Chapter 1: Since I Last Saw You

Since I Last Saw You

A story of love, loss and gratitude

 “And it’s going to be a day. There is really no way to say ‘no’ to the morning.”

~ Dan Fogelberg 

Chapter 1

February 13, 2012

Ali was slow to wake this morning. The clock claimed it was 7:13 a.m., but the room was still dark. Why, she wondered, were the shades drawn? She always left them open when she went to bed so she would wake with the morning sun. Isaac had long ago acquiesced to her preference for morning light, even though he preferred to delay his own waking as long as possible.

Isaac. Zoe. For those first few merciful moments after waking, she had forgotten that Isaac and Zoe were gone. Forgotten that her life was irrevocably changed. Forgotten that the future she and Isaac had so carefully planned was now an unattainable wish.

How, she wondered, could we both have taken for granted how fragile life is? A wave of physical and emotional pain enveloped her, sending her back under the down comforter, where she gratefully fell back to sleep.

An hour later, as she slowly reawakened to her new reality, it seemed to Ali as if every emotion she had ever felt and every experience she had ever had, had become like colored shards of memory forming a kaleidoscope in her brain. The pieces, though vivid in her mind, collided and changed so rapidly that she wasn’t able to make sense of the patterns they formed. She felt dizzy, off-balance, and nauseous.

Reluctantly, Ali sat up, pulled back the covers and set her feet on the floor. Looking across the room, she saw her reflection in the vanity mirror. The beguiling, Cheshire grin that was Ali’s hallmark, was nowhere to be found, but her dark, thick mane brushed her shoulders as usual. She was glad to see that her bangs camouflaged the creases that seemed to have appeared on her forehead overnight. I guess this is what a forty-two year old widow looks like, she thought to herself. Then she burrowed back down under her comforter, praying that it would live up to its name.

She wondered again about who had drawn the bedroom curtains. Hearing the familiar rattle of teacups coming from her kitchen, Ali knew she wasn’t alone. Several friends and relatives had offered to stay and keep her company in this home she no longer shared with anyone, but who had actually spent the night? Ali tried to remember the previous evening, but she couldn’t think clearly.

A moment later, she heard a light knock on the bedroom door. “Come in,” she responded, more out of habit than any real desire to see anyone.

“I didn’t wake you, did I? I thought I heard you stirring.” Of course it was Gwen who spent the night. How could Ali not have guessed that?

“Would you like some coffee or something to eat?”

Ali’s stomach convulsed at the thought of eating, but she was also conscious of feeling weakened by a lack food. Eating had not been a priority, or even a desire, since the accident three days earlier.

Had it really been just three days? Hadn’t Isaac and Zoe already been gone for a lifetime?

“Thanks, Gwen, but I don’t want anything just now. I’ll eat something after I shower and get dressed.” If I shower and get dressed, she thought to herself.

Gwen entered the room, sat on the edge of the bed, and took Ali’s hand in her own. “How are you feeling this morning? I know that’s kind of a lame question, but I don’t know what else to say. I guess that’s pretty ironic since I write greeting cards for a living.”

Ali didn’t answer right away. She was grateful that Gwen was the kind of friend who could tolerate silence, because answers to even the simplest of questions didn’t come quickly or easily now.

How are you feeling? How many times had she already been asked that question since the accident, by well-meaning friends and family, not to mention medical personnel and police officers? Gwen was right to ask it, Ali thought. It is the requisite question at times like this, and although probably less perfunctory than when asked during the course of an ordinary day, she always felt unable to come up with an accurately descriptive answer. And today was no exception.

“I’m fine. I’m okay.” Those answers weren’t exactly lies, but they weren’t exactly the truth either—at least, not the whole truth. It seemed strange to Ali that it should take so much effort to answer a simple question, especially when the answer didn’t really matter. I am how I am, she thought.

“I feel . . .” she began slowly, “I feel as if I am drifting through time and space, like the pictures you see of astronauts floating around their spaceships in zero gravity.”

It’s true, she thought to herself, the law of gravity no longer applies to me. Isaac and Zoe kept me grounded. Without them, I expect that I may just float away.

“Is that a good feeling or a bad feeling?” Gwen asked.

“I’m not sure,” Ali confessed. “More good than bad, I guess. It’s like the out-of-body experiences people describe when they die on the operating table. Like I’m watching myself, but I can’t really feel anything.”

Ali fell silent again for a minute, before continuing. “Numb. I guess ‘numb’ is the best way to describe how I feel. Does numb count as a feeling? I mean, isn’t it the antithesis of a feeling?”

“It counts,” Gwen affirmed, “but I don’t know how long it will last. I hate to state the obvious, my friend, but there is a lot of pain ahead of you, and once it hits, I suspect you’ll wish you could feel numb again.”

 ***

Gwen’s prediction was devastatingly accurate. In the days and weeks that followed, Ali suffered one painful emotion after another—sadness, anger, confusion, disbelief, and despair. Sometimes a single feeling lingered for days, until she knew it intimately. More often, several different facets of pain combined, forming an emotional cyclone that gathered strength and speed until she was mercifully thrown clear for a while. Sometimes, the respite came from activity—physically putting herself in motion as Isaac had so often done. More often, it came in the form of sleep. She was grateful that sleep had always been her mind and body’s natural coping mechanism during times of stress.

 How awful it would be, she thought, to have insomnia when all you want to do is escape from your own thoughts.

Naps, Ali contended, are wasted on the young. She remembered how she used to hate them as a child. When her sister and brother were both old enough to go to school, and it was just Ali and her mother left at home during the day, Ali insisted that she was “too old” for naps. However, by midafternoon each day, it was obvious that she was not.

Mom allowed her youngest daughter to save face by declaring 1 p.m. to be “story hour.” Every Monday morning, the two of them made a trip to the library and brought home a week’s worth of books. Every afternoon, Ali would choose one of the books and climb onto her mom’s lap, where she would inevitably fall asleep during the story telling.

Ali carried on the tradition with her own daughter, Zoe, and now was so grateful that she had. Oh, what she wouldn’t give for the solace of feeling Zoe curled up in her lap once again—or to curl up in her own mother’s lap today.

 ***

Ali realized how fortunate she was to have so many caring friends and family volunteering their help. “If there’s anything you need . . .” was a genuine, if vague, offer she had heard many, many times since the accident. It was the same offer she had often made to countless friends in similar unhappy circumstances. Rarely did anyone take her up on it, even though she had also been sincere. Now she understood why.

Opening the drawer of her bedside table, Ali pulled out her leather-bound journal and pen, and began to write.

13 February 2012 

Everyone keeps asking me if I need anything. What I need is for someone to tell me what I need. I can’t focus long enough to figure out what I ought to be doing. I’m sure there are all kinds of things to take care of, but I can’t seem to think of what they are. Isaac used to tease me about the endless lists I make to keep myself organized and feeling in control. Now, I can’t even come up with a list, let alone check things off. Being organized just doesn’t seem important anymore. And being in control . . . well, that was always an illusion, wasn’t it?

Ali had purchased this particular journal more than a year earlier. Until recently, it contained only a smattering of innocuous entries. Now, over half the pages were filled with rants, ramblings, questions, and grievances. More than a few pages were stained by her tears.

Just then, the doorbell rang, bringing her out of her reverie and back to the present. Am I expecting someone? She couldn’t remember. She peeked out through the etched-glass side window to see her mother standing on the front porch. Shaking her head in an attempt to clear the fog that so often enveloped her mind these days, she chastised herself, how could I have forgotten that Mom was coming over?

Ali’s entire body relaxed at the sight of her mother, knowing that the only thing separating her from sheer comfort and affection was a few inches of wood.

 

To purchase and download a digital version of Since I Last Saw You, go to: www.SinceILastSawYou.com

Paperback edition now available! Go to: www.CreateSpace.com/4529955

Posted by Alice Kuder, December 28, 2013

Free First-Time Homebuyer Classes

Are you thinking of buying your first home? The Washington State Housing Finance Commission (WSHFC) has resources to assist you. One of those resources is a free class, which I co-teach with lender Brian Nielson of Guild Mortgage.

Here are the details of an upcoming class:

Saturday 01/25/2014
12:30pm to 5:30pm
Greenwood Library, 8016 Greenwood Ave N, Seattle
Brian Nielson, Guild Mortgage, Seattle, and Alice Kuder, Berkshire Hathaway NW Real Estate, Seattle.
For reservations call 206.735.7508 or email bnielson@guildmortgage.net.

