Things of Little Consequence

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Someone asked me recently what my hobbies are. That gave me pause. I enjoy so many things, hobbies or not, so where to begin? But I answered: “Thinking might be number one…” She laughed incredulously, not understanding who I was and what I meant.

I spend a significant amount of time each day thinking. Not that I am unique in this. We think without even realizing it, surfing the brain for memories, connections between disparate matters, solutions to challenging problems, the causes and effects of feelings and events. Afterall, we are curious creatures made for verbal activities, outfitted with and guided by words that identify, inform, clarify, embroider and precisely define. So it is logical that even stream of consciousness bouts of verbalizing preoccupy us. And for writers of any stripe, words, whether given internal or external form, are tools that enable transportation to a world of characters, places and times that would not otherwise spring to life. Those consonants and vowels strung together feel like daily sustenance.

So, how easy for human beings to become lost in thought. To contemplate and wonder.

But when does thinking become pondering? Ruminating? When does such thinking cease to become worthwhile, productive? Once I would have said such a thing was impossible. Every thought had meaning and purpose–yours and mine–and if I thought hard and long enough I would find the answer sought. I followed my ideas and imaginings into mazes of speculation. Brief inspiration could capture me; soon I would be swimming in reflections. I adored ideas. A barrage of “whys” and “hows” accompanied me everywhere. Certainly I was not always a favorite student or child despite a proclivity for learning. I wanted even more explanations and answers. In fact, I can still ask more questions than some people can find the patience to appreciate or share.

My mother used to use the  word “brood” when describing some of my youthful cogitation.

“Why don’t you give your mind a rest?” she’d ask with a smile as concern tinged her voice. “You think too much. You’re a brooder, chewing away on things. You’re exhausting yourself. Maybe even me.”

Friends would sometimes try to shoo away my constant contemplation with a flick of fingers and a laugh. “Be cool, lighten up!”

Boyfriends would tell me, “You’re intense. Interesting, yes, but very intense. Where do all those thoughts come from, anyway?”

“Too sensitive, that’s what you are,” my older sister pronounced with a little sneer. I thought her too insensitive then so we were often at it. But how come I seemed different from so many? Was she right?

It was clear I was naturally more serious than light-hearted. Pensive, another sibling suggested. And, from the start, consumed by language–to sort it all out. My head was stuck in a book or journal when I wasn’t practicing my cello or working on figure skating lessons. I wrote songs, poems and stories, gazed out my bedroom window on a cloudy day and constructed kingdom that held a whole culture more vast and intriguing to me than the one in which I had landed–a Midwestern company town where following everyday rules was a major key to life success. Where most every yard was leafy and manicured. Where strenuous competition, no matter the activity, sustained my friends. I longed for something else and a creative life seemed the key. And that seemed to go with “thinking too much”…I thought…and feeling, let’s face it.

I did agree I needed to develop ways to put lengthy contemplation on pause. If everything was a matter of significant consequence to me, as my wise mother said, when could I catch my breath? Where was the balance? The needed R and R? It was hard living inside a mind that was always busy, seldom satisfied for long. So I found ways to find relief from an adoration of ideas and passionate responses. Anything that distracted, soothed or humored me without creating negative complications was an option.

I still hold to this, only variations on the theme. Because I did not grow up to be less introverted–though I enjoy people a great deal–or less contemplative, I’m afraid. Thinking remains a major activity I indulge in for a number of reasons–and due to being a human being. But I’ve continued to discover recreation–for its own sake.

As a youngster and teen I came up with such things as reading fashion magazines, those silly but visually sumptuous fantasy tomes. Pouring over the latest fabrics and styles, make up and hair creations. Pictures that delighted when I found more innovative fashion photography. From this activity came the creating of wall-sized collages with old cards, photos, magazine pictures, even phrases and words salvaged from many places. I liked to draw. Sketchbooks and scrapbooks filled up with pencil and ink designs, rudimentary still life pieces. And houses. I loved to imagine cutting-edge steel and wood houses made with indoor waterfalls, walls of windows that overlooked babbling brooks or verdant gardens and so on. (In 1962 that seemed revolutionary.)

