I stayed recently on Vermont’s Grand Isle, in the middle of Lake Champlain, a beautiful spot where spring had yet to show its face: cloudy, gray and button-your-overcoat cold, with patches of blue ice clinging still to rock faces lining the highway on the ride up. In the yard of the cabin where I stayed, rabbits rooted in piles of dried leaves for a snack, noses twitching, keeping sharp eyes for coyotes.
The cabin belongs to the generous neighbor of my friends Ken and Rebecca, a neighbor who let me crash there while he was away. I’d come to the island for a weekend celebration of Ken’s mother Shirley’s 95th birthday. Shirley’s one of a kind: hysterically funny, independent (still gardens and hauls wood for her fireplace), fiercely opinionated, and smarter than a room full of calculus majors. The unquestioned matriarch of a huge extended family, a few dozen of had gathered along with friends from Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, D.C. and elsewhere to hang out, laugh continuously, share family stories (some of which might have actually been true) and eat too much. (One night, a vat of Ken’s killer New Orleans gumbo. Another, a mass assault on a local restaurant.)
I’ve been going to Ken and Rebecca’s seder near Boston for a long time and met Shirley, who comes up from Atlanta every year for the holiday, at my first. There’s a Jewish tradition of adults giving children gelt at Chanukah: chocolate coins or actual cash. For Shirley, Seder’s close enough, so she was handing out ten-dollar bills to the kids in attendance. Then to my surprise she handed ME a bill…it felt a little like being adopted.
I folded the bill and tucked it in a remote corner of my wallet, thinking it would be good to have in case of emergency, and forgot about it. Some months later I stumbled across it while hunting for something else. I'd had a rough day, but seeing that bill lifted my spirits. I realized then the REAL emergencies Shirley’s gift was meant to see me through were those times when we almost forget that in spite of all the cruelty and ignorance, this world is filled with moments of unexpected kindness, and generosity, and grace.
Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary reviews and anthologies, including Poesis, The Mom Egg, Solstice Literary Review, and Urban Nature. He is the winner of a fellowship in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Charles’s poems have been set by a number of composers, including Beth Denisch, Julia Carey and Robert Moran. A short film based on his poem “Fortress” is currently in production by filmmaker Roberto Mighty. Charles is co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, a labor union for freelance writers. He has been selected by the Associates of the Boston Public Library as a “Boston Literary Light for 2014.” His novella, "Spin Cycles," was published in November of 2014 by Gemma Media.