Emotional Rollercoaster

Alone

In the middle of a crowded room

Silent voices scream for recognition

Fear

Twists guts into compressed clay

Paralyzing limbs, numbing throats

Degradation

Fills the ears of the emotionally injured

Ruining scarce moments of hard-fought joy

Depression

Carries sinking hearts into oblivion

Erasing memories of happiness felt

Hands

Reach out, begging for salvation

Yearning for one sign of love

Answers

Arrive in rain-soaked clouds

Pouring down tears of understanding

Compassion

Clears the night of unmasked terrors

Awakening remnants of esteem, long forgotten

Joy

Blooms in multi-colored bursts of words

Spoken, thoughts shared, kindnesses felt

Light

Seeps into crevices of the heart

Obliterating shards of self-doubt

Happiness

Explodes in multicolored bursts

Opening souls to welcoming voices

Surrounded

Encased

Enfolded

Alone no more

The Sound of Surprise

“It’s time for me to go,” Sunshine laughed as she tossed the last of her breadcrumbs to the ducks swimming around her legs.  Violating all rules, she had jumped into the duck pond, first splashing around like a child in the heat of summer, then reaching into a pocket of her shirt and pulling out a crushed bag of bread.  Wading in the murky water of the pond, the young woman sang in a clear soprano, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…”

Exuberant, lost in the moment, she spun in the water, moving as if enchanted by a water sprite, head tossed back, eyes closed, arms straight out with palms turned toward the sun.  She danced as she sang, circling closer and closer to a huge marble fountain spewing a constant spray of clear blue water.  She slid onto one edge, feet dangling in the duck-crowded water, arms raised, gathering the spray and pouring it over her hair, her face, and her arms.

“Young lady,” a bullhorn-enhanced voice traveled across the pond, awakening Sunshine from her play.  Looking around, she spied a park ranger, dressed in khaki uniform, standing parallel to the fountain.  “Young lady,” the ranger repeated, “please get off the fountain and walk to me.”

Sunshine laughed and waved a friendly “hello,” then resumed catching spray and pouring it over herself.

“Leave the pond now or you will be arrested.”

“I’m not doing anything wrong.”

“You’re breaking the law.”

“What law?  This is such a beautiful place to spend a hot afternoon.” Sunshine dove into the shallow water with the expertise of a master swimmer.  With strong strokes, despite the weight of her clothes, she quickly returned to her point of entry.  She ducked her hair into the water, smoothed it back over her head, and then stood.  She pulled her soaked peasant blouse over her head and then twisted it as tightly as possible, wringing out the water, unabashed by her nakedness.

“Please get dressed,” the ranger commanded. “Step up here next to me. You are creating quite a spectacle.”

She pulled her blouse over her head.  Imperiously holding out her right hand, Sunshine blessed the ranger with what would have been a regal smile were it not for her soaked clothes, matted hair, and dirt-streaked face.  “Help me, please.”

The ranger complied, as she knew he would.  Shee took in the ranger’s deep brown eyes, closely shorn hair, tight fitting sleeves, and bulky chest.  “Ranger Sanchez,” she said as she read his nametag.  “Too beautiful of a name for a government employee.”

“And you are…?”

“Sunshine.  That’s me.  Can’t you tell?  My father says I do.” The young woman twirled around, water flying from her skirt and hair, spraying Sanchez’s uniform.

“Miss Sunshine, you have broken at least ten park rules, but since you complied with my directives, I will not write you a ticket.  This time.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!  My father would be very upset if I got a ticket.  He really cares about that kind of stuff,” she said as she picked up her worn leather sandals and overstuffed backpack from the edge of the pond.

“Where are you going now?”

“I’m not sure.  I was thinking of just walking wherever the sun leads me.”

As Sanchez helped her settle her backpack into place, he said, “I hope you are not planning on camping in Central Park.  That is also against the law.”

“Of course not.  I have reservations at a hotel.  Why?  Are you asking me out for a date?”  She pouted, swaying suggestively.

Laughing, he took hold of her right arm and guided her away from the pond.  “I might.  If I said yes, what would you say?”

Clapping her hands and squealing with joy, she answered, “Yes.  I would say yes.  I don’t know anyone in New York except for some of the staff at the hotel.  We could go out to lunch and tour the city and maybe see a play on Broadway and then go to a nice restaurant for dinner.  Oh, would you do all that?”

“Miss Sunshine,” Sanchez replied as he bowed, “I would be honored to do all those things with you after you’ve had a bath and put on some clean clothes.  We can visit the zoo, walk through the flower gardens, and tour the castle.”  Sanchez led the still soaked woman down the cement path that wound its way to one of the many exits of the park.

“Oh, I am so excited.   This is almost as good as Christmas.  When can we go?”

