Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Stolen Smile - 3.

3. Hiding the Pain

It’s not that easy to build a profile of Gary. I can only tell you the one thing he told me, the few things others told me, and the many things I now know by wallowing in this little bit of nostalgia.

Gary told me his name. But he did not tell me about Jane.

Other things I readily knew because they were so self-evident. He loved trucks, carburetors, grease, oil, speed, and drift. He drove fast and while I hung on for dear life he showed me how if he entered a turn in the road too fast, the trick was to keep the car pulling, gradually going even faster, so that it would hold the road.

Others who knew him told me things as well. They told me his mother died when he was seven or eight years old. When he was old enough for crystal memories. When he was old enough for the pain to persist without abatement.

They told me his father was a successful professional. Schooled and universitied to the hilt. And that, from his father there was always pressure for Gary to follow in the same pre-set pattern, and with the sudden death of his mother, that pressure only increased. But Gary hated school and walked out of there in the middle of grade nine or ten. That made him, in every respect, a monstrous disappointment to his father. After all, there is only one rigid interpretation of success in this world, and that is education. And so, because of this, their relationship was thin and fragile. There was no nurturing in it and separation from each other was more preferable for both of them, than togetherness.

Gary had few friends. The one very close friendship he had struck me as very odd. He was incredibly fond of an old woman working as a cook at the gas station restaurant. She was crippled and walked with a heavy limp. She was hard of face and short on temper. But when Gary walked in, she scurried to him as if he was the most important person in her life. If he was pale, she checked his temperature with her cheek. She examined his hands for scratches or cuts. If there were any, they were immediately bandaged. She looked him up and down, checking his weight. She inquired for an accounting of all that took place since she saw him last. And in that exchange she interjected words of concern and caution about keeping well and safe.

And then, if her boss wasn’t around, she fed him. Generous portions of the best she could find in the restaurant kitchen. Steak, pies, fried chicken, seafood, nothing was too good for Gary. They had an understanding. If the boss was in they had a brief chat and Gary left. If the boss was out, it was old homeweek for Gary. And usually when he left there was extra soup or pie to go. And before he left she always gave him a tender hug with patty-pats on his shoulders and a warm kiss on the forehead.

Rather than seeing this relationship, as something that fulfilled needs Gary had never expressed, I just thought it all very silly. His friend never took very kindly to me, but I can’t say I was overly congenial towards her. When she spoke to me, her voice was always sharp and sassy. I only heard gentleness in it when she spoke to Gary. I thought her an evil old grouch. Two visits were enough for me and I told Gary that if that was where he planned to go, to go alone.

And so later, so much later, only the wisdom that comes from my own life experiences lead me to the realization that Gary’s childhood was an embodiment of pain and loss that he had no escape from. And because he was motherless, he was in sore need of the kindness that came from that old woman. But still, at the time, none of it made the least sense to me. Not with Gary’s permanent happy face and prevalent philosophy that mastery of life is about never revealing the pain.

While the rest of us groom ourselves in our finest clothes and allow ourselves the freedom of expressing disdain, to Gary, it mattered little what he wore as long as he kept all his personal pain sequestered within. And he was an expert at hiding it. Deserving of letters behind his name for the expert he was in this discipline to the fullest degree.

But behind those twinkling eyes and that broad smile there remained concealed, the injuries of motherlessness, and the pain of all the failures he was reminded of so often by his father. And if Jane had caused pain, that too was hidden. That big ol’ smile just went on and on.


Shortly after I met Gary, he bought an old beat-up truck. He stuck his head under the hood and there it stayed for a month or more. Working non-stop to get it into shape. Now he seldom went home. He slept in his truck. Lived in his truck, dining off a roll of sausage and a loaf of bread stashed under the seat. And when the gnawing hunger got too great, he was off to the old hag’s kitchen.

But with the acquisition of that truck, the smile got bigger than ever. I sat on the fender of that truck many long days and found incredible joy in his funny jokes and unbounded enthusiasm.

But yet again, I must remind you that I was too self-centered (as young people are prone to be), to take much interest in Gary’s work, or details of his existence. Nevertheless, and I am guessing now, when the old truck was finally ready to roll, I expect he got a few hauls that left him enough money to squeak a payment and replenish his truck pantry. His clothes remained grease-stained and plenty worn. Occasionally, in private, he’d drown all those sorrows I was so unaware of in a bottle.

But I never knew about those sorrows and never saw the bottle. In all the time I knew him I never saw, or met, the sorrowful boy within even though I spent so much time with him. All I ever saw was a funny boy with a beaming smile, an incredible laugh, and an easy manner that always set me to laughing as well.

It is not quite possible for me to convey to you, the enchantment of the company of someone who is chronically joyful. Whose presence is always uplifting and pleasant. You may shake your head and say that is not possible. But it is and it was.

But though the smile never faltered, some other things did. And I will tell you about that in my next rant...

NEXT POST: The Theft Caper Fall's Chill

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Stolen Smile - 2.

...and so, the story continues...

2. Dreams and Stardust

A year or two quickly passed. Jane moved away but somehow that didn’t much matter.

Then one summer day I went with my family to a Public Camping Resort on the shore of a distant lake. The campground was full too overflowing, but there was no one there that I knew, so I spent most of the morning people watching. And people are funny you know.

I still remember how silly it seemed to me that one campsite was so engaged in arranging a privacy nest that they busied themselves like ants fortifying and closing off their firepit and table area. Too busy doing that to scruff their bare feet in the sand, or to breath in campfire smells or moist air off the water. Obviously they were not there to soak up the scent of pine or the open view of nature.

You probably know the one’s I mean. The one’s that string up tarps and build faux-blinds clothespinned and clipped together in order to gain seclusion and privacy from the view of others. Holiday trailers and tents are good but still more privacy is needed. I laughed as I sat in our ‘own yard’ and observed how all eyes at every other site were glued on that campsite. And how those few trailing down to the lake and back slowed and looked so intently.

All of us, including me, waiting for the auspicious moment when a breeze would separate those carefully arranged canvas flaps to reveal what was so necessary to hide. Whatever it was, it must be more intriguing than what the Queen carries in that purse she always brings to even the most intimate of occasions in her smallest ‘sitting room’ and tucks, and strokes, and pets, and positions it beside her, with greater care and affection than she gives her corgi dogs.

Guess I’m not like that or maybe I wouldn’t be telling you this story. The parallel here being that I’m letting you see in my purse (but don’t be taking my crown polish), and I’m not worrying about the crack in the faux blinds.

Campgrounds give the appearance of being a fellowship but they are really not. And although only a very few are excessively intent on privacy, the rest of us seek it as well. We want the invisible walls of our area to safely keep out the neighbors, and we want the neighbors to mind their own business in tactful ways. On this particular day, the water was too cold for swimming, too slimy as well, the fish were not biting, and so as the day began to drag on, there seemed little amusement to be had. Most of us just huddled in our separate groups as if tethered to tables and firepits. Too many of us gazing about, tapping fingers on tables, or poking fires with a stick, and wondering what to do next.

But then, down the trail came a youth dragging a sack of ball-playing equipment toward a seldom-used ball diamond, heavy with long grass. And people followed him as if he was a Pied Piper proceeding through a small town. I love playing ball and fell into line with the others.

We gathered at the diamond, and in that group of strangers made self-introductions without awkwardness. There was urgency in forming an easy community so the game could get started. Introductions were made more swiftly and efficiently then if they had been planned and scheduled.

One of the young fellows who introduced himself was very tall with the bluest eyes I had every seen. His blond hair framed his forehead like a silvery-gold crown. His jeans were old, tattered, grease and oil stained. And so was his shirt. But how could anyone notice with his ready laugh. His twinkling blue eyes, his glad nature, and his broad permanent smile.

His name was Gary.

And so the game began. We had such great fun. We played ball until twilight. Until there was no chance of being able to catch or hit the ball without night vision. And then, when we finally wrapped it up, Gary offered to drive me home and I said “yes”.

After that day, Gary and I were best friends. ‘A number’, is what they called it. And for the rest of that summer I laughed more than I have every laughed and smiled more than I have ever smiled.

This is how life is supposed to be in the midst of all the exuberance of youth. Dreams and stardust. And that’s what it was. I hoped the fun would never end. But it was temporary, and before I tell you more, I need to tell you more about Gary.

NEXT POST: Hiding the Pain

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Stolen Smile - 1.

Life is so short and there are stories yet to be told. Stories, in the writing, that seem of no great worth, but nevertheless intriguing because they sketch human behavior in ways never anticipated.

Things happen that aren’t supposed to happen. Even the best of times are threatened by the instability of fault lines hidden somewhere that can shatter crystal, crack solid ground, and shake up security so that what once was, no longer is. Such is the situation in this story.

And so I tell it to show how deception can happen without a deceiver, and theft can happen without a thief.


It all started when girlfriend, Jane, and I were at Summer Camp. One afternoon we were sprawled on Jane's bunk having a merry chat when a Camp Counselor came to the dorm and announced that Jane was wanted at the grounds gate.

Now it may not be important to the story, but I must tell you about Jane. She could have easily doubled for Sophia Loren. She had large dark eyes, lovely tawny glowing skin, a tiny pinched waist, and massive hair that she back-combed and twirled till it was in an impossible state of casual muss and flattering beauty. She had a lovely figure, a very straight back, and she walked with delightful prancing steps.

So on this particular day, when the message came that she was wanted at the gate, Jane gave that massive head of hair another scramble with her slim fingers and pranced with her special grace of movement out the door.

I was curious who might be at the gate but I could only think that it was relatives come to bring Jane a message from home. I knew her Mother had been very ill and that the message could be dire, so I waited patiently where I was. Thinking that whatever the message was, it was likely to be a private matter. But when Jane was gone for such a long time, I finally went to investigate.

She was not at the gate but two younger children in the vicinity told me that a tall girl with too much hair had driven away with a ‘cute’ guy with blue eyes and blond hair.

Who? What? How could this happen? This is most mysterious. All Jane’s tribe are tawny skinned like her. With dark eyes and dark hair, so who could it be? Mysterious, too much — because obviously, if there was a fellow in Jane’s life, she would have told me. I knew that because Jane and I share every thought, happening, and minute of our lives, and she never told me about any blond fellow.

Considerable time passed. In fact I was back in the bunkhouse washing up for the evening meal when Jane finally came dancing in the door. Looking so pert in her snug sweater and blue jeans. But she had on something else that she was not wearing when she left. Around her neck was a glistening gold chain, and from that striking chain hung an even more striking green stone set in gold filigree.

I gasped at the beauty of Jane’s necklace as she twirled about the room in a frenzy of joy. Her emerald flickering and tossing around flashes of light.

“Where did you get that?” I asked.

As I said before, Jane and I were best friends. Our friendship was a strict synergy of two impoverished teenage girls. A friendship of two rooted in the same fruitless and insignificance that found meaning and import by clinging to each other. The whole context of our existence was in shared simplicity and sameness. And mutually it was well understood that we only get to look from afar at the finer things life has to offer. Neither, wishing for or expecting, dazzling gems like the one that now adored Jane’s breast.

In response to my question, Jane said simply but with too much gaiety, “Gary gave it to me.”

Now before I tell you how I reacted to Jane’s response and sudden rise in posterity with that necklace, I must first relate to you my own limited experience with “boy friends” and gifts.

Only a few months before the situation of the emerald necklace, I met a fellow, Matthew, at a friend’s house. There was no sparks, and I had no interest in him but I made an effort to be sociable and polite. And somehow out of that effort, came a long conversation between Matthew and I. About nothing more than paintings and abstract art. But somehow, from that abstraction, came an invitation for me to go to the movies with him.

I knew I shouldn’t go, but I loved that feel-good flush when I could announce to my friends, “Can’t go for a pop with you tonight. I have a date. We’re going to the movies.”

And then later, even more feel-good endorphins, when my friends show up at the movie theater to see if what I said was true, and it is.

So Matthew and I went to the movies and a week later he again invited me to the movies. Again I went, but this time, after the movie, when Matthew delivered me to my door, he passed me a lovely gift-wrapped package that I quickly opened with much excitement and anticipation while Matthew cautioned me to careful. “It’s fragile,” he said.

That anticipation was soon ended. I wished I hadn’t been so careful. Inside was a small teddy bear and an overly large framed photo of Matthew.

I was rather taken aback. Quite honestly, I was shocked. Rather than say anything untoward, I told him quite insincerely (though the tiny bear was cute), how beautiful his gifts were and took them home. But when I got home, and contemplated what was going on, I decided that obviously he was reading something into our friendship that absolutely wasn’t there. So a few days later, I called him and told him I needed to talk to him.

Now if there was any chance of me becoming romantically interested in Matthew, (which there wasn’t), it was certainly out the window when he gave me that picture of himself, with a gilded frame, looking way too elegant in a three-piece suit. I guess to some it would have been a nice picture, maybe to his parents, but it wasn’t to me. The picture set off a clanging echo in my head of someone with way to much ego to be a caring and authentic friend. So when Matthew came to my place in response to my phone call, I met him on the step with a brown paper bag. In that bag was the portrait and the teddy bear.

“Matthew,” I said, “I want to give these things back to you.” And then, trying to be firm yet dignified, I said, “My place is very small. I really don’t have a nice place to display them. So I would like you to take them back.”

Well nothing prepared me for what happened next. Matthew, a six-foot tall Hulk-Hogan, folded right there and began to silently weep and then softly sniffle and then actually sob.

‘Oh for cryin’ out loud. Now what do I do?’

Despite my astonishment and bewilderment I had a determination, and I must not let it be derailed. Not knowing what else to do, I pushed the bag back at him with a rather vicious shove. “Don’t drop it,” I said, “it might break!” Then I quickly ran back inside and shut the door.

Behind the curtain I watched him leave. I felt sad, bad, and yes, rather awed at what had just taken place as I secretly watched him shuffle to his car, mopping his face with his sleeve. Was I to blame for such a mix of misery and affliction or was this all a simple misunderstanding?

I suppose I was to blame for agreeing to go to the movies in the first place. But surely it was right of me to attempt to correct that error by doing the honorable thing and returning his gifts. Maybe it wasn’t even an error on my part. Maybe the error was his.

The stupidity of giving me a picture of himself. That made ‘the return’ a whole lot more personal than I wanted it to be. It’s not possible to explain why one doesn’t want a picture. How hard can it be to break up a casual friendship? It’s easy. That is, as long as there are no bloody pictures involved. The old phrases that work well for other things don’t work for photos. i.e. – I’m allergic to stuffed animals, neck scarves, and jewelry…and like, glass and photo paper?

There just isn’t a charitable way to return a photo without causing pain to those types that are bent on giving you one. You either give it back or tear it up. And even common vulgarity cannot deliver the wrenching blow that those acts deliver. But enough already, about Hulk Hogan and his tears. It’s bloody time to get back to Jane’s necklace.

So now, in response to my question of who gave it to her, she said, matter-of-factly, “Gary did.”

“And who is Gary?” I asked, wanting to yell and stomp my feet with frustration. I’m standing here with my closest friend, who has suddenly split, without notice or conscience, the weld that had for most of our young lives lent strength to both of us. And who neglected to share with me, despite our special alliance, any whispered details about a young man, obviously pertinent to her life, that she was involved with. And who didn’t think enough of me to introduce me to him while he was there. And now flaunting that necklace.

That is a lot of betrayals all packed in together. I suppose there isn’t much point in telling you I’m not normally aggressive, but in that moment I wanted to slap her silly.

She went on, “Gary is just a guy. Nobody special. But he’s crazy about me. He totally worships and adores me. Problem is—and that would be his problem, not mine—is that I don’t feel the same about him,” she added, as her bottom lip curled with visible contempt.

I suddenly felt as if I was having this conversation with a stranger that I had just met. Could such evil rawness be coming from my friend, Jane? I could hardly believe she could be so blatantly insensitive to a young man’s devotion and no doubt, na├»ve vulnerability. And, although at the time, I made no conscious connection in my mind between her situation and the unraveling of my friendship with Matthew, I suddenly felt a compassionate and aching sensitivity that focused on Gary. Even though I had never seen him, met him, or known him.


I guess even the mutual understanding, of seemingly kindred spirits, cannot alter the fact that young women are competitive with each other. Unfortunately, I had nothing I could compete with except the old stand-by of my own self-righteousness. So I curled my own bottom lip with a sneer while breathing a silent supplication that I was certain would make me feel so much better than her with her gleaming golden chain.

“Lord, let me find love. Let me be happy. But never let it be Jane’s way.”

It was truly unfortunate, but amidst Jane’s gladness, and my sadness, our close friendship was irredeemably altered that day. The trusting openness we shared left in tattered shreds.

And soon after that the Jane and Gary thing ended as well. It was not Jane who told me. The news came on some other incoming wind. So I didn’t know why or how it happened. I could only assume her deceitfulness tripped her up and eventually Gary caught on.

When circumstances make it quite impossible to compete with other’s successes, human nature offers us comfort and a counter-balancing defense though self-righteousness. Self-righteousness provides an internalization of soul-talk that whispers stroking words of adoration heavily punctuated with slanderous things about the competition.

And so now, I and my self-righteousness, jointly decided we are indeed pleased and fairly certain, that when the Jane and Gary thing ended, it was not Jane that made the cut.

…the saga continues…
NEXT POST: Dreams and Stardust

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Free, No Obligation Diet...that Works

Tonight, yet again, I watched a documentary on obesity and an endless parade of diets from cabbage soup to low-carb and everything in-between. Of course, like most shows of this nature, there was no real solid conclusion. The only theme that rang clearly was the millions of dollars that are made by the slime-balls that scam the public with so many diets that don’t work, or if they do work, are only temporary.

And so, I’m going to share with you a risk-free diet that works without expensive supplements or fat and calorie counts and ratios. And I’m quite willing to share it for free.

It is the “Scarce Diet”, not to be confused with the Scarsdale or any other modern diet. Obesity was not a plague in this country during the 50’s and 60’s because we were all on a strict diet without the misery of realizing it. Eleven kids in our family and all skinny as a rake.

Now, if you are interested, this is how the “Scarce Diet” works. It is based quite simply on a seasonal rhythm.

Spring meals - Primarily salads. Young lettuce, radishes, spinach, early peas, sweeter-tasting parsnips that stayed in the ground over winter. Fiddleheads and young rhubarb. Fish for a time if one of us happened by the creek when the fish were running.

Summer meals – Primarily fresh vegetables. Plenty of eggs, but very little meat. Occasionally for clan gatherings or a birthday, a young fryer-chicken. Strawberries and raspberries

Fall meals – Primarily late garden crops such as turnips, potatoes, squash, cabbage. Blueberries, cranberries, and crabapples. Still very little meat except for a few old stewing hens.

Winter meals – Primarily tubers – potatoes, turnips, parsnips, carrots. And at long last, finally some red meat in the form of moose or deer. More fish as well because now it can remain frozen and will not spoil. No salads, just cucumber or green-tomato relish preserves. And a bit of wine from the cellar in the form of fermented fruit preserves that never sealed.

The food groups I’ve mentioned are important. But more important is the meal time schedule. Breakfast is at seven, lunch is at noon, supper at six o'clock.

In between, no snacks though all are free to exact nibblers if any can be found. Berries, spruce sap gum, rose hips from the woods, or a raw carrot, turnip, or potato from the bin. At bedtime, for the models of good behavior, a cup of cocoa or tea.

Junk foods: A candy sucker, bubble gum, an ice cream cone, or a licorice stick twice monthly on shopping days. Cotton candy at the Fair. Hard ribbon candy and Jap oranges at Christmas time.

You know, I have a niggling conviction that obesity is not so closely linked to what we eat as it is to how often we eat it. If one religiously sticks to the time schedule of the Scarce Diet, I think there would be little harm in eating fried chicken, fast food hamburgers, or French fries.

The problem is we are usually booting around downtown when we order up fast food and then suddenly we are topping that meal up with a sundae, and chocolate bars, and a pop, because everywhere we turn that is what is in our face. And then when we are stuffed to capacity, we buy more to stash at home for the sake of convenience and choice.

This diet will work, but it may have other merits. I sometimes wonder if the plague of chronic bowel disease that seems so rapidly on an increase could be arrested by all of us slipping back into rigid eating times and foods that fit our seasonal rhythm.

Maybe, just maybe, that is what our physical bodies are clocked to deal with and programmed to expect.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

My 'Funny' Little Valentine

I was in Grade 5 when I found it on my desk with other valentines. It was a small card flagged with immoderate blowzy, ruddy, fevered red that was both startling and sweet. And framing that warm glowing fire was a ripple of delicate white lace secured by tiny pastel violets.

The beauty of it, the lace, the color-stir of red and white formed into emotions of a strange and mystifying blend.

The arrow looks like nothing more than an icon. But I am deceived. It sails right off the paper and pierces my soul with a sharp agonizing sting and then forces my body to drink from the angular tip. A tip envenomed with a potion that caused heart palpitations at a critically dangerous romp.

Already, that is enough, but now add to that the bewitching charm of a chant of minuscule rhyme. Condensed into a faulty iambic pentameter of twiddling words and a silly pun. Silly enough to make me laugh. Lyrical enough to raise goose-bumps. And then, when I least expect it, coming to a halt with the catchy spine-tingling freeze of a sweet musical strain.

Fullness of understanding should come quickly, but it doesn’t. It waves and falters. Building like a gentle wind before a storm into a gathering stir. Gently blowing here, mercilessly blasting there. And amidst all this toss, I check, and double check and check again. Yes, there it is. In labored graphite pencil…his name…his sweet seal…approving the message.

This is an insidious hypnotism. That’s what it is. I am under some kind of intoxicating spell. With much difficulty, I attempt to mask emotions beyond my control enough to keep a cool professional-looking Grade-5-exterior. But maintaining dignity without strength is so hard to do. I am as weak as a kitten. I want to laugh. I want to cry. And so, with lips pressed together in a tight grip, and eyes ahead, I run to the bathroom, hide my face in the wall, and do both.

It was not the arrow or the fire or the lace or the violets or even the rhyme that converted me with one bold, staggering blow from realist to a hopeless romantic. It was the scrawl of that penciled signature.

Love, love, love. I am surrounded with love, embedded with love, enveloped with love, cradled with love, skipping with love, and emotionally scarred for life by the significance of one small Valentine.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Loving 'The New'

Today I reached a new and unanticipated milestone in my life. Similar to the Age of Enlightenment, but this I call “The Age of Indulgence”.

I must have reached it because this behavior is so foreign to me. I have always had such an overwhelming appreciation for anything new that it always came out of the box the minute I bought it and was immediately put to use.

For so many years I donned my new boots, coat, or dress in the store and had them wrap up the old one I came in wearing. I haven’t done that for quite some time. But only because somewhere along the way it became perceived badly by clerks. And about the same time society developed a sneering attitude toward ‘those that buy something and immediately put it on their backs.’ So I catered to that nonsense even though it certainly dampened my original excitement about ‘the new’.

But my personal preference never altered. It was only outside pressure that made me disguise my thinking and furtively sneak my new things home where I promptly ripped them out of the wrappings and draped them on my body to luxuriate in for most of the afternoon. So, to me, it never counted as a change in my values, only a change in the perception of others. Though protocol may have changed, I remained wildly happy about new things.

Admittedly Christmas mornings are sometimes a bit hectic with me in my new clothes, protected by an apron, frying breakfast in my new frying pan, painting a picture with my new paints, transferring the contents of the old purse to the new one. Pressing my new scarf and gloves into use, and my slippers, and cozy robe. And then making an extra dish from my new cookbook in my new crockpot, opening and nibbling at my chocolates, and reading a couple chapters in my new book.

And then, before bedtime, finding time to luxuriate in the gleam of new scented candles while immersed in a foam of new bath products. And rising from that bath to slather myself in new body lotions, polish, and dusts before retiring to bed nestled in my new afghan. The day is spent in happy endeavor to fit everything into a hectic schedule of immediate use. But I have to do that, cause I really love new things.

But, something has changed in the realm of my thinking. A transition has happened. Yesterday Hub and I bought a new shop vacuum. A lovely thing. A needful thing. With the old one being as old as it was – probably 15 years or more, I should have been in a frenzy to put the new one into ‘trial’ use, if nothing else.

But somehow the box got kicked aside and left overnight without being opened. There was a reduced buzz of anticipation and excitement in opening the new and putting it into action. It stayed there in that stapled and taped box overnight before it was opened. I didn’t even peek at the shape or color until the next day. I didn’t plug it in, try it out, or listen to it hum.

So I can only conclude that I have at last reached the Age of Indulgence. A place in time where ‘the new’ is too easily come by to be thoroughly appreciated. Too easily secured. A revolution of my very nature that I find as unsettling as letting something precious slip away. It is a change in value and attitude that equally surprises and perplexes me. I never really expected this to happen – not until I had known the luxury of trotting the globe, an exotic cruise in a monster ship, or some other self-indulgent extravagance.

But even without lavish intemperance, a transition has happened that leaves a sense of loss. I feel it in my bones and in the last 24 hours, my actions have proved the happening of it. A loss more difficult to bear than I ever expected. I think when one loses their excitement and interest in the wonders of ‘the new’, regardless of what it may be, that is a deprivation as hardening, and disappointing, as the loss of youth and the loss of innocence.

But still I am not so disenchanted as I might otherwise be. I still appreciate, in my old frenzy of excitement about ‘the new’ – a new day, a new landscape, a new sky, a new snow, the freshness of new rain. And new puppies, friends, and babies.

And, slightly, but not so much, the sleek look and incredible suctioning power of the new vac.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Fire, The Man, and The Knife

I don’t remember the original old log house. The one that caught fire when sparks from the chimney ignited the tarpaper roof.

I don’t remember a neighbor rapping at the door that bitter-cold winter morning while bellowing, “Your house in on fire! Your house is on fire! And I don’t remember that, when Mother answered the door, he repeated that phrase one last time then immediately climbed back on his sled, whipped his team smartly, and drove away.

I also don’t remember happily setting out tea things for my doll, while my mother was mixing bread. And in response to the shocking announcement at the door, I don’t remember my elder sister roughly shoving my brother and I into jackets, wrapping us in a blanket, and literally firing both of us into a snow bank out in the yard.

I don’t remember, my brother and I rapidly disengaging the tangled blanket and scurrying back into the burning house. Still, they later said, that is what we did.

I don’t remember the second time we were cast into the snow bank either. This time my sister and Mother knotted scarves of some sort around our feet and left us floundering there in the cold while they ran back to the house.

I don’t remember the boom and huge flare of fire that burst through the ceiling when the heat of the initial flames exploded the jerry cans of coal oil hung in the attic for convenience and to prevent thievery of that precious commodity.

I don’t remember any of this either – my Mother screaming “My new washing machine! Help me get the washing machine!” as she pushed, pulled, and dragged it on the rough board floors to the door. But the washing machine got stuck in the doorway and held fast. And that ended selvage. It was now too late, the fire too intense, to risk any attempt to extract anything more.

By then flames were licking long tongues of fire through the drafty doorway and around the washing machine and the door struts. There was nothing for it. Mother and the three older girls backed away from the flames to a safe distance in the yard and while the fire completely devoured all that we had, they threw hopeless arms around each other and wept.

Looking at what they managed to save, it was precious little. A few wooden chairs, a dish pan with an assortment of dirty dishes, a few blankets, a sewing machine, and some winter clothing hastily donned at the outset.

And with Father and the older boys away at a distant logging camp, there was nothing more they could do but hitch up the old horse and go to The Man’s home for shelter. The same Man who quickly announced the fire and then as quickly abandoned us without lending a hand.


Mother was heartbroken but being humble, which she always and forever was, she found no great cutting pain in asking for lodging at The Man’s house, despite the extreme unkindness and utter rejection shown to her in a time of need.

Thankfully, The Man’s wife was everything her husband was not. Friendly, jolly, sympathetic, and caring. She welcomed our mother and her five children with open arms and a flood of tears for our predicament. She herded us all into her warm kitchen with reassurances in broken English that we would stay. Eat there, sleep there, as long as we needed to in order to get back on our feet. And what do I remember about that? Only that she was kind.

I am the youngest in the family, and my brother, a year older. Four and five at the time, maybe even three and four – I don’t remember. But I do remember how thoroughly frightened I was of The Man, who always sat removed from the table and removed from the clutch of despairing souls in his kitchen. He clung to the edges and far corner of the room.

He sat in the corner in a rounded slouch on a chair with his hat pulled well down over a face of darkness with furtive eyes. Eyes that peered through narrow slits at invisible things at a great distance. Well past any occupants or activity in the room. And at dinner time while the rest of us ate at the table and chatted easily with his wife, he ate in his corner, curled over a plate held in his lap that his wife prepared for him.

After dinner, during a brief moment of silence, The Man spoke for the first time. I remember seeing his head turn towards us and then he spoke.

“Come here, you two, I want to show you something.” My brother and I dared not disregard the cold commanding voice. We clung to each other in shivering fear as we looked to each other for courage.

What need to fear? We knew we had been so quiet, so out-of-anyone’s-way, so well-behaved. Sitting in the quietness of a real and present dread of the presence pressed against a wall in the far corner of the kitchen. We had sat with quiet diligence on kitchen chairs for hours together, trying not to fidget. Twisting our legs and hands together to quiet them while examining flowers on the wallpaper and searching for the likeness of angels, or wings, or a cross—in light rays on the floor, tea leaves in cups, the frost on the windows, that would show a sign that our Mother’s protective God that walked among us every minute of every day was here to rescue us from the horrid presence of The Man.

We now stood facing him, clinging together. Distant but not as safely distanced as we wanted to be.

“Closer, come closer, my dears,” said the expressionless face and so we crept in hesitant steps a bit closer. Still with one hand he beckoned us nearer while looking past us and now we were almost touching his knees. That’s when he slowly pressed a tightly-closed down-turned fist on his leg and pushed it towards us. “Guess what I have here?” he said. “Can you guess?”

Maybe it was a game. Maybe we had just misunderstood his ominous appearance and actions and way of speaking. Maybe it was all a gross misjudgment. It was beginning to sound like a game and games are usually fun. Thinking that it might be a game, my brother and I mustered a weak smile as we both said in unison, “I don’t know.”

He flipped his hand over with a startling jerk and opened his palm. “Have a look then. Do you know what this is?” he said.

I remember how we stared in stricken terror, as he revealed a pocket knife and expertly snapped it open with one hand. We were rooted to the floor with surprise and fear. Unable to run, unable to scream.

“It is my knife,” he said. “It’s very sharp.”

I clearly remember how he slashed the blade through the air in a menacing move. And now he said, snatching at one of my feet. “I’m going to cut off all your toes.”

I remember how in one wild screaming bound my brother and I landed in our Mother’s lap together and how we twined ourselves frantically around her neck. And as we breathed together in gasping, shuddering sobs, I remember the evil chuckle that came from the far corner of the room.

I don’t remember the fire. I don’t remember the flames. I don’t remember my Mother’s wail about her new washing machine or the sudden cold shock of being tossed into a snow bank.

But I do remember, and will always remember – The Man and the knife.


In my lifetime I’ve met a lot of people of different sorts. I know there are those that know how to engage themselves in children’s hearts in open trusting ways like The Man’s wife. But I’ve also met a lot of people that don’t know how to make friends with a young child though they desperately want to.

And so, as I rummage though these different personalities, with their various perspectives, and I end up wondering if perhaps The Man wanted to be our friend but just didn’t know how to do it.

That is possible. Life has given me enough wisdom that I could make that concession. But how can I find an explanation for why he would have alerted us to the danger the day of the fire and then promptly drove away.

Could his inability to look at others and his inability to socialize be a sign of such a shy and timorous nature, that his own fear sent him scurrying. Is that a possibility?
As hard as it is to understand would that kind of fear make a person do that?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Emulsifying Emotions

I want to tell you about the day my Mother was darning socks and I heard her singing a song I hadn’t heard before. I was drawn to it by a bittersweet haunt between melody and lyrics that made joy and sadness spasm as if uncomfortably sharing a common thread.

I listened while she sang it and then we discussed it. And this is what my Mother said.

She said it was a very old song (written in 1823), well known and often sung. She told me that it was a song of longing that soldiers hummed, to seek comfort, in dark, damp trenches, while thinking of dear parents or a young sweetheart.

It wasn’t necessary for her to tell me it was a song that blended memories – polishing the past and shining up the now. I could see evidence of that when she spoke to me with dewdrops in her eyes, yet contentment in her voice.

A song about the sweetest ease of mind, despite all our longings for something better. Magical words that made three generations melded together in one tiny place, tumbling over each other, more compelling than any roomy apartment. And though the expression of the song is to restore old memories, it erases unpleasant ones like waking up with hair and blankets frozen to the wall and walking to school – uphill both ways.

And there was something in our discussion about it being a song that pulled prodigals back to God and away from wasteful living. And how it tendered warm love of one’s youth, grandparents now gone, and her own feeble mother at a distance too great for her to hope to visit her.

It emulsified emotions and magically blended, through complete simplicity, enough good memories with the bad to make all of life, from birth to death, the sweetest concoction.

It was a surprising discussion and I still remember the conclusion.

“I guess it’s a song that mends unholy hearts the way I mend hole-ee socks,” my Mother said, with wet eyes and a smile.

Do you know what the song was? Try and guess and if you can’t, you’ll find a bit of it in the comments section. If you understand contentment, you won’t be surprised.