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Raker Man!

This is a repost of a piece I wrote after vacationing in the Dominican Republic. It’s been a good while since this was posted, but interestingly, two followers asked me about it within the last week or so. Both mentioned how it’s nice to be reminded that a kindness offered to another doesn’t have to be grand to have meaning. Sometimes a small effort can still make a big difference.

Raker Man

The tropical sun was intense, but from the shade we sipped Pina Coladas and stared at the blue Caribbean. A vacation in the Dominican Republic! We staked claim to our favorite cabana and by afternoon were chatting with beachside neighbors. Diane in the next cabana knew a lot about the area and in the balmy breeze we compared notes on favorite restaurants as we enjoyed the beach.

The next hot day while eating lusciously ripe strawberries I caught sight of the trio working in the sun. We’d noticed the daily routine of these three whose job it was, apparently, to clear the beach each day of seaweed washed up during the night. They were a motley band in ragged clothes. Locals in need of work I supposed, and hard work it was. Each day they scoured the beach, raking and hauling debris. An older worker lagged behind. The effort it took to push a loaded wheelbarrow through soft sand slowed him down. He usually raked alone, stopping often to wipe sandy sweat from his face. He has to be thirsty I thought, as I sipped ice-cold coconut water.

On the following morning, just as I devoured a heaping bowl of chilled watermelon, I saw the old raker man diligently working over the beach. Mere yards from chattering sunbathers, clattering dishes filled with tropical delights, and Mimosas clanking toasts to vacations, this old barefoot man in torn pants worked silently. Unnoticed. Head down as he worked, I waited for him to look up.

He looked up. I waved.

Puzzled, he stared at me and returned to his work. He has to be hot I thought, as the waiter served our Pina Coladas.

I took a sip of mine. It tasted like guilt.

“How much do you think he’s paid?” I asked Francisco and nodded towards the raker. Before he could answer I heard a groan from the next cabana.

“Well, don’t you give him money.” Diane yelled. “He’ll get lazy. Anyway he’ll never even thank you.” With that, she told the waiter to hand her a magazine, brush away the sand stuck to her back, and bring lunch to the cabana so she wouldn’t have to get up.

Judging me over her magazine, Diane said nothing.

“That’s hard work he’s doing.” I continued with Francisco.

“Well, don’t tell him.” Diane yelled again. “He’ll whine about having to do it and he’ll never even thank you for noticing.” With that, she told us she was staying on vacation an extra week because she was sick and tired of the rigors of her job.

Staring at me over her vacation calendar, Diane said nothing.

I watched the raker struggle with another load of seaweed. He sometimes tripped and fell as he shoved the heavy load down the beach. The ceviche and slices of fruit the waiter set down in front of me looked nice, but I couldn’t eat them.

Days passed and I continued to wave to the raker each morning. He eventually waved back and towards the end of our vacation he even waved first. I never saw interaction of any kind between him and anyone else on the beach. Was this man invisible?

“Is it ok to give him some money?” I asked Francisco. I’d hesitated to do so, less from Diane’s comments and more for fear I would offend the man.

“It could be a tip. How much would a little cash mean to him?” I continued.

“It would mean the world.” Francisco responded.

Diane yelled to us. “Well, he’ll become a beggar if you give him money. Like I said, he’d never even thank you!”

On the morning of our final day I saw the raker as usual, head down, combing the sand.  I’d still not given him a tip and I was sorry about that. I mentioned my regret to Francisco, but it was our last day on the beach and I had no cash with me.

“I have cash!” Francisco said, and instantly rifled through his bag to see what he might find.

As the raker’s work brought him nearer the cabana, he and I waved. This time Francisco stood too and motioned the man to come over. Clearly perplexed by this new routine the raker slowly left his wheelbarrow and approached us. We quickly realized he spoke absolutely no English but in an awkward conversation consisting at various points of Spanish and then French, we learned he was Haitian and had come to the Dominican Republic in search of work. He was in the middle of a rough and miserable time.

Francisco held cash towards the raker and pointed at me. “He wants to thank you for working so hard to keep the beach clean.”

The raker stared at the cash. I waited for him to smile. Instead, he stepped back and threw his hands over his head. Oh no. We’d insulted him.

