Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Lake Skating (Mona Faces the Ice)

Photo by Gantas Vaiu010diulu0117nas on Pexels.com

She surveyed the frozen lake and landscape and felt its sullenness. It seemed a blur despite the many lines and array of muted and brighter colors; she noted pale and smudged snow at rest on flat earth and small rises, the weighted sky pressing against and surrendering to a fading horizon. It was the way of things in winter, the now-sleeping land patient, wide open yet oppressive in its endlessness and greyness.

Even frozen Lake Wenatchee looked unappealing that moment. The other kids and a few grown ups were trying to make the best of another dull, regrettable February day. But it was home, and Mona appraised it with a loving if grudging assessment. She slung her skates over a shoulder and dragged herself onward. She was not thrilled about getting out there, scraping about the crusty, bumpy ice with the local crowd.

She knew she was cranky even if she could be big hearted and was smart. Her father often said she was like an old woman– had she skipped over the regular age progressions? Mona was fourteen and a half and it seemed irrelevant. And when her father said that to her or others, she didn’t know if this was good or bad; it was an observation. Her mother said she ought to listen better to her elders and begin to act more normal. What was acting normal, exactly? If is was like her older brother and sister, no thank you. If it was her classmates’ ways of doing things, she was bored to death by the prospect. She had to often check a desire to roll her eyes and sigh in classrooms or during social get togethers that she felt obligated to attend. Who were these people who said such silly or empty things? But it wasn’t that she didn’t care for them, it was that she was confused by them, and felt like an island adrift from the mainland they occupied. She often felt she had to build her own boat and carry on, her compass the winds she noted.

her mother said she was too smart for her own good; she worried about that. Her father said no one could be smarter than for their own good–everyone had things to learn and to offer. Mona felt like she wandered around trying to translate other’s languages so she could get in on the game, the joke, the story. There was a great deal she did not know, at all.

Mona searched the snow-skimmed ice for familiar forms and faces. Her skates banged against her back and front as she half-ran across the field toward the lake. Last time she had said she was not coming out to skate again. When the lake thawed she’d be the first in it, but in February the frozen body of water seemed a dozing monster of some foreign sort. She hated the ice now even though she knew much about it.

******

Only her family and the obligation to grow up where planted kept her firmly tethered to them all. If she had her way, she’d be off to Spain or Prince George Island or Singapore in a flash. Any place but Marionville. But her parents had been born there and they weren’t budging much less to another state or country. Her father, the weatherman for a northern Michigan television station, had been given an option to do just that last summer. It was Boise, Utah, not the place of her dreams, but it offered a good salary increase–yet he’d declined. He had four seasons in Michigan, he made enough money and Marionville was a great community for the kids. Great in what ways? She had marched into his study/billiards/sports room in the basement and asked that when he and Mom had been talking it over.

“In what ways is it great?”

Her mother had flipped her hand at at her as if shooing Smitty the cat, and her father had puffed on his pipe, squinting at them above the curling smoke.

“Don’t listen in–and you should alert us when you descend those stairs, Mona,” her mother said, patting back a stray wave of her penny bright coif.

“I mean that our schools are better than most up north, the town is attractive, the land is beautiful with good recreational opportunities, and we have a very fine library, considering.”

“And a summer town band and a great women’s chorus, lus the live theater does well during tourist season.”

“Are you trying to sell some stranger on Marionville? Do I like gullible after all these years here?” Mona dared to say. “I wonder what a place looks like that has exponentially better attributes. How I might strive more and make great er gains.”

“See? An inspirational speaker or diplomat, perhaps someday.”

“Does your language never get to shift into simple teen gear? It perturbs me, ” her mother muttered and sat down with a plop on the couch.

“I suspect you could travel the world over and not find a place as comfortable as this,” her father said. “We’re staying, Mona.You’ll have other opportunities after high school if you play it right.”

Her mother looked at her daughter and saw the loveliness in her face and sturdiness of her slim body–if only she would stand up taller and be pleasant. But that was adolescence. And she had been through this phase with the other two kids; they were soon on to the next. It would all pass, in time. They would grow up and be real human beings. Moona would be thankful for much more one day.

Mona could think of nothing else to add to all the nonsense, so she turned on her heel and ran upstairs. At the top she paused; she could just glimpse them.

“It’s her intelligence, dear,” her father murmured. “She was born with much more than most. Some good genes slipped through.” He let go a small chuckle.

“Well, she might keep it a bit quieter and simpler until college–those rather rowdy genes likely came from your side,” her mother replied, “but I might carry a tad of the blame, I imagine.”

He shook his head as he returned to his pipe and fishing magazine. She loudly cleared her throat, and retreated to her armchair with a book. They were two odd lovebirds her parents, and they were not ever leaving their nest.

The familiar, irritated heaviness of resignation fell upon her as she crept away and took refuge in her room. When would she ever get away from there? When would she live the life she dreamed about?

******

Mona could feel the heat of Gen’s aggravation through the cell phone.

“I think you’re being ridiculous to insist you’re not ever skating again. You’ve loved skating all your life–it’s what we do in the winter.”

“There’s skiing and snowmobiling, snow shoeing, tobogganing. Let’s see, there’s music, books, hikes in the woods, films, there’s–“

“Stop it, Mona. Get your skates and meet me there. You just have to overcome your nervousness. We can’t spend our lives avoiding everything we’re worried about–this is a direct quote from my mother. Or was it your father?”

“I’m not nervous! It’s just that it was the worst thing ever and who’s to say what the odds actually are? Do we have that data? No one seems to care if–“

Gen hung up. What was Mona going to do? Gen was her best friend, they were blood sisters, secretly, and without Gen, who was there in her life that truly counted? (Besides family, and often she wasn’t entirely sure about them.) That she’d even want to be around more than twenty minutes without wanting to pull her hair out? All the reasonably good things occurred in connection with Gen Traymer first and last. Gen remained happily loyal when others did not after elementary school. Well, maybe not so happily sometimes but they both put up with the other.

So here she was again, trudging across a stretch of cold white desert to the lake they loved all year around. Except for Mona lately. Well, she had her reasons, perfectly sane, clear reasons.

“Hey Mo, what’s up?” Wade Bartos yelled at her as he skidded to a stop at the edge, hockey skate blades flashing dully at her.

She hated that nickname, it was like the name of a pet mouse. He was always showing off. She wondered if he really thought she cared. Even if he was the second smartest male person in her English class, he didn’t like to use his brain much and opted for sports almost entirely which endangered said brain. They’d argued once in the hallway about that–whether or not it took much intelligence to play a skillful game of any kind, how many brain cells decreased with each blow to the noggin–and he almost won. Well, he insisted he was right, but he always did. The truth was, Mona was athletic, too, so the debate was a waste of time, really, expect that they liked to do that. Plus she knew he was engaging with her any way he could. It had gone on like that for a few months, and it irked her more than a little.

She held up her skates to show Wade more obviously, as if to say, skating, dummy, thinking he’d laugh at her and take off. But he didn’t. He stared at her hard.

“You’re really going to try again?”

She shrugged, heartbeat drumming harder than it should after the long but easy walk to the lake. “I came for Gen, maybe I’ll just watch awhile.” She wanted him to leave.

But he grinned at her a long moment, then took off with a flourish, blades slicing through the crusty ice. He was fast, faster than nearly all the speed skaters.

Enough ice had been cleared that it would be passable to skate much of the way around, she guessed. A few kids and some adults came out early on weekends to shovel as much as possible. The following visits their shovels were brought to clear snow or shredded ice off as needed. But the ice was doomed to remain rough–gouged by blades, scraped and scratched and full of little potholes and natural debris caught in its steely surface. Some of the skaters longed for ice rinks that were carefully cleaned, groomed often so the ice was smooth as glass underfoot, harder to keep balance at first but oh, when you got accustomed to it, what perfection it was to glide, swoop and rush across its shining surface.

Or had been. Mona hadn’t been to Traverse City to skate at the fancy rink there in months.

Mona scanned the crowd for Gen and there she was with that red hat with fat blue pom-pom, gloved hand waving at her. Mona sat down on a log and waited as Gen skated up to her in long, even strides despite the snowy lumps. She was a superior skater, and seeing her move across the lake made Mona feel a little happier to have come. It gave her a sense of connection to the beauty of winter again and it warmed her insides. Her friend came to a halt before her with an ice-spraying T-stop.

“Well, I wondered…okay, I had my doubts but you made it!’ She took off her hat and rubbed perspiration-dampened curls.”The ice is good even though the surface is crap but we’ll manage.’

“You mean you’ll slowly help me navigate the rough spots and the people and my anxiety as I try to make my unhappy way out.” She looked at the ice and gave a little shake of shoulders, as if she was having a chill when in fact she was plenty warm outside, too. Only her feet felt like thick ice blocks, stuck to the ground.

Gen sat beside her and put an arm about her shoulders. “I know it’s hard. This is the farthest you’ve gotten in over a month.”

“Yeah. Because I already know better than to risk my life.”

They were silent a moment, remembering.

“But that was a one time thing,” Gen said and squeezed her shoulder.”It could happen to anyone. You know what you’re doing, it was just random, an accident, a thing we all know might happen.”

“Don’t get all reassuring. You know that it could happen again. This is not rocket science even if we both can figure out the whys and wherefores…it happened. To me, not you.”

“And a few others in the history of this town. Mona, you are not being picked on by God, you know!”

“Oh, please, leave any talk of divinity out of it…”

Gen pulled away a little, looked at her skates digging at hard earth. “I can’t.” She faced her friend. “Stop making it worse. We’ve talked and talked about it. You’ve come out a couple times to watch from a distance and now you’re finally at the ice. So…please put your skates on?”

Mona gulped hard and closed her eyes tightly; she didn’t want to see it like a movie again. She did not want to remember how the ice suddenly gave it warning of loud cracking and, a shifting of thing, an echoing as the sound travelled down and under the lake length…the subtle shift in ice and a giving way as she stood halfway to the center of the ice, legs shaking, and tried to skate away, to beat the crack that would open.

