As you know, I love romance and am especially fond of stories about marriage proposals. I also know what it feels like to watch my baby girls grow up, knowing someday they will each be some lucky man’s wife. And, he better treat her right or my mama bear instincts might not be pretty. But, I digress…
Author Arleen Williams shares her intimate feelings as her ‘baby’ is asked to share her life with the man she loves. Sigh. Beautiful.
As an added bonus, she’s added the first chapter of her novel, “Biking Uphill”, after the post.
Early February 2015
When I walked into the kitchen, I knew something was up. There was tension in the air, electricity. I felt it.
The kitchen is small. Stove to the right. Refrigerator on the left. Sink on the back wall. Husband Tom stood at the stove frying piles of chopped veggies in his favorite cast iron skillet – green zucchinis, purple onions, yellow peppers, red tomatoes. He focused on building his signature frittata, his back toward our daughter’s boyfriend, Elliot, who leaned against the narrow counter space between refrigerator and sink.
“We’re not usually together, I mean alone, without Erin,” Elliot said when I walked in. “I should’ve said something sooner.”
I heard hesitation, a nervous tone in his voice. “What’s up?” I asked, nudging Tom to attention.
“I’m getting the ring … hopefully by the weekend … they had to remake it to fit my grandmother’s diamond … she gave me a diamond … I want to marry her.”
I don’t remember all the words. My thoughts were flying in every direction: they’re so young, they love each other, they’re good for each other, he wants to marry our baby, turn around and pay attention Tom, he wants to marry our baby.
Where did the years go? The years of a colicky baby, a toddler who couldn’t sleep, a curious loving girl who walked to elementary school with dog and dad in tow, a sullen middle-schooler, a determined high schooler? What happened to soccer games and summer camps, to swim meets and dance recitals? Where did those endless hours of waiting go? What happened to that intense fear as she learned to ride a bike, walked the neighborhood alone, went to her first teen parties?
Then, at seventeen my baby graduated both high school and community college, moved into her first apartment alone and two years later earned her degree from the University of Washington. Where did the girl, the years go? So full. So fleeting. So finite.
My thoughts flew as this serious and nervous, kind and hard-working young man stood before me and told us how he worried the ring wouldn’t be ready and how he planned to propose to our daughter, and how he hoped it was all okay. I wrapped him in my arms and assured him that he was already part of our family.
Friday, February 13, 2015
I brooded all day unable to shake the cloud that held me. I’m not a superstitious person. It wasn’t the whole Friday the 13th thing that had me down. I told friends I was fighting a cold, didn’t feel up to a promised bike ride or dinner out. But that wasn’t it either.
I suppose I was nervous. My daughter was spending the weekend at an oceanfront cabin with her beloved. He was about to ask her to share her life with him. I wanted the fairy tale proposal to be perfect. I lounged on their monster sofa that fills our living room – they’re staying with us as they save to buy their first home – trying to read, watching nothing on television, and feeling as old as my mother in the years she developed dementia.
The phone rang at 6:49 p.m. I didn’t recognize the number and almost didn’t answer. Erin, I thought.
“Mom, we’re engaged!”
Her voice bubbled with joy as she described the roses, the proposal, the ring. We shared tears over the miles. My heart filled. The cloud vanished. The call ended.
I phoned Tom with the news and told him to accept the call from an unidentified number. Then, I relaxed into the monster with a smile on my face and accepted the inevitable truths: my daughter’s getting married, I’m growing older, and I’m okay with both.
Arleen Williams is the author of three books: Running Secrets and Biking Uphill, the first two novels in The Alki Trilogy and The Thirty-Ninth Victim, a memoir of her family’s journey before and after her sister’s murder. She has also co-written a dozen short books in easy English for adult learners.
She teaches English as a Second Language at South Seattle College and has worked with immigrants and refugees for close to three decades. Arleen lives and writes in West Seattle. To learn more, please visit http://www.arleenwilliams.com and http://www.notalkingdogspress.com.
The northern California hills were spring green as they sloped to the Pacific. I rode through cool morning fog and coasted to a stop at the far end of Front Street. After chaining up, I wandered amongst the white canopies lining the long street that curved through downtown Los Arboles as vendors set out their fruits and vegetables, pastries and flowers, arts and crafts for Sunday Market.
Delphinium, iris, and poppy crowded five-gallon buckets, the fragrance and color calling to me. I wanted to fill my arms, my cottage, my heart with their beauty, but I had rent and tuition to think about. Cut flowers didn’t last.
I moved on through the long rows of booths with nothing but time to spare. I fingered silver earrings and dangling crystals. A rich blend of aromas teased my senses: fresh baked breads, tacos and tamales, candles and incense.
