Everyday Beautiful Life in a City Park

Everyday Beautiful Life in a City Park

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At last. I have arrived at one of our neighborhood parks, a favorite. And I am filled with sweet relief. I’m released of artificial enclosures, set free in a world of green abundance and those critters who always occupy it. The park is its own entity, a series of paved and hard-packed dirt pathways, many varieties of towering trees clustered together or spread about the rise and fall of 25 acres.  Their quietly powerful forms arch overhead, massive and lithe branches rustling in the breezes. I want to greet them: “Great-grandmother, Great-grandfather, hello.” (I have recently read of research verifying that trees do communicate and live interdependently in a number of ways, as many have suspected. Or perhaps as we all knew once upon a time when the workings of nature included us more intimately and routinely.) Perhaps they know me and perhaps not, but they seem to welcome me.

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As I power-walk the steeper incline, the fist-sized heart muscle squeezes and releases fast and strong, glad of partnership with lungs, aiding my reaching legs and arms. All mental fog clears as oxygen is given rapid delivery to cells. It then commences to empty and refill with simpler and finer stuff. Eyes note rocks, twirling airborne leaves, patches of cobalt sky and chameleon clouds, birds a flutter of feathers and plaintive or cheery melodies. My senses are governing me, guiding me through each moment; they do what they do very well indeed. Without this daily walk I would be a lesser human being and far less fit. Without this rolling park and more in my city, I would feel bereft–yes, it’s true– of much my mind, body and soul crave.

I am near the top of the hill when I halt progress. There is something going on with the crows as they surround nearby area, a zigzag of cried orders or observations that change to scolding or an alarm signifying worse. I gaze upward into thickets of leaves and crisscrossing branches, searching for what it is they are fussing over. There, is that the issue? A barred owl perching in what appears to be one of the park’s pretty magnolia trees. That explains it: owls and crows seem born enemies. This owl must have been found out and disturbed. It’s nervous and perhaps annoyed, repeatedly turning its head ’round and about. I pull out my camera, capture its wild beauty. It darts its black eyes at me, looks away, back again. I more often site various owls in denser forested acreage, rarely in broad daylight–they are sleep of course and blend in perfectly. But this one has been spotted by more than just me.

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The mob mentality of crows takes over. They are diving about the tree, making a louder racket, harassing the singular creature. An ominous sense of anxiety creeps up as I watch; it is rarely a welcome party by the ever-governing crows. It will roust the barred owl if at all possible, peck it, swoop down upon it, perhaps even prey upon it. I stand and wait several minutes but the crows seem unable to reach the bird. Or that is not yet their intent. I am surprised by a slow anger toward the fifteen or more crows. They are such aggressive birds, dominating all they can. On the other hand, I suspect owls can make a meal of a crow or two when at their prime advantage. I have read that Great Horned owls are masters at it.

In a flash, the owl flees the magnolia for another tree and its wings are wonderful to see, its small soft-feathered body so strong. I can somewhat see the division of crows race after it. The owl appears to find refuge among branches again. I do not have a good enough view to note what is next. The bombastic calls of the relentless crows go on.

I feel for the moment that the barred owl has the upper hand and so press on, contemplating the natural order of things. The curious incidents experienced here and during other park walks. The hierarchies in place and dramas played out, the battles fought, lost and won. It seems no creature can be entirely free of it.

But there is usually better news at the park. I find it immediately.

There are grassy off-leash, dog friendly areas and they take right to it. I walk by and enjoy the fun vicariously, being without a dog these days. Large and small, energetic and more retiring, they’re game and take full advantage of freedom, as any reasonably healthy dog will. They leap for Frisbees, fetch balls flung far and wide, sniff and greet, race each other madly back and forth. And the subtle posturing of various canine messaging goes beyond my ken. But the not so subtle occurs, too, as one gets too friendly or another finds the personality, breed or rank of another unappealing or even threatening. The owners compare notes and chat like great friends, too, including their pets in sometimes baby talk, sometimes adult conversations. I am always interested in whom goes with which dog; it isn’t always so easy to guess correctly.

