Wednesday’s Words/ Nonfiction: Thoughts on My Hometown During Historic Flooding

Flooded Farmer’s Market, downtown Midland, as taken by a DRONE; photographer unknown.

Since last Sunday, there was talk of flooding in mid-Michigan. Cautions and watches and projections were determined for the targeted counties and communities. There have been heavy rains, 4-7 inches, and rain run-off contributed to the catastrophe. Edenville Dam–long in need of repairs–failed, and then Sanford Lake dam could not contain the sudden onslaught of waters from the Edenville breach. Both were breached on Tuesday and by today there was more disaster as the Tittabawassee River crested.

It is being called a “500 year event.” And it seems unreal to me at this moment.

I grew up in the elegantly planned, inviting community–a model town for sciences and arts– that’s headlining news. Midland, Michigan, home to world headquarters of Dow Chemical Company. It is an unusual community for many reasons, not the least being all those PhDs and other innovators working at Dow Chemical and Dow Corning–and so many other capable persons hired for fine schools, community organizations and a private business college (Northwood University). These folks brought with them equally able-minded spouses and children. The future-thinking minds and a great tax base helped build state-of-the-art parks and recreation areas; public and private schools; an impressive performing arts center; libraries; community-wide programs for the less economically privileged as well as the well-to-do. It has been called the “city of churches” (over 100 in a variety of fine architectural styles) and has long showcased extraordinary homes. This is in part due to Alden B. Dow, who created contemporary, cleanly inspiring designs. Dow was a protege of Frank Loyd Wright and a son of Henry Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical Company, what has historically been the primary employer in the city. (The summer band which my father long had fun conducting was even called the Chemical City Band.)

It didn’t occur to me that I grew up in an unusual city–it was smallish, and population remains only 42,000 people, but is not a suburb to any metropolis. It was what I knew– until I began to travel a bit as a youth and become conscious of far greater diversity. Our town was primarily Caucasian with a considerable number of Asians and very few Hispanic residents in the mid-century. That made the culture usually similar from neighborhood to neighborhood. My curiosity was stimulated by broader experiences awaiting me by my mid-teens. I loved much in Midland–and family and friends–but there seemed much to be desired. Though excellence was the unofficial byword for all the city represented, I strongly desired to additionally avail myself of differentness. The unknown. (As an adult, I continued to hold admiring v. somewhat adversarial views of my hometown due to a few powerfully negative experiences–memoir shared in other WordPress posts and writings. )

It was, then, the rule not exception that those I knew were talented, ambitious and mostly well-educated. And it was to be that many are now heralded, even famous, persons. We were a city made of energetic leaders who intended to forge ahead. These were classmates of mine and my siblings, friendly neighbors. And also competitors, but that was the way we were taught from childhood and it seemed fair enough a long while.

When I left by 19, I was intent on getting to the Pacific Northwest and at 42, I got here and have been very happy in Oregon. Despite many of my schoolmates returning to this ideal environment, I had no desire to do so; we all find our preferred cultures and geography if we can. So it is clear that I have not had a stake in Midland’s fortunes or failures for a lifetime. My parents also passed away decades ago. I have not been back since 2001, even during a vacation in northern Michigan after that.

But the news came about the flood, and as small panic arose I blinked back flashes of tears. It was the undeniable visceral response to learning something I’ve long cared for is being harmed.

I thought, as I talked to my brother back east: our parents are buried above the river, under gracious trees, on a hill. The thought haunted me all night of their final resting places being soaked and worse.

I thought, oh no, the lovely Wixom Lake is being emptied out as floodwaters shoves and gathers its water along with it, carries it in a powerful thrust downstream. What of the fish and water plants, the boats and people left behind? Forgive me these sentiments. My childhood is reflected in large part by pictures whose backgrounds are water–small lakes, rivers and streams, the Great Lakes. Despite not having our own family cottage on a lake, friends did. My joys grew huge at any water’s edge–playing, swimming, water skiing, and boating in it. Dreaming, writing, singing by it. Falling in love, even. I learned how to make more friends at summer camps, grew strong in the wide outdoors each day. Gained passion for the intricacies and mysteries of nature.

Water–and woods–still figure greatly in what I do outdoors and write or dream about.

Now Midland’s downtown and large swaths of nearby areas are now under water and farther beyond also smaller towns. Even now it spills over the snaking, meandering Tittabawassee River as it continues to rise and wreak havoc. The extreme watchfulness must be overwhelming. At last tally, around 11,000 folks were being evacuated from Midland County.

That wide, mostly tranquil river’s song was pleasant background noise to me once. I played on swings, monkey bars and seesaws as a kid at the 50 acre Emerson Park. It lies on a flat area alongside the river; the land about it slopes down from a train track and Main Street above. It was not my favorite park (there were at least a half dozen then, over a dozen now) though I liked to ice skate in blowing snow on a frozen pond with buddies. We picnicked there from time to time with family, friends and our First United Methodist Church folks (just a few blocks away). My dad loved playing horseshoes; there was basketball and baseball and volleyball, hockey in winter. A good, all-around city park. We could walk a few short blocks to downtown from there for shopping or a pizza and lime Cokes. And all that time, the Tittabawassee River hummed and flowed, almost unnoticed sometimes until it rose a bit high.

But we were always warned not to put one toe in that river; it was polluted even in the fifties and sixties from Dow Chemical, which was built at its edge farther downriver. Anyone who dared jump in would be watched for signs of illness and severely warned to not do it again. It was a double-edged reality: Dow had built the city up yet seemed to imperil it at times.

We had milder flooding of the Tittabawassee; I recall it happening but not being alarming, at least to us–we lived too far from it. In 1986, there was another bad flood–but not like this one. Not enough to order 10,000 of Midland’s people to be evacuated.

It is this river that crested at 35.5 feet today, and has swamped the downtown and a vast many more acres, flooding homes and businesses, sending residents fleeing for higher ground, shelter. I try to imagine where it has all gone and how. Of course, forceful water moves where it chooses; unimpeded it can get to surprising places and when powerful and immense enough it carries or plows down everything in its way.

Then I read that Dow Chemical Company’s containment ponds have now mixed with the floodwater. There also could be sediment from a downstream Superfund site (with dioxin contamination) displaced. So future hazards are largely unknown. As home base for a worldwide chemical company, Midland may be seriously impacted. Time will tell.

And all this amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unimaginable to me how this can be survived with clear, functioning minds so recovery can begin. Yet I am assured by old friends that massive efforts are gearing up.

As I write this, happier times of childhood in Midland come forward and recede. The day camp each summer for years, the long walks in Barstow Woods by my house, sunny days at Central Park outdoor swimming pool and inside the red brick Community Center where in winter so much fun was to be discovered within the two stories one could not be bored: the damp, sharp scent of chlorine that hung in the air as I practiced jack knife and swan dives in the indoor pool, swam laps. The outdoor rink where I practiced figure skating after school, sharp edges of my blades scraping, slicing the thick ice. The stages, bracketed by heavy black velvet curtains, where I warmed inside and out in the slow heat of stage lights, and sang, danced and acted or played my cello with orchestras–or solo, and when playing to win competitions.

No, the pictures I hold close are not those in the news as the unleashed water rises higher and higher. I think I want to know if the street I grew up on–over-arched by big oak and maple trees and encompassing several blocks of my childhood friends’ homes, my playground, my whole world then– is intact, yet I don’t look. Sometimes it is best to let good memories remain safely, orderly within life’s mental and emotional archives. Because what’s going on out there is not easy to contemplate. How do I consider the whys and hows of it, what such floodwater destruction may render things? It has long been a realm of creativity, industry and educational progress–right now, a far different place, at least materially speaking. Yet, surely, Midland can overcome even this and rebuild as it has had to do before.

I know this is also a sign of the reality as climate changes increase and graver challenges and losses occur. And we must withstand it as the best minds race to find interventions, and we gain more tools via which we can survive and adapt further.

I wonder what small, ordinary Snake Creek is up to in Barstow Woods right now. How often it provided me deep peace and pleasure. Is there still the sweet chiming of gentle water as it slides between pungent earth of shallow banks, winds past white paper birches and gatherings of tiny wildflowers–or has it been swallowed up, doomed for at least a season? Please keep running clear and bright.

