I had to move all the way from Michigan to Tennessee before I got to live in a state park and purchase a large A-frame-style house for our family of seven. I was thirty-four. My husband was transferred, the fourth time in five years. I was ready as always for adventure, I thought. My parents had taken my siblings and me through Tennessee during summer vacations on our way to other places. History was something my family studied in person–or remnants of it. Tennessee has plenty of that. I even thought of myself as a bit Southern since I was born and lived in Missouri for one and a half years. I was quite mistaken. That was clear the day we arrived at Pin Oak Lodge, where we would stay while we located a suitable house. The lodge was in Natchez Trace State Park, under ten miles from Lexington, our new city of five thousand. It looked like an old town out of a movie, replete with a small library, three small schools and a town square with courthouse front and center. It boasted an attractive lake within city limits. We were about to dive into a mega adventure in the classic South. Detroit suburbs were very far away-I wasn’t very sad about that–as soon as the lodge receptionist emitted words cloaked in vowels that had been stretched, transformed. “Wayaacom yaal. Aahm Jaaayean.” Her smile dazzled. That is what I heard when I first met Jane. I was embarrassed to have to ask for a repeat. I felt quite unsure about the territory we had just entered. It was late summer, a month before the new school worries. Our children, ages eleven down to four, initially considered it a well-deserved vacation. The rooms were pleasing; the pool had cheery aqua water with a diving board to execute daredevil dives from, day and night. I joined in though my husband watched from a shady spot or, preferably, an air conditioned window seat. The sun hunted us down, mistaking us for prey. Sweat was a constant accessory. We turned pink or bronze in no time. The daily buffet offered surprises like fried okra and catfish, which we loved. I didn’t tell the kids what the fish looked like alive or where it had lived. For errands in town, we tooled around in a fancy Lincoln Town Car my husband’s company had leased for us–it was a tight fit–until we moved everything, cars included, to a new house. In the meantime, we were to adapt and enjoy the amenities as we continued searching for our own habitation. It was true that clamorous cicadas rivaled those in Missouri and the cottony heat eventually drove us indoors if not in the water. But those realities seemed minor for the moment. Who could complain, right? Hotel living gets old fast, despite the expense account, the services, the “easy does it” attitude. Ever try to keep track of five kids who have their own room, even one by your own? They felt freed of old constraints, the general rules of family that develop and nurture a civilized communal lifestyle. I empathized with their responses, but I was the ruling parent while my husband worked. The responsibility felt heavier outside of a house and neighborhood. We lived in the forest. Anyone could get lost. But we couldn’t find a home big and decent enough yet affordable. I watched as other families came, played, and left–they were on vacations–and we remained two, then three weeks and into the fourth. We made a decision to move on. To the cabins. We were in two, side by side. Rustic but with running water and usable kitchens. Secluded. Because it was nearly September and everyone else was home buying fresh pencils and notebooks, trendy clothes and backpacks, we were alone. Excepting the wildlife. Not that we weren’t preparing for the new school. But ten miles from school meant only a couple trips. The children lamented the few choices of commodities. I wondered where a good music and bookstore were. We worked at tuning into the language cadence so we understood what was said. Some found us less than appealing, with our big family, luxury car and our own accent that branded us as foreigners at best, enemies at worst. Confederate flags whipped in the breeze while people sipped iced tea for hours. Our kids danced and sang to Motor City soul music and liked to get right to the point. Most of the time we were in the thickets, hiking, observing an array of insects, avoiding unknown snakes and getting full choral concerts from bountiful birds. Bears we didn’t worry about. I heard larger creatures, sensed them nearby but rarely saw them. I’ve always liked bugs. I grew up with a mother who took etymology and geology in college and a father who was a scientist at heart. We’d gone camping, hiked many trails. I had once lived in Texas, where fire ants, spiders and cockroaches did not win their battles with me. So I didn’t shrink from unique flora and fauna that might elicit shrieks from others. That was before we took showers in cabins in a Tennessee state park. The first time my dripping wet foot landed on a hard, round object that was not a pen or bottle I was startled. When I moved so that my shadow stepped aside as well and the truth was revealed, I said things rather crass. Then I jumped on the toilet seat and shrieked for my spouse like a wimp. A