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I am particularly interested in the man who does squats while his dog politely waits for him to finish. It appears the man is talking to the dog, perhaps explaining his routine, or counting aloud or asking his pet to be patient– his time will come. I also wonder if the man is more motivated to exercise when out with his dog. Pets can do that for us–start us up, keep us going in one way or another. The park has plenty of older citizens walking with their faithful friends. I feel gratified to see it and like to greet them both.

There are friends in deep conversation, with linked arms or companionable silence everywhere. I was recently asked who I walk with daily and it gave me pause. Not that many, I admit. Some friends are still working or live a bit far away. A couple have hip or knee problems. My spouse is not so much a moving-right-along walker as one who likes to pause and look at every small thing that catches his eye along the paths, in a bush, peeking up from dirt, moss and grass. He is quite engaged in collecting rocks and sticks. I enjoy looking up and around as I speed by, catching bits of talk, noting the way the light falls through the leaves and the shadows dance. I do stop long enough to take photographs. My older sister says it exhausts her to see me go; she likes to mosey, sit on a bench and chat–which I do like doing with her. In truth, not too many keep up with my pace. It’s not even intentional; I have always been fast on my feet. Most of my five adult kids likely can outpace me; they tend to be quite active and fit. I look forward to taking off with them; it pushes me. I treasure such times with them, the brisk pace, the bright air, the sounds of nature mingling with human. Their nearness. But most of them live in other states, so it is getting more rare these days to share these times outdoors. (If I’m lucky, I can hang out some with grandchildren. My fourteen year old granddaughter told me today that she is NOT too old to go to the pumpkin patch and when can we go? I about leapt for joy but composed myself and texted back.)

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Yes, I sometimes wish I walked with others more. But not often; I well appreciate being one among others, amidst nature within the city. I feel safe; I pay attention. The park is full of all ages with their own life stories.

I’m a happy gal to be able to keep my heart strong, to commune with the natural designs about us. To observe the human theater, photograph the scenes. Everything fascinates me in one way or another: the butterfly’s wings against a bloom, the reflection in an inch of water, the sounds of a pack of teens running in concert, the sun beaming on a turtle, the child reaching for a duckling.  The breaths I still can take– in, out; life given, life shared. So I go to the park to ease aches physically and emotionally, to even connect more readily with God as I meditate on such small beauty, each curious anomaly. These moments given like many gifts unexpected.

I also walk to jar free some ideas for writing. A first sentence, an image, a character or two–these will come forward as I move across a landscape. It’s as if they are waiting for me to clear more space for internal movement, to allow creative energy to take rein. I find a good walking pace generates more useful moments, rather than depleting me. I return home or go on to the next task feeling renewed.

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In this city-block-sized park (actually two, also with a children’s playground, basketball and tennis courts) there are runners, power walkers, strollers, sitters, Tai Chi and yoga practitioners, cyclists and roller skaters and more. I frequently see people practicing acrobatics. Tumbling pairs of adults. Those balancing/walking atop what appears to be a cord strung tautly between two trees will stop me cold a few moments. Jugglers practice their art and draw onlookers, too.

There are sometimes groups of young moms exercising, babies in strollers beside them. Many park-goers spread feasts on picnic tables, feeding a slew of family and friends. Some read in the shady quiet spots while others doze and sunbathe, even in October before winter rains take hold. And musicians like to bring their instruments; I have enjoyed a tuba player (very good), saxophonist (also good), a flutist (fair but chipper), a violinist (beginning stages), many guitarists and singers of various levels of talent and piano players (there is an upright kept in a maintenance building, brought out now and again). I keep waiting for someone to bring a drum kit and wonder how folks would enjoy that. I’d listen.

