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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.

If I Could Write Like James Kavanaugh, I Wouldn’t Be Watching TV

November 20, 2011 Leave a comment

I don’t like to talk when I watch TV or a movie, but I usually have my laptop close by, on. During commercials I surf the net, drop in on my Facebook page or read emails. So when I heard this poem during a rerun of a Matlock episode (one of Hubby’s favorite TV shows), my computer was already at my disposal. In the episode, “The Temptation”, only a few lines are read, but something in that glimpse into James Kavanaugh’s poetry caught my attention. In “Will You Be My Friend?” Mr. Kavanaugh expresses what I have felt all my life when trying to balance the desire to “show myself friendly” [Proverbs 18:24 KJV] with protecting my heart against the discomfort of vulnerability and the risk of rejection or indifference. All summed up in 50 lines.

I immediately considered selecting pictures that I thought would complement the poem for a blog post, but the more I read it, the more I felt impressed to leave the poem on its own, in its purity, so that the pictures created in your mind as you read the poem can be as individual as you are. No need to force my interpretation of the writer’s message on anyone (not this time anyway).

Will You Be My Friend?
– James Kavanaugh

There are so many reasons why you never should:
I’m sometimes sullen, often shy, acutely sensitive,
My fear erupts as anger, I find it hard to give,
I talk about myself when I’m afraid
And often spend the day without anything to say

But I will make you laugh
And love you quite a bit
And hold you when you’re sad.
I cry a little almost every day
Because I’m more caring than the strangers ever know,
And, if at times, I show my tender side
(The soft and warmer part I hide)
I wonder

Will you be my friend?
A friend
Who far beyond the feebleness of any vow or tie
Will touch the secret place where I am really I,
To know the pain of lips that plead and eyes that weep,
Who will not run away when you find me in the street
Alone and lying mangled by my quota of defeats
But will stop and stay – to tell me of another day
When I was beautiful.

Will you be my friend?
There are so many reasons why you never should;
Often I’m too serious, seldom predictable the same,
Sometimes cold and distant, probably I’ll always change.
I bluster and brag, seek attention like a child.
I broud and pout, my anger can be wild,
But I will make you laugh
And love you quite a bit
And be near when you’re afraid.
I shake a little almost every day
Because I’m more frightened than the strangers ever know

And if at times I show my trembling side
(The anxious, fearful part I hide)
I wonder,
Will you be my friend?
A friend
Who, when I fear your closeness, feels me push away
And stubbornly will stay to share what’s left on such a day
Who, when no one knows my name or calls me on the phone,
When there’s no concern for me – what I have or haven’t done –
And those I’ve helped and counted on have,
oh so deftly, run.
Who, when there’s nothing left but me,
Stripped of charm and subtlety,
Will nonetheless remain.

Will you be my friend?
For no reason that I know
Except I want you so.

Flower Letter from my Father

November 11, 2011 3 comments

Have you ever had an encounter with God? A time when you know God interacted with you directly, personally? It may not have been by way of an audible, James Earl Jones-sounding voice that made the ground below your feet shake. God speaks in many ways and if you are receptive to his voice, you’ll know. His message will be clear and specific.

Recently, I had an encounter with God on an ordinary morning in November. Earlier, while attending a women’s conference, I received a laminated, postcard-sized spiritually motivating thought, decorated with a picture of a beautiful purple flower. The message spoke about the struggles women face and through it all, we are still special to God. At the end of the card’s message were instructions to pass the card on to another woman of worth. Instead, I intended to hoard the card to myself, to use it for personal inspiration from time to time. Perhaps I’ll keep it at my desk at work, I decided. I dropped it into my purse. On the way to work, however, guilt tugged at me and I decided to give it to a coworker. When I arrived at work, however, something told me to give it to a different coworker, one who has been facing personal and work-related challenges, but she has faced each one with a smile and professionalism. I obeyed the voice inside and presented the card to her instead. She was happy to receive it, and I was happy to pass it on.

The day progressed with its usual tasks—the good and the not so fun. Late in the afternoon when I was expecting materials from a vendor, the receptionist called to tell me there was something at the front desk for me. I thought I would be collecting seminar booklet and other workshop materials that would be needed in the next day’s training session. I was so immersed in preparing for the event that it was easy to surprise me. A floral arrangement had arrived for me for no special occasion. It was from a friend to let me know someone was thinking about and praying for me. Someone in my church family and Someone who is Lord of my life. The gift was full of messages from God, like good wishes written on a leg cast after a skiing accident.

The message on the florist’s card assured me that my friend was thinking of me. A little booklet, “First Aid for the Spirit”, came with the flowers, and I bookmarked the page that read “God has made me laugh and all who hear will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6 NKJV). Sarah was speaking of her late-in-life motherhood experience, but God had given me a cheery heart and joy to share. My friend had also stuffed a wallet card inside the booklet that reminds me that I am special, one of a kind and that I can make it through anything.

Brighten the corner where you are.

I selected a prominent place on my desk for my flowers, a corner for them to brighten. I sat back in my chair and looked. In the midst of my busy office, I felt solitude, and I was able to ‘read’ the flower letter from God. The message unfolded before my eyes as clearly as if God had written on my cubicle wall with his finger. Every element of the arrangement had been inspired for me specifically, not by my sisterfriend, but by my unseen Friend.

• Like the vase—He holds my life an all that I experience. He sees through it like glass.

• The green netting represents my hands at my workplace as I gave the card of encouragement and cheer to another woman.

• The green and purple flowers represent my work environment, as these are my company’s colors.

From there, the arrangement directs the eye upward.

• The carnations are ordinary, as I regard myself, but He is telling me, “Be more like the bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae, my favorite flower).” See how she holds her head up. She’s strong. She’s beautiful. She’s special to me.”

Bold and beautiful

• There are two carnations but only one bird of paradise in the arrangement. Stop comparing yourself to carnations.

Not an expert on flowers by any stretch of the imagination, I marvel at the bird of paradise, wondering if it might possibly be close to if not actually perfect. Its birdlike head is erect, its ‘crest’ bright and colorful, spread out like a peacock’s feathers. The stem and bract are firm. It’s just lovely to look at.

I have admired the bird of paradise since I first saw them. I remember looking for them in cut-flower bunches being sold on the streets of Boston as I emerged from the subway during the day’s commute. For a few dollars they decorated my desk cheerfully. I would buy them early in the week to enjoy them for the remainder of the week. The flower also grows in a bluish color, too, but I prefer the striking orange/red/deep blue combination. When I look at it, I can see the bird’s face.

The sender doesn’t know me well enough to know if I even like flowers, so I know this gift was God inspired. He speaks to us in different—personal—ways. An open heart will ‘hear’ and know.

Threads of Gossamer

November 9, 2011 Leave a comment

If we were always conscious of the fact that people precious to us are frighteningly mortal, hanging not even by a thread, but by a wisp of gossamer, perhaps we would be kinder to them and more grateful for the love and friendship they give to us.
– Dean Koontz

Book Club Sisters

September 18, 2011 2 comments

Sunday afternoon. Sitting in a circle of women. Talking about homelessness, forgiveness, prejudice and other bits of life. No, it’s not a group therapy session. There’s no overpriced, vaguely helpful psychologist asking, “So, how did that make you feel?” Just a group of ladies with at least one other thing in common: books. I like my book club meetings. Even though I enjoy reading, sometimes I need a bit of a push. A deadline. Sunday, 18th of September, at 3:30 pm. Having finished the assigned book over a week ago, I was ready for the discussion.

Our book: Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. What’s interesting about book clubs, for the uninitiated, is the interaction among members. Twelve women read one book and how many perspectives do you think surface? Of course, that’s the fun of it. A couple of us had a challenge getting into the book. Frankly, halfway through the first chapter I already thought I wouldn’t finish the book. I haven’t missed a book club meeting yet, so I had a sick day coming. Things picked up in the second chapter. From then on I enjoyed a story about an unusual friendship and a role model. A true story that has been around for a while (2006), Same Kind of Different as Me, motivates its readers to look inside themselves and identify the gifts we can use to help others. These gifts need not be extraordinary. Debbie Hall’s gifts of charity and hospitality shone through the book (a true story). She made a difference in one man’s life and ultimately left a love-inspired legacy to her family and community.

I have been trying to decide how to pass this book on so that the next reader might enjoy and be inspired by it as much as I have been, but why stop at just one person? If you’re looking for a read that won’t waste your time, load Same Kind of Different as Me onto your Kindle or Nook (or grab the good old-fashioned paper version) and settle into your favorite reading spot. Beware: you’ll want to discuss those Reader’s Guide questions with someone.