Good Intentions and Horrible Blunders on a Country Road

It’s hard to tell this story because it sort of breaks my heart. It was 1933, and my mother was five. She and her parents were driving along a country road at the eastern tip of Long Island, long before it was called The Hamptons. Suddenly traffic stopped, and cars began to line up and inch toward what they figured must have been an accident. They crawled along for a few miles, my grandfather running out of patience.

When they got to a fork in the road, they realized that a car had run out of gas just where the two lanes separated, and right there was a black man holding a gas can, his thumb in the air, hoping for a ride. My mother stood up in the back seat and watched car after car in front of them slowly go around the man.

“Stop and pick him up,” my grandmother told my grandfather, exasperated by the behavior of the drivers in front of them. I like this part of the story, of course — my grandmother so ahead of her time. But there’s another part.

As they got close to where the man stood, my grandmother glanced at the back seat next to where my mother was sitting. She took a newspaper from the floor by her feet and handed it to her small daughter.

“Spread this out on the seat next to you,” she told her.

“Why?” my mother wanted to know.

“Diseases.”

My mother did as she was told, and they stopped. The man, jubilant that this would end his humiliation, went to get in. My mother watched him closely. He saw the newspaper. His smile faded. He got in anyway. My mother remembered the sound his body made as he sat down on the paper designed to keep his “diseases” off their car seat. He took off his hat. He thanked them.

My mother told me that story when I was a young teenager, deep into my “Peter Paul and Mary Know the Answers to Everything” years. My reaction was harsh. How could my grandmother — my smart, kind grandmother — ever do such a thing? And why was my mother telling me this story with nothing more than a little frustration, saying, “Well, they did what they could do.” All I could see was that they were just another smack in the face to the black man who’d stood in the hot sun waiting for someone — anyone — to drive him to a gas station.

My mother told the story because all those years later, she still remembered the hurt look on the man’s face, and it haunted her. She told it because she also understood her parents’ actions in a way I refused to. Because the world evolves in fits and starts, brave take-offs and hard landings, good intentions and horrible blunders. She told me the story slowly and quietly because I thought I knew everything about the universe and how it worked. And she knew that wasn’t true.

And now I know it, too.

 

A Thanksgiving Story (Maybe)

I’m not sure if this is about Thanksgiving or not. Mostly it’s about Debbie.

When my son, David, graduated from college years ago, he came home and took a job at Johns Hopkins University. He set his sights on vet school, so this job was interim at best. But there was a surprise waiting. Debbie.

They were an unlikely pair from the start. She was much older, never married, and a lover of cats and monkeys. She was bubbly and an avid reader and extremely religious. They became friends.

As Thanksgiving approached that first year, David asked if we could invite Debbie. There was nothing unusual in the request, as we held a long tradition of an open table. It had seen some of my former students, college friends of my kids, neighbors, and several people whose names have now been washed away with time.

Debbie seemed thrilled, and she fit right in. She brought a flower arrangement in a wicker cornucopia, which I placed in the middle of the table. She was a perfect guest, really. She talked to my parents about growing up in New York City. She got right down on the floor with the little kids and played Legos. And as easily as she did those things, as I got to know her, she was not shy with words like “depression” or “medication.” She allowed you to get the whole picture of who she was.

Even after David got accepted to vet school and left Baltimore, Debbie still came to our house on the day the turkey was carved.

And then, on a nondescript evening while I was watching TV, the phone rang. A woman identified herself as someone who worked at Hopkins. “We need to get a message to David,” she said. “Debbie committed suicide.” The woman cried, apologized for crying, and then cried some more.

At Debbie’s funeral, the minister invited anyone who wanted to tell a story to come to the pulpit. Almost everyone who spoke told a tale that involved a holiday. “She was always with us at Christmas,” a friend said through her tears. “We shared many Thanksgivings,” said another. By the time the speeches were finished, I wondered if Debbie had ever taken her last bite of pumpkin pie at our house and then driven to her second (or third) Thanksgiving in another neighborhood. Everyone loved her. She lit up a holiday table, apparently all over town.

Today I’m deep in preparations. Along with Pilgrim candles and my fancy napkins, I take Debbie’s cornucopia out of the closet. I picture the group that will congregate in a few days. And this is the moment, every year, when I get sad all over again that I won’t see her there. But then, when I put some gourds and Indian corn inside it and look at it in its place of honor, I can so easily remember the best thing she always brought to the table — her.

So I guess this is a Thanksgiving story after all. Thanks to Debbie. And thanks for Debbie.

He’s About My Age

He’s about my age. His white hair is long and full, but not so much that he looks like he never found his way home from a Grateful Dead concert. I see him walking through the neighborhood all the time.

Today he’s on the other side of the street, and my grandson and I are playing in the front yard. He hasn’t looked in our direction all summer, but now he says something I can’t quite hear.

“Excuse me?” I say.

He bounds across the road so he can repeat his first message, which may or may not have been purposely mumbled just so he could bound across the road.

He begins in mid-sentence. We figure out we both graduated from high school in 1968 and ask the usual questions about where we grew up, where we went to school. He asks about my grandson. “What’s his name? How old is he?”

Even though he didn’t plan this conversation (maybe) he has a lot to say. At some points he’s just lost in his own narrative. At others, his gaze lingers on me, and I wonder if he’s flirting. It’s so hard to know when hormones aren’t flying through the air like they used to.

But yes, I think the neighbor likes me.

“What’s your favorite band of all time?” he asks.

“Rolling Stones,” I say.

He approves of my answer and starts telling me about a movie starring Mick, something I never heard of because — truthfully — I stopped caring deeply about Mick a while ago. In the middle of his story, my grandson decides it’s time for lunch. The neighbor and I say our goodbyes.

Me: “I guess I’ll see you around.”

He: “I guess you’ll have no choice.”

I’m a little uneasy the rest of the afternoon, worrying he might be at his house now, thinking Damn. What an attractive woman. What if the next time I see him he pulls out a Rolling Stones boxed set from behind his back, or invites me to dinner?

A week later, I spot him in the supermarket, on the other side of the produce aisle. My grandson is in the shopping cart seat, facing me, and I pretend to be telling him something interesting about cucumbers because I don’t want to get the neighbor’s hopes up if he sees me. I don’t want to look available, if that’s the right word for the way you can look in a supermarket when you’re this old and getting your grandson in the cart seat is the most physical thing you’ve done all day.

I’m thinking to myself, Ugh, I have to let him know that I’m just not interested. But before I know it, he has seen me, crossed over, and is standing in front of us, grinning.

“Oh, hi there,” I say.

He smiles big. He motions to my grandson and asks, “How old is he?” I’m a little confused. “What’s his name?” he asks. Again, old news, but I tell him.

I realize it’s not that he’s a bad listener and has forgotten the details of our talk on the sidewalk. He has no idea who I am.

On the way home, with my grandson chirping happily in the back seat about the cookie the bakery lady gave him, I feel the need to reach deep into my memory box.

I was 23, at a wedding, seated next to a man from Greece. He was dark and tall and brilliant. We danced. I’d had a lot of wine and had suddenly remembered what a fabulous dancer I was. At the table, as we talked, he looked deeply into my eyes, and we took almost-drunk turns being fascinating.

Hours later — home alone and in bed — I heard little pebbles glancing off my second-story window. He was standing in my front yard, bathed in moonlight.

“We’re not finished,” he said, “I want to know more.”

I go over the story a few more times — savoring a detail here and adding a new one there — until finally I’m ready to take it into old age with me.

“How’s that cookie?” I ask my grandson. I’m happy the rest of the way home.

13 Things I Once Heard (And Believed)

1. “Girls shouldn’t do that.”

2. “The Dave Clark Five are better than the Beatles.”

Dave Clark Five

3. “A tiny bit can’t hurt.”

4. “You look terrific!”

haircut

5. “It’s not you. It’s me.”

6. “Relax. Nobody’s gonna vote for Nixon.”

nixon

7. “If you breathe correctly, childbirth is not painful.”

8. “You’re the best mother in the whole world!”

9. “You’re the worst mother. Ever. Of all the mothers in the world.”

10. “I guarantee you’ll fall in love with running the way I have.”

running

11. “Buy it. It’ll make you happy.”

12. “You’ll get over it. Just give it time.”

13. “You look good in pink.” (This one actually turned out to be true.)