Riding my bike and learning how to do tricks on it in a big parking lot were entertaining. Tree climbing rated high on my list. Ice skating was so important to me that I would brave zero temperatures to hear that zing of glistening ice beneath blades. The adrenalin surge alone as I gathered speed, leapt and spun was enough to convince me skating held magical qualities. I came away exhausted but cleansed of the week’s stress and my clamorous thoughts and feelings.

Dancing was a favorite. Turn on the stereo and move back some furniture and I was set to let all run a little wild–as long as siblings weren’t doing something in the living room or my father wasn’t teaching violin, or my mother preparing the dining room for guests. In which case, I could always visit a friend and have a dance-off, or attend a school or community center dance. I could dance across the back yard, trailing long silky scarves in the breeze. Relief, it seemed, was truly a dance away.

Singing was always a pleasure, especially if completely alone. Or there was someone to play piano in accompaniment. Or I would turn the radio way up. Singing in my room with door closed, crouched over guitar and trying to piece together lyrics with melodies for a folk song was also good, but a bit more like work. (That required problem solving, even melancholic brooding. Or when practicing an art song…well, I was less apt at those times to sing for sheer fun.)

All these mattered because they were entertaining, overall relaxing, and required less serious thought rather than more. And I do some of these things today because I came to know what keeps me healthy in body, mind and spirit. I also worked in human services for many years, which requires serious concentration and reflection. If I hadn’t had fool-proof ways to “let down” and step back from so many deeply challenged, even ruined, lives as a mental health and addictions counselor, I would likely not have lasted twenty-five years in the field. It comes down to self-preservation, whether one needs a break from one’s own mental gymnastics or others’.

A recent assessment of things, then, that interest me but are either frivolous, superficial or just plain fun. A few noted below.

1. Reading a wide variety of magazines, something I have written of before. I subscribe to eleven by last count. So many things to learn, to have fun reading about! I am apt to visit a bookstore and come back with one or two more. I read magazines to get a quick take on things, to see what the culture her or elsewhere (or a certain area of interest) is throwing out there. They can be read quickly. Articles become a springboard for further investigation.

But another reason is that I love the tactile experience of smooth printed pages in my hands. The graphics also attract and involve me. I tend to read off and on all day (including books), and find I can peruse magazines while doing other things as needed. I am amused, sometimes enlightened, and always distracted by what I find in magazines.

By the way, I still remove pictures to save for collages or my little laundry room gallery. I repeat, I read many good books, but that is another topic requiring a whole post of its own.

2. Painting and drawing. Still. I was an art major in college…I’m even not sure why. But I could paint away for hours then, fill good-sized self-made canvasses with shapes made of oils or acrylics. But whether or  not I was any good, it gave me happiness. To this day I love art–to see it, make it, learn about it. So every now and then I take out my drawing implements–which I enjoy enough that I visit art stores fairly often to browse or buy more. Or I use the tubes of watercolors (about which I know almost nothing)–and have at it. Thoughts flee as soon as I prepare to make a colorful mess of things.

I know this seems unrelated…but thinking of implements and stores…I also enjoy browsing in hardware and office supply stores. Is that peculiar? So be it. It is another sort of recreation I like.

3. Sit on my balcony and watch the neighborhood do what it does, tend to my potted flowers when it gets warmer, sip tea or partake of a nice lunch. I usually see cats prowling around, too, or just sunning. The non-human animals have the art of relaxation mastered. (Little kids, even toodlers, too, I’ve noticed.) Or I gaze out my window in the living room and watch passersby on bikes (all sorts of those, even very tall unicycles), skateboards, roller blades, in cars (I play a game of trying to identify cars-the year as well– as they quickly pass). There are lots of dogs, children, friends enjoying friends. I can see towering, graceful trees that line the block. A church. Pretty houses. Like going to the movies, really more fun, I feel; you can make your own story if you want.

4. Walking and hiking. Yes, you can think a lot then but, oddly, I do very little of it. I feast on the beauty of neighborhoods or parks, the forests, beaches or mountains. Walking or hiking instantly release tension, smooth worry lines, charge up lovely endorphins, satisfy my large appetite for expansive sensory stimuli. It keeps me strong of heart and limb and clarifies my spirit. I also take photos as I go. See number 8.