“First, my name is David.  Second, I have Friday off.”

“ So do I,” she laughed.  “Fate has brought us together.  I feel it.  I was meant to feed the ducks and you were destined to greet me.”  Suddenly she wrapped her arms around David, squeezing him as tightly as a favorite teddy bear, and planted a delicate kiss on his right cheek.

“Hold on, you’re getting me all wet,” David laughed as he pushed her away.  “I’ll pick you up at noon, if that’s fine with you.  But I need to know where you are staying.”

A dark look flew across Sunshine’s face.  She frantically looked about, and seeing Dali’s Deli across the street, instantly brightened.  “I’ll meet you over there, at the deli.  We can buy sandwiches and picnic in the park.”

“Sure.  Why not?  What play would you like to see?”

“Can we see Rent?  Is it still playing?”

“Yes.”

“I would like that very much.  One of my friends has a part in the play.  I’d love to see her.  Just like high school days.”

Tipping his wide brimmed hat goodbye, David ambled down the path toward the pond.  He whistled as he walked, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…”

Once he was out of sight, Sunshine sped off.  She pushed through bushes, climbed over small boulders, squeezed through densely grown trees, seemingly with no direction in mind.  Eventually she came to a small meadow, where no light penetrated through the carpet of leaves overhead.  Placing her backpack against a large tree, she stretched out on the dirt floor, ignoring the crumbled detritus that quickly attached itself to her damp clothing.  She lay as if bewitched, frozen in place like the princess in an old story.

 

She dreamt of friends who had drifted away, leaving her behind.  At times laughing, others crying, she slept curled in a fetal position, her dreams playing games with her emotions.   At the screech of an overhead hawk, she abruptly awakened.  “I must go.  I’ll be late,” she said to herself.  She arose, picked up her backpack and pushed her arms through the straps.  Forgetting her sandals, she hurried away, heading east, knowing exactly where the path broke through the bushes, stopping only when she stood across the street from a grand old hotel.

She stood still for a moment, taking in the stone structure of one of the oldest hotels in New York City: the Park Plaza.  She loved its gray granite exterior, dark mahogany double doors, and circular stone steps that carried its patrons into a wonder world of beauty.  She felt as if the Plaza was her kingdom, to rule as she pleased, to live out her fantasies and revel in her dreams.

Dashing across the street, she bounced off the grill of a cab, fell against the side of a slow moving delivery van, and meandered through a maze of vehicles, until she arrived, slightly bruised, at the steps of the hotel, a smile of anticipation spread across her face.  Running up the steps as easily as a seasoned mountain climber, Sunshine brushed past the surprised doorman, and then flounced into the lobby.

She froze momentarily, as she always did, mesmerized by the hotel’s old world ambiance. Breathing deeply, Sunshine inhaled the orange-spiced furniture polish the staff used on the walnut tables and cabinets, the perfume of huge bouquets of flowers scattered about with seeming nonchalance, and the old, slightly musty smell of the Oriental carpets gracing the lobby floor.  It was as familiar to Sunshine as the smells of her home in San Francisco.

 

Taking a moment to scan the employees working in the lobby, she saw none that she knew. Disappointed, she headed for a quiet corner.  She spotted a group of rose-colored overstuffed armchairs near the front window, completely unoccupied, and shuffled over.  She slipped off her backpack and sat.

Her glow slowly returned as she watched a pair of hawks dancing on the air currents between the nearby buildings, the pair moving like old accustomed lovers responding to a song that only they heard. When they disappeared from sight, her eyes fastened on a Steinway grand piano to her left.  Sunshine ran over, pulled out the bench, and opened the lid. Closing her eyes, she launched into a series of compositions with the grace of a master pianist.

Her fingers caressed the keys.  A Mozart concerto drifted across the lobby as Sunshine’s tangled hair fell across her sunburnt shoulders. Her dirty bare feet worked the pedals as the music flowed, filling the lobby with the rise and fall of one piece after another.

The manager strode across the lobby; the tails of his tuxedo flapping like a jay’s wings.  As if sensing the manager’s approach, Sunshine jumped up and strode to a backlit display case.  Intrigued by a Swarovski elephant that seemed to lift its trunk in greeting, she waved in response.  Next she examined a collection of Ukrainian eggs on loan from a local collector, perfume bottles crafted by a French artist, and lace doilies made by fisherwomen on the island of Murano.

“Young lady,” the manager said in a starched voice, “what are you doing?”

She spun around, hands raised in a defensive position, knees bent and shoulders dropped.

“Please,” he hissed.  “You are creating a spectacle.”

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I was just looking around a bit.”  Tossing back her dirty hair, her unwashed neck was clearly visible.  “Sunshine.”

“What?”

“My name is Sunshine.”

