Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Whispering River

She didn’t know why the river said things to her it said to no one else but she didn’t question it. It had started when she was five, the way its talk reached out to her, told her things with the ease of breezes skimming the rippling surface.

Today Dina was twenty-five, to her surprise. Nothing had changed much, not the watery offerings or her little house or distant, industrious neighbors or the life in the river that knew many secrets and gave much to people. Its tumbling, flowing, often unpredictable energy seemed nearly like her own blood in her body, a nourishment, an ancient force coursing into and out of her heart. So she never ignored its language and it spoke to her every time she was nearby. Not always did it make sense but it offered music if nothing else. And its vital spirit took from her all her awkwardness and fear.

One of the few who accepted her river secret shares as nothing to get too excited about was her aunt. She fished so much, she knew the river talked truth; it was correct in things that mattered most. For Aunt Tandy, that was bodily sustenance and common comfort.

“It talks different to each one of us, see. It tells me where to put that line and hook and when the best times are.”

She nodded at Dina, eyes on eddy and swirl of chilled water, her muddy wellies washed clean as she went a bit deeper. The two women were dressed in wool sweaters, oilskin jackets and sturdy pants and usual boots but snow had not yet fallen again. Instead, it had reached 40 degrees; the lush white blanketing of woodland and meadow from the previous week had gone dingy, from patchy to nothing.

Aunt Tandy was never one to expect the best of things, except with fishing. But she was a moderate, even yielding cynic. This day was a bonus before ice fishing started om the lakes. She’d predicted for the winter cascades of snow and high drifts and days, even weeks of no electricity–“but do we really need it when you get right down to it?”– and a lack of general services as well as contact with others. She deemed it a decent momentous winter, not the worst.

“I’ll get basic needs met. No distractions, just daily upkeep of the cabin. Got a couple of seasoned cords lined up.” Her laugh rang out and one arm flung out to indicate their surroundings. “Oh, the snowshoeing I’ll do!”

Aunt Tandy went on like this, as though Dina didn’t  know full well about her independence and work ethic. The buck she had shot already. Her famous toughness. The woman was fully skilled in nature if not a good fit for most people. She had friends and enemies, both but never married, never worked inside, never tried to fit into the community of Marionville. And she’d counseled her niece to do the same, ignore the general populace with their boring opinions, and be glad of it.

That was easy to say. Dina lived among those who chattered and that meant gossip. It meant she was expected to interact. She spoke little and listened to everything. There were many who strove after all money could buy and an elusive true love– while she strove to live simply. Alone. If you could call living on the hill in the woods being alone. There was never a lack of creatures or activity around her. And there were other solitary ones not far off, including her aunt. And Jasper Dye. And Heaven Steele down the lower hill.

“We’re alike but not alike.” Aunt Tandy droned on, “the same blood but runs in our veins in different ways, wayward tributaries of a big river.” She smiled toward Dina then held fast to her pole, responded to a tug on her line and reeled in the captured fish. “So what about your birthday, Dina? Hey! Another fine rainbow trout, I’ll fry ’em up for you later at Jasper’s.”

But Dina had begun to climb up the muddy slope and didn’t turn around, grasping branches to pull herself up until she reached the path. Her jeans were damp on the back from an earlier slip, and her thin blond hair straggled over her eyes; she shook her head so it fell away from her forehead.

She had heard the river; she would pay heed. It was whispering about Jasper, that he was in trouble again with no one near.  It disheartened her. He toiled in earnest while his son stayed too busy in town. 

Nonetheless, she’d stop first at home, have a strong cup of coffee to burn off the chill. Fortify herself. She didn’t like to rush into things, to bother others until she was ready. People were not that easy to be around and not always glad she arrived out of the blue. Heaven Steele certainly understood how that was but she was gone, in Chicago for business again, an exhibit of her unusual wind chimes and paintings. She’d one day suggested Dina might accompany her but it was shocking to consider. Dina would never set foot on a plane. Heaven smiled at her, as if there could be a tiny possibility, anyway.

She would not leave Marionville, the land and its river. Not unless it was for a funeral, like her mother’s burial last year. And how relieved she was to be home, even though it was only a four hour drive down for two days and then back. Her one close friend, Jean, a librarian, had gone with her.

She always thought it best to know her limitations. To work with what she had. To stay true to her purpose and needs; that worked best. She could not be any other as well as herself, no matter her imperfections. This brought her peace where illusions only hampered her. Her life was what it was meant to be.

Her house was not a house in the usual manner but a large shed that was more attractive than one expected. It was enlivened by a deep periwinkle blue, pretty ivy crept along its front, small windows were trimmed in black. A rock-lined path led to a dark blue door. Towering bare oaks, a scattering of birches plus an ancient willow bounded the deep, broad yard. It had been a gardening shed and then added onto for a dog kennel when Dina was growing up–her parents had bred collies for years. 

When Dina was eighteen, her father took off for the Upper Peninsula. Her mother finally left with Linc Harlen, her friend Mary Harlen’s estranged husband. That didn’t work out but her mother stayed downstate, left the place for her to deal with.

So, Dina rented out the main house which sat snug to the road for income while she renovated the reasonably sized shed-kennel, added a simple bathroom and minimal kitchen courtesy of the Jamison brothers. She cleaned their place twice a week for a few months; it was a good bargain. The small wood stove was Aunt Tandy’s generous offering; she sided with her niece on the decision.

Dina wanted nothing to do with that house which her mother stuffed with so-called collectibles, a slew of vintage clothing and moldering magazines and bad memories. Even after she returned north to sell off her things or to sort and ship them, all Dina could see and hear was her father roaring at them both and worse, and her mother roaring right back. The mess was in them to start and it spread. It had been important to stay quiet, be transparent in a room, even more than when Dina dragged to school her worries and her growing stutter. She was mocked daily.

And so it took nothing from her to rent it out; it just brought more freedom and cash.

The stove top percolator burbled away. Warm coffee aroma swept away her pensive mood. Red the orange tabby sidled up to her while Big Dog relaxed on the huge worn leather chair. The place was now a one room home; she’d partitioned off one end for her bedroom with two folding screens. She had lived there for seven years and it suited her. Once Jasper had inquired as to whether she was going to stay stuck there forever or if she had thought of taking the family house back and renting out the cramped shed. He said summer people and hunters would pay a good price for it, though.  She’d studied him with brow furrowed until he rubbed at his beard and mumbled, “Well, then…sorry.”

Dina was happy there. Nothing went haywire, nothing made life harder than it should be and she could count on it to be a solace every day as long as she took care. As long as her animals were healthy. And she was left to live as she pleased.

She could only talk alright with her two trusty pets.

