Chelly was counting the flies: 17 since she’d begun her shift. They careened about the storefront like daredevil mini- planes, dipping and buzzing their tiny energized bodies as if on a mission. Their wings folded a few seconds as they landed on the still-sticky counter. A damp towel was frequently rolled up and snapped at their whizzing bodies but she usually missed. Newspaper made a better weapon but the body count was still unimpressive. She wiped the whole place down all the time–she had a high regard for acceptable hygiene. And no appreciation for stealth bombers.
It was a rare, hour-long respite between clots of customers seeking sugary gratification at Hettie’s Ice Cream Parlor. What a corny name, as if cast and cemented in the early twentieth century, not budging a bit. The tacky nostalgic decor mimicked the name, white wrought iron chairs and tables, baby pink, sea green, peachy cream accents. Pastel prints lined the walls with old-fashioned park scenes, families daintily eating treats. A striped, scalloped awning. Chelly would change it to Heddie’s Icy Sweet Shop, or Main Street Ice Cream Stop, make it black and white decor with splashes of red. If anyone asked her. No one did, of course. And the public flocked to the place.
She got the job when the weather had taken a zigzag and heated up faster than usual in April: more business sprang up. So, one more worker. People had pressed their noses against the window, tongues hanging out even when the line was out the door and it’d be fifteen minutes before they’d get in. That’s how it was with ice cream, the chilliness overtaking the toasty, the icy taunting the sweatiness: it was a hunger, sure, and eagerness for a fresh mixture of happiness. Like in people’s lives, Chelly thought, looking for relief, pleasure.
She checked the big cardboard tubs and found a couple too low, so informed Mike, the ancient store manager, and went to the back to the freezer room.
Once the heavy door was pulled open, she let it close against the daylight and tepid sweet air. It felt like a strong, frigid safe for treasure on the good days. And a prison of doom on bad ones, one that could kill if you overstayed your visit. However long that might be, she hadn’t asked. Today it was a nice place to linger. It calmed her yet woke her right up. She didn’t much love the work though she pretended. Smiled as she stacked another mountain of sugary delight into a cone for reaching hands. It was hard labor, that’s what it was, made her arms and shoulders ache to scoop frozen dessert for hours. Her back whinge. It made her fingers numb sometimes. But she stayed on.
She tapped on each cellophaned, weighty container with gloved hands, counting as if counting was needed, saying aloud each flavor’s name as if she might forget.
“Minty cocoa, peach cobbler, salty-sweet seaweed, mango madness, espresso with sweet cream, vanilla bean harmony, blueberry blast, orange peel fireburst, sesame coconut….” She spoke them with flair, as if showing dessert offerings at a fancy restaurant her parents owned. Until: “Lastly, our great vintage creation… caramel-pecan-chocolate pie.”
She spoke that flavor slowly, words fluttering from her lips, her pulse increasing. Then she counted to seven with each breath in and out until the squirmy feeling passed. Chelly grabbed minty cocoa and blueberry blast, exited and shoved the door hard, pressed shut with her hip.
Three customers had come in. After she switched near-empties for full ones, she started serving. It was weird how some weeks certain flavors ruled, some lagged. Lately it was dark chocolate and blueberry. The week before, bubble gum and Key lime sherbet. Tomorrow, tropical banana with carob sprinkles. Passersby studied the menu on the door.
But Jay…he’d laugh like crazy when she listed how many sherbets there were. He thought sherbert had no business in a real ice cream line up. But she liked it; others did, too.
“Hey, what’s up?” Mike gently elbowed her. She spaced out sometimes.
Chelly blinked at him, put muscle into her scooping motion of the new batch of blueberry blast and plopped two perfect mounds into a waffle cone. Smiled at and checked out the customer. The shop went quiet again, excepting Mike and the new guy, Terrance, talking with another patron, and the overhead fan slowly rotating. Catching at a fly now and then, she imagined, only to fling it into another trajectory.
“We need something to scare off the invasion of flies in here!” she reminded him for the hundredth time. As if he hadn’t waged the war for years.
“A fly strip would scare off the customers. We don’t even have a screen door to keep some at bay. Any new ideas? I personally open the back door now and again to let them go out the back way.” Mike chuckled at this absurdity.
“Maybe an electronic zapper outside by the door–ever try that?”
“Also unappealing-it stuns every flying thing and scatters them by the doorway. We use citronella candles in summer, you know. People put up with this, they want their ice cream.”
Their words halted as she mopped up sticky drips. Then she stared out the window, at taller and wider folks scurrying by, the darker and lighter and young and aging human beings going up and down the sidewalks with easy intention. As if it was another fine day, life a fun parade, and the greatest worry on earth was if enough sunscreen was slathered on to fight off the onslaught of UV rays.
She scrubbed harder. Chelly avoided sunbathing, saw it as irresponsible of her friends. Though she always went with them to the lake. Maybe this year she’d miss out, now she was working. It made her a little sad. But the lake would still be there.
“You do a nice job, Chelly, but what’s up, why are you here? Pocket change?”
Chelly’s spun around and her mouth was about to say something she’d regret but she caught herself in time and shrugged.
“Yeah, pocket change, Terrance, why are you here?”
He smirked. “I actually need pocket change, unlike you.”
“What’s it to you?”
“Your aunt owns this shop, right? I know you could do better stuff at your family’s other places. Didn’t think I’d see you here.”
She wanted to demand why did he think of her at all–and did it matter to her what he imagined? If his tone had been stupidly accusatory or snide with an edge of cruelty she might have smacked him. But she knew Terrance a little. He was 16, a year behind her. He’d arrived in Newton five months ago. He often stayed to himself but somehow had to find her appealing. He was great at math like she was, maybe better. But he apparently lived with dark blinders on and earplugs in his large ears 24/7– because he’d not ask her that if he had any info or good sense.
“Terrance.” Mike said sternly with a sharp motion of his head at Terrance to get back to work.
“Never mind, Mike,” Chelly said, “he’s still a stranger here– he’s just, you know, speculating, got the wrong scenario started.”
MIke shook his head, returned to his desk in back. Terrance glanced at her with cautious anticipation while he straightened chairs.
But she was taken with a woman who hesitated by the door, a little boy tugging at her hand to persuade her to go in despite it being close to dinnertime. Chelly’s face relaxed; her hazel eyes widened at the boy. He half-banged on the door with his balled up fist but just once. She gestured a welcome to him with a smile. Dinnertime be damned. He was a little kid and needed ice cream. She’d get him in if that woman didn’t. Then she was going to give him a huge extra scoop to take home–she’d pay if Mike complained.
She peered at Terrance, noting a flush staining his pallid cheeks. “So Jay, my brother, was an ice cream nut. We made ice cream at home and he wanted to work here when he grew up. Invent one hundred more flavors. But he didn’t get to grow up. He died before you got here, before the ripe old age of ten. So I’m working for him.”
“Oh, I’m sorry…” He hung his head, shuffled off.
“Yeah, now you know something real,” she said and gazed out the window again.
Four more people appeared and got in line behind the stalled duet. The bell on the door rang as mother and son entered, and the kid raced to ogle the beautiful ice cream tubs, eyes glossed with sunshine, shaggy hair stuck this way and that, hands pressed to his round cheeks as he pondered mind boggling choices.
“What can I get you today, boss?” Chelly asked and readied her scoop.
It is a peculiar habit– to possess objects that are excellent, perhaps even valuable, but unnecessary, and thus are shuttered away. I had forgotten about it, this certain thing, like most items I don’t use. I am utilitarian in my habits, I greatly admire fine creative design and enjoy holding a piece of art in my hand, or wearing it at my neck or seeing it upon a gold-lit shelf. But when an object is impractical or secretly disliked or in need of major repair, it is quite promptly forgotten.
My mother’s china pieces fall within the “impractical” category. And then a subcategory I might name “awkward.” What does one do with china that has no real place in one’s ordinary abode? And yet I have kept it, though hidden away.
