Last Saturday, as we do on so many Saturday mornings, Handsome and I embarked on a garage-and-estate-sale treasure hunt. We drove many miles across this beautiful Oklahoma countryside, picking through other families' boxes of castoff toys and books, threadbare clothes, dinged furniture, and myriad collectibles. We spent most of our quarters and wrinkly dollar bills and filled our pickup with so much fun stuff, chatting and laughing all the way. I love these days. We both do.
As the Noon hour approached, we were winding down. A list of chores awaited us at the farm, and the climbing sun was elbowing through the morning's autumnal crispness. Handsome suggested stopping at one more house, a sale he had tried after work on Friday. It would prove to offer us the smallest purchase but the deepest impressions.
We parked on a grassy shoulder and walked across this narrow road, downhill toward the property's deeply shaded yard. The shade was so deep that my vision needed to adjust and my skin flushed cool despite the warming day. On both sides of the curved driveway stood calm, colorful gardens, each one decorated with folksy painted art. Lots of cracked pane windows, half rotted wooden chairs, and hog panels framed and dressed in wild flower vines. A really ecclectic, happily accessorized piece of heaven. Everything smelled sweet, and from behind an umbrella-topped table where two ladies were taking money, jazz music reached out to us out like tendrils into the peaceful Saturday air. It was this great mix of Oklahoma and Louisiana, and I could feel Handsome grooving it right along with me.
Having made one purchase here the day before, my husband knew of a few things he hoped to reconsider, so he proceeded to hunt. I had no problem following my thrifting nose to the colorful pottery, the used paints, the tall, beaten wooden shutters that remind me so strongly of New Orleans, and much more. Really, of course, I shared all of this woman's taste in junk and craved to buy almost everything. But I had been shopping all morning and wanted to show some cash restraint. That's part of the fun, after all, being discerning. Saying no can be as much fun as saying yes. Or at least it makes saying yes more fun when it happens.
I did see one accent pillow that was flat-out irresistible. The bright yellow floral fabric made my 1970s-child heart skip a beat. It was tightly stuffed, quilted, in perfect condition, and fresh smelling. Not a hint of mildew of smoke or anything. For one single solitary dollar, this pillow was officially going home with me. No matter that nothing in either my house or the Apartment has these colors already. I mean, sort of my fave green velvet chair. Sort of.
See? Isn't it great?
I love this green and yellow 1970's print.
But this story is not about the pillow.
As I was trading four smudged quarters for this one glorious little pillow, a thin, energetic woman perhaps in her late sixties welcomed my questions about her gardens. A terrycloth sun visor was keeping her cropped white hair at bay. She touched my arms with silky soft hands, spoke closely to me, and smiled with her entire face while she described her gardens. Which plants she had cultivated, which ones were volunteers, etc. What I wanted most was to know more about the gardens, anyway. I was thrilled.
At some point Handsome slid up beside me and listened too. This slight, bright little woman was by then talking a lot more about the myriad construction projects in her gardens than about the flora and fauna. We had found several things we both wanted to try and duplicate at the farm, so we were happy to listen. She was describing with great affection how much work her husband had been putting into their little paradise.
"One time he built a bird cage there on that arbor, and once I bought this wooden swing from Ace Hardware and he decided it needed a better awning, so he built that. Then I wanted it out of that shade, so he moved it for me. He put up all those split-rail fences, too."
On and on she went, and there was no mistaking the pride and appreciation in her sweet, clear voice. You know that warm, comfortable feeling of a highly personalized garden? It is even lovelier, I've found, when more than one person has invested passion and energy into it. Her gardens had that glow. That loving welcome.
I found myself looking around for her husband, thinking that surely someone so devoted to her every construction whim wouldn't be far from her side on such a pretty day. She continued boasting of his woodworking skills and generous nature. Handsome wrapped his hand around mine, and we both stood shocked when our spontaneous hostess revealed that her husband had passed away one year ago. My throat seized up.
Her face fell just slightly at this admission, not like it was news to her, but more like his physical absence was just a sad formality. A disappointment and even a nuisance in the midst of so much loving energy. Because, clearly, he was all around her still. He was in every garden she touched and in every word she spoke. It almost felt like she was looking for him, too.
Neither of us dared interrupt her. Have you seen The Princess Bride, when the little boy is so enrapt by his grandfather's story that he eventually won't say a word to stop its telling? We needed her to continue telling her love story.
They had been married for 35 years when he died. They had both been married before, multiple times, but had finally found compatibility and happiness with each other. She told us about how they met, their flirtations, their dating. She grinned and blushed. With unscripted sentences, she unfolded to two strangers a precious chapter of her life. I swear she looked younger and younger as she did so.
They raised a family, some children his, some theirs. He was one of the designing engineers for the AWAC plane here at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma, and she worked on base as well. They rented their first house from a black family here, in a decade when that didn't happen much, and that family's minister married them too. Also something that wouldn't have happened much then, and she was obviously delighted to have that joyful piece of history in her heart. She said they all became close friends, something about whether they were black, white, purple, or polka-dotted! Her laughter. So full and sweet.
She described the chain of events that led them from that first rented house to this sprawling wooded property. I could easily imagine the newness of the place before she and her husband infused it with their mutual passion. She talked about their children, now adults, and the perspective they have on their parents' marriage. She recounted with a lot of sadness how her husband was so ill a few years ago when that first big tornado swept this part of the state clean. They had to take shelter with neighbors, but his medicines and oxygen tanks were so difficult to manage. They immediately had their own large tornado shelter installed, but he never used it. When the storms were so bad this May, he was already gone. She filled it with neighbors and pets instead. Her disappointment was palpable.
The stories were gentle and many, and Handsome and I took turns squeezing each other's hands and either weeping or laughing.
Then without asking, our new friend took my available hand and Handsome's available hand, forming between the three of us a little circle. She looked us straight in the eyes, alternately, and said, You gotta take care of each other. I cannot remember this woman's name now, a week later, but I remember the urgency and warmth in her face when she said this. Her blue eyes absolutely sparkled, and not just from her sprouting tears.
A friend of ours is getting married this evening. Each of our parents are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversaries next month. Another set of friends is approaching their first adversary soon. Still more nearly share our own July anniversary, almost to the day. I can't help but marvel at the power of a well invested union. Friendship, service to each other, devotion, admiration, romance, just all if it. A happy marriage can be the most profound expression of God's power and love, in my opinion. So much love for others can pour out of it.
Mitzi and Brian, we wish you all the best! We wish you a magical wedding Saturday and then far more than 35 happy years together. We wish you every blessing, every joy, every thrill that a union like this can bring. Whatever you cultivate together, whether it's a garden like theirs or any other masterpiece you both love, may it surround you and comfort you both with proof of each other's passion.