Forward

Even the camp robber offers solace at times like these.

The young man standing six feet behind me offers to buy my drink.

I’ve wandered up the river to Main Street to mail a letter at our small-town post office. Making an unplanned stop at the local coffee shop, I’ve asked for a golden latté and ginger scone. Rung up and ready to pay the shop’s one barista before she fills my order, I’ve realized my wallet must be sitting on the kitchen island back home.

Using my phone and Google Pay hasn’t worked. The barista has said it’s G Pay’s fault, because “it sucks.”

“I’ll catch that drink another time,” I’ve said, stepping aside to let the socially distanced man up to the counter.

He’ll have none of it. He wants to treat me to the latté. I refuse, especially when the barista reminds me I’ve also ordered a scone. “Which do you want, the drink or the food?” she asks.

Before I can answer, the man says, ”She wants both.”

I’ve moved through the morning as through jello. Every attempt at crisp, purposeful action has been stymied by grief. My 97-year-old father passed just after midnight, and I haven’t been back to sleep. Instead my mind has gone over everything that happened in his last hours, days, and months, things I could’ve done differently. Things I wanted to do differently but couldn’t or didn’t because of COVID.

Rivers have always offered solace, so walking the riparian path to mail letters seemed do-able. Nothing else did.

Along the high-desert stream, a thin strip of willow lines the water, yielding to the darker foliage of juniper and ponderosa pine farther back. Autumn had brought migrating songbirds back to the river canyon—birds I’d usually be stopping to count and name.

My father loved bird-watching, a pastime he learned from my mother. After she died decades ago, he carried on with birding in an interested but non-obsessed way. He loved to go with others and carry an old edition of North American Birds in his back pocket. Every once in a while, he’d pull out the book and point to an illustration of what he thought we were seeing.

The last time I birded with him, we were out at Point Reyes National Seashore with my brother Tim and my daughter Rose. This was many years ago, when Rose was very young. My day consisted of going from playing with Beanie Babies and reading picture books with her to standing outside my father’s VW van as Tim helped us identify raptors, shorebirds, and warblers.

At one point, a single, southbound hawk passed only a dozen or so feet overhead. “Merlin,” Tim called out. My father consulted his bird book, found the drawing of the gorgeous raptor, and showed it to me with a smile.

On the river after his passing, I looked for a signature bird to tell me his spirit was all right. No merlins so far. No quail, either, a species I also associate with him and his California home. Instead the raucous call of a Steller’s jay carries across the river from a bird hopping branch to branch in a large juniper.

The camp robber. During my childhood, Dad loved to cook pancakes, waffles, and popovers as his exclusive contributions to family fare. On summer vacation, during the one week of the year we had him 24/7 instead of sharing him with his big job and business contacts, he served one of his breakfast specialties to us four kids outside our rented, lakeside cabin. The Steller’s jays—noisy, shameless—wanted to make off with our bisquick-and-maple-syrup treats. We kids found the camp robbers rude but funny, their feather top-knots ruffling, their diversion tactics obvious but entertaining. Those picnic-table moments kept us in stitches. All while Dad served his griddle confections and grinned.

There were thousands such moments during my childhood. Dad made them happen. He and Mom seemed to enjoy bringing us up, whether four kids had been part of their grand life scheme or not.

The love inherent in a delighted childhood is something I can never repay. I can only pay it forward—to Rose, to friends, to nieces and nephews, to strangers. As the young man behind me did at the coffee shop, never knowing he was coming to the aid of a broken heart. On a morning when I least expected and didn’t even know I needed it, he didn’t blink above his COVID mask.

“She wants both,” he said—the food, the drink, the time to sit with them out on the empty patio before heading back downstream.


Find my recent book of essays, 2020 Nautilus Book Award Winner and 2019 Oregon Book Award and Foreword INDIE Finalist The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, 2019), at your local bookseller, Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

12 Comments

  1. This resonated beautifully with my experiences of a happy childhood, of raising my own kids, and serendipitous kindness from a stranger.. And oh yes, you just have to love those clever stellar jays. The camp robber

    • My dear Margie, I’m so grateful for the camp time we shared at Cazadero! Helping make happy childhoods for kids of all ages, among the redwoods. Much love to you and your family, Becca

  2. Thanks, Becca. I get so much pleasure out of the words you cast out into the world. bt

  3. Dearest Becca~~~If I could be like you, I’d be wrapped in Human Flesh, facing the outer world like most of the rest of us, but on the inside, my soul would be gently carved from the joys and pain of just living and the artistry of painting with words like no one else on earth to express it all. Do you know Vermeer? He painted like you write, each stroke flowing from his brush effortlessly, precisely, expressing the deepest pieces of his soul as he saw his world, without fanfare or exaggeration, but with the eyes of how it came to him, leaving its boundless beauty on the canvas. And sometimes with the raw beauty of hurt almost beyond description. This is how the pen and canvas within you place your words, open and without pretense. You don’t need pretense. You are stunningly beautiful inside and thank God you can’t keep it to yourself.

    • Dear Dmitri! Are you kidding me? No one could write a comment like yours without being gorgeous yourself. I always knew you were a morning star, the kind you sail “straight on til.” Thank you, thank you, for your kindness and your own artistry! I do know Vermeer and am touched more than I can express to be trapped in human flesh like his (and yours). xo always, Becca

  4. I loved this piece so much, Becca, I think I’ll read it again. Your writing flows like the rivers we love, and I sure enjoy riding along the currents of your words and the pictures and feelings they evoke. Look forward very much to when we meet again!
    JS

    • JS! Thanks for commenting! How great you feel the flow like our rivers — yes we need to meet again sooner than later and to ride the currents. And not end up on that blasted mossy rock midway down Blossom but to skate on by or over . . . much love, Becca

  5. Oh, Becca. Hugs to you from across the desert. This is impeccable writing, bringing loss and love and what we need to do for each other into crisp focus through your water lens. I love you sistah!

    • Thank you, Dear Kat. You’re an impeccable reader, to have seen so clearly what I was aiming for. Thanks for being my writing partner for so many years. Eagerly awaiting Desert Chrome! xo love you back, Becca

  6. Oh Becca, I am so sorry to hear that on top of all the other losses of 2020, you lost your father. Today is my father’s birthday, and I’ve been meditating on who he was in so many spheres, especially after watching/listening to the regular Wednesday online concert by slack-key guitar player Jeff Peterson, broadcasting from Hawaii. That might seem like a non-sequitur, but Maui is one of the places my dad was stationed during WWII, and so my connection to Hawaii is (in some ways) through his eyes and those long-ago experiences. We had the extraordinary blessing of going back to Maui when he was in his 80s, and revisiting some of those places together. Your father has given you so many gifts, of that happy childhood, of a loving vibrant family, of places and experiences shared in laughter and camaraderie. May those memories buoy you through the deep currents of loss. My heartfelt condolences to you, your siblings, and your whole family.

    • Dear Jeannine, how great to hear from you. I have missed our conversations and hiking–some of it so long ago! I read your words and yearned to be in Maui with you listening to slack key — and swimming, eating, exploring. How wonderful you have that rich connection to the islands. Thank you for your kind words about my dad. Yes I’m eager to put 2020 in the rearview, but I also know I must be cautious what I wish for! Sending love back from myself and my family, Becca

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