I have only a distant–often unnoticeable- attachment to most of what I own. I may well like much quite a lot but a thing oddly matters very little if and when ruined or disappeared. The initial bite of loss is felt but after a bit, it seems upon reflection that it held far less meaning in my scheme of life than previously and often dramatically noted. I feel it is all easy come, easy go in the end. It’s good I am this way, and that I don’t have buckets of money. If I see something something magnetically exotic or thrillingly original that I might love, a feeling comes over me that I am not fond of having: a sudden desire to place it into my realm–and covetousness may pounce inside me. So unattractive a characteristic. I don’t mean to want things like that, even the best things. It takes such energy and attention when I need those for other activities. I’ve never even bothered to putting time or cash into properly decorating wherever I live. Nonchalant might be a good description of my style, ad-hoc and eclectic….. If it’s comfortable and has some color with a bit of pattern tossed about, I’m good. No, I am less about details that look good, more about moments that can live well in real life.
But right, my mother’s china. (Or a portion of it–yes, I’m coming to it.) It’s not the sort of item that fits well into this way of doing things, I suggest. It requires the appropriate display and use. It requires a certain kind of event. So I have left it in a box or on high dark shelves ever since she died in 2001. A sleeping stack, gathering colonies of dust mites.
The truth is, it is quite enough to manage what I have. I’m well pleased with small tokens of artistic renderings or gifted lovelies. I can get excited about simple handcrafted items or occasional treasures in a second hand store but I can walk away with no longing, too. Maybe it has been all the practice I’ve had; one feeds and clothes the children, one doesn’t buy art or jewelry. One needs orderly rooms to move about, not extra piles to stumble over. (Alright, I have bought books, too many.) The few artistic pieces that are spread about my home required a lifetime of modest acquisition– none of it would impress anyone. They are not pricey. (I have also been known to cut out inspiring pictures from magazines and tape them to a wall.) Many have been given to me. But they’re cared about for one good reason or another. Usually the experience of finding it, the person attached to it.
Yes, that’s what gets us most of all–by whom or just how an object comes to be in our lives. It resonates of these every time we use it or walk by it or try not to think on it too long. That odd energy of things imbued with an essence of place or time or person–how alluring to mind and senses.
And so this comes around to my mother’s Rosenthal china. The twelve person place settings she bought and had shipped when my parents went to Germany. She had other china, and everyday ware (Franciscan Desert Rose, which I use daily). But this was the one she used to dress the most gracious table, along with crystal water goblets and silver. The dinner plates are pure white and embossed with a faintly, to me, architectural design. Yet I don’t have those with me. The fruit bowls that I have, and love and avoid are decorated with delicate flowers of deep pink, yellow and periwinkle, arrayed atop the raised pattern.
I happened upon them again recently. I stood tiptoe on a kitchen step stool, rummaging on the top cupboard shelf for something else. My hand reached behind a front row, and barely touched the rims of the delicate fruit bowls. That sound they make when moved against one another–a soft, bright noise. I took down two more ordinary bone china tea mugs my mother-in-law gave us long ago (that we use often); a few colored or etched glass candy dishes (a couple from my mother); and a diminutive vase that looks like an old-fashioned gentlewoman with an open-top hat made for tiny blooms. (This I happened to buy in a hospital gift shop after I completed cardiac rehab 20 years ago–it made me feel even better.)
I touched the bowls gently once more, hesitant.
I didn’t attempt to bring the them all down. I counted them: twelve, as meant to be. And then–because I suddenly wanted to hold it in my hands–I took the top one off the stack gingerly and stepped down from the stool. I proceeded to wash it with my fingertips and a spot of dish detergent under running water. I grabbed a tea towel. I decided I wanted to use one, perhaps just once. Applesauce, perhaps. Blueberries. Chocolate covered raisins. I visualized a vivid mound of raspberries against the white hollow in the bowl, rinsing it clean.
And then I dropped the china bowl. It lightly struck the quartz countertop, delicate against rock-hard. Only a bare inch from my hand to surface. I snatched it back up. But too late, though it somehow held together in my wretched hands.
You can imagine the bad words I said. How my heart plummeted. Eighteen years well sequestered and then, when once in two years I take one down to clean it, I drop it? Why was I not ever more careful? (My hands are notorious for dropping things. I suffered severe myalgias and weakness after taking statins 13 years; some days grasping strength is still impacted.) I ought to have called Marc to help. And so on.
I examined the bowl more closely in the light. The thinnest telltale line crossed from the smooth edge of rim and continued two thirds to the other side. I expected it to split apart but it did not, so I firmly pressed it tight together so that the line of fracture disappeared, then set it far back from counter’s edge. And then, after showing it to Marc, I thought once more how often my favorite things have been damaged or destroyed. It has happened again and again–and most often it is an accident not even of my doing. (I have come to see it as a further lesson to not hold tightly to things of this world.) I fussed a bit more, then decided if it sat there safely it might be useful, afterall, until I found the correct glue to fix it. If I dared to fix it. I put raisins in it and plucked them one at a time. The next day I put two pieces of chocolate in it and delicately lifted one piece and the other. The next day, a few crackers. It was being used just fine, but I was wary of moving it. I watched it as if it might.
I know I need to fix it soon, and fix it right. I am the caretaker.
The truth is, these fruit bowls are not mine, but are for my daughter, Naomi. The artist. She was originally to inherit the whole set, twelve of everything imaginable. This is what my mother had told me, and what she told Naomi so long ago. My daughter has been to Germany, also, and she appreciates beautiful, well made and interesting objects. She is my oldest child, was close to my mother dearly (so adored, that woman), visiting her and helping her off and on the last few years. My mother’s children had long gone from Michigan. But her granddaughter Naomi stayed with and worked with her father and his side of her family–construction and plant nursery work– many summers when she had time off from university and later from teaching jobs. Gladwin, a rural area where her paternal kin lived, was not far from Midland where my parents, then only my mother, resided. Mom looked forward to Naomi’s visits greatly. They gabbed, watched television and read, walked, did errands. They both loved to sew, to cook. They enjoyed classical music and much more. Later, when it was needed, my daughter helped with more personal needs. I recall feeling burdensome guilt that I had moved far away, that I could not visit Mom often since I lived in Oregon. And feeling deep gratitude that Naomi could, and without any prompting. She loved her dearly. And was appreciated and loved by Mom.
So the Rosenthal china was to go to Naomi, among other things. But things are open to interpretation when an estate comes into question–if some intentions are not signed and sealed. My oldest sister was the executor of the estate and told me after our mother’s death that it was not going to happen. Apparently, Marinell understood things differently; that Naomi got it was not explicit. She suggested that her daughter would like the china at first but in the end, she determined it would be shipped to her home state of WA. And then, to my surprise and for an unknown reason, I was t old the whole lot was ultimately sold.
Yes, I was aghast. Why did that happen, I wondered. It was entirely uncharacteristic of kind, fair-minded Marinell (now deceased or I wouldn’t write of it), the whole thing. She hadn’t taken my word as the truth. It was very disappointing–and she’d not even thought it might hurt us. Maybe because she had many fine things, herself, it didn’t impact her much in the general view of things. But there it was–the china was gone. Naomi and I simply let it go, as one must–it wasn’t worth holding any grudge.
Except. I had the fruit bowls.
I barely recall it–perhaps such details matter yet they’re blurred–but they were separate from the rest as we sorted things after the funeral. Or they ended up being sent to me accidentally with a box of other things; either may be the case… But Mom likely used them as she loved a small snack of fruit, cottage cheese, carrots and so on. She had left them out, then boxed them up at some point. But I chose to keep them for Naomi as the vast bulk of china slipped away. I knew she would be happy to eat a little yogurt or ice cream or pear slices or strawberries from them one day. My sister never mentioned missing anything. I felt it was justified, even that it was meant to be. They stayed with me and have remained here– until Naomi can use them.
It is about time, I sense. I am not getting any younger. And I don’t want to break one more. They are a meaningful remnant of a time, place and person for her to keep close.
How much do things matter? Things that may not be used as one hopes or imagines? My mother entertained, happily if modestly, and pulled out all the stops when friends or visitors from the arts and education and church worlds came for dinners and lunches. I was a shadow part of that as a teen. I helped prepare food, set the table just so, laid the silver and the place settings. I served others with a smile and a nod. I sat with them at those extraordinary tables–the loveliness of her centerpieces, the light slipping over crystal and silver– and talked about books and music and a mix of ideas. Nothin earth shaking, but good topics. Music played always in the background. I easily crossed over from inquisitive child to a seeking and also forlorn young adult at that table. Such rituals held us all together.
