Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Love Stump

     I love college.  After our first full day of classes on Thursday, we were rewarded with a three day weekend.  The first day of school was an unremarkable event, but one that left Sissey and me with the feeling that we  needed a quick recharging before the frenetic pace of full-time academia kicked in on Monday. The reliable and time-proven solution was to head to the hills--those wonderful smokey-blue mountains of North Carolina--and escape the heat of South Carolina and the looming prospect of the sophomore year.  We threw our backpacks and duffle bags into the car, loaded up Mr. Big, threw in a stack of books and a hamper full of goodies, and set our sights on the Blue Ridge skyline.
    We arrived Thursday evening to temperatures that were twenty degrees cooler than what we had left at the base of the mountains. We were loving life in the hills, loving the lack of humidity, loving the prospect of three glorious days. I was loving the freedom from schedules and commutes, and Sissey was loving the reunion with her friend, Bonnie, who had just returned from a three month stay in the Florida Keys and was spending the weekend with us.  Life was good, and we were loving it.
     The first day was rainy and sleepy, and we spent it hunkered down under blankets on the couch. The roads were so fog-laden that even a trip down the parkway to get groceries was a risky endeavor, so we survived on Orville Redenbacher popcorn and 900 channels of satellite movies. 
     The cold front blew out during the night, and Saturday dawned brilliant and blue. We set our sights on a picnic and headed off for the woods and trails of the Moses Cone National Forest.  Settling on a table by a creek in  one of the parks, we unloaded our hamper and cooler and spread out our feast. We did a number on a bucket of extra-crispy chicken that would have made the Colonel proud and finished it off with some Ghiradelli brownies my mother had sent with us.  Something about eating in the woods by a stream made our appetites hearty and our meal even more delicious...we were loving that meal.
    After we finished our dinner, Sissey and Bonnie headed for a stroll in the woods to work off a couple of extra biscuits they had ingested.  I stayed behind to wipe up the crumbs, gather up the trash, and stash the meager remnants in the car. After finishing my chores, I planned to head down the path in search of Bonnie and Sissey.
     An elderly couple had spread out their picnic at the table next to ours. We had nodded hellos to each other upon first arriving, had spread out identical buckets of chicken, and had finished our meals at about the same time. They had lingered at their table as I packed up our basket, but as I returned from my car they got up and began to walk along the path directly in front of me.  At the creek's edge, they stopped and appeared to be gazing at the surrounding scenery.  The husband stood quietly by the side of the path, his hands tucked into his pockets, as his wife  slowly walked  along the trail.
      I could tell by the way she tarried along the edge of the creek, her disposable camera dangling in her hand, that she had something on her mind.  I stopped and knelt by the path, pretending to be interested in a cardinal flower blooming along the creekbed, trying to give them time to move ahead of me. Instead, she headed in my direction, swinging the camera by the strap attached to her wrist as she glanced back at her husband. As I watched her approach,  I suddenly understood the hidden message she was trying to send me.
     I waved hello and asked,  "Would you like for me to take a picture of the two of you?"
     The woman instantly heaved a sigh of relief and broke into a smile.
      "Oh, that would be wonderful," she replied. "Are you sure you wouldn't mind?"
     "Of course not! I'd be glad to!" I said. "How about down here by the creek with the meadow in the background?"
      The couple, clearly used to a lifetime of walking in tandem, smiled and held hands as they moved into position by the rippling stream. They struck a pose in front of Boone Fork Creek, comfortably leaning into each other, arms around each other's waist, and laughed as they said to me,
    "Today is our Fiftieth wedding anniversary!"
     It made my heart smile when I heard that.
     "Oh my! Congratulations!" I began. "That is quite an accomplishment in today's world. I'm so happy for both of you! Fifty years, how about that! That is just wonderful!!"
    I was thrilled to be part of their celebration, to be the only attendant of a couple that had been married for fifty years. They had chosen to celebrate their golden anniversary with a simple picnic along the picturesque banks of a  mountain stream, hesitant to ask a stranger to record the moment with a single picture.  It made my heart smile even more to be the one that captured that milestone in the marriage of this unknown couple; I was honored to have walked into the midst of their golden celebration and even more honored to have been asked to perform the simple task of snapping a picture. 
     I took several snapshots as the couple smiled and posed along the banks of the Boone Fork.  They had been embarrassed to impose upon my time and were oblivious to the joy I was receiving from being the only participant in their golden anniversary.  I congratulated them on their enduring marriage, commented again on the rarity of fifty year nuptials in our modern world, and handed the disposable camera back to the couple. With a smile still on my face, I ambled down the path in search of Sissey and Bonnie.
    I found them several  turns down in a mossy grove of trees and ferns.  As we sat on the stump of an old fallen tree, watching the creek as it rippled and churled over a rocky ledge, I told them about my encounter with the golden couple.  We rejoiced for them  and saluted their fifty years of love as we rested in the peaceful quiet of the forest.
       When the late afternoon sun began to dance  through the leaves of the birch and the pungent smell of galax  began to rise in the air, we  rose from our perch and headed back to the car. As we walked along the trail, we each looked for treasures Mother Nature had hidden in the woods.  I spotted mushrooms popping through the spongy floor of the forest, their red and yellow caps pushing arrogantly up through the mossy ground. Bonnie spied tough, leathery ferns sprouting agressively from the decaying humus of former vegetation.  We watched as delicate little lady bugs and graceful grandaddy longlegs teetered and swayed along the edges of the fronds.
   It was Sissey, however,  who discovered the greatest treasure of all as she wandered through the woods.  From her side of the path, she yelled out to us,  "Come over here! You have to see this!!"  Bonnie and I quickly headed to her location as she grinned and pointed to a moss-covered tree stump embedded on the forest floor.
    "Can you believe it? Look at what I found!" she laughed.
     And there it was, a perfect heart-shaped stump, covered in tender green moss, glowing in the light of the afternoon sun.  New life was sprouting from the decaying remnants of the fallen tree, as if to prove that love cannot die. It was the perfect symbol of enduring love.  It was the perfect ending to our unplanned celebration of a golden wedding anniversary, as if the forest were proclaiming that love endures all things, can be found in the strangest of  places,  and is always waiting to be discovered.
    "I found it!" she proudly declared. "I found the Love Stump!"
     It had been a lovely weekend, a lovely day, a lovely picnic, and a lovely celebration. To top it all off,  Sissey had discovered the greatest treasure of all. She had found nature's purest expression of enduring love.
     She had found the "Love Stump."
    Ah yes, life was good, and we were loving it!

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