Max’s Hardware Store

Remembering Dad. No, this isn’t my dad or Max’s hardware store. At least you get the picture.

Today, the day before Father’s Day, I needed some paint, so I headed down to the local hardware store.  It was closing time, so I literally ran into the store and asked where the spray paint was kept. 

The clerk quickly steered me in the right direction.  I ran back through the stacks of lawn equipment, light bulbs, plungers, and the bins of screws and nails to grab my spray paint.

I suddenly stopped and caught my breath.  Not because I had been running, but because I was suddenly transported back 55 years or so to when I was a young child on Staten Island, far from the Connecticut town in which I stood.

Dad would periodically say “Hop in the car, we’ve got to pick something up at Max’s.”  And off we’d go, a dozen blocks or so to a small storefront on Watchogue Road. 

We’d walk through the door and a tinkling bell would alert Max he had a customer.  Dad would head right for whatever he needed, some nails, some tubes for the television that was on the fritz, or best of all, some paint. 

I would wander around Max’s labyrinth of hardware which was packed into every square inch of that small store.  There was barely room to walk the aisles, and the hardware was literally draped to the rafters.  My small eyes would lift to the ceiling, amazed to see hoses and baskets, wires and coffee pots, everywhere I looked.

The smell of sawdust (or maybe just plain dust) permeated the air.  The light was dim and the store was a cave of the most interesting stuff a child could imagine, though having no idea what any of it was for.  Max knew it all; he may have been small in stature, but he had a head crammed with inventory. 

Dad would explain his project and Max’s mustache would twitch happily into a smile as he went running off to find just the widget or gadget Dad needed. 

And if by my lucky stars, Dad needed paint, I got the thrill of watching Max load the paint mixing machine—the gadget that shook, rattled & rolled the paint can until the paint was just right.  That was the highlight of any trip to the hardware store.

It seemed like we always left the store with Dad whistling.  He’d have his tv tubes or can of paint and I’d have had my trip with Dad. 

I knew then I had ahead the happy time of watching Dad do his project, making the tv work, changing the color of the wall, or fixing a broken door; making our world at home just a bit better or brighter. 

“Thanks Max” Dad would call, before the tinkling bell ushered us out.

As I caught myself in the reverie of Max’s hardware store, I headed back to the checkout with my simple can of spray paint, sorry I didn’t have a can to put on some shake-rattle-roll machine.  

I was glad though that some other child had a hardware store to go into that still sells individual nails and screws of all shapes and sizes and still has shelves laden with all types of widgets and gadgets. 

As I paid for my paint, I had to put my sunglasses on to hide my wet eyes.  “Happy Father’s Day,” I said to the cashier, not even knowing if he was a father.  It didn’t matter; “Happy Father’s Day” indeed Dad. 

You may not be here anymore, but I can still go into a hardware store and remember….and then go home and paint. 

Bridge Over Troubled Water

My Crossing to Safety Reminder

Years ago, on a beautiful summer day, I drove home to Virginia after a visit to New England.  I was enjoying the peaceful drive as I headed over the Tappan Zee Bridge, glancing at the vista of the Hudson River.  In a surreal second, my heart started  to race as fear swept my body.  I didn’t think I would…or even could…make it to shore.  My hands shook as I gripped the steering wheel and locked my eyes on the car in front of mine, using that tether to carry me across the bridge.

     Once I crossed to safety, all I could think about was how I was going to make it over the next bridge.  I had never had a panic attack before and never wanted to again.  It may have been irrational, but the fear was debilitatingly real.  Sure enough, the next bridge was worse than the first.  For years after that, I drove miles out of my way to avoid a bridge.  My mantra became

one bridge at a time.

     The truth is, the bridge wasn’t the problem, it was my life.  I was deep in mid-life muck.  Our home seemed to be in chaos.  My husband worked long hours, I was going to night school, my daughter was hitting puberty, my son had learning problems, and I was miserable.  I wanted out of the whole mess and didn’t know how to get there.  In other words, I didn’t know how to get to shore.

     Not unlike how I worry today about fording the swift cultural current raging on the daily news:  Columbine-Newtown-Parkland-…and the list goes on.  How do we get to shore?  We tremble as we cross shaking, swaying bridges.

     Two years ago I took care of my sister who was crossing a bridge of a different kind–the one that carries us to the other side, that shore of which we are so unsure.  In Jean’s last week, her husband and I sat in her hospital room with bated breath, watching her erratic breathing become increasingly shallow.  Food would no longer go down, and we could see her pain was beyond tolerable. 

    The Do Not Disturb sign on the door reminded us that Jean was crossing the final bridge.  We were alone with her as she drifted into deeper sleep.  Softly the door opened; a nurse adjusted the pain pump, an aide brought new ice chips, the chaplain said a prayer.  We crowded onto the bridge, gently releasing Jean to shore, where the waiting hand of love took her soul to safety.  Then, turning, we packed her things and trudged across the long bridge out of the hospital.  It was not an easy walk, but we knew Jean had not crossed her final bridge alone.

