Deep Heart’s Core 

Two days into her retirement from the elementary school where she’d taught fifth grade for 30 years, Pam called her brother, Alan. Alan lived on the opposite side of the county in a small, Craftsman-style home on Clear Lake.  “I’m taking you up on your offer to hang out for a day or two.”

“Great! I’ll put some shrimp on the barbi for you.” Alan and Pam had a running joke of barbecuing for one another. It was a method of cooking they’d once enjoyed but had forgone for several years now due to fears of the recurring wildland fires. Alan was an archaeologist whose work ran the gamut of carbon-dating ancient Pomo artifacts, to conducting site surveys on lands slated for both the proliferating marijuana crops as well as the oceans of vineyards that were slowly replacing pears and walnuts. 

On the drive up to Alan’s, Pam felt simultaneous pangs of sadness and elation at her newfound freedom. Everyone—parents, colleagues, students and friends had been excited for Pam at the news of her retirement. She’d kept her decision quietly to herself until the last two months to avoid any hoopla, but still, she was the recipient of a few small parties and celebrations. But now, she was both widowed and retired.

Pam and Michael had enjoyed a long and mostly happy marriage. It would have pleased Michael to have witnessed her hard-won retirement. Milestones like anniversaries and birthdays always brought Michael to mind. They’d planned on celebrating in Europe when the time came. After his death in a traffic accident at an intersection with no light seven years ago, she’d angrily wondered how many deaths it took for a stoplight to be installed.

He’d been a geology professor, which was how they’d met decades ago, when Pam had attended his seminar on the local serpentine rock formations. It had pleased both of them that their interests intersected. She liked rock-hounding the hills of Northern California, assisting her brother on his archaeology digs during school vacations, and she loved educating young people.

Now, her classroom was cleared out, awaiting the next young teacher. Would her replacement be as nervous as she’d been as a newbie? In some ways, the decades had flown by, while paradoxically appearing protracted. There’d been relentless staff meetings to attend and piles of papers to grade, which were sometimes mind-numbing. She’d been in this career long enough to teach former students’ children. They’d sometimes had to jog her memory of just who they were, given that they’d been little ten-year-olds at last meeting. Now as parents, the inevitable progression of a life’s birth-to-aging revealed itself to them too.

Each step along the road to earning her teaching credential had been fraught with fear of failure, but once in the classroom, she’d settled in and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Well, not every minute. Like all teachers, she’d had her challenges, especially toward the end when new technology demands, like Chrome books, online report cards, and computerized state testing, took up increasingly more of her spare time.

But that was that; she was finished. She’d sorted her classroom cupboards and desk, and had kept her framed awards, and what amounted to several containers worth of teaching, locked the door and left her career.

Sitting on Alan’s redwood deck, overlooking the lake of their childhood, glass of Chardonnay in hand, she felt at home. The familiar sight of the resident volcano, Mount Konocti, stood, shining with shards of obsidian as it had since its last eruption around a half-million years ago. Cormorants perched on the pier, wings outstretched to dry in the sun after diving for their prey, while elegant white egrets stood as sentinels on the lake shore nearby. Alan, a two-time divorcee who lived alone now, too, shared her interests of local history and geology. It was always comforting returning to this family home that once had belonged to their grandparents. Since both their parents’ deaths, as well as Grandma and Grandpa having been gone for decades, and now Michael’s death, it was just she and Alan. All inevitably came tumbling down, like her students’ dominoes game, didn’t it?

A red tractor cultivating rows of grapes across the cove caught Pam’s and Alan’s eyes. “That’s Gregory on his Ford tending his chardonnay vines. I ran into him at the post office last week and he asked about you. You know, he’s single now, too. His wife ran off with the butcher.”

 “A regular little soap opera, our valley is.”

Gregory had played a starring role in Pam’s younger years. Years when she’d been dating both Michael and Gregory. She’d never regretted marrying Michael, but sometimes a tiny voice niggled, and she’d wondered whether the tipping point leading to her final decision between the two young men had been that of Michael’s college credentials and Gregory’s lack thereof. Had she been a snob? No, not really, she decided. Both men had been gifted in their own manner. Michael with his Masters’s Degree in geology, and Gregory with his own specialized knowledge of the land. His expertise encompassed not only the terroir, but expanded beyond farming practices and environmental context into his vast knowledge of the mysteries of the night skies. How much time had they spent gazing up at the confetti-strewn space above Lake County, admiring the constellations and the vast carpet of the Milky Way? He’d known all of the stories of the stars, and his enthusiasm for astronomy was contagious. No, Gregory was brilliant in his own way.

Pam noted the surrounding summer-dried hillsides interspersed with verdant vines. The hills created a bowl, with Clear Lake’s dappled waters sparkling below. Once, those hills had been bedecked with lush foliage of pine, madrone, oak, and manzanita. But due to wildfires which had engulfed the hills over the years, the ghosts of those trees were grey and sparse, much like she was.

She’d never been one to require a man in her life in order to feel complete, hence the many years she’d spent as a widow. She had lots of interests outside of the classroom; and they were all fulfilling in their own manner. But what could it hurt to get together with Gregory to chat about happy times in the past? With the burgeoning wine industry that Lake County was experiencing, there would be much that Gregory could relate about current wine business practices, not to mention the abundant wine-tasting events that occurred around the county. It would be pleasurable as well to attend some of the numerous night-sky lectures she’d heard that he hosted at the local observatory in Kelseyville.

Morning sunlight spilled across Clear Lake like so much melted butter. For years this lake had brought to mind Yeats’ ‘I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore…I hear it in the deep heart’s core’. Coffee mug in hand, Pam headed for the deck, wrapped in Grandma’s colorful cable-knit afghan to greet the day.

 “Sleep well? Alan joined her, favorite chipped mug in hand.

“Like a retired teacher.” Graceful black and white grebes performed their diving routines nearby as they sipped their coffee.

“Hey, I meant to ask you how you like your stand-up paddleboard?” Pam indicated the broad and solid board that leaned against the pier like an aloof teenager.

“It’s fun once you find your balance. Take it out for a test drive, why don’t you?

“I just might do that. Got to get some serious swims in first. I can’t believe we live less than an hour from one another, and our visits are so far and few between.”

“You have to consider that we’ve both been knee-deep in our careers for decades.”

“Knee-deep. That’s for sure. Especially you, dear brother, with your digs.”

“Yeah, I’m always outstanding in my field.” They both groaned at the familiar wisecracks. “Actually, the paddle board’s fairly simple. You have to adjust the paddle to the correct length, then kneel on the board near the center, and put the paddle across the board in front of you. Then you’re ready to stand up and paddle away!” 

Pam, suited up for a swim, deciding to postpone paddle boarding for the time being. Poised to dive in, she anticipated the first shock of cold water. Then, unavoidable goosebumps would break out and quickly recede after a half-dozen strokes or so. Her reflexes would then take over and she’d become engrossed in the rhythm of swimming. She pictured herself swimming, streamlined along with the bass and bluegills, her arms moving alternately, correctly timed so that one started pulling just prior to the other arm’s finish.

After a brief rest on Alan’s pier, Pam decided it was now or never as she vowed to accomplish the art of stand-up paddling. It wasn’t as easy as Alan had described. But then, she had never been accomplished at any sports beyond swimming. She’d always been last choice on any high school soccer or softball teams. Heck, she hadn’t even learned to ride a bicycle until junior high, for crying out loud. Keeping her brother’s lessons in mind, and careful not to break off the paddle board’s fin by launching the board in too-shallow water, she nervously left the shore. It was surprising how rapidly the shoreline receded. A brief thought bounced in and out of her head, and she wondered if she should return to shore and start earlier tomorrow. The afternoon moods of Clear Lake swept by swiftly, mirroring a myriad of thoughts that could be fleeting, fast, serene or promising all in one instant.

Just before she slipped and hit her head on the paddle board’s hard edge Pam admonished herself for her double blunders—that of neglecting to eat lunch, with its ensuing lightheadedness, and attempting to master a new sport in waters with whitecaps.

Pam descended into Clear Lake’s late afternoon choppy waters. It seemed as though she’d never stop sinking, and she noted the cooler, darker water below the surface where, only moments before, she’d been happily paddling along the water’s choppy shell. Was she passing out? Was this how she was to spend her retirement—brain damaged or even dead? She marveled at the incongruous thoughts that popped into her mind like the bubbles she watched rising above her. Before long, a period of grace ensued, and she floated up to the paddle board, grabbing onto it while sputtering and coughing up the earthy-tasting lake water.

The afternoon sun began to warm her as she lay sprawled on the board, wondering at her near-miss. The lake twinkled in sunlight, like the night sky of her youth. While gulls scissored far above her, she felt that the temporality of any given event was heartrending and that, deep in her heart’s core, what more could any person desire than the land, the lake, and the renewing of an old and dear friendship.

Kathleen Scavone

Kathleen Scavone, MA., is a retired educator who has resided in beautiful Lake County for over 45 years. She freelances fiction, poetry, nature writing, curriculum ideas, and local history. She writes for The Press Democrat, Napa Valley Register, News From Native California, Green Prints, etc. She has published three books, a play and a poetry chapbook. The second edition of her locally set historical novella, People of the Water- a novella of the events leading to the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850 is available in local museums and stores, as well as on Amazon.com and IngramSpark in both paperback and e-book formats. She has written Anderson Marsh State Historic Park- A Walking History, Prehistory, Flora and Fauna tour of a California State Park, and Native Americans of Lake County. Kathleen is a photographer and potter. Her other interests include hiking, assisting on archaeology digs, travel, gardening and reading.

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