A Can of Worms

I watched as Mom drove off, a stone rattling in the hubcap which I knew would drive her nuts before too long. She slowly made her way down the narrow, tree lined opening in the woods everyone called a driveway and in a moment was hidden in the forest. A minute later I heard her accelerate the big Oldsmobile 88 down the dirt road that would take her away from me for two weeks, up until the end of August. I was upset, already lonely, and, frankly feeling a little sorry for myself.

Next to me Auntie Beth said, “Well, it’s just you and me, now, Cal. What do you            want to do?”

All I heard was the ‘just you and me part.’ I couldn’t understand how my mom   could up and leave me like she was. I was starting to get mad.

Auntie glanced over and, seeing I was upset, enveloped me in a big bear hug with both arms. Her comfort was warm and kindly, but didn’t do anything to take away the empty feeling in my heart; the sense of abandonment. Even though I felt I should have been old enough not to let it get to me, it did. It also felt like the two weeks would last forever.

But they didn’t. They went by way too fast and I’ll never forget them. In fact, to this day I still can’t get that summer out of my mind, specifically the image of Lenny Macintosh laying in his dirty, filthy bed, cold and unmoving, as blue-bottle house flies swarmed on and around his face. He was the first dead person I ever saw. Maybe that’s why I’ll never forget him.

I should back up and fill you in a little bit. First of all, staying with Aunt Beth was not a bad thing at all. She was my mom’s mother’s sister and we were very close. In the past, Mom hauled me and my younger brother and my two much younger sisters up to what we called The Lake for as long as a month; it was Auntie Beth’s and Uncle Sid’s home away from home for June, July and August. Sid spent the work week buying selling grain futures for Cargill in Minneapolis at the Grain Exchange while Auntie Beth manned their cabin on Tamarack Lake. It was located about a three hour drive north of the Twin Cities, and I’ll tell you, those summers at the cabin were the greatest of times for me and my younger siblings – swimming, fishing and exploring; times that, without a doubt, were the highlight of my summer vacation, if not my young life.

But this summer was different. This summer Mom shipped my brother, Tim, who was two years younger than me, down to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Fairmont near the Iowa boarder. My two younger sisters she kept home with her in Minneapolis.

When I asked her about it the week before she drove me up north she said, “It’s just the way it has to be this summer, Cal. You’ll just have to accept it and don’t argue with me about it. Remember that you’re the oldest and have to set an example for Tim and Kathy and Susie.”

God, I hated it when she talked to me like that – like I was a grown up, when we both knew I was a long way from being the adult she imagined me to be.

“Ok, Mom,” I said, agreeing, trying to sound mature but deep down hating the whole situation. Dad had been gone from home more and more this past year and I knew Mom wasn’t happy about it. But I was eleven, in between fifth and sixth grade and not very attuned to the dynamics of a family slowly falling apart. The overriding feeling I had was confusion, an emotion I experienced a lot growing up but tried not to let on to anyone. I just attempted to do as I was told and not make any adult mad at me – Keep a low profile, especially when it came to being around adults, was my motto.

“That’s good, sweetie. I knew I could count on you.”

Well, that was a glowing testimony if I ever heard one and totally undeserved. I loved my mom but her use of guilt to get me to do things I didn’t want to do was not becoming at all.

Now at the lake with Auntie I had a feeling of something changing. It was the first time I’d ever been away from my family for any extended period of time. (I’m not going to count the five days two years ago I was in isolation in the hospital with Walking Pneumonia.) I put my loneliness aside and picked up my suitcase, liking the security it gave me. It held a few books and my many comics, my baseball mitt, my spy glass, my transistor radio, my favorite marbles and other treasures. Oh yeah, and a few clothes – tee-shirts, shorts and such. It occurred to me that the next two weeks might actually be a bit of an adventure – especially considering the fact that it was to be spent in my favorite place in the world to be, and, more importantly, my brother and sisters wouldn’t be hanging around bugging me. Granted it wasn’t like taking a canoe down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, or riding a horse from Minnesota to California – two things I fantasized about a lot, but it at least it was something different. You know what? I thought to myself, this might turn to be not so bad after all.

“Come on, Cal, let’s go inside,” Auntie Beth said, “I’ve got some of those molasses cookies you like.”

Well, I could get onboard with that! The last vestiges of my loneliness and feeling sorry for myself disappeared. Auntie was offering me my favorite treat – thick, soft chewy cookies and no brother or sisters around to share them with. That’s what I called a good deal. It also solidified my thinking that two weeks away from my family might not be so bad after all, and it only took a handful of my favorite cookies to convince me. I was pretty easily bought off back then.

“Ok, Auntie, I guess I am kind of hungry,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to hide my smile. She hugged me around the shoulder and together we walked across the lawn to the cabin. Oh yeah, this was going to work out just fine.

And it did. We settled into a nice routine. Mom had dropped me off on a Tuesday and I took the rest of the day to get acclimated. Auntie and Uncle’s cabin was built in the shape of a rectangle with a kitchen, a tiny eating area, and a living room, all stretched along the front, facing the lake. In the back were a couple of small bedrooms separated by a closet. The rooms had heavy curtains on curtain rods for doors which added to the charm. The living room had knotty pine paneling and Uncle had hung colored prints of ducks and geese landing or taking off over sloughs and ponds on the walls. There was a mixed scent of fireplace fires, coffee and cinnamon (from the apple pies Auntie made) inside that always made me feel right at home – cozy and secure. The outside was real logs, painted with ‘cabinite’, a kind of yellowish orange colored paint that was truly unique, and, for some, an acquired taste. To me it was beautiful. The window frames and ends of the logs were painted red. The effect was in a word, “cool” in the eyes of this eleven year old. The bathroom was an outhouse strategically positioned at the far edge of the backyard, and I loved it, probably using it way more than I really needed to. It was fun to go in there and latch the door and do my business. I liked the privacy and the musty smell. There were lots of spider webs with flies caught in them that I enjoyed looking at and counting. (I was easily entertained as a kid.)

My uncle had cleared a small space in the backyard and planted grass which struggled to grow under the shade of the nearby forest. In the front he was more successful because the yard faced southeast, sloped down to the lake and had been cleared of trees so it was nice and sunny and the grass he planted there grew thick and green. In fact, one of my jobs was to cut the lawn front and back for him during the week so he wouldn’t have to do it on the weekend. That way his two days at the lake could be spent relaxing, which amount to drinking, smoking, fishing and grilling. Mostly in that order. Today those traits don’t seem like much to admire, but back then he was bigger than life to me. He was kind and patient, had a great sense of humor and usually in a good mood. I loved him as much as I loved my aunt.

Auntie Beth surprised me by letting me have three molasses cookies instead on the usual one. “It’s just the two of us,” she said, grabbing one for herself, “We can do anything we want.”

Well, who could argue with that?

Auntie Beth was a compact, stocky woman with gray streaks in her short dark hair. Her nickname was “Shorty”. During the summer she wore sleeveless blouses, usually blue or red checked, dark blue pedal pushers and beaded moccasins. She and Uncle Sid were childless. Mom told me once when I was older that she and Uncle thought of me and my siblings as their kids. In fact, the rumor was that she and Sid bought the cabin especially so Mom and us kids could go someplace fun and different for the summer. They hit the nail on the head big time with that one. So, to say she was generous and loving would be putting it mildly. She liked to bake, play cards and smoke her Taryton cigarettes while enjoying a late afternoon, pre-dinner, cocktail. She had a serious, quiet disposition and was firm in her discipline of us, which she didn’t have to be very often because we all loved her so much. I, for one, would go out of my way to please her, much to the chagrin of my mom, who had to constantly deal with my ‘devilish side’ as she usually put it. In short, being with my aunt was as good a way to spend part of the summer as any. Better, even.

When we finished our snack, I excused myself and ran out the front door, down the path to the lake and out onto the wooden dock that stretched about twenty five feet into the water. I skidded to a stop and sat down, dangling my feet over the edge holding my battered white, Red Ball Jets tennis shoes just above the water level. The lake had a slight aroma of rotting seaweed that smelled wonderful. It quickly came back to me how much I loved being up in the woods at Auntie’s and Uncle’s place.

Tamarack Lake was shaped like a thick inverted letter ‘C’. Auntie and Uncle’s cabin was at the top left end in what we always called The Bay. From where I sat I could see across about a mile to the other side. In the middle was the deepest part of the entire lake and in years past, if Uncle was in a good mood, he would occasionally take us boys fishing for walleye out there. We were rarely successful, but we always had fun.

The lake was surrounded by mixed hardwood forests of elms, maples and oaks with some birch and aspen tossed in for good measure. If you wanted to pretend you were Robin Hood with his band of Merry Men and run around all day not being bothered by grownups, playing to your heart’s content, with supervision by adults used in the only most rudimentary sense of the word, this was the place to be. In church the minister talked a lot about heaven. To me, this was it.

To left, the shore ran to the end of the bay and then it curved out in front of me so that I could follow the shoreline all the way to across the lake and then to where it continued to the far right before it went out of sight way on the other side over a mile away. In other words, I could see about third of the lake from where I sat. To my immediate right, the shoreline ran for a quarter of a mile to what we called The Point before it went around it and disappeared from view. Further past The Point were more cabins, similar to ours and one resort, called The Fine Fish Inn. (A play on fine fishin’, get it? Well, as a kid, I thought it was pretty clever.) After Mom dropped me off, she took a right on that road and it eventually took her out to the highway, but it also went to the left all around the point in one big circle so it could deliver people to their cabins. It was about three miles in circumference. When us kids walked the whole way around, it took about an hour if we didn’t fool around too much, which, of course, we usually did. Once Tim and I were gone over three hours exploring abandoned cabins along the way, long enough for my mom to get in the car and come looking for us. It was one of the few times we’d ever been grounded in all the summers we spent there. The Fine Fish Inn was about a mile and a half down that road to the left from our cabin. I mention all of this because the Inn was near where Lenny Macintosh lived and where he sometimes worked.

The Swenson’s owned the Inn. I guess when old man Swenson died he left it to his son and now he and his wife owned it and they had managed it ever since my mom and us kids had been coming to the lake. They had a ton of children of their own who helped out with chores. (“Good Catholics,” my uncle would say after a few drinks, winking at me and my brother before he was quickly reprimanded by my aunt. We had no idea what he was talking about.) They hired Lenny occasionally as a handy man. He was around thirty years old or so by my estimation.

I should mention that the Inn was not an inn at all, but a collection of one room cabins that stretched along the shore . There were ten of them, had seen better days, and were in constant need of maintenance. That’s where Lenny came in – he was sometimes called in to help with minor cabin repairs. He also helped take care of the boats and motors that guests could rent by the day or the week. Now that I think about, it the Inn was actually a resort, as such, with groups of guys coming up to fish for the weekend and families coming up to spend a week experiencing life in the great north woods. The point I’m trying to make is that the place was always busy in the summer. By working there occasionally, Lenny played a minor role in helping the Inn to run smoothly.

I’d met Lenny last year when I’d gone to his cabin to buy worms. I should explain…Normally, my brother and I fished for pan fish, like sunfish and crappies and bluegills. Worms were our preferred bait. We dug them out of a shady, moist, shallow pit in back of the outhouse where the Auntie Beth dumped the grounds from breakfast coffee and other leftovers. Tim and I fished a lot. Occasionally we’d run out of worms (the worm pit would run dry, so to speak), and whenever that happened we would get a little surly, let me tell you, and not a lot of fun to be around. When it happened last year, Uncle Sid, probably sick and tired of our complaining, suggested we try Lenny.

“He’s got a cabin about a quarter of a mile off the road across from Swenson’s. You can’t miss it. There’s a red mail box. Look for that,” he told us.

“Sid, don’t you go sending the boys over there. They don’t know what they’ll find!” Auntie Beth admonished him.

They fought about it back and forth good naturedly for a few minutes before my mom intervened and told us we could go. “As long as you watch out for your little brother,” Mom told me, once again, for the millionth time in my life, putting me in a no win situation; watching out for Tim was no fun, yet if I didn’t agree to watch him, I couldn’t go.

“Ok, Mom, sure. Be glad to,” I told her, being agreeable and nodding my head, hurrying out the door, dragging Tim with me. Anything to get away from the adults.

The first time we went, we found the cabin, but Lenny wasn’t there. We went to the Inn and asked for him, but they didn’t know where he was either. We went home, sad, mosquito bitten and wormless.

He wasn’t there the next few time we went either. Then the worms can back to our pit, so we didn’t need to go, then the worms ran out again.

“I don’t want to go right now,” Tim told me, the next time I was getting ready to make the trek to Lenny’s. (Or journey as I was starting to think of it as.)

“Why not?”

“I’m going swimming with Kathy and Susie.”

It was a beautiful summer day with big, puffy clouds and a strong wind. The lake had white caps on it which would be fun to jump into off the dock. It would be nice to go swimming, I couldn’t argue with that, but my mind was set on getting some worms. Besides, by now I was getting more and more curious about this Lenny person. I had built him up in my mind to be some weird phantomlike figure who lived in the woods and was rarely seen. A gray bearded, mystical kind of fellow in a pointed hat, who one day might figure in a book some enterprising scholar would write about the north woods called, ‘Legends of the Forest’. Sort of like Bigfoot but less furry. You never knew, I told myself, and if Tim wanted to miss out on that kind of discovery, it was up to him. “Suit yourself,” I told him, and hustled off on my own, hurrying before Mom made me come back to ‘Watch your brother and sisters,’ the story of my life.

It took about half an hour walking on the gravel road to get to the mail box (which may have been red once long ago, but now was rusted out, riddled with bullet holes and hanging by a nail to the rotted post it was attached to), and then about five minutes more to walk down an overgrown mosquito infested path through the dense forest that lead to the his cabin.

Lenny’s place would cause my mom to have a panic attack, and Tim and I never told her what it was really like, only offering the vague, “It’s all right,” when she asked us about it.  She liked things neat and tidy. Lenny’s was the exact opposite. It wasn’t so much a cabin as a shack. A tree had fallen on it a long time ago, crushing one side and part of the roof, and it was slowly rotting and disintegrating, leaving small piles of rotten wood all around it. The roof sagged in the middle around the tree and there were remnants of long ago panes of glass in the windows. There was a screen door in front that hung by only one hinge. I guess that the siding probably at one time was white, due to the white flecks on it, (which might have been bird droppings now that I think about), but now was faded, gray, wood. Some of the boards had sagged exposing gaps through which I could see directly inside. Air tight it was not. Saplings, bushes and weeds grew right up to the sides, giving the place claustrophobic feel. It was small, about the size of my brother’s bedroom back home, ten by ten, and a moldy aroma emanated from it when you got close. All and all the little shack was rotting away and slowly reverting back to nature. My thought was that any parent I knew would turn away from it in disgust and beat a path of hasty retreat. But for a kid who dreamed of someday being a buckskin clothed mountain man living off the land in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains, I thought it was fantastic.

Like the previous times with Tim, I approached cautiously, not knowing what to expect and this time was no different. The day was sunny and warm but Lenny’s place was shrouded in cool shade by all the trees surrounding it. It looked like his tiny cabin had been build right in the middle of the forest in the only open spot someone could find. Probably at one time it was something special to its owner, but now…well, now calling it a shack was being generous.

I went to the front door and knocked politely on the siding next to it. I had the feeling if I knocked on the door itself it would have easily fallen off its lone, rusty hinge. No answer. I knocked once more. Again, nothing. Mosquitoes had now found me and were starting to swarm, feeding hungrily. I waved them away and brushed them off my exposed arms and legs, killing a few and leaving smears of blood. I was getting impatient. Standing in the woods getting eaten alive was not my idea of a good time. I figured I would, once again, be returning home to our cabin, dejected and wormless. I turned to go, but then decided, what the heck, I was here anyway. I turned and knocked again, louder this time. Still nothing. In disgust and thoroughly bug bitten, I was turning to go when I heard the complaining squeaks of some springs inside and then a figure suddenly appeared at the broken door.

