Author Archives: Janet Grace Riehl

Welcome to my village: the power of small gestures

By Janet Grace Riehl green handEssay and image copyright 2014

Mine is a life composed of small gestures.  The days of sweeping projects are gone, or at least on pause. If I’m not dreaming big, and thinking big.     If I’m not out there Being Somebody and changing the world, is that okay?

 

Back on our home place on the bluffs of the Mississippi I kneel at my father’s feet to take off his socks, roll up the legs of his pants, and bring the warm bucket of water to soak his feet. We have known each other all our lives. My brother is the only person still alive who has. Now 65 years in I watch him fade towards death. He is so fragile, and so smart that he knows just how fragile he is. I am his youngest and will always be so. Will he leave us before his 99th birthday next November? It hardly seems possible that he can. And, it hardly seems possible that he won’t. I’m happy with the small gestures in caring for my father: the jokes and hugs amongst the rounds of medicine, breathing treatments, meals, and putting on those damn compression socks after we soak his feet.

 But, Pop! Why can’t you be happy with a life of small gestures? With so many books published and so many significant things accomplished, could we cool it with the projects already? Just leave me in my land of small gestures.

Back in the city I roam a neighborhood that has become my village. Villages value small gestures. Public space becomes intimate place when the world becomes your village. I live in one of the most beautiful places in St. Louis—the Central West End. It’s near Forest Park (the site of the 1904 World’s Fair) and the Chase Park Plaza, an icon of elegance built in the 1920s. Historic houses and tree-lined streets. Lots of places to spend your money.  I keep my money in my pocket while soaking it all in.

I greet everyone who looks as if they want to be greeted. In villages all over the world, we do that. I believe that greeting—a nod of the head, a smile, a ‘morning, a casual pleasantry or banter in passing, even a brief conversation about that cute little dog straining on the leash—makes for a safe neighborhood as much as a watch group.

A village is a place where we affirm our oneness and acknowledge our differences. A village is a place where we exchange the generous impulse to share ourselves with others—to connect. Public space yields up its intimacy as I greet the street sweepers and they reply, “Keep on rockin’ that hat!” “It’s spring!” I say. And they agree, “Yes!” The hat in question is a “Janet Special” bought from a thrift shop, and then trimmed with a hot pink velvet ribbon held together with a gold paperclip posing as a buckle.

At the side door of the Chase Park Plaza the doorman gives me a hand jive lesson (we’ve invented some of our own).  I pass the flower arrangement in the middle of the black and white marble floor to greet the concierge from Barcelona in Spanish. Then down the stairs to my health club where the receptionist—a young man who coaches a soccer team—greets me.

“Good morning, Miss Janet.”

“Good morning, Mr. A. J. Did you win last night? Are you up to ten, now?”

Later at the upstairs coffee lounge I meet the executive pastry chef who hails from Nigeria. He imparts a surprise benediction on my day as he shares his wisdom to me, his newfound friend, who he may never see again.

The lilt of West Africa wafts over me. “We must give thanks everyday to God—or whatever we believe in. It’s good for our souls.” He understands about village, and his words stay with me.

Yes, my life is composed of small gestures that earn my keep in the world. By turns I’m an honorary auntie, a mentor in passing, a tour guide, a teacher, a problem-solver, a friend. I pour tea and break out my really good chocolate before drawing mind maps on newsprint spread over the floor. I listen to my friend and bring all my consulting experience to bear. The stuff I used to get paid big bucks for I now give freely. It’s no less valuable for it. In the midst of a family heavily populated with super-high achievers (a world class physicist, a nationally influential lawyer in mortgage lending) it’s hard not to compare.

Yet, I relax into my world of small gestures knowing that out of these I’ve created a life worth living. Out of these I’ve become a woman in my prime with time to just be.

Daddy Care: He labors in the grove of service

 

Janet and Pop

 

Pop leans back in his green lazy boy, a spoon of oatmeal balanced on the blue
Wedgwood bowl. His eyes drift to the cardinals flitting around the feeder slung from the Magnolia tree. The world is covered with ice.

“What the weather like today?” he asks.

“We didn’t get the deluge of snow they predicted but no one will be able to get up our hill. I’ve cancelled Hospice and your caregivers for the next two days. We should get a good melt by Wednesday.”

His face softens, and his head drops. Air puffs from his lips, and the oxygen hums.

“Don’t go to sleep on me, now.” I lean forward to place my hand on his knee.

He starts awake, and looks down at his oatmeal.

“What are thinking about?”

“A time I tried to help someone and it all went wrong.”

“Ah. Yes, I can think of a few of those times, too. You’ve dedicated your life to service anyway you cut it. The army is called the service. You served your family. You kept expanding the definition of your extended family. Anything we do a lot is bound to have some real humdingers.”

I go to the front room to fetch my book “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary”  from the shelves filled with family books. Grandma Annie’s “On the Heights.” Great Uncle Frank’s “Runes of the Red Race” and “Poems of the Piasa.” Bunches of books Pop wrote.

I go back to the table and I open the book to the poem “Treasure Chest” in the section about my father. 

 He labors in the grove of service.

Remembers flat tires, repaired.

Loans proffered for crises.

Then his somber face glows

with the light of a thousand-watt angel.

I look up at him to say, “That’s my father.”

 Memories of good turns returned

is a treasure he counts with care.

His treasure chest

of good deed stories is a full one.

 Bureaucratic stupidity

circumvented to better humanity.

If there is a fetching young woman

in the story charmed

with his wit, courtesy, and good sense,

why then, all the better.

“That’s my father,” I tell him.

 War stories as WWII platoon sergeant

overflow a section of his treasure chest.

Sure, my father earned a Silver Star for heroism in battle.

A Purple Heart commemorates his war wounds.

But memories of gratitude

from men he trained mean most to him.

 His eyes, slightly filmy from cataracts, mist over

as he tells battlefield stories not shown in movies.

Lying in a base hospital bed,

recuperating from shrapnel wounds and gangrene,

Pop met a man he trained.

“Sergeant Thompson,

I’m alive today

because of the things you made me learn.”

A buddy shivered next to my Dad in a foxhole.

“Tiger,

when I’m in a foxhole with you,

I feel safe.”

“You’re crazy!”

But, Christ! That’s really saying something.

Shells whizzing over-head and grenades exploding.

How could anyone possibly feel safe?

 Men in the barracks

brought in a local French girl to have some fun.

She needed money and food for her family.

These GIs could provide both.

They passed her from bunk to bunk

until morning came.

Then these men were stricken

with amnesia and sudden blindness.

She needed to get off the post fast.

My father, not part of the evening’s fun,

escorted her to safety

as if ushering his dance partner

to the edge of the floor

when the music stops.

Quiet sits between us when I finish reading.

“That’s from your poetry book?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a good one.”

“And that’s you, Pop, as close as I can get it.”

“Yup.”

He raises his spoon, and eats his oatmeal.

_____________

Janet Grace Riehl is the author of “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary,” and the audiobook “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.”  You can read more stories by and about her family Erwin A. Thompson at her blog Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century. Just use the search box and an amazing archive will pop up to keep you entertained all Sunday afternoon.