Gratitude Ranking: Thanksgiving 2019

“It doesn’t take much to make me happy,” says my husband Paul.  So last year, as a Thanksgiving exercise, I identified a list of ten small comforting things to show that “it doesn’t take much to make me happy, either.” I elected to repeat that exercise this year. Most likely, I thought, I’ll find some of the very same items on my list. Maybe a few will have dropped, or raised, like the college football-team rankings.

Formerly Top Ten

I reviewed last year’s list. Wow, so trivial. Of course, that was my intention, to identify the smallest things that ease me through the daily routine.  It turns out that the items from 2018 lost their relevance this year. Here’s what I found.

The dust-buster (10) sits in a cupboard, uncharged, alongside the heating pad (9), which I’ve not been inclined to use yet.

Netflix (8) has lost its appeal. Once I finished West Wing, I waited the entire year for season 3 of The Crown, and binged that in one week.

Salted butter (7) is no longer a novelty.

Phone (6) conversations with my dad have ceased since he’s been ill.

Amazon surpassed USPS (5) in our mail-order life.

I can’t believe I even had pie crusts (4) on last year’s list. When or if this year’s Thanksgiving dinner will occur is still a question mark.

The one exception, heated car seats (3), claims a spot as part of a package this year.

I have not watched the NFL RedZone (2) even once and teams are jockeying for playoffs.

We’ve been using the Keurig daily, even more convenient than the coffee pot (1).

Current Most Valuable Ten

The year’s life events conspired to push last year’s trifling comforts off the page. Apparently, it takes a great deal to make me happy. This Thanksgiving I’m grateful for these ten major things.

10. My 2011 Subaru Outback. Chariot to everything on this list, odometer 180,000+ miles.

9. Michele Obama. Her story in her voice deepened my insights on humanity.

8. Price Chopper Market. A bright, convenient, abundant source of all food needs.

7. Macsherry Library. My access to live and printed cerebral nourishment.

6. Girlfriends, near and far, from past and present. A pool of strength for life’s challenges.

5. Poets & Writers, INK of Cape Vincent. Consistent source of metta and chi.

4. The open border between the United States and Canada. Our access to family.

3. My son and granddaughters. The key purpose for my decade of 60.

2. Tami. Sister, friend, and teammate in elder care.

1. Paul. My perennial partner and patron.

Think of this, I start every day with the number one major thing for which I am grateful.

 

Yes and No

Excuse, excuses.

I propose ridiculous rationales as to why we had the boat on the river only six times.

The grand-girls kept us busy.

Visitors came.

The water was high.

The water was rough.

The weather was too windy.

The temperature was too cold.

The grass needed mowed.

We had too many appointments.

I had to shop for groceries.

Even in October, we waited futilely for agreeable conditions. The timing never aligned with our schedules. So we pulled our boat out of the water, officially ending the Cygnet’s 2019 season. I contend we had reasons, not excuses, justifications if you will.

Don’t misunderstand; the St. Lawrence could not be more important in our lives. I’ve crossed it, gazed upon it, written about it, and felt its hypnotic spell every day. In fact, Paul has logged in about 300 hours fishing with our son, Reed, in his boat. The river is not the issue here. Neither is the Cygnet. Every time we cruised down the channel and around the islands, we agreed that having the Cygnet is priceless. We might tell ourselves that the issue is time, but that is false. We always find time for what we want the most. Have we really lost energy and motivation for boating? I vehemently opposed that argument when we bought the boat.

Make a Choice

My friend Edana recently observed, “Saying no to something means saying yes to something else.” Clearly, we have little control over many of life’s episodes, but our actions with regard to those events might be guided by yes and no decisions. Even when we choose to equivocate, we are saying no to our power of choice.  Really, I could ponder all the repercussions of every yes and no decision I’ve ever made.  I’ve done that before; haven’t we all? But that would be saying yes to the past and no to the future. See how it works?

Facing life through a series of yes and no choices could help me get the most value from each day. Okay, so if every day is filled with yes and no options, how to proceed?  So far I’ve done it like this. No, I don’t need an alarm; daybreak will wake me. Yes, I’ll drink coffee every morning for two hours.  Yes, it’s a beautiful day, I’ll take a walk.  All day rain? Yes, I’ll read my book. Those delightful experiences occur exactly because I say no to cleaning, laundry, yard work, and shopping. Granted, retirement provides much more flexibility than full-time employment.

Weigh the Options

As it turns out timing might be a factor. Over the summer I said yes to painting class when that Wednesday was the perfect boat-day.  Book Club meets Thursday evenings, which conflicts with the one evening we spend each week with the grand-girls. So, no-go to Book Club.  But yes to reading the books. It’s unwise to say no to dental or doctor appointments.  I can only procrastinate for so long regarding automobile inspection. But an absolute yes to the hair appointment.  Perhaps yes and no has its complexities, after all.

