John Lennon sang the famous line, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Perhaps with that in mind, writer Liz Smith used her keen skill for documenting those in-between moments that make life so special. Smith has allowed us to publish three of her recent essays (A place to rest, Job satisfaction in the salsa aisle) in the May 9 - 15 issue of Real Change. We were so taken by her observations that we asked students in an advanced painting class at the Northwest College of Art and Design in Tacoma if they might be interested in illustrating these gems. Here are the results of that collaboration.
Back when our son was a toddler, my husband and I decided we would skip Thanksgiving dinner one year. I added up the figures and told him how much it would cost to buy everything. It would be hours and hours of cooking and dishes, and the baby didn’t know it was Thanksgiving. We would go hiking instead. Kevin took the car in to get all the tires, fluids and belts ready for the trip. I packed our lunch: baby formula, bottles, Cheerios, turkey sandwiches and two jars of strained turkey. We were all set.
Thanksgiving Day we got a good start around 11 a.m. Our driving route ran from Austin, Texas, to Enchanted Rock State Park, near Fredericksburg. It was drizzling and gray but not too windy or cold. We went through Oak Hill, Dripping Springs and Henly to Highway 280 South. Then we motored through Blanco to FM (farm to market) 1888 West.
As we drove along, we came upon a car on the side of the road. It was a gas-guzzling four-door sedan from the 1970s. There seemed to be a lot of people inside, and even at 60 miles an hour I could see at least two little children. A man was leaning back against the car holding a bright pink umbrella.
He looked like Gerard Depardieu in the movie “Jean de Florette” from “Mamon of the Spring and Jean de Florette” written by Marcel Pagnol: hopeless and bewildered, overcome by circumstance.
“Kevin, stop the car.”
Did I only imagine he pressed harder on the gas pedal?
“C’mon, let’s go back and see if we can help them.”
“No, I don’t want to.”
“Please. They have little kids. The same age as Scottie. What if they’re out of food or something?”
“It’s Thanksgiving day. It’ll be a nice memory to share with Scottie every year.”
Finally, he turned the car around and we pulled up behind them: two husbands and their wives, three children under the age of five. They were Hispanic. Oh, good, I thought, a chance to practice my extremely poor Spanish skills.
“¿Tu automóvil es mal?”
“Sí. The axle.”
He snapped his hands in half.
“Oh. Lo siento.”
“¿Cuántas horas aquí?”
Wow. Eight hours trapped in the car with all those energetic children. And all that time, the mothers were patiently tending to their fussy toddlers. Yet the adults were calm and serene, even smiling. No one had gotten killed in what must have been a terrifying car accident. Despite the lack of child car seats, no one had gotten a scratch. And there they were, stuck in their ruined car while America whizzed by on its way to eat and watch football. But there was no anger from these genuinely nice people.
We worked it out to carry one mom and one small child to a garage in Kerrville, where they could call one of their cousins. I told her I was sorry I didn’t have an extra car seat.
“It’s okay,” she told me. They fitted themselves into a small corner of our two-door Toyota, next to Scottie in his car seat. We shook hands and said our goodbyes to those we were leaving behind, then sped away from their misery and hard luck. Knowing his tendency to drive recklessly, I cautioned my husband to slow down and be more careful. We made it to Kerrville in about half an hour and dropped them off at a big garage — goodbye and good luck. I made a speech of lavish praise for what Kevin had done. Never mind that I’d had to beg, plead and nag. In the end I had achieved my goal.
Once we got to Enchanted Rock, we parked our car in the empty lot. Too bad, this was perfect hiking weather: no sun and easy, cool temperatures. We would never attempt a climb like this in July, especially with a 20-month-old baby. It can get up to 107 degrees and there’s no shade or vegetation. The park is two basalt granite domes, the larger one being 500 feet high and the other one slightly less. The entire thing covered about 640 acres, bigger than Discovery Park. Native Americans were said to have used the site for human sacrifices. Others refused to go near the place for fear of ghosts and spirits. Did we believe any of it that we’d read in our guide book? Who knows. Once we started climbing and were long out of sight of any people, Kevin and I started hearing noises. We agreed the noises were a cross between a strong wind blowing through the trees and people howling. We heard it all the way up, too, though there weren’t any trees above 200 feet, and the wind was hardly blowing.
Our little toddler, however, was exhilarated. Both of us all to himself, and this mountain to climb that was much better than the park we went to at home. By then it had stopped raining and all the boulders were dry and no longer slippery. We would boost him up to the next big higher rocks:
“Who’s a big mountain-climbing man? You are! Kevin, look how good Scottie can climb!”
“Wow, Scottie! Hey Liz, hand that big boy up to me.”
And so on and so forth all the way to the top. It was pretty fun. We found a safe place to sit and guard our baby from rolling down the hard rock dome. We had pillows and blankets, and looked out over a great distance as we sat and ate lunch. We wished we could build a house there. Texas used to be at the edge of a great inland sea, and it’s so flat. There are hardly any vantage points that give you such a picture of the geography. It was enchanting and restful.
The sun was starting down, and it was time to get going. We took a risk and descended a different way. So many new and more difficult rocks to climb down. We made it to the parking lot fifteen minutes ahead of some serious darkness. Good thing too, as we hadn’t brought flashlights. It felt great to be back in our reassuring car, with our baby sleeping safe in his car seat.
“Just think, we could be trapped in the kitchen scrubbing pots and pans.”
“So much better.”
“Yes, so much better.”
More essays from Liz Smith - A place to rest, Job satisfaction in the salsa aisle Check out the full May 9 - 15 issue.
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