It’s What We Do

While out walking yesterday evening I smelled sunscreen as someone passed by. In an instant I was mentally back on the beach waiting for cousins to come down from the house so we could get in the water together. I was also reminded of something I once wrote about years of our family’s summer traditions:

It’s a rustic, waterfront cottage on the Chesapeake Bay in an isolated cluster of other old cottages a mile or so off the main road. It’s been added on to over the last fifty-plus years and is filled with second-hand furniture, hand-me-down linens, and old pots and pans. To do anything from use the kitchen stove to turning on the water pump requires knowledge of idiosyncrasies so specific that they’re passed down like family history. There’s sand on the floor, the smell of salt water in the air, and to me it’s perfect.

The actual owner is my uncle but we in the extended family like to call it “ours”. My grandfather and uncle purchased the overgrown waterfront lot in the late 1950’s and family at the time helped clear the land and build the original cottage. My great-grandmother even spent time there, so starting with her and moving down the line to my own two children means five generations of my family have enjoyed good times there. It became, and has remained for close to 60 years now, a fantastic escape for the entire extended Perkins family.

As kids we couldn’t wait to swim in the gentle waves of the bay. Over the years various combinations of extended family have stayed there together. By day we swam, played on floats, and walked to the marina counting ospreys and bald eagles along the way. By night we filled beds and arranged cots so that everyone had a place to sleep. Most nights as we slept in the crowded cottage one cousin’s sandy feet were in another cousin’s sunburned face, but no one could have been happier. We were family and we embraced the unity. It’s what we always did.

Old morning routines continued as adults cooked bacon and whispered over coffee so as not to wake us kids. I’ve often wondered just how many in our family, for decades, have watched the same sun rise over the same spot on the same horizon while the same scene of boats pulling in crab pots played out just off the beach. Over time, family who never knew their relatives who had passed away years earlier slept in the same rooms, same beds, and spent days on the same beach as those before them. We learned to appreciate the family history of that place. I hoped when I had kids they would appreciate that history and recognize this cottage as a place where most of the people in our huge extended family had gathered at some point. I hoped they would “get it”.

There was a satisfying comfort in growing up watching simple family patterns repeat as part of the experience at the bay. We’d stop at the same seafood shop for the same deviled crabs. A bushel of oysters or a dozen soft-shelled crabs for dinner was routine. Fishing from the beach and walks to the marina through tangled marsh grass and sun-bleached driftwood were part of us. At the same time every day we’d come in out of the sun for lunch. After some time back on the beach we’d all come in for supper. Our parents had done those things, and so had theirs. It’s what we did. I really hoped my kids would get it.

Sitting in the shade of a pine near the beach, older family members spoke often of the fun they’d had there when they were our ages. Many of their conversations began with “You’re too young to remember but…” or “Back in the old days…” Their spoken memories became part of our overall experience. And so did Rummy.

Granddaddy loved to play Rummy. He didn’t just enjoy it, he was a fiend. From an early age we were required, it seemed, to learn to play Rummy so that Granddaddy would have someone else to beat. He would play anywhere, anytime, but breezy evenings after a day of fishing and swimming were prime Rummy times at the bay. He played, my parents, aunts, and uncles played, and we cousins learned to play.

Years later as adults ourselves, my sisters and I started staying at the cottage together with our own kids. Decades old scenarios were now played out by our children. They swam with their cousins, walked to the marina, slept on the same sandy cots we had used as kids, and they learned to play Rummy. I found myself saying “You’re too young to remember but…” or “Back in the old days…” I wanted them to learn family things I had learned. We buy bait here because Granddaddy always did, we get groceries from that little store in town because we always have, or after supper we’ll walk to the marina like we always do. Simple familiar patterns became part of the good times there. It’s just what we did.

One evening after a day of swimming, my kids and I played Rummy. While we played we talked about the number of dolphins we’d seen that day, who had found the biggest horseshoe crab, and the other important bay things always discussed at the end of the day. I remembered as a kid having similar conversations with my parents as we played Rummy after a day in the sun. Simple times spent with family had come to mean so much and I really did appreciate and honestly cherish them. But would my own kids feel the same? So many things we did while at the bay we did “just because” everyone in our family had done them for years before us. There was satisfaction in that. Simple, decades-old traditions helped keep our long family history intact. Would my own kids feel that?

We continued our Rummy game and at one point my son shuffled the cards and said, “Funny how even if we never play Rummy any other time, we always play down here at the bay. Why is that?”