5. Call or stop to see friends or family. Listen. Share. Laugh. Appreciate. Even forget self. Nothing like reaching out to forgo one’s own tedious thoughts. Enough said.

6. Watch–not for hours daily, just as needed–television’s HGTV, DIY, Travel, Discover, A & E, BBC America, Sundance Channel… you get the idea. (Okay, sometimes “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”, I’m sorry to admit it.) I like to learn things but that doesn’t often require any deep thought while viewing. I watch and am amused or inspired by others actions and ideas, new places I may never see, experiences I may never know first-hand. It’s like magazine reading but without the static images.

Here I need to add the radio, as it is another medium where interesting things happen. No, I don’t have an iPod. I don’t listen to iTunes. But I do love a good interview or new piece of music issuing forth from our speakers that broadcast a wide spectrum of entertainments from, perhaps, our primitive yet beloved radio. I just have to listen, relish the moments. And I can change the station, of course.

7. Linens! Yes, I love exquisite linens. Sometimes I go to the store, sometimes I leaf through catalogs, occasionally look online. I think the beauty and function of sheets and towels is a perfect wedding of qualities. Do I buy many? No. But I study them and wonder how they would look and feel in bath and bedrooms and enjoy every minute of it. I might get new things once every four or five years. It’s the dreaming that counts here. Catalogs afford me such moments.

8. Photography. It is instant meditation. I am fully present in the external world though the inner eye is also evaluating. I am not exploring thoughts, I am welcoming images. The way things are (or appear to be) engage, fascinate and refresh, especially nature’s landscapes. But also cities. People and other creatures. I am saved by the variety and wonder of the earth, of the possibilites for humankind. Taking photographs lights up a split second, makes indelible an experience, asks me to be focused on the world beyond my own. The mind stills, gentles while zooming in, then opens wide. Perceives life minutely. Differently. And when I examine the photos later, I often learn something once again.

9. Games. I am not likely to become some outstanding player but I like games very much. I do not play chess or bridge or even poker, nor many others. But I am good at Scrabble, checkers, dominoes, Uno and Balderdash (one of my favorites of all time). I can play gin rummy pretty well. I love outdoor games as well–horseshoes, badminton, croquet, bean bag toss, Frisbee, volleyball when I get the chance–but it’s still the rainy and chilly winter so table games are the focus now. They are some of the most fun times I have with my family. We used to have a game night each month. I might institute that again. What a rousing good way to pass the time. It’s the sort of thinking that tricks you into feeling your brain doesn’t need to employ fancy footwork, so to speak.

10. Music. I adore going to hear live music. I am not a bar patron often as I don’t drink. But there is some great jazz in this town. I do attend many warmer weather outdoor music festivals or shows. And there are concert venues that offer wonderful musicianship. Recently I heard a lesser known but fine German cellist play Dvorak, a treat. I always go hear Bonnie Raitt with one of my best friends, a joyous event. Coming up is a pops concert with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, which I admire. Music–it takes you both into the deepest parts of your being while lifting you right out of yourself. Enchanting.

11. Making chili. Or beef stew. Maybe cookies. I include this although I am not generally a cheerful cook. I used to cook every day for our seven member family plus whoever they brought home at the last minute. And I finally was just done with that. I like recipes when I must do this activity. Except for chili and stew. I can do those blindfolded without a second thought. The cookies? Well, those do require attention to the clock or responding right away to the timer foing off and I am usually reading as I wait…I always burn at least one batch. But sometimes cooking–just making a simple but delicious salad–empties my mind. Nothing like chopping onions, potatoes, carrots, celery and tomatoes to do that.

12. Getting out, looking at and organizing my jewelry. I have too much of it, mostly used for dressier work outfits until I retired. Much of it is “costume” jewelry; some is handmade, like fine art, or passed on to me by family. I turn it over in my hands, study decorative effects, then get out the metals and gemstone cleaner and shine it up. It takes some time–like shoe shining, but much better–and it is satisfying. I like to hold and examine a few pieces that were my mother’s. Sort things I can donate or offer my daughters. I rediscover earrings or necklaces long ago put away. They bring forth memories of certain events attended, people I was with, jobs I have had. Places where I first saw the finer jewelry and how came to own it. But wait a minute, I’m talking about reminiscing. That’s getting too close to thinking. I might have to reconsider.

