I missed only one summer afternoon when I was supposed to clean. Mr. Bond telephoned early that evening; it was still light out. Had something happened? Was I okay?
I was off with my boyfriend somewhere that day, and the time (ahem) had run away from us. “I’m so sorry!” I said. “I’ll be right over.”
Mr. Bond had to go to the store, so he said he’d swing by and get me. When I came out to the road, he stood in the driveway talking with my parents. The three of them were laughing. I bet it was something along the lines of, “Teenagers, what can you do…”
I hadn’t thought about Mr. Bond in years. But I’d open my old photo album and every once in a while I come across his photograph.
I’d remember that for a time I’d known this kind man.
In these last few weeks I sat down to write about him, and both memories and words rushed out. An avalanche of elements from long-ago strike me. Some details are so clear. The heavy gemstones in the baroness’s jewelry. The frank eyes of Mr. Bond’s daughter. My astonishment that my simple notes had such a huge effect.
We communicated via those notes. I had a key to his home, that I used to let myself in the door on the days I cleaned. We didn’t see one another to talk often.
But I recall the ease I felt with him. Young people are unsure of themselves. Mr. Bond was a thoughtful conversationalist and I never felt foolish, or too green. And that is a remarkable thing. It’s a rare adult who can make a teenager feel like he sees and hears without being condescending.
Leaving notes was second nature; I can easily imagine that I told him I wanted to write. Let’s leave aside the fact that it took another 40 years before I actually made that wish a reality.
I can’t remember what the notes said. I probably scribbled things like, “Dear Mr. Bond, enjoy the salad greens. I’ve already washed them. I hope you’re having a good summer. PS: Have a nice day.” “It’s autumn! I brought carrots and zucchini. They’re in the crisper. PS: Have a nice day.” Or maybe, “I have Spanish Club after school, so I’ll be late coming to clean on Thursday. PS: Have a nice day.” I just don’t remember.
How I wish I’d asked Mr. Bond’s daughter if I could see his manuscript! At the time I assumed it was an autobiography, but how can I be sure? Maybe it was fiction – maybe he was writing a novel – maybe I was a character in it somewhere. I’ll never know. I was too startled by the information that my notes had inspired him to write a book, and I was definitely way too surprised and shy to ask anything further. I was sixteen. I had zero context for even one single part of this experience.
His passing was my first direct experience of the loss death brings. A few months later one of my best friends died in a car accident, and then a classmate’s father died. I’d never been to a funeral before. During that hard autumn I went to three. I was suddenly forever aware of how terribly fragile our hold on life is. For the longest time when I thought of him, I thought about dying.
I have two last comments to make as I close my album of ancient memories. I’ve discovered a gift in here. All these years later, when I look back what strikes me is a realization: sometimes my heart was in the right place. Those thoughtless teenaged years contained moments of generosity, and grace.
And, finally, this story about Mr. Bond and me has turned itself into a story about the living. When I write about Mr. Bond now I think about life, and living; what we give to others; and what lasts in what they give us.
I was beyond surprised when I got a phone call that Mr. Bond’s ex-wife wanted to me to come over. I put on a skirt (I have no idea why now, but it seemed appropriate to dress nicely if you were meeting royalty). His daughter from a previous marriage met me at the door and led me into the house where the baroness waited. The daughter left us alone to talk.
Baroness U. von O. was elegant, cool, and studied. She wore a dress and heavy jewelry. She’d removed one of her large earrings and clipped it to the matching gemstone necklace around her neck. How did I come to know her husband? She asked more questions. She lived in Paris, she said. Had I ever visited Paris?
The questions confused me. Paris? I was a sixteen-year-old girl who had cleaned her ex-husband’s house twice a week. I wondered why she even wanted to meet me.
Eventually the daughter returned. The baroness stood and shook my hand again. She left the room. Mr. Bond’s daughter took the chair the baroness had been sitting in, and as soon as Baroness U. von O. was out of earshot a very different conversation began.
“We found a drawer full of notes from you,” the daughter said.
I used to bring fresh flowers and harvest vegetables for Mr. Bond. (My parents always grew more than enough to give away – our garden covered half an acre.) I’d leave a note on the counter by the sink to say hello and tell him what was in the refrigerator. I always ended my note with PS: Have a nice day. This was back in the ’70s when the expression became wildly popular.
Mr. Bond had saved all of my notes.
“We found a stack of notebooks, too. Pages and pages in his handwriting,” she continued. “He was writing a book. He already had a title; he was going to call it PS: Have a Nice Day. I think my stepmother was more than startled to learn about you. You see, after she left him and went back to Europe, my father turned into an old man. Your notes brought a little bit of brightness back into his life. I for one wanted to meet you, to thank you for being nice to my father.” Then Mr. Bond’s daughter asked if I’d like something to remember him by. Maybe a nick knack? An object in the house I’d liked?
“Do you have a picture of him I could take?”
She fetched a photo album and removed a photograph. George Bond stands outdoors in short sleeves and a smile. The camera has caught a bright flash of sun, and the air above him is obscured by a ball of light. On the one hand it’s simply a bad photo. But I liked it. I imagined that snapshot captured a bit of his aura, the energy field that surrounds each of us like a protective shield, like a halo.
I’ve held onto that photo. I keep it tucked in an album of my own early memories. Today, for the first time in decades, I took the photo out to examine again. I found myself looking more closely: the tree behind him appears doubled. It’s as if he stands poised at the crack between this world and the next, left and right reflections of one another at the folds of time. If we’re lucky, sometimes we connect with people for brief periods that resonate beyond their life spans. For a short while I knew a Mr. Bond. George Bond. I see him still, an incredibly kind man who saved my notes, his image glowing in a photograph.
When I was in high school, I went twice a week to wash the dishes and vacuum the house of a man who lived a few blocks away from us.
His name was Bond. George Bond. He was a divorced, silver-haired lawyer who lived alone in a beautiful house with a big yard and a player piano.
My parents grew a ridiculously huge garden. Often I’d make up a bouquet of fresh flowers from my mother’s rows of zinnias, daisies, black-eyed susans, cosmos, snapdragon, calendula, nasturtiums, gladiolas, sunflowers and bachelor button. I knew where the vases were in Mr. Bond’s kitchen cabinet, and would place those fresh flowers on a table in his living room.
Throughout the summer and fall I brought him bags of fresh vegetables. I’d put the produce in the refrigerator, and I always left a note for him on the kitchen counter.
He left me notes as well, thank you messages for what I brought (I remember a dry note about how the onions were a bit strong). I doubt he cooked much, but he was always gracious.
Sometimes Mr. Bond arrived home while I was still cleaning. We’d sit and talk. I was sixteen, and he’d ask me about the classes I was taking, my interests, etc. I was mortified whenever our golden retriever Sam followed me over to his house, but Mr. Bond just laughed. He enjoyed my wonder the day he showed me how the player piano worked.
Mr. Bond was a nice, nice man.
A day came when he left me a note that he was going in the hospital for a heart operation, so I needn’t come the following week. But he didn’t survive the surgery, and suddenly I found myself at his funeral. The passing of Mr. Bond was my first experience of the reality of death, and it’s finality.
Hundreds of people attended the funeral service. George Bond was a widely known attorney and community leader, busy with civic and business activities. The church pews were completely full. I had known him only as a kind employer and an adult I liked to talk with.
A few weeks later my mom called me to the phone. A woman introducing herself as his daughter was on the line. She and Mr. Bond’s last wife were in town to close up his house. His ex was minor royalty and had flown in from Paris. Baroness U. von O. of Copenhagen, Denmark wanted to meet me. Why would a baroness possibly want to talk with me? The next day I found out.
Right after I first fell in love with the German man I married, my mother died. (No, the shock didn’t kill her.) Something I recognize but don’t dwell on is that my decision to move to Europe is tied to her death. Somehow the most important link to my life in America suddenly vanished. When I left the States I had a full if overly busy life with two jobs, one which gave me health care and retirement benefits, and close friends. But as I’ve written elsewhere , the siren call of a European man and European life style (make that Life and Style) won my heart.
I was surprised – and deeply moved – to discover that my friendships and attachment to places I love stayed alive, even with one or two years or even longer between visits. When I was a kid, my family had moved every few years thanks to my dad’s job with the Forest Service. I know how to make new friendships, and how to keep old ones. The international stuff is harder, but it’s do-able.
My annual visit to the US this year is bathed in wistfulness and memories. This is my first flight back without seeing my father Bobbo. For twenty-five years I believed that losing Mom broke the golden thread connecting me to my old life. Turns out, a less obvious thread – but one equally as golden – tied me to Bobbo. He became my main reason to return. With both parents gone now, my sisters have become guardians. They, and I, are the keepers of the memories.
I write down anecdotes, wanting to get the details right. I fret over the little stuff. Did we really never lock our doors living in Cazenovia? What year was the big snowstorm of our childhoods in Connecticut? I remember Mom sent Bobbo out to meet us (my sisters and I trudging in rubber snowboots through drifts chest deep, on our way home from my friend Doris’s house). But how old were we? Was it all three of us? And what year was it? Mom and Bobbo would have known these details. My sisters and I have to puzzle them out, placing our recollections together in a common picture.
The particulars are fading. They curl like the edges of old family photographs.
But these pictures make up earlier lives. It’s why we treasure old camera footage, precious cassette tapes of voices long silent. When asked what you would take first if your home was about to go up in flames, people almost always say, the family photographs. Because gazing into the eyes of an old photo is really looking back into what we looked like, and what life felt like.
I’m a little slow sometimes. I recently realized that my new-and-improved wordpress website jadicampbell.com had a birthday in January and is now a year old. (Yes, I’m aware it’s already March!) So, what did I do with a year of blogging?
Last summer I lost my mother-in-law, an old friend, and my dad Bobbo, all within a shocking three-month period. Those were by far the hardest posts to write. But I discovered something: the most personal blog essays are the ones my readers (i.e., all of you) respond to most.
What you can look forward to in the Year of the Rooster: a huge blog thread for my father Bobbo that I’m calling The Animal Kingdom. Occasional notes about my volunteer work with refugees. Lots more quirky posts about places Uwe and I visit. And on-going musings about life, the Universe and everything in-between as I deepen the process of saying goodbye to those who have left.
May you find something here that makes you laugh, creates a spark of connection, and moves you enough so that you reenter your own life with a sense of touching upon mine. That would make the new year of blogging – and all the years to come – worthwhile. As Mae West says, “Come on up, I’ll tell your fortune.” 
I have to relearn how to feel. My mother-in-law went into the hospital with a lung infection for a long week and a half. She rallied, and returned to the nursing home. I finished my third novel Grounded and began preparing it for publication on Amazon. Then Mama grew weaker again. A few days later we got the call we’d been expecting. The home phoned and said that we should come. Uwe and I had the blessing of being at her side as she died. Less than 48 hours later, my book became available.
We were busy with all the details that follow a death. People had to be contacted, and a funeral arranged, and Mama’s body transported to the town where she would be interred next to Uwe’s father. We drove down to meet with the funeral hall director and a pastor, and to visit Mama’s sister and her family. We cleaned out her room in the nursing home, sorted through the little that remained, moved furniture. The book would wait. I’d celebrate its release later. And I wanted to stay strong and present for Uwe, because these are the moments when your partner is so much more important than anything else.
When we finally got done with all the details a few days ago, I turned my attention back to a very special project that will take place next Monday, June 6th. My first-ever writing commission has been to write a story to connect an evening of Gershwin songs. In February I wrote in a 2-week blaze of inspiration for NEAT, the New English American Theater in Stuttgart. The four singers and a pianist rehearsed the songs. A Welsh actor will read my story. All I have to do is show up and sit in the audience and marvel and enjoy the talent on the stage.
I went to a rehearsal a few nights ago and heard my story spoken aloud for the first time. It is a surreal experience to hear one’s creative work interpreted and combined into a greater artistic work. I was speechless as I watched and listened. Up to that night, I’ve been numb. I figured I could finally allow myself to feel proud, to be satisfied with all the hard work I’ve done with my writing. I gave myself permission to be excited about my book and the Gershwin evening. But when I let myself open up to feeling something emotional, a tidal wave of grief hit me. I’m mourning my mother-in-law of course. I’m grieving for her, even knowing she was ready to go and had given us the gift of waiting until we got to her bedside to leave us. One of us, Uwe or I, have visited her pretty much every other day for the two years that she lived in the nursing home near us. I don’t have to feel bad about not seeing her enough, or caring enough. But I write this in the present tense, because it’s all occurring in real time still. The birth of my book, the death of Mama, the use of my words to connect the magic of timeless songs, it all weaves together for me, I can’t separate out any of the strands. I’m a hot mess, trying to remember how to feel again. I remind myself that any one of these emotions is huge, fraught with anticipation and months or years of living and taking form and interconnecting with hopes and expectations. Love, sorrow, hope, creativity, illness, dying, death, coming into being, leaving this earthly plane…. Trying to remember how to feel any one of these emotions, let alone all of them all at once, overwhelms me.
But mostly, mostly, perhaps what I feel is gratitude. To know what I have in my mother-in-law and my art. To literally feel in body and soul how it all connects. To be able to feel again, even if it leaves me in tears.
Gabe was grateful that in all the years of his travels, no one had ever thought to inquire, “What’s the worst experience you ever had traveling? What’s the worst thing you ever witnessed?” The day he spent being witness outside of Krakow, Poland in the Auschwitz concentration camp was a terrible experience he never wanted to repeat. The atrocities humans committed against one another was beyond comprehension. And it wasn’t ancient history. It had happened in his parents’ lifetimes.
He could never understand the racism that had been involved. What could there possibly be in an identity or religion that would make someone want to wipe out an entire people? It was inconceivable to him, and he sent up a fervent thank you to whatever gods might be listening that this was so. No! There were some things he didn’t ever want to understand. Auschwitz broke his heart. Gabe cried his first adult tears sitting on a cold bench in front of an execution wall.
Sometimes for his month of travel he headed to the heat. He always had a loose theme to the four weeks, and one year it was ancient lost cultures. He traveled through a region where jungle archaeologists were reclaiming entire cities from the undergrowth.
Gabe got up early and caught the local bus. He spent happy hours at the site, with satisfaction doing what he’d come to call connecting some of the dots. If the world were a large puzzle, a Pointillism painting, Gabe’s slow explorations gave him more of the pieces to the puzzle, more and more of the dots in which a picture was slowly emerging.
That day he made further connections in terms of ancient civilization, art history, and cultural contexts. Gabe was overly pleased with himself. He decided not to wait for the next bus to rumble past the ruins. Ignoring the rain clouds threatening the skies, he began the long walk back to his hotel in town.
Twenty minutes later Gabe knew he’d miscalculated badly. The rain clouds blew lower and closer in no time. At the halfway point, the storm broke. Gabe would get soaked if he kept on the road and equally as drenched if he tried to turn back to the bus shelter at the entrance road to the ruins. He pulled his rain jacket (a marvel that rolled up upon itself into a small ball with a carrying band) out of his little daypack and went on trudging, shaking his head at his own foolish optimism.
Potholes filled first, creating wet craters. Gabe got closer to town and the traffic increased, the wheels of old cars and carts churning the rest of the street into ruts. In less than ten minutes the single dirt road turned to roiling mud. It rained even harder, hard drops that fell in steady, monotonous sheets. Gabe moved over closer to the shoulder away from the biggest vehicles. He had to share the edge of the muddy street with other people on foot, vendors pushing carts covered with folds of plastic cloths or sheets of cardboard, and bicycles and motorbikes.
The rest of the traffic converged in the center of the street, trying to find spots that hadn’t yet vanished into a river of wet earth. A motorbike with a family on the back passed Gabe. The father drove slowly, trying to keep the bike from tilting over into the stream. His wife sat behind him with her arms around and underneath the clear plastic rain poncho her husband wore; a small boy perched, balanced in the seat behind her. He was wedged between the woman and the sacks of potatoes and peppers lashed to the rear of the motorbike.
There was a blare of arguing horns and out of the storm a jeep appeared. Sheets of rain obscured the view. The jeep driver headed alarmingly fast down the direct center of the road, his horn louder as the jeep got closer. When it was near enough people could see it was a government vehicle, and everyone moved over to the sides of the road to let it by.
Before anyone could grasp the danger the jeep was upon them. The driver kept one hand pressed on the horn as people scrambled in the mud. Gabe watched in horror as the motorbike with the family hit a pothole. The father put out a frantic foot trying to brake, but it was too late. The motorbike went over on its side. His body disappeared under water and the jeep ran over his leg.
People screamed for the jeep to stop but it never even slowed down; the driver now had both hands jammed on the horn and his foot on the gas pedal. He continued determinedly on down through the river of mud. Gabe could reach out and touch the bumper as it rushed by, it was so close.
The jeep was swallowed up in the sheets of rain and only the victims and witnesses remained. The jeep hadn’t carried any license plates and even if he had seen one Gabe was kilometers away from a police station. Who was he going to report to? All he could do was try to help the man who’d been run over. At least it had only been his booted foot, and that had been down in the pothole; maybe the man wasn’t hurt too badly.
Gabe turned back to the sodden street as rain rushed down his face and over his rain slicker. Through the damp he saw the fallen figures. The blare of the jeep horn faded, and a human voice’s wail began to compete with the sound of the waters crashing from the opened skies. Other voices joined the first one.
The traffic swerved around the center where people had gathered in a loose circle. Gabe moved closer and the driver dragged himself away from the fallen motorcycle. The man was limping, but he was up on his feet.
The motorcycle was already half buried by mud washing up over and against the frame in fast moving spurts; the bags lashed to the back of the bike had broken open. Lumps that had to be potatoes lay in the stream, some of them slowly rolling away in the force of the moving rainwater.
But the pair ignored the tubers and didn’t try to gather them back up. They huddled over another one of the sacks in the road as they wailed. Gabe tried futilely to push the water from his eyes. He shook his head to clear it, and then he saw the injured man and his wife were sitting in the mud as they held the body of their son. He lay like a broken toy, like a rag doll, small limp limbs dangling from his parents’ cradling hands.
The circle of people standing around them gently lifted the couple and half carried, half walked them over to the useless safety of the field at the side of the road. Gabe bodily lifted the damaged motorbike and carried it out of the street. Determinedly everyone moved back in the river that had been a road and collected potatoes. They ignored the blares of cars trying to navigate around them. They picked up the last of potatoes and the burst sack and returned them to the hapless parents.
Gabe thought, Where’s the nearest hospital? His next thought was the sad realization that a local hospital was probably located next to the nearest police station: a hundred kilometers away in the next city. A clinic, he thought desperately. But the country had no money for health services, and only Bread for the World and Doctors without Borders had any kind of a presence in the region. Gabe couldn’t speak any of the local languages and he had no training in anything more than the most rudimentary medicine.
Despairing, knowing there was nothing more he could do to help, Gabe resumed the harder trudge back towards the center.
Alone back in his hotel room, he drank to get blind drunk. Whether his eyes were opened or closed he saw the broken doll body of the undernourished child, the grief on the faces of the child’s parents. Worst of all was realizing his own helplessness to do anything whatsoever. There was nothing he could have done that afternoon to change the outcome and nothing he could do now. Gabe cried, for the first time since the visit to Auschwitz years earlier. They were bitter tears that refused to stop coming. Gabe was as unable to halt them as he was to halt the rains still falling outside of his room in the shabby hotel.
No one ever asked him, What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen traveling? Gabe knew it was the rainy day, the motorbike with a family riding on the back. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen traveling? If asked he wouldn’t have answered, because he carried the pain of that memory too close to his heart. It stayed alive and refused to fade. The worst thing he ever witnessed remained dangerously in real time, on a wet road between towns without names. It created a place of secret despair and awareness that the world was not a place of entirely benevolent forces.
It became his most closely held secret. Despite the sad knowledge, or perhaps because of it, Gabe determined to live as if the opposite might be true. That experience was seminal, one that defined who he was as a human being, in the inner place where his heart really beat.
– from my short story “Waiting” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.