Dear hometown,

From my heart I offer a prayer for rescue, recovery, and deeper healings.

Love, Cynthia.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Business, Not as Usual

Columbia River, Oregon

“My skin is a brier patch–no one can go there without coming back wounded! I really have to find some magic moisturizer.”

“Well, time for my new creams–that, or an invisible fence around you, dear,” her mother said, blinking at the last thought, trying to not imagine someone on Elise’s skin. Though Elise was hardly a child. Still, what a thing to say to her, not the comment about her creams– no, they were excellent. But Jama was a dog lover and so the last slip, as if meant for protecting Elise…

But what else might Jama note? It was her daughter she was surmising. The dress was skimpy, boisterous with slashes of color and to make it worse, cheap on closer examination. She, herself, preferred tailored clothing, like the navy slacks with tiny white feathers and trusty white shirt she’d slipped on before coming by. It was one of the less offensive things she might wear in Elise’s estimation–the feathers made up for the vast navy-ness of it. But Jama was a quintessential classic woman–good solid colors, accents of gold or platinum at ears, neck or wrist. Elise? Chunky plastic or beads or whatever. She tried to overlook it all; to each her own.

Elise was posing in front of a full mirror, examining how the sundress hung on her newly curvy body. She had given up dieting when she turned forty, and good for her, her friends said as they rallied behind her fabulous self acceptance. If that was what it was; she was more lazy when it came to routine habits, and food fell under that listing. Not that it mattered for awhile, anyway…it had become a “go with the flow” thinking. She was taking things easy , that was it. Not coasting exactly–she had aspirations of many kinds, but not enough interest or energy to fuss over what she put on her plate every time she was hungry. She needed to be fed, that was all! Food: a basic need. Her figure had inflated. She felt more comfortable.

Even if she wasn’t like her mother, verging on petite. Thin. “Delicate” was not the word–the woman would reject that adjective herself–but feminine in ways, perhaps, Elise never got but so what?

“I read yesterday that celery green is the hyped color this year.” Jama stood up, smoothed her shirt and pants, stretched like a luxurious feline. She felt conscious that Elise had a diminutive space to live within as she went to get a drink of water. On the other hand, her own house was unwieldy, too much; she lately imagined living more simply. “I think I’ll try the hue as a small piece, maybe a scarf,” she called out in an afterthought.

“Ugh, named after my least favorite vegetable, stringy, tasteless.” Elise slipped off the cheery dress, pulled on leggings with a loose top. She hung up the summer dress and wondered how long would she have to wait to wear it–it was sixty degrees today, grey skies with raindrops spattering on her windows now and then.

And how long would her mother stay, that was the question. She filled a glass with iced tea but didn’t offer one to Jama as Jama drank cold water and hot tea, never combined.

She came by once every month lately after years of infrequent visits. There was more time free as Jama was edging more toward retirement, allowing her beauty products company, Jamalyn’s Rose Rescues, to be helmed by her right hand woman, along with the loyal band of staff she had built up over decades. It had started with a passion for roses and her small flower garden and soon it embraced a slew of plant-based products that had been ahead of the times. Now she relinquished control bit by bit as she prepared to have a different lifestyle for the first time since she was in her twenties.

What sort of lifestyle does an older single woman have, though? Elise had pondered it: she could not imagine her mother resting, or alone.

“I’m thinking of doing something different this summer. Marv has a boat, as you know, and he’s offered to take a few of us on a trip for a month around the San Juan Islands and north. Gino, Marissa and I are joining him.”

“That aging laggard, surprised you still hang out with him,” Jama said then tightened her lips in a line. She should know better than to offer such an opinion; the girl adored her first ex-husband’s nephew, they’d been friends for a lifetime. He supposedly got his life on track, anyway, and it was not her business, anymore “I hope it’s been kept up so it’s safe sailing.”

But Gino…that man Elise kept returning to the past few months. Successful but not so reliable. Jama had yet to meet him.

“It has a motor, mother, it’s a modest yacht. And Marv would never let me on if it wasn’t in good working order–as you know.” She wondered why this was her focus rather than Elise not teaching at Community Design Studios, as usual, fpr the whole summer. Didn’t she care? But Elise kept her thoughts on work to herself for the time being. She glanced at the leopard clock on her galley kitchen wall, watching its tail switch back and forth with each second.

Her mother snorted. A creaky ole thing, Marv’s boat–she had been aboard it once and the ensuing two hours were quite enough three years ago when Marv got engaged, threw an intimate party–and, of course, ended the engagement, as he had enjoyed a bachelor life too long. He adored his boat. She never understood the boating life, whiling away the hours on chilly open waters, risking life and limb and one’s digestion, calling it fun. Why couldn’t people be sensible, perhaps go by plane or train if they must have a little diversion? That was her plan in June, clickety-clack all the way down to sunny, beautiful San Diego.

“I guess your teaching will be fewer hours this summer, then. I do hope that works out. You need that job until you come up with a solid plan for whatever may come next…. But I can tell you have more on your agenda besides seeing me today. I did have a reason for stopping other than saying hello, Elise.”

The younger woman hesitated by her mother, as if to sit. Was it going to take that long, Elise wondered, but she smiled obediently and settled into her new, second-hand hanging rattan chair.

Jama perched on an overfilled couch cushion, leaned forward as she picked at invisible lint on her pants leg. From the corner, Elise tuned into her mother’s sudden quietness. Admired her half-Filipino tawny skin and shining striated-silver coif; fine boned hands, feet crossed at ankles and clad in pewter leather flats. Elise had her father’s fairness–but did have her mother’s caramel-toned skin, softly padded lips. There the similarities seemed to end. She did not have the full beauty or ambition. Lately she was making peace with who she was. Her own carefree style. Her search for love more open. Her creative spark finding different directions.

Jama had never been anything less than a sterling example many women aspired to, her incisive mind with a perfectionist attitude a tall order for her staff to meet, and natural grace enhanced by her own pricey organic products. Her strong nature was energetic if critical and efficient, more yielding with her dogs and verging on tender with her expansive gardens–which now were managed by professionals and which she rarely visited except when product development required it. They were miles from her big house now.

Jama–Elise called her that ever since she was thirteen, it felt more right than simply “Mom”–had doted on her daughter and son (four years Elise’s senior) when they were much younger, when she had time–if one could call teaching social graces and taking them on numerous educational forays “doting.” She did read them books, hugged them at bedtime; she did see to it they were healthy and managing alright. Mostly if no man distracted her much.

And then she was gone often as her business rapidly grew. Elise was on her own after her brother, Todd, left at 17 for university. By then she had her social circle and interests; their housekeeper was a constant, generous with her care. Jama’s absence felt more like the curious lack of a lustrous, valued family treasure– missed but nonessential, as it turned out, until searched for when truly needed. So there was that: the needing and the not having.

Elise swung gently in the suspended chair, and as seconds passed nervous quivers snaked across abdomen and chest.

“Okay, tell me!–are you alright, Jama? What is the mystery?”

Jama pushed a silvered lock from her forehead, eyes focused on her daughter; she licked her lips, a sure sign that something big was coming.

“It’s Wesley. Wes. Remember him?”

Elise frowned, slowed the swinging chair, bare toes skidding on the floor. “Wes…the only Wes I recall would be your second husband…” She sat up straight. “Did he finally die?” It sounded rude, but it wouldn’t cause her any pain.

“”Elise! No, he didn’t die. He got the diabetes under control long ago. No, I’m, we…oh, it’s this: I’m going down to see him. In June. For three weeks.”

Elise stood with arms dangling, mouth open. “Jama, no, tell me you’re joking! Surely you haven’t lost your mind!”

Her mother looked at her steadily, eyes shining but hard like topaz stones. And she waited until her daughter was done.

“It can’t be! You and Wes…you were like oil and water, no fire and ice–it ened badly, Jama. I would hate to see you with him ever again. He was not good for you, he was too much, he could be so tough, even disrespectful to us, and he never did compromise no matter how you tried to you said–“

“That was then, this is now. He has changed, believe me.”

“And you know this how?”