     What do we do to help people over their bridges?  Not long ago, I crossed a bridge and saw a sign that read, “If you need help, call the Bridge Suicide Hotline 1-800-…”  All along the side of the bridge was netting, preventing a fall—or a jump.  On the Chesapeake Bay Bridge there is drive-over service available for those who can’t manage the drive themselves.

     When I was in India, I saw a dangerous, bubbling waterhole in the hills overlooking Nepal.  A wizened grandmother who looked to be about 110-years-old was crossing a high bridge above the water with a boy no older than four.  He stopped to fearfully look down at the percolating water below.  His grandmother prodded him forward with her stick, moving him slowly onto the safe path beyond the bridge.

     We prod and poke each other to safety, one bridge at a time, helping each other across the raging rivers below until, bit-by-bit, we can cross those bridges ourselves.  Thanks to many pokes and prods helping me to face and fix my broken spirit, I no longer need to tether myself to the car in front of me; I can finally enjoy the view.

     Today, I look out my window at the small wooden arched bridge over the running brook behind our house and smile at the beautiful reminder of my crossing to safety.

Gospel of Grace

~from my May column in the Litchfield Connection (see Publication Clips on this website for published version). Originally published in the Best of The Litchfield Community Writers Group, 2017.

It had been one of those mornings when nothing went right, including my drive to work.  My hair was a mess, traffic was congested, and, in general, life was chaotic. 

While stopped at a red light, I glanced at a rundown church squeezed between two strip malls and noticed the name, Gospel of Grace Covenant Church.  “Okay, God,” I dared, “show me some grace today.  I certainly need something.”

When I pulled into the office parking lot, I glanced around.  No grace here, I thought.  The morning routine at school division headquarters droned before me. 

Newly released test scores of the district had been in the morning paper, so the phones were ringing with questions about score discrepancies.  Statistical analysis was the name of the game.  No grace to be found as I worked the numbers, the formulaic answer to how well we’re teaching students.

With numbers dancing before me, an e-mail titled ‘Invitation’ caught my eye and I clicked to see that central office staff were invited to the stadium behind our building to participate in field day ceremonies.  I didn’t know what field day it was, and didn’t expect to find any grace there, but at least some fresh morning air would be a respite from number crunching.

I joined the throng of central office personnel heading to the stadium where there was a scattering of parents in the stands, but we were the bulk of the cheerleaders.  The large stadium was mostly empty. 

Someone handed out rhythm sticks, pom-poms and banners. The high school drum line bounded onto the field.  Something important is about to happen! the pounding cadence announced, just as the emcee roared a welcome to a parade of students entering the gates. 

I leaned over to ask what field day this was and caught sight of wheelchairs in the distance, the crooked smiles of those unable to maintain facial composure, the determined steps of those who having trouble walking, and realized this was the school division’s special education field day. 

Our cheers went up as school after school of students, little ones and not-so-little ones, streamed into the stadium. Our rhythm sticks pounded, our banners waved, and the parade passed by, with grins abounding. 

Teachers pushed wheelchairs, held hands, cajoled the foot draggers and held up school signs announcing where their charges were from.  Class after class, child after child, streamed on.  Each one giving us a look that said, “Yes!  We are here!  We can do this!” 

Oh, what grace it took.  The grace of teachers giving up time, lots of time, to get ready for this day; the children themselves, working painstakingly to do whatever it would take to compete. 

Yes, it was grace that streamed into that stadium amid the raucous chaos of a number-crunching school division, reminding us that achievement is more than the sum of score reports; reminding us that one teacher can make a difference; reminding us there is hope in a chaotic world.

It brought back to me the words of a chaplain who had served in the Iraq war and said that he served at “the juncture of chaos and grace.”  Wherever there is a juncture, the path splits to either side—toward hope or despair, like a scale that can be tipped to one side or the other.  That chaplain works to tip the scale of war toward peace and hope amidst the rubble and clutter. 

Like the volunteer at our local hospital who each Sunday walks up to the nursing station and asks, “Who didn’t have any visitors this week?” and trots off down the hall, most often to the indigent ward, to pay a visit to the visit-less.  A bearer of grace, tipping the scale away from loneliness.

Tippers are everywhere.  Look for chaos, and you’ll find them; the ones who coax and cajole the world to a higher plane of meaning, to a more beautiful place. Yes, to a kinder, gentler, more civilized place.  The teachers who put together the special education field day are tippers all.

As I headed home that night and passed the Gospel of Grace Covenant Church, my hair was still a mess, the traffic was still congested, but life in general was no longer chaotic.  The balance had been tipped to the side of grace.

The Purple Carpet

I stepped out the door today and found a purple carpet next to my front step. How did this happen so fast? One minute snow, the next a purple rug.

It was so beautiful I had to get on my hands and knees to feel the lushness of the ground. As I moved my fingers, I felt the warmth of the sun on the tiny flowers. No wonder they were all facing the front of the garden like good students.

Hidden within the blaze of purple, one flower crying real tears. Holding on to earlier rain as we often do.

