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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Willie, Without Her

Willie Heart 2In the realm of true love, there is no ‘one size fits all’…

Willie’s bare cheeks are glowing by the time he walks into the Oleander Center.

“Mr. Randolph!” says Janice, at the receptionist desk. “You shaved your beard!” There’s an older nurse working with charts behind the desk; she turns sharply and gives Janice a severe look.

Willie stops and smiles a good morning at the nurse, says to Janice, “How kind of you to notice! It’s a big change for me.”

The nurse relaxes.  “Well, it looks very nice, Mr. Randolph.”

“How’s Miranda this morning?” he asks.

She shrugs.  “Happy,” she says.

Miranda, once the queen of the sassy, biting retort, once a woman buffeted by any emotion but mildness, is always happy these days.

Willie makes his way back through the shining maze of hallways. He greets most of the staff by name; they have become friends,—some are almost like family.  Willie has been visiting the Oleander Center for two years.

“She’s in the music room, Mr. Randolph!” says a dark-haired nurse in brightly patterned scrubs.

“Thanks, Sandy,” says Willie.

Miranda is in her chair by the floor-to-ceiling picture windows.  Her wispy white hair is pulled back in a bun. She wears a  long-sleeved white t-shirt and yoga pants: dancer’s clothes.  She has not danced in many years now, but her feet reveal her vocation.  Even in the stretchy terrycloth institutional slippers, they are the broadened, overworked feet of one who taught and plied a dancer’s craft, for a living, and with passion.

A small group of residents is clustered on the other side of the room with a young aide he’s never seen before.  He waves to the group; hands flutter back at him, and the aide breaks away to come and say hello.

“Your mother is having a good morning, Mr. Randolph,” she says, cheerfully.

“Not my mother,” Willie corrects, but gently. “My wife.”

The young aide turns a deep pink.

“Well,” she says. “Assuming just made an ass of me, didn’t it?”

Willie smiles.  “An understandable mistake,” he says.

It is.  Willie is 65.  Miranda is 87.

*****

They met when he transferred to Calamette University; he’d finished his two year degree at a commuter college in his hometown. He couldn’t wait to test out life in the dorms. It was 1967. Anything was possible, and most of the possibilities were happening on college campuses.

By the luck of a draw, Willie (who’d been plain ‘Bill’ at home–he was re-inventing himself)  had a dorm room to himself.  The pleasant roommate with whom he was intended to share space was there for about four hours, and then he and his stuff disappeared.

Gone back home, someone told him. Something about a girl.

Willie supposed a new roommate would be assigned, but, apparently, there was no pressing need for the space.  He was the sole lord of two single beds and two built in desks.

He liked it, the room to himself, but it slowed down his social entry.  And Willie was not a bluff, hail-fellow-well-met, kind of guy.  He made friends, but slowly; always, as people got to know him, Willie found himself firmly woven in to the fabric of whatever culture he was part of.

But it took time.  He was lonely that first week, listening to the thuds and thumps and bass undercurrent of the established social life in the dorm.

So he spent a lot of time with his books at the campus center cafeteria.  He refilled his coffee mug endlessly, diving into his advanced history texts.  This was the payoff, academically, for those two years of required courses: now he was in the meat of his program, in the courses he was dying to take.  His parents were pushing him to decide: was this pre-law?  Or was he planning on teaching?

Willie ignored the need to choose.  For now, he was submerged in the study of history.

The cafeteria had a huge banquette, built into a circular half wall. It rimmed the room. Small, two-seater tables flanked the banquette every three feet or so; a medley of chairs scattered around them, swelling into the traditional table arrangements.  By day three, Willie had his regular spot–on the banquette, just past the bustle of people grabbing noshes.  He was close enough to easily refill his mug, far enough away that the crash and mutter of the cafeteria was pleasant background noise for his reading.

Miranda entered his life before he’d been there a week.  One afternoon, Willie vaguely registered a tight passel of faculty marching into the cafeteria–slumming, apparently; there was a Rathskeller on campus for the graduate students and college faculty. They were debating something, though he never did find out what it was–campus politics, Viet Nam war, civil rights, women’s movement– it could easily have been any one of those, or maybe just a disagreement over whether homemade sangria was de rigeur. Whatever, a tall, regal woman, tight-fitting tank top, flowing cotton skirt, broke away from the group with a dancer’s flourish.  She swirled and turned and posed, one shoulder arc-ed toward the ceiling, her other arm, almost touching the floor, palm up toward the group.  They stared at her for a moment. Then one of the undergrads  began to clap, and that was sporadically taken up by people at a few surrounding tables.

The dancer laughed, shook herself back into lay-person’s posture, wiggled a hand in the air, and walked away from her colleagues to disappear into the food service area.

Willie went back to his book.

In a moment she towered over him, tray shading his light. He looked up, startled, from deep reading.

“You’re an anomaly, young man,” she said. “I’ve seen you here four days in a row.  There was a catfight the first day, a tray disaster the second, and a streaker on the third. You never looked up.” She put her tray down on the small table adjacent to his. “I want to know what you’re reading that’s so compelling.”

And that was how Miranda Quincey met Willie Randolph.

Their courtship was rich and textured; they circled around physical love, the difference in ages both compelling and offsetting. Their reluctance and restraint seemed, in the late sixties, downright counter-cultural. But after weeks of intense talk, which moved from the cafeteria to a local bar, and finally to Miranda’s trendy loft-style apartment, they gave in.

For Willie, who was vastly inexperienced, it was life-changing.  (He suspected that for Miranda, who was vastly experienced, the sex was more of a comfort.)

******

He shakes himself out of the reverie, smiles at the aide, and goes to sit with his wife. He steels himself for what he knows will come: the pleasant, vacant look of an old lady who has no idea who he is.  The dementia took its time moving in, creeping so slowly they could almost tell themselves nothing had changed from day to day.  But its spread, though slow, was inexorable.  It was like, Willie thought, a wine stain on a linen tablecloth, lazily sending fronds into new territory, the ruby stain seeping, seeping, until the tablecloth was completely compromised.  No good for its former use.  That was Miranda’s mind–the dementia seeped into all the nooks and crannies; he could picture it, dark, bubbling, almost–making her vulnerable mind completely unlike the brilliant tool it had once been.

Willie pulls a dining table chair in front of Miranda’s chair and sits; he puts out his hands to draw in each of hers.  But she surprises him.  There is a flash in her eyes, and Miranda, who has become completely non-verbal, says, with clear, great effort, “Woo.”

Willie’s tears, which seem always ready these days, well.  “Yes, baby,” he says. “It’s me. It’s Willie.”

She reaches one hand up to lightly graze his cheek.  Her eyes cloud.  “Gaw?”

“Yes,” he whispers, leaning in to catch every second of awareness. “My beard is gone. I’ve shaved.”

But in the time he took to answer, she is gone too; that tiny glimmer of Miranda is snuffed.  He realizes, Willie does, that that may be the last time he ever truly talks to her. Miranda has advanced stage four cancer.  When she still had her wits about her, she’d been very clear what she wanted should this circumstance occur.  No extra measures.  Plenty of pain alleviation.  But no chemo, no radiation.

At his last weekly meeting, the doctor confided that the disease was racing through her system, like, he said, she was encouraging it to hurry up.

Well, of course she was, thought Willie; wherever Miranda’s conscious mind existed, she did not want her body stuck in this in-between hell.

He sits with the gentle shell, the happy, vacant old lady who still smiles at taped classical music, for two hours.  Then Sandy comes to wheel her off to what lunch she can ingest and a rest in her crib-like bed. Willie stands and stretches and makes his way out.

He has an appointment, and then he’ll stop and see Victoria, their daughter. Victoria, who was born when he was 21: there are fewer years between Willie and his daughter than separate Willie and his wife.

******

They had had to be careful; the college had rules about faculty dating students, although of course the rules had been made for older men preying on pretty coeds.  They’d kept the secret pretty well, he thought; he told  elaborate stories to his dorm-mates about where he went on the weekends and every Wednesday night, weaving in just enough of the truth to be convincing.  It was an older woman, he told them, someone local.

“OLDER older?” asked Skip, his pot-head next-door neighbor. “Like, not like OLD older, right?’

“Old enough,” said Willie, “for the French to think she’s sexy.”

His friends sighed.  Anything French reeked of musky sex.  They admired Willie for his glamorous mystery woman. His  time apart from Miranda was spent studying; he was becoming known–unjustly, he realized; anyone could immerse himself in his books–as the resident genius.  The other guys treated him with something like awe.

That was the first year: he went home for an abbreviated Christmas break, told his parents he had a mid-mester project and returned to spend a decadent two weeks wrapped up in Miranda.

By then he realized very clearly she was not perfect. She could be waspish and stingy; she wanted, always, to be the center of attention.  Her wit was acerbic; and sometimes, it was plain mean.  She didn’t hesitate to vent it on people–salesclerks, wait staff, Willie–who didn’t meet her expectations.

Her expectations were high.

But Willie was distracted, immersed in his books; he was happy to worship her if she was happy to give him free rein for his studies.  She didn’t think he was perfect either, but she did, she said, think he was delicious.

She called him ‘BT’, for Boy Toy.

He did NOT call her his ‘old lady.’

He had a perfect 4.0 his junior year, and by summer, Miranda was pregnant. He took her home to meet his family.  They were appalled.

His sister Katie: Okay, screw her, but don’t MARRY her!

His mother: Are you NUTS?  She’s four years younger than I am.

His father offered to send him to a college on the other side of the country, a fresh start–somewhere ‘that woman’ would never find him.

Willie laughed.  He loved his college. He loved Miranda.  And while an instructor couldn’t date a student, there was no reason she couldn’t be married to one.  In fact, he said, if he was married to Miranda, he could attend school free.

It’s a hell of a way to get a free education, muttered his mother, and his sister added darkly, You know it will never last.

Five years later, as they crashed into their early fifties, Willie’s parents announced they were splitting up. Each remarried; each of the new marriages floundered, too.  Both died alone, in nursing homes.

Katie married her high school sweetheart in a fairy tale wedding.  They lasted seven years.

