Monday, February 23, 2015

A Pocketful of Pennies

It has become an annual trip.  A pilgrimage.  And though we don’t remove our shoes or crawl on our knees or touch our foreheads to the ground, we probably should.  The spot is that sacred.
There is a tree nearby and an obelisk which serves as a landmark, a way to find that particular spot among the 54 acres of granite slabs thrust into the earth like candles on a birthday cake.  We park the car and unfold ourselves out, pulling our coats tight and tucking our chins into our chests.  It seems not the least bit odd to say, “Good morning, Margaret,” as we approach the gray monument, polished to a mirror shine on the side into which letters and numbers have been carved, sharply and deeply, like her impact on each of us.

Someone points out a woodpecker on a bare branch above our heads and a discussion ensues as to what kind.  Despite the fact that Margaret would not have known the difference (She was more of an inside girl, preferring her nature in the form of botanical prints and pink and yellow chintz.), we take his appearance as an omen.  In a cemetery you can’t help but look for omens. 

In a cemetery you also can’t help repeating yourself.  You comment on the convenience of the stone bench as though you have not seen it every other time you have been there.  You note the names on the nearest stones and recite the connections as though they are your own.  You read aloud the epitaph and, every single time, murmur, “Just perfect.”

Repetition creates ritual and ritual is really nothing more than remembering. Remembering with the deliberate purpose of not forgetting.
It is time to go.  One of us reaches into her pocket and pulls out a penny, places it tenderly on the ledge at the bottom of the stone.  She covers it briefly with her gloved hand.
“Why the penny?” someone asks.
It is a story, surprisingly, that the rest of us have not heard: When Margaret was in her 70s she volunteered at her church by driving “old people” to doctors’ appointments.  Some of the old people were grateful and gracious, some not so much.  One day she was driving one of the sweet ones and the woman, upon being delivered back home, reached for Margaret’s hand and slipped her a penny.  “Thank you,” she said, “for being my friend.”
“Every now and then,” the penny-placer tells us as we stand with hunched shoulders in the bright winter sunlight, “Margaret and I would send each other pennies.”  Her voice breaks just a bit as we all look back down at the little circle of copper, the warmth from the hand that placed it there already gone. 
We begin to move away.  We fold ourselves back into the car and wave as we drive away.  We pass two people walking dogs.
I am old enough now to miss a lot of people.  Some of them are absent from my life by reason of death, some by geography, some by strange combinations of choice and unavoidable consequence.  Not a day goes by that I don’t hear a song or see a street sign or get ambushed by an unexpected thought that brings to mind and to heart a voice, a face, a touch of someone gone. Sometimes there are tears.  Sometimes there is a soft sigh or a sharp gasp. Often there is a smile.  But always, always there is the longing.

I want a pocketful of pennies.  I want to hand them out to all the ones who are gone.  I want to say, “Thank you for being my friend.”

Copyright 2015

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Sting and Punxsutawney Phil

I want to believe the groundhog. 

I am lying on my back, struggling to breathe.  The pounding in my head is like that of the pistons in a John Deere 4430, the incessant rhythm interrupted only by spasmodic coughs that sound like a dog with distemper. Blinds pulled low, covers pulled high, I can hear the wind keening across the open fields like the proverbial freight train. From the front porch I hear the sound of two rocking chairs crashing forward in quick succession and I am startled into wondering whether they have managed to remain on the porch or have been thrown into the overgrown shrubbery.

In the moments when the wind dies down, the sound of wind chimes – normally melodiously soothing – is irritatingly cacophonous and with this wonder I question whether I have enough strength to open the door, climb up on something, anything and take them down from their perch so they will just ... shut ... up.

It is at this moment that the news at the top of the hour includes the announcement that General Beauregard Lee did not see his shadow and we, or at least those of us in Georgia, can expect an early spring.  It is a measure of how badly I feel that I am willing to place my hope for the future in a rodent dressed like a Civil War general.

Having determined, in fact, that I do not have the strength to disarm the wind chimes, I am left with nothing to do but contemplate the silliness, the irrationality, and the ultimate irresponsibility of not just my, but everyone else's, need for a tangible sign that the end of darkness and coldness and isolation is within sight.  We are enlightened people. We no longer panic when the sun slides dramatically behind the western horizon.  We know it will show up again on the other horizon in just a few hours.  And, yet, before dawn on Monday morning, there were 11,000 people in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the home of the original prognosticating woodchuck, awaiting the appearance of Punxsutawney Phil.  This has been going on since 1887.

I think I make my point.  And, if not, consider that at least six other communities across the country (including the Yellow River Game Ranch where Gen. Lee lives) produce their own versions of the big reveal on February 2.  And at each of these productions there are not just observers, but sponsors and journalists and, in some cases, politicians.  Last year Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City went to the Staten Island Zoo for their ceremony involving Staten Island Chuck.  The rodent of the hour slipped from His Honor’s grasp and fell to the ground. It died weeks later of internal injuries, a fact which zoo officials did not make public for months.

What it means is that regardless of how well one knows the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, the evidence of things not seen sometimes needs to be punctuated by a thing seen, the absence of a shadow made obvious by the presence of an eight-pound rodent, with or without historical costume.

Three days later, having responded to antibiotics and the house call of my friend the doctor and his wife the angel, I am once again among the living.  I am, to coin a phrase, breathing and walking around.  And longing, yearning, aching for spring, encouraged the slightest bit by the fact that the General came outside his burrow just long enough to see absolutely nothing.

Copyright 2015