Under Heaven

Hands Like Feet and The Company of Knuckleheads: A Comment or Two on the Playing of Cards

Coffee cup and cards

It is a cool, gray, wet day; summer has suddenly broken.  I pull open the second drawer of the lowboy in the dining room, looking for a pen, and I notice all the decks of cards jumbled in the back, neglected and patient.

The cards.  This rain.

I am transported to a summer, back when I was ten or twelve, and my family had a cottage on the lake, a cottage in kind of a swanky little rustic resort area not far from my hometown.  People from Squirrel Hill–people with money–came there to summer, or to rent a place for two weeks or a month; they roughed it in ramshackle little cottages with no insulation, no dishwashers, slapping screen doors, and sand in every cranny. Those folks had drinks in the backyard every night; their glasses, full of amber liquid and melting ice cubes, wobbled on uneasy little metal tables. They sat on old enameled metal lawn chairs, talking about the boats they docked at the marina.  Their kids spent their days on the beach or in those boats, hair bleaching out, their tanned hides growing progressively darker.

We were there only because of an ad in the paper–“Cottage free for two weeks if you’ll paint.”

“Why not?” agreed my parents. “It will be an adventure.”  The cottage was tiny; my brothers were old enough to help.  Painting would be the work of a day or two, and then we could kick back and enjoy a beachy break from the same-old, same-old.

We jumbled shorts and t-shirts and swimsuits into boxes; we planned food for two weeks. We bundled up the dog, her chain, and her kibble, and we drove off in the packed Buick, on a sunny Sunday, to take possession of that little kingdom for that little limited time.

And then, of course, we woke up Monday and it rained.

So I baked cookies in the tiny electric oven–an adventure in itself; I’d never used anything but a gas oven.  Is this how other people live? I pondered. I put the cookies on a tray–peanut butter cookies with squares of Hershey bar melting onto their tops in lieu of chocolate kisses.  I washed my dishes.

The cookies were gone by lunch, and everyone was bumping into one another, and the rain poured down and threatened to ignite a family rebellion.

And then we found the card drawer.

Seems to me most every home had a card drawer, in those days–usually in the kitchen, top row, right next to the thing drawer.  The card drawer had decks of cards neatly stored in their cellophaned boxes. It had pads of paper for keeping score.  Sometimes those were official score-keeping pads from card parties, or they could be little tablets given out by the local gas station at Christmas, with “Ron’s Texaco: We’ll pick you up” and a picture of a tow truck printed in blue ink across the bottom.

There would be a handful of pens in a tightly rubber-banded bunch–Bic Stics, three-quarters used up, or click pens with advertising on their barrels.  There might, in that drawer, be a handful of change.  That would be in case you were playing skat, or even, for the really serious and daring, poker—pennies and nickels stashed to reward your prowess.

The cottage’s card drawer saved the day; we set up two card tables on the rickety screened-in sunporch, pulled out chairs, put two decks together, dealt out hands of seven, and started, as the cool rain fell noisily around us, on the first of many hands of 500 Rummy.  Someone put a single on the record player, with one of those funny yellow puzzle piece/grabby things in the hole in the middle of the record. It seems to me we listened to a lot of “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am” that summer, music collections being limited.

And we played cards and laughed and complained, and we crowed at our own genius and bitterly resented the good fortune of others.  I remember a shifting group with friends arriving and brothers going off to work, and at night, the teams changing to grown ups with ash trays and cigarette smoke and maybe a beer but certainly a never-ending pot of coffee perking on the stove, and cheap thick white mugs balanced on the corners of the card table–half of them smudged with lipstick prints.

Playing cards seemed like the universal past-time then; playing cards saved the day until the sun, finally, came out, and the painting got done, and the blue waters of Lake Erie pulled us to the sand.

I realized, remembering this, how deeply embedded card playing was into my growing up years.  Back then, toddlers watched the big people laughing uproariously, dealing cards, slapping them down on the dining room table’s glossy wooden surface, and they knew, from their very first knowing, that those mysterious, shiny-coated, rectangular cards contained fun in their shapes and pictures.  Toddlers learned, when they finally got those cards into their own pudgy fingers, that the cards were to be respected. Fat little hands got slapped for folding cards or throwing cards or dog-earing them.  Growing up, all of our jokers were marked in ball point ink–the ‘J’ crossed off, and “7-Clubs” scribbled in, because some little one (or even some big one) had carelessly lost a card.

