Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Found Tent

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

In the spacious front hall closet I was rearranging toppled baseball caps, a pair of  hiking boots, three IKEA folding chairs, two camp chairs, a small storage unit for more hats/gloves/scarves and a box of Architectural Legos so a new vacuum would fit behind crammed coats when it jumped out at me: a Three Person Wedge Dome Tent snug in its plastic casing.

“Huh,” I said to no one, since I was alone. “How come this is still here?”

Never mind that the corners are shadowy even with a hall light on. It seemed nonsensical that a full-sized tent could be hiding out in there. You see, we don’t camp. The “camp chairs” are what we take to an outdoor concert, or for a restful afternoon by a lake–not for hanging out in the woods for several days. Then I recalled dishes on the shelf above, the pine green enamel service for two plus stainless pot that are good for…camping. We do have basement storage. Yet here this stuff sat.

“We don’t ever camp, likely will not camp again, so what the heck?”

I pulled it out. It almost pained me, looking at it. The tent was beautiful with its lightweight royal blue water repellent fabric and polyethylene floor, the mesh door to bar insects yet allow ventilation. It’d look great with camp chairs and green enamel ware out there in the misty cool mornings under a canopy of Oregon evergreens and big leaf maples and so on and on, with eagles soaring above in hunt mode, owls hooting in velvety depths of night, and a campfire charging up the storyteller in us, even a few songs rolling out as we sipped soup from mugs…But not to be, I mused wryly.

I used to camp a great deal, with enthusiasm. I camped out as a child when at various summer camp programs, of course. And with my parents during  my teens (though not too often) with a simple pop-up camper they towed behind their Chrysler and then the Plymouth. We even camped in Canada which was more interesting to me then the camping with parents.

My first husband, Ned, and I went “primitive”; areas we camped around northern Michigan had no electricity or flush toilets with few other tenters around. When we had a family, we took our babies along, I nursed on the go. We backpacked along overgrown trails, branches reaching down as we made our way. We scavenged kindling, chopped and split “downed and dead” logs and cooked simplest fare over an open fire. I had married a man who was at perhaps most at home in the woods and the solitude found there. I wasn’t so far behind with willingness and appreciation. At first there were more skills to learn but it was fulfilling to work alongside him. It was peaceable out there and we and our kids felt good.

My current husband, Marc (who camped as a kid on Lake Michigan during summers with grandparents), and I camped at times with our combined five kids, borrowing my parents’ camper until they sold it. We tended to do this for other purposes, i.e. we were visiting a certain person “up north”, attending a folk or bluegrass music or similar event or were on our own Canadian sojourn. It was more economical and fun to camp rather than throw away money on hotel rooms. Not all the children were thrilled–hotels were luxurious playgrounds, unlike home–but most adapted. Naomi and Joshua, my children with Ned, were at ease, happy, helpful. Alexandra, our youngest, was excited to try anything new and adventurous. My stepdaughters were more skeptical. But Cait easily embraced the beauty of nature, loved finding wild berries, cooking with us. Aimee loathed it. She insisted she was genetically programmed to be a city person and to drag her out into any wilderness–despite flush toilets, showers, electricity: near civilization–was a true injustice and perhaps neglect of our responsible parental duties. (This never changed–she adores the concrete jungle and generally avoids being in dirt or in spitting distance of bugs unless required.)

Over time camping was less and less a family activity choice. A few grandchildren still went, however, with my parents–even when Mom and Dad were in their seventies. They were good at the more comfortable style of outdoors living. My dad had talents one would never suspect when he was in his tuxedo, conducting a symphony. He’d set up camp with simplicity and speed. My mother was a farm girl-turned-teacher and organized, efficient, if not thrilled with constant dirt in her makeshift home, under her nails–hadn’t she been done with all that? But they both respected, even seemingly revered what nature offered and taught the children more valuable lessons with each trip. Among which was cooperation with others–a love of familial fellowship. Those who enjoyed those trips still recall them fondly.

