As I was walking the trails around our area, I practiced locating where they all interconnected–as far as I have explored–and how each one has taken me back. It is useful for strengthening recall since we haven’t lived here very long. And it’s a pleasing exercise; I like to use different perspectives in my mental imaging, as though traversing from one direction, then another, then another. I can see in mind’s eye each route the unfolding scenery, pauses taken along the way, different housing clusters that peek through woods or circumnavigate greenways, how main and side streets curl and crisscross. I happily meander.
Mountain Park is a neighborhood of 700 acres on a volcanic hillside; there are 8 miles of trails. They seem complex as they snake this way and that, lead through trees, tunnels, up hillsides, by creeks. Likely we’ve trod only about 75% so far–time being an issue and partly due to their often climbing steeply, requiring endurance harder to maintain in summer’s blasting heat. It can be challenging even in cool weather rains. But I–or both of us– go out every day a good hour. I don’t worry about getting lost. I have a small map inside my head, and if I end up somewhere surprising, I can retrace steps. I also trust a new trail link will lead back to one I recognize better. There are, of course, landmarks even in wooded areas.
The only time I felt a bit nervous was when there was news of a cougar outside the state park boundaries, prowling by homes on the east side of the city. But that was a fair distance. And I want to walk so off I went. I don’t know where the cougar is. He/she possesses supreme stealth, but is more likely to hunt in a state park forest. However, I do see rabbits and lots of birds, bees and other insects, a snake now and then, and people like us who love being under the treetops and working up a sweat. Once I thought I thought I saw a coyote and likely did; it melted into the dusk.
I do have a well attuned sense of direction so rarely get lost. Oh, occasionally misaligned, but briefly. I’m grateful; I got it from my mother, perhaps. My father made sure there was a good working compass mounted on the car dashboard when we took trips. And then he proceeded to go off route, intentionally, unconcerned thanks to his sense of adventure and trusty compass. My mother tut-tutted–it took longer his way to reach destinations but if he did get lose his bearings she enlightened him. A great map reader/navigator (back when there were colorful fold out maps), mostly she gazed at landscape and pointed. Off we went. If we did get lost it was treated as part of the trip, not cause for distress other than wondering when we’d find the next restroom or cafe. (I realize my spouse and I are the same; he agrees he has a poor sense of direction, a poor visual memory when on the move. (GPS was made for those like him; he travels quite a bit for work and relies on it.)
As I was revisiting the trail system mentally–huffing and puffing in 85 degree heat, water bottle in hand–I saw it as a metaphor for how I try to live life: trust my sense of direction, rely on instinct/intuition. And God’s guidance and care. I say “try” because my one weak point is worry about my loved ones. I can get bound up in a tangle of possible disastrous scenarios in a blink of an eye, at times. Especially when I awaken for no good reason at 2:50 a.m. from a deep sleep. Oh, right–a perfect time to worry right into full exhaustion.
Case in point: my son and his new wife went off camping and rock hounding all the way to Montana on Monday. They started off in Washington; no word since they were on their way. This makes me a little anxious. Not that I would often hear from him; they’ve had to travel through mountain ranges and forests where cell reception is sparse. Josh travels fairly often and they’re veteran campers. He is very independent, following his own path. When six, he took off early on bike into our new neighborhood. I didn’t see him until dinnertime when he brought new friends to the table. Did I worry then? Some… not really. He always paid attention to surroundings, found his way back–and it was 1980 when kids freely roamed about. Besides, he inherited his grandmother’s uncanny sense of direction, too.
So today after considering these facts, I chose to turn the annoyance of worry over to God in prayer. After all, they’re also on their honeymoon, not thinking of me! He will communicate as he can/wants.
Also, my oldest daughter is driving from Colorado to South Carolina by herself–from visiting her boyfriend to a return to her home and teaching position. This is an old story for her, too–she goes solo out of the country, as well. It’s not uncommon for her to drive great distances. She also figures direction well, knows her way around busy highways and lonely roads, and she travels smart, takes care. She stays briefly in touch.
But there is that blasted impulse to worry a thought thin. And worry is a kind of disease: truly, a state of dis-ease, imbalance, a tension that undermines helpful insight. And there have been a few serious matters to worry over this year, so far, and worry did not aid me in a pursuit of solutions or succor. The real glitch about perseveration–and that powerful director of such thinking, trenchant negativity– is that it not only takes up time and energy, it obscures the picture rather than clarifying it. Issues multiply and become fuzzier. One becomes worn out, not refreshed and refocused.
I am fond of the idea of mind-linked-to-soul as a good compass. I find it can correct missteps, redirect, reiterate or discover essential ways and means to “home”– and thus enable me to better proceed. It well informs me. How can I be certain? I am questioned by friends, family and my own doubting self at times. It isn’t that I am always one hundred percent certain every time I need good, orderly direction. But I have a proclivity for that loaded word–trust. That’s the thing. Despite making significant mistakes over decades and experiencing deep losses and being uncertain of the future like everyone else–I trust I’ll get through difficulties. Even being lost.
And I have been badly lost at certain life junctures, the sort of lost that is hard to note. Like childhood sexual abuse, three rapes during youth and adulthood, domestic violence that finally resulted in my being nearly run over–someone walking up the road screamed “Move out of the way!” just in time– by my then-partner. Or when I experienced a toxic psychosis at age 19, resultant of a lot of amphetamine mixed with other drugs, and then being carted off to “the dungeon”, a poorly staffed, badly managed Gothic structure that was officially called a hospital that was actually, I still think, hell–and that took a court order for me to be released to my parents. And there were other brushes with death that left me thinking that it was really too strange that I stayed alive.
Let me not get started on the lives of my family and friends, my own children. They, too, have had hardships and nightmares to live through and, well, I love them so. The hurdles needing to be overcome have been many. Tests of endurance. It seems the fate of being human that we collect calamities of one sort of another…
So, some experience wandering lost in the dark. Confounded, feeling alone. Yet I do not truly fear being lost. For one thing, been there, gotten through stuff. But more so, a certainty that I can investigate and glean more information that will be advantageous. Other people can be more helpful than imagined. And I grasp onto what makes sense- by this age, it is clear common sense underlies so much, if we just pay heed. Add some intuition- more is revealed.
One thing that has not changed is that I have faith in a Divine Love that does not quit. (Perhaps it has become more fierce a belief.) This is my “true north” spiritually, how I live my daily life. When I am fearful of an outcome or just worn by it all, that faith does not weaken or leave me. It is an intrinsic part of me, that numinous Light a tremendous hope for the better. It has sustained me through all difficulties. I call on God and as I do so I call on God within me and all others I come across. By doing so, I can seek what helps, not harms. It is not hard to pray for clarification of intelligent–that is, loving and solution-focused– directions. It can be still a trial to quiet my selfish worry arising from fear of more loss. and a sudden lack of certainty in ongoing strength and the beauty of this human life.
But when things do get tied up in cat’s cradles, I go to the source of peace, of fortitude–my faith in God. And pieces will begin to fall in place once more. I disengage from anxious energy, become renewed in soul and mind. It is superfluous, this worrying snag. So I use my rescue procedure from nagging thoughts that are distorted and magnified.
What really matters most to me? I ask myself again. Get back to basics. God: God’s creative genius, God-ness alive in others, and living God’s way of compassion with courage. The power of that is what brings me back to fresh possibilities. To my good sense. It is a sweet medicine of hope, clarification of calmed mind and heart. I am not alone as I go on.
It seems easy to doubt; I am not immune. The world appears to be shattering about us in pieces that fall and fly, strike randomly and stymie the desire for well being, much less happiness. There is simply more horror than we can take in, begin to understand. Threats of worse and the specter of helplessness test our resolve to stand firm, try to do what is good and true. To speak up, help one another, to just keep on and seek better answers. For perseverance is a big part of finding the way. We cannot afford to give up; so much is at stake. But to trust that innermost compass (or share one that works well), have some faith that what is better and best about being human will yet illuminate a way ahead. Why not stand up, trek forward? Move as if you know where you are going–you likely do. Or will learn the lay of the land as you proceed. And, too, there are moments of sheer synchronicity that come into force and aid us.
Not surprisingly, my son texted me as I finished this: “In Montana! Great time! Heading toward Yellowstone!” My daughter, too: “Doing fine, in Alabama, heading to Atlanta.”
For now, all is well. This is what I hold close. Whatever comes will arrive moment by moment, hour by hour, day by night by day, as before. And if I have the good fortune of being here, I will meet it. If not, then with God, in any case. I am not ever utterly lost. I know where home is and it is here, within, where it always was.