We learned to play War, the very first game, where someone split a deck roughly into two stacks, and the pair of participants flipped cards over.  The high card took all until you ran into a tie, and then someone would intone, in a mock English accent, “Of course, you KNOW: THIS means WAR!” On top of your ‘tie’ card, you put another face-down, and then another on top of that, face up.

The person with the greater third card flipped first.  Whoever had the higher buried card took the whole pile of six, made sure they were all top side up, neatened them, put them at the very bottom of the pile.

To win, you must gather in ALL the cards, every single one; there were always cries of ‘No fair!’ along the way. (You weren’t supposed to pull from the middle; you weren’t supposed to know where your high cards were; but sleight of hand was always taking place.) Sometimes it got so bad a grown-up had to intervene; that was chancy because the whole game could be cancelled if the hostilities had escalated beyond a civilized, controllable point.

We would not tolerate cheating in others, but we hoped things would not progress to that dire pass; a good, satisfying game of War could take all afternoon.

Once War was mastered, a kid could progress to Crazy Eights, Go Fish, and, finally, 500 Rummy, a game that called for skill and finesse.  Should you lay down cards as you go? Maybe it was better to take a chance and save them, lulling the other players into complacency as they saw your burgeoning hand, awaiting your turn to slap them down with a flourish and shout, “I’m out!”  Keeping score was a complicated business; aces were fifteen (even if used as 1’s, a point sometimes bitterly argued.) Everything up to the 10 card counted as five; the rest were worth ten points.

If you weren’t the one to go out, you counted up your lay-downs and subtracted from that total the amount of cards in your hand.  Discerning eyes examined your math and that of the scorekeeper.  Some days, no matter how smart you played, your luck was awful, and the cards didn’t play. Some days no one could touch you.

By the time you mastered Rummy, you might be ready to learn a little poker from older card sharps with an eye for your nickels.

I learned a lot playing cards, learned about honesty and negotiation, how to stand up for myself, when to consult the rule book, when to call on an ultimate authority.  I learned to try not to crow at victory and to lose like a champ.

And then, around age 11 or so, the opportunity arose to learn the REAL game.  My parents taught me (probably because they needed a partner, but also because it was a true rite of passage out of Little Kid-dom) to play pinochle.

Oh, the magic of that game–with its two chances for points, meld and tricks.  There was the mystery of trump and the fact that points were NOT unlimited–I could win here, but I had to deal with reality.  Bidding to 36 when I only had eight meld was a certain path to failure.

Sometimes I played three-handed, on my own ‘team’; then there might be the chance of three cards in a kitty–the chance that one of those cards would be exactly the one I needed to give me a perfect hand.  There was also the chance that I’d turn over three nines and have nothing–nothing!–and have to throw the hand in, disgraced and undignified.

Sometimes I had a partner, and her cards would shore up my weaknesses and I would gather in the tricks and try very very hard not to gloat.  And sometimes my partner’s cards and mine did not sync in any way, and we fell short of our bid and watched the scorekeeper use the minus sign to tally our points.

Sometimes when my Uncle Bill stopped in to visit, the cards would come out. Dad and Uncle Bill would bid each other up, out of sheer brotherly competition; Bill would be moaning all the while, “Oh, I got a hand like a foot!” and then he’d one-up my father.  My mother, who had a good solid hand but had dropped out of the bidding when it left the land of realistic expectations, would grow more and more white-lipped.

Occasionally, one of the men and his partner would make the outrageous bid; but more often, with roars of laughter, they would throw the hand in, take the hit in points, delight in the fact he’d kept his brother from a big score.  My mother would stomp off to the kitchen to perk a new pot of coffee, thoroughly disgusted.

Card parties were a thing in those days; at the church we attended, they were the fund raiser of choice, not just a way to make some money for the Altar and Rosary Society or the Holy Name Club, but a chance for grown-ups to go out and have fun.  They brought home prizes–a table prize might be an African violet or a bottle of good booze; the door prize might be something more valuable–a twenty-five dollar gift certificate at the Acme Grocery Store, or a free lube job at the Gulf station.

My mother was often a planner in the card party world; I learned that playing cards was not only fun, but it could be a serious, disciplined enterprise, as well.

