Mementos for Living

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Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The crowd wasn’t holiday-large, not jam-packed in corridors, just impossibly thick with kinetic energy, bodies propelled from the mall storefronts like party favors tossed into the electric air, mouths chattering about nothing, eyes alight with the thrill of the hunt.

Nell didn’t much like crowds. She observed from her perch in Madrigal’s Mementos, her workplace. Her store, in a way, since her mother, Rona, was semi-retired and hightailed it to Santorini with a new companion. She wasn’t surprised Rona left her to deal with problems actual and imagined, as well as their thriving trade in “fancy this and that”, as her mother called the wares. She was more like a good older friend and seasoned business partner than a mother in most ways, she admitted. That was how it had always been.

The store was tastefully arrayed with small stone animals, elegant glass paper weights, fine pens and papers, hand crafted jewelry, silk screened scarves, hand bound books of poems and wisdom to live by, bright woven baskets and so on. In other words, an expensive gift shop for those who are used to the best or those who want to indulge once a year.

She felt less like a snappy sales person than a rag doll who had been propped up on her stool and directed to come alive. This was not what Nell had planned on doing right after college, yet here she was grinning at three customers who likely had little extra cash to spend and another two who did, each of them absorbed in examining the interesting pieces, wondering aloud if one person or another would enjoy an item. Nell could care less even though she was proud of Rona’s business acumen–she had two more stores–and glad of a decent paycheck. But she would rather be studying for her Masters in Ethnomusicology, doing musical and cultural field work in the Ozarks, say, or on Prince Edward island, in India or Mongolia. Yes, Mongolia would suit her better than all this.

The two women she thought would purchase something left the store arm in arm. But two of the other three lined up, items in hand. Stone elephants, a stone eagle, a bracelet of silver and good turquoise. As each was carefully wrapped, she thought how this business was partly responsible for Nell’s interest in other cultures since much of their inventory came from worldwide markets and crafts people.

“Such a great shop,” one woman breathed, hands gesturing toward displays and making coppery bangles clink. “Is Rona not here anymore?”

“Ah, yes, and no. She’s considering retirement, meanwhile just travels.”

“To locate more neat stuff, no doubt.” She dug in an enormous shoulder bag for her wallet, bangles jangling more. She looked at her friend. “Rona has such an eye, is so interesting, I could go out for coffee with that woman once a day and never be bored, she’s quite a talker.” She found her debit card and handed it to Nell. “You’re new here, right? You know her well?”

“For quite a few years. She’s my mother–I’m Nell Madrigal.”

“Oh! I should have known since you have her thick black hair, so pretty, I guess we’ve never met.”

“Likely not, I come and go. I’m not here for good; she’ll be back in time for holiday shoppers.”

“Lovely, I’ll be back then!”

They finished their transactions and left. Stillness billowed in the room, a relief. Nell watched more people stream by, a monotonous blur, a mass of colors and shapes, a telegraphic signal from another world that she didn’t understand. That she wished fervently was not her domain. She’d rather be on a mountain, in a holler, by the sea. But last year at her East coast university had brought a defining moment that left its mark. She turned on a CD of benign spa music and settled into the exorbitant but beloved “clam chair” covered in sheep’s wool near the counter’s end. It was for Nell the safe place in the store where she would watch and not be seen, could rest and the ache in her back and shoulders would ease.

If she dared close her eyes while still awake, she would still recall it and anymore it seemed better to let it come, rather than fight it. She had no desire to go into battle with old demons. She was tired, as always. Nell let her eyelids lower.

Back at Hartford School of Music he’d fast become her first love. Quinn: excellent oboe player, a composer of abstracted woodwind quartets and trios. They made her think of watercolors, layers of morphing shapes–yet these belied a greater intensity of feelings she didn’t recognize on first listens. The music could have been a clue but for her it was then all surge and flow; seeking, giving and taking and waiting for more; following less trod trails into a wilderness of surprise. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been in love before, just that she hadn’t ever known a man like Quinn before. Hadn’t found the proverbial rabbit hole so enticing as to willingly tumble into it and risk being lost. Which soon, she was, then she sailed right into his arms, out of her life, into his.

Was it his amped up adoration of her, even as her own ardor had begun to settle? Was it the way he had of subtly and frequently chiding and correcting her when he insisted she was wrong about something, no matter how small? Was it how he needed to know all her friends’ names, where she was going–then that he preferred she spend her free time with only him? Even then she saw it as signage of his enveloping and rock-steady love for her–the way he attended to her every need, how he graced her apartment with armloads of flowers when they’d had a spat, how he’d serenaded her at her window one night.

His mellow oboe sweetly filled the night air, calling other women to their windows, as well. But it was only her for whom he made music, no one else.

Nell flicked open her eyes, checked to see if anyone had slunk into the shop and was trying to nab anything but no, it had been a mostly quiet afternoon so far. She glanced at the shoppers then shuttered her vision once more.

Quinn was not handsome, not even quirkily so. That is, his features were not noteworthy and his torso was long and gave off a hint of natural athleticism but not one blazing with prowess. Still, his presence sooner or later filled the space of any place he went. It was his eyes, for Nell. Not the shape or color–though they were a warm brown, caramel-tinged in the right light–but the force they exerted, and his honeyed voice. Yes, a delectable force, that was the word Nell came to identify with him. His eyes on others exuded the demand that one pay attention and if one did, a rapid and intense response was forthcoming. Nell succumbed the first time they met. She saw him; he saw her. They talked of music and how it enabled people to become more attuned to nature’s complex notations and each other. There was nothing to be done but give in to such lively energy.

“Hello there…?” A male voice rang out.

Nell startled in her chair, stood up as if commanded.

“Yes, sir?”

“I was hoping you could show me some possibilities for my fiancée’s birthday.”

“Of course, tell me a little about her if you don’t mind.” Tell me you want her to be delighted not indebted, that you want to grace her with a token of your caring not your ownership, Nell thought as she listened, then led him to a display of pens–since she had beautiful handwriting.

They spent a few minutes perusing his options and then he wandered, returned to choose the flowing ink pen with a green and gold barrel, then silken paper with a tasteful ivy design along its left edge. He added delicate earrings with tiny sapphires. As she gift-wrapped them, they spoke of the weather–bright and warm, still–then he was gone, loping beside the others  into the outer realms.

Easy and at ease: Quinn was not these, never could be. He was smart and talented, given to flights of fancy that ended in wakeful nights of composing, revising each measure as he found more gaping chasms of error in the music and himself. It was the one vulnerable spot inside him, this part that privately did not feel good enough, and it seeped into other parts of his life though especially composing.

“I’m not meant to do this, have no gift for it!” he’d cry out and she would wrap her arms around him and he would shake her off. “Father was right, I didn’t catch the right genes, I can only conjure the right things in my mind but not execute, never fulfill my desires!”

His father, it was true, was a renowned composer of choral works, Terrence Carlton, he said proudly. Then he complained of it, how he lived in Spain, out of reach, unable to help and had little interest in woodwinds. He was far out of Quinn’s league. Only Nell could soothe him after the anger had been lit, then it subsided a bit. That is what he told her, only she seemed to understand him, no one else. It was not hard for her to be there for him. All he asked was devotion and she loved him, didn’t she, this is how it felt, to belong entirely to one person and be there for them always?

Nell sat back down and stayed put even though a couple came in, picked up a few stone animals and then left. A wave of panic had welled up in her, then slowly receded as she dusted the glass counter tops, rearranged elegant necklaces that lay on colored sand. She paused at the animal totems. She had given a stone creature to Quinn last Christmas, before he left for Spain and she, for Arizona. A coyote. She had liked to watch them in and around Tucson and he found it enchanting, said, “Thank you, that’s an animal I do admire.” And even that might have informed her better but it did not, not soon enough, not until they had returned to Hartford and studies resumed.

One snowy week-end in February they ate at Tango in Bridgeton Village, a funky shopping district.

“I don’t want to see him again soon, but he wants me to spend a couple weeks at spring break. He and his new wife at their new house. A villa, really.” He eyed her ruefully over his burrito, eyes suddenly a deeper brown as if a shadow had fallen over them. Then he smiled shyly. “He asked to meet you, said he’d even buy your ticket. I agreed I’d go if you come along. How about it, Nell?”

