Sunday, August 22, 2010

fools, old ladies, and other answers to prayers

"So what are our assets?" says Eldest. 

Another car whizzes by.  It is the one hot bright day we've had this summer in Oregon.  We're standing side by side in dusty gravel outside our locked car.

"Two pints of berries," she begins.  "Camera."

Which is what got us in this fix in the first place . . .

Oh, let's stop for berries! I had said.

Aren't we in a hurry? she had worried. 
Don't we have a ferry to catch?

This won't take more than a minute, I had been so sure.
Look how pretty they are!
We'll eat them on the way.
Here, do you have any cash on you?
I want to take pictures.

And she had plucked a twenty from her wallet. 
I had locked the door.

Trotting back a short few minutes later
with the prettiest pint of raspberries,
the most fat and glistening obsidian blackberries,
we had waited for each other to open the door.


In the car.  I thought you had yours.

Eh . . . in my purse.  In the car.  Too.

"Cell phone," she continues now, counting our blessings.

Which  cell phone has already been deployed in the rescue effort.
Help is on its way. We have an hour to wait.

I could call Robbie, she had offered. 
He'd come get us and give us a ride back home.

I don't know how that would do us any good.

If we were at home we could get Middlest's car keys.

Which are in her purse.  Which is also locked in the car.

Great, Eldest laughed.

Better call your dad.

"I hope we don't miss the ferry," I say now, squinting into the sun.

"Sunglasses," she says, still counting.  "And a table."

"Right. With  red-checked tablecloth, no less."

"And two porta-potties."

"Oh, goody.  One for each."

"And the whole Deer Island Store."

Whose cheerful red-haired attendant a few minutes earlier
 thoroughly washed all our windows during the fill-up,
without being asked, chatting away the whole time.

The same cheerful red-haired attendant who has now
already tried to pop the lock for us with a straightened hanger.
And offered us cold cans of soda.

I am reassured to know our car is theft-proof.
And suspicious that this gallantry would be a little less
if one of us were not nearly so nubile.

"Store's not much use with our purses locked in the car," I grumble.

"I've still got the change from buying the berries."

"Okay, store is an asset, if we need it," I agree as we sit down at the table. 
I face into the sun across from her because the sunglasses are mine. 

I say, "When things like this happen I would like to think there may be some divine design at work, some insight we are about to learn, some enriching experience?  But I'm afraid this is just human stupidity."

"At least we're here together. 
This is all just part of the adventure," says she, my Eldest,
who is about to embark on her Life's Adventure. 

But I'm still grumbling on the inside. 
The long looked-for week away to Port Townsend
- just the two of us - 
that she had asked for back when a junior in high school
 has sadly dwindled down,
first to a week working together as cooks,
and when that didn't work out  
then to a biking/farmer's market weekend in Portland,
failing to come to pass, and now finally this -
 a quick overnight on Anderson Island ten miles south of Tacoma
where we have to pick up her sister Middlest
 the next morning at 7 a.m. 

And now we're stranded, barely six miles out of town.

We eat our berries.

She beats me at Thumb War.
I beat her at Arm Wrestle.

"Let me know when you're ready to start."  
Thunk.  Thunk.

"Your elbow's too far back," she complains.  Thunk.

"Is that better?"  I ask.  Solicitiously.  
Thunk.  Thunk.

"Sheesh.  Okay, you win."

And bright-eyed, she tells me the entire story, with details, from first dewy beginning to bittersweet not-quite-the-end-yet, of her summer romance.

I pause her story part way -  "I want to get her picture. Do you mind?" -  because glancing over my shoulder I've seen an older woman with a fully loaded bike at the berry stand. 

Because in a life a little over-endowed right now with old ladies,
it's enheartening to see one 
who carries her own tent and sleeping bag strapped to her bike, 
long white hair braided down her back
beneath a self-designed, self-made helmet cover.

Her name is Joyce from Champaign, Illinois. 
She's been on 18 long bike trips with her daughter.
Who is a violinist.  Whom her mother obviously enjoys. 
"And so now I'm just waiting
for the 5-year-old to get old enough
and then we'll all bike together. 
In the meantime I'm still biking even if I have to come alone."

To celebrate her daughter's graduation -  
from college a few years ago - they rode 2000 miles.
From Aberdeen, Washington, to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. 
They've biked extensively in the South,
along the East Coast. All over Illinois.
But this is her first time here along the Columbia River.
And she had never biked at all until she was 39. 
"But it was something I always wanted to do. 
And so I did." 

She is in her 60s now, at least,
because she says,
" . . . when I was still in my fifties . . . "

I want to believe she is 70 or 80,
that age is no limit to how wide-open you can live.

She comes over to our table and sits with us, eating her pint of raspberries with individuated pleasure.

We ask her questions, "Do you always bike-camp? 
How do you find places to stay?
Are you ever afraid?"

"We ask people. There's always a place," she shrugs simply, "We ask God."