millipede! And many more to follow during our stay. The sort with well over one hundred legs, I am certain. Not poisonous, not a biting sort, but nonetheless. They have hard shelled segments to protect their soft undersides. We had towels. After that we wore our sandals and inspected the bathroom and shower first. Considering they are thought to be the first creature to move from water to land, I owed them some respect. Like the place we were to make a home within. There were good times shared while we lived in the forest of Natchez Trace State Park. Nature provided peace and pleasures unlike any city life offered. I embraced myriad wonders. We lounged outside, sat at picnic tables for meals. The scents of earth and abundant plant life clung to us. Wildflowers greeted us in secret places. We followed butterflies by day and moths’ curious dances around porch lights in evening. There were fires to tend in the fireplaces as the air grew chill. Storytelling and making our own music were second nature without television or fancy phones. We created things out of nature’s bits and pieces, compared found rocks and studied trees and flowers, nature guides in hand. The children grew braver, more sure-footed. Resilience is readiness of spirit, a skill of adaptability. All five gained more daily. They cared for each other and squabbled as before but they couldn’t escape each other easily. They learned things about one another that they did not know before. Just as my spouse and I did. Like how to cultivate patience, faith and love when alone in a strange, if beautiful, land. We found our house after the kids had been in school for a month. I might have moved into anything with enough beds for all at that point. But the moment I laid eyes on it I thought, It looks like a northern Michigan house. The beauty of that anomaly choked me up. The bonus was getting some land with it. My husband agreed. It was built into a hill. The front looked like one story whereas the back revealed it was two. It had four bedrooms, two baths, two living areas and a wood stove that warmed up the whole house in the winter (yes, it got cold). A porch spanned the front, the better to ogle the countryside. There was a rolling acre of yard that opened onto woods, a murky pond (fit for nothing much but snakes although the kids tried fishing) and a nice garden spot. We swore we could see the kudzu, monster vine, creep across the road, it grew so fast. It fascinated and frightened me a little, like southern thunder or ice storms we’d watch roil the skies far off, then shake up everything on the way in. As with so much of Tennessee, I came to appreciate the power and wiles of the geography. I loved helping split wood, then tending the fire in our wood stove, making the two stories warm and fragrant. Was mesmerized by the harsh music of cicadas among unseen critters. Grew to appreciate heat that left us languorous. I made a dear friend of Jane. I was the only woman in the one AA meeting where older men made up a club, exceedingly slow to set out a chair for me. Poetry came to me unimpeded while walking our acre. But my cello had arrived cracked, splintered. My father repaired it back home, then hand delivered it, lest my heart stay broken, too. It played differently after that. It seemed an omen that much was to change, one way or another. Our children learned about kindness, tolerance, and prejudice in equal measure; we were a multicultural family in actuality and viewpoint–not always understood or welcomed. It was a place where a molasses-like accent charmed and lulled us, and the closeness of air hung on our shoulders like invisible cloaks. Where we could roam at length in our own back yard. I fell in love with many of western Tennessee’s characteristics about the time we followed a moving van back over the Mason-Dixon Line. It had not even been two years, but it had changed me. Deepened and challenged me. It had been a journey worth taking for the family. But it was very good indeed to be heading north to yet another spot.
The place was overtaken by ceramic Siamese cats. They showed off their glossy pale coats, peered into the room with icy eyes, and lorded their eminence over anyone who set foot in the room. Everywhere Clementine looked, they seemed accusatory, as if they knew her reasons for climbing the stairs with leaden feet. She’d had to ring an outside buzzer to get in the building, like it was a secret society up there. What did you call a fortune teller’s work? A consulting business? A fool’s paradise?
It was attractive once she let herself in. Elegant, in fact, which was surprising considering the neighborhood, fraught with wandering souls and greasy eateries. She ignored the cats and focused on a wall of pink, blue and gold floral wallpaper, two large mirrors that caused wintry light to gather and flash across the floor and her lap. Everything was prettified and hearkened from early or mid-twentieth century. Even the phone was rotary, made for someone who wore high-heeled satin slippers upon awakening. Clementine was drawn to a dish holding heart-shaped cookies. Were they supposed to encourage a placid, appreciative expectancy in customers?
