Sitting in the shade of the Padgett’s patio, Delaney was remembering earlier days....recalling her introduction to what seemed to her at the time a parallel universe, a far-off place called Tanner, Oregon.
As a youngster she had leafed through the pages of her mother’s high-school annual, the one reminder of her Tanner upbringing that Kathy had taken with her to Los Angeles. The girl recalled the two-page color photo of the Tanner Southside High Homecoming Court, including senior princess, Kathy Padgett. Closing her eyes for a moment she returned to the wonderment that had always accompanied those sketchy visits to her mother’s past.
Then, in a matter of seconds, her original questions returned in a rush. Why had those small-town teenagers been willing to settle for such an insipid, middle-of-the-road existence? How could growing up in the Tanner of that day have provided even the hint of an adolescent edge, a sense of excitement? Had there been any way at all for a young woman to exert her independence?
No wonder her mother had left home to find a real life. Who could blame her for that? More to the point, from Delaney’s updated perspective nothing had changed. She had finally seen Tanner....and it was still Tanner. From their first day in town, little more than a week earlier, she had been absolutely certain she could never survive in a Tanner world. Each new morning seemed to confirm those fears.
The place itself was bad enough. But that was not her only complaint. To make matters worse, her own grandmother had come to hate her. Delaney had sensed that change in their first moments together. The old lady was no longer the smiling, doting grandmother who had visited them in Los Angeles. The new Grandma Nell glared at her constantly, correcting her every move, always expecting more. There was no way to please the lady.
In sum, everything about Tanner seemed to reinforce the same undeniable truth. She could not live there. There had to be a way out....a way back home, back to her friends and the places she knew. Until she found that way, she would have to rely on her own resourcefulness.
To begin with, that would call for a walk to the South End Mall....the nearest public-wifi hotspot, the one place she could receive internet signals. However, since Gary had taken her mother’s laptop with him to Portland that morning, any email and Facebook postings would have to wait until the next day. A moment later, still mulling that hopeful possibility, Delaney was sidetracked by a recent, decidedly-ominous development.
Just two days before she had logged on to the laptop from the Mall, eager to connect with the friends she had left behind. To her dismay, there had been no email messages and no Facebook postings waiting for her. It seemed that no one even knew she was gone, or perhaps they didn’t care. Apparently the kids back home were getting along just fine without her.
Sitting in the shade of the patio, Delaney was processing that deflating attempt to make contact with the real world when the back-yard quiet was shattered by the noisy approach of a power lawnmower coming around the corner of the house. Pushing herself out of the lawn chair, Delaney stepped out to the lawn to see what the racket was about.
“What are you doing here?” she yelled at the approaching young man.
He looked up to see her, shaking his head, motioning that he could not hear her. She yelled again and still he did not respond. Finally, pulling to a stop in front of her, the young man turned off the machine and stood grinning at her unexpected interruption. For a moment it seemed that he was too surprised to speak.
Delaney may have been just as startled, but in truth she was also a bit intrigued. The youngster was on the short side, though his lean, wiry frame looked good in shorts and a cut-off tee shirt. Most obvious of all was his dark-complected, white-toothed smile. He was good looking, and seemed to know it. The fact that he was obviously Hispanic did not put her off in the least. Many of her Los Angeles friends were Latino. It simply meant she knew how to begin a conversation.
“Habla Ingles?” she asked, stepping toward him. “Como se llama?”
A half-laughing frown broke across the young man’s face and his toothy grin returned as he answered, “Matter of fact, my English is pretty good. How’s yours?”
“Wow. I walked into that, didn’t I?”
“That’s okay. If I knew any Spanish we could do that. As it is, I’m pretty sure you’d leave me in the dust.” The youngster paused to give Delaney a rather conspicuous once over. “You’re new around here, aren’t you?”
She nodded. “Yeah. I live in L.A. At least I used to. They tell me I live here now.”
“You don’t sound too excited about that. Are you staying here with the Padgetts?”
“Yeah, They’re my grandparents.”
“They’re good people. I’ve mowed their lawn for a couple years now.”
Leaning back against a patio support post Delaney prepared to ask the question she had found no one else to ask. “So tell me, what do you do for fun around here? This little hick town is totally dead, at least the part I’ve seen. The mall is like a morgue. And there’s no beach, no place to hang out.”
“Maybe that’s because you don’t know where to look.”
“Probably not,” she said, stepping out into the sunshine. “Anyway, if you knew any Spanish at all you’d know that I asked you what your name is. I still haven’t heard that. I’m Delaney, Delaney Padgett. My friends call me Del, and a few other things I won’t mention.”
