I wrote this story a couple of years ago but have edited and updated it.
CHARMS is the story of Mr. Hamby who describes himself as a happy man who loves his wife, daughters and job. But life changes for him as his daughters grow and leave home and his wife has a stroke. Near retirement, his employer encourages him to retire early in order to care for his wife. Feeling he is losing what he loves the most, Mr. Hamby takes a cue from a squirrel whose home is in the tree across from the park bench where he sits each day. The squirrel has a habit of collecting old useless items it keeps in a nest in the hollow of the tree. Mr. Hamby, who is fascinated by the squirrel unconsciously begins to emulate the hoarding behavior. Redemption begins when Mr Hamby discovers a charm bracelet he had given his wife years ago. He brings a new charm to the park each day which he leaves behind in the squirrel’s nest; but only after he shares the story it unlocks from his memory about what shapes happiness.
Mr. Hamby was a happy man who enjoyed his home, his family, his work, and his routines. Each day he would return from work, kiss his wife and daughters and tell them about his day over dinner. Saturday mornings, Mr. and Mrs. Hamby gathered the crusts from old loaves of bread they routinely saved and go walking in the park near their home to feed the pigeons. Mr. Hamby always invited Mrs. Hamby to sit on the same park bench and feed the pigeons from the brown paper bag they packed with the week’s stale bread crusts. “Shall we sit for a while?” he asked. Mrs. Hamby smiled and answered as she always did. “That would be nice.” They sat, tossing bread crumbs to a growing collection of pigeons gathering at their feet. As they fed the birds, they talked about the weather, their children, who were born late to them, and how happy they were.
The passing years were uneventful and marked by a sameness that both Mr. and Mrs. Hamby treasured. Happiness flourished in the Hamby household. Mr. and Mrs. Hamby’s older daughter, Hannah, planned to attend college which pleased Mr. Hamby. Hannah had taken a year off after graduating from High School working at the five and dime and this concerned Mr. Hamby. “A good job begins with a good education”. Mr. Hamby looked over the tops of his black horned rimmed glasses affectionately at his daughter. He was fond of pithy sayings that captured wise counsel and they sprinkled his conversations. He had worried she might not return to school, so when they slipped the application in the mailbox, he felt relieved and winked at Hannah. “Good luck, dear,” he said with a broad smile.
Mr. and Mrs. Hamby’s younger daughter, Claudia, was in her last year of High School and rarely spoke of the future. Mr. Hamby, of course, reminded Claudia as he had Hannah to remember, “A good job starts with a good education.” One day Claudia asked her mother if she could invite a friend to dinner on a certain Friday night. As children Hannah and Claudia had few playmates and pattern continued into their early young adult years. Because guests were infrequent Mrs. Hamby was pleased that her daughter had found a new friend. “Of course, dear”, she said, not asking for, and Claudia not volunteering any details regarding the guest.
The next Friday evening, Mr. and Mrs. Hamby and Hannah were all surprised when Claudia’s guest turned out to be a handsome young man.
“Nice to meet you, young man.” Mr. Hamby said smiling while he limply shook his hand. At dinner they wondered about the young man’s aspirations and what he wanted to do with his life. “What will you do when you finish high school.?” Mr. Hamby asked.
“High school?”, the young man looked surprised, “Oh no. You see, I graduated four years ago and own an automotive repair business with my father.”
“Oh?”, Mr. Hamby answered surprised. Now, Mr. Hamby respected a man who worked with his hands and told the young man so. “Son I have always had a great deal of respect for anyone who works with their hands and isn’t afraid to get them dirty.”
The young man laughed. “Well, I’m glad about that!” The young man answered enthusiastically holding up his hands that bore witness to his work as a mechanic But just as Mr. Hamby was going to qualify his last statement, the young man, seemingly unable to restrain himself, preempted his comments. “Mr. and Mrs. Hamby, I asked Claudia if I might meet you. I guess I’m a sort of old fashioned guy and felt that the right thing to do was to ask you in person for your daughter’s hand in marriage.” Mr. and Mrs. Hamby were speechless and seemed momentarily stunned. The young man launched into a rapid-fire explanation that Mr. Hamby was unable to decipher through the blaring alarms going off in his head rattling his ability to think. He thought he heard “good husband” and “take care of your daughter” and “we would only be a four-hour drive”. Hannah stared wide-eyed at her sister but remained silent. Mr. Hamby stuttered as he sought to say something meaningful.
Finally, he spoke haltingly, “Marriage… is a very…very… serious matter.” He was relieved to have found words. He looked at the piece of meatloaf that had been sitting on the end of his fork throughout this exchange. While everyone stared at Mr. Hamby, he lifted the fork to his mouth and ate the piece of meatloaf, chewing thoughtfully and wondering what would happen next. As everyone waited for him to speak, he washed it down with a glass of milk. When that settled he put his elbows on the table and rubbed his temples with his fingertips and spoke solemnly. “These sorts of things things should never be rushed into.” Mrs. Hamby smiled relieved that her husband was moving to head off any precipitous action by the young couple. I think it best if you let Claudia discuss this with her mother and me, first.” He punctuated this with an exaggerated smile.
“Oh, she’s already told me, yes…sir. I was simply seeking your blessing.”
The young man returned Mr. Hamby’s smile. The two men continued to smile as they finished their dinner and Mrs. Hamby served Decaf. Claudia said nothing except hurried her fiancé along suggesting he was going to be late for “a meeting”. He looked at her puzzled as her eyes grew very wide and she cocked her head to the right.
“That’s right, I hate to rush off, and I know we’ll talk soon, eh, shall I still call you Mr. Hamby or..?” Mr. Hamby shook his head vigorously but remained speechless as Claudia and the young man made their way to the door.
That evening Mr. and Mrs. Hamby did something they rarely did with anyone. They argued with their daughter. They stated emphatically that she was too young for marriage. Hannah, silent for the most part signaled alignment with her parents, nodding her agreement as they made their case. But Claudia was determined and said she was “in love”. The Hamby family rarely disagreed with one another and it was creating great distress. Finally, Mr. Hamby turning to his daughter red-eyed and with a splitting headache asked, “Good Lord, Claudia, are you pregnant?”