“I’m good, right?” she said to Red and Big Dog as she poured a mug of steaming brew. “I have a part-time job sorting and shelving books at the library. Get to read every new book. I have Jean as a friend, Heaven and Jasper. My aunt. It’s good. And you two are also family. But here is this birthday business…you don’t even care. Me, either…”

She got up to put more wood in the wood stove and wondered about Jasper, if his health was taking a dip, if it would hold out. She knew it might not be so sterling, anymore; he was battling loneliness, getting older than he admitted. She worried sometimes.

Today the river had seemed to indicate there was time for her to take a break, so she was, but then she should be quick. The river often offered her both yes and no, this way and that. Nothing was really clear but the currents of pale blue-green when it didn’t storm. Every movement had a counter movement and she had to let it settle in her mind. But her impressions got stronger one way or another if Dina was well focused. Listened beyond whisperings for more revelation, the core of the warning.

At five years of age, when playing by the river banks, she drew back in alarm. She heard from the roiling water, she’d almost told her parents, that a day later Mr. Jamison’s back might break as he did barn work. She had tried to say this again on the fated day: he’ll fall, he’s falling, crying. But when the frantic woman couldn’t sort her daughter’s stuttering words, Dina began to run the distance, pulling her along until they got there and found it to be about true. He’d fractured many bones as he thundered onto the floor and was ever after plagued by back pain and dizzy spells.

She was afraid of the river awhile, as it seemed to never happen other places, and she was afraid to say anything or to say nothing. What if she was wrong? What if she was too late? What if she imagined things like some said? And too, she was afraid it would only tell her bad things. It wasn’t to be so. Dina and the running waters cared for one another . She spent hours on its banks; later she entered the tricky flow for fun or work and learned more of its ways.

Dina liked primarily to talk with animals, mostly her own; she never stuttered–and didn’t have to say one thing. Her job made silence easy, too; everyone knew she didn’t speak unless necessary. All that extra help hadn’t helped her talk well so she was the quiet girl in childhood and youth, then the quiet woman.

It could be restful near Dina with her graceful manner. Her expressions, if guarded, were kindly or noncommittal. So it was all good unless a person was put off by her separateness, the sudden odd pronouncements with a harsh staccato language, and so found her presence unsettling. In that case, she was avoided and this was more frequent than not.

Everyone knew to let her be now. She finally found her life safer than she could have imagined.

Big Dog yawned, emitted a groan, then put his head on his big paws while Red sniffed about her feet with a tiny meow, tail waving. She savored the coffee as she closed her eyes. An image of Jasper came: his leaning back in bed, mouth tight, blankets pulled over his eyes. She got up and gave them each a pat and smoothing of fur, took a last lingering sip of coffee, then set the mug on the round wood table.

“Must go, lovelies. Keep watch.”

She put on her jacket, shut the door fast so neither would get out to follow her.

It wasn’t far to Jasper Dye’s, ten minutes on foot. She had thought about driving but running came naturally to her and she had good stamina. It cleared her mind; she became acutely alert with the steady beat of her boots upon the ground, her breath traversing in and out, in, out. He owned a truck; she could use it if he needed more help.

When she entered Jasper’s neat house, Rags the mutt jumped on her excitedly, then trotted to his bedroom with a whine. She found him lying in the darkened space, and was still a moment to feel the tenor of the air. It felt urgent but not so dire as she had feared.

Jasper thought he was seeing things, an apparition. He was dying, he had probably crossed over. Yellow hair alight with brightness of day, a face round with concern, hands on his forehead like pale flowers lain over his sweaty skin, a poultice of flowers and mercy, mercy and flowers of coolness, tenderness…light of life, balm for pain… 

He was too warm under the blankets and he flailed his arms, awash in hurt. She felt him cringe at his imagined weakness, these damned migraines that plagued him more lately or was it some fever or worse? He felt aflame with it, floated in an endless field of sharp stings and stabs that banded together to torment his brain, his body alive with it. He felt the room upside down but her presence righted it some. It had begun three hours ago, had dug in for forever. Where were the magic pills? Where was the end of it? He moaned, heard her speak to him on light waves, sounds carried on a fanning of air… He remembered this: he once visited Florida, sat on a dock, all breeze and sweetness, a bouquet of warmth and salt-tinged scent.. but again that pain, a drowning time, he was sure to meet his end even if he was no longer utterly alone.

Dina found his pills, coaxed him to take two with sips of cool water, then they both sat with him, Rags and her, waiting to see what came of it. She watched wintered sunlight fade, the branches outside grow blacker; saw his breathing slow, his brow smooth. Time melted like snow. She idly wondered about Aunt Tandy’s prediction, if they would have to live by candlelight this winter. Smiled at the thought.

“Dina…birthday…?” he said as he drifted, less tormented as exhaustion took him away.

She patted his arm, smoothed back the scrappy grey mane, studied his good country face. He would be better in a while. For now. He had to do something about this malady, he was under its command. She would talk to Heaven Steele when she came home to see what she knew. What could be done to work out his dilemmas.

“A fish fry…for you, you’re …so…so…”

He fell away from the waking world. Dina put the kettle on to boil and sat a spell more by Jasper’s bed, touched her lips to his broad, veiny hand. Told him he would live to be quite old, no getting out of it.

A sharp knock on the door. Into the stillness rushed Aunt Tandy and Jean.

After they assessed the situation and peered at him, Aunt Tandy put the fine trout in the refrigerator.

“Best not to worsen a man’s condition with fish cooking when he can’t even eat. Good thing you stopped by to check on him and give him his pills! Some big pain, eh? They need to find a cure.”

“It’s h-h-hard since his w-w-wife p-p-passed….”

Jean loped over, hugged her friend, then slumped her six-foot frame on the couch by Rags. “What a birthday dinner. At least we have my salad and warmish buttermilk biscuits. Tandy made you a pie. And it’s toasty in here, thank goodness Jasper made a fresh fire in the wood stove before he got hit with it or we’d be unthawing him bit by bit.”

“Sp–sp–” Dina stopped and went to the cupboard for the box of pasta Jasper always kept on hand. She held it up and announced, “Make this!”

The other two women cheered in subdued tones lest they awaken Jasper, their host, now deeply asleep. Jean got out three bottles of beer for a toast to Dina.

“Here’s to my best friend, the finest, most courageous woman I know!” Jean loudly whispered.

“Here’s to the only niece I’ll ever need around, strong and true as they come!” Tandy intoned in her alto voice.

“T-t-t to t-t-twenty-f-fii—Oh, more life!”

Dina lifted her beer and clinked it against the others as the kettle whistled and Rags yelped in agreement. She shivered with pleasure, knew the coming year would work out right, any way it came.

Still, she would go to the river early in the morning, as was her habit, to hear what she could hear. Then do whatever she might do.

