I was an only child. The good news….no sharing required. The bad news….no shelter from my mother’s storm, no partner in crime or close confidant. That’s why my high school years were so important. I found my tribe at Saint Joseph Central Catholic High. Our class of 68 students. The girls who would become my best friends and the boys who would taunt, ignore, flatter, and do all those things high school boys do. Never threatening, never menacing, just the best boys ever.
On Monday I will attend the funeral of one of those tribe members, Abby Moran Robinson. I’ll drive to Columbus, Ohio, for the service. But I won’t travel alone. I’ll meet another bestie, Kathie Grant Catlin, half way and we’ll travel together. Because that’s what we do. Share the load, offer support. Be family for one another.
That’s the way it is now with my classmates. Between the phone calls, the emails, Facebook, and the Yahoo group managed by Linda Kemper Daniels, classmate wrangler extraordinaire, we have a network that keeps us in touch. There are big reunions and mini-reunions, all designed to keep the connection strong.
Just Push Play was published in the Freckles to Wrinkles Anthology in 2006 . My mother and aunt never assembled a VCR, but I’m guessing if they had, it would have looked and sounded like this.
Just Push Play
Sylvie wasn’t on the porch. It was Helen’s first clue that something was wrong. Half the fun of these weekly outings was whizzing around the corner at the last minute to find Sylvie pacing the length of the porch staring at her watch. Some days she’d be standing in the driveway ready to run to the curb. Sylvie would rather be late for Sunday Mass than late for Bingo.
Helen rolled up to the curb and honked, but there was no response.
“Probably dropped dead from a heart attack,” she muttered. “Damn fool.”
She swung the big Buick into the driveway, rocking to a halt just short of Sylvie’s garage door. She threw the strap of the portable oxygen tank over her shoulder and, with an arm stretched out to the fender for support, teetered around the car and up the sidewalk.
A blend of Aqua Net and Shalimar sifted through the front door screen to greet her. Helen looked inside to see Sylvie poised in front of the television, decked out in a lime green polyester pants suit that barely camouflaged her pear shape, and sporting a crisp new updo that showed off her Clairol blonde. She was talking to the TV screen in a heated conversation, making her point with a wagging finger edged with the shiny red of a fresh manicure.
“They’ll put you in the home if they catch you talking to the TV like that,” Helen said walking through the door.
Sylvie waved her sister inside with the other manicured hand, never taking her eyes from the screen. “Look who’s talking,” she shot back. “You hardly get around on those gimpy legs. If anyone’s bound for the home, it’s you.”
“Yeah, but I’d rather be crippled than crazy.”
Helen laughed at her own joke, bringing on the deep, raspy cough of a cat trying to relieve itself of a hairball. Sylvie stepped toward her, but Helen held up her hand as a stop sign. She took a few steady draws on the oxygen, and after a couple of minutes, the cough subsided.
“Don’t you dare say a word,” Helen said, dropping her hand. “I loved every one of those cigarettes, and if this is how I pay for it, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
She aimed her purse at a chair and walked to Sylvie’s side. “Now, what in the hell are you doing?”
Sylvie turned back to the television, hitting the buttons on the remote in a random sequence that brought a gray fuzz, then a chart with arrows pointing up and down, then a black screen. “Rita bought me this blasted video tape machine,” she said. Each word was followed by another stab at the buttons with her red fingernail. “All I want to do is tape my soaps before we leave for Bingo.”
Helen rolled her eyes. “For God’s sake, are you still watching that trash? Forget it and let’s get out of here. We won’t get a good seat if we don’t leave now.” She grabbed at the end of the remote. “Come on sis. You know it’s hard to hear them call the numbers if we don’t sit up front.”
Sylvie gave the remote a quick tug. “I’ve watched Guiding Light for thirty years, and I don’t want to miss it. That’s why Rita bought me this thing. ‘So you can get out more, and not miss your programs,’ she told me. Then she promised to set it up for me. And where is she? Nowhere. She blows in the door, plugs in a few wires and tells me it’s all hooked up. She doesn’t stay to show me how it works, just long enough to leave a coffee ring on my tabletop and cookie crumbs in between the sofa cushions. Then she’s out the door. Hit and run—and I’m left with the mess.”
Helen released her end of the remote.
“Don’t you have one of these VCR things?” Sylvie started back to pushing buttons. “How did you get it to work?”
“I have a VCR,” Helen said, “But I don’t know what makes it go. The kids put it together. I just push in the tapes and press the PLAY button.”
The words hung in the air. Ernie would have had that VCR put together in ten seconds flat. But Ernie, the love of Sylvie’s life, had been dead for ten years. Rita, their only daughter, rarely called and visited only out of duty. Other than Helen and their youngest sister, Vernie, Sylvie was alone.
Helen began to fiddle with her oxygen hose, waiting for the moment to pass. “Damn the front row seats at Bingo,” Helen said at last, unstrapping the portable tank and peeling off her coat. “If my big sister wants to watch those damn soap operas, we’ll put a VCR together. How hard could it be?”
“Absultootly! You get the instruction book and I’ll call Vernie. She can hold our places in the front row. We’ll figure out this contraption in no time.”
Sylvie handed over the remote and was half way down the hall before Helen finished the sentence. The remote still held the oily warmth of Sylvie’s hand. Helen looked at the hodgepodge of buttons and arrows popping up from the smooth black plastic face. “Well, it’s just you and me kid,” she said, reaching up under the cuff of her blouse for a hanky to wipe Sylvie’s hand cream from the crevices. “Try and make this easy on me, okay?”
Sylvie was back before Helen got the hanky tucked back up her sleeve. Her face was sunny, with no traces of the previous storm. “See, it was back there in the box.” She waved the instruction book like unearthed treasure. She handed the book to Helen. “You get started and I’ll go make coffee.”
Helen stood with the remote in one hand and the instruction book in the other. “Pushy broad.” She took a couple of deep drags off the oxygen and settled back in a chair to start reading. From the kitchen she caught the first whiff of fresh coffee and heard Sylvie humming “Singing in the Rain.” She’d always had a crush on Gene Kelly.
In a few minutes Sylvie returned and put Helen’s cup on the table beside her. The coffee was the way she liked it, the perfect caramel color you get with just a touch of cream. And the saucer held two silver dollar sized sugar cookies on a folded linen napkin. Helen smiled. Coffee at her house was “serve yourself” from an old Mr. Coffee that started fresh in the morning and dwindled down to bitter by the end of the day. And baking? Once Entenman’s perfected their chocolate chip, Helen stashed her cookie sheets in a drawer under the stove.
“Make any progress?” Sylvie asked.
“I don’t know who writes these books,” Helen said. No one our age, that’s for damn sure. The words make no sense, so I look at the diagrams.” She took a bite of cookie as she paged through the instruction book. “One thing I learned working at Theo’s hardware store all those years was that if you fit the male end of one thing into the female end of the other, something usually happens.”
She let out a laugh that stopped just short of another coughing jag, then turned the page and rotated the book ninety degrees. “Okay, here we go.”
“You’ve figured it out?”
Helen took a few more deep hits of the oxygen and slid off of her chair onto the floor. She got on all fours and crawled across the room to the set. “I know where to start.” She motioned Sylvie over to the television. “You push the thing away from the wall so I can get back there. First I have to undo what’s already been done. Then we’ll start from scratch.”
Sylvie obeyed. She scrambled over to the television and put her weight behind the corner of the set. After a few strained heave-ho’s, the casters of the metal TV stand rolled across the carpet, exposing a web of black wires that hung from the VCR and connected into the back side of the television.
“Where’s that fancy magnifying glass of yours? I need to see close up.”
Sylvie pulled the pearl handled magnifying glass off the table beside her chair. “Another helping hand gift from Rita,” she said as she handed it to Helen.
“She means well, sis,” Helen said, inspecting the silver carving on the band between the handle and the glass. “Looks antique.”
Sylvie gave the magnifying glass a sarcastic look and turned around to walk away.
“Hey, where do you think you’re going? Get your butt down here with me. This is a two man job.”
Sylvie fussed over the potential for wrinkles in her pantsuit as she got to her knees, then landed on all fours with a thud. There was a symbolic rolling up of sleeves, and the work began. They looked at the set, studied the diagram, and battled with the wires. There was no kibitzing and no wisecracks, just thirty minutes of pure concentration as they worked to match up the ins and outs on the two pieces of equipment.
“I think this might be it.” Helen’s voice had a cautious enthusiasm. “Go around front and turn her on.”
Sylvie crawled around front, scooping up bits of lint and cookie crumbs from the carpet as she edged along. She eased her finger down on the remote’s power button as if the level of pressure made a difference between success and failure. The television came alive.
“Okay,” Helen called. “Push the MENU button.”
Sylvie gave another gentle push to the button marked MENU and was rewarded with a color grid for “clock set” and “timer set.” She gasped.
“What?” Helen peeked around the corner of the set. “What do you see?”
“I think you did it,” Sylvie said. “Come look.” She started to giggle like a kid at Christmas.
Helen huffed and puffed her way around to the front. “Grab my tank, would you, sis.” Her volume was down to a shallow whisper. “I need some air.”
Sylvie snapped to attention and reached for the oxygen tank. She wrapped the hose around Helen’s neck and helped her get the tubes adjusted on her nose. The static of the television buzzed in the background as Helen pulled in the cool fresh air and Sylvie browsed through the menu. They sat on the living room floor, backs against the sofa and legs stretched out in front, like two teenagers waiting to see Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. When Sylvie completed the final ENTER, they squealed. Then they laughed. Then they cried.
“You did it,” Sylvie said, reaching her arms out to hug Helen. “Thanks, sis.”
Helen leaned in to accept. “Thanks, schmanks. Don’t go getting any bright ideas. I’m not going into TV repair as a sideline.” She broke the hold and reached for a piece of furniture, starting the long haul to an upright position. “It would cut into my time at Bingo. Speaking of . . . we need to get going. Vernie won’t hold those seats forever. If she sees a couple of eligible widowers, she’ll sit one down on each side and toss us to the back of the room.”
Helen grunted while Sylvie groaned as they struggled back to the upright position. After giving each other a quick scan of hair and lipstick, they reached for their coats. As Sylvie locked the door behind her, Helen saw her sneak one last look at the VCR remote sitting on the coffee table.
Helen waited for her to get settled and then turned the key to crank up the Buick. “Let’s go for the jackpot today,” she said, reaching over to pat Sylvie on the arm.