s Tattoo. Links to previous chapters are at the end of this post. Following is Chapter 6. Chapter 7 will be posted on Sunday.

Final_Tatia's Tattoo Cover trim size

CHAPTER 6: THE WHIRLWIND OF CAMP ACTIVITIES

“Would you like something to drink?” asked the flight attendant.

Tatia sighed, realizing she had been staring at the page dealing with signs of neglect and abuse since takeoff. She closed the notebook, slipped it into the small space between her hip and the armrest, and lowered her tray table. “Yes, I’ll have orange juice and a glass of water, please.” She would have liked another cup of coffee, but she couldn’t handle the instant decaf the airlines served. Her seat mate asked for black coffee, and the flight attendant turned back to her cart to fill their requests after handing them each a napkin and a bag of pretzels.

While she sipped her juice, Tatia thought about all the camps she had attended – the first one as a camper and ten more as a staff volunteer. The preparation for the last nine, when she had reviewed the study material on her own, had all been the same. She tried to re-read the text, and every year she became lost in the memory of those early years. She pulled out the notebook again, careful not to knock over either of her glasses, and opened it to the section called “Been There, Done That.” She read through it quickly, reminding herself that her own experiences could be an asset as long as she used them to help her understand her campers, focusing on the uniqueness of each child and not projecting her story onto any of them. Then, she slid the notebook that she could quote by rote into the seat pocket in front of her and settled back to remember.

After Jesse and Kaley disappeared, Tatia looked around and realized all her other siblings were gone, too, so she resumed her trek toward the front of the bus. As soon as her feet touched the ground, an older woman who must have been one of the grandmothers offered her a wide smile and held out her hand and said, “Hi, welcome to camp! I’m Ellie.”

Tatia responded with a tentative smile and took her hand. Ellie gently covered Tatia’s hand with her other one and gazed into her eyes with a look that said it’s okay, you’re safe here. With her mouth, she said, “What’s your name, honey?”

Tatia responded first to the look, and she felt some of the tension leave her tight shoulders. “Tatia,” she said, responding to the question.

“Okay, Tatia,” said Ellie, tucking her hand protectively into the crook of her elbow, “let’s go find your counselor.”

They didn’t have far to go. As they rounded the front of the bus, they almost collided with a short, middle-aged woman wearing a lop-sided smile and a wide-brimmed straw hat. She was holding up a neon yellow sign with TATIA spelled out in hot pink bubble letters.

Ellie looked at Tatia and grinned. “Looks like we found her.”

The woman smiled even wider. “Tatia?” she asked.

Tatia nodded shyly.

The woman gave her a warm, camp-regulation side hug and said, “Hi! I’m Betty, your counselor for the week. I’m so excited to finally meet you. And this is Michelle.” She indicated a girl about Tatia’s age but slightly taller and heavier. She had a mass of braids, caught up on top of her head and cascading down one side. She had a sweet smile and one perfect dimple. “The three of us are going to be a team this week, and we’re going to have lots of fun.”

Michelle and Tatia said a timid “Hi” to each other while Betty struggled with the three lanyards that were twisted around her neck. “Here,” she said, holding out the welcome signs to the girls. “Hang on to these while I get your name tags untangled.” When she finally straightened out the mess and put the name tag around Tatia’s neck, it was much more than a cord and a little piece of plastic. It was a promise that, at least for the next few days, somebody knew who she was and that somebody cared.

The first thing on the agenda was lunch, followed by rest time. Nobody really rested though; there was way too much to see and do. The counselors helped their campers dig through the piles of luggage to find the suitcases, backpacks, or plastic bags that contained the clothes and other personal belongings they had brought from home. Tatia and Michelle had no problems locating their bags, and Betty was soon herding them toward the dorm they would call home for the week. A steady stream of humanity funneled into the main doorway before splitting, boys and men to the hallway on the right, girls and women to the left. The stream continued to diminish as people found their rooms. Betty and her girls continued all the way to the last door on the left. Then, they stopped as they were confronted once again with the preparation that had been made for their arrival.

The door to the room was covered with names – lots of names – and Tatia wondered just how big that room was. First, though, she scanned the door until she found her own name. She reached out and traced the letters with her finger as if to make certain that somebody really had been expecting her.

“Hey, what’s the holdup!” someone shouted from further back in the hallway.

“Come on, girls,” said Betty. “Let’s get on into the room so we can get settled and get ready to go swimming.”

