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First Place: Miss Morris



A terrible hurricane hit New Orleans, and now there's a tall black lady living in our sewing room. She's supposed to be a homeless hurricane victim and grandmother. But actually she is Miss Morris, victim of a house fire. She knows all about roses and I think she is a pirate. This is how it all started.

The hurricane hit, people were suffering, and we watched it all on TV from right here in Richmond. My mom ran into our junky sewing room and started throwing everything into plastic bags. She said, "Help me, Brenda! We have to donate all this stuff back to the thrift store."

And back to the store went 25 picture frames, a dress form, hats, lamps, plastic swords, big hunks of fabric, small chairs, plant stands, a wig and five pocketbooks from the '60s. Then we went home and moved furniture. We moved a bed, a chair and a TV into the sewing room. While my Mom was making up the bed, I could see people behind her on TV swimming for their lives.

Our family is hard to describe. My Dad goes off to work at the Chapstick factory in the afternoon. Then my Mom and I go out to eat and spend the money. But mostly we go to the thrift store and get what we call great pirate booty. I'm 15. Lately I've been collecting vintage clothes, mostly with polka dots. My Mom goes to church all the time and has visions, gets strategies, and prays for discernment. Those are her favorite words. She'll say to me in her pirate voice, "Arrgh, I prayed for discernment and the Lord not only gave me a vision but a strategy too, Matey!"

Years back, my Mom was fired up about Y2K. She ran around "preparing," and spent a lot of time talking about water storage. She has a plastic water barrel that she goes on and on about. She still calls everything Y2K. Every disaster is Y2K. She called 9/11 Y2K. She'll say this hurricane is like Y2K. And if a volcano erupts somewhere in the world, well, she'll call that Y2K too. Her Y2K speech goes like this: "Everyone should be prepared, having food and water stored at home. My goal in life is to be free to help others in a disaster and not be found standing in line at the water truck! Brenda," she says to me, "it is so deeply satisfying to help other people instead of being at the water truck or sitting at home like a couch potato, watching the suffering on TV."

On 9/11 we watched TV all day till about 4:30, then we went to the train station to give someone a ride somewhere. We just walked in and found someone. A college girl. She'd left for Northern Virginia that morning. She was sitting in the train station with a huge suitcase, so tired. I think the passengers had to get off the train and come back to Richmond on a bus. The college girl said, "I saw the smoke from the Pentagon." She needed a ride back to Farmville. My mother talked the whole way. Poor girl.

It felt just like that day. ... Y2K, hurricane, people suffering on TV. But this was going to be bigger than giving someone a ride home from the train station. Mom was fixing up a room. I was thinking, for someone who goes to church all the time, she was acting a little sneaky. She waited till my father went to work before she turned to me and said, "Brenda! I think we are supposed to go to the hurricane and bring back a Granny! We are supposed to find an older woman and bring her back to our house to stay for as long as she likes. I saw a vision of a map. We don't have to go to the worst part, we will find her on what looked like a 70-mile ring around where the hurricane made landfall. I think the Lord will help us find her. The strategy is to take the bomb car cause it's big and we might have to sleep in it, with Granny, on the way back. We can carry extra gas in those red plastic containers."

After a pause, she said, "I fear I'm in sin and I need to call your Dad and ask his permission before I put a lady in the sewing room." Then she spoke out loud to herself about the sin. It sounded like this: "Let's see, if Brenda and I leave on a pirate adventure without telling my husband and bring back a Granny, and I didn't ask him first, that would be cruelty against my sensible husband, who is wearing a hairnet right now and working really hard for his family. And if he knew that I'd already packed the car with gas and food, well, that is my sin of presumption. And if I beg him against his better judgment, then that would be the sin of manipulation. I don't want to get in trouble with God or my man. So I'll call and ask. And what about the government? How much trouble can I get in for transporting a Granny across state lines? Red tape! Paper work! Big Brother! Y2K! I'll pray for wisdom."

Wow, my Mom needed more kids to spread her nervous energy, I mean … love, out over. But there's just me, and I was born when she was 31. Maybe she was "cool" when she was younger, but now she's running wild and following her visions. I'm glad she's afraid of sin and disasters and government red tape. It keeps her in check.

With Dad's permission, and the sin evaluated and repented of, we left. The farther south we went, the more severe damage we could see. On the road we saw campers, boats and RVs so old that we couldn't believe they could move. We waved at the military, the Red Cross and small church vans from all over. My mother said the church vans were probably filled with supplies and kindly retired men with hammers.

"Hey," I said, "what if our Granny is a black lady? I'm not sure if black people call their grandmothers 'Granny.'" For 35 minutes we racked our brains trying to think of black women called "Granny."

My mom said, "Yeah, I don't know. That sounds more Appalachian."

Then we thought some more and I said, "All I can think of is Granny from 'The Beverly Hillbillies.'" We thought and worried over this till our heads hurt. I looked out the window and thought, "I'd like to buy her a polka dot dress, and some fuzzy slippers."

During the trip, we ate cheese crackers and smelled the gas fumes. My Mom said, "Man! I hope we don't have a wreck with all this gas in the car. It would be Y2K!" After a while she said, "I think we're supposed to stop soon and find her." About 40 minutes later we pulled off the highway into a small-town gas station. Over the sound of a generator, my Mom asked a man, "Where's the church?" I thought, she's just like a space alien marching up to a stranger saying, "Take me to your leader."

The gas station man pointed across the parking lot to another man putting bottled water into his car. My Mom talked to him, jumped back in the car, looked at me and said, "House fire!" We then followed the man to his house, where we met Miss Morris. Miss Morris looked like a nice lady. She was tall and wore peach-colored slacks. She may be really old, much older than she looks, I thought. She wore glasses and had some dramatic white streaks in her hair, which made for a good pirate look. I was thinking how pretty she'd look in a polka dot church dress and that she should have her own MySpace.

We were having a moment of incredible weirdness. Miss Morris' house burned down a week before the hurricane, and she was living with Pastor Bright and his family in whose house we were now standing. We'd shown up out of nowhere in a big brown car, because my mom had a vision, a strategy, saw a map, talked to a gas station man, and has a philosophy about staying away from water trucks!

Pastor Bright said to Miss Morris, "This lady and her daughter are from Richmond. They feel they are supposed to take in someone from the hurricane. If you are interested in some temporary housing with them, and you'd like to go to Virginia, then Mrs. Bright and I can take in Mr. Bailey's sister from New Orleans."

The bomb car was running hot by the time we got home with Miss Morris. It made me think of that poor horse that gave it all in "Gone With the Wind." No telling what our neighbors think of us. Mom said that she'll have them over for tea once Miss Morris is settled.

I just walked past the sewing room. Miss Morris has one foot in hot sudsy water. My Mom is on a small stool massaging the other foot. They are talking about strategies and the overgrown rose garden.

That Sunday morning, Pastor Bright addressed his congregation. "I'd like you to meet Mrs. Allen. She is Mr. Bailey's sister from New Orleans. She is a widow and lost her home. Please welcome her. Some people came from Virginia in a Chrysler Newport and took Miss Morris home with them. Miss Morris wanted to thank everyone who took her rose bushes after the fire. She said, 'Don't feel bad if they look rough … roses are hard to grow!' Amen."

Miss Morris wrote from Richmond to her 101-year-old sister in Memphis:

Dear Sister,

By a strange turn of events, I'm living with a family in Richmond. It all happened suddenly. At first, I was taken off guard at this offer to live in Virginia. Then, I remembered a dream that I had before the fire. The Lord appeared to me and said, "Daughter, I hold you in my hand. You will have adventures even in your old age. People from another place will come for you. I want you to know that you can go with them or stay here. Both of these paths are within my will. I will bless you either way." The family I live with is white. We still aren't sure what to call each other. The wife worries that I'll be lonely. She promised she would help me find a home church and carry me there regularly. She invited me to their church. But she warned me that they dress for church like they're going to a picnic. The young girl said, they wear a lot of shorts and sandals, and wondered if seeing all those hobbit feet in church might offend me. I don't know what that means about the feet. Pastor Bright asked the people at church to go over to my house and dig up the roses and take them home. There are flower beds here. I think I can stay busy. There's a little dog that sleeps in my room. I'll write soon.

With love, Your baby sister.

What did my Dad say about Miss Morris living with us? He said, "Now, I'm inspired to grow more vegetables! Brenda, you know that you and your mom are 'no count' when it comes to eating vegetables."

Who knows what Miss Morris thinks of us. She probably thinks we're some crazy white people with an overheated car. But on the ride home she looked at me while my Mom was driving and blabbing about something. And I looked deep into her eyeball and Miss Morris' eyeball looked right into me! She smiled at me. She was discerning me. And what I saw in her was deep. I thought, "Uh-oh … this lady is smarter than our whole family put together. And … I think that we are amusing her." Which made me feel deeply satisfied. And when my eyeball looked deep into Miss Morris, I saw her heart, and it was a heart of adventure. Arrgh, I knew she was one of us! S

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