My daughter dealt the cards and said nonchalantly without looking up, “We’re Perkins. It’s what we do.”

“Yep.” My son responded casually as he looked over his cards. “We’re awesome.”

I never again wondered if they would understand and appreciate the simple but powerful patterns established over decades by a huge, close-knit family.

They got it.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Strangers?

It was early morning when we stepped quietly into the cozy dining area of the bed and breakfast. A quick glance told us we were first, so we took a seat at one of the several small tables arranged intimately throughout the room. Soon other guests trickled in and sat where they liked, usually leaving the empty “buffer” table between themselves and those already seated. A few “good morning” nods were traded but no one spoke. We were, after all, strangers.

Each table solemnly eyeballed the others to see just who chance had decided they spend that particular weekend with. No one in the room knew the other guests, but by luck of the draw and an online reservation we were about to share breakfast. Bad hair, puffy eyes, and all. It’s an awkward silence that wins as strangers size up one another.

That silence was broken when the friendly owners burst from the kitchen. With genuine smiles they floated gracefully from one table to the next informing each of the breakfast menu, asked how we slept, and were sincerely interested in our plans for the day. As they spurred on discussion at one table, another listened in, and then another. In their wake, the owners effortlessly seeded conversations between tables which grew through breakfast.

Though brief and somewhat formal, as conversations between strangers generally are, we all slowly began to open up. Where are you from? Where do you work? What will you do while here? Suggestions from one table spilled over to the next which prompted ideas from another which resulted in recommendations from one more. Conversations dwindled as we began to eat, but cracks had formed in that initial awkwardness. Still, when breakfast was over, we parted ways to go separately into the day. We were, after all, still strangers.

The next morning’s breakfast shaped up a little differently. “Good morning” nods were replaced by the real thing called across the room. People sat beside each other to compare notes on the previous day’s adventures and “buffer” tables ceased to exist. Conversations were lively as common experiences were discussed. Oh you went there too? We must have just missed you! Where are you going today? Several invitations were offered to join in another’s day or perhaps meet for dinner. The awkwardness had vanished.

People who otherwise would have never crossed paths met in that cozy dining room as strangers. Conversations ultimately revealed the cities and states each had traveled from to be there. One woman, I learned, was from my own hometown. We talked about our high schools, how things had changed over the years, and wondered how many times we’d probably crossed paths on the streets around home. Yet, the one and only conversation we were likely to ever have took place miles away from home in that dining room over breakfast. A weekend of relaxation and fun was surprisingly enhanced, for all of us, because of a few chance conversations over breakfast.

In the end, none were strangers.

Stuart M. Perkins

 

 

As a special note: The bed and breakfast was The Hope and Glory Inn in Irvington, Virginia. I couldn’t write a proper review even if that were my intention – so I won’t try here. I enjoy watching what goes on around me, seeing stories unfold, and telling them in my own words. That’s what my blog is about.

In this case I watched unfold the story of a group of strangers who became, through the power of simple conversation, friends for a weekend. Conversations that were often initiated, always encouraged, and certainly made more entertaining by the participation of the owners of The Hope and Glory Inn, Peggy and Dudley Patteson. I’m not sure a friendlier or more down to earth pair exists!

I’m from Virginia and my extended family has ties to the Irvington area that started before I was born, so I’ve spent a lot of time on the Chesapeake Bay. Some of my blog posts center around family time there. The Hope and Glory Inn has a long history. That history, combined with the obvious beauty of the place, first prompted my interest to stay there even though it was just down the road from the family cottage where I’ve spent many happy vacations. So glad I did.

Rather than repeat all that I love about the Inn, the area, and the people, I’m attaching the Inn’s link below. It’s so much more than a bed and breakfast and Peggy and Dudley are happy, and certainly able, to point guests in proper directions so they’ll not miss what that beautiful part of Virginia has to offer.

Or you just might learn all you need to know over breakfast.

http://www.hopeandglory.com/

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Mitzi

We’d been lying in the shade together for quite a while. I was on my back, hands cupped behind my head, she on her side facing me. I talked about things bothering me at the time while she stared intently into my eyes. I was just a kid but I remember knowing how lucky I was to have her by my side. I noticed her long eyelashes each time she blinked, but I didn’t love her for her long eyelashes, didn’t love her for her perfectly white teeth, and didn’t even love her for the way she seemed to adore me.

She was still looking directly into my eyes when she burped in my face, wagged her tail twice, and continued chewing on a stick.

