K.S. in Harlem

Several years ago, sister K.S. and I made a road trip to New York City to visit family. Narrowly catching the exit off the George Washington bridge, I turned toward East Harlem. It’s tricky finding a parking spot, but we ended up around the corner from the brownstone. We unloaded suitcases, and K.S. oohed and ahhed over the two-story apartment — at the one-hundred-year-old sculpted plaster ceilings in the living and dining rooms; my son-in-law’s artwork in his studio upstairs; the sliding heavy oak closet doors eight feet high; my editor daughter’s bookcases twelve feet up with gliding ladder close-at-hand.

Their spacious apartment is an oasis in the midst of Harlem’s crowded harshness. Outside, I closed the courtyard’s iron gate. Every few blocks we passed trash bags piled high, spilling out of alleyways. Along the curb, litter swirled around knee-high fences guarding young trees, and evidence lay scattered along the sidewalk that dogs had been there before us.

K.S. and I made our way through the park toward the East River. We passed a homeless lady rummaging through her grocery cart, and K.S. commented to me that she might give her some cash on the way back. We walked the pedestrian bridge over the noisy traffic on the FDR Drive, then watched a barge steam by. A peaceful walkway, one of the nicest in the city, the Esplanade is evidently under the radar. No other tourists. We strolled and talked, as sisters do.

Back across the elevated footbridge, the homeless lady still sat on the bench. We paused, and K.S. rooted around in her coat pocket. She spoke to the woman and handed her a bill. We both noticed the shocked look on the lady’s face. As we walked away, I asked, “How much did you give her, anyway?”

“Only $5. Or maybe a ten. I couldn’t really see. I forgot my glasses.”

Back at the brownstone, K.S. called me to the bedroom. “I know we figured we had just enough gas money to get home, but…”

My left eyebrow raised in curious concern. “But what?” I asked.

“I gave her my 50-dollar bill.”

Both eyebrows shot straight up. “What? Well, of all the things to do.”

She didn’t seem upset, just interested that it happened. I shook my head, but deep down K.S. impressed me with her attitude. This fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants artist shows me, the everything-has-to-be-just-so control leader, how to hold things more loosely. There can be an element of calm to any situation. Now I had to count my cash to see how tight it would be to get back home to the sanity of green grass and fields of corn.

This past week, I drove K.S. down to Indianapolis to her final appointment before another surgery. She no longer can walk the Esplanade. After back and neck surgery, she plods, listing to the right, often needing a cane — compliments of working twenty-five years loading up to 75-pound packages at the local parcel delivery warehouse.

I wheeled her around from the front desk to the nurse’s office, and she spent an hour answering questions and signing her life away (so to speak). On the way home, we ate at our favorite barbecue joint, and I mentioned that her job had caused her physical disability. She wasn’t bitter in her response. “That job made my life possible. I was able to feed my kids.”

Rural life in east central Indiana is challenging.

Then she said, “I’m staring death in the face. I don’t think I won’t pull through surgery, but I can’t shake the real possibility. What was the best part of my life now that it could be over?”

I didn’t answer. We drove in silence for a few miles and then she said, “My entire life has been a struggle, but I have learned, and am now at peace. Maybe that’s the best part.”

Early-bird

I wrote last week about going to bed with the chickens. Every day of my life I have sighed with profound pleasure when my head hits the pillow. Especially as a child I put my head heavily on the supper table and thought, Please, oh please, like the little Lord Jesus, let me lay down my sweet head and go to bed.

Birdsong at dawn is a hallelujah chorus. I can’t wait to get up – Let’s do chores! – and usually have a great idea to tell Sam. He is a polite man, too be sure, and tries to listen, but he really doesn’t want to speak until he’s had two cups of coffee. Any chores for him couldn’t be attempted until say, 11:00.

According to the internet, about 10% of us are early birds. I suppose the world needs more night-owls for all those after-dark events – noisy restaurants, noisy bars, glaring lights. I do not go out at night. The obnoxious street-lamp on the utility pole burned out a year ago and I asked Sam not to fix it. “If I ever am up at night, at least I can see more stars when the yard is dark.”

The last day of January I took a nap because I wanted to see the super blood moon lunar eclipse after midnight. It was bitter, below zero. I almost didn’t get up with the alarm, but decided it was worth it. Sam tossed back the covers, too. We stood out on the boardwalk in our slippers, with coats and hoods. The red disk looked other-worldly. He said, “I’ve never seen this before. Thanks for getting us up.”

Then I had a bright idea. “Let’s go upstairs to the south window. We can see it from inside.” I opened the window, stuck my head out, and leaned to get the right angle to see through the bare trees. Sam gripped my arm just in case. Then I held onto Sam while he took a turn. Satisfied, we hurriedly closed the window and slipped back under the warm covers.

A few weeks later, I woke in the middle of the night and noticed the sparkling stars. The next morning, I asked Sam, “I didn’t see that one star that I have seen before.”

He smiled at me, held up his index finger and went to get his old star-gazing chart hanging by the front door. He put on his professor’s hat and explained, “See the months around the edge of the circle? Now move the wheel to today’s date and time. The right hand of the star map shows what will appear in the east.”

“Wow. I’ve never looked at this. How did I never notice? I mean, how did I never figure that out?”

“You had other things to think about,” he said kindly.

I felt pretty sheepish. “For heaven’s sake, don’t tell John (our friend and retired history teacher who knows pretty much everything). He’ll choke on his coffee.”

Anyway, early birds (10%). I’m also left-handed (10%), and an innate Type-A neatnik competitive, impatient introvert. Now what do you suppose the percentage is of people with all three? Does that make Sam a really lucky guy?

More About Sam

I can now take a direct flight to Pacific Northwest Paradise (see Sleep-deprived but Happy) and fly home before dark, but once I came back on a red-eye. Changing planes at one a.m. is just wrong for me. I usually go to sleep with the chickens. That night when I made the connecting flight, I might have been sleep-walking as I climbed into the bus to go from one end of the airport to the other. I slept fitfully the last leg of the flight in that cold, dark cabin. Would morning never come?!

Sam held the car door open for me at 7 a.m. and I fell inside. My feet and ankles were badly swollen. It had been a long, long night. He had brought a thermos of hot tea, cheese, crackers, and apples for a respite during the ninety-minute car ride home. Back at the house, I dumped my luggage on the bed and heard him running a hot bath. “I’ll make a fresh pot of coffee and bring it in,” he said. I slid down under the soothing water, legs stretched out, and sighed. The aroma of the vanilla candle he had lit on the edge of the tub brought back memories of all things fine and good. Here was a man to keep.

Sam says he was smitten with me the first night we met. Mutual friends conspired to get us together on the last night of the century. Known as Y2K, even experts wondered if all computers around the world would crash. What would happen when the computer clocks flipped to a date beginning with a “2?” They had only been programmed to begin with “19xx.” At the stroke of midnight, when clocks changed from 12:00:00 to 12:00:01, would all data be lost?

The next day, the world continued to turn.

Sam didn’t call, but e-mailed periodically. Polite and non-committal, I didn’t give in until nine months later, saying, “Why don’t we go out instead of e-mailing?” In September, he asked me to go canoeing with him. He couldn’t have known how I would like that. He had been a boy scout, and after college spent two years as a scout master. Camping and canoeing were a part of him. I had lived most of my life near the Mississinewa River, and crossed it back and forth daily to go to town, but I had never been on it. It was a good first date.

We discovered we had both taken piano lessons from Miss Shannon (see Turtles and Teapots). Growing up in small towns seven miles apart, we had probably seen each other in passing. Easy-going, he likes making tea in a teapot, and with a bit of panache serves cookies warm out of the oven.

In a few weeks we’ll celebrate sixteen years of marriage. We’ve had some rough years, but this has been a good one. It means a lot to visit family, but it’s always good to come home to Sam – and afternoon tea.

Third Chances

Frank and Opal are upset this year (see Frank and Opal). The last plunge of the polar vortex kept them away from Flesher Pond until March 18. Sam texted me while I was in baby heaven (see Sleep-deprived but Happy) in the Pacific Northwest: “Frank and Opal have arrived.” He said they wandered over the yard, and came and left, and came again. Opal still hasn’t nested. We don’t think it’s “Frank” or “Opal.” We go along for years, and even decades in the case of our resident geese, and then everything changes. Sometimes, too, the Big Ds invade our lives: disease, divorce, death.

Last Thanksgiving, Sam and I were too busy to get to the hospital. Our brother-in-law just had his second “little” heart attack in two weeks. We decided to wait and see him on the weekend, back at his home. On Saturday, both cars were there when we pulled into the drive. My younger sister didn’t answer her phone or my text so I sheepishly walked into the garage and pushed open the kitchen door. The dogs didn’t come to greet me, and that was strange. It felt too intrusive to go to the bottom of the stairs and call up, “Are you up there?” But I felt strongly that I should see him NOW.

Instead we drove away. At 3:30 the next morning, she called. “He fell to the floor and is not responding. Meet me at the hospital.”

I had to wash my hair, but we were still in the car in twenty minutes. In the E.R., I asked her to take me in to see him. His body was still warm when I touched his forehead. It just wasn’t right. Nothing about it was right. But he was gone.

Four years ago, I was busy planning my own 60th birthday party. I thought maybe that would bring my children home. And it worked! Spring was a happy time planning and preparing for my family. Then things turned the wrong way. A month before Party Day, we got word that my cousin was diagnosed with leukemia. My older sister, K.S. (see Jerky and Pears, Two Good Women, and The Red Truck) and I, busy with party planning, decided to wait to visit her.

Ten days before the party the toilet started to leak. Sam had to tear out the floor; and finished the sub-floor, vinyl, and new low-flow toilet in record time. In the living room, a crack in the wall became large enough that we knew it wasn’t just our old house shifting. I cleaned up the drywall dust on the floor and Sam went outside to tear off the cedar siding. Extensive termite damage, up waist high. We called the bug man. Then the u-joint and the air conditioner went out on the Jeep Cherokee. Then the fridge died, and the dryer, too (no kidding). Just before the party one night, my cousin needed emergency surgery. The next morning, we heard she did not pull through. My sister and I had missed the window to say, “Hello. We’re so sorry you are sick.” We missed saying goodbye.

THEN we had a great party.

Since there were too many expenses before the party, Sam and I exchanged our two-week vacation at the Outer Banks for two days in Michigan. Our in-laws joined us, and the second afternoon they drove our Jeep back to the campsite. Not knowing how to tell us, they pointed to the back bumper. A telephone pole in the restaurant parking lot had reached out and bashed them. With a shrug, I calmed the worried look on their faces. I would rather have a broken bumper than another funeral.

Change is hard, but also inevitable. The geese aren’t nesting. And God gives third chances.

“If you do not start choosing to get lost in some fairly low-risk ways, then how will you ever manage when one of life’s big winds knocks you clean off your course? …In my life, I have lost my way more times than I can count. I have set out to be married and ended up divorced. I have set out to be healthy and ended up sick…I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the path.” Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

Sleep-deprived but Happy

I don’t know what day it is again. I escaped the polar vortex wind-chills in Indiana by flying across the country to Seattle, today sunny and seventy. It’s not supposed to be this beautiful until summer, but there it is. A week of heaven on earth.

Coming from flat corn fields, the snow-covered mountains always take my breath, and then I gawk again at Mt. Ranier, the highest in the Cascades. I’ve been flying out here for eighteen years, and it still stuns, an immense lone spectacle. The air is different in the Pacific Northwest – the latitude, rainforest, saltwater, and mountains – and I feel sure that this invigorating healthy atmosphere is adding years to my life.

Hiking up Little Si; Seattle Aquarium with the Puget Sound flowing in and out of the outer tanks; famous Pike Place or orca whale watching – all things tourist must take a back seat this trip. I have babies to see to.

Newborn twin boys have kept me busy this week. I walk the 23 steps between kitchen, dining, and Baby-Central living room where my 4 a.m. shift begins. Back and forth, heating bottles filled with vitamin-rich formula added to mama’s milk, changing diapers, fixing breakfast for three-and-a half-year-old Big Brother who sweetly asks, “Would you please put the baby down and help me now?”

I scoot Marbles off the couch, the heaviest ball of fur I’ve ever seen; and intelligent, trustworthy golden retriever Ranger nearly wags his tail off as he slips in a forbidden lick to the milk running down baby’s cheek. There’s all kind of happy here.

Mom is sleep-deprived and still smiling, and dad, who has taken several all-night shifts this week, sleepwalks through his day while running his own business. Even fifteen-year-old Steady Son offers to babysit while the parents run to the grocery.

Born two months early at three-and-a-half pounds, the twins are now eight pounds of sacred wonder. Peaceful Merrick smiles at me so hard his eyes crinkle. He is Darling Angel. Wyatt, the older by two minutes, grunts, groans, and carries on so long and loud that I laugh. He will be Strong Protector. These perfect little boys, alive for ten weeks now, have enlarged our hearts by magnitudes.

A newborn’s rhythm takes a mom down to the core of what’s important: meeting the basic needs of the defenseless, providing safety and shelter, all with a love so deep it aches. Parents live on a simple plane for long months, and then suddenly infancy is over. Baby, like Big Brother, wants to take matters into his own hands.

The second week I drive up the road twelve miles to watch three-year-old grandson daredevil on his little scooter, and help Mother Abby sort through tubs of baby clothes while we await another precious this summer. If I ever move, it will be to Edmonds, Washington. The historic downtown, a few blocks from the ferry, is often filled with tourists and unfamiliar languages, but still feels homey and quiet. Volunteers spruce up garden spaces along the sidewalks, store owners put out water dishes for the walked dogs, and flower baskets hang on every corner and then some. I’ve never seen a prettier town. Out my bedroom window the Olympic Mountains beckon across Puget Sound and soothing train whistles fill this magical air night and day. Three weeks here isn’t long enough.

I’m a happy grandma in Pacific Northwest Paradise, but Sam just called from Indiana and said it snowed again.

