Somebody You’re Longing to See

For G and J

What happens when people meet again after many years of separation?  Might they find they have nothing in common and go their separate ways? Or might the bonds formed early outlast all the changes a lifetime brings?

Reunion

This past Monday, a high school friend and his wife spent the afternoon with my husband and me.  The friend and I had reconnected at a class reunion a few years ago, but just like during the intervening years after our graduation, we had been out of touch since the reunion. So we got together for lunch and wound up spending the afternoon getting reacquainted, reminiscing, and swapping stories.

Thormahlen “Swan”

His wife is a musician, so she and I have that in common (although I’d say I’m a sleeper musician; I don’t play the piano much these days). She brought her harp for me to see—a beautifully crafted Thormahlen “Swan,” a real work of art. She demonstrated how to tune it and then she played it for us, such lovely music. I brought out my almost-brand-new dulcimer, untouched ever since I broke a string about a year ago. He helped me tune it and gave me some rudimentary instruction. “Find a teacher,” they both said. “Learn it. It’s fun.” They are into adventures and new learning, a fine example for me.

Backstory

My friend and I found, just as we did three years ago at the reunion, that we have much in common, not just our upbringing, but our faith journeys, our politics, our love of travel and books and music. We grew up in the red clay hills of north Mississippi, a rural, poor part of the state (in case you have misconceptions about Mississippi, pockets of extreme poverty were not and are not limited to the Delta). His father was a Baptist minister, his family huge. My dad owned an automobile parts store; I was an only child. My friend and I didn’t know each other until he moved to town at the end of our ninth grade year. He was a shy boy, good-looking, sweet, and smart. He reminded me that he asked me to prom our junior year, but I already had a date. He moved on to date one of my best friends.

Roads Diverged

After high school, we went our very separate ways. What surprised us when we reconnected, I think, was how we had “outgrown” the place where we grew up, and yet how shaped we are, despite our different paths and experiences, by that time and place and people. Both of us had strong, hard-working fathers who sacrificed for us and for others. Both of us had home-making mothers whose chief duties were to mother us. We had good teachers who expected much. We had the good wishes of our friends—many of whom stayed behind in that small town—as we left that place behind. I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” We all chose our paths, but he and I chose “the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Time Lost

My friend’s wife and I have a lot in common. We talked music and children and grandchildren and shared photos. He and my husband swapped father stories for much of the afternoon, poignant memories of words said or unsaid, connections and failures. I enjoyed watching them get to know each other in that way.

Hambidge path, Spring 2011

Our reunion turned out to be bittersweet. I’m grateful for the renewal of friendship, but I grieve that interim of years, all that time lost when we might have enjoyed each other’s company, when we might have been there for illnesses or hard times. But those aren’t the only “lost years.” There’s my husband’s life before we met, and the lives of my children since they left home, and the bits and pieces of lives that have crossed with mine only briefly. The don’t-knows are endless.

As a fiction writer, it’s the most natural thing in the world to imagine them. And if they become fodder for the imagination—isn’t there some redemption in that? It’s a little like inventing character: taking the bits and pieces I know and weaving them into the don’t-know of their lives.

So forgive me, old friends, and new, if some fragment of you winds up in a story. It’s a compliment, really, to your reality. To your existence as part of my life.

Is there somebody you’re “longing to see,” as the old song goes? Somebody whose missing years you would take back or re-invent, if you could? Try writing about her. Try imagining what she would say to you if she could.

Share your thoughts here, please. I’d love to know what this piece and this little exercise trigger for you.

Road Weary

Road-weary and hungry, we stop at a chain restaurant just off the interstate, a madhouse on any Sunday after church, but we pull in right behind a tour bus full of fossils from another age. All of them wear nametags, hats, and polyester/no-iron outfits fit for long hours on the bus. It’s clear they’ve worked out a restaurant plan of operation: some line up to order, others scout out the best tables, while our stomachs rumble behind the slowest of the slow who can’t make up their minds or must ask the girl at the cash register questions about the menu: whether the foccacia is too crusty, the artichokes on the sandwich soft, the mayo low in saturated fat.

When we finally sit down, they’re all around us: one little lady with blue-black hair, wearing her trendy FENDI sunglasses; a man with a hearing aid who shouts his complaints at his companions; another large man who, blocking the hall to the restrooms, responds loudly to my “excuse me, sir” with “Well, I was trying to get there myself, but you go right ahead.” Nothing gallant about him, no trace of the dashing young man who might have made a young woman’s heart flutter.

My back hurts from driving, my knees ache, and I think these are signs of what’s to come, the time when getting on and off the bus will be enough for one day, when my friends and I—the ones who are left then—will crowd onto the coach the brochure described as luxurious and  head for some far-off, interesting place: Rock City, maybe, an exhibition at the Fernbank in Atlanta, a play in New Orleans, the coast casinos.

I wonder how they pass the time on the bus. Do they relive the old days? Do they compare their aches and pains? Can they still see well enough to read or knit? Do they plug in their Walkmans—or maybe even their iPods—and daydream to the music? Or do they sleep away the hours they have left until the next destination, or until, all too soon, the bus pulls in to the parking lot at home, wherever they’ve come from, and they all go their separate ways until the next time, when the destination will be someplace truly exotic, a place they’ve always wanted to see before it’s too late.

Dancing

balletslippers
En pointe

Last Saturday night, I watched my granddaughter dance in a performance of Beauty and the Beast. She is an exceptional dancer—she really is, and not just because she’s mine—and she’s really quite beautiful. At twelve, she is incredibly strong, precise, and graceful en pointe. And she’s an actress, too; she understands the necessity of portraying emotion through movement and expression. She is the dancer I wanted to be as a child but never could have been, not just because the nearest dance classes were twenty miles away. I was not exactly a graceful child.

But I dreamed about it. When I was little, I wanted to be a ballerina. My inspiration was a coloring book, of all things. I don’t remember where the coloring book came from; maybe the local dime store that Mr. Vester Page owned. I went there often. Usually, it was Daddy who would take me to buy a treat, some trinket: balloons, I loved balloons, or jacks, or crayons or watercolors. I loved that store, and the mynah bird he kept in the back that whistled and squawked, “Pretty bird!” “Pretty girl!” So this particular time, the summer before I turned six, there must have been that coloring book. I can still see the simple, stark line drawings of dancers in what I now know are “positions,” ballerinas in tutus with flowers or tiaras in their hair, male dancers who looked like princes out of a fairy tale. But they were motionless, frozen on the pages. What I don’t remember is how I learned that these frozen images represented so much more. But somehow, I knew that those poses needed to be translated into movement. And so I hatched a plan.

I recruited a few neighborhood kids to participate in my ballet. We studied the pictures in the book and practiced the poses. There was no continuity of movement, just those static positions. We would stage one, stop, then another, stop. Rearrange ourselves and start again. And because there was probably no boy in the neighborhood big enough or strong enough (or gullible enough) to be coerced into doing it, I recruited my daddy to play the prince: to lift me up in that final, dramatic pose that signaled the happy, triumphant ending.

The performance was to be on a Saturday evening, after supper but before sundown, in our front yard. It was steamy hot, late summer. I remember wearing a yellow halter sundress that was as close as I could come to a tutu. I was nervous, excited. And then, just before suppertime, my mother declared that I had to wash my hair. Before the “ballet,” not after. The next day was Sunday, after all, and she wanted my hair dry before bedtime. This was back in the days of the attic fan, which my mother was convinced caused me to catch cold if I slept in its draft at night, and going to bed with wet hair would court disaster. Usually, I could wear her down, but not this time. She would not give. She washed my hair and put it up in pin curls.

So at “showtime,” I appeared in my pretty yellow dress with my hair in pin curls and, most likely, with my eyes red from crying. I was mortified, but stubborn. I would have my ballet, no matter what. And I did. It must have lasted all of ten minutes—we awkward little kids using the coloring book as the guide for our “dance,” and Daddy lifting me high in the air at the end. No music. A little clapping.

That was the beginning and end of my dancing. Within a year, we would have a piano in the house, and that would turn out to be the right artistic expression for me; it would become my graceful movement. I wanted this grandchild to take piano, to excel at it. And she did, but it just isn’t her thing. She’s a born dancer. And when I look at her in a certain light, although she looks so much like her beautiful mother, I can see a little of me in her. And  maybe the spirit and the love of the dance I see in her was born in me, a long, long time ago.