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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.

Christmas Eve in Our Little City

December 24, 2013 1 comment

It’s Christmas Eve.

The stores are closing after weeks of Christmas-shopping hype and excitement. Weary salesclerks can go home to enjoy the holiday with their families after bagging, wrapping and providing gift boxes to countless holiday shoppers. Closed. The crowds are thinning out. Now is a good time to wander around the city and look at the window displays that creative types worked so hard on, displays that we have been delighted by from the corners of our eyes as we scurried by on our way to cross off the next item on our lists.

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The City is peppered with Christmas trees that twinkle with colorful lights, signs that proclaim “Peace on Earth” and fake snowflakes for those of us who live in areas where it never snows. I don’t mind that at all. The excitement that energizes the city wanes as shoppers stuff their packages into car trunks and onto bus seats. Don’t worry; the excitement will resurface in homes like yours and mine.

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Merry Christmas!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Sea

September 1, 2013 Leave a comment

Sea

Client: Have a great holiday weekend. Any plans?

Me: Take it easy, I guess. Maybe take my first dip of the year, just to be able to say I went swimming this summer.

Client: Let me get this straight–you live on an island, right??!!

Me: Worse. I can walk to the beach from my house, but, well, you know, it’s so hotttt!

Client: I would give my eye teeth to wake up close to the ocean and walk to the beach after work a couple times a week. We should swap lives.

I don’t know what eye teeth are, but point taken. I could show the sea a bit more appreciation.

Day 11 – Homeward Bound

December 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Dec 16

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Last morning in Amman and I am big on wringing out every drop of my journey just to delay the inevitable, as if that were possible. I skipped breakfast in favor of lying in and squeezing a bit more from the hotel room with its fluffy, cloudlike bed. However, when given the opportunity to venture to a mall (mostly to look around, since I don’t like to shop much), I jumped into the private car arranged by the hotel. During the ride, the driver suggested that we go to Amman center to shop; the prices would be less expensive than at the mall.

I like the energy of a city, and the activity on the sidewalks of Amman rivaled any other city. Thinking we were heading to a mall, I left my camera in the hotel room and had to use my phone to snap photos on the drive into the city. Our driver let us out at the King Hussein Mosque which would be our landmark meeting place in a couple of hours.
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After a few last-minute purchases, we entertained ourselves with every little thing we passed: stacks of colorfully wrapped candy, the shop that sold lanterns which hung overhead, seasonings and spices (some of which I even recognized since I couldn’t read the signs), and bright, red fabrics that caught my eye. One store sold sweets made with honey, a container full of tiny balls and other sweets shaped like pecans. When I asked the vendor what they were, he offered one to me. Sticky and crispy on the outside with a soft middle, I could hardly eat the quarter-sized ball of honey because of its sweetness (and I like sweets). After that, I was good for sweets for a while, my taste buds duly shocked.
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Everything drifts into oblivion from there. The short of it is: hotel to Jordan border to cross the King Hussein Bridge. The travel company rep, who looked like Mario Lopez, accompanied us through the formalities and deposited us in the waiting area before bidding us farewell. Cross from Jordan to Israel in a seemingly endless line of checks and screenings. But that’s all dull, dull, dull—time consuming but dull. After supper en route to the Ben Gurion airport, our group soon waved good bye to Israel and boarded the late flight from Tel Aviv.

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Israel is a complicated country. The mixture of people, cultures, beliefs, politics and even the landscape can be a lot to take in. it has many facets, depending on the angle, the impression will be different. Each of us, although we traveled as one group, came back with different impressions. Frankly, I am still processing the experience, never mind organizing the stacks of photos (well, they would be stacks if they were prints).

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Thanks for checking my posts as I unraveled this journey. Was it worth it? Definitely.

Day 10 – Rock City.

December 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Dec 15

Hotel at Petra

Hotel at Petra

When Indiana Jones burst from the Treasury building in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the movie-going public got a glimpse of Petra that captured our imaginations. Ever since then I wondered what it would be like to visit this amazing location. After a cold, early start, we arrived at the entrance of the famous Petra site. Part of the excitement of visiting the second time is seeing the faces on our fellow travelers as they discover the history of this World Heritage site.
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Carriage drivers and horseback riders offered alternatives to the long walk through the Siq. Walking through the rock cavern adds to the anticipation of what lies ahead at the end of the tunnel. The Siq, about a mile long, is a good stroll. Read the plaques along the walk. There is much to learn about the people who inhabited this area on your way. The morning rush was just picking up as we walked. Carriages sped by after passengers had disembarked at the end of the path. They hurried to pick up their next passengers, kicking up dust as they rushed by.