For more information about WSHFC and all it has to offer, go to: http://www.wshfc.org/buyers/education.htm

WA St Housing Finance Commission

Classes offered in conjunction with WSHFC

Chapter 6: Since I Last Saw You

Since I Last Saw You

A story of love, loss and gratitude

“The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”

 ~ Abraham Lincoln 

Chapter 6

16 February 2012

The funeral is tomorrow . . . is it considered one funeral or two when two people are being eulogized and buried? As if it really matters. My mind seems to conjure up all sorts of silly, inconsequential thoughts and questions like that these days. Then again, everything seems silly and inconsequential without Isaac and Zoe.

17 February

I feel humbled, but not surprised, by the number of people who came to the funeral. I expected to see some of the managers from Sterns’ Auto Parts, but so many of the regular employees showed up, too. A lot of them reintroduced themselves to me at the reception and told me how much they appreciated that Isaac ran his company with such integrity.

I recognized people from Skagit Speedway and Skydive Snohomish, too. I don’t know whether they saw the obituary or read about the accident in the paper. Maybe Gwen contacted them?

And all of Zoe’s classmates and many of the teachers from her school showed up. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a ten-year-old to go to a classmate’s funeral.

I’m grateful that so many people came—it was more comforting to see them all than I expected it to be—but I’m glad they’re gone, too. I never would have suspected that being comforted could be so exhausting.

18 February

I keep thinking about something farmer Jay said to me yesterday after the funeral. Ha! How funny that I would call him that. I just realized that I don’t know Jay’s last name! Isaac always referred to him as ‘farmer Jay’. He’d say, ‘I feel the need for speed. I’m taking #76 to farmer Jay’s track.’ And off he’d go with his sprint car in tow to work off some stress. Anyway, yesterday Jay pulled me aside to express his sympathy. Then he told me not to worry about #76. He said I had enough to deal with and he’d take care of it. Just as I started to ask him what he was talking about, we got interrupted, and before I knew it, I’d been whisked away to another corner of the room by some friends from work. I never got the chance to talk with Jay again before he left. I guess there will be plenty of time to follow up with him later. It didn’t sound like anything urgent. I’m just curious as to what he could have meant.

19 February

I didn’t go to Mass today. I knew there would be so many well-meaning people expressing their sympathy and asking me about the funeral. How do you answer someone who asks you if it was a “nice” service? I wonder what a “bad” funeral service would look like

20 February

The house is so quiet now. Everyone has gone home—back to their own lives—lives that haven’t changed as mine has. If only I could go back . . .

I guess I should get out of bed. There are probably things I ought to do—I can’t think what they might be though. Nothing seems important enough to deserve my attention or energy.

23 February

I should probably throw out all the dead flowers, but then what to do with all the vases? I don’t have the mental energy to make such decisions.

27 February

Principal Brumsickle called today to tell me that Zoe’s classmates have all chipped in to buy a maple tree to plant on the school grounds in her honor. What a lovely thing to do. Zoe loved trees. When she was five years old, she took her dad and me by the hand and walked us all around the yard telling us the names she’d given each tree and bush. I still remember them all.

1 March

Mom came over today. She stocked my freezer with meals she made for me. She must have been pretty appalled by the state of my house because she arranged for a housecleaner to come tomorrow. I don’t know how the house gets dirty. Most days I just sit on the couch.

6 March

I finally left the house today for something other than groceries. I drove out to Issaquah Commons because we used to love going there as a family, and I miss that. We each had our favorite stores. Isaac practically drooled whenever he went into REI. Wandering through there today, I half expected to find him swooning over the latest ski equipment or trying on a new pair of hiking boots. Instead, I saw a young girl who looked so much like Zoe that for a split second, I thought it was her. My heart nearly stopped. When I realized my mistake, I felt as if I’d been sucker-punched. I sank to my knees in the middle of the footwear aisle and my whole body started to shake. There was a bench a few feet away from me so I pulled myself up onto it and just sat there for the longest time. I was so grateful that no one noticed me. I didn’t want to have to explain myself to anyone. When I was finally able to stand up again, all I wanted to do was go home, curl up on the couch, and hide under the chenille throw. That was around 11 a.m. It’s now 6 p.m. I don’t remember driving home, and I have no idea where those seven hours went.

11 March

I was supposed to go back to work today. It didn’t happen. I’m so fortunate to work with such wonderful, caring people. John called from the office last night to ask how I’m doing and what time I expected to be in today. That’s all it took for me to break down. He could hear me sobbing from the other end of the line. I couldn’t even say anything intelligible or coherent. Finally, he found a diplomatic way to say that I’m clearly still a mess and it’s apparently too soon for me to come back to work. I hate the fact that my staff has to pick up the slack and cover for me after so long, but I’m grateful that they are.

31 March

Gwen came over again this morning and convinced me to go to church with her. I looked around at all the people in the pews and wondered how it is that they can go on with their lives as if nothing has happened?

I can tell that Gwen is worried about me. I see the concern in her eyes. She says I’m too thin. I stepped on the scale after she left and was shocked to see that I’ve lost ten pounds since the accident. A year ago, that would have been cause for celebration, even though I wasn’t much overweight. Now, my weight seems inconsequential at best.

1 April

April Fools’ Day. Zoe used to get such a kick out of coming up with ideas to fool her dad. He always played along, pretending to be caught totally off guard. Sometimes he really was. Last year, Isaac offered to give Zoe a ride to school, which she happily accepted. When they went out to the car, she walked around to the passenger side and said dramatically, “Oh no, Dad, you’ve got a flat tire!” Isaac groaned loudly and walked over to take a look as Zoe giggled and shouted, “April Fool!”

We always laughed a lot, the three of us. I miss the sound of our laughter.

 ***

“Come in,” Ali shouted listlessly without getting up from the living room couch.

Gwen opened the door and entered. In place of a greeting, however, she chastised Ali mildly. “You left the door unlocked again?”

“Obviously a rhetorical question.”

Gwen frowned at the all-too-familiar sight of her dear friend curled up on the sofa, dressed in old, oversized sweats that had obviously been Isaac’s. She was concerned about Ali’s continuing lethargy, so she had come today with a plan in mind.

“Get up, change your clothes, and get in the car,” Gwen said. “We’re going for a ride.”

***

“It was a pretty ugly divorce,” Gwen admitted as they crossed over Lake Washington from Issaquah by way of the I-90 floating bridge. It wasn’t necessarily the most cheerful topic, but Gwen was happy to discuss her own emotional history if it distracted her downcast friend.

“That surprises me,” said Ali. “You’re such a kind and generous spirit—I can’t imagine you in a contentious relationship.”

“I appreciate your flattering analysis of my character, but as my marriage was breaking up, I said and did more than a few things I’m pretty ashamed of now.

“Breaking up,” Gwen continued. “Why do they call it ‘breaking up’? Breaking down is more like it. My marriage broke down.” Ali noted the tinge of muted pain in Gwen’s comment.

 ***

It was the kind of crisp, clear April afternoon that all Seattleites treasure—and none take for granted—after abiding the gray, gloomy days of winter. As Gwen drove through the brick-pillared entry gate and onto the narrow, wooded lane leading to Dunn Gardens, she felt the familiar yet always magical sensation of stepping through a looking glass. One minute she was in the city, and the next she was in the country. Over the years she had come to regard the gardens as her own urban oasis. She hoped that Ali would find it a peaceful, personal refuge, too.

Tentatively pulling into the tiny visitor parking lot in her whisper-quiet Nissan Leaf, Gwen knew she would be fortunate to find a spot. As they got out of the car, she was gratified to see Ali looking around appreciatively at the lush, green surroundings. The two hooked arms and Gwen led the way to the E. B. Dunn classroom. Knowing that the gardens were open to guided tours by appointment only, Gwen had called to find out if there were any scheduled that day. As luck would have it, there was, and she was able to persuade the group’s leader to allow her and Ali to join them. Although she probably could have called in a favor to gain permission for a private stroll through the gardens, Gwen thought that having a guide might be a more effective method of distracting Ali from her heartache for a while.

As they were waiting for the tour to begin, Gwen said, “Thanks for letting me vent about my relationship with Steve. You’d think that after eight years, I would have run out of things to say about my marriage and my divorce. Apparently, that’s not the case. How did we get on that subject anyway?”

“I don’t remember,” Ali said, “but it’s not as if you talk about your ex constantly. In fact, in the years I’ve known you, you’ve rarely mentioned Steve. If you need to talk more, though, I don’t mind listening. God knows it takes my mind off my own troubles,” Ali assured her.

“Well, then, that sounds like a win-win proposition. Right now though, let’s concentrate on enjoying the garden tour. The rest of these nice folks probably don’t care to hear my story,” Gwen said, tipping her head toward the others gathering nearby.

 ***

After thanking the docent for the enjoyable and informative guided tour, Gwen turned to Ali and asked, “Well, what do you think of Dunn Gardens?”