Uh-oh…what is this patch of white doing here, elbowing its way into purple territory? Just as pretty, but delicately different. Looks like it got into the party without an invitation. Fortunately my purple friends don’t mind the intrusion.

I tiptoed out of the garden, leaving the flowers to their sunbath. Why did I ever think purple wasn’t a good carpet color? It’s perfect.

Dish Towel Lessons

Sometimes it takes an essay to remember…

Here’s to Mother’s Day and Washing Dishes

Growing up, my assigned chore was drying dishes my mother washed.  She kept up a constant training session, “Do not put wet dishes into the cupboard.  I told you to dry, really dry the inside of the glasses.  Stop banging the dishes, they’ll break.  Get a new towel when it is wet,” and so on. 

I got my professional drying license at parties that Uncle Dave and Aunt Alice hosted for our large extended family each holiday.  While the rest of the family sat around the post-feast table laughing at old stories, my mother snuck away to the kitchen to wash the mounds of dishes…by herself.  It made me angry that she didn’t participate in the relaxed table banter, and that no-one got up to help my mother.

I often wandered into the kitchen to ask, “Why don’t you come back for dessert?”

“Oh, this won’t take long.  You don’t understand.  When I came to live with Uncle Dave, he told me it was my job to do the dishes.  So that’s why I do it.”

“Mom, that was years ago.  You shouldn’t have to do all of Uncle Dave’s dishes now.  Besides, why don’t the others help?”

“Janie, when you’re the youngest of nine children, you learn to do whatever the older kids say you have to do.  This is simply my job.  It’s okay.  You are welcome to stay and dry.”

Most times I drifted off to find my cousins. 

By junior high school, a small inner voice got louder, “Pick up a towel and help.”  I thought maybe my added presence at the sink would encourage my aunts (God forbid uncles!) to join the dish-party.  That didn’t happen.

What did happen was that I got to watch my mother wash Uncle Dave and Aunt Alice’s delicate pink-flowered china.  She took special care of it as she kept up her training patter, this time about washing. 

“Make sure you always use hot water!  Rinse all dishes first.  Let the pots soak for a while.  Always wash in sudsy water and start with the silver; glasses are second, plates next, and then serving dishes.  Save the pots for last.  Rinse in hot water before setting them to dry.”

I listened to a litany of directives like Robert’s Rules of Order.  I thought of them as Grace’s Ridiculous Rules for Washing Freakin’ Dishes! 

After years of drying dishes with my mom, I slowly started to see the love that Mom put into that chore.  I realized that it got her away from the table teasing she had to endure from her older siblings.  This was her domain.  Her place in the family.  Far from being the low estate I thought it brought, it gave her status.  She was the one who accepted family as the imperfect dynamic it is.  The glistening china at the end of the meal meant all-is-well.  And she was happy to collect the simple “Thanks Gracie” that she got from my aunts (God forbid uncles!). 

I have been tutored by the best. And best of all, I inherited my aunt’s gorgeous pink-flowered china that I wash with the love and care that my mother taught.

          

The Story-Behind-the-Story

Terra Symphony String Quartet

Having no idea what to write this week, I thumbed through my pictures for inspiration. I did a double take on this picture I took last year while running to catch a subway under NYC. I remember stopping for a moment to listen to the beautiful music being played by this string quartet and thinking, Wow, that is a breath of fresh air down here!

I haven’t thought about this brief encounter until today when I looked closely at the picture and saw the banner hanging behind the quartet. Mmmm…they have a name: The Terra Symphony Orchestra String Quartet.

I dug around relevant websites and discovered that this NYC-based Brazilian orchestra began as a dream of violinist/violist Eliano Braze. He funded his dream through subway donations. I thought of the donation I put into the open violin case a year ago and how it, along with the many other donations dropped in the case, keeps Eliano’s dream alive.

When Eliano was a child, he lived on Brazil’s streets. Through a special project, Eliano learned to play the violin at age 10 and played with an orchestra at age 13. By 14 he was composing. In his twenties he followed love to New York, bringing his love of music with him. Now he works with his dream orchestra and continues his work under the streets of New York bringing joy to people like me.

Where does Eliano Braz get his inspiration? According to the Terra Symphony Orchestra website he is “Inspired by earth’s original symphony found in the Amazon jungle.” So while I’m combing my iPhone pictures for inspiration, he’s mining ancient history and finding funds in the bowels of the underground.

If you want inspiration, watch this (you have to scroll down to 2nd video) 5-minute documentary about Eliano Braz. By the end, I was thunderstruck by what people can accomplish through their dreams. I realize how small my dreams are compared to Eliano’s. This was a reminder that our dreams get played out in underground tunnels of life where we inspire one another in ways we’ll never know.

So what did this subway quartet teach me about writing?

  • Inspiration can be found anywhere…from the Amazon jungle to the NYC subway.
  • Look behind a story for the real story.
  • Don’t just dream, dream big and dream beyond the boundary of your life.

Thank you Eliano for taking your music underground on the day I happened to be catching a subway.