Hoosier Hospitality

I don’t know what day it is. It’s been nine months since I retired, and a rhythm has developed to my weeks. Sunday morning still has me in church for an hour of fellowship; Tuesday noon I attend an Al-Anon meeting learning to detach and yet still care; and Friday noon my writers’ group meets to discuss one of our current stories. But this pesky polar vortex has descended on us again with below-zero wind chills, and I haven’t been anywhere this week. All my days have run together. The geese didn’t return on the first day of March (see Frank and Opal), and no wonder. The pond is frozen over again and it’s too cold to be outside for anyone except fur-hooded folks who like igloos.

In-between arctic plunges, I chatted with Billy, who had repaired my ninety-year-old mom’s car. I was hoping he couldn’t fix the u-joint, whatever that is, but he did (see Jerky and Pears). He used to run his own repair garage, but like many of us, has slowed down. Now he works on an occasional car in his driveway. Too bad many of my readers will never get the benefit of his expertise. By the way, my mom says she wants to drive again if spring ever comes, but that’s another story.

Billy told me about what had recently happened to him. Apparently K.S. isn’t the only one who loses $50 bills (see The Red Truck). He had stopped in at the local bar for a late afternoon pick-me-up, and then headed to the grocery store. When he reached into his pocket to pay for cigarettes and coffee, his fist came up empty.

“I knew which pocket my fifty-dollar bill was in, but it warn’t there,” he told me.

He left his items with the cashier and re-traced his steps to the tavern. “I asked the bartender if anyone had turned in a $50 bill, knowing the chance was slim to none.”

A stranger at one of the tables overheard his question and piped up, “Which table were you sitting at?”

Billy turned around to speak to him and pointed at the table.

“Which chair were you sitting in?” the man asked.

Billy walked over and pointed again.

“Which side of the chair did your fifty-dollar bill fall on?”

Billy said, “The left side. Had it in my left pants’ pocket.”

The stranger reached in his shirt pocket, pulled out a $50 bill and said, “This must be yours, then.”

That’s life in small-town America, filled with kind strangers and honest car mechanics. Hoosier hospitality is real, and still deals out fairness and generosity, both of which are in short supply in our country’s leadership. But that’s altogether another story.

Frank and Opal

Some men have a corny sense of humor. Sam especially. I usually just stare at him. This week I worked on the New York Times crossword puzzle and asked him, “What’s a five-letter word for ‘more dry, as in humor’? Drier can’t be right.”

“H-mmm,” he said.

As it turned out, the word was wrier. “Wry is a good word. I haven’t used that word in, well, I never use that word.”

“I used it just last week,” he said, and I began to be impressed.

“Yes, I used it when I ordered a Reuben sandwich.”

See what I mean?

The columns of fog move and twist over the pond like ballet dancers in silent, slow procession. And then the sounds of the geese break the morning’s quiet. “Sam, they’re back!”

One of the highlights of living on Flesher Pond is the return of Frank and Opal. They glide in on the first day of March more often than not. One year it was February 29. “It’s Leap Year,” I told Sam. “They don’t know it’s not March 1.”

Each spring, Opal rebuilds her nest in the same spot. Beside the pond she sits, tucking in grass and twigs that are within reach. That done, she roams around searching for anything else suitable. She also pulls out her down to stuff in and around. Miss Fussy toils for a couple of days, and then she sits. Frank stands guard, and swims and eats at leisure, but Opal just sits. Once a day, in late afternoon when the sun slants through the trees, she gets up and waddles to the pond to feed.

We named the geese after my paternal grandparents. Grandpa was gruff and scary, but Grandma Opal was just good. Our visits were always to see her and not Grandpa. As little girls, my sister and I thought Grandpa was called Opal, too. Grandma and Grandpa Opal.

Frank and Opal, the geese, take a proprietary view of Flesher Pond and consider it their personal front yard. Arguments are rare, but Sentinel Frank is loud in his disapproval when any other geese want to land. When his “calamity is coming” honking begins, Sam and I know something’s up. Frank lifts in flight to head off the interlopers, but the new arrivals are indignant and challenge him. Attacking and swooping, Frank steers them away from the nest. If several birds land, Opal gets up to join in the fracas. The honking from all sides is loud and serious, but Frank always wins. Opal resumes her brooding, undisturbed.

We don’t always get to watch the goslings grow. Some years a raccoon or fox upsets the peace and harmony, and we find broken eggshells scattered in the grass. One year Frank flew away before sundown. He does that sometimes. When Opal started honking and didn’t let up, I finally said to Sam, “Something is wrong.”

She honked all night. Each time I woke up I heard her still calling. In the morning, she flew away from seven perfect, white eggs and never came back. We missed them and their little family that spring. The next year she came to build with a new “Frank.” Forty-five degrees a few days ago and sixty yesterday should thaw the pond. In about five days we look for our goose friends to return and try again.

“The only real failure is the failure to try. And the measure of success is how we cope with disappointment. As we always must. We get up every morning, we do our best. Nothing else matters.” from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel