Paradise, Part 1
copyright Aaron Paul Lazar, 2009
copyright Aaron Paul Lazar, 2009
Summer is already half gone, but I've tried to ignore the fact and have jumped into each day with unparalleled enthusiasm and joy.
I was born to be home, tending grandkids, working the land, cooking meals from the garden, and writing 'til my heart squeezes the last words onto the page. This is the dream-come-true, the life I've yearned for every single day for the past few decades. It's my heaven on earth, my own private nirvana, my paradise.
But since August 1st slipped past so silently, little stabs of dread are starting to attack my stomach. It's almost over. Soon I'll have to stop the "let's pretend this is my life" game and spend all day, every day searching for a job again. Wait a minute. Let's focus on the positive. (see how good I am at avoidance?) Instead of giving in to the dread of uncertainty, I've decided to chronicle the wonderful and surprising things that have happened to me because Kodak laid me off this past spring. They have been numerous and delightful.
Here's Part 1.
"My name's Frank and I'm eighty-one years old."
That's the first thing Frank G. will tell you when he pumps your hand up and down with good humor and a face wreathed in smiles. This elderly neighbor and I met when he passed my property during his daily constitutionals. These mile-long walks, ordered by a heart doctor, serve to keep him healthy. But they also provide a break in his day. And they're much more interesting than sitting in front of the old cow shed on an aluminum lawn chair watching the cars and tractors go by.
When my outdoor projects take me closer to the road - trimming a monster forsythia bush, manning the roaring burn pile, nearly hidden by four-foot weeds, or mulching the twenty yards of wet black stuff I spread onto my gardens - Frank stops to chat.
On our first meeting, he swiped off his baseball cap and bent down to show me his bald scalp with a gruesome injury and blood soaked bandage. "Got this one last week. Had to go to the hospital and everything. See? Five staples?" I was shown the progress every day after that, watching it heal. And I heard all about the return visit to the hospital to take out the staples.
Supremely friendly, he smiles his toothless grin, marred with bits of tobacco, and tells me he's been chewing the stuff since he was nine years old.
"Haven't had teeth for thirty years. Don't need 'em. Don't want 'em, by George." With a sly smile, he often adds, "And I don't have to pay that durned dentist ten dollars every six months to clean them!"
Ten dollars. Wow. I think it's now up to $75.00.
Frank's been coming by daily for six weeks now. I've grown to enjoy his company. This quirky, friendly fellow who has no hair, no teeth, poor hearing, is twenty-five years my senior and who at first glance seems almost a little pesky, has become a friend. I've grown fond of him and miss him on the days I'm not working the land. He comes into the yard now, circles the house, and looks for me. Most days after we sit beneath the two-hundred year old maple tree beside my garden to talk, I load him down with zucchini, garlic, green beans, and onions.
He can use the food. He lives with his disabled daughter and her farm worker husband in the back of a barn, beside a bunch of cows. The water isn't potable, and the place smells downright rank. They want to get out of there because of the rotten conditions, but they need to find another cheap place and those aren't always available.
I quickly realized that this is one more example of why the severence from Kodak was actually a good thing. Instead of bringing in armloads of veggies to my relatively well-off former coworkers, I'm getting it to someone who truly needs it. I think it was meant to be.
Frank receives about seven hundred bucks a month on disability, but gives most of it to his daughter to help with the expenses. I asked him if it's enough. He smiled, slapped his hat on his thigh. "By George, it's just plenty. Me and my daughter do just fine."
I gave his family our rather worn-out 2001 Sienna van last month, since I would probably only get a few hundred dollars in tax relief from the donation anyway. It felt a lot better to give it to someone I know is in need, instead of to Good Will, where the benefit is real, but invisible. Frank and his son-in-law are handy with all things mechanical, and in no time they had it fixed up and on the road. My heart swells every time I see them drive past the house.
Because he has numerous tatoos emblazoning his arms, I'd assumed Frank was in the service. I discovered, however, that he was turned down because of his heart and had these tatoos put on when he was a young lad of nineteen. That confession quickly followed a complete unveiling of his chest and the scars that proved he'd had open heart surgery five years ago. He's quick to roll up his sleeves and pant legs to show me his latest cuts and bruises - and it makes me feel like a boy again, sharing "war wounds" like trophies. Funny thing is, I've been doing the same thing to him. I shared the cell phone picture of me with facial cellulitis in the hospital in June, where I looked like a circus side show freak.
I love showing him my progress around the property - each newly weeded and mulched bed gets a satisfying, "Good job, young man!" and a hearty pat on the back. It's strange, but I've grown to seek his approval.
Last week he met Toby, my daughter Melanie's little Rat Terrier. Frank surprised me by dropping down to all fours, spinning around in the grass, and patting the ground to engage his new pal. Toby rose to the occasion. With head to the grass and haunches up, tail wagging, and tongue lolling, he played with Frank just like he does with my dog, Balto. I snapped the above picture after they both tired.
During our many conversations, I discovered that my new friend has worked in factories all over the northeast, from New Jersey to Rochester. He tended cows as a fourteen year old (walking miles at 4 in the morning in deep snow) and even worked in a piano factory for a while. His wife died of cancer 11 years ago, and he's never found another soul mate since. "I never hit her or yelled at her," he boasts, "and I turned my paycheck over to her every single week." He's proud of that, because in his life he's seen some pretty awful things. He's chronicled the loss several children, most of his siblings, and other friends and relatives to suicides and freak accidents. The stories he has to tell make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Never mind that I hear some of them five times. ;o)
I asked him the other day if he likes to read books, because I was thinking of donating a few of my LeGarde Mysteries to him. It's such an integral part of me that it's hard for me not to talk about it. He hung his head and stared at the ground.
"I can't read."
The awkward moment was quickly dispelled when he dismissed it with a smile and started talking about his father again, the man who hit his mother and drank too much. I listened to the story again, nodding as if it were the first time I'd ever heard it, and sank into my lawn chair to enjoy the comraderie.
Aaron Paul Lazar writes to soothe his soul. The author of LeGarde Mysteries and Moore Mysteries enjoys the Genesee Valley countryside in upstate New York, where his characters embrace life, play with their dogs and grandkids, grow sumptuous gardens, and chase bad guys. Visit his websites at http://www.legardemysteries.com/ and http://www.mooremysteries.com/ and watch for his upcoming release, MAZURKA, coming in August, 2009.