The last time spent hunkering down in a tent was autumn of 2010. Marc and I bought the tent when my son, Joshua, and his family (with two dogs) invited us to join them. I was thrilled he invited us. We didn’t  have what we needed but he did. Joshua is a veteran camper and hiker, a woodsman-type like his father. He, his two children and their mother know how to manage the basic and arcane things one learns when spending much time in wilderness or close to it. By the time they were in school Avery and Asher could identify many animal signs via scat and tracks, bird calls and even wild plants. They could explain differences between poisonous and nontoxic ones for use as, say, poultices for injuries and bites as well as for teas and food. I looked this info to verify it and was stunned. And Joshua can start a crackling fire with little and no modern helps, spot a deer in the distance before anyone else, root out stones from water or earth and name the types found. He has made a peaceable connection with all bugs and even spiders, despite a few having bitten and infected him badly with venomous wounds made.

My son and I experience nature at a perhaps primitive core which also encompasses our highest sense of all things–but he knows more about the outdoor life by now. Hence, it would be good to tag along with him into Oregon’s forests in the Columbia Gorge.

If only I could  tell you it was an entirely satisfying time but our one night camping experience was rough at moments. For one, my husband snores and has sleep apnea and without his CPAP machine, even with pillows propping him up a bit…well, it was an even less restful sleep for me; he seems more adapted to his apnea. We inhabited two separate sleeping bags with thin foam cushioning beneath. Nonetheless I felt may stones, lumps of dirt and stray twigs every time I was awakened by the drone from my husband. And I sweated too much so threw off top half of the sleeping bag, then felt the chill of skin drying inch by inch.

Sightless in the seas of blackness, I listened to the wilderness’ darkened voice in between  the snores and coughs. Its enveloping presence was alternately soothing and disconcerting. Thoughts arose about cougars, my most feared (such hunting prowess with stealth and fierceness) wild thing in these parts. And bears which I knew tended to be avoidant of people if food was securely put away (it was).  I had long trusted deep forest when I’d camped before and that night it was like a familiar but also a stranger one. I had lived at the edges of a few woods, miles out in country, and rustlings and sighings and snappings and occasional unknown soundings of something, somewhere…yes, it was so recognizable. I was duly mesmerized. The trees were so alive–of course they were!–but they were so utterly alive even if sleeping–did they ever sleep?…What else was awake besides me? My blood coursed with adrenaline at odd moments despite sensible self-talk.  Heart rat-a-tat-tatted or harrumphed. Mostly I wanted to stop itching and sweating, feeling the uneven ground and hearing Marc emit snores. Wait, what was that landing on my forehead?  And why didn’t I just buy a second small tent? Pitch it on the other side of the site? Why didn’t he just find a happy pause in racket and lsnooze on? Likely scared off near anything out there.

But even the dogs were sleeping.

Breathe in the good magic, Cynthia, be at your ease.

It started to rain, fat drops smacking and sliding off  tent walls. A relief to hear its music. I closed my eyes and fell asleep a couple hours out of exhaustion. Dawn arrived with a whisper and sweetness that is unlike city mornings, not with a slap but a caress. And the fragrance of fire burning and oatmeal cooking and coffee simmering. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, sneaked outside and stretched sore muscles and bones, grateful for the new day. Mist hovered in the distance like a benign spirit gathering. I could hear the kids at the river, their voices soft. Joshua was tending to the fire, sitting on a log. He looked up and smiled his crooked smile. The dogs noted me, licked his hand and took off.

“It was a sort of rocky night, but glad to be here.” I wanted to be a great camper so I did not want complain to Joshua.

He chuckled quietly. “Good. You just have to get used to it again.” He gestured to the flickering fire. “I piled some wood in the tent. Found other kindling not too damp.”

I nodded, looked out into the wetness and light creeping into inside the cooled air, a persistent brightening of a dullish day. The forest was breathing its fresh breath and I took it in deeply. Damp earth radiated its musky goodness. How I loved woodlands after rainfall, how trees shook off their shower and other plants bathed and glistened. My grandchildren scampered about with muddy boots and clothes, hands full of stones and berries. I thought back to those other days when my children were their ages and life was woven of inexplicable beauty and sorrow, not unlike how it was, still. But now it was safer, freer, deeper for me in countless ways. And my son was cooking breakfast, hugging his two, quietly talking with me as I poured coffee into our mugs. I watched him and was startled, as I still always am, to glimpse his father.

