Oniontown Pastoral: A Mercer Road Love Story

Oniontown Pastoral: A Mercer Road Love Story

This past Tuesday was one for the books. The morning was fine. I worked in the church office until 12:30, then headed to the Stone Arch to pick up a lemon meringue pie I had ordered for an Erie neighbor who kept our sidewalk clear all winter while our own snow blower was laid up.

Since I was on that errand, it seemed foolish not to slide into a booth for a Reuben with extra thousand island and fries. On the way back to St. John’s Lutheran, wife Kathy’s 2006 Chevy HHR that goes by Bubba gradually lost steam and finally clattered to a halt right across Mercer Road from Frank Crash Auto Wrecking—one day after a new inspection.

The 89 degree humidity made sure I didn’t grin at the great gobs of irony. Friend Jodi was kind enough to fetch me back to church, where I chucked the pie in the refrigerator, waited for wife Kathy to return my call and sulked about every vehicle in my life betraying me. I had driven Bubba to Oniontown, after all, because my own 2006 Hyundai has the croup thanks to a failing fuel pump.

Long story short: Kathy’s work as a radiation therapy nurse and a sundry or two kept her in Erie until 7:00 p.m., which means she picked me up after dark, which also means she and I slouched in a borrowed mini-van with our lights shining on poor, comatose Bubba and beleaguered spirits waiting on word from AAA.

Actually I was managing okay. Kathy’s already challenging workday went an hour over, after which she had to scrounge a trustworthy vehicle and slog seventy miles south to schlep her husband home. My afternoon consisted of tasks handled at a stately pace in an air conditioned pastor’s study, a siesta and thirty minutes of silent prayer.

By the time Kathy picked me up and we reached Bubba, the quiet had reminded me that broken cars and endangered meringue are mosquitos hovering over a lifetime’s standing water. Most inconveniences are reduced to laughing matters, somewhere ages and ages hence.

Still, something about waiting on a berm, headlights glowing and darkness beyond, opens up your heart, if nothing else out of reverence for the hush of night accompanied only by gravel crunching under foot.

My heart received a blessing. I won’t lie, it wasn’t at the roadside, but as Kathy and I were at last rolling on Mercer Road toward Greenville.

The hand I kiss also raises up flowers

The words came out without my having to decide on them first. Glancing over at my wife, who hadn’t eaten since breakfast, whose eyes were glazed with the enough-ness of the day, I said, “You know, I’d rather be with you right now than with any other wife on the best evening ever.” Then I took her hand—which comforts those staring down their mortality—and kissed it, as I always do.

Was I speaking the truth or just trying to be romantic? At 3:27 this morning, I lay awake on purpose, listened to Kathy breathe, and knew that my Mercer Road love story was honest to goodness.

When days are burdened by soul-testing challenges and generic bother, sleep is oasis and balm. Kathy’s slow, deep breaths, even the odd snuffle or two, gave me joy.

Kathy, with unapologetic gray hair, and our daughter Elena

As always the morning would bring us fresh gladness and upset, but in the familiar darkness of home, I touched my wife’s hair, now unapologetically gray, kept glad vigil and reckoned blessings that turn a cracked engine block and a brand-spanking new car payment into trifles.

This evening we’ll start in on that lemon meringue pie that we couldn’t give to our neighbor, who, it turns out, is away on vacation.

As long as Kathy and I are together, that pie will taste great.

 

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What Makes Most Sense

What Makes Most Sense

Seeing as how wife Kathy and I are in our mid-fifties, we should probably each have our own car. I would feel a little more grown up that way. Performing scheduling gymnastics to get us both from point J to point K reminds me of childhood, when transportation required negotiations and occasional groveling.

Autonomy also makes good sense for us. My pastor job takes me an hour from the east side of Erie, Pennsylvania, to the village of Oniontown, and, as Mapquest.com informs me, Kathy works 6.3 miles from home—an estimated $0.64 gulp of gasoline and 16 minutes on the road.

