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Opal’s Recital

December 25, 2014 Leave a comment

A short story based in Bermuda.

I recognised her silhouette in the distance, down the narrow, tree-lined railway trail that I walked every morning before work. If I stick to my schedule and she to hers, our paths cross just after Cobbs Hill Road where overhanging branches form a leafy tunnel. There’s a wooden bench before the tracks open into the daylight again, and she often sits on it, resting. That Thursday, she held the back of the bench with one hand and her dog’s leash with the other. Corky pulled at his leash, eager to continue their walk, but his owner watched me as I approached.
“Hi, Mrs. Tucker,” I called out.
“Good morning, dear,” Mrs. Tucker said. “Another Bermudaful December day, isn’t it?”
I agreed. “I hope it will stay this way, so I can get in a swim or two at Elbow Beach over the holiday. Back home, I’d be building a snowman.”
“So far the forecast is clear and mild all the way to Boxing Day,” she reported.
I bent down to Corky, who wiggled and squirmed as I tickled his round belly. His excited doggie antics usually made me laugh.
“This will be my first Christmas away from my family,” I told her. “I just started my job, so I can’t get any time off.”
A white object caught my eye. When I stood up, Mrs. Tucker held it out to me.
“I thought so,” she said. “I wonder if you would humour an old lady and come for Christmas dinner. My daughter, Crystal, will be there with a couple of her friends and some others.”
She extended an envelope to me and I accepted it.
“Nobody should be alone for Christmas,” she said with a smile. Then she allowed Corky to pull her forward to continue their slow walk.

#####

A few days later, I stood on the doorstep of Mrs. Tucker’s Warwick cottage, mentally debating over the simple action of lifting the knocker to announce my arrival. I was still unsure about spending the evening with strangers, and I had backed away from the door just as it swung open.
“How long were you going to stand there? The door was open,” said a woman wearing an apron with a red-nosed reindeer on the bib.
“Merry Christmas! I’m Crystal,” she said.