Before long Marc followed his nose to join us. I held my tongue. He seemed more achy and groggy than I. He and Joshua talked wood, stones, fire building. Content to listen, I heard Avery and Asher chattering as if freed of a spell of enforced stillness. The dogs, a mess of mud and plant matter, caroused with them.

Sitting around a small sputtering morning fire, sipping hot percolated brew, hearing birds’ wings slice through a sprinkling of rain and our muted talk, I was nearly as pleased as when camping years ago. Just more sleepy and quite a bit older. But I felt perhaps even more alive than decades ago. Oh, I was flush with boundless energy and vivid talk and brave dreams then. But now…now I was more rounded at my sharp edges, more permeable, flexible. Able to welcome insights other than my own fragments. I was humbled. Enriched. In fact, I had stayed alive when more than once I thought I might not make it so long. And that was something.

Only the enormous, aged trees about us might grasp this and they seemed to lean toward me, branches graceful and strong, their lives enduring an opening of every new day and its progression in this communal place, then into nights. Events of import that seeped into them, slipped about them. I nodded at the forest and heavy sky that promised more rain.  A gratitude that filled my throat with tears a second. But, too, I wondered if I could do it again or if aging had begun to conspire against me. If I had what it took to be fearless and sturdy enough of body and soul to make a camp out there. If we would take another chance, just go out on our own s before.

We tore down our lively camp, hiked as light rain came and went. By the time we separated and said farewell, sunbeams were vanquishing soft fogginess and how it shone on us. My heart swelled with wonders even as my body griped a little.

 

I put the tent back in the closet, tuck it into its corner. Can we even think about camping again at 66 and 68? Maybe, maybe not. But I want to see it there when items need reordering or when I just want to pull it out and look it over. Or when we finally move from here. I want to know it has been done and done well enough. How it has nourished us all, made us let go and attend to the immediacy of life, venture just a little more into the wilder variations of what matters: love becoming even more visible within the realm of natural manifestations.

Still, I find myself dreaming of staking my claim to a spot amid the sentinel trees. And a sturdy blue tent–one for Marc, one for me.

Fragrance of Life

DSCN1074

Carolyn was getting sick and more than tired of the holiday hullabaloo. It was not going to happen for her. Why would it? Bills were starting to pile up, the building’s ancient heating system eked out puffs of tepid warmth, an upstairs neighbor’s recently rescued Border Collie puppy was looking for sheep to herd, his restless whining keeping her on edge. And it had snowed. Not a drifty dusting but a raging snow. She couldn’t see a well-defined anything from her second story window, just pillowy lumps of whiteness, nearly blinding her. The courtyard and beyond were slowly vanishing in thick swirling snowflakes. A wave of panic swept over her; she hugged close her ratty navy wool sweater and looped a thick gray scarf twice about her neck.

When she’d taken the airy, high ceilinged vintage apartment at Mistral Manor, Carolyn had harbored such hopes. But that was two years ago. The past year had been one of plenty, then rent by piercing losses. In November she’d finally gotten news of the end of her marketing job. The company’s local office had been downsizing awhile so she had half-expected this. Just much later. The resumes she’d sent out had thus far garnered only a couple of nibbles.

She let the sheer curtain flop over draped white twinkling lights she had put up before the news. They gave off a sparse but steady glow that proved heartening despite her distress and the cold that crept in through every window, sneaked under doors. She went to the hearty wood box by the fireplace and set about making a fire. She had first relied on childhood memories of helping her mother with the wood stove,  hands warmed by her mother’s as they directed hers: splintered sticks that way, smaller pieces this way about those, bigger kindling crisscrossed and then pungent split logs placed just so. The fire always responded to their joint (mostly Mother’s) efforts. Her mother said being a fire tender was woman’s work as it took equal parts ingenuity, delicacy and strength.

Once again being a fire tender felt like second nature as it had so long ago. Now the aged wood combusted and crackled, a fragrant offering of another downed tree permeating the rooms. Carolyn sat on her one overstuffed chair, slippered feet splayed before the plain, companionable hearth.

It felt, however, disorienting to have so much time to herself. She had grown accustomed to the chatter and bustle of work, lunches out with two good office mates, the critical demands of a trying boss with such large perfect teeth the woman scared Carolyn for a bit. She’d liked her business coursework, had done very well and enjoyed two other positions before the last. But her current job’s reality had been tough to embrace with gusto. It was tedious too often and unlike her friends, who’d fought their way to better situations and were now being dispatched to new offices, she had begun to flag.

She had thought it all mattered less than it did, even the friends. Now as she let herself be mesmerized by her fire’s erratic dance she realized she had taken the situtation much too lightly. That’s exactly what Damon had told her six months ago before he walked out. He’d found her lacking in ambition, something he fairly burst with, and it made him impatient. Carolyn was also smart and energetic, attractive in her off-beat vintage way, yet she had so much less enthusiasm about business than he desired in a partner. He had set up shop already, a small kitchen store that sold unusual, surprisingly handy items. It was her lack of aspirations that came between them, he said. But Carolyn knew better. It was his self-importance and her lack of true commitment to him. There was too much of the first and not enough of the second to make it work–better despite advantages of a lively companion, observing business success close-up, even sharing a passionate bed amid gross uncertainty.

What did she actually want?

First, to pay the most of the nagging bills on time. Second, to enjoy the effects of sustained heat with rest. Third, to just skip Christmas. Without her mother–living a deserved life of leisure in Florida, enjoying sunshine with her third husband– it meant so much less. But this year money was too scarce to flee like royalty into balmy days and nights unfolding way across the country.

Fourth: to stop feeling so damned lonely. Hallelujahs were lovely for others but to her were more like a too-long intermission with no second act to attend. Where was even the next two line paragraph of her story? In limbo, that’s where.

The tea kettle’s whistling startled her out of growing self-pity. She let it softly shriek a moment or two more; it sounded like comfort. As she dunked the cinnamon and orange tea bag up and down in the heavy white mug and sat again, Carolyn inhaled deeply. She jumped when someone pounded on the door.

Through the keyhole she saw Mr. Carpenter’s fuzzy white head. He didn’t peer back as he stood with a package, hand readied to bang again. He might have pressed the doorbell. When she opened up the door a crack, he looked up and she noticed his glasses were still held together with duck tape.

“Got a package here for you,” he softly growled and it was not an attempt to be ornery but his ordinary voice. He did not own the sort of voice that offered soothing words. Yet, they tended toward kindly.

She swung the door wide open, gesturing that he step out of the cold, drafty hallway.

“Thank you for bringing it to me. You dared go out on that porch to get the mail today?”

“I did! And it is blowing out there. No need to come in, thanks, I will get back to my reading–a great Sherlock Holmes.” He gave the package to her, leaned his wrinkled face into the room a bit. “It feels cold in here, too. Okay, you’ve got a roaring fire, that’s good. I need one.”

“Why don’t you come in, get warm, at least. I was just making tea.”

She didn’t want to sound desperate as she held out her hand to him. He was, after all, an old man, much older than her mother. Since she’d lived there they’d exchanged reasonable pleasantries, not overly friendly, not so aloof. Most all the tenants did when they bumped into someone. She felt welcome enough, but Carolyn had yet to get to know anyone well. It was the sort of bohemian community she had imagined she’d like to make home, creative types, young entrepreneurial sorts, old and young mixed together, some having been there for decades. But she hadn’t had the time.

Mr. Carpenter sniffed the air with his fine long nose. He had been a successful perfumer once, another tenant told her, but his smell had gone haywire or got worn out –he’d been ill, perhaps–and then he’d worked at Macy’s for a decade or more.

“Is that a grand old fir tree you’re burning?”

“Why, yes, lodgepole pine. How surprising you’d know that! I wanted to save the well-seasoned red alder and some madrone for a hotter, longer fire.”

Mr. Carpenter stepped in and looked around. She took the package, likely a gift from her mother, to the circular dining table.

“You might need that if the weather report can be trusted. Say, I guess I’d take that tea, after all, Miss Havers,” he said. “Any hearty black tea in your cupboard? With a dash of vanilla, too, perhaps”

“I do. Exactly that one, Mr. Carpenter, what a lucky thing.”

She took his faded black fleece and hung it on her coat tree, then prepared the tea. When she returned he had pulled up to the fire in the creaky rocking chair, the one she had found at roadside and had always planned to paint or refinish. His head bobbed up and his eyes smiled above his damaged glasses when she brought his mug. Taking her seat and settling again, wondering over how much warmer the whole place felt already, she sipped as they watched the fire lick at the air and twist about.

Mr. Carpenter cleared his throat though it made no difference in his gravelly tone. “You have any family coming around for Christmas?”

“I don’t. My mother and her husband live in Florida. I usually go there, but not this year. It’s…tight financially. Bound to get even tighter.”

“I don’t see you heading out at seven in every day, anymore.” She threw him a frown but he was still staring into the fire. “I often keep an eye on our people here. Not much else to do some days. You and most others leave each day for work. I did, too, but no more, of course. They threw me out ten years ago with flattery and persuasion and a pin of honor of some sort, but the truth is I reached seventy so that was the end. Imagine that!” He slurped from his mug and stretched out his spindly legs, then gave her an appraising look. “Beg pardon, I guess you can’t, Miss Havers. You’re a young one yet. But working hard comes naturally to you, I think, you carry yourself with confidence.”

“Maybe once upon a time. Not anymore. I lost my job last month. I worked in marketing. I’m not so valuable in the working world, either, it turns out.”

“I am sorry to hear it…well, on to the next good thing. I was a perfumer with my own shop for thirty years. We crafted bespoke fragrances as well as sold the most excellent scents. I dearly miss that work; it is an art, making perfume, and it well suited me. But I got sick with the cancer; my sense of smell was affected by chemotherapy. So I turned my business over to niece and nephew. They’re doing a capable job. After I got better I just took a job at Macys selling lesser scents but it was distraction, a paycheck. I tried to teach a little about perfume as I sold each bottle and had a ball. Then I was done there, too, so that’s how it goes. Life just flings surprises at us, distressing ones, sometimes beautiful, you know.” He stopped his gentle rocking and turned to her. “What’s next for you if I may ask?”

Form the corner of her eye she glimpsed the snow like a passing drape of white velvet, a near-ghostly thing. It struck her as wonderful. “I like design, maybe create packaging. That might sound odd but I like to draw and used to make things. But my degree doesn’t really support that wish. So I don’t know yet just what to do.” She closed her eyes, warmth flowing to her toes and calves and thighs and into her core and chest at last.

“It’ll come to you. Something always does if you’re willing to reconsider things. To try new avenues. I was glad to have my Macy’s job in the end. It saved me from deadly boredom, kept me engaged with people and, well, it was still perfume!”

Mr., Carpenter ended his sentence on such a gleeful note that Carolyn felt a pang of envy.

“I wish I had a deep passion like that…”

“Maybe it’s there and you just haven’t given it due respect and attention.”

She pursed her lips. “Maybe.”

They listened to the increasing wind and talked of weather, the endless oversell of a commercial Christmas, then the sorts of music they preferred–he, the old standards and opera; she, electronic and jazz–the food they wished they might eat and what they settled for on a limited budget. His late wife, gone long before he retired. How he’d then taken up painting after many years of forgetting all about it. He admitted to being fairly bad at it but no matter.

“Well, enough of an old man’s ramblings. I’ll head back upstairs, you have better things to do,” Mr. Carpenter said when their mugs were empty.

Carolyn bit back the words, Not really, please stay a bit longer. She could tell he was ready to go home; he probably had more to do than she did.

At the door he put his jacket over his arm and smiled sincerely, his wrinkles deepening about lips and folding around eyes. “Thank you kindly for the nice tea and talk.”

She felt overwhelmed by his friendliness and seized with a desire for another visit. “Want to come by for dinner Christmas Day? I’ll try to make something decent. Maybe start with a good glazed ham?”

