Wandering Back

They were three deep in the line–a lunch-time line; she looked at her fellow shoppers and concluded they were all using a scant lunch hour to make their purchases. A plump grammy-type lady had a basket full of little girls’ socks and sweaters; a twitchy gentleman in a long, expensive looking topcoat jiggled a trendy, bullet-shaped blender. Dell herself had the counter-top convection cooker that was her stepson’s number one wish this Christmas.

At the register, a young mom (bespectacled, no make-up, hair pulled back severely, her sleeping baby in a car seat in her shopping cart) fed baby toys onto the belt.

The cashier was a pretty young thing, pale of skin and startlingly black of hair–her lips and nails a vivid matching crimson. She languidly pushed the toys under the scanner with one hand.  The other hand held her smart phone, into which she was tittering. Tittering over, she’d fling her head back and listen, hand poised on an item to check out. The process was taking a long time.

The grammy sighed; the coated man twitched, and the young mom anxiously rocked the sleeping baby back and forth as she waited.

Back at the end of the line, Dell pulled out her own smart phone.  The store was Berger’s; the local owner, Freda, was famously imperious and impatient with her help.  Dell punched in her own office number, and, as her recorded message began, she started talking, loudly.

“Freda?” she crowed, and the cashier’s head jerked up.  “Yes! I’m waiting in line at the store. It looks like it’ll be at least 15 minutes so I thought I’d call you back.”

The cashier muttered a quick ‘gotta go’ and put her phone down.  She flashed an abashed apologetic look at the mom and began quickly shoving toys into bags.

Dell paused–her mission was accomplished, but a  demon had possessed her.  “Name?” she asked.  “No, Freda, I can’t see her name, but I can send you a picture!” She held her phone up, snapped a photo of the startled young cashier, and texted it to herself.

The grammy guffawed; the coat turned around and bestowed a pale smile.

By the time Dell got to the the register–which didn’t take long at all, considering–the cashier was leaking tears.  Dell paid in silence and lugged her hard-won bounty to the car.

******************
There was a message on her machine, she saw as she flipped on the office lights, and she listened as she booted up her laptop.  Oh, lord: Mary Carole.  A former young colleague, MC had returned to grad school and now she was suffering agonies of indecision about next steps.  She called Dell and used her as a sounding board.  “I could do this,” she’d say, “but then I’d lose this and that!  But what if…”

Dell would listen patiently, interjecting a caveat or two. She’d learned, Dell had, to give a caller like MC ten minutes to vent. Then she took control of the conversation, soothed and encouraged, pleaded meetings and obligations, and promised to touch base again soon.

Which was not an empty promise, because the caller always called back.

But today, she wasn’t going there. She deleted the message and grimly moved a thick stack of files front and center. When MC called again–twice more–, she let the calls go through to voice mail.

******************
On her way home, she stopped at that stupid three way corner with only two stop signs. One never knew if the approaching traffic was making a right or not,–fewer than half the drivers bothered to signal their intent–so people sitting where Dell sat had to be wary.  But the oncoming traffic cleared, and Dell waited while the car at the stop sign to her right, which had been waiting before Dell pulled up, made the turn.  Behind that car, a woman in a battered mini-van split her flat face into a wicked grin and made the turn in front of Dell, cutting her off just as she started to accelerate.

“Bitch!” thought Dell, and she laid on the horn.  FlatFace turned and waved gleefully.

Dell waved back, but she only used one finger.

*******************

At home, she checked messages.  Martin, who was away visiting family, had called to see how her day had gone.

“Well, let’s see,” Dell mused. “I made a cashier cry.  I ignored a plea for help from a  young friend. And I gave a stranger the finger.”

She turned on the flame under her teapot, and went into the living room to turn on the tree lights.  It was December 17th.

“Merry freaking Christmas,” Dell thought.

********************

She woke up in the dark hours of the very early morning with the sense that something was terribly askew.  It was 4:12, and sleep was gone.  She got up, pulled on her warm, fluffy robe, let the dog follow her down the stairs of the quiet house.  She stood, the cold air bathing her ankles, on the back porch as Sheba ran into the yard to transact urgent business.  There were stars in the clear black sky, pinpoint diamonds.

Dell thought, with great clarity, “The thing that needs to change is ME.”

When the sky began to lighten, she called her boss and took a personal day.

********************

That day, she sat down with her journal and made a list of all the things she loved about Christmas.  And then she clipped the leash on the dog and bundled up. They took a long walk; they meandered for over an hour.  When she got back to the house, she felt clear and centered; walking was Dell’s best form of prayer.

Martin was home in time for dinner, and they grilled veggies and sliced cheese and took rolls from the freezer. They constructed sandwiches and submitted them to the panini maker.  And they talked.  They cracked a bottle of wine, and they talked and talked and talked.  The talk deepened and turned into laughter; they sat on the couch in the living room and lit the gas fire and fell asleep by its glow.

The next day, Saturday, Dell made phone calls.  She called each of the boys, who normally woke up at 5:30 or 6 AM on Christmas to open gifts with their families before heading off to the in-laws for a full slate of festivities.  Then, late in the afternoon, they’d come to Dell and Martin’s for another full meal–rib roast and mashed potatoes–another round of tearing paper and mayhem, before taking their tired, cranky, overwrought kids home to bed.  Dell offered them Christmas off.  What if, she asked, they got together the next day?  Or, even, the day after?

The boys were shocked, but then thoughtful, and both asked to call her back.  She imagined earnest conversations with their harried wives, a little surprise, and then a realization–how much easier that would make things.  What do you think?

They both called back and asked if they could come the day after Christmas, and Dell agreed a Boxing Day celebration would be a wonderful thing. She passed the phone to Martin, so the boys could check in, make sure this wasn’t just some passing whim of Mom’s–let’s make sure Dad is good with this, too.  Martin’s calm laughter and easy tone assured them.

*************
She called Mary Carole and let her talk for half an hour.

**************
Dell got on Facebook and posted a note to all her friends.  “One of my joys at Christmas,” she wrote, “is sitting down to write cards to all of you, to touch base in writing, with time to reflect and savor.  But the days leading up to the holiday are so rushed that I usually plow grimly through the task.  This year, I’m taking time over Christmas to really enjoy the process.  So if you don’t receive a card from me before the 25th, know that it will be coming after Christmas–maybe even early in the New Year.  That will give me time to remember and anticipate and think about how important you are to me…and try to get that all into writing before I mail off my card to you.”

Seventy-two people pressed ‘like’ and three of her friends messaged what a great idea that was–and that Dell might just get a fat greeting a little later than usual, too.

****************
She gave up any more trips to big box stores and bought gift cards at the supermarket instead.  Then she made special trips to small, local shopkeepers.  She bought hand-dipped chocolates and wooden toys, kaleidoscopes and candles.  She picked out bottles of local wine and beautiful chunks of cheese at a dairy in the country.  She found the most incredible ruby-red sundae glasses at an artisan’s shop in a little village twenty miles away.

She bought a wonderful painting of their town for Martin from a local artist. She bought hand-crafted necklaces for the daughters-in-law, and plump, whimsical animals for the littlest grands.

She took her time with the shopping; she didn’t always get out of the shops in fifteen minutes, but she had wonderful conversations with talented, original people.

She took the long way home from work, avoiding the three-way stop corner completely.

And she created fabulous stockings for Martin and the boys and their families. She even, because it was something she loved and not something Martin did easily, put a stocking together for herself.  It seemed silly at first, but she found herself anticipating pleasure of re-discovering those tiny treasures.

She did not make cashiers cry.  She did not give fellow travelers the one-fingered salute.

****************

On Christmas Eve, because it was important to her, Martin went with her to the candlelight service at their church, and she soaked the soaring, hope-filled carols in through her pores.

On Christmas Day, because it was important to him, she watched “The Christmas Story” with Martin.  They snuggled in their old, comfy PJ’s, ate eggs and toast, and roared at Ralphie’s antics.  They didn’t dress until 2 PM.  Martin took a nap; Dell and Sheba went for another peaceful meander.  They ate chili for dinner and cracked open one of those bottles of local wine. Their phones burbled throughout the day, and they sat down and had relaxed conversations with the lovely persons on the other end.

On the day after Christmas, the boys and their families clamored in around 1:00; Dell and Martin passed out little boxes with the gift cards inside and the stockings, and they spent an hour unwrapping, exclaiming, and playing. Dell had called their favorite pizzeria, who delivered three huge  pies and dozens of  chicken wings  and they grabbed and ate–kids disappearing to play video games in the sunroom or toss a ball in the unseasonably sunny green weather or play on the carpet with tiny cars.  It was a carefree, relaxed celebration, and both boys thanked her, wondering if maybe THIS could become their new tradition.

She and Martin cleared up after they’d left, the silence pronounced after the whirlwind, and they agreed it had been a wonderful day.

*************
Dell let her thoughts wander during the sermon the next day, sitting next to Martin, who needed an occasional nudge; he was inclined to indulge in a little nappy time as Reverend Cass plowed on, exploring her theme.  She thought about how rested she felt, and how that hadn’t been true two days after Christmas in any of the years gone by. And she realized how far she’d wandered from her core, obeying what she’d felt were society’s imperatives.  But who, really, had she been making happy?  Not Martin, not the boys, not her friends and extended family. Certainly not herself.

She had found herself turning into a shrew, a politely-veneered virago, and it had been time for a change.  A return to her beliefs; a return to her desires; a return to a true thoughtfulness about those dear to her.

And, in returning, a wonderful holiday.

Today she and Martin would go home and  frost the shortbread stars she’d cut out and baked in the quiet, calm of the house, post-family, yesterday.  Dell loved those cookies, had to taste them at Christmas, and today they had the leisure and the energy to do them justice.  And today, they’d decided, they would sit down and think, really think, about their time and their gifts and the way they could use them to help their community in the year to come.

It was simple. It was rich.  It had meaning.  Centered and grounded, Dell felt, for the first time in many, many years, the peace and hope of Christmas seep into her bones.

