To Plant A Garden

Frank Snyder’s vague dissatisfaction with his life prompts him to plant a garden. Does it help? 

A part of Frank Snyder felt like he had wasted his life. And not just a small part of it either, but a rather large part, if you got right down to it. Sure he had a secure job at a highly thought of engineering company located in a suburb of Minneapolis, not a bad commute from where he lived. And, sure, he had a wonderful family and a loving wife, Jan, who, now that the kids had grown and left home, was happily devoting her time to the antique shop she ran with a group of her friends in a highly sought after retail block in a quaint neighborhood near Lake Harriet about a mile from where she and Frank lived. All of that was well and good. In fact, most of his friends gave him a hard time when he mentioned his vague dissatisfaction.

“Get over it, Frank,” his closest friend Larry, a very focused and dedicated software engineer said over after work drinks at a bar in Uptown. “Either do something about it or don’t. Your complaining is not becoming at all.”

“I’m not complaining, I’m stating a fact,” Frank responded. “Just thinking out loud.”

“So do something about it, then,” Larry said, emphasizing his point by finishing off his shot of Maker’s Mark and standing up, getting ready to leave. “Get yourself a hobby.” He began enumerating, counting off on his fingers, ” You’ve got your outside stuff like fishing and hunting. Your mountain biking and kayaking. Hang gliding of wake boarding.” Larry was getting on a roll. “Then you’ve got your inside stuff like painting or learning to play guitar, or you could even write a novel.” He stopped and looked at his friend, who was holding up his hand to stop. “Tons of stuff to do, if you ask me.” Frank just shook his head, getting a little discouraged. None of those things were even of the remotest interest to him. “Anyway,” Larry said, turning and waving his fingers, “I’m outta’ here. Lynn’ll be waiting for me. See ya’ at the office.” One of Larry’s many hobbies was restoring classic cars. Right now he was working on a two-tone turquoise and white 1957 Chevy Belair four door convertible with a continental kit on the back. This one he’d name Lynn.

Frank had to admit he was a little envious that his friend had a hobby he enjoyed so much. He watched as Larry wove his way through the crowd and out the door. His gaze fell on a row of hanging planters that lined the inside of the windows at the front of the bar. They were full of lush, green plants with their shining foliage cascading over the edges like leafy waterfalls. They added more than just a nice touch to the room, they gave it life. Besides that, they were pretty. Frank felt himself intrigued by them. Truth be told, he wasn’t the most macho guy around. He enjoyed sports and stuff like that as much as the next guy, but his life didn’t revolve around them, nor did it depend on the whether or not any of the major sports teams in the area were winning or losing. He’d just as soon read a book or go for a walk with his wife than spend three and a half hours on a Sunday glued to a television set, something Larry and other of his friends did. Nope, that wasn’t for him. There was more to life than that. Then he had an idea. He’d always liked gardening. Maybe he’d expand the little garden he’d been fiddling around with the last couple of years. That would be something he could do. He could buy some plants and use them to add a little color to the yard. It would get him outside, he’d be in the fresh air and maybe even work up a sweat. He knew he’d been putting on some extra pounds over the years since the kids had moved out. Both he and Jan were in their mid fifties. She had her antiques and circle of friends. What did he have? His job, of course, but not much else when it came right down to it. Maybe now was the time to make a change. Do something different. The more he thought about it the more it sounded like a good idea. He briefly wondered what Larry would think. Probably not much. He’d probably chastise him, make fun of him and, as a joke, suggest bird watching instead, ironically something Frank thought he might someday consider. Gardening may not be all that adventurous or macho as far as Larry was concerned, but this wasn’t about Larry. It was about him and for now it sounded good. He paid his tab and hurried home, eager to tell his wife, pausing for a moment at the front of the bar to admire the vibrant green plants in the hanging baskets, fighting an urge to touch them. He didn’t know what they were, but that was Ok. He was looking forward to learning.

“Are you nuts?” Jan said later on that evening when he told her about his idea. “You don’t know the first thing about gardening.” His wife, it appeared, was less than enthusiastic about his idea.

But that was Ok. What the heck, he thought to himself, forging ahead, he’d do it anyway. The idea was beginning to sound not only exciting but challenging. He needed a change and doing something new in his life continued to sound good. In the end, he really couldn’t talk himself out of it. Besides, what did he have to lose? Not a thing.

The engineering mind of Frank kicked in over the next few weeks as he spent time planning and laying out the next steps. He and Jan had moved into the two story, white stucco house in southwest Minneapolis twenty one years ago when the kids, Colby and Jaynie, were still toddlers. The street was a quiet one, lined with older well cared for houses. Ravished years ago by Dutch Elm Disease the neighborhood  now was home to a mixture trees like maple, oak and ash.  Frank’s home measured twenty five feet square and sat in the middle of a lot measuring fifty feet wide by one hundred feet deep. It faced west and the south side got excellent sunlight. That’s where he decided to begin. Over a weekend in the end of June he started to dig out the sod all along the south side of the house in a straight line about four feet out from the foundation. He went to the local home store and had them cut four inch square timbers eight feet long so they could fit in the back of his Prius. Then he laid them in as an edge to his garden, working on his hands and knees, leveling the ground with a trowel as he went. It took him two weekends to complete, but late Sunday afternoon of the second weekend, as he was smoothing the soil with a rake, Jan came out and admired his work.

“I have to say it looks pretty good there, big fella’,” she said.” Almost like you know what you’re doing.” She smiled and rubbed his shoulder. For many years Frank’s life style had been rather sedentary but now this physical activity felt good. Jan’s hand on his shoulder felt even better.

“I’m trying.” He grinned, acknowledging her compliment. “I’ve added bags of horse manure and other stuff to pump up and enrich the soil. Next up is some plants.”

Jan looked at the dug up space, the dirt lying fresh and fragrant in the late afternoon sun. She enjoyed seeing her husband so happy. For some reason, he’d been kind of down for the last year or two. Nothing critical, she felt, just not himself. He was a good man. She had always loved his sense of humor and his positive attitude. He was a hard worker and never complained if things at the office were too crazy, which, she knew, they sometimes were.

She rubbed her hand through his hair. It was gray and thinning. His eyes were twinkling with enthusiasm and his face was getting tan from all the time he’d been spending working outside. Even his arms and legs were showing some color. His light blue tee-shirt and tan cargo shorts were smudged with dirt. There was an aroma around him that was a mixture of sweat and heat and fresh air that smelled surprisingly pleasant. He seemed not only happy, but as healthy as he’d been in she didn’t know how long.

“What kind of plants are you going to put in,” she asked, suddenly wanting to connect more with him.

Frank pointed down the block. “A bunch of pretty ones. I’m getting them down at Sunnyside.”

Three blocks away was a neighborhood garden center named, appropriately enough, Sunnyside Gardens. Next Saturday he was there at seven in the morning as soon as the gate opened. All in all he made half a dozen trips loading plants at Sunnyside and unloading them in the driveway near his new garden space. Then he had to plant them and water them in. By the time he was done late Saturday afternoon he was sweat stained and happy. He’d planted:  golden-yellow Black-Eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia). Three different colors of cone-flowers (Echinacea), purple and white and terra cotta. Pink and red and burgundy Bee-Balm (Monarda) and lilac, purple and white Phlox. All of them together were so pretty that he took out his iPhone and snapped some photos and sent them to Larry. His response was a good natured, “Lots of work for stuff that’s just going to die every year.” Ha, ha, Frank thought to himself. All of his plants were perennials. They’d come back year after year and apparently Larry didn’t know that. See, he was learning something that his friend didn’t know and just that felt good. But what really felt good was how much Jan and even some neighbors thought of his project.

The sun was setting to the west and the day was cooling . Jan arrived home from a busy Saturday at her shop and met him outside, surveying his work. “I have to admit,” she said, patting him on the back, “This looks really nice. I like all the different colors.”

“You know what all the colors remind me of?” Frank asked. She gave him a questioning look, like, go ahead. “That cereal the kids used to eat. You know, those Fruit Loops.”

Jan burst out laughing. “God, Frank, I hadn’t thought about them in years. They were so loaded with sugar…” She laughed some more and it made Frank feel good to hear her. His gardening maybe would end up having a positive effect in his relationship with his wife, which was good anyway, but maybe now was getting better. Stranger things could happen.

“What’s up next?” She asked.

The edge of the new garden along the side of the house was about five feet from the driveway which formed the boundary between him and his neighbor. There was a narrow strip of grass between the new garden and the driveway but he didn’t want to do anymore planting in that area. It got beat up pretty badly with the snow that piled up there during the winter when he shoveled. “To add more color, I’m going to plant some annuals in with the perennials,” he said, pointing to the spaces between the new plants, feeling good and knowledgeable and noticing that Jan nodded approvingly. ” But I’ve also been thinking about the back yard. Come on with me.” He took her hand and they walked along the edge of the new garden past the back of the house into the back yard. This area was shaded by a fifteen year old sugar maple tree that was about twenty feet high. He and Jan looked around. “I’m going to tackle this next,” he said. The back yard was empty of any planting except for the tree. Years ago, along the boundary on the far side, a previous owner had put in a four foot high chain link fence which was now a rusted, bent up mess. Frank pointed at it. “I’m thinking of having the fence taken out and a new wooden one put in, then putting a line of plants along the edge of it kind of like what I just did back there.” He pointed back to where the new garden was. “It’ll close the backyard in and make it more private.” He paused, looking around, envisioning it. “Make it like a sanctuary.”

