The Box, Left Open

In the White Sky

by William Stafford

Many things in the world have
already happened. You can
go back and tell about them.
They are part of what we
own as we speed along
through the white sky.

But many things in the world,
haven’t yet happened. You help
them by thinking and writing and acting.
Where they begin, you greet them
or stop them. You come along
and sustain the new things.

Once in the white sky there was
a beginning, and I happened to notice
and almost glimpsed what to do.
But now I have come far
to here, and it is away back there.
Some days, I think about it.

–found on The Writer’s Almanac, 9/3/21


It is Monday night, a home-night after a weekend away, and I am doing something I have not done for 30 years or more. I am looking through the high school yearbook from my senior year.

This weekend we went to see Terri’s family in Findlay. Her younger sister Julie was there, visiting from Florida, and two of Julie’s dearest friends from our hometown came to meet her.

I am looking them up now—looking in the index to find Susie and Mary Beth and Julie. I flip to their photos…they are freshmen, cheerleaders, athletes, part of the 1972 Marauders’ homecoming court. Their faces are ridiculously, impossibly young.

And yet. All of that was there, in the faces I saw this weekend, almost fifty years later—youth and hope and laughter and mischief.

I do not read the inked notes that line the pages of the yearbook. I do not turn to the senior section to look at my classmates’ cherished faces. I close the book and slide it back on the shelf in the living room, under the three other bound chronicles of my high school years.

Off kilter memories riffle… not the big things; not the most glorious, or the saddest, or the times that made me grip my sides with unexpressed, impotent anger. Just the simple ones. Hallway conversations. Crisp fall air at roaring football games. Laughter in the locker room after gym class.

The little things, the everyday times: they’re stacked there, waiting.


We went to the Lavender Hour, Terri’s daughters’ yoga studio and store, on Saturday. Julie was there, and we hugged and talked, and then she pointed me toward her long-life friends.

I went over and introduced myself.

“I know who you are,” said Mary Beth, and she startled me. “I recognized your voice.”


Memories can be like rock foundations. Some are pulverized, and some are pea gravel, and some—the big ones—are boulders. If those boulders have been sitting in the sun, they warm my bare feet when I step, tentatively, onto their smooth, flat surface.

But if they’ve been in the cold shadow: then, my. Those rocks will burn my soles like ice.


It was a memory weekend. We stayed in Ada, on the ONU campus, at the university where Mark did his law degree. We stayed in an inn that hadn’t been there when Mark was a student. We had a lovely, two-bedroom suite with a spacious living area. The beds were crisply dressed and comfy. Each room had a big screen TV. There were reading chairs and writing desks, and a fireplace that we didn’t, on that warm weekend, much need. But it was a lovely facet.

I remembered the first weekend we visited the campus. We drove from western New York, and, because it was January, we were concerned about weather and driving.

Mark’s admissions counselor, Grant, laughed.

“You’re thinking BUFFALO snow,” he said. “It doesn’t snow like that in ADA.”

But, of course, it did: that weekend Ada suffered an unprecedented blizzard.

That weekend, we could have used that fireplace in the inn.


On Saturday night, back from the Lavender Hour,—from seeing Julie, Mary Beth, and Susie, from talking with sweet Kate, Terri’s daughter, and with Ott, Terri’s husband,—Mark and I went out for a walk after dinner. James was settled in with his laptop and a movie, so we laced up our sneakers and walked across campus, over to the law school.

We had walked these paths before. For three intense years, Mark walked them every day, and James and I walked them many times a week. The scenery scrolled past us like the predictable, repetitive background scroll of an old-fashioned movie.

Back then, we’d have said, the pathways, the surroundings, had imprinted on our consciousnesses.

“We could,” we might have said, “walk this walk, eyes closed.”

Now, we found much to be familiar and much to be foreign. The law school building is there, of course, but a new statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., stands in front of the rock displaying a plaque in Reverend King’s honor. The ONU campus was the last college campus where Reverend King spoke.

And were the services offices, IT and Maintenance and Security—were they always in those long low structures? I think I remember those buildings. Mark thinks he does not.

We walk to Lincoln Street to see the apartment building where Mark lived during his first year.

But we aren’t sure we can find it. Buildings have been sided; buildings have slid softly into decay.

Is it the brown one? (It doesn’t look big enough!) Is it the ramshackle white one next to it?

We can’t decide. Unsettled, we head back to the inn.


Memories are like forests. They seem firmly planted, permanent. But seasons sprout new leaves, thicken trunks, and tug those leaves off branches. There’s a dormant season, when the memories don’t seem to live at all.


