Flowers and Tea in the Winter Mountains

During the past week, our house has been bustling with the arrival of our oldest daughter, visiting from university, and the departure of our youngest daughter on a French exchange program to Quebec.  Sitting down to write has been a luxury I couldn’t afford, so the words have been filling me to overflowing, inside.  A few days ago, while shopping in Safeway, those words had nowhere else to go, so they started spilling out of my ears.  In the floral section. Luckily, I carry a little notebook for just such occasions, and I caught them before they were lost (something Hashimoto’s has taught me – write it down or lose it forever).
Driving to Safeway takes an hour, so I usually take my time, wandering the aisles to make sure we have everything we need before making the long journey home.  At the end of the produce section, I found myself surrounded by flowers.  As I ventured further into the arrangements and noticed all the tulips and lilies,  my heart lifted with the realization that Spring was around the corner.  Living so far north, this is the time of year when it feels as if Winter will go on forever.  So I indulged myself by wandering around the flower section, picking up the heavy glass vases, picturing the long-stemmed blooms I could arrange, and where I would place them in my apartment.  I gently stroked the glossy leaves of the orchid plants, reminiscing about my house in Hawaii, filled with all varieties of those beauties that my husband would bring home to me every few weeks. Large baskets filled with luscious ferns, hung from iron hooks, green tendrils tickling my ears as I brushed by.   All around, the damp smell of healthy plants in rich soil made me feel homesick for something I couldn’t place my finger on…
Then I found wide pots filled with assorted bulbs; crocuses, tulips, and hyacinths.   They were slightly over-bloomed, the hyacinth stem drooping with the weight of the heavy blossom clusters. But I knew they would smell heavenly, so I leaned in and nestled my face amongst the petals.  A deep inhale of the heavy perfume…and I found myself in Bedfordshire, England, with my best friend, Connie.  We were taking one of our days off from working in the AAFES Base Exchange store on RAF Chicksands, and enjoying a day visiting garden centers.  Our lives as Air Force wives would have been very boring, if it weren’t for the small miracle of meeting each other.  When I interviewed her for a job in the Shoppette, I remember thinking how nice it would be to have such a fun friend.  She was just a young girl like me- barely 20 or 21, freshly returned from her honeymoon with her high school sweetheart, but smart as a whip, feisty, and quick to smile.  She had long, chestnut brown hair, that fell in wild waves of corkscrew curls, and startling blue eyes that never ever missed a thing.  It’s funny how appearances fooled me into thinking, “high school cheerleader, popular crowd – maybe not interested in being friends with an oboe-playing band geek who liked to read cookbooks for fun and prune roses for kicks.”  Lo and behold, both Connie AND her husband Dan had been band geeks, they loved to cook, and had the same goofy sense of humor I thought I was alone in possessing.  Our husbands worked crazy schedules on base; 3 days of day shifts (7am-3pm), 3 days of mid shifts (3pm-11pm), 3 days of swing shifts (11pm-7am), then 3 days off.  In the beginning, Connie had to wait for base housing, and she and Dan lived in a spider-infested townhouse in a village called Sandy, about 30 minutes from RAF Chicksands.  To escape the dark rooms filled with spiders, we would explore garden centers on our days off from the BX, where we both had transferred to work.  The garden centers were enchanted places where you could wander greenhouses filled to the rafters with plants of all varieties and sizes.  They also had gift shops stocked with gardening books and beautiful pottery to drool over.  But best of all, every garden center had a cozy little area where customers could enjoy high tea.  Some teas were fancy, with scones and clotted cream, and some just offered small sandwiches and strong, sweet, milky black tea from chipped teapots with knitted tea-cozies.  It didn’t matter what the weather was like outside (usually chilly and mostly wet), because inside we were warm in the greenhouse, surrounded by bright flowers and the pleasant muted clinking of our china cups in their saucers.  I  remember that we were always too poor to buy many things (our husbands were brand-new enlisted airmen – we would have had more income on Welfare), but we always had a few pounds to buy a pot of tea and maybe share a sandwich or some sausage rolls.  And wandering the garden centers, paging through the books and looking at, touching, and smelling the flowers were always free.  
