I collect small things, intimate items: demure demitasse spoons, tiny forks for equally minuscule slivers of cake, demitasse cups and saucers, books no bigger than three inches by three inches, enameled decanter labels, and diminutive exquisitely enameled aperitif glasses. I do this, as I have explained to my daughters, because I have the tea party gene—an affinity to a lovely table setting, a little polished silver, and simple but beautifully presented entrees and desserts. And because my name is Small.
My small collections takes up very little space. They are throwbacks to when intricate craftsmanship was the norm. They exude care, and came from hands that were proud of accomplishment—and in some form, they come from love.
I also collect books with small in the title—children’s books by the 1950s author Lois Lenski: Papa Small, Cowboy Small, Songs of Mr. Small, and Policeman Small. I am amused by the word, which for me is both an adjective and a name. Even my doctor is a Small, though she is from a California branch of the Small family, while my Small family came from eastern Massachusetts by way of Illinois. Dr. Small and I took an instant liking to one another; her late mother-in-law was named Marie.
But it all comes down to love, doesn’t it? My husband asks me from time to time, “Why did you marry me?” My answer is always the same, “Because you had a gas grill.” It’s as good a reason as any, because I cannot explain why or how I love him. I just do. The gas grill comment is my way of saying this is a metaphor for the inexplicable.
Love is seldom easy; dysfunction in families and divorce rates well illuminate that fact. But the examination of love, how it thrives or fails, is something that intrigues me.
I first began writing Stony Kill, my debut novel, twenty years ago. I wrote a first draft and then put it in a drawer for eighteen years because I knew the manuscript had problems, but I could neither identify them, nor fix what I did not understand. I spent the following years learning how to write, and in the end, crafted a love story to a difficult family, to tragedy, and to reconciliation.
In my story, Joss Ellen Ryckman struggles to love a man who is obviously dedicated to her, but she carries too many ghosts, too much sorrow . . . The following excerpt illuminates what love means to her and how she comes to understand her feelings for her long suffering guy Wyatt. She too sees the intimate in tangibles by which couples sometimes communicate, like gas grills or a collection of small things. To an outsider, it looks and sounds like gibberish, but within their language of love, it is profound, and readers understand. They have walked with her and Wyatt enough to know the meanings.
“Come on,” he says. “Take my hand.” He stands above me, the light all around him. “We need to play. I know it’s your way, but you suffer things too much. Time for some fun.”
I grab on. He pulls me up, and we trot along the beach, hand in hand, kicking up the sand, laughing like little kids. He stops short, picks me up and slings me over his shoulder.
“Fireman rescue!” he shouts and roars into the waves.
I screech through the salty spray, laughing, and begging, “Put me down.”
“You sure? Are you really sure?” His voice is demonic.
“Into the drink you go!” He flings me through the air, into a crashing wave, then dives in after me, to rescue me again, pulling me up and out of the surf.
“No more fireman! No more fireman,” I holler, laughing and splashing water into his face.
“What will you give me to stop, huh? Tell me, tell me!”
“A chocolate-hazelnut Napoleon.”
“Lies! Lies and briberies will get you nowhere. I ask you again, damsel—what will you give me?”
“A gold watch!”
“Into the drink again.” Wyatt tosses me once more through the misty dusk.
I plummet down and down into the roily water, sand and salt in my mouth, my eyes. But I don’t come up. I swim like a mongoose, like a sea turtle out into the bay where the water is cool and quieter. When I pop up through the surface to draw in the air, I see Wyatt, scanning for me, his face contorted into worry lines.
“I will give you a firefly in a jar,” I shout. “And a snipe hunt on the river.”
“What?” he hollers back. “Are you all right?”
“I will give you paper airplanes and mousetraps. I will give you broken books and abysmal watercolors. I will give you my sad and imperfect love tied up in knots. I will give you sobs and cries.”
“I can’t hear you,” he shouts back.
I flip on my back, pushing through the water, floating and backstroking closer to shore.
He meets me just past the wave break. “Are you okay? I didn’t mean—”
I wrap myself around him and kiss his mouth. I taste his lips, his breath, the salt and sweat that runs down his face.
When Wyatt asks Joss if she is okay, of course she isn’t. All is not as it was. She has begun to understand that love given, no matter the outcome, has forever changed her.
For Joss, love will always sail on paper airplanes. For me, a gas grill on the back porch works just fine.