The next day, we drive past Ada’s one little supermarket. Now, it is the Community Market; then, it was Dave’s.

And there is a memory we share, all three of us. The first time we went to Dave’s, slowly wandering the aisles, picking out our purchases, learning the lay, the menu, of that grocery store, we pushed a cart bulging with supplies to the checkout. The cashier, ample and motherly, hon-ed us, asked if we were new in town, clucked when she learned that a gent of Mark’s age was in law school.

“That’s wonderful,” she said. “Hon, good for you!” And as she took my plastic payment, a young man came from nowhere, grabbed our cart full of groceries, and pushed it quickly away.

“Holy…” said Mark, and he squirmed around me to chase the young man down.

“NO!” said the cashier, reaching out a restraining hand. “It’s okay! He’s taking the cart to your CAR.”

We looked at her in shock, grabbed the receipt, and hurried outside. The stock boy was waiting at our turquoise Escort wagon, the only car in the lot with New York State plates. When we unlocked the hatch, he stowed all our groceries inside and, horrified, refused a tip. All part of the job, he said, and wished us a good night.

Looking back, I have thought many times, that that was the first firm step on our journey to becoming Ohioans.


On Sunday, we meet Ott for lunch. We wait in the restaurant, and we see him walk, jaunty, across the parking lot.

He brings two CD’s for Jim, our music aficionado, and as we wait for the food, Ott tells us stories connected with the recordings.

Ott is a storyteller as well as a musician. He has us all laughing and rolling our eyes—he tells about times he and Terri avoiding Traveling With Ferrets, for instance, and the story of the cover shoot, and how he and Terri dodged the increasing drunkenness of the rest of the band by staying in a different hotel.

“That made an interesting album,” he says. “You’ll see.”

We eat and we talk and, as lunch is winding down, I ask about Miss Sadie, the little black rescue dog that walked with Terri on her last journey, that drew Ott out of the house for walks after Terri was gone.

Ott’s face changes.

“Sadie died last month,” he says. “Her heart gave out.”

He says that the vets could never agree on just how old Sadie was. One of them thought maybe she’d lived 18 years.

“She did her job, though,” says Ott.

Jim looks up from his phone and says, “Sadie’s with Terri now.”

We pick the conversation up, put it back on the track, but somehow, little Sadie’s death is the thing that stays with me.


And Mark drives us all the way home, all three and a half hours, and we groan ourselves out of the car, stretching and complaining, and we drag our bags back in to resume whatever everyday life means in these different times.


And on Monday, I pull out the yearbook.


In the dark wee hours of that night, I wake up, assailed. Memories are flying at me, furious fast. And I am wide awake.

What should I do? I think, and I contemplate taking my book and heading down to the reading chair, reading away the torrent.

But then I rest my head back on my piled pillows, and I let the torrent flow. And there are a few memories that fly like rocks, that hurt when they land, but most are gentle, and some are wondrous.

I let them wash by, and I realize that, firmly grounded in now, the memories have power only to provoke a kind of marveling. They do not, any longer, have the depth and breadth and immediacy to wound.

Memories of lost ones make me smile, and make me yearn, and make me wish, but in this dark night, I feel a kind of creeping acceptance, a sense that we are here now.

And I thank God for all the ones that walked our paths and all the things that brought us here.


Memory, I think, is like a stone box. The lid is heavy; it scrapes and screeches a little when I finally pull it off.

Inside, there are piles of paper—onion skin; card stock; cheap, thin loose-leaf. I reach in to grab the top sheet, but the breeze is faster than I am. It lifts those memories; it lifts them and shakes them and sends them spinning.

One lands smack on my face and I peel it off to read it.

Others settle on my lap or gentle down around my feet.

And some are whipped by what is now a gale force wind, borne on strong currents. They are flying away, and I could chase them, but I know it would be futile.

And I’d be leaving behind the ones that gather ’round where I sit.


It was a memory weekend, a gateway weekend that opened the door to things forgotten.

Memory may be a white sky, tumbled rocks, a forest. Memory may be a box that’s difficult to open, and one that’s difficult to cover up again once that lid is lifted.

Whatever. Memory is a powerful place to visit; it can be a comfort and a goad. It can bring laughter and it can provoke tears.

I am blessed this weekend to have visited memories–from high school, from law school, from great days of friendship and aching days of loss.

I will visit, I know, again, but the past is not a place that lets me stay.