Her eyes lingered on things despite her intention, which was to await her appointment patiently, to breathe slowly. Keep her mission in the fore of her mind. How could she prepare and present her thoughts intelligently when everything gleamed and bloomed without mercy?
When the private door swung open, she would enter the office (or would it be a room shrouded in voluminous drapes and darkness?) and take a seat confidently. Say she’d been passing by, saw the little, calligraphic sign by the door and determined to call Madame Valencia on a lark. And she would be frank, tell her that she didn’t believe in this sort of thing, but for twenty-five dollars maybe she could tell her something good. Something so visionary that she would leave with a renewed sense of purpose. An epiphany, against the odds. She snickered softly. Wouldn’t that cost more?
Maybe that would be too much to say, on second thought.
Clem studied the perfect arrangement of heart-shaped cookies. She picked up a red one and cradled it in her palm. Her fingers trembled. The oxygen felt as though it had leaked out of the room; the warmth was oppressive. There stood eternally blooming flowers, Siamese cats like sentries. If they were real they likely would size her up as an impostor but it should have been their mistress they inventoried. Or maybe they would be trained to think of Madame as “Highness.” If they could only purr, they might leap upon the rung and twitch their tails against her ankles, make an effort to be more welcoming. Ease the mean ache burrowing between her ribs, the reason she was here. Really, she should just leave this silly place.
Clem covered her eyes but that did nothing to stop the years from rewinding: she is again at the art museum, waiting two hours for him, studying Monet and then Gauguin. After an hour moving on to the fifteenth century tapestries that she admires most of all. He knows where to look. Though he would like contemporary exhibits, he accommodates her tastes. But this time he is too late, and Clementine has gone to the mezzanine that overlooks the first floor. Scanning the sparse crowd, she thinks she recognizes his olive trench coat, his sandy hair, but it can’t be. This man is leaning toward a woman in a navy blue cape and high heeled boots as though imparting important information. His hand is on her shoulder. Clementine is about to call out and wave when the woman looks up anxiously. The woman freezes, then steps back and brushes by him and out the glass doors. He lifts his eyes to the mezzanine and sees her, is alarmed. He punches the elevator button three times. By the time he gets to Monet, Clementine has slipped way, taken the side stairs and gone home. For the person he was stood close to is Anne. Clementine’s sister.
Though he called repeatedly, she never answered. When her sister arrived at odd hours and rang the bell twenty times, Clementine was driven out the back door by rage. Then finally moved far way. She knew he and Anne had to have something important, deep; they never would taken the risk and come to the museum together. Maybe they had been been planning on telling her. And it was just like her sister, taking what she believed was meant for her. And just like Clementine to let her have it.
But that was then. Clementine wiped any clinging crumbs from her lips and put the tissue in her purse. The sculpted marble clock on the mantel indicated she had two more minutes but the private door opened. Madame Valencia wafted into the room, extended her hand, then followed her client into the office. Clementine took in the brocade love seat, the table with its flowered phone, the appointment book beside the kitschy figurine of a bride and groom, perhaps hers or her mother’s long ago. Madame Valencia settled across from her, long legs crossed at narrow ankles. She looked more like a fifties model than a so-called psychic, with grey pencil skirt and ruffled lavender cashmere sweater. Her blond waves were immovable.
“How can I be of use today?” Madame asked, voice smooth as caramel.
“I have my doubts, really….but I know you specialize in doing readings for clients with relationship issues, right? How about past relationships?”
“Everyone has matters of the heart in mind. How long ago? Here, yes?” Madame Valencia’s eyes smiled though her mauve lips moved little.
Clementine wondered why the woman didn’t know. Wasn’t this her job or did she need clues? Maybe Madame wasn’t the real thing. Her neck tingled.
“Fifteen years, here, yes. But recently there was a divorce. Not mine. My sister’s. But I knew him first. Was with him first.”