“They are beyond lovely,” Ali said with genuine enthusiasm. “I can’t believe I didn’t know this place existed! I picked up one of the brochures telling about the history of the grounds and was surprised to find that they were designed by the Olmsted Brothers back in 1915! I’m not a gardening enthusiast, but even I’ve heard of them. I can see why they were so well-regarded.”

Gwen was inwardly pleased that her plan to coax Ali out of her somber mood seemed to be working. “Agreed,” she said. “Every time I drive onto the grounds I’m blown away by the contrast between the towering Douglas firs and the delicate trillium groundcover—not to mention everything in between. And aren’t these rhodies spectacular?”

“They really are. I mean, it’s common to see them practically everywhere in Washington—I guess that’s why it’s the state flower—but I didn’t realize they could grow so large!” Ali said. “How did you hear about this place, anyway?”

The two had been wandering along the woodland trail on the north edge of the property when they came across a bench that seemed to be calling their names. They sat and rested as Gwen recounted her introduction to Dunn Gardens.

“I first heard about the gardens back in 2005, when I was in the thick of my divorce. There was an article in the Seattle Times about a private grant they had received to help restore and renovate the grounds for public enjoyment. On a whim, I signed up for one of their garden classes and just fell in love with the place. I’ve always loved the idea of gardening—I’ve just never had much of a talent for it. So when I saw they needed volunteers, I decided it would be a great distraction from all the drama I was going through. It got me out of the house, made me feel useful, and introduced me to a whole new group of people; it was just what I needed. I’ve been volunteering here as a docent ever since.”

“You work here as a docent? No wonder you know so much about this place and its history. I don’t remember you ever mentioning it before.”

“No, I guess I haven’t. I don’t know why,” Gwen admitted.

She continued, “The Dunn Gardens Trust is a non-profit organization. With the exception of the curators, gardeners and part-time office staff, it depends on volunteers to do everything from organizing tours and fundraisers to running the website. And I’ve got to say, they hold some of the most creative fundraisers I’ve ever seen. This summer, for instance, they’re hosting an event they’re calling ‘Mallets in Wonderland.’ It’s going to be a colossal croquet competition on the great lawn. We should go!”

“That does sound like fun,” Ali agreed. Changing the subject ever so slightly, she said, “Okay, so now I know all about The Dunn Gardens, and I’ve really enjoyed it—thank you very much—but what I don’t know is why you really brought me here today.”

“I just thought you might find it as comforting and peaceful as I do. I realize that my divorce doesn’t come anywhere close to the kind of tragedy you’ve suffered—I don’t mean to insinuate that it does—but it was a real low point in my life and this was a place that helped me regain my sense of self. I can’t say that the gardens will necessarily do that for you, but I want to help you find something or someplace that will.

“I’m not telling you to ‘get over it’—my God, it’s only been a few months! I just want to encourage you to find a new interest, or maybe re-engage with an old one that’ll give you a reason to get off the couch and start to breathe a little more deeply again.”

Ali bowed her head, covered her eyes with her hands and sighed deeply.

“I’m so tired, Gwen. I just feel so incredibly tired all the time.”

Gwen reached over and rubbed her friend’s back. “I know. I know,” she said. “I suppose this was a silly idea. I don’t mean to be offering a Band-Aid when you need a tourniquet.”

“No, no, I know that’s not what you’re doing. You’re a good friend, Gwen—a really good and thoughtful friend. I don’t know what I would have done without you these past months. I’m glad you brought me here; your point’s well made. I’m just not sure I’m there yet. I suspect I still have quite a few more hours to log on my couch before the sunrise.”

To order the e-book version of Since I Last Saw You, go to: www.SinceILastSawYou.com

Paperback edition now available! Go to: www.CreateSpace.com/4529955

Posted by Alice Kuder, December 21, 2013

Chapter 21: Since I Last Saw You

Since I Last Saw You

A story of love, loss and gratitude

“It’s the friends you can call up at four a.m. that matter.”

~ Marlene Dietrich 

Chapter 21

February 8, 2012

Divorce? She said she wants a divorce?” Jackie was caught off-guard.

Shhh! Can you keep your voice down? I know we’re in a public place, but I’d like this to be a private conversation,” Isaac admonished his big sister mildly.

As they made their way to a table with their lattes, Jackie couldn’t help but think how unusual it was for Isaac to be up this early. It was just past six a.m. and from the looks of him, he hadn’t slept at all the night before.

“No, she didn’t say she wants a divorce. At least, I don’t think she did. I can’t remember exactly who said what, but I think I was the first one to say the ‘D’ word,” Isaac explained.

“Do you want a divorce?”

“No . . . I don’t know . . . I don’t think I do.”

“Isaac, I’m stunned! You’ve mentioned that things have been a bit strained between you and Ali for the last several months, but you never let on that it was anything serious enough to start talking about divorce. You and I talk all the time. How could you not have said something before now?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just thought things would blow over and get back to normal. Besides, I know I share a lot with you, but I’ve never confided details about the state of my marriage. That wouldn’t be fair to Ali and it wouldn’t be fair to you. Whatever problems Ali and I have, they’re just between us. If we need outside help or advice, we’ll get it from an unbiased professional.”

“Okay. You’re right. You know I love you and I want you to be happy, so I’ll keep my nose out of it. I’m just a little confused. If you don’t want to talk about it, why did you ask me to meet you here at this ungodly hour?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I guess I’m a little shell-shocked and I’m not thinking straight. Ali and I have had our share of arguments over the years, but neither of us has ever suggested the possibility of divorce before. Somehow, hearing it said aloud really brought me to my knees. It scared me, and I guess I needed to say that to someone. I shouldn’t have put you in the middle.”

“No, you shouldn’t have. That probably sounds harsh, but even though I love you both, I can’t pretend to be neutral. Ali’s a good woman, a terrific mother, and a great sister-in-law, but you’re my baby brother! How could I not take your side?”

“That’s just it, Jackie, I don’t want there to be any sides. There are no villains here. I’m not even sure what the problem is. As far as I know, there are no third parties involved. I’ve been faithful, and I’m pretty sure she has, too. I think it’s just a build-up of all the little day-to-day annoyances. And some of the bigger annoyances, as well.”

“Such as?” Jackie inwardly admonished herself for asking.

Isaac hesitated before answering. “Such as, Ali doesn’t like my pastimes and I don’t like her constant travel. That’s all I’m going to say. Now let’s change the subject.”

“Can I just make one observation?” Jackie asked tenuously.

“As long as it’s not trash talk about Ali. I won’t listen to that.”

“It’s not. I just think this sounds like a Seven Year Itch kind of thing—times two, since you’ve been together more than twice that long.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you remember the movie with Marilyn Monroe? It’s the one with the famous scene where she stands over a subway grate in that sexy white dress and wind from the passing train blows her skirt up around her waist. Well, the main storyline is about an average-Joe husband whose eye starts to stray after seven years of marriage. For a while, he fantasizes that Marilyn’s character is wildly attracted to him and he has to resist the temptation to give in to her advances. Once he comes back to reality, he realizes what a good thing he’s got with his wife and that he’d be stupid to let his delusion jeopardize their marriage.

“Maybe that’s what’s going on with you and Ali. Even if there are no third parties involved, maybe you both just need to step back, look at what you’ve got, and decide if you want to recommit yourself to your marriage.”

“Huh. You might be right. It certainly couldn’t hurt to do a little emotional inventory. One thing’s for sure: we seem to be reaching a turning point, and I don’t want it to be a decision by default.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that.”

Then, in an attempt to lighten the mood a bit, she added, “One more thing, little brother. Next time you’re feeling confessional, can you at least wait for the sun to come up?”

To order the e-book version of Since I Last Saw You, go to: www.SinceILastSawYou.com

Print version coming soon!

Posted by Alice Kuder, December 16, 2013

 

Chapter 15: Since I Last Saw You

Since I Last Saw You

A story of love, loss and gratitude

The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” ~ Theodore Hesburgh 

Chapter 15

August 30, 2008

“Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down!”

Zoe squealed with delight as she and Isaac dropped to the floor. “I won, daddy! I won!”

“You sure did, Honey Bear . . . again!”

Ali felt her heart contract with intense joy as she looked up from the bunny-shaped cake she was frosting to watch her husband and daughter playing nearby.

Looking at the two of them, she thought to herself gratefully, I’m living the life I imagined for myself, and it’s everything I hoped it would be.

“Daddy needs a little break, Pumpkin. You’ve worn me out!” Stooping down to whisper conspiratorially in Zoe’s ear, he added, “You stay here and play while I sneak up on your mom and give her a big ole’ kiss!”

Zoe crinkled her face, hiding her eyes beneath her hands and giggled in approval.

Isaac made a dramatic pretense of creeping up behind Ali just as she added the sixth and final candle to the cake. Placing his strong hands on her shoulders, he proceeded to massage her skillfully as he nuzzled her neck.