“What the hell do you want?” he yelled, “Can’t a man get any sleep around here.” Then he stopped and took one look at me, assessing me and squinting against what little light there was. His demeanor suddenly changed. I don’t know who he was expecting, but I obviously wasn’t that person. He quieted down, scratched under his arm and then added, almost friendly like, “Say, you there, boy. You got anything to eat. I’m starving.”

Well, what an odd thing to say. I was taken aback, startled by his sudden appearance, and after all this time, not really expecting to see him at all. But I was on a hunt for some worms so I was willing to do anything. I felt for my Sugar Daddy sucker in the front pocket of my shorts. It was half eaten but I took it out and offered it to him anyway. Maybe last year, when I was nine, I would have forgotten the whole thing and just run away. But I was a year older now and starting to get more curious about the world. I had never in my life seen anything or anybody like him. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to this strange looking man who lived in a shack in the woods.

“This is all I’ve got,” I said, cautiously, handing it to him.

He eyed my sucker carefully as I held it in front of me. Then he quickly took it and unwrapped it, picking some pieces of fuzz off as he did so and, unmindful of my teeth marks, stuffed the whole thing into his mouth, holding it’s stick, twisting it around and savoring it for a minute before taking it out and saying, “Umm, good. Caramel’s my favorite, my boy. After chocolate that is.” Then he laughed out loud and put it back in his mouth, licking and savoring the sucker some more like it was the sweetest ambrosia in the world. I watched, mesmerized, suddenly wishing I had another one so I could join him. His delighted smacking of his lips was making me hungry.

After a minute of working on his sucker, he paused and started giving me a good looking over. I probably should have been frightened, but I wasn’t . He was a wild looking man, a foot taller than me, with unruly curly red hair and a thick, matted beard that didn’t do much to obscure his pock marked face. He was thin, barefoot, and dressed in a ragged tee-shirt and grimy blue jeans worn smooth and shiny. He looked kind of like a deranged elf. His eyes were pure blue and rimmed with red and he had a bandage over his nose, like it was broken which I found out later it was. “Well, don’t just stand there, boy. You want to come in or not?”

An image of my mom admonishing me and shaking her head ‘No’ momentarily popped into my brain, then out again.

What the hell, I thought to myself. I decided to take a chance, “Ok, Mister,” I said, trying to sound more courageous than I actually felt.

He laughed out loud at that. “Mister, that’s a good one,” he said, laughing some more and slapping the door frame, which caused the shack to shake a little and some sawdust to rain down from up above somewhere, “No one’s called me Mister since I was in the army in Korea, buddy. Call me Lenny, my boy,” he told me, “And come on in before the mosquitoes eat you alive.”

And that’s how I first meet him.

I don’t know what it was that drew me to the guy. He was dirty, gross and sometimes obnoxious. In fact, he was everything my mom had warned me against while I was growing up.

“Stay away from those kinds of people,” she would say, anytime we happened to be in downtown Minneapolis and drive past men passed out in gutters or huddled up against buildings. People she and my dad called ‘bums’ who were homeless and certainly not as fortunate as me and my brother and sisters. It took a few years until I was older for me to figure that out and feel sympathy for them. Now, being ten years old, to me he was somewhat odd, but, more than that, he was not the kind of person my mom would want me to be around at all. Maybe that’s what attracted me to him.

I should point out something right now: I probably saw him only half a dozen times during that summer. He usually he wasn’t there when I came by for my sought after can of worms. And one time he was at his shack, but was preoccupied with a female (I caught a glimpse of her hair and face and shoulder) and they were all wrapped up in his dirty sheets humping away like there was no tomorrow. Even though they both made a lot of noise, I’m counting that as a time I didn’t see him either.

But when he was there, I did buy worms from him. He seemed like the kind of guy who was very resourceful when it came to earning money. He supplied the Inn with worms in addition to his handyman chores and that’s how my uncle knew about him.

“Have I got worms?” he asked back, laughing, when I asked that first time. “Boy, I’ve got so many worms, I’ve got them coming out of my you-know-what.”

I could add profane to my description of him, too, now that I think about it.

“I’d like a can, please,” I asked, nice and polite like I’d been taught.

He laughed at that, too, rummaging in a filthy refrigerator. “Here you go, please and thank you,” he told me, mocking me a little, handing me a dented can of what looked like once held Del Monte Fruit Cocktail, but now held a mass of wriggling worms and night crawlers covered in moist, dark soil mixed with some dry leaves. I caught a glimpse of a hunk of moldy cheese and at least three six packs of Grain Belt beer inside next to rows of cans of worms before he closed the door.

“That’ll be two cents,” he said handing me the can, “Exact change only.”

I gave him my two pennies and was turning to leave when he surprised me by putting out his hand. “Good doing business with you, my boy,” he said. Then he grinned showing me the brownest teeth I’d ever seen in my life. But would you believe me if I told you that, in spite of his obvious lack of oral hygiene, he smile was actually quite pleasant? It was. It was a friendly, mixed with a bit of forlorn loneliness and that might have added to his allure.

“Thanks, Mister,” I said and shook his hand, which was almost as dirty as the can I held. I fought back an urge to let go and wipe my hand on my shorts.

“Lenny,” he reminded me, squeezing just a little bit more. “Just call me Lenny.”

“Ok. Lenny,” I said and watched somewhat aghast as he bent down and looked me straight in the eye, letting me get a good look at those red, bloodshot eyes of his. Then he let go of my hand and turned around, making his way back to his bed.

I pivoted on my heel and was quickly out the door when I heard the springs on the mattress protesting his intrusion. Then I hurried down the path and out to the road, all the time thinking just one word…Wow!

Like I said, last year I’d been ten and now was a year older. As I sat on the dock that first day after Mom had left and I’d quit feeling sorry for myself, I had time to think more about my stay with Auntie Beth and Uncle Sid. I had brought my transistor radio down with me and was spending time watching puffy clouds floating by against a deep blue sky, idly waiting for a favorite song to come on. I made a bet with myself that I wouldn’t do anything I heard one. Finally, “The Twist” by Chubby Checker was played, making me feel I was on a winning streak. I waggled my feet above the water in time to the beat, hardly getting my shoes wet at all. Well, that was fun, so I made anther bet to wait for another favorite song and waited, listening to my radio, dangling my feet over the side of the dock, watching the world go by. Then, “Sea Cruise” by Frankie Ford came on and I started gyrating to the music, wiggling my butt on the dock, having a fine old time. I felt like I’d won the lottery and I’d only sat there for half an hour.

In spite of winning my music listening bets, I still didn’t leave the dock. I was finding myself liking my new found freedom of not having my brother or sisters to watch over. I flipped over, lay on my stomach and looked into the water, enjoying the feel of the warm wood through my tee-shirt. I could see the bottom of the lake, down about four feet, and tiny minnows swimming back and forth, winding their way through the weeds. It was mesmerizing. I started thinking about fishing, which got me thinking about worms, which got me thinking about Lenny. I was actually looking forward to taking a hike up to his shack to see him, but I was easily distracted as a kid, and even more so now that I was on my own. I didn’t get to his place for about a week.

Instead, I busied myself goofing around our cabin and the woods nearby for the next three or four days. I built a lean-to out of aspen branches in a clearing next to us on a little hill overlooking the lake. Then I talked Auntie into letting me spend a night sleeping in it in my sleeping bag. I lasted until around eleven or so when a huge storm blew in, thunder booming and lightening flashing, rain pouring down, nearly ripping my little shelter apart. Auntie met a soaked, bedraggled camper (me) at the door to the cabin with a towel, some hot chocolate and a molasses cookie to help ease my disappointment at not being able to camp out all night. It helped a lot. I made it through the entire night the next night, though, which made me feel like the outdoorsman I envisioned myself as, in spite of the fact that I had a flashlight for a night light that I used to keep me company. I used it a lot, but didn’t tell Auntie, although she might have guessed something was up when I asked her for fresh batteries the next morning because mine had run out. I think it was her smile when she didn’t think I was looking that gave her away.

I made a bow and a bunch of arrows out of some willow saplings and had Auntie help me make a quiver out of an old towel that I sewed up under her watchful eye. Then I finished it off by attaching a length of rope so I could fill it with arrows and sling it  across my chest. I made a spear out of a young maple tree and carved intricate patterns in the bark.

I talked Auntie into letting me put up a rope swing on a cottonwood tree leaning out over the water and spent hours climbing out on the tree and swinging back and forth on it before dropping into about three feet of water. It’s amazing, in retrospect, that I didn’t break my neck.

I took Uncle’s little aluminum fishing boat out and ran the three horsepower Johnson motor up and down the shoreline in front of the cabin, pretending I was at sea and searching for stranded survivors of a shipwreck along the shore of deserted desert island somewhere in the far Pacific.

I fished off the dock, casting poppers and daredevils for bass and northern pike, never catching a thing but not minding at all. I dug my own worms out of our pit in back and fished for sunfish and perch. If the evening was calm enough, Auntie let me take the boat out in front of the cabin, toss in the anchor and fish in deeper water.

And, every night after dinner, she and I would walk a trail along the shoreline to the end of the bay where there was a tiny grocery store used by the locals and vacationers. She’d let me pick out a ‘treat’ as she called it, for dessert. I always got a hard caramel Sugar Daddy sucker like the one I’d given Lenny that first time I met him the year before.

In between my adventures, Auntie taught me how to play solitaire, which I loved and would play for hours at a time. I had my books (I was reading and re-reading my worn out copy of Tom Sawyer plus some Hardy Boys Mysteries, just to mix things up), and comics (my favorite was Turok and Andar, two Indians who had somehow slipped into Pre-historic time and were always battling dinosaurs) and, of course, I had my trusty transistor radio which I listened to constantly, especially when I was down on the dock, or as I fell asleep at night, snug under the blankets on the bed Auntie made up for me on the pull out couch in the living room. (One long, all night experience in the lean-to was enough.)

And then, last but not least, I had my very own, absolutely, no-doubt-in-my-mind, favorite pocket knife in the whole wide world. Uncle Sid had given me the year before. It was 3 1/4″ long, had a bone handle and fit in my hand perfectly. I treasured that knife and used it all the time, especially at the Lake where it came in handy cutting saplings, whittling points on my wooden arrows and spear, and using it as a throwing knife, aiming at a target on the trunk of a big, old birch tree behind the cabin. I liked it so much and was so attached to it because it used to be Uncle’s.

“It was given to me by my father when I was about your age,” he told me when he handed it to me last year when just he and I were out fishing in front of the cabin. Using the knife and carrying it in my pocket made me like a grown up, which, last year when I was ten, was a pretty big deal. Rarely did it leave my possession.

And, of course, I went swimming a lot. So much, in fact, that Auntie remarked on more than one occasion on how tan I was and how clean I looked and smelled, much to my dismay and embarrassment.

Uncle came up on Friday night and stayed until late Sunday afternoon. He brought rib-eye steaks with him that he grilled in the front yard Friday night, with Auntie and I keeping him company in our red painted, metal lawn chairs as he filled us in on his week at work. I drank about a gallon of strawberry Kool-aid while he and Auntie sipped on Cabin Still over ice. They were both very happy and relaxed when we all finally turned in just as the moon started rising over the far shoreline around ten or so.

Uncle surprised me early next Saturday morning by taking me by our little boat to the grocery store at the end of the bay to get some minnows.

“We’re going to get us some walleyes, Cal,” he told me laughing a happy laugh, letting me drive the boat to the store and dock it. He was always in a good mood up at the lake.

Well, we didn’t caught anything but perch, which we threw back, but Uncle was fun to be with. He had a million stories. One of my favorites was about when he was a kid and living on his parent’s farm in western Iowa. Late one spring he and a friend snuck out in the middle of the night and herded some cattle into the one room school house he attended, which to me was a worthy feat in and of itself. But there was more. Then they left them there overnight! They weren’t found until the teacher came next morning.

“Cal, did they ever make a mess. Crap all over the place!”

What kid wouldn’t love an uncle who did those kinds of things? It was definitely something to admire, if not aspire to.

After he left on Sunday, Auntie and I walked up to the store and I bought my Sugar Daddy sucker. On a whim, I asked if I could get another one.

“Why would you ever want two?” she asked, giving me a quizzical look. “One a day is more than enough.”

She was right about that, I guess. If I was diligent, I could usually make mine last all day until the next evening’s visit to the store. I decided to keep mine wrapped and untouched. I wanted to give it to Lenny. I had decided to go up to his place the next day. I was all out of worms at our pit, plus, I have to say, I was feeling kind of lonely. On Sunday Mom had called and asked if Auntie and Uncle could keep me for another week which Auntie eagerly agreed to. Mom and I only talked for a few minutes, long enough for her to remind me that I was the oldest and had to be strong, which seemed odd since it was just me and no brother or sisters. “Sure, Mom,” I told her, “No problem.” I had a deep down feeling since she dropped me off she might do something like that – stay away longer. Anyway, I had a whole five days ahead of me before Uncle Sid came back and I felt like seeing someone other than Auntie Beth, no offense to her. I guess I just wanted something different to do.

The next day, I played around in my lean-to for awhile, making some repairs, reading comic books and carving designs in my spear. Then I walked along the shoreline collecting snail shells to use to make a necklace for Auntie. She seemed to like it when I did little things like that for her. Usually once a day I went looking for wildflowers and dandelions and I’d bring her a bouquet. She liked that, too and it was fun to make her happy. Besides, I had learned from last year that Lenny was not an early riser.

Around eleven in the morning I told Auntie where I was going.

“Just be careful,” she said, “Remember what Uncle Sid told us.”

“I will,” I said. Sid had told us on Friday that someone had reported seeing a black bear on the point. That in and of itself was reason enough to go into the woods. But I didn’t want to let on to Auntie Beth that I was considering doing something I’m sure she would consider dangerous. The way I looked at it: Why not go hunting a black bear with a bow and arrows made out of sticks? No reason in the world that I could think of. “I’ll be extra careful,” I assured her, thinking that, at eleven years old, I was as invincible as my favorite comic book characters.

From the cabin the driveway wove through the thick understory of the forest and around five large trees on its way out to the dirt road. The ground was soft and shady and took about five minutes to walk. Once out on the dirt road, though, it was bright and sunny and dusty, with the occasional car speeding by trailing a plume that blanketed the vegetation on the both sides with a chalky coating. I walked along the edge kicking up more dust with my tennis shoes until my legs from the knees down were coated in a gray film. I carried a canteen slung across my chest and my trusty jackknife in my pocket. I had my bow and arrows and quiver just in case I saw the bear. I felt I was all set.

A half hour later, when I got to Lenny’s mailbox, I was parched and sweaty and had drank most of my water. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the temperature was hot, probably at least eighty degrees or more. I should have known something was up when the mail box was no longer hanging by a nail off the post. Instead it had been set on an old crate on the ground, and, if possible, it looked in worse shape than last year, with the back end now almost completely rusted out. I suddenly had a bad feeling and momentarily thought about turning around. Two things stopped me: One, the brand new, unopened, slowly melting Sugar Daddy in my back pocket for Lenny, and, two, my desire to get a can of fresh worms. There was a third thing, also: I was curious to see how the guy I’d met a year ago and forged a tentative bond with was doing.

The final time I’d seen him, the day before we left for home last year, he had taken me for a little walk out beyond his cabin, further into the woods.

“Come on with me,” he said, seriously, “I want to show you something.”

By this time I had lost whatever feeling of unease I’d had being around him. He had been friendly to me more often than not, and he seemed to accept me for who I was, even though I was just a ‘big dummy’ as he sometimes called me. He really wasn’t a bad guy. So I was intrigued and readily followed him.

We walked about five minutes deeper into the woods. Now most people reading this right now will be thinking, I knew it. The guy’s a pervert and he’s going hurt that stupid kid. I don’t blame them. It does sound ominous, just re-reading it. But that’s not what happened at all.

We walked to a clearing. On the way I remember listening to blue jays scolding us and the tap-tap-taping of a woodpecker against a hollow tree. Crows were calling too, along with the chattering of a gray squirrel. In other words, there was a lot of activity in the woods – lots to keep us company. But Lenny acted unaware of it all, and seemed almost in a daze. Once we stopped, he snapped back to reality and surprised me by pulling a revolver out of his waist band that had been hidden under his tee-shirt. It looked to be as big as a small cannon, and I’m sure my eyes doubled in size as I stared at it in amazement.

“What do you think of this?” he asked, showing it to me.

 

“Cool,” I answered, the only thing I could come up with at the moment.

Uncle Sid had taught Tim and I how to shoot and handle guns with his .22 rifle and 20 gauge shotgun. He and my grandfather had taken us hunting squirrels, pheasants and grouse. I had shot and killed a few birds and animals in my young lifetime, feeling when I did that I was earning the approval of the men in my life and getting closer to being considered a grown up in their eyes. In short, I was comfortable around guns. But I’d never held, let alone shot, a revolver before.

“How big is it?” I then asked, just for something to say. At my age I was easily  impressed with any kind of weapon. The bore looked enormous.

“Three fifty seven,” he told me. “It’s a 357 magnum and it’ll take down a bear.”

I immediately thought of the black bear Uncle Sid had mentioned and told him about it.

“Yeah, maybe,” he told me, when I’d finished, clearly uninterested. Then he was quiet for a minute, just staring into a void that to me looked like the woods, but to Lenny was probably something deeper, further away. Above me a red squirrel broke into a sustained chatter, making me think that if I had a gun I’d want to try to shoot it. Seeing that revolver was getting my hunting instinct going, my urge to kill, if you will. Lenny broke into my thoughts of carnage and bloodshed almost like he could read my mind, “I’m not one for killing things,” he told me, “Not after what I’ve seen.”

I was taken aback and slightly disappointed. Here I thought maybe we had something important in common – the desire to hunt and prove something to ourselves. But then I had another thought – maybe he was talking about the war and when he was in Korea. Immediately I was confused. “Yeah, I guess,” I said, agreeing, not wanting to let on I had no idea what he was talking about. “What’s with the gun then?”

He turned the revolver over in his hand, almost like he’d forgotten about it and was just seeing it for the first time. “I keep this around just to remind myself…” His words trailed off as he stopped talking. Then he turned and bent down so he was looking right at me. He eyes were bright blue, mixed with blood-shot red. There were yellow specs floating in the whites. I had to admit, he didn’t look too healthy. Besides, he had never really just stared at me for so long before. I had to admit that now I was starting to get a little nervous.

“Remind you of what?” I asked. My throat was dry, and my voice cracked. He looked at me for at least a count of ten and then did something I’ll never forget. He quickly raised the gun into the air and pulled the trigger. The blast was three feet from me but seemed to come from inside my head. I jumped back, tripped over a log and fell to the ground.

“What the hell did you do that for?” I screamed at him, scrambling to my feet. “Geez, man,” I spat out. I was mad, but more than that, embarrassed. He’d startled me and I think that’s what pissed me off the most. At least that’s what I tried to tell myself.

I wasn’t prepared for what he told me, “I just wanted you to know that guns are for killing. And once you kill something, it’s gone for good. Over and done with. Gone forever.” He looked at me again and then put the revolver into his belt and covered it with his shirt. “I’m never going to kill anything ever again. Period.” I got the feeling the he was talking about more than hunting squirrels; something that was bigger than that. It dawned on me that maybe something had happened to him in Korea that had caused him do what he had just done. I don’t know. All I know is that he scared the hell out of me, both with how he acted and with how he treated the gun: with respect, but also contempt.

Then he shook his whole body as if riding it of some sort of demon. “Let’s go back to my place,” he told me, completely changing the subject, “I’ll bet you’re not here to listen to me blather on and on. You’re here for worms, right?”

I was shaken and tried to recover. “Yeah, worms,” I said, my words seemed to stick in my throat. “I’ve got money,” I added, coughing a little and trying to get myself back to normal.

“Well, then we’re all set, my boy,” he said, giving me a little grin. His mood seemed lighter and he started walking, leading the way back to his shack. I followed along wondering what strange thing he might do next. But he didn’t do anything, just took my two pennies and gave me my worms, worms I really didn’t need since I’d be leaving the next day. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Oh, and one other thing he did that day – he mused up my hair and waved goodbye when I left, like a half-hearted show of affection. He’d never done that before. Weird, huh?

All those thoughts were now flooding back to me as I started down the trail to his shack. In the year since I’d last visited, the first thing I noticed was how overgrown the path had become. Low growing brambles and trailing grape vines impeded my progress and hidden roots threatened to trip me up. I fought through scrubby bushes and buckthorn, scratching my face, arms and legs. I swore silently and wished I’d worn a long sleeve shirt and blue jeans rather than my tee-shirt and shorts. I abandoned my bow and arrow half way in, so sick to death of getting it hung up on branches all the time that I was willing to risk battling the bear Uncle told me about with just my pocket knife. Horse flies buzzed around my head, vying for my blood along with the swarms of mosquitoes and gnats. The air was heavy with humidity and perfectly still – not a breath of a breeze. I hurried as fast as I could to save myself from being eaten alive, which was barely fast enough, believe me.

By the time I reached Lenny’s place I was sweating and bloody. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath and take a last drink from my canteen. My bad mood vanished, though, when I saw what lay before me.

If Lenny’s shack was a mess last year, this year the word ‘wreck’ would be a more accurate description. Or dump. There was no glass in the windows anymore, just pieces of dirty fabric that had been nailed in place and now hung limply, doing absolutely nothing to kept out any bugs or rodents that wanted to get inside. The roof had sagged even more and I could see gaping holes in it. The screen door was laying on the ground, rotting so there was nothing to stop animals like raccoons or bears from wandering inside whenever they felt like it. There was a sense of desolation like I’d never seen before in my young life. But there was something else, too: a feeling that something was horribly wrong. I hesitated, looking back behind me, thinking I should just run away. The path was a life line back to civilization as I knew it. But I had come here to see Lenny. That’s what I needed to do. I put my caution aside and stepped forward through pieces of wood, rusty nails and broken glass. I wanted to see inside.

I approached slowly, calling Lenny’s name once or twice before I got to the opening where the door used to be. I could smell him before I saw him, like the dead animals I caught the odor of through sewer grates back home, it was overwhelming.  I looked inside, blinking against the stench and dimness until my eyes adjusted. Then I saw him, lying on his bed, rotting. I felt like I should run away, but I didn’t. I’m ashamed to say that I was curious, so curious, in fact, that my first thought was not, What can I do to help him? but, I wonder what he looks like? I stepped through the rubble and junk on the floor and made my way to his bed, holding my hand over my nose and mouth, fighting to keep from gagging. I looked at him. I even touched his shoulder. He was so peaceful and silent – like he was sleeping and at peace with the world. Maybe he was. I knew that he had his demons, but I couldn’t even begin to understand the complexity of what they were.

He was dead, that was for sure, the bottle flies and other insects crawling and buzzing around him told me that, and there was nothing I could do to help him. My next thought was, Now what should I do? I had choices: I knew the right thing to do was to run and tell Auntie Beth. But something was holding me back. If I told, then a bunch of adults would get involved, as well as the police and they’d question me and who knew what would happen then? I could picture a hulking, red faced, sweating cop with a cheesy mustache, blowing cigarette smoke at me while he questioned me and getting mad at me for some hidden adult reason I wasn’t aware of. Who needed that? It might be easier to just walk away and pretend I’d never been to his place and seen him. I could think up a credible lie to tell Auntie while I walked home. That seemed like the safest thing to do. The easiest. I turned to leave, reluctant to tear my eyes away from him and surprised myself by tripping over something on the floor. Immediately I thought of the gun he’d shown me last year. But it wasn’t the gun. Instead, it was just a pile of some junk I hadn’t seen when I’d come in. It broke my concentration, though, and I stopped, taking a minute to look around.

His little shack was just as much of a mess as it had been, if not more so. There was one old wooden table pushed up against a wall with two chairs next to it. Nothing else but the bed he was lying on and the refrigerator which had always been useless. Lenny had told me last year there was no electricity to the cabin. “Yep, not a lot of comforts of home here, my boy,” he’d told me, “but that’s just fine with me. I like it. It’s almost like camping out.” I couldn’t have agreed with him more, especially the ‘Not a lot of comforts of home’ part. Discarded soggy cardboard boxes, moldy pieces of clothing and broken glasses were strewn all around, and the shack was heavy with a mildew smell that almost masked the stench coming from Lenny’s body. Almost, but not quite. Stepping carefully, I went over to the refrigerator and opened it. It was empty. Apparently Lenny had gotten out of the worm business.

What had his life been like? I often ask myself that, now – now that I’m an adult and in the final years of my life. What were those last years of his life like, after he’d finished with the war in Korea and had ended up in a junked out, dilapidated shack at the end of a tangled path off a dirt road in a rural county in northern Minnesota? What was it that happened during his thirty years on earth that led him to this? I sometimes pictured him as a skinny, fun-loving, red headed kid, without a care in the world, about my age back then running and playing like I did. He never told me if he had any brothers or sisters. In fact he told me nothing about his life at all, hardly. I was just a dumb kid to him, who bought the occasional can of worms. But I remembered that he was nice to me. I remembered him showing me the revolver and mussing my hair the last time I saw him. I remembered that he smiled at me every now and then, and seemed to not mind me coming around too much.

I watched the flies crawling around on his face and then got mad at them. I waved my hands over his body, yelling at them to go away. Then I pulled the sheet up over his face as best I could. I was able to cover him completely. Then I abruptly left, leaving him behind forever, unaccountably sad that he was dead.

In the end, my decision wasn’t hard at all. I did go back to our cabin and tell Auntie Beth about Lenny. I felt I owed him something. She called the police and they took care of everything, even his burial, which I found out later was a few miles north of the nearest town to us, fifteen miles away. I wasn’t asked to attend, and don’t know if I would have anyway, at least back then.

Was I shaken up by what I’d found in that fly blown shack? Yes, you bet I was. Like I said, I still can’t get the image of him out of my mind, and, even writing this I am keeping a promise to myself to spare readers the gruesome details. But it’s more than being shaken up and something way beyond the act of finding his body that has stayed with me all these years. It’s really been about coming to grips with something Lenny taught me that maybe he didn’t even intend to. But a seed had been planted by him, that was for sure. One that let me see that there was a world out there way bigger than the one I had been exposed to up until then in the eleven years of my short life.

In the years to come, when I thought about it, the memory of his body faded. What started to be my primary thought was what else I found inside his shack that day. It was the table and the chairs by the window that has kept coming back to me all these years. I think what sticks with me most is the fact that there were two chairs at the table. Think about it: two chairs. Why? I often wonder…Did he have a friend that would stop by? Someone to hang out with and drink the beer that I’d seen in his refrigerator next to the cans of worms? I never saw any indication that anyone ever showed up to his place (except that woman, that one time), but maybe people did. Maybe she came back. Or maybe the chair was there in the hopes that someday, someone would stop by and sit a little and talk with him – friendly, like. Someone to keep him company and take away his loneliness. Someone like me, maybe.

Auntie told me years later, when I talked to her about it, that he had died of congestive heart failure and that no one came to his funeral. If he did have a friend he or she wasn’t much of one. They just buried him and that was it. It made me wish I had thought to ask if I could go, that summer long past. To this day I hate to think of him dying alone in his dirty shack and being buried all alone in some lonely, rural cemetery.

Maybe, though, in the end, that’s just the way it is – the way it has to be. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we always want them to.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t still try and do something about it.

Mom and Dad divorced a few years after that summer and life went on. Auntie Beth and Uncle Sid sold the cabin when my sisters were in their mid teens. I had quit going long before that. In the case of Auntie and Uncle’s cabin, I was left with memories I still have to this day. Vivid memories of being a kid, young and free and being able to go swimming, fishing, exploring and to let my imagination take me anywhere I wanted to go. I’m sure I will carry those memories with me until the day I die.

One of those memories was Lenny, so one day I did something I probably should have done years ago. I went and visited his grave.

On the way to the cemetery, though, I drove to Auntie Beth’s and Uncle Sid’s cabin. I hadn’t been there for over fifty years. To say it had changed was putting it mildly. The cabins around the lake had all been updated, modernized and turned into three season if not year around homes. And you know that old dirt road? The one that coated the roadside and me with chalky, gray dust? The one that looped around the point and was the only way to get to the little cottages and cabins and the Fine Fish Inn? Well, it had not only been paved, but there were homes built in the woods that once had been a forest full of Robin Hood’s Merry Men in my imagination, and a roving black bear in real life. In short, civilization had come to the north woods of my youth.

The worst experience was seeing Auntie and Uncle’s cabin. Or lack of it, I should say. All the underbrush between it and the road had been completely cleared away and an attempt had been made to grow grass. Where before, from the dirt road, the cabin couldn’t be seen for the woods and underbrush, now you could see it clearly. New homes had been built on either side of it, and the beautiful old cabin had been leveled and a new looking modular home had been set in its place. I could see clearly enough to notice a badminton net had been stretched across the backyard, and someone had put in an above ground pool. (I guess swimming in the lake was something the family who now owned the place felt uncomfortable doing.)

I toyed momentarily with going up and talking to the current owners, but it didn’t look like anyone was around, so I drove on. Plus, to be honest, I’m not sure I was up to it. The changes I was seeing to the area were going to take some getting used to. Also, I wanted to check out the Inn. Not surprisingly, it was gone, too. In its place was a gas station attached to a modern looking bait and tackle shop. I pulled in to collect myself. Across the road, where the path to Lenny’s used to be, a Quik-Mart now stood with at least ten cars in the parking lot, and a few picnic tables off to one side under a lone, old pine tree. Over half the forest on the point was gone, replaced by buildings of some sort, mostly houses and outbuildings and storage sheds. It was almost like I was back in my neighborhood in Minneapolis. As I sat in my car, looking out over the lake, three personal watercraft went tearing by, jumping waves and throwing plums of spray in the air. I was over a hundred yards away, but I could hear them plainly. A quick scan of the lake showed no one out fishing. It was probably too noisy. I left in a hurry.

Lenny was buried two miles north of McGregor, the closest town to Tamarack Lake. The cemetery was on the edge of some pastureland, a quarter mile off highway 65, a two lane, blacktop highway that was one of the main roads running north and south in the county. It took half an hour to get to it from the lake, a slow but pleasant  drive on rough washboard gravel back roads that wound past pothole lakes, tamarack swamps and second and third growth aspen forests before merging with the highway. Fifty years ago, Ojibwa lived in tarpaper shacks around here. Now they lived in dilapidated tiny trailers. Some things, unfortunately, never changed.

I pulled off a little traveled, weed infested, dirt road at the entrance. The graveyard was enclosed in a chain link fence and had a wooden sign nailed on a post next to it that read, ‘Pine Cone Cemetery’ which was appropriate. The land around here was Mississippi River flood plain and flat and I could see for miles in all directions. In the distance were forests of low grade trees called Jack Pine. Clearly the cemetery was named after them. The road to the entrance was through deep sand and I had to drop into low gear to get through it. Once inside, it split into a few paths that took you near to most of the headstones. It was a small place, maybe half the size of a football field, unkempt, flat and treeless, like it had been put in as an afterthought. But it hadn’t. I saw on the internet before I came up that it had been there for over a hundred and fifty years.

I parked my car, got out and started walking through the long, dead grass. I was looking at headstones and markers, most of them windblown and crumbling, getting a feel for the place. There was a flag pole in the center that was sandblasted and pitted, a lone rope hanging from it twisting forlornly. I wondered when the last time a flag had flown from it. Probably a long, long time ago was my guess. A stiff wind blew out of the south, kicking up dust, whistling past the tombstones. A more desolate location I couldn’t imagine.

I’d made some phone calls before I came up and had a general idea when Larry’s remains were buried. It took about five minutes before I found him. The stone was simple, “Lenny Galen Mackintosh, born September 28, 1929 and died August 3, 1960.” That was all it said except half the letters and numbers were illegible. I only found the marker because I knew what I was looking for. I guess he didn’t get a military burial in Fort Snelling down in the Twin Cities because he’d been dishonorably discharged from the Army while serving in Korea.

I can’t begin to tell you how sad I was. He had no family that had gone to his funeral service. He was buried by the county with some money contributed by the Swenson family. His marker was some sort of cheap gray granite and it was already falling apart. I knelt in the grass and used my hand to brush off debris and dirt. Then I pulled out handfuls of grass that were growing over the edges. Just those simple acts started to help ease my melancholy feeling. I stood up and looked around. It was a summer day, much like the one when I’d found him dead nearly sixty years earlier. The sky was filled with white, puffy clouds and the day was hot and dry. Sweat was starting to run down my back. I unscrewed the cap of my water bottle and took a drink. Then I poured the rest into my hand and over the marker and cleaned it off some more. When I was done, I ran to my car and grabbed a towel and came back and dried it off. Finally, Lenny’s stone was nice and clean. Satisfied, I sat down.

The wind blew in strong gusts, kicking up dust devils from the dry ground. A few crows flew by cawing back and forth, and, in the distance I heard the sound of a gunshot. A shotgun probably. I knew people up here loved to hunt. Not me. After Lenny discharged that revolver nearly in my ear and told me about killing things, his words stuck with me. I never wantonly killed another living creature the rest of my life. It was weird to me how Lenny, a man I had only the most superficial contact one could have with another human being, could have had such an impact on me. But he did.

I had gone on with my life after that summer – a full and rewarding one during which I learned many lessons, one of which was to treat others with respect. It was another lesson I learned from Lenny because that’s what he did with me, in a tiny, small way, but he did. And that counted for something, especially to me at a young age when I was susceptible to all kinds of forces, both good and bad. In spite of whatever problems he may have been plagued with, he was always decent to me and with me. I have to say that, in the long run, I’ve meant many types of people throughout my life, both good and bad. Lenny was a good one.

I wanted to leave behind something, a tribute of some sort to thank him for being who he was and influencing my life in a way neither of us had the tiniest inkling of back then in the short while I knew him. I met him over a can of worms, but leaving something like that seemed disrespectful. I reached into my pocket. In it I carried the pocket knife that I had carried with me those summers back when I knew him. I had it in my pocket that day I found him in his junked out shack, and I had carried it with me every day since. I took it out placed it on his stone. It still looked good, though worn, after nearly one hundred years of use. I remembered Uncle Sid giving it to me when I was ten, “This is for you, Cal,” he’d told me at the time, putting his arm around my shoulder. “Treat it with respect, and you’ll always be able to depend on it.”

Back then things like that I took for granted, but over the years they became more and more poignant. I was shaped by the men I knew growing up. Uncle Sid was one. Lenny was another. Two entirely different people, two entirely different impacts on me. Both I’ll never forget.

I knew if I left the knife there on the stone someone would just take it – put it in their pocket and walk off. The ground around the marker was wet from my water. I looked around and found the stiff stalk of a weed. I used it to carve out a small hole, wrapped the knife in part of the towel I’d cleaned the stone of with, put it in the hole and covered it with soil.

I took a deep cleansing breath and let the air out of my lungs. I didn’t feel as sad anymore. I stood up, brushing myself off. Lenny had been a good man to me. He had treated me as an adult even though I was just an impressionable kid. I didn’t want to look too deeply into my feelings for him, or make too big of a deal over it and try to philosophize too much on why he meant what he did to me. He certainly had his faults, but don’t we all. But I’ll never forget seeing him dead, knowing that the life was gone from him forever. And, most importantly, that I never had the chance to say ‘Thank you’ to the guy who was nothing other than kind to me and taught me that being a man was more than just the person with the biggest gun. It had a lot to do with being the kind of person who would take the time to not turn away a young kid who only wanted to buy a can of worms, but ended up getting so much more.

I left then and began my journey home. I doubt I’ll ever come back again, but then again, who knows, maybe I will. Life can be strange that way. I only had to think about Lenny to remind me of that.

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A Tale of Then and Now – Parts 1 and 2

Part 1 – It Was A Great Life

The phone rings in the kitchen.

“You’d better answer it Ronnie,” Annie, my wife, says, “It’s probably the funeral home.”

I run from the living room where we’re reading. Through a west facing window, the late afternoon sun catches my eye, temporarily blinding me. I stub my toe on a table leg and stumble into the kitchen where I pick up the phone. God, that hurt! I sometimes get gout in that toe and it’s really susceptible to pain…which is big time right now.

“Hello, this is Ron,” I say, gritting my teeth, panting a little.

“Hi Ron, this is Martin Freeborn from Sorenson’s Funeral Home, returning your call. Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. It’s been pretty busy around here the last week or so.”

He sounds perky and cheerful, not at all like the dour, businesslike person I’d been prepared for. The pain in my toe immediately vanishes as I focus my attention. What do you say to a statement like that? He’s talking about dying and death here. In my mind I see dead bodies stacked up in a back room somewhere waiting for whatever’s in store for them. I want to be polite, but congratulating him on a flurry of business is a little out of my comfort zone. I quickly rack my brain, trying to come up with an appropriate comment while also trying to remember if I’d heard or read about anyone around town who has died recently. I come up empty on both counts.

Martin interrupts my thoughts, “Your message said you were interested in a plot up at Lakeview?”

Whew. He lets me off the hook. “Yes,” I say, recovering, “Thank you so much for calling me back.” I hear the formality in my voice. Am I really talking about this? A last resting place? I clear my throat and try to speak normally, “Yeah,” I say.” There that sounds better, “The cemetery just down the highway. Overlooking the lake?”

I can actually hear him grinning, “Yes, Ron, I know it well. It’s the only one in town.”

God, I’m coming across like a complete idiot. I take a deep breath and muddle on, “Do you have any spots up there for…” I was going to stay new tenant, but stop myself. It doesn’t sound right, somehow. “Are there any plots available?” There. That sounds better.

I hear some papers rustling. I imagine Martin checking an ancient, couple hundred years old, map of the cemetery, thin as parchment and folded into sections. He’s carefully opening it up to look over locations for what’s available. (In reality, it’s probably a newspaper he’s putting away. I’m sure all their records are on the computer, but then again, what do I know?) “We have a number of spaces, Ron. Do you have any family buried there? Someone you want to be next to?”

What an odd way of putting it. I’m taken aback. Is this some kind of trick question? Do they only allow people in who have relatives? I didn’t think this conversation was going to be so hard. Or unsettling. “Um, I have a few acquaintances there,” I say (well, two, actually) and proceed to tell him about Annie’s friend for one and her cousin, for the other. I know I’m stretching the facts and, truth be told, I didn’t know either of them very well at all, but I do want a plot there.

“That’s excellent. Do you want a space near them?”

Not really. “No, that’s Ok. Any place will do.” Why am I starting to perspire? I rack my brain and quickly I add, “Maybe up on the hill, overlooking the lake?”

“Excellent choice,” Martin says, “We have lots of spaces up there.” I make a mental note that the correct term is space not plot or spot or location. I, apparently, have a lot to learn when it comes to the correct vernacular regarding cemeteries.

He pauses, waiting, I think, for me to say something. Suddenly I’m at a loss for words. This is really happening. I’m talking to a guy about my final resting place. Do I really want to call it that? Man, so many questions start popping up that all of a sudden that my mind goes totally blank.

After another beat he continues, apparently choosing to ignore the poor soul on the other end of the line, “Well anyway, Ron, why don’t you go up and look around and decide where you want to be. You have been up there before, haven’t you?” he asks, with the emphasis on have. Do I detect the slightest bit of condescension in his voice? Naw…It’s probably just my overactive imagination.

I nod my head for a few moments before I think to answer, “Yeah, sure, lots of times,” then immediately regret my answer. I can picture Martin thinking what a strange man he is talking to right now. One who not only has trouble talking on the phone, but who also enjoys spending his free time wandering around in cemeteries, looking at gravestones and contemplating death. I suddenly wonder if he might alert the local police to me. I’m really perspiring now. Man, why am I so paranoid all of a sudden?

“It’s good you’ve been to it,” he says, allaying my concerns somewhat. “Take a little drive over there, look around and check on few head stones near where you want to be. Call me back with a general location and we’ll get you set all up.”

What an odd way of putting it. “So there’s space available?” I ask, feeling rather smug that I’m now using the correct term.

For the first time during our conversation he chuckles, which, I have to say, given the circumstances, is a little disconcerting. “Yes, we do, Ron. We have lots of spaces,” he pauses and then chuckles again, “Unless, of course,” he adds, “we have a run like this past week.”

Geez!

He quickly quotes me a price and we both hang up. I wipe the sweat from my brow and wish I still smoked and drank. I could use a little of each right now. Maybe a lot.

Annie comes in and rubs my shoulder, “How’d it go, big fella?”

I’m grateful for her touch and human contact. “Fine,” I say, “Good. The guy at Sorenson’s wants me to head up to the cemetery and pick out a spot, I mean space.” I clear my throat, “Want to come along?”

Annie averts her eyes for a moment, thinking, and then looks at me with loving concern, “Do you want me to?”

Her mom and dad have passed away within the past year. This whole cemetery and burial plot thing for me is a little close to home for her. I don’t want to drag her up to Lakeview unless she wants to go and I tell her that, “It’s not that big a deal, Annie. I can do it myself.”

She hugs me, “Why don’t you go ahead? Call me when you start home and I’ll make some tea for us to have when you get back.”

I’m so grateful for her. “Sounds good,” I tell her, giving her a tight hug back. Then I grab the keys to my car and head out the door, “I’ll be back in a while.”

Lakeview Cemetery is located a mile outside of town, off highway 112, on the south shore of Long Lake, the lake our town is named after. The cemetery’s been there for nearly a hundred and fifty years. Martin told me there are over three hundred people buried there and room (as he put it) for over a hundred more. “Plenty of space for you, Ron,” he told me, laughing a little, “In fact, more than enough for you to choose from.” (I can’t begin to imagine what his dinner table conversations are like.)

I take a left off the highway at the entrance, drive a hundred feet in and up a slight rise to a roughed out parking area, roll to a stop, turn the key off and get out. I’m the only car there. It’s early October and just after six at night. Since I started thinking about doing this, I’ve kept coming up with reasons not to. Now, I just want to get it over with and not put it off another day. I’m a little wired and force myself to take a minute to try and calm down.

Lakeview is the exact opposite of the pampered cemeteries with trim bushes, pretty gardens and manicured lawns that most cities have. This one is more on the shaggy side, only lightly maintained, with long grass and overgrown shrubs thriving beneath tall, shady trees. It’s definitely not formal at all and, to tell the truth, I like the casual feel to it. The sun is low to the west, casting shadows through the graveyard. The air is cool and crisp and the trees in the area have started to change colors. Looking across the lake I see rolling hills of oaks and maples turning red, yellow and orange with myriads of hues in between. Low sunlight filters through the colorful leaves above me and adds to the mellow feel of the place. All things considered, it’s a beautiful time of year to be checking out burial plots, I mean spaces. I like being outside anyway, and there’s a nice, outdoorsy vibe to the area. I’m calming down and feel myself getting into the mood to look around.

I should be clear here. I’m really not going to be buried at Lakeview. When I’m gone, I’m going to be cremated and want my ashes scattered on Long Lake; I just want a location (space!) for a stone for sort of a memorial marker. What do I mean, sort of? I – want – a – stone – for – a – memorial – marker. There, that’s better; nice and definite. I learning to accept what I’m doing; planning for the end of my life, and I’m starting to get my head wrapped around it. I want something that says that I was here. I was on this earth. I lived and died and now I’m gone, but once I was here. Sound weird? Well maybe…but it makes sense to me and I’ll tell you why: throughout the twenty one years of our marriage, Annie and I have done a lot of family ancestry research. One thing we found was that it helps to track relatives if there’s a burial marker of some sort. That’s why I’m doing this. Since my ashes are going to be scattered, I figured a stone for a memorial was the next best thing. The idea is to leave a foot print behind;  something for later generations to see. I explained all this to Martin while we were talking and I got the distinct impression he could have cared less. In fact, I thought I detected his finger tips tapping away on his desk as I blathered on and on.  When I finished all he asked is how I wanted to pay for everything.

Walking around the cemetery is…how can I put this? Different? Well, of course. Strange? No, that’s really not it. Interesting? Maybe that’s it – but not interesting like watching a special on climate change on PBS is interesting. (At least it is to me.) No, this is like trying to tap into some inner connection between yourself and the land you are walking on. Some would call it getting a feel for the place and that would be as accurate as I could put it. Standing next to my car and looking toward the lake, the land slopes away to the left. There are a lot of headstones there and I walk down and wander around, idly looking at names and dates of births and deaths. Annie’s friend is buried down here. So is her cousin. I check out both their stones. Someone’s left a bouquet of flowers for her friend. Who could have done that? I don’t have a clue. To my right, hidden in a grove of trees near the lake, a group of what looks to be high school kids are sitting on the ground talking quietly. I like the fact that they respect that they are in a cemetery and are being mindful of the dead. Then I catch of whiff of marijuana. Hmm… Well, maybe mindful is not the correct word.

I turn and make my way back up the hill and stroll past my car over to the other half of the cemetery. The ground is nice and level here. My boots are shuffling through tallish grass and fallen leaves, and the swishing sound is relaxing to my state of mind. To my right the highway noise is muted by trees and underbrush, all turning to vibrant fall colors. The burgundy red and blaze orange of the sumac is especially pretty.

I’m feeling calmer, now, wandering around. It’s not so bad being here. In fact the more I walk, the more I feel outside noises and distractions disappearing.  My attention begins to focus on my task – looking for my space. Some of the headstones here are very old, crumbling a little, covered in gray and green lichen, and dating back to the 1870’s. The oldest one Annie and I have found up here is from 1859. The name is illegible and we can just make out the date, but the interesting fact is that the person was buried one year after Minnesota became a state. I think it’s pretty amazing to have a grave here that old.

But that’s not why I said it was interesting being here. I guess what I was trying to get at was that being here really is different. It’s not the way I normally would choose to spend my free time. Thinking about death and a final resting place is not something one does every day. But here I am, doing just that. Interesting, different…you can add weird to that, too, I guess. Anyway, call it what you will, I’m here and I am coping with it just fine. It’s something I want to do.

At the far end of the cemetery to my left and overlooking the lake is an open area. I don’t know why there are no grave stones here, but it’s open and empty and might work for me. I walk over and stand in the middle of the space. It’s about ten feet from some brushy, shrubby overgrowth and a line of tall maple trees that mark the edge of the cemetery. Just beyond the vegetation there’s a steep cliff cut in the hillside leading down to the lake. It’s the highest point around – about forty feet above the shoreline, and seems like a good spot. I turn in a circle a few times, looking around, getting a feel for things. Then I look up – tree tops bend over the space and their branches form a canopy above me. Through them, high in the sky, I can just make out a wavering flock of birds flying, probably geese. There is no wind and the air has the feel of fall to it. Somewhere, someone is burning leaves and the scent fills me with a vivid happy memory of my childhood when Dad and I burned piles of leaves I’d helped him rake. In the underbrush a chickadee calls, then a nuthatch. There is a calm and a peacefulness right here that I haven’t felt anywhere else in my meandering around. I suddenly just know that this is the place I want to be. The connection is strong. It feels perfect.

I sit down and look around, soaking in the atmosphere of the place. Faraway, down to my left I can just make out a burst of laughter from the kids which quickly fades into the growing twilight. An owl hoots on the far side of the lake, it’s haunting voice fading into the stillness. Then nothing. The birds nearby have gone quiet. Silence settles in. The sun has dropped below the horizon and the air is still. It’s so peaceful and quiet…I lay back and look through the woven branches of trees into a sky turning to a soft mauve. I close my eyes and let the stillness take me away.

One thing Martin wanted to know was about my grave stone. (I prefer to call it my memorial stone.)

“Want do you want to put on it?” he asked me.

Well, now that was a good question. What does on put on the stone that will mark their place on earth for eternity…or at least the next one hundred or two hundred years or so. I’d thought about it a lot since I’d first committed to doing this but so far had come up empty. I told him I hadn’t decided and that I’d get back to him on it.

As I lay on my space, (I’m starting to get comfortable thinking about it like that) I start to focus my attention and think; what do I want on my memorial stone? A few days earlier I looked up a site on the internet that listed possible headstone inscriptions. If you want to make yourself nuts in a hurry, check it out. (No, I’m not going to give out the address. It’s easy to find.) Trust me, though, there were pages and pages of them: short ones like, “Dearly Beloved” or ” So Loved.” Longer ones like, “And The Beauty Of The Soul Revealed” or “Our Love Is A Love Always Remembered.” Sayings by famous people, “Death is the key that opens the place of Eternity – Milton” or “We all shine on…- John Lennon.” And, of course, there were religious ones, “Forever to dwell in the House of the Lord” and “I sought the Lord and He heard me and delivered me from all my fears.” And, finally, non-religious ones: “Too Well Loved Ever To Be Forgotten” and “His life was like music, a song written on the wind.”

Actually, I made that last one up, but, trust me, there were a lot of them. Funny ones, sad ones and everything in between. Frankly, it was kind of mind boggling. After I’d looked them over for fifteen minutes (which, believe me, was a lot longer than it sounds), I shut down the computer and went to my file drawer. In it I keep a bunch of old comic books I’d bought at antique stores and on eBay to share with my grandkids. I selected a Looney Tunes and opened it up and read for a while about Bugs Bunny driving Elmer Fudd nuts and Daffy Duck just being Daffy, to clear my head. I have to say, it took a couple of stories of being entertained by their antics before my mind was back to normal.

Putting thoughts of comic books aside, I lay on the fragrant grass in the growing twilight of the early fall evening and let my thoughts wander. I wanted to see what would happen – to see if somehow a saying would come to me, a saying that would make sense; one I could use to mark my place on this earth forever.

What happened next was unexpected, but actually quite pleasant. Out of the blue, memories of my life started running through my brain like old film on a movie reel. I thought I’d share some with you: the day my youngest brother was born (my first memory), the day my best friend knocked me out with one swing of his brand new #32 Louisville Slugger, warm twilight nights as a youngster playing hide-and-go-seek with friends in my old neighborhood, the scent of a fresh mown lawn, learning to skate and play hockey at the rink down on the corner, Dad falling off a ladder onto the driveway and surviving, my first orange tabby cat, me forgetting Mom’s 33rd birthday when I was seven, summers at the cabin up north, Dad and his friends listening to jazz in our living room, fishing with my uncle, Mom’s portrait on the wall in the dining room painted by her friend, my aunt teaching me how to play solitaire, Mom and Dad having cocktails and listening to Benny Goodman records in the living room, my best friend in our new neighborhood and I building a mini-bike, Mom teaching me how to play cribbage, a friend who died of leukemia, early doo-wop and Motown, failing English in seventh grade, Buddy Holly, the first girl I kissed, Dion and the Belmont’s, my first car (a little red Triumph Tr-3), Friday night football games, the perfume my high school girl friend wore, ‘The Sounds of Silence’, landscape paintings with cows in pastures, getting an A in English in twelfth grade, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, working at Swant’s Service and Gas Station, Mom and Dad getting divorced, the summer of 1969, the pacific ocean with Dad, stargazing in the Rocky Mountains, my first born child, my second born child, Bruce Springsteen and ‘Darkness On the Edge of Town’, Lake George, leatherwork, Drew Avenue South, the guys in Hop the Train, sandhill cranes on the Platte River, watching the snow fall at night, Christmas lights, the uninhibited laughter of my grandchildren (and seeing them grow), molten orange sunsets, hiking in the desert, bike riding, walking anywhere and anytime, bird watching, the job I held for twenty years, the soft light of dawn, working at two different garden centers, Lake Constance, blues guitar, sobriety, winter night fires by the fireplace, Hayseed Cree, working in the garden, soft rainfall, talking with Mom anytime, Manitobagifts, reading books, my last home (our little bungalow), bluebirds nesting in the front yard, my wife for all these years.

And that’s just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

I could take each statement and write about it for days, but I don’t want to belabor the point. Suffice it to say that each memory is a thread woven into a rich and colorful tapestry made up of family, friends and events that have enriched my life and made my time here on earth the wonderful journey it’s been. One I wouldn’t trade for anything.

But how to sum it up into a short, all encompassing saying that I can put on my memorial stone? I mean that’s the whole point of this, right? A simple statement that says something about me and about my life; something that people who have known me can look at and nod in agreement (hopefully), and people in some far off future can look at and get a feel for the person who was me. As I write this I’m thinking: Is this too vain? Is this too over the top? I don’t know. I don’t want it to be. I just want to do it. Sort of a ‘leave behind’ marking the end of my life and my time here. It’s been a good life, of that I have no doubt. Why not commemorate somehow?

And then it comes to me. It has been a good life. In fact, it’s been a wonderful life. Wait, that’s already a movie title. That’s Ok, it’s not really what I wanted, anyway.

Restless, I get up and walk through the grass to the edge of the cliff overlooking the lake. I must have lain on my spot for a long time. I’m a little stiff and I swing my arms to loosen up. The water is mirror smooth, and there’s a reflection of a nearly full moon rising in the east  glowing on the lake’s surface. The scent of burning leaves is lingering in the air. The kids down the hill to the left are still there. I hear their  muffled laughter and it makes me smile to hear them happy. I look up and see the stars, stars I’ve watched and felt connected to my entire life. Letting my mind go to be free to play back memories of my life was fun and has left me uplifted. It occurs to me just how happy I am. Like a kid I shuffle around through the fallen leaves, enjoying the feel of them beneath my boots. I feel excited with what my memories have shown me. It’s been better than a good life, it’s been a great one. I walk in a little circle, scattering more leaves, enjoying playing in them. And then it dawns on me. What a perfect saying. I smile to myself and feel a sense of relief (a sure sign it’s the right thing to do.) I decide that I’m not going to worry myself about it anymore. I’ve thought about it long enough. Simple sometimes really is the best. I’ve got my saying for my memorial stone: “It’s Been A Great Life”. Five simple words that say it all.

Finally. What a relief!

Feeling a slightly euphoric, I carefully make my way through the dark cemetery to my car, open the door and sit in the driver’s seat. The interior light is the only light around and I blink as my eyes adjust. I take out my phone. I’m relieved and happy and want to share it with Annie.

“Hey, there. Just wanted to let you know I’m on my way home,” I say, after ringing her up.

“It’s kind of late. I was getting worried. Are you Ok?” she asks.

I try to allay the concern in her voice. “Yeah, I’m good. I’m doing fine.” I check the time. It’s just after 8:30. I’ve been here for over two hours. The interior light has gone out and I sit back and stare into the darkness. A burden has been lifted and I’m feeling both mellow and jubilant, two entirely different feelings that, interestingly, work well together.

She’s quiet for a moment and finally decides to believe me. “I’m glad. You sound good. Calm.”

“I am. I’m really good,” I want to tell her everything, but decide to wait until I get home. “I’m leaving right now. I just wanted you to know I’ve decided on a space and what to put on my stone. I think you’ll like them both.”

“That’s good, Honey, really good. Do you want to tell me now or when you get home?”

“How about if I wait until I get home? There’s a bit of a story that goes along with it,” I tell her. I’m thinking of all those memories.

“Sounds good.” She pauses and then asks, “Not to change the subject, but…” I grin. We’ve been together for a long time. I can picture what’s coming, “Can you do me a really big favor?”

“Absolutely.”

“I’m in the mood for a treat.”

A new shop called The Dairy Store has opened in town specializing in homemade ice cream. We go there a lot. “Let me guess, licorice?”

I can see her smiling on the phone, “You guessed it, Ronnie.”

“A pint of licorice it is.”

“Get something for yourself, too, Ok? Well celebrate.”

She doesn’t have to twist my arm. I can see a pint of salty caramel in my future. “Will do. Anything else?”

“No. Just hurry home, Ok? I’ve missed you.”

I check the car’s clock: 8:42. The ice cream shop is open until 9:00. “I’ll be home soon.”

“See you, Sport.”

“Love you, Babe.”

“Love you, too.”

I start the car, turn on the headlights, pop in a CD, turn around, and inch out to the highway where I put my foot on the brake and stop. It’s pitch dark out and the high beams from the cars coming from both directions temporarily blind me. I blink to clear my vision and wait a minute for a break in the traffic, listening to the music and taping my finger on the steering wheel. After a minute there’s finally an opening. I turn to the right and start shifting through the gears, accelerating down the hill toward town. Low level clouds have moved in and the lights on the buildings reflect a soft glow in the sky. There’s a feeling of calm to the night. Annie’s waiting for me and I’ll be with her in no time. I can’t wait. Those memories start playing in my head again, a lovely movie rolling on and on and on. It really has been a great life, one I wouldn’t trade for anything. And you know what another great thing is? There are lots more memories to be made, of that I’m sure. I’m looking forward to all of them. I shift into top gear and whistle a little under my breath, smiling as I head for home.

Part 2 – There’s More

Talk about the dark side of serendipity. With my visit to the cemetery over, it was time to go home. I was in a super good mood, finally having resolved my memorial issue, knowing my saying, “It was a great life” succinctly summed up what I wanted etched into my stone. It was time to move on. I waited and waited to get onto the highway, watching the cars stream by from both directions, idly wondering where the hell everyone was driving too; probably on their way home from work to family and loved ones, most of them were, I figured. My mind started wandering to tonight with Annie and celebrating my decision, and then to tomorrow with chores in the yard that needed to be done, and then to the next day going to my son’s house to take care of my grandkids… and I pulled it back, forcing myself to focus, eager to get back to my favorite place to be – the home Annie and had shared for so many years.

When a break in the traffic finally appeared, I pulled onto the highway, squinting against the glaring headlights coming at me, and accelerated my little Ford Fiesta down the long decline, shifting through the gears as I built up speed. The city lights of Long Lake shone in the distance, a mile away, reflecting off some low clouds that had moved in. I checked the clock on the dash panel:  8:47. Good, I thought to myself. I had plenty of time to get to store and buy some ice cream: a pint of licorice for Annie (her favorite) and a pint of salty caramel (my favorite) for me. The last thing I did was turn up the volume of the CD in the player. It was a local punk rock band the daughter of a friend played in. He’d given us a sample of a couple of songs they’d be recording next month and I loved them both – listening to them over and over again anytime I drove anywhere. Annie, loved them too. “I’m Still Stuck On You” was playing and I was enjoying his daughter’s lead guitar part – glad, in retrospect, it was the last sound I ever heard. Check that – the second to last sound.

As my speed increased down the hill my car was suddenly flooded from behind with light. My eyes flicked quickly to the review mirror. Way too fast, a huge bank of headlights was speeding at me, approaching full tilt like an out of control, fully loaded semi (which it was.) In a panic I jammed my accelerator to the floor. The engine revved to over six thousand rpm but nothing happened. My car seemed to float. Time went into slow motion. In an instant a wave of intense brightness overtook me, running right up and over me, blinding me and filling the inside of my car with exploding, brilliant light. The last sound I heard, drowning out the song, was a sustained air-horn blasting and blaring, filling my ears with unrelenting noise until my eardrums burst; then a cacophony of metal whining and twisting and crunching along with windows exploding and glass shattering as the huge semi ran right over my car, crushing it and me. Then there was merciful darkness.

A deep, endless void of nothingness.

For a long time.

The next awareness you have is that the darkness starts to swirl and take form, like some scientists think the earth came together back in the dawn of time. Then, out of that inky black night, white and gray clouds take shape, slowly floating and undulating. Then blinking flashes of light start to irregularly pulsate(kind of like heat lightening) before becoming more and more regular, persistent and intense. Eventually, out of the spinning, morphing, flashing ether, shapes begin taking form, irregular at first and indescribable. This goes on and on and on and you have no idea what’s happening. Now clue at all. In reality, though, it’s really a long preparation for what comes next – the next stage.

Eventually, the first scene comes into view. For me it was my granddaughter’s soccer game. She and her team were dressed in red and black jerseys and shorts and knee high socks and were playing on a lush, green grass field with yellow cones marking the boundaries. I could tell it was fall because the trees in the background were changing colors; the orange and red leaves were brilliant under a bright sun shining warmly in a robin’s egg blue sky. In the scene she looks to be six years old, a year after my car accident and death.

She must have been thinking of me. That’s how the memory recall works. It’s a give and take kind of thing. If she thinks of me I can appear to her in her memory. And the cool thing is that it really is me. Seriously. In the world I left behind, I always thought that my memory was just that – a recall of a loved one, person, place or whatever, and it’s really just an image in your mind. But I’m here to tell you that it’s much, much more than that. I’m out there all of the time (for eternity, actually) existing in a sort of dream like state. You know how sometimes you’re lying in bed half awake and half asleep? That’s how it is where I am now. When you think of me, I can almost materialize there beside you. Almost is the key word here. When you think you feel the presence of a loved one who has passed over (that’s what we say here, passed over) it’s a true fact because we are right there, but in a dimension just outside the reach of you guys. I know it sounds crazy, and you probably think I’m nuts, but it’s true. Believe me. Just read on before you chalk it all up to the ravings of a delusional nutcase.

The next time it happened was when there was a special dinner for my son’s promotion to regional manager for the company where he worked. His wife organized it and his family were all gathered in the dining room of their lovely new home with my granddaughter and grandson along with his wife’s mom and dad, brothers and sisters and their kids – it was a real party. Good food, high spirits, great times and lots of wonderful family camaraderie. The promotion was a very big deal for my son and I got to be right there with him (and his family, too) for the celebration because he was thinking of me at the time, wishing I was there to share it with him. He didn’t know it, but I was there. The way it works is that your thought or memory of me opens a door and lets me in. Because, like I said, I’m there anyway.

Let me tell you, this whole thing took some getting used to. I had no idea what ‘life after death’ would be like and, to be frank, didn’t really plan on anything thing happening at all. One day I’m here and the next day I’m gone was the rather cavalier attitude I took most of my life, and it certainly was the opinion I carried with me the night of my fatal crash. Boy was I ever wrong!

It works the other way too, just not as often because it’s something hard for me to do. (I’m still learning how to do it – it’s pretty complicated.) Sometimes I can interrupt (that’s what I call it) someone’s thoughts and move right in there to be with them. I have to be careful with this. I might want to see a loved one, say my wife, but it might not be convenient for her to see me (say she’s out to lunch with one or all of her sons. Interrupting her might take away from her time being with her boys, so I try to respect that.) The best time to come to her is when she’s home in her favorite chair, working on an embroidery project or doing some quiet reading. Her mind is free and open then. It’s a perfect time for us to be together. Or when she’s relaxing after she’s built a fire in the fireplace like we used to do, that’s a good time, too.

Here’s another example: Once, my son was at a crucial point interacting back and forth with a customer during an important sale, talking to the person, listening and responding to the client’s questions – those kinds of things. Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to interrupt him then, right? He might lose his concentration and miss out on making a sale. It might be better to wait until he’s driving home before I make my appearance. Then we can have time together that’s uninterrupted. (As long as he pays attention to his driving!). An even better time would be when he’s out for a long run by himself on a trail in the park near his home; that would work really well and be way less likely to cause an accident. Like I said, I’m still learning how to do this.

Another thing I’ve learned is that if you don’t use it, you lose it. I should probably explain. Again, I’m around all the time. If you think about me more, then I’m there with you more. It’s pretty simple, really. My wife, my kids, my grandkids and my brothers, even old friends, they’re all right up there on the top of my list of who I’m with the most. Other people, not so much. My best example is an past friend of mine who was planning on seeing me at my (our) fiftieth year high school class reunion. Well, by the time the reunion rolled around I’d been gone from this good earth for a nearly year, so…no Ronnie at the festivities, I’m afraid. As the years have gone by, I’ve haven’t popped up in his memory much, so…Sayonara old friend. Fade to black, as they say.

And this brings up a really good point, one that took me a long time to get a grip on: this afterlife is not linear at all. Not…at…all. Which is really pretty crazy and takes a lot of getting used to. One minute I might be hanging out with my brother as he hikes up to Table Top in the mountains of Arizona and remembers when we did that same hike together in the winter of 2016, and the next moment I’m with my youngest son when he’s remembering us riding our bikes together on a bicycle trip we took down to Le Sueur County when he was ten back in 1984. I can go from a birthday party for my grandson’s tenth birthday, to a walk with my wife around the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in the blink of an eye. I can be with someone in an old memory of us together in the past when I was still alive, or a new future memory when someone is thinking about me after I’ve been gone ‘X’ number of years.

The best example of this was me traveling with my wife and her sister to England three years after my death. It was a trip Annie and I had spent years putting all the pieces together for, and we were finally at the point where could actually get on an airplane and go. But I was killed before we could pull it off. Fortunately she was able to still fulfill that dream with her sister. They flew to England, landed in London and then took a train through the Cotswold’s where they dined in quaint little pubs, stayed in lovely little cottages and hiked on winding paths through woodlands, fields and hillsides. After twelve glorious days they took another train out to the Cornwall coast and to sightsee and visit the town where a favorite PBS show of ours was filmed. All of it unfolded just like we had planned. They were gone nearly three weeks, had loads of fun, and I was with them almost the whole time. It was a blast. (Thanks, for thinking of me, honey!).

So, even though you may think I’m not there, I am, as long as you take a moment and remember me. When you do, I get to be right there with you and it’s really pretty fun for me. The only negative thing is that the connection isn’t quite what I’d like it to be. I’m there, but I’m not. I see you, I know what is happening, but it’s all like watching a movie with the sound turned off. There are no voices. I can’t hear laughter, or music and anything. I can’t smell fresh air, or hear gulls squawking or birds singing or sandhill cranes calling. It takes some getting used to.

Also, it’s kind of lonely. I see the person who has remembered me, but I can’t touch them or talk to them or have any physical contact. Like I said, I’m just there. Which is good, in and of itself, and way, way better than the alternative, which is endless nothingness. And it’s also a start. I’ve witnessed firsthand others who have learned how to interact between our world in this dimension we’re in and with people in the physical world we left behind. It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it, and hard to explain. But I will tell you something: it’s not like phenomena experienced with people who call themselves ‘spiritualists’ at all. It’s way more complicated than that. But it’s something to aspire to, that’s for sure; something I’m currently working on. In fact, I have to tell you, there’s a lot to this afterlife thing that is still unknown to me that I’m continually learning about. Hopefully, I can keep you posted on my progress.

Another totally unexpected experience is probably one of the most fantastic things of all – I can actually be with my loved ones who have already passed on. I knew people when I was alive in the previous life who believed that this would happen, but I really never did. I was very skeptical and, I guess, had too much of the rational scientist in me. Boy was I ever wrong. I’m here to tell you that it’s true, which is, frankly…what? Amazing? Wonderful? I don’t know. Nothing can adequately describe the experience, really. I certainly can’t find the words. But it’s a fact. I can be with Mom, Dad, my grandparents, my beloved Aunt and Uncle and others –  anyone previously close to me who is now gone. Notice I say ‘Be with’. That’s the key couple of words here. I can’t talk to them, can’t hug them or anything like that, just be with them. But, I’ll tell you, that’s…just…fine…with…me.

A really good example is with my dad. When I was alive, I had wonderful memories of visiting him and walking with him on his favorite ocean beach off the Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington State. We had only a few years of doing this before he died. I found my first sand dollar walking there with him. Those times were very special to me. When I was alive, I often thought back to when we would sit together in a cove of windswept sand as we talked and talked, something we didn’t do too often when he and Mom were married – back when he lived with me and my brothers in Minnesota. But we sure talked during those times, on that ocean beach, while gulls circled above calling and soaring on the wind, and sandpipers ran along the shore, dodging the waves that crashed nearby. He was relaxed and happy and so was I, and it was times like those I really treasured. After he died and was gone, all I had were those memories, which were good, believe me, and I certainly made the most of them because they were all I had. Now, though, we can get together and walk on that beach and see the ocean and be with each other and it’s fun. I’m never lonely, then. We can’t talk, of course, but being together with him is just as good as it was back when we were both alive. It’s excellent, in fact.

Which brings me to something  else. You may be wondering how people look ‘on the other side’. Would it surprise you if I told you they look exactly like they look in your memory of them? Well, they do. When I’m with my mom, let’s say, riding horses at the ranch in Montana we used to go to on family vacations, Mom is like she was then, happy, healthy and vibrant. Fifty years later, when she’s at the cafe where my brother and I used to play guitars and sing, she’s like she was at that time, older, of course, and grayer, but smiling and still happy. It’s pretty nice, actually, and I’ve learned to appreciate that no matter what the age is of the loved one or friend you are with, the thing is that you are there, together. It’s the most important thing, actually.

I think what I was most happy about, when I figured out how to ‘come back’, if that’s the way to put it, was that I could see how my family and loved ones were doing with their lives – how they were getting on after I was gone. I’ve been able to see my sons grow into fatherhood, find good jobs and become wonderful parents as well as loving husbands and partners. I’ve been able to see my grandkids grow up and become happy and successful in their own unique ways. I’ve been with my brothers as they have lived out their very full lives. I’ve been with my wife for the amazingly creative final chapter of her life and even seen her publish two books: one on having to do with childhood memories of her grandmother called, “Winters On the Prairie,” and another about an unsolved murder that took place on a farm down in Martin County in the 1900’s called, “The Drainage Ditch Murders.” (It was one we were both interested in.) Check them out sometime if you get a chance.

I couldn’t ask for anything more, and it’s way beyond what I could ever have expected.

Oh, I almost forgot. You’re probably wondering how I could write this if I’m gone from your physical world. I have to say that it’s a really good question, and I wish I had an answer for you. But I don’t. It’s a mystery to me, but I’m glad I can do it, though, aren’t you? I will say that I’m awfully new at this; it’s the first time I’ve attempted connecting like this with the life I left behind. I think it’s worked out pretty well. I might write more in the future. In fact, I’m pretty sure I will, so look for more to come, Ok?

The last thing I want to mention is this: You know that inscription on my memorial stone? That’s how this whole thing started, remember, and I was killed on the way home before I got a chance to tell Annie what I wanted, right? Well, after I was able to come back and be with my loved ones, I was with Annie one day when she went to Lakeview Cemetery. I remember it well. She got a ride from a friend who left her in the parking lot alone so she could have some time to herself. Remember how I had picked out a spot?  Well, talk about mental telepathy or whatever you want to call it, but Annie picked out a spot for my stone right in the same area. Not exactly where I had lain in the grass that October evening and relived my life through my memories, but close enough. She had it engraved and placed in the ground just a few weeks after I died.

On that particular day it was spring and seven months after my death, the day of my birthday, in fact. The sky was bright blue, and there was a nice breeze out of the south. The trees were just starting to bud out and Long Lake was clear of ice. There were still small patches of snow in protected areas but birds were returning from wintering in warmer climates and you could tell a change was on its way; a song sparrow was perched on a branch, joyfully pointing its head to the sun, early wildflowers were blooming blue and white, and a loon floated on the lake, occasionally diving and playing in the fresh, clean water. Winter was over. The day had a look of fresh, new rebirth, just the kind of day Annie would love. And she did. She made her way from the parking area to my stone and paused looking at it, remembering… She lay a bouquet of colorful tulips on the ground, reading the stone as she did. It was then I saw what she had come up with (probably with input from my sons) for the inscription. Remember what I had decided? It was a great life. Well she went in a completely different direction. I read with her, He was a good man. Well, that was sure a wonderful testimonial, don’t you think? It never once dawned on me to use something like that when I was alive. I have to admit, I kind of liked it. It was really quite sweet, all things considered, and thoughtful, too. Thanks, Annie and thanks also to my boys. It works for me.

Oh, Ok, wait a minute… I hate to cut this short, but I’ve got to get going. One of my sons is at a youth hockey game with his boy. The game is about to begin and my son is up in the stands getting ready to watch. He’s thinking of me and that’s all I need to be right there with him. I haven’t watched a hockey game for a long time so thanks for remembering me, buddy. I’m right here beside you.

I have to tell you that this is what I live for now, if that’s the right way to put it – the chance to still be with my family and loved ones and share their lives with them. Remember when I said the more you remember me, the more I’m with you? Well being at the hockey game now is one of those times and this is going to be fun. Could it be better? Sure. I wish I was really right there. I wish I could touch my son and laugh out loud and cheer when my grandson scores a goal, smell the leather of the skates and feel the cold air of the arena. In short, interact with life. But I can’t. I’m there in one sense but not in another. But at least I’m am with him. It’s better than nothing and that’s good enough for me. It really is.

So this is it and I promise I’m going now. When I was alive I never thought much about what happens after a person was gone. I really had no reason to, other than idle speculation mostly for the heck of it. But now I have plenty of time and I’m kind of into it. Figuring out how things work here is a great experience. And I’m still learning. There’s a lot to find out about, I know that for sure. But I do know one thing: there’s a whole other world out here beyond what I used to think of as the physical world. It’s taking me some time to get used to it, to understand it, and, I guess this is the way to put it – to live in it. But, hey, I’ve got eternity (as we say) to figure it out and that’s just fine with me. So remember – when you’re finding yourself missing me, just think of me and don’t worry about a thing. I’ll be there, right beside you. There’s no place I’d rather be. You can bet your life on it. I sure do.

Until next time, then…

I’ll see you around.

 

 

A Tale of Then and Now

Part 2 – There’s More

Talk about the dark side of serendipity. With my visit to the cemetery over, it was time to go home. I was in a super good mood, finally having resolved my memorial issue, knowing my saying, “It was a great life” succinctly summed up what I wanted etched into my stone. It was time to move on. I waited and waited to get onto the highway, watching the cars stream by from both directions, idly wondering where the hell everyone was driving too; probably on their way home from work to family and loved ones, most of them were, I figured. My mind started wandering to tonight with Annie and celebrating my decision, and then to tomorrow with chores in the yard that needed to be done, and then to the next day going to my son’s house to take care of my grandkids… and I pulled it back, forcing myself to focus, eager to get back to my favorite place to be – the home Annie and had shared for so many years.

When a break in the traffic finally appeared, I pulled onto the highway, squinting against the glaring headlights coming at me, and accelerated my little Ford Fiesta down the long decline, shifting through the gears as I built up speed. The city lights of Long Lake shone in the distance, a mile away, reflecting off some low clouds that had moved in. I checked the clock on the dash panel:  8:47. Good, I thought to myself. I had plenty of time to get to store and buy some ice cream: a pint of licorice for Annie (her favorite) and a pint of salty caramel (my favorite) for me. The last thing I did was turn up the volume of the CD in the player. It was a local punk rock band the daughter of a friend played in. He’d given us a sample of a couple of songs they’d be recording next month and I loved them both – listening to them over and over again anytime I drove anywhere. Annie, loved them too. “I’m Still Stuck On You” was playing and I was enjoying his daughter’s lead guitar part – glad, in retrospect, it was the last sound I ever heard. Check that – the second to last sound.

As my speed increased down the hill my car was suddenly flooded from behind with light. My eyes flicked quickly to the review mirror. Way too fast, a huge bank of headlights was speeding at me, approaching full tilt like an out of control, fully loaded semi (which it was.) In a panic I jammed my accelerator to the floor. The engine revved to over six thousand rpm but nothing happened. My car seemed to float. Time went into slow motion. In an instant a wave of intense brightness overtook me, running right up and over me, blinding me and filling the inside of my car with exploding, brilliant light. The last sound I heard, drowning out the song, was a sustained air-horn blasting and blaring, filling my ears with unrelenting noise until my eardrums burst; then a cacophony of metal whining and twisting and crunching along with windows exploding and glass shattering as the huge semi ran right over my car, crushing it and me. Then there was merciful darkness.

A deep, endless void of nothingness.

For a long time.

The next awareness you have is that the darkness starts to swirl and take form, like some scientists think the earth came together back in the dawn of time. Then, out of that inky black night, white and gray clouds take shape, slowly floating and undulating. Then blinking flashes of light start to irregularly pulsate(kind of like heat lightening) before becoming more and more regular, persistent and intense. Eventually, out of the spinning, morphing, flashing ether, shapes begin taking form, irregular at first and indescribable. This goes on and on and on and you have no idea what’s happening. Now clue at all. In reality, though, it’s really a long preparation for what comes next – the next stage.

Eventually, the first scene comes into view. For me it was my granddaughter’s soccer game. She and her team were dressed in red and black jerseys and shorts and knee high socks and were playing on a lush, green grass field with yellow cones marking the boundaries. I could tell it was fall because the trees in the background were changing colors; the orange and red leaves were brilliant under a bright sun shining warmly in a robin’s egg blue sky. In the scene she looks to be six years old, a year after my car accident and death.

She must have been thinking of me. That’s how the memory recall works. It’s a give and take kind of thing. If she thinks of me I can appear to her in her memory. And the cool thing is that it really is me. Seriously. In the world I left behind, I always thought that my memory was just that – a recall of a loved one, person, place or whatever, and it’s really just an image in your mind. But I’m here to tell you that it’s much, much more than that. I’m out there all of the time (for eternity, actually) existing in a sort of dream like state. You know how sometimes you’re lying in bed half awake and half asleep? That’s how it is where I am now. When you think of me, I can almost materialize there beside you. Almost is the key word here. When you think you feel the presence of a loved one who has passed over (that’s what we say here, passed over) it’s a true fact because we are right there, but in a dimension just outside the reach of you guys. I know it sounds crazy, and you probably think I’m nuts, but it’s true. Believe me. Just read on before you chalk it all up to the ravings of a delusional nutcase.

The next time it happened was when there was a special dinner for my son’s promotion to regional manager for the company where he worked. His wife organized it and his family were all gathered in the dining room of their lovely new home with my granddaughter and grandson along with his wife’s mom and dad, brothers and sisters and their kids – it was a real party. Good food, high spirits, great times and lots of wonderful family camaraderie. The promotion was a very big deal for my son and I got to be right there with him (and his family, too) for the celebration because he was thinking of me at the time, wishing I was there to share it with him. He didn’t know it, but I was there. The way it works is that your thought or memory of me opens a door and lets me in. Because, like I said, I’m there anyway.

Let me tell you, this whole thing took some getting used to. I had no idea what ‘life after death’ would be like and, to be frank, didn’t really plan on anything thing happening at all. One day I’m here and the next day I’m gone was the rather cavalier attitude I took most of my life, and it certainly was the opinion I carried with me the night of my fatal crash. Boy was I ever wrong!

It works the other way too, just not as often because it’s something hard for me to do. (I’m still learning how to do it – it’s pretty complicated.) Sometimes I can interrupt (that’s what I call it) someone’s thoughts and move right in there to be with them. I have to be careful with this. I might want to see a loved one, say my wife, but it might not be convenient for her to see me (say she’s out to lunch with one or all of her sons. Interrupting her might take away from her time being with her boys, so I try to respect that.) The best time to come to her is when she’s home in her favorite chair, working on an embroidery project or doing some quiet reading. Her mind is free and open then. It’s a perfect time for us to be together. Or when she’s relaxing after she’s built a fire in the fireplace like we used to do, that’s a good time, too.

Here’s another example: Once, my son was at a crucial point interacting back and forth with a customer during an important sale, talking to the person, listening and responding to the client’s questions – those kinds of things. Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to interrupt him then, right? He might lose his concentration and miss out on making a sale. It might be better to wait until he’s driving home before I make my appearance. Then we can have time together that’s uninterrupted. (As long as he pays attention to his driving!). An even better time would be when he’s out for a long run by himself on a trail in the park near his home; that would work really well and be way less likely to cause an accident. Like I said, I’m still learning how to do this.

Another thing I’ve learned is that if you don’t use it, you lose it. I should probably explain. Again, I’m around all the time. If you think about me more, then I’m there with you more. It’s pretty simple, really. My wife, my kids, my grandkids and my brothers, even old friends, they’re all right up there on the top of my list of who I’m with the most. Other people, not so much. My best example is an past friend of mine who was planning on seeing me at my (our) fiftieth year high school class reunion. Well, by the time the reunion rolled around I’d been gone from this good earth for a nearly year, so…no Ronnie at the festivities, I’m afraid. As the years have gone by, I’ve haven’t popped up in his memory much, so…Sayonara old friend. Fade to black, as they say.

And this brings up a really good point, one that took me a long time to get a grip on: this afterlife is not linear at all. Not…at…all. Which is really pretty crazy and takes a lot of getting used to. One minute I might be hanging out with my brother as he hikes up to Table Top in the mountains of Arizona and remembers when we did that same hike together in the winter of 2016, and the next moment I’m with my youngest son when he’s remembering us riding our bikes together on a bicycle trip we took down to Le Sueur County when he was ten back in 1984. I can go from a birthday party for my grandson’s tenth birthday, to a walk with my wife around the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in the blink of an eye. I can be with someone in an old memory of us together in the past when I was still alive, or a new future memory when someone is thinking about me after I’ve been gone ‘X’ number of years.

The best example of this was me traveling with my wife and her sister to England three years after my death. It was a trip Annie and I had spent years putting all the pieces together for, and we were finally at the point where could actually get on an airplane and go. But I was killed before we could pull it off. Fortunately she was able to still fulfill that dream with her sister. They flew to England, landed in London and then took a train through the Cotswold’s where they dined in quaint little pubs, stayed in lovely little cottages and hiked on winding paths through woodlands, fields and hillsides. After twelve glorious days they took another train out to the Cornwall coast and to sightsee and visit the town where a favorite PBS show of ours was filmed. All of it unfolded just like we had planned. They were gone nearly three weeks, had loads of fun, and I was with them almost the whole time. It was a blast. (Thanks, for thinking of me, honey!).

So, even though you may think I’m not there, I am, as long as you take a moment and remember me. When you do, I get to be right there with you and it’s really pretty fun for me. The only negative thing is that the connection isn’t quite what I’d like it to be. I’m there, but I’m not. I see you, I know what is happening, but it’s all like watching a movie with the sound turned off. There are no voices. I can’t hear laughter, or music and anything. I can’t smell fresh air, or hear gulls squawking or birds singing or sandhill cranes calling. It takes some getting used to.

Also, it’s kind of lonely. I see the person who has remembered me, but I can’t touch them or talk to them or have any physical contact. Like I said, I’m just there. Which is good, in and of itself, and way, way better than the alternative, which is endless nothingness. And it’s also a start. I’ve witnessed firsthand others who have learned how to interact between our world in this dimension we’re in and with people in the physical world we left behind. It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it, and hard to explain. But I will tell you something: it’s not like phenomena experienced with people who call themselves ‘spiritualists’ at all. It’s way more complicated than that. But it’s something to aspire to, that’s for sure; something I’m currently working on. In fact, I have to tell you, there’s a lot to this afterlife thing that is still unknown to me that I’m continually learning about. Hopefully, I can keep you posted on my progress.

Another totally unexpected experience is probably one of the most fantastic things of all – I can actually be with my loved ones who have already passed on. I knew people when I was alive in the previous life who believed that this would happen, but I really never did. I was very skeptical and, I guess, had too much of the rational scientist in me. Boy was I ever wrong. I’m here to tell you that it’s true, which is, frankly…what? Amazing? Wonderful? I don’t know. Nothing can adequately describe the experience, really. I certainly can’t find the words. But it’s a fact. I can be with Mom, Dad, my grandparents, my beloved Aunt and Uncle and others –  anyone previously close to me who is now gone. Notice I say ‘Be with’. That’s the key couple of words here. I can’t talk to them, can’t hug them or anything like that, just be with them. But, I’ll tell you, that’s…just…fine…with…me.

A really good example is with my dad. When I was alive, I had wonderful memories of visiting him and walking with him on his favorite ocean beach off the Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington State. We had only a few years of doing this before he died. I found my first sand dollar walking there with him. Those times were very special to me. When I was alive, I often thought back to when we would sit together in a cove of windswept sand as we talked and talked, something we didn’t do too often when he and Mom were married – back when he lived with me and my brothers in Minnesota. But we sure talked during those times, on that ocean beach, while gulls circled above calling and soaring on the wind, and sandpipers ran along the shore, dodging the waves that crashed nearby. He was relaxed and happy and so was I, and it was times like those I really treasured. After he died and was gone, all I had were those memories, which were good, believe me, and I certainly made the most of them because they were all I had. Now, though, we can get together and walk on that beach and see the ocean and be with each other and it’s fun. I’m never lonely, then. We can’t talk, of course, but being together with him is just as good as it was back when we were both alive. It’s excellent, in fact.

Which brings me to something  else. You may be wondering how people look ‘on the other side’. Would it surprise you if I told you they look exactly like they look in your memory of them? Well, they do. When I’m with my mom, let’s say, riding horses at the ranch in Montana we used to go to on family vacations, Mom is like she was then, happy, healthy and vibrant. Fifty years later, when she’s at the cafe where my brother and I used to play guitars and sing, she’s like she was at that time, older, of course, and grayer, but smiling and still happy. It’s pretty nice, actually, and I’ve learned to appreciate that no matter what the age is of the loved one or friend you are with, the thing is that you are there, together. It’s the most important thing, actually.

I think what I was most happy about, when I figured out how to ‘come back’, if that’s the way to put it, was that I could see how my family and loved ones were doing with their lives – how they were getting on after I was gone. I’ve been able to see my sons grow into fatherhood, find good jobs and become wonderful parents as well as loving husbands and partners. I’ve been able to see my grandkids grow up and become happy and successful in their own unique ways. I’ve been with my brothers as they have lived out their very full lives. I’ve been with my wife for the amazingly creative final chapter of her life and even seen her publish two books: one on having to do with childhood memories of her grandmother called, “Winters On the Prairie,” and another about an unsolved murder that took place on a farm down in Martin County in the 1900’s called, “The Drainage Ditch Murders.” (It was one we were both interested in.) Check them out sometime if you get a chance.

I couldn’t ask for anything more, and it’s way beyond what I could ever have expected.

Oh, I almost forgot. You’re probably wondering how I could write this if I’m gone from your physical world. I have to say that it’s a really good question, and I wish I had an answer for you. But I don’t. It’s a mystery to me, but I’m glad I can do it, though, aren’t you? I will say that I’m awfully new at this; it’s the first time I’ve attempted connecting like this with the life I left behind. I think it’s worked out pretty well. I might write more in the future. In fact, I’m pretty sure I will, so look for more to come, Ok?

The last thing I want to mention is this: You know that inscription on my memorial stone? That’s how this whole thing started, remember, and I was killed on the way home before I got a chance to tell Annie what I wanted, right? Well, after I was able to come back and be with my loved ones, I was with Annie one day when she went to Lakeview Cemetery. I remember it well. She got a ride from a friend who left her in the parking lot alone so she could have some time to herself. Remember how I had picked out a spot?  Well, talk about mental telepathy or whatever you want to call it, but Annie picked out a spot for my stone right in the same area. Not exactly where I had lain in the grass that October evening and relived my life through my memories, but close enough. She had it engraved and placed in the ground just a few weeks after I died.

On that particular day it was spring and seven months after my death, the day of my birthday, in fact. The sky was bright blue, and there was a nice breeze out of the south. The trees were just starting to bud out and Long Lake was clear of ice. There were still small patches of snow in protected areas but birds were returning from wintering in warmer climates and you could tell a change was on its way; a song sparrow was perched on a branch, joyfully pointing its head to the sun, early wildflowers were blooming blue and white, and a loon floated on the lake, occasionally diving and playing in the fresh, clean water. Winter was over. The day had a look of fresh, new rebirth, just the kind of day Annie would love. And she did. She made her way from the parking area to my stone and paused looking at it, remembering… She lay a bouquet of colorful tulips on the ground, reading the stone as she did. It was then I saw what she had come up with (probably with input from my sons) for the inscription. Remember what I had decided? It was a great life. Well she went in a completely different direction. I read with her, He was a good man. Well, that was sure a wonderful testimonial, don’t you think? It never once dawned on me to use something like that when I was alive. I have to admit, I kind of liked it. It was really quite sweet, all things considered, and thoughtful, too. Thanks, Annie and thanks also to my boys. It works for me.

Oh, Ok, wait a minute… I hate to cut this short, but I’ve got to get going. One of my sons is at a youth hockey game with his boy. The game is about to begin and my son is up in the stands getting ready to watch. He’s thinking of me and that’s all I need to be right there with him. I haven’t watched a hockey game for a long time so thanks for remembering me, buddy. I’m right here beside you.

I have to tell you that this is what I live for now, if that’s the right way to put it – the chance to still be with my family and loved ones and share their lives with them. Remember when I said the more you remember me, the more I’m with you? Well being at the hockey game now is one of those times and this is going to be fun. Could it be better? Sure. I wish I was really right there. I wish I could touch my son and laugh out loud and cheer when my grandson scores a goal, smell the leather of the skates and feel the cold air of the arena. In short, interact with life. But I can’t. I’m there in one sense but not in another. But at least I’m am with him. It’s better than nothing and that’s good enough for me. It really is.

So this is it and I promise I’m going now. When I was alive I never thought much about what happens after a person was gone. I really had no reason to, other than idle speculation mostly for the heck of it. But now I have plenty of time and I’m kind of into it. Figuring out how things work here is a great experience. And I’m still learning. There’s a lot to find out about, I know that for sure. But I do know one thing: there’s a whole other world out here beyond what I used to think of as the physical world. It’s taking me some time to get used to it, to understand it, and, I guess this is the way to put it – to live in it. But, hey, I’ve got eternity (as we say) to figure it out and that’s just fine with me. So remember – when you’re finding yourself missing me, just think of me and don’t worry about a thing. I’ll be there, right beside you. There’s no place I’d rather be. You can bet your life on it. I sure do.

Until next time, then…

I’ll see you around.

 

A Tale of Then and Now

Part 1 – It Was A Great Life

The phone rings in the kitchen.

“You’d better answer it Ronnie,” Annie, my wife, says, “It’s probably the funeral home.”

I run from the living room where we’re reading. Through a west facing window, the late afternoon sun catches my eye, temporarily blinding me. I stub my toe on a table leg and stumble into the kitchen where I pick up the phone. God, that hurt! I sometimes get gout in that toe and it’s really susceptible to pain…which is big time right now.

“Hello, this is Ron,” I say, gritting my teeth, panting a little.

“Hi Ron, this is Martin Freeborn from Sorenson’s Funeral Home, returning your call. Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. It’s been pretty busy around here the last week or so.”

He sounds perky and cheerful, not at all like the dour, businesslike person I’d been prepared for. The pain in my toe immediately vanishes as I focus my attention. What do you say to a statement like that? He’s talking about dying and death here. In my mind I see dead bodies stacked up in a back room somewhere waiting for whatever’s in store for them. I want to be polite, but congratulating him on a flurry of business is a little out of my comfort zone. I quickly rack my brain, trying to come up with an appropriate comment while also trying to remember if I’d heard or read about anyone around town who has died recently. I come up empty on both counts.

Martin interrupts my thoughts, “Your message said you were interested in a plot up at Lakeview?”

Whew. He lets me off the hook. “Yes,” I say, recovering, “Thank you so much for calling me back.” I hear the formality in my voice. Am I really talking about this? A last resting place? I clear my throat and try to speak normally, “Yeah,” I say.” There that sounds better, “The cemetery just down the highway. Overlooking the lake?”

I can actually hear him grinning, “Yes, Ron, I know it well. It’s the only one in town.”

God, I’m coming across like a complete idiot. I take a deep breath and muddle on, “Do you have any spots up there for…” I was going to stay new tenant, but stop myself. It doesn’t sound right, somehow. “Are there any plots available?” There. That sounds better.

I hear some papers rustling. I imagine Martin checking an ancient, couple hundred years old, map of the cemetery, thin as parchment and folded into sections. He’s carefully opening it up to look over locations for what’s available. (In reality, it’s probably a newspaper he’s putting away. I’m sure all their records are on the computer, but then again, what do I know?) “We have a number of spaces, Ron. Do you have any family buried there? Someone you want to be next to?”

What an odd way of putting it. I’m taken aback. Is this some kind of trick question? Do they only allow people in who have relatives? I didn’t think this conversation was going to be so hard. Or unsettling. “Um, I have a few acquaintances there,” I say (well, two, actually) and proceed to tell him about Annie’s friend for one and her cousin, for the other. I know I’m stretching the facts and, truth be told, I didn’t know either of them very well at all, but I do want a plot there.

“That’s excellent. Do you want a space near them?”

Not really. “No, that’s Ok. Any place will do.” Why am I starting to perspire? I rack my brain and quickly I add, “Maybe up on the hill, overlooking the lake?”

“Excellent choice,” Martin says, “We have lots of spaces up there.” I make a mental note that the correct term is space not plot or spot or location. I, apparently, have a lot to learn when it comes to the correct vernacular regarding cemeteries.

He pauses, waiting, I think, for me to say something. Suddenly I’m at a loss for words. This is really happening. I’m talking to a guy about my final resting place. Do I really want to call it that? Man, so many questions start popping up that all of a sudden that my mind goes totally blank.

After another beat he continues, apparently choosing to ignore the poor soul on the other end of the line, “Well anyway, Ron, why don’t you go up and look around and decide where you want to be. You have been up there before, haven’t you?” he asks, with the emphasis on have. Do I detect the slightest bit of condescension in his voice? Naw…It’s probably just my overactive imagination.

I nod my head for a few moments before I think to answer, “Yeah, sure, lots of times,” then immediately regret my answer. I can picture Martin thinking what a strange man he is talking to right now. One who not only has trouble talking on the phone, but who also enjoys spending his free time wandering around in cemeteries, looking at gravestones and contemplating death. I suddenly wonder if he might alert the local police to me. I’m really perspiring now. Man, why am I so paranoid all of a sudden?

“It’s good you’ve been to it,” he says, allaying my concerns somewhat. “Take a little drive over there, look around and check on few head stones near where you want to be. Call me back with a general location and we’ll get you set all up.”

What an odd way of putting it. “So there’s space available?” I ask, feeling rather smug that I’m now using the correct term.

For the first time during our conversation he chuckles, which, I have to say, given the circumstances, is a little disconcerting. “Yes, we do, Ron. We have lots of spaces,” he pauses and then chuckles again, “Unless, of course,” he adds, “we have a run like this past week.”

Geez!

He quickly quotes me a price and we both hang up. I wipe the sweat from my brow and wish I still smoked and drank. I could use a little of each right now. Maybe a lot.

Annie comes in and rubs my shoulder, “How’d it go, big fella?”

I’m grateful for her touch and human contact. “Fine,” I say, “Good. The guy at Sorenson’s wants me to head up to the cemetery and pick out a spot, I mean space.” I clear my throat, “Want to come along?”

Annie averts her eyes for a moment, thinking, and then looks at me with loving concern, “Do you want me to?”

Her mom and dad have passed away within the past year. This whole cemetery and burial plot thing for me is a little close to home for her. I don’t want to drag her up to Lakeview unless she wants to go and I tell her that, “It’s not that big a deal, Annie. I can do it myself.”

