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.








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