Jasper stirred in the darkness, pain like a film negative, dim and more frail, at last. He heard the murmuring of love, din of laughter and ole Rags’ delight and knew he was saved by the charity of friends, the strong comfort of good women. And Dina, the quiet one, strange and lovely child of the river–Dina had known what was needed once more. He’d cook up that trout for her tomorrow.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Better Times

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Photo by Vivian Maier

“Sure, there have been better times, I’ll give you that. But this life is manageable enough for me.”

She stubbed out her menthol cigarette in the hotel ashtray and looked out the window with interest, like something compelled her to study the brick building across the alley. In truth she was avoiding his eyes. It was like a tick. If he looked at her more than five seconds without blinking she would dodge his gaze. Her own son’s eyes could make her skittish and indrawn at once. He ought to be used to it. The view next door was safer. Maybe a curtain fluttering with a tabby cat peeking out, or a pigeon perched on a windowsill staring over at it. Or a fat man with a fedora in his hand as he looked back at her. She’d said on the phone she’d seen such a man. Maybe by now they were friendly in that wordless way city neighborhood people can become.

Her son made a face at the sooty ashtray. She’d carried that thing from place to place for so long. Starlight Inn, it said. Once it had a navy blue background with three stars stamped white against it and the name of the place. Now the design was obscured by relentless heat and toxins from cigarettes smashed onto it for four decades. It was stolen from the place where she and her new husband–not his father, who had died when he was five– took their honeymoon on Cross Island. Up north, the Great Lakes and those inky green forests. He’d been there once, years later, on his own, just to see. It looked like a dump by then, or maybe it always was.

“They could be much better now, is what I’m saying, Ma.”

She tore herself away from the view, eyes flickering over him. Grunted. “By joining you and Marcy at the new place? The latest three bedroom suburban delight?”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant. The extra room at the back, it could be yours. A bathroom next to it. The second bedroom is now our office, you know.”

“I’m featuring it: almond or dove grey paint on every wall, floors so clean you could lunch off them, grass blades all one length. Neighbors who draw open their drapes on week-ends, maybe. I’d sure blend right in that decor and neighborhood.” She laughed a tight laugh. “I’d be a timekeeper while you two were working, counting down minutes in Dullsville ’til the front door slid open. We’d say our hellos and chat about…well, what? I’d season the beef, cut up carrots, onions and potatoes alongside your sweet wife, then you’d watch your big TV and I’d soon after disappear to a big bed. Then we’d start all over again.” She lit another cigarette. “Thanks, but I mostly think not.”

“It’s not safe here, not even in reliable shape. Did the mice come back or are they rats? I’m calling that bum landlord of yours again if one more is spotted. What about Apartment 19 down the hall, is the ex-con still hunkered down? And don’t forget how Murray died right at your feet last February when you were taking the garbage down.”

She swept grey strands from delicately lined cheeks, then bore into him with a narrowed look. She could peer into him yet he could not do the same. He was ready for a calculated zinger. But then she only shrugged, the tension leaving.

“Murray lived a good life. That was exactly how he wanted to go, boom. A gift, that dying was, and I’m happy for it and him.” She took a long drag, blew it out slowly, and it ended in a coughing spasm. “I miss him, yes. But Bernie, he’s too old to act all criminal anymore–he minds his business, I don’t care what. I’ve got better things to do. And nicer neighbors, we stay busy.”

Here we go, he thought, the litany of days and nights rich with entertainments and fulfillment.  He pushed his window sash up higher so the smoke wouldn’t choke him and waited. When she only shook her head, got up and set the kettle on the flame, he looked out her window and saw the tall fat man, sans hat, his beefy arm resting on the ledge with a can of something in his hand, a paperback book held open by the other hand. He also saw a woman two windows up take off her dark coat and raise arms over her head, stretching with all her might. Her yellow sweater came off her waist a couple inches; she suddenly tugged it down as if she knew someone saw. It was live theater here every day, apparently. he remembered how that was, the amazing density of all kinds of people, the great palpable energy, and guessed that was why his mother still loved the inner city life. Plus she couldn’t smoke if she came to stay with him. She maybe could smoke far from his new house. She’d only quit once when she was pregnant, she had told him. Then gave in to the urge again, never thought of stopping since.

The good tea cups were taken from the shelf, the ones that held barely enough to wet your whistle. They had pale blue flowers around the rim, a touch of gold trim. They were left over from a past wherein she had a full set of china, there was a decent dining room and friends shared meals and stories. He was the one who carefully fit the candles in heavy glass candlesticks for company. When he was nine she let him also light them. They cast a honeyed light across the oft-bleached, off-white tablecloth and shadows danced about as invisible drafts pushed the lithe flames this way and that. He loved that moment before he was given the next chore, maybe running his toys to his room or fetching a vase for her roses just cut from the little yard. It became a heavenly place, he thought, food cooking and his mother’s strong voice calling out to his stepfather Teddy to remember folding chairs in the closet if many were coming, and then soon the door chimes ringing out. Everyone treated him like an important person, or teased him for the “plucky cowlick” on back of his head, squeezed his shoulder, patted his back and smiled when he answered all questions.

And yet, their life was not easy, and it got worse. Teddy was a man of many moods, as his mother told him over and over, but if anyone had asked him, Teddy was a man of two moods: good and bad. But he was excused; he’d lost his own parents and a sister in a fire. That was sad. And it was the reason he was not altogether well–not counting the beers. Still, he worked hard at the foundry. He loved his mother as he could. He managed to help raise him.

“Still,” his mother was saying, “I see what you’re getting at. I’m not young and I have my deficits and the place is falling down bit by bit. I just never was the suburban sort ,you know. I’ve lived down here most of my life, one place after another. Come on over here, now.”

He got the sugar bowl, sat down at the little round table in the middle of the kitchen as she poured hot water over mesh bags of black tea. So, where was the usual listing of daily fun events? Had she edited this part of their discussion today?

“I remember, Ma. I was around, too. A life that was good, overall…”

She sat, too, back straight, and buttoned up two more buttons of her burgundy cardigan. It was bulky on her thin frame, nubbier each time she wore it. The color always lit up her cheeks and he sometimes thought that if he came and she no longer had it he’d have to buy a replacement, as it was her favorite. And his. They blew on their tea and he mused over what to say next. There was a relaxed expectancy in her now that he wasn’t pushing the topic of her moving soon.

“Okay, well, I remember sitting by the stoop on Marsh Avenue many afternoons, counting different colored cars as they went by. I kept a little notebook over the years, I guess you knew that.”

“Sure, you told me how many of each. Showed me the columns of marks. Then the makes and models when you got older. You had a memory like a fine sieve, you caught all the interesting stuff. No wonder you ended up a lawyer. Saw variations in a pattern. Had a mind for puzzles. Give you a maze and you made a new way out if the ready-made one boring. My little smart aleck.”

