Just Life

It’s Thursday night, I think. Buck and I got back home to Pensacola last night. We made our way from Maggie Valley to Asheville and turned west on I-26 toward Columbia, South Carolina, where we picked up I-95 South to Savannah. I’d love to say we lingered in Savannah’s old town over a romantic dinner and walked along the river, but that would be a lie. Instead, we ducked sheets of rain and dodged wind gusts until about 5 o’clock. We found a bed and a delivery veggie pizza in a Hampton Inn at a motel city called Gateway South on the Jacksonville side of Savannah. Buck, dear soul, found a liquor store and bought me a fine bottle of single malt Scotch sippin’ whiskey to celebrate the eve of my 61st birthday. I didn’t hurt it too bad, though, anticipating the next day’s fasting for our annual Mayo Clinic wellness physicals.

We spent the evening talking about the romantic journey of our history together. We talked about our Maggie Valley stay, the visits with friends, the nice people we crossed trail with, how sweet it was to stay at the  “Awesome View” cottage, managed by Carolina Vacations, and how superb it was to live for two weeks in a Smoky Mountains’ rain forest garden.

I came away determined to garden again, despite arthritis that cramps my hands and shoulders, despite hungry deer that eat up all the proceeds.

Images of these perfect blooms will stay with me all through the heat of our Pensacola summer. We’ll be hunkered down here in the air-conditioned destination resort until September, when we’ll head to Bernard, Maine on Bass Harbor, back to the fabulously rustic “Captain’s Quarters” owned by the very dear golf croquet champion Jeanne Fernald. Got a note from Jeanne today, and she tells me there is still vacancy in July and August at Captain’s.  Shoot me a note if you’re interested and I’ll tell you all about it. We have stayed there at least three times in the past. Great place  — has its own lobster dock, and isn’t far from Acadia National Park.

This sweet little flower is on a vine I spotted this morning on an early walk down to our very own Longleaf Preserve gate. Early morning’s are the time to walk, while the air is still fragrant and cool. Our doc at Mayo said we should keep on keepin’ on, that our formula, whatever it is, is working. We’re apparently poster kids for the older set. Heh.

I’ve been talking to and writing back and forth with my brothers and sisters. Sweet wondrous folk, dear to my heart. Hard to think of old age, separation, illness and, you know. You know. The part I don’t want to think about. None of us do.

Our good friend, Betty Hunter, brought us a bottle of Pear Gorgonzola salad dressing when she and Jim came to see us in Maggie. I used some today to dress a salad of butter lettuce, Carolina Gold smoked turkey chunks, walnuts, red onion slivers, walnuts, and dried cranberries. Just about the best stuff I ever put in my mouth. Ooh, it was good.

Ain’t it pretty? Sockeye salmon in a teriyaki sauce with brown rice, baby spinach and wok-grilled red peppers and onions. Who says healthy eating is some kind of sacrificial act?

And doing a lazy backstroke in the cool blue open air pool surrounded by tall Longleaf pines, singing mocking birds,  flights of swallows,  the high drone of a circling helicopter, and the drifting perfume of vining honeysuckle, can you tell me that it really does get any better than this?

Communing with Old Friends at the Beaverdam Methodist Church in Rice Cove

Buck, Jack & Aileen Rice, and Beth in the Beaverdam Methodist Church parking lot on Sunday, June 17, 2012

Jack and Aileen Rice are two of the dearest people Buck and I have ever known. They sold us the land that we built a wonderful home on in Rice Cove, Canton, North Carolina in 1997. We spent 6-8 months of the year there until we sold that beautiful place to return to Pensacola full-time. If you sense regret in our decision, you would not be wrong. Given what we knew and felt at the time, we would almost certainly make the same decision again, but the tug of this lovely place is undeniable.

We drove from the Maggie Valley rental cottage to the Beaverdam Methodist Church in Rice Cove this morning for 11:00 a.m. services. When I saw Jack and Aileen sitting in their regular pew on the right side toward the front, I wanted to run to them and hug their necks. The service was just starting, so Buck and I found a seat right in front of the Rices, whereupon we discovered their youngest daughter, Kim, also our good friend, was there, too. She lives in LaGrange, Georgia and was leaving to return there right after church. What a happy surprise to see Kim.

Buck with Jack and Aileen Rice and their daughter, Kim Adams

One by one, eye contact was made with folks in the choir and across the aisle. Luckily, (because I thought I would burst to hug these dear folks), there was a greeting time early on in the service. It was a free-for-all. The pastor had trouble getting us all to sit back down so he could continue the service.

Betty Driver directs the Beaverdam Methodist Choir on Sunday morning, June 17, 2012.

Times like this do a body good.