“Oh Papa, please!”, Claudia answered embarrassed.
The following day, Mr. and Mrs. Hamby collected the stale bread crusts and went to the park as they did every Saturday.
Mr. Hamby asked, “Shall we sit for a while” when they came to the familiar park bench.
“That would be nice” answered Mrs. Hamby.
Mr. and Mrs. Hamby spoke to one another about the distress they felt and discussed their daughter’s desire to be married. When the bag of stale bread crusts was empty, they concluded if this made her happy, it would make them happy too. Later, that evening when the family was eating dinner together, they told their younger daughter that they were happy if she was happy. Still, Mr. Hamby felt something unfamiliar and discomforting. What was it? A tinge of sadness? A feeling of loss or something akin to grief. But, how could he be sad, when his daughter was so happy, he puzzled. He shrugged his shoulders, doing his best to dismiss the thought, and went about the remainder of the evening routines, doing his best to cleanse his mind of unpleasant thoughts and was more or less happy.
Some weeks later, Mr. and Mrs. Hamby’s older daughter, Hannah, received a letter with a return address from the college she had applied to. She ran inside waving the letter before her parents then complained she was afraid to open it. Mr. Hamby smiled and winked at Hannah encouraging her to open it which she did. The letter explained that Hannah had been admitted to the college and would start in September. Mr. and Mrs. Hamby and their oldest daughter were all very happy. Mr. Hamby smiled and told Hannah how proud he was of her. He said, “I am so happy and proud of you!” But Mr. Hamby felt once again something unfamiliar. It was as if something squeezed his heart and a pall of sadness fell over him.
“What’s the matter, Papa?” his older daughter asked.
“Oh, nothing”, he answered.
“Are those tears?” she asked.
“Tears of joy, my dear. My little girl is growing up and I am very happy.”
Mr. and Mrs. Hamby’s daughter, Claudia had a grand wedding that summer after her graduation from high school. She wore a beautiful white dress with a veil that covered her face which the handsome young man lifted to kiss her at the end of the ceremony. Mr. Hamby thought Claudia looked like a princess. That evening there was good food, music and dancing. Most everyone who attended were friends of the groom and danced and drank and were a very lively crowd. Everyone seemed very happy. When the time came for Mr. and Mrs. Hamby’s youngest daughter and her new husband to leave for their honeymoon, they ran for the car which had tin cans tied to the bumper and carried a sign that said, “Just Married”. Handfuls of rice were tossed over the heads of the newly married couple as they bid their guests goodbye.
“Bye bye, Papa”, Mr. Hamby’s youngest daughter said to him as she got into the car. Mr. Hamby smiled and winked at her.
As they drove off, Mr. Hamby put his arm around Mrs. Hamby. He began to say something, but knew that his voice would betray the emotions he sought to hide. Mrs. Hamby noticed that his eyes again were filled with tears, but thought better than to say anything about them.
The summer passed by very quickly and soon it was September. Mr. and Mrs. Hamby’s oldest daughter would begin college in just a week. The plan had been that Mr. and Mrs. Hamby would drive the eight hours to their daughter’s school together and help her settle into her new surroundings. But, Mrs. Hamby insisted that Mr. Hamby should take her by himself. She had many things to do at home and she privately told Mr. Hamby that she didn’t want to become emotional. “Besides”, she smiled at her husband, “it will give you two a good long time to talk.” Mrs. Hamby was right about the opportunity to talk. Mr. Hamby and Hannah spoke about all kinds of things and they were both very happy.
When they arrived at the college, Mr. Hamby helped his oldest daughter move her luggage into her new room which she shared with a roommate. Mr. Hamby met her roommate and thought she was a ‘nice young lady’. When everything was moved in, Mr. Hamby and his oldest daughter faced one another and both said, “Well?” at the same time. They laughed and Mr. Hamby bit his lower lip begun to tremble.
“Aww, Papa”, Hannah looked sympathetically at her father and smiled. “Hug? she asked, and put her arms around her father.
Mr. Hamby unlocked the car and slipped in behind the driver’s wheel which he held with both hands staring straight ahead at nothing. He swallowed hard and blinked his eyes again and again using his shirtsleeve to wipe the tears. “How could I not be happy?” he puzzled. When he got to the hotel where he would stay that night, he sat on the side of the bed and wondered why his heart felt so heavy. He picked up the phone and called Mrs. Hamby who took a long time to answer. “What’s wrong?” he asked when she picked up.
“Oh, it’s nothing”, she said. “A virus or just a cold. I will see you tomorrow. Don’t worry.”
But Mr. Hamby did worry and got very little sleep. Before the sun was up, he got into the car and headed home as quickly as he could. When Mr. Hamby approached his home the red flashing lights of an ambulance in the driveway to his home confirmed his worst fear. He put his hand over his mouth and whispered “Oh no….please!”
He parked his car and ran toward the house but was stopped by a police officer who said, “please sir, give us some room!” “But it’s my wife!” Mr. Hamby answered. The policeman apologized and brought Mr. Hamby to the bedroom where three paramedics were moving his wife from their bed to a stretcher.Mr. Hamby rode in the back of the ambulance with his wife and assured her everything would be alright. She stared at him mute, frightened and confused Mr. Hamby wanted to reassure her, but nothing he said seemed to help. That night Mr. Hamby remained at her bedside in the ICU until her doctor told him that Mrs. Hamby had a stroke and there was nothing he could do right now so that it was best to go home and rest.
Mr. Hamby drove home feeling both sad and anxious. He considered this unfamiliar feeling and asked himself what he might do to make himself feel better. He slept for only a short while, awaking before the sun was up. He showered, changed his clothes, and prepared oatmeal with berries of which he ate very little. Leaving the oatmeal and berries on the kitchen counter, he thought a walk in the park just as the sun was rising would help clear his head. He had forgotten to take the bread crusts to feed the pigeons but he didn’t really want to feed the pigeons. Nor did he want to sit on the bench where he and Mrs. Hamby usually sat believing it would only make him sadder still. Instead he sat on a bench across the path from a tree that had two holes in it. One small hole was about six inches from the base of the tree and the other larger one was just about eye-level from where he sat.
