Front Porch: Sometimes, a glimpse can say so much

Writers see stories everywhere.

In a little boy in full pirate regalia standing under an oscillating front yard sprinkle.

In an overheard conversation at the grocery store. “It’s not his baby. I don’t care what she says!”

In a tattered “Missing Cat” flier fastened to a streetlight with pink duct tape.

These bits and pieces of everyday life call to us and beg us to fill in the blanks – to uncover the rest of the story.

Flags flying at Washington State Veterans Cemetary

One place in particular teems with tales – the Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake. Each year on Memorial Day weekend, after placing flowers at my father-in-law’s grave, I wander among the headstones and wonder about the people buried here.

Harold Schoessler lies here. According to his gravestone, he was “Washington State’s last horse soldier.” Born in 1918 and died in 2013, I would have loved to hear his stories.

The marker of a World War II Army private reads, “I have ways to make you laugh Blackie.”

Is this a quote from a book or a movie? If so, I haven’t found its source. More likely, it’s an inside joke known only to the deceased’s family and friends. I wish I could have met this fellow.

Another marker intrigues. Someone’s beloved wife’s final resting place is engraved, “I have the floor.” Perhaps this is her way of getting the last word.

Other epitaphs offer simple statements that give a glimpse into both the deceased and into the family they left behind. As the wind snapped the cemetery flags, I read, “He’s happy high on a windy hill.” This soldier’s family picked the perfect spot for him.

In the scatter garden, where families scatter their loved ones’ ashes, some markers give me pause. One says, “I never promised you a rose garden.” Another reads “Sorry, I am late. Love Son.” And a third states, “It’s been a lot of laughs. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be seeing you around.”

I walk in silence and ponder the lives represented here – the stories that ache to be told. Though I’ve never aspired to write fiction, I can certainly understand the lure. What would it be like to weave an entire tale from the fragments of an idea, from the whispers of the graveyard, from the snippets of an overheard conversation? Therein lies magic!

But on the way home from the cemetery that afternoon, I discovered sometimes you don’t need the rest of the story – sometimes just a glimpse is enough.

Traffic was heavy as we made our way from Medical Lake to north Spokane. We pulled up at a stoplight and I saw a frail, elderly woman sitting on a rock in front of a bank. She held a cardboard sign. I couldn’t read all of the writing, but one word stood out – “Desperate.”

As we watched, a woman parked her minivan at the bank and approached the lady with the sign. She sat on the rock next to her for a minute or two, then went to her van and opened the trunk. She’d obviously been shopping at the nearby Costco and was ready to go camping, because her trunk overflowed with groceries and gear.

She pulled a can of soda from her stash and got a cup of ice and brought it to the elderly lady. As the light turned green and we drove away, I looked back to see the two, sitting side by side on the rock.

Just like at the cemetery, my mind raced with unanswered questions. Why was the old woman desperate? What prompted the busy mom in the minivan to stop?

A Bible verse floated into my memory, “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

And then I realized the details didn’t matter. I’d just “read” an entire story – a sermon, in fact.

I’ve driven that intersection many times since, and I keep my eyes peeled for that elderly lady. I haven’t seen her. But I’m hoping her story had the happiest of endings.

This Front Porch column originally appeared in The Spokesman Review June 5, 2014.

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