Benched

The green wreath tacked to the back of the wooden bench was no bigger than a dinner plate. A note card fixed next to the wreath, lacquered over in tape, read:  

Please do not remove this wreath. It is for my late husband to whom this bench is dedicated.

I glanced to the right of the card to see a thin, gold plaque bearing the name of the man. Beloved husband. The year of either his death or the bench dedication (or both) etched in underneath. I sat down, looking out across the broad expanse of the pond and its shorelines that cut in and out like a stock market graph as the man must have done on many days.

The bench was one in a curved line of others placed around the perimeter of this stretch of Spy Pond. It’s a mid-sized body of water sunk around the town of Arlington, Massachusetts, a suburb just outside of Boston. The pond formed an epoch ago from the kettle hole left by a receding glacier. New England: where ancient is always trending. Also like so many other things in New England, Spy Pond had its own brush with history in April of 1775, right around the time that whole Revolutionary War was kicking into gear. An elderly woman named Mother Batherick who lived close by was out gathering dandelions when she happened upon a group of British Redcoats fleeing from a supply train that had been commandeered by Patriots. Mother Batherick took six Redcoats prisoners (without dropping a single stem or flower is how I imagine the story going from tavern to tavern). Take note: that’s why you don’t mess with New England chicks.

On the December day I visited an early start to winter had left a lid of ice on the pond.

The metallic sheen trapped the black spines and twisted arms of the barren trees in its surface making them look like photographic negatives. Of course I thought about the man sitting here day after day, season after season, watching the pond shift and change depending on the light, the weather, his own mood. I thought about him coming here to throw off his burdens—the bad day variety and the world weary kind. I thought about him sitting here alone or with others, drawing peace and joy from this spot, his spot. I thought about the comfort that comes with having a place where it feels like eternally falling into an embrace, a place where you are unequivocally received.

It’s a radical act these days—finding places to drop anchor, from a soul perspective. We’re seduced with so much of the immaterial: the stuff stuffed into THE CLOUD (I am still extremely skeptical of that whole business), the disembodied voices of Siri and Alexa, the technological genies that grant our consumer wishes, the barcode that stands in for paper money. Grounding feels vital. Seeking spaces to act as touchstones seems as necessary as building the storm cellar in Kansas.

One of mine is a short hiking trail that runs along a brook. I will stop at the same outcropping of rocks that looks out over a cascading series of wide stones, smoothed over by the furious water to look like the kind of steps built for the stages of award shows and plantation verandas. I will lean against a familiar tree with its trunk bowed out in a gentle, cursive line, just perfect enough to tuck my shoulder into. I will pause at the quiet, flat stretch where the water is often still and the light pours down through the pine trees in gauzy ribbons. I don’t own any of this, and yet it somehow feels like it’s all mine, that it’s here just for me. I’m all for this kind of benign selfishness, this harmless tyranny over spots where we can slip out of the smallness of our lives and get closer to ourselves.

“Dad’s gone over to sit on his bench,” must have been a sentence uttered in the man’s house too many times to count. Why that particular bench and not one that faced a different view—more trees, less trees, a lake house with a sunny dock—I’ll never know and I’m not supposed to. I’m just a visitor, stopping by on my way to some place else.