“Here,” says Loolie. “Do you still like to do these?”
She hands me her local paper, opened to the puzzle page. And there, — oh, joy! — are both the Jumble and the Cryptoquote.
I grab a pen and happily plunge into my usual morning routine. I unscramble the Jumble, read the funnies, then take a piece of loose-leaf paper out of my bag and transcribe the Cryptoquote.
Now I can solve it and weave its message—sweet, silly, or profound,–into the way I approach this day.
We are sitting at Loolie’s broad kitchen table, savoring our morning coffee. It’s been a good visit; we met up with four of our dearest high school friends, forty years later, and we collaborated on a wonderful dinner in Loolie’s kitchen. We each brought photos and we cracked open our dusty yearbooks.
We reflected on then, but we really concentrated on now: on who we’ve become and on the journeys that brought us to here and on celebrating the sweet essence of those unknowing young girls, all those years back.
Some of that essential sweetness, we were all delighted to discover, still remains.
Two of us–TJ and me—bunked out in Loolie’s lovely home. And now it is 7:30 on a quiet Sunday morning. While we wait for TJ to rise and shine, wait to fix breakfast together before we pack up and say our goodbyes, I solve the Cryptoquote.
The words were Jorge Luis Borges’. Here is what they said:
“So you plant your own garden and embellish your own soul instead of waiting for someone to bring flowers to you.”
“Huh,” I say, and Loolie, of course, says, “Let me see.”
She studies the paper and she grins.
“Yep,” she says. “He’s got it just right.”
Loolie gets up and pours herself another steaming mug. She gestures at me with the pot; I shake my head, and she returns it to its machine. Then, she whirls back to the table in her flowing, multicolored bathrobe.
As she settles into her seat, I can see it coming on. Jogged by the Borges quote, we are in for a story.
“You know,” she starts, catching my eye to make sure I am fully engaged, “for all of their married life, Dan’s father gave Dewey a Whitman’s Sampler and a bouquet of flowers from the supermarket for her birthday. Dewey hated it! She’d made a big happy fuss the first time he did it, so he figured that was just the ticket. It took her a couple of years to realize that he’d just forgotten her birthday and run into the supermarket and grabbed the first festive things he could find.
“By the time she figured it out, the candy and the flowers were a tradition. That was it, Dewey said; that was her birthday. She spent hours of time and effort making sure everyone else had such wonderful birthdays, Mort and the kids and her in-laws, even; planned surprises and meals and treats and good friends and games—all the things the birthday person loved. But on her birthday: the Sampler. The flowers, which she had to cut and arrange so they looked like something special. Cards and gifts from the kids. And then a great dispersal, and Dewey was left getting dinner on the table and then cleaning up as Mort went off to watch the news and the kids went to do homework.”
Loolie sighed, and she took a deep slug of coffee. She plunked her mug down on the table.
“It got, Dewey told me, to the point where she HATED her birthday. ‘Say something!’ I’d tell her. ‘DO something about it!’ But she wouldn’t. She didn’t want to hurt their feelings.
“Then Dan and I got married. The first year was all romantic. The second year, our feet had hit ground, and I was pregnant, and we were both working crap jobs and money was tight…and on my birthday, Dan came home with a Whitman’s sampler and supermarket flowers.”
“Oh, NO,” I said.
“Oh, YES,” said Loolie. “He was tired and stressed, and I didn’t have the heart to say anything that night. But I understood how disappointed Dewey was, year after year. And I have to tell you, I really hate the chocolate in a Whitman’s Sampler.”
She sighed again, and we heard TJ stomping down the stairs, and we poured her coffee and got organized and started tag-teaming bacon, eggs, and toast. And we caught TJ up on the topic, and Loolie picked up the thread of her story.
“So the next year,” she said, “there I was, home with a baby who needed LOTS of attention, tired and bedraggled. And I thought to myself: this year of all years, I need a wonderful birthday.
“So I started dropping hints—they were more like blatant infomercials than hints, actually. I needed a new jacket, I told Dan, and I wrote down the size and the style and the store. I really wanted to get out and see a movie. I gave him THAT info, too. I mentioned that his mother was dying to come and stay so she could babysit.
“And about a month before my birthday, I started leaving notes that said things like, ‘Only thirty shopping days left till Loolie’s birthday!’ I’d put them on the fridge. I’d write them in soap on the bathroom mirror. I’d tuck them into his pants pockets.
“I was pretty sure I had it covered. On the day of my birthday, I took Kerri’s little hand and we waved Dan off to work together. I cleaned the house that day, so it would look nice when Dewey—surprise!–showed up. And I got the baby down to sleep about four, so I could shower and dress up a little, put on some make-up. Be ready.
“And Dan came home and he looked at me in surprise. ‘YOU look nice,’ he said.” Loolie paused, dramatically. “And just guess what he handed me?”
“Oh, NO,” TJ and I said, together.
“Oh, YES,” said Loolie. “And I vowed it was the last Whitman’s Sampler birthday I would ever endure.”
