Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Rosewater Cafe Knife

I slipped it into the narrow cotton envelope, its heft and shape sagging in my pants pocket, and wove my way through the public gardens. I had my eye on the huge wrought iron gate at walkway’s end and sped up to close the gap between us. Also, Monroe and me–and the stocky security guard who had been watching us. If I could make the gate I’d be free to hop on my powder blue Vespa and speed away. As I held back from running, I imagined myself as seen by the guard–nearing middle age, slim, with curly hair yanked into a messy ponytail, my exercise clothing dark: nondescript. What might he say if calling in his suspicions?

“An older gal moving at a fast clip, and she hid something in her pocket–no, didn’t see her take anything but she talked to this kinda shady guy, then took something small from him and–huh? No, not sure. Well, anyway, going after her.”

How innocuous a thing, a woman meeting a man and exchanging something–might it be drugs, keys, maybe a rose cutting, even a hot diamond necklace? I laughed as I approached the gate but it was more a gasp of barely subdued hysteria.

And then I felt a hand on my forearm.

“Miss, please stop.”

I stopped, waited, breathing harder than desired. He circled me, wide face marked by a crooked half-smile, a friendly accoster, then stood back a few feet as I wasn’t moving. I did consider if I could make a dash for it but he was between me and open space. My pocket was laden with evidence, my jacket barely covering it at hip length.

I looked at him, eyebrows raised in faint surprise. “Yes?”

“Step aside so I can ask you a few questions.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m on my way to an appointment. Is there a good reason you are trying to detain me?” I tried to suppress irritation and fear bubbling beneath my words and started to smile right back but didn’t quite manage it

“Step aside, we’ll see, Miss.”

Miss, is that we get called no matter our age? I wanted to inform him I was old enough to be his great aunt but sniffed and stepped toward deep pink rhododendron bushes.

I knew Monroe was long gone, ordering a coffee and croissant and feeling relieved. He was good at that, here one moment, gone the next–story of our nebulous relationship for twenty years. We were not a couple but we seemed never entirely free of each other. It was like sharing a vast broken web where one or the other of us dangled awhile, then spun odd threads that guaranteed we’d climb back on and cross paths every few years. But what would you expect, we were sort of blood-tied, a family member being his wife once upon a time.

“Would you empty your pockets, please?”

I was incredulous. What would I take from a garden? It made no sense that he’d stop me; he had to be bored, a rookie or plain mean-spirited. I knew what I had but he didn’t, and besides, what true harm was there if he did? I made an impulsive decision to pull it out, slowly, the black cloth covering it wrapped snugly.

“Please slowly hand that to me, Miss,” the security guard said.

But I unwrapped it first, gingerly, so that he could see the ornately carved leather sheath that covered the 7 inch blade, and the leather wrapped steel handle darkened by years and years of being held. The knife was handmade by my father, Val, back in 1982 and that Monroe stole many times. Val’s daughter was its inheritor. Monroe’s ex-wife. My half-sister, Riley.

“Whoa there,” he said, and stepped back.

He picked up his walkie talkie, then studied me. What did he see? My anxiety that it would be taken again? Old memories evoked? I would not break down. But maybe run if he took it. Be done with it all just like that.

“This may need some sort of carry permit, I think, let me look at it,” he said with a grunt and a sigh. He turned the sheathed knife over and over in his hand, studying the intricate leather tooling, its wide loop almost cracked apart that used to slip onto an owner’s belt. Val’s and Davey’s until Davey went into the Army and didn’t return, and then Riley’s, until Monroe got a hold of it.

“What?” I stared at him, hard enough that my eyes were yelling at him. Absurd. But I’d felt Monroe and I meeting meeting in public was not so wise, times being what they unfortunately were, but Monroe is bolder than smart, which accounts for trouble he has generated. It took us all of less than a minute, we didn’t actually chat. I have no excuse other than I don’t trust him, don’t like him anymore, so always meet him in public. We’d talked on the phone–that led to this moment.

The return of the knife.

