Authors: Fannie Flagg
To my good friend
There are two ways to live your life.
One is as though nothing is a miracle.
The other is as though everything is a miracle.
Elmwood Springs, Missouri, Monday, April 1
74 degrees and sunny
fter Elner Shimfissle accidentally poked that wasps’ nest up in her fig tree, the last thing she remembered was thinking “Uh-oh.” Then, the next thing she knew, she was lying flat on her back in some hospital emergency room, wondering how in the world she had gotten there. There was no emergency room at the walk-in clinic at home, so she figured she had to be at least as far away as Kansas City. “Good Lord,” she thought. “Of all the crazy things to have happen this morning.” She had just wanted to pick a few figs and make a jar of fig preserves for that nice woman who had brought her a basket of tomatoes. And now here she was with some boy wearing a green shower cap and a green smock, looking down at her, all excited, talking a mile a minute to five other people running around the room, also in green shower caps, green smocks, and little green paper booties on their feet. Elner suddenly wondered why they weren’t wearing white anymore. When had they changed that rule? The last time she had been to a hospital was thirty-four years ago, when her niece, Norma, had given birth to Linda; they had all worn white then. Her next-door neighbor Ruby Robinson, a bona fide professional registered nurse, still wore white, with white shoes and stockings and her snappy little cap with the wing tips. Elner thought white looked more professional and doctorlike than the wrinkly, baggy green things these people had on, and it wasn’t even a pretty green to boot.
She had always loved a good neat uniform, but the last time her niece and her niece’s husband had taken her to the picture show, she had been disappointed to see that the movie ushers no longer wore uniforms. In fact, they didn’t even
ushers anymore; you had to find your own seat. “Oh well,” thought Elner, “they must have their reasons.”
Then she suddenly began to wonder if she had turned off her oven before she had gone out in the yard to pick figs; or if she had fed her cat, Sonny, his breakfast yet. She also wondered what that boy in the ugly green shower cap and those other people leaning over, busy poking at her, were saying. She could see their lips moving all right, but she had not put her hearing aid on this morning, and all she could hear was a faint beeping noise, so she decided to try to take a little nap and wait for her niece Norma to come get her. She needed to get back home to check on Sonny and her stove, but she was not particularly looking forward to seeing her niece, because she knew she was going to get fussed at, but good. Norma was a highly nervous sort of a person and, after Elner’s last fall, had told her time and time again not to get up on that ladder and pick figs. Norma had made her promise to wait and let Macky, Norma’s husband, come over and do it for her; and now not only had Elner broken a promise, this trip to the emergency room was sure to cost her a pretty penny.
A few years ago, when her neighbor Tot Whooten had gotten that needle-nosed hound fish stuck in her leg and wound up in the emergency room, Tot said they had charged her a small fortune. On reflection, Elner now realized that she probably should have called Norma; she had
about calling, but she hadn’t wanted to bother poor Macky for just a few figs. Besides, how could she know there was a wasps’ nest up in her tree? If it weren’t for them, she would have been up and down that ladder with her figs, making fig preserves by now, and Norma would have been none the wiser. It was the wasps’ fault; they had no business being up there in the first place. But at this point she knew that all the excuses in the world would not hold much water with Norma. “I’m in big trouble now,” she thought, before she drifted off. “I may have just lost ladder privileges for life.”
The Nervous Niece
arlier that morning Norma Warren, a still pretty brunette woman in her sixties, had been at home thumbing through her Linens for Less catalog, trying to decide whether or not to order the yellow tone-on-tone floral design chenille bedspread, or the cool seersucker 100-percent-cotton-with-plenty-of-pucker in sea foam green with ribbon stripes on a crisp white background, when her aunt’s neighbor, and Norma’s beautician, Tot Whooten, had called and informed her that her Aunt Elner had fallen off the ladder again. Norma had hung up the phone and immediately run to the kitchen sink and thrown cold water in her face to keep herself from fainting. She had a tendency to faint when she was upset. Then she quickly picked up the wall phone and dialed her husband Macky’s cell phone number at work.
Macky, who was the manager of the hardware department at The Home Depot out at the mall, glanced at the readout of the number calling and answered.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Aunt Elner’s fallen off the ladder again!” said Norma frantically. “You’d better get over there right now. God knows what she’s broken. She could be lying over in her yard, dead for all I know. I told you we should have taken that ladder away from her!”