He stared at the holes feeling at loose ends about what to do next. He started making lists in his head of the of the things he felt he should be doing. “Let’s see…call my daughters.” He knew he should have called them already but he just couldn’t bring himself to. “OK, what else?” As he contemplated the other items on his list, he saw peering at him from the hole at eye level in the tree across from him was a gray squirrel. He could only see part of the squirrel’s head with its one brown fixed on him, as the rest of his body was mostly hidden inside the trunk of the tree. Then as suddenly as the head seemed to appear, it disappeared. Mr. Hamby contemplated that perhaps he imagined the squirrel. But, moments later he found himself again being watched this time from the hole in the same tree that was six inches from the ground. He sat there for a while and watched the squirrel poke its head ever so slightly out of one hole then the next. He found this game of peekaboo to be quite amusing and momentarily enjoyed the distraction. However, when the squirrel squeezed out of the hole at the base of the tree, the distraction ended and all his concerns washed over him again like a giant wave.
Mr. Hamby knew that there were things he had to do like call his daughters, call work, and return to the hospital so he got up from the bench intending to return home. He chided himself for failing to bring a pen and paper to make a list as he always encouraged Mrs. Hamby to do. Before leaving he went to the tree with the two holes to get a better look. A portion of the tree trunk was hollowed out. He looked down the hollowed-out trunk and saw the squirrel’s nest illuminated by light that came through the very small hole at the bottom. It consisted of a thick bed of leaves and scores and scores of acorns. “Well, that must be comfy.” Mr. Hamby said out loud. And with that he walked home, called his daughters and his employer to explain he would need some time off while his wife was hospitalized. Finally, he called the hospital to check on the condition of his wife. The nurse on the other end of the line said she was resting comfortably in the ICU and was sleeping.
Mr. Hamby had dinner alone that evening. “What happened?”, he wondered. “I was so happy.” Mr. Hamby pondered the current state of his life for a few moments and how tentative everything suddenly felt. He drew no conclusions but was acutely aware of the sensation that he was losing the things that made him happy. Dad and anxious, after supper, he drove his car to the hospital where he sat by his wife’s bedside listening to the sounds of the ICU; the hiss of oxygen, the EKG monitors blip, blip, blip and the various alarms that startled him each time a patient’s drip needed attention.
His daughters arrived a few days later, the younger with her handsome husband. He was happy to have them close by, but it was all somehow different. He experienced the young man’s presence as invasive which only made him feel worse since he was family now. The day passed slowly and he and his daughters took turns sitting by Mrs. Hamby’s bedside because the nurses only allowed one visitor at a time. Mr. Hamby found it emotionally exhausting to try and engage his son-in-law in conversations when Claudia was sitting with her mother, so they watched a parade of game shows and soap operas mostly in silence or Hannah and he spoke quietly.
Mrs. Hamby’s doctor arrived late that afternoon and requested they move to another room where they could speak about her condition. He led them to a a room across the hall from the waiting room with a sign next to the door that said, “Meditation Room”. Once settled, the doctor explained that Mrs. Hamby’s stroke had been severe and would require extended care in a special facility where they could provide the kinds of therapies designed to help her regain speech and some limited movement. He went on to say that she would not be able to return home for a while. His daughters asked many questions, which much to his embarrassment annoyed Mr. Hamby. Mrs. Hamby was his wife after all, and he should ask the questions and make the decisions. But he could not think of what questions to ask and was uncertain about what to do next. Still, he was irked and masked his displeasure poorly.
“Papa, we are trying to help! Try to remember, we are here for you both.” Hannah pleaded
Mr. Hamby felt ashamed and hugged each of his daughters and even his son-in-law who wrapped his arms around him and gave him a bear hug. Mr. Hamby smiled uneasily at them all as they faced one another. Mr. Hamby and Hannah drove back to the home in one car while Claudia and her husband returned in theirs. All of them left feeling something important was slipping away. As soon as they returned home, Mr. Hamby felt he just couldn’t bear to talk anymore so excused himself with apologies and went to bed.
Mr. Hamby was someone who treasured the comfort provided by his routines. So, he developed a morning series of activities that he could perform routinely and found them soothing. Each morning before going to the hospital, Mr. Hamby walked to the park and sat on the bench across from the tree with two holes where the squirrel lived. Sometimes he would bring peanuts in their shells and the squirrel would take them from Mr. Hamby’s hand. The squirrel would scamper away with the peanut back to the tree where he would stash it in a safe place. “You’re a smart squirrel, you are”, Mr. Hamby told him. “Put it away in a safe place where it won’t be taken away from you!”
Days stretched into weeks and Mr. Hamby’s older daughter returned to school but not before asking if her father was holding up ok.
“I feel as if I am losing the things that make me happy”, he explained, unsuccessfully willing his eyes to remain dry.
“Don’t say that, Papa” Hannah insisted. “We are all here for you.” Mr. Hamby smiled at his oldest daughter. He knew what she said was true but somehow could not find a way to internalize this truth.
Mr. Hamby’s younger daughter and her husband too had to return home. She also asked if he was OK. “I have your mother to take care of” he responded stoically. His younger daughter, who was accustomed to her father’s even temper felt helpless to offer comfort when he seemed so overwrought.
“I’m sorry, Papa.” She said casting her eyes downward.
“It’s not your fault” he answered wrapping her in his arms. “I keep losing the things that make me happy.” This time his voice cracked and a lone tear ran down his cheek.
His younger daughter kissed him on the cheek saying, “We are all here for you, Papa.”
“Yes, I know.” he answered with a smile and a wink which helped her feel better but succeeded in making him feel more lonely still.
As the weeks went by, Mr. Hamby considered returning to work until he received a call from his company. His boss explained that the company understood his difficult circumstances and since he was only a year from retirement, had decided to allow him to retire early. This would allow him to care for Mrs. Hamby. “I hope this makes you happy” the caller told Mr. Hamby. “We are all here for you.”