But she was too slow to move, she felt trapped there and by her growing fear. The ice gave way. Mona plunged into a freezing abyss of icy lake water and she clamped her hand over nose and mouth so as not to gulp, and her breath was stolen, every nerve screamed and panic came but knew number one was to overcome the initial cold shock. As time ticked by each limb seemed near useless, and in three minutes she could die. She began to kick with her legs to propel her weakening body towards light, each movement a slowed motion of energy loss. It was eternity, a blackly screeching, frigid and endless vault of nothing, body pierced by searing pain, chest compressing, her mind empty of anything but survival or awaiting death. Monas head bobbed up once, twice, submerged again.

Alden the Monk lived alone at edge of woods in a three room shack. He had been watching outside his door, waiting for the worst to happen. He knew this lake, the ways of the ice. he knew death might arrive fast, a spirit lurking inside the lake. He crept out but fast, on all fours, grabbed her wrist as she reached up and yanked her arm so hard it felt he ripped it out of the socket. Up and up and then her body pulled from hell and over ice, and a furry grim beast putting its teeth into a jeans’ leg and yanking, too, hauling her along with the Monk off that ice, over snow, away from the grasp of death.

She nearly passed out, heart pumping in fearful relief hard but quiet as if it belonged to another, breath coming in deep painful gulps as she searched his weathered face and heard King’s yelps and barks from a distance, his rough tongue on a cheek. She gave over, let the Monk do what he had to, wet clothes stripped off and blankets piled atop her shivering length. The woodstove on the other side in a gentle roar. Fragrances of coffee and burning wood like a sweet prayer. Everything hurt so badly; she was starting to shiver and then she was almost as afraid as before the Monk had come. Shortly, paramedics rushed in, were working over her and she drifted into a netherland of dreams and horrors until the emergency room and all that followed, her family, Gen, her life touched by nature’s power and human terrors. Her life somehow changed by how much she did not understand and a hermit who knew much and rescued her.

“Mona?”

Gen balanced on her skate, holding out both hands so Mona pulled on the boots of her worn Hyde skates and tugged, then laced each one fast without thinking of it further. Until she was done.

Was it worth the trouble, her heart whimpering, her lingering, embarrassing scramble of feelings? Every single one out there–and though the ice was tested hard as a rock and the snow had stopped– knew what had happened; it was news. So her return would be news. But she loved ice skating as much as anything outdoors in their long brutal winters, and so she took her friend’s hands. Slow and easy, she told herself, as if just learning to put blade upon surface. Blades made contact and she was standing with knees trembling, Gen’s hands tugging her along slightly. The worn figure skates slipped over the familiar rough surface. She did not look up, only held onto Gen. Mona lifted one skate after the other, the strokes thrusting her forward.

A few classmates waved at her–she raised her head enough to nod at them. Wade skated by and then began to circle back.

Gen gritted her teeth as she forced legs and feet forward. “No, not him.”

“He’s a nice enough guy and you know he likes you.”

“He’s all about things that don’t matter to me; I don’t want to like him.”

“Yeah, yeah, here he comes. You’re doing great, push off harder, make the effort.”

“I am not feeling great yet. Are you my teacher now? I will never feel great about this again…”

“Wrong, you will feel even better!” Wade said and clapped her on the back so that she stumbled a bit. “Oops, sorry, trying to encourage you.”

He took her other arm so Mona was wedged between the two of them. She tried to shake him off but he held on loosely. She glared at them and kept moving. They were watching the ice for any troublesome spots and making sure others moved out of the way. Several more skaters shouted greetings, a few skated with them them. Mona felt if she could only shrink to the size of a pea she’d be more okay. To have them watch her–they used to watch her skate well, by herself–and get so close as if they’d protect her…it made her feel weirder. Like she was some emotional and physical cripple who couldn’t make her own way.

She shook off her friends’ hands, began to put her body into each forward stroke. If she was garnering attention, to heck with them, she was going to just skate.

And she did it. She sailed around the outer edges, stumbling here and there, knees locking up a bit but she moved ahead and kept her balance better as she kept at it. And the cold wind grazed her cheeks, a pale sunshine leaked out of the clouds. Her brown shoulder-length hair lifted and waved like a burnished flag. She was freer than she co uld have imagined possible.

Until she skated past the Monk’s house and glanced over at the spot where she’d fallen in.

She couldn’t stop it, she saw it, it came back at her and she screamed, not so anyone thought it was an emergency but enough that Gen and Wade rushed over, caught her as just as her legs buckled.

They held her up between them. Others slowed and stopped, circled loosely around them.

“Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh,” Mona cried and covered her face, willing herself not to shed tears, willing herself to be okay, and yet all she wanted to do was fall to the ice on her knees and crumple, and wail.

Alden the Monk saw them out there. He smoked his cigarette, yanked at his bushy beard and nodded his black ski hat-covered head. King, his husky, stood with paws on the window sill, ears pricked, whining softly. They remembered how it went, too. They remembered how four kids and one adult with her little dog had fallen in over the past eighteen years. Three made it out and recovered. The woman with her dog died eight years ago. The ten year old boy did not survive a few years later. Alden had been far more watchful ever since. It was just his job, he believed, like it was his job to keep the sustaining woods fire-free and the beautiful birds safe from feral cats and the slinky-smart coyotes alive. They all called him the Monk but really, he was a Life Keeper, he felt. The girl would soon be alright. He knew about tragedy and he knew you could heal and go on. Or, if like him, live in solitude, within the welcome of acceptance and peace.

Mona stood up again, looked over at the ramshackle little house. She glimpsed the Monk and the husky at his window and he returned the look a long moment, then stepped away with King. She’d have to leave him something, a surprise, a thank you. She hadn’t done that yet–her parents had thanked him and offered him money which he refused. But she was ashamed of misjudging her steps and stupidly half-drowning in ice water, embarrassed by her clothing being removed by him, angry about her newly hatched fear. But she recalled his eyes on her eyes for a split second that day, how he had cared. He had gone onto the cracking ice to save her life.

She lifted her hand to him, hoping he saw her.

Gen and Wade were talking to her.

“See? It’s perfectly solid, nothing to worry about.”

“It’s over, it happened but you lived through it–it’s over and you were so lucky.”

“You did it, you came out and skated and got through the bad memory.”

“Don’t cry, you’re safe, Mona, here with us.”

The small group gathered around them began to clap their hands and cheer.

She was safe. She was not actually alone. It was going to stop haunting her some day, maybe even before spring.

“Thank you Gen, forever,” she said then turned to Wade. “And thanks for hanging around today.”

They skated swiftly around the lake, separately but close to one another, Wade going on, then passing them as he flashed around the lake. But the two friends skated in long, easy, fluid lines, avoiding the bad ice and finding the good. Wade whizzed by once more and shouted, “Pizza at Buster’s Hut tonight, girls!”

Gen yanked on Mona’s sleeve. “What do you think?”

“I think I might have one other decent friend. Maybe it’s time to find a few more. Marionville has to have a few more weirdos hiding out.”

They high-fived, then glided to the edge of the ice. There was a small bonfire flashing yellow and orange through a hazy winter veil of late afternoon. People were circling up, warming their hands, sharing food, laughing. The girls unlaced and removed their old, trusty skates, cleaned the crusts of ice from the blades and then joined in to warm up before walking in long shadows to Buster’s.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Jottings on Sunshine, Contentment and the Wash

By Michael Gäbler, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Though I can’t recently locate it, I recall a photo my photographer brother shot and gave me years ago. It showed colorful clothing drying on a clothesline in a narrow alleyway. An older Italian woman, voluminous black hair piled about her head, leaned at the open window above the line of flapping laundry. I recall it being on a pulley system, a good way to reel in all that breezy laundry. Since it was stretched to the other side, presumably the neighbor shared it. I was struck by the friendliness of the shot, the attentive, perhaps pensive woman, the quiet comforts of an ordinary day, an alley with–if I am correct–one boy playing there, almost looking upward. Did he have a bike?…I am not certain now. Was he heading to a friend’s or going on an errand for the woman? Maybe they had spoken to each other; maybe she was his mother, more likely grandmother. It is an entire story. I miss that picture.

But, as much if not more, I was instantly taken with the sight of that laundry drying outside in a slash of sunlight splashed across the alley. I was impressed with the convenience of the set up. Wondered if the clothing still smelled fresh after drying between tall, old apartment buildings– and thought it would. Did the woman have to iron much or did she just shake it out? My senses woke right up as I imagined it all.

I recently had some significant problems with our washer/dryer combo in the laundry closet. It got me thinking of that photo, and the not unpleasant chore of doing laundry over the years, and why I don’t mind it much. In fact, it may be the one household task I manage without mild annoyance week after week.

I must have been well trained, as I did family laundry with my mother. When she was older and less well and I was still at home, I did it for us all as needed. The washer and dryer were in our dank, shadowy basement, the end not renovated with recreation room and Dad’s instrument workshop. As a young child I didn’t care to use those stairs, the back of the steps being open. I was never certain if there was anything or one waiting to snag my ankles. Maybe my older brothers spooked me or maybe it was just a dreary basement, but I was anxious for a few years. But down I went, especially if I was called to duty, even if alone.

Usually Mom and I did the work together. I stood close and watched her, committed to memory what she told me: this and this is how things need to be done to get the best result. I knew she knew such things; she was also a teacher. I had at first a little fear about laundry, too, as I’d heard the story more than once about the wringer she’d used many years to get most of the water wrung from wet clothes…and the terrible accident. My oldest brother had been helping–or maybe he was fooling around, he was a wild one– but his arm was pulled right in between the rollers of that operating machine. He nearly lost that arm; it was a painful, devastating injury that took many months from which to recover. I must not have been born when it happened as I was spared the actuality, if not the tears Mom shed when she mentioned it. I was careful around all machines.