I sorted friends by their ability to play pinochle, or not–my good buddy Liza and I often started our weekend adventures playing a couple of games of pinochle with my parents before heading out, wits sharpened, to find whatever passed for action on  Friday or Saturday night.  I married a pinochle player, and that was one area of the union that always played out right for the three short years we struggled on.

We played cards in the break room of the little parochial school where I taught middle school English (and sometimes history, art, and phys ed) and, post-marriage, I invited friends and family to my tiny efficiency apartment for weekend card nights.

And then, having married Mark, weekends settled down; other events often provided entertainment.  Eventually, though, the need to play cards bubbled back up and a group of us women banded together to indulge our pinochle habit. We met once a month, taking turns to host.  The party of players ebbed a little and then became steady. We were a group; we named ourselves the Knuckleheads. We had a motto: “What’s trump?”–because, so often, we would lay our cards down flat to listen to one of Rosemary’s stories–stories that made us rock with laughter, stream with tears,–and then have no idea where we were when finally we picked up our hands to continue.

And then a move, and another–and changes in everyone’s circumstances—and the landing–a happy landing, at that–in a place where the game of choice is not pinochle. It is euchre, and I have yet to learn.

But the cards still wait in the second-down drawer–some packs have never been opened.  Once in a while, a whim will catch the three of us, and we’ll deal out hands of three and roll nickels around and draw from the pile in the center of the table, playing skat–trying to last each other out till we reach that magic 31, or trying to capitalize on a same-suit hand right after the deal.

Once, even, the Knuckleheads did a Wild Ohio Tour, sharing two queen beds in a hotel around the corner so we could stay up until two playing hand after hand of pinochle at my table, catching up on the events of our lifetimes.  The next day we had lunch at a bar and grill called Knuckleheads, where the staff beamed kindly at our gray heads bobbing over our hamburgers–more used to bare-armed, tattooed, bottle-babies who pull up on noisy bikes than to well-trimmed ladies of a certain age pulling out pictures of grandkids and pets.

But for the most part, the playing of cards has slipped away–it’s a special event now rather than a regular fact of life.  That’s because, I’m sure, of many factors–the fact, for one, that I need no longer break open an actual deck to play a game of solitaire, Spider or otherwise.  I have electronic opponents against whom I can test my skill at hearts.  The busyness of life has changed our modus operandi.  It’s been ages since I’ve heard of a card party fund raiser, and these days, people would think it rude to just stop in and visit on, say, a Wednesday night.

I am blessed with a wonderful life and not at all bemoaning the past, but I admit to feeling a great nostalgia when I pulled open the drawer on this rainy afternoon and saw all those lonely, lovely decks of cards.  I think that maybe I need to invite my grandkids to visit, and have a rummy old afternoon; I think that when I go to see my godchild next month, I’ll slip a couple of decks into my luggage and do my best to co-opt her kids. Everyone should, I think, hear the slapping of the cards in one little corner of her memory, remember the raucous echoed laughter, the moaning exclamation, “Oh, I got a hand like a foot!”, and know the joy of being the one, for once, whose cards are in line with the winning.

Tonight is family movie night; we’ll pull up a NetFlix film on the Apple TV, or maybe even go old-school and pop in a DVD James has borrowed from the library.  But this weekend, I think, come Friday night, I’ll make some popcorn, pull out the cards, and challenge the boyos to a rousing game of Skat, no holds barred.

Life bids me to firmly let go of some pleasures; others I simply outgrow.  I cannot fit them all in my limited luggage, after all; I sort the lasting from the lost and move on.  But I know this: as long as I have the skill to deal, the wit to count, and the will to laugh,–as long as I have the daring partners with whom to collude, and I can take joy in the possibilities as yet to be turned over–as long as those things are all in place, I’ll still be playing cards.

Summer Possibles

The door to summer opens, and letters, messages, arrive… Ah, delight: there is company coming.

They survey the guest area–a pull out couch in the living room. The room has three entries; the back two can be shuttered with louvered doors, but the large front arch, the entry by the foyer, is too big for a traditional door.  When people stay overnight, they hang a curtain there from a spring tension rod.  The dog walks underneath it and jumps onto the pulled out bed. People cut through, saying, “Oh, SORRY!” when chastised.

Sometimes the guests sleep there; sometimes they put the guests in the master and sleep there themselves.  The common space shrinks to the family room.  It’s awkward, at best.