Connie and Dan eventually secured base housing, and were given a unit just a few hundred yards behind my house.  With our husbands’ shifts keeping them in permanent sleep deprivation, Connie and I had to occupy ourselves with few resources. Living on the economy was very expensive, and simple things like going out to dinner or the movies weren’t luxuries we could all afford very often.  So we learned how to cross-stitch.  And we learned how to cook.  To this day, Connie’s Spaghetti Carbonara is the best sauce I have ever had.  Pancetta, red wine, beef,  sauteed onions, garlic and carrots, all married together for hours, then finished by pureeing and stirring in silky cream.  I could drink the whole pot of sauce if I didn’t have to share it… I tried to convince her that we could open a restaurant and only serve her spaghetti and my beef stroganoff and get RICH!  She would laugh and flap her oven mitts at my foolishness, but to this day, I know people would pay good money for our food – if only they could taste it first.  
Once in a while, if our husbands’ off days and swing shifts would coincide,  we would splurge and take the train to London. The 4 of us visited Madame Toussad’s Wax Museum, dallied in Harrod’s, and stood at the gates of Buckingham Palace.  I remember always having a difficult time breathing in those places, not quite believing I was actually travelling in a city that was older than my native country.
Every Saturday at 6:45pm or Sunday at 9:45am, Connie would say, “Okay, I’m running to Mass – I’ll be back in about an hour.”  Whether she was at my house or I was at hers, she went.  Her husband and I, both baptized but never raised by families to practice our faith, would wheedle and whine to keep her from going, but she would just smile and say, “I gotta go!  I’ll be right back!”  There was no Bible thumping or preaching – she went because she wanted to go.  My father is Agnostic (in my opinion, a very pretentious way of saying, “I dunno”) and my mother was just paranoid.  She was baptized as a baby (some Missionary must have convinced someone in her family, but never followed through with the rest of the faith lessons) but it meant nothing, as not one of them attended Mass or even discussed any faith in the household.  She also believed in Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, among other things.  Basically, it felt like my mother wanted all bases covered, in case she died and one of the faiths was actually true, so she had all of us children baptized at birth.  In any case, both parents were too lazy to physically bring us to churches to explore faiths, so they always told us, “You decide what you want to believe in when you grow up.”  I went to an Episcopal boarding school one year.  It was my first time in a church, and I was enthralled by the architecture, the acoustics (I sang in the school choir), and the hushed air when the minister spoke.  The hymns were my favorite part, though, which made me think that perhaps I wasn’t feeling the message I was meant to receive from the Episcopalians. So I asked Connie, “Why do you go to church?”  At first, she laughed and told me that when she was little, her mother would get tired of the kids whining about going to Mass on Sundays and would yell, “Get up and come to Mass, or you’re all going to Hell!”  Then I said, “Why do you keep going now?  You could sleep in, or we could keep watching that show on tv, or we could all have a glass of wine – why do you feel you have to go to Mass, now that you’re grown up and Mom doesn’t need to nag you?”  She grew still as she thought about it, a little crease forming between her eyebrows.  Then she said, “Well, I think I go to say thank you.  God gives me every day of my life – every minute of every day.  And I have a really good life.  I’m healthy and happy, and I have a wonderful husband and a good job.  For all those days in my life, I think it isn’t too much for God to ask me to go to Mass for just one hour. An hour is such a small amount of time to say thank-you for everything He gives.”
For weeks, Connie’s words rattled about in my head.  Finally, I worked up the courage to ask her if I could come with her one time, to see what Mass was like.  She agreed and said I was totally welcome, but there was a little rule that I wouldn’t be allowed to partake of Communion because I wasn’t a fully initiated member of the church.  I thought, “that’s okay.  I’m just curious.”  Following her to Saturday night Mass was curious, indeed.  Upon entering the small wooden, multipurpose chapel on base, Connie dipped her fingers in a little basin of water (Holy Water, she explained), and genuflected with her dampened fingers; gently touched forehead, then sternum, then left shoulder, then right. I imitated her, the water leaving a cooling spot on my forehead. There were only a few other people there, so the carpeted chapel was very quiet. We slid into the wooden pews, and Connie pulled out the padded kneeling bench by our feet, and knelt.  She bowed her head and became very still.  I looked around at others doing the same, looked up on the alter to the large crucifix, studied Jesus’ bowed head.  And the pianist asked us to open our Catholic Book of Worship (hymnals) to a certain number, and we began to sing.  The music was meh.  But then there were readings from the bible.  2, to be exact.  It was a bit difficult to understand, because I was slightly nervous from all the rising and the sitting, and the responses to prompts that I was a stranger to.  Then the priest began his homily.  I figured out that after a reading from the Gospel, the priest does a homily to explain the Gospel in layman’s terms.  I could never have prepared myself for Father Ryan, though.  Here was a spritely little man in his mid-fifties, glasses on his nose, talking about how great the Rolling Stones are…what?!  He had us laughing and answering questions, and next thing I knew, I felt a “click.”  I started tagging along after Connie to every weekly Mass.  Eventually, perhaps feeling left behind, her husband joined us. Not once did Connie nag us, not once did she preach.  She just lived her faith, and we lifted ourselves to reach the level she seemed to glow from. The rhythm of prayer and response, song, and readings, began to feel comfortable and easy.  Every week, we all gave each other a sign of Peace during Mass, by shaking hands after the Lord’s Prayer, and wishing each other, “Peace be with you.”  And every time that happened, I felt the peace wash over me and I felt strong and refreshed, ready for a new start to a new week.  Dan and I went through the RCIA program and were both given our First Communion and were Confirmed on Holy Saturday Night before Easter that year.  