Dare she pry into her mother’s private life? They rarely did that, they let things be rather than stir things up. But why him, why now? When Jama was on the verge of at least semi-retirement at 68 and yet recently had considered other ventures to undertake. “You have been single for fifteen years and said you’ve liked it that way.”

“Fourteen years. Who said I was getting married? Don’t be ridiculous, Elise. I’m visiting him for three weeks. I just wanted you to know what my plans were ahead of time. To avoid explanations or fake apologies later…”

Elise paced, pulled her ponytail tighter–a nervous habit–and paused before her mother. “You mean you’re going to hang out with a man who threatened to sue you for alimony and almost hit you as he finally left. How can I forget? Todd and I were there, too, remember? He was home from college, you insisted we stay out of it but Todd had to put himself physically between you and Wes! And the ghastly man finally left.” She covered her face with her hands. She had been sixteen then but it came right back. “A brief but bad nightmare…oh Mother.”

Jama felt a shock wave of conflicting emotions. It first was hearing Elise saying “oh Mother.” Like she meant it. It was recalling Todd doing what she said, edging himself between Wes and herself when Wes had reached out to grab her or slap her or who knew what, maybe nothing but more pleading would have come of his anger and longing, it was all mixed up in their arguing. It was a bad moment, yes. But it was also wrong timing for such their alignment. And they were not much older than Elise was now. She had learned new lessons since then. Been married, even– again. And then alone.

“Please, calm down.” She patted the couch beside her and Elise sat gingerly. “I know, it was not good. My marriages… never worked out, I’m sorry that’s true. I have not been great life partner material…I was more about my business, my independence. But people change…I have changed some, too.”

“Really? Don’t we stay the same, essentially, Jama? Aren’t we products of our pasts? What can we do but try to do better, despite the mistakes, despite who we are? I know I am trying to not repeat your mistakes, Jama…to forge my own path, make my own legacy.”

Elise and her mother gazed at each other; sorrows and needs radiating from them, and a sad uncertainty that was laced with deeper love that had rooted despite difficult events and years lost. Jama looked away last, eyes watering.

She took her daughter’s hand in hers, and it was smooth and warm despite that earlier comment about being bristly and dry. And Elise didn’t tug it away-yet.

“Not in spite of, Elise, but because of who we are. We are always in a process of transformation, if you think about it. Just like nature, we adapt and adjust and come into new parts of ourselves. We just have to determine the whys and hows of it, shape things up.”

“A bit late to lecture me, Jama. Really, I don’t buy that Westley could have changed enough to make you happy.” Elise got up and refilled her glass.

“I’m already happy enough. I don’t need anyone to do that.”

“Exactly.” Her phone rang and she checked it, saw it was Gino. “One moment, I’ll be back.” She left the living area and closed a door.

Jama sighed and her shoulders slumped. It now seemed a mistake to come. She hadn’t expected whole acceptance of the idea. She had hoped for a curled lip and shrug to start, with improved response as time went on–if things went well enough in San Diego. She couldn’t predict a thing. Wes and she had talked for hours and hours over past months. He had flown up to see her once. It was still a slow reveal, a careful process but she was feeling almost optimistic for the first time. She might build something real with him this time. It was true they had failed and after two years despite fervor and intent. But so much had happened since. He had gentled, he had expanded his once rigid thinking; she had grown more secure and content with herself. Yet she knew from scathing experiences that anything could happen, and it could just as well be more bad news she ended up with as she limped off. And what then?

How could she explain why a return to him? Reassure her daughter? But in the end it wasn’t necessary. They were no longer young mother and daughter and had long diverged their paths. They had become naturally separate entities, determined to design lives their own way. Still, Jama had been anxious so long about sharing this with Elise.

Returning from her call, Elise leaned against a door jamb, index finger tapping her chin in thought.

“When did you say you were leaving?”

“I’m taking the train down late June, return early July–a nice vacation for me, don’t you agree?”

“Well– yes, I do.” She bent over the kitchen counter, forearms flattened. “Jama, will you make me a deal? First, let’s talk more about being safe around that man and second, have dinner with Gino and me before you go.”

“Stay safe…?”

The words snagged her mind, bringing the past back into focus. How Wes could be, his tendency to roughness not so passionate at times as controlling. But he was, well, they were, both drinking a bit then. He was magnetic, no way around that. Now, neither of them cared for the loosening and distortion of alcohol. They had lost that appetite and had been unwilling to give their dreams up for the pleasures and pain of it. Or so Wes had told her in many ways during their recent conversations. They had mellowed in some ways, sharpened their minds. Hence, the exploratory trip.

“We’re past all that. I wouldn’t even go if I didn’t feel feel it would turn out nicely, even better than that.”

“It’s just…you are not like some aging swinger, Mother, despite your fancy marriages and fancier divorces. I mean, you do have a good sense of propriety…I know you, you need order in your life and worthwhile ventures. He seems a throwaway; it seems reckless, okay?”

And there it was. “Mother” again, though with a sharp edge. The judgment of Wes and her, lacking understanding without knowing more, without any patience. It stung; Jama pulled back into the couch, arms crossed. It was getting late. She was getting tired of this. Well, she would not sell her daughter short. But she was done talking–for now.

Jama smiled sweetly and lifted her palms upward, then reached for her purse. She strode to to the brightly decorated coral and teal kitchen.

“Yes, let’s have dinner on the riverboat, alright? You’ve always loved that–“

“Wasn’t Wes a major boat lover? And now he’s in San Diego… Jama, you dislike them so.”

“No, he has a pontoon now. And I’ll manage. As I was saying, pick a date and time, let’s have a nice evening so Gino and I get to know one another better. You said he has promise and you may be right.” She reached across the counter, gave her daughter a peck on her cheek. “It’s been lovely talking, wanted you to know my plans– but I must dash, Elise dear, it’s getting late.”

Elise saw that she had failed to impress and she had to give it up, for now. Jama smiled warmly, graciously–but was there the tiniest hint of condescension?– and then was gone. Had she just managed the whole conversation and called the final shots? Again?

They had had a full adult conversation, hadn’t they. It had gone alright until Elise felt alarm that her mother might be off and running again, a replay of same risks. It worried her. But maybe she was wrong. Anything could happen, with time. She knew that by now. Just as she and Gino had found their way from breezy friendship to deepening love. Just as Marv had finally found someone he’d stay with for a lifetime. Like she was going to branch out and develop her own business in interior decorating. For boats.

She prepared a crisp salad for lunch and ate on the half-moon balcony in the energizing sunshine. Her business, how she loved the ring of that! Jama would be excited when she finally broke the news over the dinner. Gino was helping her start it. Bright Sails Interior Design. Home Cruise Designs. Ocean Decor by Elise Maddox . She tapped her lips with the fork. No, she decided, no time to waste on this. She must meet up with her mother sooner than later, and men were not to be invited.

San Diego Bay, Pacific Ocean


Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: Waste Not Love,Want Not

Who saves us from ourselves as we work for and pray for the healing of bodies and minds across this country and the world? As we honor those leaving us and uplift those who need just one kindness shared? Let me tell you about two friends, without whom these days and nights would be more confounding, tiresome and menacing…who help make the long wait worth every small, good effort at making time more meaningful.

******

B. was smart, sarcastic and tough when we met in 1993 and worked with gang youth, but she had a heart and I right away saw it. She thought I was a sort of innocent, a fussy woman with good instincts who could handle her snappishness, anyway. She was right about “handling” her attitude. But she got a clearer picture of my own untidy past and counseling skills soon. We made a good team in our work and would at other agencies to come. Yet from outer appearances, who’d have predicted we both loved opera and blues?

Now, after decades of surviving crises at work and home, it feels like we are getting close to danger of wildfire, one we have tried to avoid facing as her health has declined.

“Well, you’ll never guess where I ended up last night.” She coughs hard, once, her words struggling to get into the air and to me.

