Sunday, July 3, 2022

FAMILY MATTERS - CHAPTER 25


 




                      Chapter 25


Without waiting to learn if the innocent young girl was perceptive enough to detect the boy’s thinly-disguised vampire tendencies, Delaney clicked off the television movie and turned to wait as her mother descended the stairs to their basement apartment.

“So how was the shopping in beautiful downtown Tanner?” she asked as Kathy paused to set her packages on the sofa. “Were the specials as special as they seemed in the paper?”

“They were even better. And I’m afraid your Grandma got a little carried away. She outdid herself at Nordstrom’s. And then on the way home she went overboard at Safeway. 

"I hope you like broccoli. She bought enough to have it on the menu all week. She wouldn’t have done that if Dad was here. He won’t touch the stuff.” Kathy stood before the wall mirror, running a comb through her hair, reminding herself that her father had been gone nearly a week.

“How’s Grandma doing?” Delaney asked, stepping up beside her mother, making eye contact in the mirror. Speaking directly to the reflected face, she explained, “It’s kind of hard for me to tell sometimes. She doesn’t give too many clues. I know she misses him, but it’s like she doesn’t want to let it show.”

“She seemed fine to me,” Kathy replied. “Maybe that’s because I’m not too good at reading between the lines. Anyway, it’s something she has to deal with. It’s been almost a week. She can’t just wish it away.”

“I suppose not,” the girl nodded, ready to shift conversational gears. “Anyway, do you suppose if I offered something even more special than broccoli, you would do me a favor?

It was Saturday afternoon, the first quiet moment in Kathy’s normally-hectic weekend. After spending the week in Newport she was looking forward to some quality time with her daughter. Hopefully that was part of Delaney’s ‘favor.’ Still, she knew better than to agree without hearing the details.

“Better than broccoli? That would have to be pretty special.”

“How about a pineapple milkshake? A really good one....real thin, the way you like it. Would that be special enough?”

“That sounds so special I’m wondering if it qualifies as a bribe.” Kathy’s raised-eyebrow frown reflected her next question. “Why don’t you tell me what kind of favor is worth a milkshake?”

By then Delaney had deciphered signs of interest. Her mother was willing to consider her offer. She appreciated that, although there was still the matter of explaining what she wanted, without having to explain the reason why.

“I’ll have to admit,” the girl continued. “The milkshake part wasn’t my idea. Antonio suggested that. He’s been bragging about a place they call the Shake Shack. He says they make the best shakes ever.”

“And Antonio wants to buy me a milkshake? That seems rather unlikely.” Kathy sensed the need for a better explanation. “Why would he do that? He’s the lawn-mower boy, isn’t he? I’ve never even met him.”

There was no avoiding what came next. It was confession time. Hopefully her mother would see the humor in it. “Actually,” Delaney began. “He doesn’t exactly know that you’re coming. He called while you were at the Mall, to invite me out for a milkshake. I told him him I could do that. But since he bought lunch the last time, I told him I’d spring for the shakes.”

“My, that was big of you. And I’m guessing you don’t have enough money to be buying milkshakes. Am I close?”

“That’s part of it.”

“So why don’t I just send a few dollars with you? You could pretend you were a big spender.”

Indeed, Kathy had correctly identified Delaney’s fiscal dilemma. That was not surprising, since it happened so often. What she had not seen coming was the rest of the girl’s unasked favor. Perhaps that was because it was so foreign that Delaney herself could not remember ever having it cross her mind.

The anxious questions had first surfaced just minutes after she made her milkshake date with Antonio. By itself, an afternoon walk to downtown Tanner was not a particularly daunting matter. 

But that same walk, along the main thoroughfare....past the skateboard park....was a different matter. The chances of Martin Copeland making an unexpected appearance were probably slim, but certainly possible. Though Delaney was disappointed in herself for thinking such thoughts, another confrontation with young Marco was something she would rather avoid.

“You need money, and more?” Kathy was asking. “That’s something new. Usually a few dollars will do the job. So what else does it take to make me part of your milkshake party? If your Antonio friend is like most guys, he’d probably rather have ‘Mom’ stay home.”

“To begin with,” Delaney said through her sheepish grin. “I’d like you to meet him. After all, you need to have some Tanner friends too. You’re just as lonely here as I am.”

“Tanner friends? You mean like a school boy who mows lawns and has a thing for my daughter?” She stopped right there, wondering if perhaps that might be a good idea. It couldn’t hurt, getting acquainted with the boy who had athing’ for Delaney, if indeed he did. “Okay. So you think I should meet Antonio.”

“Yeah, I do. And you’d also have a chance to to see what he calls his ‘shop,’ where he has his little business, in their apartment.”

Kathy sensed the plot thickening, becoming more involved. A milkshake was one thing. A tour of the boy’s business, in his apartment no less, was definitely something else. Was her daughter put off by the prospect of being alone with Antonio? She could not remember Delaney ever asking for a chaperone.

“Do you think your Antonio friend wants Mom tagging along for a tour of his business? Or would you like me there for moral support?”

“Mom!” 

For the sake of avoiding a possible Marco incident, the girl’s simple milkshake date was becoming more complicated by the minute. 

“I certainly don’t need any ‘moral support.’ Antonio’s a good guy. I’d be safe as can be with him. What I do need is a ride to town and back. It’s a long way. I was hoping a milkshake, a chance to meet Antonio, and a tour of his business would be enough for you to take me. Does that sound like a deal to you?”

Something was not quite right. Kathy’s mothering instincts were telling her that much. It seemed that her normally free-spirited, hyper-independent daughter had suddenly turned conservative. Still, on a day she hoped would include some up-close and personal time with Delaney, there was no reason not to take advantage of the girl’s offer. Especially not when it included a pineapple milkshake


        ~~~


Kathy had accepted Delaney’s out-of-the-blue invitation to the Shake Shack without knowing what to expect. She would be meeting young Antonio Calle for the first time. That was a given.

Beyond that, she had some idea of how two teenagers, who appeared to like each other, might be constrained by her parental presence. So why was she surprised when, after the necessary introductions at their Shake Shack meeting, Delaney turned first to the business aspects of their milkshake visit?

“So you got the deal with the photography store?” Delaney asked Antonio as they carried their shakes to an outside table in the slightly-unkept courtyard behind the Shake Shack. “Were they willing to pay what you wanted?”

“That and a little more,” Antonio answered. Looking up from his drink a wide grin confirmed his words. “They’re going to run a special ad in the Sunday paper, sort of like a sale. Of course, it won’t say who’s doing the actual work, but hopefully it will generate some interest.”

“Why don’t you tell Mom what it is you do. I don’t think I explained it very well.”

By then Antonio was again wondering how Delaney’s mother had become a part of their milkshake outing. The girl had not mentioned that before. Still, it seemed he was not particularly troubled by her presence. Though a more private time with Delaney would have been nice, including Kathy did not change his plans at all. 

At that moment, however, he was not sure how to address his unexpected guest. The lady had never married Delaney’s father. He knew that much. Did that make her Ms. Padgett, or Kathy, or Mom? In the end he decided to dispense with a name. After all, if he was talking directly to her she would know who she was.

“What I do, ma’am, is take old photographs and slides that no one looks at any more and turn them into brand-new pictures that can be printed, or put on a disc....something you can watch on your computer or television.”

“And you do all that at home? That sounds ambitious. It must take quite a darkroom set-up to do all that.”

Antonio was grinning at her all-too-common question. “Not at all,” he said. “It’s not really about photography. That’s the old- fashioned way. I work with scanners, software, and printers. Every part of it is a computer process.”

“He’s been telling me all about it, Mom. But I’m not sure I understand. That’s why I wanted to see it. And since you bought the milkshakes you’re invited too. If that’s okay with him.”

“So that’s how it works.” Antonio countered, laughing as Delaney explained how she had won her mother’s assistance. “That’s probably why I’m a long time between milkshakes. My mom’s not a soft touch like yours.” Glancing in Kathy’s direction, he was looking for hints of upset.

“It sounds like your mom is too busy working to take milkshake breaks.” Delaney replied as she turned to explain to her mother. “His mom and sister both have jobs. And Antonio’s saving for college. He says he’s a cheapskate. I think he’s just frugal.”

“Saving for college,” Kathy nodded at her daughter. “Now there’s an idea I’d like to see catch on,” Then to Antonio, “So your mother is a busy lady, eh?”

“She sure is....has two, sometimes three jobs. During the summer though, she has a few hours off in the afternoon. She’s an Instructional Assistant at Southside High. They cut back her hours in July and August.”

“And your father?” Kathy asked, letting her natural curiosity pull her along. “What does he do?”

“I don’t know.” Antonio paused, wondering how much detail was appropriate. “Whatever it is, he does it somewhere in Mexico. He took off not long after my sister Erica was born. Since then it’s been just Sis, Mom, and me.”

“Oh.” Kathy said, wondering why she had allowed herself to ask that question.

“I’ll tell you what,” Antonio offered, effectively rescuing them from a conversational dead end. He was pushing himself away from the table as he suggested, “Why don’t we go check out my lab?”



Saturday, July 2, 2022

THEY SAY I SHOULDN'T GO THERE

 


 I call this A Writer’s Blog….a place where I can have my say, stating my case in my own words and my own way.

So why have I been sitting on this piece for weeks, rereading it, tweaking a word or two, wondering if it belongs here? Why the reluctance? Whether we admit it or not, October people like you and me have spent a lifetime creating their own answers to the questions I am about to address. Heck, I’ve written whole stories about them. There is no logical reason to be so timid. So here goes nothing.

As you might imagine, writing about late-life, what I call the October years, is different than writing about the Aprils and Mays we so fondly recall. For one thing, most of us have moved beyond those adolescent dreams. Our October expectations are probably different, and more realistic, than those youthful visions of how we hoped life would treat us. Though we like to revisit those memory-laden Aprils and Mays from time to time, by October we have hopefully developed the inner resources to help us cope with what life sends our way. 

Of course from time to time everyone seeks out those soul-deep ‘inner resources,’ the ones I am inclined to call “spiritual.” Yet steering clear of such personal, introspective subjects is one of the most conventional bits of advice given to storytellers….whether they are blogging or writing a novel. 

When it comes to matters of the “spiritual,” and especially “religion,” we are advised to tread softly. The odds of offending are just too high. Still, though I certainly don’t want to offend, I do want to my October stories to reflect the real world….and for me that includes matters of the soul.

After all, in the course of a lifetime I have learned there are times when this sometimes-fragile psyche of mine needs reinforcement….spiritual reinforcement. To ignore that inconvenient fact for the sake of literary correctness would have me overlooking a basic truth about the people who populate my stories

Having reached their sixties and seventies, the fictional October friends I have imagined into being have experienced the “spiritual” side of life first hand, whether or not they are willing to call it that. Hopefully in the process they have created their own ways of integrating those impulses into an acceptable life-view.

Near as I can tell, that need is universal….common to all cultures in all places. No matter what answers they construct for themselves, the fact is everyone faces those “matters of the soul.” In that case, why would I allow my stories to shy away from something so central to the lives of my October characters?

Over the years, as we’ve moved across life's calendar, you and I have found our own ways of dealing with those soul-deep questions. How else could we have made it this far? In the course of my Tanner Chronicles stories I have touched on a wide range of those October trials….hurtful times of loneliness and isolation, the emptiness of a life-partner lost or retirement gone wrong, a promising future turned sour by a failing economy, and the pain of dementia forcing its way into a long and loving relationship. Every one of those situations is more than simply a life-experience dilemma….they are the stuff of a deeply spiritual challenge.

As a staunch advocate of October Boldness and October Becoming I view our late-life spirituality as a place where “Belief”  and “Becoming” come together. By this time of life we have experienced some of the ways our spiritual "beliefs," in whatever form they take, can impact our unique and very-personal “becoming.”

You may wonder how Belief and Becoming might be blended together in an October story? How about a brief example? It’s from a story I call Becoming. Maria Ruiz is a middle-aged caretaker, a life-long captive of a God she was taught as a child to fear….the one who promises harsh judgement for every failing, and dire consequences for long-ago transgressions. 

Carl Postell, on the other hand, is left to counter Maria’s unyielding faith with little more than his own stumbling intuition of a God who asks us to be “givers,” who sends each of us off to “become” the person we are meant to be. Not surprisingly, the common ground Maria and Carl are seeking often seems out of reach. What follows is an excerpt from Becoming.


“The other day you asked me if I believed in God,” I said, pushing myself away from the fence. “Well, just so you know, I do. But I know for sure the God that I can imagine is nothing like the God you talk about.” With that I started toward the porch, ready to check in on Dad before I left.

Before I reached the back door Maria’s question was loud and demanding behind me. “How is it different, Carl?” she asked. “What makes your God different than mine?”

“Look, I’m not sure I can explain that. I’m not exactly a church-going kind of guy, you know. Let’s just say we have very different ideas and let it go at that. Okay?”

For an instant I was remembering a time when I had been “a church-going kind of guy.” When our children were young Sandra had insisted that we be in church every Sunday….certain that the kids would benefit from Sunday School and seeing their parents in church. 

It was not the kids’ favorite thing, or mine….but for several years we were there most every Sunday. Strangely, Sandra’s religious logic had grown more flexible over time, allowing us to “outgrow” church as the kids got older. By the time Trish was twelve or thirteen Sunday morning had reverted to its original status as a well-earned sleep-in-day.

Now, looking back at Maria leaning against the backyard fence I was half-laughing to myself, aware of the startling irony. That nice lady, my father’s caregiver, was struggling with the deepest of faith questions ….concerns that had apparently haunted her for decades. Now, in the very depths of her seeking, she was asking me of all people to elaborate on my muddled notion of God. She deserved so much more than I had to offer.

At that  moment I should have turned away and kept moving. Instead I paused long enough to suggest, “Maria, there’s nothing about what I believe that would help you. It’s just too different.”

“That’s what I’m asking. How is it different?”

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked, knowing that I was not at all sure, She nodded her affirmation, so I took a deep breath and threw caution to the wind.

“Okay, here’s the deal. You talk about a God who has rules for every step you take….and who comes down hard on you when you break those rules. Your God sounds like a tyrant to me.…one who depends on the ‘fear of God.’ The God that makes sense to me is one who gives everyone the freedom to become themselves. 

By then my unfamiliar role as spiritual advisor was growing more uncomfortable by the second. “The God I can imagine gives every person and every thing It creates exactly what they need to become what they are supposed to be. And then It sends that creation off to become that ‘something.' That’s true for a tree, a flower, or an animal. They use what God gives them to become what they’re meant to be. And I believe that it’s the same way for people. 

“That’s what I think we’re doing with our lives….at least we’re supposed to be doing,” I continued, hoping that Maria was still listening. “We are ‘becoming.’ A part of that process is learning what we’re supposed to be….that might be a caregiver like you, a storyteller like me, or anything else. There's no end to the possibilities. 

“But I'm certain that once we've figured out what it is we're meant to be, we’ll discover that we have everything we need to become that person." I paused to read her reaction. She was giving me few clues so I added, “And I guess that’s about it.”

“That’s all?,” Maria asked incredulously. “That's what God is like to you?”

“Yeah, that’s it,” I shrugged, knowing there was at least one more piece I ought to be including. How would she accept that? “Except for one last thing,” I said. “Something that seems to be very different than the God you know.”

“What’s that?”

“Like I said before,” I continued. “We have choices in the matter. We do the choosing. We can even decide not to become the person we’re meant to be. We all do that sometimes. But when that happens….when we mess up….I don’t believe that God gives up on us. The God I can imagine doesn’t forget about us, or get mad, or punish us because we took a wrong turn. He, or She, knows that everyone does that from time to time. Most of all, God is ready to help us when we’re ready to try again.

“It seems to me that’s important.” I was ready to end this. “Because even when we get off track, and we all do, what I call God is always ready to help us. We’re surrounded by Him, or Her, or It. The people who care about us, who lend a hand even when they don’t have to….they’re God’s way of helping us.

“Anyway, that’s how God looks to me. But I don’t see how any of that can help you. Not if you can’t accept a God who forgives the times you’ve gone wrong. I wish you could do that, because Dad and I would really like to see you smiling again.”


How about that? There I was, having Carl Postell take the first unpromising steps toward a relationship by debating the nature of God. Unlikely perhaps, but apparently necessary. How else could Maria, who viewed life through the blurry lens of a vengeful God, be guided to a more fruitful becoming? How else could she become the person she was born to be?

Friday, July 1, 2022

FAMILY MATTERS - Chapter 24


 





           Chapter 24


For weeks she had listened to her own parents debate their conflicting notions of home....where it was and what it meant. Now, in a most surprising way, Kathy Padgett had come face-to-face with her own ‘home’ dilemma....how that apparently obvious concept meant such different things to the people in her life. 

She was in the basement apartment that Sunday afternoon, packing for her return to Newport, when Delaney looked up from her magazine to offer her question.

“What are you going to do, Mom?”

Tucking her bulky cosmetic bag into a corner of the suitcase, Kathy looked up to see if her daughter was prepared to elaborate. “About what? Is there something I should be doing?”

At the end of the couch Delaney pulled her legs up under her and paused to reword her vague request. In her mind it seemed like something a parent should be asking their child, not the other way around.

“About us. About what we’re going to do. That’s what I mean. Everything is so screwed up. You’re at the coast all week. I’m here in Tanner. And Gary’s back in L.A. I guess I’m hoping that’s not your idea of a permanent arrangement.”

“I hope not too.”

The questions had been on the girl’s mind all morning, awaiting the right time to ask them. In only an hour her mother would be off to the coast for another week. They were alone, and her introductory questions had already been asked. Why not carry on while she could?

“I heard you telling Grandma yesterday that you had dinner in Newport last week with some guy. Is that something I should know about?”

The tone of her daughter’s timid inquisitiveness had Kathy laughing to herself, and wondering how much explanation a single, very-innocent dinner required. 

“That was Bob,” she nodded. “He works in the nursing-home office. He’s a good guy. We had a nice dinner and a nice visit. That’s all.”

“Does that mean you’re moving on, getting over Gary? Maybe getting past Gary?”

“Del. It was just a dinner, in a very crowded restaurant. Is that how ‘moving on’ begins? I really don’t know.”

Delaney was unwilling to be sidetracked so easily. “But no matter how that works out,” she said. “We’re still staying here in Tanner, even when Gary’s in L.A.. Right? You haven’t changed your mind about that, have you?”

How many times did she have to explain? Zipping her suitcase closed, Kathy prepared to try again. “Honey,” she said, joining Delaney on the sofa. “We’ve gone over this before. 

"Just look at everything we’ve gone through to get this far....to get settled here, at least as much as we are. Things are going pretty good, aren’t they? And they’ll be even better once you start school and we have our own place.

“And we’ve done all that for a reason. At least I have. As much as I’d like us to be with Gary I just can’t see throwing all this away to go back to where we were.”

“And that’s enough reason to leave him hanging like that?” Delaney asked. “We both know that he wants us there with him. It’s driving him crazy. I could hear it in his voice when he called yesterday. He must feel like you’ve turned your back on him.”

Not surprisingly, those very concerns had weighed on Kathy’s mind for days. Now, as uncomfortable as they were to talk about, there was a certain relief in her daughter’s willingness to bring them out into the open.

“You know, Del, that my reasons for staying here, at least a lot of them, are about you. You’re my number one reason for us being in Tanner. Gary knows that. As much as I’d like to be with him, for now the most important thing is seeing you graduate and move on from there.”

Perhaps Delaney should have let their conversation end right there. Instead, she offered one last question. “And what about this Bob guy? What do you suppose Gary would think of that?

Kathy bit her tongue and her first response went unspoken. Why should she be upset with Delaney? It was, after all, a fair question. Uncomfortable, but fair. A moment later she settled for, “Don’t worry, honey. Bob is nothing for you, or Gary, to fret about.”


         ~~~


She was a product of the Southern California street culture, a Venice Beach girl who had learned to look out for herself. For as long as she could remember Delaney Padgett had taken pride in that self-sufficiency. For most of her sixteen years had she survived, even thrived, in the back streets and counter-culture....where drugs, gangs, and unstructured 'happenings' were a way of life?

Then suddenly, she had been transplanted, resettled in a place a thousand miles and light-years away from those familiar surroundings. Now, on that Tuesday afternoon, sitting on the patio outside the Padgetts’ basement apartment, she sensed a new and ironic paradox. 

The rough and tumble streets of Venice Beach had held no fear for her. But small town Tanner, so quiet and backward, was proving to be a different matter, different enough to fuel a mounting desire to ‘go back home.’

In fact the still-shaken ‘L.A. Girl’ could pinpoint the exact moment when the surprising realization had first surfaced....that understanding of how intimidating Tanner could be. Her initial impression of Martin Copeland, aka Marco, had labeled him a tough-guy wannabe, an unconvincing facsimile of the Southern California “bad dudes” she had learned to avoid.

How had she misread the young skateboarder so badly? Had she been more trusting than usual? Perhaps so. But there was more to it than that. Though she had been slow to recognize the real Marco, by the time her grandfather had come to her rescue Delaney was already processing her unsettling dilemma. 

For perhaps the first time ever she was putting the pieces together....the understanding of what made Tanner so different. Though at she had been slow to admit it to herself, she had finally come face to face with a new reality. 

Truth to tell, the carefully-practiced self-confidence she had always relied on was, in fact, the product of something more than herself. As a youngster, in that free-wheeling beach culture, she had often been on her own. Yet, at the same time she had never been without a surrounding cadre of friends and allies.

It had been her mother’s independent urgings that had first set Delaney on that path. Despite the constant peer pressure to be a joiner, she had never cast her lot with any of the ubiquitous gangs and social clubs that crowded her teenage universe.

While her classmates joined, she had resisted, though she had managed to remain friends with most of the players. She could not remember a time when she was not in the company of someone who would stand up for her if it came to that. 

It would have been unthinkable for any of the Venice Beach boys she knew to have taken the liberties young Martin Copeland assumed were his to take. Not because they were angels, which they certainly were not, but because she was Delaney Padgett, Kathy’s daughter....the neighborhood’s child, the one everyone looked out for. 

For as long as she could remember she had been protected by the implied understanding that anyone who messed with Kathy’s girl would have to answer to her protectors. In that world, no matter where she turned, there was someone watching out for her. 

Now, in the shady warmth of the patio, revisiting those times and the circumstances that had nurtured her exaggerated self-confidence, she sensed the truth of it....the understanding of how the safety net that had always surrounded her had fostered an unrealistic sense of her own ability to take care of herself.

It was a disconcerting thing, the way Marco had shown no concern about someone coming to her aid. Small wonder he was so surprised when it was an aging grandfather who arrived to play to the role of rescuer.

From her first day in Tanner Delaney had found reasons to be uncomfortable in what her mother assured her was their new home. Yet never once had concern for her own safety been among those reasons, not in a backward backwater like Tanner. 

But now all that had changed....replaced by an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability. With her grandfather’s departure for parts unknown it seemed that she had been left with only a single ally ....a friendly, but not-so-imposing boy who mowed lawns and walked wherever he went.

  More than once Delaney had scolded herself for allowing that fear to capture her thoughts. Yet, if he was true to his word, Martin Copeland would be her Southside High School classmate, someone she might see every day. She preferred not to think about that.

At one point that weekend Delaney had considered telling Kathy of her recent escapade, and how Grandpa had come to her aid. 

But what good would that have done? Her mother was more determined than ever that Tanner would be their home. Unless Gary could convince her that their future lay in Los Angeles, that was apparently a given. Though that salvation was not likely, still Delaney found welcome comfort in the possibility.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

FAMILY MATTERS - Chapter 23


 




              Chapter 23


Nell and I had been a pair for a very long time, having made our way together through the highs and lows that marriage produces. Of course there had been occasional obstacles....detours that neither of us had enjoyed. Yet through it all we had moved ahead together, confident in our ability to deal with whatever came our way.

On that Sunday night, as I prepared to join her in bed, questions of that togetherness had captured my attention. Slipping under the covers it dawned on me that my last fifteen minutes, spent watching the end of a National Geographic special, were effectively a blank. The awful possibilities of Global Warming and the future of our planet had been swept aside by thoughts, both exhilarating and distressing, of my scheduled departure the next morning.

‘Exhilarating’ because my long-dreamed dream was about to become reality. ‘Distressing’ because Nell would not be with me. More than that, after weeks of loud and contentious debate, including her not-so-subtle talk of ‘open marriage,’ we had yet to determine what my leaving meant for our relationship.

For the first time in our shared history we faced the prospect of traveling different paths, if only for a while. From the perceived security of our individual defenses we had clashed over my wanderlust, and the likelihood of an approaching separation. Again and again we had retreated into our personal rationalizations, seldom pausing to imagine where our divergent ways might be taking us.

More than once I had explained what I called Plan B....me going off on my own without Nell....a sad possibility that she herself had first suggested.

Yet try as I might those moments had never led us to a practical discussion of what my leaving would mean for her life, or mine. There I was, planning to leave the next morning, and still neither of us had proposed a serious conversation about the impact, profane and practical, of my absence. Time was running out. It had to be done now.

“We have to talk,” I said as I stretched out in bed, pulling the covers over me.

“About what?” Nell did not bother to look up from her book.

“Well.” 

About then it seemed like my task would have been easier if she at least acknowledged my presence there beside her. “I’m leaving in the morning. You’ve seen me packing, getting stuff ready. I know you don’t want to talk about it. But there are things we need to sort out before I go?”

“Like what?”

“Just things, I guess. Like paying bills. Keeping the check register up to date. Stuff like that. Things I usually do.” 

It was a bit awkward, coming up with a list on the spur of the moment. There were other things I did in the course of my days, things she ought to know about. But how could I explain that to someone who was showing no interest in knowing? Then I remembered. “You’ll have to see that Delaney gets settled into school. That has to be done.”

“I suppose I can manage all that.” She closed her book and set it on the bedside night stand. Fluffing her pillow she rolled on to her side, facing away from me, then said over her shoulder, “I suppose an extra ten minutes a day ought to cover all that.”

A part of me wanted to end the matter right there. Why go any further when Nell could not get past the same old arguments and nasty little jabs? There were important things that needed to be addressed and there she was still fighting yesterday’s war. How could that help anything?

“Honey, we have to talk about this. It’s important. I can’t very well leave home until I know we’ve got it sorted out.”

Though I did not notice it at first, I had finally managed to get Nell’s attention. I took it to be a good sign when she rolled over to face me. For just a moment I thought I saw the hint of a smile, until I realized it was her hard, mocking grin.

“Did you say ‘home’?,” she asked. When she pushed herself up on her elbow, her sarcastic glare had me looking away. 

“You said you’re leaving ‘home.’ Didn’t you?” she asked in a most unfriendly voice. “Am I supposed to believe that you even know what the word means? Don’t you be pretending like that with me, because I know better. That’s the real problem, isn’t it? What I call ‘home’ is a foreign concept to you.”

It had taken only seconds, and a few hard edged words, for Nell to bring my stumbling entreaty to an abrupt halt. In a sentence or two she had turned my plea for understanding into a defensive retreat.

My God, I knew she was unhappy about my leaving. But how could she be doubting my allegiance to home and all that it meant to me?

Having made her point she again turned her back on me, apparently ready to end the matter. Although I was not ready for that, I had no idea how to continue. I pushed the covers back and swung my legs over the edge of the bed. There, with my head cradled in my hands, I revisited the wisdom of leaving while Nell remained so angry and uncompromising.

Finally, without turning back to her I asked over my shoulder, “How can you say I don’t know about ‘home’?”

It seemed to me a fair question. For the life of me I could not understand why she had chosen the notion of ‘home,’ the one thing I was sure we had always agreed on, as the centerpiece of her complaint....the high ground on which to make her stand? That was patently unfair.

“We’ve had lots of homes,” I continued, not sure if she was even listening. “And I’ve loved every one of them. Any place that’s included you and me together has always felt like home.”

There, in the soft light of my night-stand lamp, I was talking to myself, making my case for the home I had always valued. Meanwhile, it seemed that Nell had checked out, preferring sleep to my stumbling rationale. Or so I thought, until I heard her stern, startling and very unexpected response. 

“That’s exactly what I mean,” she grumbled. “You don’t understand at all. You just make up some warm and fuzzy idea that you call ‘home’ and expect me to be happy with that.”

I turned to face her, though she had not stirred at all. I was effectively talking to the back of her head when I asked, “What does that mean....that I’ve made up what I call home? Home is what it is. It’s not something I have to make up. It’s a place where I’ve always wanted to be. And I’ve always wanted to be there with you. Nothing about that has ever been ‘made up.’ Not a bit of it.”

Finally Nell seemed ready to make her return. She rolled onto her back, looking not at me, but at the ceiling. “It’s the same old thing.” I could hear the weary exasperation in her words. “Your idea of home is so narrow. It’s about you and me, and nothing more.

“Of course that part is important,” she continued. “But that’s not all there is. There’s more. Home is about family, about Kathy and Delaney, and friends, and church. It’s about our house and our gardens. It’s about all the things we enjoy. When I talk about home, that’s what I’m thinking about.”

By then I was of two minds....glad she was still talking to me, yet wishing she had something new to say. We had covered that ground so many times before, that place where our individual life-views collided....where compromise seemed out of reach. I knew at once my reply was not likely to expand whatever ‘common ground’ there was, but it needed saying.

“Nell, what you’re talking about is your church and your gardens. You know that. What I’m talking about is us, you and me, and the things we do together. Actually in my mind it includes even more than that. I’d like it to include things we’ve never done before, and places we’ve never been. I can’t understand why that doesn’t excite you at least a little bit. Especially knowing that ‘home’ can be wherever we are.”

“But we could see those places you’re talking about without selling our home,” Nell countered. “Just to go living in a stupid box-on-wheels. Why couldn’t we just take our trips, be gone a few weeks, then come home, like other people do?”

“You just can’t understand, can you?” How many times had I voiced that same sad complaint? ”Why should we be tied down like that? It would be like dragging an anchor everywhere we went.”

Pulling the covers up under her chin Nell appeared to signal her surrender, as if there was no reason to carry on. “I suppose you’re right,” she said softly. “I guess that’s what I’ve become....an anchor, holding you back. So you just go off and do your thing, in your own home, without having to drag that anchor, the one that looks like me, behind you.

“I guess that’s how it will have to be,” she concluded. “Me in my home, you in yours. It’s kind of sad to realize that one home isn’t enough anymore. So you go on. I can’t tell you exactly what I’ll be doing here, but this is where I’ll be.” 

Rolling back on her side, her terse parting marked the end of a most unproductive conversation. “If I’m not up when you leave in the morning, you have a nice trip.”

Monday, June 27, 2022

FAMILY MATTERS - Chapter 22


 





               Chapter 22


Minutes after Delaney’s emotional phone call I pulled up in front of the boxy two-story house where she was apparently waiting. Sure enough, the sleek black coupe was still parked at the intersection, blocking the crosswalk.

My first question was natural enough. How could a schoolboy afford a car like that? Then, pausing a moment to offer a silent thanks that my granddaughter had been fortunate enough to find a safe refuge, it was time to see if my hastily-conceived plan would be enough to impress young Marco. 

Taking the cell phone from my pocket, I poked in a few numbers, put it to my ear, and started talking as I walked down the sidewalk toward the young man who stood leaning defiantly against the car. He was bigger than I imagined and his smirky grin did not strike me as friendly.

I glanced back at the house to see Delaney parting the curtains in the front window. Was she really as worried as she appeared? I suppose she was expecting me to turn up the sidewalk to the house. When I continued walking toward the boy her empathic pantomime was pleading with me to turn back. That, of course, was not part of my plan. 

At the cross-street intersection I stopped long enough to glance carefully in both directions, then stepped off the curb into the street. Still speaking into my cell phone I moved forward. I nodded silently to Marco, noting his surprise when I walked past him to the front of the car. There I bent low to inspect the license plate, making an obvious production out of reading the numbers into the phone. 

“Get away from there, old man,” came Marco’s loud command. He pushed himself off the car and started toward me. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” 

I straightened up, doing my best to feign surprise at his angry interruption, while hoping the wave of knee-shaking distress that swept over me was not too obvious. Damn, he was an intimidating sight. 

I glanced back to the house to see Delaney looking on from a side window, with her hands covering her eyes, as if to avoid seeing what came next. 

Taking the phone from my ear, I looked back at Marco. “Are you talking to me, son?”

“Damn right I am. I want you the hell out of here.”

“I’ll bet you do,” I replied. Then, putting the phone back to my ear I continued my conversation, this time loud enough for Marco to hear. “Did you hear that, ma’am? You’re right. He does sound rather belligerent. I’d have to say Delaney had that part right.”

“Who the hell are you talking to, old man?”