“It’s family owned and finally returned to me. A genuine Cosenti knife. I’m Lilly Cosenti.” As if that meant anything to this guy with the belly and the sweaty brow, hands belonging to a plumber not a security guard, who was handling my knife with keen interest.

The guard looked at me skeptically, shifted on tired wide feet, weighed the knife in his broad palm as if it was a possible piece of gold. Which it was to some people. One of the first knives fashioned by Valentino Cosenti.

He jutted his lower lip as if impressed, and angled his head at me. “Okay, maybe it’s all good, but it should not be here. Not these days, you know. Your ID.” He looked me up and down, memorizing my ordinariness. The mole above my lip to the left. The sunspots across my chest. My roughened skin from a lifetime of ranch work.

“Sure.”

I gave him my driver’s license, wondering who trained this guy. Was he taking my knife and calling cops or just passing time? He had no idea what this was about and I was not about to tell him. I had to get going. My cool Vespa was on loan; I had to return it to the hotel, call a cab, catch a train.

He handed the license back, rubbed his neck contemplatively as he studied my knife once more, then indicated a bench close by.

“Let’s talk.”

I moaned, followed him, sat. I had just come over three hours to climb aboard that plane. I eyed the gate once more, but gave up.

“Tell me about it, Miss Cosenti. ”

He said this like it was an order and if I didn’t obey, I’d be sorry. Oh, to be at the mercy of an aimless security guard who had nothing better to do than suspect a woman like me. Who had some fancy, worrisome knife. Weren’t there a few truly lurking about that he could interrogate, then escort out? He watched me as I took off my baseball cap, smoothed stray curls away from my damp face.

“Alright, then, it was like this…”

I settled and so did he, his feet crossed at the ankles as he leaned his bulk way back, ready for my explanation. As much as I’d tell.

******

“We lived in Wyoming,” I began. “My mother’s family has always had a big ranch, so when my dad married her it also was his. They loved training horses and we had cattle, lots. Anyway, by the time I was ten they were doing better than my grandparents had, more horse breeding and training, but my mother also had a passion for cooking and what I’d call hospitality. She pleaded for the run down cafe in town, and though he told her it wasn’t a good bet and we needed her at the ranch, she won the argument. Named it the Rosewater Cafe. Her name was Rose and she said it’d be a refreshing stop along our lonely road. I often helped out there, though I’d sure rather deal with the horses, work outside. My dad, meanwhile, was getting good at his hobby, turning out more and more knives, then selling some. It was a little extra income and he liked that. All seemed to be working out real good for them–for us.

“Then one day–I was fifteen–this foreign car pulls up in a swirl of dust and out steps a tall, large woman with short white-blonde hair and a girl some older than me. My dad rushed to meet her–Mom was at the cafe–and soon they argued. I waited to see what it was about–he was not an arguing sort of man–or when he’d introduce me. But it didn’t happen. The girl stood with hands on hips as though she was too fancy for the ranch and was disgusted–I distrusted her immediately.

I knew my dad was better than average to look at, and he had a way with people; women liked him more than necessary. So it occurred to me what it might be about, a past that had caught up with him. I went to the stables, saddled my horse and took off, didn’t go back til dark.

“When I returned they were, of course, gone. But not for long. In another week, after my parents chewed on the topic a few times, the girl was brought back. Riley was her name, and she was staying for the last few years of school. Whether or not Mom and I liked it. Dad seemed resigned but encouraged us all to try to be nice.”

I scrunched my shoulders up and looked at my watch. Time was wasting.

“When do you get to the part about the knife?” the guard asked. “And who was that girl?”