She linked her arm into mine and escorted me to the dining room where the other guests were already seated at the long table. Mrs. Tucker had collected a hodgepodge of acquaintances and friends. When she made the introductions, she included the stipulation that we must call her Opal from then on. We shared the common element that we would have spent Christmas alone if not for Opal’s gentle persuasion. Among the group was a widower from her church’s choir, a newlywed whose husband worked in a hotel restaurant, a nurse, and Evan, a quiet man of no fixed abode.
After Crystal brought the last dish out from the kitchen, Opal stood to say the blessing. Without prompting, we each sought out the hands of our table neighbours to form an unbroken chain. Afterward, conversations resumed as we passed each dish family style until we had loaded our plates with selections from Opal’s extensive menu.
Leaning toward Opal, I asked, “Haven’t you ever wanted a white Christmas?”
“I’ve spent every Christmas of my life in Bermuda,” she answered, “except for one when I thought I should go somewhere else for a change. Somewhere with snow or neon lights or crowds.” She shook her head. “Not for me. I missed playing for the church cantata and carolling door to door. I love helping with the Christmas hampers and teaching my grandchildren to make cassava pie and sugar cookies. I used to love the smell of cedar trees but I’m used to these imported ones now. Besides, gombeys don’t dance in snow. Whenever I heard those drums in the neighbourhood on Boxing Day, I would follow them all over the place.”
One story led to another throughout the meal until Crystal shooed us from the dinner table.
“Follow me, everyone,” she said, leading us to the tree. As animated chatter swirled around the cosy living room, Opal cast a wistful eye toward her beloved instrument. A beautiful baby grand piano dominated the far corner of the room, its ebony lid supported a deep red poinsettia. Corky’s little, plaid dog bed was nestled under the piano, but he had abandoned it for parts unknown at the noise of our entrance. I wondered if what Opal most missed about Christmas was playing carols on her piano. She had dedicated her life to the performance, and then teaching, of music until her arthritic fingers restricted her ability.
Opal distributed the gifts, a small memento of our Christmas together. I unwrapped a CD by Bermudian musicians, a fitting gift from the former piano teacher.
“But we didn’t get anything for you,” Nina protested. The petite nurse seemed distraught that Opal gave so graciously but had not received.
“Your company is enough,” she answered with a gentle smile. The discreet action of rubbing her hands in her lap did not escape me, and I wondered if the rigors of preparing for her guests had pushed her joints beyond comfort.
For a few strained moments, we sat in motionless contemplation. As a recipient of the woman’s hospitality, I felt humbled and warmed. Crystal looked around at the sombre group, crossed the room, and sat on the piano bench.
“Remember my favourite song, Mom?” Crystal called out, glancing at her mother before turning her attention back to the sheet music. She gathered a willing quartet of guests around the piano and led them in a medley of carols. The group sang heartily while the rest of us joined in from our seats.
“The first Noël the angels did say,
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay . . .”
From a floral wing-backed chair, Opal nodded to the music, her foot tapped as if pumping the pedal feet of the piano. Away in a Manger followed It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, and then we giggled our way through an improvised Bermudian version of The Twelve Days of Christmas which changed the mood from meditative to boisterous. What would we have been doing if not for Opal’s invitation and open doors? A group of homesick strangers now well fed, joyous, and familial, surrounded by flickering candles and blinking tree lights.
“What’s your favourite song?” Nina asked Opal.
There’s a Song in the Air,” she replied without hesitation.
“There certainly is!” Nina answered. She turned back to Crystal, expecting her to play a prelude.
“I never played it as well as my mother,” Crystal confessed, flipping through a book to find another song.
“And I’m, well, a little out of practice,” Opal said with a stilted laugh. She lifted her fingers to show her knotted joints. She shrugged in resignation. “Old Arthur’s got me.”
Evan leaned over and covered the woman’s hands with his and studied her disheartened expression.
“Give it a try,” he coaxed. “I know you can play it this once. Have faith,”
Except for the appropriately placed ‘thank you’ and ‘please’, it was the most Evan had spoken all evening. Opal did not protest but pushed herself from the chair and walked to the bench. Her daughter stood and the two women changed places. Opal closed the song book and neatly stacked the music in a small pile on the edge of the bench. She paused for a moment, spreading her fingers over the keys, and the room filled with our anticipation. She played the first three notes gingerly as if reuniting with a friend after a long estrangement. No one sang. We waited.
The retired piano teacher—the virtuosa—delved into the song, forgetting her fingers’ stiffness, her apprehension and even her audience. I listened, hoping that, in this moment, with her fingers moving expertly across the keys with miraculous dexterity, she felt as happy as she had made me feel all evening.
And the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing
For the manger of Bethlehem cradles a King!
When she touched the final key, we stood and applauded loudly, pleading for her to play another song. All of us except Evan, who had slipped away unnoticed. As I pondered over Evan’s sudden disappearance, I remembered my mother’s admonishment when I was a child. Always show kindness to strangers; by doing so, some have entertained angels unawares. Opal opened her heart to strangers and received an unexpected blessing. She was unaware that Evan had been a special guest. Not that she would have done anything differently.

Commissioner’s House Conspiracy

March 25, 2012 Leave a comment

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I’m starting to think there’s a conspiracy sabotaging my intentions to visit the Commissioner’s House. Every time I have the idea to visit, something happens to mess it up. Located in Dockyard, the Commissioner’s House is a bit of a drive away, and since it’s situated in the very western end of the Island, one has to be going that way on purpose.

While I was on vacation at home in December, I intended to visit the Commissioner’s House. I thought I had nothing else to do, but somehow, I managed to fill my days with other things, other places to go and tasks to be accomplished. Finally, my vacation ended and I was back to work, missing a good opportunity to visit the elusive CH.

While relatives were visiting even more recently, I took time off from work intending to end the day at (you guessed it) the Commissioner’s House. None of us had ever been there and it would have been a nice day out for all of us. I’ll skip the details but it’s safe to say, we never made it. Perhaps I should clarify that statement; I never made it. My husband took the next day off and the trio enjoyed a pleasant visit to the Maritime Museum including the Commissioner’s House. I had to hear all about it when I came home from work.

You’re probably asking, what’s the big deal? In the grand scheme of the world, not much, even I admit. Curiosity. A bit of privilege. There’s a painting, Bermuda’s story in art, by Graham Foster, that I understand from all reports, is well worth the time and gas to view. Mr. Foster’s grand mural spans 500 years of Bermuda history and 1,000 square feet in intricate detail. Something like that has to be seen with one’s own eyes to be fully appreciated. Exhibits in the museum cover history about the settlement of Bermuda, people groups, families and other chunks of information missing from our formal education. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from.