We had just talked two days prior; I can guess. B. was very sick with pneumonia well over two months ago. She has lupus and weakened kidneys, a scarred liver, and degenerative arthritis despite being ten years younger than I am. So, it has been a halting recovery, at best; breathing and energy have remained unimpaired. She has tried to work remotely but is a counselor for an addictions and mental health treatment program in a women’s prison. Not very convenient to work from home. It seems unlikely she will return during the COVID-19 crisis. Maybe not after. We have talked often each week as I have waited for events to unfold. She has been taking her 91 year old mother to the store– until finally she agreed to not do so at my pleading. Now, deliveries are made. She helps care for a niece on week-ends, at times, still.

She could get sicker fast. With corona-virus. Anything. So I am prepared, maybe.

“You landed back in the hospital. Lungs?”

“Not that. I got shocked.”

I take that in. “Heart, you mean? They shocked your heart?”

“Yeah. Heart was at 180 bpm. A-fib.”

“Wait–your heart? You mean the suspected anxiety attacks were maybe A fib events?”

I know how that is, the alarm of it, a rapid up-sweep of heart rate, breathlessness, tightening chest. But never at 180; 130-140 is too high for me as a heart patient.

A sharp tingling covers me feet to head with the knowledge of B. in pain, heart a runaway creature she cannot control.

“Guess so. It hurt so went to ER.”

“Lungs?”

“The doc said good news is my lungs look healed.” She takes a shaky breath. “Always something for us, eh? My body is falling apart.”

I think how most people would have said that even 20 years ago as she racked up surgeries for various damaged joints from feet to hips to hands. But this is a new thing, as if finally giving up a charade of “doing okay” and coming to terms with it all. She does not complain, whine, groan. It has never occurred to her to nurture self-pity. But she is worn out by buckling organs.

“Yeah, we get through one thing…. but we played and lived hard, we pay the price. You get up, I get up.”

“Yeah, but I’m a mean ole possum so won’t stay down.”

I laugh with her softer chuckle but all of a sudden feel in my bones how ill she really is. She doesn’t even like possums. White pet rats, that was a thing once. A wild cat or two. A parrot. Mongrel dogs, for sure. Possums and raccoons, no.

“On medicine now for this thing. How are you?”

“I’m okay, hanging in there. Are you–“

“I’m out of it. Just wiped. Have to go. Talk later.”

She hangs up.

B. has talked more of surrender to God over the past year, this woman who fought with fists in her youth, spit in the face of a twisty fate, protested with loud voice against injustices, swaggered across streets with her cane and stopping traffic to meet me on the other side, picked up life’s shattered pieces countless times, reached her hand to others in need without any questions.

My best friend, B. who I’ve long teasingly nicknamed Brenda Starr, the ace reporter from the old comic strip who chased after adventure and hunted down evil ones and rooted out truth at great risk to herself, all the while her beauty unfazed by the grit and sweat. The last part B. would loudly hoot over. She is not the glamorous type. At least, not since she was in her 20s and dressed in a leopard print dress and spike heels…though her hair, light golden auburn, long and voluminous, still is fabulous. But she is brave.

I stare at the phone as I lean against the wall and try to pray but no words come out. My throat threatens to close over and my husband calls me to the table for reheated pasta.

******

This chilly afternoon, a fine steady rain splashing against the windows–it is back again after stunning brilliance of springtime–I know I am fortunate. My current greater solitude since the rabid, often deadly virus has left me musing even more. And lately I consider the friends I enjoy– despite not having dozens at this point in my life. Meaningful ones seem to have crystallized, become denser, sleeker, deeper. Crucial even more than before as so much else becomes irrelevant.

I feel gratitude well up, a happy balloon floating within my being. I have family who cares, yes. But my friends–they are the once-hidden treasures I never planned on caring for like this, day in, day out. No, when a young woman I believed I was more the person who was there today, gone tomorrow: “love the one you’re with.” And I certainly did. But that foolishness was revealed to be what it was, of course, when I met people to truly love for the sake of who they were/are–not for whatever could be useful, for a thrill in the moment, the sharing of a drug and a suffering poet dream.

First, risk; then attachment; then devotion and loyalty. It was rather hard back then. I had to learn better. But not now. It has come easy for along while; the rewards are great.

I have two non-blood very best friends and that is plenty. It is like amassing spiritual and emotional wealth to know them every single day.

******

E. and I check in at least once a week, often after midnight as we both have insomnia. She also has been ill with a less serious respiratory illness but since she has asthma she is high risk for the worst virus. Her doctor has determined she must remain at home from work now. Her work isn’t sure they will need her to go back. But whatever happens, there is too little protection being in an office setting. Or, for that matter, even going to the store for bread and milk.

She is packing her several rooms full of stuff, off and on; her plan was to retire and move to Arizona near her brother by summer’s end. She has lived alone since I met her 25 years ago, after her drawn out, life-shaking divorce.

“Now who knows? I might just stay inside until I kick the bucket. I’ll knit myself a huge cocoon and stay put, how’s that? Might retire at last, if I can stop buying yarn. And books…well, could build a house with those, too!”

E. is guffaw-prone–both B. and E. make fun of defects of character and life’s travails–so lets loose her light, rippling peels of laughter. We vow not to go down gnashing our teeth

“I imagine you have blankets, scarves and socks galore stacked up in there, maybe tilting pyramids. The books you can give to me if you want.”

Her knitted pieces are evenly made, colorful. She adores soft, bright skeins of beautiful yarn and they take up space on floor, couch, table and bed. I can see her hands fly, the thing she creates growing by the minute.

“Want some socks? Yeah, adding to the mess. Oh, well, I have more boxes. I’ll get by even if I stay here. I’d just like more sunshine, my family closer.” She wheezes a little but assures me she is okay. “How are you? I’m so sorry Marc lost his job.”

“Yes, well, it has happened to millions. We sure aren’t special in this time and place…I’m working on a new budget. Well, scrapping it and starting anew…”

“Tell me how it’s going, you know to call me any time. It stinks for things to not end up as we’d planned, who could have known? We had such confidence! Sort of.”

“Well, what else is new? Nothing is what we thought and we’ve lived interesting, curious lives.”

We talk a bit more about our oddly reduced circumstances. But I’d rather not. It is what it is. And we are there for each other. She is also in recovery so understands each day needs to be met with humility. Acceptance and strength. Faith not fear–our mantra. And I intend on utilizing my practical ability to problem solve, keep heart to endure, adapt. Keep my vision aimed upward and outward. We both are Taurus, for what little that’s worth–but we do tend to think more alike and that can be comforting.

“Miss going to the movies with you,” I say. She adores films and all the arts. We have enjoyed plays together, dance concerts. “We’ve seen so many good ones, and there are always more.”

“I know,” E. agrees, “then getting lunch or dinner out and catching up in person. We know how to have a good time.”

We talk about what we are watching on small screens. My home no longer has cable TV to save money–we do have streaming apps. But I don’t miss things that are not essential, not much. Maybe immediate access to lactose-free ice cream and tons of chocolate chips for cookies to bake, sure, but not pricey steak or 160 TV channels or new clothes for spring or even another shiny hardback book. I have more than enough stuff. I miss movies and dinner out with E., though.

“Let’s meet up for coffee at a drive-through place and sit in a parking lot, 6 feet apart, just gab a little,” I say. “I’ve done that with my kids a couple times. Hard to not hug, but just seeing each other…”

“I love it–tell me where and when. We could dress up, bring cake!”

We commiserate about the tarnish on our “golden years”, share a funny story or two and finally hang up. The residual richness of her voice works like healing balm. her longtime job has been in accounts receivable in a health care system, weirdly considering things as they are. But I realize she is so good at that because her voice emanates her real personhood– warm, honest, empathetic and deeply kind, with a gift for finding gentle humor in hard moments. And that touch of lingering New Jersey accent makes it even better. Much better. I can see her scurrying along a clamorous New York City street, headed to Broadway for a play’s opening. Something I had hoped we might yet share.

I don’t want her to move to Arizona, ever, but if she does I’ll be visiting as soon as I can. I already have my invite.

I text her at midnight. “We could have been Broadway stars, you know, just bad timing, sketchy men. Booze. Good night, Ginger.”

She sends me an emoji–herself dancing with that still- red shock of hair, her purple glasses, mouth wide, eyes gleeful as ever.