He looked back and forth at us, his eyes filling with tears as he stepped forward to shake our hands. He shook our hands for several minutes before even touching the money which he took very slowly from Francisco’s hand. He spoke rapidly the entire time. I don’t know what his mouth said but his face said thank you. He wiped his tears and returned to the wheelbarrow. We sat back down fighting tears of our own.

“Well, now you’ve done it.” Diane yelled over the heaping plate of lobster on her lap. Butter dripped from her chin. “He’ll be back. He’ll be back ten times today begging for more! Did he even say thank you?”

I just shrugged my shoulders at her. I was sure the man was thankful but I had no idea what he said.

With a disapproving look, Diane said nothing.

Francisco and I returned to our Pina Coladas. I sipped mine, a bit tastier now, and watched for the raker. If he did return for more I just hoped Diane wouldn’t notice. It was the end of the day before she got the chance to say she told us so.

“I knew it!” Diane yelled.

I looked in the direction of the half-eaten drumstick she pointed down the beach and saw the raker running towards our cabana.

“He’s going to ask for more and never even say thanks. Not once.” Diane said smugly.

The raker stopped in front of us and leaned down. Knowing he knew no English we waited for him to say something, anything. From the next cabana, Diane waited too.

The raker leaned down so that we were face to face. He was clearly concentrating as his lips slowly began to move. “Thank you.” he said in English.

Before we could respond, he smiled and ran back down the beach.

Diane said nothing.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Virginia Living – I’m a “Wrap” Star!

Just a little announcement:

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

It was a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine again (my third essay for them now) 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 piece in the online version of Virginia Living.  Check it out and if you like, please comment on their site in the space just below the essay. I’d love to hear your feedback!

http://www.virginialiving.com/culture/wrap-star/

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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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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Maybe That’s Why

Almost home after a day of errands with Mama and Daddy, my sisters and I were crammed into the back seat of the car. For a second we didn’t know what Mama meant when she spoke to Daddy in the driver’s seat.

“He’s gonna get hit.” Mama said.

We in the back seat jockeyed for position to get the best view through the windshield up front. We had to see who “he” was.

“He” was a dog.

The little blond dog trotted ahead of us right in the middle of the road. His fluffy tail, with long strands of blond hair trailing in the wind, curved up towards his back. He paid no attention when we passed but as we turned into our driveway he followed.

Daddy came to a stop in the driveway and so did the little dog. Through the window the dog and I stared at each other. He sat.

“Why’d he come here?” asked one of my sisters.

“Who knows.” Mama answered.

I leaned forward to poke my head between the two sitting in the front seat.

“Can we keep him?” I asked.

From the front came their synchronized “No.”

I offered a follow-up. “Why?”

“We already have a dog.” Daddy said as he opened her car door.

“Don’t touch him!” Mama yelled when I hopped from the car and walked straight to the little dog. “You don’t know what he might do.” she warned.

I talked to the dog as I approached. He wagged his tail before slightly baring his teeth. I stopped. He wagged his tail again then flopped to the ground on his back, bared his teeth even more, and appeared to squint.

He hadn’t snarled. He had smiled.

For that reason, Daddy named him “Smiley”. For a reason I don’t recall, I named him “Chip”. He never answered to either, but we kept the dog we couldn’t keep.

Chip was by my side constantly. He waited on the back porch when I went inside, followed me around the yard, and walked with me across the field to my grandmother’s. Our connection was instant and he acted as if I’d had him forever. Whenever I came home from being gone he’d squint, smile, and drop to have his belly rubbed.

Chip even followed me to the pasture where I picked blackberries. It had been a good summer for blackberries and cousins and I picked them by the quart for our grandmother who sold them and gave us the money. I’d picked blackberries all summer to save for a new bicycle. The one I wanted cost a hundred dollars, a lot of money at the time. I had so far earned ninety-four dollars but Chip’s arrival had temporarily slowed me from picking. I was back at it, excited that I’d almost reached my hundred dollar goal.

“He’s gonna get hit.” Mama said. “I had to get him out of the road again today.” Though normally by my side, whenever I was away Chip was seen walking in the middle of the road as he’d done that very first day. We sometimes caught him doing that at night.

The little dog had been at our house for maybe a month when Mama woke me up early one morning. “Something’s wrong with Chip.” she said.

I went outside to find him lying on the back porch. He didn’t stand up and the gash in the thigh of his left hind leg was still bloody. He’d have to go to the vet but I knew I had some money saved and I made it clear I would pay.