Ignoring the boy’s question, I again bent low to answer the operator’s next question. “The last three numbers, you say? That would be five, eight, eight.” Then a second later, “That’s right, Ma’am. A black coupe. A ‘Chevrolet’ it says.”

Rolling my eyes in the boy’s direction I was hoping to show a hint of impatience before finally signing off. “Yes, ma’am. That should do it. I appreciate your help. I think you have all the information. Let’s just hope there’s no need to use of it. Thanks again.” Closing the phone, I slipped it back into my pocket.

“Now then,” I said. Hopefully my exaggerated grin was enough to have Marco wondering. “I was just having a nice chat with the nine-one-one operator.... explaining that my granddaughter felt she was being harassed. I wanted to be sure that if anything came of that, or if it happens again, the authorities would have the right information.

“It is Copeland....Martin Copeland? I got that right, didn’t I? That’s what Delaney told me.” With that I started back toward the house.

If the boy’s first impulse to raise a fuss with an unimposing old geezer like me, he seemed to have reconsidered that option. Perhaps he had simply concluded the hoped-for rewards of his ‘driving-home detour’ no longer warranted the risks. In any case, as I watched from the sidewalk he got in the car, backed out into the main street, and started back toward town.

Minutes later, having seconded Delaney’s effusive thanks to the kindly woman who had offered her sanctuary, I led my humbled granddaughter out to the car, listening as she replayed her dilemma.

“I really didn’t know he was a bad guy,” she explained again. “I thought I could tell. But he fooled me.”

“I told you before,” I said, holding the door for her. “We have that kind of stuff, and those kind of guys, here in Tanner too. It may look like a harmless little village to you big-city girls, but they’re here and you need to be careful.”

I need to be careful?” Delaney was ready to make her own point. “How about you? I told you not to talk to him....that he was bad news. Instead you just walked right up to him. Not only that, it seemed like you spent most of your time talking on the phone. What was that about?”

“I was talking to the nine-one-one operator. Giving her his name and a description of his car, along with the license number. I wanted him to know if he did anything stupid they’d be looking for him.”

Delaney mulled that notion for a moment, grinning a bit as she responded. “That was darn clever of you, Grandpa. I didn’t even know nine-one-one would do something like that.”

Starting the engine, I winked as I offered my admission. “I’m pretty sure they don’t. Can’t say for sure though, because I never actually dialed their number. I spent the whole time talking to dead phone.”

“Grandpa!” 

I must admit, for a second or two I sensed that Delaney was actually impressed by her granddad’s resourcefulness. That lasted for as long as it took for her next question to surface. 

“What if he’d have figured that out, if he’d known that you....?”

“But he didn’t, did he?” 

I reached over and patted her leg. “Now, since your mom and grandma have taken the night off it looks like we’re on our own for dinner again. Why don’t we see what we can find. Shall we?”

“Grandma’s gone? Again? Is everything okay?”

“Everything is fine. The two of them are spending the evening with her Garden Club girls. That’s all. I thought your mom told you that.”


         ~~~

For the second time in a week Delaney and I were on our own for dinner, having settled for a fast-food Mexican dinner at the Southend Mall. There, with our burritos and mexi-fries spread before us, she repeated her thanks.

“That was a really good thing you did, Grandpa. I’m just glad you were home. I’m not sure what I’d have done if you hadn’t been.”

“I’m glad too.”

“But you shouldn’t have talked to him, you know. I warned you about that.” For an instant I watched her reliving those anxious moments, as she looked on from the window while I stood head to head with the strapping youngster. Finally she added, “You could have been hurt.”

I was laughing to myself as I crumpled my burrito wrapper. I was sixty-three years old and not once in all those years had I been in a proper fight, one where punches were thrown and someone was actually hit. 

Perhaps, at my advanced age, I had come closer than ever to that youthful silliness. Yet, just like when I was a kid, I had managed to talk my way out of it ....once again avoiding the physical elements of confrontation.

“Maybe it wasn’t too smart,” I nodded. “But I had to get you out of that house. And I wanted to give your young friend a reason to stay away for good. After all, I might not be around if it happened again.”

I suppose I was waiting for her response. But there seemed to be none. Delaney had suddenly turned quiet and uncommunicative. “Something on your mind, honey?” I finally asked. “You look a little down in the mouth.”

She was caught up in something....apparently something important. I could tell that much. Was it my place to push her where she would rather not go? “What is it?” I asked again.

“I was just thinking,” Delaney said softly. “That’s all.”

“About what?” 

“About you. Grandma says you’re probably going away....off on your retirement trip, even though she doesn’t want you to.” 

By then I was the one who was wondering. Why was my granddaughter, of all people, addressing my travel plans? Had Nell been leaning on her?

“Just for a while,” I answered. “It’s nothing permanent, you know.”

“Yeah. I know. But that’s part of what has me wondering.”

“Come on. What are you ‘wondering’ about?”

“About things.” The girl was stumbling, looking for a way to say what she wanted to say. I waited, hoping she might give up on the whole idea.

Unfortunately she was not about to let me off the hook that easily. “I’m thinking about kids I knew back home," she continued. "You know, girls and boys who were getting to know each other, getting to like each other. And how complicated that can get sometimes.”

I was grinning as I nodded. “It works that way in Tanner too.”

“I’m sure it does. Maybe that’s the scary part, thinking that it might happen to me someday.”

“Why should that be ‘scary’? When it works out right it’s just about the best thing that can happen to a person.”

“That’s what everyone says. I’ve had friends who looked really happy in the beginning. But then, ......” Her words faded into quiet.

“But then what?”

Finishing her soda, Delaney set it aside, apparently ready to move from general, impersonal possibilities to more specific and very personal examples. “But then I see people I know, like Mom and Gary, who aren’t so happy any more....who don’t like the way things have worked out.” 