I frowned at him and took a deep breath. “Riley was my father’s earlier daughter, due to an error of judgement, he told Mom, and she was a spit fire–that was why her mother brought her there, so he could get her in line, I guess. It was true the ranch taught her good things. But it only half-worked. She learned to ride and groom horses okay. But she could get mouthy; also, distracted. And it was clear to me from the start she was a big deal to boys in town and from the ranches. I have to admit she couldn’t help it; she wasn’t so much gorgeous as she had charm like clover honey, the boys buzzed about her. Some are like that….my dad and she just had it. I was the other kind, the one behind the scenes, the one on the range, free and alone…”

The guard nodded; he was hooked by curiosity. I wanted to give him a shove and go. But my story was true and it turned out I enjoyed telling it–and he’d asked for it.

“Then Monroe came along.”

I recalled him in full technicolor. He had been–still was, of course–a few years older, easy to laugh, brawny, impressed with himself, testosterone like a flare that lit up everything. He moved like a mountain lion, stealth and grace. Another one that baffled. Intrigued me, okay, but I was busy working.

“He and Riley, though, made a match, nothing anyone could do or say would change that. As soon as she graduated that was it, they got hitched despite our dad wanting to run Monroe off. But Riley settled down, so did Monroe, it seemed. The problem was, there were still others who wanted to get close to her…like Monroe never existed. I guess ’cause he was an outsider from Arizona and so didn’t quite count..”

I shrugged in mild sympathy for Monroe, then stretched, raising arms high, twisting side to side. It was getting late. I saw my so-called guard gripping the knife as he waited to hear the punch line. It irked me that he had taken it, that I needed to tell him all this.

“The knife, miss– what about that part?”

I shook my head to clear it, stared beyond the gate. I never could stop a story once started, yet time was slipping by.

“Well, that knife you have that’s mine–it used to be in a wooden case with a glass pane in it so it was just visible, and kept under the counter at Rosewater Cafe. Dad put it there for Mom’s protection–you just never knew, he said. But as his name circulated due to his skills, customers wanted to study it, even made good offers on it. Eventually, though, it was locked and displayed from a high shelf above the coffee bar. It was like free advertising; his knife business got hot.

“Riley and I both worked at Rosewater. By ages twenty and eighteen we had made a truce, had found ways to get along as we got older. Then, one day Monroe was just finishing a three eggs sunny-side up with beef sausage breakfast when this guy walks in and asks for Riley, eyes cloudy with anger and hurt. I won’t bore you with whys and wherefores but just say that Monroe took great offense over it all. There was a bad fight and then Riley got the knife case down and smashed it open with a hammer and…and…I can tell you my mother fell down in a dead faint–it took her a long time to get over things.”

I gulped, heart banging. I had not once told the truth of that morning twenty-four years ago to anyone outside the family.

“Yeah, then what?’ the guard said, leaning heavily toward me, eyes popping. “Someone die…?”

“Of course not.” It occurred to me this was what the guard waited for, some bloody end, the thrill of arresting me. “But the guy got hurt between fists and that knife.He ran out the door but threatened revenge. But there was no next time. Monroe left Riley the next day, went back to Arizona… though he kept in touch–they had that need of each other that never really ended despite remarriages. The wounded lovelorn guy had vanished, had a few scars. And no one called police; it just wasn’t what you did. The stranger shouldn’t have barged in, said his piece….

“Dad kept his proud if deadly creation under lock and key in a secret place until he died. He had willed it to her. I guess he felt Riley was the one who deserved to live with its history or maybe he was saying she was a tough nut and there was her reminder. It was valued at about $5800 then, ten years ago. Yeah, it is that beautiful a thing…”

The uniformed man pulled the knife out of its sheath a little and examined it, the quickly put it away. Just him doing that sort of scared me but I understood his desire to see it. It was so finely wrought it seemed a work of art, more than a weapon. So many had wanted it in their collections. But it had been used for harm.

“Monroe wrenched it from Riley, took it to get rid of evidence–it was meant to be gone forever. But then dad got it back from Monroe with a bribe…stupid, huh, family feud like that. But it was worth so much, too. Riley finally told Monroe, you’ve gotta lay off, it’s a family heirloom, hers when dad died.”

“So how did Monroe get it once more? What a mess.”