The Minthorns had kept a house on the wooded rise beyond wildflower-overtaken Lazy Meadow for three generations. The big rambling domain, Minthorn Camp, had been the talk of the farmers and the town for the first two and part of the third. But it had lost much of its rough-hewn grace and prosperous sheen, sadly evident by the time Earl Minthorn, II, left behind all earthly toils and gains. Now it looked weary, as if it had a hard time trying to keep up mere appearances. But Myrna was working on it.
Garth said it was hopeless when he drove up the rutted road, looked far and wide over sun scoured land and when he ate breakfast in the breakfast room and remarked on a lack of fresh flowers at the table because they’d drooped their blooms in a gasp of surrender due to record heat. The sturdy roses folded into themselves sooner than they should have, only some regaling under a brief rain here and there. Watering properly got very expensive. The place had come to him disrespected, even damaged
“It’s going to waste, nothing I can do about it,” he mumbled. “Look at those tenacious weeds edge of even the yard. When is there enough time to tend to all those?”
Myrna looked past him and at a ridge where a shimmer of light seeped through trees, spread like honey along the grassy horizon. It gave her a shiver every morning she could see it, every dawn she walked the hill.
He was not even complaining to her, but Myrna somehow felt responsible, as if she should be getting out there on her knees and wrenching them up from 100 rolling acres. Of course she did plenty, besides which most all was leased now, which was a good thing. But that still left ten acres to keep up. Which affable Roger Dell did on week-ends, and after his own long days, to the chagrin of Terri, his wife. But they were given two good-sized plots on the meadow’s south side and grew the best strawberries, raspberries and many vegetables. It had kept them nicely fed, made them a little cash. Plus they now stabled their horse at Minthorn’s for free.
Myrna bit her lip, then retrieved the coffee carafe from the bright, high-ceilinged kitchen. She leaned on the counter, tucked sweaty hair behind her ears. It hadn’t changed so much in her view; when she’d married Garth it looked much the same. True, the pictures he’d early shown her depicted the wealth of previous generations–that freshly painted, proud exterior, the beautiful stone work, carefully tended gardens, a maid in the long formal dining room and cook in the pantry. Rich acreage that prospered so well it was legendary. It was so big and beautiful in those shots it scared her to think she might actually have to live there. Then Garth explained it’d declined and she felt relief and ready to try it. There was nothing in her background that prepared her for such a place, but she knew how to keep order. How to work hard as she had on her grandfather’s humble land in the summers. And, too, make improvements others didn’t notice until done, how to learn fast what was needed.
One thing was saying nothing when Garth was caught by the web of discouragement and remorse. Maybe if he’d been a lawyer like his father, or a horse breeder and trainer like his grandfather (a side business), or an investment banker who made a fortune to bring back home–then things could be different. The cancer had taken so much money, and so soon even the will from his father.
Instead, Garth taught at the state college both American history and world culture (he was still trying to get that right) classes, as well as one economics class he hated, driving 45 minutes each way. Earl, his father, had belly laughed when he’d told him he was going to be a professor. Surely, he wasn’t serious–but he made his own way. Later, he thought living at the old place would be better than college faculty housing. When Earl passed four years ago following a grievously long battle with cancer, Garth and Myrna moved in.
“I should sell it, just unload it. You’ve done a great job refreshing many rooms…we might make a little now.”
“Maybe not decide today,” she murmured. “Maybe walk with me tonight, find ways to enjoy the land.”
Myrna poured a second cup, a hand placed on his shoulder. He tugged at her fingers then touched his lips to them. Her hands were that rare combination of smooth and strong, hearty enough to split wood. They’d met at grad school, yet here she was, trying to make him happy as she labored to maintain a 5500 sf dwelling (counting the guest cottage, but not counting barn with stable, and sheds) when she might have been teaching, too. But art history classes weren’t available for her to teach there. She had plenty to do, she said and he witnessed. If she wasn’t removing old wall paper, she was pruning trees and shrubs; if she wasn’t stripping wood, she was deterring mice from nesting in the attic.
He should be there more. But there were not only classes but multiple meetings and student conferences and papers to grade. It was enough to keep him out of her way and the place out of his mind. Until he came home.
“Aren’t you lonely out here?” But he knew the answer. She loved it more than he did.
He finished the cup and grabbed his sweater. It sweltered in the house even with strong cross breezes and multiple fans, while his rooms at work were air conditioned to an icy chill. He turned back to ask something about the fence but wasn’t sure what it needed now. She gently pushed him toward the door.
“Stay cool as you can, don’t work so hard.” He kissed her on the cheek and lips, then left.
Was she lonely…she could not imagine being less so, she thought, as she cleaned up and banged the screen door to the back. There were chickens not far off that she’d insisted they buy when they moved in. But did she wish he felt about this place as she did? Yes–it was his! Perhaps living a life more privileged caused you take things for granted; maybe it was the good and not-so-good ghosts of his past life, family he’d loved more or less. But she was fully engaged in the plan; she wanted to see it prosper. If he’d just hang on and not sell but keep faith. If he was home a bit more to actually roll up his sleeves, not just criticize.
Even Roger wondered if his old friend had given up, and said so one day as they’d shared a beer on the back veranda. Then he’d apologized.
“Sorry, Myrna. A Minthorn has deep pride in place. His father would have done more if he could have. I don’t think Garth will abandon it.”
He didn’t say, “And won’t abandon you, either,” but he thought it and wondered why. He shook off a ripple of unease as they gazed at the sheer blue prelude to twilight. She was smiling; that was good.
“See you tomorrow night to check on those fruit trees.”
“Thanks, Rog–what would I ever do without your help?”
He shrugged and tilted his hat at her, then turned on scuffed toes of his boots. “You’d learn, you’d be alright,” he said over his shoulder.
Her husband brought the young woman by one Saturday morning when a class had been cancelled due to air conditioning repairs. Myrna had forgotten they were coming by as she painted the cottage’s second bedroom. The ramshackle but appealing 1200 sf house was a quarter acre east of the house and she had walked there early to finish the task, naming birds as she went. It was true she’d had the idea to rent it out. Garth had mentioned he might have a potential renter. And then they were in the open doorway.
Garth smiled broadly as he flung wide his arms in the bedroom.
“Myrna, Sherrie Evans. Sherrie, my wife Myrna.”
Myrna wiped trickling sweat from her brow and stood to face a woman taller and younger than she, with a mane of streaked blonde-red-brown hair, a pale hand (with topaz ring on a finger) thrust at Myrna.
“Good to meet you–this is gorgeous!” She breathed in deeply, despite the prevalence of paint fumes
“Well, come on in– I guess you’re looking to rent awhile?”
“The rest of the school year, at least, and as soon as possible.”
The student–so Myrna deducted–swiftly apprised each room with enthusiastic commentary–“Great color and designs for rugs, walls and curtains, you must be a decorator!” –and in ten minutes said, “I can use one room for a studio, yes. When can I move in?” Her toothsome smile was a thousand watts.
What? Myrna thought. An artist?
And so it was done. The rent money was reliable because she was not a student, after all, but taught at the college. Fundamentals of Art and ceramics. Myrna looked at the woman sharply then; she did admit she missed teaching. Also, time to create more than restored houses and chicken coops and middling flower borders. She tried to not think of it because she enjoyed most she was learning and accomplishing.
But now Sherrie would be using their home to make whatever she wanted while Myrna scrubbed dirt stains from her fingernails and got up to tend hens in early morning.
Furthermore, she thought as the woman left, she didn’t like her laugh. It was brittle, could cut glass if she pushed it a bit more, her gaiety underscored by a recklessness. Also, what was with all that hair half-obscuring her eyes–was she hiding something? Or just into over-dyed long hair? And why did that matter–why was Myrna bothering with her? A tenant was what they wanted. The cottage was not that close to the house; she could be avoided.
“Well, she needed a place and will pay good money!” Garth hotly protested as she raised questions. “I checked around, she’s responsible, has taught there three years, is quite pleasant–look, you don’t have to be best friends! ” He gave her a thoughtful look. “I thought you’d like the fact that she’s an artist, too. It might be nice.”
“I know, I should be grateful. I am. It was so unexpected, just like that! Did you put up a notice up? How did she know about it?”
