Mary Beth Writes

My first Joyce Andrews story is Outside on a Very Cold Night.

This is my second Joyce Andrews story. Joyce is around seventy years old and lives by herself in an old farmhouse that is twenty minutes from the expressway between Milwaukee and Madison. She divorced her first husband decades ago; then raised good kids who have their own lives now. In her 40’s she married John, a wonderful man who died several years later.

She’s smart and brave and has lived a complicated life.

She isn’t done yet.

__________________________

 

Joyce did not use the automatic garage door opener in baby owl season.

A small screech owl was once again nesting in the box that John had, years ago, attached under the canopy of the oak tree at the far side of the garage. It was prodigious real estate for owls; a mere fifteen feet from miles of state forest but also overlooking the strip of yard along the driveway; a good spot from which to begin an evening’s hunt. Screech owls are very cute, very small, very shy … and they freak at the hum and rattle of an automatic garage door mechanism. So every late winter to early spring Joyce would let herself into the garage via its side door. Then she opened the garage door by hand, which somehow didn’t send the owl scolding and flying. She would back the car out, climb back out of the driver’s seat, close and lock the door, and drive off. She reversed the process when she came home.

She knew this was slightly ridiculous; the little owl could easily move into the forest. But Joyce loved the small wild creature that was her closest neighbor. .

Today Joyce was on an almost all-day mission. She was driving from her home in the woods, up to the expressway and then into Milwaukee. Her friend Malva lived on the west side of the city and Joyce was going to drive her to her chemo appointment. It would be a long day but Malva’s son lived out east and her daughter was taking several weeks to visit her own family in California. Joyce was glad to say yes when Malva asked if she could help. She and Malva been friends nearly fifty years; it was the least she could do.

However, the drive was more aggravating than she had expected. Yesterday she’d brought her car to the mechanic because the fan wasn’t working. They fixed that, but in the process lost her preset radio stations. Now she was on the expressway and ready to listen to NPR but instead some unknown radio guy was yammering about “It’s such a relief to have a leader who will say what our American values are and then do what needs to be done to get those values back.”

Joyce could just visualize a bulky white guy with broken blood vessels in his nose, probably chomping down donuts fetched by an unpaid intern in a tight shirt and a loose understanding of history.

“Didja hear when Trump said what we all want? Let women dress like women! I mean … aren’t we all tired of women dressing like either hookers or men? I remember back in the day when women wore dresses and their hair was fixed and a guy gave them the respect they were due. We lost something, America, when our women gave up the esteem we men gave to them. Trump is just saying what we’re all thinking. Let the two sexes act the natural way they are supposed to act. Men enjoying and protecting women the way God created this show to run.”

Joyce flipped her finger at the radio.

What world was he talking about?

The infusion room was large and sunny as the nurse started Malva’s IV. As she leaned back, Joyce chuckled softly. “I was thinking, on the way in, about that year I student taught under you. That was so long ago!”

Malva smiled, her eyes shutting gently as she relaxed into the chair. “Yes, it was 1973. I’d already been teaching quite a few years. Supervising student teachers didn’t pay much, but it paid a little and Marshall and I needed every penny. Plus I met so many wonderful young teachers that way.”

She smiled, opening her eyes at Joyce, “Though I don’t believe any were as gifted as you!”

She chuckled. “I’ve never forgotten the chaos you created in that section you taught on Beowulf -- because I had never before witnessed high school sophomores excited by Beowulf! You had them make puppets of the characters, and then they put on a puppet show of the saga. The boys bashed their puppets at each other.”

Joyce laughed. “Oh, heavens, I’d forgotten that! I do remember that girl who kept arguing with us. Feminism was new then, at least to us it was, and most of us were skeptical. But there was that girl who kept insisting the story was not about Beowulf’s heroics but about Grendal’s mothers’ grief after Beowulf killed Grendal. She made a point that I still remember, that making life so difficult that the only way a woman without a man could raise a child was to live in a swamp – and then calling that mother a monster because she didn’t kowtow to men – that that was sexist.”

Malva shook her head. “Goodness, Joyce, how do you remember that?”

Joyce shrugged. “Simple… I was engaged to Ron that year. I mentioned the comment to him and he went absolutely nuts ridiculing the opinion of a high school girl he’d never met! I thought he was a little over the top about it; but didn’t see it for the red flag it was.

“We married right after graduation, the kids came right away and I was home with two babies. I’d think about that girl’s comments when Ron would say how easy my life was because I didn’t have “to work.” He hit me a couple times and that was so long ago we thought we were supposed to forgive them. But then there was the day I caught him slapping Danny when Danny wasn’t even two yet. That’s when I left. The girl who said a hero’s story usually covers the story of a poor and frightened mom – that certainly stuck with me!”

Malva turned her head. “I’d forgotten that’s why you left him all those years ago.”

Joyce shrugged again. “Thanks. I don’t know if I ever told you clearly enough how much I really appreciated during those early years on my own when money was so tight, that you took me to those plays and concerts. I loved those evenings.”

Malva smiled. “Well, I appreciated being able to go to things with someone who enjoyed them as much as I did. Marshall never did, and I didn’t want to go alone. Why didn’t you go back to teaching? You had the credentials.”

Joyce glanced out the window, remembering that distant time. “I knew Ron would be no financial help; I needed to figure out something with a strong potential for a family-sustaining salary. Teaching paid decently, but it would take years to grow my salary, and I’d have to take on so many extra activities to do it. Plus I already had part-time banking experience from being a teller through college; I knew it was a job I could get. It was a mother’s decision; I knew I had to figure out how to take care of my family long term.”

Malva leaned back again. A look of pain crossed her face.

“What is it, Malva? Does something hurt? Shall I call a nurse?”

“Something hurts, yes, but it’s neither our conversation nor the chemo…”

“Joyce, I need help doing something I have been thinking about, well, every day of my life. I lobbied Louisa to go to California to visit her kids and grandchildren because I thought you were the best person to help me. I don’t want to take this to my kids, not yet.

“You know I’ve never been one to talk much about personal things, so I developed few close friends. You are so capable, and I need help, if you are willing.”

“Malva, I’m curious! You know I would be glad to help you any way that I could.”

Malva took a deep breath. “I’m 83 years old and I have cancer and I will probably not live another year. I hope I do, but it is doubtful. So I need to deal with this now, if I can, to make my peace with my life.

She was silent another moment, her fingers picking at the afghan across her lap. “Sixty-five years ago I gave birth to a daughter who I then gave up for adoption.”

Joyce sat straighter. “I’m astonished!” She pulled herself together, “But that was long ago. I remember what it was like being a teenager in the 60’s; we both know it was nothing like it is now. And you did this in, what, in the 1950’s?”

“My first year at college. The man was a handsome professor. His name was Roy and he was as charming as he was despicable. He surveyed his classes, picked out a shy girl who was also somewhat attractive – that autumn it was me – and easily seduced his prey.

“Of course, when I became pregnant he dumped me and then I was on my own. I was defenseless; a totally unprepared farm girl at the big university, in big trouble. I managed for several months. I didn’t tell anyone; my father would have disowned me and my mother’s heart would have broken, she was so proud I was at college. Finally I told my secret to a chaplain at the university. He and his wife arranged for me to do a “study abroad” which was really just going to one of their relative’s farms up north. My parents thought I was student teaching. Honestly, they never suspected. And then I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.”

Malva’s eyes were staring at nothing. The look of grief on her face nearly broke Joyce’s heart.

“I held her for three days. She was perfect. Then the adoption social worker came and took her away. Then I returned to school and earned my degree.”

Joyce heard the background murmur of others talking, of the medical pumps, of the quiet blather of television. She and Malva had been friends all these years; yet Joyce had never heard this or even imagined it. They had talked about theater and music and the weather, not about themselves.

“Did Marshall know?”

“No. I never told him or anyone. I made a bargain with myself that if I went through all that, then my reward was that I could and would live as if it hadn’t happened. I didn’t live through it, and then give up that precious baby, just to tell others. That’s what I told myself. Of course, I have not lived through one day since without thinking of her.”

Even though they had never even hugged each other in all the years they’d known each other, Joyce reached out and took Malva’s hand.

She looked into Malva’s lined, pale face. “I really am amazed. I would never have dreamed you had this tragedy in your past. But, of course, it makes sense now. One of your strengths is that you had already suffered; you were not going to choose anything that would bring you more loss. I am so sorry, Malva. I knew your life was not easy. Marshall was a good provider but he was not easy to be around. He always struck me as somewhat domineering and, well, not very curious about much. If I remember him rightly.”

Malva chuckled a little. “You said that very politely. Domineering and not very curious. I missed him after he died, but, well, less than he would have suspected.”

Both of the women giggled a little.

Malva turned her head towards Joyce. “I have had many years to consider what happened and the choice I made. I see myself as a victim of the times. You remember what it was like. We simply didn’t know anything about men, or what women ought to be able to expect from the men who inveigled them into intimacy. I followed Tim’s career a little and was satisfied that he was never given tenure. I found his obituary about 25 years ago. I don’t know what he died of, but no immediate family was listed.”

Malva continued to talk softly. “I’m not ashamed or angry at myself for what I chose when I was still just 18. I did the best I could.”

She looked at the light-drenched window opposite them. “What I am ashamed of is what I did 30 years later, when I was contacted by an attorney who said my daughter was searching for me.”

Joyce tilted her head, listening. “What did you do?”

“I turned her down.”

With that pronouncement, tears began to spill from Malva’s eyes.

“It was a rough time. Louisa and Phil were in private high school and then college and it was difficult to pay their tuitions. Marshall was always angry at me about our expenses, as if I ought to be able to feed and clothe us all, pay the bills and whatever else, without it being a strain. He never hit me, but he was yelling and scolding daily. I had my classes to teach, the never-ending grading, the house to clean, meals to cook and so much more. His mother was still alive; I prepared and drove meals to her each evening, plus took her shopping almost every week. It was just so hard, but nothing in me wanted to leave him. I guess I thought I wasn’t worth more than being a drudge.”

She sighed deeply, wiping her eyes with the back of her free hand. Joyce handed her tissues. “I thought I couldn’t take on any more. Also, I was so afraid she would just show up in my life and Marshall and the kids would find out about her, and then my miserable house of cards would fall down.

“So I said no. She never contacted me again. That decision is where I have struggled with guilt for years now.”

Joyce turned Malva’s frail hand over, smoothing her fingers over Malva’s.

“This is so sad yet I completely understand the choice you made. You were just trying to survive. We were that first, unsure generation of new feminists. We got our educations and had our jobs, but we still also did all the child-rearing and house chores that women were supposed to do. You taught generations of children. You took care of everyone and everything. I would never blame the choices you made.”

Malva blew her nose and went on. “But now I have cancer and I would like, if it is possible, to close this story with whatever decency is left in me.

“This is what I would like. I would like to communicate to my daughter that I am so sorry I turned her away. I would like to let her know me as little or as much as she would like. I want to apologize to her. I want her to know the flawed, weak woman that I am. I don’t expect anything from her; I just want to make whatever I have left available to her. If she wants to know Louisa and Phil, I will tell them.

“And this is why I need you, Joyce. I think, with your experience solving problems when you worked all those years at the bank, you might know how to discover if she is still out there. I don’t know how to look her up on a computer, and even if I could, I’m too afraid of what I would find.”

Joyce realized by the end of the next day that all Malva needed was a go-between. Finding her daughter was not complicated; Monica Hall was registered to be found. They made arrangements by email to meet on a Saturday afternoon in the municipal park of a town midway between them.

Malva was quiet in the car; twisting her handkerchief into knots. Joyce smiled to herself. Malva was of her generation; still carrying a hankie. Joyce reached her hand to cover Malva’s.

No one would understand except for the women who had lived through it how much women’s lives had changed during the years when they were young. Malva grew up in a world where women wore gloves and carried hankies and were virgins when they married. Joyce, not even twenty years younger, stopped wearing gloves before high school - and started using birth control in college. That fast, girls’ and women’s’ lives had turned inside out and upside down.

Joyce and Malva shuffled slowly across the village square lawn. Joyce felt Malva’s hand trembling against her arm; her other hand clutched the cane she had begun to use as the cancer sapped her strength.

The woman at the picnic table stood up and walked towards them until she stood in front of Malva, smiling as Malva returned her look of wonder, tears running down her face. The women reached out at the same time to grasp each other’s’ hands.

Joyce stepped just a little to the side to watch. Both women were of medium height and body shape, though Malva was shrinking with age and illness. Both had clear hazel eyes, fine eyebrows and, as they gazed at each other, beautifully warm smiles. She realized that both women looked like older Barbara Eden’s; all they needed was “I Dream of Jeannie” harem pants. As young women with pretty faces and smooth blonde hair, they must have been so appealing to men.

Joyce chuckled. “The two of you are almost wearing the same outfit.”

Both wore dark pants, perfectly matching dark shells, and a brightly colored cardigan. Malva’s was dark pink; Monica’s was white with green leaves. Both had jackets prudently folded over their arms in case the sunny May afternoon became chilly.

Monica looked at Malva and started to chuckle. “My mom often said I wore the most boring clothes of any teenager she knew. Is this genetic?”

Malva’s eye lit up. “I never really thought about it but I do have only black, charcoal, and navy pants.”

The women ambled to the picnic table under a tree. Joyce helped Malva situate herself on the end of a bench and then sat next to her.

Monica’s voice was warm as she comfortably explained herself. “I have been thinking about this day since I was a little girl. I wanted to tell you then, and I still want to tell you, that my parents were wonderful people. Both my mom and dad have passed away. I miss them very much; they loved me and I loved them. I would think you would like to know that your decision, which I’m sure was difficult, allowed me to have a good childhood. I thank you.”

Malva looked into her daughter’s face, blinking at tears, lifting her frail hands to try to wipe them away. This friend, who was the very personification of dignified composure, was quite simply melting. Joyce put her arm around her.

The women sat several minutes, waiting for Malva to catch her breath and find her voice.

“I’m sorry; this is the most emotional thing in my life since I gave you away. I never thought this day would ever come. I am a not brave person and I have been so afraid to meet you. I know some children who are adopted have rough times and I have been terrified that that might be you. All these years I have been afraid you might have been unhappy.”

Monica reached over to take Malva’s hands into her own. “We should have connected earlier to set your mind at peace about that.”

After that there was so much to say. Joyce edged a few inches further away from the two women. She listened and watched as Malva and Monica looked at, talked to, and drank each other in.

Monica spoke about herself clearly and efficiently. “I loved my family and they loved me. There was never any question about that. But I still felt, especially as I grew up, that I didn’t quite fit.” She made air quotes in the air.

“My family was nuts for sports. We watched games on television. We went to all the school football and basketball games. My three brothers were all on teams – did you know they adopted me because they wanted to have a daughter but kept having sons?

“But as I matured I realized I didn’t love sports as much as my family did. I didn’t hate them, I just wasn’t as coordinated as my brothers, and I’d eventually get bored playing on teams. I liked reading and making up stories and doing things in the kitchen with my mom.

“My family was active in a Methodist church. In high school during a service one Sunday I was so bored I picked up one of the pew Bibles and started to read Psalms -- and discovered an ancient poetry about people who didn’t feel at home in their world. Weirdly, Psalms made more sense to me about being adopted than anything else I was aware of. That feeling of not being at home, even when you are. That feeling of not quite belonging.

“This would eventually lead to college and then, somewhat unusual for a woman back then, to seminary. I became a United Methodist pastor which I still am. I eventually realized that feeling as if I didn’t quite belong – that that is how many people feel. I just probably felt it a little more and little earlier than others. Being adopted led me to my adulthood.

“What you gave me was both love and loss – which I think is what all adults have to recognize and deal with.”

The afternoon spun on. Respect, curiosity, affection, and relief bloomed between the two women.

Joyce excused herself to look for a coffee shop. Malva and Monica barely looked up as she walked away.

The truth was that she was on the edge of a panic attack. It had been years since she had felt this way; her heart hammering and sweat breaking across her shoulders. She reminded herself to take deep breaths; deep calming breaths. Just keep walking; keep breathing. She found a diner where she sat in a corner booth to order a cup of tea.

Her soft, old woman’s body felt as if it was one of the long-ago, thick, hand-me-down winter coats from her sister. Her mom would button her in so that she could hardly breathe. The collar would be tight and itchy, the wool weighed heavily on her child’s shoulders. She couldn’t run or breathe, she would start to panic and then her mother would scold her for whining as she and her siblings were rushed out the door to the school bus. She could never figure out how to be a good girl and a happy child at the same time. There always seemed to be something heavy buttoned down over her, holding her down, holding her back.

She suddenly remembered the awful radio deejay and his harangue about women and how they ought to look and act. How he had ranted that women ought to go back to this, Joyce realized, to a time when a mother and a baby who had done nothing wrong, lost each other. The child taken from her mother’s arms. The mother who would never recover from that loss, not in 65 years. Lives had been built to fill in the holes left when they were taken from each other; but the realities of separation marked them forever.

Most people would say they had done fine, maybe better than most. But Joyce felt her heart turn over. There was endurance here. There were lives lived with generosity, intelligence, and grace.

But this loss. The loss of all the women of her generation who had not figured out how to be brave until they were years past the moments where they had been so deeply wounded.

That claustrophobic feeling of being a child in a girl’s body. The dreadful illusions that they moved forward into; assaultive husbands, demeaning families, numbing jobs. Endless rounds of work and chores, care-taking and obligations. That heavy, itching coat of expectations that hung so heavily on their shoulders.

Loss and duty. Endurance. Endless self-deprecating kindness towards others. Selective memory and the unexamined belief that things will get better soon, if she can just hang on a little longer.

Joyce drank her tea, her hands shaking at the bleakness. Some spilled on the Formica table surface, she wiped it with a paper napkin, her action the unthinking response of a woman of her age when she makes a small mess. Clean it up right away. Don’t leave even a puddle of herself behind.

She purchased plastic-wrapped cookies on the way out of the restaurant, then carried the sack slowly through the village streets. Seeing, as if for the first time, the cost of the beauty and order all around her. Gardens filled with tulips and daffodils, prettily painted houses with neat trim. The tinkling laughs of children playing outside a church daycare center supervised by smiling young women with a dark ponytail. A middle-aged woman pumping gas into a clean car at the filling station. Placards in store windows for church dinners and rummage sales, a recycling program and a book club welcoming new members. The door of a storefront library opened as a child walked in, she saw two women working at the front desk. She walked past a Real Estate company owned by a husband and wife, she wondered who sat down first each evening at the end of their days.

How much of everything around her was created by women who were curtailed, constrained, and careful? Women who were living kind and helpful lives on top of deep streams of grief and loss?

She crossed the street again to the town square; making her way to the picnic table where Malva and Monica still held hands. They were laughing. Malva’s face shone, breathtakingly happy in the love she had found. Monica, it was so clear to Joyce, was both daughter and pastor in this moment. Longing for this mother’s love; careful with the soul of this aging woman.

Joyce breathed in a deep breath and then walked to them with the cookies, all she had to give to these two women who had lost so much.

It was nearly dark by the time Joyce turned into her driveway; the tiny new leaves of spring did not quite block all of the setting sun. She opened the car door and got out to stand a moment to let her stiff knees realign themselves for walking. She folded her arms along the top of the car to admire the amber hues of dusk turn tree trunks and the garage gold.

The moment was quiet and beautiful, and then she heard the small tremolo of the owl.  It was staring at her from the opening of the box, its pale eyes watched her, blinked, and then called its soft vibrating purr again.

Joyce felt the intense feelings of the day gather behind her eyes and spill over her cheeks. The longer she lived, the less she knew of what to do with suffering and loss and running out of time just when one finally found the mounds and piles of love that had always been there.

The owl thrummed as she pulled the key from her pocket and walked around to the side of the garage to unlock the door.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRsl0-D4AQQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6N4C4U70Ajc

 

 

 

                                                                                                                     

 

 

 

 

Comments

A very moving story, beautifully written, and a wonderful reminder of how the world has changed so much and still not enough.

I really appreciate your comment. Makes me more confident to keep writing. #MeToo has sent many of us spinning back into our early lives.

Really enjoyed it. Lovely.

Thank you.

Thank you. Loss and grief, I know them well. Finding my footing and voice again, after the loss of my beloved, 2 years ago. Grief at what my country has become, yet hopeful at the loud voices of women saying: No. Me too. We will not go back, but what a journey it has been. Grace to you, Mary Beth. Patricia/FL

Thank you so much. This is such a rough time to live with our 'Full-hearted, Bring It ON, We have imagination and we have room' American ideals and gusto. All the interesting people I know are wrestling - alone and in groups and congregations with others - about how to BE Big-Hearted in this mean time. It is not just a political reality - it is a spiritual fight. I appreciate how we support each other.

Yes! I see it as a spiritual fight too, not just a political one. And damn it, I want my country back. I have found great solace in the blog community of like minded people, and kindred spirits, from all over the world. It has given me great hope. Thank you for the time you put into your blog and stories, and for sharing them, Your efforts are so appreciated. Patricia Fl

Your story touched my heart and caused me to wander through many dark corners of my memories of those times. Your story reminds of to be vigilant least we return to those times. Thank you for writing and sharing.

I had to stop reading twice to collect myself: the emotion in this story hit home so fully and elegantly. What a discovery to find your website. Thank you.

Thank you for telling me. It was written out of both anger and wonder at the places we women have been and where we are now.

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