******

I just read an extraordinary book called Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. By the end of the novel you emerge slowly from the story with the main character as if coming into the sheerness of dawn. Edward is a youth who was the only survivor of a devastating plane crash that took his family and the others. He muses on how love must not be wasted, time must not be wasted.

I wept as I read the last lines of that story. I have felt a slow burning inside of these truths my whole life, like a brightly lit candle that has guided me every step, even as I have gotten lost. Time and love, not to be wasted: the only rules worth minding. We must inhabit these fully, use these well, give these to others freely.

I feel it more every day, the desire and need. To be that present. To better ensure that love is known when I speak and move in this world.

******

“Hello? Don’t text me. I can’t read without my glasses.” B. chides me.

Her voice is weaker than yesterday.

“Okay, got it. We’ll talk. How is it going now?”

“Feel worse, maybe. Thinking should finally retire… prison doesn’t need me.”

“Well, it does. But of course you should retire. You work too hard. Now you will be in the hospital several days, to get things in order, your heart rested and healed more. I know, my friend, that all of this is hard on you.”

“Tiring. So listen, I talked to my mom. I want you to know”– an eruption of a cough—“I want you to have Spook’s Pendleton blanket. It is clean, it’s folded on the end of my bed at home.”

For a second I thought she had said she saw Spook, an old friend, in her room and it scared me.

“Spook”, now long gone, was a Native American elder, a man she was bonded with for decades. B. is part Native American and the woven woolen blanket he gave her from Warm Springs Confederation of Tribes is unique, special. I knew and respected him. He always had a corny crack, a smile for me. We worked together awhile in the fight against addiction’s ravages on the Native community. He liked that I gave the Native women a chance to dance, to sing their languages, to tell their stories. And he may have known they touched me in my very bone and blood. He seemed to feel for a white woman I was okay. Because I was B.’s friend, no doubt.

But his blanket, to be given to me? I cannot imagine such an honor. I am deeply stilled. Everything holds collective breath– outside, inside, wherever Spook now resides, in the bed where B. struggles to live. From her place in the life constellation, mine and so many others’.

“Okay. You feel Spook will be okay with it. You see him there?”

She laughs a little, coughs. “Naw. It’s mine, anyway. Blanket. I mean it, may as well say these things. Nothing morbid about it. You’re my sister. And I love you.”

I cannot speak again. Why do es language, even easy syllables, keep falling away from me? But she has never said that aloud… “sister”… though such intimate words have not been needed. It all feels bigger than a sum of many parts. I know she has thought about leaving the earth for a long time. She has been that terribly ill, and too often. I close my eyes against the sunshine at my window, and there are flashes of orange behind my eyelids. A riot of pain and grief. And happiness for who she is.

I answer her. “I’m so very glad to be your sister. I needed another true one. We know what we’ve shared all these years.”

“And money, I have money to give you and Alexandra’s babies, not much, but something. And go to a Bonnie Raitt concert for me when you can. We have to hear Bonnie even if I’m not there in the flesh. Take her and Marc, too.” She half-gasps for breath. “They’re good nurses here, I tell them so.” She gives a kind of sputter. “Bonnie, our girl…”

I want to say something else but can only listen, try to take it in, her mind going here and there– so just talk like we always talk, as if this is a conversation we always have.

“Yes–a beautiful power she has. Lots more music, too. What does the doctor say?”

“Trying to get more damned water off my heart.”

A deep intake of breath a sigh from her. Does she know what this means? I know it is congestive heart failure; my sister died of it, my brother–I saw my own brother die. But she won’t say the diagnosis or prognosis out loud, that’s how she is. Or not today.

“So I told Mom these things–don’t forget.”

“You can pull through this. We’ll be meeting again, why not?”

“Yeah…just in case, had to tell you. People need to say things. I should find a priest.”

“You aren’t even Catholic. Talk right to God.”

“Can’t hurt.”

“I hear you, my old friend…sister.”

“Have to go, tired now.”

“Alright, I love you. Praying for healing.”

“Love you.”

******

I haven’t heard from B. today. I may call or I may not. Her breath is precious, she is weak. She will contact me sooner or later. Somehow. I don’t know for certain if she is leaving this world or not. I feel she expects she may. She is more and more enervated by this burdensome body. Her spirit is strong; it will always be. But I sense her drifting more with every moment, and feel the burden of her ill body in every unspoken thought as my own heart keeps beating hard and slow, a reminder that I am truly here, that I am so alive.

Why is mine beating so strong and well now? Why me? Brenda Starr, why?

******

What matters the very most as a life is lived? I will be 70 in a few days. I am not living as I thought I might, but more and less, different. One surprise after another. I am full amid sorrows and strife. As we all have to cope with daily. And we can determine to face it and hold on.

So, good fortune is mine–these friends, their love shared. And another day given me, sweet and tender, aching and resilient, persistently beautiful.

But I wait for B.’s voice once more.

Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Neighbors and Strangers

Ellis was not a neighbor watcher but, nonetheless, she stared out her windows more times than she could count. Her mind was on a netherworld-like pause, somewhere between cottony oblivion and sleepwalking auto-pilot. Why not set her body down, more rag doll than efficient biological organism, right on the desk chair in her back bedroom, or frayed floral wing back in the living room, or schoolhouse wooden chair at the kitchen table? She rotated: morning at the kitchen chair; afternoon at wing back; and desk chair in evening before flopping into bed.

Five weeks with no work. The seconds had ticked loudly in her head at first, small clicks that grew louder, then minutes and hours began to beat away, giving her a headache, until they ebbed and flowed with a swish, a flow without direction that still refused to let her go. Ellis was on a sailboat with no wind and no recourse. This thought made her perk up a second. Sam Towne had taken her sailing last August and she’d imagined it a beginning of something. It was–a friendship that was loosely woven across two hundred miles. He had called every other Thursday. Week-ends he’d been out and about. Not so now with the virus snaring their lives. Sam already had worked remotely and felt guilty he had paying work and she did not. He called less now, though he was at home like she was.

Only a few called at all–a couple old friends, her father, a cousin across town. Her ex-co-workers, never. They were work partners, never lunched or gossiped together. She was the boss then. Now they all were without a job.

She hadn’t loved her manager’s position at a large jewelry store. Ellis appreciated the product yet daily tasks were monotonous, customers’ relentless demands were taxing. Her paychecks eventually afforded her the 975 square foot frame house. It helped her even now feel better. She’d fallen in love with it at first sight four years ago. She could still wrap herself in its natural good ambiance despite a lurking depression.

Now she stayed in bed awhile, let her eyes take in first light as it spilled through sheer ivory curtains. The old maple’s branches gave up two or three robins that trilled, hopped about, flew off with stealth and returned to resume their singing. Ellis watched the leaves unfurl–the tree was that close, close enough to scrape the window in a thunderstorm, to offer shade in summer heat, and to cast a pale green sheen over her compact room as the sun took the sky into its arms. Sometimes this made her cry, all that brilliant new sunshine, but she couldn’t think why…it just all felt tender.

This morning after two slices of toast with cream cheese and a coffee, she had checked her neighbors’ yards. It was becoming the usual routine. The one to her left was quiet at first, then Heidi came out and whacked away at a rectangle of grassy dirt with a hoe. It had been decades since she had seen anyone with a hoe–her father had used one to break up, turn over earth to plant flower bulbs for her mother–and saw that Heidi was making a garden.

At the edge of her own trim back yard was a low stone wall, and then an alley, and beyond that lilac bushes primarily lined the perimeter of Genevieve’s wide, deep lawn. Except that there was an open space and a low gate set between two oaks. A pathway wound through Genevieve’s yard, and Ellis could see quite well much of what went on if she stood close to the wall or sat on it, looking past the gate. Which she did when she walked around. Genevieve didn’t care, it seemed, though she never beckoned exactly but nodded at Ellis, her pale face a smile of an aging goddess. She and Alf lived in a smallish mansion (albeit crumbling after 100 years). But the older woman didn’t get out much even before the pandemic. Another man came and went. Ellis thought he was someone who helped them out, and then a nurse, too, for the husband, she was sure of that.

Lately in daytime Genevieve sat at her patio table with a book, her wide brimmed straw hat shielding her face. And also her cat, Tucker, who stalked a bug or other invisible prey in the lush grass.