He snorted. “Sounds like you, the mystery maven, and a smarty, too…But you find intrigue where there may not be any at all, am I right? is it entertainment?”

“Sure, intrigue is what life is about–pay attention, you’ll see it all.”She placed a finger alongside her pert nose. “But I can still remember you on that curb, clear as day. I’d have to yell to get you off the damned street curb and go sit on the stoop, what if someone mowed you down? Playing with Pete Callaghan’s cat, what was her name? Sonsie, friendly thing. Remember how you always wore that cowboy holster and gun? Begged me for a hat, then you lost it or a kind stole it, you never said for sure. I hated children playing with guns and still do. But it was the one thing your dad got you when you turned three and you wouldn’t let it go.”

Of course he knew all this and she knew he knew it but she always said it. It was a cap gun and he loved it, shot it off all the time. He and his buddies thought nothing of it as they made a ruckus, chased each other all over the sidewalks. No one got seriously hurt back then, not there.

“It was quieter then, overall, and fewer cars.”

“Who could think to afford a car? Not like today, you with your silver machine –what is it? A Lexie?”

“Lexus, Ma. And it’s taupe. And you’re thinking of an Alexa…”

“What’s that? And taupe! A color to put you to sleep. Well, we walked, it was good for body and soul as well as necessary. Took a bus if it was far and we had too little time. Though it seemed to take longer.”

“I counted a lot of cars on that street. And trucks, buses, motorcycles and bicycles….”

“Things have changed, the way of the world.” She sighed. “But here I am–it’s important to be rooted.  I know what’s what, who’s who, that the store on the corner is still a place I can get fresh kosher dills from the jar and a small bag of freshly popped popcorn for free and a gallon of milk cheaper than the new grocery two miles out. Plus a swanky, bitter coffee,  if I’m so moved. Though that seems expensive to me for what you get, two bucks for a 12 oz. and it’s just in paper.”

“That’s kind of cheap, Ma, but then you’re cheap. Otherwise you’d at least upgrade your walk up. Or at last buy a small condo.”

She pulled her sweater closer to her chest and frowned at him.

“Buy air, you mean! See? Your values have changed. You were frugal right from the start, then you grew up and got professional, married up, bought two different houses already. Now you want me to move in the same circles with you, I suppose. Well.” She sipped as he played with her silver lighter, flipping the top open and closed, then made the flame flare. “Stop, it’s repetitive and annoying. Anyway, I’m not saying it’s bad for you and Marcy to move on–I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished, you know that–but just not so good for me. I guess.”

He put down the lighter, held up his hands in surrender. “I’m not going to keep at you. You know you’re welcome. Marcy and I like the idea of you with us but since you keep telling me to back off and let it be…well, you win.” He gulped down his tea and checked his phone for the time. “Anything you need me to get or do before I head out?”

His mother paused, looked him over with hooded eyes still so blue– then beyond him as if trying to conjure an idea. She picked up the teacups on their delicate saucers, the got up and set to work at the counter. “Can’t think of one thing. Go on home. I have business to take care of, people to call. I happen to have a picture to finish painting tonight, a watercolor of my violets.”

“Good, you’re painting again.”

It was usually flowers she couldn’t plant there; she had a keen sense of aesthetics. He put on his jacket and waited as she puttered in the kitchen, rinsing off this, wiping that. She had energy, good sight and hearing; she was sharp and strong minded. But she was lonely ever since Teddy left her nine years ago, even if she finally admitted he was a beast at times. “But he was the common beast I knew, and not always mad,” she’d said and then looked away.

He’d sent her a postcard of a turquoise ocean, palm trees on glinting sand all the way from Mexico and with an apology. He’d always said he’d do it; she’d always said she would not so he had to go. She wasn’t sorry she stuck to it. And so that was that.

It was a relief when it was finally over. The yelling, his terrible insults, the darkly sad times and in-between times after which the man would be happy-go-lucky for awhile. It had been exhausting and hard work for his mother and him to manage it all. He had wished for her something so much better, no, something miraculous when he reluctantly went off to college and then, happily, law school. Now he could help her at last, and she refused. She would not budge. Like someone who had made a nest where there were few spots left (at least on her small income), she was set.

“I’m off, Ma. Sunday for dinner with us, right?”

“If I am not otherwise engaged, I’ll call you Saturday to RSVP.” She put her arms about him lightly and he gave her a soft squeeze. She hoped it might be veal Parmesan.

Once downstairs and outdoors he stood at his car and found her smiling, hand in the air. She always waved, she had been waving at him from windows all his life. Except when she worked at the neighborhood paper several years. He was a sassy teenager then but he’d discovered she wrote an informative city gardening column. She always made something beautiful of the pinched spaces behind their flats. Now she didn’t have a garden, she had two African violets and a few potted plants brightening up those shabby four rooms. He longed to see her help Marcy work up a boisterous jungle of beauty at their new place. To place fresh flowers on their table between glimmering candles.

She held herself with cold hands and long arms as he disappeared, then took her seat by the middle window. Squinting into the duskiness across the way, she picked up the cordless phone and punched in numbers, then watched until she saw a lumbering figure arrive at the opposing window. The big man picked up his receiver and turned to look at her, settling into his easy chair. She was so tiny over there she almost faded into shadow. He saw the glowing tip of her cigarette so lit one for himself.

“Well, did he convince you to leave yet?”

“No, but it is getting harder for me to refuse and easier for him to persuade me. Though tonight he gave up rather fast.”

“Well, I know, you’d have all the amenities, right? People to look after things.”

“I don’t know if it’s all that. Maybe great home-cooked meals? The possibilities of a garden? Though what I could do I’m not even certain–my knees aren’t what they used to be, Floyd. I deny reality, at times, pretending I’m nowhere close to the end.”

This required no comment; they both had left behind more years than they would gain.

“The odd thing is, today I half-wanted to give in.”

“Let that thought cool a bit, please.” He took a drag and exhaled and she did, too. “I’d miss you like all get out.”

“I’m not that much company over here. But we do have good chats. We need more of interest in our lives than a daily phone call.”

“You’re my one true friend these days, even if I can’t visit you in the flesh.”

She pictured an actual meeting and felt they were better off this way, sweet as he was. “We’re dying off, for one thing. And then it’s hard to meet people that you actually like and that will stay put.”

“You mean, like us.”

“Guess so, Floyd. We are two stuck people.”

But as they talked, she imagined being at her son’s, not conversing with someone across an alley, and it didn’t seem so terrible a thing to leave decades long grime and cranky appliances, the snuffling, scratching creatures of the night and sketchy characters even if fascinating that inhabited her crumbling downtown world. That chill she sometimes felt even when it was heating up fine outdoors. Nights like long circlets of licorice no longer even palatable. Floyd was sweet, a practiced conversationalist who was once a cartoonist. He was quirky, a plus, but he was so fat and severely diabetic it scared her to think he’d soon go next.

