Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Cliff: The Pied Piper

In my years with Cliff, I've seen this happen numerous times in public places.

A tearful child will walk up to him and announce: "I can't find my mommy."

Cliff gets down on his knee and says, "We'll find her." Then he takes that small hand and looks for the information counter or customer service. Cliff stays right there, holding on until the mother arrives.

He never knows these children. He doesn't wear an official badge.

They see him and know he's the guy. It's some kind of attraction thing, a nameless but constant lifeline to seekers of all shapes and sizes.

Shortly after we moved here, he tackled the picket fence. I call it the infinity fence because he can never get to the end of it. There's always one more rotten rail or picket to replace. No matter how long he paints, there's a missed edge that requires attention.

One afternoon a local we didn't know stopped by with his grandson. "Need a hand?" he asked, as Cliff struggled with the new gate. Over two hours later, Darrell, Hayden, and Cliff were finished (and friends for life, by the sound of all the good-natured joking). Cliff asked, "What do I owe you?"

"Nothing," Darrell said. "Consider it your Welcome to Milan gift."

He's returned several times to help with difficulties that crop up in a 150-year-old house.

He was here once to relocate two doors, but it ended up involving mice.

I don't know how long they'd been around when I finally spotted their presence. Cliff was running errands, so I asked Darrell if I had guessed correctly. He agreed and looked in the basement for a nest, thinking they were climbing up the wall into the kitchen.

"Set some traps and get rid of them," he said casually and turned to leave.

"I don't want them to die," I replied, the tears starting.

He turned back and changed his tone. "Now, Karen, I know you write children's books and want to make friends with the mice, but that can't happen. You don't want them to settle in and have babies."

So I told Cliff, who headed for the hardware store. He did not return with mousetraps. He bought a contraption that lured them in and snapped its doors shut so he could release them unharmed.

Night after night, it worked like a charm.

When we reported our successes to Darrell, he slyly asked, "Are you marking them? It might be the same darned mouse over and over." 

When Cliff related all this to Maggie and how he took them to the creek at the bottom of the hill, she was amused and created a scenario about their encampment in the woods.

"Look! It's Aunt Louise come home to us!" they'd shout, leaping up from their tiny campfire.

"Who's that man?" they'd ask.

"I don't know, but he has Ritz crackers!" Aunt Louise would explain to a chorus of ooohs. "Under his sink is a cottage where you can get peanut butter. You reach for it, and the doors shut tight so you can eat in peace and get a good night's sleep."

They nod enviously.

"Then he wakes you up in the morning and carries you home!"

They ask how to find this storybook place.

"I'm not sure, but you have to climb a hill," she replies.

I don't know if mice distinguish north from south, but they could end up at Marcia's instead. She can get Ritz crackers and peanut butter.

But she won't have Cliff. To the everlasting regret of those dreamers at the encampment.

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Saturday, September 10, 2016


My mother-in-law Mary Jo and I had one common reference point: Cliff. Her son, my husband.

Even then, we would have disagreed across the board on his welfare. Pick a topic, any topic. We were decidedly different women.

However, I did learn something valuable from her.

She told me once about a lost opportunity with her oldest granddaughter. She'd always planned to take the little girl to a local restaurant known for its afternoon teas. All lace and frills and classical music, she thought it would be fun, a treasured memory.

But she never got around to it and didn't seem to know why. I urged her to follow through, even though the girl was in college at this point. "Take her by surprise," I suggested. "There's still time. She's not too old for your attention."

But she didn't. She chose to carry that regret.

In all fairness, I understand what she didn't say and probably couldn't have accepted anyway. My
mother-in-law lived a paralyzing life of restraint, suspicion, traversing a never-ending trail of domestic sharp edges marked by her husband's edicts and selected Old Testament scriptures for warning signs.

Cliff has always called the situation "walking on eggshells." He would know, having grown up in that house.

So I did my best to avoid taking moments for granted when we brought Maggie home from China. Give her life's lovely details, became my mantra.

One day my mother Betty was in our living room, watching as I sat on the staircase beside Maggie. At 18 months, she wanted to descend on her own. Terrified to hold the rail and walk down, she bravely scooted on her bottom, gripping my hand in hers. It took quite a while.

Carrying her down would have been so much quicker.

But we would have missed so much, too--her squealing giggles, her wiggling confidence when we reached the last step. My mother clapped for her.

"Honey," my mother said, "you're a much better mother than I ever was." I shook my head and reminded her of that beautiful, spotless house. "Dust covers everything in here," I admitted.

"Our house never had to be that clean," she said.

Again, regret. Watching us, step by step, had offered a silent space for perspective on years of lost experiences. But also, a surprising glimpse of me as a mother. I understood, then, she clapped for me as well.

So this summer, as I looked at the blank expanse of our garden, I thought about what to plant and remembered showing Maggie, when she was a toddler, how to make snapdragons "talk" by squeezing the petals at a garden store. She was as enchanted as I had been when my mother, who grew an annual bed of snaps, as she called them, showed me. Sweet alyssum always graced the edges.

Easy as it would have been, I never planted them for Maggie. I was focused on creating some other floral effect.

So this summer I planted snaps and alyssum for Maggie. They weren't as lusciously perfect as my mother's, but at least I didn't stop in my tracks because my collegiate daughter is long past yard playing.

They simply grow for her.

And for Mary Jo and Betty, their regrets buried beneath the summer blossoms.

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