She wonders…  They go upstairs and stand in the doorway of her little box room, which is filled with craft items and boxes, photos and gifties, frames and wrapping paper and spools of silky ribbon.  A tiny room.  A room with no door.

Could we, she speculates, hang one of those barn door hardware contraptions? He backs in to the room, looks at the doorway, pulls out a measuring tape.

He searches the internet for the hardware.

“Yarrrgh!” he says, “expensive!”  But then he locates a set for less than a third of what the big box stores charge.  He places the order.

They pack all the crafty stuff into plastic bins and move them to the basement.  The dusty curtains go down the laundry chute.  She pulls out the vacuum and sucks up dust and tiny shreds of paper.  They dismantle a heavy old wooden table and lug it, in pieces, down to join the bins.

She finds a black iron day bed for seventy dollars; he puts it together. It fits snugly into the alcove formed by the dormer window. They search the ads for deals and find a mattress on sale at a discount store.  When they arrive to pick it up, they discover everything’s on sale, and there’s an extra discount with their member card.  They buy a bucket chair, a tiny dresser, a bedside table.

He and the boy go out to the garage and clean.  In the process, they uncover an old wooden door.  They set up a workshop,—sawhorses, electric sander. He sands the door smooth, paints it a soft, shining white.  The hardware arrives and he drags it and the door upstairs, mounts the black brackets, hangs the door.  The door looks perfect.

The new guest room is a tiny, pretty, welcoming gem.

Well, it’s summer, they think.  It feels like anything is possible.

She begins walking again, at night, feeling the stretch in her legs; her IPod cranks out Leonard Cohen and she catches herself marching and singing along. She smiles at passersby–the whippet-thin running woman whose ponytail pounds from shoulder to shoulder, the acrobatic biking boys who stand to charge up a long curved hilly drive. Their payoff is the thrilling return trip, navigating the downhill curves, wind riffling their short, hot-weather hair.  They zoom out onto the sidewalk, grinning, wheel around, pedal up the energy to try it again.

She thinks at first she’s crazy to try, too tired, old, and crazy to pedal up her own energy;  but soon she is walking three miles a night.

On Tuesdays, she brings big bags of fresh, local veggies home from work; they spread them out and scrutinize. Can we eat all this? they wonder. Then they begin to see recipes everywhere they turn.  They chop and blanch and freeze; they  stir together Italian wedding soup with homemade chicken broth, fresh chopped kale, tiny orzo noodles. Instead of of meatballs, they brown Italian sausage, brought back special from western New York. It is tangy and pungent; they crumble it up into the soup, eat big bowls with crusty bread from an Italian baker, and freeze containers to take for lunch.

They grill veggies and saute them; they bake chicken with summer squash and carrots.  They make dips and pesto. New recipes: why not?  They discover new favorites.

They plant basil seeds in egg cartons on the sun porch; the seeds sprout and thrive and then two desperately hot days cook their sad little stems.  She goes out and buys established plants–basil and rosemary.  They put them in the kitchen sink garden outside the kitchen door. Why not, he says, dump that good dirt from the egg cartons into the sink?

Great idea, she agrees, and sprinkles the rich black soil around the herbs.

Within days, he notices little seedlings  sprouting.  Something tells them to let those little plants be, and the seedlings get bigger and stronger.  She spicks a leaf off, rubs it between finger and thumb, sniffs.  Basil!  All the seeds they’d thought were dead come happily back to life in the rich moist dirt, the friendly sun, protected in the ell of the house from wind and storm.

Their spaghetti sauce tastes like the sun, with fresh basil and rosemary, tomatoes picked that morning at the farm down the way. It’s summer, and the time and the possibilities–even healthy plants growing from zapped seeds–seem endless.

Wendy comes to take the guest room for its maiden flight; she deems it a cozy place to sleep and read.  They take her, all three of them, on a lazy ride down the river on the paddlewheeler Lorena.  Fanned on the upper deck by river breezes, they hungrily dig into a light and lovely lettuce salad, and they fork up prime rib that cuts like butter as they chug smoothly north for an hour. They lazily eat chocolate peanut butter pie and drink hot black coffee as the Lorena turns to head home.  Children run along the riverbanks, yelling and following them. Big tough tattooed men lean out of party barges to pump their arms in the ageless signal children send to semi drivers: HONK!  PLease HONK!

The captain, a quiet, white-haired gentleman in a nautical cap, grins and obliges, pulling the long loud honking foghorn over and over.  Women, waving the hands that don’t hold clinking drinks, lounge in canvas chairs carried to the water’s edge. A storm threatens, but, of course, does not materialize. It is summer, and threats subside.

Some days she walks early and late. She loves to walk by a neighbor’s gaudy flowering shrub. Its blossoms are bigger than dessert plates, pleated and pretty with clear true colors, full and grinning in the early morning sun.

At night, the flowers curl in on themselves, as if exhausted by their boisterous, flamboyant display.  They look, he says, like hand-rolled cigars.

They walk through the Gardens around the corner; they marvel at the lily pads with their waxy blooms, exuberant in the pond where the waterfall plashes.

Some Sunday nights, a loosely woven orchestra plays in the bandshell; the group struggles gamely with complicated compositions but comes out strong with John Phillip Sousa. They clap and stamp along with the crowd, a range-y crowd with children zipping in dizzyingly circles, elders whose worn and spotted hands beat time on the metal arms of their folding lawn chairs, a cluster of black clad young people, whose cool is betrayed by feet that can’t help tapping. They people-watch and imagine unconventional matches–the crisp-cut young man, the languid and pretty young Goth.  Why not?  They’d be good for each other, maybe, they agree, and it’s summer, after all–a time for taking chances. It’s a time when it’s possible the chances will bear fruit.

But there is the chance too of the evening phone call: Are you sitting down? says the well-loved voice on the other end,–or, Call me as soon as you get this, urges the message.  These events, too, sneak into summer possibles–the ones that throw them heavily onto the bench, trying hard not to believe the messenger.

But he wasn’t SICK, he says.  He was planning a visit in two weeks.

No, she argues, he was too young.

They sit outside as the sky darkens; the birds get raucous, then grow quiet. All kinds of things, they accept sadly, are possible.

They remember by planting trees that stretch skyward and strengthen; flowers burgeon and tales of life and seasons play out in front of them.  It is a time, for them, of growth and joy, but they know,–they have the sorrowful evidence–that the pedal always turns.

They get ready for a visit from their beautiful young granddaughter, standing on the brink of so many possibilities. Her gentle hands will welcome sassy Max, the neighborhood cat, settle the antsy dog into summer slumbers.  They will go to the Zoo; they will tour the Wilds.  They’ll have wonderful meals and long walks and conversations of re-discovery.

Summer rolls up its hill, hovers for a moment at the peak, and begins to descend.  There is more glamor and flash ahead, but mothers are beginning to dream of children back in school.  The ads come out–tablets for a quarter, folders for a dime.  The first leaves on the spring-flowering tree by the kitchen window turn vividly red and flutter.

On Saturday nights, they fall asleep to the strident voice and the insistent bass of the band that plays at the bar down by the river;  the chorus of young voices rise and eddy.  It is summer yet, summer with its promise and its insistent push–you dare not rest; you must keep moving. The journey is often joyful and sometimes culls forth a wrenching loss.

They will sit outside and light a fire, sipping drinks and talking softly; they will welcome visitors to that pretty little room. They have, now, years enough on the planet to know not to fight time and flail against fate; summer will wane, and autumn will blazen. They will cosset their joys and remember their losses, and even in the midst of hard-earned wisdom, feel that little leap, that firm little flicker.

It is summer; they know what they know. Yet somehow, anyway, in the cool quiet of the night, in the friendly flicker of the fire, they still believe it’s true: anything could be possible.

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation

They hadn’t been to church in over a year,–so long that their church of tentative choice had a new minister, for heaven’s sake–but something nudged her that Sunday.  Her husband reluctantly put the New York Times aside and accompanied her, although she assured him it wasn’t necessary. But it was good, they both felt, to see friendly faces; and the cadence of the liturgy, the swell of the organ, the smell of the candles, soothed and inspired.

After the opening prayer, the children were called to the front, and a talented mom shared an abbreviated story of Jonah. The small heads leaned forward avidly.  Refusing to do what you’re told!  Trapped in the belly of the beast! VOMITED out and repentantly, belatedly obedient. Now there was a story.

The pastor, in his sermon, took up the thread of Jonah. “Let’s talk,” he said, “about answering God’s call.  What’s God calling you to do?”

She almost laughed out loud.  She was 63 years old–63!–and suddenly it seemed like the concept of vocation was stalking her.

A little child–a blond, solemn boy of maybe three and a half, four years–in the pew three rows ahead, was playing with a wooden Johnny Jump Up toy, his back to the altar, staring, unseeing, right at her.  She closed her eyes to concentrate better on the pastor’s words, but the wooden click-clacking intruded.  It sounded familiar, she thought; it conjured a long-forgotten sound. It was the sound that wooden rosary beads made as the Sisters of Saint Joseph navigated her grade school classrooms.

In third grade it had been Sister Mary Agnes who rustled and clacked up and down the aisles of the Perpetual Life schoolroom, placing thick packets of official-looking paperwork on each child’s desk. Some of the nuns were rough or stern or abrupt; Sister Mary Agnes was quiet, kind, encouraging.

When she reached forward eagerly to read the instructions, Sister put a gentle hand on her head and urged her to wait.  They would discover this together, as a class.

And it was something to discover.  This packet, Sister told them, was an APTITUDE inventory.  The questions it contained would cleverly worm their ways into each child’s special core of being, winnowing out and revealing the talents and leanings each child had.  Revealing vocations–God’s special call to each one. For each, Sister Agnes assured the third graders, had a special call.  It was their lives’ work to discern what that call was.  Sister searched the faces of her charges, her eyes, lashless behind un-rimmed spectacles, were hopeful but realistic; some, she said, might even have the special vocation for the religious life.  Although, Sister acknowledged sadly, that call seemed to come less and less, these days.

It was 1960.

The children took up their sharpened number two pencils–each had a spare, just in case; there would be no talking, no asking a neighbor for help if a pencil point broke during this exercise.  Take your time, admonished Sister.  Give honest, thoughtful answers.  The results we’ll receive could truly plant the seeds that shape your lives!

At last she could begin.  What interesting questions,–things like, If I had free time, I would choose to…a.) play kickball b.) read a book c.) play with my dog d.) take a walk. Oh, that was hard–would there be friends over?  Would her father be able to play in the yard with them?  Or would it be during a rainy summer afternoon when chores were taken care of and the house was quiet? No questions were allowed, and she wasn’t sure if she could just choose a scenario.

What would be the most likely thing? she asked herself.  She thoughtfully, carefully, bubbled in her answer and moved on to the next question.  They were all like that, boundary-less; she had to decide what the background was to respond.  The room was silent save for the scratching of pencils as the children blacked in their answers. They considered the questions–these little bundles of words that might magically change their lives–for two full hours. When Sister picked up each packet and carefully stacked them on her desk, the children were ready for lunch, ready to run out onto the courtyard and stretch their stiff and twitchy legs.

It was two long weeks before the results came in.  She’d walk home from school, in the interim, imagining what hers might say.  Something interesting, she hoped–maybe something ladies didn’t usually do–like exploring or being a white-coated, beaker-wielding, scientist.  She was a little worried about the whole religious thing; in first grade, when she had Sister Mary Theresa, who was young and beautiful with finely arched eyebrows and porcelain pale skin–Sister MT was what she thought of when she heard the term, “A bride of Christ,”– she had been sure she had the Call.  She wrote to different groups of sisters–orders, her mother called them,–and got responses with glossy brochures and programs of study, picture of missions, letters admonishing her to pray very hard for her vocation.

She also, that year, wrote to the New York Yankees and got autographed flyers from Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford.  But she wasn’t going to be a baseball player.

And she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be a nun, either.  But, she thought uneasily, what if the Results said she should?  Could she run away from God?  Look what Sister said had happened to Jonah when he tried that little trick.

Maybe she could be a writer, and maybe she could draw pictures for children’s books. Maybe there was a job for her she’d never even dreamed of.

The day the results arrived, she hurried home; Sister said to open them with a parent when there was time to sit and discuss. She hoped her mother would be ready.

Luck ran her way. Her mother, tall and thin, with a long mop of glossy auburn hair, was languidly running the feather duster around the French windows that enclosed the staircase; she stopped to look at the packet.

Oh, it was exciting, the moment before knowing!  She held her breath, sitting at the big formal dining room table, as her mother slit open the big envelope, pulled out a stack of papers, and took a long pull on her Lucky Strike.  Then she flipped open the official letter.

There was a pause,–ah, a breathless, fraught moment. And then her mother snorted.

“For Christ’s sake,” she said.  “Just like your brother!  They think all the kids outside the city are hicks!”

Her mother slapped the paper down on the table, where she could see it. “Your scores indicate,” read the printed form, “that    FARMING    would be a good match for your aptitudes and skills.”

“Farming!” she gasped, looking at her mother in despair.

Her mother laughed and reached a long, slender hand over to ruffle her hair. “You’re no farmer, kiddo,” she said. “You don’t like dirt and you don’t like animals.  You’re gonna have to figure it out yourself, just like the rest of us.”

Oh, it was disappointing.  But the concept that she had a vocation, a special role to play, never really left her.  She tried on different roles all the way through school–for a long while, she was captivated by the idea of working in a shoe store (oh, the leathery, promising smell of new shoes! And the happy faces of children picking out a wonderful new pair!)  Her brother pointed out, though, that she would have to touch stinky feet, maybe even diseased feet.

She set that idea aside, picking up new ones–waitress, nurse, rock and roll diva.  Reporter.  Designer.  Artist.

She still had no idea when she got to college so, loving books and enjoying writing and research, she took an English degree.  An advisor told her vaguely that employers cherished the ability to communicate. Those words were not entirely true, she found when she started shlepping her degree around, looking for work.  She worked for a dentist, training in the office to be an assistant, holding the suction, helping people to spit.

She liked the hours; the money was decent. But, oh, she was bored.  She went back to school for her master’s, and she vowed that she would figure out what she should be doing, only determined, in those Seventies days of exhilarating feminism, that she would neither teach nor type for a living.

And she wound up, of course, doing both–there she was, aged 26, in a middle school language arts classroom, coaxing seventh graders to write thoughtful essays, enticing them to read an abbreviated form of the Odyssey, a modernized version of Romeo and Juliet.  During breaks, she typed graduate school theses for extra money.

She hated herself for it, but she loved teaching.  She moved and married, moved again, and in each place she found a little bit better job, but always in the education field, always involved with students. She took time off to have her daughter.  Teaching, she liked to say, stalked her.  Jobs came and found her, even when she wasn’t ready to be found.  She moved from classroom to administration, and from middle school to high school.

Although she didn’t track it down, didn’t figure it out, she realized somewhat belatedly, that education was, for her, a vocation.She moved, finally, to the College level, and now, here she was: the Dean.

That was the pinnacle, and she thought suddenly, as the pastor’s thoughtful words sank like rainwater into the thirsty soil of her soul, that she was done.  Sixty three.  THIS career: over. Time to move on.

She laughed a little and her husband looked at her a little oddly, gave her a mild stink-eye, and she wondered where the pastor had gone with his sermon–oh, was she laughing, maybe, at the description of ultimate sacrifice?  She coughed lightly, patted her husband’s arm, returned to a contemplation of the pastor’s words.

Until she started thinking about the workshop she’d gone to recently that talked about continuous growth: sometimes, the speaker said, we need to make a drastic change, move to a new field entirely.  That week she’d picked up a book about ‘finding your hedgehog’ at the library–the hedgehog being that thing that one is really, ultimately, meant to do.  TED talks popped up on the subject of vocation; her daily devotionals urged her to discernment.

Sixty three! she reminded herself, standing there in the church she’d been neglecting, a smear of yellow light from the amber glass in the window staining her cheek. A little old for new careers, new choices, don’t You think?

As if in response, excitement leapt in her stomach. Finding something new. Something completely and surprisingly different.  What IS it? she thought.  She grinned at her husband, who tried to look at her in mature disapproval, but caught in the rays, he grinned right back.

The service moved toward its conclusion; music swelled. She thought about moving forward, too; she would pick up her Julia Cameron book and start doing her morning pages, walking meditation, artist’s dates. She would pray for discernment.  She would go to the women’s workshop her cousin had been urging her to attend. Something’s coming, she realized: a change, a lift, a whole new role.

They shook the new pastor’s hand, affirmed that they would see him next week, stood and talked with friends for a moment, leaning on their car in the parking lot. They climbed in the car–his car, the Sunday car, a long, sleek sedan–and drove home.

She stared out the window at houses with lovely gardens, fluttering ‘Welcome’ flags, planters burgeoning with beautiful blooms. She didn’t know what the next step was, only that there would be one, and it would be exciting.

But–she thought of the tiny terrace on their condo, with the dead flowers in their expensive container pots, and she knew this one thing for sure: Farming still wasn’t her answer.