The sad beauty of unplanned encounters

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There could not have been a lovelier night for a celebration, one of those early-evening gatherings in which a number of area service veterans were each given full-sized hand-stitched quilts in appreciation for their service to our complex, sometimes-confused country.

A Vietnam veteran friend invited me to attend the ceremony and, not knowing why, I said ‘yes.’ Like most events of this nature it was all a bit awkward, the choreography not completely worked out, no one quite knowing when to clap, veterans being asked to step to the front to be honored for doing something most of them see as simply something one does when one is young, wants to serve, and plans to live forever.

The ‘why’ of my agreeing to attend was answered many times over that night, but never more so than by my conversation with a lovely First Lieutenant who served as a nurse in World War II, tending to soldiers from both sides, as well as caring for holocaust victims. She was lovely in the way all women can be when they have successfully emerged from the other side of something horrific, something unexplainable.

I felt, I admit, inadequate, ‘not worthy’ as some would say. Her contributions to a weary world will always beat anything I’ve got going and she topped it by telling me that she only accepted the quilt because in the past 250 years her family has had 30 members in the armed services and that the warmth of a quilt was for those who came before, not for her.

A few weeks before the quilt ceremony a similarly aged woman approached me at an art gallery opening and asked, “Remember me?” I hate it when folks do that. It’s at those moments I want to disappear because, of course, I don’t remember.

“I was your kindergarten teacher!” she said, offering up an unbeatable smile and a surprisingly strong handshake.

In reality she never was my kindergarten teacher but the sweet breath of history often gets these things wrong and, thankfully, it seldom matters. In addition I know for a fact that I was never a student worth remembering but if she’s happy that she was my teacher then who am I to ruin it for her?

Our conversation was grinningly enjoyable and we laughed a lot. I hope she lives forever, approaching everyone she meets with, “Remember me?”

I think of these things on a languid, unseasonably warm night, the sad beauty of unplanned encounters with contemporaries of my mother, a woman gone almost three decades now.

On this night a jazz station out of London is on the wireless and in the woods behind my house a barred owl is letting me know she still is here and will hang out with me for another year, taking care of the field mice.

She goes silent when a pack of coyotes emerges from the trees to trot across the side yard, past the LP tank, toward a pasture out front, never silent, yipping and yelping all of the way. I’m glad for the company.

• Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.

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