“Perhaps you are in the wrong place,” the manager said, maintaining the requisite stiff demeanor while wrinkling his nose at her raw smell.  “The youth hostel is across Central Park, Miss Sunshine.”

She strolled to her backpack and pulled out her MP3 player with the manager nervously tagging along.  She plopped onto a pale rose ottoman as she pushed the earphones into place and cranked up the volume.  She leaned back until her hair touched the ornate carpet, her legs akimbo. The manager’s unobstructed view of her underwear caused him to sway.

She raised her arms over her head, placing one hand on each side of her hair. As her shirt rose, her abdomen slid into view, exposing her pierced navel and tattooed belly.

“Please, cover yourself.”

“Don’t you have anything better to do than stare at my butt?”

Then, springing to her feet like an acrobat on a trampoline, Sunshine stared at the manager.  “Oh, you must be Mario,” she squealed. “I heard you were gorgeous, but I didn’t expect an Adonis.”  She smiled what would have been a beatific smile were it not for her stained teeth. “My mother says you give excellent massages.  I’m desperately in need of one.”

Mario blushed a deep crimson, brushed imaginary lint from his impeccably pressed jacket, pulled his body stiffly upright, then said, “Your behavior is inappropriate for the Park Plaza.  You look as if you just trekked across the Mohave Desert.  You smell, your clothing is disgraceful, and you act as if you are deranged. And I will definitely not give you a massage.”

“Sunshine.  You forgot to use my name again.”

Miss Sunshine, you must leave now or I will call the authorities.”

“I think not, Mario,” she murmured, as tears pooled in her eyes. A steel-like resolve filled the young woman. With shoulders squared, she commanded, “Take my backpack to the desk, Mario.  I will check in now.”

“What?”

“I will check in now.” She strode to the desk, leaving a startled Mario behind.

Gingerly picking up the backpack by its shoulder straps, struggling with its weight, Mario followed the girl.  “I think you are mistaken,” he huffed as he got within speaking distance.

Sunshine silently marched to the front of the line, unbothered by the scalding looks of  patrons who covered their noses with monogrammed handkerchiefs, eyes agog.

“I would like to check in, please.”

Mario dropped the backpack next to the young woman’s feet. “We have no available rooms.”

 

Anger and hurt marched across her face.  Looking deeply into Mario’s eyes, tears unabashedly streaming down her face, she said, “I have a reservation.  I know that you are holding a room for me.  Please stop embarrassing me.”

“Take your filthy bag and leave,” Mario whispered as he picked up the desk phone.  “I am calling the authorities.  If you do not leave before they arrive, you will be arrested and charged with disturbing the peace.”

“What did I do?  Am I some thief or murderer?  My father’s a millionaire.  He holds majority shares in this hotel.” Staring into his eyes with the fierceness of a cornered lioness, she continued, “I am his daughter. I graduated from Harvard University, suma cum laude, with a PhD in Music Theory.”

“I am happy for you, Miss Sunshine.”

“My father is expecting me.  I promised that I would arrive early enough to bathe, put on a gown, and meet him for dinner in the Atelier at 7:00 when he finishes with the Board of Directors.”  She pushed Mario aside as easily as moving a feather, and placed her elbows on the check-in counter.  Smiling at the startled clerk, she cheerily said, “May I check in now?”

The clerk opened the reservation book on the computer. “I have no reservations for Miss Sunshine.”

“Sunshine is my nickname,” she laughed. “I am Sarah Smythe, daughter of Dr. Paul Smythe,” she proudly stated, blue eyes flashing.  “I believe he has the suite on the 22nd floor.”

The clerk smiled as the reservations popped up on the screen.  Mario’s face went from red to ghostly white in seconds.  As the clerk printed up the confirmation paperwork, he scuttled off to wave away the newly arrived police officers before unnecessarily intensifying the bizarre scene.  Sunshine seemed not to notice the commotion behind her, standing with one leg tucked inside the gauzy skirt, debris still clinging as if part of the design.

“Do you have some identification, Miss Smythe?”

“Oh, yes, of course” she said as she unzipped the top pocket of her backpack.  She pulled out a handmade beaded purse, and then reached inside for her driver’s license.  Handing it to the clerk as if giving out a hundred dollar bill, Sunshine held her head aloft like a princess examining her court.  “You see,” she said, “ I am Sarah Smythe.”

“Yes, I see that,” the clerk replied as she returned the license.  “Welcome to the Park Plaza Hotel. You are staying in the Royal Suite, as you know.  It’s a beautiful room overlooking Central Park.  You should find everything to your liking, especially the high-powered telescope, the 700 thread-count linens, and the Frette candles in the bath.”  Smiling, the clerk gave her the room key and then hastily turned away, barely suppressing the hysterical giggles that threatened to explode.