So, that Rosenthal–“All food tastes better when eaten from it” Mom said, and it was true– was partly mine, perhaps, long after my older siblings departed from home, and still when I came around a few more years when attaining adulthood. I never once needed it for myself–I am a mix-and-match person, a casual meal person. I have a cupboard full of handmade mugs, ones from special places; I hold on to chipped pieces. I had a couple of pretty goblets but they–of course–broke. Mom had a different passion for beautiful things, and worked them well into my parents’ middle class, educated, well travelled lifestyle, the pleasing china cabinet brimming with perfect, shining pieces. Ones she used with ease and often, as if it was always so. She, a farmer’s daughter, with an eye for more diverse beauty.
So that was in my mind when I pulled down one bowl–that I ought to use one now and again until Naomi has them for fond use in her own life. I had rarely done so before. I’ve regularly used her bone china teacups sets and those doomed goblets and many other culinary-related items. I have her LLadro figurines in a cabinet. I wear a couple pieces of her good jewelry. But those bowls… Maybe I felt a niggling guilt for having them, though it’s unlikely as the years rolled by and they weren’t missed–who used fruit bowls, anymore? Mostly I wanted them to stay safe.
You never know what means the most until faced with it’s possible loss. I was mad at myself last week and sad, but it didn’t make me weep. I have blinked back a few leaks over few possessions badly ruined. But full tears come easily for me only when it is a true matter of heart. Like when I awakened the other morning with cheeks wet and I thought to myself, Oh yes, it is April, then comes May, June. These times are full of losing a sister, a brother, my mother. Then, after that, my father. And all this has no shape but fills an amorphous realm of bittersweetness, and not one sharp memory to stun me but a tender and brazen moving picture of long, mysterious, amazing lives, and no heft in my hand or within my arms but the silken air and the puzzling ether beyond.
But inside there is resounding love, far more valued and useful than a fine white and floral china bowl meant for berries. Still, I gaze at and touch that broken bowl with a private tenderness. The line remains invisible, but it is there in the center.
Marni yelled upstairs toward Amanda’s and Tim’s bedrooms. Her son emerged immediately, his gangly length led by slipping, stockinged feet. She noted the hole in one sock toe. Darning was not a skill, though for her kids she’d do most anything. Darning socks was the least of it. He landed with a sliding thud.
She waited for Amanda, gave up and padded to the kitchen in her new navy scuffs with a trillium on each toe. Tim helped himself to eggs and sausage. She poured herself a big mug of coffee and sat across from him, chin propped in her hand. Every time she caught sight of her scuffs, she smiled to herself. Simplest pleasures made a difference.
As Tim ate, she thought over a conversation she’d had with her best friend a week ago. Lana had often suggested Marni begin to relinquish control of her family and was getting more adamant. “Or perceived control”, she’d added wryly. Now that Amanda was seventeen and Tim almost fifteen, it was time and then some. Time to get back into the workforce or into college studies or at least engage in a worthwhile hobby–ceramics, stained glass, anything but try to keep up her domestic goddess status. In fact, Lana insisted, Marni was the one and only such creature she knew–and that fact might give her a clue that it was an anachronistic state of being.
Their last lunch date was annoying to them both.
‘Unless you used it to build a gazillion dollar empire, let’s face it.” Lana smirked, knowing such a notion would never occur to her friend. “But, then, you’re undermotivated, being married to Rob the VP of Tomkins and Sons and a man with serious political leanings. You can afford to stay home, I grant you. The question is–“
Marni cut her off with a slice of the air with her fork. “You know why. I like being home and Rob likes me the way I am, and I am truly not ever unhappy as you think, so much so that I must go off in search of ‘fulfillment’, as you keep suggesting.” Lana’s words stung no matter how often she’d heard them, which was every few months.
Lana bit her tongue. Of course he did, Marni was everything he needed and more to aid and abet his career and keep their family ship afloat. “Yes, alright, I know…”
“Besides, we know you have a great career and travel often, are single and have one absent kid–so your perspective is askew. Not everyone is quite so independent and free.”
“He is not absent, he’s at university and busy practicing being an adult. I hope. I am also not what you’d call a free agent in my work position, either. And all you give me are rationalizations.” Lana sighed. It was useless to talk sense to her. “What will happen when they leave–like my Jason did? I had Plan B and C. You’ve spent years submerged in home life and you’ve well succeeded at all you’ve done. But don’t forget that dream you had recently. Your subconscious is knocking on your door, my friend.”
“It wasn’t a nightmare, it was just frustrating feelings emerging. Every mother has those!”
Lana’s highly arched eyebrows lifted. “Swinging high from a huge tree, people pushing and grabbing and pulling until you fall from that glorious moment of bliss halfway to the sky and then plunge into nothingness which wakes you up in a sweaty panic. Time’s a wastin’. Forty and counting, now.”
Marni toyed with her chef salad, then patted Lana’s elegant, bronzed hand flattened on the white expanse of tablecloth. “Relax, I’m okay. My life is good and you know it. Now tell me about your trip to Norway.”
“First commit to a spa day with me next month.”
“That’s easy, yes, if it has a eucalyptus steam room.”
Marni loved hearing about Lana’s adventures in work and life. Not that she hadn’t travelled some, attended concerts and plays, created interesting community events. But the truth was, she had long ago lost a taste for the kaleidoscopic, hectic, demanding world beyond her doorstep. She had long been aware of living in her own encapsulated time and space. It bothered her little–but lately, more often, for all the reasons Lana harped on. But what was actually worth more effort? Much of what mattered to her had gradually changed over the years–wasn’t that true of everyone? So she wasn’t as ambitious as she had once been, while most women she knew had gotten bolder, smarter, more accomplished. Well, once knew. She’d been left behind almost imperceptibly over the years and now it was an occasional meet-up, a shared charity responsibility. But sometimes they’d looked at her with a touch of envy when she talked about her life, while she found them more worn around the edges. If perhaps more confident in some ways. She’d make the same choices–would they?
But it was easy to be smug about one’s own life when you knew so little of the other person’s, or what all the options even were, she thought then. And thought again a few times.
When Lana and she had first met, Marni worked in publicity for a great regional magazine (which had become glossier and more literate). It was a good job, one that got her going each day and brought her to a restful closure, more often than not, by evening. But Lana had climbed the ladder fast, then moved on. And Marni stayed until Amanda was born and she never went back full-time. Then Tim arrived and it seemed right to be home awhile longer. Time passed. She followed the new parenting agenda. It soon felt as if she was on a train and there was no stopping it; she hunkered down, learned along the way, determined to excel at her more mundane job. But often treacherously difficult.
She thought over these things as Tim scarfed down the remains of his breakfast and slurped a latte. He watched her with dancing brown eyes and she smiled back.
She sat forward with a start as Amanda joined them–tall, lean, hair half-brushed, clothing disheveled.
“Okay there, Mom, or is that your third cup of coffee?” Amanda asked.
“Is virtual learning a reason to get sloppy?” Marni retorted, then regretted it as her daughter slumped into her chair.
“I’m dressed, not naked, right?”
Tim laughed, spewing latte, “Crap, no!”
Amanda threw a pinch of cold toast at him, then another.
“Enough, you two!” Marni did not think this exchange was hilarious. She longed for order at her tables.
Rob rushed by, grabbed his coat from the coat tree in the foyer. “Have a breakfast meeting at the club, remember?–See you all tonight!”
She rose, awaiting a quick kiss. He paused, blew an air kiss, and left whistling.
Go get ’em Tiger! she thought ungenerously and softly slapped at the countertop with a damp tea towel. She hoped the kids didn’t notice her irritation. She needed to get over the feeling of being snubbed by her own spouse.
With an hour to go before taking Tug, their collie, to the groomer’s, Marni later sought out Amanda in her room. After knocking and getting an assent, she entered and sat in the computer desk chair.
“What, Mom?” Her head was haloed in sunlight, a tangled cascade of hair resisting her brush-out.
“We have to talk about this summer.”
“Summer? It’s April. And I have to sign in for remote Calculus in a few.”
“Aren’t you going to apply to Blue Lake Summer Arts Camp this year? The due date is April 20 and you haven’t done a thing with your application.”
Amada rolled her eyes, pulled her hair into a messy ponytail. “Maybe, maybe not.”