I loved her because I was a boy and she was a dog.

Mitzi was a collie. I was only nine when we went as a family to meet the litter. I don’t remember which one of us picked her, or whether she picked us, but in short order we were on our way home. Mama and Daddy in the front seat while my sisters and I in the back fought over whose lap the fuzzy puppy should ride home on.

It would take a lifetime to tell about her lifetime and anyone who’s loved a dog knows the telling doesn’t do it justice. You have to have felt it. As a puppy she was hugged and kissed constantly. As she grew up she was naturally our best friend. As she aged she earned the respect of family and friends as an intelligent, faithful old girl. We treated her like any other member of the family.

Because that’s exactly what she was.

During those years Mitzi made hundreds of trips to the pasture, ran countless miles behind our bikes, refereed dodgeball games, gave us away during hide-and-seek, and waited patiently while we worked in the garden. She was a happy constant when we returned from school and she didn’t just wag her tail; her entire backside swayed when she saw us coming. Many families have several dogs over the years, my family did too and we loved them all, but as a nine year old boy that collie puppy was the dog. Thirteen years into her life, I was twenty-two and that happy old collie was still the dog.

When she fell ill it happened fast. I went to work but called home later to check on her. Mama hesitated but told me poor old Mitzi had died. Back in those days, in spite of regular vet trips starting with her spaying and continuing with regular vaccinations, heartworm prevention was not what it is today and sadly she was a victim.

I hung up with Mama and went to tell my boss that I needed to go home. When she asked why, I said there had been a death in the family. My phrasing had nothing to do with dishonesty. It was to me the genuine reason. I’d heard she had a dog at home so surely she would understand.

She expressed her condolences and asked who had died. When I said “my dog” there was a pause before she giggled slightly and said she just couldn’t let me go home for that reason. With no one who could easily cover for me, I’d have to stay. I left her office and talked to my coworkers who agreed to cover for me, no problem. I then let my boss know I’d made arrangements for coverage but she repeated to me that no, I needed to stay.

I left.

There was nothing I could do when I got home; Daddy and one of my sisters had already buried Mitzi there in the same pasture where she’d played all her life. Nothing I could do, but to stay at work with that load of grief would have been pointless for me. It was Friday and on Monday I’d talk to my boss about it again. If I still had a job.

It was a sad weekend. We cried, laughed, talked about Mitzi and talked to Mitzi. Family and friends called to say they were sorry. They treated her death as though she’d been a real member of the family.

Because that’s exactly what she was.

Early Monday morning I learned from coworkers that my boss had been very unhappy about my leaving on Friday after she’d told me to stay. I started working and waited for my fate, but my boss didn’t come in. On Tuesday she was there.

I tried to read her face as she walked towards me. My boss said nothing as she handed me the envelope and walked away. I looked at it, puzzled she’d said nothing, and ripped it open expecting my dismissal letter. It contained nothing official, just a small card from her to me.

A sympathy card.

I learned later why my boss hadn’t been at work the day before. Sadly, her own dog had been hit by a car over the weekend and in spite of the vet’s efforts, it hadn’t lived. My boss was understandably upset and stayed home that Monday. She had let management know her absence was due to a death in the family.

Because that’s exactly what it was.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Watch For It

He stopped at the curb to press the crosswalk button, casually swinging his briefcase as he checked both ways for traffic. Any second now he’d set the briefcase down to tie a shoe or adjust his jacket. Wait… wait… and there it was. Today he tied a shoe. The light turned green and I drove through the intersection glancing at him one last time as he stood to pick up his briefcase. He nodded slightly as I passed. I raised one hand from the steering wheel.

I leave for work very early in the morning. Almost every weekday for a of couple years now I’ve seen this same lone man at the same empty intersection at the same early time of day. We each wake up to carry out our daily routines unconcerned, and mostly unaware, that the other exists except for that thirty seconds or so each morning at the intersection. He generally approaches the corner about the time I come to a stop at the light.

That early in the morning he’s the only pedestrian and I’m the only car. I forgot who began to wave first, but after months of early morning crossings it just seemed silly not to. He’d become as much a part of the landscape for me as the row of trees by the school, the yellow house with the picket fence, or the bridge over the creek. Their constant presence is an odd reassurance that all is right and routine. On rare days when he wasn’t at the intersection, I wondered where the man might be. He’d reappear the next day and all would be normal again. I laugh at myself for noticing such things but I suppose others do too. It’s not just me?

