Mom’s Walking Stick

IMG_2266This week, I finally got round to mailing my mom the gift I bought for her months ago, this walking stick. In terms of money, it wasn’t an expensive present—but as I said to my mother, the real gift would be the story, so here it is.

My husband and I found the stick several months ago when a friend of ours came to visit us here in Australia. Taking him on a drive through the nearby countryside, we found ourselves in a little community called Hepburn Springs, which is famous for its natural springs bathhouses.

We’d slowed down to a crawl through a residential neighbourhood when we saw the row of walking sticks. They were leaning against the front fence of a neat little house, maybe a dozen sticks of varying lengths and colours. At the end of the fence was a small wooden box with a sign—Walking Sticks $5. With no more than a glance between us, my husband and I both knew we had to stop.

Part of it was the simple trust of the honesty box, that joy of knowing that we live in a place where someone can leave their handiwork and profits unattended with a reasonably amount of certainty that passers-by will respect the laws of common decency.

As it was, the man who lived in the house happened to be in his garage when we stopped, not watching for customers but chatting with a neighbour over some weekend project. An older gentleman, he came out to say hello and shook our hands as we picked out two good sticks, one for each of our mothers. He’d made them himself, the man told us, cutting and sanding down branches from trees in the area and then polishing them just enough to keep the wood fresh.

I felt a little guilty handing over ten dollars for the two sticks. The fact was that I would have paid $50 or more because I knew as soon as I saw it that I simply had to get that stick for my mother.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of going to visit my mom’s relatives. Once a year, my family would get up before dawn, load into my dad’s Chevy van and drive miles and miles to Texas. Some years we’d only go as far as my granddad’s cabin on the Palo Pinto River, about an hour or so on the far side of Fort Worth.

The other years, we’d drive several extra hours to his house in Spur, a speck of a town that calls Lubbock it’s closest city. I was always prone to carsickness as a kid, and even with drugs and naps, it was a huge relief to finally pull up to Granddad’s house after so many hours on the road.

The old white two-storey house had a formal front entrance, complete with a massive covered porch, but we always went in and out through the side door. And there, leaning against the wall in the crowded mudroom, was Granddad’s collection of walking sticks.

They were nothing fancy—my granddad wasn’t a fancy guy—but they saw a lot of use. Like my mother is today, my granddad was very active throughout his life and into his later years. Even as a very old man, he was what you’d call spry.

A hardworking man of faith, my granddad was always on the lookout for things we kids might find interesting. I can’t think of the number of times he would call us over to point out an interesting insect or a weird cloud formation in the boundless West Texas sky.

He’d spent years as a teacher and then a primary school principal, positions for which he must have been very well suited. He was the sort of adult we kids always respected—we weren’t afraid of him, only afraid of letting him down.

To that end, we strived to do the right thing when we were around him. We didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise the high opinion we were all sure he had of each of us. I can’t remember him ever raising his voice, other than to call us to the table. He didn’t need to.

I have so many memories of my granddad with a walking stick in his hand. Every visit to Texas would include lots of hikes in the bush, walks involving all the kids and most of the adults, all of us covered in bug spray and sunscreen in defiance of the harsh summer sun.

There was rarely any trace of humidity and the summer sun baked us like bricks in a kiln. It was a sensation I looked forward to every year, that heavy blanket of sunshine a tangible weight bearing down on us. Years later, when I lived in the Middle East, the feel of that dry desert heat would take me back to Texas every time.

I’m sure I probably complained on these hikes—at least quietly to my mom and dad—about how hot and tired and thirsty I was, but when I think back now, all I remember was the feeling of the sun prickling on my skin and a sense of adventure.

Once my parents made it clear that my complaining would accomplish nothing but a well-earned smack on my backside, I would usually withdraw into my own mind in which the Texan brushland would become (in my imagination) a battlefield or Middle Earth or a plain from Little House on the Prairie, depending on what I was reading that week.

West Texas is home to towns with names like Plainview and Brownsville, and for good reason. At first glance, there is absolutely nothing to see in the wilds of that flat inhospitable landscape. But somehow, my granddad always managed to take us to see an old homestead or an abandoned schoolhouse, a creek or a wild animal, something to spark the imagination and show us some small wonder that we hadn’t expected to find—and always with a walking stick in his hand.

So when I saw the stick leaning against the fence in Hepburn Springs, I simply had to get it.

Around four and a half feet long, it’s the perfect length for my mom. We think it’s made from the wood of some variety of gum tree, but even the man who made it wasn’t 100% sure. Whatever the wood, it’s lightweight and sturdy, just right for my mom, a tiny spitfire of a woman who, like her dad, appreciates the stability a walking stick gives her when she’s out for a walk.

It would make a great whacking stick if she ever needed to thump my dad, one of the grand kids (they’re all boys and need regular thumping), an intruder or any random weirdo she might encounter on the trail. Trust me—she’s little but I wouldn’t dream of going mano a mano with my mom and a stick.

She’ll probably mostly use it, though, in its designated capacity. Now into her 70s she’s only recently joined a gang of likeminded ladies, one branch of which aptly calls themselves Take a Hike and walks a different trail every week. My mom isn’t old enough to be spry yet, but if she’s slowed down in the last 40 years, I can’t tell—seriously, if you see her with a stick, call her “ma’am” and do whatever she says. She’s not a violent woman but were she to be properly motivated, she’d be scrappy for sure.

There was no question that I should get the stick for my mom, but as we laid the pair of smooth branches in the back of our car, I knew I’d bitten off a huge chunk that would need some work to chew. “Lord knows how I’m going to get this thing to my mom,” I said. I was not to be daunted.

It seemed it would be easy enough to take it with me in person, so for weeks the stick guarded the guest room closet along with the growing pile of gifts and other travel paraphernalia bound for America.

When it got time to actually take the trip, though, it wasn’t a simple matter of loading up and going to the airport. Four days prior to my US trip, my husband and I had to jaunt quickly (quickly, ha!) to Abu Dhabi to attend to some vital banking. When we arrived back in Melbourne, we found my husband’s parents waiting for us with the kids, the luggage and the stick in hand.

In light of the 13 hours I’d just flown and the bazillion hours of travel ahead of me (with two sick kids), I rightly reckoned I wasn’t going to have it in me to go mano a mano with every flight check-in clerk and air hostess from Australia to Fiji to California to Texas, even with a stick in my hand.

“Screw it,” I conceded to my husband before boarding the first of many legs of travel. “Rather than take the risk of having it confiscated somewhere along the way, I’ll just ship it to my mom when I get home.”

That was June.

Fast forward to last weekend when, during our weekly webcam catch up, my mom happened to mention the stick I’d told her about months before. I had to admit I’d left it leaning against my bedroom wall “so I won’t forget it” for so long that it had stopped being out of place and became part of the landscape of the room. I promised to get it in the mail as soon as possible and made that goal my mission for this week.

I should have known I was going to have trouble when the only regulation packing tubes I could find were too short by about a third of the length of the stick. Ever the problem solver, I got two, trimmed one and taped them together, then wrapped the stick in bubble wrap and crammed it snugly into the tube.  

I was not surprised at all when I was rejected at my local post office and clerk began with a succinct explanation of what she couldn’t do for me. When I asked what my options were, she gave me the standard mystified expression that says, “I don’t know and—more importantly—I don’t give a crap”.

Though a postal professional, the clerk couldn’t think of any shipping companies nearby that deliver overseas. I could think of three in as many seconds and went off to figure it out sans her assistance. I’m sure she saves herself a lot of hassle that way, bless her heart.

It was the work of a moment for me to choose a reliable company from my days living in the Middle East when international shipping was a way of life and my country of residence was a complete pain in the ass to navigate, postage wise. It wasn’t long before I’d found the nearest branch, less than half an hour away.

“Hi, I’d like to ship this package to the US,” I said, handing the overlong packing tube to the lady behind the desk, an older woman with glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. She instantly screwed her face into a sour expression, very like the woman at the post office had done.

“It’s going to be expensive because of the length,” she said through pursed lips, like I’d offended her by walking through the door and handing her a package. “What is it?”

“It’s just a walking stick—for my mother,” I said with a smile I hoped was disarming. I could see it was in her power to make this transaction more or less of a pain in my ass, depending upon her mood. As she reached for the tape measure, I tried again to make her understand my situation.

“I know,” I said. “It’s a grand quixotic gesture.”

She looked at me for a moment then blinked.

“I think we’ll have to charge for two kilos,” she said, peering over her glasses at another clerk, a younger girl with a ponytail and too much foundation. As it was, a kind gentleman in a high visibility top (who looked as though he probably spends a lot of time loading and unloading heavy boxes for the company) took charge of the tape measure.

After measuring twice and doing the math—first in his head and then on a calculator (twice) for the benefit of his female colleagues—he determined the total weight of the package to be less than half a kilo. Sour Face and Ponytail, though, weren’t having a bar of it.

In between taking orders for lunch, the two women decided that they had to charge the two-kilo rate because of the length, adding $40 to the already breathtaking cost. I’m convinced that High Vis Man was the only one who appreciated what I meant by “quixotic” and would have charged me for a half-kilo if he’d been the one sitting behind the desk. As it was, I didn’t think a quick vocabulary lesson was going to help and instead I sucked it up and paid the two-kilo rate.

The good news is that the stick is now on its way to Arkansas and if the lunch ladies behind the desk at the shipping company are to be trusted, it may arrive in time for my mom’s next walk on Friday. I hope it stands up well beside my granddad’s old sticks.