Resting Place by M.L. Rubin

Librarian Joan agrees to hold on to an unwanted package for her sister, triggering an unexpected series of events in her life; by M.L. Rubin.

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"I mean, of course I feel sorry for the poor old thing, but why does she have to be our problem?" Stacey stared fiercely at Joan as if expecting an answer, although Joan told herself that the question was surely a rhetorical one. She murmured something noncommittal and poured her sister more tea by way of diversion. Stacey, who was not in the habit of showing up unexpectedly, had arrived distraught with her three children and a large cardboard box. After settling the oldest two in her living room to watch cartoons, Joan had made tea. She always found that tea was helpful in a crisis, the soothing ritual of adding milk or lemon, the hypnotic circling of spoon in cup.

Joan gestured towards the box, which sat awkwardly on the table between them, crowding the tea things. "Did this just arrive?"

Stacey nodded. "I got one of those notices, so I stopped by the post office after picking the kids up from day care. I thought it was our new espresso machine. But the package looked odd so I opened it in the car. I had no idea!" Here Stacey paused, the memory unfolding its horror. "When the kids realized that Dennis's Aunt Tabitha was in that box, well, they threw a fit! Timmy started saying that her ghost was going to haunt us, and of course that got Deenie hysterical - she wanted me to throw the box out of the car. Even the baby started crying. They're just so upset, and I'm on my own with them until Dennis gets back next week!"

Joan glanced from her younger nephew, who was chewing contentedly on his teething biscuit as he sat on Stacy's lap, to Timmy and Deenie, who were giggling as they sprawled on the carpet watching TV. The talk of ghosts sounded more like her eight-year-old nephew trying to scare his little sister, especially with Halloween only a week away. But then, she reminded herself, she was no expert on children. "So these are the cremated remains of Dennis's aunt?" she asked. A reference librarian by profession, she preferred to address problems by first gathering the relevant facts.

"His great-aunt," Stacey corrected her. "Dennis never even met her. All he knows is that she never married, had no children, liked to travel. Died after spending years in a nursing home. There's a letter from the lawyer explaining her will said to leave everything to next of kin. Which turns out to be us, now that Dennis's parents are gone."

"May I see?" Joan asked.

"Sure." Joan noticed that Stacey averted her eyes as she opened the box, focusing instead on ruffling her son's curls. Stacey had a hard time with death. She'd been only fourteen when their parents had died in a car crash, certainly too young.

Shrouded in layers of bubble wrap, the stainless steel canister took up most of the box. Several packs of what appeared to be postcards, neatly tied with faded ribbon, occupied one corner, and a plastic bag full of wristwatches occupied the other. Curious, Joan lifted the bag to examine them.

"Character watches - nothing valuable. That's the only other thing Dennis remembered his parents saying about Tabitha, that she liked to collect watches with cartoon characters. Pretty crazy, if you ask me."

"Oh, I don't know, people collect all sorts of things," Joan murmured as she replaced the bag. She was beginning to feel a desire to defend Tabitha, whose only fault seemed to be that of dying without any loved ones left to claim her ashes. Joan returned to the situation at hand. "It seems to me that this is Dennis's problem to solve; she's his relation."

"Dennis? Oh, he's useless when it comes to this kind of thing. Besides, I told you, he's away on a business trip. I don't see how he can help long distance."

"Why not leave the box in the car until you've tucked them in?" Joan asked, lowering her voice although the cartoons were more than likely to drown out their conversation. "Then bring it in after they're asleep and hide it. They won't even know it's there."

Stacey looked shocked. "Lie to them? I just couldn't! One has to be honest with children," she continued, taking on the patronizing tone she used whenever the topic of marriage or child-rearing came up between them. "It's the only way - but of course you wouldn't understand about that. What I was wondering," she continued, more slowly, "is whether you could keep her - just for a few days, just until Dennis gets home and we can figure something out."

Of course, Joan realized, it all made sense: the sudden visit, dragging the box in from the car along with the children. She felt a flush of indignation. Her house was small and she hated clutter. Why should her brother-in-law's great-aunt be her responsibility? But the sight of her sister's pale blue eyes full of entreaty made the anger fade away. Unlike her nephew and niece, Joan had no fear of being haunted by old Aunt Tabitha. The image arose in her mind of a pale, gaunt woman lying comatose on a hospital bed, a woman whose entire life was now reduced to a box that no one wanted. Joan stood and folded the flaps down neatly. "Very well, she can stay with me until Dennis gets home."

Within minutes, Stacey had herded the children into the car and driven off. Joan carried the box down to her basement and set it on the shelf above the washer dryer while muttering an apology under her breath. It seemed an undignified location for a funeral urn, but there was really nowhere else where it would not have been in the way.

Joan had intended to leave the box in her basement undisturbed. But she returned the following day, driven by curiosity about the dead woman who now shared her home. The bubble wrap around the canister struck her as silly - surely the stainless steel needed no additional protection. But perhaps, she reflected, its purpose was to protect the living by softening the shock of coming too unexpectedly upon the dead. She lifted the bag of watches from the box and laid them out for closer inspection. Although she would never have worn them herself, as her taste in jewelry tended toward the conservative, Joan admired the cleverness of the designs. Winnie the Pooh with his jar of honey, for example, was circled by a bumble bee on the second hand. For Cinderella, there was a glass slipper, while Peter Pan had Tinkerbell.

Next she examined the postcards, which depicted scenes from various parts of the world. As she studied the neat, compact writing on the back, Joan realized these cards were never meant to be sent. Rather than addresses and mundane reports of weather and sites visited, they held concise comments that she assumed were written by Tabitha, either for herself, or perhaps some future traveler. On a card portraying the Cathedral at Chartres, for example, was written, "Excellent café across courtyard, fresh croissants - best view of Cathedral." There were postcards of the Alps, Budapest, even the Great Pyramid of Giza, with comments ranging from poetic to pragmatic. Joan paused for a moment over the postcard of Giza. Once, she had thought to see it for herself.

As she replaced the box on the shelf, Joan was glad she'd taken the time to examine its contents. Instead of a pale, corpse-like figure, she now saw Tabitha as a small but energetic woman, eagerly setting forth to explore the world equipped with binoculars and sensible shoes, blessed with a sound digestion.

Arriving home from work the following week, Joan was surprised to find a shiny Lexus parked in her driveway. The car's owner stood waiting on her front porch. Tall and elegantly dressed, the woman seemed out of place among the pumpkins and decorative gourds. A board room would have been more suitable.

As Joan approached the woman held out her hand. "My name is Helen. I'm a friend of Stacey's," she stated with a smile that failed to extend past her lips.

"I see," Joan responded, although she didn't. What could this woman possibly want?

Helen turned to a large tote bag and removed two matching navy blue boxes. Setting these on the porch swing, she opened them to reveal dark blue urns with the names Gertrude and Nathan Shulman printed in gold script.

"My ex-mother and ex-father-in-law," she stated coldly, waving her hand towards the boxes. Joan nodded, fighting an urge to say how do you do. "My ex-husband, their only child, died of a heart attack last month. I'm listed as his sole beneficiary, so these were sent to me. We were married for four years," Helen continued, her voice rising in righteous indignation, "and they never accepted me, never. They called me 'the shiksa' - to my face!"

Joan paused before responding. Normally she would have offered condolences, but nothing about Helen invited sympathy. As someone who prided herself on being tolerant of even the most difficult people (a necessary trait for anyone in the library trade), Joan was aware of a strong antipathy toward this woman. Damn Stacey, whatever made her go and tell Helen about Tabitha?

"I don't understand the problem," Joan finally responded, somewhat curtly. "If you don't want their ashes with you, why not purchase a plot for them with the inheritance your ex-husband left you?"

Helen shook her head. "I can't. Their will stated that their remains were not to be buried - that they were to be kept in the home of a loved one. A loved one," she repeated, uttering a mirthless laugh, "Clearly I don't fit that description."

Neither do I, Joan thought, but refrained from pointing this out. Having reached the conclusion that taking custody of the Shulmans was the quickest way of getting Helen off her porch, she did so, although with little grace. Joan suspected their refusal to accept Helen as their daughter-in-law went beyond religious differences. She hoped that they would get along better with Tabitha.

On Saturday, Joan stopped off at Al's Antiques. Her garden club raised funds by making Thanksgiving centerpieces, and Al's, while lacking in antiques, was an excellent source of used vases and wicker baskets. She found the store owner looking unusually glum.

"Is something the matter?" she asked. Al nodded, pointing to a large ceramic jar on the counter. It was exquisitely decorated with a pair of red and green Chinese dragons, their bodies intertwined and highlighted with gold trim. "It's lovely," she said, surprised that Al seemed to have finally obtained an item that justified the name on his sign.

"Yeah, I thought so, too. That's why I bid on it at the auction. It was part of a boxed lot, everything 'as is,' you know? So I get it home and unpack it, and you'll never guess what's in there -"

Joan was afraid that she could indeed guess, based on her recent experiences. "Cremated remains?" she asked, her voice sympathetic.

"Full to the brim! So what do I do now? I can't just dump it out, that wouldn't be right. An' I can't sell it, not with a dead person inside."

"More likely two," Joan replied, eyeing the dimensions of the jar.

"Jeez! Two of 'em? What am I gonna do?" Al rubbed his hands across his face, clearly beside himself. Joan sighed. She liked Al, who often sold baskets and ceramic planters to the garden club at a discount. She offered to take the jar, and he gratefully accepted, relieved to be rid of it. It was only when she arrived home that Joan realized it was too large and too heavy to fit onto the shelf next to Tabitha and the Shulmans. She ended up placing it on a sturdy crate, where it sat in incongruous splendor beside her washing machine.

Joan was reminded of the saying, "No good deed goes unpunished," when she saw an item in the Eagleton Gazette the following week. Titled "Local Dealer Finds Human Remains in Antique Vase," the article stated that the remains had been given "a loving home by our local librarian, Joan Webster."

As Joan feared, word spread. The next day Enzo showed up at the reference desk clutching a shiny brass urn and a plain metal canister in his arms. As handyman for a nearby apartment complex, Enzo often helped the garden club by saving his cuttings of evergreen and holly for the wreaths they made each December. An elderly tenant, he explained, had died and been cremated. Her remains had been sent back to her apartment - he himself had placed the package inside her door. Now the landlord wanted the apartment cleared out.

"But doesn't she have someone to receive her?" Joan asked.

Enzo shook his head. "Her remains were supposed to go to her husband."

"And where is he?"

"He's right here," Enzo nodded at the brass urn, which he'd placed on Joan's desk along with the canister. "He's been sitting on the mantle in her living room for years. I seen it when I went in there to fix stuff for her. She always kept a glass of flowers next to him." Enzo cleared his throat, twisting his baseball cap in his hands. "Thing is, six years ago, when I first got the job, there was an abandoned unit. The landlord tells me to throw everything in the dumpster. Everything. There was one of those urns in the apartment. I told the landlord, I said, what do you want me to do with this? 'Throw it out' he said, just like that. So I did. Six years ago, and I still feel bad about it." Enzo paused and shook his head. He looked close to tears. "I don't want to do that to Mrs. Green. She was a real nice lady."

"That's all right, Enzo," Joan reassured him, "The Greens can stay with me." She wondered if they might be company for the Shulmans. They seemed to have less in common with Tabitha than the gay couple in the dragon jar, who shared her love of travel. It was, after all, human nature to form cliques. Joan saw no reason why death should alter such a basic human instinct.

Next to arrive was a graduate student from the local university whose uncle's ashes had been shipped to him from mainland China. The tall young man sat sprawled in his chair, seeming more interested in his cell phone than his uncle's ashes. Joan couldn't tell if he was reluctant to discuss the topic or merely bored.

"Why have the ashes sent here to you? Wasn't there any other family in China?"

"It's a tradition. Mourners should be family members younger than the deceased. Everyone else in the family was older than him, so they sent them to me."

"But wouldn't leaving the remains with me violate that tradition?" Joan asked.

The young man only shrugged. "I guess. But I'm really not into those old beliefs."

The ashes were stored in an intricately carved rosewood box that was inlaid with pale green stones. Joan leaned forward to examine the carvings and caught a whiff of something pungent. "What did your uncle do for a living?"

"He was a herbalist. Ran a store that was in our family for generations."

Joan nodded. She envisioned shadowy rooms full of apothecary jars, walls lined with wooden cabinets whose drawers held innumerable herbs and spices, not unlike the card catalogs she had used before computers made them obsolete. Indeed, one could draw many parallels between the two: both held human knowledge acquired across centuries and civilizations...

"So," the student's voice interrupted her thoughts, "you taking him, or what?"

Joan took him. Not every claimant was equally successful, however. She was quite firm with the woman who rang her doorbell and held up two ceramic jars, each sporting a hand-painted portrait of a Pekinese dog. "Absolutely not," Joan said, shutting the door before the woman could utter a word. Having never desired the companionship of living animals, Joan saw no reason to begin sharing her home with dead ones.

Two weeks passed, and Joan was beginning to hope that Al's interview with the Eagleton Gazette had faded from the town's memory when she came home to find a pale pink ceramic vase on her porch steps. It was now mid-December, and Joan shivered a bit as she saw it sitting alone in the cold twilight. The vase had no identification, only an etching of a flower on the side and a scrap of paper taped to it with the words, "Afraid of the dark."

Well, of course there was no logic to that at all. Cremated remains couldn't see, and in any case the inside of the vase was without light. But the arrival of Iris, as Joan called her, convinced her that it was time to move her guests to a new home.

Joan owned a greenhouse that bordered her property. She had bought it years ago from the nursery next door after learning that the owner was planning to tear it down, being too small and antiquated for commercial use. Stacey viewed this purchase as extravagant, but Joan had never regretted it. It wasn't only that the garden club benefitted from having the space to start seedlings and arrange baskets. For Joan, the greenhouse marked the passage of time, each season denoted by the task at hand. Winter was for forcing bulbs that would bloom for Easter and starting seedlings be gathered into Mother's Day bouquets or Memorial Day remembrances. Chrysanthemums of early summer became harvest decorations for Thanksgiving, cuttings of boxwood and holly formed Christmas wreaths to end one year and begin the next.

That weekend Joan enlisted the help of Afram, a young man from Ghana who worked in the nursery and was often available for odd jobs. Together they carried the urns to her greenhouse, setting them on a broad shelf high above the growing tables. She placed Iris's vase on the southern end of the shelf, where it would receive the most light.

Joan was unprepared for Stacey's reaction when she stopped by the greenhouse to drop off a science experiment for Timmy's classroom. "Whoa," Stacey exclaimed as she stared up at the shelf, the tray of four dozen paper cups of bean seedlings still clutched in her hands. "What the heck, are you collecting dead people now? That's so morbid!"

Surprised, Joan surveyed the shelf. There were eight containers in all. Not an excessive number, she thought, and they looked quite handsome above the cheerful greenery that had been collected for the annual Christmas sale.

"I probably wouldn't have any of them if it weren't for Dennis's Aunt Tabitha," she reminded Stacey dryly. "That, and your friend Helen."

"Oh, right, sorry about her," Stacey muttered, flushing slightly. "I had no idea she was going to unload her in-laws on you. She's awfully bossy, but I swear she's the only mom I can rely on for car-pooling the kids."

"That's all right." Joan was not one to hold a grudge against her sister. In any case the Shulmans had been model guests. Indeed, they all seemed to get along despite differences in background and culture. The herbalist from China (Tong, as he preferred to be called), knew no English, yet they had no difficulty understanding him. Apparently the curse of Babel did not extend into the afterlife.

As a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Tong was quite interested in Joan's medical history. She'd been enrolled in a clinical trial of a new drug the year before, but it had made her so nauseous that she'd dropped out after the first month. Tong was most sympathetic. Western medicine, in his view, was focused on eradicating illnesses with substances that poison, and therefore weaken the body. He preferred approaches that strengthen the body's natural ability to fight illness. If Joan wished to cultivate her Qi, or life energy, he explained, there were many paths she could follow. Changes of diet, exercise, and mental outlook were all equally important. Joan supposed it couldn't hurt to try to follow Tong's advice. She found an introductory course on Qigong in the adult education brochure on her desk.

The first class was held on a chilly January evening at the local high school gym. "Visualize the flow of Qi like a river through your body," the instructor urged in soothing tones as they went through each motion. The movements looked simple when the instructor demonstrated them, but when Joan tried to follow her limbs felt surprisingly stiff and clumsy. Instead of flowing like water, her Qi seemed thick and gelatinous, like glue that had been left too long in the bottle.

When, Joan wondered, had her life energy become so stagnant? One night after class she took the postcard of the Great Pyramid from Tabitha's box. At twenty-four Joan had been a doctoral student making plans to travel to Egypt and gather material for her dissertation on the Pharaoh Khufu. She'd even been awarded a full scholarship that would cover the cost. But that had all changed the night her parents died. Joan left school and moved back home to find a job and take care of Stacey. Becoming an anthropologist was no longer practical, so instead she went to night school and earned a library degree.

Joan shook her head. She didn't regret the choices she had made: given the circumstances, she'd done her best with what life had handed her. And anyway, that was over twenty years ago. She could hardly blame the stagnation of her current life on Stacey. Knowing Tabitha wouldn't mind, Joan took the postcard and placed it on her desk, hoping it might serve as an inspiration. She could no longer imagine travelling to Egypt on her own. Yet somehow Tabitha had done it, even before the days of internet and cell phones.

Travel, according to Tabitha, forces you to be flexible because you have to adapt to new situations every day. Joan reminded herself of this as she struggled through the movements in her Qigong class. Even if she got better at bending her body, Joan doubted whether physical flexibility could translate into mental agility. She was tempted to quit, but hated to disappoint Tong and the others. Especially Lorenzo, who had become an enthusiastic supporter of Joan's new endeavors. You'll never get there by trying it once a week, he admonished. Instead of quitting, Joan needed to practice at home every day.

It was Lorenzo's nature to be wholehearted in pursuit of change, as his was the red dragon, symbolizing passion and impulsivity. His partner, Andrew, was the green dragon, representing gentleness and calm. They had chosen the dragon jar because it reflected the duality of their relationship. Andrew, Joan gathered, had been an estate lawyer, but she couldn't tell what Lorenzo's occupation had been. He seemed to know a great deal about many things, including art, food, travel, and antiques.

The problem with Joan's Qi, according to Lorenzo, was the monotony of her life. She needed to stir things up, try something new every day. It could be anything: making an acquaintance, listening to a song. Trying new things didn't come easily to Joan, but she persevered as the cold winter months dragged on. One day, for example, she wore a silk scarf decorated with large orange butterflies. It had belonged to Joan's mother, and she felt that given the pattern and color, wearing it should really count as two new experiences. Joan's thoughts were interrupted by her co-worker, Susan, who was pointing at her lunch with a plastic fork.

"What is that?"

Joan looked down at the container in front of her. "Something I saw in the deli section. I believe it's called tabbouleh." She'd bought it not only to appease Lorenzo, but also because Tabitha has been encouraging her to adapt her palate to new flavors, in case she ever did travel. Joan didn't want to be one of those Americans who (as Tabitha scornfully observed) journeyed half way around the world only to insist on corn flakes for breakfast.

"But today is Friday!" Susan shook her head in disbelief. "I've been here for eight years, and Friday has always been mac and cheese day. Wednesday is roast beef. I used to keep track of the work week just by looking at your lunch. But now you're bringing in all this weird stuff. What's going on with you?"

Joan shrugged, swallowing her last bite of tabbouleh, which fortunately tasted better than it looked. "I just felt like eating something different," she said as she rose from the table. "Maybe you should consider getting a calendar."

As Joan returned to her desk, she was pleased to see that there were no patrons waiting for her. She used to dread those endless afternoons when there was nothing to do but straighten the stacks. Books had become little more than objects needing to be shelved according to the dictates of the Dewey Decimal system, really more of a housekeeping task than a search for knowledge. But now Joan felt her old curiosity returning. She couldn't resist peeking between the covers as she lifted each book from the pile of returns, eager to sample the adventure hidden within. As soon as she finished shelving, Joan hurried to explore her favorite sections: alternative medicine, food, and of course, travel. The pile of books on her desk kept growing, causing the library director to joke that Joan was becoming her own best customer.

One night Joan dreamed of the time she was ten and her father took her south of town to witness the spring thaw. Joan never forgot the way the ice broke with a deep groan as the river struggled to free itself from its winter prison. She stood on the riverbank beside her father, watching as the giant grey-green chunks of ice began to move, slowly at first, then gaining speed as they were caught up in the current. Her father's voice was still echoing in her head as Joan awoke in the early morning darkness. "Watch out, Joanie," he said, pointing to the ice, "Everything's going to start moving now."