Maybe that’s when they bought a dryer–it would have been an expensive item, as was the washer. I got the feeling that Mom was grateful for both. As a farmer’s daughter and an elder child of eleven children, she was used to near-back breaking work. Any convenient, time-saving helps she had as an adult were respected, maintained well and used til they could no longer be repaired (both my parents were good at repairing things). She once told me she came to inhabit a privileged life after marrying my father, a man with a masters degree, quietly refined, ambitious. No matter that they were starting out as young teachers, struggling. It was not the farming life. No matter that she, in time, raised five children and helped along my father’s career in music, and also taught elementary school. No matter that she was rarely off her feet, hands occupied with multiple tasks–it was not the old life, not the blasted farm, anymore. And the Depression was over, and, finally, the war. Life was gentler and better, at last. So a washer and a dryer? Wondrous.

Yet, Mom also liked to scrub clothes on a small washboard in the double utility sink if there were any stains. Fels Naptha in hand, she showed me how to rub the wet soap into fabric, rubbing it hard first between both hands of knuckles and and then on the metal washboard. I found it entertaining to help, appreciated the efficiency of her labors, and enjoyed the end result: the clean dress or shorts and shirt I might be wearing right then. But it did make my knuckles raw–her hands were toughened, deft and strong.

But despite the dryer, much of the time she liked to hang out the washing. She said they smelled of sunlight and wind. She was right, even as fall rolled into winter and the wash dried cold and stiff. Then she stopped hanging it out until spring.

There was a regular clothesline for years but I liked the umbrella line. It looked just like an umbrella half-turned inside out and one of them spun around. I’d help with hanging the heavy wet clothes, handing them to her or reaching up to do it as I grew. I liked the clever, simple wooden clothes pegs or clippy clothespins. Sometimes I stood by and handed them to her as needed. My favorite were colored plastic clothespins. (Wooden pegs also could be made into little dolls with yarn hair and colored pencil features; the others were useful for clipping arty things together, or lavish scarf dresses to fit me snugly as I played dress up.)

The great things about hanging wash out to dry: it is something to do outdoors, and work becomes fun; it is enjoyable to watch it flap and rise in the gusty breezes especially when swinging from a maple tree; it gets bleached and disinfected by sunshine; the scent of the garments seem made of something heavenly when dry; towels and sheets fill the hands with fabric that suddenly range from rough to newly, pleasingly textured. Nothing was so lovely as when beds were changed and the line-dried sheets put on at last, the corners squared, the top sheet pulled up smooth and snug. You slipped between them, inhaled deeply, moved about until your body was happy to sink in and rest. And even blankets, rugs, woolen coats and sweaters aired outdoors were better than they might be otherwise.

The folding took time, but it is satisfying to turn a pile of crumpled assorted articles into uniform, tidy items, then a few small tower-like piles, each intended for another person. A few were left out for ironing. I learned how to do that, too, and liked the reassuring motion of warm iron sizzling over various dampened fabrics, the fragrance of sunshine and heat a sweet mist; and the steam rising up as the iron slipped back and forth. I’d hold up ironed pieces to my face, each so warm and smooth and freshened. If starch was required for, say, a dress shirt of my father’s, I’d skip the sniffing and hang immediately onto a hanger. I ironed many cotton sheets, as well–that is how I was taught to care for simplest things.

I can’t imagine young women today feeling as I did back then. But when my father or mother put on clothing I had ironed, and they looked sleekly pulled together and handsome and pretty, all set for a day’s work–well, it gave me the smallest sense of pride in a humble job well done. Not to mention my own clothing being well tended. Somehow ironing out the wrinkles made the most ordinary clothing seem important. In the 1950s and 1960s where I grew up, a young girl and teen was required to look good and presentable, and that meant to ne clean and polished, well put together. Of course, I did grow up in the sixties and was soon not following most of my city’s middle class cultural norms. I was intent on feminism and freedoms; it then became clear the common way of doing things did not imprint enough on me. (Fashion de rigeur later became jeans, chambray work shirts and Frye knee-high boots–or peasant skirts and tops or caftans and leather huaraches–sandals– after 16. No ironing necessary.)

Off and on I continued to line dry the wash as an adult. But there were times when I could resent laundry chores. One was dousing, washing and hanging dozens of cloth diapers on a line near-daily, every week. It saved money. But the process was daunting enough that I gave in after the second child and began using disposable diapers, at times. Another period was when my own five children, during adolescence, got the bad habit of trying on many items, tossing them on floor or bed and later putting them into a laundry hamper, unworn. I was mad and tired of figuring out which items were dirty and which were supposedly clean. Finally I decided to put their growing heaps of laundry into garbage bags and put those in our basement laundry area. They had to figure it all out for themselves. In time, despite their whining about how mean and horrid I was, they relented and started to take better care of their own clothes. It was a relief to not have it all left to me; I wished I’d laid down the law earlier.

The children did more of their own laundry when I ran out of time or energy. Marc helped a little. I’d begun working more hours at my human services job. Laundry for seven family members could take me until midnight. And if someone shouted downstairs, frantic, “Mom, I need that ruffly blue blouse ironed, can you please do that before I get up tomorrow?”… I got more and more close to refusal. They all had been taught how to wash and iron, even my son (who cared less about tidiness than his four sisters). But somewhere between thirteen and sixteen they’d rebelled and stopped. They’d gotten “too busy.” Since four of them were teenagers at once, that was mostly true. (My last child hung around home a bit more, longer.) Fortunately, it all evened out by the time they graduated from high school and went on their way. They knew how to care for themselves, and have proven to be savvy at efficient task completion as adults…most now with their own kids.

Nostalgia can be useful occasionally. More so since the pandemic robs us of accumulating experiences we think we desire. A simpler time appeals; we may see it as better times, as well, even if not really true. So I still can miss the small pleasures of line drying a load of wet wash. The homeiness of it, the reassuring routine. The easy pleasantries swapped with my mother as I held up each requisite wooden peg or the companionable silence. I recall her pointing out backyard birds as they came and went for she was a bird lover, a nature beholder, despite not being a farming aficionado. She loved insects in their variety and usefulness; earth’s minerals and soils, their bounties; flowers’ magic from bulb to blossom; and the changing of seasons being as much a part of her as family life and its complex ways. Anything we could share outdoors thrilled me, and I was enrapt by her storytelling as natural as breathing.

Laundry freshly dried and folded is a task to take mundane pleasure in, still. If the day seems out of sorts one thing I can do is laundry–putting some things right and into good form. I like the movement of it, the swing from washer to dryer to flapping out wrinkles to smoothing and folding or hanging. My husband can do laundry but chooses not to, yet I seldom am bothered by this. The easy rhythm is lovely; it’s a small event that breaks up monotony or blends with the hours. Laundry has a small power to balance life, a counterweight to the philosophical with the banal and concrete.

The trouble I had with my original washer and dryer in our home was gradual and annoying at the start. The dryer kept leaving pale tawny smudge marks here and there on legs of pants, arms of nice shirts or knit tops. I felt the dryer was too hot, as well. The maintenance man came in and checked the machines, then noted a small metal vent looked a bit rusty and snaggy so he got out his steel wool and scoured it cleaner and smooth. I complained about our half dozen marred items but there seemed nothing to do about what was already done. The problem seemed to lessen. I relaxed. Then fall came and I noted dark smudges on heavier items, this time black, longer marks. I held the clothes up to my nose. I thought they were scorch marks this time, even burn marks, and I was not drying one more thing until it was resolved. I complained and got action fairly fast: a new large sized but stackable washer and dryer unit delivered in three days.

You might think I was delighted–no more marred clothing or perhaps, eventually, a fire. But they turned out to be futuristic machines with many settings and little push buttons. It had complicated directions in four languages that I finally read in English a few times before we could even begin. The washer tub filled itself to the right level; it has sensors to tell it precisely when to stop filling. I didn’t believe it at first and tried to open the loid, but it would not. I had to trust it and found that very hard without seeing it happen.

And the sounds it made. It didn’t fill with water immediately but started and stopped with strange electronic grumbles. I thought it was malfunctioning already. But on it went, filling and pausing until all was ready and it washed–with soft, whiny alien noises. The load came out fine, to my surprise, even with almost not water left in the clothes. The dryer was less hard to understand though I studied those buttons several minutes, too, before entrusting the heap to the perfectly heated tumbling apparatus. When it was done, I didn’t even realize it; there is no bell or alarm but just gently stops turning. I have to keep an eye and ear to it but find if things sit, they are not all wrinkled. It is admittedly much better than the former dryer’s obnoxious alarm; it could cause me to startle if I was deeply reading or writing. Every item comes out (mostly) wrinkle-free, way cooled down. I’m now accustomed to its funny humming and soft ratcheting, its gurgles and pauses and surges.

The truth is, it’s a wonderful advancement General Electric has made for cleaning and drying clothing. And I’m pleased we got it for nothing; I feel partly compensated for our stained clothing (worth a good $600-750). I can get the job done without worrying now.

Yet as warmer weather arrives, the balcony will offer an option once more. I will still sneak a hand washed top or dress, maybe even a silky camisole, just place the hangers on hooks or nails in the roof overhang. I might put a lap blanket over the balcony railing to air out, too, or a rug.

I am well aware it’s against the housing rules (as well as sonorous chimes I adore but had to put away). I know the fine print, I got their message–and who wants to see wash drying outside in a well-heeled community these days? It might even give the neighbors a story, a surprise.

I have to say: I do, I really do. And I suspect my clothing misses sunshine streaming down and a strong breeze.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Garage Living

photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Hello readers. There were a few problems with WordPress yesterday so I’ve posted one written several years ago. Themes are somewhat timely, though without the virus impact…I hope you enjoy it.