She put down her fork. Studied him. “I think that might be a little…too soon?”

He was chewing so didn’t speak a moment but his face changed nonetheless, from hopeful to irritated to a precarious cliff of anger that she saw in his narrowed eyes. “Why?”

“I mean, it’s been seven months, hardly as if we’re, well, betrothed!” She said it lightly, as if the whole idea was absurd, truly.

“What if I was thinking of the future? Our future?”

“I am, too. Getting our Masters degrees, finding good jobs. I’m not anywhere ready to have parents reintroduced into my world–our world. Certainly not marriage…surely you aren’t, either?”

He got very quiet, leaned over the center of the worn table top. Put fingers on her fork, then a knife, then drummed both sets of fingers beside her.

“I must be thinking of it, to agree with my father’s wishes. He has the right to meet you if I am imagining you in my future life.”

Appetite gone, Nell leaned into her chair, saw his index finger fiddle with the knife, saw him look her over as if he wasn’t clear–or happy–about who sat opposite him. Hr fixed his gaze upon her and did not blink.

His throat was cleared and when he spoke his words were hard and loud. “Don’t you agree, Nell? That meeting my father soon is best?”  He grabbed her wrists in both hands, and applied pressure until her fingers started to feel odd, then numb. His face was a mask of someone else, a man she’d glimpsed lately yet not known face to-face.

Until now.

“I don’t think so. We haven’t even talked about things past graduation much. I can’t go to Spain this spring, Quinn, I have the store and Rona.” She dabbed at her lips with a napkin, hands shaking, unsure of what to  do. She needed to leave, give him a day or two to rethink things and calm down but knew in her gut she could not leave without arousing a worse response.

He reached up, slapped her across the cheek, then grabbed her burning wrist again.

“Are you entirely sure, my love?”

She looked down, shocked, heard whispering, felt the humiliation of it. She could not get out of this! Or could she? Why not just go?

Nell stood up and doing so her hands were yanked so hard Quinn was pulled forward into the table so she she spun around, her wrists freed and pushed her way through tables, pressed the entrance door open, and ran. She wanted to be to just walk away, hail a cab and not look back but heart and legs would not do as she told them and she was moving fast. She ran one block, crossed a street, her booted feet striking slushy pavement and uneven sidewalks, hair whipping in the wind, wrists aching, arms freezing–she had left her coat behind.

“Nell, come back! Stop!”

Nell glanced over her shoulder, just streaked past a moving car with its horn blaring, then she crossed again, ran between quaint shops, barreled into startled pedestrians, pushed her way through a more languorous group that stood smoking outside a bar. They shouted at her, then turned at Quinn’s yelling.

“Nell, stop right now. STOP or you’ll be sorry!”

She stumbled and fell, got up again and ran into an alley. A door to the bar opened as if by magic and she rushed in past the shaken kitchen help.

“Shut that door tight, he’s chasing me!”

The door closed with a bang. She could hear raised voices, Quinn pounding on the door but she kept on, raced through the cafe with apologies flung out, into the street again and running the other direction. Her chest hurt, throat stung, eyes watered–was she crying?– and face and hands were chilled as fat snowflakes fell.

Nell did not stop until she was crouched behind a dumpster in the alley four blocks down and her breathless voice came roaring back as a piercing scream, hands over ears to dampen the sound of her own fear.

Someone came, called the police. People talked to her, reached for her. An APB was put out on Quinn. She was taken to the police station to give a written report. Her mother was called. She went home for a week until Quinn was in jail. Only when she was sure he had left, was back in Spain–Rona had called his father to make things even clearer–did she return to finish the year. She could not believe she had still graduated, if barely. She had made it, was safe again at home in Arizona. If only her mother was here more. But Rona felt Nell had to find her own way, regain confidence. And she was right, of course.

At Madrigal’s Mementos, a familiar place, even like home.

An elderly, soft-bodied woman hobbled in.

“Hello,” Nell said, hand at forehead, smoothing away the memories. “Can I help you with something special?”

The woman readjusted a hand knitted orange beret,  white hair spilling out of it and curving about her lined face. “I so hope you can–Nell, is it?” She pointed to Nell’s name tag. “My granddaughter is graduating from nursing school. I want a gift that’s different, something she can take wherever she goes but useful, too. Something to represent a milestone. She’s a wonderful girl, let me tell you. She waited so long to get to where she wanted to go and it was tough, school can seem tougher as time goes by. But she did it. Now she’s to be an RN.”

The woman smiled warmly at the thought and began to consider possibilities, picking up objects and looking them over with care. Nell suggested a few items.

“Is this your store? It’s quite good. I see a few things I’d like for myself, drat!”

Nell laughed. “Oh, no, my mother owns three stores. I’m just the sales person.”

“I doubt that,” she said, holding a hand-blown paperweight’s bright colors up to the light.

“Well, I want to be an ethnomusicologist but life is unpredictable.”

“So it is, but that’s a great field. I’m an historian myself, taught forever at City College, now I get to relax.” A ready smile sparked blue droopy eyes as she chose another paperweight. “Mandy would love this one. She has a nice study at home to manage her bills and to read and such. The turquoise with green are her colors, so soothing. Just look at that.” The paperweight glowed in a stream of recessed lighting.

She wandered as Nell worked on inventory online. In a few moments a purchase was made. They chatted a bit more about the granddaughter’s plans. The older woman waved good bye, then turned back, came back to the counter.

“Don’t let life derail you for long. Take hold of your dream and pursue it doggedly, it’s the only way to go. You will not regret it, believe me.”

She patted her hand and left. Nell watched her disappear into the crowd. As she returned to the computer, she noticed something white on the counter.

“Harriet Millsand, PhD., Retired Educator and Historian,” it noted, then further stated, “History is our own story: the past intersects present while the present anticipates future.”

She turned it over and read aloud: “A memento has been defined as a warning or a reminder of what has come before. But one can create new mementos of a life, Nell. Best wishes, Harriet.”

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Fruit on Plate with Flowers on Wood

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

(For NJF)

About the time you think you’ve taken in just
enough to sustain you, to fade ten more marks
left by the world and ease the daily ache
that lodges along the spine like a blunt knife
delved into the earth of your nerves and sinew,
and you admit it is this voyager body and dancer soul
that must hold more, bear and hope and give more–

then you pass the dining room table and see
four sweet fruits nestled beside one another
on a plate found and offered by a daughter
to be used whenever you may desire.
Everything loosens and reassembles
as if the heart’s flesh, tender and tight,
opens then closes around an obdurate core,
the love that will not be ruined,
never dismissed, will not sell its secrets

but this, just being here, now, perfect: for you.

All the Love You Can Create

Pierre Auguste-Renoir- Liebespaar-
Pierre-Auguste Renoir,  Liebespaar

All nature unveils dazzling secrets in the springtime, ones that poets commemorate and about which songwriters rhapsodize. The season symbolizes so many real and alleged delights one might feel puzzled if not also reveling in the thick of it. It is, after all, about instinct for most life forms. This is grand regenerative drama with visual spectacles of foliage and flower. It speaks to inherent power, a bringing forth of new life with enactments of birth, a transformation of the unseen into the seen. Spring heralds a sweeping panorama of beginnings that ask us to go along for the journey. Animal and vegetable kingdoms participate amply at nature’s demand.

For homo sapiens, it’s more complicated than straight forward instinct. But this time of year we become acutely attuned to renewal on every level. It makes sense this includes a sensitivity to and a longing for romantic love. Or its reinvigoration. Its fulfillment, we learn early, is a fundamental basis of continued human endeavors. Without the dynamics of love and a passionate sexuality that attends it, life can seem bland, indeed, not to mention there would be fewer long-term commitments, extravagant weddings and babies born. Eros–that impassioned love that sparks deep attraction between two people–is important, no doubt about it.

“Love makes the world go round” or so the song intones. The gaining of it, keeping it and losing it: we are all familiar with these sooner or later. It feels intrinsic to cycles of life as we imagine a true-love-with-commitment scenario. We spend a lifetime looking for it. Spend untold amounts of money and energy to attract those we hope to identify as “ours”. There’s a complex portion of the economy dedicated to ensuring people will nurture and pursue this urge, this incarnation of happiness. From physical enhancements to emotional strategies to conversational skills, there are endless resources to aid in gaining love and a partner. We are told seduction is necessary–sexual, mental, emotional–and if one is good enough at it, the end result ought to be triumphant. It all starts to sound like a competition. As within other natural kingdoms, people seem up against the fit and fitter and fittest, just with more variations and options. So the race is on for emotional and physical security. Continuation of the species. A lasting refuge in which to raise and tend family or just enjoy the loyal, fulfilling company of another. When it comes to that, Eros may have been sufficiently satisfied and partners may move on to another phase of love. But it is still likely the glue that bonded them initially.

All this can be enough to overwhelm. The expectations, entrenched longing, requirements that seem endless. For so many, images of couples strolling hand in hand by a riverbank as butterflies flutter about don’t match reality. Such romantic interludes can feel more like a rude swat at one’s self-esteem. What if there is not another person to stroll with? Or that person is not even close to what one imagined or things have lately been on the wane or on the rocks? In that case, springtime is not much different from any other season. Or it may be that spring with its beauty and bounty is a cut to the heart.

I’ve often thought there is far much emphasis placed on an overly romantic version of love. It can get in the way of possibilities. Distort what may be going on beneath a beguiling exterior of an enamored courtship. For all its flash and shout, Eros can be less than what was wanted in just a short while. Unless one isn’t even seeking the steady presence of a long burning flame. In which case, it may be enough. And then one moves on–and this may be on repeat.

I recall my burgeoning awareness of the male of our species. As all youth surely believe, there was one perfect soul mate out there for me. I felt all I had to do was send out signals and the beloved would appear. I was sure as anyone that I’d find someone or just be found, in a packed crowd on a sidewalk, in the rustling audience of a concert, at the lake on summer vacation. I’d fine-tune wishes and requirements, become very discerning. This would enhance the potential for life mate discovery. But in the final analysis it seemed a mighty, mysterious thing. Perhaps a beam would even be emitted from my soul, heart and eyes so the right one would recognize my plaintive call. And that would be that.

Well, maybe for penguins, eagles or armadillos. Not as much for humans. Though never say never. That love hope stuff isn’t easily eradicated. Nor should it be. The wisdom may reside in broadening one’s perspective of what it can be as well as how you tend to it to keep things healthy.

It has been noted (derived from the ancient Greeks) that there are at least four types of love. My loose interpretation is as follows: affectionate regard (dispassionate, empathetic, between friends), charity (unconditional good will toward others, a love of God), erotic (romantic/sexual love), and family/community love (acceptance, loyalty). As a teen and young adult, I liked the author (and Christian philosopher) C.S Lewis as well as his ideas about this very thing, so I read and pondered.

I was eager to learn more. I already knew what love of a friend was; I had very close friendships growing up and into adolescence, some of the most intense and trustworthy I’d ever sustain. I knew about love for and from God, as I had experienced spiritual security ever since I could recall. And my family? Well, they were my tribe, they were who I shared daily life with, the ones who connected me to the past and even my future. But romantic love was a surprise, as it is for everyone growing up. Perplexing. Intimidating in ways but alluring and chock full of possibilities.

I do admit that even as a youth, I wanted it all. Who does not? I longed for a best friend who could also be a sensitive lover, someone who shared with me a deep love for God. Plus, a suitable partner with whom to raise a family, eventually. And someone with significant, incisive intelligence and a need for outdoor activity and also it’d be best if he was well-versed in the arts. And engaged in creative pursuits. Was that too much to ask? If that was what I needed to share in order to be a fulfilled human being, then it just had to happen. I dispassionately evaluated each date in this fashion even as I was enjoying the movie or concert or bike ride with conversation. I sure wasn’t necessarily thinking of marriage, just a decent, longer (more than six weeks to three months) involvement with potential for a relationship.

Wishful thinking, as we know it, does not guarantee one thing. But I was indefatigable. To my surprise as time went by, there seemed to be more possibilities than not. There wasn’t just one guy who might be The Absolute One, there was one who was this and one who was that. And some a combination of diverse characteristics I didn’t even imagine. This was confounding to my youthful sensibility. It made it harder, by far. But love? Is that what I felt? I might have said likely not, or not fully or deeply enough. What I did note, on occasion, was an appearance of two or three of the four “love types.” I thought that might be enough. It was not.

In the midst of all this, something happened despite calculations and magical thinking. I found myself in love at around fifteen. The sort that convinces you that the other is meant to be at your side forever. The type that brings intoxication when in another’s presence, yet even basic conversation is equally magnetic. And silence can feel a purposeful, even profound communique.

He was two years older. He was a somewhat shy, soft-spoken person who was transformed by being on the stage in many school plays. A very good student. A master of easy if sometimes sparse conversation. The opposite of myself in appearance–those clear dark brown eyes and near-black hair, much taller, skin a tinge deeper–he held a masculine, unique grace that spoke volumes. He shared a love of God, felt steady in his faith. We enjoyed many of the same interests.

We could pass hours of quiet days and nights in our pretty town. Sit on a hillside or street curb, imagine creatures in clouds, cite mythic constellations. Talk about little or much. The sound of his voice stilled and stirred me. He was more restrained, cautious. I was bolder, more open. We seemed complimentary to one another and it felt good. I thought: this covers it, it’s all four loves, he must be the one–already, so soon. What next?

We were together through that year, off and on for another. Then he graduated. We’d had many discussions about faith and philosophy, life’s challenges, what we aimed to accomplish, how we might stay together. I wasn’t that clear about a life trajectory, nor was I sure I wanted to be yet. It began to feel more complicated. The love I felt was there; a deep attachment had occurred. But I had more to explore. He was on a proscribed path to a mapped out future. And then he graduated from high school. Headed to university far away.

You know how this goes. The literal distance was great. Our differences became more diverse and persistent. I was not ready for what I considered a most ordinary lifestyle, was not going to follow him into the desert. We each had experiences that left what was “us” farther behind. I embarked on more dates, then more mature relationships. I graduated, started college. Then every few years we would hear from one another or run into each other when visiting the home town. And still, the sound of his voice; the unspoken words in his gaze…they held something true and good for both. But it was not to be; we were living other lives. We could no longer be those two youths discovering love for the first time, but could keep it private and protected, a beautiful memory.

Most of us have that first revelatory relationship against which we measure all others a long time. But eventually I moved on and so did he: we grew up. I found my way to another intense and collaborative relationship with the man who became my first husband. And I even liked marriage, that common agreement among two who commit to the old “through thick and thin.” Nonetheless, it ended. But I tried marriage again. Loving and being loved is that meaningful and hopeful.

I can be alone and well at peace with solitariness, for I made friends with my own self long ago. Yet I am not someone–despite a few wilder leanings, some brazen forays into the greater world–who prefers to experience life without a partner, if possible. Not now, in any case, as my life season moves closer to my amber days and nights. I still value love, its vast life terrains, its mysteries of heart and soul, its physical landscapes. Who among us does not want love in our lives? But there is more than one sort if you recall. I want to again revisit these with their ancient Greek descriptors: agape (spiritual, the  love for humanity), phileo (friendships or platonic love), storge (family, one’s community), eros (romantic love with sexual passion). Doubtless they overlap at times. Our experiences are defined by intentions and actions, our desires and chosen paths.

I am married, have been a long while to M. But I also have intense affection and love for my friends, allegiances that will remain as long as they are wanted, needed. Some friendships don’t last forever but that is alright, too. Without these casual or close friends I would be at a loss for countless small, even rare joys. I value comfort shared between two or more who respect and cherish one another as we each are. Friendship enlarges us. It instructs us in the ways of empathy, appreciation and acceptance. And my love for family is primal, so deep is the attachment, so instinctive my responses. My wider, more dilute appreciation of those who share similar interests as mine is significant to me. We are a community even if we do not have frequent contact (hikers, writers groups, music appreciators)–or any except virtual (like a blogging community).

But my love for God is my greatest love. No matter my troubles, no matter what changes; despite failed relationships or loss of health or career impasses; regardless of whether I am happy, foolish or intimate with darker moments–I know there is always love for me. I long ago acknowledged life as lived within reach of the Divine Creator and it has remained so, first and last. I was born into such love; I believe we originate from God. Thus, return to a homeland, an everlasting existence within God’s eternity. Never have I lost my love for God although life has kicked me hard at times and I have fought back and have been alone. Because not once has God forgotten me, only waited for me to reconnect. I am as sure of God’s Presence this moment as I was as a small child when I found myself in the presence of angels. God bears our sorrows and knows our yearnings and shows us the way to fulfillment even here on earth. I am reminded daily of ineffable connections to an infinite universe. The God I know energizes and protects our very essence. Such Love is the source of all others.

I do not need anyone to tell me I am valued, worthy of love. It wasn’t always so simple; the lesson has been well learned year by year, with regard and the loss of it to teach me. But it has become a truth that aids me in living well despite trials and tribulations. I have been fortunate to care for and be cared about by many. And I do know that we can each be one heartbeat away from devastation even as we seek love. It is part of the damaging workings of this world, the errors and blindness. Yet we need to reach to others; it is in our earthly nature. Mending from our brokenness we still have the urge to offer and accept love; it is our spiritual destiny.

So if during this springtime you see quintessential young lovers and feel the acuteness of your present aloneness, try to not bemoan it much. Reach out to someone, anyway, a smile, a helping hand. Offer a word of cheer to the harried neighbor. Nod warmly at the old lady crossing the street with her cart. Hold someone who needs it–a friend, a family member– gently, tenderly, for a moment. Whatever you are able to do will make a difference that links you to another–we are built this way on purpose. So find authentic ways to give of yourself. To care without demands.

Rediscover the comfort and awe of your spiritual belief or go in brave search of it. There are marvels to behold. What you kindly share will be returned if you allow yourself to open, then again and again. It is meant for you to know and nurture all this variety of love.

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.”

******

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.

 

His River Nights and Days

Image from Breathless
Image from Breathless

There are times when she knows why they’re together and it’s alright, even excellent, and times when she wished she didn’t. This morning is one of the times it all makes sense.

The room is foggy with cigarette smoke. She has opened the windows in the main room so actual oxygen can better circulate. He complains that he can smell the buses, wishes for flowers in their room. Lisa’s shoulders roll up and back; she is not offering sympathy although he thinks he needs it.

“It’s only eight o’clock. Do you have to storm the bedroom? Any coffee?”

“I know, I know, you didn’t sleep much. Neither did I. Yes, the lamp table with the clear space on it. Other side.”

“Right, the tidy side, good.” He reaches for the mug and exhales a thin stream of grey smoke before taking a long drink.

“I left some oatmeal in the double boiler on low heat. Juice is in the frig.”

“I kept living the same old haunt. All night, over and over. Or that’s what it felt like.” He rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands, cigarette dangling between two fingers. “Can’t it morph into something else?”

“I’m sure it has, some …” She rests a hand on his shoulder, then gives it a squeeze. She wants to kiss the spot, but restrains herself. She’s already going to be late to the law office.”I’ll be home around six. You could call Marty and see if he needs you to come in.”

She feels July heat creep along her neck, down her spine. Another day of drought. The air is too dry. The land almost sizzles. Her skin has new wrinkles, hair crackles under a brush, but the past month she’s been sweating like a stuck pig.

This cubicle of a room and the conversation make her sweat, too.

He leans back onto a firm, fat pillow, one she just bought him. “That’s what you think about, another paycheck. Well, so do I, that’s part of the problem. Maybe we could ease up a little?” A crooked, limpid smile moves across his lips. “Okay, listen, Marty called last week but I said I was busy. His little hideaway gallery can run itself. He just likes to humor me, play the good Samaritan. But don’t worry, I’ll be working. My River #5 painting has to be finished for the Plaza Gallery show in a month, you know that. Then I’ll sell the whole shebang.”

Lisa smooths her skirt. That painting has taken four months so far. The other six in his water series are done. When he still worked at the county building, he left at five and walked right to his studio to paint. At first she waited until midnight for his return but he has a cot there; he can stay overnight, come home to shower if he needs to. Now he might retreat a couple days and she knows he’s okay or he’d come back home. Sleep is often better when he’s gone, a whole bed just for her to stretch and breathe. She does miss him in the morning, when she turns over, smoths the empty, cool sheet beside her.

He lights another cigarette using a match torn out of the cheap booklet he took from the steak house. Indulging himself was a reward for getting good painting done last night. The matchbook cover is white, grey and red. He likes the tiny face with cheerful chef in white hat; he has begun to collect matchbooks, a pleasant distraction. A pinch of guilt makes him squint–for not bringing home good leftovers, at least, for Lisa. He’ll grill fish tonight, surprise her.

“It’s the Black River one, us kids, Jason and I are following it downstream, swimming and floating and being stupid and he disappears and I have to drag him out gagging and choking…and then he goes blue, then grey… the rest I don’t want to remember.”

She looks out the window. The heat is already making things wavy. Or it’s the mid-twentieth century glass or her eyes are tricking her. She recalls she has lunch today with Mona and wishes she didn’t. Lisa has been reading on her lunch hour. Eating her perky little salad alone. Happily. Mona gets too personal with questions. She doesn’t need to know about her husband, how he still struggles after all this time. How once he was taller and stronger and unafraid of anything.

“Except he doesn’t. You saved him. You were there, as usual, for him.” She glances at him. The “as usual” could have been foregone.

“I know–then…”

She knows he knows. She has heard this story and more so many years she doesn’t have to listen well or ask about his feelings. But then Jason, his favorite brother, died fourteen years after that on a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico. This man she cares for so much wasn’t there, then. He was with her.

He stares to her left out the window, at the building next door. He finds the building alluring, he once told her, a view that’s dense with possibilities, all unseen. He prefers to guess who lives where and why and ow he or she or they make sense of life. When darkness falls he closes the curtains. “I don’t want to know what they’re really up to, it would only ruin things,” he said defensively after she laughed at his simultaneous attraction and repulsion. She knows his imagination does better for them than they can do for themselves.

Lisa swipes at the dampness along her upper lip. “I’m off. The boss wants me to do more on that Halprin account so that’s why I’ll be later, unless I work through lunch.”

“Don’t do that. Read your book. I love that you read when you eat, taking care of two appetites at once.”

She laughs as he squashes the noxious cigarette in his glass souvenir ashtray, the one that was stashed in Jason’s suitcase before he drowned. His dad thought he should have it. There is a touristy picture of azure waters with yellow and red sailboats on it, now blurred by ashes and filters, but they glide into the horizon forever.

With effort, he gets to his feet. He rights himself with the immediate help of her hand on his arm, then he pulls her to him. It’s not easy for him to stand there holding her. She does more of the holding. Because he stands crooked, one shoulder lower than the other, his back weakened, his painful, pieced-together hip jutting further left, ever since he charged his car into a V-shaped ditch the month after Jason died. His breath is tender on her neck, a petal-softness. He knows how that alone can make her relent after eight years of marriage. Four years following the ditch–what that has brought them–moves her, too, and sometimes he is ashamed that he needs that.

Lisa steps away and he pulls himself upright a moment, then sags. She refrains from reaching this time. He unhooks his cane from the bedpost.

“Oatmeal. Couldn’t it have been eggs Benedict with tabasco?” He playfully taps her on the ankle with his cane and she spins around, teases him with a mock glare, then moves aside.

“I have to go.” Lisa picks up her lunch bag, her purse, the car keys. “I want you to do what’s best, but I also worry about the bills.”

“I’ll sell the series, Marty says. Kenneth at Plaza agrees! I can’t fail, Lisa, not this time.”

Anxiety rises, hovers in her chest like hummingbird wings, gives her pause despite needing to leave. “No, that’s right, you can’t.”

“I will not fail. Because you’re there. At the river, standing on a distant raft, in a blue sundress, waiting for me. I painted you there. Not many will know it, but I will.”

Her breath catches. Oh, not this throb of tears. A rush of relief changes her fear into that unassailable love again. She drops everything at their feet.

“Jacob, you’re always getting me into trouble or something…”

She slips her arms around his neck; he cradles her. They are silenced by the lustrous morning light, by the oatmeal steaming and coffee simmering. Skin and hearts make contact. Lisa kisses Jacob as if it’s a new adventure, then pulls away, shimmies out the door singing “River Deep, Mountain High” like she’s Tina Turner’s back up girl.