Her son and Marcy–who ran a small import business on Fifth and Tallwood–were healthy, of course, kinder and smarter. At least in the way she understood. They just cared about her best. She had to let that sink in, face all of it as fact. They were family of a commendable sort, she admitted it. And her stubborn loneliness fell under a specific category: true home, gone missing. She guessed that meant love.

Maybe when he came by next she’d have boxes and bags packed, the forbearing violets and his cap gun and all. Much would need to be let go but how much did she care about the material world? Little to none. She stubbed out her cigarette and  shooed away the noxious curls of smoke.

She finally said goodnight to Floyd who stated he’d see her in his dreams, unlikely if she was honest and she was sorry he was more alone than she, and wondered if it might be her job to be there for him. But no, not actually so and it was like a smear of sadness to think it. Then she picked up her almost full pack of menthols, opened the trash can and emptied the pack, crumpled the package to toss in. She watched it all mingle with teabags, burned fried egg, stained junk mail and several stale macaroons she had shared with no one, so had forgotten to entirely enjoy each one. The lid banged down. Sunday she’d be as ready as any day to go forth into unknown territory, so time to get on with it.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Samhain, a Celtic Festival and Local Heritage

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I went to a Celtic Festival last week-end and had a grand experience with their version of Samhain. A Gaelic festival, it is thought to have been initiated about 2000 years ago, at the end of harvesting and beginning of winter. Thus, it notes the changeover from summer to winter, from lighter to darker months. and occurs about halfway between autumn equinox and winter solstice. It is believed that the veil between this world and the other world is thinnest on October 31-November 1 and spirits pass through. Ancestors were honored and spiritual or other harm was hopefully warded off with costumery and vivid masks. This, as one can see, relates closely to our Halloween when folks dress in scary or fun outfits and venture into the night for a bit of revelry and treats.

I am part Irish (the common “Kelly” is my mother’s father’s family name) and feel kinship with the traditional music and dance. So, when I discovered a Celtic festival was taking place an hour away I was all in. One of the first things noted was a flag depicting six Celtic territories of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Isle of Man, Brittany–and the seventh noted is Galicia,  (Spain), which apparently has been disputed. I would enjoy learning the definitive conclusion on this, if anyone knows.

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The festival took place in the Spinning Room located within the Willamette Heritage Center, created by the Mission Mill Museum and the Marion Co. Historical Society.  The old woolen mill was established in 1889 by Thomas Lister Kay, and has been well-preserved. A few more buildings from a missionary enterprise (that sought to convert the Native American population during 1834-44) were relocated from a site 13 miles north along the Willamette River. Those photos will be shared later. You will note a life-sized sculpture of a sheep, the creature whose lush wooliness underlay the booming business.

These are a few initial pictures of the grounds.

The buildings and grounds are  marvelous; we enjoyed exploring all day in between festival events.

Marc and I wandered about the cheery gathering, shopping for a few goodies at the marketplace in the Spinning Room of the Mill Building. We looked at the wool and noted the processes required to make the yarn and enjoyed watching a friendly woman spinning.

And saw kilt folding by Eric Chandler as he demonstrated how men traditionally folded and put on their kilts. He noted that his shirt was on backwards–so he righted that. I lack technical language to explain all this so will simply share what was observed. (A last picture of it being draped over his shoulder did not come out well.)

Entertainment was enjoyable, from Gordon Munro the enthusiastic storyteller to a singer and dancer (Brian O’hAirt and Maldon Meehan) who performed sean-nos, a more casual, free and intimate style of Irish dancing and singing, if I understood correctly. They are quite accomplished. And I am ready to take classes!

Even though I’d hurt my knee recently it has been healing well so I impulsively joined in as the ceili dance got underway. The fine band Biddy on the Bench played for us. It was well worth the effort it to meld with the cheerful crowd, people helping one another learn. I have been to one other and hope to attend Portland’s monthly ceilidhs. This time, after 15 minutes the tender knee required me to sit out the rest, though I tapped my happy feet and bounced about!

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This is music and dance after my own heart. I wished my mother was alive and could have been there with us. Edna Kelly Guenther loved a good gathering and merriment and told stories about big and little things in life that I feel no one can match.

Afterwards we strolled about and looked at and in the mill and missionary structures.

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A few pleasing shops shown below are in the above building; we ducked in to get out of rain. Our favorite was the bookbinder shop and Spencer, the book binder’s son who now runs the shop, shared some of his trade and how much he loves his work.

Buildings that stand to the right of the mill area include houses from the 1840s and Pleasant Grove Presbyterian Church from 1858.

We have come to the end of our Samhain Celtic Festival outing and a big thanks to the Ceili of the Valley Society.

But the real Samhain starts tonight. Have a safe and happy one (or Halloween) if so inclined. And welcome a good winter–our rainy season has begun in earnest here!

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(PS You might take a look at a re-post of last week’s neighborhood sights with a touch of Halloween, since the photos then were a bust–sorry for that glitch. Now they can be seen!  Friday’s Passing Fancy: Historic Irvington Fall Mosey )

Wednesday’s Fiction: Life, Amplified

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It was not that she was the most attentive housekeeper but, still, the accumulated dust clinging to spans of webs shocked her. Underneath the bed was not the first place Meredith attended during a once monthly dusting and vacuuming. If that. In fact, she couldn’t even recall when last she flogged the dust bunnies under her queen-sized bed. She shimmied on her belly, retreating from the noxious view, then looked again. There were things under there she couldn’t identify right offhand. It was a shadowy, narrow passage where things disappeared and possibly changed form without her barest knowledge. Truth was, she recoiled from this spot and what had possessed her was only a night-time ghost, a thing of no import, anymore.

She had been looking for a box of photos, pictures the sort examined every few years but not deemed ready for the garbage. They held pictures of a brief marital experience and before that, herself in youthful moments ranging from boring to absurd. And some from university, the fun,  the madness and hard labors.

It had been awhile since she allowed any reminiscence but the night before she had dreamed. Not the usual ones of dilapidated houses with secret rooms or journeys that led somewhere familiar and with a dead-end. She had dreamed of Trevor. And that was dangerous–and had led to pilfering dust heaps for a few old photos in a moment when she forgot herself.  Now she sat on the floor, back against bed frame, and blew her nose. Dust allergy was not a benign one to have in this case.

Trevor Frank was a cellist from university days. Trevor was in fact first chair cellist of their university symphony, and so attractive that Meredith had refused to look at him a second time from her concertmistress’ chair. She had no patience with faulty dalliances, and he had a plague of females trotting after him. Of course, he’d acted as if he couldn’t be bothered even as he appeared to woo half of them–from what she had heard. She was much too busy practicing her violin and studying music theory and composition, performing in a trio plus a chamber music group that required occasional travel.

