Dad tore the glossy page from the Church magazine (the Liahona) and had Mom tape it to the wall of Dad’s rehab center room. But in the shadow of the armoire, the painting hung disappointingly obscured. “I made a mistake, Rog,” he mourned. “I can’t see Him. I should have left the picture in the magazine.” Without asking, I simply removed the picture from the wall and taped it to the armoire door, in the room’s full light, and Dad’s face lit up with pleasure and relief. “That’s so much better. Thank you, Rog.” The picture was a reproduction of Dad’s favorite painting of Jesus, who Dad adores and knows as his personal Savior and Friend. “You know, Dad, people are praying for you, in the name of Jesus, all over the world.” I listed some of the locations where friends and families assured me they were praying for Dad, and for Mom, including in the Church’s sacred temples: Utah, New Jersey, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Illinois, Virginia, California, and Texas; Cardston, Alberta, Canada; Brazil and Portugal. Next door and down the street. Larry texted me: “I just paused and offered up a prayer for your dad, your mom, and you. Please let them know we love them.” And at church, numerous people have shown genuine concern, and have reassured us with, “Nelson is in our prayers.” Hundreds of people are praying from the soul spaces of love and faith, in the name of the Divine, for Dad. I have felt too fatigued to pray much formally, to kneel and bow and form words in the normal pattern. Some would say I do not pray. But I do. I am a walking prayer, a driving prayer, a working prayer, a mealtime prayer, a mountain bike prayer, a hospital bedside prayer. At night, too tired and heavy to remain vertical, I contemplate the ceiling from my bed and open my heart and mind to the Divine, casting my will upward, not really caring if I connect, but just opening myself and giving myself to Whoever orders the vast Universe, offering up what little I have to give, giving thanks that Christ’s Kingdom continues coming, giving thanks for the privilege of being a small part of the Kingdom’s growing, using no words, being simply a willing consciousness. “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire / Uttered or unexpressed.” (See Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, #145. Text by James Montgomery, 1771-1854.)
The two Brazilian women had invited us to dinner at a Brazilian restaurant where we looked forward to reminiscing on our many tender connections to Brazil. They run a small housecleaning business and work very hard scrubbing toilets and mopping floors and scouring sinks and vacuuming carpets to make a passable living. I had planned to pay for the group, but in the order line they whispered happily to me that they were paying for the group. I felt grateful for their generosity and mortified by their sacrifice. I mumbled a feeble protest, not wanting to hurt their feelings or draw attention. “Não pode ser,” I said—This cannot be. Would my dad be angry? they wondered. How could I say that Dad and I would both feel embarrassed without embarrassing and hurting them? Instead of explaining, I offered a compromise: they could pay for themselves and for Mom; I would pay for myself and for Dad. They accepted without hurt. But no one expected what followed. Dad’s steak and onions came out timely and well (medium), then Mom’s seafood stew. While Dad munched on his steak and Mom hunted for shrimp, we reminisced over avocados the size of cantaloupes, the colors and smells of the traveling street market feiras, neblinha fog rolling in from the Atlantic and over the big city of São Paulo, the fine falling garoando mist-rain for which we do not have an English word, and the cheerful generous people of Brazil. And Dad cannot simply resist telling about how when I was born the world had only cloth diapers and he had to wash them out by hand and how they strung ropes across the apartment to hang my drying diapers, but in the cold June humidity they would not dry so he pressed them dry with a hot iron, and I was beyond embarrassment and simply dumbly smiled. We spoke mostly in that most pleasingly musical language of Brazilian Portuguese. But our food never came: Solange and Ana and I had ordered several favorite Brazilian appetizers for our meal—coxinhas, bolinhos de bacalhau, esfihas, pasteis, kibe—and they never came. The owners were vacationing in Brazil, half the cooks and servers had called in “sick,” and the remaining two teenagers ran around overwhelmed and frantic. We checked with them several times on our orders. Several times they brought us the wrong orders, meant for other frustrated customers. Solange pilfered some white rice and black bean feijoada from the buffet, but the rice was only half-cooked—al dente would be kind. At nearly the three-hour mark, the frenzied young manager came to our table, apologized profusely for the problem, refunded some of our money, offered us free brigadeiro cake and vanilla pudim, and begged us to give them another try on another day with another kitchen staff. We thanked him. We laughed at our experience. We could have vented angry frustrations, but we laughed. We laughed because we had enjoyed such wonderful conversation, memories, impressions, and stories (even if they were about my cloth diapers). Solange’s and Ana’s meekness and cheer and forgiving positive spirit made anger and frustration impossible. And they had received no dinner at all! But the five of us together for three hours relished company and conversation, generosity and kindness, and had the best bad restaurant experience of our lives. Solange and Mom hugged a rocking dancing hug, smiling and laughing, and Ana jumped in. Dad received abraços, too, though he is not a hugger. And I did not complain at being embraced by two pretty ladies from my birth country of Brazil.
The wedding is in three days, the last of many weddings and receptions and courts of honor and baby blessings to enliven Mom’s and Dad’s beautiful back yard over two decades, under the big tent. And we are getting ready. Since neither Dad nor I can face yardwork this week, Dad hired a man to string trim and mow the lawn to wedding-standard perfection. But the man’s mower had a flat tire and every pass left high spots on one side and stripes of drying grass on the other. The man promised to come back later after his other jobs, but his truck broke down. So Dad offered to mow the lawn himself (Dad: “I can ride my own mower”), and the man promised to come back tomorrow and string trim (Dad: “but I can’t string trim”). Dad moved on to scrape the peeling garage side access door, prepping for new paint, while I pulled weeds and crab grass in the flower beds—we each lasted half an hour—whereupon we retired to our respective recliners, him for an onion sandwich and me to use my literal lap top to address the latest urgent legal problem that couldn’t (wouldn’t) wait for my recovery. My home office sits above the garage, and the electric rumble of the automatic door motor, embedded in the floor joists of my office, startles me every time. After the door climbed its track today, I heard a woman’s wailing and I bolted barefoot for the garage, racing with the image of Dad dead on the concrete floor and Mom weeping unconsolably over him. But the garage was quiet, and Mom’s car was gone, and Dad was going round two with the door frame—and a branch chipper ground away down the street, sounding every bit the wailing old woman. As my heart settled a bit, I wondered at my paranoid catastrophic jumping to unwarranted conclusions based on some perhaps far-off future. You worry too much! (I know). Brad, a nice neighbor, brought his muscle truck and yellow straps to wrestle the 800-lb. brick knocked over mailbox back into its hole, and Ray wandered over to help, and Darrell, and every car driving by stopped to comment and encourage, but Dad had to watch from his chair, feeling useless, and I chose to watch from my upstairs office window, feeling useless, because I was not going to be the person who gave Brad and Ray and Darrell and Mom and Dad this modern plague of Covid-19 like the giving person who shared it with me in Dallas last week, despite the fancy hep filters and my liberal use of germ killer. I’m just glad Dad was not lying on the concrete floor with Mom wailing, and the wedding can enjoy the celebration it deserves.
I knew I needed a break. And a good place to take one was at Harvey’s house, four hours distant, in the small isolated town of Enterprise. I consider Harvey the hero of my book Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road. Actually, my seven children are the principal heroes and heroines. But Harvey is the non-family member that joins them on the podium. During his long and colorful life, Harvey was a tanner of hides, a seeker of nature’s healing ways, a modern mountain man living in remote hills and attending rendezvous, and a friend to American Indians, earning from them the name Many Feathers. Harvey invited me one day to an Indian sweat ceremony, where I languished for three painful hours while also reveling in Indian song and story. And at the end I smoked the peace pipe handed me by a Navajo Sun Chief, to offer my sacrificial prayer of smoke from burning sage. Harvey is 84 now, and I wanted to see him. So, I waved farewell to Mom and Dad and made the voyage. Skinny and bent, Harvey puttered with me around his house and yard, feeding his prize pigeons and meat rabbits, frying up potatoes and sausages in his black iron skillet, and telling stories about the old days. After a long day, I slept in the bunk house he built, warmed by the flame in the pot-belly stove. Before I knew it, I was waving good-bye to Harvey and Mary and driving the long miles home to Mom and Dad, but feeling renewed from my time with my friend.
We drove around the block to the church at 5:30 p.m. for the annual pot luck Chili Chocolate party. I had assumed we would not go, what with the difficulty of walking, etc. But Dad had announced the day before that he was making a crock pot full of chili, and reminded us the party started at 5:30. I placed the chili crock pot and the chocolate pudding cake in the back of the faithful Suburban and drove the short distance. The church cultural hall was already crowded with smiling costumed families. Several long tables boasted two dozen pots of all variety of chilis and chowders, with another table for corn breads and several more for chocolate desserts. I met a few more neighbors, including Kolani, Joshua, Lacey, Heidi, and Zane. I fit six sampler cups on my plate and filled them with six soups. My favorite was the creamy salmon chowder with potatoes and corn. A neighbor did what Dad did not want me to do: she brought him a plate with filled sampler cups. When I thanked her, she quipped with a grin, “I just decided to barge in and bring him a plate.” Carolyn, sitting next to us, asked me to dish up a cup of Dad’s chili for her. I found the crock pot empty and announced that Dad’s chili apparently was very popular—it was all gone. Dad was obviously pleased, both that he had brought the chili and that people liked it. As usual, I ate a bit too much and felt very full. And I was powerless at the chocolate table, although I only nibbled at the six desserts I crammed onto my plate. As I retrieved our empty crock pot, Rick asked me if I had brought the chili in our crock pot. “Nelson did,” I answered. “It was my favorite chili of all,” he enthused, “just like my mom used to make.” I reported that to Dad, too. Mom said gratefully, “Thanks, Nelson, for making the chili and taking us there tonight. I enjoyed myself!”
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.
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?
A lion sits on my bed, a little lion, named Little Growler. He clambers onto my pillow each morning after I make the bed. Hello Little Growler, I say. He guards the small house all day. And he shuffles off to his secondary perch when I draw back the blankets at night. He does not demand anything of me. He does not growl or bark or mewl or drool. He does not whine or glare or fume. Little Growler came to stay when I moved away. She brought him with her one day and introduced us. She knew I was alone now. She was 9.
When she turned 10, Olaf skated home with us from Disney on Ice. He joins Little Growler with a grin that refuses to dim. Pooh Bear with his round rumbly tumbly completes the trio, wandering in from California when the girl was not quite 2 and we met a giant Pooh and a giant Tigger and they happily squeezed in with us in a photo of the family: together.
I wave to the threesome at night – company in the dark is comforting – and manage to smile and say Good night little friends and remember Hannah at 9 and 10 and 2 and know we have had some happy times and I am not irreparable and I am very much alive and moving into something mysterious and beautiful and that Little Growler will be perched on my pillow when I come home at night.
My son Hyrum and I recently visited with one of my life’s heroes, Harvey Russell. Harvey has been a mink rancher, tanner, mountain man, handyman, and friend to American Indians. He helped me build my chicken coop and brought me to a four-hour sweat ceremony led by Sun-Chiefs. His Indian name is Many Feathers. Arriving at Harvey’s place, Hyrum and set to work helping Harvey with his chores and projects, during which he told stories of the “old days” and we laughed and enjoyed just being together. The happy juxtaposition of these two men, one 16 and the other 81, struck me. They got along marvelously together, each respecting and enjoying the other. Kindred spirits, perhaps. Those ruminations led to this little poem.
the other 81
one coming up
the other moving on
little alike, perhaps,
to fashion with sinewy fingers
to be busy in doing
to stand back, dusty and bruised,
admiring their handiwork:
sitting, grinning, laughing
each helping the other up and on
Here are more pictures of our visit.
Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road. The book tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit. The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.
–To change the world, we must first change ourselves.–
Harvey had to leave. He lost everything he owned. He moved out to the West Desert to live with a mountain man friend who lives in a teepee. He said he would do fine, but worried about staying warm enough and getting enough to eat in the freezing winters. I worried for him, too. I did what I could to help Harvey, examining legal documents, but it was too late. Continue reading