Sunday, June 26, 2011

"...the kindness of strangers"

The other day a blog reader asked me if I thought some of the experiences that I blog about are entirely unique and wondered if other people share similar stories and anecdotes, suggesting that perhaps her life might not be as rich as most.  I know she's well travelled, outgoing, and well-liked, so she has her own set of stories. Everyone does; some just have more than others.  Some we share, some we keep secret, some we never forget.

The summer heat and humidity in Nebraska can be especially oppressive when you don't have much money and few resources to seek relief.  Frequently on especially sultry days, I'd walk the four kids to a branch of the public library that wasn't too far from home and we'd enjoy a children's story hour in the quiet air conditioned building.  After checking out a few books, we'd head out further and stop for a frozen treat.  One day, as we pushed young Olivia in her stroller and the other three kids each took a hand, we approached an older man who was supported by his walker and wearing clothes that were completely inappropriate for the heat and humidity: a thin winter jacket, a long-sleeved flannel shirt over a t-shirt, clip-on suspenders ... and plaid trousers down around his ankles.  He wasn't wearing any underwear.

As we got closer, I steered the kids to the edge of the sidewalk anticipating that we'd avoid him physically since we were a large group, but I also hoped to shield the kid's view of  his vulnerability as he vainly attempted to retrieve his pants.  It was then that we heard onlookers and passersby catcalling, whistling, and shouting from across the street or from cars that slowly drove past, making rude and insulting comments amusing themselves or their companions with what they thought were clever put-downs.  I hated those people.  

So, I stopped and helped him.  He smelled of urine and the neglect of hygiene, but he was aware.  His arthritic bones and aging muscles prevented him from reaching down for his pants, so he stood quietly as I pulled them up and clipped his four suspenders back in place at equal distances around his waistline.  He thanked me, sincerely, and I told him to have a nice day. I've never forgotten it.

It was on that same main drag of South Omaha where a few months later I stood on the corner with the four kids in the pouring, chilling rain.  We were waiting for a bus, which we would take downtown, get a transfer to cross town and eventually get to Children's Hospital where Olivia was well known.  She had weekly appointments for blood counts and routines of injections and infusions, sometimes requiring overnight stays or -- if results and reports weren't positive -- she'd be admitted for several days in isolation.  We couldn't anticipate the outcome of the day on those frequent trips, and since Stephen was commuting over an hour away, transportation wasn't always convenient or to our advantage.  As the rain pelted down, our chilled breath showed, and the five of us waited at the bus stop, dripping in our slickers, a sleek Cadillac pulled up to the curb and stopped.  Luxury cars were not common in our neighbourhood, and luxury car owners usually made quick time when driving through it. The electric window lowered, and an expensively coiffed, well dressed woman in her 60's leaned over the passenger side and called out, asking if we needed a ride.

I was tired, stressed, wet, and faced an hour's trip by bus to the hospital --a car ride would make it in fifteen minutes. I accepted her simple offer, and filed the four dripping kids in the back onto her leather seats and joined her in front, shaking out my umbrella before closing the door.  Never showing concern for bringing the rain into her fancy car, she chatted politely all the way to the front door of the hospital, then let us off, and told us all to have a good day.  I've never forgotten it.

Not much longer after that we made the move from Omaha to New Jersey.  (You might have read about that adventure in an earlier blog entry.)   For us it truly was an adventure.  We took advantage of the long trip to call on my sister's family in central Tennessee.  We spent just a few days together, and though my stress level was high and concerns were heavy, we were glad for the opportunity to visit.  Our home in urban Omaha, suffering for repair, hadn't yet sold, we were travelling in a 30 year-old vehicle crammed with possessions and pets, and Olivia had only a small window of freedom in between her last Omaha hospital visit and checking in at the hospital in New Jersey where they were expecting her. I imagine that to my sister, who lived comfortably in the country, we looked bedraggled, hassled, and hard scrabbled.

When it was time to leave her and continue on our adventure, she expressed her concern for our safety and comfort, and wished us luck.  It was genuine and it revealed a sort of kind-hearted nature she doesn't openly share -- we weren't a 'share your feelings', affectionate type of family.  She hugged me, and we kissed cheeks.  Though she is generous in every other capacity, this rare gesture of affection moved me, and the softness of her cheek vividly stays with me.  I've never forgotten it.
Years later, when my folks were anticipating a trip to visit us, Dad had several eBay (tm) purchases delivered to us to avoid slow and expensive postage to Canada.  He was completing his collection of Alden Nowlan works and had many first editions including some limited printing chapbooks.  We were in the car on our way to lunch when Dad opened a package containing The Best of Alden Nowlan and he quickly thumbed through it to find his favourite poem.  He quietly read it and passed it to me suggesting I read it before going into the restaurant, mentioning that Nowlan was his favourite poet.

But I'm not a fan of poetry.  I find it either poorly written, too esoteric to understand, or the writing will evoke difficult emotions such as loneliness, melancholic nostalgia, or heartfelt expressions of love or regret which I find overwhelming.  Dad insisted, and so I reluctantly read:
Tenth Wedding Anniversary

This is neither to
take back what was given
in rage, nor to deny the scars
I send you no Valentine card.
We are human and didn't
live happily ever after.
We are what our children
promise they'll never be --
a man and a woman
who get on each other's
nerves at times, and have traded
glares of the purest hate.
This is only to say there has never been
a moment in ten years
when I ceased to be
conscious of your presence
in the universe, never
a thought of mine in all that time
that wasn't superimposed
on my constant awareness of
your separate existence.
If the inhabitants of
the earth depended
for their survival on my
keeping them always
in my mind, my world would be
empty -- except for you.

For me it was gut-wrenchingly emotional, and it took me several moments to regain my composure before we all went into the restaurant; me, red-eyed, and sniffling.  I've never forgotten it, and said as much the very next time they visited months later and we returned to the same restaurant.

That time, it was a  nice spring day as we pulled into the parking lot, when we noticed an old man struggling with a cane.  He wasn't stumbling exactly, but it was clear he was having a problem, and then it became stunningly clear.  He had soiled himself with a most foul and copious combination of diarrhea and solid waste.  He was immobilized standing with oozing trousers as lumps fell about him from under his pant leg onto the asphalt while cars maneuvered for parking spaces. The old man was frantically gripping his backside trying to stanch his bowels with one hand while balancing himself on his cane with the other. Dad parked, and I approached him asking if he needed help to get comfortable or if there was someone we could call for him.  He was humiliated; his body had betrayed him and he reluctantly admitted that he needed assistance. I escorted him to his car, laid his cardigan on the seat, and he said he'd just wait for his son to drive him home.  I joined my folks as we were seated at the table, reminding them how emotional it was on our last visit and here were tears again. We all remembered.

Some things you just don't forget.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Small World Problem -- or-- 6 Degrees of Separation

It's a common catch phrase with us. You'll mostly hear it when Dad is around and you're discussing a landmark, one of the United States or Canadian provinces, a country, museum, mountain range, or body of water.  Dad has traveled to a lot of places in this world, either through his career with Norton Company or his adventurous travels over his many years.  There are few places on the map that you can point to that he won't say, "Been There!"  When we all sit to watch a movie, frequently while mostly amusing himself he'd blurt out, " BIN 'DERE!" when he recognized a familiar scene.  He's also met an awful lot of people.
It happens when we're among our friends and acquaintances, usually during animated conversation, that the name Wallace West will invariably come up.  So often, in fact, it became a sort of running joke among us  later becoming a challenge to see who would bring his name up in a topic first.

Our friends Jos and Darcy first became acquainted with Dad in his book shop at Cleveland Place.  Darcy was visiting Alma and getting re-acquainted with her ancestral home after many years of absence.  While talking in the bookshop, Dad learned that Darcy was a professor at a small college in central Tennessee where my sister's son was a student, not far from where my sister was living.  While Darcy and her family were getting more familiar with Alma, they often relied on Dad for his knowledge of the area and its long-time residents, seeking homeowner advice for their 100 year old home, enjoying each other's company with a shared devotion to Fundy.  Eventually, Darcy left Tennessee and accepted a teaching position at a university in Abu Dhabi, and traveled back to Alma to live with her family during the summer months.

After Dad moved to The Farm, we became friends with Darcy's family during their short time spent in Alma each year.  During the months she was teaching in Abu Dhabi we stayed connected through e-mail and she would recount their experiences and adventures in the United Arab Emirates, sharing exotic tales of visiting neighbouring countries while they immersed themselves in the culture, food, and surroundings of the residents there.  Darcy wrote that she'd been introduced to a fellow at the university and in the course of their conversation they each described their lives and where they lived when they weren't living and teaching in the UAE.  Darcy told about the Fundy area and Alma Village and her new acquaintance exclaimed, "Well, you must know Wallace West!"  Over 6,000 kilometers away, but just one degree of separation.

Several years ago, Dad and his friend Gerry built The Gazebo; an octagonal cottage at the edge of the Bay of Fundy --one of the few areas in North America where the eastern shore is still pristine and undeveloped.  We've hosted guests at The Gazebo from all over the world.  One was a fellow who found his way from the west coast of Canada to the east traveling by bicycle to celebrate turning 55.  As he passed through Albert County, he eventually landed at The Gazebo since he was rain soaked, tired, and the rural area offered few overnight accommodations.  It took one call to reach Dad who opened the door and offered a snack of peanuts and a respite for the weary biker.  Later, when Henk wrote a book about his travels, he told about his encounter with Dad and The Gazebo. 

With our New Jersey friends, Jim and Jen, bringing up Wally nearly became an eye-rolling annoyance that I was becoming self-conscious about.  Once, within just a few hours spent together over dinner at their house, we counted three times that Wallace West had been introduced into the conversation:

  • His acquaintance with author E. Annie Proulx and her visits to Dad's book shop at Cleveland Place.  Having read all of her books, we shared his excitement and brush with fame (I later met her myself on two of her subsequent visits).
  • His travels with my mother in a soft-top Jeep Wrangler to The Yukon and The Northwest Territories.
  • His scuba diving adventures in Michigan and Canada and a spoiled diving expedition when Canadian customs officers released all the air from their scuba tanks after a traveling companion got arrogant with an agent. 
We all decided enough was enough. Though Wally's exploits and life stories were entertaining, we had to start drawing on our own experiences to fuel conversation and so we made a friendly agreement: we would not bring Wally into conversation again.

Weeks later, we met Jim and Jen for a fine meal.  We'd been anticipating  the grand opening of an authentic Greek Restaurant in central New Jersey.  We knew the owners as we'd become frequent customers at their other business; a small specialty market that featured Greek imports and fine wines.  One hard-to-find item that they carried was slivovitz, or plum brandy.  On one of our visits to the shop, Dad bought several bottles to bring to Canada with his new wife, Anna, who'd left Bratislava many years earlier and happily recalled the memory of her father making slivovitz when she was a young girl.  Tassos, the owner, chatted with Dad enjoying the novelty of meeting a Canadian foreigner.

When Tassos bought the adjacent building and announced the opening day for the new restaurant, we eagerly made our reservations, anticipating Jen and Jim's impression with the new taverna and its Athenian decor with enticing aromas from simmering pots of rich Greek cuisine, and our ability to get a table on a busy grand-opening night.  When we arrived we were immediately seated by fresh-faced expectant servers to our reserved table in a very lively and crowded restaurant --every seat filled.

Not long after we'd settled at our table, and perused the menu options, I leaned over to Jen and reminded her that since we hadn't seen each other for several weeks, we had a host of topics to cover, adding that none of them involved Wally.  Remembering our previously agreed upon pact, she laughed, said, "We'll see" and continued to read the menu.  Moments later, when our wine was opened and poured, we toasted the evening just when Tassos caught Stephen's eye and approached our table with arms outstretched, beaming a welcoming smile, and loudly said, "Hello!" while eagerly shaking Stephen's hand thanking us for coming out.

His next words were, "How is your father, Wallace West?"

I experienced my very first spit-take.