Madam Valencia nodded.”And you would like to know if he thinks of you? Cares. Wants to find you, perhaps, to begin anew.”
“Something like that. I never married…I might still love him, but I might hate him, too. I’ve been away a long time; I had to make a whole new life.”
Clementine shrugged. “Enough that I’m sought after as an art dealer. That I’m able to do as I please.”
“And are you really doing as you please? So why Jon?”
The sound of his name, not mentioned to Madame, jarred her.”Look, he took my sister–vice versa likely. They married. I haven’t talked to her since I knew they were….since they were seen somewhere they shouldn’t have been. My mother told me they divorced last year. Now mother is ill and I’m visiting awhile. I don’t know what I want to do about Jon, if anything. Can you tell me something, if I should reach out to him?”
Madame Valencia had lowered her eyelids as though meditating. She squeezed them shut and her jaw tightened as though wincing from a sudden pain. Clementine clasped her hands together and worried the fortune teller would start spewing strange things. It suddenly felt worse than absurd to be talking to a stranger, captive in a room awash with romanticism. And there was yet another cat in the window, mocking her. Too much.
Madame opened her eyes again; they were clear blue, calm.
“Your sister, Anne, is waiting for you to call her. This has been a terrible thing for her. You can find your answers with her. But Jon is long gone.”
“Anne? I don’t care what Anne is undergoing. She stole Jon, she made the marriage whatever it was and now she is done with him. This is not of any interest to me. Anne can take care of her own business.”
“Ah, but these past years have been a chore for you, yes? They have been spare… emotionally… bereft of close friends, soured by loss of trust. You have whipped about in your private life like a kite without a direction, tethered to pain. You keep close all you lost, feed your resentment until it’s become bitter sustenance you cannot live without. You will disappear into a well of regrets if you cannot let go. And love your sister as you loved her once. With deep affection. Acceptance.”
Clementine fell back. “I paid you money and this is what I get? Jon is who I’ve needed all these years…”
“It may be Jon you both once wanted. But your sister is the one who will always be here, as you could be for her. Don’t abandon yourself over a man who came and went. Free your heart. Give it first and last to your family. It is you who has truly left. Not Anne. She waits.”
Clementine felt something rumble and turn inside. She felt the river of her life as it moved from past to present and toward the future. Had Jon divided them? And did she leave behind her sister even though she was the one who felt disposed of? What was the nature of betrayal? She was suddenly made fragile, near tears.
“Perhaps,” she whispered, “this is true. It’s time to find out.”
Madame’s eyes warmed with compassion. “Not all, but much love is renewable. Tend to it.”
On the way out Clementine picked up an ornate old mirror on a table by the restroom. She looked more weary than she’d expected. A breathing, running Siamese cat slipped behind her, tail tickling her ankle. What a remarkable and strange place. She’d keep her mad impulse a secret. Now she was going to get coffee, think it all over. Or maybe it was time to call her sister. Compare life notes. Even learn to laugh about the messes they’d made. Arm themselves with real love for whatever lay ahead.
What do we care to remember? Hold up like a canvass awash with color and movement, a moment memorialized in exquisite or grievous feeling, an encounter hidden for all time or shared like a feast with many? It might be the truth or it might not; time rewinds recollection and sometimes erodes it. What is the truth for any of us? We curate our own stories.
I am taken away by memories despite not being one who seeks nostalgia or carries the past like a back-breaking burden. I let my mind wander where it will. What I recall is what I choose to harbor, to examine and keep close to heart. Memories are intrinsic to the development of identity. They are the path we have walked and assist in laying out the one before us. We can move backwards to see where it all began.
Gardens. I have a gallery of gardens in my memory.
My life has always had something to do with the outdoors, all things that grow. My first childhood home on Trenton and Lamb was large, rambling and its yard held an abundance of fruit trees. My memories include breezeway gusts, songs sung to me as I was held close by a soft, one-handed woman who ironed our clothes. The wind in trees lulled; apple blossoms fluttered. The grand old trees dropped pears and apples into my mother’s apron. Off she went to peel and cook them, can and store their fruit in the pantry for our large family. I can smell the applesauce simmering., the strawberries poured into jam jars.
And I grew up with vegetable gardens nearby. In Missouri, my paternal grandparents’ tended a kitchen garden. To me it was a barely tamed jungle of hues and forms, the vegetables set within a deep, rolling yard. A worn white picket fence encircled the garden; a little gate not too big for me had to be unlatched to enter. I’d slowly make my way down rows of tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce and cucumbers, strawberries and watermelon, between marigolds and pansies and a couple of hearty rose bushes. I tried to keep my dress clean but didn’t notice if it got soiled. Everything smelled good, happy, even better when I knelt down on hands and knees, put my face close to the vegetables and dirt. I dug my hands into the earth, found beetles and worms creeping across my palm. My grandmother would stick her head out the back screened door, paring knife in hand, and call me to shuck corn on the enclosed back porch with sisters and mother for dinner. I was reluctant to leave the soft, wriggling worms, the nodding flowers and bright, mouth-watering berries. It felt better than anything; contentment was captured in the very moment.
The other garden was Mr. Benfer’s. He owned an entire plot of land on the north side of our house; he and his wife lived on the south side. I often wondered what my life would have been like if there had been another big house there. Instead, it was open land tended as though in the country. He and his wife grew things I didn’t even recognize, but there were rhubarb and corn and tomatoes among many other vegetables. They grew flowers that I longed to hold and bury my nose in but we were told often to not invade his garden. In fact, to avoid it at all costs. The Benfers were not fond of children. There were five of us. We often crossed their boundaries, whether playing basketball or Red Rover, using the archery sets, enjoying badminton or croquet.
There was a low wire barrier between his land and our yard. Since it was not more than a couple of feet high with no barbs on it, it was easy to get over and under. Which we managed fine if we didn’t want to simply step into the back of the plot which opened onto a tree nursery that was behind both the properties. But as the youngest and often on my own (since the others were five to thirteen years older), I watched these antics. I longed for sumptuous raspberries and tomatoes, yes, but for some time I was brave enough to only wander at the edges. I often was installed as a guard for my daring siblings.
Mr. Benfer was not a very generous, easy-going gentleman. Tall tall and balding, he had wire-rimmed glasses that bracketed squinting, watchful eyes. He emitted a quiet grunt when spoken to. I knew the story about Peter Rabbit very well. It seemed to me that Mr. McGregor and our neighbor had a few characteristics in common: they did not like others nosing about and they could threatening with a look. I knew better than to misbehave but eventually I also heard the call of adventure. I determined to be as clever as he was, even more so, as I had no intention of being discovered. It was mostly at dusk that I ventured inside the wire barricade. By then Mr. Benfer had gathered what he wanted and gone home. I was quick and small and could get in and out with a strawberry or two in under fifteen seconds. But many times I simply stood there and breathed deeply, or watched the twilight settle and gather about the neat rows of greenery.
I had also admired his burgeoning flowers from our side of the fencing. His irises were taller than any I had seen; his daffodils more lemony. Sunflowers towered in the back of the garden, making it a haven for birds. The roses were like an exotic species. Bursting with fragrance, their colors shone in the streaming light of day. Though delicate of petal, all those blooms seemed strong, proud. I talked to them sometimes, shy questions, such as how they liked the warm sunshine on their faces or if they felt sad when storms ripped them apart.
How, I often, wondered, could someone who so cared about growing things be withholding, in such poor humor? I know he could see me lurking in the background, his hat pulled low and eyes searching. I greeted him in a friendly way when we passed on the sidewalk to let him know I meant no harm. He knew, I think, after all. He seemed more at ease as the years passed and occasionally his wife would ring our doorbell and offer a small gift from the garden, a pumpkin or stems of peonies. I so wanted to be part of it all, the planting and growing, the reaping. I would arrange their hearty flowers in a white ceramic vase, mix them with our humble bouquets picked from a side yard.
There was a third garden that inspired me, that of my mother’s best friend. But that is a different tale, to be shared in a Mother’s Day post.
I suppose every child is intimate with enchantment or wants to be. I watched butterflies skip into our yard and wondered after their travels. Saw the bees (which stung my bare feet and created admiration from a distance) carry riches from those forbidden flowers to ours. The turning of Michigan seasons was an ancient ritual carried out in detail in our yard and Mr. B’s. Life unfolded, grew and altered, died away easily. I lingered these places as often as possible. I learned by paying attention– about creation, patience and mystery, of the allurement that swept me up in a secret, gentle ecstasy. Such gifts shared by the earth seemed a virtuous thing, proof of God’s hand. And they welcomed me into sanctuary, helped heart and soul stay safe in the rockiest times.
How I miss those childhood gardens. None of my own yards have been so transformed. I imagine my eyes checking the flowers, my hands reaching for vegetables and fruits. Spreading the bounty on my table for one and all. But I can hold these gardens in my mind and call them up. What a difference they have made in my being and living. For a garden is synonymous with hope, a perfect place for faith to flourish.
Earley waited for the mail all afternoon like he did every delivery day, with the patience of Guernsey cows, which he’d loved as a child on the farm. His grandson would take issue with that idea, tell him, Cows don’t know enough to be patient, but that’s what Earley thought of when faced with the occasionally slow passage of time. Cows liked to eat, rest, socialize, all with a deliberate pace and acceptance. It seemed a good lesson. Being human created issues with time. For Earley, time generally was dashing away. As far as the postal service went, he was just grateful he still got it. What sort of life would it be without a little junk mail and a letter or package now and then?
Sol was too smart sometimes, explaining calculus and reading thought-provoking passages from his contemporary novels. Earley had patience with his grandson, but who cared what sorts of odd tricks numbers got up to at this point in his life? But the books he liked, or rather the being read to, especially when it had to do with a little love or a lot of history. One stimulated the other in the world, he thought.
When his son, James, was at work and Sol was at school he had some waiting while he did chores and puttered. Today was–he checked Sol’s calendar on the fridge–computer club. Three days a week the boy had obligations he said were fun. Earley had neither for the most part, unless you counted being a grandfather.
“You have to get a hobby, Grandpa. Ever since Grandma passed you’re just waiting all winter to garden. I know gardening is your thing but really. You need more than that. Maybe like playing Sudoku or checking out that new fitness club. I saw one of your friends over there. What about your woodworking?”
“I’ve made enough stuff, why do I need more? I do my crosswords and word searches so I don’t get soft in the head. I walk everywhere. Cook. Do laundry and pay bills like when Nana was alive. Plant my garden in spring. What more? You have hobbies, I get some free time.”
Sol and James looked at each other, eyes rolled. It made Earley think a bit. He did get restless at times. Then he saw the ad and put in an order.
For the last week he’d been watching over Sol by himself. It wasn’t hard but it took a little more out of him. Worrying and making sure he did all that homework, catching up with him more than usual. No James as a buffer or disciplinarian. It went pretty well.
James had gotten to Florida on Tuesday. He was supposed to have have come back home by now, not that Earley was anxious for it. It was never much real hardship being there for Sol. James called twice, once when he got to Miami and once when he found out he would be back a few days late. James was a fully degreed person, a writer and a construction worker, which Earley didn’t quite get, but the building trade usually worked out better. Bills had to be paid for three people.
James had this desire to swim his way into that smallish pool of people who might find their stories on shelves. He had been working on a psychological thriller for four years and it was almost done. Earley hadn’t read it yet. He wondered if it would scare him; the thought of that captivated him. Well, in good time.
James poked his head out of his office door one morning.
“I’m going to Miami, you guys! Kevin was hired as editor of Killing Justice, that new thriller and mystery magazine I mentioned, and said I’d be a good addition. But I have to do a formal interview. We’ll all move there, start fresh if this works out.”
Sal frowned and considered. He was fifteen. He had a small, well-defined life that he liked just enough. The house they shared with grandpa was big and had a garden he helped tend. He wondered how his grandpa would manage down there. He did want his dad to be happier. Sal could try Florida after ten years in Omaha despite leaving his best friend. The thought of tan, beachy girls and large reptiles soon held him in thrall.
