Thursday, January 15, 2015

Little Tommy (Coincidences & Connections)

I got a message today from a good friend who lives outside of Dallas, Texas.  We haven’t connected in over three years but it was really nice to get a New Year’s shout out from her.  It led me to think about how many coincidences and connections I have in my life that just drop in my lap when I least expect it.

 After my middle son, Matthew was born and my oldest son, Ben was nicking on five, my wife, Karen, and I had a long conversation and decided it was time for us to move out of the city to the suburbs. We started looking at houses in the northwest that were close to our parents, but couldn’t find one we liked.  One night when I came home late from work she came to me and said, “Everyone is talking about us looking at Naperville.”  I asked “Why? I used to live there.  It’s got a college but it’s a one-horse town.”  She said, “I think it has changed a lot since you lived there.  It has over 100,000 people now and the schools and libraries are rated very high.”  I had the next week off because of how much traveling I’d been doing, so we went to Naperville to look at houses.  During that week we found the perfect house for us and we bought it. We have lived here now for more than eighteen years.  In the first year we lived here, God gave me the gift of a daughter, Meredith.

Matthew was three when we moved to into our house. As I say, I traveled a lot in those days, sometimes for weeks upon weeks at a time.  I was close to Ben but Karen wanted to make sure I had some father-son bonding time 
with Matthew, so she signed us up for a weekly “Daddy-Son Night” at the community center.  I made sure I was home and every Wednesday, Matt and I would go sing and clap, listen to stories, crawl through tunnels and split a $100,000 Dollar bar from the vending machine for the way home.  I think he like playing with me but I also think that that candy bar was his favorite part of the event. 

The session was facilitated by an older woman named Miss Rosie.  She was very energetic and very kind but there was something about Miss Rosie that perturbed me…and not in a bad way.  I just felt I knew her.  After the second of three sessions I went up to her and said, “Thank you. Matthew and I have been having a great time. We don’t get this time a lot and it has been really wonderful.”  She smiled and asked me my name. I told her and then she asked me what I did for living.  I told her and then asked her the same questions. She said, “My name is Rose Eiler. I just retired from teaching but I still wanted to work with kids, so I do this.”  I shook her hand and then Matthew and I went home.  When got there Karen took upstairs for a clean-up and bed. She looked at me and asked, “What’s on your mind?” I said, “I’m not sure, but I have to look for something my mother gave me.  I think I know exactly where it is.”

The next time Matt I went visit Miss Rosie’s class, I brought a gift.  After class was over and everyone left I gave Matthew a dollar for the vending machine and said, “I need to talk to Miss Rosie for a minute.”  Without hesitation he took my buck and ran out down the hallway.  I went to Miss Rosie and gave her what I had brought in a gift bag because I wrap things for my life. She asked, “What is this.” I said “Open it.”  She did and looked up at me with searching eyes.  My gift was a picture of the first kindergarten class she had taught in 1968.  She asked, “Where did you get this?” I said, “Out of my attic. Do you remember any of the kids in this picture?” She laughed and said, “You know there are so many kids that come through your life when you’re a teacher but you always remember your first class.”  She started her finger across all of the faces.“That’s Pete, who lived above the hardware store; that’s sweet Jill who had the wishing well in her yard, and that’s Denny, the monster who lied through his teeth all of the time.”  

I pointed to small, awkward child in the photo.  “Do you remember him?”   She laughed. “Yes I do. He was a handful.  He never wanted to play on the playground just wanted to try to read books which he struggled with. He has a very active imagination.”  I asked “What do you mean?” She said, “One time we had a tornado warning because one was sighted close so we moved all of the kids into the hallway. After all was clear he wouldn’t go home until his big sister, Missy, came to get him. He was convinced that all of the houses had been blown to Oz and that when he went home all he would see would be people climbing up ladders out of their basements.“ We both laughed. I asked, “Miss Rosie, what was his name?” She said I can’t remember his full name but I remember it was strange and taken from his father. We all just called him Little Tommy.” She paused for a minute, looked up at me and said, “I imagine you don’t get called that anymore, do you?” I laughed.“How did you know it was me?” She sighed."There was something about you that seemed so familiar and it bothered me. Then when you took your glasses off to play with Matthew in the tunnels, I knew who you were because you now look so much like your dad.” I gave a kiss to Miss Rosie on the cheek and promised that I would come by her house, the same one she always lived in, for a visit sometime.

It was almost two years before I did that. One afternoon I got done with a work meeting early and got home to Naperville in the afternoon. I called Miss Rosie and asked her if I could stop by. She said yes and so I walked to her house instead of taking the bus back to my neighborhood. When I got there she was in her yard pruning some lilacs that lay across a white picket fence. I opened the gate and walked in. I said,”I love the lilacs. They always make me think of my mom.” Miss Rosie smiled and kissed me on the cheek. She said, “You know it is funny. Your Mom was always very involved in the school and these were actually a gift to me. She brought them to me just before you all moved to Florida. She couldn’t keep them and thought I might like them.” That afternoon Rosie Eiler and I drank tea under the big oak, talked about books and laughed a lot. That is until, Dahlia, the woman who was taking care of Rosie came to fetch her for a nap.  As I prepared to go she said, “I’m so glad you came to visit, Little Tommy. Please come again.” 

