I wish I could share pictures with you of the way the town looked in the rain yesterday: wet sidewalks and puddled streets, drops rolling down the awnings of the shops, umbrellas in sudden bloom. I was taking a break from all the elderly-mother stuff with my dear friend Donna, who has recently moved to this neighborhood (and more in a moment about the serendipity of that!) and we were on a quest for a certain place that makes “hand-crafted” ice cream right there on the premises. Some might say it was more of a hot soup kind of day, but Donna and I believe ice cream offers all-weather comfort.
About Donna. I met her in 1982, shortly after I moved to Orange County. I’m no poet, but I attempted to write a sort of poem about her long ago. Trust me, it has no consistent form and fails entirely as a poem, but I’m sharing it here now only because it’s a quick and easy way for me to give you a sense of Donna’s wonderfulness before I proceed with my story:
I might have given up had Donna not come,
with her cup of possibilities and her cap of glossy hair.
But she did, and we disregarded deadlines
and the signs of disillusionment
to traverse the dusty ridges of El Morro.
Incongruous us, with flushed faces, sweaty bandanas,
wheels spitting gravel and kicking up dreams.
We rode head-on into the day’s sullen torpor, girlish and chatty.
Soon I felt scrappy and sporty again, and we paused
while the straw hills crackled and buzzed
like electrical wires. That’s when Donna confided
that she fears she’s not fun, that she’s functional, practical,
merely. Busy Donna, duty-bound, whose body was borrowed
by babies. She is navigator, nurturer, baker of bread,
responsible, rooted, a root. She’s a finder of books,
a wearer of hats, lemonade lady in summer.
She knows the charm of the obsolete
and the lyrics to Oklahoma. She bakes pies,
cooks beans, packs a tin box for picnics,
traveled the world but makes a home wherever she has to be.
Not fun? We were further than we ever thought we’d go,
a little lost, and laughing. We were on good ground.
Homebound. Earthbound. Now long-limbed shadows joined us,
and among dry stalks of mustard the thistle flowers grew
iridescent purple in the dusky light.
Okay, I never promised you a good poem, but as you can see, Donna and I have a long history together, which includes the raising of children and the riding of bicycles, and even though she moved up north to Santa Rosa twenty years ago, we maintained the bond of our friendship. (Her husband Mike and my husband go back even further, having been friends and bike shop colleagues in the 1970s.) Recently, however, circumstances led to Mike and Donna moving back to Orange County, and their house happens to be in a neighborhood only a mile away from where my mother resides, and so, in the thick of a barrage of bleak business, I suddenly have an old friend nearby.
But it turns out that Donna has been dealing with a lot of her own challenges too, and many of them are comparable to mine. It’s a season of life. The kids that took up so much of our time and energy are grown up and gone. We’ve both stepped back from our work in the outside world to focus on more personal but equally demanding and ongoing tasks, but we still want to contribute to the world in meaningful ways, and we’re sort of trying to figure out how to do that. I call it inventing a life, which sounds like a hilariously self-indulgent problem, but it isn’t always easy. We’re learning.
And I just can’t get over the delightful fact that the universe has tossed us back together, and we can help each other navigate this chapter just as we did the early days. This is an unexpected and unequivocal gift. Maybe we’ll even manage to get some bike rides in.
Yeah, it’s been depressing. I met with the physician overseeing my mother’s care the other day and he said, “Think of it as a light dimming.” That makes sense to me. But that dimming process can be hard on an old body, and it just seems to me that my mother’s life holds very little pleasure or purpose lately. I’ve done my best to get a framework of care in place, but as I’ve said before, there’s a grueling ongoingness to all of this that is very sad and exhausting. I realize that millions of others are going through this same kind of experience and know exactly what I mean.
That’s why I want to take you back to that rainy street, where I am walking with Donna in search of ice cream. We ducked into a thrift store on the circle, one of the best…it’s been in the same location since 1969…and looked at all sorts of curios and clothes that we didn’t need. We stepped into the Army-Navy store, which looked and smelled like one you might have entered in 1956. There were scratchy wool blankets, tin canteens, a sallow mannequin modeling a heavy blue pea coat, guns in a case. We wandered through an antique mall, booths crammed with junk and treasures, now and then remembering various things we’d lost from our own lives, but we declared ourselves happier traveling light.
And then there was the ice cream place, featuring small batches of ice cream quickly made with a blast of liquid nitrogen. I debated between strawberry balsamic or orange honey and chose the latter, Donna went for the hard-core espresso chip, and we sat at a table eating ice cream and watching the rain come down, and the day turned good despite everything.