“Why is that?”
“Derrick will be in town, working at the golf course as a caddie.” She rubbed her face with her palms to wake up better. “So, that’s a no, I guess…”
“You’d miss a fabulous eight weeks of creative engagement for…some new boy? He’ll be here when you get back.”
“Mom! You can’t talk to me about missed opportunities! I actually do lots of stuff, you know. What have you tried lately that has been remotely interesting? Sorry–but true. You barely know Derrick, anyway–he is definitely not just ‘some boy’.”
That was true–she didn’t know him much though they’d met; he was well mannered and conversationally adept so those were pluses but that meant little when her daughter was out there with him.
“There isn’t much more to say, but can we talk later? Class begins in a minute.”
Dismissed, Marni left.
Days like that she wondered what she was doing there? It seemed as if her children had gotten their footing well enough that her advice meant little to nil. She was what to them all? A glorified cook/chauffeur/ occasional therapist/housekeeper. And she had to get Tug to the groomer. His hair was everywhere; she’d had enough of that, too. Otherwise, he was the only one that minded her, anymore.
That evening she swung on the porch swing in tender, bluish twilight, wondering if Rob was really at Capitol Steakhouse for dinner with a cronie. She saw him less and les, yet it meant little more to her. Everyone knew who Rob Henninger was. She was introduced to new people with: “You know, she’s married to Rob!” and people would beam at her until they realized she had nothing much to add to that. Plus, Marni was not gregarious and did not have a paying career. But she was good for helming causes behind the scenes, so was handy to have as an acquaintance.
All Marni could do was write a little. But no one knew that, not even Lana, it was not meant to be known. Well, Rob did in the abstract. He was aware she got up before anyone else to spend intense time at her computer and closed it when the house became more lively. He knew she loved fiction, kept trying to write it, and that was enough for him to know. Well, he had his coin collecting, a holdover from childhood. He had his passion, golf. Everyone needed something pleasing to do.
So she kept her ideas to herself. Her fantasy stories would draw giggles from her kids, a blank face from Rob. It was her quiet space, her private time, life outside the family.
Swinging gently, she thought of the current story she was working on. How, if it ever seemed good enough, maybe she’d finally want to share it, but with whom? Still, thinking of her characters, letting them walk about in her mind as if they were cohorts from an ethereal–yet very present–zone…this always cheered her. She pushed off from the porch to swing more.
The sweeping front yard was breathtaking. Daffodils proud and still along hedges, and daphne bushes letting loose their heady perfume to dazzle all who passed, and the delicate cherry blossoms so blush-white against the darkening sky. Marni feasted her eyes and soul on the opulence of early spring: nature in its powerful unfoldings held her in its thrall. She was welcome within it all. She never felt set apart by nature. Unlike her family. She was a part of all that occurred in nature’s stirrings. And, perhaps, art. Left to her own devices, unconstrained by timetables and ever-urgent voices. Her viewpoint opened to a wider, deeper vista then, her experiences a tapestry of peculiarities and wonderments. And nothing and no one could disturb the outcome of what she made of words and imaginings, but herself.
That was the rub, she saw with a shock. She had begun to feel less welcome in her family’s world, in the finely appointed home, the stratified society in which she maneuvered. But give her an hour alone with language and she was set free.
If only she might attend an adult summer arts camp. Like the one Amanda found meaningless this year after five years attending a diverse program, studying flute, at which she excelled. It saddened her to think her daughter might be moving away from such times. Tim had been drawn to outdoor camps; now he went on camping trips with friends and their less city-centric parents. A vacation is what all parents needed, her acquaintances admitted and she had agreed–though Rob always planned a luxurious trip for them in between his own career engagements. Trips that made her fretful, itchy with boredom by a turquoise pool as he mingled and played golf.
As Marni’s swinging slowed she was startled to feel a sharp twinge of desire, an ache of need for a new environment: the arts within nature’s arena. She felt like a flowering bush straining for more light and space. A plant stymied was like a life hemmed in, doomed to not rise up strong enough, eventually to wither unless given needed nurturing and nutrients. Oh, she’d go on being wife and mother. But beyond that, who?
She had to do something to move from the shadows, make her secret self known or be left behind. Barely visible, in the wings of a stage full of family bustle and drama. Indispensable, always at the ready. Rarely acknowledged.
Now she saw the sense of what Lana had seen, and knew things had to change.
She sat cross-legged in bed next to Rob as he snored away. She was scanning possibilities– book stores and art stores for part-time jobs opportunities; literary conferences for volunteer work; small spaces in the country where she might rent a studio or cabin for a couple weeks. She hopped from one idea to the next, dissatisfied, headachy and blurry-eyed. Personal brainstorming was laborious.
Until, a bit after midnight, she found something. Marni leaned hard against the headboard with a small “Huh…”
Rob mumbled, “Okay, honey?”
She patted his shoulder; he went back to sleep.
“Yes, I just might be.”
By mid-May the rains had slowed from a rowdy polka to a short waltz now and again. Spring was offering everyone an infusion of good cheer and the balm of brilliant beauty. So, one Saturday afternoon three -quarters of the family lounged in the screen in back porch, enjoying soft breezes, sipping iced tea with lemonade, snacking on pretzels and peanuts.
Amanda said in a rush of words, “I applied for a job at the golf course.”
“No brainer,” Tim said and went back to his cell phone.
Marni looked up from a warm dry jumble of laundry. “Doing what? You don’t like golf much.”
“At the snack bar right off the green.”
“You don’t even know how to make a decent turkey sandwich!” Tim snorted.
“If you went there you’d know it was just drinks and packaged snacks, dummy!”
“Good, you won’t accidentally poison him.”
“Poison who?” Marni asked. “Oh…Derrick is to work there.”
“I’d like making some of my own money but yeah, he will be.” Amanda blushed enough that Marni knew she had lost track of the burgeoning romance.
“I’m all for that,” Rob said, as he walked in following an emergency town council meeting about zoning problems. I can help you with references, call Stan–“
“No thanks, Dad.”
The family chattered on as Marnie folded clothing. Shortly she carried the heavy wicker basket upstairs to the five bedrooms, then stopped and left it on the hallway floor. Let them put away their own things. She entered a spare bedroom and rummaged in a desk drawer, found what she wanted and descended the stairs.
Waves of rippling laughter slowed her before she came to a stop at the open French doors. They had all seemed more relaxed the past weeks, or maybe it was her. The good weather had been part of it. But, too, they each had pleasing things going on–Tim gearing up to help with Little League; Amanda with her boyfriend, a new job ahead; and Ron playing more golf and working in the yard a bit with her. They both loved their yard and flower garden. But Marni had something of her own, too.
“I have something to share with you,” she announced.
They swiveled to her, eyes narrowing in bright sunlight, and fell silent. A flicker of anxiety crossed her daughter’s face, and Tim slightly frowned. Rob rubbed his cleft chin, a fidgety thing. She unfolded the long envelope and pulled out a letter, then cleared her throat.
“Dear Marni Henninger, it is our pleasure to inform you that you have been selected to join Wild Salmon Arts Colony for a summer residency. We have further waived half the tuition based on the merit of your fine writing sample. The residency session is to begin August 1st through August 31st.” She glanced up nervously. “There’s more but that’s the gist of it.”
Rob stood and took the letter from her. “Very interesting…an arts’ retreat, a summer school or what?”
“The residency people make their art. Writers, dancers, composers, artists. A dozen at most. The spend a month working on their creations, then sharing them with each other.” She couldn’t temper the excitement she felt and smiled widely at them all–but she wanted to shriek with joy.
Rob sat down. “That’s something, honey… who would have thought?”
The spike in adrenaline fell off and Marni’s heart began to sink. Didn’t they get it, at all? She could see Amanda and Tim were more perplexed than he was. But of course they would be.
Amanda spoke up, gingerly. “Oh, like my summer arts camp? That’s great, Mom…but what were you thinking of doing? Or is it more like a school?”
Tim gripped his knees as he used to as a nervous child. “You aren’t, uh, really craftsy–are you? What will you even do for a month? Make flower arrangements or something?”
She felt as if a giant bubble of weird giddiness was filling her head, or was it dizzying disbelief. Her own family! They didn’t even know who she was, did they?
