My Walking Stick

My Walking Stick: a Memory of My Father

My Walking Stick: a Memory of My Father

My Walking Stick by Diane Lowman

Diane Lowman stumbles across a treasure that reminds her of her father’s legacy.

___

Without my walking stick, I’d go insane
I can’t look my best I feel undressed without my cane
Must have my walking stick ’cause it may rain
When it pours, can’t be outdoors without my cane

___

Acne scars pockmarked his face. His yellowed teeth tripped over each other, but never on the way to an orthodontist. Despite, or maybe because of these physical deficits, along with average height and weight, he sported an outsized personality and presence.

He could be an extra in Grease. A Jet in West Side Story. Or my dad-to-be.

I scrutinize a tattered black and white photo of my father, gone now 14 years, who I called Alvin because it made him feel younger and made me feel older. He leans languidly on a chain link fence, wool baseball jacket snapped lazily at the waist. His posture pulls it back a bit to reveal a polo tucked into jeans “denim blue faded up to the sky.” I think of the Cat Stevens tune. Oh Very Young, indeed. “You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while.” He looks so very young in this photo, taken at a time when he’d run to White Castle during high school lunch break and bring back enough square hamburgers and fries to sell for a profit. He could be an extra in Grease. A Jet in West Side Story. Or my dad-to-be. His widow’s peak dips into the prominent forehead that he bequeathed to my firstborn, along with the shelf of brows eclipsing deep-set dark eyes. A prominent Kirk Douglas chin dimple sits below a wry, mischievous grin.

His hands, big for his frame, are tucked into front jean pockets. They so often held mine for comfort as I smoothed his broad, flat, ridged thumbnail. “Everything will be ok, Klube,” he would say. He got that nickname for me from a dilapidated painted window sign for the bygone pub echoing a bygone era that he’d pass on 23rd Street on his way to work at Metropolitan Life. We would later make that same walk together when I took my first job after college there. The lettering was faded but unmistakable. “Everything will be ok.”

♦◊♦

Dead at age 66, after confronting Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma for over a decade, something random brings him to mind every day.

I channel him through the canes. I am the conservator and curator of his collection of two dozen, which began in Switzerland when he bought a hiking stick and covered it with small metal badges from everywhere he went, as if he were Captain Von Trapp shepherding his family across the Alps as they fled the Nazis. Whenever he used it he’d croon a few bars of Leon Redbone’s “My Walking Stick.” I took my boys to see him sing that song in concert years after dad died.

I love the sleek, black, shiny one with a shapely brass lady’s leg bent at the knee for a handle. When I hold them, I am holding his hand again.

He reveled in collecting them during his travels, and I contributed many from mine. His favorite was the sophisticated, slim, mosaic-covered stick that concealed a sword inside. I love the sleek, black, shiny one with a shapely brass lady’s leg bent at the knee for a handle. When I hold them, I am holding his hand again.

Even with him gone so long, I often gravitate to shop for canes when I travel. Two years ago I visited Dustin of the big forehead in Dublin, there studying writing. I visited the small town of Sandy Cove, a train ride down the rugged, jagged coast, to see the tower that inspired James Joyce to write Ulysses. It happened, significantly, to be “Bloomsday,” June 16, when the Irish celebrate the main character of that oeuvre, Leo Bloom. Joyce-themed festivities abound along the high street. At one secondhand shop a jocular gentleman in a period costume invites me in.

♦◊♦

I step across the threshold into 1904. A cane catches my eye and I lift it out of the window to cradle it in my arm. “That’s a beauty,” the shopkeeper says, and she is correct. “It’s olive wood, hand carved in Tunisia. I can’t remember who brought it in, but a very well known poet stopped in one day with its twin and explained its origin. He almost bought it, but he changed his mind, saying what need had he for two? Someone else should enjoy it. I guess that someone is you!” A man sitting on a stool next to the register nods his head in assent to validate the story.

The blond wood grain glows and the smooth, curved handle fits in my hand. I stare at it there. “My father used to collect canes. He would have loved this.”

The blond wood grain glows and the smooth, curved handle fits in my hand. I stare at it there. “My father used to collect canes. He would have loved this.”

“Ah, then it’s meant to be yours, seeing it’s Father’s Day and all. He’d want ya to have it.”