When the Writing Prompt is “Trepidation”

It takes W.D. 45 minutes to an hour to get around to what is really bothering him. He brings me vegetables from his garden as a good trade for my listening ear and several cups of coffee. He wears pointy-toed boots if he’s going to town or to the bank after we visit. Otherwise, he wears beat-up old hunting boots and sits down on a porch chair to take them off before he crosses the threshold. Buck says he likes to come as early as I’ll let him so he can have me all to himself while he talks. Then when Buck strolls out from the bedroom, they can have a little visit, too.

W.D. comes in all bluster and hey miss beth, our newspaper in one hand and several plastic sacks of just-picked vegetables from his garden in the other.

He talks about his garden, about stories in the day’s paper and what’s wrong with the guv’mint and all them durn crooks we got in Washington. He talks about his beautician wife, Betty Lou, and the few old ladies left to come to the beauty shop, and who broke their hip, who’s in the hospital, and whose funeral he just went to.

He talks about taking Betty Lou fishing for brim and shellcracker that are bedding and how it did him good to see her catch a few.  I refill his cup. He swivels around on the kitchen bar stool, goes to pee, comes back and sits down again, says “I got to go,” but I know he hasn’t quite had his say.

I’ve learned to just be still and listen as he winds down and gets to it. If he’s brought some purple hull or shell peas, I’ll snap or shell them into a pan while he watches my fingers.

I see what’s on his mind building in the fine tremor of his wide, stubby old fingers. Worn denim sings when he slaps the palms of his hands on his thighs. The sclerae of his brown eyes are red with spidery veins. I notice this as I see his eyes fill with water. We exchange a long look.

“It ain’t good, Miss Beth. I don’t have no energy. I ain’t worth a damn. I think the cancer’s coming back on me.”

He has a knack for timing it just right. Just when he is about to break down, Buck comes into the kitchen from the back of the house, opens the refrigerator and pours himself a glass of cherry Koolaid.

“Morning, W.D. You get some of Beth’s good coffee?”

W.D. makes a quick swipe of his face with his shirt sleeve, gives me a hard look, and just like that, he is all shaped up, full of shit as a swamp owl.

“Sure did, Buck. I brought her some purdy young squash, too, but you cain’t have any, ain’t that right, Miss Beth?”

I reach over and give his hand a quick squeeze. “That’s right, W. D. I’m going to eat every one all by myself. Hey, sweetie, look here what W.D. brought me.”

Buck oohs and ahhs over the vegetables. His wise eyes see it all, but he wouldn’t hurt his friend’s pride for anything.

Boys and their Toys

There was a time, some 65 years ago in this rural part of northwest Florida, when two boys of 9 or 10 could ride their bicycles absolutely everywhere: from their moms’ and dads’ modest frame houses on the outskirts of town all the way to Escambia Bay. One of those boys was Buck. He had a big fur ball of a bad-ass half Chow dog named Jeff who would snarl and scrabble beside them all the way. Jeff was jumped on and half killed by a nasty piece of canine work when he was just a puppy, and it twisted his view of the universe. He grew up loyal as a river to his boy, but inventively cruel to other dogs along their bicycle route. Those who lived learned to slink under the porch and cower in the dirt whenever Jeff approached.

Buck’s friend from the cradle was Billy Bass. They fished the river, the bay and the bayous together, liberated watermelons to float them down at Jenny’s Hole in spring-fed Carpenter’s Creek, and many a morning sneaked into other people’s woods to hunt squirrels with their 22 rifles.

Oh, they were tough customers, all right. Still and all, they were just little boys on the day they came upon a whole pile of balloon-looking things deep in the woods. Looked like something fun to play with, so they grabbed up several and brought them home to Billy Bass’s yard. They took his mother’s hose, washed out the strange balloons, filled them with water, tied knots in the end, and were having a big time hitting each other over the head when Mrs. Bass came out of the house to see what was going on. She looked from the boys to the remaining still-sticky, shriveled-up balloons piled on the grass. The boys were too busy laughing and carrying on to notice that Mrs. Bass had gone red in the face.

“Billy Bass!” Mrs. Bass shouted. “You get in the house right now! And Buck Westmark? You get out of my yard  and don’t you never come back!”

It took the “boys” a while to figure out what they had done that made Mrs. Bass so durn mad. And I guess when they did, it signaled the end of one phase of their innocent young lives. No harm done, though, and the re-telling of the old yarn had a bunch of us in stitches when Bill hosted his annual Mullet Fry and Museum Tour at his place over on Avalon Beach.  It’s a gathering of Pensacola High School Class of 1954 alumni. Buck graduated in 1955, but has been officially adopted by the ’54 gang.

Despite that ignominious, hilarious boyhood incident, William Henry Bass grew up to be just about the busiest and best accountant in Pensacola. He’s also an amateur archeologist, raconteur, and collector of just about everything, most especially one of the country’s finest vintage Thunderbird collections. And I guess old Buck did all right, too.  I know he wishes his Dad could have lived to see him amount to something, from a working journalist (reporter, editor and publisher), to director of public affairs for a major corporation, to Chairman of a local bank board, and author. Both men are dads, granddads, and great-granddads. Bill’s been a widower for a long time, now, and Buck’s got me.