And it isn’t only the man with the briefcase. A rusty white van pulls out in front of me at the next corner. Further along, two black labs do their early morning romping behind a fence. A man in a red hat hoses off the sidewalk in front of an office building. Over time I began to notice these things and soon actually watched for them.

Each evening going home I walk past a woman smoking a cigarette under a tree out back. The security guard at the parking garage sings loudly to himself. Back in the car and I pass the same food truck along the same stretch of road every day. Closer to home and those two black labs are either lying in the shade or barking at squirrels. Those routine sights in my personal landscape satisfy something, I’m just not sure what. It’s not just me?

A while back, returning to work after a few days of vacation followed by a long weekend, I eagerly checked off my daily landscape markers. The briefcase, the dogs, the sidewalk washer, all there as usual even though I’d been gone a while. That evening on the way home I saw the woman light her cigarette and head towards the tree out back. I laughed again at myself for even noticing, but she was, after all, a part of my daily landscape.

As I neared the tree on my way to the parking garage I wondered if the security guard would still be singing after all of my days away from work. That’s when I heard the woman’s voice.

“Hey.” she said as took a puff of her cigarette. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

It’s not just me.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Virginia Living!

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have an essay appearing in the June issue of Virginia Living magazine!

It was a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine again (I also had an essay published back in their February 2016 issue) and as a native Virginian, like my parents and theirs, it was especially fun to contribute to a publication I’ve had in my own home over the years.

Below is a link to my essay in the online version of Virginia Living.  Check it out and if you like please comment on their site below the essay!

http://www.virginialiving.com/home-garden/a-new-leaf/

Thanks to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to some great opportunities.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Small Town Ways

With a warm spring finally here and hotter weather to follow, a store near me has filled its seasonal section with all things summer. Though still April, I saw stacks of Fourth of July themed party supplies, plastic cups for poolside use, and a display of various sunscreens. It was the sunscreen display that reminded me of a day trip I took years ago with my kids.

The three of us set off to spend a day on the beach of a small town I’ve visited all my life and I knew the kids would enjoy sun, sand, and saltwater. As for me, I immediately felt calmer simply leaving work, traffic, and fast-paced living. While the kids argued in the back over who would be first to get in the water once we arrived, I drove and looked forward to experiencing again the small town ways I love but see disappearing. It’s hard to describe those ways, but you know them when you see them and every time an example pops up I hear myself say “There it is.”

People used to wave when they passed one another. Strangers smiled and nodded to each other. If you got lost while traveling you pulled over and the service station mechanic happily got you back on track. If he didn’t know how to then the man reading his newspaper while waiting for an oil change certainly might. And you didn’t have to ask, he’d eagerly put down his paper to help.

There it is.

People reminded one another to carry an umbrella as the weatherman had mentioned thunderstorms for later. If you needed a pen then the woman in line behind you was glad to offer hers. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in each other. There was no agenda, helping out wasn’t done for personal gain, and kindness was expressed simply because it was good and right.

There it is.

As I parked the car at the marina the kids scrambled over each other to race to the beach. I looked around, sad to see some of the quaint out-buildings now gone. Rustic boathouses and a tiny bait shop were replaced by an over-priced restaurant and a store with neon signs screaming at me to buy souvenirs. No wonder small town ways are disappearing; they have no place to live.

Carrying towels, toys, and floats, I made my way over hot sand to where the kids waited by the water. It was then I realized I’d forgotten their sunscreen. Reluctantly, they left the beach to walk with me to the shiny new store at the marina. I hesitated, unhappy about supporting something that helped replace the very ways I’d been reminiscing about, but the kids needed sunscreen. Gone were the days of the smiling bait shop owner asking how he could help. We’d just have to go in and hope a cashier would even notice us.

Walking in I was surprised. There beneath garish fluorescent lights was an old man stocking greeting cards. Wearing faded jeans and a worn flannel shirt, he used a cane for balance as he stooped to fill the lower shelves. Although surrounded by displays of magazines, coolers full of sodas, and racks of colorful t-shirts, I saw no sunscreen. Interrupting his work, I nodded towards my kids.

“Do you have any sunscreen?” I asked. “I forgot theirs.”

“Well, I believe I might.” he responded with a smile. “Let me look.”

He seemed out of place there surrounded by beach jewelry, scented candles, and baskets of packaged seashells. Dance music over store speakers nearly drowned out his voice. As we followed him through aisles crammed with flip-flops and plastic buckets, I thought sadly how his working in such a place was final evidence that the small town ways had been all but swallowed up by sterile progress. This man, and others like him from the old days, had to adapt to the new or be left behind. Surely in that transition small town courtesies would be lost, gone for good, all part of the change.

The old man led us to the checkout counter but I still saw no sunscreen. Using his cane again, he stooped to reach down behind the cash register and lifted up an old knapsack, obviously his own, and opened it on the counter. He dug inside removing a frayed wallet, rusty keys, and a tiny old notebook before saying “Yep, got it.” With a smile he produced a large tube, told me there was plenty to cover both kids, and handed me the last of his very own sunscreen.

There it is.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Home Is Where The Nose Is

“I wanted to tap my heels together three times in that bakery!” the woman said as she sat down beside me for the flight back home to Virginia.

I glanced at her feet expecting ruby slippers.

“Smell this.” she leaned towards me and opened a paper sack containing several blackberry pastries. “I loved France but the smell of blackberries made me miss childhood summers at home!”

“Well, there’s no place like it!” I added.

I was fortunate to do some traveling over the last year and found myself captivated by the beauty and history of various cities in Colombia, Spain, and France. Every day, in every city I visited, I’d daydream about what life might be like to leave the place I’ve always called home and live abroad in such majestic locales. I doubted that a hint of blackberries, or anything else for that matter, could cause me to pine for home the way this woman seemed to. Just because she smelled a pastry? I wasn’t so sure about that one.

However, while waiting for our flight to depart Paris we continued discussing the strange power some scents have to unlock fond memories of people or places and to sometimes make us homesick. She insisted that the mere hint of blackberry instantly transported her back to summers as a little girl. She stopped reminiscing as the plane took off but I continued thinking about the power of scents. I admit that a remembered smell is like a souvenir from the past, but how silly this woman’s sudden urge to tap her heels three times to be home – because of a smell!

Born in and spending most of my life in Richmond, I then realized, had given me many scents to fondly associate with those years. During countless youthful Saturdays along or in the James River I remember its water’s pungent dank aroma in summer and how it took on a crisper essence whenever rainfall upriver came barreling through. Cookies baking at the FFV off of Broad Street made my mouth water almost as much as a whiff of sugary sinfulness when passing by Krispy Kreme. Closer to home, the call from fresh slices of our garden’s first cantaloupe would lure me into Mama’s kitchen. To this day, the aroma of butter beans cooking makes me homesick I confess. Maybe I have wanted to tap my heels a time or two after all.

For decades now, summer trips to my uncle Tuck’s cottage in Lancaster County where the Rappahannock River meets the Chesapeake Bay have provided many a memorable sniff. Saltwater marshes with their fishy odors make me recall the childish excitement of simply nearing the bay. Even the acrid sulfur stench of the paper mill in West Point has the power to remind me of long gone summers. In the air is a bracing spice given off by layers of decaying pine tags along the shaded sandy road approaching the cottage and entering the cottage itself I experience a rich potpourri of aged wood, salt air, and a suggestion Old Bay. Every one of those aromas has the power to take me back in time.

Another uncle, Jiggs, owned a farm in Lunenburg County where I also spent many summer weekends. The musty old wood of a barn is comforting to me and hundreds of bales of fresh hay emit a tangy sweet bouquet. Summer sun beating on a field of dry alfalfa causes it to release its zesty aroma and sometimes I think pure country air itself is invigorating perfection. Just after a summer rain, I know that it is. The fragrant perfume of honeysuckle on the fencerow, the peppery redolence of old tobacco barns, the faint sweetness of cornfields in the morning, and the lightly pungent pile of composted cow manure behind the barn all make me smile when remembered. Even today I can brush by a tomato plant and have the sharp scent from the crushed stem take me right back to the country. The more I thought about it, tapping my heels didn’t seem too silly anymore.

It was back to reality when I heard the pilot announce our landing. The woman beside me held up her bag of blackberry pastries and smiled. Once on the ground I gathered my things and made the slow walk up the aisle to the exit. As I neared the door a gust of wind from outside blew into the plane. Wow, I thought. There really is a sweet Virginia breeze. In that small burst of summer air I smelled trees, blooming trees of some kind, and remembered the pasture at home.

I’ve enjoyed my world travels and hope there are more in store. Surely my daydreaming of life abroad will continue with each trip, but as I walked from the plane that day I inhaled deeply and fought the urge to tap my heels.

Ahhh, I had just smelled Virginia and there really is no place like home.

Stuart M. Perkins

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