And then there was music for fun and small profit. Traditional bluegrass, Old Thyme music at a couple of city bars once a week, or a farmers market or crafts fair. A few music festivals for enthusiastic crowds. This was when she woke up and just gave herself over. Not that she wasn’t a serious classical musician, she was just not a thoroughly sincere one when it came right down to it. She had admitted that to herself during second year and began to play bluegrass more. Everyone could see it, that she felt it to her core. Of course, she would. She was taught by experts, her father and aunt. She was not studying that music but classical and it was a hard thing to determine which mattered most. As if that was even possible; they mattered differently.

But all those thrills and conflict came well before the accident. Trevor and symphony and fiddling and degrees–another lifetime. Meredith pushed herself up from the floor and grabbed her cane from the bed and listed to one side, then righted herself and walked away from the dust and the past. She should never have looked underneath the bed, as now she wanted to pull things out. The pictures, the memories. And maybe, just maybe, even her fiddle. She realized again that they all lurked beneath her restless sleeping body, hidden and cocooned due to neglect and time.

Meredith had three violin students in the afternoon, then an errand or two, and after that she had her exercise with the stretchy bands and free weights as she watched the news. But a door had been opened in her consciousness, and it was would not close without a struggle–and then would stay shut with only a much heavier bolt and greater locks. As night spread its lustrous dark upon her townhouse, Meredith fell against her pillow and prayed for a dreamless sleep. But it was not to be.

The definitive night. Blackness and whiteness swirling and stupefying noises, crushing pain.

It wasn’t long after Meredith decided to get her Masters in Music Education while playing bluegrass more. Her band, River’s Gate, had gotten more gigs. The onslaught of snow thickened to a veil of white after they’d played in Cincinnati, Ohio, then set out in flurries for Ann Arbor. Roads were predictably slick, snowfall soon turned into a blizzard but they couldn’t easily stop or turn back. They inched their way home. A few vehicles had stopped along roadside, engines running to keep heat going as they waited. Tom had suggested the same but Jeremy, who was driving, had insisted they keep on as best they could. Char agreed; it would soon close in on midnight and they were all tired and she was hungry.

The awful accordioned sounds-even in a blanket of snow- and power of the multiple collisions were so sudden that they barely cried out in horror. A pile up of nine cars and they were in the middle. Tom and Jeremy and Helene: badly bruised and shaken to the core. Sitting in the passenger seat, Meredith’s ankle and femur were fractured and right shoulder was dislocated; the little finger on her left hand was broken. Her forehead sustained a three-inch gash from which blood flowed down into her eyes as she blacked out.

Trevor, the man she’d determined not to love but did, anyway, arrived the next morning to her hospital room, took one unnerved look and fainted. She saw him crumple through the gauzy blur of pain and drugs. In three more months while Meredith was working on healing and trying not to think about packing it all in and dying, he was on tour with the Divergent Quartet, and did not return to her.

Meredith sat bolt upright in bed and covered her ears as if the sirens were still wailing. Her chest vibrated painfully with the pounding of her heart, her forehead and neck were wreathed in sweat. When she lay down again she stared at her hands, held them up to her face, then threw back the curtain and searched the starless sky.

But what was that other sound? That half-mournful tune that betrayed a broader human happiness? Who was the someone playing out there, perhaps standing on a corner playing that violin, alone with the music in deep of night? She recognized it, that song, that fiddler from somewhere. The expansive night was alive with it, pulsed so sweetly with it. She collapsed on the bed, let her breathing slow, the music playing on. She nearly wanted to go out and find it.

It was as if her life had been turned back on and the volume was set to “loud” and she knew the entire song of it by heart. Every phrase and pause that counted. Every high and low note. And it was a redemption.

******

The respiration mask was in place over nose and mouth, and Meredith had taken her allergy medicine. The cleaning and sorting–it was something that finally had to be done, she’d concluded. When she’d called Helene and explained how she felt, there was no turning back. Helene had known her eight years. She was still her closet friend, despite going forward with her bluegrass career, travelling for weeks at a time. Despite a lingering guilt over not having been badly hurt like dear Meredith. Over still having what mattered most to her while Meredith did not.

“You know what you’ll find, don’t deny it. I think taking you to the symphony concert was a good idea last month. You have had no peace, which is ultimately a good thing. Music has visited you more; it’s calling to you.” Helene smiled and knew it was felt over the phone.

“Don’t be so emotional, it wasn’t that. I teach, I listen to my CDs often and radio, I go out to the brew pubs to hear live music, I attend concerts here and there. I play some by myself. It was just those dreams… Trevor. And then the other.”

“What was he doing in the dream, by the way? You never explained it.”

“I’ve been trying to forget it. Just playing. I couldn’t hear him, of course–but I could remember his gorgeous tone. A faint echo of sound… He  glanced at me, those eyes. Then got up and walked off stage, his cello in hand.”

“Maybe he was saying good-bye, vacating your life for good. You know you need to do it. And address the rest, right?”

Meredith sucked on the end of her mechanical pencil. She’d been making a list of pros and cons for dragging out any and all treasures and junk from under the bed. Trevor’s pictures were one part. Face it and forget. Isn’t that what people did with phobias they wanted to get over? So maybe her looking at their last beautiful, happy pictures–that brief year and a half together–and then, say, a ritual burning? But what of the rest that awaited?

“Anyway!” Helene cleared her throat loudly, “I think getting out the boxes of music and violins and dusting it all off  is the most crucial part. It’s the first time in all these years you’ve even mentioned this. Trevor is one thing–a man like that…it was hard to move on, but you did it. The dream was just that, don’t you imagine? A reminder perhaps, of many things past. And I still remember our terrible night, the accident, too, you know that. And the aftermath. But your losing so much music?…I mean, Meri.”

Meredith held her breath. Don’t say it, don’t say another word, she silently pleaded. “So, do you want to come over when I decide to get under there and finish things off? But I don’t need counseling every step of the way. Give me some strength, okay? And just hang out with me.”

“I’m all about change and progress, girl, just say when.” She was elated that it had finally come to pass. “Maybe afterwards we’ll go to Burt’s Brews and Beef to celebrate.”

But Meredith didn’t think she would be in any mood for that. She’d rather douse her feelings with a hot bath and murder mystery after Helene went on her way. Or a whole bottle of chardonnay.

Now they stood in the golden light of the room, windows flung open to encourage the fleeing dust to find its way out. Helene wielded a long vacuum attachment that would more easily suck up dirt, miscellaneous debris and potential spiders. They had pushed the mattress and bed springs off the frame to allow easy access. Meredith let her eyes roam over the lightly fuzzy-draped boxes of papers and books, the plastic containers of sweaters and some of the photographs. And at the head of the bed frame, right below the area her head rested on pillows night after night,  were the two violin cases covered in a film she could trace her name in.

Helen turned on the vacuum and maneuvered the attachment into the stronghold of her past, the mustiness that swallowed it up. Meredith started on the wiping down and sorting.

The boxes were much easier than she imagined. Some contents she kept intact after cleaning each storage container with cleaning rags. The few photos she’d printed of Trevor and her were tossed after only brief looks; it was far more painless than she’d thought possible. She felt a wisp of sadness –his beauty, such gifts–and then a sore acceptance. He had been her first true love, maybe her last but it was long ago. There was no more bleeding to staunch, she realized.

It was the violins.

She did not even wnt to touch them until Helene reached for one.

“I’ll get it– please!” Meredith said.

She pulled it out, unlatched the case clasps, biting her lips tightly closed, her chin trembling. As she opened the lid, there it was, the instrument that was to take her far into a classical music world, toward a career that might have sparked greater accolades and excellent remuneration. Like it did Trevor and others. It gleamed but dully in late afternoon sunlight as she held it up and they looked it over together. The strings were loosened; one was unwound entirely. She saw that the bridge was a bit askew and a small crack was evident at the neck. The bow was a mess, the horsehair broken and flapping as she held it aloft. No hands upon the fine wood, no bow on taut strings–it all led to disrepair. It tugged at her, made her sad, this instrument, but she put it back in place as she heard Helene exclaim it could be refurbished; it was in fairly decent shape. Then she got the other violin case and put it on her lap.

“Go on, Meri, open it up, it’s okay,” Helene said gently, a hand on her friend’s forearm. She turned off the vacuum, sat down beside her.

“I can’t.”

“You can. Good things are in there.”

“Terrible losses are in there. Family legacy. My failed love life. An absence of hope.”

“You’ve done more with music than some would expect. But you can likely have more.”

“More what? Self-loathing?”

Helene drew a little away from her. Waited. Maybe it had been wrong of her to come. She knew it would be rough but she wanted her friend to find a glimmer of happiness in there, too. And it was possible, the finding and doing something with it.

Meredith was taken aback, too, but who was this friend of hers to say anything–who thrived where she, Meredith, had nothing? Who had every single day what she had once loved so much she had had to let it go? To survive better. What might she have done instead with a damaged shoulder that never felt quite right and a weak, crooked finger? All that time away from her instrument. And a faulty leg that made her look like incapacitated at so young an age. She had tried to not bemoan her fate. There were worse things than the life she led now. Her deepest thoughts and feelings had been kept to herself most of the time. One did what one had to do.

Even Helene did not know the truth of it. How she ached some days when her students played, their skills increasing each week, their determination and talent emboldened by progress, their pride and  pleasure growing as they reached one more hurdle and cleared it. They had won awards often; she had won recognition, too. And yet as she had closed her front door or walked off stages after recitals and competitions for her students, there remained a nagging sense of defeat. Not triumph. For Meredith, the real music had long ago stopped. And her own (successful musician) aunt had said impatiently after some years passed, “Why not simply accept it? Get on with your life, do what good you can with the remainder and the music!”

Meredith clutched the third generation fiddle case to her lap. How sweet it had become from all that singing it had done, and now how silent. She had been surprised no one demanded it be given back.

“Please,” Helene said, an arm wrapping around her thin shoulders. Holding her in place.

So she just did it. Opened her  instrument’s case, blew off vagrant residue, held it up to golden light. It did not look too bad. In fact, it seemed okay except for needing new strings. And a re-haired bow. The mask was removed from her face and she stood up with Helene’s help, abandoning the cane.  She placed it under her chin, held it there with her strong left hand and felt it snug up right above her collarbone. Her faulty shoulder did not complain. She closed her eyes as Helene got the bow and put it in her right hand, her corked little finger clasping itself along with the rest to the bow’s end part, the frog. Broken horsehair strands dangled forlornly but she drew it across the limp strings anyway.

“How does it feel now?”

Meredith smiled and looked at her friend, clutching the violin to her chin. “Not too bad. familiar and almost comfy.”

“We’ll fix it all,” she said, beaming at her, “and then you can begin to play again.”  Helene was ready for resistance, tears, even wounding words exchanged but she was ready to hold fast.

“Alright, then. Let’s get it done. I’m ready to try to get it back.”

Helene clapped her hands and laughed.

Later, when she was ready to start, Meredith wondered about it all. After trying weeks and months of practice and discouragement and then more slivers of hope shining inside her, she mused over everything. Success required making  many adjustments, harder work. Swallowing pride. But she was not often daunted. Lingering fears seeped away, day by day. Hands, mind and soul managed to take over.

Still, even after her first tentative sharing with Helene and then others, playing those Appalachian and old Irish, Scottish and English tunes that sounded good or nearly good, after all– she still didn’t know quite what had turned the tide. Was it Trevor bidding her farewell in the dream? Was it her students’ joy even as she was missing her own? Was it nightmares of the accident again, how she saw she’d lost some but not all of what was needed to seek again her truest calling? Or maybe it was Helene who helped her face it and work to get it back.

Or it was an unknown fiddler offering fine music to the night’s deep attention, and to her, the only one able to hear its plaintive call.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Saving Graces of Community Centers

I am not a fan of blatant sentimentality, a saccharine nostalgia that paints a pastel-shaded Technicolor picture of a glorious world impervious to danger and distress. We all know it isn’t so. Behind glossiest scenes, troublesome things happen sooner or later, in keeping with imperfect human living.

But be that as it may, to this day I enjoy warm and cheery memories of my hometown’s community center. And I generally believe they are warranted. I enjoyed top-notch youthful experiences within the red brick walls of Midland Community Center.

I began thinking of this after this place came up as a topic on a Facebook page to which I belong. There one can share pictures, information and minor social connection for Midland, Michigan’s  current and former residents. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to engage in sharing thoughts there, as I have not been there for anything other than my parents’ funerals in 17 years. Before that, a scant few times most years, then none at all for decades. This was due to circumstance as well as by design. I was not loath to leave mid-Michigan and that small city. My life needed landscapes beyond the flat, open vista, one contoured for months by about 6 months of intense winters; a more diverse population; and different opportunities. Still, I enjoy the tidbits both historical and social that I read from my home in Oregon. One of the most interesting has been the ongoing exchange of warm memories like mine of the city’s community center–by perhaps thousands of people.

A little history first: the first community center set up there was started in 1919, Wikipedia states, “in conjunction with the very first bowling alley in Midland.” Soon other sporting activities were added as more people came. In 1955–I was 5 and had lived in Midland 3 years–Dow Chemical Company covered the $1.5 million cost of a new and modernized center and site. That makes sense as the multinational Dow Chemical and Dow Corning were and remain headquartered in the city. The center has grown, having been enlarged several times. “In 2005, MCC recorded 900,000 member visits….equivalent to 2,465 persons participating every day or the year.” (In 1960 when I was 10, Midland’s population was about 27,000; in 2017, it was 41,000.)

I am not surprised; I popped in often during the ’50s and 60s. I can’t recall what it cost to use the facilities but it was minimal, affordable for most folks. Yearly memberships were available and likely my family had one, as all five of us kids loved to be active. It yet provides activities every season, nearly every day you might want to drop in or regularly participate in a series of classes or a special event. That has been important in a place where freezing temperatures can last for months. Parents, children and single adults have all enjoyed the options, and what was once a good sized two-story building on a large corner lot now takes up a 12-acre site. I can barely imagine such changes.

So what did I most appreciate about it? Having so many choices was one. There was a huge swimming pool with even a high dive board which I thrilled to climb up, then plunge from; swimming was one of my all-time beloved pastime for years, indoors or outdoors. There were also basketball, volleyball, badminton, the last two being favorite games for me. There was a billiards room (I worked on that with my brother) and one with ping-pong (table tennis) tables ( which I loved) and a fitness room. I took a preschool rhythmics class where I wore soft suede slipper-like shoes that felt wonderful and danced all about (I still do recall it) and then beginning ballet classes, plus a few art classes. There was also gymnastics, martial arts, fencing, yoga. I read there are music lessons offered but if they were offered back then, I studied music elsewhere. Along with the rest of several teen casts I rehearsed musical theater shows there for summertime productions.

As I recall, there were also workshops for health, product presentations, lectures, small music group rehearsals, art shows, holiday bazaars, community group and church gatherings. Rooms were likely rented cheaply, if they cost anything.

Grade school kids attended outdoor summer day camps sponsored by the MCC and greater city parks and recreation department. Rainy days we would do fun activities in the center, as well. I spent a few early years in Barstow Woods with other campers and our counselors, soaking up nature’s wondrous ways, playing games, singing songs, and in Central Park right by the center) I learned to swim better in the outdoor pool. These summer camps served a couple of my children, too, when they visited my parents

And there were the Saturday afternoon dances in the gym starting when I was 13. What had reeked of sweat during regular hours was transformed into a low-lit, music-filled space. I spruced myself up a tad, met up with friends. We chattered among ourselves tried to look cool,  in sync with the scene yet disinterested. In awhile we gravitated to the dance floor with each other, did the Twist, the Monkey and all the other crazy dances we knew. The music was emboldening as we responded to blaring rock ‘n roll records. In time, some of the guys would move closer to the clusters of girls and, at some point, one then another and another would ask someone to dance a slow dance or another fast and furious one. Reputations could be cemented there or dismantled so we had to watch ourselves. But it was a pleasure to move to the beats and practice wooing a boy from the protection of our groups that made the afternoon an adventure. It was an introduction to the new world of early teen-hood.

The community center made a significant difference in other ways. I could get away from my house and the life lived there. Away from constant classical music, which I adored but my mind and heart were sometimes over-full. Away from the bungalow were stuffed with not only my siblings, parents and our friends, but students of my musician/ teacher father’s. And sometimes customers who came for my mother’s part-time seamstress and milliner creations (who also taught elementary school). The doorbell and phone were always ringing. Even though I knew nothing different and could concentrate well amid the controlled if cacophonous chaos, I yearned for private space and coveted quietness. Too, I just liked other sounds, scenes and kids who played games or learned new things with me. It was about a 4 block walk from our house to MCC and since the streets were safe, overall, I was free to ride my bike or walk alone there and back by the time I was 9 or 10. It was a good bet, however, that my friends might be going there, as well so we could meet up and head out.

I didn’t just learn to play indoor sports better, swim or dance better. Education for the young occurs in subtler forms socially. All socioeconomic and cultural groups were represented. I might not be good friends with Wally or Leslie at school but there we’d swim with each other, share a good game of volleyball or table tennis. It was far more egalitarian than most places. And I could better blend in with a number of groups and even just goof around. Not be My Father’s Daughter (a public man in several capacities) with high expectations to meet. I could also compete and work hard to win without hard feelings if my opponent or I lost–and the rules of fair gamesmanship counted. It all held more friendly neutrality than if we played in a school setting. And if there was ever a rousing argument, it was settled soon by the staff; fights were extremely rare in the MCC and those too boisterous were ushered out with warnings. Those who came wanted this to be a respite, a fun time, a place of peaceful and congenial interactions. I think not even swearing was tolerated. Clear respect for one another was, and likely remains, key.

I remember window seats. I don’t think there were cushions on them by the big wide windows but they were brick seats, nonetheless, where many could rest or wait for rides home, perhaps. There was an area beyond the front desk, a large rectangular room used for family get-togethers, meetings, catered dinners and other events. But often it was empty and still. I would take my notebook, sit with legs pulled up and write in my notebook on top of my knees, staring out the huge window now and then as I cogitated, dreamed, observed, recorded. I liked watching the weather change beyond fingertips pressed on glass: dramatic thunderstorms, blurring mini-blizzards, autumnal palettes, spring’s delights. I liked to see the people coming and going, teens walking arm in arm or parents with fussy children or an adult rushing in for a relaxing break before heading home again.

The community center was a central meeting ground of my town with its mix-and match events and numbers and kinds of people and multiple experiences on any given day or night.

An environment that is safe is important for any child or youth. It was crucial for me because I did not always feel safe, spending a fair amount of time trying to avoid, and too often failing, a (non-blood) pedophile during some earlier years. At MCC there were responsible, trustworthy adults with name tags and there were enough that every area was nicely covered. If someone got hurt, there were people to help. And the other youths were mostly those I genuinely enjoyed seeing, yet could easily avoid if I chose–the place was big and choices many. I could breathe easy, never felt lost or bored. Surely this is true of the other children that attended on a week-end afternoon or for after-school hours of fun. It was a haven for any and all as well as recreational center.

I never worked there but at least one sister and brother did. By the time I was of age to do so, other things were starting to hold my attention and I spent less time at MCC. But it helped inform who I was becoming, provided healthy pleasures, a sense of security and  instruction across a few disciplines.

I have been to a community center here and there since then. Some have been good, some are not very welcoming or useful. But all are working to bring together a variety of people–for improvement of health and welfare, to strengthen communal spirit and encourage personal growth. People coming together: so needed more and more. And saving graces, all, amid the often empty hustle-bustle, the multiple hazards of the world. For my old hometown of Midland, Michigan’s enriching community center I remain grateful, hold close rewarding hours of those times. I was fortunate to engage in opportunities for play and learning all at once.

Now I need to more often avail myself of similar community offerings in my current city–and I encourage others to do the same. Check it out. I wish you a happy volleyball or basket ball game, or swan dive off that goose bump-inspiring high board–make a big splash!