Dad told me he would cook dinner tonight. We would have lasagna with meat sauce, plus steamed vegetables. I told him that sounded wonderful. When I arrived home from work, he took the lasagna out of the box and slid it frozen into the hot oven. An hour later he emptied a bag of frozen lima beans into a pan, and shucked fresh sweet corn on the cob. Stouffer’s makes such yummy lasagna—thank goodness for the occasional frozen dinner. Stuffed and satisfied, I thanked Dad for making dinner.
Mom asked me almost sheepishly after church, “Do you think, perhaps, we could take a drive today? I would so like to see the old Bawden home my grandparents built.” “Of course!” I answered. “I’m sorry the thought did not occur to me before.” Dad’s faithful Suburban lead us by the back roads across the Salt Lake valley to historic Granger, my mother’s hometown. We noted fondly the orange-dotted pumpkin farms and horse corrals and vegetable gardens, and commented on the architectural eras of the homes—1930s bungalow was our favorite. Mom suggested we drive by the house where Dad lived from 15 to 26, from junior high school to his 1962 marriage to Mom. “I moved here 70 years ago,” he observed flatly. Many of those years were unhappy and traumatic for Dad and his siblings due to trouble at home. But Dad was blessed by the influences of Isabelle Bangerter, Grant Bangerter, and Ella Bennion, all of whom built him up, treated him kindly and with respect, nudged him toward a path of personal fulfillment, and influenced his concepts of self-worth and the life worth living. The tension and sadness I felt in the car evaporated as I drove away. A few miles away, there sat the old Bawden house, strong and modest and pretty, built by the family in the late 1800s. I met my great-grandparents there when I was a little boy as the family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. In the 1930s, Mom’s father Wallace built a bungalow nearby, for his new wife’s wedding gift, and there Mom grew up, in the new Bawden bungalow near the old Bawden homestead. Granger was all farmland then, with homes separated by miles of farms. Now it is deteriorating strip mall suburbia. I spent many days in Mom’s childhood home, roaming the empty dusty old chicken coops, breathing the soothing old smell of the oil-and-dust garage, pumping the hand well, hunting giant night-crawler earthworms for trout fishing, and roasting hot dogs on the outdoor cinderblock grill at family parties. When my grandma lived in a nursing home in her mid-90s, the family sold the house to the car dealer next door, who razed the prime half-acre and put in a parking lot. I can’t help thinking of Joni Mitchell’s famous Big Yellow Taxi from 1970: “They paved paradise, Put up a parking lot.” I feel grateful I have memories and photographs of that old paradise.
My great-grandparents’ home in Granger, Utah.
Unlike Dad, Mom seems pleased with a little pampering. She does not feel threatened by being helped. During her recent illness, she was not reluctant to tell me what she wanted and needed. And I enjoyed doing it. “Would you get the mail from the mailbox?” “Will you dish up my dinner? Do you mind bringing it to me in my chair?” “I’ll have mango juice, please.” “Thank you, sweetie—I’m just bossing you around, aren’t I?” I felt happy to be of good utility. And she was sweet and grateful. But now that she is recovering, she treks to the mailbox for the mail and dumps the recyclables into the green container, with no need of assistance from me.
From my home office window, I saw the USPS mail truck drive by. A few minutes later the doorbell rang. I ran down the stairs and opened the front door to find no one there and no packages on the porch and no mail on the javelina snout. Huh, I wondered and literally scratched my bald head. Mom was sitting calmly at the kitchen table. “Mom, I heard the doorbell ring, but nobody’s there.” She allowed a sheepish grin and told me it was she that had rung the bell. At my quizzical look, she confided that the doorbell is a kind of intercom message from her to help Dad get up and get moving into the day.
“I don’t want you to pamper me!” Dad barked. I thought I was just being courteous, delivering his dinner, carting off his dirty dishes. “I can do it myself.” Watching him do it himself is painful for me because it is painful for him. The effort to do the simplest things is enormous and exhausting. But I respect his desire to not want paternalistic pampering. I respect that he does not want to feel old and feeble, that he does want to feel strong and capable, despite knowing that “I’m going downhill fast, Rog.” My opportunity is to affirm him discreetly, to help him with subtlety, to step quietly in without implying my help is needed. So, when Dad is ready for seconds, I get up from the dinner table for an ice cube or the salt, and say with nonchalance, “I’m already up, so can I bring you something?”
I had taken Avery’s chili dinner to Sarah and Tracy, and read picture books with Gabe. Dealing with cancer treatments, they appreciated the meal. Arriving home, I could smell that Dad had gotten dinner ready: grilled bratwurst, baked squash, boiled cauliflower, sautéed onions—a feast! Forking a brat off the grill, I noticed a foreign electrical cord connected to the grill. Looking under the grill surface into the drip pan, I saw the correct cord, where I had stored it, covered in hot grease. I commented my relief that the foreign cord had worked, and lifted the grill surface to retrieve the hot, greasy cord. When Dad saw he had grilled not only the brats but the power cord, he let out a dismayed “Oh shit.” Not in anger, but in chagrined exasperation that he likely had ruined my cord. “I feel so bad I cooked your cord,” he lamented later. I told him not to worry, that now we knew other cords would work, and anyway the cooked cord looked no worse for the grilling. Nothing had melted or burned. I suspected when cooled and washed up, the cord would work just fine. And now Mom and Dad know I store the power cord inside the grill unit when not in use, where understandably one would not think to look for it. And the bratwurst were grilled to plump juicy perfection.
Mom and I are recycling buddies, distressed by the thought of recyclable paper, cardboard, plastic, and metal cans being dumped by the billions into landfills. Aluminum cans are 100% recyclable: each can recycled results in a new can. We fill two large green recycling containers throughout the week, and set them by the curb on Sunday night for Monday morning pickup. Even the toilet tissue tube is remembered. If the wind is blowing on Sunday, we wait for early Monday, because during one storm all the containers on the street blew over, sending recyclables sprawling across the neighborhood. E.P.A. reports that Americans discard more than 2,000,000 tons of aluminum cans each year—that’s 40 billion pounds, enough aluminum to rebuild the nation’s entire commercial airline fleet every three months. I am astounded that we dig the stuff up out of the earth, refine it, shape it into packaging—all at huge cost—and then use it and throw it away so more of it can be mined at huge cost. About 30,000,000 tons of plastic go to U.S. landfills each year. To me, it makes so much sense to reuse these materials. I choose to stow my cynicism about the American recycling industry, hoping it becomes more robust instead of diverting our recyclables to the landfill. Anyway, Mom and I have fun saving our clean recyclables for the weekly recycling truck. My sister Megan takes our glass bottles to a glass recycler. We like to believe we are doing something good for our planet.
