When I walk at daybreak along empty streets, I feel comfortable while I nod greetings to yard dogs and window cats. One golden retriever rests behind a low fence and blinks his eyes at me without barking. My mind jumps around as I take in my surroundings and forget my worries.
I see a huge Siamese huddling beside a porch and say “Look at that gordito.” I notice the lime-green Hyundai that perfectly matches the paint on its house and say, “Cool coordination.” Other times I shake my head and voice concern about one of my grown children: “Should have planned better.” Or I admit a personal failure: “Sticking my nose in the beehive.” I believe that thoughts gain power when I vocalize them. A statement like “I am a writer” could become reality.
So I talk to myself as I take heel/toe steps on cracked sidewalks and look up to locate a lone sparrow chirping in a skeletal tree or sideways to spot dogs yapping behind wooden fence slats. I review a recent argument with Gary and mutter, “Why can’t you notice…?” Or I say, “Hey, You” when the opossum cat sees me as she heads to her gutter hideout. I may get profound when I consider an unusual cloud: “Looks like hope… or loneliness…or a penis.” Then a serious jogger to my right passes and I wonder if he heard me. Does he think I’m a drunk or an escapee from the retirement home? I can’t believe I’ve turned into someone talking out loud to herself!
I think back to Daddy walking down Second Street to his office two blocks from Grandma’s house. As I rocked on the front porch, I watched him talking to the air. He nodded and moved his right hand in short slicing motions to stress his main points. Maybe he was rehearsing something he’d say to a client or reminding himself to fix an unreliable toilet at home. Could he have been rehashing a conversation he’d like to rewind and redo? He often wore a grey or brown suit, but sometimes on a week-end he’d have on tennis shorts, a white undershirt, dark socks, and slide slippers. In either outfit I thought he looked ridiculous. Why did he need to say things out loud? He reminded me of Crazy Marie, an old woman who walked the downtown streets in her Sunday clothes and talked to herself. Marie walked fast and had a purse hanging from her wrist. She bobbed her head as she talked, sometimes making her wig crooked beneath her church hat.
I’ve told my three sons that “embarrassing your kids” is a parent’s duty, and I’ve done my best to carry out that parental obligation, learned from my mom and dad pros. Dad’s conversations with himself were one source of embarrassment. He didn’t care what passers-by thought when his one way conversations kept him engrossed in his own world. He had a lot on his mind, and walking and talking seem to go together like sighing and smiling.
I remember hearing Evan chatting away in his room when he was three, and I wondered who he was talking to. I peeked and saw he was alone and playing with his Beanie Babies. So it’s natural for kids to talk to toys and imaginary friends. Later they learn to converse mostly with other living beings. When is it acceptable to utter our thoughts to ourselves? Do we give our thoughts get stronger when said out loud? Are consultations with ourselves common enough for people to ignore?
Is becoming like my father – someone who often frustrated and embarrassed me- the natural order of things? I suppose I better have that discussion tomorrow morning around 7:27 with someone I know very well.
Fourth grade was not a flattering year for me. I had just survived 3rd grade and having my teeth be bigger than my body when this happened. I swear, no one bothered to tell me that those tight, plastic headbands were not complimentary to my face shape. Sometimes my grandma and I would ride the bus downtown to Woolworth’s Five and Dime, and she would let me pick out something for twenty-five cents. Perhaps that is why I had such a classic selection of headbands.
Grandma and I would walk up and down every aisle in Woolworths and after we made our purchases we would sit at the counter and eat lunch. Grandma always got a tuna fish sandwich with the ‘best cup of coffee in the world.’ I would get a grilled cheese sandwich and a root beer. Simple fare for simple folks. After we ate, I would spin myself around and around seated on that bar stool at the lunch counter, while Grandma enjoyed her last sip of coffee.
The red, button-up sweater from Sears that I loved was all kinds of wrong, yet I have the pictures as proof that I was determined to look my best. Glancing back, I clearly see my stylistic mistakes, but at the time I felt well put together.
