Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Touched Stones and Penciled Lines

She undoes the stiff knot she had moistened in her mouth and removes three white beads from a sinew cord which adorns the top of what you might call a satchel, though the native name - "traveling home" - means so much more.  She replaces the three white beads with three red beads and reties the strong string, cinching it tight with her stronger teeth.

She kisses it tenderly and fills the deerskin bag with nuts and fruit and some jerky and piece of steamed fish wrapped in shag-bark hickory and tied with a long blade of meadow grass.  A young man peers in from under an animal skin.  A boy really - her boy.  He will go out to hunt today, as he has everyday this fall.  It is his first year out with the men and he is doing well.

In his mind he is a young warrior, yet, as he opens his pack for lunch, he looks down at those beads and smiles as his hunter soul returns to sweet boyness.  She changes them every morning - different patterns, different colors, always three.

His friends and leaders do not notice the change but he does.  He feels loved and honored; cherished.


The streams run much calmer and easier on the steppes below the Big Mountains where the turbulent tributaries run wild.  Here, they meander through the forest on stone creekbeds and rivulets with an ancient patience.  He found the stone when he was eight or so in a creek near their simple homestead.  It was so unusual because it had a hole off center toward the narrow end of a finger long oval.  A hole, funnel-shaped, drilled from uncountable drips or eddies, over eons, by the water that always coursed through the forest - their forest.  He thought it mesmerizing, timeless, hopeful - he knew what it wanted from him.  He knew it was a gift.

He gave it to his mother as his father stood by, proud of his son's love, prouder still of his deep understanding of it.  A steady rain tapped softly on the bark shingles of the cozy, one-room home.  A fire blazed in the fireplace made of the same stone his mother clutched tightly, from the same creekbed, by the same six hands that passed the beautiful talisman.

She put it on a cord, strong woven hemp, and put it around her neck.  The string scratched at her gently, reminding her that it was there, all of it -  a family, a frontier, a life.

Seven or eight seasons passed and the boy came up with a fever and a rattling cough that shook the timber joists and logged and mudded walls.  Under blankets he shivered and the parents feared and there was no relief for the poor child.  As a plea, as a prayer, as a hope, as a supplication, as a gesture of faith and love, she removed the necklace and put it around his neck.

He slowly began to improve, as the snows accumulated and the wind blew the cough softened and finally left his sore and racked body.  Soon the fever followed the cough and the boy was hungry.  Meals of bear bone broth and honey-rye cakes strengthened his tired frame and he was able to get out of the straw and pine bough bed and walk to the rough table.  When he bent to pull the bench out, the stone fell from under his nightshirt and swung heavy on the cord and he knew.  He knew why he was better, how.

For years they traded the stone back and forth.  The father for the hunt or on a trip to the far village.  The son as he fished.  The mother as she labored through childbirth half a dozen times, twice stillborn, four other wild boys.  They passed it around themselves, playfully sometimes, tenderly at times, always draping it around the neck of a sleeping brother or parent.

And whenever they woke up with it on, or felt the rough string, or held it in their chapped and calloused hands each felt loved and honored; cherished.


The city is dirty, as dirty as the fetid Thames runs through the center of town.  The boy is up at dawn and runs down a narrow hall in a sooty, lamp-lit flat.  He grabs a bucket which sits at a table and and he smiles at the old woman who sits at the other end of the stained table, spools and hooks and a frame of white thread in front of her, making lace doilies for a few pennies a week.  She's already made the meat pie that waits at the bottom of the pail, a tired apple sits on top, sometimes a sweet, but not this day.

He rushes off to the textile factory where he minds the warps and woofs of the endless miles of fabric.  Retying there, straightening here, pulling down the old oak handle when the whole thing needs to stop.  Constantly moving and bobbing himself, cutting his knuckles or bumping his head as belts whir dangerously above him.  He will do it for twelve hours.

A bell sounds loudly, the whirring slows and stops, the boys all head to the long line of buckets up against the wall.  They are seemingly identical, some perhaps more worn than others, but they aren't.  Most have a piece of string or yarn or material tied around the handle to identify them - a piece of dirty tartan here, a bow of faded red wool yarn, a loop of old leather.

One stands out though, the one with the bright white string of delicate lace tied daintily on the rough tin handle.  The grandmother makes one for him every morning before she begins her piece-work, as the meat pies bake, before the dawn and the boy are up.  Every day, he puts it in his pocket and it helps him through the long day.  Every day, when he comes home tired and dirty he wipes his hands clean and ties it to the string from yesterday with a small knot he makes so well.

On Christmas morning he will sneak out from little, cold room he and his grandmother share and he will spin it around the pine branch they use for a tree.  He will do this for years.

When she sees it she will feel loved and honored; cherished.


Each generation, each culture, each time, each place - each individual really, you, me - invents or reinvents, designs or redesigns, discovers or rediscovers a particular way to assure those close to us they are loved and honored; cherished.

I purposefully phrased that last sentence as I did because, well, I am not sure which it is.  You see, I write the boys notes in their lunch boxes, I have since first grade.  At first I simply told them I love you.  When they were littler I would say funny things, make fart jokes and try to expand their vocabulary with words and horribly rendered drawings.  I'd like to say my notes have gotten better, matured in theme and tone... but, it's still pretty much "I love yous" and fart jokes with the addition of three stick figures named Pat.

Honestly, I never did it with much care or premeditation, I just jotted something down and threw it in, usually using the same idea for both boys, changing the name perhaps.  I just wanted them to think of me and to know they were being thought of, to make them feel loved and honored; cherished.

As I was cleaning out their first year lunch bags, hoping to get another year out of them (nope), one zippered compartment on Nick's seemed full, puffy maybe.  I figured it was a couple of paper towels up there or worse a forgotten sandwich, I unzipped the previously unnoticed (by me) pocket and, well, this...

Every note from every lunch for the whole of his first grade year.  He kept them, so I kept them, in fact I have all four years worth of notes in ziplocks, on a shelf, waiting - waiting for him to see them again and remember that he was once, and will always be, remembered.
Here's a hopeless little collage of a few notes from that first year:

As you can see, Marci helped me out with some of these.  I can't say they were masterpieces - hell, I can't even say they were clever - but they meant enough to a big-hearted, tiny seven-year-old boy, to keep them.

I guess it is a bit obvious that Zack didn't save his.  Well, Zack can't remember he has socks on when he gets in the shower, but, but... he remembers a lot of other things..

The first day of this year, their fifth grade year, they had pizza and the boys said they would "buy," just as I'd said to my Mom decades before.  The second day was an unknown, steak belonging to someone named Salisbury, and they opted to "pack."  I bumbled, out of practice, and it ended up taking me longer than it should have.  I forgot the notes.

"Dad, you forgot to make us notes for lunch.  Do more of the stickmen guys," Zack said as we walk down the driveway that day as the bus puttered off.

"Yeah, the Three Pats, Dad, those are great," Nick added.

If you look at the photo a ways up, you may notice a note - it's there in the middle above as well - that says "Three Pats, always and forever."

I introduced the "Three Pats" thing in a post long ago.  Basically, instead of saying "I love you" a give the boys three pats on the head or shoulder or wherever.  This has expanded over the years (years, how's that possible?) to be three hand squeezes in the scary movie, three kisses on a bear's nose, three taps on the bunk-bed frame - "taps" being "pats sideways" as Z put it.  What goes unsaid, but not ununderstood, is that it is a code, a short hand, a way to say it without others knowing.  Boys like that.  Me, too...

Anyway, sometime mid-year last, I was inspired to draw this:

Throughout most of that year and as we begin this one, I've kept the theme.  Here are some from last year:

My point today is not that I make pretty lame lunch notes.  It is not that boys don't want to say or hear "I love you."  It is not even that we need these stones and beads and lace and paper to touch and clutch through childhood, adulthood and beyond.

The point is that we do it - we make specific, personal, little things - thing small and yet, somehow, strong enough to hold the weight of memory, the weight of hope.  With sinews plucked from our very own hearts we cherish and love and hold.  These seemingly insignificant things stand in for the universal hopes we have for us, for them, for you, for me.  They are stokes of paint on the masterpiece that is humanity.

As I mentioned, the notes are stored by year in ziplock bags.  Just now, as I went to pack them back up, one fell to the floor.  I nearly left it there, what's one more note in the hundreds I already have.  But, it was sad and forlorn and very crumpled.  I picked it up and opened it, tearing it in two as I did.  It was this one:

"3 Pats praising"

Yeah, I think I'd like to save that one...

Thanks for visiting, I always appreciate it.

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