In glacial moments of personal calamity, both real and imagined, I'll sometimes take to the woods, just looking for signs of my next move. As my family prepares to transition from what-has-been toward a what-might-be, I wander, looking for clues to what will happen. I used to tell the kids that all they could do was to put themselves in the right place; someone else will decide if it's the right time. On these walks, the answers to such questions occasionally appear.
In the '70s, I'd head for a cornfield, doing my best Billy Pilgrim to be receptive to clues. Maybe I'd walk down an old roadway, eyes closed, step-by-step, listening for an answer. When my wife and I were thinking of starting a family, I went tromping through a stand of pines and discovered a smooth, white deer antler. What other proof did I need that a baby was on the way? I have a whole collection of heart-shaped rocks and other souvenir talismans from these purposeful meanders.
I spend each Saturday afternoon with my 93-year-old father. His memory is as short-term as that of his beloved, ancient Apple computers, but he's still an animated, engaging storyteller. He sometimes slips a new, never-heard-before detail into his tales. They are full of clues about life (his and mine), so as I do on my walks, I listen carefully to him. Until last year, I would laugh when he would start to tell me about someone he used to know or some significant event from the last century. He would smile as he said, "I know you've heard me tell this one before." But now I hang on every word. I've probably heard every line, but this year I'm listening for the nuances. Because I have heard them so often, the stories are like the familiar paths I walk. When he drops in a new phrase or adds a dramatic pause, I realize the importance.
This time, will he tell the one about the time John Entwistle of The Who and his new bride had their limousine drive them down from New York City to spend an afternoon in New Jersey with my mother and father? Or maybe he'll remind us of the time we were in England and decided to go to the European Universities Basketball Championships to see our hometown hero Bill Bradley, now a Rhodes scholar, playing for Oxford. Perhaps he'll tell the epic tale from his childhood about finding his lost dog, or being there in Yankee Stadium when Babe Ruth hit a home run. There's the one about making a movie with Ronald Reagan in World War II and watching the Norwegian ski jumper soar through the bright winter sky.
These aren't fact-checking exercises; his so-often repeated stories have become fables. A few years ago, I would be prompting him with the familiar details, cueing him from the wings. Now I just wait in the more comfortable silence to see what surfaces.