As the days lengthened, Joan began taking walks after work, mindful of Tabitha's advice that the greatest cities are best seen on foot. The thought of choosing a travel destination felt daunting, but there was no lack of suggestions. The Shulmans hoped that she would visit the Wailing Wall, the Greens were partial to the Vatican. Lorenzo would never forgive Joan if she didn't visit his and Andrew's favorite cafés in Paris. Iris hoped Joan would go to Holland when the tulips were in bloom. Tong noted that his village might not be considered worthy of a visit, although she would of course be most welcome there. But whatever she did, she must not miss seeing the Great Wall.

This idea was joined enthusiastically by the others. But it was Tabitha who observed that while all of these sites were certainly worth seeing, some of the best experiences came from giving oneself the freedom to simply wander, to choose a road without knowing where it goes.

In May, Stacey stopped by to help load the pots of daffodils into her car for the school's Mother's Day fundraiser. This time she avoided looking at the urns on the shelf, peering curiously at Joan instead.

"Are you feeling ok? You look like you've lost weight."

"I've changed my diet," Joan explained, "and I've been exercising more. As a matter of fact, I'm feeling better than I have in a long time." As Stacey drove off, Joan reflected that she'd answered Stacey truthfully, at least to a certain extent. She was feeling better, stronger, more energetic. There was no reason yet to tell her sister about the tumor, which Joan's oncologist had classified as inoperable. After all, she had also described it as slow growing, noting that it could be months, or even years, before Joan was "inconvenienced" by it. In the meanwhile, Joan had a great deal to do.

Her first stop was the travel agent's where Joan picked up her itinerary and a one-way ticket to Gatwick airport. London, in Tabitha's opinion, was an excellent place to get her "travel legs" before moving on to more challenging locales. From there, Joan planned make her way through France and Spain. Then perhaps she would travel east along the Mediterranean to Egypt and beyond, until her time or her money ran out. She'd already been granted an extended leave of absence from the library, having recommended the graduate student from China as her temporary replacement. Afram, the young man from the nursery, had happily agreed to house sit in her absence, promising to keep an eye on the greenhouse and take care of the garden club projects.

Next, she visited Al's Antiques where she decided to purchase a ginger jar she'd spotted the last time she was there. Joan liked its rounded shape and crisp blue and white floral pattern. Definitely not an antique, according to Lorenzo, but a decent reproduction.

"Nobody in this one," Al joked as he wrapped the jar in layers of newspaper.

"Not yet," Joan replied with a smile. She also purchased a vintage suitcase, complete with brass fittings and leather handles. Hard-sided suitcases, according to Tabitha, were useful as they could always double as a seat when traveling on a crowded train or boat.

Still grateful for Joan's help with the dragon jar, Al gave her a discount on the suitcase. "Anyways, it'd be hard to sell with that name engraved on it," he said, pointing a stubby finger at the brass plate beside the handle.

"That's not a name," Joan explained, "It's a Latin phrase. Vade in Pacem. It means 'Go in peace'." She didn't bother to add that the inscription was why she'd decided to buy it.

Her final stop was the lawyer's office, to sign paperwork establishing her will. She also created a trust fund for her nephews and niece, having benefited from Andrew's legal expertise. All of the remaining money, including funds from the sale of her house, would be used to cover expenses and upkeep on the greenhouse. If the investments did well, there should be enough to last at least thirty years.

And after that? Tabitha wondered. What happens then?

After that? Joan mused. After that, she supposed they'd be someone else's problem.


  1. Wow. This story is beautiful. I’m going to be thinking about this one for a very long time.

  2. A problem becomes a quest when the deceased become helpful characters. So imaginative! I didn't see where the story was going but was glad to have continued on the journey.

  3. I love this story! First heard it when the author read it in our writers' group.

  4. M.L. Rubin’s “Resting Place” is a sparkling example of absurdist literature. It seems preposterous at first that the MC, Joan, is willing to accept numerous cremation urns from frankly unsympathetic characters. As the narrative unfolds, Joan begins to speak with and take counsel from the deceased, whose personalities she unaccountably and colorfully elaborates on her own. When her medical condition is revealed near the end of the story, a possible explanation is provided. This story shows great skill at writing and story telling. I enjoyed “Resting Place” very much.

  5. Wow, what a delight! Simultaneously playful and surprising, and beautifully written. I laughed aloud several times. Thanks so much for brightening my day!