“I mentioned it at lunch when she complained of her roommates.” Then he glanced up at her quickly. “Well, it was an impromptu birthday lunch for four college staff, she was one of them, and I was invited by a guy in my department so I went–we started talking about rentals–“
“Okay. It’s done. We can use the money so I–we–can keep improving things.” She picked at a nubby spot on her light sweater and her torn fingernail caught at it. The temperature had cooled considerably since a hard rain the day before; lingering clouds yet kept the heat at bay. She wanted to leave and take a walk. “Just so I don’t have to be that friendly with her. I have work to do. She seems so extroverted–for an artist…”
She released a tight laugh. She wasn’t going to whine about not being able to work on her massive paintings or research about 18th century silk weavers or study her students’ critique sessions. She lived at the Minthorn Camp, it was where she needed to be now. And wanted to be. Here with Garth, after all.
If Sherrie Evans’ money could keep things running better, why not? She just needed to stay out of Myrna’s way. And yet her chest tightened a bit and her mind felt murky as a stirred up pond.
“If he’d talked to me more about it, I’d have felt better prepared to turn over the cottage soon.”
“That it?” Roger was dragging a birch branch to the side of a shed. There was always more to do but he was getting hungry. “Or don’t you like the idea of that cottage being someone else’s good spot?”
“What do you mean? That was the whole idea when I started fixing it up.”
“You said you might use it down the road. A refuge, was that it? And for your art work.”
She swiped at the air with her hands. “Oh, that, just a fantasy. Like a getaway for when I had time to read or draw or sit, listen to mice dance about and watch leaves drift to the ground in autumn. Right.” She looked at him more closely. “And we get along fine, don’t you worry about things. We just need our space at times. Or, I do.”
“I’m not worried about you and Garth. But now this Sherrie gal has put her mitts on it while you have all that extra space everywhere else– but you feel cramped? Go figure, Myrn! ”
She tried to punch his shoulder but he took ax to branch, then she piled up the cut pieces until they were done.
“I can use this pile if you don’t want it. Or should I ask Garth?”
“Go ahead, you know he won’t care. But it’s more psychic space, not literal space, I need sometimes, you know? Away from Minthorn energy, but also constant household chores and the yard’s mess. The cottage was a hidden treasure when we moved in–neglected and forgotten but waiting to be shined up and loved–by me.”
“Ah, she speaks her truth.”
“Oh, Roger, give me a break. I just like my solitude.”
“I know, now you won’t have the cottage for sure. I’m sorry but nice that rent will be coming in.”
“Yeah. I have one week.”
He took his handkerchief and wiped damp brow and face, then his neck and chest where a chambray shirt was unbuttoned a few inches. She gazed at the spot, then past him at the fence that required repair, then her eyes returned to him. He folded up the handkerchief, resettled his baseball cap and hitched up his jeans. Roger was six foot three and if he didn’t work outside so much he’d be thin as a willow branch. He was a telecommunications lineman all day, then often came to help. This had gone on the last three years. He never griped about it.
“You got anything to eat? I haven’t had sustenance since after noon and my stomach is howling.”
“Salami and cheese okay? Just salad and sandwich today, I didn’t go to the store. Garth will be home by ten.”
They tromped through swaying wild grasses, crossed over Kills Creek where a man was attacked by a cougar years ago, past the barn where Roger stopped to check on Pal, his (really, his daughter, Lou’s) horse and finally past the cottage.
With its lights on.
“Why are those blazing right now?” They climbed up five new steps to the back door.
Sherrie was inside evaluating square footage.
“Hi there, I’m just measuring rooms since I move in next weekend.” Sherrie ushered them in.
“Sherrie, this is Roger, a friend who works for us. Garth gave you a key already?”
“Hello! Yes, today.” Hands on hips, she surveyed the living room. “I was thinking of my couch size, and then chairs over there and my buffet here and the dining table might be big for this area and what about my drawing table?…”
She nearly glided in low golden sandals to the other side of the room.
“Well, please don’t move in before the lease start date. I still have work to do in the kitchen and out back.”
“Sure, sure.” She turned back to her surmising of furniture and placed one foot delicately in front of the other, like a ballet dancer.
“Okay, just checking. I know you’re signing the lease tomorrow. So… just please lock up.”
Sherrie murmured something agreeable, flipped the surfeit of hair over her shoulders with both hands, stretched her arms up high and returned to inspection.
Myrna and Roger continued to the house.
“I see what you mean.”
“Not much caring for her….maybe not trusting her, either.”
“Did I say that, Rog?”
“More or less.”
“Sometimes I think you know me better than Garth.”
Roger stuck both hands in his pockets, sped up so that she had to run a bit to catch up. It was true, he probably did.
“Wait up, the sandwiches won’t be all that good!”
“Like fine cuisine to me!”
From behind he was outlined against the vibrant sunset, and how confident the set of his shoulders, how natural and easy in the landscape as he pointed to Venus suddenly sparking at them. She’d occasionally thought they might have more in common than she and Garth but what did that mean? They had become good fiends, perhaps best friends. They were both nicely married. He had a lovely child, a good horse, a job he liked, a pleasant home: it was a good, full life. And so was hers. Minus child and horse, both of which which mattered less to her than an art studio, she admitted. Minus husband rather too often, which also mattered somewhat less than she’d once imagined.
When she was considering getting ready for bed the next night, Myrna did not look at the clock. Nor check the driveway and peer down the long road that ran circuitous like a snake unwinding its tough, attractive length through their land. His and hers, Minthorn Camp.
Garth was to have been home for dinner but he called and said he was meeting Sherrie to sign the lease–he’d be home before long. It was far too late but she didn’t care when he got there–she knew all she had to know.
She was putting away his T-shirts in the dresser drawer earlier. They weren’t lying nice and flat and socks were bunched up, so she took them all out to organize. There at the back was a folded receipt, then one more, then another, and more. Garth saved receipts for work so she tossed them in the wastebasket, reordered the underwear but as she did so kept eyeing the receipts until her hand followed gaze. He filed such receipts in his desk drawer, not in a dresser.
They–eight of them–were from Palatini’s Food and Spirits. She’d heard of it, but they’d never been there; she wasn’t fond of Italian food. When she studied the credit card, she realized it was not a regular debit card but his credit card. The one he used for emergencies or big purchases. These purchases were meals, two meals each time and dated over the last four months.
Myrna lost her breath, time and space fell away; she grabbed the bedpost to keep from sliding to the floor. She put head in her hands, leaned toward her lap, took in slower breaths. She was not going to faint over this. She’d already sensed it: Garth was meeting someone and it was not for work.
She slipped on her Teva sandals and ran outside, leaned against the nearest tree, body going soft as if defenseless, and searched the sky. Nothing but a wash of soft blue-black, stars and ever more stars and a three quarter moon that glowed so bright she could see dry, brown grasses bending against the weathered fence. She felt relief: to know the truth, not be afraid, to know her gut was right despite rational excuses. Two tears slid down her face but that was all, and they dried fast in the heat of the wind.
Then she got mad.
She reached for her phone.
“Hello?” He sounded a bit annoyed but resigned.
“I know it’s getting late, but can we talk, Rog? Or will Terri be mad? I could use your help–I’d be glad to explain to her, too.”
“Terri and Lou are at her sister’s in Utah for two weeks, remember? It’s kinda late so what’s this about, buddy?” He wiped his face of sleep and got out of bed.
They shouldn’t have done it, of course, and if they’d have thought about it a few days and Myrna had let her mind settle and clear, heart becoming quiet as it tended to be, they might not have. But they went ahead with it, changed the locks on the cottage front and back doors. They could barely stop laughing on the way way back to his truck, then said good-bye with somber faces. It was no laughing matter. Roger wondered what on earth Garth was thinking and Myrna, was dumbfounded by a deep sadness.
When Sherrie arrived with her lovely possessions in a rental truck, she couldn’t get in. She called Garth and proceeded to yell, fuming like a child who has been denied. Roger and Myrna watched her carry on from their vantage point in a wooded stretch by Kills Creek. The not-to-be tenant waited for her–Myrna said it right out loud– lover. They couldn’t hear much but the activity–or lack thereof–said it all. Garth came to a a roaring, dust-swirling stop at the once-hoped-for-trysting spot and took Sherrie into his arms, then stomped around the place, trying all windows and doors. Then they were gone, each in a car, one after the other. The rental truck sat as evidence.
Myrna had seen far more than she’d desired; they skulked deeper into woods, then parted. Nothing was said, though Roger had reached for her and maybe she wanted more than anything to fall into someone’s arms–no, his arms–but she did not. Instead she returned home to wait for her husband.
Roger Dell drove all the way home singing loudly with the radio, not a song he even liked. It was better than the feelings he felt, heart pounding like wild hooves against the dirt.
The two of them, Garth and Myrna, dug for and found enough love and good sense to recover. It was also the pleasure and grip of Minthorn Camp, one place that belonged to Garth, and he to it. And the woman he married was not someone he cared to harm or lose again, and he told her he’d spend his life proving it. He knew that place had become part of her, as well. He found himself teaching better, returning earlier and in search of Myrna.