Daddy drove me to take the little dog to the vet and lectured me all the way. This is what happens when you have a dog, now money will need to be spent, the dog should have stayed out of the road, and on and on. He was mad that I’d spend my money on a stray dog. At the time I didn’t recognize his “anger” for what it really was. Disappointment. Not in me but for me. I’d worked and saved towards a goal and after almost reaching it this had happened. He thought I was being stupid.

I thought he was being heartless and I told him he’d never had a heart when it came to animals. It was a very rough argument.

The vet supposed Chip had been hit by a car. The little dog left the vet’s office with a shaved leg, several stitches, and a drainage tube dangling from the wounded area.  I left the vet’s office minus ninety-four dollars. I never knew what Daddy paid in addition but I’m sure it was plenty.

For the next two weeks I cleaned the drainage tube and waited for the next vet appointment. All went well and the tube and stitches were soon removed. Chip was energetic as ever. The only sign that anything had even happened to him was the shaved patch on his leg where the hair had just started to come back.

The next morning he was gone.

We searched the neighborhood, questioned everyone we saw, and in morbid reality we checked the ditches. No sign of Chip. We continued to search for him off and on for a few weeks before deciding he’d simply run away like he’d done from the people before us.

“Why’d he even come here?” I asked.

“Who knows.”  Daddy said.

Weeks passed and although we didn’t forget about Chip, we stopped looking.

I was in the yard when Daddy pulled in the driveway and told me to get in the car. He thought he’d seen Chip. We rode less than a mile down the street before entering another neighborhood. Two small girls played in a sandbox under a tree. Lying beside them in the grass was a little blond dog.

Daddy parked and we got out. I walked towards the dog, still unsure. He happened to wag his tail when one of the girls giggled and I saw the long blond hairs wave in the air.

“Chip?” The same dog who had never once answered to that name sat up instantly. He stood and walked slowly towards me. It was him.

He squinted, smiled, and dropped in front of me waiting for me to rub his belly.

A man came from the house and started talking to Daddy. As I rubbed Chip’s belly I heard Daddy ask questions about the dog. Apparently they’d had “Buddy” for eight years and he’d been a good dog, never leaving home, but a while back he suddenly disappeared for a month or so. When he came back he looked good but oddly one of his legs had been shaved.

Daddy explained all of that.

Funny too, the man went on to say, but Buddy never walks in the middle of the road anymore. He used to do that all the time.

“Why’d he go to your house?” the man wondered out loud.

“Who knows.” Daddy answered.

I was still rubbing Buddy’s belly when he stood and casually walked back to the sandbox where he wagged his tail at the girls before lying down again in the shade. Daddy walked over to where I stood and we watched Buddy roll onto his back, inviting the little girls to rub his belly.

I felt no sadness really, just a surge of happy satisfaction seeing my Chip, their Buddy, back where he belonged.

Daddy and I got in the car and sat for a minute. He watched me, to gauge my reaction to the situation I suppose. When he realized I felt pretty happy, he felt pretty happy too. I’d grown up a little maybe and I think he noticed. Under his breath Daddy said “See ya later, Smiley” and watched the little dog over his shoulder as we drove away. I noticed that.

Daddy and I hadn’t had much to say to each other since the bad argument on the way to the vet that morning some weeks ago, but we talked all the way back home.

“Yep.” Daddy said as we turned into our driveway. “Who knows why he ever came here.”

I wasn’t sure either why a dog that had never left home in eight years would follow us into our driveway, cause an uproar for a month, then go back home.

Then again… Daddy learned I’d grown up a little, I learned my father had a heart, and Buddy learned to stay out of the road.

So maybe that’s why. And that’s enough.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Couldn’t Believe It

Tolerant friends listen whenever I tell stories about Nannie, my grandmother. She was a fountain of valuable life lessons and something happens almost daily to remind me of a Nannie-story, so I tell it. Friends are not only tolerant but often ask unprompted questions!

Was she funny?  –  She could be hilarious and she loved to laugh.

She told stories too? –  Oh yes.

True stories? –  I believed everything she said.

You believed everything she said? – Well, there was this one time…

And so I told them about a spring years ago when she said something I didn’t believe:

“I ain’t going down there.” I squinted into the darkness. The dank smell of ancient-ness floated up through cracks in the old wooden door.

“Nannie asked you to.” Vicki said sternly.

Prodded by my older sister’s reminder, I looked down at the uneven cement steps in front of me. They were stained, covered in dead leaves, and a shiny black beetle scurried past my foot as I hesitantly took the first step.

The “basement house”, as we all called it, was Nannie’s cellar. It was more like a half-cellar with an old shed built on top. Nannie canned vegetables every summer and along with her homemade jellies they lined rough-hewn wooden shelves by the dozens in the cellar’s musty depths, just through the old door and to the right.

To the left were the potatoes.

Nannie’s potato field fed her, her children, and grandchildren. We as an extended family worked each year to plant, tend, and later dig the many long rows. Bushels of potatoes brought in from the field were spread out on large wooden racks down in the basement house. Stored there, the potatoes were used as needed by our families over the course of the winter.

By spring most of the potatoes were eaten. Some were still good. Some were shriveled and less appealing. Some were rotten – and only one hideous nastiness exists on earth greater than that of a rotten potato.

A lot of rotten potatoes.

Each spring the old and rotten potatoes had to be cleaned from the bins. This involved gingerly picking up squishy rotted blobs and scraping their runny putrid remains from the shelves. Apparently Nannie had done this by herself for decades and would have carried on the lonely tradition again but for a sudden flash of volunteerism.

Vicki volunteered me.

Nannie casually watered a geranium on the well as she verified. “You wanna clean out the potato bins?” I noticed she grinned. “It ain’t that bad.”

I didn’t believe that.

Vicki chimed in. “See? Nannie wants you to do it.”

I didn’t believe that either.

The smell of a single rotten potato can slap you in the face. The smell of dozens fairly beats you about the head and shoulders. It’s ghastly. Simply passing by the basement house while Nannie cleaned the potato bins smelled as if something down there had died a thousand deaths and she was wrestling with the aftermath. I remembered that as I stood on that first step leading into the cellar.

“Git!” Vicki said, poking me in the back. I turned to look at her one last time before taking another step towards the abyss.

“I’ll be right here the whole time.” she smiled.

I didn’t believe that.

I smelled the rot before I got to the bottom of the steps. The slight breeze created as I opened the old wooden door caused sheets of cobwebs hanging on the walls to float up quickly in the air then drift slowly back into place. It was dark in there. I reached over my head to pull the dusty string attached to the one light bulb in the center of the cellar and noticed the lovely tile mosaic on the ceiling. In the weak light from the dust-covered bulb the tiny tiles seemed to be moving.

They were moving.

Camel crickets by the hundreds coated the ceiling just inches above my head. Their legs and feelers wiggled in slow motion. I let go of the dirty light bulb string and slowly lowered my arm so as not to disturb a single cricket. Camel crickets don’t hop when disturbed, they pop. If one pops it hits another, that one pops, they hit three more, those pop and suddenly it’s cricket chaos.

“Vicki!” I yelled up the steps. “Camel crickets!”

“Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.” she yelled back.

I didn’t believe that.

Through the fetid fog of potato stench I ducked and moved slowly under the crickets, passed the wall of cobwebs, stepped over several dead bugs, and stood before the potato bins. I was sweating. I stared at the dimly lit mound of potatoes and decomposing mush and realized I had no training in this. Where did I begin?

“Vicki!” I yelled up the stairs. “How am I supposed to do this?”

“Just start scooping them up.” she yelled back.

“With what?” I asked myself out loud. Vicki heard me.

“Nannie just uses her hands.” she yelled down the steps.

I didn’t believe that.

Leaning forward I grabbed what appeared to be a semi-solid piece of potato. It seemed fairly sturdy as I slowly picked it up. Two inches into the air and it still held solid. Three inches into the air and the heinous sack of disgusting noxious potato juice exploded onto my hand and ran down my arm.

I retched.

Shaking my hand in the air in a feeble attempt to rid myself of the sticky foul potato goo, I accidentally flung some of it onto the ceiling. In doing so I disturbed several crickets, they disturbed many more, and those disturbed the rest.

Covered in rotten slime I stood in the center of a popcorn popper filled with crickets. I’d had it.

“I’m coming out!” I yelled up the steps and in two leaps I surfaced. Gasping for fresh air I waited for Vicki to run sympathetically to my aid.

“Nannie’s going to want you to finish that.” Vicki said from the swing under the apple tree.

I didn’t want to believe that.