“Swimming! Yeah!” said both girls as they pushed the door open. They almost stopped short again, but Betty urged them to keep moving.

“We’re all the way in the far corner,” she said.

The room was small and ugly – no more than twenty feet by thirty feet with a concrete floor, cinder block walls, and a ceiling covered with insulation held in place by chicken wire. It was furnished with nine sets of bunk beds lined up against both walls with barely a foot of clearance between beds. A narrow aisle, approximately four feet wide, ran down the center of the room. Still, it had been transformed into a wonderland by counselors armed with strings of lights, crepe paper streamers, balloons, posters, and signs. The girls gaped at all the decorations, almost stumbling over campers who had arrived before them and were already trying to find places to stow their belongings.

Tatia squealed with delight when she reached the end of the room and saw the small sign on the last bunk – TATIA’S BED. “I’ve never slept in a bunk bed before, and I get the top one!”

Michelle seemed a bit disappointed that she had a lower bunk, but she took it in stride. “I had the top bunk last year. Just be sure you don’t step on me if you have to get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.”

Both girls giggled, and Betty hoped their good start would continue throughout the week. She set to work helping the girls find places for their bags and checking to see if they had swimsuits, flip flops, and towels for their trip to the pool. She discovered that Tatia needed a T-shirt to wear over her swimsuit since her two-piece suit didn’t meet the camp dress code. Both girls needed sheets, and Betty thought they might need socks later in the week, but she’d worry about that later. The first priority right now was to get the girls to the pool for the swim test.

There were two choices for swimming – the pool and the pond. Non-swimmers and the more timid kids stayed in the pool that was about five feet at the deep end. This was a great place for volleyball games, floating toys, and water gun fights. The swimmers and more adventurous went to the pond, a deeper and more natural body of water with a big slide, a trapeze, and a zip line. Both girls passed the test and were awarded a red wrist band which gave them access to the pond and the pool, with an accompanying counselor, of course. They spent forty-five minutes in the pond, squealing, splashing, sliding, and having the kind of carefree fun that was too often lacking from their lives.

Lights out was at nine o’clock. By the time Tatia donned her pajamas, brushed her teeth and climbed into her bunk, she had made a pillowcase and a bookmark using a real sewing machine, learned several new songs and watched a funny skit in Chapel, eaten dinner and played games with new friends, picked up a handful of notes from her counselor and camp grandparents from her personal camp mailbox, and had a devotional and bedtime prayers with her counselor. As she snuggled down in the sleeping bag Betty had brought her from the camp store, her head was spinning with new memories. She played each one through her mind like a video, trying to decide which was her favorite, and she finally settled on the song they sang in Chapel called “Big House.” It was exactly what she pictured when she thought about her Mama and Daddy being in their Father’s house. She lay in the darkness, listening to the sounds of the other girls settling down for the night, and drifted off to sleep singing to herself:

Come and go with me to my Father’s house. It’s a big, big house with lots and lots of room; a big, big table with lots and lots of food; a big, big yard where we can play football; a big, big house. It’s my Father’s house.

She was so exhausted each night from the blur of activity that she had the nightmare about Mama and Daddy in their boxes only once. Even the morning after waking up in tears in the middle of the night, she was excited to see what the day held. Throughout the week, she built a keepsake box with a real hammer, she had her first root beer float ever, and she played on a huge homemade Slip-and-Slide. She attended a royal princess tea party dressed in a beautiful ball gown, and at the camp variety show she performed a rap recitation of the books of the Bible with the other girls from her cabin. Her two favorite activities, though, were Imagination Station where she met Mrs. G and Everybody’s Birthday Party where she really met Jesse.

# # #

Want to read more? Buy the complete book on Amazon in either digital or paperback.

Preface and Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3| Chapter 4| Chapter 5

Blessings,

Linda

Published in the Rains County Leader on March 31, 2020:

communityThe spirit of unity in small towns, especially in Emory, has been a topic of several of my columns over the years. It seems like a crisis brings out the best in people unless, of course, they’re fighting over the last package of toilet paper on the shelf. Once they get home from the hunting and gathering, they seem more than willing to share if they know of a need.