That was the last time I saw her.  I got very busy; she went into assisted living, and then she passed before I could have tea with her again.

 Fast forward. Three years ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and stopped working in corporate America. One of the things I wanted to make sure I was doing, along with a lot of other things, was to keep moving, so I started walking.  I like mostly to walk along the river but the other place I like to walk is in my old neighborhood in the historic and college district of our town.  I always bring a camera because you never know what you might see.

One day I went into town and parked my crappy train car Kia, which is sarcastically called “The Green Stallion,” on the street not far from Miss Rosie’s old house.   In those days I was just starting to walk on a cane because I was dizzy a lot from adjusting to the medicine.  I walked up to Miss Rosie’s house and there was a nice looking woman watering the flowers and hedges.  She was dressed in boots, cutoffs and a light flannel shirt. I said, “Hi.” She barely looked up and said, “Hello.”  I said, “I used to know the woman who used to live here. I know she’s gone, but I’m really happy you kept the lilacs.”  I could tell this woman was wary of me.  She kept working without looking at me.  She said, “We thought about getting rid of them but my husband said they’re so deeply rooted, it would be a pain. I think he actually likes them.”  She was very perfunctory and obviously wanted me to go away.  I kept my course.  I said, “Um, maam, would you mind me coming in to take a picture of the lilacs? They’re kind of special to me.” She stopped, sized me up, and said, “Sure, why not.” While I took my pictures she stood right behind me with her arms crossed.   

When I was done and walking out of the yard through the gate, the woman asked me, “Are you from around here?”  I said “Yes. Yes, I am. I live with my wife and kids by 87th Street.  A long time ago I lived in the cottage by the college president’s house that is now the campus radio station. We only lived there for a year or so before my family got transferred to Florida.”  She screwed up her face in thought and I got nervous so I said, “Thank you very much for letting me take the pictures.”  She very sternly said, “You’re welcome.”   She walked up on to her back porch and I went as fast as I could to my car to get away.

I wasn’t even ten steps away from the house when I heard yelling. It was quiet at first and then louder. “Little Tommy...Little Tommy!” I stopped and turned around. The woman in the boots was standing on her porch yelling at me.  I stayed where I was and called back, “Excuse me?”  She said something else I couldn’t hear so I went back to the fence line. “She called again, “Are you, Little Tommy?”  I didn’t know what to make of this. I called back, “Yes. Yes. I am. Who are you?”  She took a deep breath and looked the most relaxed she’d been since I showed up. “My name is Jillian Anderson. When you knew me, my name was Jill Howe.”  I looked at the ground and thought, “Moses, is this really happening?” She started down the sidewalk along the house, advancing on me.  She spoke as she came.” Do you remember the walks home, pitching pennies into the wishing well, the grilled cheese sandwiches in the yard, walking with your mom down to the fountain, and holding hands at parades because we were so afraid of the fire truck sirens? Do you remember any of that?”  I didn’t know what to do. It seemed so surreal.  Jill came busting through the gate and when I really got a chance to look at her, I suddenly could still see the six-year-old tomboy girl that once was my very best friend.   I smiled and teared up a little bit.

I said, “Of course, I remember all of it. You never forget something like that.”  Jill pressed herself up on me, all bright and happy.  She said, “I don’t know anything about you and your life, why you walk on this cane. You don’t know anything about me either, but I have a huge desire to hug you.” I smiled  again.“That’s OK. I’m pretty good with hugs.”  As she wrapped me up in her arms, she whispered in my ear. “I thought when you all moved to Florida I would never see you again, and now here you are. I can’t wait to tell my daughters. We have talked about those times a lot.”  I held her tight too and said, “We do the same.”

After our initial encounter Jill joined me on a lot of my walks through town, or met me at the Starbucks, or on the patio at Quigley’s Irish Pub.  We caught up a lot and renewed a friendship that had been dormant for more than forty years.  Then her husband, a really bright and funny guy, got transferred to Texas, right outside of Dallas.  Time passed and as it happens “out of sight, out of mind.”  That is until today…

“Dear Little Tommy…

Happy New Year and greetings from Texas!  Hoping is all going well with you and yours. Stay warm there in Naperville. I hear it is very cold. Thinking about you and hoping we can connect when we come up next to see the parents.

Your friend forever,


I don’t exactly know how or why I seem to fall into these coincidences and connections, but I have to say I am not complaining about it at all. Maybe fate or God or Karma has favored me and I get to have this gift and get to have these moments which I really do cherish.