Tuesday, August 19, 2014

one ordinary life

The trail along the Salmon River offered cool shade that August afternoon. Countless trees, some of them wider than I am tall, others just fledglings, flanked both sides of the river. My eyes landed on a massive trunk and I craned my neck to see its towering top. If that one tree wasn't here, how different this stretch of trail would be! You could almost miss it, the expanse of dull brown bark beside the trail. But it's absence would change everything. Beside the path on either side, leafy ferns crowded together in the shade of the tallest tree, safe from the sun's scorching rays.

Salmon River, Oregon. Photo: C Imes
I climbed down the bank and walked on the stones, worn smooth by centuries of melting snow. Glancing across the water, I noticed a fallen tree. The steep bank where it once stood proudly had been washed downstream, lacking roots to trap topsoil. I stood there, pondering. You could certainly take a tree like that for granted, one of many, until it is gone. The refreshment of a hike through the woods depends on a great number of ordinary trees, growing up side by side, steadily reaching heavenward and shading the earth with their spreading limbs. (Just outside the national forest, on the drive home, lay evidence of mass destruction, several acres hacked to the ground all at once, with their bloody stumps baking in the summer sun.)

Who are the shade-givers in my life -- the ordinary people whose faithfulness makes this world a place worth living? Good neighbors blend in with their surroundings, seeming ordinary enough. But if we pause to imagine life without their stability -- their day-in-and-day-out caring for their corner of the world -- we discover what a difference they make. Subtract one tree and you have a hole in the sky, fewer branches for nesting, the topsoil washes downstream. A bleak landscape gradually replaces the forest. The exposed branches of neighboring trees grow dry and brittle...

My mind drifts back to Hudson Street, the place I called home for the first 9 years of my life. I can still smell it -- the wholesome aroma of Suzie's bread wafting across the street. It's been almost 30 years, but I can still taste the soft buttered slice, fresh from her oven on baking day. Suzie's hands and face and apron smudged with white flour as she answered the door bell. Warm lumps rising in the oven. Then punching and pulling and rolling the dough until it was just right for braiding.

I can still hear her voice, strong and warm, with its European lilt. Swiss neighbors, like swiss chocolate and swiss bread, are hard to forget.

Is that why I've always felt a part of me come alive at the smell of fresh bread baking? It takes me back to those innocent days -- sandboxes and swings, gardens and neighbors who cared. There were others who didn't -- who were more likely to be drunk and yelling than pulling out their knee-high weeds, but Suzie and Marion made up for the whole lot. They were the stately oaks across my Hudson who kept the rich topsoil from washing away. It was their shade under which I flourished and grew. I know Suzie prayed for us then and still does.

I braided my first loaf the other day and thought of Suzie. Her steady demeanor, her no nonsense, no drama way of life. Her long, black (now white) tresses that I only rarely saw loose, when she brushed them. Every day she braided and twisted them into a bun on the back of her head. Suzie and Marion were nosy in the kindest way. "Mare" used to let himself into our backyard each day to check our thermometer and our vegetable garden, as if he didn't have enough of his own garden, bursting with produce. My brother, John, used to stand with his toes right up to the tippy edge of the sidewalk and call for him, "Mare! Mare!"

I'm guessing Suzie canned lots of things and cooked up a storm. But all I remember is her braided bread, for me one of the most delicious smells of childhood. (I wonder -- is her kitchen valance still hanging? -- the one stuck to the wall with the chewing gum I chewed just for her?)

A cherished visit with Suzie and Marion in 2005
I realize now that some of the houses I've imagined while reading books are really Suzie's house, with its galley kitchen looking out over the back yard, its family-sized table off the living room where her children ate their meals growing up, and where John and I sat after they were grown and gone, to fill our mouths with bread still hot from the oven. The piano with a hymnal close at hand. The living room with its inviting circle of couch and chairs. The box of children's books waiting to be read.

My world was a better place because of Suzie. She may be ordinary, but without her my life would have had an empty place. Suzie sheltered us on Hudson Street, providing a safe haven in a broken world. Her bread nourished the body and her company nourished the soul.

Never underestimate the power of an ordinary life well-lived.


  1. Carmen, I never fail to gain value of many sorts - spiritual, emotional, practical - from your posts. This one moved me deeply. I long to be a shadegiver for others even as some have been that for me. Thank you for reminding us of the power of an "ordinary" life.

  2. Maggie,
    To say that you and Mike have given us shade would be the understatement of the year. Thanks for standing tall and strong for us! We're so grateful!