Mama was about to have a “milestone” birthday, but it wasn’t coming easy for her. She had a comfortable life, but felt she had missed out on some of her dreams. Justin and I were on a mission to create just the gift that would lift her spirits.
“Across from the park on Clark. Here’s the address. Clark Park shouldn’t be hard to find.”
“Isn’t there an ice skating rink in that park?”
“Should be. A guy at work says he learned to skate there when he was a kid, but it’s closed now. The city pulled the funding for it.”
“That’s too bad. I wonder what is there to attract anyone.”
After a pause that was just a few seconds too long, Justin cleared his throat. “Maybe nothing. Nothing good, anyways. From the look of these streets, it may not be a place you’d want to visit.”
I agreed. This area was not inspiring. Crumbling curbs, abandoned lots, and security bars surrounded us. The only visible greenery sprouted from the cracks in the sidewalks.
The sight saddened me. “Mama never said it was like this.”
Justin’s concern could be heard in his voice, as he said, “You know, it has been 40 years.”
One final turn, then down 3 blocks, and there it was – and looking remarkably well groomed.
“We’ve found the park, so Clark Street must be nearby.” Justin smiled toward me, but I barely noticed. I was caught up looking here and there, hoping to spot the house with the round turret that fascinated my eight year old mama, the nearby church she had attended, or the fountain in the park that used to cool her on a hot summer afternoon.
Clark Street was easily found, but after 20 minutes, that was all we had found. The stuff of Mama’s memories had not survived, and apparently, neither had the old house. After making the 2 hour trip, though, Justin refused to be so easily put off.
“There’s an older guy cutting the grass over in the park. Maybe he can tell us something.” Before I could respond, he was out of the car, jogging toward the distant roar of a riding mower.
I knew Justin could take care of himself, and my doors were securely locked, but still, when he hadn’t returned after 15 minutes, I grew concerned. With nothing else to do but observe through the windows, the desolate neighborhood seemed to become more threatening by the minute. After witnessing a scuffle breaking out four houses down, I nervously grabbed my cell phone out of my purse, but then noticed Justin’s was on the console, tethered to the charging cord.
Though I tried to stay calm, tension enveloped me. “Everything’s fine . . . I’m doing this for Mama . . .” When my phone rang, I startled, and the phone went flying.
I quickly retrieved it and instinctively answered the call, then realized I didn’t recognize the number in the display. By then, my heart was pounding, but in spite of the fear coursing through my body, I somehow recognized Justin’s voice.
“Hi. Have I got a surpri --”
“Justin? Justin! Where are you? Whose phone is this?”
“Hey, are you okay? Charlie’s here . . . my friend from work? He was the guy doing the mowing. He let me use his phone.”
“I need you to come back here now! I’m not doing so good over here by myself.”
“We’re on our way. You can see us if you look across the field. See? I’m waving my arm.”
Relieved, I jumped out of the car and headed toward them.
“Who are you with?”
“That’s what I called to tell you. Charlie is the guy I told you about. What he didn’t bother to tell me before is that he grew up here, too, and he comes back to do volunteer work to help keep the park open. It turns out he knew your mama and he knows where she lived.”
“Mama does talk fondly of a Charles.”
“He says he was sweet on her.”
With those words, possibilities began to form in my mind. “Really?”
Our plan had been to surprise Mama with a “before and after” photo album of her old neighborhood. The empty lot Charlie led us too wouldn’t make for much of a picture. Only one thing we found that day would, and I think he is going to be her best birthday surprise ever.
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