Last Friday, two weeks after my previous shopping excursion, I finally ventured to Senior shopping hoursBrookshire’s. I more than qualify for Senior “Happy” Hour, so I arrived around 8:30 a.m. and found a less than half-full parking lot. Inside wasn’t too crowded either, and because everyone is so conscious of being socially distant, there weren’t the usual clogs of visitors in the middle of the aisles. I saw a few friends, but we exchanged quick greetings and moved on.

I was pleased to see that the produce area was well stocked with only a few bare shelves. I was able to find everything on my list which was made based on what I thought we would eat before it ruined. I hate to say it, but I’m not always as careful when I know I can make a quick run to the store at a moment’s notice. Read the rest of this entry »

For the next few weeks I will be sharing the first several chapters Tatia’s Tattoo. Links to previous chapters are at the end of this post. Following is Chapter 5. Chapter 6 will be posted on Thursday.

Final_Tatia's Tattoo Cover trim size

CHAPTER 5: THE DARKER SIDE OF ERIC

Tatia looked up when the flight attendant began her pre-flight announcements. She was one of those who tried to be entertaining in order to maintain the attention of her passengers, but it was still the same information Tatia had heard on the hundreds of flights she had been on in the last few years. She turned her attention back to the section of her notebook dealing with signs of neglect and various kinds of abuse. She recognized some of her former campers as she re-read the now familiar pages, and she also recognized some aspects of her younger self.

While Tatia had not been actively abused, the neglect she suffered in the home of her emotionally unstable grandmother and later, in over-crowded foster homes, left her vulnerable. By the time she was in middle school, she was beautiful in a sensually innocent way that child predators dream of. She suffered from the low sense of self-worth that comes when a child’s basic need for food, shelter, protection, or love goes unfulfilled. She craved positive personal attention, but she didn’t know how to get it, so she was often alone.

Tatia was supposed to ride the bus to and from school, but she hated it. It wasn’t too bad in the morning, because hers was the first stop. She could sit in the front seat, and no one dared to taunt or torment her within earshot of the driver. When she rode in the afternoon, though, the kids whose last class was closer to the bus stop filled the front seats before she boarded the bus, and she was forced to sit toward the back. No one sat with her, but the more popular girls surrounded her, throwing out the passive-aggressive verbal torture that was the plight of the foster kids.

The first day of school wasn’t too bad, but after that, once the rest of the student body had identified the foster kids, life was pretty unpleasant. So, Tatia sat on the front seat in the morning, and she walked home every afternoon. It wasn’t difficult. With the promise of doing extra chores when she made it home, she talked Josie into signing a note giving her permission to ride home with a friend she didn’t really know after book club meetings she never attended. She was such a good student that nobody questioned the truth of her claims, and she came to enjoy the quiet solitude of the mile walk between the torture of school and the chaos of home. Then, she met Eric.

On a beautiful day in early March, one of those rare spring days in Texas when the air promised new life and the trees were tinged with green, he came into her life. As she walked down the shoulder of the road with the light breeze playing with her curls, she was almost happy until she heard a car coming from behind, slowing down as it approached. She picked up her pace a bit and focused on the path ahead of her, determined not to let this intruder spoil her last few minutes of peace before the bedlam of the evening began. However, as the shiny fender of the sporty red convertible entered her peripheral vision, she couldn’t keep from sneaking a peek.

“Excuse me,” said the driver. “I just realized I’m almost out of gas, and I’m new in town. Is there a gas station down this direction?”

Tatia kept walking but slowed a bit, matching her stride to the slow roll of his vehicle. Without looking at him, she replied, “No, not for about twenty miles. Make a u-turn and turn right at the stoplight. There are two stations in the next block.”

“OK. Thanks.”

“No problem,” she said, beginning to pick up her pace again.

“I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but you have beautiful hair.”

Surprised, she stopped and turned her head to look at him. She struggled to keep her mouth from falling open – he was the most startlingly handsome man she had ever seen, except on the covers of the romance novels Josie liked to read. He had it all – the square jaw, full lips, dimples, smoldering eyes, black hair, and one stray curl that had escaped onto his forehead to keep him from being absolutely perfect. She felt what she was sure was the monster blush of all times reddening her cheeks as he flashed her a perfect smile.

“Anyway,” he said, waving and stepping on the gas, “thanks again.”

Before she could find her voice, he had made his u-turn and was gone. “Real cool, Tatia,” she said as she continued her walk toward home. “Mr. Perfect pays you a compliment, and you can’t say thanks, you’re welcome, or even have a nice day. Not that it matters. I’ll never see him again.”

She did, though. The next day she saw him on the same road, driving in the opposite direction. He smiled and waved, and she almost smiled before ducking her head. The following day, his flashy ride was at the four-way stop a couple of blocks from the school, and the day after, he came out of the post office as she was walking by on the other side of the street. Each time, he smiled and waved, and each time, she became a little braver, finally returning his greeting with a smile and wave of her own.

Then, it was the weekend, and she didn’t see him for two days. When Monday came, she found herself hoping to catch a glimpse of him as she walked out of the library. What she saw was her handsome stranger sitting in one of two chairs just outside the door, twirling a single dandelion between his fingers. She didn’t actually see him at first – she was reading the cover blurb of the book she had just checked out.

“Hi there,” he said.

She jumped, let out a little screech, and dropped her book. “You scared me,” she stammered, leaning back against the door jamb with one hand on her chest.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, picking up the book and handing it to her.

“It’s okay. I just wasn’t expecting to see anyone. Nobody sits in those chairs – usually,” she replied with a breathless giggle.

“Well, I just saw this first color of spring,” he said, holding out the flower, “and I thought of you the first time I saw you walking along the road last week.”

This time she managed a real smile as she accepted the flower. “Thank you. That’s really sweet.”

“No problem, right? I gotta run, but since we seem to run in the same areas, I’ll probably be seeing you.”

“Okay,” she said, still looking at the rather wilted flower. “It’s pretty.”

“Like you. I wish it could be a bouquet of roses,” he said as he walked toward the parking lot. Then, he turned back. “By the way, my name’s Eric. What’s yours?”

“Tatia.”

“A beautiful name for a beautiful lady,” said Eric, getting into his car and driving away.

Tatia slowly sank into one of the chairs as she watched him drive away. Her head was spinning from the unfamiliar feeling of being the focus of so much attention and so many compliments. “Beautiful? Me?” she whispered. “A lady?” Then she let out a self-deprecating laugh. “He’s not perfect after all. He needs glasses!”

Still shaking her head slightly, she shifted her backpack into a more comfortable position and turned her thoughts toward home and the reality of her world.

After their encounter at the library, Tatia and Eric saw each other almost every day after school. Some days he would wait for her outside the library, and they would sit in the two chairs on the porch and talk. Other days they would walk to the tiny city park that was three blocks away and sit together on a bench and watch the squirrels. Sometimes he would pass her as she walked along the county road toward home, and he would do a quick u-turn and pull over to the shoulder of the road. At first, she would lean on the edge of the door, but as she became more comfortable with him, she would sit in the car while they talked.

Tatia looked forward to their little encounters. It never occurred to her to wonder why Eric was always around when other adults she knew were still at work. All she knew was that he seemed interested in her and in what was going on in her life, even if it was just a science project that was due or a snotty group of girls in the cafeteria. He really listened to what she had to say, and he made her feel special. He also brought her little gifts from time to time. At first he brought silly things, like the dandelion or the fortune cookie from his take-out lunch. As they became better acquainted, he brought gifts that were small but significant in their meaning – a pink gel pen because pink was her favorite color or a tube of cherry flavored lip balm because one of the brats at home had stolen hers.

After a few weeks, on a particularly warm day in April, Eric took another step in their friendship. He had the top down on his Corvette, and Tatia was sitting in the passenger seat, telling him about the latest antics of her crazy math teacher. “Hey,” he said when she paused in her story, “I’d give my right arm for a cherry limeade right now. How about you?”

“I don’t know,” she hesitated. “I don’t have any money with me.”

“No problem. It’s happy hour – my treat.”

“Okay, sure. I just can’t stay very long. Josie gets really mad when I’m late and she has to deal with the kids.”

“We’ll leave in plenty of time, and I’ll drop you off at the end of your street so you don’t have far to walk.”

After that, he often waited for her in his car a block or two from the library, and she hopped in with no hesitation for a breezy, top-down ride to run an errand with him or into town for ice cream or a shaved ice. The gifts came more often, and if not exactly extravagant, at least a little bigger and more expensive. One day he brought her a T-shirt featuring her favorite band.

“Oh, Eric! You shouldn’t have,” she said excitedly.

“But I wanted you to have it.”

“Thank you so much. But how will I explain this to Josie?”

“Do what my mom used to do. Hide it in the back of your closet for a few weeks before you wear it. Then, if she asks where you got it, just say ‘This old thing? I’ve had it for a long time, but it was stuck in the back of the closet.’”

Tatia laughed, still admiring the shirt. “That would probably work. I do all the laundry anyway, so she doesn’t really know what we have. And it wouldn’t really be a lie, would it?”

“Of course not. Besides, you’ll look great in that shirt. But then you look good in anything you wear.”

“Oh, you’re always saying that.”

“That’s because it’s true. You really are beautiful.” he said, reaching over and playing with a couple of curls that had escaped from her ponytail.

The touching was something else that had increased. At first they didn’t touch at all. When they started walking to the park or along the roadside together, he would sometimes bump her playfully with his elbow or sometimes even with his hip. Then, if he had a special gift for her, he would make her close her eyes and hold out her hand. He would sandwich her hand between his with the gift between their palms, and when she opened her eyes, he would reveal the surprise by opening his hand as if he were opening the lid of a treasure chest. She didn’t really notice the progression until she began riding in the car with him. When she made him laugh, he would sometimes grab her playfully by the back of the neck or pat her on the leg, and when they went for ice cream, he sometimes sat on the same side of the booth with her, really close so their legs touched, almost like a real boyfriend. She never felt uncomfortable, though – well, almost never – and if she withdrew even a little bit, he backed off, so she felt safe.

There was one time, though, when she saw a side of him she didn’t like very much. It was early June, right after school was over. As an end-of-school present, he had given her a prepaid cell phone so she could get in touch with him when she could manage to get out of the house. This particular day, she called to see if he was free. He was, so she told Josie she was meeting Ms. Dunham for a special session about what to expect at camp and how to handle the new situations she would encounter. Tatia said she would walk into town, and Ms. Dunham would pick her up there so Josie wouldn’t have to drive her. After the T-shirt incident, it had become easier to stretch the truth or outright lie, especially if it meant spending time with Eric. She missed their daily visits after school, and she was pretty sure he did, too. She was really excited to see him and tell him her big news about camp.

Eric picked her up at the four-way stop in front of the courthouse and headed toward her favorite ice cream shop in Cameron, a nearby town where they were less likely to run into anyone who knew her. She was almost bubbling over and wanted to tell him about camp in the car, but she also wanted to have his full attention so she could watch his reaction as she told him about all the exciting things she would be doing. Unfortunately, he didn’t share her enthusiasm.

“Camp? Why would you want to go to camp?” he almost shouted, his face darkening in a way that made her draw back and drop her eyes. He saw her reaction and took a deep breath and continued in a calmer tone of voice. “I mean, I thought we had a good thing going here. Why would you want to go hang out with a bunch of kids?”

“I thought you’d be excited for me,” she said, still looking down.“I don’t get to do much in the summer. I have to lie to Josie to get out long enough to see you. At camp someone else will be looking after the kids and all I’ll have to worry about is me. Besides, it’s only five days.”

“I know,” he said, covering her small hand with his larger one. “I guess I’m just afraid some other guy will steal your heart if I’m not around to protect my interests.” He laughed self-consciously and pulled his hand back. “Pretty pathetic, huh?”

She smiled and put her hand on his arm. “I think it’s sweet. Nobody has ever been jealous over me before.”

He returned her smile and relaxed back into his seat. “Okay. Let’s start all over. Tell me about camp.”

She chattered on for five minutes, telling him everything Ms. Dunham had told her – about the swimming, the crafts, the princess tea, and the birthday party. “One of the fun things is that camp is the week before my real birthday. It will be the first birthday party I’ve ever had. Oh, I probably had them before…you know…but I don’t remember them.”

“Hey, when is your birthday?”

“June 30.”

“Tell you what. When you get back, you and I will have a real birthday party, one you don’t have to share with a camp full of other kids.”

“Really?” she asked with wide-eyed wonder.

“Really,” he said. “Be thinking of some way you can get away for a whole evening. We’ll go out to dinner at a fancy restaurant – do it up right.”

“That sounds awesome,” she said quietly as if she was afraid to believe it.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “This isn’t one of those Bible-thumping camps where they fill your head with God and Jesus and all that stuff, is it?”

“Ms. Dunham said it’s a Christian camp. We have Chapel and sing songs, but there’s no pressure. She said the main point is to let kids like me have fun and be kids for a few days. I don’t know about the God part, but the fun part sounds like Heaven to me.”

“Okay, I guess,” he said. “As long as you don’t decide to be a nun or something and forget all about me.”

“Right. Like that’s gonna happen,” she said as she turned her attention back to her ice cream.

# # #

Want to read more? Buy the complete book on Amazon in either digital or paperback.

Read Preface and Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

Blessings,

Linda

For the next few weeks I will be sharing the first several chapters Tatia’s Tattoo. Links to previous chapters are at the end of this post. Following is Chapter 4. Chapter 5 will be posted on Sunday.

Final_Tatia's Tattoo Cover trim size

CHAPTER 4: WELCOME TO CAMP

Tatia inched down the aisle of the MD-88 behind a tangle of arms, legs, and luggage wheels as the late-boarding passengers vied for limited overhead bin space. Her nose told her that at least one of her fellow passengers had opted for a heavy spritz of cologne in lieu of a shower, and she was grateful when she realized she was passing rather than sitting by the offender. The aroma of brewing coffee soon overpowered the unpleasant smell as Tatia moved back toward the galley. Her travel agent usually arranged seats closer to the front of the plane, but apparently the Dallas-Ft. Worth area was a popular destination this time of year. Thankfully, though, her seat was by the window on the two-seat side of the plane so she would only disrupt one person if she needed to move around during the flight.

By some miracle, Tatia found a vacant spot where her suitcase fit with a minimum of shoving, and she slid into 29E just as the stewardess began to encourage the stragglers to take their seats. Her traveling companion for the next two and a half hours was already plugged into the tunes she had stored on her phone, so Tatia pulled out her notebook before sliding her shoulder bag under the seat in front of her.

She had received the resource notebook the second time she went to Royal Children’s Camp, that time as Deborah Grochowsky’s staff assistant. The neatly typed pages, organized into sections by printed dividers, belied the emotions behind the words – words that attempted to prepare the volunteer camp workers for the intensity of the feelings they would experience as they encountered innocent victims of childhood abuse and sought to impact their lives with the love and acceptance they wanted and needed.

When she opened the purple vinyl cover, her eyes fell on the two index cards in the inside pocket. After her first year as a counselor instead of a staff assistant or teen helper, Tatia was allowed to forego the training weekend with the understanding that she would review the notebook on her own. Each spring, she received any material revisions along with two cards, one for each girl she would fall in love with during their week together. The cards contained scant information – first name, age, and pertinent information. Notations might include *New, *Bed Wetter, *Runner, or *Night Terrors, and almost all of them included *Meds. This year, both her girls were on medications, and one was new, but neither had other issues. One was eleven years old, and the other was twelve. She preferred to work with the older girls, always hoping she might create life-changing moments and somehow save them from making the mistakes she had made.

She whispered a prayer for the two precious children whose lives had been reduced to words on cards, praying that by this time next week they would both know how special they were to God and to her. She thought about Monday when each child would step off the bus, timidly looking around for an unfamiliar face and a welcome sign with his or her name, indicating that, at least for the next five days, she belonged. She smiled as she thought of the signs she had made over the years, signs on neon-colored poster board lettered with sparkly letters cut from sheets of adhesive foam, all supported on stir sticks from the paint store.

These silly signs represented so much to these who had so little, and that’s why the entire staff jumped around like crazy people as the buses approached, yelling and waving signs, anxious to see the fearful expressions melt into relieved smiles as the thought registered, Oh, that’s my name! That’s also why she was flying in a day earlier than absolutely necessary – so she could spend a couple of hours in the middle of piles of art supplies, cutting out sparkly letters.

Tatia thought back to the summer Ms. Dunham had arranged for her to go to camp. The day they left, she and her foster siblings were so excited and full of chatter that even Josie’s threats of making them stay home if they didn’t settle down couldn’t dampen their spirits. However, as soon they climbed aboard the bus and confronted a sea of tense, wide-eyed faces, their smiles faded, and they froze in place until Tatia pushed them all toward the back where they squeezed together onto two seats across the aisle from each other.

By the time they reached the camp, the younger ones were whimpering and begging to go home. Then, they noticed a commotion in front of them as the other children crowded close to the windows in spite of admonitions from the adult riders to stay seated.

“Look! Look!” they shouted excitedly as they pointed and pressed their noses to the glass.