“Yes, yes, I know you are”, Mr. Hamby said to the caller.
“You have been a loyal worker for what?….”
“Thirty-five years. “
“That’s right, thirty-five years. You deserve this, Hamby. Take care of your lovely wife, OK? We’ll forego the formalities of a party and all that crap since I know you’re preoccupied.”
Yes. Right. Thank you.” Mr. Hamby said feeling more despondent than ever. “This is very kind of you, sir.”
“We won’t forget you and…you know, maybe I can take you out for a drink some time.
“Oh… yes. That will be fine”, Mr. Hamby answered staring out the kitchen window at a squirrel that was climbing a tree in his yard.
Mr. Hamby’s days became very predictable. Each morning he would scan the newspaper, noting the articles that he wanted to read more carefully, while eating a breakfast of oatmeal and berries. Then he would retreat to his La-Z-Boy lounge chair to more carefully read the articles he previously identified as important. He often found articles that he felt might be of interest to his daughters, so he would fold the paper with the article facing out and circle it with a felt tip pen he kept next to the lounge chair promising himself when he found the scissors he would cut the article out and mail it to his daughter. Then he would place the paper in the growing stack of newspapers that sat next to the La-Z-Boy.
After his breakfast and a careful review of the newspaper, Mr. Hamby would go for a walk in the park and sit on the bench across from the tree with the two holes where the squirrel lived. Some days the squirrel was there and, Mr. Hamby thought, seemed genuinely pleased to see him. Perhaps this was because he always brought a snack with him, he mused. Other days, the squirrel was not there which Mr. Hamby thought must mean the squirrel was running errands of some sort. Before leaving the park, Mr. Hamby always peered inside the hollowed-out trunk to view the squirrel’s nest. It was cluttered with acorns, peanuts, leaves, a bottle cap, part of a tennis ball, and what appeared to be a rubber windshield wiper. After surveying the contents of the squirrel’s nest, Mr. Hamby always made the same remark out loud as if the squirrel were listening. “You’re one smart squirrel, you are! Put it away in a safe place where it won’t be taken from you.”
After his walk in the park, Mr. Hamby usually had an early lunch and then went to the convalescent home where Mrs. Hamby was resident. She seemed to be no better than she was when released from the hospital, but Mr. Hamby’s inquiries about her lack of progress were generally only met with a smile and the reassuring words, “I know, Mr. Hamby. It’s hard. Please know that we are here for you.” He would sigh and sit in the easy chair next to Mrs. Hamby’s bed talking to her of what he had done that day including the industrious squirrel who lived in the tree with the two holes. But she didn’t say anything. Instead her open eyes somehow looked past him causing him to wonder if she heard him at all. Mrs. Hamby had been put on a feeding tube some weeks back so there was no meal to break up the monotony of sitting alone in a room with someone who he wasn’t sure was even there. Oh, but then he would feel terrible for having had such a thought and would busy himself straightening out the items on her dresser or stacking some of the books he had brought to read to her. Mrs. Hamby had always liked mysteries so he became a regular at the used book store where he purchased old paperbacks by famous mystery writers like Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, and Agatha Christie. Whenever he finished a book he wondered why he hadn’t discovered these literary gems much earlier and brought the book home since he would, no doubt read it once again. From time to time, in an effort to reduce inventory the used book store ran specials where he could buy a whole box full of paperback mysteries for five dollars. Mr. Hamby seized on such bargains snatching them up whenever the opportunity arose. At home he would sort them into piles on the kitchen counter, labeling them, “Great. Must Read”, “Good. Recommend Reading”, and “Hold for later”. After sorting each box of paperbacks he would step back and survey the piles feeling he had accomplished something.
Mr. Hamby’s daughters had not visited him since his wife had been moved to the convalescent home, but they did call their father. The calls were typically short and consisted of the same questions and responses. Mr. Hamby didn’t care much for telephone chit chat and so answered his daughter’s inquiries with brief quips designed to keep the call as brief as possible.
“How are you, Papa?”
“Oh, I’m getting along.”
“What does that mean, Papa? What do you mean you’re getting along?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“How is Mother?”
“I’m afraid she’s about the same.”
“Do you need anything, Papa?”
“No, no. I’m fine.”
“OK. Well, remember we are here for you. OK Papa. We’re here for you.”
Oh, there was always small talk about Hannah’s classes or how married life was treating Claudia, but it was unsatisfying and mostly left Mr. Hamby feeling lonely and left out even though he increasingly felt he did not wish to be included.
When they hung up he always said out loud, “now remember to tell Mrs. Hamby you spoke to the girls.” “Yes, yes, of course”, he answered himself. “Don’t worry I will.”
For supper, when he remembered to prepare it, Mr. Hamby preferred the convenience of the microwavable frozen meals. He liked how the dinner trays were divided into sections. The largest section for his entre, and the two smaller sections for say, some whipped potatoes and perhaps green beans. Sometimes there was even a small place for a dollop of say, Apple Sauce. He also liked these little trays because it meant he didn’t have to wash any dishes. Equally important, when he finished he discovered the trays could make excellent containers in which to place, say, loose change or buttons. Looking them over carefully, he thought you could fill them with bird seed and put them outdoors. “Clever”, he said. “Very clever.” He placed several of them in different places around the house where he believed they might be useful like on top of his dresser, on Mrs. Hamby’s dresser, and the TV and, of course, in the garage where nails, screws, and such could be neatly stored. Saving the trays became a habit. It just made such good sense, he thought, to keep them that one unwashed tray was placed on another until he had several stacks next to the paperback mysteries on the kitchen counter. He carefully noted this because he knew if he could find no room to eat on the kitchen counter, he would be compelled to eat at the dining room table with all its memories of countless meals with Mrs. Hamby and Hannah and Claudia. He knew he would recall how they would talk about their day as they ate Mrs. Hamby’s delicious dinners. He would have to address this later as the hour was after 9 PM and he felt weary. He filled a glass of water in the kitchen, placing it on his nightstand next to those both empty and half-filled water glasses from previous nights. I should put them in the sink, he thought, but didn’t. Instead, he climbed into the unmade bed, found the remote under Mrs. Hamby’s pillow and switched the TV on which provided him with sound but no picture. Mr. Hamby fell asleep listening to a show about elephants.