“She does write in the mornings,” Rob interjected. “I just didn’t know it was so important to you, Marni.” His wide eyes searched her face.
She sat down again, set the letter on a side table, smoothed her khakis. “I write fantasy stories.” She looked at her hands, then her children. “I’ve started… a fantasy novel. When you all are sleeping.” Then she threw up her hands. “My gosh, it isn’t so strange as all that, is it? I’m going to an arts residency to write and enjoy a whole new experience with other people who love to create. That’s it! Get used to it!”
She jumped up and her daughter and son did, too, with a rush of flailing arms about her and words of congratulations floating around–while Rob stood back, wondering what this meant to him, to their marriage, to her. He felt proud, but also suddenly anxious.
“Fantasy stories! That’s too cool, you kept this from us!” Tim said.
“Mom, you’re a mystery, this is great!” Amanda said.”What next?”
She’d thought of calling Lana, but they had a lunch date tomorrow, so she’d wait, put it all on the table. It might shock or amuse her, but certainly please her. Lana was her greatest support even if she didn’t know it fully. Or maybe she did–she had a keen nose for truth and never backed down from it. Her caring was steady. She foresaw changes, saw Marni clearly before Marni had come to really see herself.
At the end of the day, when the kids took off with friends, Rob wrapped her in his arms a few moments, then retreated to the family room with a glass of wine and his sports channel. The house felt huge, he realized, with the kids gone so much these days.
Marni sat on the front porch swing, watching and listening. She wanted to discern the inner workings of the dark sky. It was all so great an unknown. Her skin got goosebumps, and she hugged herself close. Maybe it was best to mainly appreciate what she saw and heard and felt. Until she could write out her thoughts and sensations.
It all felt good and right. She had made a marriage and two children; none of it was an easy thing to do. But it got so familiar it all had blended into her, the good with the not-so-good, an everyday-ness. She was quite overdue to map new courses, to create more curious, astonishing worlds. To offer up what she’d long and secretly imagined.
“So. I’m not going to be invisible, anymore,” she whispered to Venus, set like a jewel in the crown of the heavens. As if Venus didn’t know such earthly and other things already.
As I read the email alerting me to the availability of appointments for my first COVID-19 vaccination, I experienced an immediate, visceral loosening of a tension that I barely knew was there. I’ve adapted overall to the pandemic restrictions and found my life still will contain joy, even passing moments. But I’ve been waiting a while for this, as most of us have. The surprise was my palpable relief: it is going to happen, at last. One might think I’d be worrying about side effects since reactions vary widely and can be tough. It’s not that I have no concern about this vaccination; I just am doing it. I believe it crucial to help myself and others to stay healthier and move forward.
I only recently have begun to have dreams of people doing ordinary things–grocery shopping, for instance–and no one has masks on. That was not the case in many dreams the past year when, if someone did not wear a mask in a group, my overlooking consciousness was entirely perplexed–and even worried as I came to a wakeful state. It has become the way things are, how we live in this world. Yet nothing is static or, at least, for long.
Yesterday I began to consider how things will gradually change for society as “herd immunity” is met. For my family, for my friends–just for humanity. It was as if a door that was bolted shut was unsprung enough for me to glimpse in my mind and heart how life can become safer, freer, better. The realization of possibilities happened the moment I made my appointment for the shot. I’m not a foolish dreamer, more a practical one–I sure don’t expect fast, 100% improvements to gleefully restore us to carefree days. (I’m not convinced they were that carefree–there is always another pathogen about, other health events, the grind of financial stresses or relationship complications to surmount in life.) But these new images were beyond my control: full gatherings with others wafted across my mental screen off and on. A group about my table. I thought: I will be able at last to step into my family’s and friends’ physical bubble, just as before. We can share an animated conversation and home cooked meal, both indoors or out. I can visit with neighbors without uneasy wariness. Hike without stepping off a trail as another walks by, masked faces fully averted. And return to outdoor markets and other stores as needed–and desired. And perhaps, by next year, travel to places I have sorely missed or even new destinations can even happen.
Visiting in-person with faraway daughters and a grandchildren will be amazing. The very thought elicits excitement, energy jumping up and down inside me, squealing in joy. How much has not been readily shared! Phone calls, texting and messaging have not been enough even as we’ve told ourselves they are; we do it oftener. The weekly video calls that were so important the first year began to dwindle. It was tiring to keep up, and hard to meet with our five kids all at one time–they all kept their jobs, luckily, and were busier than Marc and me. And let’s face it, virtual interactions cannot meet the great need we have to be face-to-face, hand-to hand. And I am a natural hugger, as so many are. Yet being essentially okay with reality’s strictures, living in this bare bones manner satisfied just enough. That is what I’ve told myself. After all, I’m an adaptable person–we all are, aren’t we; we’re human beings so can and do perform mental gymnastics to get through trials. And I have long been used to lots of relocations in my life, health issues restricting my interactions and more–but I had never lived through a pandemic as my parents had to do (polio, influenza). Adaptability does not preclude a need of others. It just means to survive or make progress, we learn how to make things work.
The one constant has remained a deep desire to spend ordinary spend time with those I enjoy and those I dearly love. I do appreciate time alone, with interests and passions that keep me well occupied. A requirement for me is being among nature’s wonders via daily walks or hikes. I still have chafed against our societal mandate to distance… too much isolated time can undermine equilibrium and, maybe, stamina. Even seeing people walking beyond my balcony makes me feel lighter. Hearing children yelp and whoop in play immediately heartens. Laughter wending its ways through open windows makes me want to laugh along, get in on the happiness. Seeing my twin granddaughters toddle-run across a grassy field sends me over the moon. Yet, it is all from that remove; it is not full-on mingling among the living.
I learned long ago that a good life trick is to not demand that things be only what I desire them to be. Rather, it is my intent to fashion a daily process of give and take, to be open to surprises, seek the best in others while giving my own best self if at all possible. I don’t believe in luck. I believe in being present in life and availing myself of it. When I have trouble with those precepts, I brainstorm while praying like mad for help; I don’t like having poor insight or no applicable answers.
It seems my life has been shaped by a critical need to be brave, no matter what. I’ve had practice, with enough reasons to shrink back amid circumstances that arouse great fear. Accessing courage or even acting brave always brings me more courage and strength. Shakiness is transformed into sturdiness by virtue of bravery’s inherent core (ability to face or endure danger and difficulty); I am asked by this living to stand strong. But to me it also means knowing when and how to seek resources, find new ways to lift myself up, and take care of my whole self with good habits long established– even if feeling about depleted. Connecting with others increases this sense of sufficiency. I can only do so much alone. And I know for a fact that a greater mix ideas and caring make for a better human being.
Coping with trouble also elicits an urge–lets face it–to escape or deny situations awhile. If I take that time for respite and recharge, these are useful tools, not barriers to health as people suspect denial really is. Certainly it has been a go-to in the past year when I, like others, have read even more, listened to music and watched online entertainment more, dragged out old games, sat and daydreamed, etc. The point is, when faced with hardships, we can always do more to live our lives better. I refuse to see less than; I see more than. And it is a choice I make during times when that feels less natural. Coping with these difficult times with someone else–even if 6 feet apart–helps further more often than not.
I do seek solitude (or a time of escape) for calming rejuvenation, but afterwards I want to engage again with others, a little or a lot. How do I keep doing that when we are in this in-between time, when it will slowly become safer for us out there yet we still should live within safety’s rules? And with whom will we choose to practice this return to living more fully in the regrouping of diverse and curious human beings?
The truth is, over the last few months things have changed within my more intimate circle. Mere social acquaintances are nil except when chatting via social media. (Plus, I’ve caught up with several old high school classmates.) My closer relationships are impacted in various ways and have been different. And I’m not even writing about my several children and grandchildren this time…”way too much distance, how weird this is” is the number one complaint from all of them. And me.