Curious, Tatia and her crew moved to the right side of the bus and craned their necks to see what had sparked life into everyone. What they saw was a large group of people from teens on up, all smiling and jumping, waving their arms or signs, laughing and shouting. The signs had names in large letters, and some of the letters were sparkly.

“Look! Shelby! That’s my name!!” shouted one excited little girl.

“Yes, campers,” said one of the adults. She had given up trying to keep them in their seats, and she seemed as excited as the people outside. “All this excitement is for you, to welcome you to camp. As soon as the bus stops, gather up anything you brought on the bus with you. When you get off the bus, there will be camp grandparents, aunts, and uncles to help you look for a sign with your name. The person who is holding that sign will be your counselor for the week. Your counselor will take you to lunch and then help you find the rest of your luggage. Welcome to Royal Children’s Camp. Get ready to have fun!”

As she finished speaking, the bus lurched to a halt, gently tossing everyone against the seat in front of them. No one seemed to mind, though, as the sense of excitement spread. Tatia herded her little group toward the door, making sure nothing had been left behind. She was halfway down the aisle when she felt a tug on her shorts. She turned to see her youngest charge, looking scared and smearing tears across her cheeks with the backs of her hands.

“Tatia,” she wailed. “how will I find my name? I can’t read.”

“It’s okay,” Tatia said, kneeling beside her and picking up the ragged, stained blanket she had dropped on the floor. “I’ll help you.”

“How about I help her,” she heard someone say. “And how about you go find your counselor and start having a good time.”

Tatia looked up into a pair of twinkling gray eyes that were so full of life and joy that she couldn’t help smiling back. “Well, that’s very nice, but…”

“I know. Your mom told you to watch out for the little ones, right?”

“Yeah.”

“But that’s not your job this week. Your job is to be a kid and have fun.”

“But you’re a kid,” she said, still a little bit unsure.

“Well, yeah, but I’m sixteen, and I’m one of the teen helpers. My name is Jesse. See. It says so right here,” he said, showing her the badge he wore on a lanyard around his neck. Then, he smiled and held out his hand. Reassured by his easy-going manner and the small heart and cross tattoo on the inside of his forearm, she took his hand, and he pulled her to her feet.

“Thanks. My name’s Tatia, and this is Kaley.”

“Hi, Kaley,” he said, squatting down by the five-year-old who, by this time, had her thumb in her mouth and the corner of her blanket lying against the side of her face. “I’m Jesse, and I can read. Can I help you find your name while Tatia goes and finds hers?”

Kaley stared at him silently for a few seconds before nodding and putting her free hand in his.

“Do you have anything on the bus besides your blanket,” he asked her. She continued to stare at him seriously as she slowly shook her head. “Okay, let’s go,” he said as he led her toward the front of the bus. After a few steps he stopped and looked back at Tatia. “The counselors for the older kids are over there,” he said pointing past the driver. “Have a great week. See ya’ around.”

By the time she did a final check to be sure she wasn’t leaving anything, Jesse and Kaley were gone. She smiled to herself, thinking that she liked his eyes and his smile. He was almost as cute at Eric.

# # #

Want to read more? Buy the complete book on Amazon in either digital or paperback.

Preface and Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

Blessings,

Linda

Published in the Rains County Leader on March 24, 2020:

cancelledLast week I published a light-hearted list of ways to use surplus toilet paper. At that point, COVID-19 had not really touched my day-to-day life. It’s true that we had altered our anniversary getaway plans from a trek to Florida to see friends and on to Kentucky to see The Ark and the Creation Museum to a quick visit to Louisiana to say hello to David’s sisters. I also had to do my weekly mentoring at Dairy Queen instead of the school since Spring Break had been extended, but other than that, my life was pretty much unchanged.

In the last seven days, though, I’ve seen almost all of our church activities cancelled for at least two weeks: AWANA and Student Ministry, Home Group Bible Study, Ladies Bible Study, Sunday School, Morning Worship, and Sunday evening study. Along with those cancellations, many events bit the dust: the SISTAs Fund Raiser Bake Sale, AWANA Photo Scavenger Hunt, and the Student Ministry Spring Retreat. Secular activities and events including the Friends of the Library March meeting and the Semi-Annual Book Sale scheduled in April were cancelled. And as of Monday, the Senior Center will pass out Grab & Go meals but will be closed for all other purposes – and just when David and I are beginning to see results from our workout routines, the gym has closed for at least two weeks. Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: