Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Meant to Be

I saw something on TV this morning that I could hardly believe. Seems that the new thing now is to have less rather than more "stuff" in our lives. The fad now is to be frugal. Holy shit! I've known the word "frugal" for so long I thought it was my middle name!

Let me do some explaining. My family wasn't exactly poor, but we had what we had by scrimping and saving and making do. Extras meant that we had new clothes for Christmas instead of thrift shop stuff or hand-me-downs. Extras meant a special outing to McDonald's for my birthday.

Then, to top it off, I married Joey and he made my frugal ways look like I was a gol-durn spendthrift.  He was recycling and up-cycling before he knew what those words meant; turning old tires into planters and swings, using old pallet wood for new porch steps and mixing leftover cans of paint 'til he had enough to freshen the walls of some room or another.

The odd thing was that Joey was not un-generous. When he had a dollar he'd share it with me fifty-fifty. He trusted, and I knew, that it was to be spent well.  He never asked -- and I rarely told him -- just how it left my pocket. I just said "thanks" and once in awhile I'd show him a trophy like the old floor lamp I bought at Salvation Army for two dollars that looked just like the one in the Orvis mail order catalog for over a hundred.

I guess I shoulda known that it would be this way. When we met, I was young and fulla vinegar and he was young and fulla piss. I had three jobs and still enough energy to get done work and go over to Snuffy's across the border in New York state and dance and flirt and have a few beers. He worked hard spring, summer and fall doing the yard work that he learned from his Pa. But Joey done his Pa one better and got himself some power things that made his work neater and faster. In the winter he'd plow some, but he mostly hung out at the Citgo station, the Wayside general store or the diner where I worked the late shift. Sometimes he'd piss me off coming in late and ordering a meal that required me to re-scrub the grill and do up the dishes when what I was itching for was to get the hell out and have some fun.

Back then, Joey lived in one of the half dozen "mobile homes" that my boss, Herbie, kept on his land across the road from the diner. There was a gol-durn revolving door of young marrieds and a mish-mash of short term renters coming or going through some stage of life. ... Herbie's trailers were a godsend.

I can't get through this story without I tell you a little about Herbie. He was a wheeler-dealer of the first order. His diner had a limited menu -- mostly breakfast stuff any hour that they were open.  He served a tolerable hamburger and a mean BLT.  And, when the spirit moved him, he'd concoct a pretty good hash or a tuna casserole topped with crushed potato chips.

Herbie made precious little money at his diner. Hell, he felt lucky if he broke even. But the folks that came in were always good fodder for his bartering and trading. He'd loan out his pick-up truck in exchange for bales of hay to insulate the trailers from the biting January wind  He'd trade hunting rights on his land for venison, lunches for lawn mowing.

What Herbie couldn't barter, he'd buy up -- dime on the dollar -- most anything anyone had in excess or needed to be rid of. That's how he got the beds, dressers, pots, pans and dishes to furnish his trailers. Herbie found his ways to be not only an economy, but a challenge and a hobby. He never tired on the game and mostly felt he came out on the long end of the stick. I guess he must've, since it was rumored that he died a wealthy man.

Now Joey was living in one of Herbie's mobile homes. He never told me -- and I guess I never asked -- if he left home on his own or got kicked out. It didn't matter, really, he was on his own and away from a house that was so clotted with brothers and sisters that he couldn't even shit in peace. Only thing he missed much was his ma's cooking and he didn't have a clue how to do for himself on that score. When he got tired of cold cereal, Pop-Tarts or a can of Campbell's chicken noodle, he'd show up at the diner.

As for me, I'd been on my own for over a year. My ma had died and the family didn't get along so well after that. I was living with my Aunt Betty who never had kids. She never had a clue either. so as long as I was kind to her and kept my room neat, she'd pretty much let me do what I wanted. And I wanted to do lots of things. That's why I worked three jobs. You can't do stuff without some money no matter how frugal you were. Maybe Herbie could with his easy manner and an eye for the deal, but it weren't so easy for the rest of us.

I didn't consider myself a specially lucky person, but I was blessed. I was blessed with a ton of energy and I knew I was smarter than most.  I knew, too, that I was easy on the eyes with my curly hair and curves in the right places. I figured if I worked hard I could get most of what I wanted. I wanted some travel and adventures and then I wanted to settle down to a good decent life ... but I wasn't in a hurry for it.

That's about what I was thinking when along come Joey.  He was tall and good looking and best of all he knew how to laugh. He didn't have it so easy but that never stopped him from telling a joke or laughing about some of the crazy stuff folks did. We saw eye-to-eye about the strangeness of people and even if he pissed me off sometimes with his timing, it got so I looked forward to the nights when he came in the diner.

It was coming on Christmas and neither one of us was looking forward to it. It's 'sposed to be a happy time but we were both feeling a little cranky about getting into family things and didn't quite know how to get round it. Two of my jobs crapped out on me; the old lady I'd been watching fell on her  butt and was in the hospital and money ran out on the grant where I'd had a spell at the court house learning to clerk.  I sure as hell wasn't gonna have a very merry Christmas on my diner money. That's what we were grousing about when Joey looked at me over the remains of his tuna casserole. "Let's go to Florida for Christmas," he said.

I was stunned and thought of everything I could to object. But Joey shot holes in every damn one of them., even to to the fact that I'd miss a real Vermont Christmas tree. Joey went right out to the woods and cut down a pretty little pine tree, threw it in the back of his Ford 350 and dared me to find another excuse. He knew me pretty well and could tell he'd already wore me down. So I packed a few things, left Aunt Betty a note, a pair of pink fuzzy slippers and a box of her favorite Cella chocolate covered cherries for Christmas. I told Herbie I'd see him in a week and off we went.

God, I felt half scared but free as a bird. I was gonna see something besides snow and hills!  I was gonna see honest-to-god  palm trees and have sand between my toes!  Yippee!

Off we went, and I gotta tell you, we had a ball.  We drove and drove, stopping only to get a bite to eat or to gas up the truck. We watched the sun set in West Virginia and watched it come up when we hit the Florida line. We stopped at a roadside diner that kinda reminded me of Herbie's where the locals gave us a few tips on where we could find a good beach and where we could have a good time without spending a bunch of money.

We found the beach about mid-day, planted our Vermont Christmas tree in the sand, rolled out some big ole towels and had ourselves a Christmas to remember soaking up the sun, rubbing sunscreen on each other and wading into the clean salty water.

We were both sorry when it was time to head back but we didn't figure that the beach life was for us long term. By the time we left we were sun burnt and burnt out on not having any work to do. We needed to get back where we belonged.

The drive back seemed longer than long. We weren't quite sure what was waiting us when we got back, being a small town and all. But we didn't really care. By now we were thinking that maybe we were an item, a couple, cuz we sure did know how to have some fun together. We just weren't sure how much that counted.

When we got back to Vermont it was the middle of the night, wouldn't ya know. Neither of us wanted to bust in on Aunt Betty and scare her to death so I went right home with Joey to his little trailer. We crept into the little huddle of trailers under the cover of dark, Joey pulling the curtains over the windows before he snapped on the overhead light.

Now, I'd had quite a few surprises in the last few days but none compared to the surprise when my eyes saw what was before me in his rooms. There, bold as brass, was the coffee table my dad had made out of a slab of pine for my mom on their 10th anniversary.  The sofa was the same stripey gray one that I'd sat on to watch TV when I was just a little girl. Next to it was the lamp with the red geraniums painted on it and the white shade on top of it that I had known all my life.

I was so stunned I couldn't say a word and Joey didn't know what was the matter with me. I think he thought I was scared to spend the night. Truth be told, I was scared of what it meant to see all this stuff just like I remembered it. It was like coming home and finding a piece of me that I thought had been lost a long time ago.

