When I was a child, I could see angels in the clouds. The day I ran away from school, after the woman at the gas station took me home, I laid on my bed and watched them out the window. That was the day my Daddy dropped me off at kindergarten late again. The day Sister Isabel said late comers would get in serious trouble.
I waited till my Daddy had driven his car out of the school parking lot; then, instead of pulling open the heavy door and going inside, I turned around and walked away.
I walked my five year old self across the busy intersection. Rush hour traffic. I walked as far as the culvert leading down to the river. The one the bridge crossed over, the one where my brother sat on the floor board in the back seat and squeezed his eyes closed every time daddy drove across. That one. I sat in the tall grass, and thought to myself: where should I go now? I’m stuck. A little thread of panic made my heart jump, and for a minute I thought I might cry.
I looked over my shoulder at the Phillips Sixty Six station on the corner. There were people there, so I got up and made my way toward them. My legs were itchy from the grass, and I was getting sweaty. I tried to unbutton my coat, but I couldn’t make my fingers work right.
I stepped onto the concrete and saw a lady with a little girl sitting in their car. The filling station guy was checking her oil. I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but I thought a little girl’s Mama might be okay.
I wandered closer, stopped a little ways from the car, and stared. The woman was paying the gas station man when she saw me. She sat there for a minute, then she and her little girl got out of the car and came over to me. She said,
“Honey where’s your Mama?”
“At home,” I whispered.
“Do you know your address?”
“I don’t think that’s an address. Is that your phone number?” I was confused; I knew it was something, I just wasn’t sure what. I dropped my head, looked up at her under my eyelashes, and sucked my finger.
She must have decided she couldn’t leave me there, so she put me in the car with her little girl. I remember thinking she smelled like flowers. Her little girl had curly hair and dimples. Her bonnet matched her coat.
She gave us each a stick of Wrigleys Spearmint, and when we got to her house the lady called my mother at 22336. She wrote down my address, then she and her little girl carried me home.
When we got there my mother thanked the woman profusely, but once the door was closed behind them, she was furious. We were Catholics, and that woman was the wife of a Protestant preacher, how could I have embarrassed her like that? She frowned, held her hand under my chin, and made me spit my gum out.
It was Mama’s laundry day; she stripped off my clothes down to my undershirt, painties, and socks. She told me to go get on my bed and stay there. The sheets were being washed, so I laid down on the mattress pad and scooched over to look out the window. That’s when I saw them. The angels. I’d seen them before. But today, more than ever, I was glad they were there. And given the adventure I’d just been through, it seems pretty clear they’d been with me all along.
Lately the world seems like it’s spinning out of control. People who in years passed could “agree to disagree” now act ready to destroy anyone who fails to share and to celebrate their point of view. So, in large part, I’ve gone pretty silent. I think many people have; that makes me weary and sad. And confused. No matter which way you go, it feels a little dangerous out there.
When I was a girl, I can remember sitting quietly in a chair at my grandmother’s, listening to my Daddy and my uncles talk animatedly about politics, religion, how high the mower blade should be set so the grass won’t brown out in the summer heat. Their voices would raise and lower, there were long pauses. Then they’d talk over each other, louder and louder, things like, “Nonono, you got it all wrong on that one …” It was bold, lively, and strong. One thing it never was is hate filled. Or mean.
When they’d finally had enough–because no minds were changed during their debates, or if they were no one admitted it at the time–the men headed to the kitchen for another cold beer. I was still in my chair; I could hear them popping off the beer caps and laughing together.
For me as a kid there was something so reassuring and grounding about those eavesdropping episodes. I learned that the people I loved most could fiercely disagree, and still throw their arms around each other. I learned that when hearts are good and true, the opinions carried by those who love each other do not stand as executioner of relationships when positions don’t line up. My Uncle John and Uncle Jim, Uncle Ferd and Uncle Leo were no less connected to me and mine after those conversations than they were before. In fact, the experience of being a seven year old “fly on the wall” taught me that these moments were the fire that forged stronger relationships, not weaker ones. Those men were staunchly opinionated, but they could also laugh at themselves when they needed to. Looking back I realize that I learned something else on those afternoons at grandmother’s: to not take myself seriously.
Today, Uncle Leo is the only one still with us. I was thinking about that crew this afternoon, and I wonder: are there still people on this planet who engage in Sunday afternoon discourse, where they share ideas and different points of view with passion, but with no fear of retribution or retaliation? Are there people out there, anywhere, who love each other enough to risk disagreement? Are there people it’s safe to trust? Can anyone disagree without becoming the enemy, or being verbally belittled? Is it safe to be oneself anywhere?
I don’t know the answer. But here’s what I wish: I wish every kid could climb into a chair in their grandmother’s living room on a Sunday afternoon, and listen to the men in their lives verbally duke it out. Then I wish they could observe those same men head to the kitchen for a cold drink, laughing and cutting up as if nothing had happened. Because the truth is, so much happened. It’s a heart-deep lesson about how people truly love, how they navigate, how they get into and out of verbal challenges with their relationships, and their integrity, intact.
And it’s about the importance of leaving the grass at least four inches long in hot weather.