“Sounds ambitious,” Jan said, frowning and looking somewhat skeptical. She’d not seen Frank this enthused about anything since… Well, since she couldn’t remember when. “Lots of work,” she added.

“I know, but I’ve got a plan.”

Frank’s plan, in addition to planting along the (soon to be built ) new fence, was to also dig out an area along the back boarder of the yard. Here he would plant shade loving plants like hosta and pulmonaria. He took a few minutes to explain his idea to Jan, who listened, her skepticism finally being won over by her husband’s enthusiasm.

She finally nodded when he was finished and said, “Well, it sounds like a plan alright. Are you sure you’re up to it?” Frank’s dad had died of a heart attack years earlier. Now, at their age, health was always a consideration.

Frank barely heard her, gazing around the empty yard, seeing it like an artist might, a blank canvas waiting to be turning into a beautiful work of art. “Yeah, I’m up for it,” he said, turning to Jan and embracing her. “I’m pretty psyched.”

She laughed and hugged him back. “Let’s go get some ice tea to celebrate. You can fill me in some more on your ideas.” They headed inside, arms around each other, happier with each other than they’d been in a long time. Working on, and now finally completing, the new garden had prompted a positive change in Frank’s attitude which subsequently affected Jan and they were both better off for it. His enthusiasm for his new hobby was infectious. Even though Jan had her life with her antiques business and circle of friends, she now felt herself drawn into Frank’s new world with his fresh ideas, and gardens and colorful plants. It was like he’d become more alive. It somehow was also making them stronger as a couple, happy and fulfilled in ways previously not experienced by either of them. They came back outside and set out their lawn chairs with a little table between and relaxed in the back yard, sipping ice cold tea and talking, hardly aware of the sun setting to the west. For them a new day was just around the corner, and that new day was one they were both looking forward to.

And that may have been the end of Frank’s story except that it was really only just the beginning.

He found a local handyman who agreed to remove the old chain link fence and install a new one. After a little consultation they chose a nice crisp six foot tall natural wooden fence with interwoven lattice along the top. The handyman, who name was Gil, was a retired Minneapolis Parks Department worker and he knew what he was doing. He got the old fence out and the new one installed in three days. He complemented Frank on his ‘side garden’ as the first garden along the side of the house was now being called and made a few suggestions about the back garden where Frank was planning to plant hostas.

“Try some Astilbe and maybe some Solomon’s Seal,” Gil suggested the last day when he was picking up his tools and getting ready to leave. “They’ll add a nice bit of texture to what you’re planning with the hostas.”

Frank did that. He was finding that people who enjoyed gardening loved to talk about plants and advice was generally given freely and often. And that was just fine. Frank was learning as he was going along and enjoying it. Not only did Jan notice and appreciate the change in him, but people at work did as well.

“You’re looking tan and fit,” Larry said to him on a Monday toward the beginning of August. With the backyard completed, Frank had spent the weekend digging out and planting another planting area, this time in the front yard. “Working on the garden again?”

“Always.” Frank smiled and stretched, feeling good about the way his muscles felt. Instead of being soft and flabby, they were getting a toned, firm feel. He was indeed feeling fit, having lost about seven pounds. “I was outside all weekend. The place is looking great. You should drive that ’57 Chevy of yours over to see it sometime.”

“I just can’t believe you ended up doing gardening,” Larry said, looking puzzled. “I was thinking you might have tackled something a little more…”

“What?” Frank jumped in, his smile gone and a challenging tone to his voice. “More…dangerous. Like your helpful idea of me going hang-gliding or mountain biking or something like that?”

“Well…” Larry was suddenly at a loss, seeing his friend getting a little peeved. “You know…”

Frank held up a hand to stop him. “If you don’t think gardening is macho enough, come on over and help me next weekend. I’m digging out a new bed and could use an extra pair of hands.” He stopped and gave Larry a look. “And the muscle, too, if you’re up for it.” Larry was taken aback, suddenly speechless. He’d never seen his friend this charged up before. Then Frank laughed, relieving the tension. “Hey, man, I’m just kidding. I get what you’re saying,” Slapping his friend good naturedly on the shoulder. “Yeah, I could have chosen anything, but I like my gardens. I like planning them, digging them out and working in the soil. It works for me.”

They left it at that and when back to their office cubicles. Surprisingly, though, Larry did eventually drive his Chevy over. And he really was blown away by what Frank had accomplished. The yard, which three months ago had been nothing but grass and the occasional scraggly bush, was now completely transformed. Frank had planted evergreen shrubs up against the house in the front and filled pots with pink geraniums that he put on the steps leading to the front door. Along the brick walkway leading from the sidewalk to the front door and along either side of it he planted a variety of brightly colored petunias. On each side of the walkway, out in the yard, he dug out freeform circles that he planted with ornamental grasses, gray cones flowers, Indian paintbrush and asters, giving the front yard a prairie sort of look. Along the far side of the house (opposite of his first ‘side garden’) he dug out a strip and planted Lilies-of-the-Valley, a hearty perennial and one of Jan’s favorite’s, that would bloom sweet scented, tiny white bell-like flowers every spring. He had his original side garden and then the back yard where he’d added sun loving plants like cone flowers, black-eyed Susan’s, bee-balm and phlox along the new fence Gil put in. As an homage to his dear departed mother he’d even planted some old time pink peonies. Along the border in the back of the yard was his shade garden with hostas, astilbes and pulmonaria which he extended all the way to the wall of the garage where he dug out another garden and added more hosta’s.

As the summer progressed, in the evenings after dinner, he and Jan would often sit in lawn chairs in the back yard just looking at the gardens and talking. They’d admire all the pretty colors, breathe the fresh scent of whatever was blooming and listen to birds singing, bidding a final farewell to the day. Jan would fill him in on how her antique business was doing and Frank would talk about further plans for the gardens he was envisioning. It seemed that Jan was enjoying this time with her husband more and more, looking forward to it during the day. And Frank reciprocated, more interested in the shop and talking with Jan about her business and whatever antiques she and her partners were considering purchasing. It was like the gardens were bringing them closer somehow, working some sort of flowery magic on them.

One evening around Labor Day, while they were sitting in the backyard, Jan reached over and caressed Frank’s upper arm. The phlox were blooming lavender and white and the coneflowers where full of purple flower heads that were attracting orange and black monarch butterflies. Honey bees buzzed lazily through burgundy bee-balm and the golden black eyed Susan’s were in full color. Frank had hung baskets of salmon and white geraniums off the new wooden fence and they were bursting with blooms.”It’s so pretty back here, now,” she said, leaving her hand there for a moment.”I’m glad you’re doing this.”

“You like it?” Frank asked, rubbing her hand, liking the feel of it and her.

“I do,” Jan responded, smiling, her eyes bright with feeling. “Very much.”

Frank’s gardens were having a positive effect on not only his marriage and his relationship with Jan, but on the neighborhood as well. Toward the end of September he bought about a dozen fall blooming asters in a variety of colors ranging from blue to violet to magenta and he was adding them to the gardens he’d already dug. He was in the front yard when a couple strolled by walking their little dog. They stopped and complemented him on his yard.

“It looks great,” the guy said, a young man around twenty.

His wife or girl friend added, “Is it a lot of work?”

Frank just laughed and said, “Not really. Not if you don’t have anything better to do.”

The young couple smiled and took their time looking around some more before moving on. It made him feel good. The gardens really were a lot of work, but it was work he didn’t mind at all. Did that make it fun? Hard to say. At least it made it rewarding. He was feeling a sort of spiritual connection to them, if you could call it that. He felt enriched somehow, working with his gardens. It was hard to him to explain or put into works, but it was there nevertheless. He felt better for having planted them and for taking care of them and that counted for a lot, as far as he was concerned.

His neighbors began stopping by more and more often, too, talking with him and complimenting him on how pretty everything looked. Some of them ever started planting and adding flowers of various types to their yards. Around the time most of his plants started to die back in October Frank was struck by how pretty his yard looked. He’d been coming home from work, just pulling into the driveway, when the variety of colors standing out in the late afternoon sun, gleaming like a sea of brightly colored jewels, was stunning to him. It made him feel happy and alive. It was a good feeling.

The last planting he did for the season, just before the first snow fell in mid November, was to plant nearly two hundred tulip and daffodil bulbs in the gardens in the front and the side, his first garden and his sentimental favorite. He planted them in groups of ten, lovingly adding bone meal and blood meal for nourishment. After the last of them was put in the ground and buried he stood up and looked around, remembering all the work he’d done over the past months and feeling better than he had in years with himself and his life. He was actually looking forward to the following year with a sense of excitement and anticipation. There was frost on the ground right now and his hands were cold and stiff through his gloves. He was hoping his plants would all survive Minnesota’s harsh winter of cold and snow. Time would tell. They were perennials, after all. They were supposed to.

A month later, in the middle of December there was a foot of snow on the ground. By the end of February the next year there was twenty seven inches. Frank’s flower beds lay sleeping underneath a white blanket, resting and waiting. In the middle of March, when the spring thaw finally began, Frank found himself trudging through the snow in his yard, gazing where his gardens were buried, willing the snow to melt faster. He hadn’t felt this kind of anticipation since his kids had been born, a sentiment he chose not to share with anyone, not even Jan.

Finally the snow was completely melted and the earth lay bare, soaking up the sun’s life giving rays. He checked the gardens every day, anticipation building . Finally, when he went outside on a warm morning in the middle of April, he found little tender green shoots starting to appear, pushing up through the dark, damp soil. The bulbs he’d planted in the fall had survived winter’s snow and cold and were starting to grow. He was beside himself with joy. They were alive.

Excitedly he ran to the back door, opened it and yelled inside. “Jan, come here,” he called. “The bulbs are growing.”

“I’ll be right there,” she called back and returned to her phone call. “Yeah, that was Frank. He wants to show me something in the yard.”

Frank was shuffling back and forth on the step in his muddy work boots, holding the back door open and waiting. He could hear his wife. “Not in the yard, in the garden,” he yelled inside, correcting her.

“Sorry,” she called back, smiling, appreciating her husband’s enthusiasm. It was nice to see. She listened to her friend on the other line before responding, “Yeah, he’s pretty excited. I’ll call you later.” Then called to Frank. “I’m coming.”

She heard the door slam and pictured her husband running like a kid back to his garden, his favorite one, the first one he’d dug, the side garden. She smiled. He could be doing lots worse things with his life. He didn’t drink much at all and had quit smoking ten years early. He didn’t go out carousing. He was a good father and caring husband. The gardens made him happy and that made her happy. He had his hobby with his gardening and she had her work with her antique business. They were sharing a good life and were closer now than they’d been in years.

She pulled on her boots and a jean jacket, taking a moment to fluff her hair. Then she stepped outside into the sunny warmth of a new spring morning. She stood a minute, breathing in the clean, fresh air and feeling like life just couldn’t get any better. Birds were singing and there was a faint, light green blush of new leaf buds forming on the trees. The sky above was so blue it almost hurt her eyes. There was a sense of anticipation in the air, the kind that only those living through months of snow and freezing cold could relate to. Spring was finally on its way and with it a time of rebirth and new life. So, as she rounded the corner of the house to meet her husband, the last thing she expected to find was what she found. It was Frank laying on the ground, rolling back and forth and gasping and moaning, obviously in pain.

“Frank,” Jan screamed and ran to him, dropping to her knees on the soggy ground. She cradled his head in her arms and held him close to her chest for a moment before taking out her phone to call 911. When she hung up she held him again. His breathing was labored. She looked at his face. It was pale, almost ashen. His chest rose and fell irregularly. She briefly wondered if she was witnessing her husband’s last breaths before she forced the thought from her mind. No, she yelled to herself. Quit thinking like that. Get a grip on yourself. She brushed her hand over Frank’s forehead. He opened his eyes. She thought he recognized her. “Frank,” she said gently, caressing his face, “Don’t leave me. The ambulance is on the way.” Frank was able to give her a weak smile back. His eyes were fluttering, open only slightly. He tried to smile some more, but his lips were skewed, like his mouth didn’t work anymore. He tried to speak. It was like this tongue was twice at thick and he had a mouth full of mud. “Shhh,” Jan said, “Just rest.”

Frank made an effort to wet his lips and tried rally his strength, struggling. He forced his eyes open so he was looking right at her. In the distance the siren from the ambulance cut through the air. They were only a few minutes away. His eyes made contact with hers. “An,” he said, his voice a muffled whisper, slurred. “An, id ou ee em?”

Jan shook her head, eyes filling with tears. He was trying so hard to speak. She had no idea what he was saying. It was painful to watch. “Just be quiet, dear. Rest.”

He closed his eyes for a moment, gathering his strength once more before opening  them again. “A arden,” he said, nearly unintelligible. “Id ou ee a arden.”

Something about the garden? Despite herself, and through the tears now flowing freely, Jan looked over her shoulder to the side garden, Frank’s favorite. She looked back at him. “What, Frank?” She held him close and whispered in his ear, trying not to break down, “What is it?”

“The ulbs,” Frank said, and tried to indicate what he meant with his hand, with limited success. “The ulbs are owing.”

Jan looked back. There in the garden, among the leaf litter and broken clots of soil left from the long, long winter, tiny green shoots were poking up through the soil. Little peaks of color showing through the battered earth. The bulbs Frank had so carefully planted at the end of last season were growing. They had survived. She managed a smile as she looked into Frank’s eyes, eyes that she thought might be showing the tiniest little twinkle. “I see them, Frank. I see them. They look beautiful.”

Frank’s grin was askew as his eyes closed and his face relaxed. The ambulance came quickly to a stop in front of the house and two paramedics ran across the yard to where Jan was kneeling, cradling her husband’s head. She was weeping as they gently pulled her away and began administering to him. She wrapped her arms around herself, shaking, standing close by, all thoughts gone from her mind except one: Please, please do whatever you can to bring him back. Please. The two paramedics, a young guy and an older woman, worked for what seemed like fifteen minutes but really was closer to just one or two. Curious neighbors started to come outside, watching. The lights on the ambulance blinked a pulsating red and blue. Suddenly Jan thought she saw one of Frank’s fingers twitch. Then his whole hand. Her emotions flooded over her and she had to catch herself. She nearly fainted. The older paramedic stood quickly and went to her, putting an arm around her shoulder.

“It’s Ok,” she said, leaning down to make eye contact with Jan. “Your husband is alive. He’s going to be fine.” Jan broke down weeping some more, turning her face into the kind lady’s shoulder. Tears of relief. Tears of joy. The lady paramedic, whose name tag read Tina, patted her on the shoulder to comfort her and let her take a few moments to collect herself. Then she said, “Let’s go inside and get you some tea, sweetheart.” They started to move along the side of the house toward the back yard. Jan was filled with a mixture of elation and heart ache as she allowed the nice paramedic to escort her. As they passed by the side of the house into the backyard toward the back door, Tina looked around and commented, “Looks like someone likes to garden.”

Jan was openly weeping, but was able to smile through her tears. “That’s my husband’s,” she said, making an effort to respond. “He’s the gardener.”

Tina patted her on the shoulder as they turned to the back door, opening it to go inside. “I’m sure they’re beautiful, dear,” she said. “And don’t you worry. He’ll be back outside in no time.”

Jan needed something to believe in. Why would the paramedic lie? She looked back around the yard and envisioned all the flowers coming to life this spring and summer, blooming and adding so much life and color to the world. She saw Frank out in the yard, planting annuals in with the perennials. He saw him on his hands and knees working in the soil, weeding and enjoying being out in the sun. She saw herself in the kitchen watching him, making some ice tea to take out to him for them to share, sitting side by side in their lawns chairs, looking at the gardens, talking, being together and sharing the life they had with each other. She saw all of these things clearly and distinctly. She looked at her, “You’re sure?”

Tina met her eyes straight on. “Without a doubt.” she said. “Honestly. Without a doubt.”

Jan sighed. Relief? Maybe. Emotional exhaustion? Surely. They went inside and Tina sat her down at the kitchen table. Jan started running through her mind all of the things she had to do. Her husband would need her full time help. The Tina said that it looked like he had a stroke. The days ahead would tell them how severe. For now it looked like he had every chance of making a nearly complete recovery. Tina told her all of this before going back outside to her partner, leaving Jan inside to focus on making some tea. But she never even began making it. The last thing she wanted was tea. She wanted Frank. She went back outside and stayed with her husband, watching the paramedics make him comfortable on a gurney before hoisting him into the ambulance. The hospital was a fifteen minute drive away. She was going to ride along.

As she climbed in and was getting adjusted to the cramped space, Frank opened his eyes again. She reached for his nearest hand, now attached to a drip line, and said, “Just rest, dear. You’re going to be Ok.”

Frank started blinking and then wet his lips. “Ay ith e?” His voice was weak, barely a sigh.

She was getting used to his limited speech now. “Yes, Frank, I’ll stay with you.” She very gently caressed his hand.

They were quiet for a moment. The ambulance pulled out heading for the hospital, siren wailing. Jan felt the shift and sway to the vehicle. Frank opened his eyes again, the slightest of smiles on his face. He was trying so hard. Jan looked at him. He was struggling to say something. Jan willed her husband to just rest. But he wasn’t ready for that. Finally he got the words out. “A ar en,” he said. “Id ou ee a ar en?” He closed his eyes again, exhausted.

Jan leaned closely, whispering in his ear. “I did,” she said, “I saw the garden. I saw the new bulbs.” She blinked to hold back her tears, willing herself to be strong. “We’ll get you better and get you back home real soon so you can see them. See the new bulbs, and the new flowers and the gardens growing.” She paused and then added, “They’re going to be beautiful, just you wait and see.” Jan had no idea if her husband could hear her, but Frank closed his eyes, his face relaxing as if he had. Just get better, she added to herself, like a whispered prayer.

By now they had made their way to the hospital, a huge and bustling complex. The ambulance pulled into the Emergency Entrance and the paramedics got ready to take Frank in. Orderlies in blue hurried to assist them. Frank squeezed Jan’s hand weakly before letting go. She followed behind as the gurney was unloaded and quickly wheeled through the heavy swinging doors. She glanced back outside just once before walking in, catching a glimpse of something growing along the wall right outside the entrance. Some sort of flowers. They looked like what Frank had planted. There were further along than his and were blooming a pretty, buttery yellow. Daffodils, she thought they were. She rushed on inside, the doors swinging shut, the concern for her husband softened momentarily by the color of those flowers, so vibrant and so alive, growing and flourishing in the warmth of the bright springtime sun. And becoming, as she ran toward the gurney, like a colorful, flowery bouquet in her mind, full of hope for her husband that one day he would come home and be outside with his own flowers, working the soil and planting more gardens, and all of this hospital chaos happening here, right now would be but a far and distant memory. Was it a naive kind of hope? Who knew? But it was the one thing she felt she could do right now, to keep that hope alive for her and her husband and their future and their life together. If Frank’s gardens helped that hope turn real and gave both of them the strength to help him to get better, so be it. Who was she to argue with life’s mysteries?

Up ahead Tina was leaning over Frank, saying something to him. She turned and caught Jan’s eye and motioned for her to hurry. She did.









The Squirrel Hunter

Is he just a crazy neighbor, or there more to Tuomas than meets the eye? Joe is about to find out.

Joe and Kari were enjoying a lazy Saturday morning. The twins were still asleep and the aroma of freshly ground coffee drifted through the kitchen. The little breakfast nook where they sat overlooking the backyard was bright with sunshine. A plate of bagels ready for toppings of strawberry jam or cream cheese lay warm in the sun. Joe took a sip of his mug of French Roast and then set it down, reaching across the little table to caress his wife’s hand.

“Last night was great,” he said, smiling at her, enjoying the look of her rumpled hair and sleepy eyes.

“This morning, too,” she said and stroked his hand, sighing happily. “You were quite the tiger.”

Joe grinned, inwardly feeling pretty good with himself. Suddenly the calm was broken by the crack of a gunshot. Both Joe and Kari jumped up and looked out the window. Next door in the far back corner of his yard their neighbor, Tuomas Salonen, was just standing up, holding a rifle in his hand. He didn’t look happy.

“God damn, that stupid idiot is at it again.” Joe made a move toward the back door.

“Hold on, there. What do you think you’re going to do?” Kari asked, reaching out her hand.”Where are you going?” She tried to grab hold of his arm.

“I’m going to teach that guy a lesson.” Joe was angry and shook his wife’s hand off him.

She grabbed his arm again, holding strong. “I’d think about that if I were you,” she said, pointing. “Maybe put some clothes on first.”

He looked down. “Oh…Well, yeah,” he responded, like he knew all along he was just sitting there in his tee-shirt and boxers. “Of course.” And he hurried off to get dressed.

Kari watched him go, shaking her head, all thoughts of their romantic interlude replaced by the guy out in the backyard with the gun. So much for a peaceful morning.

Tuomas Salonen was pretty pissed off. He had been awakened in the night by some scratching in the wall of his bedroom over by the window and he knew right away what it was. That damn squirrel was at it again. There was going to be hell to pay now.

Tuomas had lived in his home for nearly twenty years. He and his wife Veera were third generation Finns whose grandparents had been  part of an immigration surge to American in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Their grandparents had settled in northwestern Minnesota near the town of Battle Lake and had become farmers. Tuomas and Veera’s parents had been farmers as well, and the two of them may have followed in their footsteps as well except for a vague longing on Tuomas’s part for something different from his life. He wasn’t sure what it was, but, like he told Veera shortly after they’d begun dating, “I don’t want to be tied down up here on some farm. I want to get away and see what else there is out there to see.”

Which sounded vague and a little unsettling to Veera, but she was game. She loved the tall, good looking guy with the wavy hair and blue eyes that twinkled when he smiled, and was willing to follow him anywhere. They had grown up together in the small Finnish community in and around Battle Lake. They knew each other and were friendly with each other up until junior high school when they secretly started to see each other as more than just acquaintances, becoming boyfriend-girlfriend in the ninth grade as they called it back then in the mid 40’s. They were both industrious and hard workers. After they completed high school Tuomas hired himself out as a farm laborer, saving his money, while Veera worked at a local creamery, saving her money. They quickly saved enough to get married a year after they had graduated. They moved to St. Paul’s east side, renting an apartment until they could afford a house. Tuomas ended up getting a job working as a deck hand on a tug boat with a barge company on the Mississippi River out of downtown St. Paul. They bought a two story, wood frame house on St. Clare Street within walking distance of the Mississippi and Veera stayed home, raising their four children, all girls. He worked his way up until he became a captain of his own tug at the age of forty, a position he held until his retirement at the age of sixty five. They had a good life. Like Veera said to him more than once, “We have given our children good food, a good home and a good education, Tuomas, and that’s something to be proud of.”

Tuomas couldn’t have agreed more. But with the kids grown and his time with the barge company over, they both looked at his retirement as a chance to try something new, which, for a Finn, was almost unheard of. But Tuomas and Veera were unlike most Finns so they looked and looked and finally found their new home, this home, the one currently besieged by a rouge red squirrel, out west of Minneapolis in the little town of Long Lake. That’s where he and Veera decided to move to, it’s where they intended to live out their lives, and it’s where Veera passed away from brain cancer two years earlier a few months before Joe and Kari and their twins moved in next door.

“Call the cops,” Joe yelled as he stormed outside, attired in his cargo shorts and black tee-shirt. “Tell them we’re sick of this guy. He’s a menace to the world,” Joe added as the back screen door slammed behind him.

“Calm down, honey,” Kari said under her breath. She had no intention of calling anyone, except maybe her sister Susie. They had plans later that day to go to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to see an exhibit of American Modernism with the twins and Susie’s kids. She glanced outside. It was such a pretty morning. Early June was a favorite time of year for her. The trees were leafed out and flower pots she had planted were filled with colorful blooms. The air was thick with the musty scent of rich soil and rebirth. Thoughts of the cold and snow of last winter were but a vague, slightly unpleasant memory. She was concerned about their neighbor but not enough set out on a rampage like her husband. Maybe I’ll make some cookies later and go over and just talk reasonably to him, she thought to herself, something Joe was definitely not going to be doing. Just then the kids, Jeremy and Jenny, charged into the kitchen ready for something to eat. Kari looked out the window one more time, briefly wondering what Joe was going to do, before turning her attention to the tow-headed twins. “Who wants pancakes?” she asked to a rousing chorus of “Me’s…” from her hungry nine year olds. She turned her attention to fixing them breakfast, leaving her husband to fend for himself.

Joe stormed across the backyard to the far right back corner where Tuomas was now sitting. The old man wore a beat up felt hat and was dressed in faded jeans and a red plaid flannel work shirt. A waist high chain link fence separated the two properties and Joe leaned on it as he berated his neighbor.

“What the hell are you think you’re doing?” he yelled, gripping the fence and inadvertently opening up a nasty puncture wound on the palm of his left hand from a metal barb sticking up. He swore a long and colorful oath as Tuomas slowly got to his feet. He was a tall, thin man and he seemed to unfold has he stood up, standing nearly eight inches above Joe. He’d been sitting on an overturned five gallon bucket and he lay his gun down carefully.

“Here, let me see that,” Tuomas said calmly, limping over to the fence. He was feeling all of his eighty-five years, especially today, where not only had he failed to killing the squirrel, his nemesis and tormentor, but he had also tripped and smashed his shin into the edge of the coffee table in his living room when he’d gotten up a hours earlier just after sunrise. It hadn’t been the best morning of his life, but, then again, at his age, he was just happy to be alive. Or “Happy to still be alive and kickin’,” was how he’d put it when any of his daughters called and asked how he was. Well, he wouldn’t be doing much kickin’ today, that was for sure. And now he had to deal with his neighbor who obviously was not only so mad he was sputtering and almost unintelligible, but now bleeding like crazy, blood now dripping off his hand. In spite of all of that, though, Tuomas actually liked his next door neighbors. Joe was a bit of a hot head, but his wife was nice and occasionally brought him over fresh cookies and other baked goods. She’d even bring over the occasional tuna casserole, a Midwestern staple and a particular favorite of his. He knew that Joe was an electrician who worked for a local company. Although Tuomas, being quite handy himself, had never needed his services, he admired the  guy for working with his hands and having a skill. “Looks like you cut it pretty bad,” Tuomas said, gently reaching for Joe’s hand which didn’t go over too well.

“Keep away from me, you crazy old coot.” Joe yelled, pulling his hand away and glaring at the old guy. He was angry and breathing hard, his heart racing.

For the nearly two years they’d lived next door, Joe only knew Tuomas well enough to give him a neighborly wave if they happened to see each other when out working in the yard or shoveling the snow off their driveways in the winter. Truth be told, Kari knew him better. And she liked him, so that counted for something. He felt himself calming down enough to think maybe he was over reacting when he suddenly stopped himself. Wait a minute. This wasn’t his problem. It was the old guy’s problem. After all, he was the one with the gun, shooting it off in the neighborhood on a quiet Saturday morning, disturbing the peace and (especially) ruining his nice, mellow, post coitus mood. No matter what, Tuomas had some explaining to do.

“What do you think you’re up to?” he puffed himself up and challenged. “What with waving that gun around like a nut case and all. Shooting it off and everything. You could hurt someone.”