“Thanks,” Sunshine said.  “You have been very kind.” Picking up her backpack as easily as lifting a bag of taffy, she marched up to Mario, stopping inches from his face. “I suggest you treat your patrons with more respect.”

“Yes, Miss Smythe.”

“Have you ever heard the expression that you can’t judge a book by its cover?”

“Yes.”

“Learn it if you enjoy working here. And my name is Sunshine.  My father says I am the sunshine that brightens his day.  Remember that.”  She spun around, marched to the elevator doors, and pushed the button for the express car to the suite.  When the doors opened, she stepped inside, flouncing her tangled locks in a wave of triumph as the doors closed.

She maintained tight control as the elevator arrived at her floor, as the doors opened, and even as she stepped into the plush suite her family loved.  She walked through the living area, poked her head into her parents’ room, and seeing no one, deposited her backpack in the closet of her bedroom.  Only then did she allow the tears to flow.

Sunshine loved her world in San Francisco, where people dressed as they pleased and no one held her in disdain.  Amongst her family’s friends, she was not considered “bohemian,” but rather quaint.  Respected for her musical talent, she frequently entertained the many guests of her parents, both of whom were prominent physicians at UCSF Medical Center.  Even when guests dressed in tuxedos and formals, no one scoffed when she showed up wearing gauzy shifts or tie-dyed t-shirts and faded jeans.  Eccentric behaviors aside, Sunshine danced through life, bouncing from one adventure to another.

While New York City was high on her list of favorite places to visit, she had never had the opportunity to play the role of tourist, despite countless trips to join her parents at one conference or another.  She longed to meander about the city with a handsome man as guide, but every man she met was only interested in her family’s money.

Dressing in “hippie” clothes gave Sunshine permission to act outlandish, to step outside of her role of spoiled rich kid. On top of that, by not brushing her hair or changing her clothes, she didn’t have to worry about attracting potential molesters or kidnappers. Unfortunately it also kept away anyone who might have penetrated her disguise and found the intelligent, talented woman beneath.

In New York her only friends were the ducks in Central Park and some of the staff in the hotel suite.  Rosa took care of her clothing and room, while Miranda brought her tamales and rice and beans to make her feel at home.  Sometimes when Joey was the concierge on duty, he escorted Sunshine safely across the hectic streets, and then bought her a gelato at a deli before returning to work.

Realizing that it was almost time to meet her father, Sunshine dried her tears and stripped as she walked into the luxurious bathroom, dropping her clothes on the floor.  Rosa had left her favorite bath gel and shampoo on the side of the tub.  Miranda had pressed the black chiffon evening gown her father purchased for this evening. Everything was perfect, as it always was.

She tried to pull out the tangles in her hair, but it hurt too much.  “Rosa, are you here?  Miranda?  Is there anyone here who can help me?”

“Senorita Sunshine,” Rosa responded as she hurried into the bathroom, “I am here.  What can I do for you?  Oh, my goodness!  Look at your hair!  What have you been doing?  Your father would be horrified if he saw you like this.”  Rosa sat the girl on a chair in the dressing area, and then slowly brushed out the tangles.  “First you take a long bath and then I’ll brush out your hair.”

“I know, Rosa.  But I forget to bathe when I get distracted.”

“You must behave like a lady at all times.  You cannot run around like a homeless child.  This is New York City, Sunshine,” she said as she finished.  “Come, child, into the bath.”  Rose threw the filthy clothes into a laundry bag as Sunshine stepped into perfumed water.

Immersed in the steaming warmth, she meticulously cleansed herself from top to bottom.  Burning candles filled the room with a cinnamon fragrance, while the flickering lights created mesmerizing patterns on the pale pink tiles.

“It is time, Senorita,” Rosa called as she held up a white Turkish towel and enshrouded the now clean woman in its soft folds.  “You must get ready.  Your father has already called for you.”

“I met someone today,” Sunshine beamed. “His name is David and he works in the park and he’s taking me out tomorrow.  Isn’t that wonderful?”

“Talk to your father first.  What do you know about this David?  Put on your underclothes while I press your dress one more time.”

After Rosa left the bathroom, Sunshine picked up a new toothbrush and paste.  Just as she put the brush in her mouth, David’s pleasant face appeared in her mirror, standing protectively over her right shoulder, shimmering in the steam of the bath.  She reached up to caress the fingers that were not there, smiling as she felt the ticklish hair on the back of his knuckles.  “I’ll be there tomorrow, David Sanchez.  You won’t be disappointed.  I’m your kind of girl, and you’re my kind of guy.  I knew it the moment you shouted at me with that foolish bullhorn.” She finished dressing, then caught the elevator.