With a wide smile the boy extended his hand. “I’m Antonio Calle. And my friends never call me Tony. It’s Antonio. I’m glad to meet you, Del. Can I call you that?”
“Yeah, you can.”
Turning back to the mower, Antonio explained over his shoulder. “I’d better get back to work. The old guy gets a little pissed if he thinks I’m goofing off. Anyway, don’t get too down on Tanner. Give it a chance. Maybe it’ll grow on you.”
“You mean like mold?”
“Something like that.”
Nell and I had been together forty-six years, married for forty-three. After that long it seems I ought to have known better. At the very least I should have been prepared for her blunt rejection of my retirement dream.
During the final months of my Cameron assignment we had talked several times about our approaching transition to retirement. But those conversations were couched in vague, feel-good terms. Nothing I remembered from those conversations had raised a red flag. For some reason I assumed that we were more or less on the same page. Obviously I had misread the signs. As it turned out we were not even on the same chapter.
By now I realized that Nell’s objections hurt, a lot. From the beginning I had relied on her support of my sometimes stumbling efforts. So much of the apparent self-confidence I displayed in my role as civic administrator was grounded in her implied endorsement. I had always counted on that, especially during the hard times.
Truth is I could have used her kind of support at a much earlier age. I had muddled through adolescence in a constant state of intimidation, wishing for the easy confidence I saw in my boyhood peers....the ones who made everything look so natural and easy.
For as long as I could remember I had envied their worldly assurance, how they managed to flourish in ways it seemed I would never master. It had been a hard thing, surviving in a schoolboy world that seemed so intent on exposing me for what I was not.
My own lack of self-esteem would burden me all the way through high school. At an age when bold exploration was in order, I too-often cowered on the sidelines....unwilling to take a chance, afraid to risk what seemed like certain failure. Even now, decades later, that youthful trepidation still generates moments of remembered discomfort. What was it, I ask myself, that made me the timid teenager I had been?
I have read of lives shaped by the presence of a role-modeling mentor, and wondered why I had never attracted such a person in my life....someone who could have helped me visualize an appropriate future for the uncertain young man I was in those days.
My parents certainly cared. They gave me the best they had. Yet I cannot recall a single time when either of them, father or mother, spoke to me about the value of a life goal....a vision of the person I might become.
In any case, it was probably not surprising that Nell and I were late in our own parenthood before we finally paused to sort out the signs. Only then, when Kathy was beginning to exert her own adolescent independence, did we begin to understand how we had failed our sole offspring.
It distressed me then, and still does, to think that we had unwittingly committed the same errors of omission I sometimes blamed on my own parents. By then the most effective antidote I found for that disappointment was the hopeful possibility that our daughter, like her parents before her, would have the good sense to find her own way toward the future she deserved.
I loved our daughter with an affection I sometimes found hard to put into words. Instead I had learned to express my caring in my own, often-dysfunctional way. During Kathy’s formative years, whenever she came up short, took the wrong turn, or did not follow through, I was apt to respond by accepting her deficiency as my own failing.
On the other hand, having discounted my success as a parent, I assumed that Kathy’s positive accomplishments, such as they were, had been earned by her own hard work and innate cleverness.
It was a heavy and lopsided load for a young father to carry....accepting our daughter’s failures as my own, without claiming an offsetting share of her achievements. I suppose I was signaling to myself, and her too, that even though her failings were the inevitable result of faulty parenting she could succeed in spite of our feeble efforts. Small wonder that by the time she shed her Tanner trappings and moved south, my own accumulated guilt had become a not-insignificant burden.
Now, decades later, I was coming face to face with a new existential irritant. From place to place, job to job, home to home, Nell had always been there....supportive and encouraging. Given that history why had she suddenly become so unyielding, so unexpectedly contrary? Though I might have been guilty of neglecting our daughter from time to time, I had been there for Nell every step of the way.
Our longed-for retirement freedom was at hand. We could live the life that had always been out of reach. I was so sure we agreed about that, until Nell began spelling out her notion of how life after work ought to look.
She wanted us to ‘settle into’ a stable lifestyle that would never again include moving. That was what had made a return to Tanner for my last job so exciting for her. For her it was all about permanence....a place where she would be surrounded by old friends and remembered connections.
Yet, as I listened to Nell’s impassioned logic I realized that what she looked forward to as permanence sounded to me like stagnation and boredom.
It was a frustrating thing....her stubborn insistence that a lifetime of stressful employment had not earned me the right to the retirement I dreamed of. Small wonder I fell asleep night after night praying that Nell would come to her senses, that she might see the logic of ‘having a life,’ while we were still young and healthy enough to enjoy it.