“Yeah. He stole it from Riley after she refused to talk to him again, don’t know how. She suspected him, of course, but was sick of the whole thing. I kept out of it. Then all of a sudden last month he decided to tell me he did it and felt guilty, said he was ready to let go, stop the craziness. He’s made a decent living buying and selling antiques and other stuff; I figured he’d finally sold dad’s knife.” I shivered in a gust of wind. “But he didn’t. Now I have it.”

The guard slapped his thighs.”But why didn’t he just give it back to Riley, ask forgiveness and all?”

I scrunched my face in mock horror. “No way. They are sort of sworn enemies, despite still being soul mates. And she likely saved his life with her intervention–I didn’t tell you, the guy had a handgun back of his jeans that was never drawn once she got him, he was hurt pretty bad…But no, they don’t even talk now.” I looked at my hands in my lap. “Besides, it is really part of my dad’s and mom’s legacy–way before Riley had in in her grasp.”

“Oh…so Riley was the one, how about that.”

And he handed it back to me, just like that. Stood up to his full five feet, six inches. He was about to say more when his walkie talkie crackled and a muffled voice was unintelligible so he talked back and brought it close to an ear.

“I gotta get going,” he said, “someone’s messing up the flowers along with their dog.”

“That’s it, I can go now?” I tucked the leather-encased knife into its cloth, shoved it back in my pocket.

He raised a hand. “Thanks for the tall tale–that was interesting–but I have work to do–good luck, Miss Cosenti!”

He ambled off like a slow bear on the run.

I stood slowly, blinked in honeyed sunlight.

From yesteryear to the present moment was a long way to leap. But I strode through the gate, found the pretty blue Vespa, took off, my knife secretly gleaming. Riley would be happy to have it back. If it ever got to her.

Considering Mothers: Flowers Among All Others

A favorite activity for my spouse and me around Mother’s day is to visit the National Historic Site of Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens in Woodland, Washington. The farmhouse was owned by Hulda’s parents (Godfried and Wilhemina Thiel) until she took possession and lived there until her 1960 death. The 1880s Victorian farmhouse is a lovely example of the style. But it is the grounds bursting with lilacs, heavy on large bushes, that brings such pleasure. The fragrance is warm and sweet and it is very easy to get “lilac drunk!” We visited last week-end, a good time before they were spent.

Like hopefully most mothers, I find my 45 years of motherhood to be creatively inspiring, perplexing and fulfilling, tiring and joyous, spiritually deepening, intellectually intriguing, and just plain fun. And yes, I can well see us each as remarkably resilient, productive and gorgeous flowers among other all other flowers…Please enjoy these pictures–have a loving Mother’s Day!

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: As I Say, Perhaps Not As It Was–A Grandmother’s Moments of Truth

We older mothers (born anywhere from 1950–or before!–through 1969, I think) like to trade anecdotes with a knowing look and a smidgen of soft laughter about “those days…” when we had the privilege, often surprise, and also “the female task” of bearing and raising wee ones. We don’t quite recall the sufferings of labor and childbirth, or how cranky/bleak-and-in pain-exhausted/ utterly confused/at times even disturbed by it all we were. The prolonged healing process (“a near-travesty of femaleness if you ask me but has to get done”) fades; a colicky infant’s travails (“he’d never give it up, kept at it day in, day out–bless him”) 3 a.m. to 3 a.m. fade; unquenchable thirst with expanding hunger (“couldn’t keep that baby filled up, yet now–what a strapping man/gal!”); and our desperation for sleep and an hour for privacy, fifteen minutes alone in peace…(“well, it got better and better, didn’t it?”)…it faded as time went by.

We–at age 50 and older–have been there, know it all after one, two, or more kids, now grown, right? And yet we forgot so much, replaced those times with other years’ memories. Why bring up all that hard stuff? It is as old as the hills: women experience this stuff all the time. We learned from our own mothers to not whine. We wanted to act stronger, brighter, braver. And we just did what every new parent does those first days and nights, weeks, months. With a knowing smile and nod at one another, and plenty of swallowed tears.

So honestly, why would our daughters– and sons, for that matter, and their partners– believe our self-pronounced “wise words” easily? We can be so blithe despite greater truth of things. The insecurities we thought we’d triumphed over after years of therapy. The rosy illusions that exit into a black pit of depression when we realized our bodies were no longer our own (especially nursing but bottle feeding is still on demand); and that any free time would came at a cost both emotionally, even literally. That constant worry the burp was too goopy and might even choke the trusting infant in your anxious arms. That soiled diaper held too little or much–and that creeping rash along a nearly-invisible neck. Is it as bad as it looks? And what and why? Why is that crying so black-out loud and indiscernible?

So often, who knew exactly what the mysterious realm of babies was all about? Ole Dr. Spock was dismissed; there were many after him that had a very small reign. No one said: “It is really very hard, but somehow you figure it aout..”

Nothing anyone could have told me would have prepared me well enough when my first child was born at age 23. She was two and a half months early (a time when medical advances were nowhere near the level they are now). Nor was I “ready” when each of the others arrived, a lot less early and stronger but nonetheless as baffling one way or another. My mother was not so nearby for me to often request her presence, my sisters lived across the country, my brothers were…brothers… and also gone. My mother-in-law was boldly opinionated in ways that were generally not too encouraging, and my husband was…a stoic husband of those times, gone so much, capable and caring but less attuned to baby’s and mother’s woes/wants than could be useful. Especially when I got more worried and far less rest. And wrestled with guilt for all I should/could/would have done. What business did I have, having children? But came they did.

I felt on my own most of the time, with a neighborly woman or a couple friends here or there to share experiences (though in college three young families lived near one another–such stories and helps we shared for a time), give a reassuring pat on the back that cooled as soon as they went back to their more accomplished, carefree lives (so I believed). And it was more uncertain, even frightful terrain to explore than I’d admit. I knew how to endure much, I thought, so prayed every other minute for strength, compassion–most of all, practical wisdom. A tall order. Tears came as I sang and hummed to my babies. Rocked and rocked until all was calmed, she/he finally sleepy, my own eyelids closing. And then rocked-or walked–them more.

I was an amateur the first time, only a tad smarter the others. I slowly experienced carefully nurtured devotion, a burgeoning love, and lived by a few instincts and intuitions. Time passed, there came a little bravado, more trial and error. I acted as if, is all; I was good at that sort of thing and determined to do well as a mom even as failure threatened at every other turn. But did not say so if I could help it. The big reveal was that I loved mothering, anyway, no matter what.

But as a grandmother, it becomes a different scenario. Doesn’t it? We feel a step removed at first, our strength arising from knowledge of how to navigate many rocky roads that diverged from any easy understanding, and our hearts got bigger with many joys and triumphs, too. We made it! They do settle down, become more interesting even than anticipated but the remarkable thing is they do grow up: if we can at last be adults with them, it is nothing to make light of–a victory for all… If love has been the stitchery mending rips, pleating new pieces, adding new dimensions for a workable whole, we feel at home. And glad of the piecemeal process.

These are not my first grandchildren, but the sixth and seventh. And yet, I can tell you it is more than a standard three act operetta since these twin grand babies arrived. If nothing else, it means double of every single thing and event…

My youngest daughter is 39 this year and she has just had the twins. She calls on me almost daily, and sometimes beyond. Since we moved out here in the quieter, woodsy suburbs to be close to her and our son-in-law and babies, we are here for her. Late call for more baby formula? Check. Early call for help with a feeding? Check. I/we don’t live with them right now only because there is not enough room to move in–but would, anyway.

It is a truth that even in common ways I wanted my own mother and father to be more present with me, but did not get to enjoy such generous engagement. So I want to do this (as does my husband whose first two babies were raised mostly alone the first 3 or 4 years). Even when I can feel this daughter’s hovering fears and aching and complex subterranean needs. Especially so. When I embrace those two tiny ones close and they grab my shirt, wail with mouths demanding more. It is the season of more and more, mesmerizing, lovely creatures–so designed for their survival–with big needs. When my daughter’s exhaustion clings to her like an unwieldy, thick cape in the sweet spring air. I cannot lift it enough from her; but I can fan a fresh breeze around her feet, her face, her spirit. I can sit with her and work by her side and her husband’s.

I really know so little despite knowing more than I thought I recalled. It is an in between place to be, this grandmother’s watch. I wait to see what’s needed before stepping in and determine when it is better to just step forward. A balance of things, of new ways and old. This is a daughter who has been bold no matter the sweat and strategy things take, and smart, so she makes it her business to learn all she can. She yearns to be present every moment although she and her husband need to sleep an hour, take a break for a few. I want to tell her to “just relax” but know full well how ignorant and unkind that would be… But I cannot take a lead when they are mine only by default, my being one of their grandmothers. But still, they are this much a part of me, of my husband. The generational wheel turns.

The babies count on all each moment since leaving their enclosure of safety. The human way, yes, and more growing happens, changing happens–a stronger sudden leg kick, a dimple showing, a startled stare at the light moving through a window. They are not the same in looks, size or temperament–and all the more intriguing.

I am in a good position to muse over the whole messy wonder, to watch people I care so much for scurry toward vague horizons, to ponder: what on earth? how did they become such ones! To pray: help us with these matters of concern…Because twin girls may have in common many attributes and issues with all other infants, but they are not single babies. They are not the same and yet they are connected as roots of trees are connected, i think–by nervous systems messages, by instinct and familiarity. They sleep nestled that close, two snuggled beings of a greater whole. They are silent when touching forehead to forehead: here I am.

They are , it is true, not my preemie baby girls (and boy). They are not mine, period, but only by that blood riverlet connection. Every day I feel it run deeper; I do not know start or finish of it, it runs and runs and within it we live day to day as a larger story emerges, and will be remade again.

I do not blithely offer my new neighbor, “Oh, it is all fantastic but just tiring, they eat every two hours, both of them, they sure can cry–you know, it is a challenge…but we made it, didn’t we?” It is more complicated; we all know it. I have not forgotten the hard days and nights of young motherhood. There is less laughter than nostalgia manufactures, more bleary-eyed with hapless awe mixed with mad worries than may be admitted. And then when it seems too much: more bloomings of love. And forbearance.

When my daughter said through dark, dull eyes one morning: “Nothing you can say can make me feel any different right now,” she was right. But oh… I so badly wished I could.

This woman who was my child is a grown up finding her way. She has weekly support groups I never had. She has resources, information galore, enough to make my head spin. Plus a husband with time off work to wholeheartedly help carry the load. So we gingerly embrace this new arrangement, my daughter, her daughters (and their father), and me.

What I say is so much less valuable than what I do or do not do at this time. I take my steps and words slow. I find my place in the mix of it until called forward. I simply do not know it all.

Still, we take turns lifting the babies to the green light of May, encircle them in our arms as we feed them, side by side (or I feed two at once as the parents rest). And there is dancing time as I sway and tap one sleepy, fussy one while she burps and rocks another and sings in her warm, sweet voice. Unbearably tender, their fast beating hearts against ours. I will yet embrace my own dear one–with respect and a watchful eye–as she does her new dear ones. This is how families grow, each turn of a current revealing a blessing that carries us forward. I admit: there are things yet to learn as my daughter tackles her changed life, with two fine, lively spirits to adore.

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Where It Happens

This is it, where it happens that

life turns, turns, vast kaleidoscope

all brilliance of human mosaics,

a quixotic time come true,

this gathering up of more

stardust into fine arrays,

rare skin of butterfly wings,

sea eyes fathoms of wonder,

twenty fingers of power,

twenty toes of shyness,

pulsing spirits of trust

offered to our daily welcome

of grace unto miracles: they

dismantle–such ease of it!–

every single doubt in life:

these our gifts earthly, holy.

 

 

(Readers, the twins arrived safely. Bliss…)