His thin white eyebrows hovered above his glasses, then he stared past her, perhaps out the window, and for a moment she thought he’d gotten lost in thought, forgotten her altogether. Then he came back to the moment and rubbed his whiskery chin.

“I think I still have a scalloped potato recipe tucked away. Do you want to try a hand at throwing a small Christmas party–together? Invite a couple more folks? Mrs. Mize is alone this year, and so is young Trent Rafferty.”

Carolyn felt a small jolt of nerves as she imagined her apartment occupied by people she barely knew. She’d have to clean and maybe decorate. She hadn’t fixed a ham in a long time. They needed candles, too, and she was out. She knew wise-cracking Mrs. Mize but who was Trent Rafferty, a new tenant? Whatever had she been thinking, inviting him in for tea, then impulsively inviting him to dinner? Him, not three!

“Yes,” she heard herself say, “that’d be a good thing, I think. If they bring some dishes, too.”

“I’m sure of it. I’ll call them–or better yet, we’ll stop over later this week and figure it out better. They’re good folk. How about it?”

“Okay, Mr. Carpenter, sounds like a deal. And please–call me Carolyn.”

“Carolyn, then. I’m Elwyn, if you like, either way is good.” He nodded approval, as if of the way things were going. “And also, I’ll ask my niece and nephew if they need any good marketing done. Or package designing, perhaps. I still hold a place in our business. Oh, and maybe you’ll burn the madrone and oak for Christmas? Love those fine woods. I might have to steal a piece or two…”

He exited the doorway.

“What was that you said? About the work?”

But Mr. Carpenter’s thin, energetic visage, in burgundy flannel shirt and baggy dark chinos, shuffled down the hallway to the elevator.

After she shut the door, she poked at the fire to coax a hotter flare again. It’s tangy, sweet smoke smelled of well being, of good times, of a life lived better if only she could figure out how to make it happen. She moved to a frosted window, fingers splayed against sharp cold, melting icy filigree. The snow had stopped lambasting everything. It now lay upon the space below in a sparkling landscape of small hillocks and valleys. Streaming light created a bejeweled dream of a courtyard. She wasn’t entirely sold on a potluck for Christmas and she missed her mother terribly. But home had sneakily become Mistral Manor with its creaks and dripping faucets and chilly spots, her serviceable fireplace and small balcony that was a boon even in winter. It’s curious inhabitants. With Mr. Carpenter–she might call him Elwyn, more likely not–as new friend and perhaps adviser, anything might be possible, after all, given time.

 

Yesterday Becomes Today and Tomorrow: Intergenerational Living

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

At the park where I power walk, I spotted a few couples comprised of wildly disparate ages. No, they weren’t romantic partners from what I could deduct. Rather, they appeared to be son, daughter or grandchild walking and talking with their parent or grandparent. Or they may have been neighbors or others, good friends. I didn’t want to impinge on their privacy but observing them gave me great pleasure. The energy of spirited discussions which accompanied quick footsteps or the meditative quiet as they strolled–reasons to appreciate their presence. One twosome sat on a bench and pointed out abundant water fowl, naming many, enjoying the water’s painterly reflections. They all appeared glad to be in each other’s company.

This park is, as are all safe and well-kept public parks, popular for recreational pursuits. One side is devoted to basketball, kickball or volleryball or soccer with a busy jungle gym and swings nearby. On the other side of the street the pathways continue in hilly loops around an ample, tranquil pond, then past an off-leash area for dogs and sprawling picnic areas. I can easily spend forty-five minutes there and still be loath to leave. The rich light filtering through old trees changes moment by moment. The park always infuses my spirit with examples of life being lived well. There there are homeless folks, too, who seek sanctuary, as well they might. The lush, varied spaces welcome everyone. People (and dogs) romp, barbecue, read, make music, meditate, practice Tai Chi and sleep. Meet friends and lovers and family. Today I saw a group of role playing older teens in full costume. It’s a fine place to witness generations interacting, particularly parents and younger children.