Living now with my parents, I cannot fathom the reality that we had no family gatherings with Mom and Dad for 18 months due to Covid-19. My sister Sarah grocery shopped for them every Saturday during those months. I cooked for them on occasion. We always wore masks and washed and sanitized our hands and kept our distance—no hugs (except for “air hugs”). My siblings called Mom and Dad frequently, sometimes daily. Sarah, as a speech pathologist, works at a critical care facility with people who suffer from conditions affecting their communication and swallowing. While donning head-to-toe personal protective equipment, she watched Covid rage through her patients, ending the lives of too many. My siblings and I all understood and respected that if Mom and Dad contracted Covid in their aged and weakened conditions, we likely would lose them, as so many thousands lost members of their families. To keep them safe, we did our little part to stop the spread, following all the recommended precautions, putting philosophy and politics aside in the interest of safety. Mom and Dad received their first Pfizer vaccine at a huge convention center. Hundreds of old and infirm people stood for hours in long lines, walking from station to station around the entire perimeter of the hall—fully a mile. Dad thought his cane would do, but shortly into the ordeal he confided to me, “I don’t think I’m going to make it.” I had him sit down while I ran for a wheelchair. They received their third shot this week at a local health department facility, walking 20 feet past the front door to their seats, with no wait. What a difference between the two experiences! But in all three cases, the nursing staff were so kind and pleasant and helpful. After all the family members were fully vaccinated, we began to visit again. My sister Jeanette recently came to visit from Arizona for a week. We cooked together and played Scattergories and drove to see the fall leaves in the mountain forests. And we broke out the fall crafts: wood pumpkins, a harvest-themed wreath, and a tall scarecrow. My niece Amy joined in, painting the eyes black and the nose orange. How grateful we are to be safe, healthy, and together again.
My first ever attempt at a wreath.
“I wish I could do more for you,” Mom lamented one recent afternoon. “I am so sorry for all the mistakes I made as a mother.” For a moment I stood stunned at the revelation of my 82-year-old mother’s insecurity, especially as incongruous as it was with my memory of reality. Mom gave her whole soul to being a mother. Hot whole-wheat gruel steamed on the table before school, and she served a delicious dinner at precisely 6:00 p.m., every day. She washed by basketball socks and took me to buy my first pair of Levi’s. She gathered us every Sunday afternoon to play games—PIT was a favorite, with six kids clamoring cacophonously for “wheat!” and “rye!” and “barley!” The family car ran night and morning with rides to and from marching band practice, piano lessons, and early morning Bible class. I sat at the kitchen table one evening struggling with my homework, trying to remember the Spanish word for pain—dolor. She surprised me by bursting out protectively, “You know: dolor, just like Delores!” referring to my painfully unrequited infatuation for a girl at church. I never again forgot that word! She nursed me through dozens of ear infections and serious injuries followed by surgeries and staff. She organized a family vacation to the magical woods of Maine, and I have loved loons since. She even gave me an enema (my most embarrassing life memory) when I writhed from what the doctor arrogantly insisted was constipation but was in truth an appendix about to burst. And at 82 she says good-bye with “I can’t wait to see you when you come home!” and greets me after work with “There’s my boy!” Once again she is providing a safe and comfortable home for me, and listens without upbraid to her children in all their multitudinous troubles. “What mistakes?” I asked her sincerely. “I cannot remember any.” Even were they present, and I presume they were, they are long forgotten. We six siblings, and our numerous offspring, all cherish her. It is our turn now to wish we could do more for her.
I have said good-bye to Settlement Canyon and my seven-mile mountain bike ride. I knew every rock and root of the Dark Trail, every low tree limb and snagging wild rose. How I loved that trail. I rode that trail with Hannah and my sons Brian, John, Caleb, and Hyrum during the exile years. I have ridden in snow and mud and scorching heat. I have ridden past meadows of sego lily, taper tip onion, and glacier lily. I have ridden with pronking deer and flustered turkey and migrating tarantulas. And there was that day I startled a merlin with its taloned prey still dripping blood. The Dell in Sandy is close to my new home, but its deep sand sucks at my tires and the river cobbles buck me off. Dad used to run in the Dell, a nature area with deep sandy ravines and a small stream. He knew well a family of red fox, which he adored and once fed with rotisserie chickens from Smith’s. He also rode for miles and years on the 50-mile Jordan River Parkway, as have I, catching frequent glimpses of the slow river with its great blue herons and its beavers. But today I gathered my courage to explore, and ventured into Corner Canyon, an area of steep gambel oak gullies in the Wasatch foothills. The Draper Cycle Park proved an excellent place to warm up, with its short training flow trails and pump trails. Then I rode three miles up the Corner Canyon trail. Having thus relished two delightful hours, I flew down a blue-level flow trail named “Limelight,” the last 2.5 miles of the Rush trail—very fast, moguled, banked, and flowing (all the more fun for the names of the song and the band). I felt very happy as I drove home, hosed off and stowed the bike, and greeted Mom and Dad. “Tell me all about it,” Mom enthused, having worried the whole morning that I would crash (again) and hurt myself (again). “I’m done going crazy fast and drifting and jumping,” I reassured her. But it was impossible not to enjoy the speed.
I met Primus Butler in 2007 as he walked 20 miles with a cane across the Tooele Valley, and we became friends. Primus was born with a form of muscular dystrophy. As he explained to me, the left side of his brain is highly developed, while the right side has the faculty of an eight-year-old. Thus disabled, he reads voraciously, completing his five thousandth book this year. And I’m not talking Hardy Boys, but long and complex works of non-fiction, like Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. He rates and lists every book—a select few he finds “indispensable.” He can discourse for hours about history, politics, biography, religion, and world civilizations. He earned a degree in Bible and Christian Education from Central Bible College in Springfield Missouri. And he is a writer. His first published book is entitled, Heroes of Hope, a collection of 52 biographical sketches of men and women whom Primus considers to have “changed the world by daring to hope.” (See the Xulon Press bookstore.) Mom and I each bought a first edition. Once every month or two I take pizza or fried chicken and Coke to Primus’ house to catch up and talk about whatever interesting subjects cross our minds. Primus does most of the talking because, well, he knows most of the information. I called him to tell him I had moved from the valley and would not be able to see him as often, but that I would stop by from time to time. He did not betray any sadness. But we have become friends, and I will keep in touch. Primus is preparing his second book for publication: 52 sketches of his Heroes of Love.
Dad stubbed his fourth toe against the couch at three in the morning. The toe pained him badly and turned black and purple. “I think I’ve broken my toe,” he announced to me the following day. Poor guy, I thought, there’s always one more thing. Fortunately, his regularly-scheduled podiatry appointment was only three days away. The podiatrist was so considerate as he clipped and ground, bandaged and lotioned, stockinged and shod. Childhood polio and 20 years of marathon running have taken their toll, eliminating ligaments and mashing bones. Was all that jogging and marathoning worth it? As a teenager, I saw Dad taking his pulse one evening. “Twenty-eight!” he cheered. His resting heart rate was about 30 beats per minute for two decades. I wondered how many heartbeats his exercise had saved him over those years, and if he were getting good use of them now at 85. His own father died of a heart attack at 59, before I was born. One Saturday morning in New Jersey, Dad did not come home from his 20-mile training run. I knew roughly his route, and Mom sent me in the station wagon to find him. That long run on that hot humid day had been too much, and I found him walking on Cranberry Road miles from home. I gave him a thermos of cool water, and we stopped at Claire’s market for fresh sweet corn on the cob, Jersey tomatoes, juicy peaches, and the most delicious crenshaw.
I spent the morning researching stair lifts, also known as chair lifts, the makes and models, the Acorns and Brunos, leasing verses purchasing, wondering if it were time to make that move. I hear Dad grunting on every step, and Mom wheezing at reaching the top. Sitting with them in their bedroom, I shared my research, and asked them what they thought about the idea, and the timing. Dad acknowledged that climbing the stairs is hard for him to do, but he can do it. He worries that once he stops doing a hard thing, he will lose the ability ever to do that hard thing again. He thinks it best to keep on exerting, fighting even, doing everything he can to be strong and capable. Mom and Dad had been going to the rec center six days a week before Covid shut down the nation’s gyms. They would make a circuit through the many machines, strengthening back and arms and legs and heart. He wants to go back, because his muscles have become soft. He knows he will be starting over again. I, too, seem to be always starting over after some injury or event (like moving) has knocked me out of my exercise routine. I used to become discouraged about always starting over, but now try to be grateful I have the opportunity to start over, building on yesterday’s strength, and to keep working at life’s challenges, believing that every effort at living ultimately is strengthening and redeeming. So, Mom and Dad said no to the stair lift, for now. Dad wants to keep working as hard as he can. He is not being stubborn about the stair lift, or walking, or working in his yard to the point of collapse (literally, like today, when he sank to the grass on shaking legs that just would not hold him up anymore, and crawled to the brick mailbox to claw his way back to his feet, while I stood inside obliviously baking a guava cream cheese tart, and how did no one driving by see him lying on the grass?). No, not stubbornness. Instead, he is fighting for his independence and his dignity and his strength, fighting for his life. That example I can absolutely respect and emulate.
When I awoke from foot surgery—removing neuromas in both feet, again—I heard a pump and felt a squeeze, first on one calf and then the other. Unbeknownst to me, the surgical center staff had strapped me in leg squeezers (aka air compression leg massagers), to assist blood circulation and minimize the risk of blood clots. I was surprised at the need for leg massagers, because the operation lasted only 45 minutes, and people sleep much longer every day without anything squeezing their legs. When Dad’s feet started to swell, I thought maybe my leg squeezers might help his circulation as he sits reading in his chair until 3:00 or so in the morning. But having one more thing to strap on to one’s hard-to-reach extremities and to keep track of and to not trip over is a hassle. When he permits, I strap on the compressors and push the blue start buttons, setting the devices to inflating and squeezing and deflating and starting again. He often straps them on without my aid, and says the leg squeezers help.
Mom keeps a list of Dad’s prescription medications in large-sharpie print on a white posterboard taped to a cupboard. And underneath are the pillboxes, one for morning and one for night. With his late-night reading, Dad often doesn’t take his a.m. medications until the p.m. “Did you take your pills, Nelson?” Mom badgers from her recliner, knowing she has to badger because he forgets and procrastinates. When he sheepishly shakes his head “no” she fires back, “You have to take your pills!” Bad things can happen when the pills remain in the pillbox. But eventually all the day’s pills get swallowed. What a great little invention the pillbox is. I even use one so the day’s medicines and vitamins and supplements are all ready to bottoms up. A pillbox is especially handy when traveling, so I do not have to take a bag full of bottles, although I have learned the hard way to strap the box closed with rubber bands. Come Sunday evening, Mom and I are filling Dad’s and my respective pillboxes. You have to take your pills!
Sunday church services focus on what we call “the sacrament” in my Church. The sacrament consists of small pieces of bread and small cups of water, one of which we each eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus. After Covid-19 forced churches to close, Church leaders authorized the men of the Church to use their priesthood authority to provide the sacrament at home to their families and others. While the church buildings are again open for in-person attendance, Mom and Dad have been too weak to go. How pleased and privileged I felt to use priesthood authority to prepare the bread and water, to kneel and offer the prescribed prayers, and to distribute the sacramental emblems to Mom and Dad. After we partook, Mom looked up at me from her chair and said sweetly, “Thank you so much. That was very special.” As a threesome, we discussed how the sacrament serves several purposes. We remember Jesus, his infinite loving sacrifice for us, and his ongoing atonement. We covenant anew to obey God’s commandments, and to love and serve our neighbor. We recommit to repent and to strive to be our best selves. And we express our gratitude for our life and blessings. After our intimate church service, we broke our fast and enjoyed leftover creamy vegetable soup and toasted ciabatta.
After more than a month, I finally managed a bike ride, not on a pretty mountain trail, but on the neighborhood streets. What lay beyond the mechanized gate was a mystery to me, though hundreds of noisily cars and trucks come and go daily, each stopping to provide identification. The guard raised the gate with a friendly wave, and I passed into Pepperwood. I rode on quiet winding streets with quiet expansive yards and quiet splendorous houses, pushing up steep hills and careening down—the radar speed limit sign clocked me at 29 mph in a 25-mph zone. I pondered on the Pepperwood privilege even as I admired the expensive yards and houses. Lincolns and Cadillacs in the driveways. Tennis courts and pools in the back yards. Turrets and wrought iron fences. I am uncomfortable with money, perhaps because I don’t have much. I do not begrudge these people—I know many of them, and they are law-abiding, religious, and kind—but I cannot help comparing their power and privilege with humans of equal worth who have none of this wealth. But then, am not I also privileged, riding my mountain bike on a paid holiday with a salary and insurance and a 401(k)? Yes, I am. Privilege is no single condition, but a spectrum, a sliding scale, a degreed thermometer, and we are all both blessed and cursed with it to some degree. This is what we must beware: privilege turning into pride. Pride is humanity’s downfall. Such were some of my thoughts as I sweated uphill and thrilled downhill and watched for cars zipping out of driveways and watched for mule deer pronking across the narrow streets far inside the gates.
The Suburban key would not come out of the ignition. It was soundly stuck. And the gear shift handle flopped around incongruously, like an odd-angled broken arm. The accident in 2018 had totaled Dad’s beloved Suburban, 20 years old, and had just about totaled him. The force of the collision snapped his scapula clean in half—an excruciating injury with a long and painful recovery. Once he began to heal, he joked with his grandchildren that he had broken his “spatula.” Dad could not bear to say good-bye to “my faithful Suburban,” which had crossed the country and pulled trailers and carried the family and the kayaks and the spring-bar tents to extended family reunions. So, he kept and fixed his car, which is as good as new. Almost. With the key now stuck in the ignition, the battery drained and died. We tried the lawn mower battery charger, to avoid a tow to the dealer. Eight hours later the large car battery still had zero charge. Our neighbor, Terry, hooked up his 15-amp charger, which zapped the Suburban battery to 100% in 30 minutes. Dad’s first Lyft took him home from the dealer while the car was being fixed. The repairs accomplished, his faithful Suburban once again sits in the garage, ready for grocery shopping, hauling bags of bark chips, and taking a Sunday drive to see the reddening leaves of Fall.
After unfairly losing a big case in court in 2009, I knew that my stress would be the death of me and that I needed to change my lifestyle. So, I signed a gym contract and resumed my strength training and cardio workouts after a several-years hiatus. But with my new two-hour commute and duties at home, going to the gym has become impractical. “Unrealistic” is a better word, since 5:00 a.m. might be practical, but not realistic—it simply is not going to happen. I paid VASA’s unfair exit fees and said good-bye to the gym. Mom and Dad regularly ride their stationary bicycle, and I have resolved to ride it also, and to maintain my core-strengthening regimen: all praise the plank. I also strain at elastic bands to strengthen the shoulder I injured in a mountain biking accident. The floating clavicle of that separated shoulder will not let me do push-ups. But Dad showed me how he kneels on one carpeted stair and pushes off against a higher stair in an angled push-up, and I found I could do the same with small discomfort. I still ride my bike in the local canyons, but have slowed down and never take the jumps—my nearly 60-year-old body no longer bounces without breaking. After one wreck with four broken ribs (2017) and another with a level 3 shoulder separation (2019), I simply cannot take another fall.
“Mom,” I whispered to the cute lady napping in the plush recliner. Would you like to come get the mail with me?” “Sure,” she nodded groggily, such a good sport. We small-stepped arm-in-arm out the front door, past the pumpkins and mums, and toward the brick mailbox. Almost there, I suggested, “What do you say we first walk to the corner?” She would rather have not, but came along without protest. At the corner, I ventured, “Should we walk to the next corner, or turn around?” We had done what we both knew was helpful and enough, so we turned around, my arm crooked to fit hers, and tottered together to get the Church News, the bills, and the junk mail. Having exercised, we were ready for a French soup of pureed potatoes, carrots, and onions, mixed with chopped spinach and mushrooms sautéed in butter and salt, enriched with heavy cream, rosemary, salt, pepper, and a bit more butter. Très délicieux!
Nothing interesting happened today. Nothing exciting. Nothing fun. Nothing new. Nothing much. I have told my children that much of life is uninteresting and unexciting. If they live their lives in search of constant excitement, they will live lives of frequent disappointment. Life is mostly maintenance, not meant to be consistently euphoric. But life can be consistently satisfying and fulfilling. When the big exciting events of life are few and far between, we can turn our attention to the little things, where we will find the happiness of a smile, the pleasure of a delicious flavor, the kindness of a Hello, how are you?, the insight of a book passage, the deepening release of forgiveness. From this vantage point, the mundane can become miraculous. Not that the event has changed, but rather the way we see it. My daughter Erin introduced me to the daily discipline of finding the miraculous in the quotidian. During a challenging period in her life, she began to search for her life’s miracles, and wrote them down in a daily Miracle Journal. As I entered into a prolonged arduous period in my own life, I took her example to heart and began a similar search, recording daily the little miracles. And I discovered a previously unperceived abundance. Any particular day can leave you or me not wanting much to live, but upon a sincere search, we can find real miracles, or events of goodness and light. And, of course, there are no little miracles, for the very nature of a miracle is to be divine and life-blessing. While not loud or blaring glaring, all miracles are grand. After a particularly grueling day of work and stress and drama, I arrived at home and found Dad sitting in the back yard patio, contemplating the grass, shrubs, flowers, trees, and mountains. “Hi Dad,” I said simply. “Rog!” he called out. “I’m so happy to see you!”
I had never heard of a “gender reveal” before, and I confess my first involuntary horrid absurd notion was of holding aloft a naked infant for the invited guests to gawk at. Instead, I learned, a gender reveal is a party at which the soon-to-be parents and their guests learn from a trusted person the sex of the coming child, followed by balloons and confetti and thick-frosted cake, colored blue or pink, boy or girl. At John’s and Alleigh’s invitation, family and friends from Utah and Idaho gathered to Mom’s and Dad’s house for the celebration, happy to see each other, pumping hands and exchanging embraces, catching up on news and activities, eating chicken salad croissants, everyone eager for cupcakes with swirled pink and blue icing. Mom and Dad added little cups of deluxe mixed nuts and candy corn. We played cornhole, the always popular bean bag toss game. Then it was time for the revelation (or is it “the reveal”?). John and Alleigh each grasped a cardboard cannon, cameras whirring. On “3!” they pulled the cannon strings and out exploded clouds of blue confetti—and then the whoops and screams of delight. Their first child will be a boy! His two-year-old cousin, Lila, gathered up little fists-full of confetti and announced, “fireworks!” They had been equally contended with the thought of either sex. Their exuberance was not over the baby’s gender, but over the ever-more-real fact that their baby is coming, soon—the happiest of all possible news.
After the big rains, a prodigious paint bulge in the vaulted ceiling plus rain gutters filled with shingle grit prompted a roof inspection, and revealed the need for a new roof. A herd of elephants, it seemed, started tromping overhead at 6:00 a.m., shoveling the 25-year-old shingles to the ground and driveway dumpster below. Somehow Dad managed to sleep through the racket—not Mom and me. The crew covered the curtilage with tarps, protecting the bushes and shrubs, and catching shingles and nails. The sun heated the tarps to such a degree that they burnt to brown the tops of every bush—Dad cut off the dead tops with his electric hedge trimmer. Mom and Dad instructed the roofers remove the old, ineffectual attic vents and fan, which they replaced with a ridgeline vent that looks like thicker shingles. The job was done in a single long day. The vent requires cutting an inch or two in the ridgeline plywood—the vent would not work without it. I poked my head into the attic to verify the cut was there—it was. Not thinking to wear a mask, my throat scratched for hours with insulation dust. Years before, Dad had installed a heat cable to prevent ice buildup on the eves. The roofers tore off and threw away the heat cable with the old shingles, except for two downspout heating elements left dangling from their outlets. The roofing company manager said he would have a new cable installed before Dad paid the bill. I was worried about the company taking advantage of my elderly parents, but the cost was in line with what the neighbors paid for their new roof. Now we can get the paint bubble repaired. Mom and Dad are proud of their home and have worked hard to keep it in excellent condition. They have faced life together in this home, and overcome. Here they have gathered their posterity to celebrate and mourn and strengthen. Sometimes, in the evening, we dawdle around to admire the beautiful yard. Sometimes we sit in the driveway watching the sun set and waving at the neighbors walking by with their dogs. Sometimes we sit on the back patio and stare at the imposing Wasatch mountains, where the mountain maple and gambel oak leaves are turning red. And we listen to the crimson-headed finches sing.
I have been thinking about marriage, that it is perhaps the most challenging of all human relationships. There is so much at stake, from our personal happiness, our financial security, our sense of place and purpose in the world, to our having a posterity to love and be loved by. Marriage is at once difficult and instructional. Marriage requires consecration and sacrifice, a constant negotiation toward a healthy and fluid balance of power, a vigilance for the welfare of another over the self, and a give-all commitment by both partners to the covenantal promise. I have been thinking that no relationship will teach us more about how to be human, and how to be divine. In marriage is the likelihood of experiencing life’s greatest pains of spirit and mind, and the possibility of life’s greatest joys, and very probably both. I think marriage generally works either to wonderful or to catastrophic effect. I have observed many successful and failed marriages, but none so carefully as Mom’s and Dad’s marriage, now in its 60th year. They shoulder every burden together. They discuss every problem and plan and posterity. They cry and plan and laugh and laugh. They are not two identical halves, by any means, but two congruent complementary components forming an entity complete. Dad does most of the talking, and Mom all the needlepoint. Dad calls “Lucille” throughout the day, telling her his every thought and impression. Mom at times snaps in exasperation, then rebounds with affectionate pats on his hand. Though my own marriage experience cannot emulate theirs, still I feel proud of my parents for sticking with it, for keeping the covenant, for showing the way. For my own part, the continuing opportunity is to keep my covenant with God, with my children, and with the broader family, and to lead a purposeful, contributing life. That is sufficient.
Mom’s and Dad’s neighbor stopped by Sunday afternoon with an invitation to a block party at his house later in the week. Hamburgers and hot dogs plus pot luck salads and desserts. I decided to go—he is my neighbor now, too. Mom and Dad decided it would be too difficult for them to go, so I walked over alone. They thought it would be bad form for me to bring them food from a party they did not attend or contribute to. I understood, but explained that if Darrell offered, I would accept. I received a warm welcome, which was nice since I felt a bit awkward as an older single man in a crowd of contended couples. I met several families: Valentine, Liu, Antonelli, Back, Lundgren, Jarvis, Breen, Callister, Taylor. Nice people all. I fought off creeping distress after learning four names, fearing I would forget them all upon hearing a fifth. Many of them inquired after Mom’s and Dad’s welfare. Fixings for the hamburgers included crisp bacon, grilled onions, and over-medium eggs, and I confess to enjoying my burger very much. The donuts I brought were popular, disappearing as fast as the burgers. Mary Ann asked if I would like to take some food home for Mom and Dad. “Well,” I responded, “I have been instructed neither to request nor refuse.” “Well, then, load up a plate!” she ordered. Dad relished his “most excellent” hamburger, and Mom her blackened all-beef franks.
During gym class, playing volleyball—that’s when it happened. My heart started to flutter and I became weak and light-headed. Sitting on the sidelines with my fingers pressed to my jugular, I managed to count 300 beats in a minute. Then it stopped, and I was fine. I was 17. My doctor trained me to stop the runaway heart-beat using vagal maneuvers, bearing down while holding my breath. Normally, lying on my back was all it took to slow the beat. Fully 40 years later, the vagals would not work, and my friend took me to the emergency room after two hours at 180 bpm. My cardiologist explained SVT—supraventricular tachycardia—a condition in which the electric circuitry of the heart becomes confused momentarily and takes an unintended and incorrect short cut, sending the heart racing. He thought low-dose Metoprolol would do the trick, and it did.
The roofing inspector had come to examine the 25-year-old shingles, and Mom watched from the back yard, seated on the rock wall. She began to feel funny in her eyes and head, stood up, became dizzy, and collapsed. The mortified inspector helped Mom to a chair. Her lip had glanced on a rock and was swollen and red. A brain MRI showed no stroke, no tumor, no inflammation, nothing but a very healthy brain. But the halter heart monitor revealed repeated episodes of rapid heart rate. Mom’s doctor, a neighbor, called me to explain the test results, the textbook symptoms, and the treatment. Knowing all about SVT, I jumped in to inform him of my condition and treatment. We chuckled in astonishment and excitement at the genetic coincidence. “Looks we know now where you got it from,” he said, amused. Chuckling felt appropriate, because Mom’s condition is not a heart defect, just a minor electrical short, and easily treatable, and because after four weeks of tests and consultations and worry, we both felt so relieved to have the answer, and such a positive one. Mom took her first dose tonight, and is already back on the stationary bicycle, albeit slowly and carefully, her fear ebbing, on her way to renewed strength.
Mom texted me to see if I would take her and Dad to Walgreen’s when I got home from work. The object of the outing: sugar-free chocolate candy for Dad. Mom gave me careful directions to the store, and in and around the parking lot. She stayed in the car, but encouraged Dad sweetly with, “Get lots and lots, Nelson.” And we did. Hershey’s and Russel Stover’s, more than a dozen bags in many varieties. “This will last me for six months,” Dad beamed. Along with mixed nuts and popcorn, he likes to munch a candy here and there while reading in his rocking chair late into the night. His only disappointment at the store was the absence of sugar-free chocolate truffles. We stared dejectedly at all the many kinds of chocolate truffles he could not eat. I reassured him I would order some immediately from Amazon when we got home. It’s time to go keep that promise.
Dad suggested we bring home Café Rio for dinner. I suggested we pick up some pumpkins on the way. He protested that it was too early in the season, that they would just rot if we bought them now. I countered that if we bought them in a month they would have sat at the store for that month instead of prettily on their porch, and opined that the pumpkins would not rot until after the first hard freeze. He conceded the point. I parked at Lowes in a handicapped stall with direct line-of-sight to the pumpkin boxes, holding the pumpkins up one by one for Mom and Dad to give me the thumbs up or down for each. We left with four: traditional orange, wrinkled red, white with cream cycle splotches, and a deep green with skin lobed like a brain. At Café Rio, I stood Mom’s four-footed cane in the line. Mom and Dad sat at a table near the menu so I could explain their dinner options. The lady ahead of us moved the cane with her as the long line progressed, to keep our spot. Mom chose the roast beef burrito, and Dad the roast beef salad. Mom hinted she would like a tres leches for dessert, and Dad entreated for a key lime pie (diabetes be damned). “I’m worn out just from sitting there waiting,” Dad sighed as we walked slowly to the car. He had forgotten his cane, and so leaned on my shoulder instead. Back at home, Mom and I arranged the pumpkins festively on the front porch before settling into TexMex and Netflix.
I live my days on the edge of anxiety, tense, waiting for the next unexplained bump or clang, in fear of the next fall, tense, nodding with sleep at my desk but ready to jump into action at the slightest premonition. The garage door opens, and I start at the sound, knowing Dad has ventured into the yard to clip or rake or hoe or mow or fertilize, and the temperature is 95 degrees, the sky cloudless, tool handles too hot to touch, the grass rotting and pungent in the can. My personal spiritual pursuit is to cultivate trust, a trust that life is beautiful and good, a trust that I can improve my character and mind, a trust that truth and goodness will prevail as often as possible, a trust that God is real and loves infinitely and actively, that he redeems and pays personal attention and dispenses mercy abundantly to all who want it. That is my labor. I feel tired. I’m going to go check on Dad.
Dad rode off on his mower as I began my gut-tightening planks. (Thank you, planks.) At rep 5, I heard a muffled clang and noticed the lawn mower engine was not running. Outside the window sat the mower without its rider. I knew instantly what had happened. Bounding out the back door, I found Dad on the ground, one leg and half his pelvis in the six-foot-deep window well, where the welded-rebar cover had collapsed from under him. He could not move, despite body-shaking effort. All he could clutch was bark chips, which had shredded his forearms. This notorious window had previously swallowed my sister Sarah and her three-year-old son Gabe (see my story Angel Gabriel). An extrication procedure quickly became apparent. 1) Grab sweat pants behind hamstring and pull, lifting leg and shifting pelvis out of window well. 2) Grab sweat pants behind hamstrings and haul straight legs into kneeling position. 3) Embrace back and chest, and hoist body to hands and knees. 4) Grip under armpits and pull to a standing position. Thank God it worked. The nearest seat was the lawn mower, which Dad shakily resumed, turning the ignition key. “Do you promise me you are safe to ride?” I yelled above the roar, careful not to further bruise his already battered pride. He nodded and sped off. It occurred to me then: this story had a multitude of bad endings, and only one good ending. Mom’s first fall taught me never to minimize a noise or an impression. As a result of learning that lesson, I was at Dad’s side in seconds—but only because I was home early from work and was exercising in the only part of the house from which I could have heard the well cover collapse. How grateful I felt for circumstances to have aligned in such a way to allow my presence and awareness. I would never debase the occurrence with the words coincidence or luck. Miracle will do nicely, thank you.
After years of listening to Heitor Villa-Lobos music during his late-night reading, Dad abruptly shifted to Johnny Mathis. Seventeen tracks repeat every night. Amazingly, I know all the songs—I heard them on the radio growing up. And I learned to like his iconic voice. The CD insert did not include the song lyrics, so I offered to print them for him, from the internet. “You can do that?” he asked. “Of course,” I answered, feeling smart. I pasted the lyrics of the 17 songs into a Word document and handed him the stack of pages half an hour later. He was impressed. The next morning, however, he told me how disillusioned he felt with the song lyrics, which included a lot of “baby baby” and “I need you” and “our love will never die” stuff. I expressed my experience that while popular lyrics are often shallow, the music and the feeling can still be quite moving. Some lyrics are quite romantic and sweet, like in Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine, the beguine being a slow rhumba-like French dance. In the song, the commencement of the beguine dance music conjures powerful feelings of love and romance for the dancing couple. From my home office one morning, I felt tender feelings as I heard Dad’s gravelly waking voice singing Begin the Beguine to Mom, his sweetheart of 60 years:
Let them begin the beguine, make them play
Till the stars that were there before return above you,
Till you whisper to me once more,
“Darling, I love you!”
And we suddenly know, what heaven we’re in,
When they begin the beguine.
Mom received a letter that Dad’s urologist had retired, and to call for an appointment with the new urologist. She called in July for an appointment in September. Arriving home late from work, I saw immediately how exhausted Mom and Dad both were after their appointment. They told me they had waited for over an hour to be seen by the doctor. I felt immediately furious that people who were old and feeble and sick were made to wait an hour past their scheduled time. The exertion of waiting, compounding the exertion of getting to and from the office, left them spent and sick. I sent a complaint to the practice, telling them it is negligent to make such patients wait so long to be seen, the wait itself worsening their conditions. I have prevailed upon Mom to make future appointments for a day and time when I can take them. I am going to have to demand they be seen promptly and not made to wait. Being fragile, the last thing they need is the irony of their care providers jeopardizing their patients by leaving them waiting in exhaustion for their care. I am curious to see if the practice will be defensive or will acknowledge they could have and should have done better, and will do better next time. Fortunately, the care they finally received was acceptable. And a next time may not be necessary. The doctor said to Dad, “Look, you’re 86. If you don’t have prostate cancer by now, you never will. You don’t need to see me again unless something changes.” He renewed Dad’s prescription in perpetuity. True to their character, Mom and Dad did not complain but graciously accepted the blessing of that being Dad’s last visit to the urologist.
Roger to his neurologist ten years ago: “I had a brain MRI two years ago.”
Neurologist to Roger: “Really? What did it show?”
Neurologist: “Really?! Well, I’m sure it showed that you have a brain!”
Roger, soto voce, Oh, you are just so clever, aren’t you?
Mom describes her brain MRI as a horrifying experience, one of the worst experiences of her life. And this from a woman who had her childhood cavities filled without Novocain. Despite the standard-issue ear plugs, the rhythmic clanging banging of the MRI machine smashed past the plugs and into her cranium and rattled around tortuously. While I fell asleep during my last MRI, she did not know if she would survive hers. She was so spent and disoriented after the scan, she found walking implausible and opted for a wheelchair, and was never happier to be home in her recliner. I will see to it that her next MRI is preceded by a dose of valium.
Her MRI report has come in, with its “supratentorial” this and its “intraparenchymal” that, showing conditions “not unexpected for age” but otherwise “normal in appearance.” No signs of stroke. No tracks of tumor. No inklings of inflammation. Mom wanted to jump for joy, but settled for a grinning cheer and a shaking of upraised hands. She felt so relieved! So did I. But the mystery of fainting and abrupt general decline remains. Still, with nothing now to fear, Mom has resolved to resume exercising on the stationary bicycle and walking to the mailbox and back. Get well cards arriving by U.S. mail all look forward to her quick and total recovery. And her name is being uttered in many a fervent prayer.
Dad’s hobby is reading. He is the smartest man I know, reading biography, theology, philosophy, history, fiction, science, etc. He indulges his hobby from 10:30 p.m. until at least 2:00 a.m., every night. One night’s literary fare may be the Book of Mormon, the Bible, or other scripture. Another night may be The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels or Rumpole of the Bailey stories. Often he reads the World Book Encyclopedia, the next day telling me everything he learned during the night. Did you know nectarines spontaneously appeared on a peach tree in China over two millennia ago? Other days he reads books his children gave him for his birthday or Christmas, when book gifts are a sure thing. During those late-night reading hours, Dad listens to the music of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, particularly his Bachianas Brasileiras (my translation: Brazilian musical pieces after the manner of Johann Sebastian Bach). Having been a missionary, post-graduate student, minister, and international lawyer in Brazil, he loves Brazilian music. And he loves the Brazilian people. In 1971, while finishing the sweat equity on the new Baker house in New Jersey, a cassette tape of the Bachianas kept him company. At a particular point in Bachiana No. 7, an electrifying sensation suddenly swept through him, a visit from a spiritual plane, and he knew somehow that he would be asked the following year to take his family to Brazil to oversee the Church’s missionary work. The impression came to pass, and our little family went to Brazil for three years— I was eight years old. I, too, love the Brazilian people, and the food, and the language, and the music. Villa-Lobos—what a cool-sounding name—and it has a fun meaning as well: city of wolves. Heitor City of Wolves. Bachiana No. 7—at counter 16:55 in the Tocata/Desafio. World Book Encyclopedia: N for Nectarine. Two a.m. and all is well.
Music is always playing at Mom’s house. As a boy, I awoke on Sunday mornings to the sounds of Bach and Brahms and Beethoven filling the house. I associated music with Mom, and with home. On my 15th Christmas, she introduced me to Aaron Copland, whose music was the first to stir my soul in otherworldly ways. I learned to change out dull needles and set the stylus on the vinyl track I wanted to hear. Now, instead of one side of an LP, she places five CDs in the player, and pushes play for five concert hours. I hear the bossa nova of António Carlos Jobim, Von Williams’ Fantasy on Greensleeves, the symphonies of Mahler and Janáček, Copland’s quintessentially American ballet scores, Bartok’s concerto for orchestra, Barber’s concerto for violin, the virtuosic guitar suites of Villa-Lobos, Arty Shaw’s swinging clarinet, Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. . . . I love them all. Her collection has inspired my musical loves, and I have lately expanded her eclecticism with Ceumar, Tó Brandileone, and Cainã Cavalcante, brilliant contemporary Brazilian artists. Music has some mysterious power to move us and to fill the corners of the spirit reason alone cannot seem to reach.
Dad’s daily lunch fare is—gasp—onion sandwich. (I do not like raw onions in any form or food.) He insists on the large Wala Wala or Vidalia mild sweet onions. With the onion cut in two, an inserted fork keeps one half in place while he cuts a large sandwich slice, which goes on multi-grain bread with a slathering of mayonnaise and spicy mustard, a slice of tomato, a square of Swiss cheese, and leaves of lettuce, with potato chips on the side and a cold Diet Coke for refreshment. Dad keeps telling me how delicious his onion sandwiches are, and I keep telling him I will try one someday. I don’t know that I will.
