The Compliment

 

Two weeks ago I flew to Sioux Falls to visit my good friend, Lois, in her new home. She and her husband left a Chicago condo off Michigan Avenue facing the lake to settle in a small town with less excitement than a big city. That weekend we attended the South Dakota Annual Festival of Books, a free conference that would be rare in a big city like Chicago. There are pluses for small towns. And I might add, anyplace that is home to one’s grandchildren holds excitement.

Back to the weekend and the Festival of Books. The keynote attraction on Saturday was Jane Smiley on the main stage in conversation with a local radio personality. Smiley came across as a composed, self-assured woman, emitting an occasional monosyllabic answer to the delight of the audience. She was comfortable in the spotlight and seemed to harbor no insecurities. Of course, why not, since she has won a Pulitzer Prize, studied in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar, and written many books—the most recent a trilogy covering 100 years.  screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-4-18-29-pm

Earlier that day, Lois and I had spotted a solitary tall blond with a bright red jacket, jeans, and matching red running shoes striding briskly toward the Larson Memorial Concert Hall where the festival was held. A few minutes into Smiley and the radio personality’s conversation, Lois nudged me. The lone walker had been Jane Smiley. Lois recognized the red shoes.

On Sunday we had a difficult time choosing which of the various breakout sessions to go to, except for Robert Olen Butler’s discussion of his new novel, Perfume River: A Novel. I like his writing. In fact one of his small pieces, Nostalgia, was in Self in 1994. That piece impressed me so much so I cut it out and saved it all these years, and even included it into a post: So What’s Nostalgizing, that I wrote on February 2, 2015.

Once when a writing instructor asked us to bring a copy of what we considered a good piece of writing, I brought Nostalgia. Others brought longer, more nuanced examples but Nostalgia, to me, was perfect. And it spoke right to my heart. It was like a painting or photograph or snippet of music that trips open a trap door to expose a forgotten memory—soft and misty—unclear to the brain but familiar to the heart.

img_2967Butler sat in a folding chair facing his audience and directly in front of Lois and me in the first row. He and I were eyeball to eyeball. If he moved up a foot our knees would touch. There was the man who wrote words that always caused my breath to catch in my throat whenever I read them. I needed to tell him. I got up and leaned down to speak into his left ear.

“I just want to tell you I Iove your writing,” I said. He smiled. Then I added, “There is something you wrote in the 90s, a short piece about nostalgia. I have read it over and over again for years. It is so well written. Not an unnecessary word. I have carried it around with me all this time.”

He looked pensive. “I don’t remember it.”

I gave him a synopsis as he stared at the floor. He nodded.

Maybe he didn’t remember after all. But, back in my seat, I felt content in finally telling Robert Olen Butler how much his writing has meant to me. And maybe, just maybe, some day someone will give me the same compliment.

I can only hope.

 

Addendum:

I am delighted that my story, Baby in the Closet, has been reprinted in Hospital Drive: A literature and humanities journal of the UVA School of Medicine. “This anthology is our editors’ choice of work published since the first edition of Hospital Drive in 2007.” It is the first print edition.hospitaldrive-1024x717

MOVING

My husband and I are planning to move from our home of 14 years to be closer to the grandkids. I’m looking forward to our new life but I’m dreading the shedding. Our last two moves were compliments of my husband’s employer so we didn’t have an incentive to discard our “treasures.” I still have my record collection of 331/3, Vinyl record45 and 78’s (some of you younger readers haven’t a clue what I am writing about). Now that I know I can find any song by any artist on Spotify, giving them up won’t be difficult, especially since I don’t even own a record player.

After my mother died a decade ago, I had one suitcase and a cardboard box with all her belongings that I collected from the nursing home. In our attic I still had her pots and pans, silverware, dishes, cookbooks from the 1920s, an afghan she crocheted, a framed picture of the Black Madonna,

Black Madonna
Black Madonna

and a prayer book written in Polish.

My son is coming to visit over the weekend. He doesn’t know it yet, but he will leave with a box packed with a blue case holding his Hot Wheels collection; Morgan, a tattered white long-eared dog; a story he wrote in the 5th grade about his hamster, Squeaky, and pictures he drew of the family when he was three. What he does with these treasures I don’t want to know.

Morgan
Morgan

I had given my daughter a similar box last year. I haven’t heard any comment from her but I can imagine with a husband, a job and three boys to take to soccer, baseball and football practice and swimming lessons, she put the box in storage with thoughts to look through it when she had a moment to herself. However, after she placed the valuable objects I had brought by the stairs to her basement, she reached in and grabbed the stuffed animal I safeguarded over 40 years and said “This isn’t Pookey!”

In anticipation of cleaning out the attic, I have fortified myself to donate, recycle, re-gift and responsibly discard some of the stuff we have taken with us in the past two moves.

Except maybe for the old nurses’ cape with the red lining that my son put on when he was a superhero one Halloween.nurse's cape

Patty, me and Sherry
Patty, me and Sherry

WAITING

August, 2007

waiting

I’m anxiously awaiting the results of my daughter’s ultrasound. Last night,she dropped off our two grandsons so she and her husband wouldn’t be late for the early morning test. Rather than call us with the news, she will tie a pink or blue balloon to the mailbox. At seven and four years of age, the boys will soon learn whether they’ll have a brother or sister.

As I pack salami sandwiches and juice boxes for a picnic lunch at the lake, I tell myself that it doesn’t matter, boy or girl, as long as the baby’s healthy. Okay, okay. A granddaughter would be nice. If I have to baby-sit a third boy, I’ll have to start pumping iron, buy new running shoes and brace myself for more toilet jokes.

A heavy thought bullies its way into my mind. The ultrasound will also show any anomalies that the fetus may have. Not simply the gender. I dismiss my worries as I picture Molly juggling probabilities of cancer and incapacity for Mike.

Molly is waiting for the results of her husband’s bone scan. A week ago, Mike had a new pain. His doctor thinks it could be bone metastasis from the prostate cancer he was treated for five years ago. Mike was assured that he would get the results on Monday morning. He got through the anxiety of waiting over the weekend by clearing out thirty years of treasures from the garage.

Molly and I, friends for over thirty years, now live in different states. We email each other often with updates of our separate lives. We share the burden of waiting. When we were younger we waited while we decided what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. Waited for our children to make friends, do well in school, find employment and a life partner, give us grandchildren. Waited while our husbands struggled with jobs, midlife crises and aging. Both of us know waiting doesn’t get easier with age.

Before we leave, I check email. Molly has written. I hesitate opening the message. Like Molly, I think good news but expect bad. Mike’s bone scan is negative. Now the doctor wants to do a chest x-ray. More waiting.

At the lake the August sun stifles us. I grease the two wiggling boys with sunscreen after I unload the pail, shovels and a dump truck onto a Superman beach towel. My husband trots off to the picnic area dotted with tall shade trees, a lawn chair in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other. He doesn’t know how to swim.

The boys and I splash in the turbid water. A few yards away, a group of girls surround a grandmotherly woman. The oldest girl gently holds the smallest child afloat while the two middle girls swim about. The grandmother glides waist deep in the water, her arms skimming the surface. The large brim on her straw hat shades her face as her body weaves among her granddaughters.

I’m reviewing the pros and cons of having all boy versus all girl grandchildren when a torrent of water hits my back. boys playing in water“Get grandma.” I widen my stance as each boy grabs an arm and tries to submerge me. I swing in a circle. They laugh loudly and one at a time each boy’s grip loosens and he hits the water with a splash. My wet hair plasters my face but I’m still standing. After I push my hair off my eyes, I watch the other grandmother float about. Her hat still squarely on her head.

By mid afternoon, we round the boys up. They drag their feet in the sand. “Get a move on.” I’m impatient to see the color of the balloon.

I fidget during the slow-motion ride to my daughter’s house. The little one surrenders to sleep. A block from the house we turn the corner and head up a hill. The seven year old has his hands over his eyes to boost the surprise. The hill obstructs the view of the mailbox and the sun glints off the windshield. As our car edges down the hill, I search for the balloon. The wind has pushed it behind the mailbox. I watch the balloon twist and rise and circle in the breeze.

It’s blue.balloons

In the driveway, the seven year old, curiosity satisfied, runs into the house. My daughter hugs her father, then me. She releases her hold and stares into my eyes. I swallow disappointment that I didn’t know I had.

My daughter tells us the ultrasound showed no deformities or potential problems. Thank goodness, I think. Then she reaches inside the car, unbuckles the little one and gathers him into her arms. He lifts his head off her shoulder, rubs his eyes and remembers about the balloon. “Do I have a brother or sister?

“A brother.”

“Where is he?” he asks, looking about. We three grown-ups stand immobile. Who would have guessed that he thought the baby would be waiting for him?

“The baby’s still in my tummy,” my daughter says softly. He cries.

Later, I will tell him waiting isn’t easy. Molly would agree.

P.S. Mike is doing just fine.

HAPPY NEW YEAR

 Highlights of 2012

  Watching grandsons growgrandsons

                                   

                                                                                                           

                                                                                                                                                   

                                                                                                                                                           

                                                                                                                                                 Touring France in spring                               Paris

 

Writers Museum

 

 

 

 

Ireland in fall

   

    

anniversary1                             

Celebrating 46 years  

                                                       

                                                                                                                           Perfecting deep-dish Chicago pizzachicago pizza jan. 2012

 

 

 

 

 

Having my story “Invisible” accepted for publication by “the Examined Life Literary Journal.

 

 

I wish you happiness, health and peace in the New Year.

*Two other nurses contributed to this issue of The Examined Life