Hello, Back There

I wear light clothes on a late-September Thursday; it is hot,—hot and muggy. That night, I crawl into bed with the ceiling fan whirring full blast. As I nod over my book, I hear the air conditioning unit kick on again.

It’s been running hard most of the day.

I wake up sometime during the night and know that rain is pounding the roof. I sleep, deep and sound, until the morning has lightened, and I realize, before even swinging my feet out of the bed, that something has changed.

Finally, overnight, crisp fall weather has arrived.

I dress in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. I spend Friday morning grading papers and running errands. In the afternoon, I rake the front yard, and my cheeks are rosy and cold by the time I come into the house. I sit at the dining room table, I check my phone for messages, and I think: SOUP.

I know just the soup I want, and I have all the ingredients. I dig out the old yellow notebook and flip back to Kathie’s recipe for chicken and wild rice soup.

I get out all the ingredients, substituting here and there. I don’t buy Velveeta these days, but I have a wonderful Vermont cheddar and some sharp, creamy, American-style cheese that Mark brought home from one Saturday expedition; those will do nicely. And I’ll use my own chicken broth in place of the five cups of water. And I don’t buy canned cream of mushroom soup any longer; instead, I make something called “Cream of Something Soup.” Those directions lodge in the same notebook as Kathie’s soup recipe.

I found “Cream of Something Soup” when we were trying to wrestle Jim’s diet into some kind of control. Before his autism diagnosis, we discovered, with the help of a book called Is This Your Child?, that Jim was sensitive to a slew of foods. He loved casseroles with meat and cheese and canned cream of chicken soup. The book cautioned against using processed foods, and especially discouraged salty processed soups. I went looking for alternatives and found “Cream of Something Soup” on line.

The recipe provided all kinds of alternatives. I could use AP flour, or I could use gluten-free AP flour substitute. I could use milk, or I could use broth. I could add mushrooms or onions, or no veggies at all. And the prep time was three minutes. I used it in one of our family favorites dishes, a chicken and rice bake, and Jim liked it BETTER than when I used cream of chicken soup from the can.

I bookmarked the recipe, and used it again and again. Finally, I printed the recipe and taped it into the notebook.

One of my students had used the yellow and black notebook for her English assignments; at the end of the semester, she did not pick it up. Most of its pages were, sadly, unmarred by academic work and, after waiting a few months to see if she’d come back for it, I ripped out the used pages and started pasting recipes inside. Her name is still emblazoned on the yellow plastic cover in black sharpie that has faded but not disappeared over the 25 years I’ve been taping and using recipes in this book.


While the soup simmers, I page through the yellow notebook. I have some awesome veggie recipes from a book called Black Dog: Summer on the Vineyard Cookbook. I found that at our former hometown library; the recipe for Roasted Pepper and Eggplant Salad makes one of the best bring-a-dish concoctions I’ve ever found. I copied those cookbook recipes on my printer at home; the pages were brightly colored, and my printer was not up to their vibrancy. But the words were there. I trimmed the pallid copies and pasted them on the loose-leaf pages of the book.

Some recipes I copied long-hand.

Some recipes were written out for me in someone else’s hand: Mark’s dad gave us his meatball recipe. Wendy gave me directions to make her neighbor Joan’s rhubarb cake. Terri sent me wonderful veggie-based recipes on beautiful flowered cards, written in her unmistakable flowing hand.

Kathie emailed me her recipe, and I printed it out.

And I found the other recipes in all kinds of random places—in magazines and newspapers and on-line cooking sites, on the backs of packages and boxes. I cut them out or printed them off, and I pasted them on loose-leaf pages intended for cramped, painstaking notes on some challenging academic subject, and the cast-off notebook grew fat.


Now I page through the book. I am thinking of making some kind of dessert—not cookies; we just had cookies. We’ve also had pie and a sort of chocolate pudding-y trifle recently.

Maybe, I think, a cake, and I flip a page over and see this in-my-face title: “Better Than Sex Cake.” Despite the title, I read through. It is a Bundt cake; with a little creativity (I’ll use Greek yoghurt instead of sour cream; I’ll pulverize chocolate chips in the food processor instead of grating German sweet chocolate), I can put this together with things in my pantry. I take the notebook to the kitchen and start to gather ingredients.

And as I gather, I begin to wonder. Who was I, and what was I thinking, when I cut out this recipe? I was probably in my late thirties or early forties; I was parenting a bright, lovable, special needs kid. I was helping my husband make his law school dream come true. I was working.

And I was clipping recipes. They were recipes I probably wouldn’t use at the time that I clipped them. In a way, I think, I was sending letters to my future self.

Someday, I was thinking, someday…we’ll be settled and life will be calmer, and I’ll have a lot more time to browse through my recipes and try new things.

Someday, I was promising, we are going to make this cake.

For a minute, I feel like I’ve connected two wires, felt the snick as they cleaved together, and now hold the completed, humming cable in my two hands. There was a moment of reaching back, of putting my hand on that younger woman’s shoulder, of telling her that there were going to be some stunningly rough spots, but that it was all going to turn out to be okay.

Young self: sending message.

Old self: making the cake.

Message received.

That recycled notebook is looking a little bit like a time capsule to me.


I am not the only one who does this, who clips and collects and keeps recipes I won’t use right now but might indeed use later. I know this because, when Jim was at odds and between jobs, I asked him if he’d catalog my recipes for me.

He did better than that. He took my old yellow notebook, and my mother’s wooden recipe box—the one with the strawberries painted on it,—and the shoe box full of magazine and newspaper and back-of-package clippings, and he retyped all the recipes, and he printed them off, and he organized them into binders. They are categorized and alphabetized. They comprise four volumes.

My friend Susan contracted with Jim to create a binder for her. One chilly afternoon, they met in her pretty kitchen and bent their heads over a flat, square recipe box. Susan pulled out recipes she loved and recipes she treasured and recipes she wanted to try. Just as I did, she had started, in her young womanhood, clipping and collecting.

Jim made a binder for Susan, too, organizing those missives from a younger self into a tidy, easy-to-access tome, a book that current self could browse through easily. And I knew I hadn’t been the only hopeful young soul spinning dreams of parties and gatherings and comforting meals out into the future.


I love my binders. But I couldn’t bring myself to ditch the old yellow notebook. Sometimes I like to bring it out and just browse. I mark recipes to try soon and I put x-es through recipes I attempted that bombed, but mostly I think about who I was back when I saved that recipe for me. I run my fingertips over the glossy magazine clipping from twenty years ago, and I feel the cloth-y softness of recipes clipped from long-ago newspapers. I stop and take in the handwriting of some loved person, now, maybe, gone.

For a minute, nowness fades and I feel the continuum, the whole roiling, circling line that is life. I think that, if only I could master the art of tessering as Meg did in A Wrinkle in Time, I cold fold the continuum neatly and step off into those other days, bringing reassurance and giving promises.

But maybe, somehow, that’s already happened.


The cake is good. Does it live up to its name?

I’m not even going there.

And I’m going to re-name it, anyway. One of the funny quirks of autism, I’ve found, is a sort of Puritanical streak. Jim would not find it amusing to eat “Better Than Sex” cake.

Maybe, I think, we’ll call it “Better Than Books” or “Richer Than Reading” cake. And of course, then I’ll have to dispute that title, too.

Whatever we call it, we’ll eat that cake, down to the crumbs on the platter.


And isn’t it funny that, years ago, younger me clipped the very recipe that I’d have wherewithal to mix together at the ripe old age of 64, when all the worries of those days, all the encompassing demands on my time, and all the pulsing questions of the time have been resolved?

I might, of course, have been able to find a very similar recipe on line, but then that current never would have been coursing. I wouldn’t have held that humming cable in my hands.

I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to turn back and say, “Hello, you. Thanks! And wait till you see how it all turns out.”

The Lull

I pull on my orange jacket and urge a reluctant dog out the door. The wind nips and the oak tree, clinging to its brown, dry leaves, rustles like an understated musician brushing at her drums. Ragged scraps of snow float to the ground.

The dog perks up. Are scents enhanced by cold and snow? Greta strains at the leash; now she is tugging me into a kind of sniff-and-tumble forage ahead. We skirt Sandy’s yard, loop up the big curved drive by the Helen Purcell home.

On the downslope, Greta pulls me off the pavement. She inches into the garden area where thick piles of leaves mulch the wintering perennials. She snouts around excitedly, upturning planks of leaves, exposing their darkened bottoms.

I let her go. It is Friday afternoon, Friday after a long and swirling week. Obligations have been met, and now the day’s ceiling opens up like the folding lids on a box–wide open to the sky and possibility. We can do anything we want. No need to hurry.

But even outrageous, exotic scents grow familiar, and small, aging dogs begin to feel the cold. We head to the house. I let Greta go at the stone front steps; she bounds around to the kitchen door and waits for me, grinning. I unhook her leash and we head in.

