Sunday, May 24, 2009

Squirrels and Board Games

The woods that trimmed the edges of the two-line highway were veiled in the dull light of an overcast sky. The grass and the leaves were still in the heaviness of a threatened rainstorm. Mine was the only car on the road that rolled ahead in easy waves.

While I thought about people and places far away, two squirrels came darting out of the ditch directly in front of the car. How odd, I thought in the split second it took them to cross into my lane, that two would have started across together, one leading, the other following.

The first one scurried (Scurrying being the only mode of perambulation a squirrel has in his repertoire.) straight across the road and disappeared into the high grass on the other side. The second squirrel, the follower, got almost all the way across, stopped, stood up on his back legs and unexplainably, yet not surprisingly, turned to go back the other way.

I couldn’t stop. Had not enough time to slow down or even swerve to miss him. It took less than 3 seconds. I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw only a small dark spot near the white center-line.

Then I heard myself talking to the squirrel. "Why did you do that? Why didn’t you just keep going? You started across; you would have made it! Crazy squirrel!"

And another voice, my same voice, but the one that knows things, said, "It’s all about risk."

The stack of board games in our house growing up included Monopoly and Clue and Scrabble. We had a Parchesi at one point and Checkers, both regular and Chinese. And after three Christmases of asking, I finally got a Barbie - Queen of the Prom game. What we didn’t have, never had was Risk.

In its red box on the shelf at McConnell’s Dime Store, it never became the object of my interest or desire. Even then, at 8 and 10 and 12, I wanted a sure thing. I wanted guarantees, promises, absolute assurances.

For a long time it worked. I played only those games I knew I could win, spent my time on things I knew I could do well, set my sights on goals that were easily within my grasp. But somewhere along the way I realized that something was missing. I realized that I wasn’t growing and I wasn’t having any fun.

What I also realized was that the only way to do either of those things was to stop hoarding my Monopoly money, stop solving make-believe murders and stop dressing for a pretend prom. It was time to take a few chances.

Since then I’ve been each of the squirrels at various times. I’ve been the first squirrel and made it across the highway, heart racing, limbs trembling and grinning from ear to ear. And I’ve been the second squirrel, the one who froze in fear and tried to return to the old place, only to be crushed by something big and loud.

I have been exhilarated and deliriously happy. I have been despondent and desperately disappointed. I have been warmly content and I have been coldly morose. And every moment of every emotion has been infinitely better than the lethargy of being a little metal thimble making its way around a cardboard square over and over and over again.

Each morning we wake up on one side of the highway. Some days it’s good to just roll over and stare up at the flotilla of gauzy white clouds. On other days, though, the breeze and the sunlight and the smell of something pleasant that we can’t quite identify lure us to the edge of the asphalt. And on those days, there is simply nothing left to do except run headlong into the open.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, May 10, 2009

One Big Story

It’s all one big story.

Life, that is.

In rare transcendent moments of immense joy or pain, we know it. But in the ordinary moments – when the babysitter is late or the tire blows out on the interstate or the line at the grocery store is held up because the woman with three children can’t find her debit card in the duffel bag she calls a purse – we tend to lose sight of that truth.

Which is why this story, the one I am about to tell you, needs telling.

In January, I drove to Savannah with Daddy to keep an appointment I’d made with the StoryCorps bus. He wasn’t all that keen on the idea of sitting inside an Airstream trailer for 45 minutes while I asked him questions about his childhood, but I reminded him that his is the last generation who grew up as the children of sharecroppers and that that way of life needed to be remembered and appreciated. It didn’t hurt that I am his only daughter and, except for mouse-trap emptying, I generally don’t ask for much.

Last Thursday each of us got a call from a nice young lady at StoryCorps in New York City. She called to tell us that a portion of the interview as going to be broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition on Friday morning. I don’t know how Daddy reacted, but when I hung up the phone I went running up and down the halls of the office in my high heels screaming, "My daddy is going to be on NPR!!! Oh, my gosh, my daddy is going to be on NPR!!!"

It is unfortunate, but not necessarily germane to the story, that Georgia Public Broadcasting pre-empted Friday’s StoryCorps segment for a fund-raising plea, a programming faux pas which meant that friends and family who had turned their dials to 91.1 FM (a station that at least some of them, prior to Friday, didn’t know existed) heard only two men engaged in a slightly goofy conversation about pledges and thank-you gifts. However, those in Atlanta, South Carolina and Maryland all heard the segment and were as delighted as I with the result. And all day on Friday I got phone calls and e-mails from people who had managed to find the web link and listen on their computers. It was a glorious day.

Five days later I got an e-mail from my high school friend Francie. We don’t see each other much. Francie is a professor at a university in Virginia and her parents don’t live in Statesboro anymore so her visits here are rare. E-mail is our way of remaining a part of each other’s lives.

It happened that Francie was in New York City on Friday to deliver a lecture and was staying with a friend who has a 30th-floor apartment overlooking the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center. She wrote: As I was blow-drying my hair the bathroom door was cracked so I could hear the radio which had NPR on, and so when I heard the strong southern accent (which I never hear anywhere, but certainly not in New York) I, as always, tried to place from which state the speaker must be. THEN I heard the female interviewer and thought, ‘That sure sounds like Kathy Bradley.’ When they reintroduced the speakers at the end of the piece, I came shooting out of that bathroom screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘Tony, I know those people! They’re from home!’

I cried, of course. Cried because after all this time and in such odd circumstances she recognized our voices. Cried because for Francie this will always be home and because she still understands what it means to be ‘from’ somewhere. Cried because, as I said, it’s all one story.

Once, when I was at Wesleyan, Mama and Daddy came up to hear some speaker and at the end of the program, which must not have impressed him much, Daddy said to me, "I wish somebody would give me that opportunity. If they would let me, I’d stand on the White House steps and speak to the entire nation. And I’d tell them the truth."

Well, Daddy, it wasn’t the White House steps and it took about 30 years, but the entire nation did hear you. Not bad for a country boy.

Copyright 2009