Still, I had a delightful smile, don’t you think?
My 4th grade teacher was Mrs. Batson. Mrs. Batson was no-nonsense all day every day. She was a small but sturdy force, short in statue and long on obedience, and wore dark-colored, perfectly fitted suits with structured shoes. She was tough and I was afraid of her, except that I kind of knew she liked me. I was always the only one in my class who didn’t have a mother and because bad news travels fast, I must have been pegged as someone who needed a little more encouragement.
I knew this because even in her strictness, she would look at me and almost smile. Her eyes would tilt ever so slightly, and the corners of her frown would swing upward for only a second. I always wondered if anyone else saw it, but I think it was just for me. I mean, come on…. looking at this picture, Mrs. Batson was probably thinking, “Bless her heart!”
I learned during 4th grade that I had something called ‘buck teeth.’ And when I told my dad that Stanley Steinkruger called me that, he said, “Nancy Lynn, you just have an overbite. And someday you will have braces that will help you have the most beautiful teeth in the world. Don’t listen to the likes of Stanley Steinkruger.”
Bless my heart.
This 4th grade photo was not to be my last ‘less than stellar’ school picture. I had an overbite with a large space between the front two teeth, and a few more years of the plastic headbands. I even had another year of a red sweater in which I discovered turtlenecks are really not for me either.
When I arrived at Wolflin Elementary School in Amarillo, Texas, for my first day of 5th grade, I found out I had Mrs. Batson for my teacher again. How could this be true? But it was. Mrs. Batson moved up to teach 5th grade and I was in her class. 5th grade turned out to be a doozy of a grade for me. Somewhere between the first day of school and Thanksgiving, I woke up one day needing a B-cup bra and I was 5’5” tall. I tried all year to practice the art of slumping down, so as not to look so much taller than the boys.
One more sad little piece of information was that as a baby I had had ankles that turned in toward themselves and because of that, I wore orthopedic shoes, even into the 5th grade, like these black velveteen saddle oxfords.
Those shoes were heavy on my feet and so sturdy/clunky that as much as I tried to scuff or wear them out, they wouldn’t. Nothing could penetrate those toes of steal.
Just when I thought it could never get worse, the 5th grade girls had to see “the film” and as my luck would have it, this was also my year to become a ‘woman.’
Culminating my 5th grade school year, I was a full 5’6” tall. I also found out I needed glasses. My dad let me pick out my glasses which were brown sparkly glitter, cat-eye frames. I adored them and took special care to keep them in their case when they weren’t on my face.
Next, came the years with braces and tight-lipped smiles to hide them. It is what it is, y’all, and I have the pictures to prove it! The day we got out for Christmas break my 6th grade year, Stanley Steinkruger was deep in his throws of flirting with me. But bless his heart, he teased me by grabbing my glasses and using them to play catch with another boy. You can guess the end of the story. Broken glasses and hurt feelings. My father admonished my carelessness, and I was never friends with Stanley Steinkruger again. The good news was I finally got a pair of slip-on flats and was allowed to give up my orthopedic saddle oxfords.
My later elementary grade years left me with a few scars, as much of growing up usually does. Often, the ‘awkward’ years last longer than one would wish, and in the throes of adolescence, we do not see our own light. We let other people tell us who we are and hush the swan’s song inside of our ugly duckling.
But Hans Christian Andersen knew what was true for all of us when he wrote:
It is only with the heart that one can see clearly, for the most
The day after Christmas, Gary and Evan drove from Austin, Texas to Mariposa, California to visit Evan’s fiancee Tashea and to spend time in Gary’s mecca – Yosemite Valley – where he had rented heated tent cabins in Curry Village. Ever since he spent time there when he was eighteen, the park has beckoned Gary back, and he dreams of buying property near the park. To quote John Muir: “Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.”
Three days later, a woman from Yosemite National Park called me.
“Gary?” she said.
“No, I’m his wife. Is everything ok?”
“I’ve been trying with no luck to reach Gary. A big snow storm is hitting the park tonight, so we have to cancel his tent cabin rentals.”
“Oh no! For all three nights? Gary will be devastated.”
“We’re canceling on a day-by-day basis. Might just be one night.”
I sighed. “I so hope so. Are y’all ok now?”
And this compassionate stranger and I chatted about how wonderful Yosemite is and I shared my husband’s love affair with the park. “Gary’s 76 years old,” I said. “Yosemite is his favorite place on earth. He worked there when he was eighteen, and we’ve visited several times, taking our three sons when they were little and just this June with their significant others. Last night he got to the Yosemite Bug with our youngest son and his fiancee.”
“He should stay at the Bug,” she said. And she gave me the number for Gary to call when I reached him.
I used Messenger to give Evan the number, but because of spotty cell phone reception, he didn’t receive the news until they were on a bus with their luggage headed to the park. Two hours later Gary called.
“They cancelled our tents?! Where are they gonna put us up?”
“It’s not like that,” I said. “The woman said you should stay at the Bug.”
I heard him huffing and puffing. “I’m walking to the office now. Gotta go.”
That evening Evan called. “What did you tell the lady in Yosemite? All the workers acted like they knew Dad when we walked in. They’re letting us stay at a cottage in Curry Village tonight and giving us an employee’s discount!” Talking with a stranger about my family had brought us unforeseen kindness. We had connected over our love of Yosemite and she showed empathy for an old guy and his son.
I enjoy talking with strangers because I’m curious about their lives. Like the cashier who works weekends at the 7-Day Food Store down my street who stays upbeat even after an attempted holdup. Or the young teacher who first exchanged waves with me and now gives me vegetables from her garden.
We rightly tell young children, “Don’t talk to strangers,” to protect them from sickos. But as adults, shouldn’t we feel free to talk with strangers? To make a connection, to commiserate, to say, “I see you. You’re not invisible or insignificant.”
Stranger talk starts with weather comments. I don’t try dangerous topics like politics, religion, or pandemic advice. But I smiled behind my mask when a very short woman who walks her very fat dachshund wanted to show me pictures of her grandkids on her phone. We always wave now, and I feel less alone on chilly morning walks because most strangers and I have more similarities than differences. Our encounters feed the fresh-faced optimist inside me and send my pimply pessimist with chronic indigestion and facial tics to her room for an indefinite time-out until she’s rediscovered her sense of humor.
The pandemic has separated us in a list of necessary ways, but aren’t we all still struggling to get on with life the best we can? If I ask a stranger, “What’s your dog’s name?” or tell a waiter, “Cool tattoo,” am I not making a connection? Not in the generic, robotic, “Have a nice day,” way. Specificity counts. This past fall, a school crossing guard and I bonded over both being from Louisiana, so right before Christmas, I gave her some boudin from Lafayette. We exchanged holiday greetings and our names that day.
Some friends give me a hard time about talking to strangers. They roll their eyes and take a few steps back as they maybe mutter, “There she goes again.” But I want to be like the protagonist on my favorite TV series Better Things. Writer, actor, and director Pamela Adlon ’s protagonist Sam Fox shares time with a quiet man on a film set or she gets to know the mother of her daughter’s Mormon friend. Her honesty creates powerful moments in her show. I’d say that a key rule when talking with strangers is “understanding, not judging.”
Talking with strangers has given me memories I treasure:
*taking a selfie with a scruffy guy at 7 a.m. outside Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans.
*getting a list of good places to eat in Montreal from a couple, nicknamed the Professor and Maryanne, who owned a tiny coffee shop and who got jazzed when I told them,”I’m Ginger!” So the three of us posed for a Gilligan’s Island tribute pic.
*meeting a groovy neighbor six years ago as we both walked our large dogs. She has become a close friend and the mother of my three amazing “practice grandchildren”!
Strangers have enriched my life, and even though every encounter is not hitting the jackpot, connecting with someone else may add serendipity to my life. I never know when a casual chat can lead to knowing three of the most wonderful children in the world!
The first Monday meeting with Mitchell, my young, handsome physical therapist, started off with a bang. “Have you been to the restroom yet? You know, pooped?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I said quietly.
“It’s really important, so let’s keep taking what you’re taking and drink lots of water. The more you walk the better it will be.”
Ya’ll, I have a friend who swears her mother used to ask her, “Have you do-do’d today?” Every time she feigned she was too sick to go to school, her mother would point her finger right at her face and ask the dreaded question, “When is the last time you do-do’d?”
Mitchell and I walked a loop through my house, with me on my walker and Mitchell right behind me, holding a white, thick belt tied to my waist so he could keep me from falling. He evaluated my uneven gait and chanted, “Heel-toe, heel-toe.” We then went through a ‘lofty’ set of exercises, to be done three times a day. Next, he checked my incision and reminded me, “When the pain ball runs out, probably Friday, you’ll feel a slight surge in pain levels. Just want you to keep that in mind.”
I was starting to get really scared. Scared about the pain ball (how much will it hurt to take it out?) and what will happen to me if I don’t, you know? Pain and poo, two very big topics that dominated my thoughts day and night. But, because I am a doctor on Google, I read everything I could about both topics and I must say I found out it could go either way…good or bad. Good, like an easy-peasy potty time and absolutely no pain in removing the wire inside my leg. Or bad, like missing the toilet and landing on my butt and twisting my new knee, causing me to have corrective surgery.
Friday morning Mitchell arrived with a smile. “Let’s check your pain ball.”
“No need,” I said. “It’s empty.”
“Ok then. Let’s take it out.”
“Should I take a shot of whiskey? Or bite a bullet?” I joked.
He laughed and said, “I know, right?”
I laid on the edge of my bed, closed my eyes, and he peeled the surgical tape off my thigh to reveal the wire, which had been threaded down the front nerve of my leg. I was trying to mentally prepare for the pain, when he said, “It’s over.” And just like that I was freed from the pain ball and looking forward to a new surge of discomfort.
“Remember,” Mitchell said, “Stay ahead of the pain and go to the restroom. See you Monday.”
After Mitchell left, I drank one more glass of Metamucil on top of all the other laxatives, just for good measure. Sadly, I realized too late, that it had not been necessary. At five o’clock, my stomach started to rumble, tumble, roll, and grumble. For some reason, I felt the need to tell Boo, “Something’s happening.”
“Let the games begin!!” he laughed.
Five o’clock also marked the onset of the dreaded ‘surge of pain.’ I will spare you the gory details, but when I felt I’d better head toward the restroom, I immediately knew my speed on the walker, was not as it should be. Never in my life could I have planned that the pain and the poo would happen on the same day and same time and stay all weekend long. Boo, hollered from the den, “Do you need some help?”
Banging my walker into the door frame, I screamed back, “Leave Me Alone!”
Truthfully, I have only screamed once during this whole ordeal, and this was it.
“No problem,” he answered.
The infamous ‘surge in pain’ was like my knee was waking up a week later from the surgery. Shooting pain, dull aching pain, and stabbing pain settled in on my incision and the very back behind my knee. I took every pain pill allowed me and still prayed to fall asleep. The pain came in waves, like a rolling storm off the coast, battering and ramming my body until I thought I would break. The only rest from the pain was from the sudden urge to run to the restroom because I needed a level head to maneuver my way through the bathroom door with the awkward walker. I was a very hot mess!
Things could only get better after this extremely low point because, after all, this was just the first week of my recovery.
Monday morning, Mitchell said I looked a little pale, but applauded my efforts and we set up a new pain med plan.
“Let’s get rid of the walker and go to a cane,” he said.
“How about tomorrow? I need a few more hours,” I said.
That night I went to my closet and found the cane my grandpa actually carved for himself. It was the same cane my grandma used as well, and now I was the proud recipient. Who would have guessed it? The cane was a perfect simple shape and sanded smooth as silk. Grandpa had painted it a dark brown and shellacked it to a beautiful sheen. The grip was worn in places and as I stood to try it out, tears rolled down my face, imagining my grandparents’ touching this very same cane. I felt their spirit with me. This cane fit me just right and I felt safe and secure knowing my grandparents had in some way, been sent to take care of me.
I practiced that night and the next day it was trial by fire as I learned to walk with the cane. Does anyone remember Festus from Gunsmoke?
At the end of week two, I saw the physician’s assistant and she took off my bandage. I was predicting a Frankenstein scar, but it wasn’t quite that bad. Turns out my surgeon was a brilliant seamstress. One surprising thing about my knee now is that it feels hot at times from the swelling and has a slight pinkish color. They promised it will go away. But, part of my knee is numb, and that will not go away. As I was leaving, the P. A. said I could begin practicing driving. It was music to my ears, and I felt the breeze of freedom floating in my near future. Although it was another two weeks away, I had hope that I could recover and finally go somewhere by myself. No offense, Boo.
Soon Mitchell and I began to go for walks outside. On my 2nd walk, we ran straight into my neighborhood friend, which you may remember as my Walker Stalker. John wanted to know what had happened to me, where had I been, and “Who’s this?”
“This is Mitchell,” I said. “My physical therapist.”
But John never really registered what I said, until finally, he asked, “Now, who is this? Is this your grandson?”
We just smiled and said, “Well, I’ve gotta keep walking, John. See you soon.”
As time went on, I begged Boo to ride with me a half-mile down the road to our community mailboxes. “I don’t need to practice anymore,” I said, as I slightly hobbled to the car. But once to the car, I had to pick up my leg to actually get in. Bending my knee was torturous, in the beginning. I really didn’t realize how strenuous getting in and out of a car and driving one mile could be.
“I don’t think you’re quite ready,” Boo said as I came to a stop.
I knew he was right, but I also knew I was very close to my independence. “I’m on my way back, baby! Just wait and see!”
I finally graduated from Mitchell to outpatient physical therapy. My weeks of exercising, icing, resting, and walking have now turned into two months. My out-patient physical therapist is a seemingly sweet-looking, young woman named, Thea. Don’t let her smiling, girl-next-door exterior fool you, she’s no-nonsense and hell-on-wheels. But, thanks to her and Mitchell, I’m making great progress. At my 8-week check-up, my doctor was very pleased. “You’re one-third of the way healed. Keep up the good work.” He also told me it will take one full year to feel normal and strong, and I’m starting to believe him.
Everyday, there is a little less pain and stiffness, and everyday there is hope for better sleep. I’m walking, driving, sitting, standing. I’m off my addiction to Cheetos. I’ve gone on a trip, grocery shopped, and been to Costco twice. I’m still telling Boo, I may not be able to cook for another month or so, but he’s fine with that because it means fewer vegetables.
I’m grateful to have insurance and Medicare. I’m grateful to all my friends who loaned me the walker, icing machines, and tall potty chair. The friends who brought me food and visited when I was still in my wrinkled pajama pants and greasy hair, and I’m grateful to Boo who never left my side, even when he wanted to! Who has put up with my groaning and moaning and talking about myself until we are both sick of it.
Sometimes Boo is a saint.
Originally, I planned to have my other knee done in March, but as time goes on, I think it best to wait until July. We have a trip planned for the end of March and one in June. Feeling stronger and having a little fun will put me in the right frame of mind to do this all again. (I hope). And Boo will have a chance to rest up before his next nursing duty.
People continue to ask me, “Aren’t you so glad you had the surgery?”
“Not yet,” I answer, “But, I know I will be.” And that really is the truth. I know I will be, especially after the next surgery. As my grandma used to say, “If the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.” I will be so, so glad I’ve had the opportunity to get my new pair of knees!”