Melting under his masterful touch, Ali cooed, “Oh, I love when you do that. Sometimes I think it’s the reason I married you.” And turning to face him, she rewarded him with a passionate kiss.

With a deep sigh of satisfaction, he said softly, “This is heaven, right?”

“Oh, yes,” Ali stopped to admire her own handiwork and melted backward into Isaac’s embrace. “You ought to recognize it. We’ve been here for quite a while.

“You know, I can’t tell which of you is more excited about her birthday,” said Ali.

“Oh, I can tell you it’s definitely me! You have to have lived a few years and have known some sadness before you can really appreciate this kind of happiness.”

“Are you sure she’s old enough to go to the speedway with us?” Ali still felt a little apprehensive.

“Ali, don’t worry. You’ve been there enough times to know that there are lots of kids there even younger than Zoe. I think she’s going to love it! She plays with my sprint car models all the time, and she’s been around #76. She’ll be fine.”

“You’re right. I’m being silly. Besides, I’m really looking forward to it, too. I always envied the families I’ve seen there. Now we’ll be one of them. Mom, Dad, and Nathan are meeting us there at six-thirty. Chloe can’t get there until closer to eight. I hope the traffic isn’t too heavy. It is Labor Day weekend, after all.”

***

As they drove up to the speedway, they were welcomed by the now-familiar sign, Skagit Speedway ~ Where families come to have fun.  Everywhere she looked, Ali was reminded that this was more than just a tag line; it was obviously a mission that track owner, Steve Beitler, took very seriously. At just fourteen dollars for adults, ticket prices were a steal compared to the prices for other professional sports. And parking was free! You wouldn’t find that in Seattle.

Zoe was fascinated by the sea of RVs and campers parked on the expansive grounds.

“As much as I enjoy coming to the races, I’m always a little amazed by the number of fans that show up for whole weekends, week after week throughout the season,” said Ali. “How many campers do you think there are here?”

“I asked Steve about that a while back. He said the property is a hundred and thirty-four acres and on any given weekend there are usually four or five hundred campers and RVs. You might expect that it would be a big moneymaker for him, but he barely charges enough to cover his cost for removing the trash at the end of the weekend—and he’s made some big improvements in the race track since he bought it in 2001. The speedway is a business, but Beitler’s a race fan first and foremost. He’s really committed to making this a place where families can come and enjoy themselves without going into hock. I think the main reason he’s been so successful is that he just loves the sport. Any time you pour that much passion into something, you’re bound to see amazing results.”

 ***

“Two adults and one child, please,” Isaac told the girl in the ticket booth.

“Kids under six get in free, you know,” she responded.

Zoe jumped up and down excitedly, holding up fingers on both hands to show the ticket taker, “Today’s my birthday! I’m six years old!”

“Oh! Excuse me for my mistake,” the girl said apologetically to Zoe, with a wink to Isaac and Ali. “No more free passes for you, Missy!”

Isaac lifted Zoe up so she could survey the grounds from the security of his arms.

“Isaac, you might as well have the words ‘Proud Papa’ tattooed on your forehead!” Ali said.

“That’s okay with me. I am a proud papa. I’ve been looking forward to bringing Zoe here for a long time and I want to show her off to all our friends. I think we should make the souvenir stand our first stop so we can get her some earplugs and sunglasses.”

“Let’s get her a hoodie, too. I was going to bring one from home, but I thought she’d like to pick one out with a Skagit Speedway design on it,” said Ali.

“What do you think, Zoe, do you want to get a new sweatshirt?” Isaac asked.

Zoe’s “Yes!” was punctuated with hand clapping.

Once they had her outfitted, Isaac turned his attention to Brady’s Espresso stand. As they approached the booth, Dennis Brady greeted Isaac warmly.

“Ali, have you ever met Dennis? When he’s not serving up the best espresso in Skagit County, he does all the electrical work here at the speedway.”

“No, surprisingly, we’ve never met. Hi, Dennis, I’m Ali, and this is our daughter, Zoe.”

“Today’s my birthday! I’m six years old!”

“You are? No wonder you look so grown up!” Dennis said. Turning to Ali, he added, “Nice to finally meet you, Ali. I was beginning to think Isaac had made you up, but I guess he really does have a gorgeous wife and daughter.”

“Flatterer.” Ali blushed, and gave a sideways glance at Isaac, sending up a prayer of gratitude for her good fortune in sharing her life with this wonderful man whom she adored.

“What can I make for you?” Dennis offered.

“How about a caramel latte for me and a cherry Italian soda for Zoe?”

“Coming right up.”

 ***

As they entered the grandstand Zoe spotted the speedway mascot, Roscoe the Racin’ Dog, coming toward them. At first, she hid her face in Isaac’s chest, but Roscoe noticed and slowed his approach. With a few ‘woofs’ and waves of his paws, he quickly won her over.

The hungry trio happily followed Roscoe into the Speedway Café. Ali and Isaac watched with amusement as Zoe craned her neck to see the people leaving the counters with all kinds of delicious-looking food like burgers, chili dogs, nachos, and more. They knew she’d have a hard time deciding what to choose for her birthday dinner. In the end, the basic chicken strip basket won out.

 ***

“Daddy, Daddy, when can I drive a racecar?

When she heard Zoe’s excited question, Ali involuntarily gasped. She wanted her daughter to have fun and enjoy the races—but only as a spectator—not as a future driver.

As if reading her thoughts, Isaac turned to Ali and said, “Relax, Honey. She’s only six years old. Chances are she’ll outgrow any compulsion to race.”

Ali looked her husband squarely in the eye and, with equal amounts of doubt, fear, and sarcasm in her voice, replied, “Uh-huh. Just like her father did.”

 

To order the e-book version of Since I Last Saw You, go to: www.SinceILastSawYou.com

Print version coming soon!

Posted by Alice Kuder, December 15, 2013

Chapter 5: Since I Last Saw You

Since I Last Saw You

A story of love, loss and gratitude

“You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.”

~ Desmond Tutu

Chapter 5

February 13, 2012

Ali opened the door and practically fainted into her mother’s outstretched arms. To her own surprise, Ali immediately broke into tears, which turned into sobs that coursed through her whole body. The two women stood in the doorway, silently embracing, then together slowly sank to the doorstep. Still, Ali’s sobbing continued. It broke Peggy’s heart to know that there were no words to console her daughter. Losing her granddaughter and son-in-law was devastating enough for her; she could not imagine the pain Ali must be feeling. Peggy sent a silent prayer of gratitude to the heavens for thus far sparing her the pain of burying a child.

Ali had lost an argument with her family two days earlier. She insisted that she was fine in the house by herself. They insisted that she needed emotional support in the days leading up to the funeral—and they were determined to provide it.

Martin, luggage in tow, walked up to find the two women in a heap on the stoop, still entwined in each other’s arms. They seemed totally unaware of his presence. He told himself he was just being practical when he detoured to the back door and let himself in. After all, he couldn’t very well jump over them with suitcases in hand. But the truth was that when he saw them, he felt very near to crying himself, and that wouldn’t help anyone.

Chloe and Nathan were scheduled to arrive in time to join Ali and their parents for a family dinner. Chloe and her husband, Roger, thought it best if he stayed home with their infant twins.

Eventually, Peggy and Ali made their way to the sofa in the living room. Martin built a fire in the fireplace and put on a pot of water for tea. When he opened the refrigerator, he found it overflowing with casseroles, desserts, fruit, and beverages that friends had obviously brought over. Part of him had been hoping the fridge would be empty so he would have an excuse to escape to the grocery store if the evening got to be too painful for him to bear. As much as he loved his daughter and wanted to help comfort her, he was not particularly adept at showing the tenderness he felt. Peggy, on the other hand, seemed able to channel Mother Teresa in these situations.

Martin silently served the tea along with some crackers and cheese, knowing that it would likely all go untouched. He thought about excusing himself but realized it wasn’t necessary—the women were too preoccupied to notice whether he was there or not. Relieved, Martin slipped out the back door and disappeared into the garage. He might not be good at hand-holding, but he was a passable auto mechanic. If he couldn’t console his daughter emotionally, he could at least ensure that she was safe physically—at least while driving—by giving her car a once-over.

 ***

Ali let out an audible sigh and squeezed her mother’s hand. Neither of them had said a word since Peggy arrived. She knew her daughter well enough to know that she would talk when she was ready. Until then, silence was more powerful and comforting than any words she might offer. Besides, once Nathan and Chloe arrived, the opportunity for quiet solace would be lost.

Finally, Ali stood up and wandered around the room that had been the hub of her small family’s life. She fingered the framed photos on the mantle, re-shelved the novel that Isaac had been reading, took Zoe’s iPod from its dock and scrolled through the playlist. The titles made her smile.