Eileen, one of my two closest friends, moved during last Halloween. One moment she was planning on retiring and moving to Arizona to be closer to family. I almost didn’t believe it would happen despite her resolve from the start. She had loved and lived in Portland for 40 years. Before the move I visited her briefly and saw she was about finished packing. Then she was putting her house on the market, and at one last visit when she gave me an afghan she crocheted for me while I gave her a pretty carp windsock from the Japanese Garden. And then she was gone. I didn’t even see her take off in a plane. We called each other often at first, texted daily. I sent her pictures of Oregon rambles; she sent me pictures of austere desert landscapes. We swapped stories of life with eccentric family members; she updated me on a new house search while she lived with a brother. The house she bought there is strikingly similar to the one she sold. But no grass for a lawn, only rock and sand. The back of her house opens to a spiky mountain range and more desert; she so misses her old lush garden. We’ve lately spent less time talking and texting although (or because) she’s homesick for Oregon–she has almost moved back twice. But she is still settling in.
I don’t expect things to remain the same for her. I do expect we will stay close, in this changed manner. Later, when things are safer, Eileen will go swimming three times a week, go to the neighborhood country club to poke around. I know her; she loves to meet people, do new stuff. It will be so good for her (even though I don’t get the draw to retirement communities). When we do talk, I feel the allure of her new place sinking in, grabbing hold; she will put down new roots. I know it’ll take a couple years to get more comfortable. Yet, though I hope she will be happy there, I miss her deeply and often, as her presence in my life has been inestimable joy and comfort for decades. We’ll visit each other; she tells me all the time she can’t wait for me to fly down, how much fun it will be… Her eruptions of laughter are prized, as is how we can talk arts and sciences, politics, spiritual matters and people all in one rich gabfest. And those shared bear hugs… Maybe next winter? I will plan for that.
Another dear friend, Brenda, is here– but not quite fully. I just talked with her tonight on our cells and it was, after an hour, still not enough.
She has multiple, hard-to-manage health problems, so is very high risk for contracting the severe form of COVID-19. Long ago she could have stopped working and gotten on disability, but she has no interest in that. She loves to be of service to others in the midst of life’s chaos and beauty. Since last March she has worked at home, virtually (until last week), for a women’s prison treatment program, counselling inmates. Today she reminded me she has been there 11 years. It seems impossible. We met in 1993 and worked together with gang members and other at-risk youth; we finally worked as part of teams at three agencies. She recently returned to working in the prison. Everyone on staff has been vaccinated and,as well, many prisoners. Brenda feels safe enough so I must trust that she knows her limits and the situation. In the past year we were able to meet in parks or for coffee outdoors every 10-14 days. In the middle of wintry rain it became harder to do. (She also helps her 91 year old mother and a 9 year old niece. Talk about bravery.) So we update and support one another on the phone mostly. We’ve started planning how we might do this and that, how great it will be to be more spontaneous. Maybe we’ll even attend another Bonnie Raitt concert or go music shopping at Music Millenium before 2022. Some things are long and hallowed traditions for us.
Still, I miss Brenda though she’s nearby, unlike Eileen who is so far. I miss her more now, perhaps, because she nearly died from pneumonia not that long before the pandemic began (was it COVID?–she doesn’t know, it was hell), and still has congestive heart failure, Lupus, severe osteoarthritis and more. I don’t know how long I’ll have her though she is just 62 (and I’ve always known her to battle illness). Every time I’m not hanging out with her, it’s a bit like I’m losing more of her–clearly, at least, time spent. Because you never do know, do you–if not a virus, it can be something else. In fact, it will be–we just don’t know when. But I remain reasonably sure we’ll meet up when the weather warms, when she has more time to spare. That prospect is wonderful.
And my sweet, wise older sister, Allanya. Maybe it would be enough to say she has dementia, and it’s getting worse. For a long while it seemed we could navigate around it, be as we’ve always been–best friends, deeply blood connected. So in sync that we knew what the other was thinking. But it’s not quite like that now. It’s touch and go as I visit her in an open air structure next to a fine retirement community in which she resides. I don’t know when we’ll loop back to a topic we talked about just 10 minutes ago. I don’t know for certain if she’ll be in a fog or prone to morose or aggravated thoughts, or cheery as she always tended to be, ready to talk politics, books, art projects, family and the weather. It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride but I will get on it every time to be with Allanya. Her general health is good. Her apartment is decent; she shares it with an ill spouse. So I’ll be seeing her as long as it can be done. She keeps telling me it is high time to go out for lunch or shopping at the resale stores she loves–and I tell her yes, I know, soon–when the pandemic wanes and fully vaccinated as is she. And thank God we can look forward to this.
We have lost parts of the year–she has lost even more–but we are both still here, will forever be truest of friends. Sisters of the soul. She once found a huge heart-shaped rock and painted it. Then wrote on it: “Heart of the universe. Love, Allanya, 2013,” I knew exactly what that meant to us both.
I dreamed awhile back of those who have passed on, members of family, A few times they all seemed to have convened to visit me, specifically, and I, them. I could clearly see them moving about and then circling, faces well defined as if they were in the room with me, theri energy as recognizable as when they were sentient. I counted 5, sometimes 6, (so many have died the last few years) but felt the presence of more–elder aunts and uncles very long gone. I heard them speak but cannot tell you now what they said right now. They were encouraging me, with warm smiles and good words. Each time I awoke I felt they were there to help and encourage me to be optimistic, to not be afraid of the future, tired out by things. To be assured I am loved and not alone– that they are near in spirit. They are family, ancestors interlinked with each other and me. Of course they would do that. Despite differences or misunderstandings in the past, we know how much I love them and they, me.
And that’s the thing: it’s all about that most basic yet sometimes the stickiest of experiences: love. If only we saw such caring as true compassion in action and just acted on it. We need a reminder now and again if things are rockier before they get better. The last year has been one tough terrain to cross over. Not, however, the worst time in my life. But one of the most puzzling and mournful, requiring patience and gentle surrender, innovation and faith. I have no doubt there will be more opportunities for happiness as well as times of sorrow as we sort it out. How will we have been changed? What will we pick back up or toss out, realign or welcome? Who will we first spend an afternoon with–in the first-person-miracle of flesh, blood and bone? (How can I get all my kids/grandkids/friends here to celebrate each other and life?) What will become a more sacred ritual; what will be dismissed as wasteful, trivial? We can look to the natural world for clues. The calculated designs of nature display a genius of efficiency. They regenerate wounded parts and aid one another, even those not their apparent own “sort”, as all are part of the whole.
I’m looking forward to seeing what alterations of mind and spirit bring us to new appraisements. But first and finally, may there be generous love, greater charity rediscovered to pass between us. We will find our way better.
It’s not like you truly belong anywhere, so this is as good a place as any. Remington Heights, a fancy name for another uninspired suburb. Sort of; it prides itself on being a beautifully compact, near-exclusive town. You guess it is; you can see the BMWs, Audis, Mercedes Benzes mixed in with Subarus, Toyotas, Fords. There goes a red Porsche, its top down in March, for crying out loud.
After moving five times in fifteen years, how audacious is it to say when you’re asked: “We’re from Knoxville?” Hand held out for a good strong handshake.
What then? After they proceed to ask about that city’s milieu, its weather? You can only offer so much–that stop was for two and a half years. The others, even shorter for the most part. They already know you aren’t government or corporate consulting or an interesting entrepreneur. For one thing you teach, take on short contracts. Now, also, your husband. Well, he does one adult ed class at the community college where you teach one theater and two creative writing classes. He hasn’t contributed much to bills with his woodworking schemes and dreams no matter where they’ve moved. But he keeps trying.
“And we also lived in Arlington, Fort Worth, Everett, Rochester and–wait, there are a few more. You can’t imagine how fascinating it is to interact with many sorts of people and places…”
In ten minutes they raise eyebrows, glance at their ubiquitous phones, make excuses, talk about having coffee sometime and take their leave. In Remington Heights they’re thinking, Of all the boring places to have lived, why not Athens? Paris? Singapore...So back to their mammoth, comfy homes with their own loving, complicated families and deliriously devoted dogs.
Or cats–but that’s your preference. A cat can be left alone so easily, and it moves from house to house with nary a blink: every window has a view; every yard has birds and dirt. You need a cat, you keep planning on it, never do it. No time to further consider such an investment emotionally and monetarily. It might just run away.
Not that you are unfamiliar with such a response as raised eyebrows and a shrug after you introduce yourself. It’s on repeat no matter where you go. Gerry says some places are much friendlier than others. His vast experience dealing with direct sales to the public informs his viewpoint. He reminds you this when talk of a job possibility that offers tenure comes up. Gerry thinks you don’t like any place you go, not really, and he’s getting tired of it. That it’s having to put down roots, not the job that’s the issue for you. Okay, but you’re pretty tired of having to secure a great job that keeps a roof over your heads long term, and a job that gives you enough incentive to aim even higher as time goes by. That can be such a grind when you want it to be–dare you say it?–a happy endeavor.