Joey came and put his arms gently around me. He'd figured it out before I did. Herbie'd gone after my ma died and bought out her household when the family coulda cared less and had no place for her belongings.

If I was on the fence about my dealings with Joey, I saw this as a kind of sign that we were meant to be together. And now here it is 25 years later. I can't say we ever had another adventure quite like plunking our Christmas tree in the Florida sand but we've had our times. And Herbie's lessons kind of live with us too. We wheel and deal and make do and we have a more-than-decent life.

And, for once, we're on the cutting edge of the "in" frugal thing -- without changing who we are or even trying to!

Previous Posts:
Stone Salad
The Room with 10 Doors
Thanksgiving for Dummies

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Stone Salad

(Note: This story is true. I tried -- oh how I tried -- to fictionalize it but, really, the truth is stranger than fiction. There may be a bit of revisionist history and faulty memory but, that said, it is essentially a true story.)

The house was a Victorian lady with a tall imposing tower-- well beyond her prime. Her once lush chocolate brown had faded to a dun color with an undercurrent of yellow showing through. Her scalloped shingle decorations were missing pieces like an old mouth devoid of a few key teeth. The ornate screen doors retained their gingerbread scrolls but the screen itself was torn and frayed letting into the cramped entry all manner of flies, bees and hornets that died and littered the corners of the floor with their fragile carcasses.

She was an odd house for this little southern Vermont community where most of the dwellings favored a colonial style or farmhouse motif with screened-in back rooms and rocking chairs on porches, and potted geraniums emphasizing their whiteness.

Odd as she was, she perfectly suited her inhabitants. The master of this manor looked for all the world like Danny DeVito-- short and dark with a monk’s tonsure of hair fringing his shiny bald pate. He shuffled when he walked but at a pace that belied the concept of shuffling as he hurried to answer the multi-toned and lengthy gonging of the door chime. The chime was accompanied by the howling of three tiny dogs that sounded, as their howls echoed down the halls, as if they were the very Hounds of Baskerville, deep and belying their smallness. On sunny days, it was a laughable introduction to the household. On dreary days, it sent shivers up your spine.

His wife, or companion, was a ramrod-straight, quiet wraith of a redhead of few words. But who could blame her? The voice of the lord of the manor rolled from the depths of his diaphragm and filled the foyer with a mix of welcome and spookiness as the full-size half-nude bronzes populating the hall looked on. How this strange milieu was created in Vermont is anyone’s guess. It was rumored that this voice had been a great force in the halcyon days of radio serials and its owner had been a bit player in movies in the 1940's and '50's. I totally believed it though I had no proof. When I visited the dwelling there had been no Google to assuage my curiosity. The theatrics of the house and its inhabitants screamed of Old Hollywood -- another time and another place.

The atmosphere was one of what I called “moldy money“ – money so old, and earned so long ago, that its traces lingered like the scent of something unidentifiable … elusive. And what seemed like a fortune long ago no longer was -- yet the sense of it remained. 

Today the twin forces of faded wealth and fierce independent living co-mingled in this strange household. The large upstairs bedrooms were rented out as a kind of quasi-nursing home turned respite-care safe house for an assortment of people that society forgot. When the meager income from the moldy money would not pay the taxes, the rooms became available.

And that was why I was here.

The large front bedroom was sparse and spotless. A queen-size bed. A dresser. A bedside stand with a Big Ben clock ticking away the hours. Sheer, white curtains fluttering in the breeze. A large wooden armchair.

Marissa grinned her toothless grin as I entered the door. Her speech was halting and labored in the twisted convolutions of her wounded brain. Her hands and knees were stiff as boards and it was my duty as a visiting occupational therapist to help her exercise and feed herself. Yet we both knew that little real progress would be made, and that the funds would dry up when her progress became only maintenance. We both dreaded that day, and really worked hard at improvement-- like rolling a boulder up a mountain. God gave Marissa a wonderful gift in the form of the loveliest of singing voices … pure and sweet and unimpeded by the cerebral palsy that contorted her speaking voice. It felt like the closest thing to a miracle I had observed in my therapist’s life. Once I discovered this, singing was a part of our visits: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” regardless of season.

Another part of my visits was the constant invitation from the lord of the manor to join him for lunch. It did not seem a professional thing to do nor did I want to deplete their meager store of groceries. I declined time after time. But, as I suspected that our visits were drawing to a close, I wanted to stay, to soak up this odd environment, to enjoy this eccentric and lonely altruism. 

“Come,” he commanded, crooking his finger and heading down a dim hallway lined with Old Master style paintings, dark and imposing. “I’ll make you a salad … you’ve never had one like this before.”

And indeed I had not. The kitchen, surprisingly small and light for the rest of the house, looked sparse and bare. One large red onion was sprouting in a jelly jar on the sill. Thwack …

The green tip sprouts were amputated from the bulb of the onion, gone and chopped before I knew it. The tiny, ancient refrigerator flew open and, like a juggler plying his craft, a jar of this and a lump of that, a hunk of something and a bit of something else unidentifiable, polka-dotted the counter. 

One last green olive in a bottle was fished out and chopped, its red pimento heart becoming six tiny pieces, a spoonful of salty brine extracted before going back in the fridge. A dry lump of cheese no bigger than a marble was grated down to a fine sharp powder. One of the juggler’s pieces was a scrap of hard salami diced into the tiniest of miniature pieces.

Now my host coaxed a few hearty chunks from the root of a celery stalk, wrapped in moist paper and saved for who-knows-how-long but still useful. One tiny carrot became little golden pennies to add to the mix.

Smack … the flat of a knife blade squashed a clove of garlic and a heel of bread became croutons toasted with a few drops of olive oil from an almost-empty bottle.

All I could think of was the story that has gone around the world of the beggar denied food but allowed a pot and a spoon and water to boil, tricking others into contributing a bit of this and a bit of that to the stone he was boiling for his "stone soup." With all the contributions the result was the finest of soups … how clever was this beggar in slaking his hunger!

Magically the old, cut-glass bowl began to fill, and the garlic perfumed the air and invaded my senses. A single leaf of lettuce, a scrap of green pepper, one tiny tomato, a radish no bigger than my pinkie gave up their color and flavor as his knife flew. Yes, my host tricked all the bits and pieces of leftover and usually thrown out food into a salad the likes of which … as my host had said … I had never tasted before. It was rich and complex and delicious and needed not a speck of dressing as the flavors blended into a sumptuous gustatory delicacy served in small but oh-so-satisfying portions.

Within a month, my patient visits were terminated as Marissa was judged to be on a maintenance-only path and no longer eligible for therapy visits. I missed her joy at seeing me come in the door and I missed her clear, bell-like voice and the dual miracle of that voice and the magic salad.

Now, I make this salad often in my own home when I have bits and pieces that do not seem substantial enough to stand on their own.

And my children have it in their lexicon of family language:  “Rock Salad,” for my host indeed went by the name of “Rock.” And, in my mind, there’s only the slightest difference between the man behind the Rock Salad and the one behind stone soup: both were old tricksters of the highest order, making something wonderful out of a wholly improbable start.

This lesson will not be forgotten as the taste of that salad lingers still on my tongue the way the memories of Rock linger in my mind.

Recent Posts:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Room with Ten Doors

Alice felt a good deal like her namesake. Her mother had fallen in love with the “Alice in Wonderland” stories when she was pregnant and named her first born daughter Alice. Once Alice was old enough to understand the chaotic and mysterious story, she seemed to embrace the strangeness of life.

And today was definitely a strange day. She had accepted an invitation to “tea.” Now, I ask you, who in the year of our Lord 2015  -- in rural Vermont where women drive pick-up trucks, stack wood and shear sheep -- gets invited to tea? Alice, that’s who. And from the time she arrived at the old house on the banks of the Batten Kill, she experienced one strange and fanciful thing after another.

Her hostess was a quixotic elderly lady that she had befriended over the counter at the little red country store where she toiled away her days lacing imagination and fantasy with her work. There was never enough time to converse properly and thus Alice was pleased to accept an opportunity to chat unfettered by duty.

Entering the house, she was immediately assailed by the perfume so peculiar to old houses; a potpourri of dry wood and vegetation, of old books, wool throws and scented soap. The power of the aromas transported her to magical, long-ago times when she had, in fact, had tea with women that she thought then to be the very definition of “old,” women steeped in crocheted shawls and. marinated in history. But now, as she herself was considered old, Alice found fewer and fewer of these older women, these friends, family and mentors. She was not aware until today how much she missed them.

The house stood stoic, like a lad dressed for military inspection, as the hostess of the tea party explained some of its history and renovations, ownership and role in family holidays and summers in Vermont. And then, with a quirky grin, she told Alice that the very room that they were standing in, not a big room at all, was the room with ten doors. Alice’s head swiveled, for she had not seen ten doors at all. But there they were, blank, white identical doors marked only by the black-strap, pounded-iron latches; one door to the attic, one to the cellar, another to the kitchen and yet another to the parlor. There was a door to the powder room and one to the “tub” room, a door to the porch, another to a closet and yet another to a bedroom. The tenth door was the door that allowed entrance to -- or exit from -- the mysteries and surprises that the walls contained. Oh, how Alice longed to peek behind the doors.

Instead, she followed her hostess into the kitchen where, to her amazement, the outside window boxes pressed their rich blooms of phlox and geranium right to the old wavy glass as if asking permission to come in. “Ah,” she thought, “this is what window boxes are meant to be but rarely are!” Alice almost expected to see a miniature white rabbit with a pocket watch emerge from among the blossoms and say: “I’m late, I’m late – for a very important date.”  Why, Alice asked herself, had she waited so long to get to know this lady better?

Tea was placed on a tiny round table and served in porcelain cups with a vase of fresh flowers and tiny tea cookies. Alice and her hostess sat in comfy chairs, looking out over the lawn and spreads of black-eyed Susans to the banks of the river below. And then … and then … Alice began to peek behind the doors. Not the ten physical doors, mind you, but the doors of the mind of this woman who had lived a long time, experienced so much, who was wise and funny.

For three hours, Alice sat and sipped, free associating and sharing with her hostess. Doors of literature flew open, touching love poems were read. The shock of shared widowhood was discussed and the quality of their loneliness was compared. Instead of the usual topics of roads and weather that were covered over the country-store counter, they examined the naivete of believing that race relations where solved years ago and the chaotic political scene of today. The joys of music and importance of family were explored, youthful pleasures were recounted. The complications of the electronic age were analyzed. The changing of the scenic vista beyond the window boxes – trees growing and houses sprouting in what used to be fields – were discussed as a metaphor for the changes in life that could not be controlled. The mystery was that these discussions had no rancor or regret.

Alice realized she was reluctant to leave the rabbit hole she had gone down, to close the doors that had flung open. She had not expected to hookah-smoking caterpillar, but by the end of the tea she would not have been surprised to see an eleventh door open in the ceiling, tumbling down a set of stairs toward another thoroughly delightful tea party in the attic of the mind.

So, thought Alice, if she could dispense one piece of advice to her women friends, it would be this: Put your pickup truck in “park,” let the wood tumble where it may instead of stacking it neatly, and let the sheep shearing go for another day. Accept an invitation to “tea” if one presents itself -- or create a tea party of your own.

And then she thought of one more thing: If you’re lucky enough to be invited to “tea,” please leave your electronic gizmos at home -- they will be there long after these rare trips into a mini-wonderland of truly shared digressions, confessions and history lessons of the past are no more.


Monday, August 24, 2015


Hokey was troubled.

He watched as he stood in line at the old, red-painted country store in the Vermont valley he called home. The store had been there as long as he could remember and it had not changed much. It still carried a big, motley variety of necessities (duct tape, bread, milk, stove pipe) and a few items that one maybe did not need but wanted to make life a little more pleasant. When he could barely look over the top of the curling linoleum on the counter, it was a stick of licorice-flavored Black Jack gum or a paper of candy dots costing a precious penny that would give him a little joy on the weekly trip to the store.

Now there was a shallow dish on the counter by the computerized cash register that urged folks to "leave a penny" or "take a penny." He was so very old school and couldn't quite wrap his grizzled, aged head around the fact that a penny had so little value that people would toss them willy-nilly into a dish for others to take. Yet almost every customer in the line tossed a penny -- or two or three -- into the little dish with no more thought than they would give to throwing away a gum wrapper or a used Kleenex.

Hokey grew up in an era where a penny was important. Hokey grew up with a Papa who told him to: "Watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves." He took this advice to his childhood heart and had saved almost every coppery coin he could since he was six years old, only spending one or two on a Saturday trip to the store. Hokey did not get an allowance like kids today, for he was expected to help with chores simply because he was part of the family ... every member meant more work so every member had to share in that work. What pennies he gathered came from selling eggs or helping old Mrs. Cooper weed her garden. He was a willing worker and he wanted those pennies because he wanted them to turn into dollars. Dollars! What a magical word and what power he would have when he had dollars!

And here he was, 86 years old, bent by time and gravity, still living in the old creaky house with the hollyhocks by door, same as it had been all his life. He couldn't understand much about the modern era and had long ago given up trying, just as the young ‘uns had given up trying to understand his unusual moniker. He didn't bother to tell them that "Hokey" was short for Horatio, just as his pal Corny's name was short for Cornelius. They didn't know how to use a scythe and he didn't know how to use a cell phone. He didn't think either of them cared.

But all generations surely understood money, didn't they?  Didn't everyone know you had to save for what you wanted or for a rainy day?  Hokey's dollars had not brought him magic or power but evaporated like drops of water on a hot stove lid in a series of rainy days comprised of sick kids and broken down tractors. He had spent the pennies that had turned into dollars to pay for what he felt was important. And what he had felt was important was the kids, some biological and some orphans taken in and given a home out of the kindness of his heart and their enormous need to be somewhere where the rules were known and stable. Hokey was not a particularly proud man but he was pretty sure that his penny/dollars had been well spent on the kids, now decent adults. And to take care of them he had to keep his income coming in and repair the tractors and plows and presses that kept his hardscrabble farm producing cider and hay and whatever else he could glean from his land and labor.

Now he watched with more amazement than amusement as the shallow plastic dish by the computerized cash register overflowed with coppery coins so disdained that they were in jeopardy of being discontinued altogether.

Hokey waited patiently as the line at the old country store was moving along slowly, the clerk checking IDs for underage beer drinkers and trying to answer the questions of the tourists that visited his valley during the summer months.  Just in front of him, a classy young blonde lady bent and picked up a penny that had fallen, unheeded, on the worn floorboards.  But instead of tossing it in the dish, she held it in the palm of her hand.  She looked at it almost reverently as a tiny smile quirked at edges of her glossed and pretty mouth.

After a moment, she put it in her pocket.

Hokey was curious and asked, to pass the time, why she didn't just toss it in the dish.
"Oh, it's a bit of a long story" she replied. "My Daddy told me to save pennies and after he passed away and when I find a penny it reminds me of him. It seems like he is still talking to me, telling me to take care of people and pennies."

Hokey immediately liked this unknown departed Daddy and felt a spark of kindred spirit with his attractive offspring.

And Hokey guessed he was right to feel this empathy. For a startlingly attractive little girl, coppery, nappy curls creating a cumulus cloud above her café au lait complexion scampered rounded the corner of the counter and hugged the knees of his waiting companion.

"This is Penny" she said. "She needed me and I needed her ... we saved each other. I'll never throw away a penny, ever."

Now it was Hokey's turn with the clerk and he did not have the words or time to continue this unexpected conversation.  He really didn't need to. He understood perfectly despite the age gap.

He went out to his battered pickup truck with a smile and a renewed faith that pennies were still important. And perhaps there were some in the modern generation that shared, if not the knowledge of how to use a scythe, the value of the little coppery coins in all their manifestations.

Recent Posts:
WC ... It's Not What You Think
A Taste of Life

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

WC ... It's Not What You Think

She did it.

Carlotta moved to Vermont.

But now she was no longer Carlotta, but Carly. Approaching 40, this new name sounded more youthful and sexy and it shed, with its fewer letters, a whole American Tourister showroom full of baggage. It was the outward sign of her beginning transformation.

Her recently departed mother was fond of saying: "Life is messy -- clean it up," and she could be heard muttering this mantra as she changed the kitty litter, raked up mountains of leaves in the yard, laundered greasy clothes and scrubbed crusty dinner dishes.

Now it was Carly's turn to do a major clean up on a level her mother could not have foreseen; sweeping out the clutter of a bad marriage with its garbage heap of guilt and self-doubt, getting rid of the go-nowhere job that numbed her mind, purging the bad relationships and trying to make a clean, new life.

Carly had not chosen lightly. She had looked at a number of places before finally settling on the slower pace of Vermont. She thought she knew the pros and cons. On balance, she felt that if she took her time and found just the right spot she could be quite content with what the state had to offer. Oh, she knew better than to be duped by the slick photos of iconic covered bridges and white-steepled churches that could be caught in an idyllic moment or Photoshopped to perfection. She well knew that the pretty red barns contained piles of manure and that the real black and white cows -- so cute on T-shirts and ice-cream cartons -- had to be milked both dawn and dusk and that it was hard, crappy labor.

In other words, she tried to be realistic and prayed to the God she was aware of -- but not sure of -- that her inevitable surprises would be of the pleasant variety. As the newly minted Carly, she stepped with a wrinkled but lovely optimism, as hopeful as an emerging butterfly's wings, into Vermont life ... the real thing... not the capitalized Vermont Life magazine version. And the real thing is what she got.

After a series of dingy motel rooms, she found a tiny furnished rental over a garage up a steep driveway off Wilcox Road in the west part of the Norman Rockwell's old village of Arlington. It suited her in every way except ... except that there was no camaraderie here. There was only isolation so complete that she felt she was on another planet where the inhabitants scooted around in pickup trucks or CRVs or Subaru Foresters, completing unknown missions before disappearing like rabbits down their holes into dwellings that she could only imagine.

Carly found a job in one of the outlet stores in nearby Manchester. She had to cross the level stretch of meadowland known as Wilcox flats to get to work and never failed to enjoy the changing landscape of Mount Equinox towering to her left and the cows belonging to Wilcox Dairy grazing at the foot of the slope. She had tasted the local ice cream that came from those very cows: Sweet Cream, Double Chocolate Fudge, Pumpkin and Maple Gingerbread Snap. She had graduated from the oh-too-small pints to the half gallons, savoring not only the flavors but the notion that she could, on a regular basis, see the cows that gave the cream from their full udders to become her favorite treat. It was a start to being connected and she found the very name "Wilcox" to be a kind of talisman on her journey. It had obviously been around a long time with all manner of roads, meadows and businesses bearing the name, and she was determined that she too would be here for a long time -- if she could just get acquainted with some people as well as cows.

Oh Carly tried. She went to lectures at the big independent Northshire Bookstore, she went to plays in nearby Dorset and Cambridge. She went to church and joined a gym to work off the effects of too much Wilcox that she devoured in front of endless movies alone at night. People were not unfriendly but they were not exactly welcoming either. Carly slogged through, coping on her own. Like the fabled postal carrier of old, she didn't let snow or ice or mud or flat tires or power outages get her down. But ...

Just when she was about to despair, she got invited to a party! Her co-worker, Mary, had become a savior of sorts -- not quite the bathtub-enshrined icon on the lawns of Believers kind, mind you, but a welcome source of comfort. Mary chatted about the taciturn nature and almost witness-protection privacy of the natives and adopted by newcomers that prolonged the assimilation process.
"Come," she said. "I'm havin’ a shower for my daughter, Pat. She's getting married soon and I'd like you to come meet her since I'll probably be talkin’ a lot about it. There's gonna be a lot of folks there for you to meet."

A few days later Carly received a written invitation to the "Patty's Potluck Party" bearing the curious letters BYOWC at the end. Carly just assumed it was some rural variation on the standard RSVP and since Mary already knew that Carly was more than anxious to attend and would be there come hell or high water, Carly didn’t give it a second thought, instead focusing on what to get for a gift, what to wear, and what of her marginal culinary skills would be appropriate to exercise on behalf of the gathering.

“God, this was fun!” Carly said to herself when the appointed day rolled around. This eclectic group was not exactly the social scene she had envisioned but it was surprising to feel such a part of laying out dollar-store cutlery and hanging the tissue-paper bells from the doorways. Carly had been enlisted to help arrange the trays of slippery deviled eggs, disposable tins of lasagna and tuna casserole around a centerpiece that was a wobbly chocolate cake the shape – and size -- of a tractor tire. Carly sipped "chateau screw top" wine as she learned bits and pieces about the old and the young, the rich and the poor that inhabited the valley, each nugget delivered haltingly as the evening flew by.

Carly joined in on the cleanup, watching as each woman went to her respective colorful tote bag, each one pulling out the same opaque plastic tub that was so familiar to her: the kind that held her favorite Wilcox ice cream. Leavings of macaroni salad, squares of lasagna and brownie and slippery deviled eggs were quickly divided up among the tubs.

"Carly, where are your containers?" asked Mary.


"I clearly said on the invite to BYOWCBring Your Own Wilcox Containers -- for the leftovers, so you can take some home, you know."

Carly didn't know. She had no idea that the Wilcox tubs were considered so valuable -- as makeshift berry baskets, paint buckets, freezer containers and pet dishes -- that no one would willingly part with one from their own supply. Carly swallowed her laughter at the mystery of the invite code but vowed that now that she was in on it she would not forget. It was as if she had been given the secret
handshake at a sorority initiation. 

Next time – for she was sure there would be a next time the way her surprising clean, new life was taking shape -- she wouldn't forget.

And Lord knows, she certainly had plenty of Wilcox containers!

Recent Posts:

A Taste of Life
Will You Walk?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Taste of Life

Old Joe looked bad today. Clearly he had not seen fit to shave in days. The whites of his eyes were nowhere near white but instead were a sore-looking mix of yellow and red, crusty at the edges.

His T-shirt showed coffee stains and smears of Chef Boyardee in clear finger swipes across his paunch. He regularly bought 40-ounce cans of the gluey spaghetti mix and mostly ate the contents cold. If he was not too drunk, he would pour some in a bowl, butter a piece of cheap white bread and sop up the last bit of sauce before dumping the bowl in the sink with its mates from previous days.

Joe did not have to look like this or live like this. He had a passel of kids and grandkids that lived within spitting distance. They cared about the old man who had, over the years, taken them hunting and hiking, had played Santa to them in season and out by being generous wit his time and money.

The thing was, this was mostly before his beloved Mabel died. She was steady as they come, rolling with the punches that life dealt out as they saw their kids through failed jobs, wrecked cars and ruined marriages. She concentrated on the happy and celebratory; the births, the graduations, weddings and the big holiday gatherings. She could always find something to celebrate when Joe was ready to throw in the towel.

While the chaos of the world swirled around them, she kept their little house and grounds tidy and comforting. Her joy and her therapy came from her garden. Each year she put up dozens of pints and quarts of rosy tomatoes so they would be ready to use in the cold winter months. Her larder was stocked with jewel-like jars of dilly beans, corn relish and crisp cucumber pickles.

But now Mabel was sick. While she struggled with the balding and debilitating effects of breast cancer, she still remained beautiful in Joe's eyes. In these hard days, he stood by her side as she processed the gleanings from her garden. He scalded the tomatoes, sliced the cucumbers, watched the timing on the water bath as she went to rest, exhausted from the effort when her body was trying in vain to heal.

When the end came, Joe felt utterly alone in the tidy little house.  His children and grandchildren came to visit, urge him to get out of the house, rake the lawn, go for a ride. Gradually, he came around, accepted their ministrations and their company. When they would bring him a pan of lasagna or a tuna casserole, he would go down the cellar stairs to the stacked rows of gleaming jars and bring up a carefully selected bit of Mabel to share.

It was a kind of communion -- and they all knew it.

Now it was almost four years since Joe had been widowed. In his day he'd been a pretty hard drinker but had given it up as a destructive force in his marriage. One hot summer day he stirred himself to go out for a walk, stopping at the little store down the road. He knew he was going to buy a beer before he entered the door. He headed straight for the cooler door, reached out and took a single tall Bud from its nesting place, excusing himself by saying that it would do no harm to have a "cold one" after such a hot walk.

Soon he was walking to the store for a six-pack and then a 12-pack. He was off the wagon. His kids and grandkids found that they could not stop his demon from returning. Something had shifted and they did not know what it was. He had occasionally gone off the wagon before but not like this.They tried, they pleaded, they invoked Mabel's name but old Joe slid further and further into himself and his drinking. The family still came visiting, attempting to extricate him from his solitary life by their ministrations of sustenance. But Joe no longer went to the cellar to bring up a contribution to the meal.

Trying to re-instate the fragile equilibrium that had existed for the better part of four years, his daughter went herself to the neat shelves in the cellar to fetch some pickles. To her surprise, she found that the shelves were empty except for one lone Ball jar of lovely bread-and-butter pickles, wreathed in onions slivers and adrift in tiny mustard seeds.

She brought it up the stairs and placed it on the kitchen counter while she took her casserole out of the oven.

When Joe came in the room, he started to weep, as inconsolably as a child who has dropped his ice cream cone in the dirt and has no means to get another.

"That's the last of Mabel!" he cried.  "Don't you dare open it. As long as I could have a little taste of her each day, I did OK. Now it's almost gone and I'm grieving again ... leave me alone."

Now they knew but they had no answer.

The jar did not return to the cellar, but it did not get opened either. It sits, day after day, like a shrine in the middle of the kitchen table.

Previous Stories:
Will You Walk?
Acculturated Craziness

Monday, June 15, 2015


Sherry was a bit overwhelmed. She had been working for months sorting out the accumulation of a couple of lifetimes. There were attics and sheds, basements and closets, desks and garages. There were filing cabinets and shelves in dusty hallways, untouched for more years than she could account for. 

Fortunately, she did not have to go it alone. She had family and friends and even some folks she paid help to sort through this gigantic three-dimensional scrapbook that chronicled not only a lifetime but a way of life -- her beloved Grandpa’s life. She speculated, as she sorted, on the generations just prior to hers that saved against want, against the fear of want. What enormous anxiety would prompt someone to save -- in an old White Owl cigar box no less -- hundreds of lengths of twine clearly marked in crabbed lettering: “Pieces of string too small to use for anything”?

The irony, of course, is that no one much reuses string anymore, long or short. They don’t repair TVs or mend socks. They no longer straighten nails or re-purpose every scrap of fabric. Her family did not much want the old worn silver plate trays or chipped flower vases used to hold the floppy peonies from her grandma’s garden every summer. Did this all change with the relative affluence of the years leading up to the turn of the century? Or did it change with the ubiquitous availability of cheap Chinese imports at Wal-Mart and Target? Or had taste and lifestyle simply altered? No matter. Sherry’s generation was clearly not going to burden itself with such a plethora of unidentifiable or unworthy junk. It may want to save the Earth with recyclables but it wasn’t interested in housing the useless leavings of a bygone generation.

Some things would be sent to the scrap metal depot. Some would be burned. Some would be given to interested parties -- if any could be found. Sherry culled a few items for antique dealers to see, took some to the thrift shops or the church jumble sale. She had done all she could of this laborious triage.

Yet, there were a surprising number of things in the “undecided” pile. What would she save? What had use or meaning for her? And what did these things – and her reticence to part with them -- say about her? While Sherry knew that it was probably not possible, she wanted her legacy to be housed in a box, not a storage shed or attic or barn or garage. She was moving into her grandpa’s home so really, she could save as much as she wanted.

But what did she want?

The ancient garden hoe and sturdy rake from the shed … she would use those.

His old galvanized watering can … its use and shape was pleasing.

Two folders of old bills … to show how prices have changed.

Three folders of old photos … at least they were labeled so she could identify her ancestors.

A small envelope of old coins …

A packet of love letters tied in silky lavender ribbon …

An old frayed quilt made of men’s suit fabric and tied with red yarn ….

A pipe with teeth marks on the stem …

The round oak kitchen table …

These things touched by his hand, she would keep. Most of the rest was just “stuff,” saved against the fear of want or the conviction that somewhere, somehow, someone would be able to use 16 coffee cans full of nails, 20 padlocks, 10 mop handles, four logging chains, eight umbrellas, 200 assorted glass bottles, 15 extension cords and a sack of crusty paint brushes -- to name but a few of the things she had found.

Sherry thought she should stop while she was ahead. Otherwise she might, by some curious sympathetic osmosis, begin to channel Grandpa and leave her legacy in a cluttered attic or barn or shed.

There were two ironies here: First, if Grandpa needed a paint brush, he would run up to Miles Lumber and buy the one he needed. 

Second, she was sorely tempted to save those extension cords.   

Previous Posts

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Will You Walk?

Judy’s youngest was about to graduate from college. Her last of four, who marched to a slightly different beat, had taken five years to accomplish this milestone. But accomplish it she did. There were smashed relationships, difficult roommates, changes in majors, demanding professors, and family crisis to contend with but somehow she made it … toughed it out, finished her academics and learned to solve her problems.

Now Judy’s question was: “Will you walk?” Meaning, in the terminology of soon-to-be college graduates, will you go through the ceremony, marching up on the stage with your mortar board tassel slung casually or placed with reverence to the proper side of the traditional graduate’s headgear? Or will you leave the campus hurrying on to the next stage with little sentiment, little regard for the ceremonial, just glad to have it over?

The question hovered over the final weeks until her youngest decided that she wanted this ceremony. She wanted the flowers and photo ops and congratulations that would be denied her if she left the years on the lovely grounds with all its many life lessons in haste. She not only wanted this, she needed this to seal her accomplishment.

The bagpipers led the procession with their haunting ceremonial piping … marching in under the big white tent on the best of sunny May days. Two hours later, the same pipers led the 300-plus newly graduated out, full of pride and barely heard sage wisdom delivered by inspirational speakers.

Judy was not much given to tears, speculation, or to sentimental reflections and thus kept her head down to mask her emotions as these hopeful young souls filed out into the best of sunny May days. What she saw with her eyes lowered was the most amazing array of footwear. Neon green sneakers, flip-flops worn plain or with colorful mismatched socks, snowboard boots, fancy sandals studded with faux jewels, clumpy school marm pumps, Manolo Blahnik heels, scrunchy knee-high boots, polished wingtips, hard-toed work boots, ballet skimmers, and yes, even bare feet showing off tattoos on the arches above the ruby red pedicured toes.

Not only did her daughter march to a slightly different beat, it seemed that this whole group was defying being sheep, not even being like each other. Where would these shoes, these feet, take them? Would some lose their ability to walk due to war or accident or incurable disease? Would a pair of these feet walk through the doors of a medical institution and find a cure for a formerly hopeless disease, or travel into the halls of government and rid it of “gotcha” politics, or travel to Carnegie Hall and impact the world with music?

Judy lifted her eyes from the grassy green aisle trod by the exiting graduates and returned from her reverie to her practical self. She took the photos, gave the spray of roses to her youngest and spread a sumptuous picnic for her family on the lush lawn of the little campus on the best of sunny May days.

It was a time to be in the moment.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Acculturated to Craziness

Emili rapped her knuckles sharply on the window pane above her kitchen sink. Some day she would surely put her hand right through the glass with her agitated knocking.  She did it for two reasons. She did it when she saw a particularly athletic squirrel defy her state-of-the-art squirrel-resistant bird feeder and hang upside down, gorging on the fat black oil sunflower seeds.

She also did it when she saw that crazy lawn keeper once more take out his tiddly-whacker and whiz in her flower bed. Neither the squirrel nor the lawn keeper paid her the least mind.

What the hell was the matter with that boy? He had a body like Adonis (working shirtless as he did, she noticed). He also had Three Stooges tufts of wiry hair poking out over his ears and under his backward baseball cap. Emili had laid down her parameters and her demands for the care of her lawn and flowers but did not think that she had to say it included not being allowed to pee in the petunias. In fairness, he did exactly as she asked and for a surprisingly modest fee.  He had come with the best of recommendations and his work rendered her small gardens pretty enough to be featured in Home and Garden magazine as he arranged pots of coleus and vinca and Martha Washington geraniums.  Lovely, lovely work from the rough Vermont redneck nut who could not keep his zipper zipped.

Emili had moved to Vermont three years ago. She had wanted to get out of the city with its crazy people, pushing and shoving and driven. The quarrels on the subways and the homeless in cardboard boxes on the street depressed her. She longed for a place of gentleness and calm. There was little reason that she could not do the work she did on the Internet in a more peaceful place. Escaping the city craziness, she was not prepared for the rural form of craziness. Here, among the green hills and blazing fall colors, the Vermont crazies were seemingly everywhere. They mowed your lawn, painted your living room, repaired your furniture, wired your kitchen and waited on you at the country store.
In addition to the lawn Adonis, there was Tom-Tom. Not Thomas or Tommy or Tom; he was Tom-Tom -- and he made that abundantly clear. He was pleasant enough as he expertly yielded his brushes and rollers on her walls ... IF you called him Tom-Tom. He was firm about his name in a way that defied understanding and hinted at a deeper cause and determination to have something in life his very own way. He sported a scruffy three-day growth of chin whiskers that never seemed to grow or go away. He always wore brown jersey gloves with the fingers cut off and they were always clean, not a spot of paint from her living room dotted the immaculate brown hand covers. Emili had visions of a stack of such gloves in the tool box on the back of his rusty pick-up truck.  Did he go home at night and sever the fingers with a meat cleaver? Or did he use scissors from the Dollar General to amputate the offending fingertips?  How did a vaguely askew painting contractor go about acquiring this unusual trademark? And why?

She tried asking him once.  She thought maybe he was allergic to something in the paint he used or had scars.  His response was a silence so hostile that she backed out of the room in fear and shame that she should question his garb when his work was as near to perfect as she could hope.  His silence let her know it was none of her damn business. This was his business as was the painting in which he took great pride. Tom-Tom had come with glowing recommendations,  not a spot on his record any more than there was a spot on his truncated gloves.

Jake was another one. He was as talkative as Tom-Tom was silent. He babbled on and on while he re-wired her kitchen. He'd start on lengthy one-sided conversations about Johnny and Sam and George and their wives and kids and dogs as if she knew them all and cared deeply about their successes and failures. She might have if she knew who the hell they were but she hadn't a clue who these people were that peppered his incessant chatter. To make matters more difficult, he talked around a chewed stub of a slim cigar. She had made it clear that there was no smoking in her house. But he technically did not smoke it and it did not change any more than Tom-Tom's eternal three-day stubble. The cigar might have been made of some magic substance that did not deteriorate in spite of the spittle that must have soaked it day after day.  What was up with these people?

And there were more. A whole battalion of Eugenes that delivered her FedEx packages, plowed her road, assessed her taxes and waited on her at the Vermont State Liquor store. There was a veritible conspiracy of Eugenes that she found extremely odd.  Who was the Eugene that so prompted the excess of this name in the area? Was he, by chance, the revered grandfather of them all? Was he the local terminator of the deer hunting crowd or a Vietnam hero? Having her questions rebuffed before, she was afraid to ask, to show her ignorance.

Emili did find it vaguely disturbing that she had not found it possible to converse about politics, a good book, the economy or any other quasi-intellectual matter. The only safe subjects seemed to be weather, roads and the job at hand.  Since she did her work at home on the computer, she was often lonely and isolated in this land where the village had more idiots than Hillary had supporters. She so wanted to be accepted but did not know how to KNOW these people.  She was by no means a snob. In fact she had a deep reverence for people who were really in the trenches in their jobs. She was as disturbed by the cocktail party set that knew only the buzz words of education as she was by her cadre of loonies. She had met plenty of people that led life as if they had learned it from CliffsNotes, skimming over life with as little depth as a puddle in a pothole. Where was there balance and connectedness? Still caught up in some of her city paranoia and struggling, she simply did not know how to achieve this.

She did  not know if she should be afraid of these new people that populated her new life. Would she be assaulted by the penis-wielding lawn man? Would Tom-Tom explode in a homicidal rage if she erred once too often and simply called him Tom by accident? Would Jake discover her inability to relate to the locals and leave her wiring hanging dangerously out of holes and sockets while he went to work for a more compatible Johnny, Sam or George? Would one of the Eugenes leave her roads unplowed or toss her FedEx packages into the resulting snow drifts if she could not make the slightest effort to understand them? Unlike the city, where you could avoid confrontations by crossing to the other side of the street or leave the eccentric workers to the apartment building super, here she had to learn to put aside all the oddities and cope or give up.

Until she did one or the other, she took solace in her long walks with Bruno, her chocolate lab, and reveled in the way the sun played on the hilltops and the way the clouds threw shadows on the valley floor.  She read, worked and started dating a pleasant and normal enough man she met at the Northshire Bookstore. She tried to ignore the preponderance of strangeness. Still, she mentioned it to her new boyfriend.  He laughed, recognizing his own adjustment when he moved to Vermont.

"It is all a bit of a test" he said. "Watch, you'll see."

And gradually she did. Her neighbor, an elderly woman with a yapping little Westie, was out walking the critter one icy day when she fell, her leg cocked unnaturally beneath her. When the ambulance arrived, none other than Tom-Tom leaped out of the back and ran to her aid, kneeling and comforting her, his gloved palms stroking her brow.  Tom-Tom?  Her Tom-Tom?  And here, in a matter of minutes, was her road man Eugene, spreading an extra layer of sand on the treacherous ice. Before the volunteers of the Rescue Squad left, her Adonis detached himself from the growing group of on-lookers, pulled a Blue Seal dog bone from the pocket of his now mercifully zipped-up jeans and comforted the whimpering pup.