Vicki and I loved helping Nannie. No matter what chore she asked us to help with we did our best and I had never told Nannie “no”. I thought about that as Nannie walked up, bucket in hand, and looked at me.

“Finished already?” she asked.

“No.” I said.

I explained the overwhelming stench, the beetles in my shoes, the crickets popping, and my nausea. I told her I couldn’t do it and I didn’t know how she ever did it.

“It ain’t that bad.” Nannie said again.

I still didn’t believe it.

“Well, it’s got to be done. Y’all wait here.” Nannie said smiling. Bucket in hand, humming a hymn, she headed towards the basement house and disappeared into the dismal pit.

I sat in the swing by Vicki.

“I just don’t know how Nannie can do that.” I wondered out loud.

“You stink and there’s a cricket stuck to your leg.” Vicki said.

As I plucked the cricket glued to my leg by potato goo, Vicki and I heard Nannie’s muffled voice coming from the basement house.

“Mercy!”

“Goodness!”

“Boy, oh boy!”

“Phew!”

We ran to the steps and peered into the darkness.

“Are you all right down there?” we asked.

“It ain’t that bad.” she called up to us.

We went back to the swing and waited. Soon Nannie appeared with a bucket of potato grossness. She had goo on her hands, it dripped from her arms, she was sweating, and a camel cricket dangled from her hair net by one leg. Still, she smiled.

Vicki and I asked in awe. “How can you do that?”

“I’ve had my hands in many a worse mess than this.” she said. With that, she walked slowly to the field to dump her bucket of rot. She smiled, hummed, and laughed at herself as she plucked the wiggling cricket from her hair net.

I still don’t believe she could have ever had her hands in any mess worse than those vile piles of putrid potatoes but, true to form, Nannie tackled what needed to be done simply because it needed to be done. When I couldn’t finish the job she smiled, took over, and laughed through the same misery that had caused me to give up.

I couldn’t believe that.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Tend the Garden

A longtime friend commented during dinner that her next door neighbor’s son was on the path to nowhere and constantly in trouble. She thought herself clever referring to him as “a weed in the garden of life”. Although an avid fan of barbed words and wit, I found her comment harsh directed at a kid who was barely a teenager. He was dismissed and labeled as worthless. A weed.

“But maybe he’s a pokeweed!” I said in a positive tone.

She rolled her eyes. I recognized the look of resignation on her face. The look many of my friends have when I spit out a puzzling one-liner and they know a story is coming. She sipped her drink and grinned, arms crossed in silent permission for me to proceed.

Years ago I had a yard packed with plants. It was full of boxwoods, azaleas, and geraniums surrounding a dogwood centerpiece. A problem area at one end of the garden saw pokeweeds sprout thickly every spring. I chopped them back, broke them off, stomped them down, but still they sprouted. I finally spent a day digging up the massive roots and unceremoniously dumped them in the woods.

The very next weekend I was in the woods again to dump my centerpiece dogwood which had spent two years dying a slow death until I finally cut it down. I noticed that some of the pokeweed roots dumped a week earlier had sprouted while simply lying in the open air.

A week later, back in the woods to dump grass clippings, I saw that all of the sprouting pokeweeds had died except for one scrawny stem with two leaves. It leaned feebly towards the light. I pondered the struggle of that weed and impressed by its determination, I picked up the withering root and took it with me. In the hole where my dogwood had once grown I replanted the weed. Right in the center of my garden.

In only two days the frail sprout became sturdy and turned a darker green. I watered the pokeweed daily and even fertilized the baby beast. It took off.

When friends dropped by they told me, as though I didn’t know, that I had a weed growing in the center of my garden.

“Why are you leaving that there?”

“What’s that doing in your garden?”

“What is that awful thing?”

“It’s my pokeweed.” I responded each time.

My grandmother loved to garden and I learned all I know from her. Nannie said about various plants in her own garden, “It’s only weed if you don’t want it.”

I wanted this pokeweed.

Summer passed and the pokeweed grew. And grew. It was soon taller than me. Huge dark green leaves and red stems were supported by a thick reddish stalk. I trimmed and trained the pokeweed as it grew and by the end of summer it was a massive umbrella of a plant and a beautiful centerpiece in the garden. As fall approached, hundreds of tiny white flower clusters transformed into huge bunches of purplish-black berries. Cardinals, robins, and mockingbirds feasted for many days. Friends continued to drop by.