But Myrna didn’t believe or care if Garth proved it; she was simply there despite the pain. It had become her home. That was the half-answer answer she had for him; any more would take loads of time. So she finished up the cottage. She moved in and turned two rooms into one airy studio space. There she captured time enough to make large acrylic paintings that were a wilderness of colors, and to refine new skills in botanical drawings, their lushness made more potent by exacting lines. There was the research for articles she was determined to publish again. She went back to the big house only after she sold an article months later.
Roger stayed on part time at Minthorn Camp. He needed to work the challenging acreage; he had grown up roaming it with Garth and their friends. He liked the extra money he now was paid for his labors. It accrued over time for a second horse for Terri (as expert a rider as was he) and himself to share. He hoped one day for a third, maybe more. The Minthorns weren’t the only ones with a respectable history with horses.
And there was Myrna, wasn’t there. She was learning to ride–Garth didn’t enjoy it after he’d fallen as a kid and badly broken his an arm– and it was taking much effort and time. She was not quite at ease on the back of an animal that knew its own mind better than did she. Myrna needed extra help, they both knew it, and Roger was careful as she got better–and gained back ground. Before too long they rode together now and again, sharing a beer and a sandwich after each comforting, victorious ride.
My two older siblings and I spent a few days together recently. It’s a welcome yearly occasion. One is a musician/photographer/world travelling brother, one a retired executive director of social services sister–and, of course, me. This is unlike the more frequent “three sisters’ trips” and visits shared with our oldest sister, now gone. And the last time we met in 2018 was after our older brother passed. (So this year it is only us, down to three from four, and before that, down to four from five.) Since it is a more rare occasion, our get-togethers mean that much more. We swap stories, share food, take walks, nothing fancy. Sometimes it is enough to just be with siblings; lots of chatter can be less important than you might suspect.
In some ways, this year’s gathering was as usual, mutual changes noted. There have been a few since we are older, as expected, and still it can hit us as surprising. After all, we grew up together, and it can be easier to hang on to how it was than meet the present head-on. But there it is; we are the same if different and it is likely to continue this way. That we are siblings will never alter; the ties are deep.
I doubt anyone accurately predicted we’d become who we have been, done what we’ve done, and ended up in our respective spots. Though since I am the youngest of five, I can’t say I recollect entirely what Wayne and Allanya (and the others) were like when I was a child. Five years younger than she and seven younger than he, I tended to feel they were a set, like semi-twins; the oldest two sibs were the same with one and a half years’ difference. I was out of the primary circle of four due to my late arrival, and how I saw them was through a lens of the littlest one who looked up to them literally, and otherwise. I trailed them about, happily but was called a “pest” often if also was routinely looked after and taught things helpful or not so much, blamed/teased and generally, at the very least, tolerated. I forged my own ways and world as they grew up, while I remained a kid a few years longer. By age 13, they had all become college students and I was alone in my room and with my thoughts. I saw them infrequently after that–until my later thirties or so.
Wayne, as I think back to our childhood, seemed quietly and warmly outgoing, helpful with many friends, and he was good with kids. Like all of us, he was from an early age a string player–viola–and played in orchestras as well as with the rest of us and our father in our impromptu gatherings. Allanya laughed robustly and this drew people to her. She adored animals but had just cats (enjoyed then lost many, played a mean game of softball (as did our other sister). he had chosen cello to start (as did our biggest sister and I) then switched to flute and then, happily, bassoon. We all sang, at church and in school; I sang with a pop trio and performed in musical theater productions and wrote and performed songs with a guitar. There were so many stages and musical performances we all were involved with, they blur in my memory. Music was our common denominator–and all arts were considered of great value from childhood on. The same is so today.
My sister and I were close but fought as siblings can. She packed a mightier punch; our parents would have been horrified to know we had a few actual fights. Three of us sisters shared a room. When it was only Allanya and me, I was by default the underling, scapegoat and accomplice. I was her comforter when another cat was run over in our busy street, and when her heart was otherwise broken, a repository of dreams and struggles.
A favorite scheme was when she wanted extra food, typically dessert–she’d she’d hand it off to me in a napkin under the dining room table so Mom didn’t see. (She tended to heavier while I have been more skinny–still fight to keep on pounds.) I knew that meant I was to somehow whisk it away to our room and hide it until later. It worked, generally, if I didn’t eat some of it first. From this experience I was learning part of my role.
When I was a teen it meant that even when no one else knew she was gay, I did, before I understood all it meant. I, of course, told no one after I saw her, a college camp counselor (I was a camper, not in her sphere) with another camp counselor at an arts camp. I kept mum until she officially came out, then eventually legally married the woman with whom she remains. (I admit that after that, I said less about my own romantic yearnings of the guys in my theater class or in orchestra; later I realized love was love.) Once I mailed a box with many journals to her for safekeeping, then we threw them out later. She shared the truth of matters no one else suspected. We grew closer, also had fun together when visiting even though she left home, then moved far away. We had learned to trust each other greatly. We are, in fact, still best friends in the way we can be.
She taught English a few years but found her true calling within social service agencies, whether helping people with HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues or pregnant homeless girls or teen runaways or battered women’s shelters. Her skills included advocating and organizing as she oversaw massive community work, and also did fund raising for millions. In the meantime, she ran side businesses–rebuilding/restoring furniture, buying and selling turquoise jewelry and other collections, investing in real estate and flipping renovated houses. My sister has always loved being busy accomplishing something. And, she’d agree, making money–it was a pleasing challenge.
Was this what our hometown folks expected of her? I think they thought she would be a teacher like she’d planned (and likely married to a man). But she did formally and informally educate others about important social matters.
Unfortunately, Wayne and I have not been as close. Inevitably, perhaps, because he is male; we simply shared less time together–though there was affection– as he roomed with our older brother (though they were not too close). He also spent more time with Allanya in school or musical events. He was tall– at least six feet to my five foot four inches–though everyone was– and he moved with a casual grace. I believe he liked tennis, and was thrilled with a good game of ping pong. And he swam often, loved to dive until he sliced open his head and got a concussion when slamming a diving board on the way down. A terrible day.
His enjoyment of the water coincided with mine and so we’d swim around and past each other in pools or northern lakes; he might show me things as we dove off a raft or board. His serious accident, frankly, did not deter me from working on my own swan and jackknife dives and flips, even from a high dive board. I figured if he could master these, so could I. The accident was “just” an unfortunate pause; he recovered. Then, in winter, we sledded, tobogganed, ice skated and built forts from which to throw monster snowballs. I was quick if not the biggest, and knew how to compete! Mostly, I admired his congeniality and his talents from afar more than from up close so am delighted that has changed over time.
But we all got separated year by year, went to different colleges, landed jobs, married, moved to other cities. Though I did live with my sister a year in Seattle after high school… truth was, I was given a one way ticket by our parents to stay with her after I ran into trouble with drugs, and wrestled with PTSD from past abuses. We lived in a great mossy cabin on Lake Washington with an artist she knew who also became a longtime friend. It was at the lapping lake on a half acre of land. We smoked pot and made art and music, studied eastern religions and had philosophical discussions into the early morning. It was 1969; that was how many of us lived. My sister did alright in work and life. I didn’t make much progress as I racked up hours at an A&W drive in restaurant as a roller skating waitress, and hung out with an older, wilder bunch, a guy who loved his motorcycle and partying. I learned about drug dealers and drug dealing and often looked out across the lake and wondered, in tears, who I had become and how I might reclaim what mattered most. Yet we sisters had each other’s backs no matter what. It should have been better for us both. I might have styed and enrolled in college there, but did not. We remained in close touch after I went back to Michigan.
My brother, meanwhile, had taken a required ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program in college, and later entered the Army though he held a music education degree, a minor in history. I did not think we had much in common and was likely correct. While I had been railing against the Vietnam War, he was overseas enmeshed in it and what we hippies called The Machine. Then, when he returned to stateside, he was not the same. There was a stunned stillness to his typically animated self and it scared me. Yet he stayed on with his Army career many years.
Was this what people would have expected? He might have been a choir director, an historian, or a teacher of music theory like our father. I don’t think most would have expected him to become a career Army officer but it made sense to him and he did his work well.