Yet I do not as often see children, teenagers or younger adults with men and women between the ages of sixty and ninety (or older). These are often previous careerists who are now focused on other activities, whether it’s sitting on a porch crocheting, running a marathon or developing another business. Illness may alter their lives, slow some down. So can loneliness. I wonder how many of our older citizens visit with families and friends enough?

Likely not that many. Much of our culture doesn’t encourage intermixing of young and old. Unless it is already a long-held tradition, reflective of one’s ethnicity or part of social mores, it can be easy to gloss over ties to relatives and other important persons once integral to quality of living. Relationships become transitory with a pick-up-and-go society. We often meet others online or text whole conversations on cell phones. There is so much distraction that we forget the visit, the call, the time spent face-to-face with those we insist do matter.

I don’t want to lapse into sentimental nostalgia. I wonder if my viewpoint arises from having parents who were forty when I was born. As a youngster, I spent time with many silver-haired people (very few dyed their hair) and found them quite nice, fascinating with such varied life experiences. Still, we don’t necessarily cherish great and grand memories of family, neighbors or long ago friends, or at least not without equally impressive hard times recalled. Most of us, however, can yet recall enough occasions of togetherness that were momentous or contented, even happy. Love found its way into those gatherings with a few someones and in time the good will spread out, repeating acts of care.

I recently wrote a post about summer Missourian visits to see my aunts, both lovable characters, and an uncle and cousin (which you can find here: 2015/03/25/summer-trips-the-kelly-girls/). But I had many other cousins and uncles. My mother was one of thirteen children, many of whom were alive when I was born. My father, one of three brothers. Though I never got to meet my maternal grandparents, I did know my father’s parents. We stopped at their place each summer, as well. Many cousins, aunts and uncles had moved to other places, so were less well-known. But they came whenever they could to the common ground or we travelled to their homes, at times.

When we joined forces at relatives’ houses and yards it was entertaining, a bit crazy: lots of kids racing and yelling and playing games; tables laden with a large variety of home cooked food, conversations that veered from updates of life circumstances to detailed health updates to general gossip in lowered voices to worries and hopes about the future of the country and world.

My family was a bunch of talkers; kids could wedge in some words. My elders expected respectful exchanges but they were interested in what I accomplished in school, what I enjoyed doing for fun, who my friends were, what I was going to do with myself when I grew up. And I, in turn, held on to their offerings, sought their affection. They knew things I didn’t. Some had been to Europe both before and after terrible wars they fought in. But even if it was Arkansas, Texas or Colorado I wanted to see the slide shows and photos, hear at least a good chunk of the travelogues.

There was an uncle who owned a plumbing business, something so different from my musician and teacher parents that his world seemed exotic. I peppered him with questions. An aunt had a thriving seamstress business. Her descriptions of fabrics, designs that worked and those that did not–even the countless buttons and thread types explained were like a litany of small delights. Witty vignettes about their customers or past spouses captivated me (divorce was not at all good in our religious family but sometimes, it seemed, could not be avoided). One uncle was a high school coach; his daughters were my favorite girl cousins. Another was a music professor, flutist and prolific composer. A grown second cousin revelled in being domestically talented, which impressed me since I had very few domestic leanings. They all did and said things that inspired, intrigued, motivated, and guided me somehow. They introduced me to different ways of being and doing. Plus, lest it seem I am only on a serious note, those Missourians were plain fun to hang out with. Laughter is a constant in my memories and even now when who is left meets. So, too, were the majority of older guests my parents welcomed into their home good-natured.

How fortunate I was to know at least one set of grandparents fairly well. Grandfather Will ran a public school system and read voraciously, wrote poetry and essays, encouraged me to write more. His presence had a leavening effect on my life. Grandmother Ida worked hard in her garden and I followed her around, picking tomato worms off fat red orbs, choosing brilliant flowers for display on the dining room’s lacey tablecloth. It was she who patiently taught me to peel a potato so its tough skin came off in a curl, showed me how to decorate a pie with cuts in the top crust. Her quiet presence was certainly well noted.