Walking through the Siq

Walking through the Siq

A high-spirited mood filled the air. I just wish tour guides wouldn’t do this: they stop the group, pull them over to the side and direct their attention forward so they have their first glimpse of the famed Treasury. That’s like telling a child what’s in the big birthday present the second before he pops open the top. It’s anticlimactic after all of that walking and anticipation. Better to let each person be surprised when it finally emerges before him.

the Treasury

the Treasury

After listening to our guide’s explanation of the ancient inhabitants and recent population, which was moved from Petra to nearby settlements, our group moved off the main throughway to a rock ledge for a time of worship. With the red Nabataean tombs as background, we sang praise songs, shared testimonies of what this journey has meant to us and prayed, after which our pastor shared from the word of God transporting us to the land of the Biblical Edomites.

What do you see in the rocks?

What do you see in the rocks?

Our time in the Biblical lands was drawing quickly to an end, much too quickly for me. After lunch in Wadi Musa we would travel back to Amman to spend the night complete with a farewell dinner at the Tawaheen Al Hawa Restaurant.

When we spilled out of the bus still buzzing about our day’s events, we had no idea of the dining experience that we would enjoy that evening. Sumptuous décor, fabulous Jordanian food and impeccable service. Just when we thought we couldn’t eat anything more, dessert arrived—fresh apples, oranges and bananas which our servers miraculously transformed into delightfully edible objets d’art.

Somewhere there was a king-sized bed with my name on it, and I was eager to tumble into it.

Day 9 – Arriving in Petra

December 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Dec 14

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After a long bus ride, the sun had set by the time we reached Petra. I had hoped we would arrive at our hotel early enough to enjoy the scenery and layout of the Taybet Zaman. This 100-year old property is spread out in the style of a village. Each guest receives a map to help with finding the room and a latch key that looks like a prop from an old movie. When we swung open the door to our room, I thanked our travel agent for upgrading to this hotel.

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“I love this room!”

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Colorful, rolled pillows decorated the den area. The dressing area outside of the bathroom was charming but functional, plenty of space for our luggage. Too bad we wouldn’t be staying long enough to unpack. A few steps brought us up to the bedroom, splashed with earthy colored rugs, leading to a huge bed. The cozy room resembled a home rather than a hotel room. Compared to the nondescript, impersonal hotel rooms where we usually stay—suitable enough for sleeping but not worth gushing over—this was a treat.

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After dinner, we made our way back to the room with the help of the hotel staff who are always available to direct and assist, to enjoy the few hours we had at the Petra Taybet Zaman. In the morning we would uncover the history of Petra (see you on Saturday night).

Day 9 – Jerash and Mount Nebo

December 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Jerash

Jerash


Dec 14
The money changed from shekels to dinars and the time moved forward by one hour when we crossed into Jordan. Of all of the places we have visited, I would not have guessed that we would have a chance to return to Jordan, only because I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity the first time. You know, being so far away and all. A second visit, therefore, affords the luxury of being selective with one’s photos. That was plan, anyway, until we reached Jerash (Gerasa), be one of the best-preserved Roman towns in the world. Can cities be photogenic? I like photographing inanimate objects: colonnaded streets, the ruins of ancient temples, theaters, plazas and city walls.

Ancient Roman Street

Ancient Roman Street

Faces are cool, too, but they move. I am not always the quickest on the shutter, and facial expressions change quickly. For the British-accented coffee/tea seller, I waited. I couldn’t understand the fascination with coffee and tea, even though it was being offered in an ancient Roman city, until I hung around and heard him talk. How does a Jordanian who has never been out of the country develop a British accent?

Coffee/tea seller

Coffee/tea seller

The Oval Plaza

The Oval Plaza

In the theater, there’s a spot where a person standing on it can hear the amplification of her own voice. Just one of those unexpected delights that drops into one’s day like a child who plays with spoons in the midst of a roomful of toys.
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On to Mount Nebo where God showed Moses the Promised Land. The map (shown) points the way to the areas we had already passed through: the Dead Sea, Bethlehem, Qumran, Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. As far as the eye could see, Biblical history stretched out before us.
map at Mount Nebo

map at Mount Nebo


Just one more day of our tour, capped off by the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Petra. Talk about being photogenic.