If someone were to drop my grandmother off in the middle of a desolate wilderness with nothing but a knife and some vegetable seeds, I have no doubt she would establish a homestead. While her seeds were maturing, she would eat poke salad with dandelion greens, washing it down with wild mint and sassafras tea.
She was born in rural West Virginia and lived off the grid long before it became a way to escape the demands of modern life. After getting married, she moved to the city with my grandfather. They lived in a postwar housing development of simple cinder-block homes in Dunbar, West Virginia. The houses were all close together, but her entire backyard was a vegetable garden.
When I was growing up, I stayed at Granny’s as much as possible. On May 15 every year, she and I would plant squash, zucchini, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, beans, and corn. To plant the corn Granny would take the heavy hoe and dig a ditch about three inches deep from one side of the garden to the other. I would follow her and drop in a seed of Silver Queen every couple of inches. Then Granny would straddle the row and, using her bare, arthritic feet, sweep the dirt back over the seeds. We could have the entire garden planted in one day.
On an early July morning we would harvest the green beans. After hours of squatting and picking, we would sit in lawn chairs to trim away the ends and strings and snap the beans in half, tossing them into five-gallon buckets. The following day I would help Granny can the green beans in the old metal pressure cooker she stored under the house.
Today Granny’s untended garden has been overtaken by tall weeds and saplings. At eighty-three she no longer grows her own food. But I still can green beans, and every year I call Granny and tell her how many quarts I have put up. Granny always says that I have had a hoe in my hand since I was in diapers. This may be true, but it’s only because she put it there.
My parents’ marriage was chaotic and destined to dissolve. Like many children of unhappy couples, I hoped to do better in my adult life. With visions of a peaceful household, a devoted husband, and contented children, I went looking for a kind, moral man to marry.
I wound up with a religious fundamentalist. I had three babies in four years and put my education on hold while he pursued a military career. There was no hope of stability at home; it was all I could do to stay sane. Then he got another woman pregnant, and I left — with my three daughters.
My second marriage was as stormy as my parents’, but by then I had finished my degree and become financially independent. When the arguments threatened to become violent, I moved out and got a divorce. So much for modeling blissful matrimony to my kids.
But my daughters insist I’ve been a great role model. They say that I’ve taught them self-respect, that my finishing college and having a successful career while being a single parent has inspired them. They don’t know any other older single women who travel to the wilds of Africa or the Amazon jungle.
I’m pleased that my daughters think so highly of me. They are all great parents and educated professionals. Still, I can’t help noting that each of them has been divorced.
Maybe one of these days one of us will get marriage right. But I don’t think I’ll hold my breath.
David was the senior pediatrician and I was the brand-new nurse practitioner, but on my first day of work he introduced himself to me as if I were a famous rock star and he were an adoring fan. I was instantly at ease and perhaps the slightest bit in love.
In the fourteen years that I worked with David, he was always the one I sought out when I needed help, standing patiently outside his exam room like a faithful dog. Eventually the laughter would start moving toward the door, and he would burst out, blowing kisses to a new mom and her baby as he said goodbye.
He knew everything. He taught me how to pull an ingrown toenail and freeze a wart, when to suspect appendicitis (when the patient can’t get off the table), how much Motrin to use (at least six hundred milligrams or don’t bother), and when to worry (almost never). But mostly he knew how to make mothers feel they could handle their children, and how to make children feel they could handle their lives.
At lunch he would kick off his shoes, put up his feet — unconcerned about the holes in his socks — and eat a giant bowl of pasta. He might entertain us with an analysis of some article in The New England Journal of Medicine written by a friend of his from Harvard Medical School — someone who was doing the “real work,” he would joke, while David was slinging amoxicillin in this underserved Massachusetts city where we all knew he would stay forever.
Then David died in the mountains of Peru. He’s been working to help grow food above the treeline there, where the air was too thin and even the hospital didn’t have enough oxygen. He was fifty-eight.
Five years after David’s death I finally came to grips with the fact that he would not be bursting into the office and cheerfully apologizing for the confusion and inconvenience his presumed death had caused. I knew then that I had to move on.
I’ve taken a job in a hospital pediatric clinic. There is no sign of David here. But every time I shake a shy boy’s hand just a little too long and he breaks into giggles, or a depressed teenager says thank you like she really means it, I know that he lives on in me.
At the age of fifteen I wanted to become a serious musician. I steeped myself in the works of my idols and read biographies of all of them. A disturbing trend became apparent. It seemed as if every influential performer in rock, blues, jazz, and even country had at one time or another been under the spell of narcotics: Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Jerry Garcia. These were not one-hit wonders or mere journeymen, but the artists who’d invented and defined the music I loved. That half of them had died from their habits set me adamantly against hard drugs, to the dismay of some of the guys I played with.
When I was eighteen, my band was performing regularly at military clubs, and we needed to add a guitarist. We picked up Leon, a twenty-five-year-old Texan who collected guitars, drove a ’59 Thunderbird, and knew everything about the blues. I thought he was the coolest person I’d ever met and immediately fell under his sway. Leon introduced me to dozens of obscure records, showed me interesting chords and tunings — and taught me how to smoke heroin on tinfoil.
I resisted at first, mentioning the deaths of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. But Leon said, “How do you think those cats got so good?” He challenged me to name one really great musician who hadn’t used narcotics. You had to get high and suffer, he said, or your talent would never truly be unleashed.
Thirty-three years later, thanks to Leon, I’m halfway through a twenty-two-year prison sentence. I robbed a bank under the influence of heroin.
Saint James Harris Wood
San Luis Obispo, California
When I was five, my father invited me to join him in his morning routine: He took the blade out of his double-edged safety razor and let me use the empty head to scrape some foam off my face. Then we took a shower together, and he told me that when he’d been in the navy during the war, they had always finished their showers with cold water to “seal the pores.” He turned off the hot tap, and we stood in the icy spray.
I remembered his advice and later emulated him, ending all my showers with a rinse under the coldest water possible.
Forty years and countless freezing showers later, my father was visiting me in Malibu, California, and he accompanied some friends and me to the beach to watch us surf. Afterward we walked back up to the house, where a shower head was mounted to the garage wall to wash away the salt water and sand. As I peeled off my wet suit, I asked Dad if he still ended his showers with cold water like he had in the navy.
A smile slowly crossed his face. “Don’t tell me you believed that!” he said.
Pagosa Springs, Colorado
In junior high I would sometimes come upon my father sitting in a kitchen chair in the early-morning darkness, drinking his coffee, and he would offer me his vitriolic opinions about Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty and what would happen to the city in the aftermath of the Watts riots. “This place is going to turn into a toilet,” he would say, or some variation on that theme. I would give noncommittal replies so as not to disrespect him, and I always did my best to exit the kitchen as soon as possible.
Some years later a few black students were bused to my all-white high school, and my dad went ballistic. I had never even had a conversation with a black person before.
Not long after that, I got an afternoon newspaper route: I would pedal my bike five miles to the industrial part of town, pick up close to a hundred papers, and go from factory to factory, trying to sell them to workers as they left for the day. But I was shy and had trouble hawking papers to indifferent strangers.
One of the places I went was a warehouse for a department store. That’s where I met John, a charismatic black man who would welcome me with warmth and enthusiasm. I think he sensed my shyness, and he went out of his way to talk to me. I looked forward to seeing him.
One day John asked if I would like to come to the boxing studio that he ran after work. His son trained there, and he thought the exercise would be good for me.
I wanted badly to accept the invitation, but I knew my dad would never go for it. Nevertheless I told John I’d check with my father.
Needless to say, I didn’t bother asking him.
I dreaded seeing John the next day, knowing I would have to lie. I tried to avoid him, but he tracked me down.
“What did your dad say?”
“He won’t let me do it,” I replied.
When I saw the disappointment on John’s face, I felt guilty. He offered to talk to my dad, but I cut him off with a quick “No!” I didn’t want the two of them to meet.
John looked at me calmly. He understood. “OK,” he said. “Maybe later he’ll change his mind.” He placed a hand on my shoulder and said if I ever needed someone to talk to, he was always there.
I quit the paper route a short time later. John and I never spoke again.
After all these years, I still feel that hand on my shoulder. In a subtle yet powerful way it has guided me in a direction my father’s hand never could.
Paul Noel Nickel
Santa Barbara, California
I was not a good reader as a girl. It’s not that I had a disability; I just couldn’t muster the interest to tackle anything too challenging. My tastes ran to Archie comic books and the Sweet Valley High series, with a healthy dose of YM and Teen Beat magazines thrown in.
When my mother began to despair of my ever becoming a serious reader, my father took matters in hand. Every evening, after the dinner dishes were washed and while my siblings were busy with other activities, he and I would sit on the white couch in the living room, and he would read to me.
This was our ritual: He would read for twenty minutes or so, then take a break to prepare a cup of coffee. (Occasionally I would be allowed to join him with a cup that was mostly milk.) Then he would continue reading, stopping periodically to take a sip. In the summers we moved to the screened-in porch, and his hot coffee was replaced with iced tea.
My father had a wonderful reading voice, rich and fluid. For dialogue, he would affect a southern drawl, a menacing snarl, or a cowboy twang.
We worked our way through much of the children’s canon: The Secret Garden, The Yearling, The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, Treasure Island, Anne of Green Gables, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Alone, I still struggled through books, but listening to him read, I was able to savor them.
A large part of what I enjoyed was getting to sit close to my father, feeling his reliable presence, smelling the coffee on his breath, and knowing that this was time carved out for just the two of us. That he must have enjoyed our time together as much as I did didn’t occur to me until years later.
The most memorable moments were those rare occasions when my father’s voice would falter, then stop altogether. Looking over to see what the holdup was, I’d be startled to find my father’s eyes brimming with tears. One such instance came when he was reading To Kill a Mockingbird, during that heartbreaking passage when Atticus Finch says that courage is not “a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” My father tried mightily to regain his voice, clearing his throat several times. Finally he handed the book to me and said, “Here, you read.”
The last book we read together was Gone with the Wind. I am almost embarrassed to say how old I was at the time. No other sixteen-year-olds I knew were being read to by their fathers.
My father did for me what I couldn’t do on my own, and when he finally stopped reading to me, I was able to go it alone, to read well, and with joy.
Jennifer Reagan McCleery
North Haven, Connecticut
The couple next door had a little girl named Erin. She was born with a tumor equal to her birth weight attached along her spine like a conjoined twin. She had numerous surgeries in her first few years, leaving her with a colostomy bag, legs that didn’t work, and a tragically short life expectancy.
Erin would spend hours quietly focused on whatever was in front of her. When I went over to visit, I might find her sitting in the grass outside her house, turning a small stone over and over in her hand: feeling its weight, rubbing her fingers along its tiny ruts and sharp edges, putting it up against her cheek, looking at its shape. When her attention finally shifted, she might spot a commonplace sparrow or starling and follow its flight through the tree branches until it was completely out of sight. She seemed delighted by everyday life. Her laugh was easy and her frustration rare.
I was fifty, and my role model was a two-year-old.
My dad was gone most of the time when my siblings and I were growing up. He was a preacher, and his duties included attending board meetings, writing sermons, and visiting hospital patients and shut-ins. He always stood up for the underdog and lent a hand to the downtrodden. When he was home, the telephone never stopped ringing. I was jealous of the callers, whoever they were. He often grew tense from all the demands on his time and would lose his patience and occasionally his temper with me, his hyperactive and inattentive son.
There wasn’t any doubt that he loved me, but I never felt that I got a fair share of my father’s attention until I became an underdog. In 2004 my world came apart, the result of a long-undiagnosed mental illness that I had “treated” with alcohol and pharmaceuticals. I had a beautiful young family and a promising career. When it all blew up, I fully experienced my father’s unconditional, selfless love.
He spoke to me only of hope as he drove me to court proceedings. He told me how proud he was of me for following my medical regimen, going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and “working the program.” Once, when I rose above my shame and made it to one of his Sunday services, he introduced me to a couple of church leaders who had no doubt read of my legal troubles in the local paper. I could feel my father’s pride as he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Michael is a rock. He is so strong.”
When I wasn’t so strong and needed to be hospitalized in complete despair — three times — it was Dad who stayed by my side. He repeatedly loaned me money in an effort to save my home and keep my family intact. When we lost the house anyway, he just hugged me and said it was OK. And he reminded me to hope for better things to come. His faith in me gave me faith in myself.
Now, when I think about how Dad wasn’t always present when I was young, I know it was often because of the people he helped: the guy who’d lost both his legs in a motorcycle accident, the woman who’d tried to kill herself with a bullet in the head and failed, the three kids who’d found their mom dead of a drug overdose. I can imagine vividly the role my dad played in these people’s lives: the steady flow of encouragement, the message of hope. I am glad they had my father at their side. I will never forget having him at mine.
Sandia Park, New Mexico
In 1989 I quit my job as a reporter to work in a soup-and-sandwich shop I had written a story about. Rich, one of the owners, lived in a state of almost constant surprise. At least once a day I heard him say, “Holy cow!” Even the smallest incidents would amaze him. “Holy cow,” he might say, “that coffee was bad,” and then he’d laugh at his ability to make such a horrible cup of coffee. I always pressured myself to be perfect, but he would spend hours trying to make a Caribbean corn chowder, and when it ended up tasting like a wet muffin, his failure was a source of wonder to him, not anger.
Over the years “holy cow” has become my mantra in the face of disaster: “Holy cow, I can’t believe my engine just blew up.” “Holy cow, I can’t believe she doesn’t love me anymore.” Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps me going.
At the age of ten I watched Grandma brush and pin up her long salt-and-pepper hair. “Grandma,” I said, “you could look twenty years younger if you’d just dye your hair.”
“Why would I want to look twenty years younger?” she asked, sounding truly curious.
She didn’t know? Everyone wants to look twenty years younger, I explained. I was sure of this because I’d seen it on TV.
She kindly told me that twenty years earlier she’d been forty and hadn’t had anywhere near the experiences she’d had now. “Sixty-year-olds have had much more interesting lives than forty-year-olds,” she said. “Why would I want to look like a less interesting person?”
Twenty years later an oddly colored strand of hair appeared near my ear. I tugged it loose and showed my best friend. “It looks like it’s filled with air!” I said, holding it up to the light.
“Honey, it’s gray,” she told me gently. After waiting a moment to let me absorb the news, she asked how I felt about it.
“Fine,” I said, a little surprised to feel the truth of it. “I’ve been looking forward to this day since I was ten years old.”
Tibas, San José
The highlight of my son’s second-grade school year was when the kids chose their heroes and, dressed as them, gave speeches before classmates, parents, and grandparents. I was thrilled to see my son so engaged with his research. When he finally took the stage, he was Ben Franklin.
Though it was heartwarming to see all the kids dressed in their costumes, I couldn’t help but notice the number of girls dressed as male role models. There was not a single boy, of course, dressed as his female hero. The teacher had explained to me that they were required to do the research using books at their reading level and were not allowed to use the Internet. Apparently there just aren’t enough children’s books about women in history.
My heart ached for all the young girls. In fact, I felt sad for every woman in that room. Why is this still happening?
I got my first real job when I was fourteen, as a stock boy in a women’s shoe store in the heart of our small downtown, between two five-and-dimes.
When I first inquired about the job, I got turned down, so I told the store manager, Wally, that I’d work the first week for nothing to prove my worth. He started me at eighty-five cents an hour.
Wally was short and wore his long, dark hair swept back. His wide mustache made him look vaguely European, and his dark, darting eyes missed nothing. The other employees and I affectionately dubbed him “Ol’ Beady Eyes,” and he embraced the nickname.
Wally had a fierce loyalty to his workers and an equally fierce sense of fairness. He was also a shrewd businessman and drilled his crew on posture, making eye contact, and closing a sale. “You don’t sell the steak,” he told us. “You sell the sizzle.” We were not order-takers or clerks; we were sales professionals.
One day Wally sent me to the town’s main post office to conduct business that could not be handled at a branch. I found myself at the mercy of a clerk who gave me a hard time about my request, then pointed to his watch and abruptly closed his window.
After I’d returned to the shoe store, mission unaccomplished, Wally marched me back to the post office. He confronted the hapless clerk, who tried to call me a liar. Wally fixed his beady eyes on the man and whispered that he had personally trained all his employees; to suggest that one of them could be a liar was a personal insult to him. On our way out he told me to pick a different clerk in the future.
I am seventy-five now, and Wally is long gone, but I still remember one afternoon outside the store, when he handed me a push broom and asked me to sweep the area between the show windows. I froze: what if someone from school saw me sweeping trash across the sidewalk?
Wally quietly took the broom from me and proceeded to do the task at hand. When he’d finished, he said, “Remember this, son: never ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.”
Gleneden Beach, Oregon
We had a nest of wrens who filled our yard with happy trilling, until a sparrow began to bully the mother wren. As my kids watched in horror, I saw a chance to model my ideals of peace.
“How can we outsmart that sparrow?” I asked my children. My son suggested we make the entry hole into the birdhouse smaller, which we promptly did. The sparrow stuck its head into the tiny hole and beat its wings against the birdhouse for the next two days, but it finally gave up, and the wrens thrived that spring. I was thrilled that I had shown my children how to use nonviolence to defeat a bully.
Then the sparrows began harassing our bluebirds and ended up killing two that had newly hatched young. So my children and I stood on a ladder every hour and used tweezers and medicine droppers to feed five orphaned birds. Three died, but two lived. Thirteen days later, when the survivors were ready to fly, we placed them in another bluebird house that contained babies the same age. The parent birds taught their adopted young to fly, and I was a hero to my children.
The next spring, when the sparrows began to torment the nesting bluebirds, I called the feed store, and the manager suggested I trap the sparrows and drown them. Not wanting to kill the birds, we instead chased them with hoes, banged foil pie pans, and took turns guarding the bluebird houses. In the end the sparrows were the victors, having driven all the songbirds from our yard.
I reluctantly decided to trap the sparrows and release them in town. After successfully relocating the first bird, I thought, One down, fifteen to go.
The next day we trapped another sparrow: I put a black trash bag over the bluebird house, and the sparrow flew right in. My husband tied a loose knot to close the bag, and we scurried to finish packing our car for a trip; we would let the bird go on our way out of town.
My kids urged me to hurry. I asked my husband if he thought the bird could get enough air. He said the sparrow was just fine.
It took longer than I had hoped to get the car loaded. We got in, and my son held the bag on his lap. I heard the frantic beating of wings against the plastic and felt guilty for meddling with nature.
It was a fifteen-minute drive to town, and for ten minutes the plastic bag moved with the fury of the trapped bird inside. Then it went still. I got out and opened the bag. There lay the bird, dead.
My kids were horrified, and they wept as we drove home, too upset to follow through with our travel plans.
In my attempt to stop the sparrows from killing bluebirds, I had killed a sparrow. I had done the very thing I was trying to prevent, and my children had to witness it.
L. Richelle Snyder
Since she suffered a brain injury in a car accident on February 19, 1960, my mother has been unable to stand or walk or read or write or speak clearly. She doesn’t know how old she is, where she lives, or what day it is. She never knows what to do next and recalls little of the past. For the most part she has lived in a free-floating present since she was forty-five years old. “Where’s Daddy?” she’ll ask me every once in a while, referring to my father and sounding for all the world as if she were asking about a pair of misplaced galoshes. My father died twenty-six years ago.
On Tuesdays I’ll pick her up at the nursing facility where she lives, and we’ll drive to a nearby park for a picnic. An aide will have dressed her in clean clothes and positioned her at the end of the corridor. Sometimes she’ll be wearing someone else’s clothes. Most recently it was a pair of velour pants with a green paint stain on one leg.
As I approach her wheelchair, my mother will turn toward me with no recognition at first. When her face finally lights up, I’ll release the breath I have not been conscious of holding.