She hugs me, “Why don’t you go ahead? Call me when you start home and I’ll make some tea for us to have when you get back.”

I’m so grateful for her. “Sounds good,” I tell her, giving her a tight hug back. Then I grab the keys to my car and head out the door, “I’ll be back in a while.”

Lakeview Cemetery is located a mile outside of town, off highway 112, on the south shore of Long Lake, the lake our town is named after. The cemetery’s been there for nearly a hundred and fifty years. Martin told me there are over three hundred people buried there and room (as he put it) for over a hundred more. “Plenty of space for you, Ron,” he told me, laughing a little, “In fact, more than enough for you to choose from.” (I can’t begin to imagine what his dinner table conversations are like.)

I take a left off the highway at the entrance, drive a hundred feet in and up a slight rise to a roughed out parking area, roll to a stop, turn the key off and get out. I’m the only car there. It’s early October and just after six at night. Since I started thinking about doing this, I’ve kept coming up with reasons not to. Now, I just want to get it over with and not put it off another day. I’m a little wired and force myself to take a minute to try and calm down.

Lakeview is the exact opposite of the pampered cemeteries with trim bushes, pretty gardens and manicured lawns that most cities have. This one is more on the shaggy side, only lightly maintained, with long grass and overgrown shrubs thriving beneath tall, shady trees. It’s definitely not formal at all and, to tell the truth, I like the casual feel to it. The sun is low to the west, casting shadows through the graveyard. The air is cool and crisp and the trees in the area have started to change colors. Looking across the lake I see rolling hills of oaks and maples turning red, yellow and orange with myriads of hues in between. Low sunlight filters through the colorful leaves above me and adds to the mellow feel of the place. All things considered, it’s a beautiful time of year to be checking out burial plots, I mean spaces. I like being outside anyway, and there’s a nice, outdoorsy vibe to the area. I’m calming down and feel myself getting into the mood to look around.

I should be clear here. I’m really not going to be buried at Lakeview. When I’m gone, I’m going to be cremated and want my ashes scattered on Long Lake; I just want a location (space!) for a stone for sort of a memorial marker. What do I mean, sort of? I – want – a – stone – for – a – memorial – marker. There, that’s better; nice and definite. I learning to accept what I’m doing; planning for the end of my life, and I’m starting to get my head wrapped around it. I want something that says that I was here. I was on this earth. I lived and died and now I’m gone, but once I was here. Sound weird? Well maybe…but it makes sense to me and I’ll tell you why: throughout the twenty one years of our marriage, Annie and I have done a lot of family ancestry research. One thing we found was that it helps to track relatives if there’s a burial marker of some sort. That’s why I’m doing this. Since my ashes are going to be scattered, I figured a stone for a memorial was the next best thing. The idea is to leave a foot print behind;  something for later generations to see. I explained all this to Martin while we were talking and I got the distinct impression he could have cared less. In fact, I thought I detected his finger tips tapping away on his desk as I blathered on and on.  When I finished all he asked is how I wanted to pay for everything.

Walking around the cemetery is…how can I put this? Different? Well, of course. Strange? No, that’s really not it. Interesting? Maybe that’s it – but not interesting like watching a special on climate change on PBS is interesting. (At least it is to me.) No, this is like trying to tap into some inner connection between yourself and the land you are walking on. Some would call it getting a feel for the place and that would be as accurate as I could put it. Standing next to my car and looking toward the lake, the land slopes away to the left. There are a lot of headstones there and I walk down and wander around, idly looking at names and dates of births and deaths. Annie’s friend is buried down here. So is her cousin. I check out both their stones. Someone’s left a bouquet of flowers for her friend. Who could have done that? I don’t have a clue. To my right, hidden in a grove of trees near the lake, a group of what looks to be high school kids are sitting on the ground talking quietly. I like the fact that they respect that they are in a cemetery and are being mindful of the dead. Then I catch of whiff of marijuana. Hmm… Well, maybe mindful is not the correct word.

I turn and make my way back up the hill and stroll past my car over to the other half of the cemetery. The ground is nice and level here. My boots are shuffling through tallish grass and fallen leaves, and the swishing sound is relaxing to my state of mind. To my right the highway noise is muted by trees and underbrush, all turning to vibrant fall colors. The burgundy red and blaze orange of the sumac is especially pretty.

I’m feeling calmer, now, wandering around. It’s not so bad being here. In fact the more I walk, the more I feel outside noises and distractions disappearing.  My attention begins to focus on my task – looking for my space. Some of the headstones here are very old, crumbling a little, covered in gray and green lichen, and dating back to the 1870’s. The oldest one Annie and I have found up here is from 1859. The name is illegible and we can just make out the date, but the interesting fact is that the person was buried one year after Minnesota became a state. I think it’s pretty amazing to have a grave here that old.

But that’s not why I said it was interesting being here. I guess what I was trying to get at was that being here really is different. It’s not the way I normally would choose to spend my free time. Thinking about death and a final resting place is not something one does every day. But here I am, doing just that. Interesting, different…you can add weird to that, too, I guess. Anyway, call it what you will, I’m here and I am coping with it just fine. It’s something I want to do.

At the far end of the cemetery to my left and overlooking the lake is an open area. I don’t know why there are no grave stones here, but it’s open and empty and might work for me. I walk over and stand in the middle of the space. It’s about ten feet from some brushy, shrubby overgrowth and a line of tall maple trees that mark the edge of the cemetery. Just beyond the vegetation there’s a steep cliff cut in the hillside leading down to the lake. It’s the highest point around – about forty feet above the shoreline, and seems like a good spot. I turn in a circle a few times, looking around, getting a feel for things. Then I look up – tree tops bend over the space and their branches form a canopy above me. Through them, high in the sky, I can just make out a wavering flock of birds flying, probably geese. There is no wind and the air has the feel of fall to it. Somewhere, someone is burning leaves and the scent fills me with a vivid happy memory of my childhood when Dad and I burned piles of leaves I’d helped him rake. In the underbrush a chickadee calls, then a nuthatch. There is a calm and a peacefulness right here that I haven’t felt anywhere else in my meandering around. I suddenly just know that this is the place I want to be. The connection is strong. It feels perfect.

I sit down and look around, soaking in the atmosphere of the place. Faraway, down to my left I can just make out a burst of laughter from the kids which quickly fades into the growing twilight. An owl hoots on the far side of the lake, it’s haunting voice fading into the stillness. Then nothing. The birds nearby have gone quiet. Silence settles in. The sun has dropped below the horizon and the air is still. It’s so peaceful and quiet…I lay back and look through the woven branches of trees into a sky turning to a soft mauve. I close my eyes and let the stillness take me away.

One thing Martin wanted to know was about my grave stone. (I prefer to call it my memorial stone.)

“Want do you want to put on it?” he asked me.

Well, now that was a good question. What does on put on the stone that will mark their place on earth for eternity…or at least the next one hundred or two hundred years or so. I’d thought about it a lot since I’d first committed to doing this but so far had come up empty. I told him I hadn’t decided and that I’d get back to him on it.

As I lay on my space, (I’m starting to get comfortable thinking about it like that) I start to focus my attention and think; what do I want on my memorial stone? A few days earlier I looked up a site on the internet that listed possible headstone inscriptions. If you want to make yourself nuts in a hurry, check it out. (No, I’m not going to give out the address. It’s easy to find.) Trust me, though, there were pages and pages of them: short ones like, “Dearly Beloved” or ” So Loved.” Longer ones like, “And The Beauty Of The Soul Revealed” or “Our Love Is A Love Always Remembered.” Sayings by famous people, “Death is the key that opens the place of Eternity – Milton” or “We all shine on…- John Lennon.” And, of course, there were religious ones, “Forever to dwell in the House of the Lord” and “I sought the Lord and He heard me and delivered me from all my fears.” And, finally, non-religious ones: “Too Well Loved Ever To Be Forgotten” and “His life was like music, a song written on the wind.”

Actually, I made that last one up, but, trust me, there were a lot of them. Funny ones, sad ones and everything in between. Frankly, it was kind of mind boggling. After I’d looked them over for fifteen minutes (which, believe me, was a lot longer than it sounds), I shut down the computer and went to my file drawer. In it I keep a bunch of old comic books I’d bought at antique stores and on eBay to share with my grandkids. I selected a Looney Tunes and opened it up and read for a while about Bugs Bunny driving Elmer Fudd nuts and Daffy Duck just being Daffy, to clear my head. I have to say, it took a couple of stories of being entertained by their antics before my mind was back to normal.

Putting thoughts of comic books aside, I lay on the fragrant grass in the growing twilight of the early fall evening and let my thoughts wander. I wanted to see what would happen – to see if somehow a saying would come to me, a saying that would make sense; one I could use to mark my place on this earth forever.

What happened next was unexpected, but actually quite pleasant. Out of the blue, memories of my life started running through my brain like old film on a movie reel. I thought I’d share some with you: the day my youngest brother was born (my first memory), the day my best friend knocked me out with one swing of his brand new #32 Louisville Slugger, warm twilight nights as a youngster playing hide-and-go-seek with friends in my old neighborhood, the scent of a fresh mown lawn, learning to skate and play hockey at the rink down on the corner, Dad falling off a ladder onto the driveway and surviving, my first orange tabby cat, me forgetting Mom’s 33rd birthday when I was seven, summers at the cabin up north, Dad and his friends listening to jazz in our living room, fishing with my uncle, Mom’s portrait on the wall in the dining room painted by her friend, my aunt teaching me how to play solitaire, Mom and Dad having cocktails and listening to Benny Goodman records in the living room, my best friend in our new neighborhood and I building a mini-bike, Mom teaching me how to play cribbage, a friend who died of leukemia, early doo-wop and Motown, failing English in seventh grade, Buddy Holly, the first girl I kissed, Dion and the Belmont’s, my first car (a little red Triumph Tr-3), Friday night football games, the perfume my high school girl friend wore, ‘The Sounds of Silence’, landscape paintings with cows in pastures, getting an A in English in twelfth grade, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, working at Swant’s Service and Gas Station, Mom and Dad getting divorced, the summer of 1969, the pacific ocean with Dad, stargazing in the Rocky Mountains, my first born child, my second born child, Bruce Springsteen and ‘Darkness On the Edge of Town’, Lake George, leatherwork, Drew Avenue South, the guys in Hop the Train, sandhill cranes on the Platte River, watching the snow fall at night, Christmas lights, the uninhibited laughter of my grandchildren (and seeing them grow), molten orange sunsets, hiking in the desert, bike riding, walking anywhere and anytime, bird watching, the job I held for twenty years, the soft light of dawn, working at two different garden centers, Lake Constance, blues guitar, sobriety, winter night fires by the fireplace, Hayseed Cree, working in the garden, soft rainfall, talking with Mom anytime, Manitobagifts, reading books, my last home (our little bungalow), bluebirds nesting in the front yard, my wife for all these years.

And that’s just the preverbal tip of the iceberg.

I could take each statement and write about it for days, but I don’t want to belabor the point. Suffice it to say that each memory is a thread woven into a rich and colorful tapestry made up of family, friends and events that have enriched my life and made my time here on earth the wonderful journey it’s been. One I wouldn’t trade for anything.

But how to sum it up into a short, all encompassing saying that I can put on my memorial stone? I mean that’s the whole point of this, right? A simple statement that says something about me and about my life; something that people who have known me can look at and nod in agreement (hopefully), and people in some far off future can look at and get a feel for the person who was me. As I write this I’m thinking: Is this too vain? Is this too over the top? I don’t know. I don’t want it to be. I just want to do it. Sort of a ‘leave behind’ marking the end of my life and my time here. It’s been a good life, of that I have no doubt. Why not commemorate somehow?

And then it comes to me. It has been a good life. In fact, it’s been a wonderful life. Wait, that’s already a movie title. That’s Ok, it’s not really what I wanted, anyway.

Restless, I get up and walk through the grass to the edge of the cliff overlooking the lake. I must have lain on my spot for a long time. I’m a little stiff and I swing my arms to loosen up. The water is mirror smooth, and there’s a reflection of a nearly full moon rising in the east  glowing on the lake’s surface. The scent of burning leaves is lingering in the air. The kids down the hill to the left are still there. I hear their  muffled laughter and it makes me smile to hear them happy. I look up and see the stars, stars I’ve watched and felt connected to my entire life. Letting my mind go to be free to play back memories of my life was fun and has left me uplifted. It occurs to me just how happy I am. Like a kid I shuffle around through the fallen leaves, enjoying the feel of them beneath my boots. I feel excited with what my memories have shown me. It’s been better than a good life, it’s been a great one. I walk in a little circle, scattering more leaves, enjoying playing in them. And then it dawns on me. What a perfect saying. I smile to myself and feel a sense of relief (a sure sign it’s the right thing to do.) I decide that I’m not going to worry myself about it anymore. I’ve thought about it long enough. Simple sometimes really is the best. I’ve got my saying for my memorial stone: “It’s Been A Great Life”. Five simple words that say it all.

Finally. What a relief!

Feeling a slightly euphoric, I carefully make my way through the dark cemetery to my car, open the door and sit in the driver’s seat. The interior light is the only light around and I blink as my eyes adjust. I take out my phone. I’m relieved and happy and want to share it with Annie.

“Hey, there. Just wanted to let you know I’m on my way home,” I say, after ringing her up.

“It’s kind of late. I was getting worried. Are you Ok?” she asks.

I try to allay the concern in her voice. “Yeah, I’m good. I’m doing fine.” I check the time. It’s just after 8:30. I’ve been here for over two hours. The interior light has gone out and I sit back and stare into the darkness. A burden has been lifted and I’m feeling both mellow and jubilant, two entirely different feelings that, interestingly, work well together.

She’s quiet for a moment and finally decides to believe me. “I’m glad. You sound good. Calm.”

“I am. I’m really good,” I want to tell her everything, but decide to wait until I get home. “I’m leaving right now. I just wanted you to know I’ve decided on a space and what to put on my stone. I think you’ll like them both.”

“That’s good, Honey, really good. Do you want to tell me now or when you get home?”

“How about if I wait until I get home? There’s a bit of a story that goes along with it,” I tell her. I’m thinking of all those memories.

“Sounds good.” She pauses and then asks, “Not to change the subject, but…” I grin. We’ve been together for a long time. I can picture what’s coming, “Can you do me a really big favor?”

“Absolutely.”

“I’m in the mood for a treat.”

A new shop called The Dairy Store has opened in town specializing in homemade ice cream. We go there a lot. “Let me guess, licorice?”

I can see her smiling on the phone, “You guessed it, Ronnie.”

“A pint of licorice it is.”

“Get something for yourself, too, Ok? Well celebrate.”

She doesn’t have to twist my arm. I can see a pint of salty caramel in my future. “Will do. Anything else?”

“No. Just hurry home, Ok? I’ve missed you.”

I check the car’s clock: 8:42. The ice cream shop is open until 9:00. “I’ll be home soon.”

“See you, Sport.”

“Love you, Babe.”

“Love you, too.”

I start the car, turn on the headlights, pop in a CD, turn around, and inch out to the highway where I put my foot on the brake and stop. It’s pitch dark out and the high beams from the cars coming from both directions temporarily blind me. I blink to clear my vision and wait a minute for a break in the traffic, listening to the music and taping my finger on the steering wheel. After a minute there’s finally an opening. I turn to the right and start shifting through the gears, accelerating down the hill toward town. Low level clouds have moved in and the lights on the buildings reflect a soft glow in the sky. There’s a feeling of calm to the night. Annie’s waiting for me and I’ll be with her in no time. I can’t wait. Those memories start playing in my head again, a lovely movie rolling on and on and on. It really has been a great life, one I wouldn’t trade for anything. And you know what another great thing is? There are lots more memories to be made, of that I’m sure. I’m looking forward to all of them. I shift into top gear and whistle a little under my breath, smiling as I head for home.

(To be continued…)