“Next time, yes, always next time,” he says, looking away as you have lunch at a stylish outdoor cafe. “There won’t ever stop being a next time. I could put in roots any place if you’d just stand still in one spot. How long has your longest position been? Four years? Wow, we might still be there, Kit, and we might be glad of it.” He wipes his hands and mouth. “Oh, Kit, I’m sorry, it’s just…” He holds up empty palms to sky.
This is where you have to bite your tongue and not point a finger. If only you had gone to medical school as planned; if only your had a hobby that made us money; if only you stopped complaining when I am doing the best I can do.If only you’d use some of your inheritance for common costs of living instead of insisting it has to be untouched until we have a child or get old. Like it’s precious and must stay in a vault unless we are on the verge of noodles and beans every day.
Well, wait, it has been invested in lots of power and hand tools and wood and nuts and bolts and clamps….that money is good for all that.
If you say any of that, he’ll either crumple or walk out. After all, you’d agreed to let him get into woodworking as a small business. He has excellent talent–those hands that would have made a fine surgeon’s– and plenty of perseverance. But you have to make the cash to keep your lives afloat. So you do. Every new job has managed to do it, mostly–you just haven’t found the right one, the one you can foresee holding until that far-off retirement. Gerry wants that even more than you.
You are okay being a nomad of sorts. He is right about not setting roots too deep. That’s how it’s always been; your family moved almost every year for much of your childhood and when you were finally settled, it was not any kind of a happy settling. When your gambling father left when you were fourteen, your mother threw a huge party. It was also the start of selling overpriced makeup from home but weirdly, she did it well, made good money. She bought a condo two years before you left (right after your brother), and got married for the third time. Farewell, kids!
No, you do not know the comfort of a long term home. As far as you are concerned, a home is a place to lay your head, eat, and hang out if possible, preferably on the back stairs and no one knows. You still look for that–the relief of privacy on a back stoop that offers a better view than the indoors.
Gerry, he’s another sort of human being, at heart. He longs for roots because he had them so long. He will fit in better in Remington Heights. He knows how to act without even thinking, and that’s why he has done well off and on with his business. Maybe here he can make his mark, he’s said–these people can pay for fine bespoke furniture and toys for their kids. You think he’s dreaming but you love him for it, and how he stays with you no matter what. He just that morning told you to go ignite a thirst for knowledge in those students–even if it is just a few students, if only one today. He has faith in you, if he also worries you’ll not make a real home with him. You do need to have greater faith in him–that might go a long way toward building his success, he says. He holds her up; she can hold him up more beside paying for most of the bills.
You just stare at those bills piled up thanks to the last couple of moves crossing six different states. Stunned by it all. But you have a good chance at RCC, the Remington branch of Rand Community College. They pay well and they might keep you on if you try very hard. You hope this time you also can work in laughter more often. You actually pray for it secretly–it has gotten harder to keep looking and rarely find what you want.
Maybe it’s because you aren’t sure what that is. But you will not stop looking.
We–Kit and I–now live on a very old estate, and that is comfortable for a man like me. Of course, it’s the carriage house converted a decades ago into full living quarters, but there are ten acres here. I can see the big house rising above the garden walls as I head to the west end of our new place. A portion of the building, right under the apartment, was turned into garage and workshop. No more horses, carriages and how perfect is that? It isn’t cheap but what we get for the money…I’m hopeful this time. I think that if I can make this work long enough, I might create, sell, and make a decent profit. And then invest some of the inheritance to get my own workshop and store and then a house of our own….well, naturally, I don’t tell Kit all this yet. She’d be freaked out, just so many castles in the air, she’d say, slow down.
Kit says many things and I know she means something else half of the time. But I saw her eyes light up as we toured the place and put in our rental application. I was worried we might not get it–we have moved so much–but having my nest egg to show us as being ultimately solvent helps. Plus Kit’s a college teacher, how can they not like that? So here we are, and Remington Heights has no idea that I have what they need: beautiful furniture made to order. But it will soon.
After I got my M.S., I decided to skip medical school and pursue working with my hands differently than planned. I’ve always loved the scent, textures, colors and grains of wood. How it can yield to careful labor and give you its best when you respect it. There were plenty of woods to enjoy on our land growing up–several thousand acres for the giant cattle ranch that also boasted many trees. I was always sneaking off to the workshop used for a variety of reasons and fiddling with discarded or broken pieces. And our manager had the skills I needed. It was a fine line for him–teaching me what he knew while doing his main job well and keeping my father satisfied. But it worked well enough for me–Jack told me I had the right feel for it–until I stopped making things to enter college. Then it got shelved.
If I am being honest, I’d have to say that, in fact, it was the inheritance that set me free from the family expectation that there be a doctor in the family. I loved ranching but had not seriously thought I’d be one to run it–my older brother and sister do that now. But my uncle was a very wealthy businessman. He’d stayed in touch since childhood and figured out I wasn’t destined for medicine. He once told me when he saw me making a chair that I should put to use the sciences in a more artistic way. He left me enough when he passed to not make the wrong career choice. I knew it was for a woodcraft business.
Kit knows all this. She supports it, more or less, she’s just worried. Anxious that I’ll tire of her quicksilver temperament as her parents apparently did; afraid she won’t have what it takes to be a first class professor; scared she’ll never make enough money so she can stand on her own two feet if I do leave her; afraid I won’t ever be a success with my wood crafting or that I will be a great success–it goes on, this terrible tangle of fears she harbors, even nurtures. I sometimes hold and rock her like a scared little creature, shivering and unsteady, until she calms. But that’s marriage. I lean on her a lot for acceptance of my chosen path.
If you met her, you wouldn’t see the scared part. She’s strong with words and actions. You know you can count on her. You know there’s an imaginative, quick, intense intelligence behind her clear, penetrating gaze. Any job she has had, they wanted her to stay–sometimes they couldn’t keep her as it was a limited contract, sometimes they just wouldn’t offer better pay or other terms. But she always finds work. And she knows so well her realms of theater and writing.
I’m pleased this time that this is where we landed. Kit finds it “too rich for her blood”, as she says with slight derision, but the fact is, this city offers opportunity for us both. I don’t care what people think of me but she says that’s what privilege spawns–a self confidence that is unshakeable. Maybe so; she never had that in her life. But all I want is to make beautiful things with my big calloused hands. And to love her better so I have to be smart but gentle. The best things happen to wood when you treat it well, learn its natural inclinations, find its hidden beauty. Same with Kit.
All this is a challenge I’ll not back down from until I more than succeed. But first off I have to set up my tools in the shop under the living quarters and walk the estate. I wish Uncle Cam could walk with me. I can almost feel his pat on my back when I made my first wood toy, a pine truck, when I was ten–whereas dad directed me to get back on my horse, get to work. That simple thing made a difference.
You know this is the place when you see a generous arc of tree branches swaying over and about an old carriage house with the sheen of long use but kindly. Then moving up the side steps to a wide sunny living room and three small bedrooms off a hall, then circling back to a neat kitchen with white painted cupboards. A bathroom with an antique tub in it and a small desk turned into a vanity. You imagine yourself in that tub, candlelight casting a glow, how you love long quiet soaks and seldom get them–and all the while looking out windows with ivory and viney half-curtains. You can see a garden from there–as you bathe! Everything about the carriage house feels well used but the wood floors shine with care; comfortable furniture is freshened with bright fabrics and interesting textures. It is quality but has no pretension, is pretty and cozy enough without being syrupy- nostalgic. And it has a wood stove. What else can it need?
You don’t show Gerry too much enthusiasm until you are accepted as tenants and even then, underplaying it is better than letting too much emotion show. Even if the rent is high it can be worth it–you can manipulate the budget somehow. Besides, to watch Gerry as he lopes about the property and talks to the fourth generation owner of the estate–how can you dampen that excitement? There’s this feeling both of you might find some peace here, on this huge corner lot, under the shade of maple and elm and oak trees. There are even fruit trees not far from the front door. You fantasize about sneaking out after dark and snapping up pears and apples–until Gerry says the landlord told him take any fruit desired at no extra cost (Gerry laughs as he relays that), it’ll go to waste if not eaten. Never have canned. Wondering about that but the idea makes you anxious so just think of Hunt’s pears with cottage cheese like when it was dessert as a kid–you were told it was a treat. And it was.