As she stepped through the doors on the lobby floor, her father’s face lit with pride.  Sunshine ran to his open arms and fell into his loving embrace.  After exchanging kisses, she deliberately marched past Mario.  Dressed in black heels, gown, and shawl, she was the picture of elegance.

During dinner her father described the antics of the Board members, spoke about his turbulent flight in which several passengers became nauseous, and trivialized a recent surgery to repair a little Guatemalan girl’s cleft palate.  Normally she would have listened intently to every word, but not tonight.

“You’re not here, are you, Sunshine?’

“What?”

“Something’s on your mind. I don’t think you’ve heard a word I said.”

“Yes, I did.  Well, I think I did, but I can’t remember anything except something about an operation.  I’m proud of you, Dad.”

“So, what’s on your mind that you can’t listen to your old man?”

Picking up her glass of ice water, she drew tracks through the condensation.  “I met someone and  I think he likes me.  We’re going to out tomorrow.”

“Were you wearing that hippie get-up?”

“Yes.  But he doesn’t care.  He smiled, Dad, and held my hand.  And laughed with me, not at me.”

“How do you know he is someone you can trust?  He might be a rapist or a murderer.  You know the oddball types that you attract.  I don’t know why you won’t date the men at the country club or from the Haight Street Clinic where you work.  You exasperate me sometimes.  I worry that you are going to get hurt.”

Reaching across the table, she held both her father’s hands and looked deeply into his eyes.  “I’ve tried dating those types, but they bore me.  They’re all looking for a little woman to keep at home and take care of the required two children.  I don’t want that.  Plus as soon as they find out who my parents are, all they love is the thought of marrying money. I want someone who loves living, someone who is a free spirit, someone who doesn’t know about my background and still loves me.  I think this guy might be the one for me.  I want to give him a chance, anyway.”

“Okay,” he sighed.  “But be careful.  Carry your pepper spray.  And don’t wear those foolish sandals.  Wear solid shoes for running in case something goes wrong.”

She scooped up a huge bite of her newly arrived penne pasta.

“Where are you going with this David?”

“Oh, he’s taking me on a picnic and a tour of Central Park, then to a play, and finally out to dinner.  He said we could see Rent.  Jesse has the lead role.”

“I’m excited for you, Sweetheart, and I hope that this David treats you well.  You deserve to be happy.”

They talked as they ate, sharing stories, their love for each other obvious to anyone within watching distance. After the waiter brought the check, Sunshine left her dad at the table and hurried outside for a quick look at Central Park.  “I’ll see you at noon,” she whispered.

She smiled at the evening concierge and at all the desk clerks as she strode past, reveling in their obvious pleasure in her changed appearance.  She called her elevator, rode upstairs, went into her bedroom, undressed, and crawled into her bed, thinking of David and all her hopes that he might, indeed, be the one for her.

Dreams filled her night.  At times she ran in terror from an assailant who followed her down the streets of San Francisco.  Sometimes she danced like Cinderella in a grand ballroom, swirling around and around with David.  Once she broke into a cold sweat and woke, feeling David’s strong hands holding her to the floor as he moved rhythmically on top.  Fighting to push him off, she awakened, shaking and crying.

Unable to return to sleep, Sunshine passed the rest of the evening looking through the telescope at the stars and the moon and at the nocturnal birds stalking their prey.

Miranda appeared shortly after nine.  “Good morning, Senorita Sunshine.  How are you today?” Miranda removed the bedclothes and the still damp towel, placing them in her service cart, then remade the bed to its normal pristine condition.  “You are so quiet.  You have been crying, yes?”

Without responding, Sunshine staggered into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, hoping to see David’s apparition once more.  Only her pale face, reddened eyes and tangled hair looked back.  She slowly went through her morning ritual, and then stepped into the bedroom to see what clothes Miranda had chosen for the day.  Finding a silk blouse and matching blue slacks, she balked.

Not wanting to flaunt her family’s wealth, she dug into her backpack and pulled out a wrinkled pair of light blue jeans and a bright yellow t-shirt with “Angel” embroidered in pink thread dancing across the chest.  She put on her hiking boots and wool socks. She left her hair hanging loose, beautiful waves cascading down her back.

“Goodbye, Miranda.  Wish me luck,” she said as she stepped into the elevator.  Humming as it flew downward, Sunshine hugged herself, reveling in the love that she knew David would throw her way.

When the doors opened, she bounded out of the elevator like a freed tigress, shouting, “Wish me luck, everyone!  I’m off on a date!”  Spying Mario, she flashed him a huge grin, gave him a thumbs-up, and then ran out of the hotel, not waiting for Joey to escort her across the street.

She flew into Central Park, past the zoo entrance, under the animated cuckoo clock, around the rose garden, and over to Dali’s Deli with the hopefulness of a small child.  Still beaming, she scurried around a family blocking the entrance and peered inside. No David.  She went up and down the aisles, thinking to find him picking out a bag of chips.  He was not there.  She looked in the refrigerated section, hoping he was selecting a chilled bottle of White Zinfandel.  He was not there.

Worried that her date might be waiting outside, Sunshine ran out of the store.  He was not there.  Spying a green plastic table and chairs, she sat with her back against the wall, in position to see David approach.  Eyes pooling, she watched a nanny escort two small children into a playground just inside the park gates.  She chuckled as a young jogger dragged a Labrador puppy on a leash, jerking to a stop every time the dog found something intriguing to smell.  But still no David.

Her head fell onto her crossed arms and she sobbed a heart-wrenching cry.  Shoulders shaking, ribs aching, her grief filled the afternoon.

“Excuse me, Miss.  May I sit here?”

Responding automatically, she said, “Sure. No one else wants one.”

“Aren’t you happy to see me?”

Looking up, Sunshine discovered none other than her father sitting across from her, smiling and eyes sparkling.

“My meeting was cancelled, so I was hoping to spend an afternoon with my favorite daughter.  How about it?”

 

“Well, you’re not the man I longed to see, but I am pleased you came,” she said as she wiped away the tears with the hem of her shirt.

“Do you think you could spend the afternoon with your old man?”

“Yes.  Thanks, Dad, for coming.”

“Anything for my Sunshine.”

“How did you know where to find me?”

“I asked Joey,” her father laughed.  “He said you love the iced gelato they sell here.  Come, my darling. A picnic and a play and an evening on the town awaits us.”  He stood and offered his arm, humming, “You are the sunshine of my life….”

 

Survivor

Weather-wise, there was nothing special about the day. No rain. No snow. Or smog or fog. Or heat waves radiating over the road. Nothing but feathery clouds scattered across a bright blue sky.

Stan Ellis sat right behind his father who drove staring straight ahead, one arm draped on the armrest, the other loosely gripping the steering wheel. Stan was too young to understand the mechanics of driving. At eight all he cared about was getting there. Sometimes he paid attention to whatever was happening outside the car, but mostly he read or listened to his parents talk or followed along with whatever song came on the radio.

On this day, July 14, they were going camping at Hebgen Lake somewhere near Yellowstone. Stan’s family had never been there before, but that was what made it special. They loved to check out new places and this was one that they’d heard good things about.

Stan’s mom had planned out the details. Food. Campground. Packing the station wagon. She had given Stan a list of stuff to bring and he had packed all that and more.

One thing his mom loved was music. Their station wagon was old, so it didn’t have a CD player. Only a radio. So his mom was constantly searching for a station that came in loud and clear.

Whenever a news program came on, his parents rehashed every topic. Stan didn’t understand politics and didn’t really care. Instead he read. He was currently immersed in a Louis L’Amour book, Down the Long Hills, a story in which a wagon train is attacked, only two surviving. Two kids. A seven-year old and a three-year-old. He imagined himself being there, hiding during the attack, then trying to survive on his own.

Just like the kids in the book, he would have to keep moving, searching for help, building shelter, finding food. Stan thought he would be thoughtful like the older kid, for he had grown up camping and hiking. But would he be too terrified to think clearly? Hopefully he’d never have to find out.

The road climbed into the hills, twisting and turning. His father complained about his limited view, fearing that a careless driver would cross the dividing line or that something would jump out in front of the car or that something would go wrong mechanically and he would lose control. When his dad worried, things got quiet. So no radio, no conversation, just tension.

When it happened Stan wasn’t paying attention. He’d leaned back and closed his eyes, picturing himself alone in the wilderness, searching for berries, not afraid, but approaching each task in his usual logical manner.

When the car suddenly swerved to the right and the tires screeched, he sat up, instantly alert. The crash jolted him, sending him forward, banging his head against the back of his father’s seat, then flinging him backward into his own, hurting his neck and shoulder. Shattered glass flew everywhere.

When the noise stopped, Stan realized that they were jammed up against the hillside to the right, the front caved-in, the windshield spider-webbed. Stan leaned over the back of his father’s seat and saw blood pouring down his mom’s forehead, the funny angle of his father’s neck. Stan knew enough from watching television shows that his parents were in bad shape. Possibly even dead. The only hope for their survival was him.

He slid across the seat and climbed out on the right side, forcing the door open with his feet. Once he was free, he surveyed the situation. The other car, a silver Honda, was jammed against the left side of their car. That driver was immobile, just like his parents. Stan looked inside that car and noticed that the man’s legs were at funny angles. And blood was everywhere.

Knowing he needed to have a strategic plan, Stan found a good sized boulder and sat in the sun. His first thought was that his parents would wake up and tell him where to go and what to do. But as time passed and they didn’t wake up, Stan figured he was on his own.