There was a long pause. Lools likes to check and make sure her audience is listening. I tong-ed the bacon onto a paper towel-covered plate and put it on the table.
“What,” I asked, “happened the next year?”
TJ brought a plate of buttered toast to the table and slid into her seat. Loolie spooned fluffy scrambled eggs onto all of our plates, replenished our coffee, and continued her tale.
“The next year,” Loolie said, “I decided I was going to give myself the best birthday ever. I was back working by then, but I took the day off and I took Kerri to daycare anyway. Then I went home and soaked in a bubble bath. I got gussied up and I met Peggy for lunch at the Forum. I love Greek food,” she said dreamily, “and we had the best lunch. First time I ever tried ouzo, too.” She grinned. I’m thinking she might have tried more than one.
“After lunch, I took myself out shopping,” Loolie said. “I bought myself a pair of jeans, and I got my hair shampooed, and then I went and got a massage. On my way to pick Kerri up, I stopped at this wonderful chocolate shop and I bought myself a quarter pound of chocolate covered caramels.
“It was the BEST day. And when Dan came home with the Sampler and the flowers, it was almost funny. But the next day, I suggested to him that he take the chocolates to work and share them. I told him that was too much candy for me, and I hated to see it go stale.
“’I thought you LOVED Whitman’s Samplers,’ he said, and I told him, gently, that no, I really didn’t.”
Loolie got a little thoughtful, and it was clear she was playing her years with Dan out in her mind.
“He never got me a Whitman’s Sampler after that. There were a few years when he really tried and my birthdays were filled with wonderful surprises. And then there were the years when things started going south, and a birthday surprise would not have made much difference to the sadness we were living.
“BUT,” she said, and she looked at us and twinkled. “I have celebrated my birthday just the way I wanted to ever since. I’ve always taken the day off, made wonderful lunch plans, and pampered myself with the special things I long for the rest of the year. And, you know what? If people forget, well, that’s okay. But when they remember, it’s just wonderful—like all this extra icing on top of a cake that was heavenly in the first place. The calls and the cards and the mementos are all wonderfully unexpected surprises. I think,” she said thoughtfully, “that the reason they’re so wonderful is that I don’t DEPEND on getting them.”
We sit quietly for a little bit, finishing up our breakfasts, sipping last mugs of steaming brew.
“I told Dewey about it,” Loolie says, “after Dan and I split, while Mort was still around. And she loved the idea. She started going to a movie matinee on her birthday, with a friend. Mort always hated going to the show. And she gets herself a hot fudge sundae afterward. She still does that, at 88. She said it turned her birthday from something she dreaded and resented into a day she looks forward to all year.”
We’re quiet for a minute. Then TJ says, “I love it. SO much better than being a long-suffering martyr.”
“So much better,” I agree.
We push ourselves reluctantly away from the table; we carry dishes and scrub pans and wipe down the table. And then TJ and I drag our bags downstairs and stash them in the trunks and come back in to say our goodbyes.
Loolie hugs us both tight. “Embellish your own souls, ladies,” she says, and she hands me the folded loose-leaf with the deciphered Cryptoquote.
We promise to text on safe arrival, and we look forward to a planned visit in a couple of months, and then TJ and I get into our cars, back down the drive, honk our farewells and head off in our separate directions.
Then I pull out onto the Interstate, thoughts buzzing. Loolie always distills issues down to their roots, and things seem so simple. Why WOULDN’T one go out and grab the things she wants, rather than sitting and waiting for those things to be bestowed? Why wouldn’t she shape her days rather than waiting to see what shape others would give them?
But I remember stern dictates from the 1960’s and 1970’s. A lady never calls a man. A girl never asks a boy out. So, often, a person sat on her hands, waiting for someone else to open the door for her, the door she dearly wanted to go through. It was a kind of self-imposed disability, so ingrained that to make the first move was impossible.
And I remember, too, avidly reading articles with titles like, “Make Him Think It Was HIS Idea!” or “How to get Him to Do What You Want him To Do Without Asking!” It was an age when subtle manipulation and the fine art of passive aggression were the tools to achieve an end.
I never learned those tricks.
And then things exploded, in the late sixties and early seventies, and there was a push for equality.
You want to get to know him? Go talk to him.
You want to have lunch with him? Go ask him.
I never quite mastered the art of forthrightness, either. A lot of us wandered, I think, in a kind of hazy gray area in-between.
But how much better, I think, sliding into the left-hand lane to pass a lumbering semi, to take the Loolie approach. Decide what you want (that, it seems to me, is half the battle), and then take steps to put that desire into place. Simple, elegant, and no one suffers from misconceptions…or from forty years of Whitman’s Samplers when that’s not her heart’s fond wish.
I finally reach the spot where the FM reception is good, and I turn on the radio and find an oldies station. And wouldn’t you know it, the first song they play is Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond singing, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore.”
“Plant your own damned garden,” I say to Barbra. And then I turn the song up so I can, in the anonymity of my speeding vehicle, sing along.