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A note to tomorrow

Letters 2

I can’t bring my coat. I can’t bring my purse. Before she buzzes me in, the polite but very serious student worker gives me a key and makes me put everything but a pad of paper and a pen into a locker.

Then, and only then, does she allow me to enter OSU’s rare book and manuscript archive.

I’ve taken a personal day to research Eva Prout Geiger, a native of Zanesville who was a child star in silent films. Prout Geiger went on, as an adult, to have her own traveling revue. She married a Zanesville boy who was also a musician; she was, coincidentally, one of the great loves of James Thurber’s life.

It bothers me that a woman with such talent, verve, and history is mostly remembered as the girl who got away from a famous man. I want to know more about her life.

I discovered Eva Prout Geiger as I read Harrison Kinney’s biography of James Thurber. After returning from Paris circa 1918, Kinney writes, Thurber was at loose ends, and needed to look for a job. He ordered a ream of nice paper emblazoned with his full name, James Grover Thurber. He rented a typewriter.

He was supposed to use these tools to send out compelling job search letters.

Instead, he spent most of his time writing funny letters to his buddy Elliott Nugent and love letters to Eva in Zanesville.

Another student worker brings a box to my table. He opens it up and fans out a series of files. I look through them carefully, and select the one with Mrs. Geiger’s name on the tab.

The student puts the rest of the material neatly away, and I sit down and open the file.

There, neatly stacked, are letters written on nice paper with the letterhead, James Grover Thurber. The first date is in May 1918.

These are the very letters Kinney referred to. Some are written in flowing ink; others are typed–I have to think on that typewriter Thurber rented for three months. I gingerly pick up a parchment page and begin to read, and Thurber’s expressions of fervent love, and his biting wit, draw me in. The letters span a period of twenty years. They include a couple of Thurber’s hand-drawn Christmas cards.

When I come up for air, two hours have passed.

Thank God Thurber didn’t have access to email. Imagine if he’d sent all those funny, yearning messages to Eva electronically. We’d never have read them, and a rich and vibrant voice, a compelling and sometimes sad story, would have been quenched.

Even today, in our electronic age, a handwritten letter is a gift.

When I come home for lunch, home to a yapping dog, to a son who–silent all morning–is anxious to talk, the mail is there. The sight of an envelope, addressed in some beloved script, waiting for me on the table changes the whole tenor of the day. I take the dog out, I catch up with young James, and then I bring my coffee to the table and open that envelope.

A letter from Kim, a note from Kay, wise words from witty Wendy, news from a niece, from a beloved sister-in-law, a scrawl from a busy nephew…I slow down and ‘listen’ to the words someone took time to entrust, in their own hand, to the page.

It’s a more intimate and revealing sharing, I think, in that it is more carefully chosen. The writer is taking pains to decide what should be included, and how to present that news. They reveal themselves on the page, and the effort this cost…for, as Kim says, it is not always easy to switch gears, slow down, and write a letter…is a measure of regard.

So the handwritten mail connects us immediately. And saved, it can be revisited long after the reason for the writing is history.

I have, for example, two letters my mother wrote in my ‘safe box.’ One was a thank you note she wrote to my brother Dennis’s best friend’s mother. The mom had given a birthday party for Den, and my mom wrote to thank her. That was in 1962; as a gesture of thanks, my mother included her very special fudge recipe. The receiver mom filed it in her cookbook.

Thirty years later, both moms had passed, and the older sister of Dennis’s friend found the letter as she sorted her mom’s cookbooks, and she put it in an envelope and sent it to me. I opened it one busy day when I was running from class to job, checking on kid and babysitter mid-day, and I heard the voice of my mother. I was seven when she wrote that note; when I read it, I was the age she was when she authored it.

And last Fall, I visited my cousin Barb, who gave me a copy of a letter Mom wrote her in 1978…a letter in which Mom bemoans the clutter caused by my upcoming nuptials, refers to my father as “The Boss” (many would differ on who played that role in their relationship), and spins a funny story about seeing Bob Hope with my youngest brother, Sean. Again–that voice…and a whole different appreciation at a whole different time in my life.

What a gift.

So while I still tap away on my keyboard, sending e-notes to dear ones, every once in a while, I sit down and write. The activity slows me down; the activity makes me mindful of how dear the recipient is to me.

There is always much to say; some of it needs to be said quickly, sent quickly, and quickly digested. Some thoughts and bits of news, though, should be worked through, filtered, and then committed to paper, perhaps written with a favorite gel pen on crisp parchment paper; sealed into an envelope; and committed to the US Postal Service.

Those words won’t be so quickly digested; they will be read carefully and maybe wrestled with; they will be revisited. They may be saved and savored. Years from the birth of that letter, the same hands may pick it up and hear a whole different message. The children of the receiver may learn, a long time hence, more about that sender.

Our letters may never be the carefully crafted works of art that Thurber’s love notes to Eva were; they may be full of mundane details about our lovely, ordinary lives. But our letters, too, are gifts to the future, to the ones who come after us who might otherwise never hear our voices. So I keep sending those emails; I keep posting on FaceBook; but every once in a while, I pick up a pen and write a letter.