Prayer Ring and the Music Box

We would throw our line and fish off the dock with squirmy, dirty, translucent worms on the cul de sac off Landing Way Dr., across from Robert Morris Park on H Ave. It was all new.  The slippery scale of freshwater lake fish against my hands as the sun hung golden in flaming wildfire, and the water was warm at twilight. Will would wrap his fingers over mine to secure and pull the hook and show me how to re-bait and I could smell the dryer sheet fragrance on his cotton t-shirt. Then we would tumble into the steel bottomed fishing boat with the ice-cooler and motor out to the center of the lake with Mark and Wendy, fishing for hours until we were sticky and sweaty as the sun sank and the fireflies came out.  Then we would jump into the dark lake, shadowy with floating seaweed when the heat got unbearable, dipping our foreheads back into the inky-cool recess of the coves, blowing bubbles through our noses, and our laughter rising as we dunked one another before hoisting back into the haul with the dying fish. Late spring always drips and twills with newness, awakening, rousing from slumber–a birthing that melts into the heavy growth of summer. Our first season when we were all just barely legal adults.

We had married in a snowstorm while I clutched pale pink roses down the aisle, the palest I could find, with just a faint hint of blush-like watercolor sweep to Pachabel’s Cannon in D against my ethereal white and bead gown that was fashioned around my waist with tiny silk stitches.  That diapason of piano key was furrowing both of our marrow for eternity, waving through the tall church windows where my grandpa officiated, and out into the snowy garden.  Hushed humanity and candlelight, bodies with rings of promise on their own fingers and heart scars.  Skin and muscle and soul surrounded us and held our shoulders and our necks and looked into our eyes and kissed our cheeks and told us we were beautiful.  Then they sang out in unison as we slipped rings over one another’s hands because they knew what we faced.

With this ring, thee I wed.  With my body, I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Will bought me an exquisitely delicious, wood in-lay music box with green velvet under the lid for Christmas three months before we took our vows. It played the Pachabel’s Canon in D.  I would twist the key with a click-tick and lay back on my pillows and quilt, swallowing its goodness into my ribs as I twirled the white-gold prayer ring against my lip he had engraved, circled with diamonds, and gifted me on my 19th birthday.  He wanted me to remember that he prayed for me.  The men in my life have always been a ballast.

We spent the spring and summer months after our snowstorm wedding fishing in the evenings ,and then flinging ping-pong balls in his Dad’s basement late into the night, with his brother and my soon to be sister in law.  Bill would charcoal grill the fish he taught me to scale on his back concrete step and saute green beans with butter and pepper, greeting me, “Hey beautiful”, and grasping me in embrace.  He still does this every time we go home.

I cried in bed when Will and I had to move away from our hometown and our Gull Road apartment and the ping pong table and his Dad.  I was the one who wanted to go and Will said yes.  We married and then when it came time I wept, forlorn to leave our Peninsula and Lake but more than the land I hated leaving our deeply built and forged past and present of friendship and family.  I felt like I was betraying it all, even though we were sent off in love. It was our people we were leaving and our past that was thrusting us forward when I wasn’t ready to leave.  We searched the new city for an apartment we could afford that didn’t smell of mold and was close to campus.  We settled on a tiny one-bedroom with the refrigerator shoved against the cabinets, washing machine in our bedroom, and our textbooks piled next to the desktop computer, millenials emerging into adulthood while I pushed creeping homesickness down to my feet.  We ate cheap TV dinners from Walmart.  Date night consisted of two dollar shaved ice from the Bahama shack. We went to the dollar theater near campus almost every night we weren’t working, because it was cheaper than renting a video from the Blockbuster.  The first movie we watched at the theater was Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones; Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman in the ambrosial divine of Naboo are still  attached to me like a branding because it was the first. I started drinking coffee that semester, scrounging quarters from my red GAP backpack I still carried from high school, blowing the milked and sugared liquid to lukewarm.  (I’ve graduated to black now.)  I was gulping between Western Civ. and American Literature, studying in half moments out near the fountain behind Demoss and the Hanger of old campus, the bookstore, and pulling all-nighters in our apartment.  The old fountain was tucked near the Shilling Center and the education hall, tree branches rustling, and spring blossoms raining their petals into my hair as I lay against the scraggly grass weed.  After classes in the morning I would change for work at the pharmacy, finding relief in seeing people that began to know me even though I was lost in a sea of faces in class.

Everyone has an opinion of Liberty University, and that’s fine by me, but those years are wrapped in a thirsty tenderness. It was our germination, awakening, and birth among Virginia apple blossoms and mountain red bud.

We came home for Mark and Wendy’s wedding three months after our move.  It was November and everything was blazing red leaves, brilliant blue sky, fragrant, moody nights of Autumn.  I sucked in my sorrow because the holidays were upon us and we would be back.

It was that next, first Virginia spring of 2003 that I fell in irrevocable love with seed-time in Appalachia and the Blue Ridge: heavy, warm rain and so much electric green and damp bark, diving into Main Street Eatery to encounter decadent cheesecake and lose ourselves in the spaghetti mess of Lynchburg roadways before GPS was a thing.  We purchased laminated maps of the city and stashed them in the glove compartment of our Buick, learning the names of the streets and what they wound into, up and over hills and valleys and waterfalls.  Will would drive and I would tell him where to turn, so I learned direction and names faster than he did.  And then when we weren’t in class or working or at the theater or lingering at the bowling alley, we were in the bookstore gulping more coffee and studying textbooks and fat stacks of flashcards.  Flinging the windows up, my favorite was to sleep with them open all night, the sound of rain pelting the grass and shrubbery outside our bedroom window like a lullaby.

Years crept by in slow motion, filled with faces, working through each, confronting this life of ours.  Moving back to our family, moving back to the South, and all the pages that could fill up between those lines.

Then, this summer, sixteen years later, we returned home to the hot, hazy summer in Michigan with our three children.  We camped out with family, dipped in pools, and laid sleeping bags out on rankled grass to watch fireworks with our teenage children, Mark and Wendy, and my Dad.  We do this every summer, but for the first time in a decade homesickness washed over me in a feverish wave.  It was palpable and tangible, resting in my rib cage and burgeoning.  It made me telephone my parents weeks afterward and speak for hours into the night, like when we first moved away and unsure of myself and desperately needing wisdom and missing my youth.

Will and I found ourselves back on campus today, situating ourselves comfortably in the upholstered booths with our fat laptops, feeling a bit out of place in this city of twenty somethings and their razor thin monitors.  I look at him as he works, grey in his beard coming through, and I smile.  We have lived another lifetime since we were here before but we still are partners…moving through the next shift of our lives together.  That Pachabel’s Cannon in D swimming between us.  We traded our Buick of days gone by for our silver Dodge minivan, parking in the same spot behind the dining hall across from the train tracks, but now it is a four story parking garage.  Everything is so familiar, but incredibly different from back then: the dusty parking lot of David’s place, the paint chipping off of the fountain near the Hanger where we used to buy cheap fried chicken and I’d lay in the grass between class, and the dimly lit education hall– all are gone.  It is state of the art these days with Jeffersonian architecture and precision.  A massive student union with rising stone steps extends off of Demoss.  Instead of plunking away on a desktop computer in the small Demoss computer lab, I’m plugged into an outlet and a USB in the ample studying space that spreads throughout a four story tower library.  We peer through glass into the immense depths of the robotic system: several stories and uncountable rows of steel boxes filled with books that a robotic arm can retrieve with a request from my click on a screen.  My fear of heights kick into overdrive when we descend the glass, floating staircase that hovers over the terrace level.  Glass windows ranging four stories give an expansive view to the waterfall and lake behind the Vines center.  I slip into the quiet, still, and silent Reading Room to find my beloved classic literature and pull a few titles from the shelves I’ve started to familiarize myself with.  It is a far cry from the basement, warehouse library I used to frequent during undergrad and even my master’s degree days.  It is a picture of our lives in many ways…these humble beginnings and blessings that are so great we cannot recognize fully, except that we have so much to give and pass on.   It still takes my breath away.

I feel as though we are back in time, but this is better.  We’ve lived, we’ve despaired, we’ve had joy, we’ve had heartache.  We know enough not to take for granted, and we still embody that tenacious motivation to push forward together, given to us by parents who worked hard and a God who gave us mission.  We have settled into the Blue Ridge valley, with our children and our dog on a plot of half acre.  Will and I planted seedling trees that border the property and have grown three times in a year as a result of the Virginian summer rain.  And it is not lost on me that I am a Swedish-Dutch child from the celery flats of Michigan in her bones, and we planted trees that will grow thick roots here in the Southeast.  I look around and take it all in, knowing it does not always stay, so I can be thankful in all things.  This marriage, this love, this family, this work, this writing–all that God has asked of me to observe.

These days my music box sits atop my antique dresser and I twirl the key to hear Pachabel’s Canon in D, shifting my prayer ring around my finger, nestled between my engagement and wedding bands…a remembrance of a forever vow to pray for one another.

“To stick to my work and have every confidence in it, this I am learning from his (Rodin’s) great and goodly example, as I learn patience from him; it is true, my experience tells me over and over that I haven’t much strength to recokon with, for which reason I shall, so long as it is in any way possible, not do two things, not separate livliehood and work, rather try to find both in the one concentrated effort…”- R.M. Rilke


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