Apple blossoms and chickadees

Every letter that my father wrote … every unspoken remark before and after every raised eyebrow … every comment that something was “highly iconoclastic” … every mild mannered query to every sales clerk as to whether or not she “accepted Confederate money?” … and every warning to “watch out that the guy doesn’t put knock out drops in your drink” … all, all had about them an enpurpled intensity … a flair … an escalation of objects and events out of the mundane and into the celestial.

Not for us such blandishments as to look both ways before crossing the street, because for the Reuben children, even the ionosphere was within easy reach. That’s where the oatmeal was stored. In the upper strata. Over the “elongated vestibule,” next to the “air of maximum dehydrogenation.”

No aging neighbor of ours was merely old; she was an “antediluvian antiquity.” My friends were “addle brains.” My sisters and I were his Prairie Flowers, his Birds of Paradise, his Oases in the Wilderness. We were Daughters Number One, Two, and Three. Sons Number One and Two. We were his Apple Blossoms and his Chickadees. If he was angry with us, he wouldn’t bawl us out, he would “Gnaddie us,” or “Grind our bones to make his bread.” When we didn’t wash our hands before dinner, he would unbuckle his leather belt, whip it out through his pants’ loops, and threaten to “thrash us within an inch of our lives.” If, God forbid, we hadn’t washed behind our ears, the wooden hanger was brandished … the one with which we would be “pulverized beyond recognition.”

Needless to say, he never inspired an instant’s fear in our hearts. When the belt whipped the air or when the wooden hanger hovered menacingly over our heads, we smiled, giggled, or laughed, and then ambled off to happily clean the offending appendage.

For Samuel Reuben, words were like pebbles in a colorful and carefully assembled rock collection, with an occasional semi-precious stone or diamond tossed in. The ways in which he would spontaneously arrange this small pile of pebbles into oddly juxtapositioned concepts and sentences was a talent of which I stand in awe, and will always be immoderately jealous.

A haggard, grim-visaged female stomping across the street in front of our car was “Madame DeFarge.”

In just two words, he had encapsulated her soul.

A short, squat fellow with stooped shoulders and a lumbering gait was a “troglodyte.”

A trip to the Grand Canyon would evoke the observation that it was “a good place to dispose of undesirable relatives.”

Undesirable friends were another thing. On several occasions, my father didn’t even have to open his mouth to convey essential, if embarrassing, truths. Bob, for example, was a slim, soft-looking guy who lived with his mother. A girl friend of mine called him “Barnacle Bob,” because she couldn’t get rid of him. He had a nervous habit of running his right hand through a recalcitrant flop of hair and at the same time flicking the hair back with an abrupt jerk of his head.

After Barnacle Bob left, I looked at my father questioningly. In response, he lifted his hand to an imaginary lock of hair and then flipped it back with a girlish snap of his head.

Wordlessly, he let me know exactly what he thought.

His subtle twisting of the dandified tips of a mustache he didn’t have gave me his opinion of yet another unlucky visiting male.

Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit

Copyright © 2008, Shelly Reuben.

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