This sweet car has been in parades all over the county. It has all original parts, and is a real beauty. You can see some of the trophies and penants it’s won adorning the wall’s of the climate-controlled garage Bill had constructed for his babies.

There were close to a hundred people gathered up at Bill’s place on this Saturday afternoon. It was unseasonably hot, and the humidity was so thick you could cut it with a knife and spread it on a biscuit. The fish were fried in a huge cooker under a shelter. We all made it inside just in time before the rain broke loose. Lord, I’ve never seen so much food in my life. And I was raised a Southern Baptist with Mississippi relatives, so I know something about legendary covered dish meals. This one topped all the ones I waded through as a little girl.  Folks sat at folding tables set up all over the house. We took our plates out to the front porch, which provided a steady breeze and shelter from the straight-down curtain of rain.

Our good friends, Roy and Bette Helms, had driven up from Naples for the event. Here’s Bette with Elvis, the meet and greet guy at the door. Bill has collected a dizzying array of memorabilia from the 1950’s (mostly).  Take his “Marilyn” wall.  More like a shrine, really, don’t you think?

The afternoon had all the earmarks of a hurricane party. No hurricane, but the trees bending low in the wind blowing off the bay, and the sometimes sideways rain sure gave a good imitation. When it slacked off for a few minutes, I grabbed my empty baked bean casserole dish and we took our shot and ran for the car.

The three in the foreground are Buck, Bill and Roy , three guys who have made it from childhood running buddies to lifelong close friends. Grand men, these. Grand.

Sackcloth and Ashes

Found these paragraphs from January of 2007 in an old notebook I used to keep for writing grocery lists and other miscellanea. “Dave” is not my friend’s real name. He’s feeling better these days; has found some joy in a grandson named after the lost boy.

Dave has always been loud, a little raucous, and as good-hearted and honest as they come. He stands 5’9″ and probably weighs 200 pounds. Since fighting a losing battle with the brain tumor that killed his 18-year-old son a few months ago, Bob feels more out of control to me. His hair is longer, all gray now, thick curls straggling out the back of his working man’s cap. I guess he shaves occasionally, but he bears an unshaven, grizzled look, and when he laughs, it is a mirthless, bitter bark.

Dave still coaches kids’ softball and I think it is there his sweetness and patience — maybe even his sanity — are restored for a time on sunny, warm afternoons.

I keep my distance most of the time when he’s doing electrical work on our house. I brew a pot of coffee for him and leave a cup on the counter. He could use the comfort of a Holy Spirit, but is so angry with God that he is blocked from receiving that sustenance. He is trapped. I don’t know what to say and am afraid to put the drill bit of conversation into the raw marrow of his pain and see him blow to pieces and fly apart, or shrivel back into a dark tunnel of grief.

He knows now that nothing matters; at least, he believes that nothing matters. And that leaves him not knowing how to live anymore.

I stood in the pantry last week after he had been in there working. It was hours later, but I smelled a mixture of cigarette smoke, stale clothes, possibly the faint odor of beer expressed through the pores of skin, and the acrid smell of loss mingled with despair. He is the living picture of sackcloth and ashes.

Morning Run

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”  Martin Buber

I ran to the gate this morning. Me, the non-runner. I didn’t do it because my oldest sister is in a cardiac intensive care unit in a central Florida hospital, although I thought a lot about hearts while I ran. Mine felt heavy, oversized, and lumpy.

I ran because that’s what my legs wanted to do. They were sending me a message. Get movin’, girl. Look at those wild blueberry bushes busting out into pale lavender bells on your right. Check out the Louisiana Irises coming up like green spears from the streambed. How about that old dog, matching you step for step as you run?

Less than a half mile from the house, the gate to the main road stopped me. I opened it to fetch the newspaper. Our old carrier used to pull into the short driveway and toss it over the gate, but the first day the daily excuse appeared outside the gate and close to the main road, I knew the gravy train had ended and we were back to being normal folk. Ah, well. It was good while it lasted.

I turned back to the gate, looked up at that magnificent oak tree a few feet inside, and fell in love with these woods all over again.

 

Buck and I took a short road trip down to southwest Florida recently to visit our good friends, Roy and Bette, who live on Pine Island near Ft. Myers. I saw nesting ospreys for the first time. We walked the short street of their waterfront neighborhood with their lovable Weimaraner, Maggie Moo, and watched a good-natured tussle between Maggie and her buddy Mango, a stocky white Labrador.