Mr. Hamby had always viewed each morning as a new opportunity, a second chance if you will. When his girls were young, he would wrap himself in his terrycloth bathrobe after his shower stand in the doorway to their bedroom, hair askew and wake them with the invocation, “This is the day which the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”
Every morning, even now, he claimed the day for optimism. He might recite his invocation to himself, looking in the mirror while he shaved or shout it to the morning when he opened the front door to get the paper.
This particular morning was no different. After reading the paper, he went to the kitchen to prepare his breakfast and saw the oatmeal encrusted pots sitting in the sink and on the counters. No matter, he said to himself, he would run by the supermarket and pick up instant oatmeal which he could make in a cup. He didn’t really need a pot. “This is the day the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” he shouted to the pots and pans in the sink, the stacks of microwavable meal trays, and mountains of mystery novels. He laughed at himself, looked for his coat which was somewhere in the living room, he guessed, and prepared to go for a walk in the park. He hesitated a moment remembering he wanted to bring something for the ingenious squirrel. “No bread”, he noted, so grabbed a spoon and jar of peanut butter. At the bend in the path he came to the tree with the two holes. There he sat down on the bench across from it and waited and watched, peanut butter and spoon by his side. He had no idea whether the squirrel was in its nest or not and thought about peeking in the hole but thought it might be perceived as invasive, so opened the jar of peanut butter, scooped out a spoonful and alternately licked and took bites from the brown gob on the spoon. Mr. Hamby was surprised by how much he genuinely liked the peanut butter and was considering it as an alternative to his traditional breakfast of oatmeal and berries when he spied the head of the squirrel peeping out of the upper hole in the tree.
“Well, hello there, my friend.” Mr. Hamby greeted the squirrel who eyed him cautiously.
“I have come to visit. Are you going to sit inside and watch or share this delicious peanut butter with me?” Mr. Hamby held out the spoon with a still generous portion of peanut butter in the shape of a wave attached to it. Mr. Hamby took another lick pulling the wave still further off the end of the spoon and offering it to the squirrel. Eyes fixed on Mr. Hamby, the squirrel haltingly left the safety of his home and climbed the short distance down the tree where he stopped completely frozen except for its tail which looked as if it were twitching out coded signals to party’s unseen.
“It’s entirely up to you, my friend. You have taken peanuts from my hand and this peanut butter is even better than those dry peanuts. And, look, no shell to bother with!” Mr. Hamby chuckled and leaned over extending his hand inches above the ground with the spoon of peanut butter toward the squirrel. Haltingly, the squirrel made its way to the spoon and began licking and then nibbling at the peanut butter. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, my friend, so eat up.” When the squirrel took a break from its meal, Mr. Hamby brought the spoon to his own mouth and finished off what was left before he opened the jar and scooped up another gob of peanut butter this time laying the spoon down on the bench beside him. The squirrel cautiously made its way to the seat and while keeping a close watch on Mr. Hamby, continued with breakfast. Mr. Hamby was careful not to make any sudden moves and when he spoke, did so gently.
“I had a look at your home…eh, nest I guess you call it. Anyway, you were not home so I peeked in through the upper window and saw that you must be very comfortable.” The squirrel continued licking and nibbling at the peanut butter, all the while never letting his eyes leave Mr. Hamby. “I saw too that you have collected some interesting objects des artes…” he smiled then added, “art objects”. “I wanted to tell you I admire the way you manage your household and care for your collectibles.” Mr. Hamby shifted his weight and the squirrel lurched back. “Sorry, sorry”, he smiled. “It seems to me that, well, we live in some sort of throwaway society. And I don’t think that’s good for anyone. Bad for you, bad for me, bad for the earth.” Mr. Hamby’s voice and train of thought seemed to trail off.
“I have a family, you know. Two beautiful daughters and Mrs. Hamby, my wife who, it pains me to say, is not well at the moment. She’s in the convalescent home on Wakefield Avenue. She’s not even conscious. I visit her every day but, honestly, I don’t know if she’s even aware that I am there.” Mr. Hamby’s eyes were red rimmed and welling with tears. The squirrel nibbled at the peanut butter watching Mr. Hamby. “It’s hard for me to talk about this, friend. I do miss her. I miss her a lot. But you know what? You gotta keep going, right? What choice do we have? You gotta keep going. Sometime I’ll tell you about Mrs. Hamby and my daughters too, but I’m not going to bother you with all that. You have things to do and so do I, but I’ll be back. OK?” Mr. Hamby wiped his eyes with a soiled handkerchief he took from his pants pocket. The squirrel moved back from the half-finished spoonful of peanut butter and sat back on its haunches. With its front paws, the squirrel appeared to be washing its face. “Cleanliness is next to godliness, my little friend.” Mr. Hamby said nodding to the squirrel. Then, as if remembering something, he abruptly lifted his hand with one finger pointing up startling the squirrel who jumped off the bench but then turned and watched. “There was one more thing.” Mr. Hamby said smiling. “Would you mind if I had another look at your home…eh…nest?” Mr. Hamby got up from the bench and the squirrel scampered away. He went over to the tree and pressed his head close to the upper hole in the tree so he could see down into the nest. “Ah ha! New treasures, I see!” He laughed and looked toward where he had last seen the squirrel, but it had gone. Looking back into the hole he noted some red white, and green electrical wires as well as a scrap of fabric which was perhaps a piece of leather, some aluminum foil, and a strip of old duct tape. “Duct tape”, he whispered admiringly. With that, Mr. Hamby began to make a mental list of the things he had to do today as he turned and briskly walked home.
He was positively inspired by how the squirrel collected things. Collected things for what? he pondered. Did the squirrel derive some sort of satisfaction from its discovered treasures? He wondered.
Mr. Hamby drove to the store before he intended to visit his wife. He had gotten an itch, as Mrs. Hamby used to say whenever he had some big new idea. He wanted to purchase TV trays as well as a new television. He reasoned, when Mrs. Hamby returned home from the hospital (he didn’t like the term convalescent home), the two of them could eat and watch television in the bedroom. As far as the television was concerned, he didn’t know why there was no picture on the bedroom television set but decided they should upgrade to something nicer and more importantly, something that worked. He also stopped by the market and bought scores of microwavable meals. He found microwavable French toast, and eggs, meat loaf and Swedish meatballs, lasagna, spaghetti, and all kinds of exotic Asian dishes like Pad Thai and Kung Pao chicken. “There we are”, he told himself. “One less thing to worry about.”
When he returned home the frozen meals would not all fit in the freezer so he placed the overflow items in the refrigerator, which, he noted had an unpleasant odor and would require his attention later. For now, he went to the car to collect the box with the television which he wrestled into his and Mrs. Hamby’s bedroom. Leaving the old TV where it was, he brought one chair from the dining table to serve as a stand and set it up in front of the old TV. Returning to the dining table he retrieved two more chairs and placed them a few feet from the TV. Next, he went back to the car, took out the box with the two TV trays and set them up before the TV in his bedroom. “Perfect”, he whispered. “Mrs. Hamby will love this.” Checking the time, he had to be on his way to the hospital, so pushing the boxes and packing debris aside, he created a narrow path from the bedroom entrance to the TV tables and from the TV tables to the bed. The two televisions on their respective stands, one before the other extended out toward the center of the modest-sized bedroom; the boxes, the Styrofoam wedges, and plastic wrap packaging lay on the floor, the TV trays and their chairs, the bed and bedroom furniture altogether made negotiating one’s way around the room a challenge. Mr. Hamby stood at the entrance to the bedroom and scanned it. “There”, he said, nodding his head decisively. He threw on his coat and headed toward the car.
Mrs. Hamby’s condition was no different than it had been the day before or for that matter since the day she was admitted. Her hands were clawed, her skin clammy, and mouth slack. She seemed to be growing smaller and more frail with every visit. Still, Mr. Hamby remembered to tell her that he had spoken to the girls. He kept the news regarding the television and TV trays to himself for now. He did tell her again about the remarkable squirrel he had encountered. He spoke to her uncertain if she understood anything he said supposed it was important to keep her apprised of the “goings on”. Before he left, he read to her for 20 minutes from Mickey Spillane’s, The Big Kill.
When Mr. Hamby had arrived back home it was almost 5 PM. He stopped his car at the mailbox out front and thought, “good grief, the mail! When was the last time I checked the mail?”. The mailbox was so full that when he opened it envelopes, magazines and catalogues spilled onto the ground. He surveyed the the scattered mail below the mailbox and momentarily felt panicked. There were so many things to manage, so many things to remember, so many things to do. Mr. Hamby slowly collected the pieces one by one until he had them all and slid back in the car and spoke soothingly to himself. “You gotta keep going! Right? What are you going to do? You gotta keep going.” He took a deep breath and drove the car down the driveway and let himself in the back door, dumping the pile of mail on the dining table. He thought he would have to change the sheets tomorrow as he climbed into bed and picked up the remote where it lay on Mrs. Hamby’s pillow. When he clicked it on, there was sound but no picture. Mr. Hamby sucked in his breath, pursed his lips and blew it out very slowly puzzled and frustrated with his new television. Sometime during the night he turned off the television, realizing he had sound only because he mistakenly used the remote from the old television. Mr. Hamby then went back to sleep until he was awakened again by the ringing of the telephone. It was the convalescent home calling about Mrs. Hamby. She was failing.
Mr. Hamby was quite frankly disturbed with the way his daughters treated him in the days before the memorial service suggesting he was being stubborn and unreasonable. He also didn’t appreciate the way they cleaned up the house tossing out most of his dinner trays as well as the boxes he was saving. They would have thrown out the books if he didn’t insist that he planned to read them all. Their alarm at the size of the mail pile only accentuated his feeling of panic. He would attend to it, he explained impatiently. He did regret that they seemed to leave feeling exasperated with him. He wasn’t trying to be stubborn. He just wanted to do things his way and on his schedule. The following morning, he sat on the park bench sharing a spoonful of peanut butter with the squirrel, as had become their custom, and complained he was being treated like a child. “Mrs. Hamby and I raised those two girls and they are telling me to clean my room?” Mr. Hamby wagged the spoonful of peanut butter he held as one might an accusing finger. “Now, that’s not right. Who’s the parent and who’s the child?” he asked incredulously.” The squirrel watched him from half way across the path expecting to share the spoonful of peanut butter which he took a big lick of before setting it down on the bench. “Still, I just feel terrible that they left angry with me.” He shifted his position to face the squirrel who was nibbling from the spoon. “Mrs. Hamby and I had a rule about such things and it served us well our entire marriage. Never go to bed angry with one another. How did Mrs. Hamby put it? ‘Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.’ Now there’s a rule to live by!” Mr. Hamby bit his bottom lip and crossed his arms over his chest. He shook his head. “Darn it! They called it junk! ‘Papa, get rid of all this junk.’ It’s not junk!”, he said picking up the spoon and taking another lick before setting it down again.
Staring out beyond the tree which contained the squirrel’s nest, Mr. Hamby watched a pair of squirrels chase one another across the lawns and up and down a tree. His hands, which had been resting in his lap, now gripped the park bench on which he was seated as if he were afraid he might be forcibly removed. He bit his lower lip which had been trembling and said, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t think. I can’t… I feel so alone. But, honestly, I don’t want to speak to anyone.” He turned back to the squirrel, and gesturing with a nod toward the playful squirrels, he said, “You should go play with your buddies instead of listening to some broken down old man.” He smiled. “You know how some people say, ‘I feel like this is a bad dream and I keep thinking I’ll wake up?’” He paused turning back to scan the field where the squirrels played. “I don’t feel that way at all. I wish I did. I know she won’t ever walk through the front door again, or walk in the park with me, or ask me how my day was or read in bed next to me. And sometimes I wake up at night now and I can barely breathe. I’m scared and I want to wake her. I can still feel the impression of her body on our mattress. I still smell her!” Mr. Hamby looked wearily at the squirrel who he seemed to have forgotten and smiled. “At least I have you to talk with. I suppose I should be paying you.” He laughed and added, “will you accept Visa, a check, or peanut butter?” He laughed again and slapped his knee causing the squirrel to leap off the bench. “Oh, I’m sorry. I have been rather self-absorbed, I’m afraid. I have not stopped blabbing about myself. I need to learn more about you!”
“Tell me this- Do your kids tell you to clean up your house…your nest?” He laughed. “I don’t even know if you have kids. For goodness sake, I don’t know if your male or female. I suppose if you were female you wouldn’t be collecting that so-called ‘junk’ you have in your nest.” Again, he laughed, this time at himself. Mr. Hamby had put the spoon on the ground in front of the bench where the squirrel continued nervously licking and nibbling at the peanut butter while keeping a cautious eye on him. “Anyway, I should call them, don’t you think?” The squirrel stopped eating and stared at Mr. Hamby. “Is that a yes or a no?” He laughed and picked up the spoon and scraped the last of the peanut butter off it with his lower teeth and sealed up the jar while the squirrel ran across the path and into the open area behind his tree where it became indistinguishable from the other squirrels. Mr. Hamby began to make his way back home as was his custom but stopped suddenly thinking to himself that he wasn’t really sure what he had to do this day. His daughters had started to clean out their mother’s belongings but Mr. Hamby had insisted they stop. He knew it was something he had to do, but it had just been a few weeks and he would have to do these things in a way that was….what? he thought. In a way that was respectful. He wasn’t just going to empty the closets and drive it all down to Goodwill! He wanted to go through things and recall the stories that each of them held.
That afternoon; the time when for so many weeks he would read mystery novels to Mrs. Hamby, he opened her jewelry box on her dresser. There were rings and bracelets, ear rings and necklaces all tucked away in separate little sections on three different tiers. He rummaged around in each of the little compartments picking up and examining pieces and commenting on them as he went. “I always thought this was a lovely ring. It was from your mother or was it your grandmother? I wonder why you never wore it. This will go to one of the girls.” After a while, he picked up the jewelry box and brought it over to their bed and began sorting through the various pieces. Some of the pieces triggered fond, although painful, memories and many more he simply didn’t recognize or remember. A satisfied smile spread across his face as he held up the gold charm bracelet he had given his wife. Affixed to the bracelet were eight charms that he had given to Mrs. Hamby to mark certain special occasions; her birthday, an anniversary, the birth of each of their daughters, Valentine’s day, their trip to Europe. He picked up the bracelet which was gold with charms that were attached to it, some appointed with precious stones. He held it in the palm of his hand feeling its weight. He studied it carefully, examining each of the charms, reaching back to remember the particulars about where and when and why he got them. He worked his way around the bracelet, examining each charm and recalling the occasion when he gave it to his wife. The memories were at once sweet and painful so he decided it best to limit the amount of time he would spend on this activity. He put the charm bracelet and the other items spread out on the bed back in the jewelry box which he then carried to the dining table. He cleared a spot at the table, which itself was a repository of lovely memories and went through the other jewelry pieces, sorting them into piles. Those items which evoked the most powerful memories, those pieces that were pretty but had no sentimental value, and those about which he felt neutral. Organizing items of any sort helped him to feel like he was doing something useful and productive. It assuaged the mild sensation of panic that had seized his entire body since he had lost Mrs. Hamby. It would also allow him to tell his daughters that he had begun sorting through their mother’s things.
Mr. Hamby decided the pieces that evoked the most powerful memories he would hold on to. The others he would give to his daughters who could decide what to do with them. But, part way through this exercise he hesitated wondering why in the world he should hold onto any of the jewelry pieces. It should all go to the girls, he said aloud. No, no he would keep the charm bracelet. And then he had an idea which he thought was perfect.
First, he would remove each of the charms from the gold bracelet since each had its own unique story. He retrieved the tool kit from the garage rummaging through it until he found the needle nosed plyers. Delicately, he pried open the link that fastened each charm to the bracelet until it was free. Then, holding each charm in his hand he traced the shape of it with his thumb; rolled it around in his fingers and then clutched it tight, recalling the event that inspired him to purchase the piece to ensure he remembered them all.
Then, returning to the bedroom, he went to one of the small top drawers in his dresser and found the red silk handkerchief that Mrs. Hamby had bought him to place in the breast pocket of the tuxedo he rented for their daughter’s wedding. He brought it back to the table, unfolded it and placed each of the charms on the red handkerchief and tied it into a bundle that he tucked into his coat pocket.
That evening he called his daughters who wanted to talk about cleaning up the house and getting rid of the junk. He insisted he would take care of it and had already begun which clearly pleased them both. He told them he loved them and that he missed them and Mrs. Hamby. He and Hannah shared stories of things they had done as a family like driving to Washington DC to tour the White House and visit the Mint to see how money was made. They laughed about how Mrs. Hamby would make up silly songs to help the girls remember historical events they were to be quizzed on each Friday. Mr. Hamby asked Claudia if she remembered how he would wake them each morning. “Of course! How could I forget? This is the day which the Lord hath made!”, Hannah said. Mr. Hamby answered, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Finally, both girls made a special point to remind their father that they were there for him and hoped he knew it. All in all, he was pleased with the conversations and that gnawing sensation that the foundations of his entire life were collapsing, for the moment felt sturdier.
He woke the next morning feeling especially good. He had given up making drip coffee and now simply boiled water for instant. He dropped two heaping teaspoons full of coffee crystals into his cup wanting a “coffee that would put hair on his chest”. He paused, trying to remember where he had learned that expression but it seemed to slip his mind. Today’s breakfast was a breakfast sandwich and hash browns which he cooked up in the microwave adding the tray to the new collection he started after the girls left. He looked around for his coat and grabbed a spoon and a new large tub of peanut butter and briskly walked to the park.
The squirrel had grown bolder as it became accustomed to sharing a spoonful of peanut butter with Mr. Hamby each morning. As soon as the squirrel observed Mr. Hamby had taken his place on the bench across from its home, he eagerly joined him awaiting his turn with the spoonful of peanut butter. After Mr. Hamby took a generous lick, he set it down on the bench where the squirrel could eat and watch him.
“I have brought something very special to share with you”, Mr. Hamby said as he slowly reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the red bundle. He lay it on his lap and carefully untied it folding back the corners one at a time exposing the treasure of shiny gold charms and precious memories. “What will I tell you about today, my friend?” he asked the squirrel. He picked up a gold charm in the shape of a baby’s bootie with a bright red ruby in the center that seemed to catch the squirrel’s eye. “Oh, so I have captured your interest, I see”, he chuckled. “But first, the story.” Mr. Hamby said picking up the spoon and wagging it at the squirrel. He took a lick and sat it back down. “When Mrs. Hamby and I were married, we couldn’t wait to have children. We always felt we had so much love between us that we wanted to share it with children.” He took a deep breath and continued. “Yet, as much as we wanted children, for reasons only God knows, we could not. Oh, we went to doctors and they could find no reason why we shouldn’t be able to have them. And, I kid you not, this went on for years! I can’t tell you how agonizing this was for the two of us.” Mr. Hamby then started to laugh. “It wasn’t until we stopped worrying about having a child…I mean we gave up on the whole idea… and you know what? That’s when we learned that Mrs. Hamby was pregnant! Can you believe that?” He smiled, staring at the field beyond the tree where the squirrel lived, thinking about himself and his wife and how happy they were. “I mean, that was like a miracle. Not like a miracle… it was a miracle.” he added nodding his head definitively. He sat silent and several times seemed to want to speak but then stopped. Finally, he took a deep breath and shook his head as if to extract himself from the memory he seemed lost within. Turning to the squirrel who continued to eye him while eating the peanut butter, he explained, “When I learned that Mrs. Hamby was pregnant with Hannah, I bought the charm bracelet and this baby bootie charm.” Mr. Hamby again shifted his position to better speak directly to the squirrel causing it to momentarily freeze until it became evident that Mr. Hamby did not threaten to come any closer. “It’s a good story, don’t you think?” Mr. Hamby jokingly asked. “You know something?”, he continued. “This is the first time I have felt genuinely happy in weeks. And you know what else? There are more charms and more stories in this little red sack.”, he said patting his coat pocket. Thirty minutes passed quickly Mr. Hamby noted as he checked his watch and it was now time to go. He neatly tied the red handkerchief back into a bundle leaving gold baby bootie sitting on his knee. He took it in his hand and stood up and the squirrel scurried away. Mr. Hamby walked over to the tree with the two holes and dropped the gold baby bootie charm in the top hole. He looked down into the hole and saw where it landed on the bed of leaves in the bottom of the hollowed out tree. “Thanks for listening”, he said and smiled. He put the red bundle back in his coat pocket and made a mental list of the things he wanted to get done that day and headed home.
Every morning for the next eight days, after his instant oatmeal and coffee, Mr. Hamby went to the park with a spoon and tub of peanut butter, and sat on the bench across from the tree with the two holes, where he was joined by the gray squirrel. Together they ate peanut butter off the same spoon. Then he would take from his coat pocket the red silk handkerchief, unfold it and remove one of the charms. He always studied it for a moment then showed it to the squirrel pointing out any unique features, explaining what kind of gemstone was embedded in it. Then, sometimes wistfully, sometimes more analytically, he would recount the circumstances that led to the purchase of that specific charm.
Each charm, a tabernacle within which resided the mystery and power of memories that spawned memories of so much that had long been forgotten or perhaps never consciously known. Mrs. Hamby’s charms became the element that set in motion sort of memory fission, each memory unlocking the next. Mr. Hamby was a manic fountain of memory from which flowed confessions of love and jealousy, friendship ambition, disappointment, and reconciliation. And there were persons he remembered: his wife, daughters, brother and sisters, his parents, his friends, coworkers, his competitors and those he perceived as enemies but perhaps misjudged. And there was loss; the little and not so little parts of his life that were being systematically peeled away while he could do little more than look on helplessly. It was both exhilarating and frightening since he seemed in a way to possess little control over what he would speak of next. Often, he was pleasantly surprised by these revelations and at other times alarmed. But mostly he felt the broken was being cleansed and reassembled. He told the stories that dwelled in those parts of himself that had become old and worn and unfamiliar, making them new, alive and habitable once again. He pondered this feeling saying the word, ‘re-assembled’ several times until he stopped and himself and said, “re-membered”. That was it. Re-membering. What had been dis-membered was being re-membered.
And each day as he remembered, he would hold the piece of jewelry, rolling it over and over in his hand. He would recall the event the charm honored, why he bought that specific charm and what it meant to him, when he gave it to Mrs. Hamby, how she reacted when she received it, how their lives were changed by the event. And when he felt he had released the story that each charm somehow magically held, he would walk to the tree and drop the charm inside the hole and peek in to see that it was safely in the squirrel’s nest. “For your collection. And, thank you for being there”, he would say to the empty squirrel’s nest. Then Mr. Hamby would turn his attention to the tasks that had to be accomplished for that day.
Eight days after he began sharing the stories that the charms possessed, Mr. Hamby dropped into the squirrel’s nest the last charm which was a golden heart. He had given to Mrs. Hamby only six months earlier for their 40th wedding anniversary. He looked down the hole into the squirrel’s nest to see the heart laying in the leaves near the other charms. He gave a nod to no one in particular as if to say, “that’s that”, opened the tub of peanut butter and placed it on the park bench along with the spoon, faced the grassy area beyond the squirrel’s home and shouted to the several squirrels chasing one another across the grass and up and down the trees, “Thank you for being here for me” and went home with a thought to put his house in order.