Tuomas took a moment to collect himself. He had a clean bandana in his back pocket and he took it out and held it toward Joe. “Here, wrap this around your hand. That bleeding’s getting pretty bad.” Joe started to pull away, but then thought better of it. The old guy was only trying to be helpful. Besides, the wound was dripping a lot and starting to hurt.

Reluctantly he took it and wrapped it around his hand. “Thanks.” He gave the old guy the hint of an appreciative smile. But he was still cranked up and angry. He pointed to where the gun lay propped against the stump of a tree that had been cut down earlier that spring. “What’s the deal with that gun, anyway? Don’t you know that it’s against the law to fire those things off inside the city limits?” Long Lake was a small town of less than two thousand people with woods and fields nearby. It was definitely not like living in the middle of a big city.

Tuomas reached down and picked up the gun, causing Joe to flinch and step back. Tuomas saw this and it confirmed his suspicions. His neighbor might know wiring and how to installed a breaker panel but he knew nothing about fire arms. Nothing at all. “Here,” he said, keeping his voice calm, “let me show you something.” He held up the gun as Joe instinctively put up an arm in defense. “This is only a pellet gun.” He smiled at Joe, who gave him a questioning look. “It’s really quite harmless.”

“It looks like a rifle to me. How can it be harmless?” Joe was skeptical.

“Look, it’s a toy really. It has very little power and hardly any range at all.” He looked at Joe to see if he was getting what he was saying. “It’s even legal to shoot within the city limits. I checked with City Hall to make sure before I bought it.”

Joe just didn’t like guns. Nor did Kari and he wasn’t going to let some goofy old man convince him otherwise. “I just don’t like you shooting  it around here. It’s not just me, but…” he pointed back toward his house, “It’s the kids, too. They play out here, you know.”

Tuomas did know. He’d been a neighbor of Joe’s long enough to know about the kids. He’d seen them playing outside numerous times, talking to them fairly often and chasing down the occasional ball that ended up over the fence and in his yard. Besides, he and Veera had raised four of their own. Kids were always a consideration. He knew right now, looking at Joe in his agitated state that he could push it further and try to convince his neighbor that his gun was safe, or he could just let it go. As Veera would say, “It’s not good fences that make good neighbors, Tuomas, it’s good people being good neighbors.” He decided to pay attention to his deceased wife.

He symbolically put the gun down, his back creaking as he did so. He stood up and looked at Joe, who was watching him carefully. Then he did something that was completely unexpected, but, in retrospect, wasn’t that odd of a thing for Tuomas to do. He extended his hand in a show of compromise and conciliation. “Alright,” he said, firmly. “No more shooting with my gun. I promise.”

Joe was stunned. He never expected that the old man would acquiesce so easily. He didn’t know much about the guy, but Kari seemed to think he was harmless. Maybe he was. Maybe it was he, Joe, who needed calming down. Hesitantly he extended his hand. “You sure about this?”

“Yeah, I am. Seriously.” Tuomas looked back toward his house, imagining the squirrel watching him from some secret hiding place, planning its next move. Tuomas shook his head. God, maybe I’m losing my mind. He took Joe’s hand and shook it. “But I have a question for you.” He smiled and gave what Joe later would have sworn was a wink, “How do you feel about sling shots?”

Joe never tired of telling the story of Tuomas and the squirrel, or, as he put it, “The incident of the old Finn and the rifle.” From that day on he and Tuomas began developing a better relationship. Not really close right of the bat, mind you, given that they were men, and given Tuomas’s Finnish background, but close enough to begin to like and respect each other nevertheless. It worked for them and their relationship began to grown and deepen as the summer progressed. Joe learned to appreciate Tuomas’s slightly skewed sense of humor and Tuomas enjoyed becoming an ad hoc member of Joe’s family. Kari never tired of making some extra cookies for him and Tuomas reciprocated by helping out with home repairs that were beyond Joe’s abilities. And Joe, after an initial bit of male ego huffing and puffing, soon learned to take the old guy’s input for what it was, just a neighbor helping out and doing a good turn.

Tuomas would not give up on the squirrel, however. He made good on his promise to buy a slingshot, getting a Wham-O -Wrist Rocket the following Monday from a local sporting goods store.

“Hey neighbor, look at this,” he called out the next Saturday when he saw Joe in the backyard, getting ready to cut the grass. “Check it out.” Joe walked over to  the fence as Tuomas fitted the slingshot on his wrist and forearm. Then he reached down and grabbed a pebble the size of a marble and put it in the leather pouch, pulled the heavy duty rubber straps back and let it fly toward a coffee can he’d set up against the side of his garage. The stone missed and smacked off the siding, splintering some wood. “Oops,” he said, looking around for another stone, “I guess I need more practice.” I’d say, Joe thought to himself. But at least he wasn’t using the rifle, so that was something.

With Joe and Tuomas getting to know one another better, it seemed to jump start the kids. They started to pay more attention to the old man. “He’s kind of funny, dad,” was the way his son put it, a few weeks after the initial encounter.

“How do you mean?” Joe asked. He was in the garage, busy painting an old wooden rocking chair, one of four that were used on the back patio of their yard.

“Well, he’s always talking to himself,” Jeremy said.

“Yeah, dad, and singing, too,” Jenny added.

“Anything wrong with that?” Joe asked, glancing at his kids and smiling. He was starting to appreciate Tuomas and his little idiosyncrasies.

The twins contemplated the question for a moment before both shrugging their shoulders and answering at the same time, “No, guess not.”

No indeed, Joe thought, as the twins ran off to grab their bikes, heading for the playground a few blocks away, nothing at all wrong with that. At least the guy’s happy.

And Tuomas was happy. Happy enough, given that he lived by himself, longed terribly for the companionship of his deceased wife and was plagued by a red squirrel that he swore was sent by the devil Itself. And, although getting to know Joe and his family better helped alleviate his loneliness, it did not completely eradicate it. For the most part his days were spent ‘staying busy’ as he often told Joe. “I just like to keep active,” he’d say with a grin. “Keeps the blood flowing.”

As the summer progressed Joe and Tuomas grew closer. Joe installed an outdoor light on Tuomas’s garage so the old guy could putter around at night if he wanted to. And Tuomas, who liked to work outdoors as much as he could, encouraged Joe to contemplate planting a garden, which Joe was still considering. He’d had a busy few months at work but now things were starting to slow down. One day in early August Tuomas was out working in the large vegetable garden he and Veera had planted shortly after they moved in and he still maintained. It was on the south side of the house between his and Joe’s. This year he was especially proud of the variety and amount of his tomatoes. “Look at these Big Boys,” he said, pulling one off the vine and handing it to Joe who was standing in the sun on the other side of the chain link fence. They were chatting with each other as Tuomas was doing some weeding. “Doesn’t get much better than this,” he smiled, taking his old hat off and wiping a bead of sweat from his brow. His face was deeply lined, tanned and speckled with gray beard stubble. It showed a character of strength and resolve that Joe was coming to appreciate more and more. “You should plant a garden, too, young man,” Tuomas said as Joe held and admired the huge tomato. “I’ll help you.”

“Maybe next year,” Joe said, looking over his yard, shielding his eyes from the sun, not sure if he wanted to put the effort into it.

Tuomas sensed his neighbor’s hesitation. “You’ve got to get while the gettin’s good, young fella’,” he said. And then reached down and snapped off a large cucumber and took a big bite, clearly savoring the juicy treat. “Time waits for no one.”

Joe laughed a little. He was in his late thirties. He had finished trade school right after completing high school and had been fortunate to land a job right away with Meyer’s Electric, the company he was still with. Tuomas was always coming up with those kinds of ‘wise sayings’ as Joe thought of them as. It might have had to do with the fact that the old guy was for the most part self taught and, even in his advanced years, still read both fiction and non-fiction, filling his active mind with more events and stories and facts than Joe could never imagine himself doing. It was one of many aspects of his neighbor that he was learning to appreciate.

Tuomas had a boat that he kept down on Long Lake, the lake the town they lived in was named after. It was a stout, wooden vessel that showed as much character in its wooden construction as Tuomas did in his craggy face. He loved to fish and had starting taking the twins down with him. Joe had been surprised by their interest.

“We like to fish, dad,” Jenny said, the first time she asked him if she and her brother could go.

“You’ve never been in your life,” Joe responded, suddenly feeling guilty and maybe a little jealous he hadn’t made the extra time for his kids so he could take them fishing.

Just then Tuomas came around the corner of his house carrying three fishing poles. He waved at Joe as he walked up to the edge of the fence. “How about it? Can I take the kids with me?”

He seemed so eager that Joe had to acquiesce. “Sure. Why not?”

The twins both cheered and ran happily along the fence toward the front yard where the fence ended, around it and back to where the two men stood. Tuomas instructed the twins to go to his garage and grab the life jackets. They ran off and he looked at Joe. “You Ok with this? You can come with.”

When he saw how happy the three of them were his jealousy went away. This could only be a good thing for all of them. He really didn’t care for fishing, and it looked like this was something the three of them would obviously enjoy more without him. He realized that he was Ok with that and that he shouldn’t be so petty. Maybe in that moment he matured a little.”No, you guys go and have fun,” he said, reaching over the fence and clasping Tuomas on the shoulder. “The kids are excited.”

And they stayed excited, going out on the lake with Tuomas more than a few times throughout the summer, not always catching fish, maybe, but always having a good time. Like Kari said, watching the three of them get ready for one of their ‘expeditions’, as she called them, “Tuomas is such a kind and giving man. I think it’s great he wants to be with the kids.” Joe couldn’t agree more.

The old man was also a rower, going down to the lake at least once a week no matter what the weather and getting out on the water. He’d walk down carrying his oars over his shoulder, often whistling to himself. One Saturday in mid October Joe was in the backyard raking the leaves that were starting to fall from the three sugar maples that grew there.

“Hey neighbor,” Tuomas called. He was coming out of his garage with his oars. “I’m heading down to the lake. Want to come with?”

He’d never asked before. Joe was nearly done with the raking and Kari had the kids at their soccer game. He had time. “Sure, what not?”

It was one of the things that getting to know Tuomas was helping Joe with. Getting him out of his rut, so to speak. As Kari would occasionally say to him, “That old guy’s good for you. He’s keeping you young.”

Laughing when she’d talk like that, Joe could only agree. Tuomas had the energy of a much younger person, and, in his own way, was setting a good example for him. Like he’d told Kari more than once, “Man, I’d love to have the energy that guy has when I’m his age.”

“Exactly,” Kari would respond, nodding her head in agreement. She loved her husband dearly but she saw it as more than just having energy and being active. Tuomas was a good man. He was selfless and caring and, by his example, was helping Joe to become a better person, a better husband and a better father for being around him.

“Here, let me carry those oars for you,” Joe said as they started out. The lake was about half a mile away: down their quiet block to the end of the street, across a highway overpass, across another street and down another block and, presto, they were there. Tuomas rented a spot on shore where he kept his boat overturned and locked with a chain to a post. People with much larger speed boats and sail boats had spots reserved at buoys anchored in the water. Joe helped as they carried the sixteen footer to the public dock, where it was easier (and drier) for them to get in. Joe could tell the wooden boat had been well cared for, which wasn’t surprising, Tuomas was a very fastidious man. The outside was smooth and sanded, painted red with white trim. The inside was natural wood and stained a warm honey-golden color and varnished to a high gloss. Tuomas had Joe sit in the back and he took his position in the middle, set his oars in the oarlocks and they pushed off. With Tuomas’s strong, smooth strokes, they quickly left the dock behind, and set out for, as the old guy put it, “A nice little row.”

Joe had never been on the lake before. In fact, the last time he’d been on any kind of water was back when he was a teenager and a friend had invited him for a day of boating on Lake Minnetonka, a big, popular boating lake a few miles from where they were now. They’d spent the day thunder tubing, being pulled on a hug inner tube behind his friend’s dad’s boat. It had been fun, but painful, too. Joe grimaced to remember the many times he’d fallen off, bouncing along the surface of the lake, sputtering and finally coming to rest, floating in his life vest. He’d had the bruises for more than a few days. Today, however, was distinctly different. The October sky was blue and cloudless. The sun was bright and warm. A light breeze rippled the water and the shoreline trees were starting to change into their fall colors of russet-red, fiery-orange and golden-yellow. In some shallow water in a small bay a flock of ducks squawked amongst themselves and dove for food. There was a hint of leafy decay in the air, a pleasant scent associated with the season, and it mingled with the smoke of a fire. Somewhere someone was burning leaves. The scent was heavenly to him, bringing back good memories of when he was a kid. He sighed and relaxed, leaning back, watching Tuomas in front of him, rowing with a strength and ease that made Joe slightly envious.

When they were out in the middle of the lake, he stopped rowing, stowed the oars and turned his face to the sun. Smiling he said, “Pretty nice out here, isn’t it?”

The breeze had died off, leaving the lake a mirror like calm that reflected the colorful trees along the shore. Above them a flock of gulls, white with black wing tips, circled and soared, calling out in the clean, crisp air. The word ‘beautiful’ didn’t even begin to describe the scene. “It’s amazing,” Joe said, meaning it, nearly at a loss for words. He’d never experienced anything like it in his life.

Tuomas chuckled, “I thought you’d like being here.” He took a few moments and looked around, taking in a deep breath. Joe could see him visibly relax. “I was brought up on a farm in northern Minnesota,” he said and then started talking about his life, much of which Joe already knew, and then elaborated on his time as a tugboat captain. “You would have thought that I’d be tied to the land,” he said, looking at Joe and then past him out over the water. Long Lake was about three miles in length and a mile wide. They were right in the middle, bobbing gently. It was so peaceful Joe was having trouble keeping his eyes open, but as Tuomas kept talking, he perked up. He liked hearing about the old guy’s life. “But I wasn’t tied to it at all. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always enjoyed being out in the woods. I like to walk in them and I like the feel of the spongy ground under my feet. I like to sometimes drive out west of here and see all those rolling fields in the farmland. You know, the corn and soybeans,” he looked at Joe, who nodded. He knew the difference between the two, just barely, but he did. “But I really like being on the water. I love the feel of it, and, especially on a day like today, I love how pretty and peaceful it is.”

Joe nodded some more, aware of Tuomas using the word ‘love’ to describe his feelings about being on the water. Not the kind of word any of the guys he knew used very often, if at all. “How’d you become a captain?”

Tuomas smiled at the memory. “It was a lot of hard work, let me say that for starters.” Joe motioned for him to continue. “Well…” he dipped his oars in to straighten out the boat and then reset them. “I started at the bottom of the ladder, so to speak, as a deck hand, which was nothing more than a common laborer. I was used to that what with all the hard work I’d done growing up on the farm.”

He worked his way up ‘the ladder’ and after about fifteen  years he was able to take the training which enabled him gain the knowledge and learn the skills required to pass his captain’s test. “You wouldn’t think about it, but it really does take a lot to pilot those tugs,” he said. “We had to get re-certified every five years.”

Joe was interested in Tuomas and his life. His own father had died of a heart attack when he was twelve, just a few years older than his kids ages now. He had never had the chance to get close to the man, a well respected service manager at a Ford dealership in Minneapolis. The more he hung around with Tuomas, the more he got to know him, and the more he got to know him, the more he enjoyed him and enjoyed being with him. It was beginning to become a relationship different than that with many of his friends. And it made Joe feel not only good, but strangely affectionate toward the old guy.

Joe asked if he could row them back to shore, and Tuomas agreed, carefully switching places. Joe rowed in, enjoying the pull of the muscles in his arms and the serenity of the afternoon, with Tuomas idly dragging a hand in the water as if captivated by the lake and the beauty and mystery that it held. The day ended with them securing the boat before walking back home, each shouldering an oar, and, for Joe’s part, feeling like it was one of the better days in a year quickly becoming  full of good days.

But that squirrel problem was not going away. And the animal was sometimes more than just a pest and a nuisance, sometimes it was downright destructive. In early November, Tuomas was outside on a ladder looking around the window frame of his bedroom window. It was under the eaves on the second story peak and about fifteen feet off the ground. Joe was inside washing the morning breakfast dishes and just happened to look out. He immediately could visualize the old guy falling off the ladder and breaking his back. He hurriedly pulled on his jacket and went outside, walking over to the fence and calling up, “What’s going on?”

“It’s that damn squirrel again.” Tuomas sounded not only mad but exasperated. “He’s chewed through the wiring up here.”

Wiring was electrical and anything electrical was right up Joe’s alley. “Hold on there,” he said jogging to the front yard, around the edge of the fence and coming back, “Let me help you with that.” He didn’t see it, but Kari had moved to the window and was watching with a knowing kind of smile on her face. She was happy to see her that husband now had what she considered was a friend. And Joe might have thought of it the same way, if he thought about it at all, which he didn’t. He just liked the guy.

They went inside and it took a few hours, but Joe was able to isolate the problem, run some new wires inside the wall and get Tuomas up and running again, much to their mutual satisfaction. When they were leaving, down on the first floor and walking through the living room, Joe noticed a guitar propped up in the corner. “What have you got there?” He asked, pointing. He walked over to get a closer look picking it up and looking inside the sound hole. It was an old acoustic Martin. Inside it read 000-18. “Nice old guitar you’ve got here.”

Tuomas blushed. “I’ve had it for years. I just plink around with it sometimes. Just old folk sounds and such.”

Joe was impressed. He was as far away from being musical as you could get, but not Jeremy. His son loved music, was singing all the time and constantly bugging his parents to get him an instrument of some kind so he could learn to play. “Jeremy likes music. Maybe you could teach him some songs.”

Tuomas nodded, leaving it at that. But when Joe told Kari about it later that evening she was both surprised but not surprised. “That’s a man with a lot going on inside him,” she said, with what Joe felt was a sense of wonder maybe mixed with a little envy. They’d been standing in the kitchen each fixing a cup of after dinner tea and they both turned and looked through the dark night toward their neighbor’s home. A few lights were on. They were quiet for a few moments before taking their tea into the living room, thinking about their quirky neighbor and what he might be up to. Whatever it was, they both agreed that, with Tuomas, he was many things, not the least of which was that he was always interesting and always surprising them.

Stretching back on the couch and putting her feet up on the coffee table Kari said, “I’m sure glad he’s our neighbor. I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have living next door.” She turned to Joe, “You guys have really gotten friendly. Remember last spring with ‘The incident of the old Finn and the rifle?”

Joe took a sip of his tea and chuckled, “Yeah, I was a bit of a jerk, wasn’t I?”

“Don’t worry about it. You did what you thought was right. In the end, it all turned out good.” Which was true. Joe certainly wouldn’t argue with that.

On a Saturday afternoon just before Thanksgiving Tuomas was outside bundled up in a heavy coat and stocking hat practicing with his slingshot when Joe looked out the back kitchen window and noticed him. The temperature was in the low twenty’s under an overcast sky. It was cold. Not the best kind of weather for doing something like that.”Hey, Kari, come here.” He motioned for her. “Look what Tuomas is up to.”

She leaned over next to him. He could smell in her hair the scent of the strawberry shampoo she used. He put his arm around her shoulder. She laughed and squeezed his hand, “Looks like your pal could use some company.”

Joe ignored her. “Maybe we could go take a little nap,” he suggested. “The kids are over at their friend’s.”

“And I’ve got a ton of stuff to do around here,” she said, pushing him playfully away. “Now you go scoot.” Joe reluctantly took the hint.

“All right, but you never know what you might have missed.”

She laughed, “Yeah, you and me, both.”

Joe went out and hung out with his neighbor, just talking and chatting, while the old guy plunked away target practicing. After a while Tuomas suggested Joe come inside for a cup of coffee and Joe readily agreed. Kari watched them on and off until they went in. She was a cashier at a grocery store a fifteen minute drive away. Today was her day off. She continued with her chores, most of which she enjoyed doing, happy for her husband and his friend, taking her time as she finished up with her dusting, enjoying the peace and tranquility of her home on this quiet afternoon.

Joe burst through the back door a half hour after she had finished and was relaxing on the couch, reading a new Ann Cleeves novel. He was excited. “Tuomas is showing me how to make Finnish meatballs. He wants to know if you and the kids want to come over for dinner.”

Joe and Kari tried to go out to dinner on most Saturday nights. They felt their marriage was stronger for taking sometime to themselves, away from the twins for just a few hours a week. Plus, they enjoyed their time together, both being as busy with their jobs as they were. But Tuomas was a special person to them, and although they had gotten to know him very well this past year, the man was still somewhat of an enigma. This was the first time he’d ever invited them to dinner. “I’d say tell him yes, Kari said, enthusiastic and clapping her hands. “It’ll be fun.”

And it was, even though none of them could pronoun the Finnish name for the dish, Lihapullat, no matter how patient Tuomas was trying to teach them. Jenny came the closest with “e-ha-pull-et”. One outcome, though, was that Jeremy finally got his wish about learning to play an instrument. While Tuomas was showing everyone around his home, the guitar in the corner of the living room caught the young boy’s eye. “Can you please teach me to play?” he pleaded, “Please, please, please.”Much to the chagrin of his parents. But Tuomas rose to the occasion, agreeing to show the boy some basic chords. “Maybe even teach you a little song, too.” Was how he put it. Later, when the meal was over and Joe and Kari and Jenny were in the kitchen doing the dishes, Tuomas sat Jeremy down in the living room and taught him a song, much to the young boy’s delight. Soon, the chorus of Woody Guthrie’s classic, “This Land Is Your Land” was ringing through the house. Joe and Kari and Jenny came in from the kitchen and joined in, singing along and laughing and having fun. It was, to say the least, a memorable evening, made even more so when Tuomas agreed to come over when the kids got home from school, “if it was convenient” was how he put it, to continue with Jeremy’s lessons. It turned out, not surprisingly, that it was convenient most everyday day. By this time the kids had developed a deep and lasting affection for the old man and now were calling him Grandpa Tom, much to everyone’s delight.

Tuomas spent a few days around Thanksgiving at his eldest daughter’s home with her family in Duluth, a town located three hours north on the shore of Lake Superior. And he spent about five days around Christmas with his second eldest daughter and her family and the rest of his daughters and their families in Grand Marias, way north of Duluth, up near the Canadian border. New Year’s Eve he spent with Joe and Kari and the twins.

When he knocked at the door around 5:00 pm, the twins excitedly answered. “Grandpa Tom’s here,” they cried out, jumping and clapping their hands. They had learned to genuinely find a place in their hearts for the old guy, ever since early in the summer when he had started taking them fishing out on the lake, liking it enough to go back with ‘Grandpa Tom’ as often as he’d take them. Then there were the guitar lessons with Jeremy, with him excelling beyond anyone’s expectations. He’d even recently begun showing Jenny some simple cooking recipes, too. Finnish, of course. So Tuomas’s membership in the family was unanimous. No longer ‘ad hoc’, he was now welcomed with open arms as a bonified member. “Come on in,” the twins jostled for his attention until he put up a hand, stopping them.

“Hold on there J and J,” as he sometimes called them. “Calm down or you won’t get your presents.” They immediately turned quiet, causing Joe and Kari to look at each other wordlessly, wondering why they were hardly ever that well behaved for them. From behind his back Tuomas pulled out a present for each of them. The boxes were long and festively wrapped with pretty red and green paper and cheerful ribbons. “Here you go. One for each of you.”

The kids looked at their parents who silently gave them the nod to go ahead. They tore into the packages, paper flying, exclaiming moments later, “Yea, new fishing poles.” They were nice new fiberglass rods with Zebco casting reels. Close to top of the line.

Tuomas looked at Joe and Kari, almost apologetically, “I just wanted to do something special for them.” The kids ran off to get their coats on their way to go outside to practice casting even though the temperature was a cold eighteen degrees.

Joe walked over to the old man and gave him a friendly hand shake and put his hand on his shoulder.”You did great, Tuomas. You did real good.”

And Kari took it a step further, giving him a big hug. “Thank you so much, Tuomas. You’re a wonderful neighbor.”

To which Joe added, “And a good friend.”

After the kids came in, Joe started a fire in the fireplace and their spent the evening drinking hot chocolate, eating popcorn and playing card games, where it was discovered that Tuomas was particularly adept at Hearts. They rang in the New Year with a highly competitive game of Charades with the team of Joe and Kari, calling themselves by the unimaginative name of ‘The Parents’, getting thoroughly trounced by ‘The Youngster’ team of Jeremy, Jenny and Tuomas. Later that night, actually, early New Year’s Day, after the kids had gone to bed and Tuomas had said a hearty and heartfelt good-bye, Joe and Kari fell into the deepest sleep each of them had had in a long, long while. It had been the happiest New Year’s Eve they’d ever had.

So, it was the last thing either of them could have imagined the next day when Kari sent Joe over around noon with a container of vegetable soup she had made when he found Tuomas laying on the floor of his kitchen. Frantically he ran to his friend and felt for a pulse. There was none. He was cold. Joe frantically called 911 and the police and ambulance arrived ten minutes later within minutes of each other. But it was too late. Tuomas, who Joe had come to look at as much more than just a friend, would no longer be with him. His time had come. He was gone.

The funeral was held at a Lutheran Church just a mile from where they lived. All of Tuomas’s daughters and husbands and kids and grandkids were there, of course, but Joe was surprised that there was a good representation from the barge company where Tuomas had worked for so many years. Everyone had good things to say about the old guy. So much so, that Joe had to step outside once, just to come to grips with the depth of life his friend had lead, and the number of lives he had touched. Joe counted himself fortunate that he had at least scratched the surface of what his friend had to offer.

He tried to put it into words when he spoke at the funeral, at the bequest of Linnea, the eldest daughter: “A few months ago I was helping him with a wiring problem due to that squirrel of his,” he said, to a smattering of laughter. Lots of people knew of the issues Tuomas had with his nemesis, the infamous red squirrel. “When I was over there I noticed a guitar in the corner of the living room. When I asked him about it he said simply, ‘I’ve had it for years. I just enjoy playing it. I’ve got more time now  what with Veera gone and all, so I’m trying to practice more. Maybe get a little better.’  Joe paused for a moment before continuing, “I guess what I’m trying to say is that Tuomas was always surprising me. He wasn’t just a great neighbor and a good friend but he was something more than that.” Joe stopped, trying to find the words. The church was quiet excepted for muffled snuffles and a number of people softly crying. Finally he went on, “He was kind of a teacher. He taught me that there was more to life than just living day to day. He taught me to make sure I made time for the people in my life that are so important to me.” He looked at Kari, who was smiling at him, and then his kids, who were each tearing up. “What I really want to say is that he taught me to be a better human being than I had been in the past, because that’s what he was. He wasn’t just a guy with a gun hunting a squirrel in his backyard. He was a loving, giving human being who became the best friend I’ve ever had.” Joe looked out over the crowd, a big crowd of at least one hundred people, and then he smiled, though his own tears were now starting to form, “I’ll never forget him.”

Linnea and her sisters spent weekends over the next few months cleaning out the house and getting ready to put it up for sale. One cold Sunday afternoon in February she went over to Joe and Kari’s and knocked on the back door. Kari answered it and invited her in.

“I’ve just put some coffee on,” she said, indicating a kitchen chair for her to sit. “Would you like a cup?”
Linnea gratefully collapsed with a sigh, “I’d love some,” she said. “There’s a lot of his things to go through. Mom’s too.”

“I can only imagine,” Kari said, pouring a cup for each of them. She yelled down to the basement for Joe. The twins were at a movie with some friends.