Willie and Miranda drove to Pennsylvania, got married in the parlor of a JP’s home, with the justice’s wife and son as witnesses. They ate their wedding supper at a McDonald’s.  Pregnant Miranda lost it on the way home.

Just as well, she said, we didn’t pay for anything fancy.

Willie got a part-time job at the local newspaper; she took a sabbatical year. They settled into the loft apartment. Willie studied and worked; Miranda exercised and bloomed.  They stayed in town and had a lovely Christmas in their nesting cocoon.

Victoria was born early in March.

From the first she was a sturdy, placid baby.  Willie expected a mini-Miranda; but Vic was not that.  She looked in fact, like his father, built sort of like a barrel.  Solid, even, dependable.

Miranda surprised him.  There was no disappointment that the baby–clearly their one and only baby–was not a dancing swan.  Miranda accepted Victoria just as she was.  No, it was more than that: she loved Victoria for whom she was, loved every second of the unfolding of her personality.  There was never any jealousy between the two women; there was no traumatic teenaged mother-daughter conflict.  Victoria always knew clearly what she wanted; in high school she told them that, while she would go to college, she wanted to do a cosmetology course at the career center instead of the traditional college prep. She did; she excelled.

She went to the local college, free: Miranda taught there just long enough for Vic to graduate. Victoria got an early childhood teaching degree, uninterested in working, like her mother did, with college students , or with the middle-schoolers her father enjoyed so much.  She got a job at a day care, married a nice guy named Charley, moved away, and wound up doing hair at a salon. Charley was killed when Vic was 32. They never had kids.  Vic moved back to town, got a job in a store that sold women’s wigs and hairpieces–their most reliable clients were drag queens–and soon moved into a manager’s position.

She had friends, a  cozy apartment; she went to church (which was more than Willie and Miranda had ever done) and taught Sunday school; she volunteered at the library.  She had a rich life, and the fact that it might not have been one that Willie and Miranda picked for her did not diminish it.

Willie, who’d started teaching right after graduation, was able to take an early retirement not too long after Miranda left the college.  They did it all–they went to Paris; they saw Broadway shows. He took her picture as she danced at the lip of the Grand Canyon. She took his picture as he peed into it. They ran a 10K together. They rode the train through the Canadian Rockies.

Willie went bald. He grew a beard.  He never tried to look more youthful.  He was never, not once, tempted to stray.

When Miranda, in her late seventies, showed clear signs of failing, Willie was glad they’d had that time, glad Victoria was near.

Inch by relentless inch, he lost his wife.

*****

Today, he gets in the car–a little two-seater they’d bought ten years ago, so they could feel the wind in their hair in the summer–and drives twenty miles to the city, to a shop that sells toupees and hairpieces.  They have his hairpiece waiting for him. He goes in for the final fitting.

He is sitting in front of a mirror, seeing himself clean shaven and with hair on top of his head for the first time in 20 years. The toupee is not outrageous; it’s an ordinary, older middle-aged man’s haircut, peppered with gray.  It looks as if he’s grown it.  The woman who fits him is silent for a long moment. Finally she says, “It’s perfect.  You look ten years younger.”

Willie, again, begins to cry.

*****

Later, he drives to Vic’s shop.  She is alone when he walks in; she turns to look, and then looks again, and she, too,  begins to cry. It is, thinks Willie, a day for tears.

That afternoon, they visit Miranda together, and then they go out to dinner.  He thinks about explaining to his undemanding daughter–but she doesn’t ask, doesn’t wail, “Why, Dad?” She simply says, “It’s just this, Dad: Mommy stopped, but we keep going.” They eat a comforting meal at Bob Evans; afterwards, Willie drops her off at her apartment.  He squeezes her hand and she smiles at him.

Miranda dies a few weeks later, quietly, softly, just slipping from one realm into another. They have a memorial at Vic’s church; Willie is touched and gratified by the number of mourners–current friends, former students, Katie and her son, several of Vic’s flashier clientele (Miranda would have loved that)–who come to express their sympathies.

There’s a lovely sermon; people speak.  Willie, though his legs feel leaden, gets up and shares a story he has written out about traveling with Miranda.

That, Willie tells the crowd, is the line he’s having engraved on Miranda’s tombstone: Some things just can’t be scripted.

He sits down with relief; he has never been the performer in the family.  As people exit the church, they shake his hand, hug him.  One of the nurses from the Oleander, all teared up, thanks him for the story.

Finally, it is just Willie and Vic, left to pick up a few last things in the church hall–a triptych of photos, a thick stack of cards.  They carry the stuff to Willie’s car; Vic uses her remote start to get hers going, warm it up.

They are exhausted, but wound tight. They meet at the diner and get coffee, cradling the mugs in their cold hands..

“Vic,” Willie says to his warrior daughter, “I don’t know who I am without her.”

She gazes at him, at his new look, the new shirt and pants he’d bought for the service, her loyal, hurting father suddenly morphed into an attractive, mysterious man. She knows what it means to re-invent a life, and she takes his hands in hers and squeezes.

“Daddy,” she says, though she hasn’t called him that in 42 years. “Daddy. It’s your time to find out.”