Within one month of each other, Connie and I found ourselves expecting our first babies.  Soon after, however, our husbands were reassigned to the U.S.  Connie moved to Maryland, and I moved to the armpit of Texas: San Angelo.  The best part of living in San Angelo (the ONLY part) was that my daughter was born there.  The rest is a blur.  Connie’s baby boy was born 11/12/92, and my daughter was born on 12/13/92.  She made me the Godmother, and I made her and Dan the Godparents.  She and Dan came for a visit when the kids were 3 months old – we celebrated Easter together and for a few days it felt like no time had passed.  Luckily, it turns out we have that kind of friendship, because 17 years went by before we saw each other again.  We tried to keep in touch, but life gets busy with jobs and kids, divorce, and moving.  Years later, I found myself in Colorado for a high school reunion, and Connie and Dan drove to my hotel to bring me to their new home.  Connie’s hair was blond, Dan’s was all salt and pepper, and mine was falling out, but as soon as we started talking, we were in our 20’s again, laughing and joking and comparing kids. Their son and my daughter, although raised apart since they were 3 months old, have turned into mirror images of each other.  We alternate between wanting to hug them and wanting to strangle them.  Connie confides in me that she has had ups and downs with her son, as I have had with my daughter, but through it all, she maintains an inner peace I wish I could find.  She gets angry like a normal person, but she bears no resentment, like I do. For her, forgive and forget go hand-in-hand.  That’s something I need to work on…  They also got on a plane and flew out to Canada to visit me a couple of years ago.  It’s so strange and wonderful to me, each time we are reunited, to find that nothing has changed.  Connie is still the kind of person that I strive to be.  She is patient and kind, she is forgiving and loving.  As I age, I realize how important it is to surround myself with people that I look up to; people who teach by example.  But there are very few people I meet that inspire me to be a better person, while making me laugh and appreciate life at the same time. I’m sure I am describing every Best Friend in the world, but this is different, because this is my Best Friend.  Since I get more discerning as I age, I find myself choosing to be alone, rather than have shallow friendships. If it weren’t for Facebook and FaceTime, linking me to the friends I have held on to, and to my Best Friend, I think I might go crazy in this winterscape called Jasper.  I mentioned the Girl Scout organization on Facebook, a couple of weeks before Lent, praising it for its liberal views, and the next thing I know, a huge box arrives in the mail from Connie, full of Girl Scout Cookies (and other goodies).  All it was missing was a big pot of steaming tea, strong, sweet, and milky hot.  And Connie.  And a warm greenhouse full of flowering plants…
I blink, look down, and find myself holding a little pot of deep purple african violets.  The dark green leaves are impossibly soft, covered in velvet that begs to be touched.  I look up, and I’m in the flower section of the Hinton Safeway, thousands of miles away from England.  Connie and I both live in the Rocky Mountains now – she’s on the Colorado side, I’m on the Canadian side.  There are just a few really big hills between us.  I brought the little plant home and placed it on my kitchen table.  It keeps me company while I abstain from Facebook during Lent, it’s cheerful purple petals reminding me that Easter is around the corner.  It stands in for the garden centres in my memories, while I raise a cup of strong, sweet, milky black tea towards the snow-covered mountains, to my best friend on the other side.  Cheers, Connie!

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