In Toronto when they could bike no further,
certainly not another 9 miles to the nearest campground,
strangers directed them to a church yard at the top of a hill 
and despite the nightlife on either side they were invisible there all night,
"You learn to pay attention to patterns.
Just the way the shadows fell, no one could see us. 
And that's all we needed."

Down South there had been a sudden storm that washed them out of their tent. 
"We had to catch a ride in a school bus into town to get all our bedding dried."

And once an angry man who shouted at them, 
"But we were able to convince him -
my daughter, she's very good at talking to people
you know?  Very good at getting them to understand. 
He was just afraid. 
But we weren't two men, we weren't a lesbian couple,
we were just a mother and daughter. 
In the end he lent us his lantern. 
We left it on his truck early the next morning. 

"And so maybe he won't be so afraid the next time
with the next people."

Down along the Mississippi, "People were frightened for us.
They asked us, Do you have a gun with you?  Mace?
We said we just ask God to keep us safe.
And then they asked us to pray for them.
And of course we did.

"Because you never know what your job is."

Sitting with her at the table, my daughter and I smile at each other and nod.

And the three of us laugh together. 

This is, you understand, one of those rare and precious
bare-faced moments. 

This white-haired cyclist who rode the train from Champaign, Illinois, into Portland this morning, has been riding her bike all day alone, not thinking,  but filling her cup, pouring it out now for us.

"Oh and once - we were deep in the South -
and usually you know we could find a place to stay outside churches.

"This one little church, Baptist, they were having a meeting.
All these elders of the church - when we asked if we could set up tent
they called us in, interviewed us,
to see if our doctrine was pure enough to stay there in their church.

"I had been married to a man who had gone through seminary
so I knew all the right answers.
When we had passed and the head deacon let us sleep inside the church,
invited us to breakfast in his wife's kitchen the next morning.

"And his wife said that next morning,
'They weren't interested in your doctrine, by the way.
They were too busy looking at your legs. 
''Did you see the legs on that 50 year old?'' they said afterward.'

"So when I wrote a thank you later
I said, 'Now I've heard of exegesis
and hermeneutics, but I never knew
gamiology was part of seminary study.'
Because gam, you know, that's leg."

And it still makes her chuckle.

Back home she designed the bus wrap for the buses in Champaign.  And they've used her design on cycling advocacy t-shirts.  She used the leftover wrap to make her hi-viz helmet cover.

Perhaps we asked her why she bikes. 
Maybe she told us without prompting.

"First, it makes you strong. 
Not just physically.

And you learn to trust the kindness of strangers.

"And then - well, it's not that you think deep philosophical thoughts -
I don't.  You're working too hard.
But  you just are filled.
Filled up with sky.
With weather.
With sun.  And trees and birdsong.
It's enough to last you a little more than a year
and then it's time to get out on the road again."

It turns out we can be of some service to her.  She had planned to ride east from Portland through the River Gorge, but people on the train told her how much prettier it was toward the coast.  And she'd already seen the gorge on the ride in.

So why not?

But she doesn't know where the campgrounds are.

Were we stranded at the berry stand just for her?

Of all the people in the local hereabouts - how many others have so recently biked the very route she's wanting to take?

How many others would have noticed road shoulder width?  Grocery stores? Bridges and ferry crossings?  Could tell her which route is easiest in case of rain? 

How many, once Fritz arrives a few minutes later to unlock our car for us, could have drawn a map with accurate mileage from here to the closest county campground?

"So, do you think we were an answer to her prayers?" I ask my daughter once we're on our way once more.  "Or do you think this world is just full of people who have answers to our needs?"

"Both," she says, my wise daughter.

Do you think we were an answer to her prayers?
I ask myself, Or was she an answer to mine?

For I have maybe despaired a little
in God's hearing,
thinking of my years ahead, seeing so many old ladies
who can only sit and wait and feel lonely.

Worrying a little
what kind of old lady I'm going to become
when Middlest and YoungSon
have gone the way of Eldest
on their separate Life Adventures.

And then, despite our hour at the berry stand, despite horrific traffic from Olympia on, we make our connection just in time - drive straight onto the ferry at Steilacoom, second to last vehicle, just before the ferry pulls away and takes us to Anderson Island for one last lovely mother-daughter doing before this dear and darling Eldest leaves for college.

Divine design or the happy accidents of human foolishness?

Or always a little bit of both?


Mrs. Organic said...

Just think if you hadn't stopped for berries, hadn't left keys in the car, hadn't been taking count of blessings, hadn't noticed her, hadn't broken been drawn to her...

I love that you each had something to fill each other's cups with and that you did.

I so enjoyed seeing you and yours this weekend.

Lisa B. said...

So glad to get to hear about this excellent woman and your excellent encounter with her. Also, it seems like kind of a great place to live, up there with ferries and gorges and coast and berries. Love to hear about it.

Neighbor Jane Payne said...

I loved this post. I also love the quote, "Coincidences are instances when God wishes to remain anonymous." I love the faith with which this woman approaches life. I love that she has inspired me to try something new. I love that it happened at a berry stand.

suzanne said...

Ooh. Ooh. Filled.

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