The crowd was thin. The tourists still snuggled between warm sheets in beachfront hotels. The vets and hippies still in the hills deciding if this Sunday they’d come down and face the world long ago abandoned, a world gone sour. The students still home, far away, with families and friends and lovers. Not me.
Place is only part of the equation of love and home and family. Place doesn’t fill all the holes in the heart. I was better off in Los Arboles. A full-time student, full-time resident, full-time outsider.
As I bought a few apples, a carton of strawberries, some mushrooms, I wondered if any of this produce had felt the warmth of my students’ hands. I smiled at the thought: me with students. At the end of fall quarter, I’d started a class for migrant farm workers two nights a week in the living room of their simple apartment. The men gave me gifts of produce. The women cooked. And what food! I’d never tasted such wonderful food. At home in Mound City, I had never been allowed to eat with the migrant workers or to join the children’s games in the sweet shadows of the apple orchard. In school, we had never been in the same classes or social groups. Now I imagined one of my students picking the deep green romaine I stuffed into my backpack.
Then I saw the pottery.
It was a jam-packed booth, the tables covered with soft Indian prints, the interior lined with shelves loaded with heavy pottery in reds, yellows and browns. I’d never been drawn to pottery, but there was something special about this work. It seemed to pull me into the booth by an invisible string.
“Come on in, Biker Girl. Take a look. A touch.”
I had no idea where the voice came from. It floated disembodied through the air. “Hello?”
“Come in. Look about. Take your time.”
I stepped between the shelves and tables, looking, touching, fearing. I couldn’t afford to break anything. Not the most graceful, this I knew about myself.
“You look like someone in serious need of a teapot.”
“Excuse me, but where are you?”
Just as the words left my mouth, I saw a small figure sitting on a low stool in the shadows at the back of the booth. Our eyes met.
“You think you might help an old lady to her feet?”
I gave her my hand, but the woman rose with little need of my help. Spry and strong, she stood to my shoulder in a long peasant skirt, a university sweatshirt, and wooly socks in Birkenstocks.
“That’s better. Now let’s see what you need, young lady.”
“Nothing. I mean, I love this work, but I can’t afford anything.”
“Let’s forget that for a moment and see what calls to you.”
“Yes, calls. The work calls to you, tells you what you need, what it has to offer.”
“Whose work is this? Who made all this stuff?”
“Well, I did, of course.”
I stared at the tiny, old woman with snowy white hair pulled into a braid that hung to the middle of her curved back. I could see her leaning over a potter’s wheel shaping clay into teapots, bowls and platters. I could see the mud and water. But I struggled to see her lifting the heavy trays in and out of the kiln.
“The kiln’s gotten a bit difficult these days,” she said as though reading my thoughts. “But my son helps me out. Comes by, he does, to help me load and unload. He sets up the booth each Sunday morning and takes it down at the end of the day. My grandson used to help, but he’s off at school now.”
As I listened, my hand slid over the round, plump curve of a teapot. I glanced down and gasped.
“That’s the one.” The old woman smiled as she picked up the sunflower yellow teapot.
“But I don’t even know how to make tea,” I said.
“Then it’s about time for your first lesson.” With a firm hold on my arm, the old woman led me to the back corner of her booth. Next to her stool, a small table held an electric kettle and a sky blue teapot, the blue of the distant horizon where it reaches down to the Pacific Ocean.
I stood and watched as the woman plugged the kettle into an extension cord tucked under the canvas wall. Then she struggled open a square tin and spooned some loose tea leaves into the blue teapot. A few minutes later when the kettle whistled, she poured hot water over the tea leaves, put the lid on the teapot and wrapped it in a colorful dish cloth.
“There now, you see. It’s not so difficult. Hot water, tea leaves, and a magical pot. That’s all you need.”
“A magical pot?”
“The magic of love, of attraction. Like the sunflower yellow that pulled you into my booth. The pot is for you and you are for the pot.”
“I’m really sorry, but I can’t afford a teapot.”
“Have a cup of tea with me, Biker Girl. Then we can talk about what we can and cannot afford in this brief life of ours.”
I accepted the steaming cup the old woman offered me. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I had nowhere to go, nobody to see, nothing to lose. I settled into a canvas director chair next to the old woman’s stool and then jumped to my feet, sloshing tea on my khakis. “I’m sorry. You take the chair. I can sit on the stool.”
“Young lady, I’ve been sitting on this stool since long before you first saw the light of day. Nobody sits on this stool but Mama Lucy.”
“Mama Lucy? Is that what you want me to call you?”
“That’s right. Now what’s your name, Biker Girl?”
“Carolyn. Carolyn Bauer. How do you know I ride?”
“Small town, dear Carolyn. A student, I suppose.”
“But not a happy one.”
“Not so much, I guess.” I stared at the cup I was holding. “What is this? It tastes different from any tea I’ve ever had. It’s wonderful.”
“Glad you like it. It’s my own blend. Mostly chamomile with a bit of lavender and rose hips.”
I turned to the sound of shoppers. A middle-aged couple in plaid Bermuda shorts and matching windbreakers moved through the shelves of pottery. “I should let you go. You have customers.”
“Never mind them. They’re not going to buy anything.”
I looked at the old woman’s watery, blue eyes. “But how do you know, Mama Lucy? How do you know they won’t find something they want to buy? And what makes you waste so much time with me when I can’t afford anything?”
“Ah, my dear Carolyn, wipe your tears. You’d be surprised what an old woman knows. Now come, let’s wrap up that teapot of yours.”
“But I told you, I don’t have enough money. I could give you about half today, but I’d have to wait for my next paycheck to give you the rest. And really, I shouldn’t. I have to pay rent and food and …”
“I don’t want your money. I want you to take your teapot and make hot tea every evening. And I want you to come back next Sunday for another cup of tea with Mama Lucy.”
With a slight shove, the old potter pushed the wrapped teapot into my arms.
“But I can’t just take it,” I protested.
“Of course, you can. Now off you go on that bicycle of yours. Wear your helmet and be careful. I’ll see you next Sunday.”
With a gentle, but firm hand in the small of my back, Mama Lucy guided me out of the shadows of the booth and into the bright midday sun. Blinking back tears, I turned to the old woman and gave her a quick hug before joining the growing crowd of Sunday shoppers. Little did I know months would pass before I returned to visit the old potter.
I moved through the busy market, backpack slung over my shoulder, cradling the wrapped teapot in my arms like a newborn baby, fearful of the jostling shoppers, the random skateboarders, and the not-so-leashed dogs. When I reached my bike, away from the busy market, I loaded the padded teapot into my backpack. Once certain it was secure, I unlocked my bike and took off.
The hill lay ahead of me, steep, daunting, and always a joy. Biking was a passion, had been for as long as I could remember. A passion born of necessity, but still a passion. Back home I had no other form of transportation. There were no buses. There was no way to get into town, no way to get away from the orchard at all. If I wanted to go anywhere, I rode. When I was finally old enough to get a driver’s license, Dad wanted it so bad, I decided I didn’t want it all.
So here I was in California, still without a license or a car, still pedaling wherever I went, still keeping in shape climbing hills. I sweated and puffed and groaned, but it felt great. The best part, besides that it was cheap and I wasn’t closed into a nasty, packed bus, was that I noticed things from a bike people speeding by just plain missed. The heady scent of spring, the birds chirping, and the breeze rustling the leaves.
Every now and again a carload of frat boys would slow down, trail me with their catcalls and dirty invitations, make nasty comments about my legs or butt or boobs. But most of the time I felt safe and healthy and even a bit virtuous pedaling a hill that I knew none of those damn jocks could ever climb. That day it was a quiet ride home from the market. The hill led to the university and the university was deserted. Spring break.
The road curved and leveled a bit, serving as a breathing point, a place to psych myself up for the final challenge. On one side of the road, the hill rose above me with only a few homes scattered here and there. On the other side, the hill dropped into a deep eucalyptus grove and I could catch the distant tinkle of a stream, one of many that fed the river running through town and out to sea.
Something caught my eye in the heavy shade of a large eucalyptus tree a few yards off to the side of the road. A shape, a movement maybe. I slowed for a better look. Behind the tree a small figure huddled. Although she had her back turned towards the road, the curve of her body and the long jet black curls told me it was a girl. There was something in the girl’s position under the tree, the way she was rolled into a lonely little ball that pulled me to a stop.
I walked my bike off the edge of the road and through the tall grass towards the tree. As I moved closer, the girl scrambled to her feet, startled by the sound of my bicycle wheels moving through the grass and leaves. As she spun around, I saw her tear-stained face. She snatched a bundle and bolted towards the woods.
“Wait. It’s okay. Can I help you?”
The girl stopped. Her shoulders drooped. For a brief second, her dark brown eyes met mine. I stopped, respecting the distance between us.
“It’s okay. Do you need help?”
“I no speak English.”
Crap, I thought. All those useless Spanish classes. “Ayudar,” I managed. “¿Yo te ayudo?”
I smiled and hoped I looked safe. To my surprise, the girl sank to the ground, covered her face with her hands, and sobbed.
I moved closer and saw the girl was really no girl at all, but a young teenager. She was thin and petite with huge dark eyes, but she was no child. She looked like she hadn’t eaten well in a long time. Her clothes were little more than dirty rags and there was a faint, unpleasant smell. Nothing I could identify.
I laid my bike on the ground and pulled off my backpack. The yeasty sweetness of fresh-baked bread floated between us as I dug the loaf from the pack. I tore off a large hunk and held it out to the girl with the word, “Comer.”
The girl looked up and met my eyes, her own still moist. With a dirty sleeve, she wiped her face. Then she snatched the bread from my outstretched hand. Like a beaten dog, she scrambled a short distance to wolf down the food.
I waited, awareness of the girl’s pain and deprivation creeping up my spine. The girl–for I couldn’t think of her as anything but a girl–was alone and hungry. Where was her home, her family?
As she ate, I spread my sweatshirt on the ground between us and pulled the rest of the food from my backpack. I laid out the bread and cheese, apples and strawberries. The girl watched from her distance. I saw her glance towards my bike.
“That’s what’s missing. Water.” I pulled two water bottles from their racks and offered one to the girl. “Are you thirsty? Go ahead. Water. Agua. ¿Sed?“
Again the girl came forward, but this time she didn’t dart away. I saw the gratitude in her eyes as she reached for the bottle and drank long, greedy gulps. I sat down and waited. When she finished drinking, I motioned to the food. “Let’s eat.”
The girl moved closer and finally sat opposite me.
I looked at the apple and cheese, then rummaged through my backpack again. When I pulled out my knife and snapped the blade open, the girl jumped to her feet. “Oh,” I gasped. “It’s okay. Look, it’s for the apple. I won’t hurt you. I promise.”
I sliced an apple in half and then in quarters and cored each quarter. Then I took one of the quarters, peeled it and took a bite. I smiled at the girl. “See, it’s good. Yum. Bueno.”
I peeled another quarter, set down the knife, and offered both a peeled and an unpeeled quarter to the girl. “Which do you like better? I hate the peels.”
The girl stepped closer, reached for the unpeeled quarter, and then moved away again to eat the piece of apple at a short distance. I quartered another apple, then sliced the cheese before I stashed the knife back in my backpack. Then, I looked up at the girl and motioned her to sit down. “Come. Eat with me. I won’t hurt you,” I repeated.
The girl stepped forward and sat down.
“Try this cheese. Queso. It’s good with the apple.” I put a piece of cheese and apple together and popped it into my mouth.
Instead of copying me, the girl took a small piece of bread, laid the cheese on top and put it in her own mouth with the trace of a thin smile around her eyes. I laughed and the girl’s smile widened.
“My name is Carolyn. What’s your name?”
The girl remained silent.
I tried again. “Me llamo Carolina. ¿Cómo te llamas?”
The shy smile spread across her face. “Me llamo Antonia.”
“Antonia. What a beautiful name. Qué bonito nombre.” Again, the girl smiled. “What? Is my accent so very funny?”
“Oh yes. Very funny.”
We sat and talked, or tried to talk, for what seemed like hours under that old tree. We pointed at things and named them, first in one language and then in the other. Whenever we got stuck, Antonia pulled a tiny, battered dictionary from her pocket, and we searched for the words we needed. It didn’t take long for me to appreciate Antonia’s English was far better than she let on and definitely far better than my Spanish. I lost track of time until I saw her shiver and realized it was getting late. The sun was already starting to sink on the horizon.
“I need to get going,” I said. “Home. It’s time to go home.”
Antonia sat still as I gathered the remains of food into my backpack and zipped it closed. Then I stopped and took a long look. “What about you, Antonia? Where is your home? ¿En dónde vives?”
Antonia looked down at her lap and said nothing.
“Come on, Antonia. Where do you live? Where is your house? ¿Tu casa?”
“No tengo casa.”
“Where do you live?”
“Where are your parents? ¿Tus padres?”
“You don’t know?”
“No. No sé.”
“Where do you live?”
“¿Antonia, por favor, en dónde vives? Where is your home?”
“No have home. Live here.” She opened her arms wide to encompass the woodlands surrounding us.
I knew I should ask again about her parents, but it was getting late. I also knew that what I was about to do could get me into trouble, but I couldn’t leave her there to fend for herself. “Come, Antonia,” I said. “Vámonos.”
She didn’t move.
“Come to my house. Mi casa. Come and rest. Take a bath. Wash your clothes. We’ll figure out what to do tomorrow.”
I stood, lifted my bike, and began to push it towards the road. Glancing over my shoulder, I motioned for her to follow me.