There is always something else to explore, to seek. Small things of almost no big consequence to anyone. Except to my own peace of mind, that densely packed area where quiet pleasures can and do coexist with weighty–sometimes tiresome–ruminations. I could add much more: say, travel, making pillows, birdwatching, searching for handmade cards to send to people for no real reason, secondhand store browsing. But it’s late, so time to think about something besides this post.

And of course, when one thought leaves, ten more are ready to congregate and have a discussion. So it is in the human dominion of language and thought. I had to learn long ago: don’t demand that everything divulge its depths, its significance, all the time. Let it occur of its own accord, as well. Refuse to allow the messy, marvelous entirety of life be such hard work. Breathe in, let it go. Make some simple fun. Free your body, soul and mind. Those ideas and questions will always be waiting.

 

Yep, that's me, just being happy.
Yep, that’s me, just being happy.

Mrs. Snow’s Way to Paradise

Photo by Bill Owens
Photo by Bill Owens

We had everything and it was all for sale. Most all the time. You think I joke? I was the witness who recorded it all with my Kodak, and if you looked over my meticulous records from back then, you’d see the hundreds of pictures I organized in one year time spans are precise close-ups. In full color. They’re starting to mildew in the battered file cabinets in my basement, part of my inheritance. I can’t for the life of me figure out why I should have kept them but after dad’s funeral my brother brought them here, protesting that our old house looked better without six rusting cabinets. Every last piece of junk had been taken to the dump or auctioned off. We gave proceeds to charity as dad wished. But since we were to share the house sale profit, I decided to get on board and took the cabinets.

That was some time ago. I have thought of it again because I’m moving. Paring down.

I kept records from about age eleven to age fifteen. There were various bits and pieces, big and small, carried in and out of the house before and after that. But by my mid-teens I had boys and softball on my mind, and I was starting to fantasize about escaping. Dad decided I should take photographs because I was always horsing around with my camera. Dad thought I had an interest when, really, I didn’t. Not at first. But it was the only way to spend personal time with him. We went on tri-county jaunts as he picked over the throwaways in other people’s garages, barns and back yards. Whenever I had time I’d help document his purchases or trades. The pictures helped a lot, he said.

We lived in a two-story colonial style house with a three car garage. Dad was a doctor, an osteopath, and mom worried about him while she raised Gene and me, Krista. He kept hours that most doctors wouldn’t so he could have long week-ends to wander city and countryside in search of the next big find. It might be a five dollar tool kit manufactured for kids in 1940 or a cracked bed frame made of prime cherry. I never could figure out what he was looking for exactly. I always asked as we got going in his special ancient truck.

“Well, it depends on what they’ve got, then what I can find. Then it depends on the haggling. I might come down to destiny, in a way.”

I had my freckled forearm on the rolled-down window, hand catching and being pushed by the burning Texas breeze. I’d check him out to see if he was feeling optimistic about fate or not that day. I could read his face; it was a good look that time.

“Well, maybe you’ll hit the jackpot.”

He smiled lazily, a gold cap catching the sunshine. “You never can tell. We have to loosely define ‘jackpot’, Kris. A handsome old hand-painted sign might be better than a mirror with a gold-plated frame. My treasure, your cast-off. That’s the fun of the hunt.”

I daydreamed as he drove, but as we approached a dirt driveway that wound alongside a creek, he let the truck idle. He stuck his head out to get a better look, clapping his palm on his hat as a breeze gusted. He always wore a weathered Panama hat when we were out and about and made me wear one, too, to help keep skin cancer at bay. Dad was like that, always advocating for the welfare of youth and happy longevity of adult patients. But when it came to junk, he had less sense.

I saw what he spotted: a rusting but sturdy blue bicycle and an assortment of round metal tubs and an oblong trough. I could imagine what mom would say if he brought that trough home. The very thought of where his finds had been and what they had been used for distressed her no end.

Dad got out and made a beeline for the trough.

“Someone could plant flowers in this and decorate a back yard, don’t you think? In good shape. Just needs thorough washing. And how about these tubs? Three of them all different sizes. More potential–storage, water containers for creatures, plantings, just paint and decorate them.”

I thought: water what? A horse in the city? A thirsty skunk?

That’s when the woman came out, her hands jammed into baggy grey sweater pockets. She looked about my dad’s age, attractive with a high ponytail and ruddy cheeks. But she didn’t look that congenial at first. I didn’t see a No Trespassing sign.

She put hand to eyes to block out the high noon glare.”You looking for somethin’?”

Dad hopped out of the truck, offered his bony hand. She didn’t offer hers but saw me and nodded.

“Jud Jenkins, Dr. Jenkins. I’m always looking for something good to buy. You selling any of this?”

As soon as they hear he’s a doctor, they tend to get friendlier. You can almost make out money signs in their eyes as they try to mask their interest. But not this one.

“Do you see a For Sale sign? That would mean Rex is formally in business.” She chuckled but it wasn’t cheery, more like heh heh.

“Well, no, can’t say I do. But you have them sitting out here by the roadside, so I thought…why not stop and see?”

“We have an overflow is all. We have a huge shed, looked like a pole barn once, and these didn’t fit so Rex, he stacks things up where he sees fit until he takes them to the junkyard. Or wherever. Because I sure can’t have his mess in the front yard, no sir.” She took her hand down and squinted at him as she stepped closer toward me. “I guess you and your daughter are trolling, right? Hoping for a few bites? How come you’re not out with your friends, dear? No boyfriend yet?” She laughed out loud this time and it was refreshing rather than irritating. It made her whole face change from mildly stormy to carefree. “No sir, I’m not selling a thing.”

“Afternoon.” A man, turned out to be Rex, emerged from a sparse line of scrubby trees. “Help you with something?”

He walked right to my dad, big man with a congenial air. The woman sauntered over to me. We watched a moment as the two, Rex substantial and my dad rail thin, shook hands in that hearty, welcoming way that says they’re members of the same club, strangers no more.

“Well, there goes an hour or two of your time, darlin’. The two fools will find plenty to yak about. Want some iced tea?”

I asked my dad if I could go to the house with her and he nodded, barely looking up.

Her porch was open, large. In need of some wood replacement. Sheltering. I settled on a rocker and she brought out two sweat-beaded glasses. When she sat down we both drank fast and noisy. She waited until I had something to say, which was a change. Adults usually wanted to dominate conversation, ask things you didn’t want to answer.

“You got a nice place out here, ma’am. I wish we had a quiet porch like this one. A pretty creek.”

She pushed wispy brunette bangs from her eyes. “I agree. It’s a good spot. It was worth marrying Rex just to enjoy this house! It needs fixing up but what doesn’t? He has the worst portion in life, working three jobs, and me just checking people in at the motel down the road on week-ends.” She took a smaller sip.” How come your dad buys junk when he’s a doctor? Surely unusual!”

My eyebrows shot up involuntarily. Being direct seemed her forte. “Oh, you know, he likes to collect stuff. Then sell it for fun.”

“Gather and hoard, you mean. Maybe cash in occasionally. I bet he has things stuffed everywhere just like Rex.”

“Well…not quite. Mom wouldn’t allow it to creep into our main living areas. That’s her domain, she says.”

The woman slumped a little, head leaning on the chair back. “So, she’s like me that way. Have to fight for and protect our space. For peace of mind.”

That struck me. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Mom was getting overrun with dad’s collections and interests. I felt she was impatient with something pretty harmless. Not that it couldn’t be an embarrassment to me, too, but he kept certain doors closed. Dad was happy with his hobby, just like mom was happy going to the gym, reading a romance book a week and having her friends over for bridge or canasta on Thursday nights. But they fought about it off and on.

“My manners, gosh, I’m Delia Snow.”

“Krista. Kris.”