Sadly, Portland has thousands of homeless persons. The parks are often temporary camp-out areas. I don’t know all public park laws or how stringently they are enforced. But it’s not unusual to come upon several empty or occupied sleeping bags, a tent or two, shopping carts piled high with belongings, circles of folks who must know each other on the streets and meet up at the park, too. They are living their lives. Occasionally someone is talking to himself or seems upset about something. They are mostly quietly talking, smoking, listening to a radio. Sometimes we exchange a greeting, other times barely nod. But I do not find them invisible. Something we clearly have in common is an appreciation for the park’s offerings: old sturdy trees with their shade, open expanses for roaming and areas for solitude. Its easy atmosphere. Its richness.

There is a good-sized pond inhabited by common water fowl. I watch the squabbling, floating, friendly ducks.  I admire an occasional elegant blue heron from a distance as it perches and stands tireless, still, and sometimes it swoops down from a treetop. There are turtles aplenty basking in sunshine on logs in the pond, and a garter snake here and gone in the grass. Everywhere are benches about the pond where people sit and commune or snooze or chat with friends or lovers. Many take pictures there, greenery casting glowing reflections upon its calm surface.

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Almost no one makes a fuss. Sometimes there seem to be tears shed. I, too, have taken refuge to settle a clattering mind, let sorrow wend its way from my heart. It’s as if we all agree to democratically share these common spaces in order to rest, rejuvenate, play, meditate. To acknowledge each other and share a smile, a few words, or to pass by without even a glance, safe in silence. How much life the park has witnessed, how many secrets it keeps from over more than a century of use. Its presence is rounded out by us, its visitors and keepers. (Many volunteers augment the park staff; I saw them raking today.)

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Portland is growing very quickly after a bit of a lull of a couple of decades. The natural  beauty of the Northwest is a magnet. It seems everyone from everywhere else wants to take part in our economy known for entrepreneurial ventures and the small businesses’ success stories. It is a city that draws people with creative energy and vibrant city center. Each day there are more attractive old buildings and houses torn down, replaced by plain, tall apartment buildings, often multi-use –and they cost a lot to live in. The lifestyle may be easy going here but the cost of living isn’t, not anymore. As we become more crowded, more will be seeking places to spread out, to breathe deeper, to find a spot to sit and gaze outward and inward. We have treasures nearby us–the Columbia River and Gorge, our mountain ranges, wild and gentle rivers, the vast Pacific Ocean and its beaches, valleys and vineyards, the arid lands in eastern Oregon. There is always somewhere to explore, to learn about and appreciate.

But in the city we need our public parks, places to go to at a moment’s notice, to access most hours of day and evening. Not all have to be impressive in size or history. We have about 180 parks in Portland, including the Guinness Book of World Records’ smallest city park in the United States. But we also enjoy over 5,000 acres of Forest Park within city limits, a mere ten minute drive for me. Around 11% of our city land is devoted to parks–a reason I love being here.

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I thought quite awhile today about what sort of post I wanted to write. To be truthful, I wanted to write about my youngest daughter’s wedding two years ago this date. Her wedding reception was at a venue right across from the park I visited. The couple lives in California for now. I would be glad to s hare much more but she prefers her private life to not be so public as she gains momentum in a fascinating career. Still, while I was musing about the parks’ importance, I also recalled her wedding day in a beautiful meadow, deep in a woodland park in our city. The pictures, I have to admit, are fairly breathtaking. I am showing just a glimpse of the forest dream of a wedding day: her hands and mine; hers with her husband’s, her crazy-fab shoes, of course…She and my son-in-law wanted it to be smack in the middle of nature’s wilds with  trees, plants and all creeping, crawling, flying creatures–along with people–as witnesses. I understood that desire, and we made it happen.

My spouse and I were hiking over there recently. We mentioned again how fortunate we are to have this verdant rain forest landscape to play in. No wonder she wanted that forest wedding; she is her tree-seeking mother’s daughter–and her rock-hunting father’s. Happy Anniversary, my beloved youngest and that good husband–the Northwest misses you both just as you miss it. We will share a happy park walking date again.

Now that my motherly moment is done, back to one of Portland’s loveliest parks. Please enjoy more pictures below. Celebrate public parks; they celebrate community and that includes you!

