The Comfort of Being Known

I look at the photo I impulsively snapped yesterday of this tender man so essential and dear to me and know that the expression on his face and in his eyes is for me and me alone in the world; that it wells up in him from our more than thirty years together as lovers, dreamers, builders, and best friends who each bring unique gifts to the table of our long marriage. No one has known me, or ever will, like Buck. And we will never have enough time to get it all said. But we try, oh how we try, and therein is great joy.

We wonder about the whether and whither of life after death. Do we want to go if we are not together? Will the wisdom gained in loving be used in some ineffable stream of human consciousness? Will we say goodbye or merely farewell? Will death be silent or a crush of voices from the past or something else entirely beyond our imagination? What holy man can tell us? Perhaps a young one, with the certitude of youth.  I only know the journey together is sweet like ripe berries, deeply nuanced, rich, satisfying, and draws out the best within me. I have been showered with a sky full of lucky stars. My heart feasts on gratitude daily, and its storehouse is full for the duration.

There is an oasis in downtown Pensacola that had gotten lost in the slipstream of our memory. We rediscovered it yesterday, when Buck said, “Let’s go see what’s happening at Seville Quarter. Maybe they’ll feed us lunch.”  Apple Annie’s Courtyard at Seville Quarter was dappled in sunshine and shade on this cool, crisp day. Our server, Anne, let us select just the table we wanted and then tossed a snowy white tablecloth in the air like a master pizza chef so that it came down lightly on the round cast iron and glass table.

Buck ordered a cup of house-made seafood gumbo and the salad bar (laden with lovely artichoke hearts, pickled okra, cherry peppers, and other delights). I ordered a bowl of gumbo with a smidgeon of rice . It came in a traditional shallow, wide, white bowl and was accompanied by sliced French bread.  It was the best of New Orleans’ French Quarter, right here in our own little town.  Anne, a warm and gracious person, hugged us on our way out and wished us a Happy Thanksgiving. We’ll be seeing her again next week for a repeat of that seafood gumbo and the ambiance of the courtyard.

Wherever you are, whether or not Thanksgiving is a part of your cultural tradition, I know that every day with a grateful heart is happier than any day without one. As to what comes next, I can’t believe that this is all there is, even though on a personal level it’s surely enough. I believe at the very least that our small flickers of energy will pool with others for a brighter light.  I’ll eat a bite of Pomegranate Cranberry Sauce today and wish you the very best of all this astonishing life has to offer and teach.


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.

The Pensacola Hotel for Dogs and Cats

I’d had my eye on the good folks  at the Pensacola Hotel for Dogs and Cats for a while, but I just couldn’t bring myself to take Maggie’s beds, mats, brushes and dishes to them to use for their furry charges. They are an adoption and rescue shelter for abandoned dogs and cats and run solely on donations, so money and supplies are always needed. They have an exceptional Facebook presence, and give a steady stream of updates like this one:

ADOPTION UPDATE: Juicy Fruit, our sweet little pug went to her forever home today. We thank the new family of Juicy Fruit for opening their heart and home to this most deserving little soul.

Or this:

HOTEL WISH LIST: Many people call and ask what is hotel in need of. The following is a wish list of needed items: Iams Mini Chunks DRY dog food(green package), inexpensive non-scoopable cat litter, plastic litter boxes, Friskies or Purina dry cat chow, paper towels, odaban or bleach, and any type of used linens, such as sheets, towels, blankets, bed pillows, dog beds, dog/cat toys. We, and our furry friends appreciate your donations. Thank You.

About ten days ago, I transferred all of Maggie’s things from the big closet where I had hidden them from sight into the trunk of our car and drove across town to the Pensacola Hotel for Dogs and Cats. It was a Wednesday, and they weren’t open, so I left everything on the porch and took a few pictures of this place that exudes such a sweet spirit. And then I cried all the way home.

A Cow, a Dog, and a Woman

This tickled my funny bone. It’s from our “North end of the county” online newspaper. It involves a woman chasing a Boston Bull terrier who is chasing a cow across four lanes of traffic. “Reporters” on the scene got pictures. The comments are probably the best part.

Pensacola Beach: falling in love all over again

“Saddle up, Twitchy Baby. Let’s go for a drive.” My arms were full of warm towels from the dryer, my head full of mental furniture moving, busy work. I started to make a face at Buck, but then he dropped the other shoe.  “Let’s take a picnic lunch over to the beach.” Oh, that man. He knows me so well.