It would take me decades to get to know Wayne again, due to differences in our lives but also actual miles between us. You, too, have to build a habit of genuinely engaging even with family (maybe especially). When I did visit with him, I watched, listened, shared what I felt I could, though some still felt too private. I waited. Over time, life got less arduous, more normalized. I visited him on the East coast; he flew out to Oregon every year or so to see us four sibs living in the Pacific Northwest. When, for my 60th birthday, my siblings bought me a ticket to celebrate it with them at his home (with his second wife, whom I enjoy) I felt enriched with the growing appreciation and love. It was one of the best family gatherings I’d had, just being together a few days. And we later met up as much as we could.
Wayne has traversed the world constantly since he and his wife retired from the Army. It is as if their stops at home are a brief respite before they return to lives they more need and desire to lead. It is so far afield from from my life; I cannot keep up with all the countries they’ve been to–most all, some several times. It exhausts me to consider the miles they fly and how they partake of what they encounter but the experiences also fascinate me. I eagerly await tales they share. This last Oregon visit was on the heels of more European travels (lastly Switzerland and France, I think). And I sure look forward to viewing the photos since they are both fine photographers.
Wayne got engaged with his passion as a young adult when he was stationed overseas; he snapped and developed black and white pictures then. Some of those wartime images are moving. haunting. Since then he has studied, learned and exhibited often. It has been a pleasure to see how his work has evolved over many years.
He and his wife have been professional string instrumentalists and vocalists; he recently retired from rigorous performance work. I am sure he will still sing for special occasions when he called to do so, as he loves music, still. As we all do, in our way–how can we not? It is in our blood and heart. But while he continued to perform, I did not, but left it to raise a family and more. And sometimes that feels like a very large chasm between us, though we talk music, embrace it together, nonetheless.
I have shared much of my life here so it is known that I was a home care manager for elder care/disabled adult services for a few years, then was a clinician mental health/addiction treatment field for 30 more. And raised five kids. I didn’t reach certain goals I had growing up. I believe Allanya and Wayne have. I’d guess my emotional and physical trials were of a different nature than theirs, and fall-out less private than my siblings’. But I am first to praise them and so enjoy being their sister.
Would people have expected this life for me? My close friends were likely just relieved I stayed alive– and created some happiness. And as far as the career, I think some would while others may have expected I’d seek a life of performing. Having a big family? I doubt it. Writing more than this? Perhaps. Life happens and we often plan around it, just live it as it unfolds- I do not regret it. There is good in this living every single day. There are lessons to be gleaned in all changing circumstance. I am a willing student, and a seeker of Spirit and so I go with the river as much as I am able.
My family makes a patchwork design; we have all kinds, of course, with many so-called eccentrics or to use a modern term, “creatives”, with unique perspectives. Dysfunction or any significant challenges also impact members differently in any family. People learn to adapt, survive, strengthen and find healing, and it goes better if they use several resources and work at it. I would say the three of us have recovered from much if not most all of our woundedness over time. We let go of more with each year, I feel. No one can know for sure, even a brother and two sisters, what we have lived but ourselves.
But we are strong and bendable, thankfully. We’ve made or captured countless wondrous moments, taken chances to forge our own way. We also share a heart for others. Our passion for fine and performing arts is primary; we value and respect differences even if it demands much; and we believe in a loving Divine Power, a genius web of vast creation. This, despite scars and remaining secrets we must sort out or release, our defects and weaknesses and those failures to do what might have been much better to do or say. Like every family, we are so fallible individually and also as a whole.
Wayne had to fly back to the East coast after 4 days; Allanya and I, of course, remain in Oregon. She has worsening dementia, almost unbelievable and yet she is herself, who she always was, and we flow with her flow. She remains amazingly good-natured, and does realize she has short term memory loss and confusion. We talk about it– and many other things, as ever we have. It all began with several car accident and resultant concussions but has has evolved into a quite foreign illness we are trying to grasp and accept. This has not been in our family; we are new to such necessary understanding and are improvising as we learn more.
Our brother and I are not sure what is next. I am here, while he will be there and yet we will figure things out together. It is hard to accept at times that what or who she knows today she may not know or be able to share the next day. Or even the next hour. Wayne and I are the last who can remember much of the family’s past and also this busy present–and will hopefully for a long while. He is 75; I am 69. And blessed to feel well, overall, well engaged in living. He will again be travelling to, I think, South America to start with, along with his equally adventurous wife. And they will be taking more photographs.
I will be tending babies and my family, enjoying friends as I can, taking my own impromptu photos and writing with time stolen, and immersing myself in nature’s gifts, as ever. And praying for more strength and grace, please, Lord.
I gave a last-day-of-visiting barbecue for some of my kids and their partners and my youngest’s new baby twins for Wayne last week-end before he left. I found it absorbing to just sit back as my son, Joshua, asked questions about Wayne’s military career inception, how he rose in rank and why he remained in the Army. And if you had been there, it would have been this: a forty-something house painter/pro skateboarder with many scars and tattoos and also beads around his neck–asking his only surviving uncle, now–with sincerity– just what he learned, and more of who he is. And his uncle told him some of that story. And then asked after his nephew’s skateboarding and life. And we talked about other relatives here and long gone, and our genealogy. Life as it is, common, valued.
And how lovely as we sat in the glow of sunshine on the balcony, eating tasty grilled fare, sharing it all and laughs. The company of those I love is so worth keeping.
We start out seemingly empty of personal agendas, hands and minds clean of miscalculation. As a grandmother I can attest to this, and study my twin granddaughters and see only eager and immense possibility for their individual life paths–it is vividly apparent in their searching eyes, ready responses, new skills and guileless anticipation at four months.
My brother cradled each one of the twins, smiled and chatted with them, then he hummed and sang and said: “A flat? Can you sing A flat with me?” And they cooed and smiled at him and maybe, just maybe, one of the girls hummed in response, that note or in its vicinity. This is our family. This is our way of caring. Who will the little ones become? As we all discover, there is a momentum as we undergo a curious series of events, just journey through each hour upon this earth. I feel fortunate to have my two remaining siblings and to witness their decency. To share affection that shapes time and tales. To be able to say, I am one of this small tribe, blood of this blood.
He had vowed never to return to the house, and in fact, it appeared he had not. Looking right, left and behind his shoulder, Thomas assessed the circumference of the front yard and proliferation of colorful growth in it, then squinted hard at steps and door. This was not the yard he recalled, not the entry into a house he knew.
There were not six wonky brick steps, nor uninspired wooden door with peeling grey paint. These blue steps led to a porch that extended across the width of the charcoal grey bungalow. A proper one, somewhere you’d enjoy wasting time. He observed two white rocking chairs with fat floral cushions to entice a passerby. Well, he had come by and here he was staring at the lighter blue front door like he might see through it if he gazed hard enough. He wanted to discern whether he’d made a grave error. But no, the number–76–under one of two tasteful brushed metal porch lights confirmed his destination. No way could it be his childhood home.
But it was. He could hear her voice–high pitched, on the strident side–and rapid footsteps. He used to take one step to her three. And she never quite caught up. Now they were whole lives apart, not footsteps. And if this foreign-seeming house was any indication, he had little idea what he was getting into once he crossed into her domain.
He pressed the doorbell and there were those reverberating chimes. They hadn’t changed. He shivered in the July heat, but his neck was sweaty.
“Coming, coming!” Thudding feet.
Of course, the house had been more or less Keri’s for a year. Ever since their mother had gone into the nursing home and Keri took over her finances and property matters. And that meant the house was also Milo’s, that husband he didn’t like despite having “met” him only once via video chat with Mom and her. Didn’t they have a kid years back, his mother had said? Brent, Brandon? He knew zero about his half-sister’s life except that she had managed to inherit the house, and early–he hadn’t wanted it, he was set on the West coast. Thomas retained only watery memories of being there after 14, when Jim, her father– by default also his due to marrying his mother (who soon had Keri)–had passed.
It rained and stormed for two weeks after Jim was gone; the neighborhood creek swelled and overflowed. But Thomas didn’t cry. He hadn’t actively missed the man, just felt his absence like a deep cool spot in and near the cracked leather easy chair. But he did miss his mother, who disappeared into her room after long hours of work directing things at the shelter, even taking meals there.
Thomas stepped back and turned away, his long, sandaled right foot on the second step down. Toward freedom, away from the past.
“Tommy. I can’t believe you came. After eighteen years. About time.”
Her voice whizzed over his head. The nickname. He cringed. Took the next step down. She was going to start out complaining, as usual? But he had made it this far so turned and faced the whole situation.
Keri was tall like he was, like their mother (Jim was three inches shorter) had once been, and black palazzo pants made her legs seem unnaturally long, with matching black painted toenails pointed right at him, bare feet like when she was a kid. He raised his head, took in a sleeveless top of tiny red and white threads woven through more black. Her arms also seemed too thin and long–wasn’t she supposed to be heavier and look older?–and finally met her face. Bronzed sharp cheekbones, eyes shimmery at the edges. Thin lips stretched into a smile, revealing two crooked top teeth. No dental work and caps yet.