I was in a hotel elevator, at a conference on domestic violence prosecution, in Provo, Utah, when I learned of the attacks on the Twin Towers. The scheduled speakers yielded to the television screens as we watched, stunned and horrified. Twenty years later, I walked amidst 2,977 American flags planted in a field, a Healing Field, in my new residence city of Sandy. Each flag had a tag with a name and a story of where he worked, how she was loved by family and friends, what their hobbies were, their age, their loved ones, and the location of their death: World Trade Center; Pentagon; Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field near Shanksville. I read a hundred or so tags on flags flying for the people who died on 9/11/2001. I had dressed in a jacket and tie, thinking it fitting. The next day I drove Mom and Dad slowly around the field, twice, because they couldn’t walk, but they wanted to see, they wanted to honor, and I told them about the persons I had read about—the Flight 93 pilot, the World Trade Center trader, the Pentagon general, the child traveling with her mother, the secretary, the cook. And the next day I descended on the field with 300 other volunteers to remove the tags, roll up the flags, and yank the three-foot rebar from the ground, one each for 2,977 persons, including 411 first responders, whom we have promised to always remember. I rolled flags and yanked rebar with people aged from 10 to 80. One of the octogenarians poked me with the butt of a flag, and apologized, and I joked, “You know, I have always been told to watch out for pretty ladies rolling up American flags,” and she laughed. A small older man followed me and others as we pulled rebar from the ground, carrying heavy stacks of the stuff to the flatbed trailer. I called him “Rebar Man” but his real name was Ishmael Castillo, a brawny little man with a big soft heart who came to help. I thanked the organizer, and he gave me a 20-year commemorative bronze medallion. I saw the Alta High School NHS photographer looking in the now-empty field for his lost lens cap, and I asked him if he had received a 9/11/2021 medallion, and gave him mine, because I had bought one for myself on 9/11. “That is amazing,” he gasped his thanks. The empty field will endure, now, until 9/11/2022.
Today is the Sunday Sabbath. My laptop is hooked up to the flat screen via HDMI chord, and we are watching church by Zoom—the sacramental service, the hymns, the prayers, the speakers, the Sunday School class. I have brought to Mom and Dad bowls of six-grain hot cereal cooked with apples and cinnamon, cooled and enriched with cream. When church services are over, Mom asks me to take her envelope with her tithes and offerings—her alms—to the bishop, for the support of the Church and the poor of the Church. And I walk home to discuss with them the deep doctrines, and what to cook for dinner: chicken fricassee in creamy red wine paprika sauce with steamed zucchini and corn on the cob. After dinner will come attempts to read, and naps in recliners.
The desk on which my computer sits and at which I sit to type these vignettes is not a desk at all. It is a repurposed kitchen table. In fact, it is the very first kitchen table my young wife and I bought for our very old new home. It was made of typical gold-colored pine slats with white-painted legs. That small table served our little family for years. When the little family became a big family, we needed a larger kitchen table. The old table was passed from room to room as a desk for various children. Erin stained the table top a darker brown and painted a green-and-maroon border, with blue flowers on vines in the center. I thought it was beautiful. During my six-month exile of separation, I took the table to my construction zone quarters as my writing desk. I had gathered notes and observations for nearly 20 years, determined to someday write my book. I had felt compelled for years to write it, but never made the time. But now a chiding thought nagged at me: You’ve always wanted to write your book. You will never have a better time to do it. Now is the time. So, I got to work. Nights and weekends I typed up my chicken scratch notes, many written as I walked on Rabbit Lane, elaborated my thoughts, printed and sorted and organized, reassembled and knitted together the stories in chapters, until the manuscript took its first breath as a real creature. I published the book in 2016, entitling it Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road. I felt better about this book than anything I had ever accomplished. I knew I had done it well and had made something beautiful and worthwhile. As we placed the old kitchen table turned writing desk into the moving truck last month to bring it to my new office at Mom’s and Dad’s house, a leg irreparably broke off. I was prepared to let the desk go, despite its sentimental value, but while I was at work Dad and a friend sank three long screws to repair the desk for my ongoing writing. I am hoping one day to prepare new manuscripts of which I can be equally proud. And I never see those blue flowers in the center of the table without remembering my daughter Erin and her beautiful artistic soul.
In the grocery store, Mom followed her prepared shopping list—penciled on a yellow legal pad—items grouped by type and store location, and if it’s not on the list she doesn’t need it, because if she needed it, it would be on the list. Dad, listless, followed the whims of his heart and his hunger: Jarlsberg, Swiss, and Gouda, cauliflower and broccoli, fresh salmon and parmesan chicken, frozen pizzas, bags of roasted nuts. Any why not be whimsical with foods that look beautiful and sound delicious and that one is sure to relish? Why not enjoy both the shopping and the eating experiences? Neither approach is inherently correct, of course; both are equally acceptable, and complementary. Mom and Dad each pushed a sanitized dual-purpose shopping cart, for filling with food, and for leaning upon. While Dad meandered among the fresh produce and artisan cheese, Mom and I walked to the dairy cooler via the cold cereal aisle. A pretty middle-aged woman walking by surprised me with a generous smile. Her sleeveless summer dress exposed significant portions of her enhanced bosom. She passed us twice more, and each time that smile. After the third pass, Mom hissed at me, scandalized, “That woman is flirting with you. It’s so obvious! And her boobs are practically falling out of her dress!” Mom’s observations filled me with a sudden and unexpected panic, and I was in junior high again, awkward, anxious, and utterly unable to flirt. She’s flirting with me? I thought, stupefied. Why? I could not understand it. And I could not respond. Even had I been interested, my flashback to adolescent anxiety left me perspiring and paralyzed. Which is just as well—now is not the time or the season. The parking lot sloped away from the grocery store, and Mom and Dad pulled back on the reins, as it were, to keep the colts from bolting. I drove silently home, disturbed at the stirring sensations I have worked so hard to suppress. I focused on seeing how many shopping bags I could carry into the house in one trip, and helped my providentially protective mother put the groceries away in their various nooks and crannies on the pantry.
What I’ve always known—cognitively—is beginning to sink deeply in—emotionally—with emphasis on the word “sink,” and pulling me down with it: I cannot fix this. I do not have the power to heal the illness, to strengthen the tired muscles. The canes and walkers and wheelchairs, the doctor visits and blood draws and MRIs, the heart monitors and blood pressure cuffs, the shakiness and fatigue, the “take your pills” and “drink more water” and the worry worry worry—they are all here to stay. I am riding this streetcar with Mom and Dad to the fim da linha, the end of the line. One day, the streetcar will come to a stop and Mom and Dad will get off, and I will wave good-bye. And then the car will start again and turn some corner and carry me toward other stops. Until then, my power is found in my weakness, my strength in my service. All I can do is cook and clean and comfort, and listen, and love. And this is enough. In fact, this is the job. The job is not to fix anything as we ride the streetcar together, but to be with them for the duration of the ride, and to make the ride as comfortable and peace-filled and happy as my siblings and I can.
My children pooled their resources and purchased an Aero Garden for my Father’s Day gift. Nine little cones, each with their own seeds, sat immersed in water. Upon every garden planting, I struggle to believe the seeds will sprout, but they always do. Months later I have a jungle of basil and dill and parsley. The basil plants needed pruning badly, so I cut them back and dropped the three-inch leaves into a blender with garlic, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and olive oil: pesto! This was to top the focaccia dough proofing in the oven, warmed slightly by the oven bulb. Mom and Dad and I savored munching on the aromatic, flavorful flatbread. I drove some focaccia squares over to some Brazilian bread aficionado friends, and we enjoyed a taste of pesto over conversation. Ciabatta, sourdoughs from wild yeast starter, Scottish Struan, cheese bread with Guinness, and Challah—they are all fun to make and more fun to devour. And who doesn’t enjoy the therapy of kneading out one’s frustrations while stretching those gluten fibers?
Years ago Mom planted milkweed seeds in a patch of open dirt under the Austrian Pine. The plants are difficult to establish, but once established proliferate and dominate their territory. She likes the shapes of their leaves, the heads of pretty perfumed pink starlet flowers, and the conical green seed pods that brown and break open and spread thousands of fluff-laden seeds on the breeze. But the real reason she grows the milkweed is to attract Monarch butterflies. As a child in Brazil and New Jersey, I gathered Monarch caterpillars and fed them to maturity, watched them pupate and finally break free as butterflies with wet wrinkled wings that vibrate and spread into black-webbed fiery flapping sails. As an adult in Utah, I have helped my children do the same. The Monarch chrysalis is like no other, a soft powdery green with stripes of gold: a living jewel. Although Mom she has not yet seen a Monarch floating above her milkweed plants, still she hopes one will flutter by someday and stop to lay its eggs. I believe it will. For Mom, her milkweed patch has become a symbol of hope: hope for beauty and hope for successful growing up and taking off, a hope and trust in life.
I have been shouting a lot lately. Not because I am a brute or a bully or an offended narcissist, but because the hearing aid batteries seem to go dead every day. Or the hearing aids are not being worn. A person cannot wear hearing aids comfortably, of course, when mowing the lawn—such amplified sound would rattle their teeth and ruin what’s left of their hearing. And there is the surgical mask, which, when removed, catches on the hearing aid and flings it across the church parking lot. What an indignity to continually be shouted at, to have to ask “What?” and “Hmm?” all the time, to miss the happy songs of finches at sunset.
I tended my great-nephew Gabe on a recent Saturday afternoon. He is all of three years old. He lights up when he sees me because I love him and play with him. I light up when I see him because he is adorable and smart and fun and sweet, and likes being with me. On that Saturday we made my daughter Laura’s recipe for banana chocolate-chip muffins—the secret ingredient is sour cream, and these muffins are wonderfully moist and soft. Gabe and I set up our work areas on the kitchen’s center island. Given the attention span and dexterity of three-year-olds, I thought it best to give him his own bowls and measuring implements and ingredients. While I mixed the real recipe, he mixed his own concoction. The secret ingredient of Gabe’s muffins? Colored sprinkles, lots of them. And egg shells. As I was breaking eggs into my batter, he asked for an egg for his. He held the egg over his bowl, smashed it with his little hand, and dropped it into the bowl, shell and all. Mom and Dad watched smiling from the family room. I could hear a faint ringing echo as we mixed batter and talked, and I said to Mom, “Can you hear that ringing?” It turned out to be a hearing aid sitting on a table, reacting to my voice. But Gabe got off his stool and came over to hug my leg with a concerned look on his upturned face. He teared up and asked about the monster making the noise. When the hearing aid explanation meant nothing to him, I tried to reassure him by telling him confidently that there were no monsters in the house because I had eaten them all for breakfast—yum!—and that my favorite one was the chocolate monster—yum! And not one monster was left to bother him. He laughed, looked worried, and laughed again. As Gabe left with my sister and some sprinkle-topped muffins, I told him to gobble up any monsters he found at his house for his breakfast, and he smiled and said okay. Yesterday he left a crayon rainbow drawing on my pillow.
After a 30-year career in New Jersey, Mom and Dad retired to Utah, purchasing a home close to the Wasatch mountains. Loving the beautiful eastern forests, still they yearned to come back home to Rocky Mountain country. After dinner, Dad often retires to a chair on the back patio. Mom joins him there. They listen to the ebullient songs of finches and wonder at their happiness. They watch the mountains in all their moods, under sun, in storm, green with rain, dusted with snow, and desert dry. They remember old adventures: dragging a juniper root off Mount Timponogos and turning it into a red cedar lamp; hiking to Lone Peak with not quite enough food and water, and being aided by other hikers; the moose on the mountain trails; fly fishing for trout during a drizzle; boulder-hopping on the ridge to the Little Matterhorn; parties and picnics with children laughing. Such evenings are the perfect setting to remember good times, talk about how much we love our families, and listen to joyful birdsong.
Dad keeps his lawn green and trimmed and mowed. The lawn gets nourished monthly with the correct kind of fertilizer, and enjoys a haircut twice a week. Donning a straw hat against the sun and potential skin cancer, he drives his red riding mower, curving around the beds of bushes and flowers, happy to be in the saddle. A neighbor commented, “Nelson, you are the most determined man I’ve ever seen in caring for a yard.” One Friday night in spring, Dad asked me if I would fertilize the lawn first thing Saturday morning so that the coming snow would dissolve the fertilizer into the turf. Come morning, however, the lawn was buried in four inches of heavy wet snow. Not wanting Dad to be disappointed, I ventured to push the spreader anyway. With two wheels on the “ground” the spreader merely pushed against the snow. But with one wheel on the ground—the wheel geared to the spreader—and the other elevated, I made good progress. It is often hard to see where one has fertilized because the spreader swath is three feet on either side, and I lose track of where I’ve been. I did not have this problem now because the fertilizer sat on the surface of the snow. Unfortunately, the grains of this particular fertilizer were yellow, and now Dad’s entire yard was covered with yellow snow. Dad was astonished, having never seen fertilized snow. He commented, “Roger—it looks like the whole lawn was trampled by peeing deer.” Indeed, deer are frequent visitors, eating down spring’s lily shoots. Just yesterday I watched a nearby mule deer doe watching Dad as he string trimmed. Now, at summer’s end, the grass is green green. Dad cut the grass again last night. Now it’s my turn to do my job: take the push mower around the places where the riding mower can’t easily maneuver. And empty the bags of cut grass.
Arriving homing from work, I observed Mom ironing white linen handkerchiefs. Not knowing people who use handkerchiefs, let alone iron handkerchiefs, I inquired. She told me that when I was an infant in Brazil—(Dad was a post-graduate Fulbright law student at the University of São Paulo)—she would push me in the stroller down the noisy urban streets to the American consulate to retrieve their mail and to check out books from the consulate library. On occasion, just for the fun of exploring, she would board the street car and ride it to the “fim da linha,” the end of the line, to see what there was to see. Hearing of women who sewed lace, she rode to the fim da linha and walked to the little lace shop. Beautiful hand-sewn lace lined shelves and graced tables. With little money for nonessentials, she chose several thin white handkerchiefs into which were embroidered white vines and leaves and flowers. Nearly 60 years later, she held them with care and ironed them free of their wrinkles. Some of the stitching has come out, but still left are the needle holes and impression patters of where the lace used to be. Beautiful things made by beautiful people so long ago at the end of the street car line.