As it lowered, the sun shot out pink and orange rays behind houses across the street, making half-halos about trees and rooftops. The sky warmed up like a tropical vista. Earley wondered what it would look like in Florida. He watched out the bay window, then saw the porch bathed in a glow despite a deep chill he kept at bay with the heat jacked up too high. The mailman–well, mail woman now– should have been there long ago. It annoyed him despite his resolve. So much for Guernsey patience. He wondered about James coming back late, what that all meant. His stomach growled as he glanced in the refrigerator. Leftover meatloaf when Sol got home.
He grabbed the seed catalog and sat in his worn, smooth leather chair. When he turned on the light and opened it to the first page pictures dazzled him with their lushness, as always. He could hardly stand that he had months to go before the planting.
What would it be like to grow things all year long? he wondered. Florida looked like it sprouted life without any effort. It unnerved him a bit. The winters in Omaha were a good time to hibernate, which he liked. He might have to wear madras shorts in Florida, learn how to swing a golf club well, use terrible smelling sunscreen all the time. Or stay indoors even when there was no snow and no rain because of that heat. He wanted his son to use his degree in English and Sol to be able to try other things, but this was a lot to ask. If it was to be asked. He breathed into the gathering dark, a ruffly sound making its way down his commandeering nose. What if James thought it was time for him to join the others over seventy in those cramped places they pretended were communities? He had one already, right here, on this street, in this house. It had been good enough for forty-five years. The house had conformed to him and he, to it.
The front opened, then slammed shut the same time his cell phone rang. Sol tossed a package on the rectangular table in the foyer. Earley got up, then looked at his phone.
James. He answered.
“Hey, dad. I’ll be home tomorrow but I wanted to talk to you guys. Is Sol there yet?”
Earley beckoned to his grandson and he came over.
“We’re both here.”
Sol put the phone on speaker.
“Hey, dad! See alligators yet?”
James laughed. “Not yet. But we might sooner or later.”
“We? You got the job, dad?”
“I did. They liked me and I like them. I’ll start in May.”
Earley walked to the table where the package lay. He could hear the two of them talking, excitement tinged with disbelief in Sol’s voice. He shook the package to confirm it was his order for sure, then went back to to his chair and sank down in the old cushion, box in hand.
“Hey Dad? You there?”
“Yes, I heard you.”
“Are you glad for me?”
“Happy as a clam.”
“Grandpa, clams aren’t even close to being smart–”
“You don’t know that, Sol. We don’t know every single thing.”
“Dad, I have to get going. Kevin is taking me out to dinner to celebrate. I’ll tell you everything when I get home.”
They hung up. Earley fished his Swiss Army knife from a back pocket. Sol had sunk into the couch, his jacket still on, backpack at his feet.
“Florida… sweet. I think.” He sat forward, hands clasped together between his knees. “What do you think, Grandpa? Oh, you got a package. What’s in it?”
Earley cut through tape, tossed the paper and pried open the box. Inside were neatly bagged pieces of wood. A whole ship.
“Behold, Sol, the Santa Maria. The largest ship of the three sailed during Columbus’ voyage. Modest, really, especially by today’s standards. About one hundred tons of her. Deck was 58 feet. A good seafaring ship until she shipwrecked in Haiti.”
“Nice! A wooden model. So that’s your new hobby?”
Earley smiled. “Could be.”
They looked over the plans and talked about history until Sol said he was hungry. At the table over meatloaf sandwiches, they were quiet awhile. Then Earley spoke up.
“You think you could head down to Miami, then? Or would you want to stay here?”
“We’re all in this together! Dad’s taking me and you if you’ll go and I’m sure taking you, so we’re going together. Right? Florida, like it or not, here we come.”
Earley wiped his mouth and sat back. “Well, it could be a good place to make and sail ships. But I’ll get back to you after your dad gets home and we talk. I’d have to have a garden. At the very least.”
Sol agreed; no garden, no move. He put the kettle on for tea and got out the organic peppermint teabags. That’s what his grandpa liked after a meal. That’s what Sol would always make him.