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A Man with Better Clothes

Photo by Dorthea Lange
Photo by Dorthea Lange

Carolyn had only known men in her family very well, and that didn’t fill in any gaps. The family had lived outside of Marquette while her father worked long, backbreaking hours mining iron ore farther west in the Upper Peninsula. Reese took off at sixteen to live with Uncle Frank in St. Louis. She thought it cruel of her brother, leaving her behind. Her mother, it turned out, wished all three could have left,  but Uncle Frank had opened a bar that thrived and she found drink less useful than a bur under a saddle.

The Cronins lived over a mile out from Marquette, on a spit of land that had been cleared of trees. The house was more a ramshackle rectangular shed. It felt precarious in snow or thunderstorms yet stood stalwart against nature’s assaults to remain erect by springtime. Carolyn and her mother were more with each other than the men in the family, or any others, for that matter. After her daughter’s schooling was done–graduated despite bets against reasonable odds–Mrs. Cronin worried how the girl would use her good mind and yet make a living. Carolyn could sew like she did but wasn’t fast or careful enough. Yet her mother was not keen about sending her off to the next man who came calling or sending her anywhere far, period, for that matter. She was used to (and greatly fond of) her. As for men–they were more often unreliable and unsettling; she found herself able to carry on fine with her own husband absent so much.

When Hal was spotted eating alone at Mabel’s Table the Saturday in May that Carolyn turned nineteen, she and her mother were there, too. The clusters of other young women held their breath as if a bona fide Medieval knight was in their midst, or perhaps to appear more svelte. Carolyn was eating mashed potatoes with roast beef and her fork wavered in the air. Her mother bent toward her.

“Don’t mind him. He’s a Matherson home from the University of Michigan. Law, I think. You might as well stop gawking and save yourself trouble. And we have work to finish at home so eat up.”

“Well, of course he’s home from University of Michigan–look at that pressed shirt and tie, jacket slung on the back of his chair.” Her tone was arch, dry. “He’s way too cleaned up for me, you know I need dirt under the nails and rough approximations of manners.”

Mother cast me a sideways glance, then chuckled despite her irritation. Carolyn could be disrespectful of her father’s kind even in his absence. It was hard to deny the truth of her words but no need to say them aloud. In public.

She had hoped for her daughter what she’d never gotten: a chance. She missed going to teacher’s college and so would Carolyn, at least for now. Money was not often easy to gather, less so to squirrel away. At nineteen, they both knew the best she might hope for was someone a bit older who had a little kindness and was moderately well employed. Neither being in abundance around there unless a miner or timber workers. Miners were out of the question to Mrs. Cronin. Lumberjacks were a more reasonable option, she couldn’t think just why, while clerks and salesmen were better. But how to maneuver it?

Buttery whipped potatoes with garlic filled her with pleasure. She licked the last of them from her lips. As she reached for the napkin that had fallen on the floor, a clean one was offered.

“Please, have mine.”

The room quieted enough that she knew who it was before looking up.

Up close Hal looked even better than from far away, a model of masculinity with an encouraging smile that flooded his eyes to disarm. A pipe was held between good teeth, his hand cupped around it now. The smell from the tendrils of smoke made her mouth water.

“Oh, mine is good, thank you. It barely hit the floor.”

“This floor has seen way too many travelling shoes.” He planted the napkin in her left palm, took her right and pumped it twice. “Hal, Hal Matherson.”

“We’re the Cronins.” Mother touched her chest as if she was going to cough, then it retreated to her lap again and her thorat was cleared. “I’m Mrs. Cronin and Carolyn is my daughter.”

He took the older woman’s hand and shook it, too.

“Mr. Matherson,” Carolyn acknowledged after her mother did the same.

“Carolyn and Mrs. Cronin, a pleasure to meet you. We’ve not met before, I think. Glad to do so now.”

He bowed a little, coming closer; Carolyn pulled back. His gaze swept over her face. When their eyes met, they paused but only for a quick superficial assessment. He then surveyed the room as though wanting to memorize it. He studied the Cronins, too, as if this place, these customers and this moment were the best things to happen since returning home.

