If you haven’t guessed by now, I love stories. It’s clearly one of the reasons I ended up in the Library Resource Center as a career choice. Bet my high school football teammates didn’t see that coming. But I can’t help it. I’m just drawn to those moments when a story is raw to my ears, the anticipation of where it might be going, how it might end. The charge of having figured out the end before anyone else sees how the clues are adding up. Beyond that, I even love the stories I’ve already heard, particularly when I hear them from a new perspective, or when it comes attached to a new sidebar that flushes out details that I never knew. The way they round out a person or character. A moment. A lifetime. Like unearthing a hidden staircase in a house where you’ve lived for years.
Pops has been kind enough to share a post or two from this blog with Grandma Bonnie during his weekly visits, and though it’s elicited a few tears, it’s doing the very thing that I’d hoped it would. It’s leading to more stories.
“She really enjoys it,” he texted me the other day. They spent a couple hours reminiscing, and I believe he enjoyed hearing her stories as much as I would have. There is a tinge of sadness accompanying it, however, and not just for them. For me, too. For many years I meant to write these memories down, and I’d meant to do it before we lost Howard. The goal here wasn’t that I wanted his approval (though it would have helped me correct many of the mistakes I’ve already made), but that it would have ignited the torch to more stories. The ones he’d forgotten. The ones he hadn’t thought about for years, triggered by a description or reference to his youth. Those little details that bubble up when the brain chews on a memory for a few weeks. A smell. A name. A sound. I don’t know why I had so much trouble getting started. The time never felt right. I was worried I wouldn’t tell it correctly. Worried that perhaps I shouldn’t write about things I didn’t fully know. I was concerned that my strengths as a writer weren’t good enough to depict these memories the way I wanted. Perhaps Howard was right. Perhaps the timidity he saw in me, the lack of confidence that he attributed to me being babied too much, was actually the thing that led me to miss the opportunity to share this him. I’d rather justify it in the way that I just wasn’t quite ready to tell this story until Grandma uttered those 4 words at her birthday party last month, and that this Slice of Life Challenge provided the vehicle I needed to keep me writing every day. Whatever it is, I’m hearing more stories from Grandma Bonnie, and they are spectacular.
Turns out I wasn’t too far off when describing Howard and Bonnie’s first encounter. Their first meeting was indeed at Perry and Dorothy’s, where Dorothy brought Grandma down to the pool hall to introduce her to Howard. Howard was bordering on arrogant at the time, she says, as he’d won a few games against Perry that day, which was no easy task, from what my father describes.
“I told him later that he was actin’ pretty smart that night,” Grandma declared, chuckling a little. She described going back to the house afterward with Dorothy, who suggested they ask Howard to stay for dinner. Perhaps she noticed the little spark between them because Dorothy asked Grandma to throw together her potato soup for the occasion, which was one of Grandma’s best dishes. They ate dinner and laughed often, telling stories. When their bellies were full, Howard went out to his car to get his guitar.
“There’s two things he never left home without: his golf clubs and his guitar,” she told Pops.
As night fell, Howard played a few tunes for the three of them, and Grandma Bonnie specifically remembers him playing ‘Home on the Range.’
“Well, I knew that one,” she said. So she told Howard that, and ended up singing harmony along with him.
“One night?” my father laughed. “Can you believe it?” I can’t. I’ve never known my grandmother to be impulsive. Except while driving, of course.
Grandma explained that he approached Dorothy not long after that first night. Here was a woman who could sing and cook. He didn’t want to miss his chance. But Dorothy, always the realist, was pretty honest with him.
“Oh, Howard. You’ll never get her down her to Arkansas.”
Like I said. It took him 7 weeks.
My initiation into the world of Arkansas wildlife continued over many summer trips we made. More snakes. Enormous bugs. Deer. You never knew where you’d encounter it. Seemed like you could spend all day looking for it only to come home and find it waiting for you in the front yard.
Pops and I had just returned home after running a quick errand at the store. The reason escapes me, but I know it was just the two of us. As we made our way along the walkway to the putting green front porch, we noticed Howard sitting on a lawn chair, arms behind his head. He had a smirk on his face, watching us approach.
“You two seen what you just walked past?” he asked.
We turned around to see a long, dark snake slithering across the path. It resembled the one I’d seen during the trip a few years back with my sister. I’d missed it by just a few inches this time.
“I thought ‘bout hollerin’ to ya. But I figured you might just get spooked and get bit.” He chuckled to himself. “I can’t believe you didn’t see it.”
While experiences during our trip to Hardy could often catch you off guard, not unlike that snake, Bonnie and Howard and Pops and Mom tried their best to keep my sisters and me entertained, particularly with there being no other children around to do so. Spring Lake in Ozark Acres became a regular trip to swim, and I remember finally being old enough to make it all the way to the floating dock all by myself. I also remember stiffening at the sheer terror of having to swim back…all by myself. The deep dark water. The shore so far away. We swam for hours there, palms and feet wrinkled, until we stunk of lake seaweed, and our eyes ached from opening them underwater. Pops wold launch us like ragdolls into the lake until his arms gave out. We brought picnic lunches to devour on the weed-ridden beach. Some nights, I recall lying on my belly on the floor in front of the television, wincing as Mom layered thick globs of cooling aloe on my sunburned back. The beach could bite you if you didn’t get up early enough.
By lunchtime, it would be too hot for a swim, and we would sit lazily on the front porch, watching the hummingbirds come buzzing over our heads, looking for the sweetwater Grandma left for them. Avoiding the blistering breath of the sun we sometimes took walks around the surrounding streets, darting into a line of trees to search for treasures. Once I found a long single antler lying in the thick brush, rubbed off by a buck earlier in the year, several of the ivory white branches sprouting in different directions. Another time my sister and I spotted a mother and fawn together early in the morning. They were quite a ways off, 30 yards or so, but they stood in a clearing, their coats licked by golden sunlight.
When Pops and Howard didn’t go golfing, Howard and Grandma would plan day trips. You never really knew how long they might be. One year, Howard was insistent on showing us some deer. Up close. He was on a mission for my mother. They were pretty easy to find if you knew where to look.
We looked for hours. Started early in the morning, and found ourselves traveling down bumpy country roads for hours in his long Lincoln. Passed through lush forests with prehistoric ferns and boulders riddled with moss. Rickety little bridges that stretched over wandering streams. Hours we drove. And then lunch. And hours of driving again. We wound up at one of the most beautiful homes I’ve ever seen. I still don’t why we went there. Not sure if it was a relation of Howard’s, or just a friend of his. But their home sat atop a huge ridge, overlooking one of the most picturesque views I’ll ever see. A ranch of sorts I believe, animals dotted the horizon and the massive valley below it, visible through an enormous, panoramic window at the rear of the house. It looked fake, at first. I do remember that. A life-like painting that stretched on forever beyond the pane of glass. Again, I think I was pretty young simply because the memories work less like videos, and more like clicks of a reel. A farm dog that kept peeing on the tires of Howard’s car in the driveway. The cowboy boots of the man who lived there. There was sure to be deer walking through that valley, Howard insisted. It wouldn’t be up close, but damnit, we would see one. We scanned the entire green canvas for the slightest movement of a doe.
Even the homeowners were surprised.
“They’re always making their way through the valley…’bout this time, too. Pretty darn strange.”
When we hadn’t found deer by mid-afternoon, Howard decided to give up. He was frustrated, with a bit of surprise mixed in.
“Well I just can’t believe we didn’t see one single deer today,” Howard apologized to my mother. We were tired from driving all day, hungry for our dinner, the amber light growing low in the sky. Howard turned right at the work boot street sign and drove up the small hill toward home before pumping the brakes.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.
There, stepping carefully through the front lawn of their home, just 20 feet away from the car, was a gang of deer. A couple of fawns, dotted white on their coats, along with a pair of does and bucks. They turned and eyed us carefully for a bit while we sat there in the middle of the road, nosing the grass. The entire car began laughing at the absurdity of it all. Howard inched the car into the driveway, and while a couple of them spooked and ran off as we carefully closed our car doors, the rest stuck around and let us watch them from the front porch before lazily making their way into the woods.