Her sharp brown eyes took in his length and emotional temperature. She looked like an exotic snake in good clothes. When she moved her bony hands, silver and gold bracelets jangled. He suspected those were Mom’s; she used to wear the same type, he suddenly recalled.
Something inside him sank.
“Keri,” he said, forcing a half-smile. “It was a quick trip from the hotel, so I’m here.”
“Don’t just stand there, come in, Tommy. Please. You look decent, I have to say, but quite hot. We put A/C in awhile back, come on, cool off.”
Keri held open the door and he dodged past her. Talk, talk, talk that was Keri despite their rarely communicating all the years gone. As he entered the foyer it fairly gleamed. Polished wood floors reflected light that floated into the living room to the left, down the hallway on the right toward the kitchen and right up the stairwell on far right. The walls were no longer wallpapered, but beige or grey. He froze, tried to meld the old house with all that was before him, and the pieces didn’t wedge together. It was like a stage set or a rented retreat.
“Lots of changes, I know. Here, come through to the dining room and kitchen–that massive wall was taken down–and have a good drink. There’s time to talk, right?”
Why was she being courteous, not sharp-edged? Mean, really, was the word for her back then. Why did she ask for him to come insistently the last time and then demand it after he visited his mother this week? Their mother, right; not just his. And Keri had looked after her the past many years, hadn’t she?
“Still like iced tea with a lemon slice, or something else? I’m out of booze.”
Thomas thanked her and sat. He could glimpse the back yard through the windows and averted his eyes. His one place of happiness, he realized, was right there all those years as his mother mourned, then let her anger seep out as she dealt with Jim’s gambling debts that left them living hand to mouth. Keri knew that was true, but she’d always left the room if the topic came up, hand slicing the air, a refusal to accept.
He didn’t care to gamble; he saw it wreck so much. He wondered if she did. Likely not; the house looked too stylish, clean.
The dining table was made of heavy glass and rich wood. He flattened warm hands on the surface as she got the tea; his palms left damp outlines so he put them in his lap. He felt like a schoolboy, clumsy even as he waited, impatient for it all to be over.
The smells were different in recirculated, chilled air. Well, of course they would be. His mother had left the house years ago. She had taken her cheap but good violet perfume scent, and her baking scents and daily fresh orange juice scent and her used books and garden flower scent. Now there lingered random smells: fresh paint, scented candles, furniture polish and stark white lilies–a fragrance of funerals–that stood tall in a clear blue vase before him.
Keri returned with two water-beaded glasses clinking with ice cubes. They were round and small, like tiny golf balls. They had once enjoyed put-put golf, down the street, he mused and shook his head clear.
“I thought I’d never get you to stop by. All the years you might have…when Mom was feeling better, or to help when she was moved one place to another.”
“Well, I’m in California and you all are here in Massachusetts. Now I’m here, Keri. And why? Mom still has time to live, if not a great life, a decent life taken care of by us both. I knew she gave you money oversight and the house, basically. I’ve not argued about it, I don’t care about all that. I don’t come here to see you because it isn’t necessary. And I would rather not. I visit Mom a couple of days every four months–you know that–then I leave. “
“Mr. Big Shot, eh? So busy with hot music, your decadent partying life, is that it? No real time for family even when they need you around…Okay, yes, there’s a reason I wanted you to come.” The words were spit at him.
She threw him a dagger look, those cheeks sucked in more, but he ducked internally, leaned back, legs sprawling out under the table. She leaned in with her glare, then swiftly looked away.
He wasn’t here for more drama so maybe it was time to go.
“Oh, stop. We aren’t kids now. This is why I didn’t see you, in case you forgot. Your blatant lack of acceptance, those well-placed words of derision. I don’t drink now, anyway. Though that isn’t relevant.”
“Well, huh.” She frowned, confused, as if this wasn’t part of the script, then almost smiled. “Nice, good for you. Me, neither. Not since Milo left.”
“He left you guys? When?”
“After Mom went into the nursing home. He’d had enough of everything, her illnesses, my bingeing, house needing too much work and the money of it all. The yard and foundation dug up due to a rat infestation and rebuilt, replanted. Can you picture that? It was the final straw; he’s lazy, self-centered by nature. So he moved out, filed for divorce. Also ,Brad isn’t so easy, he has issues like preteens do, I guess. Milo sees him every other week-end now.”
She turned sideways, looked to the yard so lush and green, then shrugged, and her eyes were unblinking as she fixed on him. “But that’s enough, more than I should have said. What about you? Now that you came, at last.”
Brad, her boy, how old was he? Thomas struggled to recall; Mom sent him a school picture a few times. “He’s almost ten?”
“Last fall. Will be eleven.” She twisted a dark wave around her finger, an old self-soothing motion. “He’s pretty musical.”
Thomas started, sat up. “What does he play?”
“Can’t decide. I am not yet encouraging him.”
“Of course not, you wouldn’t want him to be a good-for-nothing-musician like me.” He laughed despite himself. “What has he tried? What does he love?”
“A few things, trombone, drums, guitar. You should ask him.”
“Is he here?” He looked out the windows, over the rooms. Upstairs, waiting them out? He saw a baseball glove on a chair, a bat in a corner, and he felt a tinge of warmth for what he’d loved, too, long ago in this place.
“No. He might be later.” She sipped her tea, ice cubes tinkling as she swirled them. “I used to wish I could turn this into rum and Coke by swirling it enough. Like an idiot. It got bad, you know…”
“Mom said you had a few too many here and there and I knew there was more to it or she wouldn’t have said so. But I get it, no judgment. I was stumbling off-stage near the end, missing gigs. Got six years in.”
“One, with a daily counting.”
She held up her index finger and he wanted to give her a high five but sat quietly. He noted a crisscross of lines etching her dusky skin. She weighed too little, she looked too worn out but she wasn’t 15 anymore.
“I’m so sorry for it all,” Keri said, bottom lip a quiver, then covered her face with bony tapered fingers.
“Wait, Keri, just wait.” He shifted taller, held up his hands, palms facing her.
“Just let me say it, just this once, and that will be it!”
“Okay–but you have to know it was more than rough those years, what you said to me over and over. How worthless a brother and even a son I was, how stupid to not pass Algebra much less get on the honor roll like you, to not even make the football team. How horrible my trumpet playing was no matter how hard I practiced, how glad it made me. How insane I was to think I could make it out there ‘in any way shape or form, so do us all a favor and just give up!’ Remember that? That’s when I left, at 17. I never forgot that I left behind my mother and a sister. But I also bore wounds, had to move on.”
Keri stood up, started to pace about the room. “I know, I know! I was drinking already and Dad gambled so much and then died in the car accident and Mom was down the rabbit hole with grief and depression. And I was…I was…”
“Look, we all have pain to figure out. Get over. I don’t like to look back, anymore. Let’s talk about now, how Mom is doing today, the house, what you’ve done here–how good it looks.” His heart pounded; the room seemed to sway, he felt dizzy. He should not have come, had to get out or suffocate all over again.
She stopped by his chair, and placed her hands on his shoulders carefully and her pupils opened wide in circles of dark amber. He thought saw the start of tears so he closed his own eyes. He missed that her eyes cleared and were calm.
But she didn’t quit. She never did.
“I was lost, Thomas. Afraid, angry. I needed you. I didn’t know how to tell you so I pushed hard, and then away from you, from all. It was wrong but it happened.”
“Yeah, far away.” She let go of him and sauntered to the back door. “I left and traveled as far as I could go,” he called after her. But he got up and followed.
She was in the roses. Bushes and bushes of them, narrow paths in between–thick blooms of red, yellow, white, pink, peach. He knew their mother liked to garden, then less and less over time. And she hadn’t planted more roses, he didn’t think. Everywhere Thomas looked now there were pops of color and trees grown mammoth, bushes and flowering things new to him. And two wood benches, a small burbling fountain and a trellis with climbing red roses.
It was impeccable and beautiful. A haven. And it was Keri’s hand that fashioned it, gave it all that was needed to flourish.
“Amazing,” he said, “a heavenly place here, alive.”
And then she joined him.
“You appreciate the fruits of my labors? My pet project, a way of keeping Mom engaged for a few years though she mostly directed and scolded from a bench. But she loved the result. I’ve found it just the thing for me after draining work in the Emergency Room. So much blood and ruin traded for so much hearty life. Let me show you around.”