When I retired I made a chart of the people, endeavors, and goals I hoped to have in my life. Ideally, only choices related to that framework get a yes. The key is to always have meaningful options, right? I fool myself. I say yes to the easiest actions. So I have plenty of things I intend to do, but don’t.  I have not embarked on the larger objectives. After all these months of oil-painting classes, I’ve not begun a new painting in almost a year. And what about the book I imagined starting?  Saying yes to time-consuming commitments will require no to many more. I’ll know when I’m ready.

Prioritize

Setting priorities expedites choice. Summer is short.  In the future, the Cygnet gets precedence over year-round pastimes. And when I say no, the yes activity should be just as valuable, or more so. Next season the Cygnet will elicit a yes over grass-mowing and grocery shopping.

Situations shift, life evolves. Yes and no choices must reflect those changes. The key is to decide what really counts in life at every turn.  Disregard what others think, what the rules used to be, or what those voices in your head admonish you to do. Use the personal power of yes and no.

 

 

House Arrest

“Cinda!” a panic-stricken call emanated from the bathroom. I dashed to the doorway.

“What is it, Dad?”

“I’m deformed,” he moaned.

I’d seen the dark bluish ring forming under the thin skin around his right eye. Plus, fluid had settled into a bulging pocket.  All of that visible above the wad of gauze perched at an off-angle on his nose and secured with four strips of first-aid tape reaching the middle of both cheeks. He looked like an aged boxer after a fight.

“In a day or two the swelling and discoloring will fade,” I promised.

“I sure as hell hope so.”

None of us anticipated dad’s surgery to be so invasive. Following my dad’s annual dermatologist visit he was referred to a plastic surgeon for more aggressive skin-cancer treatment.  At first my sister said she could handle this, no need for me to travel from New York. I elected to come for the procedure, but more to handle the post-operative care. Thank goodness I did.

We had not left the apartment all day yesterday. Post-operative instructions appear so benign on paper.

Clean the incision area every 6 hours with soap and water. Blot the tape dry, but do not remove the beige tape.

My dad had three incisions. One on his arm, we virtually forgot about in a day or so; it was small and easy to care for.  The second, a four and one-half inch incision on his head that required 12-15 stitches, but I never got a count on them because the blood dried and scabbed so much. Every time I cleaned it I had to have an out-of-body experience so I wouldn’t swoon. My poor dad winced as soon as a cloth touched his sore, sensitive stitched scalp. I tried not to tear-up as he emitted painful little cries while I daubed. He had already experienced the “worst pain in his life” during the procedure. The third incision was on his nose. I would swear he was slashed in a knife fight. I couldn’t believe any cosmetic surgeon hacked like that.

His nose bled so much for 36 hours that the beige tape (not to be removed) came off within 12. It was all I could do to keep enough gauze plastered to his nose to absorb blood. No cleaning of that incision while I was there. He kept asking if we couldn’t put something a bit smaller over the nose wound, a clue he was plotting an outing to the Elks or winery. I could not let that happen. No way could we risk an infection.

Do not lift or bend over for 3 days following surgery.

My dad is a fuss budget. He frets and paces over every little thing.  That trait has only intensified. He walks to the recycling bin in his garage as soon as he has one plastic bottle or cardboard container. When the trash has one or two items he carries it out to the large can. He checks his calendar to confirm the day. He watches out the window for the mailman and the Meals-on-Wheels delivery. He repeats all of the aforementioned forgetting he’s already done that. He bends over to pick up any little piece of lint on the carpet. He is still six-feet tall, so just about every task besides walking requires him to bend over.

I follow him around the apartment attempting to halt those little jobs he has in his head. I keep reminding him, “No bending!”

“Oh Christ, I forgot.”

I put his shoes on an ottoman and show him how he can elevate his feet one at a time to tie them. But he still leans over to put on his socks. He bends down to reach for the Tide on a bottom shelf and I cry, “Don’t bend.”

“But I have things I need to get done around here,” he insists.

I feel I’ve been impatient and harsh. He truly has things to do. Since my mother’s death six years ago he has maintained an impeccable apartment. He does his own laundry, including bedding and towels every week without fail. Until recently, the creases in his pants outshone even those of a tailor. A dirty dish never rests in his sink.

“Tell me what needs done; I can do it just for today,” I say gently.

It is not unusual for some bleeding 24-48 hours. If the bleeding will not stop, apply firm pressure for 15 minutes. If the site continues to bleed go to an emergency room.

I finally convince him to sit down and we watch his now-favorite network, Hallmark. I can’t believe that people spend an entire morning  hot-gluing paint stirs to embroidery hoops, painting the resulting basket, then filling it with dog treats. Hallmark viewers haven’t had cosmetic surgery. Or maybe that’s exactly the way to escape uncomfortable reality.