Roy taught me how to “proof” frozen biscuits from the supermarket in a 200 degree oven for about 12 minutes to force them into rising, then raise the temperature to 350 and finish cooking them. The resulting catheads  are lighter than air and irresistible. He taught us the sheer pleasure of having the perfect tool of a well-seasoned crepe pan to warm leftover biscuits cut in half and smeared with butter to eat with sourwood honey and good coffee on a fine morning. Bette and Roy convinced me my nervousness about using a gas grill is misplaced, especially after learning that they use theirs almost every day, from breakfast through dinner. They grilled black grouper and served it with butterfly pasta tossed with homemade pesto. That grouper was out of this world.

 

When we left, after two days and nights of great talk, they sent us off with a generous wedge of Roy’s chocolate caramel pecan pie for the road. Coffee and pie kept me wired and on a sugar high all the way home.

We had planned to spend more time on the road, but having gotten our “fix” of fellowship with our good friends, we found ourselves eager to get home to the woods and our own Maggie.

I forget sometimes that I live in a piney woods bubble. It is a place where I can come and go at will and participate in urbia or sub, explore art museums, be a culture vulture,  jump in the car and drive until I find some big city traffic or hop a plane to a faraway place. But when I come through that gate, the one in the picture, I enter an oasis of calm, a retreat where longtime lovers can walk together in the cool of the evening and where I can breathe all the way from my rose-painted toes to the cowlick on the back of my head.

The language of photography informs me: field, ground, focus, zoom in, zoom out. Click.

“Favorite Places:
I’m not that good at being a tourist because I’m always looking at the way the light shines in your hair or the way your dress opens to the wind & my favorite places in the world are places filled with you.”   –
Brian Andreas

 

Update:  My sweet angel of an older brother, Wally, left a message for me this afternoon that Ann is out of the CCU and into a regular room, with anticipation of being released in a day or two. My lumpy, heavy heart feels a little lighter tonight. 

Old Chunk of Coal

“I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m gonna be a diamond someday.” (I’m listening to this Billy Joe Shaver song while I write as the late Johnny Cash sings it on the album, Unearthed, produced by Rick Rubin and released by American Records two months after Cash’s death in 2003.)

2010 has brought many messages in bottles to the shore of my lively spring here in the longleaf woods. There has been a bubbling up, a falling from the sky, a cracking open of worlds.

Genuine wayfarers in the virtual world have traveled inbound on the ultra-high-speed rail of my optic nerve and were delivered from the main station deep in my consciousness out through my bloodstream to all points, especially my heart.

They arrived from the neighborhood just down the road in Tallahassee and Lakeland, from Phoenix, from North Carolina, Ohio, the Texas hill country, wild Alaska, the beautiful coast in California and especially The City of Angels, from Japan, Wales, India, Spain, Oklahoma, Iowa, the English countryside, Oregon, Nashville, Pennsylvania, Washington state, Boston, a steady stream of good cheer from Wisconsin, Maine, dear Ontario, lately and most welcome New Hampshire and the pond of unknowing, and even by-God-New-York-City, shedding star light through that remarkable worm hole between virtual and real and dusting me with light on each and every pass.

Blog comments, e-mails exchanges, the occasional phone call, an entire virtual Advent village from a dear friend in Wales that I can peek into every day and hear the music in all its traditional otherworldly loveliness; there have been photographs floating into my real world post office box – especially treasured is the photo of that mill in Ontario and the words written inside (no longer strangers, indeed); and then only yesterday, inside a plain brown wrapper, unannounced, a beautiful book arrived, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey, sent by my world-traveling friend in Moose Pass, Alaska. She knew I would love and appreciate this book (and her) and I do.

We have been through a lot together in 2010. As my old friends at the Beaverdam Methodist Church in Rice Cove, North Carolina might say, we have shared joys and sorrows. We have been open and vulnerable with each other, and on occasion have bound each other’s wounds, and celebrated our common urges to create. And we have respected each other’s silences, comings, goings, and meanderings; the madness, the messiness, the breaking open and the breaking through.

There have been so many gifts this year. I have been rocked back on my heels by your writing and general fineness of character and spirit. Your encouragement to me via comments and also by private email has kept me from turning the computer and all my half-written stories into a big old shredded fishing reef out in the Gulf. Thank you.

Let us go forth, now, into this new frontier, 2011. With you all as my companions, my fellow travelers, and guided by my muses for this year: John Updike, Don DeLillo and that man in black, Johnny Cash who is excavating sixteen tons of memory and story from my subconscious. There are others, and there will be others, but these are my teachers and spirit guides in this astonishing moment.

With your continued help and encouragement, like old Billy Joe Shaver, I’ll keep on polishing this rough-edged self, and maybe I’ll be a diamond some day.

My advice for the year? Buckle up your seat belts. It’s going to be another wild ride. And I daresay we wouldn’t have it any other way.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByqVPLdOTJI