“So where will you live if you have to live without Buck?” my sister asked in our long phone call last night. “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”
No, no. There’s nothing imminent going on, thank God. But she knows that Buck is 82 and I am 68 (good solid peasant stock and so far remarkably sturdy) and so barring a freak accident or random deadly disease, the brutal calendar suggests I could be a widow for a long time.
Flo is ten years my senior. She turned 79 yesterday and her husband of 56 years turns 81 today. “If I have to live without Charlie,” she said in her voice which has grown breathy and thin, “I think I’ll stay here with my kids. Plus I love Arizona.”
“We’re not in control of the timing of things,” I say, “so it just depends. We know we need to sell the big house while we are still strong enough to do all the necessary things on our own.” Flo has opened the door, and I muse aloud. “When we sell here, when that time comes, we plan to go to Jacksonville and hunker down somewhere close to the Mayo Clinic where we’re assured of great medical care.”
“And they know you there. They have all of Buck’s records.”
“So you think you would stay there, then?”
“Probably, I don’t know. Somewhere in Florida, for sure. I love old Florida, somewhere on the water, maybe a river, but near the ocean where I could walk the beach everyday. Mother was so strict, I never got a sunburn as a teenager.” Flo and I quietly laugh. Oh, we both knew our mother.
Well. It’s early morning now. I realized that conversation was still on my mind when I called Lou dog by my sister’s name when I got out of bed in the dark to leave Buck and my bedroom, trying as I always do not to disturb his sleep and failing as I always do. He stirs and reaches for me.
Buck bought the first sixty acres of thick pine woods we call Longleaf in 1974. The only access was a dim road, a hunter’s trail, paper company land on three sides. He was a man of many hats even then: corporate executive, husband and father to three young teenagers, community volunteer, part-time farmer, and entrepreneur. I was five years out of high school, married and living 350 miles east in Florida’s capitol city. We had not yet met.
Who could have imagined that by 2020 Buck’s first wife would be dead? His middle son dead. My first husband dead. That next month we will have been married for 35 years? That I would have no natural children, but two beloved step-kids who are my good friends, seven grandchildren and three great-grands.
Or that our county plans to build a road through the middle of the now ninety acres of Longleaf where we built a home and have lived since 2000? Or that we would learn the county approved an overlay on top of our land and that of many of our neighbors that would diminish its value when the time comes to sell? Of course we are working to remove this cloud. It has taken more than a year of research, but we are ready. Our case will be heard by our local planning board on February 4, along with three of our neighbors. Should be quite a show.
As for the road, we support that, even though it changes forever my morning walks to the gate and the total privacy we have enjoyed all these years. We and our neighbors need the road. The current one is narrow and way below basic county standards, with multiple blind ninety-degree curves. It has become the corridor between new businesses and subdivisions at one end and a new elementary school and existing middle school at the other. More than 50 school bus trips a day run the gauntlet. We cannot in good conscience oppose it. So. Two different issues. Both presaging major change.
2020. Shaping up to be a barn-burner. My “word” for 2019 was FLOW. This year’s is READY. I told Buck about my word. He chuckled and said, “Mine is MOVE.”
Caroline looked up, surprised to hear any conversation at all from the couple on the sofa, much less this. But all she saw was the same thing she had seen for the last hour. A middle-aged, long-married couple sitting a few inches from each other, both hunched over their smart phones, thumbs furiously working the keys.
The man’s dad, Caroline’s husband, looked at her, raised his eyebrows, and shrugged. She could tell he found it both annoying and amusing that his son had flown across the county to see him, yet spent the precious sliver of time thus.
Caroline learned later they were continuing an argument begun who knows when. Hours? Days? Weeks? Decades? Turns out they were sitting right beside each other, texting all the while. Her angry outburst was almost certainly unintentional, but it spoke volumes.
They agreed to break for lunch on the patio. Poolside. A sweet breeze swayed the tops of tall old pines ringing the back yard. But their phones, weapon of choice, remained near their itchy fingers.
Caroline tried to steer the conversation, akin to herding sullen cats, to something fun, some topic at least lighter than a brick. Going anywhere interesting? Thought about where you want to live after retirement? How are the kids? (Always a danger warning zone, but she was desperate.) Ah, this one: tell me about your color scheme for the new house you just bought.
Caroline knew, though. The walls were the color of tears.
Robin checked out of her room at the Hotel Provincial early to drive back home to Pensacola. It was an easy three and a half hours with no commitments waiting, but she was more than ready to go. She and Harry had been coming to this quirky, elegant small New Orleans hotel just at the edge of the French Quarter for romantic getaways for decades. Their last visit, however, had been a surprise treat for their granddaughter’s senior high school spring break.
The room had an old-fashioned wing chair just like the one Robin sat in one year when Harry took her picture before they happily drifted over to the now-defunct, over the top restaurant Stella. It was her favorite photograph of herself, a prized memory. Somehow the slinky black dress and animal print scarf just worked with her cropped black hair and the chunky tumbler of single-malt scotch in her right hand, eyes bright with love for the photographer.
Robin slung the strap of her overnight bag over one shoulder, car keys in hand, opened the door, then turned to look at the room one more time, wanting to burn every detail of it into her memory. She didn’t expect to return here again.
Coffee and cinnamon smells wafting into the parking lot from the hotel kitchen slowed her determined trudge to the car. “What’s another few minutes?” she thought. “Nobody’s waiting for me at home.” God, it hurt to say that. She and Harry had talked about cremation, but when the time came, she just couldn’t do it and went the full memorial service at the old church Episcopal church downtown where they had been arms-length members forever. She sighed and went into the small lobby area where a continental breakfast was laid out on a starched white tablecloth. This was a quickie for travelers ready to hit the road, so while there were beignets and cinnamon rolls on a round silver tray, local bean purveyor Community Coffee’s paper cups were stacked beside the coffee maker, ready to go.
Robin filled her cup with the pungent black chicory-laced brew, wrapped a cinnamon roll in a paper napkin and went to the desk to check out. “Why don’t y’all take a few minutes and enjoy the courtyard before you hit the road? Mama always told me eatin’ and drivin’ ain’t good for the digestion.” The smiling clerk spread her fingers toward the open door leading to the courtyard, nodding her head in encouragement.
It seemed rude to turn down such a nice invitation. “What’s another ten minutes?” Robin found a table and sat, eyes angled down at the table, sighing. She felt so tired. Maybe if she just closed her eyes for a minute.
Robin’s eyes popped open. Did someone shake her? Had she fallen asleep? Was someone staring at her?
“No, cher, ain’t nobody starin’ at you.” Robin looked around. The voice was a deep baritone. But the courtyard was empty. She looked around for the first time, taking in the frilly pink bougainvilleas, lush banana plants and elephant ears, and the stone face of a lion.
The lion. He was definitely looking at her, a slightly grumpy gaze on his marble face. Water streamed in an arc from his mouth to a blue-green pool. For the first time, she noticed bougainvillea petals floating in the pool and couldn’t help but think how they were beautiful on the tree and beautiful floating, fallen, in the water.
Robin suddenly felt hungry, really hungry, for the first time since Harry died three months earlier. She ate half the cinnamon roll in one huge gulp and washed it down with the now lukewarm coffee. Its bitter taste mingled with the too sweet of the iced bun into perfection in her mouth.
Robin still felt someone’s eyes on her. “It’s just me, darlin’, we’re all friends here.” The voice was silky, neither young nor old, male or female. It sounded happy, though. She turned and saw a cherub. Was it made of wood? It looked warm and shiny, like carved and shellacked butterscotch.
“Huh,” Robin murmured. The drive home didn’t feel so urgent after all. She returned to the lobby for another cinnamon roll and some hot coffee, sat back down between the lion and the cherub, took out her notebook and pen and began to write.
Here at what we fondly call The Longleaf Bar and Grill, it’s eating for two most of the time. After many (many) years of playing in the kitchen, I’m much more interested in playing at my desk or elsewhere with a notebook and pens rather than a whisk. Still, food is the fuel, so Buck and I have a collaborative style that gets the job done in an enjoyable way. Here’s an example from the last three suppers.
Buck and I have attended the funerals of too many people we loved: both of our parents, his adult son (my stepson, the gray sheep), beloved aunts and uncles, and too many friends to count, not to mention the joy of loving and heartbreak of losing our Labrador retriever companions over the past forty years.
Ashes are what’s left when everything else is gone. And even they blow off into the wind, float for awhile on the sea, or are buried in the garden. Buck’s first wife’s sister scattered her husband’s ashes under azalea bushes in their front yard. Her next husband reportedly admired the robustly blooming hedge.
I never smoked, so ashtrays don’t enter my thoughts when I consider ashes. Bonfires, either. No. It’s all about death and how very little is left. What a small pile we make.
Ash Wednesday services in my Episcopalian tradition admonish congregants to remember that we are mortal, that our lives are short. As the ashes are smeared onto my forehead, the priest intones, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The Ash Wednesday liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer is satisfyingly grim. My favorite Ash Wednesday service was at the grand old church downtown during a crashing thunder and lightning storm, a perfect prop for the event.
Old-style funerals like I grew up with, viewing the body, “he’s in a happier place,” all that, are sufficiently macabre that both Buck and I eschew attending unless we absolutely must. And the new fashions which feature a large multimedia production complete with music are equally repulsive. Cremation is our stop-gap plan, although we both prefer to simply live forever.
I think when I I die I would be grateful if some kind soul would place me to be left undisturbed in a blooming pitcher plant flat like the one we have on our hundred acre wood at Longleaf and let me be a perpetual meal for the carnivorous flowers, to bloom and bloom again.
The morning is dark and windy, with rain and warmer temperatures in the offing. The normal winter pattern here in the Florida panhandle is three days of chill, then rain, and two days of warmth. It’s not unusual for me to wear my same summer shorts and t-shirt augmented by a vest with many pockets or a light jacket from November to February. Rare is the winter day when I reach far back into the cupboard for a pair of fleece sweatpants.
When Lou and I walked down to the gate early, I was reminded of Wuthering Heights and how I always imagined myself like young Catherine, wandering the moors. The silver-gray lights, with sudden showers of leaves falling seems loud as cannons, and the chit-chit-chits of squirrels sounds like they are running around inside my head. The light, soft mist isn’t quite rain, but I can feel my hair expanding, curling, growing wild like a vine. I’m back at the house now, making a cauldron of white bean soup. Lou curls herself up on a small rug near the counter, waiting for offerings of celery half-ribs and quarter-size slices of carrot. Buck is up now, too, drinking chamomile vanilla tea (a more gentle counterpoint to my just-ground dark roast black coffee) and working at his desk.
There is the quiet surprise of a puff of warm breath on my knee. I look to see Lou, the little Chocolate Lab, her luminous brown eyes rolled up to my face, clearly asking if I will take a break from my desk to get her purple plastic KONG football and throw it for her, one of our morning rituals. Lou is a dog of many rituals: sitting on my feet while I brush my teeth, walking to the gate each morning, breakfast, playing a short game of heal-sit-catch the thrown football-return and repeat, waiting for me to finish my near-daily bowl of raw oats, chia seeds, cinnamon, walnuts, berries, ground flax and organic unsweetened soy milk so she can lick the bowl – knowing I always leave at least one blueberry in the bottom of the bowl with a slick of milk, greet Buck when he emerges from our bedroom, sleep, eat lunch (very important), sleep some more and wait for supper.
Lou enters my study quietly, but if I don’t acquiesce soon enough, the soft breath will be replaced by a more insistent paw on my thigh. If that doesn’t do it, she starts talking to me in a bossy, whiny way, all the while walking backwards. By this time, I’m completely distracted and laughing, and we go play football. Resistance is futile.
Germs and bacteria, too, enter a cut or wound silently, stealthy invaders who need to be stopped before they are over the wall.
At Publix this afternoon I saw a well-dressed boy of about twelve holding the hand of an equally well-dressed man as they approached the deli counter. The boy spoke to everyone, his open, handsome face lit with a bright smile. His message was the same: Happy New Year! Some people responded. Some did not. They could tell something was a bit off about the boy. But the Dad was gentle with him and courteous to the other shoppers. I stood a few feet away, wondering why all the green cabbages were gone and pondering a change in menu plan, when I looked up and saw the boy. Before he had a chance to speak, I waved and said, “Happy New Year!” His face broke open into one of the brightest smiles I’ve ever seen. He gave me a classic beauty pageant wave and said, “Yes! Happy New Year!”
His dad looked at me, his open, intelligent face serious, pained. “Thank you for that,” he said quietly.
I moved along to another aisle, thinking of the ease and comfort of my own life and how little I truly know about how other people live. Their struggles. Their silent heroism.
I guess I could say that a degree of additional understanding entered my heart by way of the father’s restraint and gentleness with his beautiful, damaged chld.
The two small wounds on my right arm are itching like crazy and are redder and more puffy than I would like. I guess I am fretting because of our experience two Decembers ago when Buck’s hand was punctured by the broken off branch of a small fallen tree and he wound up in the hospital for three days with a serious blood infection. Just like that, on a crisp winter afternoon walk in our own woods.