Here‘s a little essay about the opening sentence of a story. The Lake Region Writers Network is a non-profit volunteer group committed to the writing life in western Minnesota. Check it out!
I had coffee with Lila the other day. I stopped by to see if she needed help with snow management, but as it turned out her neighbor had cleared her driveway and sidewalks, so she was sitting pretty. Her son had given her a smart phone for Christmas and Lila held it out to me as if it were the shriveled corpse of a mouse she’d swept out from under the couch.
“I don’t know about this technology business,” she said. “I miss the old days of hand-written letters and party lines. And now here’s the post office about to end Saturday delivery. Now, it’s true, a lot of what fills my mailbox on a Saturday is junk, and sometimes, I hate to admit it, that includes the local paper. But from time to time there’s a letter from a grandbaby or an old friend and that just makes my weekend.
“What’s happening, I guess, is that people don’t write letters any more. They’re using things like this,” she said, waving the smart phone at me, “to stay in touch. Ha! Let me just say this. Technology is not all it was cut out to be. I hold this to my ear, but the sound is not as good as my old Ma Bell phone, and then the connection gets dropped because whoever is calling me is driving to hell and gone, and half the time I push a button I don’t mean to and the next thing I know this thing is making a movie of my ear. My ear is not all that interesting. So what’s so great about this thing? What’s so smart about it? The only reason they call it a smart phone is because if they’d called it a dumb phone it wouldn’t sell. But the truth is, this phone is like those Dummies books – this phone is for dummies.
“Speaking of dummies, listen to this: the Pentagon is now giving special medals to drone pilots. Don’t that beat all?”
I admitted that it did.
“So you spend your childhood playing video games, killing perfect strangers, and then you join the military so you can sit in a comfy chair in an air-conditioned room and kill perfect strangers.”
She paused for effect, took a drink of her coffee, blew her nose.
“I don’t see what’s so valiant about that. Perfect strangers who are flesh and blood, who have families and hobbies and favorite birthday meals. Some of them completely innocent. But you, the drone pilot, don’t know innocent from guilty, not in your comfy air-conditioned room somewhere thousands of miles away from those people, strangers yes, but people, you are killing. This is worthy of a medal?
“Now if you look up the word drone you’ll find words associated with it like monotonous, boring, indolent. That last word, indolent, that means “lazy.” If you ask me, a lazy pilot does not deserve a special medal.
“Where have we gone wrong? Could a mother truly be proud of her son or daughter for receiving this Distinguished Warfare Medal? I should say not. All this is is technology worship. A false idol if ever there were one.
“Well, that’s my rant for today. Can you show me how to make the ring tone on this thing louder?”
I had coffee with Lila yesterday. It was too cold to sit out on her porch so we sat in her living room, a cozy room with a modest chrysanthemum-print couch, a couple narrow arms chairs, and one glider rocker with a matching footrest. This rocker is where Lila sat. Behind her, in the archway between her living room and her dining room, stood a small baby grand piano with framed photographs arranged on the top.
“Do you see that photograph on the right, the one with the plain black frame?” Lila began. “That’s my great grandson. I’ve been thinking about him today and how he never met George McGovern, though I think Tom would have liked McGovern. Why would that be? I don’t rightly know, but that’s the feeling I had. Anyhow, I heard on the radio this morning that young people just aren’t interested in politics these days. Don’t that beat all?”
I admitted that it did.
“I took Tom’s mother campaigning for McGovern. Those were heady days, do you know what I mean by that? We just felt that anything was possible, that the world’s wounds could be healed. That nothing was beyond us.
“Do you think that’s why young people today don’t get involved in politics? Maybe they don’t feel that way, they don’t feel the righteousness that we felt. Of course I wasn’t young then, when McGovern ran for president, but I remember thinking then that everywhere I looked, there was a young person. Someone with a gleam in their eye. Idealists. People who believed that if you stuffed enough envelopes, knocked on enough doors, marched down main street enough times, well then things would change.
“Today I don’t even feel that. Here’s what I was thinking when I was studying Tom’s photograph. If I’ve given up, if I’ve decided there’s no damn use, then why should Tom there stand up and speak out? He’s handsome isn’t he? And he does have a gleam in his eye, I’ll say that for him.
“Did you see that almost two billion dollars have been spent on this campaign? There. That’s why I’ve given up. There’s no you or me in that two billion dollars. Our mailman, he’s a nice enough fellow, stops sometimes to chat when I’m outside, well he can’t even name our Senate candidate. When I asked him why he didn’t know he just said he didn’t care, he didn’t see what the difference was. Money was buying the government anyway.
“And money, is it conservative or liberal?
“So what would it take to get my Tom to stuff envelopes, that’s what I want to know.”
I had coffee with Lila the other day. Leaves whispered down in red and gold and because it was just past breakfast, a white moon stood high in the sky. There was a sharpness to the air, a hint of winter heading our way.
“Did I ever tell you about my mother?” Lila asked. “My mother canned anything. Beans, jam, tomato sauce, creamed corn. Once she tried pickled eggs, though I wouldn’t recommend them. About this time very year she’d take a visitor to the basement, to the cold storage, and show off her work: a whole wall, floor to ceiling, of jars lined up on gray pine boards, a whole wall, farther from side to side than a full-grown man could stretch his arms. Don’t that beat all?”
I admitted that it did.
“I guess people are coming around to canning again. It’s about time, is all I have to say. I remember my mother standing over a steaming pot of water, lifting in the jars and then lifting them out again. She used a bent hanger for that. She’d never think of buying something you could just fashion for yourself. And then she’d lean against the counter listening for the ping of the lids when the pressure would let off. I think she took a great deal of pleasure from that sound.
“All summer long she’d gather information about food. If someone said they’d seen wild grapes somewhere, say out on a county road or along a golf course, she’d make a mental note. And then a day or two later she’d gather up whoever was around and off we’d go with buckets to collect the fruit. Wild grapes, elderberries, crabapples. And on the way, if we passed a farm stand where they were selling green beans or corn, she’d buy up a load. I think she must have been up many a late night putting away fruits and vegetables.
“She always grew tomatoes, those Italian kind, that make such juicy, thick sauce. And cucumbers of course, so she could put up pickles and relish. One year she planted a few watermelon. Ooh, they were sweet. And she turned the rind into pickles. Nothing went to waste in my mother’s house. The following February we all joked about the watermelons and how we went two weeks eating watermelon breakfast, lunch, and dinner the summer before. And there we were in February, eating watermelons for lunch and dinner all over again.
“They say you are what you eat. I don’t know what they mean by that, but what I think of is my mother’s cooking. I ate Franklin County: beans, grapes, corn, tomatoes, apples. That makes me Franklin County, doesn’t it?
“Let me tell you: Franklin County is good.
“I’m not saying I’m good, nothing like that. But maybe I’m delicious!”