I am not wild about Valentine’s Day. Like many, I believe it is a commercial ploy to boost lackluster sales following the holidays. That said, I still made a Valentines’ Day card with two of my grandchildren recently. We love poster paints, acrylics, watercolors, felt tips, crayons and colored pencils–the lot. They are natural artists, finding new ways to make old concepts interesting, into magnets for eye and heart. I just like to play. The card I made included seven hearts for my five children, my spouse and even myself.
Why me? Well, I’m part of the family, after all. But there is more to it than that. You will begin to understand if you look closely at the image I have shared above from the American Heart Association. They posted it on a Facebook page today, and asked how viewers loved their own hearts. And since I was diagnosed with aggressive coronary artery disease at the comparatively young age of fifty-one, it struck me as a good thing. So I want to share with you these thoughts today:
Respect your heart; it’s place in your life is paramount. Adore it. Take it out for a rousing walk every day, even on adventures you think you can’t manage but somehow do. The deeper it beats the greater its joy. It will perk up at the attention and be good company no matter what’s around the corner.
Talk to it. Share your awe at its mighty power. Then tell it stories that are rooted in triumphs over trials, random altruistic deeds and vibrant, far-reaching hopes. Show it the best seat in the house, like an old trusted friend who attends every single show. It will want to see every last scene.
Make sure it has opportunities to be courageous; it has the impulses of the brave and stalwart already. Has your heart forgotten you when you forgot it? If it has even failed to give your sinew and bone the strength that it needs, it is not for lack of trying. It came into your possession already a fearsome warrior.
Let it sing even when you are startled by its plaintive or peculiar sounds and thumps. Tend to it immediately if it falters. The rhythms of its compositions are from the stream of celestial music that powers the spheres and lights our skies. Be reminded that God is the grand composer, you the prefect instrument.
Listen to its wisdom; we are given a heart so that our every plane of existence has ready guidance. Encourage it to laugh so that it expands every cell and finds relief from all its labors. But please also let it weep, for the potent tears of the heart purify its blood; without weeping it will close up and then divide against itself.
Breathe. Breathe the fragrances of your beloved’s skin and your grandchild’s hair, the scent of warm bread, wild and subtle winds from the four corners. Rest among wild things. Revel in the earth’s treasures and the blessed waters. Pull beauty into the heart’s chambers and grant it peace.
Dance with your heart, leap and fling your arms wide so it bounces against your ribs and resettles when you drift along the horizon of your living. Let it carry you into odd moments and release you into wonder. Are you sitting still even now? Get up and move for no good reason. Jump into the center of you; give your heart its due.
Create for it. Expose your dreams, feelings and fascinating random imaginings. The heart likes nothing more than to be moved or flabbergasted by something new. Submitting to the thrill of capturing an idea and giving it structure refuels us. We are born creators because we are part of God. Your heart knows this even if you do not.
Feed it so it runs as well as it can. Not too much, but foods fresh with color and taste that prepare you for greater things. Eat only what fills the need so that your body is grateful for its nourishment and not burdened. And add chocolate or chilies; be impertinent and surprise your body.
Share this heart that you were made to have and to hold all your worldly days. When someone reaches, hands echoing with emptiness or regret or misery, reach back. Don’t be afraid. If there is a lack of grace, just let your heart speak. When someone falls to their knees, let your heart lie down beside theirs and speak to it. This is all that you both will need.
Do you believe you are alone? You will be made ready for love if you tend it and offer it. It may take patience; it does take courage. Your loneliness is the result of forgetting you live here among friends. We all are alone. But we have human hearts that want to know one another. They save us from ourselves. Our hearts know we are in this together.
When your day is done, do this last thing: look to your heart. Unload any weight it carries. Pray for its freedom from resentments. Soothe it with psalms for the living. For this day has brought you to this moment, to this night. And whether hearty or frail, your heart is still beating, beating like the wings of a mighty messenger, teaching and carrying you through this brief life. Be merciful, be kind to it, and it will fill you with strength enough to go the remaining miles.