  1. Fireflies – Owl City
  2. Some Nights – Fun
  3. Moves Like Jagger – Maroon 5
  4. Paradise – Coldplay
  5. Chattanooga Choo Choo – Glenn Miller Orchestra
  6. You Belong to Me – Taylor Swift
  7. Hall of Fame – The Script
  8. Thrift Shop – Macklemore
  9. I’ve Got the Magic in Me – B.o.B.
  10. Fireworks – Katy Perry
  11. Dog Days Are Over – Florence and the Machine

There were no sad songs in this list; they were all fun and full of life—just like Zoe had been. Ali noticed there were even a few big band numbers in there, thanks to an accidental family viewing of an old movie, The Glenn Miller Story, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allison. Ali, Isaac, and Zoe had stumbled across it while channel surfing one night. When it was over, Zoe immediately uploaded some of the songs from iTunes and insisted that her parents show her how to Swing Dance. They pushed the furniture out of the way and turned the living room into a dance floor for the next hour, all the while laughing hysterically over the abnormally high number of left feet they had among them.

When they weren’t goofing around, Zoe was actually quite agile and moved with surprising grace for a young girl. Her long, dark, wavy hair flowed freely around her cherubic face, seeming to accentuate her apple cheeks, and giving her a perpetually happy appearance.

Smiling at the memories, Ali sat down at the piano and began to play “In the Mood.” Just then, Chloe walked in and said, “How about playing something I can sing to, Ali Oop?”

Ali looked up in surprise, leaped to her feet, and ran into her sister’s open arms. The two held each other, rocking back and forth slowly, tears flowing. After a few moments, as if through telepathy, the sisters released each other and dried their eyes in silent agreement that there would be plenty of time for crying later. Tonight was about relishing the comfort of family.

Chloe opened the piano bench and pulled out several well-worn songbooks dating back to the days of their family sing-a-longs. Their contents ran the gamut from church music, to pop tunes, to Christmas carols.

Thumbing through the books, Chloe’s intention was to find some fun, upbeat music to lighten the mood, but her plan took a detour when she happened upon “Amazing Grace.” That particular hymn never failed to move her, and she knew it was a favorite of Ali’s as well. When she placed the sheet music on the piano, Ali nodded her head appreciatively and began to play as Chloe and their mother stood by the piano and joined her in singing.

“Amazing Grace”

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

T’was Grace that taught
My heart to fear,
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
We have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far
And Grace will lead us home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Then when we’ve first begun.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

When the last note faded away, Chloe smiled at her sister, sat down next to her on the piano bench and resumed flipping through the songbooks, trying to find something uplifting. While she was looking, Ali began playing a tune her family didn’t recognize. It was a pleasantly haunting melody that seemed to teeter on the razor’s edge between cheerful and melancholy.

“Ali, that’s lovely. What is it?” her mother asked.

Ali kept playing, but didn’t answer right away. Finally, she said, “It doesn’t have a name. It’s not even a whole song, really. It’s just the start of a tune that popped into my head one day and stuck with me. Every once in a while I add a few bars. Someday I hope to finish the music and add lyrics, but I’m in no hurry. The inspiration will come to me when the time is right.”

Nathan looked at his little sister and shook his head gently from side to side. “Just when I thought I knew everything there is to know about our Ali Oop, she up and surprises me!”

Suddenly, Chloe cried out excitedly, “Ah-ha! I found it!” And she propped a songbook up in front of Ali. It was the theme from Rocky, “Eye of the Tiger”, which provided the perfect segue to change the tone of the evening.

The next hour was like a showcase of the pop hits of the ‘80s and ‘90s. “Physical,” “Billie Jean,” “I Love a Rainy Night,” “Jump,” “Broken Wings,” “We Got the Beat,” “It’s Still Rock ‘n Roll to Me,” and “All I Wanna Do.”

Nathan walked through the front door, dragging Martin with him, just as Ali started playing “The Macarena.” Despite loud groans of feigned distress from the entire group, Chloe pulled them all to their feet and coached them through the half-remembered-half-forgotten dance steps.

Emotionally sated by the music, physical hunger took center stage, and the family followed their rumbling stomachs to the kitchen. Everyone foraged through the over-stuffed fridge to find their own particular favorites—lasagne for Martin, tuna casserole for Chloe, rice and beans for Peggy, ham for Nathan, and mac and cheese for Ali—then they all sat down together as Martin poured the homemade wine he had decanted earlier.

Nathan stood and raised his glass, as did the others. “To Isaac and Zoe: Forever in our hearts.”

To order the e-book version of Since I Last Saw You, go to: www.SinceILastSawYou.com

Print version coming soon!

Posted by Alice Kuder, December 11, 2013

Chapter 10: Since I Last Saw You

a novel by Alice Ann Kuder

A story of love, loss and gratitude.

Brothers and sisters are as close as hands and feet.” ~ Vietnamese Proverb

 Chapter 10

1991 and 1983

“Isaac, you’re barely twenty-three, you just moved to Washington, and you’ve got a promising new job. Why would you choose now to start jumping out of perfectly good airplanes?” Jackie teased her younger brother.

She knew very well that Isaac loved any activity that spiked his adrenaline level. He always had. In this regard, they were total opposites. Jackie was fearful of any undertaking that might possibly cause her bodily harm. Her brother’s latest plan to take up skydiving was, she supposed, just the latest in a predictable progression of death-defying pastimes.

Growing up in Xenia, Jackie loved the miles and miles of flat Ohio terrain; Isaac longed to climb some real mountains. Jackie liked to swim in the shallow end of the pool; Isaac was doing backflips off the high dive by the time he was five. Jackie resisted having the training wheels removed from her bike until friends starting teasing her; Isaac started begging for a skateboard when he was seven.

Despite her inability to understand her brother’s attraction to all things dangerous, she could see that it made him happy, so she supported him in whatever he wanted to do. Strangely enough, Jackie never really worried about Isaac hurting himself. Between his exceptional physical coordination and his self-confidence, both siblings believed Isaac to be invincible. And big sister was satisfied to get her thrills vicariously through baby brother.

If Isaac had enough physical courage for both of them, Jackie had business acumen to spare. She had an innate ability to organize, manage, and supervise people and projects, and she did it with such tact and diplomacy that they scarcely noticed she was telling them what to do and how to do it.

When she was in the fifth grade, Jackie successfully established and published a school newspaper. As a high school freshman, she organized a campaign to get Dell to donate computers to the Xenia Community Center and then she taught free computer classes to the public. When she turned eighteen, she ran for the elected position of Precinct Executive in Greene County, and won. Her list of accomplishments grew longer and more impressive every year.

Confident that he was an intellectual match for his sister, Isaac was content to play worker bee to Jackie’s queen bee. There was not one drop of competitiveness or resentment between the two siblings. On the contrary, Isaac admired his sister’s abilities and benefited from them often—especially when he needed to earn money to finance his daredevil activities.

Six months after she got her first job as a cashier at the local Kroger, Jackie convinced her manager that fourteen-year-old Isaac would be a great bagger. Her boss was so impressed with Jackie’s maturity and performance that he happily took her recommendation. Isaac lived up to his sister’s hype and proved to be a hard worker. Before long, he was promoted from bagger to stocker and gaining valuable experience in retail sales.

 ****

It was a beautiful September Saturday for Xenia’s annual Old Fashioned Days. Jackie and Isaac had made a pact when they were very young that they would always go to the event together. Despite the teasing they endured from friends—“You’re going with your sister?”—even now that they were in high school they still held true to their pledge. It was just too much fun to miss.

Despite its name, Old Fashioned Days seemed to reinvent itself every year. Rather than rely on the same old exhibits and events, the planning committees showed endless creativity, offering activities and events as varied as antique car shows, puppet shows, art exhibits, cake walks, and dunk tanks. Musical options included barbershop quartets, country- and-western bands, and gospel singers, along with rock ‘n’ roll performers. For the more competitive fair-goers there were beauty contests, pizza eating contests, and hog calling contests. Tours of the Greene County Airport and historical homes appealed to the more sedate persons in the crowd. And, of course, there was always a carnival area with game booths and rides for the kids.

As they strolled through the center of the festival burying their faces in huge clouds of cotton candy, Jackie turned to her brother and said, “Isaac, you need a plan.”

“I do? A plan for what?” he asked, knowing that his sister would not disappoint.

“A plan for making money doing something you love to do.”

“Knowing you, you already have a plan in mind, so why don’t you save me some time and just tell me what it is?”

“Okay, Smarty-Pants, I will. Instead of stocking grocery shelves at Kroger, I think you should apply for a job stocking auto parts somewhere like Dayton Xenia Auto Parts or NAPA. You’re crazy about racecars; you hang out at Kil-Kare Speedway every chance you get. I’ll bet that a job at the auto parts store would give you an opportunity to rub shoulders with a lot of the racecar drivers. Knowing them would probably open some doors for you in the racing world. Plus, it would give you practical work experience in a business that’s at least related to racing.”