So you’re in, your are the chosen ones. You find that first week with the unpacking, learning the ropes of a new town with expensive tastes (that make you squirm and itch) and then visiting the college–you find those first days lighten up with a simple pleasure you haven’t felt in forever.
You want the job to fit well. After a month it may not be a perfect thing, no, but you aren’t getting tension headaches. Not hurrying from one class to another, shoulders set as if pushing against wind. The drama class is filled with interesting students if a bit haughty (well, it’s Remington Heights, it’s theater), and the writing classes are a mixed bag but you can cope with it all so far. Time will tell who has capabilities, how hard you’ll need to work until late at night even at home–and how pleased the Dean of Fine Arts will be. Or not. If tenure will ever be a dream come true. You learned long ago you must stay in the moment while even while designing a future.
Then, at a major monthly staff meeting, someone says something. That way that makes you shiver a little. You turn your head to see Ms. Brunette Bob who is tapping the table with a silvery pen and Ms. Luxe Ponytail who is smoothing her forehead as if she’s just gotten back from toiling in the fields. They are whispering, heads tight together.
“Were you wondering about me?” you ask, half smile trying to move across your too taut face. “I’m Kit Barnett, drama and writing, formerly of Knoxville.” Trying not to spread a Southern accent on it, hard to resist. Something has to amuse or please these women, you suspect.
They blink at you in unison, look down at their notepads a moment before smiling back. A waxy sort of smile, Caught us, but oh hi there!
“Oh, right, you have Marnie’s old job–I thought so,” Ms. Brunette says.
“You’ll find her students miss her already but don’t despair, they’ll settle in,” Ms. Ponytail reassures. “Marnie was a kind of legend after ten years…she had such flair. I mean, not that you won’t or anything…”
“Thanks for the heads up. And you are?” Marnie the Great, dang, more pressure!
“Oh, I’m Selene Rossiter and she’s–” she turned to Brunette–“Jana Leon. We teach drawing and ceramics, respectively, and this term I have 3 D, as well. Welcome to RCC, Kit Barnett. It’s a good place, overall. A good way to move on to better opportunities, it’s already my third year and I’m getting restless.”
Jana said, with a shrug, “I’ll likely be a lifer. I like Remington Heights and so does my boyfriend.”
You find all this friendliness entirely suspect but say thanks and pair their faces with names, hoping the other seven people there have distinctive names, too, so you can elicit them as needed. You determine to make a brilliant name tag for fun to stick on your shirt, will that make you better known? You know how this goes when new, you’ll be passed over a long while unless you remind them. You are not all that unforgettable in looks, either, though this has never mattered. It’ll take time, that’s all. Selene and Jana are as nicer than most are when you start out a new place. You doubt you three will be going out together, one too young and uppity, the other otherwise engaged–and it’s fine. You don’t really need friends, per se.
The meeting begins and you listen intently to what is said and not said, how people interact with words and eyes and hands, who speaks up, who is doggedly silent. It’s a game you must play to do the job and get paid.
But when you teach, you feel that urge to impress upon the minds behind upturned faces (and those that do not show themselves) that what they are about to learn and explore has the power to alter their lives in ways that will set them free. Yes, set them free, as art is that potent. And this is what carries you over the country in search of a place to set yourself down, share knowledge and create. A base to inspire as once inspired as a college student when your first good art professor told you: “Your work has such energy; let it breathe and catch fire.”
Professor Harmon did not say to you like Mom said, “Why do you waste your time making up stories, trying out for those dumb little plays? Get a real life and a real job and grow up!”
No, Madge Harmon said, “Let yourself have an adventure, Kit, make things happen. You have plenty of talents.”
And it turns out that teaching was one of them. You have what it takes. So keep at it–RCC will see what you can do. Or you’ll make them see it.
You need to hang on to that bathtub and those fruit trees. You need to support Gerry’s big hope in all the possibilities. He might be right one of these days.
“They don’t much belong here, really, you can tell by the way they…just are,” Viv Arnold said as she filled her basket with garlic, carrots and onions at the covered farmer’s market.
“Well, Selene says she’s a very good teacher and friendly, not pushy. I think they’ll find their way around in time.” Jude Rossiter squeezed the avocados just enough.”I think you are wrong about him. The husband is a class act, anyway, did you see him earlier at the bakery? Gerry somebody from Utah–big ranching family, I heard.”
“What does he do now? Does he teach, too? Not much money in that.”
“No, he makes bespoke furniture! Well, one class in woodworking, Selene said. But didn’t you see the huge ad in the newspaper? The pictures are beautiful. I may give him a call about a chest I want designed and handmade. Or maybe we should both just drop by when his shop is open, that would be informative.” She picked up bunches of fennel and dill.
Viv sniffed a tomato. “Is this really fresh? I sometimes wonder! He has a certain elan, I must say, dark hair and blue eyes. Yes, I saw him, Viv. His wife is rather plain, from what I noticed at RCC after my quilting class. But if she’s a good teacher–well, we need more of those around here, so cheers! Maybe we should consider inviting them to the Spring Fling, find out more and see how things go?”
“At the Club? Hmm, a good thought….But watch yourself, dear, you’re old enough to be his mother.”
“Never so old one cannot be wistful, Jude. Now let’s get out of here and chat more over a nice drink.”
Jude thought about what Viv said about Gerry and Kit. She didn’t know much about the wife, the teacher–she had always wanted to write, maybe she should find out more. But he reminded her of her son. Though Thomas was a patent attorney, no good at doing manual anything. Maybe it was the similar charm and a way of carrying himself. Honestly, Viv needed to own up to her age and exhibit proper decorum. It was getting embarrassing. The Spring Fling, however, was an easy way to introduce the couple to Remington Heights in all its boring self-glorification. She would do what she could to encourage them if they were interesting, unlike much of their citizenry– and, of course, fairly generous hearted. You never knew when you might need an extra helping hand on some project.
When Gerry got home from teaching his class three weeks later, he found Kit sitting on the steps on the carriage house, the porch light a soft haze in the growing darkness. A notebook was flat on her lap, a favorite mechanical pencil in hand. She looked up and smiled at him but kept on writing.
He sat down on a step above her and placed his hands gently on her and massaged her tight shoulders a moment. Kit exhaled a steady stream of air, closed her notebook, leaned back against his knees. She’d have to mention that invitation to the Remington Country Club “Spring Fling” but for the moment there was this: navy sky above towering trees, a few stars glittering between branches. A night bird called out once, twice. She wanted to learn about the birds and flowers on the estate. She’d like to talk to the owners about its history. She’d like to take a bath every morning and every night even in summer, open the bathroom windows to the breeze with all that was carried on it right to her.
She’d like these moments to stay in their places and never leave her.
Gerry ruffled her hair, it shortness feeling like a downy chick but he might never share that, just keep it to himself. He loved her hair and put his cheek to it a moment.
“How was your day?” she asked as she pressed notebook to chest.
“I got two more orders already, a couple came by before my class. Two side chairs and a nightstand for a child. I have my hands full, so surprised it’s happening fast. How about you?”
She put the notebook on her lap once again, hands flat atop its cover. “I’m so glad, Gerry–things are looking up for your business just like you wanted, it’s what you deserve.” She looked up at the treetops and found a tiny star among newly leafed branches that was bigger out in space than she could easily ponder. “Well. I’m finally writing again.”
“You are?” He came down the steps to one below her. “What are you writing?”
Kit gave him her real smile, the one that showed pink gums and every big square tooth, the one that told him how much she cared that he asked this question on this night, on the steps under trees and stars. Their steps. Their fine night.
“I’m working on a full length play…Gerry, I’m good and ready to do it.”
He reached out for her, pulled her up and embraced her tightly. This is what he’d been waiting for, her true self to emerge and find its way back to creating. To not be afraid so much. To believe the life they inhabited together would be alright. It was happening, right there, right then, a change. Kit hugged him closer and they left the world behind, trailing a tender and plaintive song of nightbirds.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson