You’d think that, by the age of 70, you’re pretty much done blooming in life, but if so, you’re either too young to understand what living that long means, or you didn’t know someone like Howard. There was always something he was trying to wrap his mind around. A problem to solve. A mystery to crack. I have images of him sitting in his recliner, staring over the tops of his glasses at an old crossword puzzle, his brain grinding along like well-crafted gears. And you could see it, even after he put it down a few minutes later, even after the conversation continued or the television turned on, his brain was still grinding away at that puzzle, his focus lost far beyond the four walls of that room. It would take a few moments for him to shake the distraction, his eyes sharpening back the space around him. This was no different than the trance that overtook him during his moments of storytelling. The new digs in Freeport suited him well this way, keeping him occupied, providing him a garage where he could forever tinker, a yard and back deck that demanded his time, treasures waiting to be unearthed at the neighborhood dumpster. And a squirrel that would forever be known as “Lamebrain.”
“Howard,” Bonnie would call from the kitchen. “Lamebrain’s here.” The squirrel would sit on the window ledge, just a foot or so from her face, a pane of glass between her and the irritable rodent, scowling at it as she washed dishes in the kitchen sink.
For about a decade, Howard matched wits with a squirrel upon which he bequeathed the name “Lamebrain.” It started, as is often the case with annoying squirrels, over a bird feeder. Lamebrain was persistent, cunning, and audacious in his attempts to thwart Howard’s many schemes. Vaseline on the pole. Baffles. Wire mesh. A string of angry curses from the deck. Lots of contraptions designed to stop, or at least dishearten him. Lamebrain foiled them all, shrugged them off, chattered away in the trees above his head, or out of reach at the edges of the property line. The squirrel’s slight frame swelled as their battle raged on through the years, an insult to Howard, a chubby reminder that he was losing the bird seed war.
If you can’t beat ‘em…join ‘em.
I imagine that old adage may have run through Howard’s head when he finally decided to stop fighting, and start feeding, Lamebrain. And he was pleasantly surprised when it worked. A small pile of bird seed near the back porch. A peace offering. I can almost see the hesitation from that plump squirrel, wondering what Howard had up his sleeve. But he never bothered that bird feeder again. Perhaps a sense of mutual respect between the two, Howard watching him from inside the house as he nibbled the scraps, getting braver and braver as the weeks and years wore on. By the end, Lamebrain’s appearance was as timely and reliable as the sunrise, appearing in the window above the sink if Howard was tardy with his meal.
“Howard. Lamebrain’s here,” Grandma Bonnie would laugh, shaking her head at the fleshy, furry form that looked back at her. Like so many of the people Howard had befriended over the years, he’d somehow managed to crack the shell of this rodent, and could nearly feed him from his hand by the end of their time together.
After they moved again, to an assisted living facility in Rockford, Grandma Bonnie and Howard decided to pay a visit to the lady who’d purchased their property in Freeport. She had fallen in love with Lamebrain, whom she called her “Lovey Dovey Squirrel,” and continued feeding him long after Howard’s departure.
I preferred Lamebrain, myself.
One man’s trash…
I’m not sure what got Howard started walking down to the dumpster, what treasure he saw peeking out from the fenced-in area at the bottom of the winding, hilly road that led into Knollwood Estates. But, not long after they moved in, it became a weekly excursion, picking through discarded valuables. The fascination with recovering the beauty of neglected items would eventually inspire trips to the Goodwill store as well, and would see Howard return home with any number of crumbling, but useful, items. A violin. Broken-necked guitar. Golf clubs. End tables. Each one became a new project that he would refinish and make purposeful again in his slow, methodical way. Sometimes he sold them in yard sales. Other times he would use them, showing off a shiny new club on the course to his friend, Bert.
Here’s a small table that sits in my folks’ house, a bit of rubbish that Howard brought home and refinished.
“Hey, Scott, looky here,” he’d smile at Pops, bringing out a shabby violin, rescued from the dumpster, scratching out a few notes in order to amuse us with what he’d taught himself.
“It never sounded real good,” Pops, a violinist himself, remembers, “but I’ll be damned if he couldn’t get a song out if it.”
Always learning. Always fascinated by how something worked. How something could be useful. Keep it alive just a bit longer. Try to unlock the music stuck inside an old instrument he’d never learned to play. Pops tells me Howard taught himself how to play the piano after he turned 80.
“I’m sure my mother helped him some,” he says, “but Howard worked at it until he could play a few songs on his own.
“And I thought, well, I can do that,” Grandma Bonnie’s voice rings through my ears, referring to how she learned to yodel last weekend.
I think Bonnie and Howard shared a little of that. That mindset. That perspective. There’s adventure with that kind of view of the world. In that kind of confidence and resolve. There are hobbies to be had. Inspirations to be found. Friendships to foster. Love to unearth. A whole life worth living to those who are curious enough to see if they can tackle it.