He got his bag out of the back seat, then took off down the road, heading back where they had come from. As he walked he sipped from his canteen, but also kept an eye out for a fresh water source.

The road wound down and down, twisting around one hillside, then the other. He never saw any traffic. Stan got tired, but knew he couldn’t quit. Too much was at stake.

Night approached. Stan saw no lights of nearby buildings, no indication that anyone was about, so he turned into the woods to seek shelter. The kid in the book used low-hanging tree branches as shelter, so that’s what Stan looked for. He found none, but he did find a hollowed-out tree with an indentation just big enough for him to squeeze into.

Before it got completely dark, he gathered fallen leaves into a body-sized pile for him to sleep on. Then he carried more over to use as covering. Even though it was summer, it would get cold as the night progressed.

Stan was normally a brave kid. He stood up to bullies when a little kid was being picked on, he volunteered to go to the blackboard whenever he could, and he explored his neighborhood with friends, always the leader. But this was different. At home he knew his parents would be waiting for him, dinner cooked, a soft bed, a warm embrace.

Out here he was on his own, and as it became darker, Stan lost confidence in his ability to survive. Every sound terrified him. Every snap of a twig was a predator coming to eat him. Every grunt was a gun-toting killer. Stan shook from head to toe, and not just from the cold.

He pushed himself as deep into the tree as he could, then covered himself with leaves, only his face sticking out. He hoped that he was invisible to whatever evil forces were out there. And when he got cold, he curled up, trying to contain his body heat as best he could.

When the sky lightened, Stan stood and brushed off as many of the leaves as he could. He picked up his bag and headed downhill, moving as quickly as he could. He was hungry, thirsty and tired, but he kept moving, taking only the tiniest sips of water in order to make what he had last as long as possible.

The land flattened out, thankfully, and off to the left Stan saw a ranch. When he got to the dirt road that seemed to be its driveway, Stan picked up his pace. He listened for charging dogs, not wanting to be bitten before he could get help for his parents.

Laundry swung from a rope line stretching from a pole to the barn. The buildings were bright white with green trim and seemed to be in good repair. No rusted-out vehicles or appliances were visible. Flowers bloomed in trim gardens running along the driveway. There was nothing threatening, nothing that indicated danger, so Stan approached.

Just as he was about to go up the first step, the door opened. A grandmotherly woman smiled at him. “Whatcha doin’ out here, young man?”

Stan told her about the accident and about the condition of his parents and the other driver. He held back the tears that threatened to fall, but it was hard. He thought of the kids in the book and how brave they had been. He wanted to show this woman that he was also brave.

“Come in,” she said. “Would you like some lemonade?”

“No, thanks. Can I wait out here?”

She smiled. “You’re a smart boy. I wouldn’t go inside a stranger’s house either. How about you sit on the porch while I phone the sheriff and then bring you something to eat and drink?”

“Thanks, ma’am. That would be great.” Stan sat in a rocking chair to the right of the door. He thought that someday he’d want a chair like this one, out on a porch so that he could look out over his land.

The woman returned with a glass of lemonade and a tray of sandwiches and cookies. “The sheriff is on his way. He’ll go up the mountain first to check on your folks. The ambulance is also coming. And the doctor.” She sat in the chair next to Stan. “Is there anything I can get you? A blanket or a jacket?”

“A blanket would be nice,” he said. “And can I use your bathroom?”

“Sure.” The woman opened the door, saying, “It’s down the hall. Second door on the left. I’ll wait out here so you feel safe.”

After using the toilet, Stan looked in the mirror. He had a cut in his forehead, but it wasn’t deep and had already quit bleeding, but it was bruising. Purple and blue and red radiated out across his face. He looked as if he was wearing paint for Halloween. Stan wondered if he looked that bad, what did his parents look like?

Stan didn’t see the sheriff go by, but he did hear the siren of the ambulance. The wait for information was horrendous. He rocked, ate, maybe even slept after he wrapped the blanket around himself.

In time, in what felt like late afternoon, the sheriff drove up. He knelt before Stan. “Hi,” he said. “Were you in that accident?”

Stan nodded. “How are my parents?”

The sheriff sighed as he put his large hand on Stan’s shoulder. “I have bad news. Both of your parents are dead. The only consolation I can offer is that they most likely died right away, with very little pain.” He sat next to Stan. “Now, let’s figure out what we can do for you.”

“Okay.”

“Who should we call to come get you?”

Stan thought for a bit. He knew he had aunts and uncles somewhat nearby where they lived, but he seldom saw them. His mother’s parents were both dead. All that was left was his dad’s parents. “My Grandpa and Grandma Ellis live near Bozeman.” He dug in his bag and pulled out a spiral notebook. He opened it to the back cover. “Their phone number is right here.”

“Can I borrow this?” the sheriff asked. Stan handed it to him and then the sheriff went inside. After a few minutes he returned, a smile on his face. “Well, the good news is that they were home. They are leaving now to come get you. Mr. Ellis said it would take them a few hours, but they wouldn’t stop along the way.”

The sheriff looked at the woman. “Ma’am, thanks for taking care of the boy. I told his grandparents that he’d be at my office, so we’d better leave now.”

Stan smiled at the woman. “I never asked your name.”

“Mrs. Willoughby. My friends call me Norma.” She handed Stan a slip of paper. “That’s my number and address. If you need anything, no matter how small, send me a note or give me a call. You hear?”

“Thanks,” Stan said. He followed the sheriff down the stairs and got into the back seat. On the way into town, the reality of what had happened hit Stan. Tears poured down his cheeks. He mourned his mom and dad, his home, his friends, his school, all the things that were gone.

Life with his grandparents would be good because they were kind people. Whenever he visited them, he was allowed to roam the ranch at will, as if it was his. Now it will be.

Gift Giving

From the time I was a little girl I loved giving gifts much more than getting them. This applies to all occasions, not just Christmas.

Why? I love watching the expressions on faces as they open each item. It thrills me when the person’s eyes light up and a smile graces their face. It lets me know that I have chosen wisely.

Therein lies the problem. I love the thrill of the hunt: finding just the right gift for each individual on my list. Flannel pjs for the grandkids? Perfect. New shoes for Mike? Yes.

I leave home with something in mind to search for. If I’m lucky, I’ll find it in the right size and color and at a discount! Yippee.

On the way I might find other things that tickle my fancy but had never entered my sphere of interest. That makes the trip worthwhile. Finding wonderful things to give to the people I love.

I’m not as excited about wrapping as I used to be. In the past each gift would have tied with a color-coordinated ribbon and topped with a bow. I might start out that way, but as time passes and my back begins to hurt, I give up on fancy and go with simply getting the job done.

Since all my kids and grandkids live far away, I have been spared hours of wrapping. I do online shopping and so packages are delivered in brown boxes or green plastic bags. Certainly the excitement for the recipient has been downgraded as there are no colorfully wrapped gifts from me under the tree, but the idea is still there. I have thought of them, chosen something, and had it sent to them.

I also love gifts for myself, but the act of unwrapping them in front of an audience intimidates me.   I don’t like being the center of attention, everyone focused on my eyes and lips, waiting to see if I smile.

Interesting dichotomy, right? What I enjoy most about being the giver is what I dislike the most about being the recipient.

One good thing about getting older is that there are fewer opportunities to open gifts in public. For many years now it’s been just my husband and I on Christmas Day. An audience of one.

We work hard to find appropriate gifts for each other. Mike gives hints…but mostly it’s me telling him what to buy me, where to find it, what it looks like, how much it should cost. He’s great at following suggestions. In fact, he loves it when I practically outline for him what would be nice gifts for me. But sometimes he surprises me.

For example we often pass a jewelry store on our walks about the neighborhood. One time I spotted a necklace that I liked. No price was posted so I didn’t know if the jewelers prices were reasonable or not. I never told Mike to buy it, but one time we went past and it was gone. Imagine my surprise when I unwrapped a box and found it nestled within!

When I was a kid my family had an interesting unwrapping routine. Each of us would hold a gift in our laps. At a nod from my dad, we ripped off paper, ribbons and bows altogether. The item was revealed, hopefully appreciated, then we moved on to the next box. There was little giving of thanks or admiration. It was open, open, open.

My husband’s family, however, had a different ritual which we adopted for our family and still follow today.

We each hold a gift in our laps. One person opens their gift, we appreciate it, give thanks to the giver, then move on to the next person. It is a slow process. When our kids still lived with us, opening gifts could span hours with breaks in between to eat breakfast, stoke up the fire, go to the restroom, get something to drink.

I loved it. Instead of the mad dash that I grew up with, there was now a patient revealing. It allowed me to do that which made me happiest about gift-giving: watching the faces of those I had chosen gifts for.

Today I began the wrapping of gifts. My first gifts are for an exchange tomorrow. Each time had to be Christmas-themed and under ten dollars total. Since I am a great sale-shopper, I found awesome things that stayed under the limit. I can hardly wait until tomorrow when the exchange happens.

I then wrapped the gift for the teenager from the church’s giving tree. She only asked for leggings, but she’s getting two books and a gift card as well. Each of them is wrapped and nestled into one large box. I wish I could see her face when she gets to unpackage all those things! I hope she is excited.

During this time which can be hectic, please reflect on how you feel about gift-giving. Which part excites you the most? The hunt? The wrapping? The giving or the receiving? Or maybe all of it!