So, if I drive Kathy to and from work five days per week, let’s say fifty weeks per year, the ka-ching is 133.33 hours—that’s over three standard workweeks—and $320 per annum. If time is, indeed, money, then when I pick my weary beloved up at 4:30 today, we should head to the nearest used car lot and purchase at the very least a clunker. One call to our insurance agent requesting a collision policy, and hours of unfettered time would snap open before me like sails caught in a gust.

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1899 Horsey Horseless (Credit: http://www.allcarindex.com)

To tell the truth, even an 1899 Horsey Horseless, named by Time Magazine as one of the fifty worst cars ever manufactured, would hold a certain attraction. (In those days of horse and buggy, this design sported a clever hood ornament, a life-sized, wooden horse head, so that the real animals wouldn’t get spooked when a HH roared by. By the time a horse realized it had been fooled, it was some distance down the road. The moment of danger had passed.)

At the moment, Pastor and Mrs. Coleman share a 2006 Chevy HHR called Bubba. (Those initials stand for Heritage High Roof, which is bullpucky. The roof is actually stunted, and the claim of nostalgia is cover for an appearance that suggests it needs to push away from the dinner table and hit the gym.)

We don’t normally name our vehicles, but its bulbous shape and sick orange color deserved more than Chevy. Bubbles struck us as demeaning, so Bubba was a fitting, folksy compromise.

Kathy and Bubba have never been close. Her grievances against our car gather around a single complaint: Bubba annoys her, as would a scratchy collar or a companion applying a migraine-inducing amount of fragrance. The headrests make her neck ache. The windshield is crouched so that she has to do a forward limbo to see if the traffic light has changed. The list goes on.

Poor Bubba also suffers from guilt by association. Kathy understands that our marriage can stay peaceful if my untidy habits can be blamed on an object—say a littered car so pathetic that it’s no longer being manufactured. Although I’ve slowly mended my ways, Kathy still holds a grudge.

All factors indicate that my wife and I should be a his-and-hers couple. For mundane reasons, we had the chance to take a two-vehicle arrangement for a test drive this past week. She got to work in our son-in-law Matt’s truck, and I took Bubba.

The Born Free movie theme didn’t fill my spirit, as I had expected. Something close to the opposite happened, in fact. From behind my desk at the church, I watched Bubba nap alone in the parking lot and accepted the truth: I missed driving Kathy to work and picking her up for the sixteen-minute slog home afterward.

Spending thirty-plus minutes each day with somebody you love isn’t a burden, but a gift. How did I overlook this fact? Terminally sentimental guys like me are usually in tune with love’s minutia, but this half-hour of nonchalant blessing snuck past me.

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Bubba in the driveway of our old house. He didn’t ask to be painted burnt orange.

That said, we will buy a second car. Kathy’s relationship with Bubba has grown increasingly strained. He is no longer cluttered with my empty coffee cups, but his many shortcomings test her patience—nowhere to put anything, a couple of dumb blind spots. Still, as long as I’m behind the wheel, my wife and our car are civil, which is fortunate for me.

Transitioning to hers-and-his transportation doesn’t mean that I won’t get to drive Kathy to work anymore. After all, she enjoys the ride, too. She does something that lets me know.

Our route takes us along the Bayfront Parkway, which looks out on Lake Erie. Kathy loves the water, and as she stares out at it, I take her hand and kiss it. Apologies to those of you who squirm at such sharing of the Coleman’s darling little rituals, but the fact is, that kiss is one of the most joyful parts of my middle-aged day.

And Kathy likes it because when I forget, suddenly her hand appears before my face: “Ahem.” The smooch is well deserved. She works at The Regional Cancer Center, where folks have the troubling habit of dying. Over the years her touch has given comfort and hope that lives beyond the few calendar pages a patient may survive to turn.