They made up some of the best of my life, those adults who fussed at me, corralled my energy, sought my ideas and exercised their considerable opinions in group conversations that lasted hours. The older ones modelled examples of whom to become as a grown up–or not to become. I sensed the deep reach of the past, the connectedness through time and this helped me more fully thrive in the present. Envision my own future better by paying attention to it all. The young adults were like sisters and brothers who had run the gauntlet of adolescence, were powerful in victory and seasoned by defeat. I aspired to their smart decisions or worthy careers. Rooted for them if they backslided. My youngest cousins were some of my best friends. How could I not find pleasure in a fierce family game of badminton or croquet, ghost stories as we huddled under covers, tag played in the dark amid moths and mosquitos and scents of summer? Even for one summer each year. I waited all winter for it.

When children’s lives entwine with a few generations, they learn to better value not only the young and old, but also themselves. The past and present overlap visibly and invisibly. If there is loving involvement in the everyday as well as special occasions, it begins to permeate one’s world view like osmosis. A feeling of belonging not only in the family but in the greater world is more likely to root itself and flourish.

I’m not discounting the failures that happen, the breathtaking losses families inevitably experience. Disagreements that may linger. We have all been through things never imagined, with likely more to come. But for those, there is this: sitting in a circle, passing a handkerchief with cups of coffee or tea, remembering better times and praying for relief. Taking each other’s hands in your own. Later, making phone calls, writing letters that offer solace. When troubles are shared, they become more endurable. And out of that dark time arises the will to go on. There is that net beneath us made strong with the care of all who love us.

We have five grandchildren. One is barely known as he has lived far from us all his life. It has been challenging to stay connected. It may be too late, as he is still at a distance in more ways than one, a grown man. But I still hold out hope. Two others who are older have been in and out of our lives due to parental life changes. They finally moved to our city with a daughter so we have gotten to know each better in recent years. I try to show them my love is real and won’t disappear. They are always my family despite time and space gaps, despite the fact that I have been their mom’s stepmother since she was five.

And there are two with whom we have been more up close and personal since their births. They remain in my life in significant ways. But I wonder how much longer this will be, for any of the four nearby.

I recently took my soon-to-be thirteen year old granddaughter ice skating. We had a ball gliding about. We can shop for hours. We are going to attend a dance concert for her birthday. I feel her start to move beyond my easy reach yet know it is part of inevitable transitions. We still made Easter eggs with her brother. My nine-year old grandson loves to draw and paint with us and enjoys hunting and identifying rocks. We have hiked in mountains and walked seashores. My husband and I play Scrabble, checkers, dominoes and more with them. We attend school events. I correct their manners if they forget because manners make far more difference than they can know yet. They voicalize family complaints; I try to stay neutral. We share many meals with them and the rest of our good-sized family.

I can offer a listening ear and hugs when they are hurt or angry or discontent. And pray for them all, that they might cross through the vast reaches of their lives with a firm hold on honor and dignity, a philosophical sense of things when encountering hardship.

Is this enough to offer as they navigate an increasingly complex and treacherous world? Will they grow up feeling the strength of such love, will they be secure in the knowledge that their families are here? The thought of my leaving them one day suddenly grieves me–not being around for my children, their children and with all our other relatives. Then I remember: I was blessed by previous generations. They followed me into my own adulthood in some way or other. They keep me company, still, as I grow older. I dream of those who have left, and their faces shine. They formed the major part of the foundation of my living. They were so many things to me, strong and resilient, faithful and forgiving, shaped by creativity and good humor. And, too, there were weaknesses and foibles. I have loved them for it all.

I can pass on what I have received. We each have the task of sorting and strengthening bonds that matter most, and the opportunity to carry forward the good we have been given. The common wisdom we have is gathered like imperishable riches.

So at the park today it was satisfying to see folks moving and resting in concert with each other, younger and older. I hope they were related by blood, but if not they were connected by interest. Perhaps by the strength of the deeper heart. I could see it in the way they leaned toward each other, how they talked, what they experienced together. This day will be another that remians with them if they remember the details or not. The cumulative benefits will be reaped. We are all on our way to tomorrow. We find our way better with each other.

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson