BACKWARD FACING DUCK
Maintaining client confidentiality is a mainstay & necessity in my line of work, but I have accumulated some stories over the past 26+ years in the business that just must be told. To not do so would be a travesty. This is one of those stories. The names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals, & take note that I have had clients in many different areas, various backgrounds, all income levels, etc.
But grab a cup of coffee or hot tea, settle in to a comfy cushion, and step back in my memory to a wet winter’s day when I was blessed to meet my oldest clients to date: Joseph, aged 97, and his wife of 71 years, Clara, aged 94. They were referred to me by a friend who explained that Joe was in failing health, and was busy making preparations for them to sell their home of the past 40 years so that they could move to a retirement community, much to Clara’s chagrin, and despite her protestations. Joe had recently been forced to sleep in a hospital bed in the den of the home, & Clara, ever the faithful companion, would sleep beside him on the sofa each night. Every morning she would get up and make up her bedclothes from the night before, transforming her makeshift bed back to its intended use as a sofa. Joe wanted them to move into a retirement apartment community that also contained both Assisted Living as well as Skilled Nursing facilities, for he was trying to prepare for the inevitability that one or both of them would soon need assistance in their daily living. But Clara, knowing that would mean giving up many of the treasures that they had accumulated during their lives together was not so sure about the idea.
When I first stepped into their kitchen, Joe and I had an instant camaraderie. My naturally curly hair was wind blown from being out in the wintry weather, and when he made a pithy remark about it, I came back with an equally pithy one, and he said, “Oh, a WILD woman, eh?” And looking over at Clara, he said, “I LIKE wild women!” Then, big flirt that he was he said, “Oh, I thought a movie starlet had just walked into my home!” We all laughed, and I knew I’d made a friend. Then I proceeded to sell my business expertise to them. Joe and I made friends instantaneously, and began chatting about numerous things, but Clara was not such an easy sell, and kept asking when we were going to get down to business. I tried to impress her by telling her that my grandmother’s grandmother shared her uncommon, old-fashioned name, but she was not easily impressed by my lineage, haha.
Finally, after getting to know each other just a little, and discussing the current climate of the local real estate market, they began to give me a tour of their well-loved home. Clara eyed me warily as she showed me her spacious kitchen, until she pointed out an extraordinarily beautiful hutch that Joe had apparently made himself. My genuine appreciation for the handsome piece (I would love to own it!) softened Clara up a little, but it was when we moved in to the family room that she really began to warm up, for it was there that I first saw what has been one of her lifelong passions, which is painting.
Clara was a VERY talented artist, and throughout their home were amazing paintings of landscapes, birds, roses, ships, and many other things. A few watercolors were mixed in with the oil paintings, but her true love was oils, as was evidenced by the formal living room, where an entire wall was filled with framed paintings she had done. It looked much like a wall in a museum. I do not know much about art, but I appreciate it, and I know what I like, so the compliments that I offered to her were most sincere.
Every room of their house was filled with treasures such as this: oil paintings signed by her, or wooden pieces made by him. A small ship on the mantlepiece took him over a year to make. A chest of drawers was made of old crates while they were in Korea. A writing desk was rescued from a neighbor’s trash pile, and refinished after he stripped off “what must have been 17 coats of white paint.” There was a hope chest he had made especially for her. I opened the top, at his insistence, expecting to see some sort of treasures inside, but all I saw was clothing articles. “”My sweaters,” Clara said happily, “and I get to take the chest with me!” And there were also pottery pieces that one or the other of them made when they took a pottery class together, too.
All of it, every piece, looked as if it had been professionally done, and not the result of amateur hobbyists. I suppose that is because they did these things with passion, and with love. Joe did most of the talking, but once in awhile Clara, with a twinkle in her eye would comment on his talent, and how hard it would be for her to get rid of anything he had made – “I love them all so, because HE made them!” And finally, Joe turned to her and said, “Enough of the bragging, already!”, as if he was embarrassed, but I knew he was secretly delighted that his bride still admired him and his work. In the very next room he pointed out a painting SHE had done of 3 sailboats, and it was just as obvious that HE loved HER work almost as much as he loved her, too. And Joe confessed one his exceptionally long life’s few regrets: “I wish I’d had a chance to do more sailing! LOTS & LOTS of sailing!”
Back and forth, back and forth, Joe and Clara would go, teasing, chastising, and looking at each other with that look that made you wish for a love just like that one. Joe explained to me that they had lived in both Korea and the Philippines during their marriage, and Clara said, “Oh, yes, I followed him all over the place. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.” It was during one of their stays overseas that they took classes in woodworking and painting, “Because there was nothing else really to do there, so we did it to keep ourselves busy.”
After we toured the downstairs, Joe began the ascent up the steps to the second floor. He said it was painful to do so with his prosthetic leg, and it pained me greatly to watch him laboriously place his walker sideways atop each step. I told him it was not necessary that he go upstairs, that I could go up with Clara, but he would have none of that. So up we went. One slow step at a time. I decided to get right beneath him, and I placed m hand on his back to steady him, and Clara said, “That is exactly what I do, I put my hand on his back to steady him. Just be careful, though – if he goes down, you both go down.” Now, Clara was a very petite little lady who is maybe all of four feet tall, owing to the fact that arthritis has hunched her back and shoulders over at an angle. I said, “But Clara, if you go up behind him, he would fall on YOU.” She said, “Yes, I know, but that’s okay. I would soften his fall.” THAT really made an impression on me, that tiny little Clara was so concerned about her husband’s well-being that she was willing to risk falling herself in order to try to keep him from being seriously injured! Or maybe she just meant that if it was his time, she wanted to go with him. Either way, I tthought it was a lovely sentiment, and a testament of her devotion to her lifelong lover.
And upstairs, in the first of the bedrooms, Joe pointed out the double bed that they had picked out to go to the retirement apartment with them. II asked, “But, Joe, you have two king sized beds – why don’t you take one of them, instead?” He said, “There’s not enough room!” Then, turning aside to me, where she would presumably not hear, but would in reality overhear, if you know what I mean, he said, “Besides, in a bigger bed, we each go to our own corners, and I like to cuddle once in awhile!” I am thinking that their desire and ability to cuddle with each other after so much time is probably one of the reasons they have such a long, happy marriage!
There were 3 more bedrooms with things that one of them had made, and in the 3rd one there was this little pair of carved ducks. One was facing backwards, looking at the other one. He made a big productions of pointing that one out to me. I had never heard this, but he said, “That set of ducks is from Korea. The one in front, facing backwards, is the male.” (To me, they both looked identical, but one was indeed facing backwards, so I went along with it.) He said that the male duck was facing backwards, because he is always looking behind him to make sure his mate is there, and that she is keeping up with him. He does not want to go off and leave her. He will continue to do this even after their little ducklings have left the nest. I thought that was an awesome, touching story, and I asked him if I could take a picture. I explained that I had gotten a divorce after 26 years of marriage, and did not know if I would ever find that kind of devotion, and after inquiring as to how old I was, he exclaimed, “What?!? You still have a good 30, 40, or 50 years left!!!”
And they showed me little Korean dolls, where Clara had hand sewn their tiny kimonos, because that was one of the classes offered at one of the places where they were stationed. We always got out and explored places, and tried to find something fun to do, they offered. I smiled, and we proceeded to the 4th bedroom, where Clara’s easel was set up. In the corner was a small desk. I said, “Oh, do the two of you work in here together?” He said, “Oh, yes! And we have done so for MANY years!” Clara interjected, “There’s not anything that we do not enjoy doing together.” And I thought how very rare is that? That two separate human beings enjoy spending so much time together. They had many similar interests, but also allowed time for the other to enjoy their own hobbies. They supported, admired, and encouraged each other for as many years as some people live in totality on earth.
Unfortunately, though, Clara’s arthritis had severely restricted her painting activities, and her brushes laid dry and dormant beside the blank canvas that stood ready to tell whatever story was whirling through her very sharp mind. The two things Clara was saddest about leaving behind were the pieces Joe had made, and her brushes!
Next it was time to go back down the stairs. “Clara”, I ventured, “How are we going to get Joe back down these steps?” She said, “Oh. I always hold onto his shirt from behind, to help keep him upright. “Do you want me to do that?” She said, “No, I’ve got it!” So, we started down, ever so slowly, Clara holding onto Joe’s shirt for dear life, as if she could really keep him from tumbling down those steps. Perhaps the mere thought of the fact that she was supporting him made a lot of difference. Anyway, about halfway down, I heard her tell him, as if I was not present, “Slow down, now, if you go, I go, & I am not ready to leave & go to Heaven yet.” He said, as he took the next step, “Oh, yeah? What makes you so sure you will go to Heaven?” She said, “Because, I made a deal with Jesus a very long time ago, and that is where I am going. And they had better get ready for me!”, she declared, “Because I am going to need lots and lots of oils when I get there!” (She meant oil paints, so that she can make more masterpieces. And something tells me that the Master is already busy setting some of those aside, especially for her.)
When we got safely back down into the foyer, a picture of some birds, one of which was a cardinal. I explained to them that I had recently developed an affinity for cardinals, because they mate for life. Neither of them was aware of this, but it pleased them both greatly. I told them that, though I was divorced, that was always my wish and dream. Joe smiled and said, “You still have plenty of time for that!” Then, “See that cardinal over in the dining room? That is a male. The males are always much more beautiful than the females!” As Clara shrugged and smiled at me, I said, “Yes, but maybe that’s because God made the females smarter?” Joe laughed, but Clara said, “Oh, dear, that probably hurts him right here!”, she exclaimed, thumping her chest where her heart was. We laughed and I assured Joe that I was just teasing.