Now rheumatoid arthritis is settling into my wife’s hands, which at the moment cut fabric for her mother’s new handbag. My kiss often lingers, so great is the kindness and generosity it has to honor.

At pick up time, Kathy and I have another ritual she knows nothing about. When she gets into the car, I can tell what kind of day it’s been: energizing, easy, stressful, disappointing. She looks at me with a smile or goes “whew” or makes one of another dozen faces. Her expression is rewarded by—you guessed it—a kiss.

Then she tells the story, complete with triumphs and embarrassments reserved for one who is steadfastly on your side, one who knows that your victories aren’t boastful and your defeats aren’t woe-is-me.

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A husband and wife for whom life has never made much sense.

We talk about dinner, children and grandsons, and anything else that floats by in the dazzling, silty river of a long marriage. Decades of grace and grief visit and depart.

When all Kathy has left is fatigue, we listen to the engine go from first to fourth or the windshield wipers glide rain away. “If you’re out of words,” my silence means, “I’m here anyway.” Occasionally, the best way to show love is to keep quiet.

When Bubba’s sibling vehicle comes along, it may not get a name. Nor will Kathy and I leave home separately each morning just because of the number of cars we own. The way a workday starts and ends matters. A kiss on the hand and another on the lips don’t stand up to good sense as do the price of gasoline and the cost of time, but that’s okay. My life has never made much sense.

An Anniversary Letter to My Wife

Dear Kathy,

Here we go again: Time to buy another used car.

Life is strange and, as we figure out how to celebrate the thirty-two years that have been our wedded casserole, so different from what I imagined it would be.

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121,000 miles and a blown clutch. Time to say goodbye.

I never thought that when we settled into our fifties, our vehicles would still be shitting the bed. We’ve never prayed, “Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?” Come to think of it, one of our neighbors does drive Porsches, but none of that’s for us. It would be nice, though, to own cars that don’t tremble and wheeze.

Tomorrow I’ll check out a bulbous orange Chevy priced at $5000, and, who knows, maybe we’ll get a couple of worry-free years out of it. Ah hell, it’s just that at this point in our lives, we shouldn’t be sweating bills every Saturday morning at the dining room table and lamenting a pile of dumb debt.

And, of course, there’s my old writing dream. I haven’t given up hope, but the picture has gotten more complicated. Could it be that what I need to say matters only to a small tribe? I’m an authority on precisely nothing except noticing the world and examining my own deepening naval. But the lurking question is, “Am I one of those writers who’s good, but not that good?”

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231,000 miles, tattered but holding up. The clock is ticking on this one, aye, Kath?

Basta! Looking out across decades of slipping transmissions and impulsive decisions and usurious interest and bulging files of sentences is like digging a ditch in mud, climbing in, and having a seat.

The good news is, we bought Schwinns. The other night when we went for a ride, I realized that it’s possible to be frustrated with you and treasure you in the same instant, to say, “You are such a pain in my ass” and “I couldn’t possibly love you more” in a single utterance.

You know that I like to take walks and rides the same way I shop for shoes. I’ve got a mission: Go to shoes. Try on a pair. Purchase. Return home.

Whether you know it or not, you like to take walks and rides the same way you shop for shoes. Go to shoes. Stop on the way at a bargain outlet, check out area rugs, and leave with cookie sprinkles and Swiffer accessories. Arrive at shoes, frown, and go to other shoes. Stop on the way at a fabric remnant store for no other reason than sewing’s gravitational pull. Arrive at other shoes. Ooh. Ahh. But not in your size, ma’am. And so on.

Bottom line: I’m focused on the destination. You’ve got your eyes peeled for Yeti and milkweed. I stick to the chosen route. You veer onto dirt roads and cul-de-sacs.

My dear, how is it that we’re still together?

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Look familiar? One of your favorite detours close to home.

On our bike ride, you took every available detour to get as close as possible to the lake, to receive whatever the waves and light might offer you. Close to home, when we stopped at a cliff for you to have a hundredth look at the water, I watched you—the new helmet making your head look like a shiny white mushroom, your lovely beak pointed north.

Swallowing a grr, I knew that if a Schwinn could fly, you would peddle to a great height, then bank and dive, pulling up just before a splashdown. Your eyes would be wide, and from shore I could hear you laugh.

Nothing has turned out for us like I figured. Used cars and thin wallets. My God, what our kids went through! What we witnessed and endured. And years of paragraphs stacked up like aging split wood in the garage.

But then, I never knew Elena and Micah and Matt would eventually swing open the gate to my weathered soul and come in and go out and find pasture. Such gladness.

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Joy catches in my throat. Our Cole!

Most of all, who could have predicted that a man who doesn’t get misty about babies would be so undone by a grandson?

The truth: If our possessions burned, I could warm my hands by the flames with not much regret as long as my own small tribe was whole and nearby.

Our tribe, Kathy, those we adore in a broken down, breathtaking world, and each other. That’s what matters.

That and what I’m going to tell you now, what I said inside as you enjoyed the view from the cliff: “Damn it, can we go home already?” and “Save me, my love. Don’t give up on me. Teach me to fly.”

Happy anniversary! Love,

John

“A Napper’s Companion” on YouTube

Dear Friends,

I decided to have a go at reading some of my blog posts on YouTube. I’m still learning, but I’ve posted my first attempt. It’s a love letter to my wife Kathy: “I Kiss Your Shoulder at First Light.” Unless complete ineptitude takes over, you should be able to watch/listen below.

Peace and love, John

 

I Kiss Your Shoulder at First Light

Dear Kathy,

I don’t know exactly what time it is, but I’m awake. Strange, I’m still tired. It’s almost like I woke up so that I could lay here and feel my fatigue. As today’s first light shows through the boulevard’s maples, I kiss your bare shoulder. Quietly. Softly. I kiss your shoulder and rest my hand on your back.

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Dawn shines through the Shenley Drive maples.

I’ve been tethered to myself lately, reckoning the distance between the man I am and the man I long to be and shaking my head. The destination is over the horizon, and the road is black ice. So I kiss your shoulder to say, “I’m more grateful for you than you can imagine,” without spoiling your last hour of sleep. There’s no reason for both of us to look out the window and contemplate mortality and, at least in my case, feel fat.

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Cole’s legs and my belly: I don’t know how to break this to you, Kath, but I’m pregnant.

That’s another thing: I glimpse myself walking by windows and see the reflection of an animated pudgy-guy butter sculpture. You may remember a time when I cleaned up pretty well, when I didn’t grunt when bending over. I do the weight loss calculations and string together a couple of interior expletives: 3500 calories x the 50 lbs. I want to lose = $%#&! So, again, without your knowing it, I kiss your shoulder. And at the moment, my hand still rests on your back—a fragile man steadying himself.

Since I’ll get a nap this afternoon, I stay awake in gratitude. You don’t mope around, gazing into your naval and mentally kvetching about your wounds and flaws. Instead, you do shit, extremely beautiful and useful shit. When we needed a roof, you said, “I can do that,” and you did. Even though you used to faint at the sight of blood, you said, “I do believe I’ll become a nurse,” and then you hauled off and did it. Now, you not only treat cancer patients, but you look at them with compassionate eyes. When the downstairs bathroom got shabby, you remodeled the bad boy.

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That’s some fine tile work . . . especially for a rookie.

And over the last few months, while I’ve napped, you’ve tended plants. This summer we’ll have tomatoes, basil, cilantro, and peppers, and the yard will be a riot of color because you go to work for ten hours, then come home and head to your basement “greenhouse” to make sure no plant is thirsty.

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Even the animals love to hang with you in the basement greenhouse.

Now you’re awake. You roll toward me. I draw you close and kiss your boney elbow. (You could put somebody’s eye out with those elbows of yours.)

Understand, I’m not saying all these nice things about you because I’m entirely hot dog water. I’m a nice guy, patient, low-maintenance, and I do cook you some good food. I’m much less neurotic than I was years ago. That counts for something. I do more chores than back when I was a lazy slug. And I work as hard at writing as you do at gardening, though your produce tastes way better than mine.

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Pretty soon, my love, I’ll make you some pasta with pesto.

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It’s only May, and your flowers are already gorgeous.

The thing is, I sometimes wonder if you knew what you were getting into when you said “I do” on July 30, 1983. Elena and Matt have given us Cole, and Micah is making us proud. Good stuff! But you love the rush as a plane accelerates toward take off, and I’d rather snort wasabi than fly. You love to sail, and I’m always a-scared the boat will capsize. You like to ski and build snow forts, and I like to drink hot cocoa by a fire. In short, whatever the woman equivalent of a mensch is, that’s you. As a guy, I’m a fraidy cat, a poor man’s Woody Allen.

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Please be careful! Don’t stand so close to the edge!

I do lots of mulling over as I watch you sleep. Often without realizing it, my lips are drawn to your shoulder, cool from the open window. I rest my hand on your back, cooperate with love’s gravity, and kiss you so gently you don’t feel it—most of the time. Once in a while you go hmm, and I know you understand what I mean.

I mean I’m glad we’re together. The sight of you walking in the front door is a joy to me. Falling asleep and waking up next to you is unmerited grace. This is what I’ve been saying, kissing your shoulder this morning at first light.

Love,

John

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Flowers everywhere, including on our busted-ass back steps. This summer you’ll make them beautiful again, like you do everything else.

Micro-Post: The Hug

6:35 p.m.: Kathy and I are in the kitchen, listening to Scott Pelley tell us that terrorists may smuggle ingredients for explosives onto planes in toothpaste tubes. If airlines forbid passengers from bringing toiletries to the Sochi Olympic Games, lots of athletes and fans are going to get funky. But maybe they won’t get blown up. Who knows?

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Ultra-Bright gives your mouth . . . KA BOOM! (Credit: Scott Ehardt)

Kathy nursed ten patients today. Tired, boss. Dog tired. While I stare at the anchor’s face, she has the obituaries spread out on the counter. “Oh,” she says. Silence, then again, “Oh.” She’s cared for them, heard their stories. Compassion and science haven’t yet eliminated cancer’s mad attrition rate. Damn it!

What to do? Mercy’s gravity draws Kathy and me into a hug, a long one. We sway, almost dance. Breathe in, breathe out. I rest my lips on her hair, receive thirty-three years of home.

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On the kitchen sill, light draws life into an embrace.

That’s what this hug is: home. Shenley Drive and Erie are great, but they’re not my earthly residence. I’m at rest here, in Kathy’s arms, her graying hair against my cheek. Explosions and funeral arrangements are white noise. Where two or three are gathered . . . yes, the Holy Mystery shares our breathing. Hosanna! Save us! Shamatha. Abide in calm.

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Probably what Kathy and I look like: a couple of Japanese macaques hanging on to each other. Home sweet home! (Credit: DLILLC / Corbis.)

A minute isn’t enough, but it’ll do. “You should go sit in bed,” I say. “Rest. I’ll get dinner.”

So Kathy goes upstairs, and I make meatloaf and sweet potato fries and listen to Leon Redbone: “Ain’t Misbehavin’”; “Mr. Jelly Roll Baker”; “My Melancholy Baby.” Come to me, my melancholy baby. Cuddle up and don’t be blue.

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Kathy with the best medicine for melancholy: grandson Cole! She loves me but doesn’t giggle like this when we hug.

We eat in bed and fall asleep early, blessed to have house and home. We wish the gorgeous, dynamite world around us grace and peace.

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Gorgeous: winter trees on Shenley Drive