She stopped short, looking up at me to offer her most personal illustration. “And there’s you and Grandma. I know there must have been a time when you two loved each other. But when I hear you arguing, when you’re so loud and angry, it sounds like ....” 

“It sounds like what?” My God. Where was that child taking our quiet after-dinner small talk? “What does it sound like?”

For an instant I thought she might turn away from where she was taking us. Instead, chewing on her lip, she plowed ahead. “It’s like you two must have drifted apart,” was her observation. “Like whatever kept you together for all those years has stopped working. Like maybe you’ve fallen out of love.”

Looking back, I don’t remember what I was expecting from our only grandchild, except I knew for sure it was not a critique on the state of my marriage. Was I willing to be sucked into that conversational quicksand? Probably not. Yet her questions deserved an answer. If nothing else, I needed to help her understand.

“Delaney, I can’t speak for your mother and Gary. Maybe they have some idea where their situation is taking them. Maybe they don’t. But I do know a thing or two about your grandma and me. To begin with, do you realize that it’s been forty-seven years since we first met in college? That is a very long time.”

“It sure is.”

“It’s long enough to guarantee that neither of us is the same person we were when we first met. We’ve changed, both of us, like everyone does. But we’ve changed together. 

"When that happens you don’t even notice it at the time. It’s the kind of thing you have to step away from, to remember who we were back then, and how we’re different now .”

I paused again, wondering how to make my point in a way a sixteen year old could relate to. It was true, change had been a constant in my relationship with Nell. We had both changed over the years. Yet in many important ways each of us was the same person we were on the day we met. 

“You see, some things haven’t changed at all,” I continued. “I suppose that’s part of what you’re seeing now. We still care about each other very much. If we didn’t, then all those other things wouldn’t matter. We could just go our own way and not worry about it. 

“But we can’t do that. We don’t want to. So instead, we have our little debates. That’s probably what makes you wonder if we’ve grown apart, like you’re afraid your mom and Gary have.”

The waitress arrived to clear our table, refilling Delaney’s soda drink and warming my coffee. In truth, I welcomed the momentary pause. In a most unexpected way my granddaughter’s self-conscious probing was forcing me to confront thoughts I usually found easier to set aside. There she was, nudging me toward an explanation, something I owed her....and myself.

“The thing is,” I began when we were alone again. “For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be an explorer....to see places I’ve only read about, to find out what they’re really like, and meet the people who live there. I guess it’s a matter of curiosity or adventure. Whatever it is, it’s always been there. 

“Your Grandma calls that my ‘wanderlust.’ For a long time I couldn’t go off and do those things. I couldn’t scratch that itch because I was tied down to my work. Then, when I retired, it seemed like my time had finally come.

“But for all that same time there had been something else at work....something I hadn’t been paying attention to. Not like I should have been. I was too caught up in what I wanted.” 

It was true, I reminded myself. How many times had I kicked myself for having overlooked what was so close at hand, for not knowing how Nell felt? 

“You see," I said, determined to carry on before I lost my nerve. "Your Grandma doesn’t have that same itch, the one that I have. It’s that difference you’ve heard us discussing from time to time.”

“Oh yeah. I’ve heard that," Delaney nodded. "Sometimes your ‘discussions’ get pretty loud.”

“I suppose they do. But remember, we’re not discussing how we feel about each other. That part hasn’t changed a bit. It’s about what we want. Just look at us. We have this nice home, with Grandma’s nice gardens. We’re in our home town, where we have friends, and our church.”

By then Delaney must have sensed a ‘however”’coming. My disclaimer would have been easier if I had something bad to say about our Tanner home. But I didn’t have that.

“The thing is," I explained. "We already have exactly what your Grandma wants. She loves those gardens, and her church stuff, her clubs, her Bingo. All that. And that’s fine. I want her to be happy. 

"But what about me? I’m not much help around the house. Lots of times I’m just in the way. And all those other things she does? Those are her things, not mine. When it’s all said and done, I’d rather be somewhere else.

“And that's when she tells me I need a hobby or that I ought to volunteer somewhere. If she’s mad enough she just tells me to ‘get over it.’ You can imagine how much that helps. When she gets on that kick it feels like I’m back to square one.”

“And where is that?” Delaney asked.

“I suppose that’s where I feel sorry for myself.... when I tell myself I’d rather do what I want, instead of settling for her idea of what’s good for me.”

Delaney was leaning over the table, perhaps hoping to keep my emotional monologue from being heard all over the restaurant. “But Grandpa,” she said in a loud whisper. “Leaving Grandma at home, while you go off doing your thing, is that fair?”

“Come on, girl," I countered. "You’ve heard me tell her over and over how much I want her to go with me. And you’ve seen how stubborn she is about that. I can’t order her to come with me, though there are times I wish I could. The truth is, she’d rather stay home, even if she’s alone. So I suppose that’s best.”

I was ready to end my depressing monologue. I had rambled far beyond where the girl’s original question was meant to take us. Perhaps she understood the point I was trying to make, perhaps she didn't. In either case, by then I understood that I had been speaking more to myself than her, repeating the logic I needed to be reminded of from time to time.

“Anyway,” I said. “Your grandma and I are still bumping into some of the ways we’ve changed. And I’m sure there are times when that looks a little crazy. But you can be absolutely certain the way we feel about each other hasn’t changed, not one bit. That’s the glue that holds us together....and it’s still there, strong as ever.”

Piling wrappers and cups on the plastic serving tray, I was ready to move on. “Why don’t we head on home. This ‘rescuing-a-damsel-in-distress’ business has me worn out.”