The beach is where we first took long walks together, talking through our lives and our dreams and daring to conceive an entwined future more than 30 years ago.

I dropped the towels on the bed and was ready in a flash. We made sandwiches from tender leftover Chinese 5-Spice roast pork tenderloin and brought along a plastic zip bag of organic granola with dried cranberries and almonds.

Imprints of bare feet, jogging shoes, and big birds mingled with drying seaweed and pieces of large sand dollars. We saw a young mom and dad swinging their toddlers around in the pristine air. We heard their laughter, floating bells.

I had forgotten the power of water to soften, open and cleanse.

Walking on this nearly deserted beach, the tidal pull stimulated, clarified and calmed my noisy mind.

There is an attitude of acceptance at the beach, probably because each new tide washes in with the life that, even with shed feathers and drying jellyfish, organizes itself into a tableau that becomes an artful homily.

The look of love is unmistakable. How did I get so lucky?

I am squinting into the bright sunlight. There’s a large bird feather stuck in the waistband of my jeans.

What will the next leg of our adventure be?

Bring it on!

Cell Phone Seafood

I don’t use the camera feature on my phone very much. In fact, I forgot all about until I was trying to take a picture of some roasted asparagus tonight and discovered my camera battery was dead, so I had to use my phone. Found these photos of red snapper on ice and steamed blue crabs from Joe Patti’s Seaffod in the gallery on my phone.

Who knew?

What do you do when your house is on fire?

I have read that people instinctively go for:  (1) any other person or pet in the house; (2) treasured photos or albums. And then they run like hell.

But if my dream last night is any indication, I won’t take anything at all. In fact, I won’t even leave. Nope. I will stay there, explore the fire, see what it is going to do, laconically remove a few items while Buck, Maggie and a host of eccentric houseguests wander up and down several flights of stairs. One of the guests, wearing old-fashioned pajamas, has a big mug of cafe au lait every time I see her. She grates on my nerves a bit, to tell you the truth.

The fire starts in the attic and shoots down through the elevator shaft, travels under the house and then pops up in organized, energetic flames  through three of the five eyes on the gas cooktop. Spectacular, really. No firetrucks. When twilight gives way to full dark, it seems the fire has simply gone out. And then, all of a sudden there are small, cartoonish flames hovering everywhere. No one acts concerned, but I get agitated and run up and down the stairs trying to whip up some sense of urgency, exhorting the wandering guests to pick up a chair or a mixing bowl and take it outside. They seem more interested in looking into all the cabinets and bookshelves and sitting down with a cup of tea. Finally, after hours and hours of the house being on fire, I find a cell phone on the floor and call 911. The woman who answers is not friendly, concerned or even kind. “You people take the cake!” she said. “You think you can take all the time in the world when your house is on fire and wait until you’re good and ready to call me? I am not sending any of our long trucks to that address! You can forget that. Just enjoy your little fire and don’t call me again!”

I never get a word in, edgewise or any other way. I hold the phone out from my ear, stare at it, then toss it over the stair rail.  Interesting thing about this fire. It is bright, but it is never hot. Nothing gets burned. Nothing is melted. There is no crying, weeping, wailing or gnashing of teeth. It is more entertaining than the fair in October.

Dreams are great, aren’t they?  I wish I could have this dream again tonight. The unhappiest ending that could occur is waking up with a crick in the neck. In the real world, I can imagine nothing worse in the pantheon of horrors that sometimes befalls people and other creatures than a full-out house fire. Buck had an aunt whose beloved husband was burnt up, along with their candy apple red Cadillac, in the ball of flame that had been their new home in Little Sabine on Pensacola Beach.  I have a friend whose goodwill ambassador of a seeing eye dog was asphixiated in a house fire. Fire is fast, deadly and unpredictable.

Except in a dream. In a dream, fire can frighten, but it can also  illuminate, cleanse, even amuse. There are many theories about why we dream what we dream, from Carl Gustav Jung to junk-internet to the “what did you eat before you went to sleep” school.  (I ate an excellent chunk of sesame-seed encrusted seared rare tuna and a side of steamed veggies at the Crab Trap on Pensacola’s downtown waterfront yesterday for lunch, and a simple baked potato and sliced tomato for supper.)

The Crab Trap’s comfortable dining room was filled with fellow refugees from the cool air, sea fog and rain. We watched a flotilla of seabirds swim synchronized infinity symbols on the gray bay. In addition to my tuna, there were plates of crab cakes with sides of smoky collard greens and decadent cheese grits on the table. There was a pleasing low hum of conversation in the room, not raucous like it sometimes gets when big trays of tropical drinks make the rounds at summertime tables, and our server, Olivia, was efficient, good-natured and bright as a penny.

I don’t think what I ate yesterday produced last night’s fantastical dream, nor do I think junk-internet holds the answer. Carl Jung? Now, we’re talkin’.

Guess I Can Cross “Name A Pirate” Off My Bucket List

Five Flags Jack
Five Flags Jack

The Oar House, Pensacola, Florida

This month I did three things I have never done before: (1) Enter a contest (well, there is a writing contest that I won't find out about until January with about 6,000 other entrants so I am not exactly holding my breath); (2) win a contest; and (3) name a pirate! This was in the service of my over-arching goal (serious stuff) of doing a few things in my life that are pointless, silly and fun. This is kind of cool and I am ridiculously pleased about it. Who knew I have been harboring a secret desire to name a pirate?

I keep up with the goings-on of several of our local waterfront restaurants, including The Crab Trap and The Oar House. The original Oar House burned to the ground a couple of years ago, but has since been rebuilt. Photos of the original Oar House and the adjacent Bahia Mar Marina are here in a blog post I wrote in May of 2008. The awful fire that put more than 100 people out of work took place only a few weeks later on June 15. 

The Oar House had a "name our pirate" contest on their Facebook page recently. I looked at the poor nameless pirate, thought "that's Five Flags Jack," typed it in and hit "Send." When the votes were all counted, absentees, write-ins and all, the majority agreed.

Pensacola is known as the City of Five Flags. Read local blogger Bryan Dumka's clever explication here.

It's great that The Oar House pirate has a name. Now, if we can only help that poor red parrot get a face.

Walking the Line

The fecund black earth smells like creation itself. A recent drought allowed a temporarily walkable crust to develop in this wet head where we have not been since before Hurricane Ivan trashed Pensacola in September, 2004.

The ebony surface is shiny, like licorice, and will turn into slippery muck after the next rain.

These low, damp places are connected via pathways of choking pale gray dust that swirl upward with each footfall on the newly plowed fire line. 

We walk westerly for a time, and the brilliant late afternoon autumn sun slants into the dark woods like windshield glare. I want to look all around, but am forced to avert my eyes . I dodge thorny vines hanging down from branches and punji stick roots sticking up where Victor, the forestry guy, has busted them into springy pieces with his fire line plow.

I crack an aromatic bay tree leaf under my nose and inhale: victory in the games, the hope of immortality or at least a sentient recycling.



Pompano, Red Snapper and More – Much More

It's great to see Joe Patti's bustling with people again. The BP oil well disaster in Louisiana just about did them in. Something new at Patti's is the increased transparency concerning the provenence of their fish and seafood offerings, and that's a good thing. I never thought that the fresh salmon was caught in Gulf waters or that local fishermen caught the lobsters sold in Patti tanks, and so when I see clear, careful labels that show today's salmon is from Norway, the steamed blue crabs from Apalachicola, Florida, and the lump crab from Junior Barbour's in Alabama, I like knowing. For a while, the shrimp were coming from the East Coast of the United States rather than our own Gulf waters. That was distressing, but necessary for a time, although in the case of shrimp, it's great to have our local crustaceans back on the ice.

This great pile of blue crabs was still steaming when I walked by. The smell of Cajun spices and briny crab stopped me in my tracks. Buck and I have spent happy times up to our elbows in crab juice sitting at a picnic table, with shells and boiled corn spread out on newspaper. You have to work to get the succulent meat out. It takes a long time to complete the meal. A cold beer or icy chardonnay lubricates conversation. This is not a drive-by meal. It is convivial and fun.

Seeing these whole red snapper laid out so pretty reminds me of how luscious they are cooked whole, stuffed with a crabmeat, breadcrumb, celery, onion, parsley and lemon dressing.

These ethereal-looking pompano transport me to my first visit to the Vieux Carré, New Orleans, and dining on elegant Pompano en Papillote.

I popped into Patti's in-store gourmet shop for a warm rustic Italian baguette and was confronted by shelves full of tempting "to-go" treats, from seaweed salad to tiramisu. (You guess which was the hardest for me to resist. . .)

Home with our treasures. What could be better than a warm baguette, a hunk of fontina and a tiny dish of Kalamata olives before a dinner of poached shrimp and lump crab meat dipped in lemon butter?