Which was absurd, Carolyn thought with a sniff as the thought left her. Hal had many more interesting times in life than this. She still watched the back of his very white shirt leave the building, jacket now folded over his forearm. As he exited, mostly female voices started up loudly, scattering across the room like mice scurrying for morsels. Carolyn was no fool if not apprised of sophisticated things. She knew the social barometer in the room indicated she had been given a generous dollop of attention from a handsome and well-to-do man. But she had had looks before, plenty. She knew she was attractive enough. It was his manner and words that intrigued her, anyway. There had never been anyone in her world like him, rough edges tucked in, sentences proferred as if wrapped in satin and unequivocal good will.

When they got outdoors, midday light was austere and stinging. Carolyn felt it an affront to skin beneath the thin cotton dress. She tugged her rumpled straw hat down on long hair.

“I don’t like him.”

Mrs. Cronin hurried on. “Good. He’s not quite trustworthy, you can feel it creep out from under the charm. And he’s much too well off, dear.” She impulsively put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “Happy birthday. Cake later whether or not your father gets home tonight.”

Carolyn lay her head on her mother’s shoulder for an instant. She was full and content, no cake needed–or even her father. Guilt threatened, then faded.

Hal Matherson, though. He could be quite trustworthy or not; he might be a gentleman or not. But Carolyn felt strongly she didn’t want to like him. She didn’t wish to recall the smile and words, that slightly sweetened, piney fragrance that found her nose as he made a formal little bow. Such men were meant to be thought of only from a great distance and then with reservations of every kind. She knew he should walk out of sight in the rather ordinary, curious, blank horizon of her mind.

But that was before they met again at church two weeks later, and then again at the June “Berries and Brandies Fair”, after a rainstorm as they sought shelter under the drugstore awning one afternoon. And again, during the fireworks at lakeside. He always found a way to root her out. She began to look for him, too. It became obvious to all that he wanted to spend more time with her and Carolyn was not against the idea, anymore. His family was another thing.

“Why?” she asked him insistently. “Why make our lives harder? You being there and I, here.” She pointed in opposite directions, towards his family home and hers. “Your father owns a lumber mill and my father works in the mines. You will open a law practice this fall and I will…I will be helping my mother with her seamstress business.”

Hal started to hum tonelessly as if he could care less what she was reiterating. He traced the curve of her jaw and chin with an index finger, then sat back against the tree, close to her. “I say we make a run for it, skip all the boring, messy in-between matters of little consequence.”

“What?” She spoke more loudly as fireworks exploded several hundred yards away.

“I said, it’s simple, really. We both love to learn, we both have a fondness for nature, we enjoy music, share a faith, are hard workers, are basically optimistic despite indicators we should not be and you are ravishing to boot…”

He kissed her while she was held in thrall by red, blue and gold flowerlets that dazzled the darkness.

And pushed him with both hands on his chest, hard. “Wait! Wait one minute!”

Carolyn stood up so fast she about tipped over. She grabbed her purse and started to trot away.

“What? Carolyn!” he called. “I’m sorry, I thought…!”

But she couldn’t turn back. She couldn’t explain it, how that warm, lively kiss filled her with alarm. How she knew she had to stop things right then so no one would have regrets or be hurt. Even him. She had been taught by her mother to be wary, to be smart, to take the upper hand if necessary, to walk away rather than give her heart such leeway. He father had taken her mother’s own into his hands and held it and cared for it, then tossed it aside as bitterness took over his savory-sweet ways. Working so long and hard with little reward had slowly compressed him, made vulnerable points obdurate. He was a man of miles of stone when there should have been layers of life-giving earth mixed in. He was a man who forgot his children because, finally, he had nothing left to give.

Carolyn was terrified of love. And Hal knew it as he watched her run and vowed to overcome it.

It was early spring, 1929, when he asked her to marry him and it happened fast. She had thought long about her mother’s and father’s cramped bedroom stuffed with worn paper bags of fabrics, a sewing machine with boxes of pins, needles and threads and a sloping bed in the middle that looked never quite warm enough. She observed her father’s face when he came home, how he looked at his wife as if reaching inside to remember something important–but just out of reach. And how she made him Dutch apple pie, anyway, but only after she had sat on the back stoop to watch birds leave and return a few times, only after she had strengthened her resolve to be content.

Carolyn took a chance and said, “Yes, alright then. Yes, I will.”

They were in a park. He picked her up and spun around, her legs flying. People clapped when he shouted it out. Carolyn was pleased he cared little for propriety.

Hal had opened a law office and so they lived in town, three blocks away from N. High Street. Mrs. Cronin didn’t crow about it. She smiled indulgently at those who shook her hand. She knew her daughter would get out of their deep, old rut. Her husband didn’t understand all the fuss. He told his wife and daughter with a shrug, “He’s just a man in better clothes, don’t forget that. But God willing, it might work out.”

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And then the Depression arrived, even in Marquette. Within a short time the mines closed, the elder Matherson went bankrupt and lost his home, and the Cronins migrated to St. Louis to live above the bar with Uncle Frank, Reese and Reese’s pregnant wife. Carolyn and Hal had to release their house and business with all the others. And they bid farewell to the lovely, erratic four seasons of Marquette.

Hal (and Carolyn) had saved in old cans enough cash to get them through a few months if they were conscientious. It had been a habit from childhood to hide money that was not his father’s. And the Ford ran alright. They made camp as they moved place to place. He knew how to build and even fix things, after all, sometimes cutting down young trees and fashioning slim poles to make a lean-to with stitched together burlap sacks and any other scraps Carolyn found. She repaired any item (even a torn canvass rooftop slung over a truck) for a little sugar, a spponful of peanut butter shared on two slices of dry bread, a hot cup of tea made of a teabag diluted by many dunkings. They ate better than a few and they were healthy enough. By winter they had landed in Arizona and he still couldn’t find work as a lawyer, or any work, at all. Odd jobs were almost impossible to come by. Since he was so strong and managed to stay affable he got them by, day-to-day. He sold the Ford at last to a man who had been able to avoid the worst of things and hoped to become a driver for the better-off in California. That goal had lept him going.

Hal chatted with other camp members readily as they came and went. It was as if they shared a real neighborhood, as if the poor squares of dirt they claimed had front porches. Carolyn wondered over this, how they bonded when even despairing. Because of. She struck up friendships with a few women but some days found it maddening to wander among the throng. To absorb all that grief. She prayed for them and they for her–if they could bear to yet seek or praise God. Hal seemed to crave more contact, to press hands into his, to hear their stories. She watched him manage to get them to smile and, rarely, to laugh. He returned to her and set down his pain, shared his admiration: that they had all survived thus far, that many kept alive a dream. And yet so many more had let go all they cared for and dignity was fleeing, too. They couldn’t imagine it would get worse and yet he feared it would. At least there was sunshine, no snow and no one made them leave yet.

Things had gone downhill in the camp with illness and outbreaks of violnce and more squatters when Carolyn, dozing in the heat, saw Hal slide into their lean-to. He’d been in Phoenix, three miles away, looking for odd jobs.

“Hey, Hal.” Her throat felt on fire from mositure-robbing heat so sipped from a cup of tepid water.

He joined her. They rested in warm shadows cast upon the sacls thay had hung. He was quiet so that she could hear the breeze twist up more dust. She scratched her ankle, skin like parchment. Her hair was never brushed clean of grit and she thought of chopping it off. Dirty or not, Hal was doomed to look fresh-faced, even vivified amid folks who were grey, hollow-eyed. Her eyes lingered on him and sadness bloomed within her again, a garden of wistful, sorrowful flowers. He stripped off his damp shirt and sat.

When he finally spoke it was in a hoarse whisper.

“I found a job today, law office clerk, very small, twenty hours a week. If even that. Someone to file, answer a phone, be a go-fer. But I’m okay with this, you know it’s a miracle…”

She grabbed his bicep and her hand slipped from the sweat, the muscle contracting under her touch. He turned toward her and held her face in both hands.

“A real job at last.”

He shared bare facts, eyes glistening, as if speaking more or louder would bring worse upon them. As if his working meant the others could not have their own little, badly paying job and he was responsible, he was to blame. He struggled to feel happy. It confused him to win something he might not even deserve, to be the one who could leave the camp.

Carolyn threw her arms around him in a clinch of relief.

He smoothed her ponytail, touched her lips with his. “And there’s a one room place, a garage really, Mr. Jensen said. Behind the law office.”

“A house? A job and a house?” She clamped a hand over her mouth. Felt she was dreaming.

“House? Well, Carolyn, that’s too much to call it… this garage is free because it’s a ramshackle, smelly wreck. But a job, yes. The pay is near nothing but it’ll be so good to work…”

“I don’t care. I’m in this with you. Always.”

She had never seen his tears fall like they did then, as if it caused him pain to let go each one made of relief and sorrow. He felt he hadn’t been able to protect her, but maybe this was too much to receive. He was just one man, no more deserving.

She looked away. She felt his need of her but sometimes being there meant waiting, being there but apart. In a few moments he found his pipe and setteld it between his lips. He let hope grab hold. Carolyn imagined she could smell burning tobacco and it filled her with excitement.

After having had an easier life and then having it be so hard, Carolyn believed as never before that she had made the right choice by marrying him. She had been so afraid but had taken a chance and they made a great match, not perfect but solid, even now. She vowed to never let it go bad, to not give up when she was running out of patience, to not hurl at him times he was dismisive of her ideas or still quick to tease her when she was weary or so silent she wondered if he had already left her like her father. She knew better; he cared about her more now, not less. A touch, a look. A found stone that shone when polished with dampened fingers.

Carolyn knew, too, that he was a man who was charming, smart, beautiful and such men were built to do excellent, even big, things–as well as fail spectacularly. She was already set like a compass, to move with him towards their true north. She had meant to love Hal a little but it had turned into something bigger. Carolyn brushed off her skirt and smoothed back her unruly hair. Hal Matherson was a man with more than better clothes. He had her.

 

The Beauty of Another Country

yo30097-breaktimehudsonriver1973 Taking a break Along the Hudson River, NYC by Wil Blanche

(Photo by Wil Blanche, Break Time Hudson River, 1973)

The river flowed as if it had a plan, deliberate, strong-willed, slathering the banks and concrete retaining walls with dirt and detritus. Heat-powered scents were redolent of city life combined with ground beneath concrete and brick. Cass had biked there. She wished for a strong breeze. But it was a miracle to be resting, sunshine so easy on sore arms and legs. Honeyed light soothed her. She let go of a twig she had picked up and watched it bounce away on the Hudson.

Cass worked hard at the cabinetry shop her dad owned. The business was even better than last year. She knew how to do things that men older than she did not. There were four other women there, two in the office, two laborers. He liked to think himself progressive, but they were paid less than others. Only Cass made what the men did, with top overtime allowed. That was due to thousands of hours she had clocked since age twelve when she was a “go-fer”. Unpaid labor until fifteen.

Lately she had thought about talking to him about moving on. Making it on her own. She watched seagulls wheel and dive. There was a loud girl chatting up one of the road crew; their talk leaped over the sound of barges. Cass shut her eyes tighter. She wanted to forget all the people who acted so special because they were desperate; the shop and its demands; the endless traffic din. It was the countryside she tried to conjure.

She had last been there three years ago. Hills were burnished with the glow of autumn. Emerald grasses, cows lolling and red weathered barns all seemed to her a part of a living art museum. Trees like bouquets of copper and jade. As a kid she had studied such scenes in a heavy library book of photographs and felt a stirring but to visit it was always like seeing a foreign land. There was a family reunion every five years at Great-aunt Dinah’s farm until she passed. She and her dad and brother had gone to her funeral, something her dad hadn’t wanted to do; it was an obligation. Cass didn’t recall the viewing (other than her hair, white as snow drifts against deep-lined skin) or the funeral (except for a cousin swearing he’d never put on a suit again no matter who died, the idiot).

