February stumbles into March. Things are up, and things are down.
Sunday afternoon, the sun shines. It’s 60 degrees; we shed our jackets on our walk. Crocuses bloom and daffs push up, and the world seems washed and ready for newness.
The next day, the sky pushes close, gray and glowering, and snow begins to fall. The heat churgles back on, the heavy coats come back out, and it feels just as though an opened door has abruptly slammed shut.
Then there are changeable days of pouring rain, of gentle shine, and of wind that rattles the stubborn brown oak leaves. It’s an unsettled time, and it’s a time of concern. People are sick. Deadlines loom. There’s stress, and there’s pressure, and there’s uncertainty.
And then, into this uncertain, late-winter mix, slid beneath the doorway of fret and worry, three stories arrive. They are stories from friends:
–Linda–a friend from the early times–all the way back to grade school and high school years.
–Sharon–a friend from the after-college days, those heady days of young adulthood and claiming identity.
–Larisa–a friend met through the place I work now, and a friendship forged through such adventures as trudging half-marathons together.
Their stories speak to me of bravery and endurance, of answering calls for help even in the darkness, of the spirited embracing of life. Their stories ground my thoughts and remind me of things that are important. Linda and Sharon and Larisa are generous with their stories, and I know this: these stories are things to be shared.
Linda’s Story: Al’s Boots
Al went through a lot of steel-toed boots, Linda says, during his years with the railroad.
He was only 22 when the railroad took him on. They must have been glad to get him: a big strong kid, a hard worker. And, young as he was, a family man. Al and Linda–she was such a pretty girl: red-haired, bright, and lively–got married in 1972, the year he graduated from high school. Their daughter Tracy was born in March 1973; Linda picked up her high school diploma that June.
They lived in Dunkirk, their hometown. Scott arrived in October of 1975. The next year, Al laced up those steel-toed boots and joined the railroad. They hired him as a laborer; he’d barely worn out his first pair of boots when they made him a welder.
The railroad moved Al and the family to Geneva, Ohio, in 1978. He broke in another pair or two of boots before the railroad made him a foreman.
Linda turned her gift for nurturing into a vocation; she provided daycare for other families’ children in her home. She was good at it, and popular, and, in 1986, she and Al became the proud owners of We Care Day Care.
Linda ran the business for seven and a half years; Al traveled for the railroad most of that time. His boots touched down in a lot of different places, a lot of different states. He rode from Boston to Chicago to Miami, and to a lot of less well-known places in between.
The railroad made him a supervisor. He went through more pairs of boots. He worked a lot of 16 hour days. He took good care of the gang he supervised; they knew they could count on Al having a bagful of roasted shelled nuts for them and a cooler full of drinks and snacks.
Al talks about watching Amish children playing in green fields as the train sped by; he remembers street corner entrepreneurs hawking their wares. He ate at a lot of mom and pop diners and restaurants. He had a lot of rich and interesting conversations with strangers; he met a lot of strangers who became his friends. He remembers those he worked with, the people who worked for him, with a great deal of fondness.
The railroad made him a manager.
Kids grow; boots wear out; careers careen in unexpected directions. In 1999, the railroads merged, and CSX sent Al and Linda, empty-nesters now, to Scherville, Indiana. They stayed there for two and a half years…long enough, just about, to wear out another pair of boots.
Al bid out in 2003, and, writes Linda, “We say we’ve come full circle.” They moved back home to Westfield, New York. Their home town, where they graduated from high school, is about 15 miles away.
When Al retired, he took off his steel-toed boots for the last time, and he told Linda to throw them away. He went out and got himself some comfortable gym shoes and he started wearing those. He even, recently, bought himself a pair of walking shoes, and when the western New York snows melt this spring, maybe he and Linda will go walking on some of the local woodland trails or explore some of the tree-lined streets.
But Linda couldn’t bear to throw the boots away. There has to be something, she mused to herself, some way to use them. And–gifted with taste, and an unerring eye–she found just the thing. When they celebrated Al’s retirement, those boots held place of honor, filled with flowers: a steel-toed tribute.
How do you show the measure of a man? Maybe using boots that symbolize his dedication is not such a bad way. During his years with the railroad, Al and Linda raised a family, moved that family, and worked hard for their family. Al grew into management. He grew into manhood.
You know the times weren’t always easy, but Al and Linda were not the ones to give up, to wish for the easy way out. The boots wear out, you get a new pair. You lace them up and you get out there and you work.
It’s what Al did, Linda says, every day of his life with the railroad. He laced up his boots, he showed up, he did more than a day’s work, and he did it unfailingly well. And he did it healthy, and he did it sick, and he did it even when he really didn’t want to leave his family and his warm home.
All those years, says Linda, and never, not even once, did Al miss a day of work.
Sharon’s Story: The Curious Incident of the Whisper in the Night-time
It is 3 AM [Sharon remembers], a deep November night, and she is suddenly–as if summoned–wide awake. She lifts the shade of her bedroom window, and sees that, in the pouring rain, some sort of large animal prowls the backyard. ‘Coyote!’ is her first thought, but this wet beast is bigger.
She pulls on a robe and hurries downstairs.
Sharon manages the estate of a well-known Harvard professor. She lives in a jewel-box of a home on the grounds. From her front door, she can survey the pool and the rolling yards. There are security lights that shine all night long.
She watches the animal approach in the glow of those lights. When it gets close enough to activate the motion sensor on her porch, more light floods on. Sharon sees this is a dog–a big dog–one with a collar.
She tries to decide what to do. I could go out, she thinks, and bring it in out of the rain, make some calls, and try to find its owner.
But this is a strange, large dog.
It could be mean.
It could be rabid.
While Sharon ponders, the dog explores the edge of the pool, which is coated, in that November darkness, with fallen leaves. In the slickery rain, those leaves may have looked like a solid surface for walking. The dog puts out a paw, shifts its weight, and falls abruptly into the water.
Sharon is galvanized. She calls 911 and she grabs her raincoat and a flashlight. She runs out to the pool where the dog is thrashing and crying–really, heart-breakingly, crying. And Sharon knows that she has to go into the pool and get the dog. By the time helps arrives, it will be too late.
She says a prayer, and she is in the water.
She grabs the dog’s collar and then it’s like unseen hands are helping. Sharon feels as though the dog, which stops thrashing, is LIFTED from the water. It puts its paws on the pool’s edge; Sharon pushes gently. The dog is out of the pool. It shakes itself off, and it follows its dripping savior gratefully into the dry garage. Sharon rubs it down as best she can, and she discovers the trembling beast has tags with not one, but three, phone numbers to call if found. Someone, she thinks, really loves this animal. She reassures the dog that all is well.
Sharon leaves the dog in the dry garage, and takes her flashlight out to the top of the hill to flag down the police. They arrive quickly; they call the owner; they bundle the shivering dog into the back of the patrol car.
Sharon–soaked and freezing–hurries back into her house. And she thinks: What woke me at that moment in the middle of the night?
Another minute, the next day, and Sharon would have missed her. The dog’s owner pulls into the long drive just as Sharon is leaving. She is, the owner, a middle-aged woman with an armful of flowers, two ecstatic cards declaring Sharon a hero, and a special needs son, waving from the car. The dog is the little boy’s devoted companion. The dog, the owner tells Sharon, is a rescue dog itself.
There are teen-aged siblings in that household; one, the mama thinks, left a door ajar, and the dog was just bound to explore. There are busy highways to cross on the route it must have taken to get to the pool by Sharon’s home. Something kept it safe. The next thing it knew, it was five miles from home and drowning.
Except that Sharon heard a voice in the night, and she listened to its call.
A rescue dog, a child in need: Sharon figures a whole army of guardian angels were at work that night, and one of them woke her up. That angel must have known that Sharon would not hesitate; that angel must have known she was another rescuer waiting to help that child, ready to save that dog.
Larisa’s Story: Mimaw Gets Some Ink
Larisa, the youngest of nine grown siblings, balances between two dear women at thresholds. Her mother, Janette,–she’s Mimaw to the kids–,will be 90 this year. Larisa’s daughter, Cassie, just turned 18.
They are close, Cassie and her Mimaw, who now lives in an assisted living situation–a nice place, but not the family home where Janette raised and launched her brood. Larisa and her husband Aaron built their home right next to Mimaw’s. Their kids were in and out, every day.
Janette misses that.
But they visit, all the time. When Cassie comes, she and Mimaw talk about birthdays, and Mimaw wonders what special thing Cassie would like for her special day.
Cassie confides that she wants a tattoo–something her parents have told her could only happen when she turns 18. Mimaw gets interested.
When she sees Larisa alone, she confides that she’d like to be a part of that. Maybe, suggests Janette, she and Cassie should get tattoos together.
Larisa is shocked at first, but the idea flutters down, settles gently in, and takes root. Maybe, thinks Larisa, they could all get tattoos. But first she calls her mother’s doctor, who is intrigued. Ninety-year old skin IS different, the doctor agrees, but it could work. The artist would have to thoughtful and gentle and observant. The design would have to be simple and monochromatic.
Larisa calls her siblings. Some share her shock, at first, and some seem disapproving, and Barb signs on to get a tattoo, too.
They research designs and take them to Janette, who selects a simple heart that weaves into the word, “Family.”
They research tattoo artists and find Six, a local legend (Six is, students tell me, the rock star of tattoo artists in our county.) Six is not fazed; he has known older folks who wanted tattoos, and he knows how to proceed. They will do a test dot first and see if Janette’s skin will take the ink, or if the ink will run or smear. Or–it might just hurt too much. If any of those things happen, Six assures Larisa, they will abort this mission.
There are four of them at the tattoo shop that day, and the thing goes off without a glitch. The four women leave the parlor with tasteful hearts on their arms, permanent reminders that family is what’s important.
The staff at the assisted living facility waits for Janette to return from her foray to Six’s domain. Many of those caring souls have ink on their arms, too. Janette, on her arrival home, gets a standing ovation .
But Larisa worries about healing, so she visits the next day. Everything is fine, her mother says, and she’s glad she got the tattoo with Cassie as her granddaughter celebrated her 18th birthday.
Now it’s time, Janette tells Larisa solemnly, to think about her own milestone, that birthday coming up in a couple of months. She’s thinking another tattoo might be in order. What does Larisa think about…hmmm…maybe a butterfly?
I think about the different kinds of bravery owned by these three women I’m lucky enough to call friends.
I think about Linda and Al, and their dedication and devotion.
I think about Sharon’s unflinching response to a mysterious, inconvenient, challenging call.
I think about Larisa, the connecting link in a chain forged by love of family and a spirit of adventure.
Gratefully, I take their stories and I hug them close, and I push, past puddles skimmed with ice, out into this particular March morning.