As Clark opened the double doors to air things out, in rushed a gust of damp, dead leaf odor. He couldn’t win. He thought if he got busy with something his newly inflated misery would be deflated some. It had been six months since they had moved to this broad street with friendly looking houses but now all he could ever see was the rain. It had let up some in the last hour but it was still ever-present and irksome, like the projects he never got around to finishing. Like fixing the second-hand cabinet Mina wanted in their master bathroom. The door needed new hinges and a fresh coat of ivory paint–Milkweed White, she called it. Nothing taxing, so this chore was his goal for the day. But how can you be successful in such dampness? It’d take days to dry.

He reached a hand to the top of a door and stood there, the other in his left worn khaki pocket; a corner of his upper lip betrayed mild disgust. Anyone passing might think he was a well-bred fellow, a man who knew how to take charge–he was taller than many, for one thing, and moved or stood still as if he meant it–a man who had a decent job and was just taking a day off because he’d earned it and why not?

Instead, he was a man without a job, having been let go before they moved. They sold their house in California as soon as Mina got a far better job in Oregon. Life was supposed to be cheaper, more relaxed here, but he wasn’t so sure. The expectation, of course, was that he would get employment as soon as possible. But the insurance industry market seemed different here, though he frankly didn’t care about that line of work much. Yet he definitely was a resistant handyman/house husband. Mina went off to work as Nurse Midwife each morning, nearly whistling. But that was not different from before.

“Where is the stupid damned Phillips screwdriver?” He rifled through things on his creaky workbench; it was hiding under the previous owner’s old washer warranty and a handful of bent nails. He tossed it all into the wastebasket.

Clark could hear Mina tsk tsk over his language as he unscrewed four rusting hinges, cleaned the wood beneath them, then loaded the paintbrush from a newly opened can. She was quite proper in her speaking while he was tried to recall mannerly rules. But, then, they were so different in every way, it was a wonder that they had made it fifteen years.

Mina grew tired of the sunny palette of California while he had found himself utterly adapted after a month. She liked more variety while he liked the constancy so it followed that for him routine was appreciated and for her, spontaneity was needed. Clark liked essential orderliness and she liked a little mess in every room “to make the scene more interesting.” People were not his thing, other than for the sake of business but give Mina a chance to greet a stranger and she would have them gabbing up a storm in no time.

They had one main thing in common: they loved each other. So they tolerated things, supported each other, had plenty of laughs, survived the spats trying to figure out how to manage life together. It just worked.

Until he lost his job, they moved and he could not find another good job and she was adapting without him. He wondered when she’d get sick and tired of his moping but so far she had just stayed her usual positive self and let him be.

He slapped more paint on the cupboard but wiped up drips before they made a worse mess. he did want her to be happy. Didn’t he? She always said that no matter what difficulty they were facing, she got to help new humans enter the world and that was enough happiness to tide her over. She took care of people and loved life because she had a gift for it. Clark cautioned himself to not puncture that happiness but why was it so great being born into this place, anyway? But Mina was smart and she’d had a hardscrabble childhood in India. She well knew the costs of life daily lived, the value of the smallest, random joy.

The rain drummed harder on the roof of the garage. He ignored it and stepped back from the cupboard to examine his work. Looked acceptable, much better than before sans hinges, which he’d add when the Milkweed White dried. he checked his irrelevant watch. He had hours to go.

“Hey, Clark, how’s it going?”

Neal the mailman didn’t expect a reply as he dashed through puddles to hand off the mail but Clark wanted to talk.

“No change, still a handyman. Painted a cupboard,” he said, pointing at it with a small flourish.

“Looks good, enjoy the free time–you’ll find work soon!” and Neal was gone, splashing his way to the Hudson’s’, a retired couple he never saw.

This rain, it’s like a curse that’s never-ending, Clark thought as he noted his sneakers were damp from the puddle Neal agitated. And that’s when the cat raced in, sniffed the newly painted piece and sat himself down. Clark frowned at it, sat across from it on his three legged stool and wished it would disappear.


By the time Mina arrived home he’s gotten acquainted with the feline. There was no collar or bell, and nothing interesting about the cat other than it looked more like an oversized if sleeker rat with all that wet grey fur. In other words, ugly. Clark didn’t recall it being in the neighborhood and wondered if it would go its own way as cats do. It looked cold as it curled up on the cracked cement floor. He felt it, too, under his rain jacket, that icy damp that spread as cloud coverage got thicker and rain pummeled the earth like a beastly thing. No wonder the cat took a chance with him.

“Clark, you out there?”

Mina always parked at front of a house around the corner and came through the kitchen door to find them sitting quietly. He had closed the doors to warm the space up some and was contemplating how to make it even cozier.

“What happened to the poor creature and why is it here?”

She squatted before it, still dressed in her blue nursing uniform, ebony hair swept up in a fat bun with tendrils escaping, her eyes lit with interest.

“It dashed in, it can’t take this winter deluge, either. He’s been drying out some, along with your cupboard.”

She stood up, studied the piece, then clasped her hands. “Wonderful! That will look so good when it’s up, thank you, honey!” and she turned and planted a kiss on his lips. She was not a cheek kisser with her husband; that was one thing he loved.

“Well, he?–yes, it’s a he–deserves a safe place to dry out. Maybe we should give it some milk or tuna fish–he looks famished. As am I.”

She bustled out and the quiet two gents sat a moment longer before Clark got up and left the cat a few moments.

“Where are you going with that?” Mina called after him as he returned with his idea in hand.

“Right out here, we need it here.”

And he plugged in the portable electric fireplace unit into the extension cord and then turned it on. It emitted a nice hum as the phony flames leapt up and heat was dispelled.

When Mina came to call him in for reheated beef and bean casserole and to feed the cat, she found them both dozing before the pleasant representation of a fireplace. Clark’s head was leaning against his work bench; she noted how much his sandy beard had grown in. Was it a bit sexy or was it becoming concerning? She knew he would get another job; if only he believed it, too. She opted for sexy, placed her hand on his shoulder and shook it so his eyes flew open.

The cat became fully alert and dove right into the tuna.


That’s how it started. The rain, being out of work, the painting of a cupboard and a drenched stray cat.

Clark set about fixing up his small garage with a vengeance, letting his vintage Fiat remain sitting under the maple tree. He sorted and tossed bits and pieces left behind by previous folks and swept the floor well, then covered it with sealant and waterproof paint of blue to mimic the ocean’s color. He put up pegboard and hung his tools, then purchased a better utility lamp. Their bicycles were hung on the walls until spring. There was even a painting on the vacant wall between rakes and lawnmower. He had found it at a second hand store, a tropical landscape he still sorely missed, and there was a beach shack on the shore. He thought about hanging fish netting from the rafters but Mina frowned at that.

The cat–whose picture he had posted all over the neighborhood–mostly settled in before five days had gone by. He ventured once or twice inside the house but preferred the garage or the outdoors, much to Mina’s relief and Clark’s acceptance.

“Is there to be a name or do we simply cat him ‘Cat’?” Mina asked.

Clark thought it over, giving a stroke to the skittish creature. He’d dried and fluffed surprisingly well; the thick grey coat was handsome beneath green eyes.

“Captain,” he said quietly to the cat who looked up at him, blinked once and looked away, then back at him, whiskers seeming to twitch. They held each other’s gaze a couple of seconds and thus, it was decided.

“Well, Captain, you’ve managed a miraculous thing for Clark and his garage, so welcome.” She worried that someone would come looking for him, but for now she’d take it as it came as long as he stayed outdoors. She wasn’t such a cat person, and who even knew he liked cats? They’d had cocker spaniels until the last was hit crossing their busy street in California.

“Let’s see if the weather surprises us this morning,” he said to Captain as he opened his garage doors.

“See you two tonight!” Mina called as she closed the garage door.


Bernie Hudson liked to keep an eye on things from his living room window. When he saw there were colorful lights being strung on Clark’s garage, he decided to get out and watch more closely. He moved slowly among slippery leaves, using his cane for better purchase.

“Hello, Bernie.” Clark, startled since he had spoken with the older man maybe a half dozen times, greeted him from the ladder. He was about done with the lights and they draped about the doors like small exclamation marks, brightly welcoming. The cat was curled up on a big flat rock now that the rain had stopped. Weal sunlight eked through the clouds and rested on its green eyes and Clark’s congenial face.

“That looks real good, I have to say. Some people make such a show of wasting electricity but this will be tasteful.”

Clark chuckled –he didn’t think of holiday lights as being fine decor–and climbed down, then entered the garage and plugged them in. The brilliant colors glowed under the mostly bare black limbs of trees, seemed to spruce up the homely garage. They admired it together, noted the other houses people had lit up over the week-end.

“You got a new cat, eh? Fine looking animal.”

“Oh, he found us, a stray I guess. I advertised that he was here but no one has claimed him this week. I decided he could stay–well, he comes and goes but  likes to hang out in my garage.”

Bernie followed him inside the warm space, leaning on the cane as he gazed about. It looked almost like a makeshift den, he thought, with two old ladder back chairs and a humming electric fireplace and a painting on the wall. A well used oval rag rug was aid across the floor, to his surprise. Hardly a regular garage. But pleasant.

“Mind if I have a sit? This leg gives me grief.”

“Not at all. I’m about to put on new hinges on a repainted cupboard for our bathroom.”

“Nice job,” he said, and took out his pipe. “Mind if I smoke?”

Clark hesitated before answering. he disliked cigarette smoke and cigars were overwhelming but maybe a pipe would be okay. He didn’t mind the old guy visiting, so why not?

“I like best my Paladin Black Cherry, do you know it?”

“No sir, can’t say I do, not a smoker, but go ahead.”

Clark worked in silence after that while Bernie smoked and grunted a little at the cat or over his sore leg and captain took his spot on the big braded rug by the fireplace. The aromatic scent wafted about the room  and since the excess escaped through the open doors, it lent a peaceful atmosphere. As time went by, Clark shared some about his past work and how he wanted something different, he was a very good numbers man. Bernie talked about his wife’s weak heart and their seven grandchildren and how he could get tired of the dark, wet weather, too, but this was home until they were too old and then who knew? Best to enjoy the days as they came.

“Clark, what have you rigged up here? How enchanting.”

It was the neighborhood’s community mediation specialist, Julie, with daughter Carrie in a stroller. The three year old reached for the cat but he got up stretched and sauntered off.

“Oh, just a project while I keep applying for more jobs… the house can feel small all closed up in winter and well, I like garages.”

“Yes, Troy would admit to the same. He’ll want to come and see this!” She waved and kept on.

He hadn’t recalled her ever talking to him. Julie lived kitty-corner from them; Mina had run into her once in the store, she’d said.

As darkness began to fall and the little lights quietly blazed, Bernie waved to someone getting out of a BMW. It was Terry Hansen and his wife, Melba. Clark gritted his teeth; they were both younger and lawyers; they likely would sneer privately at his little project. They’d ask whether he was working or not. Clark got busy fiddling at the workbench but on they came and looked things over as they chatted with Bernie and then his wife, who had hobbled over to find her spouse.

Mina opened the garage door, then carefully backed out onto a landing atop three steps. As she turned, two mugs of coffee in her hands, she stopped. She was amazed to see Clark chatting with neighbors they barely had been able to recognize. Everyone was so busy with their lives. But the visitors greeted her warmly so she offered them coffee.

“Sure, why not?” Terry said. “It’s been a grueling day. Mind if we sit and chat?”

Melba helped with coffee and then the women joined in, opening two camp stools on which to sit. The rain had started up again and darkness was thickening about the streets and houses but the glow of the Christmas lights sparked up the homely scene. Clark looked on from his three legged stool and made a mental note to bring out their set of folding chairs, and to buy a tall stool for himself. But he was a little baffled by all these people, how much they liked his funky garage. Maybe no one here had thought of such a thing before but its wasn’t entirely unheard of, he was sure. On the other hand, garages not renovated for, say, an extra bedroom, were meant for cars and tools, not people.

Once more, rain started up, sweeping across the street, yards, bushes, into the garage. Clark pulled the doors to a little, enough to see the curtain of water and let out the pipe smoke. They grew quieter, each in his or her own thoughts. Dinner time was also past due.

Terry drank the last gulp of his coffee, stood up and stretched his compact frame. “You play cards at all, Clark? Poker or a hot game of rummy? I’m thinking this would be a great place to play on an occasional week-end night, open the doors some for fresh air, fire up the fireplace unit and have at it. What do you think?”

“Oh no, another ‘man cave’ plan being hatched!”  Melba said in mock horror but she seemed to not find it so appealing.

“Keeps him occupied for now,” Mina said, smiling tolerantly at the chic woman. “I kind of like what he’s done, and so does the cat.”

“Here, here,” Bernie said with a lift of his pipe. “Cards are sorely missing from my life.”

Clark thought it over and found it full of possibilities. “I might like that idea…”

“Good, we’ll figure out a couple more players. Quite a nice set-up you’ve created. Unique, I have to say. Just what the neighborhood needed.”

Melba moaned good-naturedly and reached for Mina; they swapped phone numbers. “We need to get our own thing started,” she suggested.

After all had left and Mina ordered Italian take out, Clark puttered around until Captain came back. When the cat yawned and he figured it was time to pick up their food, he closed the garage doors and turned off the electric fireplace. He petted him twice and went into the house, leaving one garage door ajar. He figured if Captain wanted to leave he’d come back sooner or later; he sure knew his way around places and people. This could be a decent life for them both, at least for the time being.

Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: Ephemeral Snow v. Midwest Snow

I felt last night that something interesting was brewing as the sun was setting. The radiant orange sky was adorned with a mock bas relief: towering clouds that spread like a fiery blanket over woods and then distant mountains. And the weather forecast also had me sniffing the air for any hint of snowfall. I usually stay on the fence about our changeable weather, and Willamette Valley weather folks are on the fence about snow showers actually showing up at any time. But I live higher than most Portlanders at 800 feet above sea level–it is colder here and lasts longer. Even my car’s temperature indicator pinged at me, indicating freezing temps. It was within grasp on the edge of the breeze, that sharp sweetness of a coming snow.

After all, snow was something to get excited about–we had had none here this winter. The Cascade and Coast Mountain ranges get plenty but I have wishes far greater than reality. My twin granddaughters had already gotten to play in the superior mountain snow, even sled down with their parents and tasted a bunch. Two other (teenaged) grandkids are used to winter’s plentiful fluff in their city, at a higher elevation of much colder central Oregon. But here I was with face to the windows, opening the balcony doors–waiting, waiting.

It took until the next day but it came. Yes, I know, it is clearly nowhere close to being a white-out snow…but it was still a pleasant thrill. It was drifty and soft and bright–it was not, thank goodness, more rain.

That was about it, yet it felt so good, a relief to stand outside and have wispy, sometimes globby flakes land on my face, feel sharper wind as it pressed against more weighted pine branches; they swayed a bit to and fro as if in welcome. There were many grey-on-white foot prints. My hands cupped chilled softness to shape a snowball–it was good packing snow despite the limited amount. I stood on the balcony that overlooks many pines and absorbed a breath-giving freshness of air, the taste of it almost a wintery dessert. For a few minutes I leaned against the house, coatless, arms held close about myself. I wanted to feel the slightest elegant power of snowfall, take deep its lingering quietude.

I shared my hasty snaps of the snow with my five adult kids because they know of the variety of more relentless winter events, the voluptuous kinds that coat everything with its generous displays. They lived many years in the Great Lakes State as did their parents. We traded pictures of their snow levels and mine along with a few memories. It was an immediate reconnection to a different space emotionally. Anyone who lives with snow for months every winter knows how this is, how it shapes your internalized landscape of life.

Today my youngest, Alexandra–one who lives in the metro area–checked in on me. She had earlier sent photos of her 20 month old little girls frolicking in a lot of snow on Mt. Hood a week ago, tasting quite a bit as they played. She asked how I was doing, meaning: how is it going with weather/virus statistics/vaccine roll out pushed back farther for too many/political changes/restlessness, as I like freedom to move a lot/life with her dad being yet unemployed. I answered, “Fair to Midland”, a dumb old gag that originated who knows where. In fact, I grew up in Midland, Michigan (she with her four siblings lived in that city awhile, as well; they’d often visited my parents/their grandparents). So it slipped out, innocuous if truthful. Maybe it was triggered by the snow the night before..ah, yes, Michigan snow…So a “Midland” designation could be pretty good or it might be a slight bit better than fair. I was feeling more the second. Life in itself can be fatiguing.

However, I also had been considering experiences to write about for this nonfiction blog post today. Since we were chatting, I asked my daughter to throw out a random idea or phrase (she writes a lot, too).

She said, “Melting snow–or fingernail painting.”

“Not fingernail stuff, I’d get three lines out of that one today. But snow….snow sledding, snow people and snow houses, heavy pants and coats and wet mittens and snowballs fights, giant snow drifts….”

“Wait, are you writing about snow? It has to be snow melting.”

“Oh,” I said. “Okay then, snow melting right before spring with green shoots underneath, or the demise of snow in the greater world, or watery snow in ditches that become creek beds and mountain rivers rushing from snow melt. That crappy moment the sled won’t budge because the runners are gunked up with mud taking over the once-snowy spots. But–a bit sad?”

She quickly responded: “The snowperson feels her own face slowly disappear. Her eyes first, an escape from the stare of an angry sun. Her nose, a frozen lump receding, and with it scents of earth and wet. Too late to yell out, to petition the clouds to dispense more of the clay that builds her bones: snow…” She paused. “But, anyway, mud sledding sounds sort of fun.”

I was quite taken with her melting snow lady scene; it was an entire story in a few sentences. I was hoping for more. “Oh boy! Can I quote you on that?” Meaning: can I use this for today’s post or better yet, will you write it for me?

“Sure–but I’m kinda depressed so not the best storyline.”

“We all have been kinda depressed off and on. Fatigued, worn out by it all. Anyway, I love you.”

She gave me her love with hugs and got back to her now-virtual work duties. I got my hiking boots on–I had to get outdoors. Rain–for months now–or snow, daylight or dusk: moving beyond my front door and into the world and nature’s domain is a ritual I well keep. A routine, an opportunity for discovery and more good moments. It’s praying on two feet moving, with all senses attuned. And maybe I’d still find a bit of snow.

So I went on a trek in search of snow, up and down hills, pinpointing evidence of yesterday’s flurry of frozen rain. There was pitiful little. The air held a steely edge as I wove in and out of treed areas, the sky grey and weighted as pewter, damp breezes sliding over hair and face. The temperature had risen overnight to 43 degrees Fahrenheit; snow had about all melted. My thick sweater and LLBean jacket with a hood encouraged heat and sweat as I tramped winding walkways. But there was a whisper of it, tiny clues here and there that snow had landed and stayed long enough to entice, to make me remember the lavish and treacherous, the magical snows of my youth.

The creeks were burbling and rushing downhill, pleased with increased wet volume. But trees and earth looked a little forlorn, not dressed with leaves nor with snow, caught at an in-between stage. I know they wait patiently for all that comes, live on in anticipation of matters and happenings they know far better than do I, and so I bid them a good day and kept on.

But as for the snow of my childhood and youth that is not here today…That kind of snowfall provided an entry into a differently populated, newly designed world. Everything lost its edges, was rounded, gave off a bright sheen. The earth with its plant kingdom and humanly created structures were refashioned into ghostly or gaudy versions of themselves, depending on laydown of any light. Before the snowfall, all that was ordinary and reliable transformed into magical and mysterious.

How many routes were carved through heavy snow? Year after year. Around our two story yellow house, forging the deep path with my heavy boots– into the front, side and back yards, about the juniper (and sleeping forsythia) bushes, back to the big maple and circling the bloomless cherry tree, then turning finally toward Stark’s Nursery that went on forever behind our bushes and pines. Each venture was a new exploration. I felt brave and hearty as I trudged into the howling center of winter, dragging my wooden sled behind me, face to snow’s kisses. I’d gather small branches and pine cones to be settled on the sled for delivery elsewhere, or carry a pyramid of snowballs for surprise battle with my sister if she roused herself (or any other who dared challenge). Or, too, my doll–dear Lady Jane, a beautiful walking doll, my favorite–warmly protected and wrapped in Mother’s dress fabric remnants or an old woolen scarf. It was the elements and us.

I could have headed to a good sledding hill with my sister and brother, as often I did. I might have gone to City Forest to enjoy gargantuan toboggan ice runs constructed high up, the rides down a fast rattle and flash with a sprawling crash into packed hard snow. I might have skated more often than anything; it was a passion. Good ice (shiny smooth if possible, free of snow) or bad ice, it made no difference. (Figure skating required and provided other things–the best clean ice, hours of hard, happy work with thrilling small successes.) I occasionally went skiing with a friend whose family did that sort of thing–mine did not–and when I made it down “bunny hills” without falling, I fell in love with its speed and athletic delight.

But in childhood and into my teens I just had to go forth into that driving snow. Especially the first few snows. It swirled about and stung my cheeks, tweaked my nose, crusted lashes and eyebrows crystalline. I was never lonely; I was fully alive and free. There were cardinals, blue jays, other winter birds and squirrels scampering about. And the tree nursery was a wilderness of loveliness any direction I looked, snow a glittering veil, trees and bushe ands small creatures adorned in beauty. If I got thirsty I found and broke off an icicle to slurp as it melted in heat of my mouth. Some were long enough to be a sword, three feet long or more, sharp as a big needle point on the end. Just in case. Just because I was on an exploration and nothing must stop me.

There were fortresses, cabins or castles out there somewhere, weren’t there?– I would find them and make a fire, warm fingers and toes of Lady Jane in my palms, make a porridge of melted snow and pine needles and old moss. I was never afraid of darkness gathering, the shadows lengthening, then widening upon undulating stretches of creamy whiteness. Like satin bordered with lace, like a huge blankets speckled with earth.

Back around the house, a streetlight swung in the wind as more snow blew in, lifted and drifted. Light and dark chased one another as I began packing snow blocks one against another in tall drifts left by the snowplows. I could crawl inside if I scrunched myself into a tidy ball. The snow blew across the yard in waves so high that freezing flakes slipped over my boot tops and under the legs of my snow pants–then warmed and trickled down my ankles. But a snow house was in the making and unless my family called me in, I was out for the duration.

When all was completed and I finally wearied of the cold, the cold, wet garments would come off, then I’d warm up and dry off by the hot air register (the burning sensation making me aware how cold my hands had gotten). One was positioned right behind a big chair and I could hide there a bit, rest and be happy. Nose ran, cheeks flamed, eyes were wide and bright. Soon scents of dinner would overcome me, simple pork chops or roast beef, potatoes, brussel sprouts, beets with salad. I was home again. All was well in those fine moments.

In Michigan when the snow began to melt, I felt little by little a welling up of sadness. I was not a springtime girl despite being born in April. It was the passage of winter to spring that I least loved. The slipping away of winter’s wonderment seemed a slow counting of tender losses: the enrapt silence of snow fallen, and its soft sifting and clicking against plant life and human bodies; cars cruising through slush, houses made friendlier. The odd emptiness of the world when blizzard conditions occurred and snow fell down as a heavy curtain, insulating the world from itself. The mystery of reaching into snowy depths, stiff grasses like sharp reminders of secret hibernations and ground hard as granite and stones like bitter cold gems ready to crack open to reveal something more.

My body and mind cushioned against any slight or large harm, any misgivings or errors, or reach of words and deeds that might lead me to something that might hurt, or someone I could not interpret correctly. This I knew for sure: snow was a bestowing of nature’s blessing; it was a perfect performance of beauty and power, another gift from from God’s own hands. And I had a place in that embrace.

In time, I came to admire and respect all the seasons in equal measure, for different reasons. The fantastical designs of nature held me early in their thrall. As any child who has the chance to explore such worlds feels, if they are lucky, right away. There were moments I was certain I was given the keys to all I ever needed to know. That was, of course, not quite the case. I had to better learn how to step into the other realm–to move into and about the world of people and their doings. Into the life I had a responsibility to create each step of the way, even when with disastrous results, even when there came success beyond expectations. But oh, what a teacher I had as each winter came with its wildness and gentleness, to offer both respite and adventure. What good fortune it was. And shortly after the spring, the summer, the autumn. Michigan has, as I learned four entire seasons, and all are their own sort of thing. And each had signs and gateways into their secrets.

Oregon has its own surprises and gifts galore. Even if snow here does arrive like a dashing figure and then is too soon called elsewhere. It melts so fast yet I always greet it as a friend to a friend. I can go to the mountains to find much more. That may be a trek I take soon– to nudge out the 2020-21 blues and make way for more satisfying and energizing moments.

Below, a couple of poor pictures–my apologies– of old photos of my childhood home in winter. You might note those icicles and also the long handled shovel on the porch. I did my share of shovelling along with the others!

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Iris and the Legend of Spirit Lake

The lake was not so close to the house you could throw a rock into it–something Iris had determined decades ago during each summer. It faintly glistened beyond a grove of birches and ubiquitous pines, and the half-fallen ones winter had damaged, one day to be seasoned and made into firewood. The ground was boggy beneath her feet, smelled strongly of rich mud. The sky blazed a hard blue above the whispering lake and the land about it.

“But the lake is there making its music,” she commented, surveying the property, arm outstretched.

“I suppose so, with complete indifference to us,” Elliot said, pushing fists deeper into his jacket pockets. It was cold despite it being on the cusp of spring, and his eyes burned from driving three and a half hours after a bad night’s sleep. “How about lunch and a strong cup of coffee? I’m beat.”

“You go ahead then,” Iris said and walked toward the woods, leaving him to take the luggage in as well as food for a three day week-end. Her suitcase, that is; he’d lightly packed a gym bag. She had wanted to make sure there were adequate clothes for the changeable spring.

It was too much to take in. The monstrous months of the virus, still going strong. A slowdown in their respective jobs. Then Grandpa Bolo’s death. He’d been expected to make good on his decree that he’d be a hundred and not a day less as he moved from this realm to the next. His health had been great for so long they believed him. His brain was snapping-quick, his outlook positive. Until he was fifty, he’d been a hardware store owner and sold it for a very good sum. Living in northwest woods for the latter part of his life, he was entirely content except for the loss of his wife too soon. But despite all those good things, a massive stroke snatched him at 94.

“Why was he called Grandpa Bolo?” Elliot had once asked after they married.

“Everyone called him ‘Bolo’. His mother’s maiden name was his a middle name–Bolonger–and he hated his first name, Horatio. He used a nickname form of his middle name since he was a kid. My sister and I decided to just call him Grandpa Bolo.”

“You grandmother’s name, wasn’t it a country type name? A folksy name…” He hoped he didn’t sound derisive.

“Nana Nell. A mentor all my youth, as you know…” She had been anything but ordinary. Iris smiled at the way her names rolled off the tongue. Her grandmother had died when Iris was twenty-four of cancer, seven years before she and Elliott married. And now, how quickly another ten years had passed.

Elliot sighed, almost rolled his eyes, then caught himself in time. How awfully folksy it all is, he thought, then saw her smile flush her skin with undeniable radiance. His initial response was submerged. His own single mother, Nancy, which he’d called her since he was young, was another sort of story.

Maybe that conversation–or what was left unsaid–ought to have told her more, though it would have been more than she could acknowledge then. And he might have known that whatever was kept subterranean was bound to resurface sooner or later, but he believed in control of his thoughts and feelings.

Iris and Elliot found the property untended, scrappy, but that was to be expected. Leave wild land to itself and you get more wildness. Of course, it wasn’t utter wilderness; there were more places dotting Spirit Lake’s waterfront and beyond. Grandpa Bolo’s property was built in 1920. It’d been renovated more than once by the two families who had owned it. The lake was also smaller than many in Washington, still with few year-round residents. The family place was big enough–two stories–to be called a proper house. But the cedar shakes were weathered, its wide porch long ago had sloped a bit, it welcome more a yawning nod…it appeared a worn out, oversized cottage. Which is what Nana Nell called it. But Iris could recall when it seemed like a woodland castle, a place beaming with color and delights and good will.

She felt her grandfather’s presence strongly and stood with eyes closed.

Iris had always thought of it as home, period. She was moved and excited that it had been passed down to her. Since their mother has died of the same cancerous disease, she and her sister Carrie were next in line. So she, too, was part owner. And settled long in Miami not far from their bridge-playing, golf-happy father. And neither was anxious to return except for a short visit. One day, after the pandemic had wound down, she’d come a few days. Father was more about visiting at his condo. So Iris was more than welcome to the house.

Elliot emerged from it with a sandwich in one hand, a mug in the other. He raised it toward her, full of steaming brew. “Are you having one, now?”

“Not yet! I’m off to look around.”

The path, though well overgrown, was not hidden from her. It had been created between brush and trees aeons ago; so many feet had pounded the dirt long and hard. She pushed away branches and bushes, sidestepped a clump of vines, wound her way through elegant birches, which she stopped to touch, face close to its white peeling parchment. Soon enough, lapping green-blue water greeted her.

Shielding her eyes, she scanned the barely moving water, found a few boats, people with fishing rods lowered. The lake’s surface sparked with sunlight. Across the expanse, she studied the cottages and cabins. Iris wondered if the Harris family was in, if the robust Peabody brothers were doing alright. She hadn’t seen the Harrises at the funeral (where the few that made it stayed distanced). She’d heard they were in Arizona, camping out with their wealthy son. Was Marietta Holmes still taking care of her granddaughter and unemployed daughter– or had those two moved on since November? There were many people she had missed a long while, and others that she might not yet know. The assembly of souls in the township of Garner totalled less than 125, she guessed.

Which was what Elliot hated–it’s insular smallness. Or, rather, strongly disliked–he’d not tell her he despised visiting there longer than three days, even if he felt that way. She already knew he got restless and stated strong opinions if she pled for any longer. There were plenty of things he said entirely free of constraint–but her family and this place…that was a different matter. Sacred ground, he’d termed it with a half-smirk once. And Iris did not correct him, for it was true for her. She did not understand why he didn’t feel the same about his own family history; he just wasn’t close to his few relatives.

“There is a reason it’s called Spirit Lake, and it’s a lovely one,” she’d once told him. But he hadn’t asked why so she hadn’t said.

But there it was, spreading out before her. She could see both distant ends of the lake and her eyes traced the squashed oval shoreline, pausing at bird sightings and noting a new paint job on a cottage, wondering who it was hauling out the canoe. The breath that she took filled her up with fresh air. Peace. Just beyond the treeline were far purplish peaks of mountains that shone whitely with snow in the thin light.

It was time to get back to Elliot. Though Iris could not think of many reasons why other than food and coffee.

******

“Are you awake?” he asked, touching her shoulder.

“Mmmm.”

“I keep hearing things out there.”

“Probably so.”

“Remember when we woke up to skunk stench that one morning years ago?”

“Uh-huh.”

He wondered what else. Raccoons. Coyotes or a even wolf? No, wolves didn’t live here, did they? Bears were known to roam the mountains surrounding them. He’d seen tracks before. Mountain lions, for sure, those wily cougars.

Iris shifted, pulled her pillow closer under her head, sighed softly. She had been sleeping. Now she’d be listening, too. But only a moment. Hadn’t Elliot been a country boy until age fourteen? But that was Kansas. She yawned.

He blocked out the image of a cougar padding onto the porch, peering into the undraped living room and kitchen windows, sniffing about the door. He lay on his back, staring into a thicket of dark. In Kansas, he’d look out and see nothing for miles. The vacuous or storming sky. Fields of undulating corn, yes, but not an impenetrable density of trees, not bears on the hunt. He preferred open expanses. After ten years of marriage and living in Washington, it was still a challenge to get comfortable with endless forests, the sinuous mountain or valley roads. That is, if they must be in the country, at all. Why, he once said to his friend, Tom, did they keep planting trees all over when there were already so many you couldn’t see where you were going?

He and Nancy, his hard working, divorced mother, had left Kansas for Las Vegas and never looked back. If he had never gone to university, then taken that first financial consultant job in Seattle…but, then, he loved city life, the hustle. He couldn’t wait for the pandemic to wane, to get out there once more.

And if he’d not come to Seattle, he’d not have met the talented artist, Iris Merriman, his future wife.

No, he’d have not met Iris. Things would have been different. Easier, maybe. Lonelier, maybe.

There it was again, a rustling, a shaking sound–a bush tangling with an elk as it walked through? He could deal with that okay, just get a rifle. He knew a bit about hunting. Still, give him skittering lizards, even a rattlesnake. Elliot turned, balanced on his side, listening hard, finding shapes in the dark he was certain weren’t likely there. Thinking: two more days to endure in the weirdness of country.

******

At the dock things were happening. Birds rising up and falling across a cool curtain of air, their early morning songs skimming the lake, circling treetops. Squirrels rooting around and gossiping. Fish emitting bubbles that popped up at water’s surface. Little dark whirlpools that twirled, eddied, vanished to secret places below. Soft tangerine and candy pink-tinged branches of black-green pines. Color of many tones washed over the languishing body of the lake like slinky raiment.

It was a good breaking of dawn. The best way to greet life was to meet it as the sun did.

At the end of the dock–newer than recalled–Iris was wrapped in a nubby woolen blanket. She sat forward in a creaky folding chair. Opened her sketchbook, chose a colored pencil. She looked and looked, began to render what she saw, felt.

As she drew, she remembered. Sitting there with her grandmother at her side, each of them engrossed, the quietness a blessing.

Nana Nell had been an artist, making baskets, ceramics. Collages of nature’s treasures. Small watercolors of wildflowers and lake scenes, sometimes of tiny people melding into the landscape. She’d taught Iris how to hold a pencil and brush, to loosen her grip. How to daub different paint pots and make new colors. To make interesting things of yarn. To see with soul and heart, not only her eye. To render designs with thoughtfulness and care. By the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to be an illustrator and got her degree, then became good enough that in time she was able to freelance. She drew pictures for children’s stories, for magazine articles, if needed financially, even for ad campaigns. Her favorites jobs were books, though it could be taxing to come to an agreement with everyone about how to execute what moved her while complementing the story. The other jobs were just jobs, but she enjoyed all labors.

Here, though, she could let her hand tell any story it wanted. Or represent with no embellishment just what was noticed. It was as if her eyes and brain carried sensory input and a feel of a place, animal, person or any other thing, and with speed and glory: suddenly it would flow from the tips pencils or charcoal or brushes. A direct line of energy. A charge of clarity. A liberation of everything that mattered to her. She loved most the natural world’s magic. All she had to do was sit and wait for it to arrive from her body’s perception, then race into her being and back to her fingertips.

If only Elliot understood this. He failed to accept that she did not want to be a strictly commercial artist. He had at first encouraged her art shows but the galleries were small, the openings soft, the rewards not nearly as much money as he had hoped. Still, she’d developed a website; sales increased over time. And she kept getting contracts for the other work. In time, he stopped thinking about it, let her be. He made the greater contribution to their coffers and future. He worked hours she’d never withstand, he believed, with her artist ways and temperament and that was alright, he conceded, as long as it kept the peace. But it often was not the key that he’d wished. She was so….adrift in her own small world. As he was, he guessed, in his. And seldom the twain did meet in recent years.

He had just awakened before she appeared. He didn’t dress, but slouched into the porch swing with a fleece on, hungry and tired. He had taken a look about and found no sign of intruding creatures around the house perimeter. He deducted he’d conjured up the sounds. But wasn’t convinced.

Iris’ sketchbook and pencils were clutched close to her chest as she approached the house. She was often magnetic, her straight long hair drifting about narrow shoulders, long legs taking the dirt path with ease. As if she was meant to always walk briskly without ever tiring. Not a big woman, she could disappear as well as gradually command a space. It was her focus, the zeroing in on people in any setting that so captivated. She might be studying momentary light on the planes of their faces, but they appreciated her gentle attentiveness. They wondered what she saw. As he had.

Now Elliot frequently waited for her, patient at first, then frustrated as time went on. For her mind to come forward to meet his, for her gaze to lock with his in a signal of passion, for her work to take up less room and make more for his work, his day’s events and needs. Sometimes he felt like she’d long ago started a migration to another land. Had left him by the side of the road, free to join the trip or turn and go another way. She cared but she was missing, somehow. He couldn’t put his finger right on it. They had argued about their separateness more and harder lately. Ever since the Spirit Lake house had become hers.

Hers. Not theirs. He’d never thought it could be any other way.

“Had breakfast already?”

“I haven’t. I was waiting for you.”

She gave him that smile, the one that said all is well in my world and let’s have a good day. So he followed her inside, hopes lifted. He knew he had to make the best of things over the weekend. He wanted to and yet part of him pulled back, waiting again for her to fully see him. Anxious that this house meant more to her than he did. That they had come to a fork in the road.

Iris felt his worry rise from his body like the cold he needed to better dispel. She let it pass her by. She knew what made sense for them, and she knew she loved him. One way or another, their destinies would work out right.

******

In the afternoon they walked. Iris showed him again her favorite places. All those years she had come for the summers; she was a full Spirit Lake citizen by age five. The tiny store, run by the Hedlund clan, two miles down the road, where you got bait and most everything else in a pinch. Like a convenience shop, just less interesting in inventory than a city’s, Elliot noted. The hilltop view where you could see the mountain range more fully, their mighty breadth and height leaving them both struck by nature’s grandeur, as usual. The place where she found butterflies amid brightly bobbing wildflowers spring into summer. The best picnic spot under massive oak trees by the lake where her family laid out ham sandwiches and devilled eggs, veggie sticks with dill dip and sun brewed iced tea. And the family recipe, a dark chocolate cake with cinnamon. Elliot shared a couple of picnics like that; excepting the bees, flies and ants, it had been nice and tasty.

“Let’s get out the rowboat,” she said and tugged on his hand.

Before he could protest, she pulled him into a galloping run to the boathouse by the dock. It felt good to be there with him. He was calmer, more accessible than in the the city where he and everyone else seemed so compressed. Concentrated on matters of importance, the race to make money stack up. She felt he’d made a vow as a kid to be a Success before anything else could claim him. She’d known this from the start, but back then he was able to be vulnerable, too, more malleable under the engine of driving energy, curious about so much more.

“I’ll row, it’s in my blood, this boat thing,” she said teasingly, “and you always put us into a circular pattern to nowhere.”

“That’s true. We didn’t have boats in my part of Kansas…I still might learn.”

“What? No lakes of rivers in that state?”

“Well, not so I noticed. A sea of corn or grain, yes.”

“I wouldn’t have been the same person without water and boats. I’d have gone stir crazy being landlocked. There is something about skimming the water’s surface, being shown a panorama like this, watching life over and under the surface..it never fails to make me fall in love all over again.”

He had to agree it was pleasant, the rocking of water, the line of neat cottages and rustic cabins, others out in their boats. Like postcards you’d send to a buddy, proclaiming how much fun is being missed, a huge fish on a line prominently displayed. But he didn’t fish and the truth was after a half hour, he wished he was reading a newspaper or texting at a sidewalk table of The Merchant’s Coffee Shop. As he preferred to do on non-working Saturdays. Even if it rained–there were canopies and umbrellas set up, even in the pandemic.

Iris put up her oars, one on each side.

“Doesn’t it feel safe out here? I mean, from the world, from illness. And so many other sad events.”

“I suppose so. But I’d rather be in touch with that world, too. Live within it. I mean, we can’t run away from things. Or we just shouldn’t. We have the responsibility to do what we can, carrying on and planning for a changed future.”

“Yes, I know. But people manage the best ways they can, not always the same as each other, right? We all have different ways to achieve those goals.”

Oh, here it comes, he thought, our great divide. He looked toward the sound of a truck rumbling over some gravel road, likely a few ATVs or an earthmover to shove dirt around to make way for a new house. Garner was beginning to attract attention from city dwellers. That appealed to him, the investment aspect. But so much of the land was privately owned already, it was hard to get in. Except, they had an “in”, didn’t they? Or she did, anyway.

“So we have noted before,” he said. “I like to be in the mix; you like to step back and work from the edges.”

She grabbed the oars and rowed a little more to pass a couple fishing nearby. “Not fully stand back, just to get more or better perspectives. Use my talents the ways I feel work best.”

He looked at her quizzically. “What are you getting at?”

“I’ve been thinking.”

“Yes, I know. We keep beating around the bush, don’t we.”

“Well, much has happened this year. We feel so much less certain of anything, It takes thought.”

Her strong slim arms pulled on the oars in a rhythmical manner, a slow but steady power so that they crossed over the lake toward the house with the slightest lurches, then more gliding, each stroke moving through the chilly water almost soundlessly. She was good at this, had a way with the lake no matter the manner in which she approached it. She had such a feel for lake life.

Iris could swim across it; he couldn’t swim well even in a pool though he could almost dive well. Iris could sail the green Sunfish very well; he never had and then when he tried, they’d capsized. Iris could tell the weather by the direction, speed and shape of waves against the shore, the sound of wind in trees. She had grown up near Seattle in a smaller, woodsy suburb, but she had learned about most important things in and on Spirit Lake, it seemed. Elliot had learned on the fly as his mother worked as a blackjack dealer in casinos. But he knew things, too. They just were not in her knowledge pool–as his were not in hers.

She let the oars drag a bit in the water and looked right at him. “I want to stay, Elliot.”

“Of course you do, you say this every time we come here. And you lost your beloved grandfather and you miss the old times…”

“No, I mean, yes, that is true. But I meant that rather than rent out the house by summer and for a long while as we discussed, I want to just live here. To keep it for us to use.”

“You can’t be serious. Alone, you mean? I have to go back to the city. What about your own work? Friends? What about us?”

“I have figured it out. You’ll drive over all the weekends you can. I’ll come to the city, too. I can freelance anywhere– you know that. My friends? They can visit eventually, when it is safe, and vice versa. I have a few old friends around here, too. We could make it work, Elliot! It seems so perfect–we each get what we want and still have each other.”

Her expression was so intense, she looked like a giddy teenager. It seemed suddenly absurd, the whole thing. Was this what she’d imagined when the will was read? How had he failed to miss it?

“The whole time–you had this planned, didn’t you Iris?”

She shook her head and started to row hard again. “I didn’t, truly, Elliot. But ever since we drove down the private road to the house I felt like it was where I most belong. Once and for all. I might discover otherwise, I guess. But I want to try it for six months, at least, see how it works out.”

“You can’t mean this.” It was sinking in with a feeling akin to horror. She wanted to leave him then, essentially–end up living here? They’d made a sound plan, they would keep but lease the house, then someday perhaps build a tidy cabin of their own on the lake. For holidays. For investment purposes. And the land was worth something.

Once more she let the oars dangle in placid water, dragging and leaving barest wakes on either side.

“Don’t you see that it’s what Grandpa Bolo wanted for me? He gifted the place to me–and Carrie, who doesn’t even want it. He knew how I loved Spirit Lake and the forest and mountains, its people, the way of life. He knew it’d be good for me to still love and watch over it. I don’t really trust others to do that right…” He had turned away, hands holding tightly to the boat’s sides. “Elliot– I can paint and make things so happily here. There’s much to inspire me. I can do really good work here again, I know it–I’ve been stuck, almost bored lately as you know. This might be the answer to it all.”

“Yes, your selfish answer to our situation, our being out of sync, your artsy world versus my commerce world..it is such a mess, isn’t it?” He stood, angily gesturing toward shore, at her, and rocking the rowboat. “I can’t accept this, it isn’t good enough for us both!”

The boat began to tilt and sway side to side.

“Elliot, be careful sit down now!” she called out.

But he was off balance, falling fast, and as he grazed the edge going over, he thought, this is how it ends? Iris dove in deeply and the cold shocked her hard but there he was sinking, arms waving, legs flailing, and she breast stroked her way to him, grabbed him around the waist and pushed upward with all her strength, her legs beating the water, her free shoving the stunning water away, reaching and straining toward light and air. He was heavy, heavier than he should be, and she realized he was pushing against her, fighting, afraid of drowning, afraid of taking her with him, perhaps. She clamped him with her arm around his chest, held his back to her front, plowed ahead, up and up before her lungs burst. They broke through, bobbed upward with the force of it.

“Elliot,” she sputtered, “stop fighting, we’re safe!”

He was gasping hard, coughing and choking, and grabbing the side of the rowboat when a motor boat came up fast.

“You need help? Oh, Iris! My gosh, let us help!”

The big bearded Peabody brothers, still hearty at sixty and sixty-two, hauled him complaining and gasping over the side of their boat, checked him over, threw their jackets over them. Then the older brother joined Iris in her boat and rowed her back. The younger one whisked Elliott over in the motorboat.

Chattering teeth made her clench her jaw. They’d nebeen in not more then two or three minutes, that was good, but still, so cold. “Never could keep you straight, look like twins.”

“I’m Adam, that’s Mike,” he said, and laughed as if it was a joke. “Good thing you can swim.” He cleared his throat. “Might be good to teach your husband.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Grateful for your help.”

“Anything for Bolo’s folks, rest his soul–any time.”

Iris blinked back tears. Her hair streamed, her jacket and shirt clung to her chest. She’d lost both loosely tied tennis shoes. The ones she had left there a few years, just for the lake.

“Long, warm shower now, or a bath, both of you,” Mike said as he dropped off Elliot with a nod–and a tip of his hat to Iris.

******

“I don’t get it, but I see there’s no changing your mind. If I had my way, I might never see this place again. Or any other silty, weedy, stinking lake, for that matter!”

“I know.” Iris poured coffee into his thermos for the drive back to Seattle, placed the sandwich and apple in the lunch bag. If only he really was just going to leave for a day’s work and then coming back shortly. “But we will give a good try, and thank you for that. You won’t decide to throw me over in a divorce action?…”

“No.” Saying it made it a more clear and certain decision, through he’d had a niggling doubt overnight.

Iris walked him to the car. “So, you’ll be back with Tom and my car next Saturday, right? He loves the outdoors, especially fishing if I recall.”

“He does,” he said grudgingly. “Yes, and I’ll cart over more clothes and whatever else you decide. Make that list and text or email me by Thursday.”

“Yes.” When he got in and shut the door, Iris leaned at the window he rolled down. “You know it’ll all be alright if we look at it as mutually beneficial. Right? We’ve been at odds a long while, and I’ve been restless with much and you have felt neglected. You want to work longer and later hours even at home. I like early rising and early to bed. You like running every day and I like yoga…we both need some time to regroup. It isn’t just me wanting this place, it’s more, I believe.”

“I agree, Iris, it’s just not easy. And less so in these crazy times.”

“We can be in touch every day. We’ll see each other as often as possible. It will be a small adventure.” She leaned close, kissed him tenderly. It felt good, the kiss–and their farewell for the time being.

He began to back up, then stopped. “I never learned after all this time why the lake is called Spirit Lake.”

“Oh, that.” She smiled, gazed past him, to the shore beyond the trees. “I might tell you someday. We’ll see.”

He shook his head, waved at her, then left.

Nana Nell had told her one summery day when Iris was ten. They’d been drawing together the shore, the blanket covering the stones and lumpy earth, August green trees dancing in the wind.

“I make art better outside, Nana Nell.”

“Of course you do. It’s the lake.”

Iris squinted at her. “Why?”

“Because once there was a woman who ran away from home to find her heart’s desire. She didn’t want to live an ordinary life. She wanted to do something special and good for the world, but she didn’t know what until she arrived at this jewel of a lake.”

Nana Nell paused as she added color here and there to her sketch.

“Nana, what next?”

“She became a well-known artist. She also donated much of her money to help build an orphan’s home in Garner. But then, at too young an age she drowned in a terrific thunderstorm that came up while she was in her boat, drawing nature’s beauties.”

“That’s terrible.”

“But that’s not the full ending, child. They never found her. But she finds those who come here. Every morning at sunrise she skims the lake. Well, her spirit does, and she watches over the rest of us if we belong here. And if anyone falls overboard, she brings them back up to safety.”

Iris said nothing a long while. Then: “So those people live?”

Nana Nell nodded.

“When was this, Nana Nell? Did she have a name?”

“Oh my, it was Mary something…Mary Murray…Mary Millay…Well, it was before I was born, before Grandpa or even my parents came to be. It was before anyone can exactly recall, anyway. But the lake does not forget. And she still calls out to some, you know. She called to me, and Grandpa Bolo, and now to you.”

Iris smiled so hard her face felt it might freeze that way. “Because we’re artists!….and Grandpa Bolo loves the lake and earth, too!”

Nana Nell smiled back, patted her hand and bid her keep drawing.

“Maybe she was part of our family,” Iris said impulsively as she shaded a mountain peak.

But Nana Nell did not reply. She was busy creating.

When she had thought enough of Elliot and his leaving and her staying, Iris got her sketchbook and colored pencils and sat on the dock. A damp wind fragrant with a herald of spring on its tail came by, and warm sun soothed her sadness, and music of the lake awakened a dormant joy. Before too long, there would be sweeter rains and softer days rife with wildflowers. Creatures would venture out more, stop at her door. She would go swimming and boating. She would make beautiful things. She might just sit and attend to the water and sky. She had not felt so comforted and right in her own skin in a long while. But Elliot would call it home one day, too. He just hadn’t fully surfaced yet. Or, at least, she kept a small hope of it.