Later, she’d sat on Dinah’s creaky back steps and drank in the openness of vast acreage. It was like drinking fresh water when she was parched inside and out. She had been needing something, She hadn’t fully realized it until then.

In the city there were weeds that struggled through sidewalk cracks and little parks bounded by streets crammed with people and vehicles. It gave her a headache. Their shop had a break area, a patch of dirt with a wobbly, splintered picnic table that Cass finally fixed up with a blue-potted ivy and a yellow checkered plastic tablecloth. No one said anything except for the office girls who liked looking at it from the second floor window. Her dad saw the modest improvement; he said so when she asked. But the workers often took a smoke and coffee break at the side door, ate lunch down the street.

Great-aunt Dinah had left her farmhouse to her son, Howard. He’d leased it and one hundred-fifty acres, then week-ended in a house he’d built on a pretty spot a few years previous. It was really a cabin, as though he’d dreamed of remote forest living. The majority of land was sold off. Howard was an ancient history professor. He liked to go to read and write, take long walks, he’d told them during a recent visit. He’d retire there soon.

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                    (Photo courtesy of Discover New England)

Howard had some business in the city, so called to see if they wanted dinner at the Zenith; he’d pick up the tab. Cass enjoyed his conversation as well as the food. Her dad, less so. They only saw each other two, three times a year, Howard’s idea.

He said, “You two should come out for a long week-end. There are beds in two rooms upstairs. The master is downstairs. It’s a nice refuge. People enjoy the peacefulness.” He cocked his head, raised his grey eyebrows. “Time is fleeing; family should gather.”

Cass recalled how comfortable it was and the gentle land. She had looked at her dad with anticipation but he shrugged and lit another cigarette off the butt poking from his lips.

“Not likely, Howie. Got a business to run and Cass is my right hand. Started to make great money again. Can’t risk taking time away. Thanks just the same.”

Howard wiped his lips neatly with the white cloth napkin, studying her. “Well, Cass, you’re twenty-one so decide for yourself. Savor some time away. Bring a friend, too!”

Her dad had grunted as though a) Howard had no business extending such a grand offer to his kid; b) Howard was too high and mighty–like he didn’t work for a living, too; and c) Cass wouldn’t consider a three-hour train ride for a week-end marred by “eau de manure”.

“I might do that,” she had said. But she had one week’s vacation, saved for Atlantic City with her best friend. Still, which sounded better?

The girl by river’s edge shrieked with laughter. Cass’ eyes flew open. She watched a man trying to grab her so he got smacked. They roared as if this was hilarious.

The strong waters churned but Cass imagined reclining on a pontoon, holding an iced drink. Coming to join her might be someone tall like her, with wiry brown beard and longish hair, a guy who appreciated women who knew machinery and wood and had a mastery of both. Who had some savings and a dream. They would sit and watch the world drift by. He’d also like a horizon far enough away that you had to travel a long time to feel any closer to it.

Cass’s shoulders slumped. She needed more beauty in her life, hard-core awesomeness, the kind that multiplied with each season and is valued for all time. Trees, bugs and creatures, dark rich earth, flowers among vegetables. The weather seen coming from the distance. The strange music of birds in the morning. She wanted kindness, enough so her hard work and restless nights finished well with interesting talk and a kiss that meant something. Her long, muscled arms stretched above her, soaking up sunshine.

Then she said aloud, “Dang, I want my own carpentry shop. Sooner rather than later.”

Wanted to leave this city, sit on grass by Howard’s cabin and learn about the things he knew. Figure out how she could start her own true life. She felt a frisson of energy slide upwards. That’s what she was going to do. It was amazing how easy it was to decide once she was ready.

As she rode her bike back to the shop, she looked long at the girl with pastel bell bottoms and bare shoulders, the bottle blond hair. It was not her destiny to be that way but she raised a hand  in greeting. The girl stared back and Cass wanted to call out, Don’t take what you can get, find what you want, but peddled on.

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