I look up and into her eyes slowly. It’s Father’s Day. In all the literary excitement, and so far from home, I’d totally forgotten. I feel an odd pang.  “He’s gone 12 years,” I say. “Mine 20 now,” she says in a lilting brogue, “and not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. Then he’s here wit ya now. He wants ya to have it.” I look over my shoulder, thinking for a moment that she sees him, and then back at her. I’m misty now, and I see that she is, too.

“How much is it?” I ask, although at this point I’m in too far; it’s irrelevant. €40? €50? I hope not more. “Eight Euros,” she says, and I feel a chill. Alvin loved a bargain. I pay her, quickly, thinking she might change her mind. “Thank you. Thank you so much.” I put out my hand, which she takes in hers, holding on to it as she comes around the small counter to hug me.

Back at the station waiting for the train to Dublin, I feel such contentment. I look down to lean the cane carefully on the metal bench. Now that I own it, I want to keep it from harm. Alvin would be very pleased. I see him in that photo, leaning against the fence, grinning at my find.

Blossom

http://books.hamlethub.com/booksink/local-writers/42543-my-life-on-the-post-road-blossom

Spring blankets us in a seasonal rainbow, showers us with color like the multi-hued dust sprinkled on revelers celebrating Holi in India, where the colors are meant to spread love. I anticipate the advent of spring for its beauty and for the hope that wafts in with the first warm breeze.

An enormous weeping cherry tree sits in the center of what used to be my driveway. It was not enormous when we moved there 19 years ago, but it nearly eclipsed the front of the house when I sold it last year. Each year around this time I’d look out of the sidelight windows flanking the red front door, with its heavy brass dragonfly knocker, to see that the tree had seemingly woken up from winter hibernation in an explosion of pink petals. I always looked forward to that moment. Never tired of it. Never felt blasé or jaded about this bubble gum-shaded umbrella. It would last for a week or two, until the combination of wind and rain wrested the blossoms from the branches to make way for leaves, and carpeted the ground beneath it with its lovely detritus. I no longer have the house, the driveway, or the tree. I cannot even make myself drive by to see its splendor for fear that I will weep along with it.

I had planted forsythia there, too, at the foot of the driveway. More than any other bloom, that vibrant yellow yells spring the loudest. They grow very quickly, so the small plant I bought at Home Depot was my height by the time I left. For me, forsythia evokes the change of seasons as I experienced it as a very young girl growing up in Howard Beach, Queens. Those shrubs, scraggly all winter, lined the chain link fence perimeter of the blacktop playground where we convened as kids. Just as the weather warmed enough for our mothers to empty their afternoons of us by sending us outside, the forsythia would bloom and ring our concrete and steel world with color.

And those azaleas! My former husband’s father curated his in Virginia Beach with loving care. They’d come out a few weeks earlier there than here in the Northeast. Pete had a dazzling array of colors, and he would walk with me in the garden as he explained that I should trim mine right after the blossoms faded, so as not to stunt the next year’s buds. He waxed poetic on topics as broad as the spectrum of azalea hues in his garden on these walks. I miss his advice about horticulture and about life. I planted azaleas in our first home in McLean, Virginia, and again in our new home here in Connecticut. My dear friend Liz must have intuited this when, for Valentine’s Day, she sent me a pink one; it sits and smiles at me from the small terrace in my new apartment.

An anonymous haiku I read recently called the myriad colors of spring “confetti.” I love that image. My mother insisted that we shower her with it at every birthday celebration. The kids loved this ritual. We celebrated her life after she died by tossing her newly covered grave with it, as we will each year in her memory. The spring blossoms, particularly as they fall, remind me of her, too.

Photo by Diane Meyer Lowman

The Weight

http://books.hamlethub.com/booksink/local-writers/42532-my-life-on-the-post-road-the-weight

“Take a load off, Fanny,” sings The Band in their 1968 song The Weight (Music from Big Pink). I feel they are singing, “take a load off your fanny” to me. Weight has been on my mind a lot of late. I carry it in excess in many forms.

Overinflated fat cells around my belly and hips compete with the confines of my jeans for dominance. I should not eat Trader Joe’s Giant Peruvian Inca Corn in my apartment at night when I’m not hungry, only lonely. But I’ve finished the crossword puzzle, my hands hurt from knitting, TV is bad, and it’s just a little too quiet.

Ligature marks on my arms tell not of nights in white satin, but of bags. Shopping bags, gym and yoga bags, trash bags – that I load up and carry down the long halls of my apartment complex. Yes, I should use the shopping cart I bought to avoid just such torture, but I often forego it, thinking, “oh, I can carry these myself, and I’d much prefer that they cut off circulation to my hands and make my fingers tingle.” A rolling gym bag used to alleviate that burden until I succumbed to peer pressure like a middle school girl and stopped using it when one patron said, “Ya plannin’ to move into the gym or what?”

As a stay-at-home mom I felt like a modern day hunter/gatherer; always schlepping things in and out of the house, a little winded each time, but pleased with the conquest.

And the mental/emotional baggage? I am literally a fathead when it comes to that. We often lug the burdens of life in our minds: As mothers we are proverbially only as happy as our unhappiest child. As citizens of the world we watch the news with despair. And we all carry personal, private mental weight.

Lisa Lampanelli, “The Queen of Mean,” recently previewed her new play, Fat Girls, Interrupted at the Westport County Playhouse. This fearless standup comic, who can cut down even the most bold and brazen with one lightning-swipe of her rapier tongue, got serious for this new endeavor. Not that the evening wasn’t filled with laughs. Four women: Lisa (who recently underwent gastric weight reduction surgery and looks like, well, a new person with the sides of her head shaved and her “man bun” died an Easter egg blue), Katey (a naturally thin woman played by Patricia Kalember), Brittany (an anorexic/bulimic portrayed by Jessica Luck), and Stacey (a woman comfortable in her heft, acted by Lisa Howard) sit and shoot the – stuff. They lull us in with talk about foods that they, and of course we, remember and love. Nuclear neon pink Hostess Snowballs, Foot Loops, and peanut butter straight from the spoon….

But the tone takes a turn as they talk about how their weight – or lack thereof – makes them feel, and how what they feel weighs on them. The thought-provoking evening elicits murmurs, nods, and in some cases, cackles, of empathy. Every one of us in the audience can relate in some way.

It makes me reexamine what we all carry.

Coincidentally, I signed up to participate in one of Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra’s free 21-Day Meditation series. They run them periodically, and I find they are a good way to get me back to a regular practice. This one is entitled “Shedding the Weight: Mind, Body, and Spirit.” Oprah, no stranger to weight loss struggles, just bought a hefty chunk of Weight Watchers and is actively promoting it and her own participation in the program. It’s no surprise that they chose this topic. I suspect mercenary self-interest, but I’m pleasantly surprised as I settle in and listen each day. It’s more about balance than banning bread; more about compassion than calories. For me, the timing is perfect. I will plug in every day and see what I can learn about lightening up. It may be a myth that it takes 21 days to change a new habit, but it’s a start.

The Graduate

My Son the Graduate

Staples High School, Westport, CT, 2011

“You are NOT wearing that. Not today.  Not for this.” I stood my ground. In a few short hours, my firstborn, Dustin, would graduate from high school. Dustin stood before me in shorts and a t-shirt. But not just any t-shirt. It was that t-shirt, the one you thought you’d put in the rag pile—and should have. The one with the collar so yellowed it looked, well, yellow. Unintentionally polka-dotted with small tears and faded ketchup stains.

“I’ll be wearing a gown over it. No one will see it.  You are so superficial. You only care about what other people think.”

“What difference does it make?” His heels were dug in as firmly as my hands were planted on my hips. “I’ll be wearing a gown over it. No one will see it.  You are so superficial. You only care about what other people think.”

But I would not be swayed. I attempted to enlighten him to the bigger issues of propriety and respect. He was having none of it. “This is about you trying to control everything I do.” He made each step up the stairs audible and changed noisily into khakis and a golf shirt. Who knew an old, soiled, T-shirt could thump so loudly on a carpeted floor? And he stomped back down.

We drove together to the school early; he, to join his classmates, and I, to reserve seats for the family in the sweltering field house. We rode in silence, and when he got out, he slammed the car door shut.

I secured the coveted close-in aisle seats, which would afford my family an arm’s-length view of Dustin as he passed in all his tasseled glory. My friends and I fanned ourselves with the programs containing our children’s names in print and reminisced about preschool days as we awaited the first notes of Pomp and Circumstance and the next moments of our babies’ lives.

I waved to catch his eye, which locked on to mine and shot poison laser beams of disdain at me—a direct hit—just before he turned away, scowling.

“Here he comes! I can see him!” which, at 6’2” was not difficult. I waved to catch his eye, which locked on to mine and shot poison laser beams of disdain at me—a direct hit—just before he turned away, scowling.

I turned to his father, to whom I was no longer married. He had fully backed me in the dress-code debacle. “Oh boy. Did you see that? He’s pissed.” He just nodded. “It’s OK.”

After the ceremony, in the courtyard filled with families photographing innumerable permutations of elation, Dustin stood stiffly, barely tolerating my embrace. “Are you really going to stay mad at me all evening?” I implored. “I’m not sure.” He glared at me.  He warmed up only slightly at our graduation dinner at the Grey Goose, a popular local restaurant where the principal and his partner happened to be at the bar. He enveloped Dustin in a big bear hug. “Well done, Dustin!” he said.  It was the first time all day I saw Dustin smile.

♦◊♦

Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT, 2015

Nearly four years later, we sit in the glorious May Vermont sunshine. I have no doubt that my recently deceased mother has heeded my request and arranged for this good weather. She could always manage meteorological miracles and manifest impossible parking spots. I only wish she could be with us to see her grandson’s imminent graduation from my alma mater, Middlebury College. The clichéd “where did the time go?” applies not only to his four-year tenure here, but to the 35 that have passed since I walked across the stage he’s about to cross.

I gaze at the grey marble buildings just past the stage. I recently sat in on Dustin’s Buddhism Seminar in Monroe, where I had most of my Economics courses. Voter Hall is festooned in flags from every country represented by a graduating senior. Up the hill, Mead Chapel wears banners, its bells singing my emotion to everyone in attendance.

The experience has shaped him the way the cascading water rushing over the falls at Otter Creek smooths the stones over which it flows.

With hours to wait again, I try to prevent my mind from drifting back to the angst of that earlier graduation day. That child, now a man, has been through much in these four years. He has endured and overcome all of it with the might of the verdant Green and Adirondack Mountains that surround us. The experience has shaped him the way the cascading water rushing over the falls at Otter Creek smooths the stones over which it flows. This place has milled the grist of his joys and strife into a fine young man.

Suddenly my cell phone’s guitar-riff ringtone breaks my reverie, and I fumble to pull it from my purse. I’ve reserved that ringtone for Dustin, because his talent as a singer-songwriter is such an integral part of who he is.

“Hi, honey, what’s up?” He rarely calls me, and it’s 20 minutes before I know he needs to line up for the graduation procession. I’m not sure if what I hear are soft, distant alarm bells or Mead’s pealing. The news has not always been good when he has called. I have only just recently been able to hear his ringtone without both my jaw and stomach clenching.

“Hi,” he says. “How are you?” Is he really just calling to chat?

“Fine, my love. We’re in our seats. What’s up?”

“What type of footwear is appropriate for graduation?” he asks. “I cut my feet pretty badly playing softball and shoes hurt. Is it OK if I wear flip flops?”

“What type of footwear is appropriate for graduation?” he asks. “I cut my feet pretty badly playing softball and shoes hurt. Is it OK if I wear flip flops?”

I look up at the sky. Mom sent some intermittent clouds to cover the searing sun. I pause for a moment before I reply, taking in the enormity of both his caring about how he looks, and actually soliciting my input. Voluntarily. Without resentment.

“I love you, my Dustin. Wear whatever you want. Wear the new Middlebury flip flops dad bought you.” When we arrived two days ago he’d been wearing a pair he’d borrowed from his roommate. They were two sizes too small and covered in cartoonish bananas. “That would be so appropriate. But honestly, Dustin, wear whatever you like. Whatever makes you comfortable. I love you. I’m so proud of you.”

“OK, thanks, see you soon. Love you, too, mom.” And he’s off.

We have given each other The Gift of the Magi. We have walked different paths and come together in this moment, when we will soon both be Middlebury alumni. I put the phone back in my purse and look around. Seats are filling, people are milling, anticipation is building. The ceremony is about to begin.  But, it seems, the boy has already graduated.

Uprooted

http://books.hamlethub.com/booksink/local-writers/42525-my-life-on-the-post-road-uprooted

This pothos plant (I thought it was a philodendron until I bothered to look it up), whose name reminds me of The Three Musketeers, is low maintenance:

Basic pothos care is very easy. These plants enjoy a wide range of environments. They do well in bright indirect light as well as low light and can be grown in dry soil or in vases of water. They will thrive in nutrient rich soil, but do almost as well in nutrient poor soil. (gardeningknowhow.com)

Read: You actually have to try to kill this plant. Mine has been with me, in a simple terra cotta pot, for 23 years. I can’t say where it was born, but I adopted it in McLean, VA, when we moved there from Los Angeles with our then three-month-old firstborn son Dustin. It lived there in the “great room,” surrounded by the first furniture we’d bought together. I cringe now to think of the teal sofa piped in eggplant, and the ecru chairs piped in teal, and the matchy-matchy blond wood hard pieces, but back then, it f, felt like home. The 9’ windows made drapery expensive and challenging to install, but afforded Pothos lots of light.

When his company transferred my husband to CT, Pothos rode with us  – Dustin, now 4, and Devon, 2 – in our white Ford Explorer to our temporary furnished place in the Avalon Stamford apartments. And then to our new home in Westport, where it took up residence in the master bathroom on the counter between his and hers sinks. Far from a window, but near the wide wall mirror, Pothos absorbed the scant light afforded by the northern exposure. But thrive, it did. I watered it every morning with the leftovers in a small wax-coated Dixie cup after my toothbrushing rinse-and-spit.

Over the years I adorned its soil with found objects: smooth stones of intricate geological composition from our local beach, kikuyu nut husks from Maui, and jingle shells my mom sent up from Florida.

Pothos endured as my marriage dissolved and the boys transplanted themselves out of state. I found myself a small fish in a very large bowl that was costly to heat, cool, and maintain. The plant made the cut as I shed my belongings in anticipation of a move. And like all the times before, it came in the car with me. It spent the first few months outside on my small apartment terrace. It must have felt so free – like a housecat allowed to roam outside for the first time – fresh air night and day, surrounded by other plants, and bathed in all-day southern exposure sun, shielded from direct rays by the wall.

It came in only during the November frost warning, and took its spot at the center of the apartment, at the corner of the dark granite counter, with a panoramic view of the space.

I water it less often now, but with more water in each dose. One day, though, I noticed that it didn’t look as happy as usual. Leaves began to yellow and fall. This poor plant had been in the same pot for 23 years. How negligent of me – I’d never have let my boys wear the same shoes for 23 years with blatant disregard for their growth.

So now I’m on a mission. I want to replant Pothos before the Foliage Police knock at my door. I head out to Walmart. They sell everything. I find a glazed pot that looks more sophisticated than bland terra cotta. A swirl of teal, brown, and black echoes the colors in my new home.

Back in the apartment, I dismantle to New York Times and lay it out in the small, tiled entryway to create an operating theatre. I line the bottom of the new pot with green plastic mesh wine bottle protectors that I’ve saved – for what? – Clearly for this – to improve drainage. I cover them with soil, gently smoothing it like a newly laundered bottom sheet for Pothos’s comfort. My fingers thread gingerly through its stems, just touching the rim, forming a safety net as I tip it over gingerly, making sure to stay over the newspaper like a puppy in training.  Pothos slides out easily and the tangle of roots tells me this is overdue. I right the plant and center it in its new space – it’s a perfect fit – and I tuck Pothos in with new soil in the gaps.

I envelope the mess as if I were cleaning an OR post-op, dust busting any telltale signs of the procedure. Pothos looks happy as I gaze at it from the couch. No more yellowed fallen leaves. It, like a hermit crab, outgrew its hard shell and needed a new, bigger one to continue to grow and thrive. My shell outgrew me. There is no antonym in the English language for outgrew. Was I ingrown? Had my life become too small for my big space? Or had my space become too big for my different – not smaller – life? I look at Pothos, thriving in its new home, and reflect on mine. It’s not a bigger shell, but it fits me better. I did not uproot myself so much as transfer myself to a more appropriate location, although the transition was a bit bumpier for me. I, like Pothos, brought my in tact roots with me, and hope they’ll have room here to spread and grow.