Macky, who had been married to Norma for forty-three years and was used to her fits of hysteria, particularly where Aunt Elner was concerned, said, “All right, Norma, just calm down, I’m sure she’s fine. She hasn’t killed herself yet, has she?”
“I told her not to get on that ladder again, but does she listen to me?”
Macky started walking toward the door, past plumbing supplies, and spoke to a man on the way out. “Hey, Jake, take over for me. I’ll be right back.”
Norma continued talking a mile a minute in his ear. “Macky, call me the minute you get there, and let me know, but if she’s dead, don’t even tell me, I can’t handle a tragedy right now…. Oh, I could just kill her. I knew something like this was going to happen.”
“Norma, just hang up and try to relax, go sit in the living room, and I’ll call you in a few minutes.”
“This is it, I am taking that ladder away from her as of today. The very idea of an old woman like her…”
“Hang up, Norma.”
“She could have broken every bone in her body.”
“I’ll call you,” he said, and hung up.
Macky walked out to the back parking lot, got in his Ford SUV and headed over to Elner’s house. He had learned the hard way; whenever there was a problem with Aunt Elner, having Norma there only made matters worse, so he made Norma stay at home until he could get to Elner’s and size up the situation.
After Macky hung up, Norma ran into the living room like he had said to do, but she certainly could not calm down or even sit down until he called to tell her everything was all right. “I swear to God,” she thought, “if she hasn’t killed herself this time, not only am I taking that ladder away from her, I’m going over and personally chopping down that damn fig tree, once and for all.” As she paced up and down the living room, wringing her hands, she suddenly remembered she should be practicing the positive self-talk exercises she had just learned in a program she was doing, designed to help people, like herself, who suffered from panic attacks and anxiety. Her daughter, Linda, had seen it advertised on TV and had sent it to her for her birthday. She had finished step nine, “Put an End to ‘What If’ Thinking,” and was now on step ten, “How to Stop Obsessive, Scary Thoughts.” She also tried to do her biofeedback deep breathing technique that she had been learning from a woman in her yoga class. As she paced, she breathed deeply and repeated a list of positive affirmations to herself: “It’s nothing to worry about,” “She has fallen out of the tree twice before and it has always been all right,” “She’s going to be fine,” “It’s just catastrophic thinking, it is not real,” “You will laugh about this later,” “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” “Ninety-nine percent of the things you worry about never happen,” “You are not having a heart attack,” “It’s just anxiety, it’s not going to hurt you.”
But as hard as she tried, she couldn’t help but be anxious. Aunt Elner was the closest living relative she had left in the world, besides Macky and their daughter, Linda, of course. After her own mother had died, her aunt’s well-being had become the main focus of most of her worries, and it had not been easy. As she passed by the photograph of a smiling Aunt Elner she kept on the mantel, she sighed. Who would have thought that this sweet, innocent-looking, rosy-cheeked old lady, with her white hair pulled back in a bun, could cause so much trouble? But then, Aunt Elner had always been stubborn; years ago when Aunt Elner’s husband, Uncle Will, had died, it had taken Norma forever to get her to move into town so she could keep a better eye on her.
Finally, after years of begging her, Aunt Elner had agreed to sell the farm and move into a small house in town, but she still was hard to handle. Norma dearly loved Aunt Elner, and
to have to nag at her all the time, but she was forced to; Aunt Elner was deaf as a post and would not have gotten a hearing aid if Norma hadn’t nagged at her. Aunt Elner
locked her doors, she didn’t eat right, she would not go to the doctor, and worst of all, she wouldn’t let Norma straighten up her house for her, something Norma was just dying to do. Aunt Elner’s house was a disaster, with pictures hung all over the wall helter-skelter, in no particular order, and her front porch was a mess. She had all kinds of things strewn everywhere: rocks, pinecones, shells, birds’ nests, wooden chickens, old plants, and four or five old rusty metal bulldog doorstoppers that her neighbor Ruby Robinson had given her. It was appalling to Norma, whose house and porch were always kept as neat as a pin. And it was only getting worse; just yesterday when Norma had gone over, there had been yet another new addition to the clutter: a hideously ugly jar of plastic sunflowers. Norma had cringed when she first saw it, but had asked sweetly, “Where did these come from, honey?”
As if she didn’t know. It was Aunt Elner’s neighbor across the street, Merle Wheeler, who was always bringing over the most horrendous-looking objects. Merle was the one who had brought that ratty, old fake brown leather office chair with the wheels, a chair that Elner had put on the front porch for all the world to see. At the time Norma had been head of the Beautify Elmwood Springs Committee and had tried every way possible to make her aunt get rid of it, but Elner had said she liked to roll around in it and water all her plants. Norma had even tried to talk Macky into going over there in the middle of the night and stealing it off Elner’s porch, but he wouldn’t do it. As usual, he stuck up for Aunt Elner, and told Norma that she was making a mountain out of a molehill, and that she was beginning to act just like her mother, which had not been true! Wanting to get rid of that chair had not been snobbism on her part, simply a matter of civic pride. Or at least she had hoped so.
Norma had a complete horror of being anything like her mother. Ida Shimfissle, Elner’s younger and prettier sister, had married well and had never been very nice to Elner. She had refused even to visit Elner after she’d moved to town, as long as Elner kept chickens in her backyard. “It’s so country,” she had said. But yesterday when Aunt Elner pointed at the sunflowers and announced with pride, “Aren’t they pretty, Merle brought them over, and you don’t even have to water them either,” it had been all Norma could do not to grab them and run screaming to the nearest trash can. Instead, she had just nodded pleasantly. Norma also knew where Merle had gotten the flowers. She had seen some exactly like them at Tuesday Mornings. Unfortunately, the local cemetery was just full of similar arrangements. Norma had always been appalled that people would actually put plastic flowers on a grave; to her, they seemed as cheap-looking as black velvet paintings of the Last Supper, but then, she never understood why anyone would want aluminum sliding glass windows, or keep a television set in the dining room either.
As far as Norma was concerned there was no excuse for having bad taste anymore, or at least, none that she could think of, when all you had to do was look in magazines and simply copy what you saw, or watch the design shows on the Home & Garden Channel. Thank God that Martha Stewart had come along when she had and introduced a little style to the American public. Granted, she was a jailbird now, but she had done a lot of good before she went. But it wasn’t only home and entertainment matters that bothered Norma, she was constantly dismayed at the way people dressed out in public. “You owe it to your fellow human beings to try and look as nice as you can, it’s just common courtesy,” her mother had always said. But now all anybody ever wore, even on planes, were tennis shoes, sweat suits, and baseball caps. Not that Norma dressed up all the time like she used to. She had been known to run out to the mall in her orange velour jogging outfit, but she never went anywhere without earrings and makeup. On those two points, she could never compromise. When Norma looked up at the clock again it was almost eight-thirty! Why wasn’t Macky calling? He had had plenty of time to get there. “Oh, God,” she thought. “Don’t tell me Macky has had a wreck and been killed in an accident on the way over there, that’s all I need this morning. Aunt Elner falls out of a tree and breaks her hip, and I become a widow on the same day!” At 8:31 she could not stand it another second, and was just about ready to dial Macky’s number, when the phone rang, and she almost jumped out of her skin.
Macky began by saying, “Norma, now listen to me. I don’t want you to get excited.” She could tell something was terribly wrong by the tone in his voice. He had always started conversations with “She’s fine, I told you not to worry,” but not this time. Norma held her breath. “This is it,” she thought. The call she had been so terrified of receiving was actually taking place. She felt her heart begin to pound even harder than before and her mouth go dry as she tried to remain calm and brace herself for the news.
Macky continued, “I don’t want you to panic, but they’ve called an ambulance.”
“AN AMBULANCE!” she screamed. “Oh my God! Has she broken something? I knew it! Is she badly hurt?”
“I don’t know, but you better come over here and go with us, you’ll probably need to sign some papers.”
“Oh my God. Is she in pain?”
There was a pause, then Macky answered, “No. She’s not in pain, just get on over here as soon as you can.”
“She’s broken her hip, hasn’t she? You don’t have to tell me, I know she has. I knew it. I’ve told her a thousand times not to get on that ladder!”
Macky cut her off, saying again, “Norma, just come on over here as soon as you can.” He had not wanted to be rude to Norma, and hated to hang up on her again, but he also did not want to tell her that Aunt Elner had knocked herself out cold and was still out like a light. At this point, he really had no idea what was broken, or even how badly she was hurt. When he had arrived at her house a few minutes before, Aunt Elner had been lying on the ground under her fig tree, with Ruby Robinson sitting beside her, taking her pulse, while her other neighbor, Tot, was standing there beside them engaged in a running commentary.