“Your mother and I are certainly not much alike, I’m sure you see that. But we do have this in common: we can’t persuade our husbands that the way to paradise is clean and simple. It’s a good motto for me. Clean and simple…”

Delia Snow was going weird on me, talking about paradise when I was getting comfortable. But I wanted to be polite to someone so different and interesting.

“How’s that again?”

“Paradise. It’s having things tidy, pared down, really livable in my sweet house. My brain is less cluttered that way. But it’s also keeping things straight, simple in all ways. Knowing what counts. It sure works for me.”

“Huh, yeah, she’d agree with that, maybe. But she does have a lot of dresses and shoes in her walk-in closet.”

“Imagine that! Her own closet. Well, we gather what we like the most. I have plants, it’s a little manicured jungle in there, but other than that, only what we need. He fills up the shed because he seems to like nearly everything. I know he hides things in the trees out back. Tries to drag home more. Sometimes I put down my foot. Oftentimes not.”

She made a whistling sound as she exhaled. We got quiet, rested in heat laced with shadowy coolness. I wondered about the jungle in her house, what sort of plants she grew and if she had any children. Could I be bold, too? Then Dad and Rex were ambling back to the house, talking as if they were the best of friends.

“I married Rex ten years ago. I didn’t expect he’d have all this mess. But he has such a good way about him….”

As if he’d heard her, he lifted his hand; she returned the gesture.

“Gotta take the great with the nutty, Kris.” She got up. “Aw, you’re too young to worry! Let’s find out what they got themselves into or out of!”

I hated to leave and followed her. We enjoyed the men’s account of things, hung out on the porch a little longer with fresh iced teas, swapped pleasantries. We might have been lifelong neighbors though we lived in different parts of the county. An exceptional surprise for me.

“I’d so rather check out your shed, Rex Snow, but I have an appointment in an hour, unusual for Friday afternoon.”

He was disappointed, anyone could see that. They shared a couple more trade secrets, then that was it. Dad and I said our farewells.

Delia was waving at me as we turned onto the rutted road. I felt a little sad and asked dad if we’d ever return.

He shrugged. “You never know, my girl. Always looking for something good.” He wiped sweat off his neck and frowned. “His prices were actually a tad high. Tough time settling.”

Dad had gotten the tubs, that nasty trough and near-useable bicycle. I took pictures of them from a couple different angles. They looked almost arty in the weeds. He didn’t tell me what he paid. I didn’t care. We were done which meant I could do whatever I wanted with the rest of my day. He’d want to have a garage sale Saturday and would ask me or Gene to help out. It was Gene’s turn if I could talk him into it. But he was the least tolerant of dad’s ways.

On the ride back stinging wind whipped my hair and I hung onto my hat. No AC, a drawback to his sturdy truck. I recalled what Delia said about her and mom. How they were similar. Mom would’ve had a laugh over that so I wasn’t going to tell her. Delia had something mom didn’t. She seemed to know how to live with Rex’s junk lust. It gave me an inkling of hope for my parents. I worried all the time that mom was going to leave dad, take us with her. He made good money and he was the best dad we could have, overall. But she thought he had a few screws loose, were getting looser with time. Why else would he have to collect all that, waste money on trash, cram full our basement and garage? I didn’t know. As long as he didn’t stack stuff out by the pool… okay, sometimes it got to me. But it could be fun. Like meeting Mrs. Snow. (I loved her name both ways; she was so unlike people I knew.) I wanted to see what dad would do with the trough, if he’d sell it. Maybe I was more like him than I admitted. I didn’t know yet which way I was headed. But things had started to feel more claustrophobic. It could’ve been my parents and his stuff. Or just me.

Several years later, after mom left and just as dad was getting sick, I thought of the Snows again. If Rex was still collecting and Delia was keeping things simple and clean indoors, tending her mini-jungle. I drove out Redstone Road, surprised to note it was only fifteen miles from home. I couldn’t find their private dirt road at first, the weeds were so tall, but then I saw a tiny old and dented trailer just off the road, the sort that only one or two people can fit in to sleep. There was a For Sale sign on it.

I turned into their drive. Hesitated. The skimpy trees had grown so tall, the road so narrow. I felt guilty, like a trespasser or a long gone cousin who had failed to stop by. I could barely see the porch at the end. I backed out and took off.

I didn’t want to get out of the truck, find someone else there. Or worse, one of them still there, the other gone, whichever way it might have turned out. I wanted to remember Delia and me on the porch, talking like we knew each other, waiting for my dad and her husband to brag about who got the best deal. Then all four of us– me drinking sweet tea with the grown-ups. It had seemed good and right, like life was supposed to be about taking chances and maybe meeting up with destiny. About making friends wherever you roamed. That woman made things excellent for me a couple of lazy hours when I was almost fifteen.

I’ve decided. I’m getting rid of the old pictures and files. The crazy collections, the valuable and worthless junk are gone now. There’s no reason to keep moldering records of what has gone before me, what has been exchanged. Sold or trashed. I know what was gained and lost. I was there. In the end, dad enjoyed everything he discovered. And I had far more than I realized. Even a little spot of paradise. At least, it was for me.

 

Earley Waits for Mail

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Earley waited for the mail all afternoon like he did every delivery day, with the patience of Guernsey cows, which he’d loved as a child on the farm. His grandson would take issue with that idea, tell him, Cows don’t know enough to be patient, but that’s what Earley thought of when faced with the occasionally slow passage of time. Cows liked to eat, rest, socialize, all with a deliberate pace and acceptance. It seemed a good lesson. Being human created issues with time. For Earley, time generally was dashing away. As far as the postal service went, he was just grateful he still got it. What sort of life would it be without a little junk mail and a letter or package now and then?

Sol was too smart sometimes, explaining calculus and reading thought-provoking passages from his contemporary novels. Earley had patience with his grandson, but who cared what sorts of odd tricks numbers got up to at this point in his life? But the books he liked, or rather the being read to, especially when it had to do with a little love or a lot of history. One stimulated the other in the world, he thought.

When his son, James, was at work and Sol was at school he had some waiting while he did chores and puttered. Today was–he checked Sol’s calendar on the fridge–computer club. Three days a week the boy had obligations he said were fun. Earley had neither for the most part, unless you counted being a grandfather.

“You have to get a hobby, Grandpa. Ever since Grandma passed you’re just waiting all winter to garden. I know gardening is your thing but really. You need more than that. Maybe like playing Sudoku or checking out that new fitness club. I saw one of your friends over there. What about your woodworking?”

“I’ve made enough stuff, why do I need more? I do my crosswords and word searches so I don’t get soft in the head. I walk everywhere. Cook. Do laundry and pay bills like when Nana was alive. Plant my garden in spring. What more? You have hobbies, I get some free time.”

Sol and James looked at each other, eyes rolled. It made Earley think a bit. He did get restless at times. Then he saw the ad and put in an order.

For the last week he’d been watching over Sol by himself. It wasn’t hard but it took a little more out of him. Worrying and making sure he did all that homework, catching up with him more than usual. No James as a buffer or disciplinarian. It went pretty well.

James had gotten to Florida on Tuesday. He was supposed to have have come back home by now, not that Earley was anxious for it. It was never much real hardship being there for Sol. James called twice, once when he got to Miami and once when he found out he would be back a few days late. James was a fully degreed person, a writer and a construction worker, which Earley didn’t quite get, but the building trade usually worked out better. Bills had to be paid for three people.

James had this desire to swim his way into that smallish pool of people who might find their stories on shelves. He had been working on a psychological thriller for four years and it was almost done. Earley hadn’t read it yet. He wondered if it would scare him; the thought of that captivated him. Well, in good time.

James poked his head out of his office door one morning.

“I’m going to Miami, you guys! Kevin was hired as editor of Killing Justice, that new thriller and mystery magazine I mentioned, and said I’d be a good addition. But I have to do a formal interview. We’ll all move there, start fresh if this works out.”

Sal frowned and considered. He was fifteen. He had a small, well-defined life that he liked just enough. The house they shared with grandpa was big and had a garden he helped tend. He wondered how his grandpa would manage down there. He did want his dad to be happier. Sal could try Florida after ten years in Omaha despite leaving his best friend. The thought of tan, beachy girls and large reptiles soon held him in thrall.

As it lowered, the sun shot out pink and orange rays behind houses across the street, making half-halos about trees and rooftops. The sky warmed up like a tropical vista. Earley wondered what it would look like in Florida. He watched out the bay window, then saw the porch bathed in a glow despite a deep chill he kept at bay with the heat jacked up too high. The mailman–well, mail woman now– should have been there long ago. It annoyed him despite his resolve. So much for Guernsey patience. He wondered about James coming back late, what that all meant. His stomach growled as he glanced in the refrigerator. Leftover meatloaf when Sol got home.

He grabbed the seed catalog and sat in his worn, smooth leather chair. When he turned on the light and opened it to the first page pictures dazzled him with their lushness, as always. He could hardly stand that he had months to go before the planting.

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What would it be like to grow things all year long? he wondered. Florida looked like it sprouted life without any effort. It unnerved him a bit. The winters in Omaha were a good time to hibernate, which he liked. He might have to wear madras shorts in Florida, learn how to swing a golf club well, use terrible smelling sunscreen all the time. Or stay indoors even when there was no snow and no rain because of that heat. He wanted his son to use his degree in English and Sol to be able to try other things, but this was a lot to ask. If it was to be asked. He breathed into the gathering dark, a ruffly sound making its way down his commandeering nose. What if James thought it was time for him to join the others over seventy in those cramped places they pretended were communities? He had one already, right here, on this street, in this house. It had been good enough for forty-five years. The house had conformed to him and he, to it.

The front opened, then slammed shut the same time his cell phone rang. Sol tossed a package on the rectangular table in the foyer. Earley got up, then looked at his phone.

James. He answered.

“Hello? Son?”

“Hey, dad. I’ll be home tomorrow but I wanted to talk to you guys. Is Sol there yet?”

Earley beckoned to his grandson and he came over.

“We’re both here.”

Sol put the phone on speaker.

“Sol?”

“Hey, dad! See alligators yet?”

James laughed. “Not yet. But we might sooner or later.”

“We? You got the job, dad?”

“I did. They liked me and I like them. I’ll start in May.”

Earley walked to the table where the package lay. He could hear the two of them talking, excitement tinged with disbelief in Sol’s voice. He shook the package to confirm it was his order for sure, then went back to to his chair and sank down in the old cushion, box in hand.

“Hey Dad? You there?”

“Yes, I heard you.”

“Are you glad for me?”

“Happy as a clam.”

“Grandpa, clams aren’t even close to being smart–”

“You don’t know that, Sol. We don’t know every single thing.”

“Dad, I have to get going. Kevin is taking me out to dinner to celebrate. I’ll tell you everything when I get home.”

They hung up. Earley fished his Swiss Army knife from a back pocket. Sol had sunk into the couch, his jacket still on, backpack at his feet.

“Florida… sweet. I think.” He sat forward, hands clasped together between his knees. “What do you think, Grandpa? Oh, you got a package. What’s in it?”

Earley cut through tape, tossed the paper and pried open the box. Inside were neatly bagged pieces of wood. A whole ship.

“Behold, Sol, the Santa Maria. The largest ship of the three sailed during Columbus’ voyage. Modest, really, especially by today’s standards. About one hundred tons of her. Deck was 58 feet. A good seafaring ship until she shipwrecked in Haiti.”

“Nice! A wooden model. So that’s your new hobby?”

Earley smiled. “Could be.”

They looked over the plans and talked about history until Sol said he was hungry. At the table over meatloaf sandwiches, they were quiet awhile. Then Earley spoke up.

“You think you could head down to Miami, then? Or would you want to stay here?”

“We’re all in this together! Dad’s taking me and you if you’ll go and I’m sure taking you, so we’re going together. Right? Florida, like it or not, here we come.”

Earley wiped his mouth and sat back. “Well, it could be a good place to make and sail ships. But I’ll get back to you after your dad gets home and we talk. I’d have to have a garden. At the very least.”

Sol agreed; no garden, no move. He put the kettle on for tea and got out the organic peppermint teabags. That’s what his grandpa liked after a meal. That’s what Sol would always make him.

Monet in the Garden by Monet
Monet in the Garden by Monet