May 29, 2012

I only have to see the hydrangeas by the side of our house to go back,…back to my fourth year of life on the farm and the prohibition of the climb-onto-me invitation of the unsteady gate in front of the “old house.” The blue hydrangeas surrounded the porch and provided cover for my covert swings on that rickety gate – until the day that I got caught, receiving the reminder (“How many times do I have to tell you…”) and mild rebuke when that swing swung its last swipe. My last hurrah had been worth it, though, and I’m there again, with just a glance at those blossoms.

We like to go back…to simpler times, to fond memories, to those DNA-pieces of Past. It’s often what people hope to capture on a vacation, on a weekend away, or on a simple retreat, like here at the B&B, but the moments can happen anywhere, at any time. Like with the blue hydrangeas.

I’m just a businessman, not a poet. It is the poet who is supposed to see thing so clearly and to remember…I drove from my home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to the airport in Houston, Texas to pick up my wife’s grandfather.

…She wept the night before my trip to the airport. She was very happy to have her grandfather again and very sorry that she’d missed all those years with him….’I only wish I was small enough and his back was strong enough that I could ride upon it again.’

…Mr. Chinh was enchanted with the airport, gawking about as we moved, and his interest was so intent and his pleasure so evident from the little clucks and nods he made that I did not try to speak with him. Twice he asked me a question…if I had a car. And when I said yes, he seemed very pleased, lifting his cane before him and tapping it down hard. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Don’t tell me what kind. I will see for myself.’

But in the parking garage, he was baffled. he circled the car and touched it gently with the rubber tip of his cane, …’I don’t know this car,’ he said. ‘I don’t know it at all.’

‘It’s an Acura,’ I said.

He shook the name off as if a mosquito had just buzzed his head. I thought you would own a French car. A Citroen, I had predicted. A 15CV Saloon.’

…Mr. Chinh lifted his shoulders and let them drop heavily, as if he was greatly disappointed and perhaps even a little scornful….

I didn’t understand….

I said, ‘Mai can’t wait to see you….’

He did not acknowledge this, which I thought was rude for the grandfather who was becoming the elder of our household. Instead, he looked out the window again, and he said, ‘My favorite car of all was a Hotchkiss. I had a 1934 Hotchkiss….I would drive to Hanoi at the end of the year and spend ten days and return. It was eighteen hundred kilometers. I drove it in two days…At night it was very nice. We had the top down and the moon was shining and we drove along the beach. Then we’d stop and turn the lights on and rabbits would come out and we’d catch them. Very simple. I can see their eyes shining in the lights. Then we’d make a fire on the beach. The sparks would fly up and we’d sit and eat and listen to the sea. It was very nice, driving. Very nice.’

Mr. Chinh stopped speaking…This man beside me was rushing along the South China Sea. Right now. He had felt something so strong that he could summon it up and place himself within it and the moment would not fade, the eyes of the rabbits still shone and the sparks still climbed into the sky and he was a happy man.

…I said to Mr. Chinh, ‘We are almost home now.’

And the old man turned to me and said, ‘Where is it that we are going?’

…’I’m the husband of Mai, your granddaughter,’ I said, and I tried to tell myself he was still caught on some beach on the way to Hanoi.

‘Granddaughter?’ he said…I felt weak now. I could barely speak the words, but I said, ‘…My wife. You love her.’…

…she was crying quietly, her head bowed and her hand covering her eyes.

‘I’m sorry.’ I said.

‘I put him in the guest room,’ she said. ‘He thanked me as he would an innkeeper.’ She sobbed faintly…

I had to do something…A good businessman knows when to stop thinking and to act instead…Suddenly I surprised myself and my wife, too. I stepped in front of her and crouched down and before either of us could think to feel foolish, I had taken Mai onto my back and straightened up and I began to move about the yard, walking at first, down the long drooping lower branch of the oak tree and then faster along the sidewalk …she only protested for a moment before she was laughing and holding on tighter, …and I ran with her, ran as fast as I could so that she laughed harder and…I felt her breath on the side of my face as warm and moist as a breeze off the South China Sea.
–“The Trip Back,” A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler, 1992 (Winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize)



  1. Joan says:

    so touching…

Location, Location, Location.

You might notice the WAC Administration Building cupola out of the corner of your eye as you walk onto Simply Bed & Bread's brick path, since our house is just a stone's throw away from the college. Or it might be the ...
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