“What a beautiful plant!”

“That’s amazing!”

“What is it?”

“It’s my pokeweed.” I responded each time.

In the end, this unwanted “weed in the garden of life” had given me weeks of enjoyment, triggered hours of conversation, fed countless birds, and for one summer became the centerpiece of my garden and was admired by people from all over. It took very little effort.

Amazingly still awake after that story, my friend at dinner leaned forward and took another sip of her drink. She grinned with understanding as she spoke.

“So, I get it. Instead of tossing this kid next door into the woods, train him a little, make him the centerpiece for a while?”

“He’s only a weed if he’s not wanted.” I shrugged my shoulders as I spoke. “It’s certainly worth the effort.”

As a reward for her staying awake during yet another of my stories I thought I would suggest we have dessert. My treat.

“So,” I began, “how about cheesecake, or maybe carrot cake?”

“I can’t this time.” She said. “I need to get going.”

Worried I’d irritated her with my pokeweed memories; I apologized and promised no more storytelling that evening.

“Oh that’s not it at all!” She declared.

“Was it something I said?” I asked.

“It certainly was.” She grinned as she stood to leave. “There’s a little pokeweed next door at home who might want to go see a movie or something.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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Just Some Vanilla

I’m no fan of snow, but as my eyes roll in disgust at weather forecasts I concede there were times when snowfalls thrilled me. Not due to missing school, sleigh riding, or building snowmen, but because Vicki and I would go to the store for Nannie.

At an unknown point in our youth, after one snowstorm or another, my sister Vicki and I decided we must plod across the field through snow, no matter the depth, to see if our grandmother needed anything from the store. Nannie lived in a huge old farmhouse, had always cooked for many, and could have at any point in time prepared a meal for forty out of what she had in her cabinets and refrigerator. Not even touching what was stored in her cellar.

Still… Vicki and I were sure Nannie needed something and we’d save the day by trudging through snow to ask, trekking through snow to the store, then slogging back through snow with the precious items we knew she needed badly but was unable to get out and get. Proud of our impending usefulness, we stomped snow from our boots and headed inside for what was sure to be a massive grocery list from Nannie. How else could she make it to the spring thaw if not for our efforts?  It was important to her that we helped, we were sure. We waited for her to list all of the things she needed desperately from the store.

“Well,” Nannie began as she watched snow pile against the window, “y’all could get me some vanilla.”

She did a lot of baking, we knew, but no milk? No bread? Coffee even? A side of beef? Anything? Just vanilla? Still, if it was important to Nannie, it was important to us and this vanilla was apparently very necessary. How fortuitous that we were there! Off to the store in the foul weather, vanilla purchased, and back to Nannie’s. We returned cold, soaked, red-cheeked, and tired… but mission accomplished. We had value.

That pattern repeated for a few years after every snowfall of every winter. If there were two heavy snows in a winter, Nannie somehow needed two bottles of vanilla. Our timing was uncanny. How relevant we were. It was important for Nannie to have that vanilla and without us her hopes would have been dashed. We felt an amazing sense of accomplishment and pride after helping. We were just kids, but we mattered!

Years later as adults, actually during the heat of summer, Vicki and I sat talking with Nannie on her back porch. Somehow conversation worked around to those long ago winters. I laughed and asked her why she needed so much vanilla. She thought for a minute about what I’d just said, then grinned.

“I didn’t need vanilla, but it was important to y’all to help, so that’s what I asked for.” Nannie said.

She followed up by saying she didn’t remember exactly but there were times she probably could have used something else but she’d never have asked us to haul groceries in the snow. She only “needed” vanilla because she knew it mattered to us to be of help – and it was easy for us to carry!

Some years after that conversation, with Nannie gone and her house being emptied, I stood in her kitchen and absent mindedly opened a cabinet. Pushed into one corner were several bottles of vanilla, some still in their original tiny cardboard boxes. I didn’t know if any of those might have been purchased in a snowstorm of the past, but I slipped one into my pocket just the same.

I still have that reminder.

By trying to do something we thought important to her, Nannie allowed us to feel that we were important.

I often sent my kids for vanilla when they were little. Not literally, but when I recognized in their faces that need to please by doing right, to feel important, to matter, I made sure I needed vanilla and I made sure they knew I couldn’t have gotten it without them.

Every kid should be sent to get vanilla, and often.

Stuart M. Perkins

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