I sneak glances at the nose gauze, judging when it is so saturated that I have to ask him to sit under the kitchen light so I can reapply. I dread when I have to tell him his nose is still bleeding.

“Jesus Christ, will it ever stop?” he pleads.

Hi friend Ginny calls to check on him, but I don’t let him up from the chair.  I fill her in. She says she’s been through a similar procedure. She’s sorry to tell me, but she had to have the procedure repeated when cancerous cells remained.  Oh dread. That’s information I won’t pass on.

I text my sister who reassures me that he could bleed for 48 hours. But there’s no way I am going to apply pressure on that sore nose for 15 minutes.  I know I made the right decision to avoid health care as a profession.

Shower as usual.

Dad now looks at his watch every five minutes. This is the time of the afternoon when he heads to the Elks Club. A Hallmark movie is now showing, another beautiful couple trying to save a winery by turning it into a wedding venue. The temperature in the apartment is 78 degrees, but dad is chilly. I suggest he take his shower. I remove the nose padding, hiding my squeamish shiver.  Perhaps the shower will cleanse the nose a bit since I couldn’t.

While he showers I study a newspaper clipping a friend dropped off last week. The date is 1952. The picture shows a dozen slim, handsome young men around age 21 or 22 heading to enlist in the Korean War. My dad, looking like a young Tyrone Power, holds an envelope of the men’s enlistment papers. He is described as the group leader. I am saddened by the contrast of that moment in time with today.

Out of the shower, my dad sits under the kitchen light as I apply the thinnest two-by-two pillow of gauze and use beige tape to anchor it. He dresses in a button-up shirt. I suggest I drive him to the Elks and leave him there long enough for two drinks. He can call me when he’s ready or his gauze needs changed and I will pick him up. I tape another pad to his head and he covers it with his Korean War Veteran cap. He’s already earned a purple heart. He’s a survivor.

The Elks buddies are happy to see him. Later someone drops off chili, too spicy for my dad, but I eat it. He has a reheated dinner from Meals-on-Wheels. When we wake up the next day, his nose has begun to scab and the bleeding subsides. I stay until mid-day and he’s ready for his afternoon Elks visit. Tami calls me later to say he’s been spotted heading to the winery.

He’s officially out of house arrest.

Plus, the follow-up visit to the doctor assured us, no more surgery.

 

 

 

 

Nevermore

A few weeks ago I faced a harsh truth,

River-rides on the tube must be left to the youth.

Lest I suffer a wrenched neck or a displaced shoulder,

Or incur a case of vertigo now that I’m older.

Another nevermore activity of the prohibited kind,

Like cartwheels and somersaults, long left behind.

Not a knee or a hip have I yet to surrender,

But a crash on a skateboard could render a member.

Wheels with ball-bearings entail balance and stability,

So I abandon blades and scooters with grace and humility.

Do I dare try to snow-shoe or ski the local trail,

Pull on spiked boots and poles to hike down for the mail?

I’m satisfied never having climbed the face of a wall,

No regrets I never mastered gymnastics or sports with a ball.

Now a senior, must I stroll, meander, nothing faster than a lope?

One last thing, a 5K marathon, I won’t resign hope.

Before 70 I’m determined to boast, “Yes, I ran.”

Perhaps I should wait for next week’s bone scan.

All in all I’m grateful to be an ager who functions,

Nevermore to bemoan the limits of this life-junction.

 

 

 

Protagonism

I spent the weekend in a novella. Not reading it, not writing it, living it.

The Idea

Six months ago I began the story as the author, my objective to create a magical, bonding weekend for ten lifelong friends in the 1000 Islands. My neighbor, Melissa, would be on an extended tour of Europe for a month. She agreed to rent us her house which has views of the shipping channel, so desirable for tourists. Using my house and Melissa’s, we ten would have plenty of sleeping and bathroom space.

I didn’t act on the idea until New Year’s Day, when the temperature plummeted into single digits and the ice encrusted us, not to retreat for months. I sent the proposal by text to the invitees. Dates were negotiated to accommodate family trips, cruises, European travel, and relocation. Within hours we had a confirmed group of 10, including me, for a long July weekend.

The Outline

For the next six months I plotted the story line.  Early drafts always included the Sunset Dinner Cruise on the Island Star out of Kingston, Ontario, plus a ride in our own Cygnet. By July I was certain I would have mastered docking in order to captain the group by water to Alexandria Bay. Of course, an excursion to Canada would add interest. Plus, friends are always interested in seeing grandchildren, and mine reside in Gananoque, Ontario. Paul planned to move to Reed’s in Canada for the duration. And Reed so generously agreed to that plan.

The Setting

When summer finally arrived Paul and I edited the setting.  We replaced our broken microwave, upgraded wiring, had leaks checked out. We painted the guest room the most uplifting colors I could find, Open Air and Cloudless. I lugged all the bedspreads to the laundromat for a thorough washing. We stained both the front porch and rear decks. Shrubbery was trimmed.  I spent spare minutes weeding all the flower beds. My bottle tree was “planted” and “blossomed” with blue bottles to capture evil spirits. I placed a lucky stone outside our Tourist Entrance for luck. Details count in a good story.

After my April trip to Disney World I observed how Disney creates magic with frequent anticipatory communications. I endeavored to copy that model. Every so often I sent little text messages about the trip. I mailed a complete itinerary of planned events and our menu. Just as Disney did, I included picture postcards of the area.  I searched for my own version of Magic Bands for the guests. Eagerness for the visit infused my days. The significance of the gathering as a restorative interlude became huge for me. Clear, sunny weather was forecast. The setting would be sublime.

The Foreshadow

One week prior to the arrivals, I had the opportunity to practice docking the Cygnet. This year I felt much more comfortable navigating our boat, but had not attempted docking. Paul and I took the boat out for a ride, and then I drove the boat into our little bay. I simply could not get the proper position going into our slip. After several attempts, I angled the boat toward the dock. A slight gust of wind caught us just as I steered between two docks.

The Cygnet veered crossways. “What do I do?!” I cried.

Paul frantically used a pole to grab and pull. I pushed off the other dock, just barely saving the motor from crashing. Somehow we straightened the boat and tied to our side of the slip.

Paul gently said, “You are not ready.” He offered to return on Tuesday, to ferry the group across the American Narrows for our lunch.  In my humiliation and disappointment I totally missed the foreshadowing of this incident.

The Characters

The events of a story unfold from character action and reaction. Characters are plot.  Even before the guests assembled, the first plot twist occurred.  One guest would arrive a day later than the others, departing from a week-long family holiday. Due to work and upcoming travel two other friends had to cut their stay short by two days. Our tenth companion cancelled completely when her doctor ordered urgent tests. Writers know: no problem, no story.

I had not written these circumstances into the story. Now I had to act as protagonist, facing my first challenge.  I used my traits of flexibility and adaptation. I assigned guests to respective lodgings so the comings and goings would least affect sleeping arrangements. I reserved the Sunset Dinner Cruise, which I viewed as the climax of the weekend, for the evening when all nine of the attendees would be present. A few other events were shifted from one day to another. These minor setbacks would not prevent me from hosting the magical girlfriend weekend.

The main character often has a sidekick. Mine came a few days early from Nashville. Her experience at hosting the group several times reinforced my objective. While I tidied the house after a two-day visit from my granddaughters, she made salad and lemon bars and selected unique cheeses I never know to buy.

Torrential rain pelted the travelers for hours as they crawled across all the lake-effect regions. Amazingly, one friend made the trip after having an emergency appendectomy just a week ago. All of them had made extraordinary efforts to travel here. When they arrived at last I met them with a tray of bubbling champagne glasses.

The Plot

A wisp of strain wound around us the first morning. Tension arose as some chose to take a walk, while others remained on the deck.  We wiled away the morning waiting for guest number nine. The cloudless sky contrasted with the prevailing mood. I felt the harmony ebb. A guest was clearly unhappy. I failed to remedy the problem.  Right on schedule, our final visitor pulled in. I greeted her with a chilled glass of Zinfandel.  She had to decline, distraught over a phone call from home. A beloved family member was gravely ill. Clearly, she felt conflicted over being so far away, but elected to stay on for two nights.  We all commiserated with her regarding the situation. Metaphorical storm clouds hovered.

Recommitting to my goal, I led the way to our next event, the Canadian visit and the high point, our sunset cruise. The long wait at customs seemed designed to intensify stress levels. Fortunately, my friends’ reunion with my son uplifted our mood.  My granddaughter entertained us with a daring flagpole climb.  And Paul doled out appetizers and drinks. If only I hadn’t been driving, I would have downed several.

An hour later we boarded the Island Star, a ship I thought of as my fairy godmother.  I noticed that it looked less pristine than it had on my last voyage in 2013. A lot of chaos had happened in my life since then, and obviously my godmother had been through some as well. We were seated at two tables near the aft.  Fuel fumes wafted around us.  Activity at the restrooms and the bar diminished the charm. The stage was at the front, and that became a plus. Drinks and dinner were served without incident. That is unless I don’t count the eccentric woman, who appeared down on her luck, sitting next to us; or the live entertainment, a comedian who impersonated well-known singers using puppets and self-designed props. My friends politely peered out the windows at the scenery when possible.  But the bizarre distractions prevented anyone from appreciating the Bateau Channel, the Admiralty Islands, or the 40-Acre Shoal. I have to admit, all that was promised was a sunset, and it set brilliantly.

