Guest Blog: Pat Ladlee: Retreat!

I left the results of the storm behind as I headed toward The Porches. Heading west on Route 60, Saturday morning, June 30th 2012, my rear view mirror reflected the congestion of Chesterfield Mall and my thoughts moved toward ten days of tranquility in the countryside. Time to relax, to think, to write — no grit of everyday life grinding my body, mind and soul.

Leaves and pieces of bark remained on the otherwise clear pavement. Piles of branches and trunks of trees lined the roadside, evidence the diligent crews worked through the previous night. The dirty footed clouds of yesterday dissipated; scattered puffs of white danced in the cerulean sky. The characters from my novel accompanied me in the drive, enjoying the sunshine.

I arrived at noon to find five very hot writers in the refectory preparing lunch. The word, hot, did not apply to their writing necessarily. I knew only one of them at the time, so I could not judge their genre or their style. Without electricity, however, the temperature was rising. I pulled the Icy Gazpacho from the ice chest, telling my new acquaintances, “It does make you feel cooler. It’s homemade.” Along with the excellent cheeses and fresh, baked bread contributed by Mel who organized our group, it did.

One of the writers helped me drag my bags out of the car, up the steps and into my room. Without her assistance (for which I am forever grateful), I’d probably have spent the first two days taking a handful of items upstairs in each of a thousand trips. Perhaps my husband was right about taking two small bags instead of one large one, though I’d never hear the end of it if I told him. I could not begin to lift my suitcase!

The centenary construction of the lovely old house with shades pulled down and the towering trees covering the lawn fought the sun. With the aid of ice water soaked cloths around our necks, the writers at The Porches survived the heat. We did have paper and pens after all. The temperature outside reached triple digits before power was restored and the window air-conditioners hummed. None of us managed much writing that day.

I called home that night as I always did when I was traveling by myself – just to know that everyone was safe.  My husband answered with that sleepy voice I knew meant he dozed in the recliner, so the conversation was short.

“Has everyone cleared out?” I asked, having escaped from the house leaving him with his stepdaughter, her husband and two grandchildren seeking refuge from the heat when their power went out.

“Yes, they got power back at their house right after dinner,” he said.

I didn’t want to know if the dirty dishes were still on the table or in the sink so I said, “Good night” without asking. One of my favorite lines, written by Margaret Mitchell for her immortal Scarlett, is, “I’ll worry about that tomorrow.”

The writer’s at The Porches worked in silence the next morning and gathered in the parlor for a short workshop before dinner. In the process, I began to know the writer’s. With piles of degrees in everything literary, most of them teaching what I was trying to do, I was a bit intimidated. That’s not my normal state. Before long I saw, they were real people too.

One of the writers evacuated to The Porches when the Colorado wildfire came within yards of her house. I could only imagine her distress. She needed a retreat from worry about her home and her husband, a firefighter. Unbeknownst to her, I prayed for their protection. I promised to continue doing so until the last ember was cold.

Another writer had suffered some potentially serious health issues. She needed healing and recuperation. I think everyone attending this retreat was seeking something – time, healing, gentle hearts, whatever.

I believe, there is not a person on earth who does not have some problem in their lives – major or minor though they may be. Those that insist they don’t are either lying or are so oblivious that that is a problem in itself. Life is a matter of how you cope with it.

I think Mel’s Shepherd’s Pie lived up to its name; it was a comfort food, indeed. We enjoyed it in the coolness of the A/C. It was delicious. She gave me the recipe and I look forward to making it — the next time it snows.

I was late calling home that night and was delighted that my husband sounded awake.

“I just got home from the ER,” he said.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s just strep throat,” he said, explaining that my grandson would be fine once the antibiotics kicked in.

“What’s his temperature?”

“It’s coming down, only 102 degrees when I left their house.”

My four-year-old grandson is asthmatic and I knew my daughter would be up all night.  Should I be there to go ‘on duty’ tomorrow? I’ll wait and see, I thought.

The Porches lost power again during the night. Though everyone was warm, it wasn’t the heat that made things difficult in the morning. We had no coffee!

Mel and I took off for Norwood, a crossroads community nearby. We wanted to charge the laptops in the car. Of course, the lighter wouldn’t work. We needed ice. Even more, we needed coffee. McDonalds never looked so good, or so crowded. Signs were posted, Cash Only; their registers could not function. Their systems were down too. We got coffee, breakfast with enough calories to last all day, and ice, then returned to The Porches.  So did the power.

I called my daughter later. My grandson was feeling much better and so far, his sixteen-month-old sister showed no signs of illness. I don’t need to leave. I can still spend some quiet time communing with the characters in my head, trying to reveal their natures and their story on the page.

When I called my husband on Tuesday night, my first question was, “How are the children?”

“He’ll be fine. He really was good when they put in the stitches.  He was wearing his Spiderman suit and the doctor asked if ‘his web broke’,” my husband said.

“Another ER visit? What happened?”

“Yes, the ER nurses call our names now before we sign in. He was running in the house again and crashed into the corner of the wall between the living room and the hall.”

“Where are the stitches? How many this time?”

“His eye. Only three, I think,” he said.

“His eye? Oh, no…”  I tried to remain calm.

“Don’t worry, it was his other eye.”

“Eye, you said eye. Can he see? How bad is it?” I wanted to scream. I still remember his first stitches – above his left eye — swollen, black and blue from eyebrow to below his cheek. His eye was shut; I worried about his sight.

“It’s all right. He’ll be fine. He will have matching dimples just above each brow.  That’s all.”

My children had no stitches until they were older. Their favorite injuries involved broken bones from climbing what they should not. I think I still have the collection of ace bandages, braces, splints, and casts in the attic acquired during my daughter’s childhood.

My grandchildren are active like their mother. Their balance may be a bit better.  Now if they would only watch where they’re going, I’d age more slowly, perhaps. I find that I worry as much about my grandchildren as I did their parents. Looking back on those days, I remember a day I stood by the window looking into the heavens, trying not to scream or cry.

Talking to God or to myself, (I’m not sure now) I said, “Dear God, if things would only get back to normal.”

It must have been a prayer because I heard that ‘small, still voice’ in my head say, “This is normal.”

My grandson confirmed this when I spoke to him on the phone about his ER visits. “I’m feeling better,” he said— he’s talked like an adult since he talked at all. “But, Mummum, you should see the wall. Daddy’s got to help me fix it.”

The special name my grandson gave me from his own imagination melts my heart. He put together the fact that I’m his mama’s mom. The sound makes all my problems minor ones. I hope my daughter will feel the same someday — but she may have to attend a Retreat before she can.


Pat Ladlee is a life-long lover of words. She writes essays, short stories, science fiction and historical fiction (American). She’s an active member of The Midlothian Writers’ Workshop and currently working on two novels.