After the tour they were silent and rested on a bench.
“So, why did you insist I visit now, Keri? Besides trying to make amends…which we both need to finish, I guess.”
She ruffled her dark bob. “I’m–we are–selling. I did all this renovation, with Milo’s help and Mom’s fiances, of course, in order to sell it. I don’t want to live here, anymore. Brad and I need a change, a home of our own. Mom is okay with it, and she can use the money.”
“I’m about to put it on the market. I wanted you to see it, and also to ask you–would you care to buy it for investment purposes, maybe? Or maybe you’d like part of the profit since it has great value now, really top dollar for the area. I mean, even Milo may get a small cut. You should have something of what you’d like from here. Right?”
He took a deep breath, released it in an admiring whistle. “You’re offering me our house or money? Wow. But I don’t need or want it, Keri. I left so long ago and come here to find so much changed and for the better. It’s yours and Mom’s to sell. I’m actually glad you’ve enjoyed it. It was not a great place to be for so long. Now it shines, Keri. The ghosts may have fled. Not toxic enough for them, anymore.”
She laughed. Not a considerate or restrained laugh, but as he remembered, from the belly, mouth wide open, head tossed back. Her hand grabbed his forearm and he laughed with her.
She smoothed her black pants, checked her finely lined palms and fingernails so short for gardening and her emergency nurse work. Both hands then collapsed into her lap, finally at ease.
“Yes,” Thomas said.
“So just sell?”
“Keep the money, you and Mom. Not so sure abut Milo…”
“I think you should accept some.”
“I don’t want any, Keri, you know I do well. If there’s something left over, you and Brad might fly out to my beach place for a visit.”
He heard himself and was shocked by his own words, as was she.
“A real vacation in California, at your house?”
“Mom! Who’s out there? Did he come?”
Thomas twisted around to see a young boy, lanky and dark haired and bright eyed, hands in pockets, and his cap with its bill backwards.
“Come and see.”
“Is it Tommy? I mean, Thomas Haines?”
He elbowed Keri.”Tommy, always that Tommy.”
He stood up and extended a hand to him and Brad who came right up to shake it hard, smiling.
“The famous musician from California!..My ole lost uncle! I have your music, too! Hey, I play trombone. Brass, like trumpet.”
Thomas raised an eyebrow at Keri; so that was it, then, for the kid. Like when the trumpet found him, love at first note.
They gathered at the outdoor table, swapping more history. Keri and he were agreed that Jim was a man with heart who went terribly wrong with addiction to gambling, and that their mother was a codependent who loved them the best she could. And she had suffered more than they knew. It was a lot to say and harder to accept. Though he was interested, Brad went inside, his interest waning, and the notes from his trombone sounded true as they wafted through his window.
The afternoon melted into evening so they cooked spaghetti, sausages and fresh green beans. Thomas couldn’t say it was all easy and natural. It was randomly awkward, at moments felt strange to be around her like regular family, as if they had not suffered and learned to sometimes hate or drink into stuporous states– and given up on each other.
And they did all that here, and now they were starting over within an altered house. And it was changing them, sitting at the table across from each other, talking of nothing much yet some of much else, sharing a simple meal, making plans for their visit to his spot on the Pacific Ocean. He’d make the time. Finally, he could make a little room for them. And he saw himself get right in the mix.
It might have been a coincidence that things turned out how they did, but maybe not. But we were enjoying the sea air, visiting from the city. We always stayed a week at Burke’s Beach in July, maybe two if Len had enough vacation time. So our minds weren’t on random people, they were on each other, for once, and the rolling waves, and welcome sunshine eking through the clouds. It had stormed the night before; the air was thick with leftover moisture. My hair was going nuts, wild and curly. Len said he liked it that way–he told me this every summer there. It was good for us both, that beach town.
I had, though, noticed the guy on the bike earlier. He was weaving back and forth along the walkway, a bit wobbly, maybe tired out, undecided where to go next, wasting time. But a grown man–I guess it did strike me–on a kid’s bike. Maybe he borrowed the bike from his son. Once he zipped past us and we were distracted by other things I thought nothing more of him.
I never saw that young gal strolling up the sidewalk. If I had, I would’ve looked twice, sure. It isn’t every day a grown woman carries a baby doll under her arm– in public, anyway. When the gossip started its rounds, she–who we learned to be Elaine Moss–was a huge focal point, so I knew I’d missed the boat as the whole thing unfolded. But Tole Tolman, the bicyclist, took up much of the daily rag’s headline the next day.
Yet we were there and it feels odd we wouldn’t have known more. A person on a bike who vaguely caught my attention–Len pleads ignorant–partly because his jacket was peachy, hair bleached blond. Well, I’m a hairdresser. I notice these things. Possibly female, I’d considered, then settled on male–but whatever people are, they can be, no matter to me. Then Len suggested we find that new good restaurant, not go back to the old fish and chips joint so heavy on the grease. His stomach doesn’t welcome grease, though he loves his fish and chips. I didn’t want vacation ruined by his nagging ulcer so we turned away before that woman started down the sidewalk.
But I glimpsed her moving toward past the guy, blithe as can be. Len, too. A bit of a swagger, but mostly moving fast, a day out and about. And then the guy on the bike slumped over, fell off the bike–so they said later. We’d turned to stare out to sea, then heard commotion behind us, a yell, feet scurrying. Len turned abruptly, then tugged at me, saying, “Let’s go, Denise, we don’t need to be a part of any scene.”
Of course I wanted to see what was going on–how can you not want to find out the details when something unusual occurs? Not Len–he took my elbow, rushed me away as I craned my neck to see a group growing.
He’s very clear on priorities. That’s why he’s successful; he knows when to get on it and when to let the world run itself. That is what he tells me: “Let the world do its own business, we have our own.” He’s not like me. I volunteer for things, participate in gardening club, book club. Hands-on sort of person. Len, he’s hands-on mostly when it benefits him, mostly. But I fell in love with him thirty-six years ago and still feel he’s the one.
So we left and started a search for the restaurant that would make us both happy, and soon found one.
At the corner table with the fresh white candle lit and shining between us, we enjoyed companionable quiet after ordering. The place was attractive with simple, gracious surroundings, deep greens and tawny beige. It was busy but not overly busy for a Wednesday night. I admired the window sashes and curtains and while I leaned over to examined the material I began to muse. Or as Len calls it, overthink–but what does he know of people matters? He’s a manufacturing guy, likes machines and numbers.
“What do you think happened back there?”
Len looked at me steadily. He knew this was not going to be put to rest with a simple shrug. “I guess the guy was ill and fainted. Simplest deduction.”
I considered. Maybe that was why all the weaving. “Like a diabetic, perhaps like that man who fell over in front of our house a few years ago? Went into insulin shock or something? But what else was going on…?”
“How would I know? We left, the right thing to do.”
“I saw a woman walking past. Wonder if she helped him–someone did, for sure.”
“I saw her, too.” He smiled faintly. “Had a doll with her, carried it in her arm. Like it was half-real.”
“Oh, you saw her coming, then. But with a doll. What sort? And why?”
“People do odd things, Denise. Maybe it was a gift though it wasn’t dressed from what I could tell. I don’t think it had a bunch of hair. Really, there were more interesting things today than that little scene, don’t you think?”
“Well, you got more info than I did!”
“One and only time, I suspect.”
Our salads arrived and we dove in.
More interesting things? Maybe not. We took a morning swim–chilly and fast–and strolled around the town’s rose gardens, read after a picnic lunch, stopped at a wine bar for a couple glasses, rested at our cottage, then headed out to the boardwalk area. Now, dinner.
The snippet of a scene nagged at me; I wanted to find out more. Len has always said I make much of little but the fact is, life is chock full of tiny nothings that add up to something bigger. As a hairdresser–had my own salon for twenty years–there were at least ten ongoing stories daily. People were walking books, needing to be shared, in my opinion. And we could each do with more listening and observing. But that’s just me, going on about things, as usual.
“What did that guy on the bike do when she was coming along the sidewalk, anything of interest?”
Len waved his fork lightly in the air, pieces of avocado, romaine and red onion falling back in his bowl and on the table. “You should’ve been a detective, for crying out loud. I don’t really know–give it a little rest, darlin’.”
I fell silent, stung, but then he put his two big feet aside my small ones and winked at me, silvery hair flopping over his lined forehead. I sighed, slipped off a golden sandal, ran bare toes over his shin and chuckled with him. Our conversation moved on. The night got its lovely glow back. That’s what our vacations are meant to be about.
Burke’s Beach Weekly blared its unusual headline as I grabbed it from our doorstep. I carried it to the patio out back, reading as I did so. Len poured our coffee, then slipped a steaming omelet on each plate.
“Man attacks woman, steals doll: arrest swift,” I read, then looked at him, agape. “It’s the two we saw yesterday! What on earth…”
I sat down and Len scanned the paper over my shoulder, then sat back down and began to eat. “Enjoy it while it’s hot,” he suggested but I was busy absorbing the news. I finished the article, sighed hugely and took a fast drink of coffee, scalding my tongue and letting out a gasp. Len was a third done with breakfast and he paused, his small grey eyes held mine, thick brows aloft.
“Tongue stings now. So it says that one Tole–Tole?– Tolman, the man we saw, pretended he fainted, then suddenly grabbed Elaine Moss by the ankle, tackled her to the ground and forcibly took her doll. There was a tug of war over it but he got it loose from her– in one piece, I gather– and hopped on his bike and away he went. But someone had watched them, called the police and he was apprehended. And the doll was valuable, apparently, but more than that, it had belonged to Mr. Tolman’s aunt. It was her favorite of a collection. She had raised him, it says. She had some money. The doll was sold off in an estate sale–to that Moss lady–and he had despaired of ever finding it again. So when he saw it, he took it.”
“Despaired, really? Your word or the paper’s?”
“Well, it had been his mother’s childhood toy… he was very sad to have lost it… but anyway, Elaine Moss collects dolls and owns a shop outside of town. She was taking it to get clothes made for the baby doll. I wonder how it fared. And why she didn’t just give it up to Tolman. Money?”
“Such fanfare over a doll! A grown man attacking a woman, robbing her of it. Unusual, wouldn’t you say? Life is strange, Denise. I’d personally rather not think much on it.”
I began to eat, thoughtfully. I had a mind to visit the shop and wondered if it was open after the press coverage.
“I know, Len, but it keeps things interesting.”
“So you say,” he said, and got up to pour more coffee in the big white mugs. “I know you’ll have quite a tale to offer when you get back to your salon. But the thief was arrested and charged, I imagine, and the woman recovered okay, with doll intact.”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“Well, justice done.” He shook his near-shaggy head–he loved my hair wilder I loved his untrimmed–and bent over a book on production methodology, discussion over.
But I wondered.
I walked down two short side streets until I came to the store. Moss and Wright, Emporium, a painted blue and white sign stated, elaborate scrolls along the edges. It was open and I went in, the bell on the door chiming my entry. It was busy, a couple of men and several women milling about with items in their hands, talking softly among themselves. I hadn’t heard of it until now, a shop of wonders. It had to be new since last summer.
Everywhere were shelves and tables and displays full of brightly colored and textured items, a variety imported from other continents, also antiques and beautiful, random odds and ends: refinished or painted furniture pieces, lamps of all sorts, pillows fat and small, lovely jewelry here and there, fabrics and ribbons, glass vases and candlesticks, tea sets, old books and magazines that were a bit musty and more. I needed nothing but had my eye on a necklace when a sales woman stopped by. Not Elaine Moss, I surmised due to different coloring.
“May I help you find something special?”
“I’m new to the shop, is it just opened?”
“Just last September.” Her hand fluttered to smooth her bangs, which were wavy and thick. “So glad you found us–so many have come today…” She tried to look congenial but barely succeeded, and there were crinkling lines creeping about her young eyes, and skin as pallid as if drained of natural blush.
“Ah, the news– everyone from out of town reads the newspaper,” I said.
“I’m afraid so. You didn’t come to see Elaine, too, did you? She’s not in today, nor tomorrow.”
“My sympathies…no, but I did come to see all the dolls.”
“We don’t sell dolls–just a couple now and then. She keeps a private collection, under lock and key due to their value. Surprising what antique or rare dolls can bring.”
“I see. Like the one Mr. Tolman tried to get?”
“No, well, that was different…” The woman peered at me, eyes narrowed. “You with the paper or something…?”
I found myself stepping back, gesturing with palms up. “Oh, no, we were just nearby right before it happened, coincidentally. I’m just wondering what it was all about. I mean, a doll doesn’t usually warrant an attack, does it?”
The woman’s head swung around left, then back to me. She was again composed. “Odd timing for you. Perhaps you should contact the police, they might be interested? Excuse me, someone wants to check out.”
I wandered about then went back to the necklace. It appeared to be made of sterling and tourmaline. It would go with my summery dress purchased just for our trip’s last nice dinner out in a few days. Pricey but not too pricey so I decided to buy it and went to the back of a small line.
Two women in front of me spoke in low, exclamatory voices, easy to overhear so, of course, I listened in.
“They say he is, you know, mentally challenged. Not right, anyway, and at some point he was sent away–to be raised by the aunt. Who was also Elaine’s, I guess.”
“Oh, really. The same aunt? They’re cousins? He robbed his own cousin! Of a doll! How peculiar.” She giggled. “I wonder if he was in love with Elaine as a kid or something!” The woman shrieked, hand clamping her mouth.
“Shhh! “The first whisperer glanced back; I stared at the necklace, so she resumed. “I don’t know if they’re related, exactly. Ask Carolyn Wright, that’s the business partner up front. Yeah, inheritance issues that finally got to him, I guess. He still lives in the deceased aunt’s house, but who knows when he gets out of jail. He might end up homeless, poor thing. Elaine Moss has clout, you know she married Hugh Moss. Gorgeous woman, too. Anyway, no one is going to leave valuable things with someone who is so–well, odd… maybe even actually gay. Certainly he comes up rather mentally short!” She turned to her friend. “Hey, maybe she walked right past him with that doll on purpose, you think–to shake him up?”
The friend put a hand on the other woman’s arm, stifling a laugh, and they shook their heads in unison.
I cleared my throat loudly and stepped forward. The women turned to look at me. “Moving along, aren’t we? Not gossiping about such sad news, are we? I mean, really?…Come on.”
“None of your damned business–no doubt you don’t even live here, right?” It came out tartly, one hand on the rail-thin woman’s hip, but the two gossipers moved forward. Nothing more was uttered despite my wanting more than anything to lay into them both. When they purchased their items they loped past with cold glares, arms linked.
I studied the gleaming necklace, fingered it gently. Thought of the man on his bike and the woman–his relative–walking right by him, the beloved doll thrust under her arm, its presence taunting him. Who knew exactly why it meant so much to them both? Why he had to get it any way he could? It was more than a little painful to contemplate now as she recalled him weaving about on his too-small bike, his peachy jacket loose on a thin frame, his blond hair too bright in the clouded July light. Alone. A man born with less, perhaps, than he may have needed or surely desired. A child abandoned, a man unaccepted and brimming with needs– and once more left behind.
It was all too terrible.
My cheeks burned with embarrassment that rapidly felt like shame. I had been too curious, full of a hunger to glean more–personal details that were not even mine to know. I had looked askance at the man on the bike, perhaps, and had a few of my own unwise ideas. I was not so pure of intent. And I had listened a long time before having the courage to say anything…I shook my head in an effort to clear it, stepped out of line, put the necklace back on its display and left the store.
The air had become crystalline, the temperature had risen. I noted sunbathers and swimmers swarming the beach as I approached our modest, dear cottage. I wanted to go lie down, hide my head awhile. Feel only the fan sweep salty air back and forth, the ocean’s energy hush my writhing thoughts. Not even talk to Len, who would, mercifully, then go back to the patio with wine and book. And just wait.
The next morning Len snuggled up to her, fresh from his shower. He knew better than to awaken her but her eyelids quivered, then blue irises and dark pools of pupils peeked at him. He planted a soft kiss on her cheek. He didn’t ask how she was. He didn’t ask for anything. Nor did he expect continuing silence from her as she rolled closer.
“It just goes to show what you can learn,” she murmured. “Even at our age.”
“You seldom know where a person’s story begins or ends and you’re lucky to know any of its true middle parts. But you also can learn more about yourself in the unfolding. I’m going to remember that when I get back to the salon.”
Len liked that thought but frankly, he didn’t know entirely what it meant to her this morning and watched the yellow flowery curtains flap in the breeze. He did know she had a good heart and a very inquisitive mind and he adored her. He wrapped his arms about her but she pulled back to look at him better, then seemed satisfied and found her place within his embrace.
“Thank goodness we come here every summer–maybe we should come in winter, spring and fall, too! Why not?”
“I second that, my darlin’ Denise,” he said, a rush of relief underscoring his chuckle.
They remained just so, soft belly to rounder one, wrinkling chest to pudgy parts, until the coffee he’d begun was done perking, its sharp, happy fragrance filling the place with its welcome.