Linnea had a grocery store bag that she set on the floor next to her. Joe came up the stairs and greeted her with a smile. “Hi there. Haven’t seen you much since the funeral,” he said, wiping his hands. He’d decided to paint all of the outdoor wooden lawn furniture, three more chairs (not counting the one he’d done last spring), plus a table and some end tables. It was a big project, but he was enjoying it. It was one of the things he felt Tuomas would have thought was a good idea. ‘It’s good to stay busy,’ was a favorite expression of his.

“There was a lot to do over there, but we’re about done,” Linnea said, taking a sip of her coffee and then carefully setting it down. “Here. I’ve got something for you all.” She reached down and opened the bag, taking out the slingshot Tuomas had used on the squirrel.

Joe burst out laughing. So did Kari. Finally Linnea joined in. “I know it’s probably kind of crazy, but dad left notes for lots of his things, and this is what he left for you.” She stopped and looked out the window toward her dad’s home. “It was almost like he had a premonition or something.” She handed it to Joe. “He left his old guitar for Jeremy and he left this for Jenny. She handed Kari a glass orb with a snow scene inside. She shook it up to make the snow fall, a white blizzard silently drifting over a pretty woodland scene. It was beautiful. “It’s been in the family for three generations,” Linnea held up her hand to fend off Kari’s response. “No, it’s Ok. He left all kinds of stuff for us. Please take this. It would have meant a lot to dad, and it would mean a lot to us if you would let Jenny have it.”

Kari agreed to pass the gift on to her daughter. “She’ll love it,” she said. “She thought the world of your dad.”

“So did Jeremy,” Joe added. “We all did.”

“He also left you this,” Linnea said, turning to Joe. She handed him a photo of the row boat. “He wanted you to have it. He left this note for you.”

Joe took the note and read it, tears forming, ‘Take time, my friend, to get out on the water and let the wind and the waves talk to you. You’ll be glad you did.’

He handed the note to Kari who read it, nodding and smiling. When she was finished she patted Joe on the arm. “Sounds like good advice.”

Linnea then gave Kari a beautiful Scandinavian sweater that Veera had knit. It was made from off white wool with geometric patterns of gray, black and brown woven into it. The buttons were made out of leather. Kari was touched beyond words, never having met the lady herself, caressing the smooth wool and getting a little teary eyed. Linnea emphasized that this was something her dad would have wanted. They talked a bit longer, each remembering Tuomas in their own way and sharing stories about him before Linnea left, leaving Joe and Kari feeling both happy and sad at the same time. Tuomas’s death should have been no surprise. He was an old man and had lived a long and full life. But learning to live without him was going to take time. Time that would have to be filled, somehow, into the void of having him gone.

The house sold in the middle of April. Joe and Kari watched the new neighbors moving in with interest. They were a young couple in their mid-twenties with a small child and one (obviously) on the way. After giving them a few days to get settled, Kari made a plate of cookies and brought it over towing Joe along to meet their new neighbors. The guy’s name was Ed, or Eddie, as his wife called him. He worked as a lineman for the local utility company. They had a young daughter, Allie, who was napping. Heather was a stay-at-home mom. “Or trying to be,” she said, wiping a strand of hair from her forehead. Her hair was dyed black and cut short in the back with a long, unruly swatch flopping in front. “We’re expecting our second in May,” she said, rubbing her tummy and smiling shyly at her husband, who smiled back. She gratefully accepted the cookies, taking a moment to breathe in their sweet aroma. “Thank you so much,” she enthused. “They look and smell wonderful.”

“They’re chocolate chip,” Kari said, grinning. “They’re Joe’s favorite,” she gave him a glance. Joe could tell Kari really liked the young mother. Wanting to stay-at-home with her growing family was all it took.

The ladies went into the kitchen with Heather telling Eddie to show Joe around, which he agreeably did, starting with the basement. Joe could tell this was where Eddie felt most at home. His new neighbor was setting up what looked to be a wood working shop. Joe was impressed.

“The guy who used to live here was pretty handy. He would have liked your set-up.”

“It’s a hobby of mine,” Eddie said, caressing a table saw, and then absently scratching his neck. He was a lean, muscular guy, a little shorter than Joe, wearing faded black jeans and a white tee-shirt. He had short cropped hair and his arms were covered with tattoos. On his neck Joe could see the names of his wife and daughter. ‘Heather’ was tattooed and block letters and ‘Allie’ was in script. He was soft spoken and polite. Joe found himself liking him. “I’m going to rebuild all the kitchen cabinets,” he said with a happy enthusiasm. Joe had no doubt he’d be good at it. The guy seemed calm and confident. Again, something Tuomas would have appreciated. There went on to chat a bit when suddenly they stopped and looked up past the ceiling toward the kitchen where they could both hear Kari and Heather laughing. “If I ever get the time,” he continued,” with the new one coming and all.” He stopped, blinking rapidly, looking suddenly slightly overwhelmed.

Joe nodded, and suddenly had a vision of Tuomas. He saw him as the friend and neighbor that he had been. The guy who took the time to help him whenever he could. Who went out of his way to take him down to the lake to go rowing and take time to take his kids fishing. He saw him as the squirrel hunter who had put away his rifle for his slingshot in a show of neighborly solidarity. He and Tuomas had planned to take the fence bordering their properties down that spring. They were going to extend the vegetable garden over toward Joe’s property line. Maybe even dig out a garden for he and Kari and the kids. They had been making plans and now they were never to be. Or, maybe not.

“Don’t worry about it, man,” Joe said, reaching out to shake Eddie’s hand, which he could tell surprised him, but that was Ok. It was something Tuomas would have done. “I’ll help you with any projects you come up with.” The young man took only a few seconds to make his decision. He and Heather had not known what to expect when they moved in to their new home. This new neighbor seemed like a decent guy. What the heck…Eddie reached over and shook his hand. Joe saw the relief in Eddie’s face and chuckled, “After all, no matter what happens from now on, for better or worse, we’re neighbors.” And when Eddie looked at him a little questioningly, not clearly understanding, Joe just laughed. “Don’t worry. It’ll all be good.” And it only took just a moment before Eddie smiled and laughed, too, thinking this might just work out Ok.

Joe was feeling good. The more he was with Eddie, the more he liked him. His new neighbor clearly had a love of woodworking and his tools were organized and well oiled. They were looking through a catalog of the various hardware options Eddie was contemplating for the new kitchen cabinets when Heather called down from upstairs.

“I’ve got coffee on if you guys want any.”

Eddie looked at Joe. “What’d ya think?”


“We’re on our way,” Eddie called out, putting the catalog away. “Maybe Allie’s up,” he said. “My little daughter’s a real charmer.” He looked at Joe and smiled in a kind of inward way Joe re-called from when his kids were young and everything was new and fresh. “She just turned two.”

Joe remembered. As challenging as it was raising twins, looking back, every year was full of memories that he cherished. “I’m looking forward to meeting her.”

They were climbing the stairs when Joe had a thought. “Say, Eddie, have you ever heard any scratching in the walls? Like maybe something was in there?”

Eddie turned, looking over his shoulder, “No. Why?” Sounding concerned.

Ah, why bring it up? Joe thought. Maybe the squirrel died over the winter or moved on somewhere else. No need to bother this nice young couple. If they haven’t heard anything by now that’s a good sign, isn’t it? With a young child already there and one on the way, they didn’t need any more worries. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all. Forget it. Hey, let’s get some coffee and let me meet that little girl of  yours.”

Outside in the tallest of the three maples in Joe’s backyard Tuomas’s red squirrel sat on a branch mid way up. It was tucked next to the trunk, it’s tail curved over its back, all nice and fluffy. The April sun was high in the sky and shining brightly, warming the squirrel’s old bones. It had been outside for about a month now after spending the winter curled up nice and toasty in a wall in the old guys house. It had been peaceful inside. Almost too peaceful. The house had seemed vacant and now, now that the squirrel was awake and active, it noticed that the old guy wasn’t around at all. In his place were some younger people and the noise they had been making recently had been enough to force him out into the early spring weather. That was Ok. He liked it outside. Liked to hunt for nuts and dig in the soil and run through the branches of the trees, and, yes, even sometimes play, if you could call it that. For the past few years he’d been enjoying playing with the old guy, antagonizing him, running all over the place through his trees and around his property, even finding a way to get into the walls of his house. And, even though sometimes the guy hurt him with that long stick of his that went ‘bang’ or that thing on his arm that sometimes stung him, it was pretty entertaining. The old red squirrel was the only one left in the neighborhood, all the others having either died or moved out away from the old guy and his things that hurt. But not this old squirrel. By its count it still had a few  years left. Hopefully. But now things had changed. The old guy was gone and some young people were there. They had a little person that cried and was somewhat irritating. The more the squirrel thought about it the more it seemed too easy. It was the same house as the old guy. New people, but same old house. What would be the challenge in that? The fun in that? It turned its gaze to the house next to the old guy. The house where that guy and the lady and the two kids lived. Maybe it should try them? Maybe it should play with them? The squirrel thought about it for a few minutes, it’s squirrel brain cranking along, it’s worn synapses firing, taking it’s time. Then it leisurely stretched itself along the branch, feeling both old and good at the same time. Decision having been made, it hopped along the branch and jumped onto Joe’s roof, making its way along the edge, scratching and sniffing, looking for a way inside.