In the hallway, Clara noticed my gaze fall and linger upon one of her beautiful landscapes. It was of a pathway through the woods on a day where the leaves were just grasping Autumn’s glow. Wistfully, Clara said to me, “I wish I was right there in that very spot right now!”, as she placed her bony, wrinkled, crooked finger upon the middle of the path. “Me, too, Clara,, me, too,”” I thought. Instead I said, “I also love walks through the wood! I just don’t get to do that often enough.””
When we finally got safely back to the kitchen, I asked Joe for his email address. He assured me that he had one, “But I do not ever check it, and besides, I have really enjoyed having you here, and sharing our memories with you.” So I decided that, while in modern society I communicated a lot with clients via text, email, and other electronic means, I would make an exception for this one delightful nonagenarian couple, and make sure that our dealings were always face to face. How often does one get the benefits of the wisdom of people who have lived for nearly a century on this earth?
Then Joe showed me the diagram of their new apartment. He was telling Clara that she could take just a few of her brushes, but reminded her that she seldom paints anymore, due to the pain in her hands. “Besides, there are lots of activities to do there. And I don’t mind telling you, that when I was last there, I noticed quite a few of the female residents were checking me out!” Clara raised her eyebrow and shook her head at this. I told her she might better consider putting a leash on him when they get there, but she said, “No, it’s not necessary, but I let him THINK that about himself once in awhile.” I delighted in the twinkle in here eyes as she said this.
Joe said, “See how short she is? She was not always that short? Or how fragile? She used to not be that way. She has always been a FIGHTER, and that is one of the things I like most about her!” Clara nodded heartily in agreement, the most animated I had seen her, and declared, “Oh, YES! If someone tells me I can’t do something, just watch me go do it! And if the try to tell me what to do, I will probably run right out and do the opposite!”
II decided to ask Joe and Clara what they thought was the secret to their longevity. Clara once again deferred to Joe, who said, “See? I like to talk. A LOT. People have always said to me, ‘Joe, why do you talk so much? You are NUTS!‘ But I laugh and tell them that is one of the things that keeps me going. I like to cut up. It is all about your ATTITUDE! A good attitude will keep you going. If you allow all the little stresses in life to make you too serious, it will mess up your attitude. Some people need to lighten up their attitude! And don’t forget the red wine – gotta have some of that, too. And of course, you must have your faith. I can tell MANY stories of how the good Lord has taken care of me, and how I would not have survived, if it had not been for Him, and what He did for me.” Yes, Joe, I also have stories just like that. And we agreed to share some of them during our next visit together.
Before I left, I told Clara that, while I have never been in her shoes, I understand what it is like to have to part with half of the possessions you have accumulated over a life time. I knew this due to my recent divorce. I have even blogged about it. Not an easy task for someone like Clara and me, who like our mementoes of our travels, who are artists (she in oils, me in the written word), and our books (she had as many or more as I gave away). We scheduled a time for me to go back to see them, and I gave her a big hug and assured her I would take very good care of her. The hug she gave me in return made that wet winter day as warm as the sunniest summer day, and I drove away contemplating how Joe was like that backward facing duck, always looking behind, to make sure Clara is keeping up, but maybe just a little ahead of her.
When I got home, I went online to search for the Korean backward facing duck lore, but could find nothing on it. (I did find articles about Korean wedding ducks, but none of them was facing backwards.) Perhaps Joe misunderstood the legend, or perhaps he made that part up, or maybe I just could not find it, but I loved that concept, nonetheless. I got out the picture I had taken of it, and did not find any photos online of ducks that looked exactly like those, but there are mandarin ducks in both China and Korea that look very similar, and since that was the country of origin of those ducks, I decided that they must indeed be mandarin ducks. And wonder of wonders, I read somewhere that, like the cardinals, the mandarin ducks mate for life! In Chinese feng shui principles, it is believed that the mandarin ducks only have one mate ever, and that if they lose each other, they die of loneliness. And I decided it is not too late for me – I do not have any idea how many days I have left on earth, but the good Lord willing, it will be 30, 40, or 50, so perhaps I will find my own backward looking mandarin duck, or beautiful cardinal with whom to fill days with laughter, good attitudes, and just enjoying each other’s company. Until then, I certainly do talk enough so that people sometimes probably think I am, like Joe, “NUTS!” But I hope to be able to go on more walks in the woods, and I also hope to always remember, whether or not I get a chance to be one of those ducks or cardinals, “It’s all about ATTITUDE!” Let’s make it a GOOD one!