Today’s near miss hurt more than ever. In celebration of the African Diaspora Heritage Trail, entrance into the Maritime Museum was free. Hubby and I decided last night to make the trek today. With a beautiful day surrounding me, I made sure my chores had been completed (mostly) before packing my handbag and grabbing my camera for the long-awaited visit. We had a late start, but I was okay with that because I only wanted—needed—to see one thing, the mural on the staircase. However, by the time we arrived at the front gates of the museum, no further entries were allowed because it was deemed too close to closing time (notice how I skilfully deflect the blame away from my own tardiness?). At the gate, entrance is free, and still no mural for me.

In an effort to salvage the day, we visited Dockyard like a couple of tourists, who were enjoying the day too, by the way. The slide show is a collection of photos from today’s outing. Enjoy!

Get Out There!

March 18, 2012 Leave a comment

A beautiful day for a walk

A 70-degree March day is a terrible thing to waste. So yesterday, after church and lunch, we laced up our sneakers and joined some newly made friends for a leisurely walk through the old railway trails. Hubby and I brought our pocket-sized cameras because . . . that’s just what we do. One member of our party is studying herbs and our walk was punctuated with lessons about the healing properties of the plants that we take for granted. Hubby was brave enough to try a bite-sized Nasturtium salad, picked along the trail. We sucked on honeysuckles and heard about which plants help lower high blood pressure, heal wounds, ease “female complaints”, and ah-hem, strengthen that certain muscle so men ‘perform’ better. Move over, Viagra; this stuff grows wild and free out here!

By the time we reached the road, we could already see the blue-green ocean in the distance. I never get tired of marvelling at the ocean. When people ask me how far from the beach do you live? I am tempted to answer, “What do you mean?” or “What kind of question is that?” After all, we’re only 21 miles long and approximately 1 mile wide–at the widest point. If the surf is rough enough, I can smell it from my yard and my kitchen windows get the salt spray!

On the trail down to the beach, we got sandwiched in by two separate horseback riding groups, but with a little courtesy, there’s plenty of room for bipeds and four-legged beasts to pass. And then the ocean–showing off its blue and green, crystal clear beauty. A few people were actually in the water, but for the most part, it’s not truly beach season yet. Some residents will start flocking to the beach on the unofficial start of the season, May 24 (a public holiday), but if anyone is still like me and the old timers, we won’t consider going to the beach for swimming “until the sun crosses the line”, after June 21. How’s that for a crazy, local tradition? By then the heat is driving me either to stay indoors where the fan keeps me cool, or to the ocean for temporary, wet relief.
A small group of people were relaxing after SUP’ing. Okay, so this one is new on me. I had to ask the guy who came to retrieve his curious Parson Russell/terrier mix what it’s about. Stand up paddle surfing (SUP) is a sport I knew nothing of and had no problem peppering him with questions, not that I’m likely to ever try it. Apparently, yesterday was a perfect day for it, because the waters on the South Shore were calm. There’s a picture of their boards somewhere in the collage. Perhaps sometime I’ll see them in action.

Further down the beach things got a bit surreal, due to the rock and sand formations that took on eerie shapes after erosion caused by hurricane damage, some of which still remained as gigantic rubble. The environment looked foreign, especially the portion of the beach where the Government is fortifying the cliff face with a massive stone wall. The scenery reminded me of the last scene of “The Planet of the Apes”—you know, the first one, way back when Charlton Heston finds the Statue of Liberty lying on its side in post-apocalyptic Earth.

By this time, I started to think about what would have been really great on this walk—water! We still have our “Mount Kilimanjaro” to face, a steep hill that’s torturous to walk but offers a wonderful overland view of the area at the top. When we reached top, I was too proud to admit I was exhausted, but if that “Attack Cat” a sign warned of had shown up, I would have been a goner.

Loquats

Today’s less strenuous activities include sitting in the back yard sorting through yesterday’s pictures for the collage (above) and listening to the songs of nature. Birds that sing, bees that buzz and the boys in the trees picking loquats. The trees are bursting with the oval-shaped fruit waiting to be picked and enjoyed. Unfortunately, a perfect bunch is just above my head—far out of reach. Too bad. I’ll let the birds have them.

Day 1 – The Art of Looking Busy

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Day One of my vacation actually did find me at the airport; however, there was no boarding pass in my hand, only a dollar for the parking meter. After dropping my passenger off at the airport, I then considered my vacation to be officially “on”. Even though today would be stuffed with errands, I could still make it fun. Driving back from the airport in mostly sunny conditions (not ‘mostly cloudy’ as the weatherman describes it) and 70 degrees, I looked around with a visitor’s eyes. If I were visiting, what would be interesting enough to investigate? I didn’t have to wait very long to answer my own question.

Mats. Blankets. Carpet. Since Monday, local ecologists have been using these buzz words to describe the Sargassum seaweed that has washed up on our shores. As strange as it may look to the Average Joe, the seaweed, which has blanketed bays and beaches across the Island resulting from tides and the high winds we have been experiencing from the west, is actually an ecologically important event. According to Dr. Nicholas Bates, Acting Director of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS), “The Sargasso Sea is a unique habitat.” Creatures such as fish, sea turles and some species of endangered eels use the Sargasso Sea as a spawning and feeding ground. We’re just not used to seeing the Sargassum seaweed up close and personal at Shelly Bay or Red Hole. Eventually, the seaweed will break down and become clear, returning our beaches to their enticing, pristine condition. Until then, it’s a phenomenon that has been attracting the curious across the Island who discuss it, photograph it, or just gaze in wonder.

The first day of vacation fell on the last Wednesday Farmer’s Market before Christmas–the only one I’ve been to, despite the fact that it’s only a 5-minute walk from my office. Hubby usually goes and picks up what we need. I understand that our Farmer’s Market is noticably smaller than its counterparts in the rest of the world, but it’s an opportunity to support local farmers and small merchants. Along with farmers selling fresh produce, including broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, potatoes, etc., other merchants sold local products that make perfect Christmas gifts: sweet, local honey from happy Bermuda bees, cookies and chocolates boxed and packaged for gift giving, plants, art and sweet treats. I bought a small but vibrant poinsettia that I hope to keep alive for more than 2 weeks instead of the wreath that enticed me with its wintry pine scent. I resisted, admired the sunflowers and left before I blew my budget.

Not sure what’s in store for tomorrow, but if the weather is as lovely as today, I must get outside to enjoy it.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Sunset

October 1, 2011 12 comments

Any flaws in this photo are due to photographer inexperience, not the original scene! Bermuda sunsets are quick once the sun begins to set: one minute you’re reaching for your camera and the next minute–phttt! it’s afterglow. But part of the beauty is being there to watch them.

Pride and Heritage

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I love Heritage Day. The anticipation. The excitement. Cheering on the brave souls who enter the Marathon Derby from the side of the road. The familiar sound of my camera clicking its way through the subsequent parade. Most of all, however, it’s a time to enjoy genuine pride in my country and its people. Citizens of any country need a day for nationalism and patriotism that remain absolute despite the daily troubles that often threaten our peace. It’s a day to stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder with people we may not ordinarily encounter or interact with in our ordinary routines. On this day, we have a lot in common. We’re all cheering on the runner who looks like she wants to give up one mile from the marathon finish line. We chat about the heat, cloud cover or rain that’s affecting our day. We all want everyone to succeed—finish the marathon, win a ribbon for the best float of its class, perform that dance routine with enthusiasm and precision.

I love the 24th of May. It’s one week from my birthday, marking the official countdown to the first day of the next year of my life (Lord willing). I spend a lot of time reflecting on why I returned to the country of my birth as an adult. It’s the first birthday gift I open every year. When I consider the talent and pride that shines through the faces of the majorettes or float attendants, I am reminded how privileged I am to live here.

I love Bermuda Day. Formerly Commonwealth Day, it has become a day that is uniquely ours. Intended as a way to bring races together in harmony, it became Bermuda Day. Whether the holiday accomplishes that feat is debatable. Black, white, Portuguese and other residents support the day’s activities by volunteering, operating business stalls and floats, working behind the scenes in any one of the hundreds of roles required to make the holiday a community success.

I love Heritage Day. I respect it. Heritage is not something a child dwells on or normally appreciates. Heritage is the concept that is longed for when the adult wonders where he fits in the universe. When he asks Who am I? it helps if he knows a bit about his heritage. Which brings us back to the child. We need to teach our children about their heritage. The good, the unflattering and the lessons we had to learn the hard way. Teach them so they can walk with pride and power. Teach them and remember.