She was surprised....

The biggest surprise was that she considered these people "hers." A transition had occurred and she did not even know that it had happened. She would make it here after all. She just might even learn to embrace the craziness and enjoy -- without qualms -- the texture of the people as much as she enjoyed the changing of the seasons,  the sun shining on the hilltops and clouds throwing shadows on the valley floor.

Previous Posts:
Who's a Hero?
In the Still of the Night

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


When Abby was in early middle-age she explored all kinds of ways to make sense of an increasingly senseless life. She had been married, had two children, and gotten divorced when they left the nest to search out their own destiny. She had watched her beloved mother die, resisting the curtain of death until the very end. And then she watched her equally resistive father struggle to make a life for himself when much of his reason for living no longer existed.  Where was this mythical mystical Zone where it all made sense? Where was this state where everything was easier and the brain flowed smoothly to a blissful and fulfilling state of mind?

In the past several years she had done yoga, meditated and gone to church. She had traipsed to the gym and done hundreds of laps in the tepid pool at the Rec Center. Her eyes were blurred with reading fiction, non-fiction, and self-help books. She turned on the TV and then she turned it off not wanting to be told by any talking head, left-leaning or right, what to think, or to soak her brain with marginal entertainment. She got massages, took long walks, talked endlessly with friends -- and she dreamed.

It was the dreams that most intrigued her. She had her waking dreams, to be sure; dreams of a body more disciplined and sleek, a beautiful perennial garden blooming in perfect synchronicity throughout the seasons, dreams of her children being comfortable in their own skin and finding happiness.  Other dreams were less defined; hovering in her subconscious, a tantalizing promise of enlightenment and fulfillment but the "aha" moment eluded her over and over again.

So she began to study the phenomenon of sleeping dreams to see what they meant. She had often joked that her dreams were full-length Technicolor Steven Spielberg epics. She loved her dreams and they were—fortunately -- rarely dark or scary. But what did they mean? If she studied and analyzed them, would they help her in her quest to move forward through her mid-life ennui?

She read about the Jungian theory of dreams and scanned the dream dictionaries on Google. She went to dream groups where she shared her dreams with knowledgeable and seeking fellow dreamers. Together they explored prophetic dreams and lucid dreams and dreamers whose brains cast them back to previous lives and ancient times through the nightly firing of synapses. But what she ultimately distilled from her studies, if she learned from her dreams at all, was that she and she alone could interpret the hidden messages. No one had her set of symbols and emotions and culture. What she did learn was to use certain tools to unlock some of the mysteries of her subconscious. Asking: “What does this image mean to you?” (For example, to one person the ocean may represent a relaxing vacation romp, to another a ship-wrecking threat.) “Why did you have this dream now?” “What are the archetypal symbols?”

Abby prepared herself for her nightly dream adventures by closing her eyes and letting pre-dream images roll like the crawl at the bottom of a TV newscast on the screen of her inner eyelids.  Skulls, dragons, starbursts, snowflakes, birds, trees, Salvador Dali forms dripping with distorted images all visited this twilight moment before she started to slip into a dream-filled sleep.

Abby soon learned to discard what were clearly "junk drawer" dreams with no emotional content for her. She also discarded the dream of searching frantically for the thermostat that she had somehow misplaced when her dwelling cooled on a zero night. She knew where the dream of rushing water splashing in her sink came from when she awoke with the urgent need to pee. Abby's questing and sometimes overstimulated brain cleared this excess material with barely a memory of having dreamed at all.

Oh but the dreams that lingered, demanding and insistent, wanting to be deciphered, wanting to be understood and of value. Docile, piebald horses clopping up the lane to her house became ebony-hued thoroughbreds, muscled and strong prancing and tearing up the sod in her dooryard.  A giant oak tree, a symbol of strength, was Swiss-cheesed with woodpecker holes and towered up and up until it erupted in pale green leaves. The dead awoke with smiles. Babies delivered speeches to Congress. Keys changed hands. Over and over again Abby saw change and growth and always she saw these transitions as a good and positive thing -- even if they were sometimes vaguely disturbing, like watching a birth.

By the time Abby saw and accepted the transitions, she was no longer early middle-age. She was approaching that age termed "senior."  Nowadays, she knew without a doubt what she did not like; she would never again dip her toes in the tepid pool at the Rec Center. Leave yoga to the lithe and inclined, not to her. She thought she would keep the massages and continue her reading, but more selectively. She had, in fact, transitioned into knowledge of some of the vicissitudes of life and she was, if not in the Zone, at least more content.

Still Abby wondered why in the world a random childhood friend of her son's came knocking on her door one night in a dream to demand that she hand over Benny Goodman's address book? Benny Goodman -- the King of Swing --  was not even of her generation. He belonged to a bygone era, peaking with his sweet licorice-stick clarinet before she was born. Yet the dream lingered and haunted her in its intensity and demanded her attention. What in the world was this lingering dream telling her? It tickled her funny bone in all its peculiarity and she and yet she was certain there was a message buried in this dream.

Aha, she thought, maybe the message was "move on" as the childhood friend had become a respected adult in real life and Benny with his sweet licorice-stick clarinet had moved on in death – both with accomplishment and with the sweet aura of humor that surrounded the images.

That night, after that revelation, Abby snuggled in her down comforter, welcoming another of her nightly Technicolor epics with great curiosity.  She sought what was there to find and marvel at as she awoke to another day.

Previous Stories:

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Who’s a Hero?

The week was young. It was only Monday afternoon, the Monday before Memorial Day. It was hectic trying to get all the orders done so that there would be plenty of First Prize hot dogs, Koffee Kup buns and Styrofoam coolers. Did we need to turn on the ice machine? Did we have a good supply of Frisbees and Whiffleballs? The coming three-day weekend would kick off the summer season and we had to be prepared.

With a familiar rattle and bang, an old blue pickup truck with a crumbling white cap and 20 years’ worth of bumper stickers pulled up right outside the front door. Old Gib unwound himself from the front seat and proceeded to the back of the truck where he rummaged and tugged until his arms were full. Tall and lean, he looked for all the world like something out of an Audubon print with his knock-kneed flamingo-like gait, pigeon-breasted chest and hawkish nose.

Gib had supplied the Wayside with fishing paraphernalia ever since we bought the store. We depended on him for the right size and type of Mepps, Zebco rod and reel sets, hooks, nets, swivels and other miscellaneous gear suitable for the worm fishermen who share the famous Batten Kill with their fly fishing brothers and sisters.

Gib was trying to get out of the fishing supply business but agreed to beef up our stock for the weekend. His assortment was a little more motley than usual. Some of the Rapala boxes were wrinkled with water stains, and he didn't have any #8 snelled hooks. But he brought in what he had, and he enjoyed his visits to the store, where he sat at the big round table engaging folks with fish stories. His arthritic gnarled hands, covered with liver spots, gestured woodenly as he told his tales. His mostly expressionless face was dominated by the most peculiar mouth, he teeth of which were yellowed and layered. Where the upper teeth met the lower, there was a perfectly round hole as if he had caught bullets in his teeth in a circus act. He would make a circle of his mouth as if he had anticipated someone's astonishment at the size or number of fish that used to be caught in Hopper Brook or the Green River.

We carried on our business between stories and interruptions until we wrangled out what of his remaining stock would be useful. We sealed our deal with a sales slip written out with a stubby pencil and added up the old-fashioned way without the aid of a calculator.

Gib was active in the American Legion, and someone had once mentioned that it was hard to believe looking at him that he’d been a war hero. I had been working on an employee newsletter and wanted to put a bit at the end about remembering the veterans. While we were concluding our transactions, I conversationally said: “I hear that you were quite a hero in World War II.”

Gib was hard of hearing and always slow to answer, so I was not sure he had caught my remark. Imagine my shock and surprise when I looked up from my paperwork to see those rheumy old eyes brimming with tears that leaked over the folds and down his leathery cheeks. “The heroes,” he said, “are still over there.”

Then he began an amazing tale of volunteerism and bravery, protecting our American tanks from Japanese bombs, landing on the beach at Randova, and going down on the US Army Transport Coolidge in 1942. My knowledge of history was so spotty that I could not follow the story in detail, but I did know that while I was talking to this old Vermonter in the worn shirt smelling of engine oil, fish and sweat, I was seeing what made this country great.

Gib was the only one of the squadron leaders serving together who came back alive. After 60 years the scars or were still visible on his psyche, like keloids bumping up the tender skin. Clearly, war hurt and toughened. But it also tenderized in a mysterious way. Gib came back and devoted himself to countless worthy causes: Boy Scouts, the American Legion, Conservation Camp and Hunter Safety. He wanted this to be a country worth fighting for. Each day we all pick our battles and decide “which hill we want to die on.”

Even constrained by the dictates of duty, we pick to do it honorably or not. There is no question about Gib’s choices.

Gib’s heroes are still “over there.” But one of Arlington’s heroes – indeed, one of America’s heroes – is still among us and drives a beat-up blue pickup with a crumbling white cap.

(This story, which originally appeared in my published volume of "Wayside Country Stories," is reposted today both as a nod to Throwback Thursday and in honor of Gib’s wife Ruth who passed away this week.)


Friday, April 3, 2015

Rabbit Tales

I am in my car alone.  I want to be alone right now. The funeral service for my Grandpa has just ended -- shovels full of dirt in the deep hole that will be his last earthly home. I am sad for the lessons that now have stopped. His passing leaves a hole in my heart and my life that's as big and deep as his grave.

I loved my Grandpa, though there was a time when I hated him. Not for long, but it was intense when it came to the surface.This was just one the many lessons he taught me: Love and hate are often very close.

From the time I came home from the hospital in a tiny pink outfit with rabbits hopping from the toes to the top, he called me "Bunny." Oh, he called me "Sylvia" too, and sometimes "Sylvie," but in our most endearing moments it was always "Bunny." It seems that traditionally grandfathers have been partial to their grandsons on account of the fact they'd be the ones carrying the family name forward into the future. Nowadays it doesn't matter as much since so many women keep their own last names when they marry -- but that's a different story for another time. My grandpa was partial to me.  We shared so much: deep sapphire eyes, an easy smile and a sunny disposition. When he looked at me, I knew he saw himself in the way that children just know those things.

Now Grandpa was a great hunter and loved the Vermont hills from which which he would procure venison and wild turkey for the family table. I knew that and I accepted that, even from a very young age, the same way farm kids know that hamburger comes from those bucolic-looking cows grazing so calmly in the lush green meadows.

What I didn't know about were the rabbits -- those endearing, charming, long-eared bunnies that inhabited my bedtime stories and provided the touchstone of our relationship. Often, when Grandpa went hunting he'd bring me back the soft white and brindle tails of rabbits. I loved them. They were a special gift and I used them as pretend powder puffs or ornaments for my hair. They were tucked every where in my room -- some beside my lamp, others in the corner of my mirror, and still others scented with Mother's perfume and squirreled away in my dresser drawers. Mother always had to check my pockets before she did the wash as most often a tiny bunny tail was hidden there, a soft and tactile reminder of my protector's love, a tangible wish for my good fortune.

This went on from the time I was four or five until I was eight. I was just starting third grade when we had a show-and-tell time where each student could bring something that they wanted to share with the rest of the class. One by one they would stand in front of the whole class and tell what it was and explain why they had chosen to bring it to school.

I brought in four of the fluffiest rabbit tails in my supply. Swallowing hard to get up the nerve to address my classmates, I went to the front of the room and charged, full speed ahead, with the story: My Grandpa was such a good hunter, you see, he could shoot the tails right off the rabbits in the woods-- without even harming them!

The silence was deafening. I had fully expected my classmates to cheer his obvious skill -- not to mention be envious of my treasures. Instead, what greeted me -- after the long silence -- was an unbelievable snickering.  We were, after all, a community of hunters and even at their young age, many of the boys in my class had already been hunting. Then one particularly grubby boy stood up.

"That there weren't no way that can happen," the boy said. "Them rabbits was in the stew you et.-- and you didn't even know it!"

My face reddened in response and tears sprung to my eyes as I realized that this was most likely true. The teacher, having seen the look of horror and betrayal cross my face, quickly came to my side and gently ushered me out of the classroom. Though teachers must be prepared for anything at "show and tell,"she clearly had not been prepared to witness my moment of truth or to deal with the resulting emotional fallout.

Young as I was, this was my first true awareness that all is not as it seems. A year before I had given up Santa Claus with barely a ripple. He was the spirit of giving, after all, and I still believed in that wholeheartedly. But to have Grandpa revealed in public as a liar and, even worse, someone who used my adoration and trust to perpetuate a falsehood, was more than I could bear.

After an hour in the nurse's office, my mother came to get me. My stomach ached and my eyes were red and swollen. I could not tell her what her father had done to me. I could not tell her how hurtful it was that he had slaughtered Peter Cottontail, defiled the Velveteen Rabbit and made the sweet characters of Beatrix Potter forever sour in my mouth. Truth had been revealed and it was such a bitter pill that my eight-year-old mind, body and soul could not digest it. But the teacher had told her what had happened. To Mother's credit, she remained silent, waiting patiently for me to speak. But I could not.When Grandpa came for supper that night I remained in my room. I could not face him. I hated him.

The class quickly moved on to other things, forgetting my "show and tell" in favor of papier mache globes and volcanoes, double-dutch jump rope, and the intricacies of math. They forgot, but I did not. I had been happy in my ignorance, my head in the sand like a grade-school ostrich, not seeing what I did not want to see. I longed for the hand-holding walks in the woods where Grandpa would point out the edible cinnamon ferns and help me gather the miniature wild strawberries. But I did not know how to go forward.

This lesson I later came to identify with the concept of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." Was I willing to give up everything because of a single betrayal?  Grandpa had been told what happened and his sadness cast a pall over the entire household. He told my mother that he'd never said that he didn't kill the rabbits. Upon later reflection, I guess he hadn't. This I later came to identify with another concept: That there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission.

The bunny tails disappeared from my room and Grandpa never called me "Bunny" ever again. Eventually we established an uneasy truce. It happened while I was trying to ignore him at the supper table one night and he got caught slipping a bit of fried liver off his plate to the family dog who was forbidden table food. He blushed and laughed and then started laughing harder when he saw that I was laughing with him.  His merriment (or perhaps relief) was so great that tears sprung to his eyes and the moment rolled on, both of us laughing as the terrible past started to recede into the past. (Another lesson I learned through all this is the healing power of laughter.)

So, life went on. The shine of my hero may have been tarnished, but he was still my hero, my teacher, my mentor and my kin. In the kind of linguistic shorthand peculiar to families, we began to identify these kinds of half truths that abound in life as "rabbit tales."

We shared much in the next 19 years until, like in The Velveteen Rabbit, he was worn and frail having lived too much and loved too much.  So, today I just want to be alone and remember and think of all the times his lessons held me in good stead.

Nobody is perfect. And to expect that they are is probably the biggest rabbit tale of the all. My hate was fleeting but my love for him -- and his for me -- did not end with his death.

Just let me be alone for awhile.

Related Stories:
Mind Your Manners
In the Still of the Night