Archive for November 2011
This is a repost of one of my favorite columns. I recorded it for Spokane Public Radio several years ago and it is available on Public Radio Exchange. This year, the audio essay was broadcast by Delta College Public Radio in Michigan.
November 22, 2004
Giving her thanks for a gift of insight
When I was a girl, an old blind woman lived in the faded white house with peeling clapboards and a shaded, vine–covered porch, next door to me. Mrs. Miller was small and wiry, and very old. Her thin white hair was always pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck.
She lived with a little Chihuahua named Rocky – a strange and exotic pet at the time. The dog was ancient, barely able to walk on his thin matchstick legs and he, too, was almost blind.
Sometimes, Mrs. Miller’s son, John, lived with them. John was a loud and angry man who worked nights – when he worked – and either slept or watched game shows on the television all day. John drank. And when he was drunk, he wasn’t very nice to his mother.
I was afraid of that house and everyone in it. To me, the old woman was a person of shadows, living a dark and shuttered life. John, whose angry voice I could hear through the closed windows, frightened me and I was wary of the odd little dog.
Occasionally, when John wasn’t home, my grandmother would send me over with a baked sweet potato, a couple of ripe tomatoes or a slice of homemade pie. I would knock on the back door and listen to her shuffling through rooms, calling out to me in a thin, rough, voice. Rocky would totter across the linoleum floor, coughing out a dry, raspy, bark.
As quickly as I could, I would leave the food on the kitchen table – the sticky oilcloth–covered surface crowded with salt and peppershakers, paper napkins and bottles of hot sauce and pickled peppers – and run back out into the sunlight.
One Thanksgiving Day, my grandmother asked me to take a meal next door. I drooped, but I knew better than to argue.
I carried the plate, piled with turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans and ruby–red spiced apple rings across my back yard. I walked up the bank and past the little grove of plum trees to her back door, and knocked.
“Mrs. Miller,” I called. “I brought you some Thanksgiving dinner.”
I listened to her slow, painful, progress through the cluttered rooms. I imagined her reaching out for familiar doorways, feeling the edges of the furniture with bent and arthritic fingers. When she finally opened the back door, I thrust the plate at her, anxious to deliver it and leave.
But she didn’t take it. Instead, she put her face down to the steaming plate of food and inhaled deeply, breathing in the warm fragrance.
“Oh, Lord,” the old woman said. “That’s good.”
And she didn’t move. She just stood there, lost in thought. Finally, as soon as she stepped aside, I set the plate down on the table and ran home.
Just today, when I thought about what we will have for our Thanksgiving dinner, and my mind remembered, and replayed for me the taste of roast turkey and cornbread dressing, I recalled that day so long ago.
Thinking about it now, I understand that at that moment the old woman and I traded places.
I was blind to everything but my desire to run away, but for an instant Mrs. Miller could see. Through clouded eyes, she looked back at other Thanksgivings, long gone. Happy days before she was old and blind, and trapped in a dark house with an angry son.
In the years since that November day, when the trace of a scent or the sound of a voice leaves me gazing at ghosts, I’ve learned that time gives back as much as it takes away.
And for that, like the old woman, I’m grateful.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
I turned the corner, down an unfamiliar street, my mind so oblivious to where I was going I might just as well have been a dog with its head out the window, lost in the delicious rush of mysterious and fragrant air, just happy to be out and about with no thought of what might be ahead.
Most of the leaves had fallen from the trees, swept down by the wind and an early snowfall, and the sidewalks and street were littered with the russet and copper remnants of a spectacular autumn. But at the end of the block a scarlet tree still blazed, a burning bush, bright and vibrant against the faded landscape. Even the sun could not ignore it and sunlight danced in the tree, painting the leaves with subtle shades and shadows.
It was impossible to look away and I didn’t try. I gazed at it as I drove by and even looked back at it in the rearview mirror.
Thursday my family will sit down to our Thanksgiving meal and for the first time one of our small group will be absent. My son is away, working in Japan, and we will miss him even as we celebrate his success.
We are so fortunate to have made it this far without an empty seat at the table. Even in difficult times—and I have never pretended there weren’t some truly difficult days—we gathered, held hands, and spoke aloud the things for which we were most grateful.
Each year I compose a mental list but when it is my turn to speak, the words fly out of my head. I tear up and can say only that I am grateful for the love of those around me. But what I can never seem to get out is that I am filled with gratitude for the gift of a million small moments.
There were quiet Sundays spent reading, curled in the big chair beside the fire, my husband stretched out on the sofa. There were Saturday morning feasts that lured home grown children who filled the house with the sound of laughter and the smell of bacon and coffee.
There were quiet walks through the park with my dogs and the rapturous look on my daughter’s face as we stood in Notre Dame Cathedral on a rainy January day in Paris. There was the afternoon my son turned to me and recited a poem I’d read to him when he was a boy, and my firstborn’s secret smile when she told us her news.
There were shooting stars glimpsed from my back door and my youngest daughter’s shining face as she sat in the saddle, flying on horseback. There was, just this week, the chance encounter with a beautiful brilliant tree in a landscape that had already surrendered to winter.
On Thanksgiving Day I will blink back tears and fumble the opportunity to say what I feel. But in my heart I will celebrate the quiet gift of time and the chance to have lived one more extraordinary year of ordinary days.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review and is a contributing editor at Spokane Metro Magazine. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
I had a few October days to myself so I spent them in the little town of Banff, in Alberta, Canada. While there, it was impossible not to catch the energy of autumn, flagged by the flashing gold of the aspen leaves as they trembled in the breeze and the way the grasses and shrubs closer to the ground spread out in a fan of color, a wave of crimson and soft gold climbing up toward the jagged peaks of the Canadian Rockies. The sky was a dome of brilliant blue and the sun warmed me. It was the kind of perfect fall weather we cling to because we know, especially those of us who live in the Northwest, winter is only waiting for a chance to slip in.
I strolled through the town. I rode the gondola up and walked along the top of one of those mountains, looking down on the fairytale town below; a picturesque valley complete with a winding river and a castle—the historic Banff Springs Hotel—whose towers and steep sloping roof dominate the landscape. I walked along the Bow River and watched the water tumble over the falls. I bought a cup of hot chocolate and wrapped my fingers around it, letting the steam rise onto my face as I took each sip. I marked the end of summer and the short, sweet, season that brings us the prettiest weeks of the year.
But the day I was to fly back home, I awoke to a world that was painted in shades of gray, wrapped in thick white clouds that hung low and heavy obscuring the mountains and settling down onto the valley. A soft-focus, black-and-white view of the places I’d been a few just a few hours before.
Riding down the highway toward the airport in Calgary, I sat with my chin in my hand, gazing out the window. As the world slipped by something in the air shifted and, as if in salute, the layer of clouds parted, the way a curtain is pulled back on a stage and the change of scenery is introduced. I could see the first snowfall of the season had dusted the tops of the mountains.
After a few moments, the sky closed around the mountains again and the wreath of clouds settled again. But, having seen the sign, I pulled my sweater tighter around me and sat back in my seat.
It won't be long now. Autumn is fading fast and winter is already waiting impatiently for its turn.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review and is a contributing the editor at Spokane Metro Magazine. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org