It’s early November and Central California is still smoking hot, like an overheated griddle, and drier than an old tortilla chip. Our creek is dry, river is dry, well is drying up—and no rain in the foreseeable future. My own wellspring of creativity, optimism, and trust in human decency is as jaded as the news, as withered as the roadside weeds.
But life is full of surprises-sometimes a day can spin on its heels, leaving in its wake a fresh wind blowing, maybe even scented with rain-- without a drop of rain in sight.
It happened like this: my 85 year old Mom arrived in town last week, full of vim and vigor, eager to do something different than “the same old things” we always do when she comes to town. My duty is to keep Mom safe, happy and entertained while my brother’s on his annual hunting trip. Though she lives alone, and manages well, we try to tag team the safe and happy part.
I carry tea and ginger snaps to her bedroom at dawn, which is our ritual, but she’s already been awake for hours listening to farm reports on the radio, briefed on local events for a hundred mile around.
“There’s a fall harvest festival today in Bradley. Homemade jams and jellies, pumpkin bread, pot-holders, and a grand-prize drawing at two. It’s a beautiful drive through the countryside. I wrote it all down on my napkin.”
This translates to: “this is what we should do today.” I dubiously look up Bradley on line, and find no mention of fall farm festivals. I try to tell her there is no fall festival. This doesn’t daunt her. It’s all written right here on her napkin.
Later that morning, we set out to find the fall festival, even though I only have the vaguest idea where Bradley is.
After a forty minute drive on a barren, lonely road, Mom says, “I sure would hate to break down out here." I say, “We’re not going to break down, Mom.” Sheesh. Why does she say these things?
If you sneezed twice, you’d miss Bradley entirely. On the outer edge of town we pass a wacky heap of rusted cars piled in front of a defunct gas station: Jimmy Raders Hot Rod Social. Also, a post office, a fire station, a school, a boarded-up church and a few chickens running down the street. No store. No pedestrians. No jam or jelly festivals in sight.
Bradley could NOT be a more ghostly ghost town. We scout out the the school yard, where small towns sometimes hold festivals, and we park in the shade of the lone tree to regroup. The lone teacher looked at us with some suspicion, and had heard of no festival. But when I turn the key to head home? Click. My engine is as dead as the ghosts in this town. Here we were, in the middle of god-forsaken-Bradley, stranded. Did I mention it’s really, really HOT? We're a long ways from home, and no help in sight. Mom perks right up. "We're having an adventure!"
Mom holds me by the elbow and we teeter down the sweltering street towards the heap of hotrods, hoping to find a live person for a jump start. An unshaven man, wearing a wooly coat and knit cap is enjoying a cold soda, alone in his hot-rod shop. We "hoo hoo" and walk in, asking for jumper cables.
“No one ever comes here. Come in, come in!”
Inside are 1940’s pin-up girls, photos of movie stars, and a big cooler filled with strawberry sodas.
But the guy, Jimmy Rader, is talking so fast my head spins.
"You gotta see this. Come back into the back room, I have so much to show you.”
Mom follows him nimbly, asking question after question. This is way better than pot- holders and jelly.
I’m quickly feeling like a fly that’s bumbled into a spider web—the trap door kind, that start out wide and quickly become narrow and sticky.
I keep saying we need to go, that we just need some jumper cables, but mom is determined to see the “museum” of old car and motorcycle parts. Deeper into his cavern she flutters.
“We really need to go, “ I say.
“You haven’t seen anything yet. Come back this way. You can spend the night here in my bus. Or in the jail out back. We film horror movies here in Bradley.”
Why does this not surprise me?
I feel like I've entered Hotel California, where "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. "
“We have to get back,” I say. “Do you have jumper cables?”
“I’ll drive you back to your car in my 61 Camero” the hot rod man declares. Mom nearly skips to his car.
“No thanks, we’ll walk.”
I imagine us disappearing into the sagebrush in his vintage Camero, a maniacal, fast-talking, gear-head at the wheel--as the movie credits roll.
I grab her hand and pull her through the maze of metal.
So we walk—me leading, Mom tottering, holding my hand, back through the sweltering streets to our car. Mom’s laughing. She thinks its fun. I don’t. I’m clearly not doing my part to keep mom safe-- although she does seem pretty happy.
True to his word, Jimmy Hotrod pulls up alongside us with his jumper cables and purring Camero. Seeing a car in need, he quickly morphs into a brooding mechanic, swiftly diagnosing an alternator problem. Not a quick fix-and it takes four jumps and four stalls just to get us back to his station.
Once there, he hauls our battery out, and plunks in three different batteries-- from multiple discarded cars--none of which work. He misses his lunch. He misses a chat with the CHP who stopped by for his daily chat. He finally finds a battery in his 1941 tractor, “just to get you girls home” (where we will need to replace the alternator) and installs it.
Jimmy Rader wouldn’t take a nickel for his efforts, his battery, his sodas, or his lost time. The scruffy-looking dude I’d pegged as an ax-murderer-- turned out to be the best kind of Good Samaritan ever. He cares for his older, mentally-challenged brother and has for over 40 years. He's married to the same girl he loved in Kindergarten. He never had a mom, she died when he was a baby, but he just likes to do good in the world, and make people happy. He's going to sell his museum pretty soon, and move to Placerville, because his town doesn't wish to have a tourist attraction here. He's sad, but wants his town to be happy. And he wants to follow his dream, of making a Knox Berry Farm-like old car park. Before we drive away, I impulsively hug him. Mom does too. He looks embarrassed but grins. We promise to return the battery the following week.
Much later, back home, Mom and I sit outside on my porch, grilling steaks, sharing a chilled bottle of Sauvinon Blanc. I’m celebrating getting mom home safely—(it took another 3 hours and a tow truck to get us finally here) she’s relishing the adventure. I can’t take credit for keeping mom safe, today, but I think I (accidentally) kept her entertained.
A week later, driving mom back home, we stop to see Jimmy Radar and return his tractor battery. We deliver a box of Sees candy to thank him. My mom reaches for his hand.
“May God be with you,” she says, uncharacteristically.
He holds her hand gently, “And you too,” he replies.
As we drive off, tears run down her face. I don't know what she's thinking. I am thinking--"He never had a mom."
And I've been blessed with my spunky, adventurous mom for 59 years.
Back at home, the news is still the news, fractious, bitter and violent. The weather is still hot and dry. But here’s what I know: Buried under the dust, all over California, there are little frog pellets, just waiting for puddles to plump them up. After the first downpour, thousands of frogs will emerge, croaking and hopping out, from wherever they go during the dry season. Brilliant blades of grass will poke through the dust, in about two minutes flat. Little rivulets will begin to carve patterns in the powdery earth.
And beneath our fear and mistrust, there is just us, in funny costumes, with all kinds of wild ideas, just waiting for puddles of kindness to plump us up, too. To jump start us. The rains eventually come. Mostly, we are hardwired to be kind, to rain down kindness on those in need.
Inside all of us, ideas and projects wait to be plumped up by rivers that flow through our dreams, rivers that will flow once again. Maybe it will rain soon. In the mean time, we put one dusty foot in front of the other. We offer a hand; we accept a hand. We remember the truth, expressed so luminously in Ram Dass words: “At the end of the day, we’re all just walking each other home.”
Welcome to Streamriffs.com, a place for fellow creek- walkers and nature lovers. Lori Fisher Peelen lives in California with her family.