The kitchen smells like cinnamon; a small mound of snickerdoodles, edges just shy of burnt, just the way we like them, cools on the counter. Jim taps quietly on his keyboard in the family room. It’s an easy dinner tonight—packaged au jus; leftover beef, sliced thin to simmer in that dark sauce. Scalloped potatoes, made from a mix. Green beans.

I chop and mix and pour, getting things ready to cook. Then I make a cup of tea, move to the dining room table, and sit with my journal, pen in hand, staring out the window. It has been a week, a careening, charged time of meeting upon meeting, complex conversations rolling into each other, allowing no chance to absorb and reflect. The week was a tumbling, bubbling stew–a melange of things, all thrown in together; the simmering surface does not reveal the individual elements thumping around below.

But I remember, now,–now that I have a moment to reflect– the silver-haired man (silver hair like a lion’s mane) who got up to speak at Jim R’s funeral. It was after Jim’s three children had stood, bravely, fighting tears, to eulogize their father, to talk about his endless collection of classical music, and how they could never leave the house to go, say, to a restaurant until the entire side of a vinyl album had finished. About learning to make shelves and boxes in Jim’s basement woodshop to house those records and CD’s. About what he had taught them, and the teaching he shared with his more than 8,000 students. They went back to their seats, flanking their mother; they dipped their heads and they cried.

Jim was a lifelong learner, a scholar who was all but dissertated in history, a history teacher at the local high school. And after he retired, he came to teach at the community college. History was an elective, a course of choice in the one or two spaces where students could pick: one course from among the social sciences, say. Many chose history because someone told them it was the easiest, and then, they would encounter Mr. R. After that, they would usually opt to take the second half of American history, too, because he made them care so much.

“They don’t KNOW!” he would wail. “They don’t understand what happened or WHERE it happened! They don’t know why!”

And he wanted them to know, and he wanted them to care.

I would walk by the door of Jim R’s classroom on days when I badly needed a jolt of here’s why we are here doing what we’re doing. There he’d be, striding around the front of the class, pivoting, his hands flying, shaping balls of air into guns or bills or chains or victory. He would bend toward the students, with a laugh, with a groan, and the students would lean in to catch every single word.

And this was after the bad heart trouble, and after the belly surgery that left him so depleted. “If I have to quit teaching,” Jim said, a few years ago, “they may as well just carry me out of here.” For many students, Jim R, 72 years old, was not a history teacher or a grand storyteller so much as he was a transporter, holding open wide the door of a vivid time machine.

A month ago, he was teaching.

On Tuesday, we gathered at a little funeral home, filled to standing room capacity, to mourn him. And his friend stood up to share a tale.

He was also an educator, this friend, an administrator, I am guessing,– someone who shared a long chunk of career with Jim R. He talked about their passion for learning, and about other things they shared–love of hiking, of traveling; an inclination toward a good joke.

This man told us how he’d gone to see Jim at the hospital just two days before he died. Jim was sleeping deeply in his hospital bed, white as the sheets that covered him; his friend went and sat beside him. He took Jim’s hand.

“Jim,” he said, “I want to tell you what a wonderful friend you’ve been to me. And I hope I’ve been as good a friend to you.”

There was a moment. And then Jim squeezed his friend’s hand, and slowly his eyes opened. They shared a long look, the two old teachers, and then Jim, still squeezing his buddy’s hand, spoke.

“You’re getting fat,” he said. And fell back to sleep.

Oh, it was a good story, and oh, Jim’s friend told it well. We were all shocked into laughter. Driving back to Zanesville, I thought, “Jim taught us all a little something about friendship and humor, a teacher to the last.”

And I thought, too, that maybe he wasn’t above leaving his bud with a good story to tell at his funeral.

And now I realize it is 5:00; I slide the red porcelain casserole into the oven, put the green beans on the simmer burner, start the water on to boil to make the au jus. Greta jumps up and barks: Mark has  pulled into the carport. She and James greet him at the door. He comes into the kitchen, rubbing hands together, cheeks red above his gray scarf and long black coat, and his eyes light up at the mound of cookies.

“Smells like cinnamon,” he says, and then Jim is pulling colorful Fiesta-ware from the cupboard, and the dog is jumping around my legs as I stir the beef into the bubbling juice, and Mark is telling us about a visitor he had, a funny encounter that happened. And he’s hanging up his coat, and we’re dishing up our food, and we’re toasting with our ice water: Let the weekend begin!

Warmth and good scents and steaming food: we relax into the meal and the conversation; we linger and enjoy.

I am swishing my hand in hot soapy water, agitating the suds to scrub the pans, when I think of the young man I met yesterday. I was on a field trip to a nearby village, going to explore a home-grown leadership program that was seeping its way into all kinds of the town’s corners. Into the high school, where it linked high-achieving students with developmentally delayed counterparts, creating new friendships and new ways of leading. Into the courts where young people with promise were funneled into, of all things, a leadership course. Imagine! Into Job and Family Services, where people struggling to turn their lives around got a chance to explore their leadership capacities, and to tussle with concepts like ethics and self-fulfillment.

Shelly, the dynamic force behind the program–its pilot light–told me that they’d applied for a grant for a leadership curriculum. And plummeted when they didn’t get it.

And then, when the initial shock wore off, they said, Well, we can’t afford to buy a program. We’ll just have to create our own.

She handed me a facilitator’s handbook and a participant’s guide, glossy and professional, and we paged through together. Then she took me out to meet her peeps.

It was the kind of place where everyone pitches in. So the program coordinator might also stop to get refreshments, and the executive admin teaches a module. The marketing crew make phone calls and know participants’ names and the names of their family members, and staff members take time to stop and talk with a visitor come to see their program.

One of Shelly’s colleagues is a young man whose hair–top of his head, lashes and brows,–is snow white. Three years ago, he told me, he was laying on his couch, turning his head away when his wife or daughters tried to interest him in what they were doing, in some exciting event. He had an auto-immune disease. His body was attacking itself, and the doctors had nothing to offer him. He turned his head away.

And then, somehow, he and his wife learned of a program in Chicago, and they gathered up their resources–no easy task for a young family–and they went. The medical innovators harvested stem cells from the patients, they brewed them into something injectable, and they re-implanted them in the patients’ bodies. And somehow, by some alchemical reaction, the infusion of stem cells changed the course of this young man’s disease.

It wasn’t, of course, as simple as my telling of the tale, and it took months of time away from home. But, he told me, he limped into the hospital, leaning on a walker. And he walked out, straight and tall, striding next to wife. His dark hair had turned stark white, but his health was back. And he was determined to work with people with disabilities. He found his place among the passionate professionals I visited.

My tea water is ready. Mark and Jim are in the family room, guffawing at Frasier and Niles’ antics. I bring my IPad to the table and sip my tea and ponder what to write.

Some weeks are just nuts. Obligation flows into obligation; there is little time to reflect or assimilate. It can be dangerous, that kind of week; I can miss the miracles that roll gently into my path. I need an interlude, a lull, and time to sort the treasure from the dross.

And I think of good Jim R, gone so quickly, missed so much, and of the eight or ten thousand students he sent out into whatever worlds they were forging, out with new knowledge and new passion and doors opened in their minds. Not doomed to repeat history; not those umpteen thousand.

I think of how he left us with a good story and a good laugh.

I think of the young man with the white hair, who took an incredible chance and regained his health and found his purpose.

I think of the families who love and support both those men, and of the lives they touch and have made better.

It takes a lull, sometimes, to be aware and mindful of the magic and the miracles among us. Those hectic days–they suck my attention; they only let me focus on the jabbering and the demanding: the right-here-right-now, got to get it done, tip of the iceberg.  I need the lulls. I need the time to let the stories of wonder rise to the surface of my thought, and to remember the friendships and the decency, the loyalty and the openness, and the hope and possibilities, that always dwell among us.

Fifth Grade Fire; Fifth Grade Ice


Rugs and Work and Things That Last


I changed the upstairs bathroom rugs last night, rolling up the long, multi-colored rag rug that provides a path away from the tub; grabbing, too, the shaggy little white rug that cradles the toes of shavers and make-up appliers leaning toward the mirror at the sink. I bundled them down the laundry chute and swiffered up the haze of baby powder that always descends upon the black tile. I pulled out a fresh set of rugs, the blue ones, the long one for the tub path, the short guy for the sink.

The blue rugs are my favorites, hand-woven from old blue jeans by Betty Lou and her church lady friends.  Almost fifteen years old, they seem indestructible–I have thrown them in the washer hundreds of times, maybe thousands; I have hung them over rope lines or draped them over pipes to dry. Umpteen sets of store-bought rugs have shed their rubbery backing and been tossed; my blue denim rugs last and last.

I use them, as I often use beloved items, thoughtlessly, taking their beautiful utility for granted.  But last night, for whatever reason, the act of spreading those rugs on the bathroom floor made me think of Betty Lou and Roscoe Village. We had moved to a new town after Mark finished law school, I was in-between full-time jobs, and I worked, for a year or two, as a historical interpreter at the little restored canal village.  I have been blessed with wonderful and challenging jobs in my working years, but never have I had another job so filled with fun and joy as working at Roscoe Village. And seldom have I met people so hard working and sincere.

I learned the real definition, at Roscoe, of “salt of the earth.”

There was Dick Hoover, a retired preacher, who taught me about the printer’s trade and about being a school marm in 1850’s Ohio.  Charley, a cabinet maker, shared secrets of the cooper’s craft, and showed me how one makes a round container from what I’d always figured to be unyielding wood.  Mary, who was 80 when I worked with her at Roscoe, had been there over 40 years; her picture as a beautiful young interpreter was printed and re-printed, to her delight, in the Village literature. And there was Betty Lou, ten years younger than Mary, who taught me the ins and the outs of 1850’s housewifery in a sleepy Ohio canal town.

I trained with college students; I was in my late forties.  I worried about finding comfortable shoes to wear that looked authentic; I worried about bundling my ornery hair into something resembling true frontier style.  The students worried about covering their new tattoos with the lacy cuffs of their gingham dresses, and whether their piercings–studs discreetly removed during work hours–would be evident to Village visitors.  They were lovely young people, hard-working, kind, and creative,but I grew closer to the elders, Dick, Charley, Mary, and especially Betty Lou.

Things were busy at the Village in the summer months; tours came through every thirty minutes, and we ushered one group out the back door as another entered the front.  Betty Lou was usually the upstairs guide in Dr. Johnson’s house; she told people about the wonder of the Doctor’s family having real, imported wallpaper, showed them how the flycatcher worked, boasted about the Johnson’s fine china, shipped all the way from Europe at quite a pretty penny.  Downstairs, I was the cook; Betty Lou would send the visitors down the steep cellar stairs to where I had a trussed chicken spinning above the open fire on a string; fat would fall into the fire; flames would hiss and spit.  The chicken’s skin crisped and crackled, and people begged to try it, but health laws forbade that.  We could share, however, the corn bread and cakes we baked in a covered cast iron dutch oven set amidst the coals.

I learn to pile coals on top to insure even baking; Betty Lou could judge temperatures and baking times if she knew the type of wood we were using.

The days flew by, and so did the summer; before we knew it, the college kids were heading back to campus, and the park slowed down.  Tours were by appointment in the fall.  The breaks in between gave us time to clean and organize, and time to talk.

I learned that Betty Lou was a skilled weaver; there was a vintage loom in the village and her deft hands worked it swiftly.  She knew how to set the woof and weave the rag strips into the warp; she fringed the ends and sent the final product to the administration building store where shoppers scarfed them up at fifteen dollars a pop.  Outside of work, though, Betty Lou and her church lady friends had their own looms.  They crafted rugs from strips of old blue jeans.  These they sold for a pittance; I bought three rugs from them for less than the cost of one rug at the store.

Betty Lou was in no danger of her hands becoming the devil’s workshop; she was always busy, at work and at home, where she sewed and gardened and canned.  She worked at the village for extras; that year she was saving for a new living room suite.  She was never idle; in the free moments, she showed me how to cradle and wash that splendid china, how to coax the dust and grit up from between the polished floor boards of the Doctor’s house, and how to oil and wrap some of the antique tools in the downstairs work room.

She was a kind, clear, patient teacher; I liked working with her, and I diligently tried to keep up with her seasoned efficiency.  We talked as we worked, and I learned about Betty Lou’s life.

Her husband had been a miner in West Virginia, as had the men on both sides of their families.  Many died young of the black lung; some were lost in explosions and nightmarish cave-ins.  They decided, early on, it was no life for their boys, and they vowed, early on, to get clear of the mining life.  Their house was owned by the mine; the store in town was, too. If a family bought all their stuff from the store, there was never quite enough money; they fell into debt to their employers, and each year’s passage indebted them a little bit more.

Betty Lou’s husband was handy; he fixed up an old truck that someone gave him for a song, and they drove into the city to buy their groceries.  They only bought what they couldn’t grow or raise or catch themselves.  Her husband got permission to run plumbing to their house; they were the first in their coal-mining village to have indoor plumbing and hot water in a claw foot tub, a luxury for which their neighbors envied them no end.

But the thing that really incited envy was their television set, which they scrimped and saved to buy.  Betty Lou’s man ran the wiring and fixed the antenna, and they were so proud to be able to offer Betty Lou’s aging mother the treat of watching TV.  Betty Lou’s mama always watched the fights on Friday nights; she loved a good fight.  The family would gather round the television, and prickles would run up and down their backs.  We’re being watched, Betty Lou would think, and sure enough, when she turned around, she would see faces at every window, avidly watching the flickering screen.

Despite such luxuries, they lived very frugally, and before the children came of working age, they had moved to Ohio. Betty Lou’s husband got work, and the kids were enrolled in school.  They all graduated high school, Betty Lou said, something that would not have happened in their mining town back home.

Sometimes we would talk as we worked, sometimes as we took our lunch in the ‘modern’ kitchen.  The doctor’s house had been a residence until the sixties; a main floor kitchen had been added.  When the Foundation acquired the house, it made no changes. The kitchen table with its tubular metal legs, the vinyl covered chairs, and the stove and refrigerator, were splendid in their 1950’s glory.  A microwave had been added for employee convenience, but everything else,–the speckled linoleum, the cabinets with their wooden cutout trim,–was just as it had been went the last tenants left.

There was a feel about the doctor’s house, a depth, a layer,–something that made goose bumps prickle, especially when I was upstairs alone.  The doctor and his wife had been abolitionists, and their home was a well-known stop on the Underground Railroad.  There was a story of an escaped mother with a sick baby; some people said the baby died in the mother’s arms while they were hidden. To cry out would have been to reveal them both, along with the people who sheltered them, and so the grieving mother held the body of her dead infant while searchers trod the floors above her.  The doctor, the story went, was inconsolable over the loss, over the fact that he couldn’t save that baby.  The baby’s mother could not be comforted.  The tiny body could not even have a proper burial without risking exposure.

Sometimes it seemed I would hear things there; sometimes there were furtive movements–mice, maybe?–glimpsed from the corner of my eye. One day I confessed to Betty Lou that the place spooked me, just a little, and she said they’d all felt it.  It was real, she said; and she said, too, that sorrow was hard to purge.

She told me then about her own sorrow.  After saving and sacrificing so they could move north, move away from the danger of early death for their boys, Betty Lou lost her daughter, who would have been just about my age, in a senseless crash.  It was in the last days of the girl’s senior year of high school; she’d forgotten something she needed at home and got permission, at about ten in the morning, to drive home and get it. She was a careful driver, she had a friend with her; they were not distracted or flighty or under any kind of influence.  But a semi truck swerved, crossed into their lane; the girls, just like that, were gone.

“Oh,” I said, helplessly, “oh, Betty Lou,” and I couldn’t think of anything to add. We sat, eyes welling, for a moment, and then she said, Well, it couldn’t be helped. She talked a little about the kindness of friends, family, and strangers, and then another tour group came in the door and we sprang to our stations, resumed our personnas. The subject never again emerged.

Betty Lou enjoyed life, worked hard, and gave substantially, and it would not be an exaggeration to admit that I revered her.  Life moved on; another job beckoned, and I left the employ–and the joy–of the Village.  I tried to go back at least once a year, though, taking visitors to see the old canal town, reconnecting with Dick, Mary, Charley, and Betty Lou.

And then another move took us seventy further miles away; the trip to the village was no longer an easy indulgence.  Life filled up; time went on, and suddenly my time at Roscoe was five, and then seven, years ago.

I saw Dick at an event, and asked about my old colleagues.  He told me with great sadness that he’d buried Charley just that past winter.

That chance meeting was five years ago, and I am a little afraid, now, to go back and inquire. Mary–she’d be 92 or so, I think; Betty Lou, in her eighties.  Should I ask the questions whose answers I don’t want to hear? I push away that thought and plunge into the busyness of daily life, until a moment like last night’s, when a touch, an action, bring lovely memories back.

Someone remarked, the other day at work, that we spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our families. Work has become our new neighborhood; it’s where we find our friends, get our support.  I am lucky now, and I have been lucky in the past, to work with wonderful caring people, people of integrity and creativity, passion and compassion–people who have visions of making things better and who believe our small contributions can help.  I have had wonderful mentors in all my professional roles; some of those mentors have become lifelong friends.

My time at Roscoe Village was an interlude, a veering off the path, and I thank God for that special, unexpected time, and for the blessing of the wonderful people I had the honor to work with.  I spread my denim rugs on my swept bathroom floor, I feel them with my bare feet, tucking and untucking the nubby, firm, ridged fabric with my toes.  I will go back–perhaps this Fall,–and I will see if any familiar faces remain.  But time passes; I can accept that now.

As Betty Lou says, it can’t be helped.  But I know this, now, too: the things we shared together will always, somehow, remain.

Betty Lou and Charley
Betty Lou and Charley