Names and faces

Bill’s Lunch is for rent. Have you noticed? I did, last week, as I drove past. As teens, we crowded into booths on Fridays before home games to consume our weight in french fries there. Bahr’s Furniture has a new name and a new look, both inside and out. In the other direction, the buildings from Dederick’s all the way to the First National Bank are still there, but the aromas of after shave from Ken Hill’s barbershop and stale beer from Daley’s pool hall are gone. Anderson’s jewelry store is gone, too. Shaw’s law office and the newspaper are both still where they were back then, but the theater hasn’t shown a movie since I don’t know when.

Neville’s Hardware sells consignment clothing now. I wonder what Mr. Neville would think about that. The Sportsman’s Cafe still has counter seating and pie. The Jerdon Shop hasn’t been the other clothing store in town for a long time. Ott Drug is now Ott Pharmacy. The comic book racks might not be where they used to be, but the place still smells like perfume and chocolates. Next door, Sherman Motors hasn’t smelled like car exhaust and axle grease in decades.

Miller’s Red Owl has a brand new look that Melba would, no doubt, have approved of because it’s pretty darn fancy. Across the street, there are no mini-skirted girls with guns in holsters at the Wagon Wheel. The hotel on the corner painted with polka dots has been replaced by the credit union. The small souvenir shops on both sides of Highway 2 no longer beckon to city kids riding in the back seats of cars who begging parents to stop “just to look” on their way to the resort. Vienna’s Cafe is gone, but Jurvelin’s Hardware is still on the corner. If Jurvelin’s doesn’t have it, you don’t need it. Am I right?

This was the “uptown” of our childhoods. A place where business owners greeted us by name. They were the people who helped us to open our first bank accounts and measured our feet for new school shoes every year. Small business owners who gave us after-school jobs and let us pay for school clothes on “layaway”with our babysitting money. They taught us how to work for what we wanted before the big world ended up stuck with us. Too soon, we moved to bigger places with malls and shopping centers. Sometimes, we’d come back to visit. The fact that we were back where people knew our names, more than any other fact, told us we were home.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can see them as they were back then. The women changing displays in sparkling front windows, and the men opening awnings and sweeping sidewalks to prepare for another day of business in a small town. The buildings are still there. New owners and new businesses have replaced the ones so many of us remember with such fondness. When I walk past those buildings, I still see the friendly gray ghosts of people who made up a town in the 1960’s and 70’s.  A community that helped raise a generation of kids.

A generation that the big world would have ended up with one way or another. One that was maybe a little more frugal and hardworking and polite because our names were known in a small town.

One that remembers their names and faces now.

‘Til the end of time

I’m not one of those people who blithely makes an airline reservation, packs, goes to the airport, and boards a plane without getting right with God first. I blame my grandmother for this. She flatly refused to get on an airplane for most of her life.

She knew that terrible things could happen when human beings tempted the laws of gravity and tried to be geese. Until my grandfather passed away, she adamantly refused to ever be a goose. And so, each winter well into their seventh decade, the two of them kissed their seven grandchildren goodbye and migrated to Florida by car instead. My grandfather, who hoped to get to Hawaii once before he died, never got to hear Don Ho sing “Tiny Bubbles” in Honolulu. He’d married a Swede and then lived with her long enough to know that he might as well save his breath when it came to air travel. Ultimately, he put his dreams of an island vacation away, settling for the sugar sand at Panama City Beach and a good cigar smoked in peace by the pool.

But once he was gone, she threw all caution to the wind and began to fly places. Alone. By this time, she was nearly eighty years old and becoming more frail. None of us could figure it out. Maybe she’d finally made peace with her own mortality, or maybe she needed the winter warmth more than she needed to be afraid of flying. Who knows? At any rate, she flew places cheerfully and willingly for several years before her own passing. A passing that just incidentally had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that she had, as an old woman, finally become a goose. So, there you go.

I think of her every time I’m on a plane rolling down the runway for take off. There’s a three-step process I go through that keeps me in my seat. First, I try to breathe. Breathing is critical. Next, I pray that the pilot isn’t mad at anyone or drunk. Finally, I ask the good Lord to summon the guardian angels of every passenger on board to the underside of the plane. I visualize the angels with their hands raised up over their heads, wings flapping and robes fluttering. A veritable army of angels working together to get the plane up in the air. Since I have no control over whether the plane rises or not, I let the angels be in charge. It’s the only way I don’t become a screaming, writhing, mess as the plane leaves the ground.

I’ve read all the statistics about air travel and the odds of being in a crash. I know that my trip to the airport is statistically more dangerous than careening through space in an airplane thousands of feet above the ground. I know that turbulence is just an air “road” filled with pot holes. Most of our fears are irrational. I get that. I do.

Despite the logic of it all, I’m going to stick with my angels under the airplane theory as to how planes get off the ground. So far, the angels haven’t let me down. Besides, I’m pretty sure my own personal angel still has a full head of snow-white hair. He smells of Old Spice and cigars. He’s wearing a wool Pendleton shirt with slits cut into the back for his wings.

And every time I fly, if I concentrate really hard over the roar of the engines, I’m pretty sure I can hear him humming the last few  bars of “Tiny Bubbles” as he helps to hoist a plane filled with silly geese high into the sky.







Sea creatures

“I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it’s because in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it’s because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came.”-John F. Kennedy

On the first day of our trip to Florida, I told my dear sister that I didn’t care what else we did for four days as long as I saw the sun set once over the ocean.We could travel or stay put. We could eat peanut butter sandwiches or dine in fine restaurants. We could share a bed (we have lots of practice at that) or have two beds. None of it mattered in the slightest to me. She’d rented the car and I was just along for the ride, I told her. I meant every word.

And so, in addition to walking the beach and eating both peanut butter sandwiches and some really great seafood, we also drank a little too much wine one night and text pranked a grown child (who shall remain nameless) giggling much too loudly while a waitress gave us the stink eye.We cussed out Siri when she was too slow telling us when to turn. In quieter, more reflective moments, we spent time unpacking both our burdens and our blessings as sisters are known to do. But mostly, we traveled wherever the road took us, two not-so-young-anymore sisters in the sunshine, completely unencumbered. It was glorious.

We watched the sun set with other two-legged land creatures who’d gathered on the same beach. Some sat in lawn chairs and others stood facing the horizon.The two of us sat on a bench and waited, too. As the enormous sun began to move toward the place where the sea meets the sky, land creatures who had just moments ago been laughing and visiting with one another began to grow more still. All eyes faced west, toward the setting sun. The only sound to be heard up and down the shore was the crashing of waves. In a final flash, the sun disappeared. The land creatures began to clap. Some even cheered.

It was a holy moment.

I’m home now. The handful of small shells I picked up are in a bowl on my desk and my rapidly fading four-day suntan is covered by a wool sweater. But I keep thinking about that moment. All of us strangers to one another, waiting for, and then celebrating the same sunset. The same miracle. There were no races or religions or political leanings in that moment. We were just a community of creatures standing on the shore of our shared ancestral home.We need to watch less cable news and more sunsets, my friends. One thing we all seem to be able to agree on is sunsets over an ocean.

As often as humanly possible, one should stand near another former sea creature, face home, and applaud a miracle.