Ellis took the plate and cup and set them in the sink, then considered more cleaning. She held up her hands, spread her fingers apart. The ring on her right hand turned so the glittering sapphire was face down. She took it off and put it in a pocket. Her skin was cracked from constant disinfecting, the scrubbing, the attempts to hold every germ at bay. It was becoming a war. She felt battle fatigue already, to her dismay. Sapphires and platinum meant nothing.

She wished Sam Towne would call again, then almost spontaneously called him. Instead, she played an album of old standards and browsed through a home and garden magazine until she fell blissfully asleep.

******

Heidi had never gardened before. Well, she had helped her mother with an herb garden, so she did know a bit about those plants. But she wasn’t a great cook–not like her mother–and the thought of failure hit her in the knees, making them tremble. She gripped square-palmed hands about the hoe tighter and scraped and dug into the topsoil. Surely she could manage to plant a few seeds. That was the main goal now: make sure they had enough food. Her daughter must not be deprived of fresh vegetables and she was not going to the store every week, exposing them to the terrible virus. It had taken four weeks for five seed packets to arrive. When Heidi had checked on the order status, a notice appeared that no more orders would be taken. They were so backlogged that the company couldn’t keep up with demand and deliveries.

It was tiring. Not just the surprisingly sweaty dirt digging, but the way life had left them in this spot. She had been hopeful about that teaching post in Indiana but in these times that was no longer an option. She would stay where she was, then, and make the best of it at the private school, teaching online classes. Who knew how much longer the term would last? They hoped until June. Then she had summer off, as usual, then hopefully when fall returned….but it was too much to think on. Whether or not the country would be safe and healthy enough. Whether her ten year old, Marie, who stuttered when anxiety increased, would stay strong with her. Well, it was up to Heidi, of course, to make things secure. And a garden would be a good way to shore them up in all ways. You fed people and they knew you loved them well, her mother had said. It worked, Heidi knew that.

Yet her mother had loved her brother better. And look where Mason had ended up: Nova Scotia, as far away as he could get from them all. Far from most of the havoc that was wreaked on everyone else’s lives, it seemed. When did they last talk or email?

Marie had taken to sleeping in on week-ends. Heidi did not. She believed if she kept to her routines, starting laundry at 8 o’clock sharp, making coffee while soapy water swirled in the washer tub, making eggs for them both after she finally awakened her daughter, and so on–if she was diligent, nothing could come apart at the seams. It was ritualized living, a spell said against a negative outcome, and she hoped beyond hope that it’d work. Because she was starting to feel soft at the center, as if her abdominal muscles were going lame despite a half hour or more of yoga each afternoon.

Marie opened the screen door and let it crash behind her. She had a fashion catalog in her hand. She liked to browse even though she knew she could ask for nothing new. Maybe not until next fall.

“You find anything good in there?”

“Naw, it’s the usual dumb stuff, leggings, ankle jeans. I have all that. Maybe a jacket.”

“You have two spring jackets.”

Marie shrugged and folded herself into the hanging egg chair suspended from the ceiling of their rectangular covered patio.

“What are you doing with that tool thing?”

“I told you I wanted a garden.”

“But do you know how?”

Heidi stopped her labor and stood with hoe handle cupped in both hands , her chin resting there.

“That never stopped me from doing anything. You can learn things as you go.”

“True, I guess…maybe call Grandma Jean? She has the green thumb, ya know.” She held the catalog close to squinting eyes. She might need glasses, she wasn’t sure, but was saying nothing about it. She flipped the pages. “We could Zoom her tonight.”

Heidi picked up the hoe and worked harder, sweat accumulating under her faded denim shirt collar. Her mother. The woman of many careers. Now there was a person whose luck just got better. What a surprising business, her herb sales soaring as if customers thought little green things might redeem and save them. Heidi’s grip held firm and she put her back right into it and the soil gave way. At the damp end of an hour she saw things were progressing, after all. She imagined food coming from warm dewy air and then serving it up to Marie with a whistle, a jig and a hug. Musicals, she thought, her lost destiny, and laughed aloud.

Heidi heard her neighbor’s door swing closed and looked over at Ellis’ house. The yard was empty; she must have come out and gone back in. Why didn’t they talk more? Now that Ellis was home for good. For now, anyway. The woman was quite pleasant, a cheery greeting at yard’s boundary when she was home–she used to fly off to various trainings and gem trade shows. Must be hard staying home. But Ellis was not that approachable. Even Marie said so, and she could get anybody engaged in a good chat.

She took a seat beside Marie and peered at the bright leggings on a page. “We could get one pair,” she said.

Marie put her hand atop her mother’s dirty one and stared at the freshly turned soil. “Naw, I can wait. Before we know it, we can wear shorts.”

******

Within a lemony warmth spread over walls and floor of the solarium, Alf stirred in his wheelchair and looked at Genevieve longingly. Not that she could see him. He’d join her, but first he just wanted to look.

Genevieve was the most beautiful woman he had ever met when he was twenty-one, and that had never changed. Tall–taller than his five ft. ten inches–and willowy, graceful to the point of seeming less human than most, and her straight blond hair cropped at chin length, her ivory skin forever smoothed in sunscreen…she shimmered. Her words still came to him as they had from the start: liquid, warm, rich with deeper meanings as her alto voice slipped into ordinary air and jazzed it up. He was in love just like that and he never fell out or away. Even when he suspected she was smarter than he was–it added to her allure.

Genevieve was less enthralled with him at start. His potential, she said, was amazing, and hopefully he would follow his great instincts and dream beyond the usual–his dream then was to become the best something in the city. So he made lots of money as a stockbroker and wasn’t happy. Neither was she; her tastes and material wants were not terribly elevated, though her heart and mind reached higher. She kept painting large canvasses from seven to noon each day; it helped her discontent with her narrowed vision, his disappointments. So he tried out a pubic relations firm, became VP, and that was barely closer to what he longed to do. But what was to come next? What was his calling?

After a heart attack at forty-nine, he left the PR work and began to dictate into a machine some story lines for mysteries. To pass the tedium of halting days and a burden of too-long nights. To distract from his severe failure to remain a specimen of health.

Soon those jottings became stories. He asked Genevieve’s opinion as she was far better read than was he. He trusted her. She found the weak spots and magnetic aspects, suggested character strengths, weaknesses or quirks he might add. She smiled more. She became his happy shadow in his study, plying him with herbal tea and lemon poppy seed scones as she gradually worked alongside him in the afternoons. Those stories turned into books–he simply had a knack for it. And he was finally content. And Genevieve found her way to selling paintings, a show here and there.

Then came the stroke at 73, and it swept him off his feet and landed him in a cave of grief. He wrote nothing–for that matter, he spoke almost nothing of any kind of value– for seven, eight months as he worked to make his various appendages move in a less tentative or spastic way, to create strength out of little, and mental and spiritual plenty out of such paucity as he had never known. He caught sight of himself in the mirror, shuddered at the heap he had become. His legs never got as well as he wanted. he sat more in the wheelchair than he though he’d allow of himself. But surrender sometimes is best when you are clearly on a losing streak.

Yet there was Genevieve, talking with him, helping him. reading to him, painting and humming beside him as he adjusted to the wheelchair. She was not a sentimental woman despite pale beauty or considerable other assets. Every time Alf thought to give up–what good was he to anyone? how could she even bear his presence now? what stories were left in the wide world to share?– she told him no such thoughts were allowed to park in his brain cells, only the knowledge that he would go forward, and find the good in each day, in every hour. It sounded nuts. But they would grow old together, and now the process was well underway, and only a few complaints.

So, he’d learned how to write again and he had another book coming out. It was about them, their love and smarts more or less, with a crime or two tossed in.

She turned then in her chair on the patio, one hand holding her hat in place. Her hair was kept golden, cropped close about a lined face; her figure was still narrow and tensile, at ease in the world. Basic good health clothed her though she was slower than last year in gait and sparser of hearing. She didn’t care; she was still pleased with their life. Even though his books sold a bit less well and the house was not quite up to standards for a place that took up half a block, lawn included. They were entirely at home with each other and generous surroundings.