When she’s not focused on something, her right eye drifts out of alignment, and she drools intermittently. Because of this most people assume my mother’s not all there. Waiters, doctors, and social workers will speak to me instead of her in her presence: “Would she like dessert?” “Can she transfer to the exam table?” “Do you think she would like to have her voting rights back?” But she is cognitively intact enough to order me to take my elbows off the dinner table, brush my hair, or “put on something nice.”
On Thursdays my husband, Don, takes my mother out. Not long ago she confused him and my father — both tall, blue-eyed, kind men — and she started urging Don, who’s not a golfer, to hit some balls at the driving range. So he made it part of their routine.
I accompanied them to the driving range once, and it was clear that watching Don swing the club, as she had once watched my father do, put my mother’s world right again. The expression on her face was like that of someone who, after being lost for a long time, suddenly recognizes where she is.
On Sundays my mother comes over for dinner. “No potatoes,” she tells me every single time I put a plate in front of her. She never asks if I’m even serving potatoes; she just repeats in a panicky voice, “No potatoes, no potatoes.”
“You weigh 120,” I’ll tell her. “You don’t need to watch your weight.”
“I’m slimming,” she’ll say. She remains stuck in 1960, when she wanted to lose a few pounds.
My mother has spent more than fifty years in a wheelchair, often adrift in the murky depths of her damaged mind. Old age has robbed her of her once keen sense of hearing and the few skills she learned in rehab decades ago. Yet, since the first years after the accident, not a word of complaint about her condition has crossed her lips.
“And what do you have to say about your life?” I asked her not long ago, while I shuffled and dealt the cards for our Sunday-evening game of Crazy Eights.
“That everyone should be as lucky as I am,” she said.
“Lucky?” I replied. “How so?”
“I have you, and I have Don, and I have Laura and Sarah,” she said, adding our daughters’ names to my husband’s and mine.
That’s not enough, I thought, struck by her refusal to wish for a single thing to have been different.
She picked up her cards and sorted her hand. “I am dumb,” she said. “I can’t remember anything. I can’t do anything. But I’m smart enough to know I’m lucky.”
Palo Alto, California
When I was a boy of fourteen, my father had already been dead for six years. I had been raised by an intelligent, strong mother and a popular, pretty older sister. The absence of men in my life had been inconsequential, I’d thought, but lately I was noticing that my friends’ fathers took them fishing, and their older brothers taught them to drive. I began to search for a man I could look up to and emulate.
I started with my mother’s boyfriend. He was kind, smart, and good to my mom, but he found my interests frivolous and my humor crude. So I moved on to my sister’s boyfriend, but you want your role model, like your president, to be at least as smart as you.
There was the older kid down the road who had taught me how to trap muskrats and steal candy from the store. He was fun to be around, but his insensitivity to animals and disregard for people’s feelings made me distrust him.
I studied the fathers of my friends and found alcoholics, abusive husbands, religiously intolerant tyrants, and career-before-family types. I considered the TV dads from Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet, but they wore suits and lived in spotless suburban houses, so I couldn’t identify with them.
I looked to the patriarchs of the church that my mother insisted I attend, but their actions did not match their words. They embraced all God’s children on Sunday, then on Monday exploited and demeaned the people of color in our community.
My fruitless search for a male role model was also, in a way, successful. It led me back to the one person I trusted; the person who understood that self-respect trumps status; who gave me a genuine appreciation of the earth and all its animals; who taught me to keep an open mind to others’ opinions but also to have the gumption to make my own decisions. I chose my mother as my role model, and that choice has served me well.
I was never considered a bright boy. I struggled to do my schoolwork and control myself in class. At the age of seven I was diagnosed with ADHD and thereafter took Ritalin daily. Though my parents provided me with medicine and weekly meetings with a psychologist, they still spanked me whenever I did something wrong.
One day in fourth grade, after some of my usual clowning at recess, my teacher mumbled that my parents should increase my dosage. Though I felt far too old to cry, I sat at the end of the hall in tears until recess was over.
Just before the bell rang, a sixth-grade girl with short blond hair, freckles, and big blue eyes asked me what was wrong. I was tempted to say, “Nothing,” as I was already thoroughly embarrassed, but for some reason I told her the whole story. Her name was Annabelle, and she comforted me. I wasn’t stupid, she said. The teacher just didn’t understand how smart I was, and I should ignore her.
From then on Annabelle checked up on me at recess every day and even helped me with my homework at the after-school program. I began to catch up on multiplication and division, memorized the fifty states, and improved my reading skills.
After Annabelle moved on to middle school, I never saw her again, but I think about her often. She helped me in a way my family and my psychologist couldn’t. Who was I to her? Just some kid she saw crying at the end of the hallway.
To this day I feel it is my duty to help anyone in need.
Plumas Lake, California
Rummaging through the attic, I came upon a box of your old shoes that Mother had saved all these years: golf shoes, summer shoes, loafers. Then I saw them — your Nunn Bush wingtips. New. Never worn. Still beautiful, with their creamy amber leather and elegant stitched swirls.
I remembered how, as an adolescent, I had admired those shoes in a store window and purchased them for you as a gift one Christmas.
Dad, I know buying you those Nunn Bush dress shoes might have been presumptuous of me, but they radiated quality. I remember asking you, “Why don’t you wear them?” You didn’t say.
I never wanted to be a stockbroker like you, but in junior high I learned to analyze your stock charts, hoping it would bring us closer. It didn’t. I admired how you questioned God’s existence at that meeting at church, yet it hurt me that you dismissed the Bible stories my Sunday-school teacher told as “just some old book somebody wrote.” I learned from you how to challenge authority, but when I challenged you as I grew up, you declared my choices wrong.
Years later you fiercely tore down my “McCarthy for President” poster, hurt that I’d rejected your Republican world. (Strangely, McCarthy reminded me of you: blunt, smart, above it all.) Perhaps you needed to be admired by your son as much as I needed you to be proud of me.
Then you died.
In the attic I cautiously slid my feet into your Nunn Bush wingtips. They fit! I took the shoes home and polished them, but the decades-old leather was frayed and cracked. I remembered your obsession with oil, how it was your elixir for everything: cracked leather, unruly hair, dry feet, stuck light bulbs. I recalled how my brother and I would earnestly oil our leather jackets under your approving eye. I anointed the shoes with oil, but their collapse was inevitable. The sole came loose. I let them get scuffed.
Last summer I wore your shoes while doing punishing field work at the farm. They got wet and filled with mud. After two weeks of slow drying, they turned gray and stiff.
Dad, I’m sorry.
New York, New York
I recently left behind friends and the familiar environment and conveniences of California to move to a small farm in Hawaii. Such a drastic change hasn’t been easy, especially since I’m old enough to wish for the comfort of an established routine and not as strong as I once was. Yet it was the right thing to do. I know, because I talked it over with my mother.
She was raised on a farm in West Virginia in the early twentieth century and never lost her love of the land. I learned from her to be a dedicated reader and to delight in nature. She would notice the smallest wildflower in her path. “Look!” she’d say. “Do you see that lizard sunning itself on the rock you just passed?” As a journalist in the 1930s she had covered the story of the West Virginia coal miners’ attempts to unionize. She taught me to appreciate and stand up for what might otherwise be overlooked and neglected, both in nature and in society.
This farm challenges me. There is no end to the growing season here. Almost any day can be a good one to weed around the citrus trees or mow the grass or pick the poha berries or plant lettuce. On my knees in the red-brown volcanic soil, I find myself exclaiming, “Mom, look at all this vigor!” Gazing up at the cool slopes of Mauna Kea, I discuss with her the possibility of growing artichokes and rhododendrons at this high elevation. I can almost see her, hunched over her cane, considering where to put the chicken house.
My mother is with me every day, though she has been dead for nearly twenty years. Her remains sit in a box on my bookshelf. I imagine that she enjoys her place among the volumes there, many of which were hers to begin with. As I read something interesting, I whisper, “Mom, listen to this!” As I write, I ask her, “Mom, am I making myself clear?”
There will come a day when I cast her ashes to the winds. I can hear her chiding me, Come on! What are you waiting for? That orange tree needs a dose of me. I want to become a part of something new.
I wonder, is there a final lesson I need to learn before I let her go? Or is the lesson that there really is no letting go? She’ll be here as long as I am.