By the time the two departing guests left for home after breakfast the next morning, we had some downright hostility seeping into our interactions. Perplexed over the cause of the discontent, I became emotional in the good-byes. We proceeded with the agenda: shopping, winery, watching the boats from Chez Melissa. No matter how cheerful and appreciative the visitors acted, a pall followed us. We all waited for more news on the patient back home, hoping for a positive report, but fearing the opposite. Guest number nine announced she would leave the next morning to be on hand to support her family as needed. We all understood and would have done the same. My initial goal for a girlfriend retreat to relax and rejuvenate seemed trivial.  As protagonist, I simply evaded the setbacks that afternoon with the help of two vodka tonics and a beer.

Our last day and I had not yet achieved my objective: harmony, relaxation, and magical communion of friends. Paul made the trip back across the border from Canada to ferry us past Boldt Castle to Alexandria Bay. He was charming and I loved him for it.  Yet, discord in our group intensified as we prepared for the boat ride. Next, dissention occurred over when to eat ice cream.  Discussion of dinner plans felt like opening a can of nasty worms. How had I failed to remedy the discord? Antagonists wreak havoc throughout a story. Their job is to disorient and shake up the protagonist. The question is not about the intentions of the antagonist, but about their effect.  Will the protagonist accomplish her purpose or abandon it in favor of something else?

Over the past three days I had had opportunities to confront the situation head on. I’m a pleaser who avoids confrontation. Creating a possible rift in our group of friends diametrically opposed my goal. As the host of this retreat I felt an obligation to remain as optimistic as possible and hope the tension tornado would spin itself out. And it did. The final evening brought a kind of serenity as we sat on the deck of Chez Melissa gazing at the St. Lawrence.

The Theme

I had abandoned my goal and replaced it with the intent to preserve our group bond. I thought of Frankie Valle’s song, Let’s Hang On, from last summer’s trip. That theme persisted. Whatever issues caused this fissure could be ironed out with reflection and understanding. The strength of our alliance is the fact that we can release our emotions with one another, whether positive or negative. Maybe we will all be better for this experience and more honest with one another in the future.

The Lesson

Plus, I had placed far too much emphasis on this one weekend as a retreat from my worries.  My friends should not be held responsible for that. Contentment and happiness are in my own hands. I had evolved just as the protagonist does in a satisfactory story.

Let’s hope my next novella is not a murder mystery.

 

 

 

The Variable

Simple math…that’s all we needed to solve our problem.  Employ some subtraction, use addition and hopefully my sister, Tami, and I would solve for the unknown. The unknown represented by D as in Dad. Could my dad continue to live independently in his apartment?

The Problem

When my fit, active 88-year-old father had a fall and a bout with pneumonia we saw him decline physically and mentally. Our eyes opened to a situation we had not recognized. His daily nutrition may have been lacking. Plus, his daily walks to “the club” often cause him to return home in the dark. Factor in his occasional visits to the winery, his coordination is likely compromised before his walk home.  In all actuality, his cognitive functions probably declined before the fall.

“We have grave concerns about your father living alone.” The professionals at Sugarcreek Station warned us before releasing Dad into our care.  He’d had an extended hospital stay followed by ten days in the rehabilitation facility.  We were determined to see for ourselves whether my father could still live independently.

On the day of his release from Sugarcreek Station, Tami drove him to Batavia, New York, a halfway point to my place, where I met them and Dad continued on with me.  Our plan was to have my father continue his rehab at my house for the next ten days. I would get a first-hand view of his strengths and needs.

Dad put 100% effort into his therapy sessions each day. We walked the roads and he used his weights. He was determined to resume his daily routine at home, which consists of the following. He takes a morning walk around town. In the afternoon he walks two blocks to the local Elks Club. “I only have two drinks,” he insists. I’ve been told he is the father-figure of all the younger Elks members.  He walks home to eat. At least four nights of seven he walks back downtown to the local wine bar and if a band plays, he dances. My dad’s picture is on the winery website, he’s such a regular.

The rehab therapist, who admitted he had more stamina than she, expressed dire concerns over signs of dementia. At first, I feared the professionals concluded correctly. However, with each day at my place Dad grew stronger and more aware. Once we established a routine here, he gradually showed signs of his old self. By the end of the week, I decided to return to Franklin with my dad and assist him in returning to his daily schedule.

Applied Algebra

Tami and I applied our equation. We added constants. We sorted his new medication into a daily pill dispenser. We arranged for Meals-on-Wheels three times a week. I set up a white board near his pills to remind him of the day and tasks to be performed. His landlords installed a safety-bar in the bath. We subscribed to an alert button he wears in case he should fall. We fitted him with a cane and taught him how to use it. For the week I stayed with him, we walked to and from the Elks together, taking a longer, but safer route.

Next, we subtracted. Sadly, the activities that motivated him to recover would probably be part of the subtraction algorithm. His physician had already revoked his driver’s license, so we removed the keys. We picked up all the loose rugs around the apartment. This year we skipped all the porch plants except for the Mandeville that had been a gift. His new medication does not mix with alcohol. So Tami contacted Dad’s buddies at the Elks and explained that his alcohol consumption must be limited. The Elks bartenders agreed to water down his drinks with half shots.

When he and I drove by the winery one afternoon I said, “Dad, the winery is out now. It’s not a good idea for you to be walking home after dark.” Plus, I feared he might take a spill on the dance floor.

“I suppose you’re right,” he replied.

He did a solo trip to the Elks and back the final day of my stay. As part of the family check-in schedule, I would call him every morning around 9:00 and every evening around 8:00. During the evening call I would be sure he took his nightly pill and coach him in filling in his white board for the next day.

I returned home. The next evening I dialed his number for my first check-in call.  No answer. I waited and redialed. I waited ten minutes then redialed. Still no answer. In the meantime my cell phone rang. Tami asked, “Have you talked to dad?”

“No answer at his place.” I replied.

She had been trying to call him as well. “I’ll run down to check on him.”

I waited by the phone. My husband, Paul, and I made eye contact, neither of us speaking our similar thoughts aloud. In just about ten minutes my phone rang.

“Well, I’m at the winery having a glass of wine with Dad,” Tami laughed. She knew exactly where to find him. I looked over at Paul and nodded my head to affirm his unspoken suspicions. No matter how we move the constants, simplify the expression, or eliminate the co-efficient, my dad is a huge variable.

After all, my dad’s destinations house people who look after him and care for him. Tami receives frequent texts from Elks members who report when he arrives, when he leaves, whether he’s heading home or to the winery. If it rains, any number of guys will provide a ride. The other night, the winery proprietress fixed him a light supper before he left for the evening.

A Scalene Triangle

Algebra won’t solve this problem but geometry will. My dad’s daily movements create a scalene triangle. The family and everyone in town can monitor his movement from point A, his apartment, to point B, the club, to point C, the winery, returning to point A. Within that triangle he has at least three restaurants, his barber shop, his dentist, and my sister’s place of employment. Plus, the police station, two banks, and a pharmacy.

Just yesterday a Findlan nephew texted me, “I saw your dad at the winery last night. He looks good.”

As long he stays within the triangle, my dad can maintain his independence and we have some peace of mind.

 

 

 

Becoming Clarence

Our family might be facing a crossroad soon. My father was hospitalized a week ago for pneumonia. We discovered this condition after he fell in his apartment.  My sister Tami found him and called the ambulance. She monitored his progress and visited him in the hospital all that week. I live away, but I made plans to arrive in time for Tami to take a weekend trip she had planned. I would assume her role for a few days.

On Saturday, my second full day in Pennsylvania, I arrived at the hospital. I would facilitate exercises left by the therapy department. Plus, I might have a chance to get the doctor’s report. Every day, my dad, who turns 89 in September, seems incrementally better and stronger than the previous day. The heart monitor was removed, his lungs are clearing, and his vital signs improve.

I had carted some gardening tools from home on the chance that I might steal a few hours to purchase and plant flowers on the graves of my mom and Paul’s parents. Although well ahead of Memorial Day, the sunshine encouraged me to pursue the task today.  I left Dad to his hospital lunch. I would grab steamed chili dog and root-beer float at Polly’s, the well-known ice-cream shop which sat conveniently between the greenhouse and the St. Patrick’s cemetery.

A Portentous Encounter

For cemetery plants, I always go to The Wyattville Gardens. At least that is what this thriving garden center and greenhouse has grown into. Linda, another hometown girl, is a third-generation florist. Her grandparents established the premier greenhouse and florist business in Franklin. Her parents continued in the business, and her siblings still own and operate the thriving flower center. Linda returned to town with a degree and branched out on her own. She and her husband took over a rural convenience store and gas station. After decades the place has expanded into a full blown nursery with a country store packed with home décor, gifts, plants, and tasteful accents for the house and garden. I have rarely been to the Gardens when I have not seen Linda. She is a dynamo, always digging, planting, arranging, hauling, and advising. Even with a large staff, Linda is hands-on.

Everyone in the county was there that Saturday. Shoppers pulled wagons filled with arrays of color up and down the aisles of bedding plants. I walked into an impressionist painting. Sprays of yellow and purple blanketed the ground. All shades of red, pink and orange burst at eye-level.  Hundreds of blooming baskets dangled overhead.  Shades of green enveloped everything. The scent of flowers and soil in the warmth of the seasonal building provided a long-awaited balm.  Above the voices, somewhat muffled under the greenhouse canopy, the bubbling of fountains beat a contented rhythm. The pleasure-filled experience was evident on all the faces.

I headed straight to the multi-colored section of dahlias and lifted nine pots onto my wagon.  I selected a flat of white-bloomed begonias. They will serve as fillers and border around the dahlias. Just as I pull my cart over the gravel heading toward my car Linda approaches.

She greets me with a smile, “I have two mandevillas set aside for your dad.”

Every year my dad sets pots of this blooming tropical vine alongside his two wrought iron porch posts. The plants go wild there and climb the poles creating a lush fuchsia welcome on his small porch. He’s followed this ritual ever since my mom died; preserving a custom she started years ago.

“I’m not sure that’s going to happen this year. My dad’s in the hospital with pneumonia,” I explained.

“I heard that. My mom told me,” she replied. Small town news spreads instantly. “Tell him I will have them if and when he is ready.”

“Thanks Linda. This place is incredible, as always. Plus, I used your website to get your hours. What a success,” I said.

Linda put her hands out toward all the vibrancy around us, grinned, and said, “Yes. And just when I’m about ready to retire.”

“That’s how it goes. Just when you reach your peak, it’s time to choose a different path. But it all works out,” I offered.

“You would know,” she replied as she disappeared into a curtain of blooming fruit trees.

Linda’s fortuitous comment set some mystical wheels in motion.

Mystical Encounter One

After my nostalgic stop for lunch, I drove Patchel Run to the first crossroad, took a right and headed up Oak Hill.  I pulled through the open iron gate of the Catholic cemetery and navigated a few lanes to the section where the Findlans rest. I placed my tools and flowers near the stones, Paul’s parents, Paul’s brothers, Jim and Joe, and our own tiny son, Zack.  Other ancestral stones stood nearby.

I noticed that the high grass around the family stones had just been trimmed. I heard the whirr of a gasoline weed trimmer and looked to see a man with ear and eye protectors making his way from stone to stone. I proceeded to pull old roots and debris as I dug the holes for the flowers. In a few minutes the worker approached headstones in the row in front of me. He turned off the motor and stepped toward me in greeting. I smiled and said hello, plus something about how difficult it is to keep the grass under control this spring.

He pulled off his head gear and explained that the regular caretaker can’t keep up, so he was hired to do twenty hours of trimming. He seemed doubtful he could cover the entire cemetery in twenty hours. We both gazed around, especially at the section toward the apartment complex. “You probably remember when that was just grass,” he said.

“I do.” I pondered the vague idea that the rate of cemetery growth never slows.

“You look familiar,” He said. I gave him my maiden name, which seemed to ring a bell. It’s more likely he would remember Tami, who is five years younger. He gave me his name and his father’s. Of course, his father was a teacher in the district where my husband and I taught. Small town connections never cease.

He elaborated on his life, “I lost my job when the Joy plant closed. I’ve been in manufacturing all my life. But I always wanted to work outdoors.” Clearly, he put a positive spin on this career turn.

I saw him look at my car and its New York plate. I explained that we had lived here until just a couple years ago. We moved north to be near our son and granddaughters. He opened up a bit more. He and his wife have talked about relocating, maybe in the Carolinas. He doesn’t have grandchildren yet, but he has children who are not likely to settle in Franklin. Then he walked around to look at the completed flower beds.

“That looks real nice,” he said.

“We loved Franklin,” I told him. Perhaps he needed to hear from a local that leaving our idyllic town might work out just as well.  “Our move has been a terrific adventure. If you are thinking about relocating, you should try it.”

“I just might,” he said. He readjusted his goggles and headset and pulled the crank on the trimmer. I gathered my supplies, loaded them in my car and headed to Bully Hill where my mom’s ashes are buried. I never saw another vehicle belonging to the fellow. As the only two in the cemetery, I suspected our meeting wasn’t by chance.

Mystical Encounter Two

Graham Cemetery is even smaller than St. Patrick’s. I drove up the gravel road to the top of the hill where the lane turns right, the final access to the newest plots. The grass here was just as long. With two weeks until Memorial Day, caretakers had time to wait for a dry spell. Just as before, no one else appeared to be planting this early. I pulled my car off into the grass just slightly and exited. I opened the hatch. A pick-up truck, perhaps a Toyota, pulled up behind me. A tall white-haired man stepped out of the truck and moved toward me. I had heard a rumor that the older caretaker may have been ousted and replaced.  Even when my mom was first buried here, the exchanges with the caretaker had been a bit bizarre. When we chose the plot we peered at an ancient yellowed cemetery map, upon which the caretaker recorded our name. Days later we had a call that the old records were not accurate. We had to reselect a spot because our first choice seemed to already have been occupied.

I expected this man to introduce himself as the new caretaker.

“Hi. I’m John K——-,” he said, politely extending his hand.

I introduced myself as I pointed off toward the perimeter. “I’m here to put in flowers on my mom’s stone.”

“I have my mower here. I’ll be happy to mow the plot for you,” he offered.

I could see that a few stones had mowed rectangles in front. Elsewhere the grass was getting out of control.

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” I said. I felt a veil surround us as if we conversed in a pleasant void.

“I don’t mind at all,” this agreeable man insisted. “I have my mower here and nothing else to do.”

He said my name sounded familiar and with a bit more conversation we established that I was Paul’s wife. Of course, he knew Paul.  He had played on the Elks Little League when Paul played on Dolson and Beith. He elaborated that when Bud Henderson coached Dolson and Beith, he had been recruited to join the team for travel games after the regular season. Well, I had heard legendary stories of Bud Henderson all my life from Paul. So I could even recount some of them with which he identified. We chuckled and shared that kind of bond hometown history creates.

He pointed to a mound of top soil and said it was for anyone’s use. He indicated that he would be tending to his wife’s stone if I needed anything. I walked over to where he gestured. I had an uncanny thought that we were characters in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.  I almost expected to see his name, birth and death on the stone. But no, just his wife’s documentation was recorded. On either side of the stone, extensions held large urns at least a foot tall. He had them beautifully planted. I expressed my condolences and he opened up a bit about his wife’s death just one year ago this week. I sympathized, hoping to ease his sadness just by listening. No wonder he had nowhere else to be.

I carried on planting flowers next to my mom’s stone, where my dad’s name and birthdate are already inscribed. Communing with my mom, I felt assured that my dad is not ready to join her yet. I hustled back to the hospital to spend a few more hours with my dad.

That evening I recounted the day’s experiences to Paul, and he remembered John perfectly as a “nice guy.” I admitted to Paul that the day’s events outside the hospital felt a bit Dickensian, as if I had been visited by spirits of the past, present and future. He admitted the encounters were unusual.

Mystical Encounter Three

On weekdays, the hospital outpatient area on the first floor is bustling, all the offices are busy, the information desk is staffed, the coffee bar is operating, and the gift shop is open and well-lit.  Saturday and Sunday the hospital lobby is dim and quiet. The gift shop, coffee bar, and information desk all closed. Patient visitors quietly navigate to the elevators to access the higher floors where the admitted patients reside.

Having grown sluggish with all the sitting in a chair by my dad’s bed, I decided to stretch my legs. It was about three o’clock Sunday afternoon, Mother’s Day. I rode the elevator to the first floor.  I strolled toward the main entrance, intending to step outside for some fresh air, even though light rain fell. Not a soul besides me appeared on the first floor. As I neared the gift shop, I detected a light in the back over the check-out counter. Sure enough, I saw a volunteer with whom I am acquainted. I entered.

“Hi Jeannie,” I greeted. Another life-long Franklin resident, she had retired from elementary teaching. As with the previous hometown acquaintances, we had many connections. Before she even asked I offered that I was here visiting my dad, and gave her a quick rundown of the situation. Next, I asked how she had been.

Jeannie lamented that she had been trying to sell her house. At first, everything transpired as planned. She had a buyer. She found an older home she loved in Erie. Then, the buyer had backed out of the sale, which was supposed to have been closed this week. The Erie house is no longer available. Plus, she is wondering if she should make a few landscape changes to entice buyers. She is now questioning whether to sell or not. I could tell the quandary had taken over her life.

The empty shop and dim corridor beyond, we conversed under the light that shone over the counter, as if following a script. This was the longest conversation I had ever had with Jeannie.  I could feel her readiness to find life’s next adventure. I described to her the almost miraculous way our house sold when we hadn’t even advertised it yet. I guaranteed her that things work out in amazing happenstances. I made a small purchase and reassured her that things will work out as they should.

She admitted, “It helps to vent.” I nodded my head and bid a good-bye. She turned out the light and the curtain closed on that ghostly scene.

I pondered the encounters from Saturday and Sunday. I had misinterpreted.  This wasn’t Dickens, after all. This was It’s a Wonderful Life and I was Clarence. I had my chance to visit three people at a crossroads. I can look back over the course of my life and identify specific people who assisted me at such junctures. Particular phrases even come to mind. “Do you want to sell this place?” “Nothing is impossible.” “You passed.” “We want to buy your house.” Perhaps I provided the phrase these individuals needed to find their path.

Later that evening I returned to my dad’s empty apartment for the night. One mandevilla, already two and a-half feet tall rested on dad’s porch. Linda from Wyattville would have left two. Who other than Tami or me would understand the importance of the spring mandevilla ritual? This was a talisman, a confirmation that I had been operating on a mystic level that weekend.

tombstone