They could care less that they had to remain in place due to the pandemic, though the terrible loss of life and the mess of politics were points of head-shaking woe every day they spoke of it. They might stay well, or they might not, and meanwhile they lived.

Alf raised a shaky hand, half-waved. She waved back, her hand moving like that of a beauty queen–though she’d scoff at such a foolish picture. He wheeled himself close as she poured two glasses of iced tea. April might seem early, but it was iced tea as soon as it was sweater weather.

Alf took a long draft and then held her pale blue eyes. Tucker lept off her lap with a meow, lept onto his then left very fast to chase a bee.

“I think we might entertain more,” he said.

She cocked her head. “Entertain? How might we manage that, darling Alf?”

“You know, invite people closer, serve tea and food, maybe something good Clive can cook; he cooks four days a week, anyway.”

Her right eyebrow rose in a gentle arch and she murmured, ‘That’s true. He’d not complain of a few more now and then. But we have to remain apart, you know, socially distanced. Quite a lot of distance, Alf, remember? Hard to hold a group conversation that is not around a table. Or the fire pit.”

“Still.” He wheeled himself farther out to the patio’s tiled edge, almost halfway to the large fire pit where they used to gather people every week-end. Long ago. He gestured across the alleyway. “Those two. Three, I guess. They watch us, and we watch them. What are they called?”

Genevieve got up and went to him. Hands then rested on the wheelchair handlebars, readied to push is needed.”You mean Ellis and Heidi and her daughter….Mary or Marissa…no, Marie, I think. You’re suggesting we have them over here?”

“We might certainly do that. We can stay in our chairs on the patio to eat, while they can come in the yard, enjoy a small spring table well laid. We can still chat at the requisite number of feet–six is it now? Or they can stay at the edges, back here by the fire pit, enjoy its glow.” He looked up at her. “I miss other people sometimes, don’t you? We had such fun.”

She patted his shoulder then walked toward the lilac bushes and the gate at the alley; looked over the stone wall of Ellis’ and at the child with Heidi, her mother, then walked slowly back again.

“Extraordinary idea,” Genevieve said. She tapped her upper lip twice with a long finger, a bent elbow cradled in her other hand, a habit of hers. “I like it.” She leaned down, planted a kiss on a bristly cheek. “Let me think it over more. Come up with a plan. What a surprising person you turned out to be, Alf!”

Alf had heard that many times and it always filled him up with a warm humming. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath– the perfume of nearby cherry blossoms came to him, and cinnamon from the iced tea he had propped in his lap with his better hand, and her signature scent of lilies of the valley. And Genevieve smelled these, too, and the faint tang of sweat from her husband, and she laughed softly, thinking how fortunate they had been. And she felt it like a miraculous thing, a blessing amid the worst of times.

******

They all met there once a week thereafter. Ellis brought masks that they sometimes used, other times tucked into their pockets. They were never too close, always counting mentally the feet between them– yet never that far away, just placed so they could hear to share ideas and swap vignettes, even dumb jokes. Marie instituted a “show and tell”: they had to bring something quirky, interesting, or of real personal value. They felt safe standing like that in the evening, sitting apart around the fire, Alf and Genevieve seated ehind them but pitching in thoughts often enough. The savory and sweet foods they took turns making were satisfying, and the night air at once invigorating and calming. If it rained, they missed the time with each other but stored up more talk and searched for odd things to bring, items that told of their lives and wove more stories.

It was the best they could do, considering, even much more than Heidi and Ellis imagined possible a few weeks before. Or Genevieve and Alf. Marie wondered what took them so long, but she never said that to any of them, not even her mom. She knew adults had to take their time to figure things out right. But somehow she knew the oldest of them, Alf, as welcoming as her old teddy bear, had been the one who got it all going. Genevieve, too, but she was like a worn silk scarf; it took a little time to get comfortable with her, and then you were glad you did.

As they talked to one another more it felt as if they were becoming friends. The best things could come out of weird, scary times, Marie thought, and she couldn’t wait to wheel Alf around the block when the world got better.

Wednesdays’ Word/Short Story: What He’d Longed For

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Oscar took the rosewood-grained pen into both hands and turned the barrel over and over. The fine golden accents on cap and hefty body shone under the warm light of his desk lamp. He leaned back in the swivel chair with its worn buttery leather, and stilled the impulse to turn in it, side to side, as he mused. He needed to think without the usual distractions. Before him rested a sheet of grey-blue stationary, smooth and hearty enough for his pressured, rapid penmanship. His supply of writing papers was replenished a week prior, but the pen…it had been in his possession for thirty-six years. A gift, and one that did not diminish in usefulness or elegance after all this time.

It had been on his mind from dawn to midnight to write the letter ever since word had arrived from Addie. It was two days ago that he shuffled through the mail, then once more when realizing he’d had a glimpse of spare, careful handwriting, almost calligraphic. At first he thought, Another invitation to someone’s christening or wedding or who knows what else, and would have tossed it aside awhile. But there was something about the handwriting that brought him closer to the script, then held it at arm’s length to look again. To take it in.

The address label stated: Adelaide P. Trussman. From Wisconsin, of all places. The first name, yes, he got that, not the last–who else did he know with that name? No one. That place or the reason for the dispatch, no. It took him several seconds to entertain the probability that Addie–the Addie he’d known during college days, pre-law days– had written to him thirty five years after they had last communicated.

He took it to his desk immediately and stood above it, hands flattened on desktop keeping him upright, heart pounding. And then he did nothing more with it. But paced back and forth on the tattered Persian rug by his desk, glancing with each pass at the envelope as if it was a strange and risky thing to even cast his eye upon.

He then assembled a thick ham sandwich with white bean soup for dinner and sat in the long dining room, the two white candles that he usually lit staying flameless. The food went down fast, unremarkable but tasting like nothing and he wondered why he’d bothered, he was that unnerved. He was a man who indulged his appreciation of any sort of meal, and his girth testified to such, though his height was significant, as well. But he felt slightly unwell after eating.

And sleep failed him more than usual. Every time he closed his eyes he saw her: shoulder-length, ashy- blonde hair, as she herself had called it (rather than “dirty”, she’d confessed); medium-slim figure attired in her standard white button-up shirt and snug jeans; and her head thrown back in laughter, wide mouth revealing slightly crooked front teeth that showed up readily–she often smiled and laughed, with anyone or for any reason, he’d thought. Then he dropped off, unable to recall more, only to wake periodically, unsettled.

And then, on the second day after its arrival, he took his time reading Addie’s letter. He sat in the bright spring garden, and afterwards he stayed there a very long while, letter pages fluttering on the bench beside him.

And read it three times more.

Now he sat at his desk in a ruminative mood, jumbled feelings capsizing inside him. This was the day he would respond.

My dear Addie,

That was quite too familiar, wasn’t it?

Hello there, Addie!

Too casual, almost rudely so. Like John Wayne in a sexy, aggressive manner.

Hello my old friend,

That might be thought presumptuous. Were they really such great friends that one short final year of undergraduate school? Despite the fact that they fairly often studied together, shared a meal at least two times as week, went out with their buddies to theater and concerts and met up afterwards at various dwelling places to keep the party going? And got closer near the end? Not as close as he wished, but enough to linger inside his mind.

He pulled out a journal he used to write drafts of various things and on a white page he wrote with a cheap ball point rather than the fine fountain pen.

Dear Addie,

That seemed best. Keep it a cleanly simple and correct greeting, one that could be passed over without a pause.

It was indeed a bit of a shock to find your elegantly addressed envelope among the usual suspects of disposable advertisements and rancorous bills. It is seldom that one gets a real letter these days, much less arriving from someone from the past, like a ghost arising from the pedestrian and quiet landscape of life as I do live it.

Was that too much? Too revealing that he lived a more solitary life than he’d planned the days before or long after law school? He left it and kept with the momentum; he could edit later.

Your address label announced that you reside in Wisconsin, apparently a small city unknown to me. That was cause enough to look twice.

