Going through mail late Wednesday night after a long week of long travel, I noticed a letter from a friend, a single rose amongst all the junk mail. Rather than opening it on the spot, I made plans to save it until Saturday morning, where I might savor it at the coffee shop down the road, where our friendship was born a handful of years ago. Lately, I’ve tried to make a point of giving myself things to look forward to. When it works well, my Saturday mornings become sacred spaces, a chance to replenish some measure of all the week’s taxes.
Yesterday, though, had a few plot twists that kept me from filling my cup, both figuratively and literally. It was well past 1 p.m. and I found myself driving around after running a couple errands. Robbed of my ritual, my head was not in the best of spaces. The coffee shop closes at 1:30 on Saturdays, so I’d missed my window.
I was about to return home, where I’d probably grumpily wallow through the rest of a ruined Saturday, when I remembered I still had the unopened letter in my bag. On a whim I navigated to the Eat n’ Park off Oak Springs Road, which I hadn’t visited in years, but which was in heavy rotation when the kids were younger. Pulling into an open parking spot triggered a memory of an Eat n’ Park Saturday long past, when Peter, maybe 9 at the time, attempted to order a Boys’ Day-Out lunch consisting of mashed potatoes, a baked potato, french fries and potato chips. I remember telling him at that time that if his mother was with us, she would stab him in the eye with a fork.
I wasn’t really hungry, and I’d already had the morning’s coffee, but the idea of a big table and a comfy booth sounded … comforting for some reason.
The hostess seated me near the front.
So, hours late, off schedule and way off course, I exhaled from my comfy booth and fished the letter from my bag.
Though deep into his 80’s, my friend Jim writes his letters with a calligrapher’s hand (though he saves his best penmanship for his poems).
As one whose handwriting has degraded so much that I have long resorted to typing my letters (though I try salvaging a measure of dignity by choosing a typewriter font … lame, I know), I delight in reading the hand of others. Tearing open the letter, I pluck just a brief note from my friend. Letting me know that the timing of my last letter to him was of great encouragement, as he received it on the day of his wife Mary’s passing. He had only months ago placed her in a personal care facility, after caring for her for years and through the Pandemic as she slipped further into dementia. In his last letter to me he wrote unflinchingly, achingly but beautifully about being physically separated from his wife for the first time in their 66 years of marriage. A minister and former Army chaplain during his long full life, Jim always writes mindful of God’s audience, which begs an even greater reverence from his fortunate reader.
He closed his short note by sharing that his final Valentine’s gift to Mary was a new book of poems he’d written over the past three years, finished several days before she passed. The title: The Road Bends Upwards (those four words a poem unto themselves).
He wrote in my letter that Mary chuckled when he read the collection’s dedication to her over the phone …
Duck your head
Close your eyes
Take my hand
And we will walk this road
One more time
My eyes filled as I read his words.
The ineffability of the inevitable disassembling of a long love on this earth. And still the poet reaches for the only tool he knows to claim the shaky ground beneath him. Knowing the effort will come nowhere close to its mark. Just as any long love misses as much as it aims at. Grief rendered in all its aching beauty.
Yes to that.
I still held Jim’s note in my hand when the server stopped by my table to take my order. I somehow managed to mumble an order without my voice catching and then just sat there.
A few minutes later my server brought me my sandwich. I began mindlessly picking at it.
From my booth near the front, I faced the hostess station, so got to see everyone who came in.
I was maybe midway through my sandwich when I looked up and saw an older couple being led to their table. They had to be in their 70s, maybe older (I’ve never tried to be good at guessing such things). They cut quite a contrasting presence. He was bald, tall and broad. She was his diminutive opposite, short, petite with a shock of straight gray. Candidly, though, I may not have given them a second thought, still so deep and lost in my figurative and literal sitting with the contents of Jim’s letter … if it wasn’t for one thing that caught my eye.
They held hands.
And took their good time in no great hurry. Heads high, looking forward, not saying a word as they followed the hostess in front of them.
The way they held each other’s hand, in their mismatched nylon coats, I swear to God they walked the worn carpet of our old Eat n’ Park like they were walking down the aisle of a church.
As if they hadn’t lost a step in probably the 50 years that passed since their I dos.
It was like, in each other’s hand, they were reaching for the only tool they knew to claim the shaky ground beneath them.
Yes to that.
Thanks to Jim’s friendship, his letter, his example, I found myself mindful of God’s audience. How else could I account for choosing to wait to open his letter until Saturday? My careful Saturday morning plans blowing up? Finding myself at an Eat n’ Park I hadn’t visited in years to crack open his beautiful letter? Looking up from my front row seat to catch the fleeting glimpse of an old love still standing the test of time?
And in the process … giving me something to look forward to … well beyond the end of any week.
So, in between bites of my turkey club, I claimed the shaky ground beneath me, to honor my friend and his beloved.
To stab at the ineffable, knowing going in that the effort would come nowhere close to its mark.
Love misses as much as it aims at.
And, before I gathered my things and myself to return to whatever was left of my Saturday, I asked for the check of the happy old couple seated at their wedding table near the salad bar.
For Mary and Jim
Sun finds me sitting alone at a big booth near the front
Saturdaying a double-decked turkey club,
toothpicked together much like my morning,
triangled in quarters just how I remember it
when enters an old couple,
he big, tall and bald,
she small, gray and boss,
following the hostess in procession,
holding hands and walking slow
maybe because they are just old
maybe just because it’s as fast as they can
or just maybe
because the warmth of each other’s hands
is their knowing secret,
still bewitching them like a good campfire
after all these years into a slow savor
claiming the worn carpet ‘neath their feet
as their I (still) do aisle,
rendering my booth a front row pew,
and me grateful for the gift of bearing witness,
enrobed in nylon mismatched coats
a king and his queen, regal,
as the hostess now way on ahead
waits to seat them next to the salad bar
Yes to that.