“Huh. That’s a pretty good plan except for one small detail; I don’t want to stock auto parts for someone else.”

“Oh,” Jackie said, feeling her spirit deflate.

“No, if I’m going to work at an auto-parts store, I want to own it!”

To order the e-book version of Since I Last Saw You, go to: www.SinceILastSawYou.com

Print version coming soon!

Posted by Alice Kuder, December 6, 2013

 

 

Chapter 2: Since I Last Saw You

a novel by Alice Ann Kuder

A story of love, loss and gratitude.

“Childhood is a short season.” ~ Helen Hayes

Chapter 2

1976-1982

“It’s Lassie! Mommy, Daddy, look! Gramma and Grandpa Donker sent me a Lassie dog for my birthday, just like the one on TV!” Six-year-old Ali was beside herself with joy! Jumping up and down while clutching the stuffed animal to her chest, she declared, “Oh, I love you, Lassie!”

“That’s wonderful, Sweetheart! She’s just beautiful,” said her mother. “Gramma and Grandpa really wanted to be here, Honey, but they just couldn’t make the trip this year. Gramma’s not feeling very well.”

“I wish they were here. I like it when they come to visit. Grandpa always gives us gum even though he’s not ‘sposed to,” eight-year-old Nathan said with a giggle.

“Tattletale!” Chloe admonished.

Turning everyone’s attention back to the birthday girl, her father said, “Looks like you have one last present, Ali Oop. Let’s see what it is.”

Ali held the stuffed animal tightly with one arm while reaching for the unopened gift. She somehow managed to rip the paper off without letting go of her new best friend.

“It’s a coloring book! And it’s full of pictures of horses!”

“That’s from me!” big sister Chloe said with pride. “And I got you some new crayons, too. The big box with sixty-four colors!”

Temporarily releasing her hold on Lassie, Ali greedily leafed through the pages, trying to decide which picture was her favorite.

“The big box? Really? All my own? Oh, thank you, Chloe!” After giving her sister a quick hug around the neck, Ali went right back to the coloring book. “I want to color one right now!”

“Not so fast, Pumpkin Pie,” said her father. “You know the rule. You have to write a thank you note for the gift before you can play with it. Your sister will help you.”

“Okay, but can I use my new crayons to write the thank you note?”

Her parents exchanged an amused look before her mom said, “Sure, Sweetheart. I think we can bend the rule a little bit this time.”

Bent, but never broken, it was a rule that took deep root in Ali, and just one of the many ways in which her parents taught her the importance of saying thank you.

****

Mount Vernon is an inconspicuous little town sixty miles north of Seattle. The locals will assure you of three points: first, that their city is close, but not too close, to Seattle; second, it’s rural, but not too rural for city lovers; and third, it’s small, but not too small to have all the important amenities.

Anchored by the historic Lincoln Theater on South First Street, downtown Mount Vernon consists mainly of small, locally owned businesses, typically quartered in vintage brick buildings. Its wide, brick boulevards encourage strolling and create a friendly, small-town atmosphere.

Beyond the city’s commercial business district, acres and acres of lush, rich earth are still host to farmlands, berry fields, and horse-boarding barns.

****

Ali Benevento considered herself fortunate to have grown up on her family’s berry farm in Mount Vernon, alongside her older siblings, Chloe and Nathan. Ali had fond memories of playing among the rows and rows of berries with her brother and sister. The low-lying strawberry plants were perfect for hurdling, while the raspberry bushes provided exceptional cover for hide-and-seek.

When not tending to the strawberry, raspberry, and blueberry bushes, their father, Martin, moonlighted as a tractor mechanic and their mother, Peggy, taught fifth grade at Lincoln Elementary School.

Every June, soon after school let out for the summer, busloads of local teenagers came to the family’s farm to earn money by picking berries. The most handsome fruits were sold to grocery stores, while the less perfect were reserved for making jams and jellies.

Ali loved to hop out of bed in the early morning and watch as the buses rolled in and the twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-old kids piled out. After stowing their lunch bags and picking up fruit carriers, they were each assigned a row to harvest. Martin and Peggy were savvy enough to know that forbidding the young pickers to eat the succulent berries would be a fruitless battle, so instead, they allowed them to eat as many berries as they wanted while they worked. The amount of fruit consumed was about the same either way, but giving permission meant that the field supervisors didn’t need to waste time and energy being watchdogs.

Pickers were issued punch cards to keep track of the number of boxes they filled each day and the number of days they worked. Those who missed no more than two harvesting days during the brief three-to-four-week season were rewarded with an end-of-harvest picnic in addition to receiving a bonus for each box they had filled.

There were always a few kids who got fired for excessive berry-throwing or generally goofing off, but most were hard workers who were grateful for the opportunity to earn some spending money before they were old enough to get “real jobs.”

Ali was jealous of Chloe and Nathan when they got to pick alongside the other kids in the fields, but she learned the meaning of backbreaking work the first year she joined their ranks. It taught her a lesson about the duplicity of envy that she never forgot. As an adult, she equated it with the admonition, “Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.”

****

Along with the profit-producing berry fields, Mr. Benevento nurtured a few grapevines in the family’s backyard. The vines didn’t grow as well as they did in arid Eastern Washington where he was raised—and certainly not as well as they did in Palermo, Italy, where his father and grandfather grew up—but they supplied enough decent grapes to allow him to indulge his passion for winemaking. Unfortunately, his knowledge of wine and winemaking far exceeded his time and resources for producing it.

As she got older, Ali became more interested in the grapes than the berries, in part because she loved watching her father cajole the clusters of delicate fruit into wine. Her fascination was further fueled by her grandfather’s romanticized stories about “the old country.”

Every Sunday, Martin drove to Rest Haven Nursing Home at Fir and 8th Streets, to pick up Grampa “Papa” Gesepi, and bring him to the house for the afternoon. While Peggy was preparing dinner—ably assisted by either Chloe or Nathan—Ali would climb up on Papa’s lap, begging him to tell her again about life on the Benevento family vineyard in Italy. She never tired of hearing stories about her deceased grandmother, and all of her Italian aunts, uncles, and cousins, whom she longed to meet. Her not-so-secret wish was to explore the Italian wine country for herself when she grew up.

 ****

Peggy and Martin shared the opinion that Europeans had a much healthier attitude towards the consumption of wine than their American counterparts, so the Benevento children were allowed to drink wine at dinner, when in their parents’ presence. They often made a game of identifying the various varietals, describing the bouquets and guessing the vintages.

Eventually, Ali’s interest in wine and winemaking grew to be as fervent as her father’s. As a teenager, she spent countless hours at his side in their tiny vineyard, asking questions and learning all she could about making fine wine. She imagined owning and operating her own winery some day, perhaps in partnership with her dad.

First, however, she wanted to spread her wings and break away from the familiar, if beloved, surroundings of her hometown. In her family, education held high value, so going to college was a given. After that, she was open to whatever kind of adventure presented itself.

But those things were still far in the future, whereas the Silver Star Stables, just down the road, provided a much more immediate allure.

When Ali was growing up, one of her family’s favorite activities was attending horse shows and competitions at various nearby stables, like Silver Star. Mom, Dad, and Chloe were satisfied just to watch, but Nathan and Ali both caught the fever and begged for riding lessons. Owning one horse, let alone two, was beyond the reach of the family’s budget, but Peggy and Martin decided that the cost of lessons was manageable.

Of all the horses boarded at Silver Star Stables, Tsunami, a chestnut-colored quarter horse-Arabian mix with a distinctive white muzzle, was Ali’s admitted favorite. The diminutive mare weighed nine hundred forty-eight pounds and stood fourteen and a half hands at the withers. She combined the speed and gentleness of her Arab ancestry with the energy and balance of her quarter horse forbears. In Ali’s eyes, she was perfect.

Ali’s infatuation with Tsunami began when she saw her performing in a key pole race at an equine games-day competition. She couldn’t explain why she felt so drawn to “Tsu” as opposed to the others, but there it was. After the games were over, Martin took her to the stables to meet Tsunami and her owner. He was surprised to find Ali suddenly taken shy, grasping his hand tightly, and hiding behind him as they approached the stall and greeted the horse’s owner.

“Hi there, my name is Martin Benevento, and this is my daughter, Ali. We were in the stands today watching you and your horse compete. You were both wonderful.”

The woman turned toward them and smiled. “Nice to meet you both,” she said. “I’m Susan Schuster, and this is Tsunami. We certainly didn’t win any ribbons this time, but we had some fun. She was pretty hot today, which is my fault. I haven’t been able to make the time to ride her much recently.”

“Hot?” Ali asked meekly as she peeked out from behind her father.

“Yes, that’s horse talk for ‘wound up.’ She just had a lot of pent-up energy,” Susan explained.

“How did she get the name Tsunami?” Martin asked.

“Well, that’s my sneaky way of naming her after myself. I introduced myself to you as Susan, but my family always called me Sue. I’m fascinated by tsunami waves as well as horses, so when a friend suggested that name and I realized I could call her Tsu, for short, it seemed like a perfect fit!

Crouching down to address Ali, Susan asked, “Do you ride?”

Gaining courage, Ali stepped out and responded, “I want to, but I don’t know how. My brother, Nathan, is taking lessons now. When he finishes, I get to.”

“I see. Then will you lease a horse to ride?”

Ali looked up at her father imploringly, anxious to hear what he would say. “We’re hoping to find someone who’s willing to do a partial lease until we see how much time the kids actually devote to a horse.”

“Well, you might just have found that person,” Susan told them.

 ****

Nolan Shafer loved teaching beginners how to ride horseback—especially children. The young students invariably exhibited a sense of awe, respect, and enthusiasm that reminded him of how fortunate he was to work with the horses and people at Silver Star Stables.

Martin and Peggy did their research before choosing a riding school and instructor for Nathan and Ali. They were happy to discover that Silver Star Stables had a superior reputation among local horse owners. The barns were clean and well maintained with a dry, organized tack room; the horses were calm, healthy, and well shod. All the instructors were amiable, self-confident, experienced professionals. Nathan Benevento was Nolan’s 161st student and Ali would become his 169th, so Martin and Peggy felt confident that their children were in good hands.

The night before her first lesson, Ali was so excited she couldn’t sleep. She had been dreaming of this day ever since she got the horse-themed coloring book from Chloe on her sixth birthday. After she saw the movie classic National Velvet, and later, The Black Stallion, her affection for all things equine was undeniable and insatiable.

 ****

“I don’t get to learn on Tsunami?” Ali was crestfallen.

“I’m afraid not, Ali. Tsunami is a bit too high-spirited for a beginner,” Nolan explained. “It’s important to train on a horse that is alert, yet calm and not overly sensitive. All horses pick up on the emotions of their riders, but some are more forgiving than others. As a beginner, you’ll probably feel nervous and unsure at first—everyone does. You need to practice on a horse that’s used to beginners so you have time to learn the basics without being afraid of your mount.”

“But I love Tsunami. I really want to ride her.” Ali’s pleading bordered on whining.

“Did you hear the quality of your voice just now, Ali?” Nolan asked. “One of the first things you have to learn about being around horses is to always speak in a calm, confident, quiet tone of voice. Does whining get you what you want from your parents?”

“Sometimes . . . but not usually,” Ali admitted reluctantly. “They don’t like it when I whine.”

“Neither does your horse,” said Nolan.

“I understand that you’re anxious to ride Tsunami, but do you really want to subject her to your natural nervousness? Wouldn’t you rather start off your riding relationship with her as a confident, self-possessed horsewoman? After all, horses have long memories, Ali, and just like with people, you only get one chance to make a good first impression.”

Ali’s only response was to frown and look down at the ground. She could tell she wasn’t going to win this argument.

“How about if you let me introduce you to Merry? She’s a wonderful horse, too. I’m sure you’ll like her. You’ll get to ride Tsunami soon enough.”

Ali was unconvinced until she actually saw Merry. She was a beautiful palomino, impeccably groomed and exuding serenity. And Ali could have sworn—though she knew it was silly—that Merry actually smiled at her when they met! She was sure then that learning to ride was going to be every bit as wonderful as she had imagined.

 ****

When the grapes and the horses weren’t luring Ali outside, the family piano made her a willing captive indoors. Playing the piano filled her with a joy so deep and consuming that her family often teased her about preferring it to them. Happily, she was quite talented, so even her endless hours of practice created a pleasant soundtrack for her family’s daily life.

From the time Ali was tall enough to reach the keyboard and plink her first tentative notes, piano music became like the lure of a siren to her. In fact, one of her earliest memories was of sitting on the piano stool, trying in vain to make her feet reach the pedals.

Hunting and pecking, she eventually found the keys that produced the notes of the tunes she heard in her head. “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” played with one hand, eventually gave way to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which lead to “Happy Birthday,” played with both hands. By the time she was nine, she had mastered a dozen different Christmas carols, all played by ear.

At some point in her childhood—she couldn’t remember exactly when—Ali began creating her own elementary tunes. Or, as she put it, recording songs in her head. Not knowing how to read or write music, she committed some of her compositions to memory for her own pleasure, but she never shared them with anyone.

Family finances—already stretched thin by the cost of riding lessons—were such that Ali didn’t start taking piano lessons until she was twelve years old. Talented as she was, the lack of formal training earlier in life limited her horizons as a performer. Fortunately, that was never her ambition. Nor did it diminish the euphoria she experienced when she played.

Because she was so young when she became infatuated with the family piano, it was years before she realized that it was a bit of an antique; or more precisely, a relic. The battered, cherrywood upright had endured three generations of grimy fingers, damp environs, and infrequent tuning. Even so, Ali managed to coax some beautiful music from its overtaxed strings.

Sunday afternoons at the Benevento house evoked scenes reminiscent of those in Norman Rockwell paintings, as the family gathered around the piano and sang songs that spanned decades and genres.

While Ali’s fingers beguiled sweet melodies from the decrepit piano, the notes produced by her vocal chords were not equally as pleasant. Her older sister, Chloe, on the other hand, sang as divinely as Ali played. When the two girls accompanied one another, everyone within earshot felt compelled to stop whatever they were doing and listen. Their shared love of music created an unbreakable bond between the sisters that only grew stronger as they grew older.

 

To order the e-book version of Since I Last Saw You, go to: www.SinceILastSawYou.com

Print version coming soon!

Posted by Alice Kuder, December 4, 2013

Chapter 26: Since I Last Saw You

a novel by Alice Ann Kuder

A story of love, loss and gratitude.

“You can kid the world, but not your sister.” ~ Charlotte Gray

 Chapter 26

February 16-March 2, 2013

“Lincoln, Nebraska? Who do you know in Lincoln, Nebraska?” Chloe Skyped from her laptop to Ali’s.

“Not a soul. I just needed to choose a stopover between Rapid City, South Dakota, and Dixon, Illinois, and when I looked at a map, Lincoln popped out at me,” said Ali.

“Is it my imagination, or is there an unexpected theme developing for this trip? First Mount Rushmore and now Lincoln, Nebraska—and isn’t there a monument to Lincoln in Dixon, too?”

Ali chuckled. “Yes, well, I don’t remember issuing a formal invitation, but Abraham Lincoln does seem to have become my incorporeal traveling companion.”

“Maybe he got cabin fever from hanging around the Lincoln bedroom all the time,” Chloe teased. “Didn’t you say he was in a dream you had a while back, too?”

“Uh-huh, he was one of the people at the Thanksgiving table. He’s been in dreams of mine in the past, too. I told that to a therapist once; famous people frequently show up in my dreams. She said that’s a bit unusual. When I told her about one dream involving Lincoln, she said, ‘That sounds more like a memory than a dream.’ We never explored that, but her comment and the concept obviously stuck with me.”

“Do you believe in past lives?” Chloe asked.

“Not really—though I don’t totally discount the possibility. I haven’t spent much time thinking about it, probably because it conflicts with my beliefs about God and heaven and life after death. I don’t have a burning need to figure it all out.

“Whatever the reason, I do feel a special affinity with Abraham Lincoln. Apparently, the universe thinks he has a lot to teach me, because it keeps throwing us together. I can’t say that I see any strong parallels between our lives or personalities—I wish I did! He was such a brilliant and admirable man, and I’ve learned a lot just from reading about his life.

“It’s pretty amazing how many ‘quotable quotes’ are attributed to him. One of my favorites is ‘The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.’ That’s certainly a truth I have clung to since Isaac and Zoe died.”

“Okay, enough about Abe. How are you doing? You look good—or as good as anyone looks on Skype,” said Chloe.

“I’m okay. It’s hard to believe I’ve only been gone for six weeks.”

“And even harder to believe you’ll be gone another eight months! I really miss you, Ali Oop.”

“I miss you too. If it weren’t for technology, I think I’d feel pretty lost. I’m journaling a lot in the evenings, too.

“Valentine’s Day was hard, and, of course the anniversary of the accident. Thank goodness Nathan was with me; that made it much easier. I was determined not to let the days surrounding it devolve into pity parties, so we concentrated on remembering the good things. One night, Nathan and I sat in front of a fire in the hotel lobby with a bottle of Isaac’s favorite wine and a box of Ding Dongs—Zoe’s favorite junk food—and told funny stories about her and her dad. It made me miss them more and miss them less, both at the same time.”

Neither of them said anything for a few moments, then Chloe shifted the conversation to a lighter topic.

“How’s Tess? Are you glad you took her along?”

“She’s great. She’s not much of a conversationalist, but she’s good company anyway. And I doubt I’d be as vigilant about getting exercise if I didn’t have her along to coax me into taking walks.”

“Have you had any trouble finding pet-friendly places to stay?”

“Not as much as you might think. It’s pretty easy to do internet searches for places that allow dogs, and there are usually several to choose from. I guess more and more people are traveling with pets these days.”

“Where are you staying now?”

“I’m at The Rogers House B&B. It’s right in the middle of the historic downtown district, just a few blocks from the capitol. I really love these old mansions. This one was built in 1914. You should see this room! They call it Doctor’s Retreat. Here, I’ll show you.” Ali picked up the laptop and turned it slowly to pan around the room.

“Is that a four-poster bed?” asked Chloe.

“Yep. And there’s a little sunroom that Tess has claimed for herself.”

“How long do you think you’ll stay in Lincoln? Is there much to do there in February?”

“I’m planning to stay a couple of weeks, since I don’t need to be in Dixon until March 3rd. There seems to be plenty to see here. I’m told that the Art Deco capitol building is amazing and a ‘must see.’ Then there’s the Larson Tractor Museum.”

“Oh, for sure you wouldn’t want to miss that!” Chloe laughed.

“I know it sounds kind of . . . um, unexciting, but Dad loves tractors so much that I think it’ll be fun to find out about their evolution

“There’s also the Museum of American Speed. The tagline is the ‘world’s largest collection of exotic racing engines and vintage speed equipment.’ Who does that make you think of?”

“Ali, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d think you’d be grateful that you could skip that without Isaac around to drag you there.”

“Yeah, you’d think. If he were here begging to go, I’d probably be rolling my eyes at the idea. Instead, his absence actually makes me want to see it more.”

“I guess grief changes our perspective sometimes.

“What else is there to see and do in Lincoln? Are there memorials to your pal, Honest Abe, on every street corner?” Chloe asked.

“Frankly, when I was looking through a list of local attractions, I was surprised and a little disappointed to discover how few have anything at all to do with the president. I asked the hotel clerk about it and he gave me a pamphlet with some history about the city.

“It seems the city’s original name was Lancaster. They changed it to Lincoln, but not because of any fondness for, or connection to the then-recently-assassinated president. Rather, it was part of a plan to prevent the city from becoming the state capitol. Local politicos knew there were still a lot of Confederate sympathizes in the region, so they figured the populace would balk at having anything—let alone the state capitol—named after the president. Obviously, they were wrong.

“That’s probably more than you wanted to know, but I love that kind of trivia.”

“You may not want to refer to it as trivia until you leave town—the locals might not appreciate it,” Chloe teased.

 ****

During the two weeks Ali was in Lincoln, she experienced a sliding scale of temperatures. On February 16th, the day she arrived, the temperature ranged from twelve degrees to forty degrees. The next day it went from a low of twenty degrees to a high of sixty-three degrees! On the morning of February 21st, she awoke to a snowstorm; the temperature stayed between twenty and twenty-four degrees the entire day.

Today, February 24th, the outdoor temperature was a pleasant forty-five degrees; a perfect morning to meander the cobblestone streets in the town’s historic Haymarket District.

Having no schedule to keep, she wandered through the various specialty shops there, until a store called Bin 105 drew her in like a magnet. Billing itself as “Lincoln’s newest quality wine shop,” Ali, who was unable to completely separate herself from the work she loved, got into a lengthy discussion with the storeowner about their selection of terroir-driven wines made by independent producers.

Afterward, she stumbled upon a gift boutique called Abesque Variations. She was surprised to discover that besides cute knickknacks, the shop also offered professional voice and piano lessons! It took some persuasion, but Ali sweet-talked the manager into letting her play their antique, baby grand piano for a few minutes, just to ease her jones-ing.

Her fingers danced across the keys and music filled the shop. As she was playing, one of the customers mistook her for a professional pianist and commented to a clerk what an excellent idea it was for them to have hired her!

Ali’s love for Haymarket spiked even higher when she popped into Dove Shannon Salon and Day Spa. There, she indulged herself with a pedicure, manicure and a facial. A little pampering was just what she needed to emerge feeling as if her caterpillar-self was truly a butterfly.

Returning to her room at The Rogers House, Ali felt content, if a bit tuckered out. The decaf latte she bought in the coffee shop down the street as a late afternoon treat, was a perfect accompaniment to the writing she intended to do. Now, she sat down at the small antique table in her room to compose the letter to Chloe that had been teasing her brain.

Dear Chloe,

Since our conversation earlier today, I’ve been thinking—again—about how much you mean to me and what a great sister you are. Like most siblings, we certainly had our share of fights when we were kids. I thought you were bossy, and you thought I was spoiled. As much as I love our brother, there’s no denying the special relationship we have as sisters. Your love and support have been so incredibly and particularly invaluable to me since the accident.

Do you remember when we were kids and you found me crying in my room over my break-up with my first boyfriend, Matthew? I was in the seventh grade—still in the thick of adolescent angst—and I was absolutely devastated. I was sure that my life was over, that I was unlovable and would never find another boyfriend. At first, I didn’t want to confide in you, because I was afraid you’d confirm all my fears. On this particular day, you were your best self—and my salvation.

At first, you just sat and listened to me while I cried and rambled on about my heartbreak. Matthew was such a great guy, I said, and I still loved him. I was sure that he broke up with me because I wasn’t pretty enough or smart enough or funny enough.

Once I was exhausted from self-flagellation, you hugged me and empathized with me. I’d seen you go through break ups of your own, so I knew you could relate to what I was feeling. When I asked you how you had gotten over your heartbreaks, you told me that there are two critical ingredients to healing: the first is time, and the second is faith.

I wasn’t surprised to hear you spout the old cliché, “Time heals all wounds”, but I didn’t know of any axioms about faith, and I didn’t see how faith could be a cure for heartache.

You told me that, at the moment, I was in too much pain to think clearly. What I needed to do was try to believe it wouldn’t kill me and just get through it one day at a time.

Then you admitted that time wouldn’t do the whole trick. I needed to pay attention to the thoughts that were going through my head, you said, and start to turn them around, because they would all be negative at first.

You went on to warn me that I would likely tell myself that he was the only guy for me, no one else would ever love me, I’d never be happy without him, and a lot of other stupid stuff. It will all feel true, you said, but if I let myself believe it, it would take a lot longer to get over him.

“You’ve got to have faith that ‘this, too, shall pass,’” you said.

You encouraged me to find my faith by looking at my experiences. The sunrise, for example, should give me faith that the day ahead—as joyful or as painful or as it might be—will end and a new tomorrow will always come; the same with the seasons. No matter how harsh the winter is, spring always follows. That’s just how life is. Nothing stays the same for very long. When you get hurt, you either die or you heal. Like the Kelly Clarkson song says, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’’

Then you asked me to name some especially painful events from my past. Two things came immediately to mind. The first was when I broke my leg. The second was when my best friend, Melanie, betrayed me.

Together, you and I examined both events, looking for the unexpected good that came about as a result.

Breaking my leg made me appreciate my strong body and overall good health.

The falling out with Melanie taught me about the nature of friendships. I learned that friendships are precious gifts—even if they don’t last forever.

Later, I examined other seeming tragedies from my relatively short past and discovered that each one had a silver lining. Each and every one. As a result, I came to agree with you that there is no such thing as an event that is totally bereft of some positive outcome. I suspect that you learned this from Dad, before passing it along to me.

As you predicted, I felt bad about the breakup with Matthew for quite a while, but our talk helped me believe that I would eventually get over it. “You’ve got to have faith,” you said to me. And I do. I have faith—which has only gotten stronger over time—that life is good and all things happen as they should. I cling to that faith now, as I try to make sense of Isaac and Zoe’s deaths.

Thank you for encouraging me to nurture my faith.

I love you until forever,

Ali

She put down her pen and reread the letter. Finally, with warm feelings of self-satisfaction, sisterly love, and gratitude, she stuffed it in an envelope.

Just then, Tess, who had been napping at Ali’s feet, suddenly sat to attention with her ears perked up full tilt. A moment later, Ali heard a knock on the door.

Baffled as to who it could be, Ali looked through the peephole and was equally astonished and thrilled to see Chloe standing in the hallway. She threw open the door, wrapped her sister in a tight hug and let out a squeal of pure delight as tears stung her eyes.

To order the e-book version of Since I Last Saw You, go to: www.SinceILastSawYou.com

Print version coming soon!

Posted by Alice Kuder, December 3, 2013