No, that would not do. It had the grating edge of criticism, even a minor threat of scorn now he thought it over. A small city in Wisconsin–as if he was shocked and in a distasteful way. Well, even if it had felt close to that… he was born and bred, now well established in the city wilds of Chicago–but wait, he did recall she loved the country. She had grown up on a ranch–Idaho, he thought–the first thirteen years of her life and had told him she missed the countryside and honest work of outdoor chores. So she may have found her Shangri-la, or close enough.

He drew a firm line through the sentences and began again.

First, it gave me pause that you are not living in Idaho or Massachusetts, after all. But Wisconsin must be a place you well enjoy; you missed more rural spaces even though you planned on being a lawyer. You did end up practicing law, too, and you do so no doubt well and diligently. This is the very good news. I practice, as well, as you must have discovered, and am now a partner at Longham, Wright and Levison. I still have to check that it is my name at the end of that line. It goes well. But perhaps we can discuss our work another time.

He reconsidered and crossed out the last line.

Oh, he’d be glad to talk about law, skip the rest, the less said that was directly personal the better and easier. Yet, in fact, that is what he longed to do, as well–talk about their last year, how much enjoyment was shared, how he’d longed to hold her much closer than a fast squeeze as greeting or farewell….well, not that, of course not, he’d not now say that.

I am glad to hear from you…was he glad, was that the word? Began again. Plunge right in feet first as Addie did, may as well get to it and get it finished. She had asked to reconnect. What did that mean in this day and age?

I was honored that you thought of me in this time of upheaval and loss. I knew you had married, of course, as you also learned of my decision to wed Jeanette, yet years absent of communication have created a yawning gap in knowledge of our experiences. My marriage lasted four years. It was meant to end from the start, perhaps; I realized I am at my best on my own and my life is full enough of events as well as my work. And Jeanette was intent on more hours spent solidifying her career in emergency medicine. Our lives rarely intersected. But we left each other with a decent, even kind farewell. And no children to bear the brunt of the ending.

I come back home to peace and pleasantries alongside my mammoth, somewhat stately cat, Titan. It is a good life I have made. I don’t regret our marriage but I do not harbor misgivings, either. I am, to my surprise, a man at my ease most of the time.

And it can get quiet enough to hear those long whiskers twitch some days or nights, Oscar thought, running a hand over forehead and balding pate. But he’d said what he meant. No sense embellishing or telling her lies.

It seems as if you have had more happy times than trying. Bruce sounds like an admirable man, someone with whom you experienced many joys as well as usual life challenges over thirty years of marriage. I’m saddened for you–that he was in the auto accident, that you lost him in such a devastating manner. It must have been harder than anything you have faced in your life. And to go on, to consider an entirely different array of elements that must now fill and reshape your life.

Was that hinging on maudlin? too personal?….Did she even want him to comfort her or was he imagining that? But he thought he felt her intention, that she need someone to talk to who also knew her back when. That shared history can matter more in hard times.

He considered it: snowy weather, icy roads, another driver fast out of control, an unavoidable hillside. Too much. Oscar would not revisit it in the letter despite wanting to know more. Was there an investigation or was it that simple? She had stated the bare details plainly and then only said she was having trouble with widowhood. As if one might ever find it not terribly troublesome. He could not imagine, not really, what she felt. But she didn’t sound as if she was drowning in tears. Well, it had been over a year. Perhaps she had gotten over the worst of it.

She had two adult children who cared about her, “a blessing, although they both live on the west coast and I see them only a three or four times a year,” she wrote. “But I have the beauty and sweat of hard work. You know how much that can fill up time and diminish any random need for more.”

Well, he didn’t have much need for more. But he could see that she did. It was a shock to lose her Bruce and now there was daily drudgery and longing as she remade her life alone.

Or so he speculated as he read between the lines.

You had said you would like to rekindle a friendship.

Oscar’s heart raced a bit once more. He stood up and shook his body out head to toe to calm himself, walked to the window. What was Addie writing to him about, in the end? A check -in after thirty-six years of nothing? They’d had something small, really not much, a warm friendship that mattered more to him than to her, he had been certain.

Outside were the huge oak and maple trees, expansive garden flourishing with its vivid carnival of blooms and texture-rich green plantings, the two benches he’d placed here and there in order to read, to meditate, to doze. He adored this home on a half acre. The historical brick house was too large, perhaps, but that didn’t bother him. He liked his meanders through the high-ceilinged rooms, appreciated the tidiness and the pleasing Shaker furnishings, enjoyed a sweep of views from each light-filled window. And Titan would pad behind him or overtake him, then disappear until the next mealtime or if he felt like rooting at the foot of the bed at night. If Oscar went outdoors, the luxurious cat would streak past to claim a cozy spot under a bush or at his feet– if not inclined to chase something else moving.

It was the most basic scenarios which gave him comfort after arduous and engaging long work days. Well, that and a good sherry; great literature or a fast thriller to entertain him; so much music to hear that he’d not be finished with it in his lifetime; an hour’s horseback ride at a welcoming stables twice a month for the sheer pleasure of learning something new; meeting with friends at the golf course whenever he was so moved. A satisfying meal three times a day. He was privileged and he admitted it to himself, and the way he felt better about it was to take pro bono cases, too. And he gave a bit of advice on the Community Free Legal Connection line.

He shook his head; he had drifted way beyond letter writing. He got lost in his ways and means, not hers, but it was good to reevaluate what he cared about, too.

I would like that. It has been so long since we shared any thoughts, it might take quite some time to reconnect. We both have full schedules and commitments to attend to, but I am thankful you let me know of the passing of your husband …but also that you are managing, anyway. It helps to have community such as you describe, with potlucks and farmer’s markets and many events for people to gather for celebrated or mourned occasions. And your important book club–that is a boon after all the years you have known the participants. We must not forget MahJong–there’s a game to engage you well, even back in college. (I haven’t yet learned it.)

Was he acting poorly? Brushing her off? After all this time…

He had wondered for years if she might turn up in his life one day, even in passing. Imagined that it would be what he had hoped as a young man, and might even culminate in a romantic and impassioned embrace. Or perhaps more. Love. Much to his embarrassment later, he’d shared that with his closest friend Grant, right after Jeanette, and Grant covered his smile with a hand and probed less. He knew it would take time for the dust to settle, his friend offered without unkindness.

Oscar was not the type for fluff or fuss, Grant told others if asked, but was a good-natured and well meaning man, a gentleman who could get a tad rowdy if encouraged, and simply brilliant at the law. And, it went without saying, supremely content as a bachelor–most of the time–while not averse to meeting with smart, like-minded women with which to share experiences. And that was close to the truth. Oscar could take intimate company or leave it; more often he left it as the years passed.

So, here was the moment Oscar had fantasized– and he was extolling the virtues of her new…independence via widowhood? Ghastly of him. Was he just a commitment-phobe, as a few had hinted or outright accused?

No, a resounding no. He was committed to living the life that he chose. It was not what he’d first anticipated by this age, but it had turned out well.

He put ballpoint to paper once more.

I am glad to offer support as you continue to sort things out. Since, as you know from the past, I have long appreciated the art of letter writing, I am glad you reached out in this manner, as well. We surely have much to catch up on and it pleases me to think of time well spent doing so. Such a correspondence seems an extraordinary thing to undertake in these virtual reality-mad times.

Please let me know if this is something you would benefit from and still may like to share. Until then, I sincerely hope you will find the coming months opening to more fascinating possibilities that help close the profound gaps the loss of your husband has created. I am certain you will.

You certainly deserve all the best in your life, Addie. I have always thought so.

Warm regards (and gratitude that I still use your graduation gift, a beautiful thing),

Oscar

He looked over the draft, made a few more changes, then picked up his rosewood pen, uncapped it and let the ink flow with his meticulous words onto the fine stationary. It was a joy to use his tools of correspondence, and more so in response to Addie. He had waited a lifetime to do so once more. But if she didn’t want to just write letters… well, then, he’d not be the one to fuss over a lost opportunity. There would eventually be other people, other letters to write thoughtfully with his cherished pen.

After he was satisfied with the pages, he slid it into matching envelope with a slow sigh and left it in the lacquered tray in the table by the front door. He patted it, then went to the kitchen to prepare fresh salmon he’d purchased earlier in the day, Titan scurrying at his heels.