She stood in the bathroom with the delicate brown vase held high above her head.
“Flush it down the toilet, right now! Or, so help me god, I will smash this on the ground!”
She wasn’t kidding. I’d been married to the woman too many years to know. She wasn’t kidding.
We stood face to face, her with the vase in a catapult-like grip, and me, clutching a meaningless little bag of pot that a friend had left with me five years earlier.
I’d found the vase – it’s an incense jar, actually – in 1972 in a grubby old curiosity shop in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where my life had hit rock bottom. I’d gone from college boy to Washington D.C., war protester to Cape Cod hippie. And now I was working in Malden Mills, loading trucks and box cars with rolls of fabric and artificial furs on the second and third shifts.
The woman holding the vase – incense jar – over her head was my girlfriend at the time. She lived on campus at a nearby college and I’d followed her there from the Cape, where we’d met.
The job, I’d told myself, was just temporary until I could get back in school and finish my degree.
But Lawrence wasn’t really the kind of town that you dropped into for a while and then went on on to a better life. Not if you worked in the mills. Every guy I met there had plans for a better life, and dreams of moving on to something else. Something better. Some day.
My foreman was going to go to college until he knocked up his high school sweetheart and then started assembling a home by buying everything on credit. They called it “on time.” Now he was paying $40-50 a month to numerous bill collectors, just to keep them from repossessing his furniture.
The kid on our crew, just out of high school was going to move to Florida. But first he moved out of his folk’s house into his own apartment and bought a cool stereo system. And a car. Both “on time.” And in no time he too was working just to make payments.
The brainy guy dropped out of college a semester away from graduating from college. Whoever she was, when she left him, did a real number on his head.
My apartment mate had a master’s degree in sociology so they made him a second-shift foreman at the mill.
Out on the street, you could see the little girls pushing baby carriages up and down the block all day long.
Nobody wanted to be in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Least of all me. The brainy guy warned me to get out of there as soon as I could. That was in a bar on the same night he introduced me to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Fantasy is the antidote to harsh reality, he’d said.
It was a soot-caked Dickens of a winter day in Lawrence when I ducked into the shop and found the vase.
Or maybe it found me.
It sure wasn’t the typical piece of junk and curios and whatnots that filled the shelves.
It’s top was broken into nearly a half-dozen pieces. It looked like a miniature urn, standing a mere seven inches tall. It reminded me of a miniature Japanese scroll painting, only replicated in 3-D.
One side is open, framed by a twisted, ancient tree and mountain peaks. When you peer inside there is a mountain backdrop, with a stream that “flows” from them. Beside the stream is a little thatched roof hut, a palapa, if you will. Inside the palapa two people sit across from each other at a table. Are they praying? Meditating? Having dinner? Holding a conversation? Perhaps all of these things.
Obviously it would not occur to me at the time, but it was a scene right out of the Belize rainforest.
How could something so delicate and beautiful find its way into a Lawrence junk shop, I wondered. Because of the broken top I talked the owner down to $10 which was almost every cent I had.
The vase sat in a place of honor, its badly glued and repainted top serviceable but fooling nobody. Each morning and each night, I’d stare into the vase, a voyeur peering into this exotic domestic scene and dream of the day that I would escape Lawrence.
When I did leave, I created a little ritual around my miniature universe-in-a-bottle. It was the last thing out of my dingy walk-up flat and the first thing into my next residence.
Every time that I moved after that, the ritual remained: Last thing out, first thing in. The vase would reside in my car’s passenger’s seat, carefully wrapped in a towel, until I reached my new home. I would place it some place safe, always some place safe, before furniture was moved in.
I added other rituals over the years, like placing a coin inside the incense compartment to help me become rich someday, or a wish written on a piece of paper. But I never became rich and wishes, I learned, only become true when you work at them.
So, there was no hidden magic in this jar. Just a ritual that provided shape and continuity to my vagabond existence.
And now that vase was about to be smashed to pieces.
Only an hour earlier I’d been talking with my two teenage sons. About drugs. The danger of drugs. What else do you discuss with two teenage sons when you are a parent?
What came next was straight out of a TV commercial.
“But you do drugs,” said my eldest with a hint of a smirk.
I was genuinely startled. And dumbfounded. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“You have pot in your office,” piped up the middle son.
I had no idea what he was talking about. Honestly.
“It’s in the silver case on the top of your bookshelf,” he added, helpfully. That would be the bookshelf that even I, at 6-foot-2, couldn’t reach without a stool.
And yeah, there it was, in the silver cigarette tray we’d received as a wedding present (though neither of us actually smoked at the time). And I remembered: Friends from the East had visited five years earlier and had left behind this little baggie … of incredibly fine, fine weed. I hadn’t smoked in years before they arrived and hadn’t smoked afterward. I just tucked the bag away and forgot about it.
My wife was livid.
“I don’t believe you have pot in this house!” she screamed.
Well, I didn’t either.
“You get rid of it right away. Right here in front of your sons!”
“Yes!” I said too energetically. “Absolutely.”
I took the bag into the bathroom, lifted the toilet seat and … stopped. Suddenly I remember that, oh yes, this was very fine weed. “You know what?” I said. “I’ll get rid of this in my own way, in my own time.”
That’s when my vase went up over her head.
Long story short: The vase is beside me on my desk. The wife is no longer around, although we remain distant friends, and allies in the parenting of our children.
All three of my sons are alive, well and prospering. I love them so much and am so proud of the good and decent adults they have grown up to become. Each is a better person than I could ever aspire to be.
The vase still reminds me that we must be good stewards in this fragile world. It reminds me that all relationships are fragile and need care and attention. It reminds me that home is where we are.
The vase will travel with us to Belize. I will hand-carry it, as I always have.
And, as always, it will be the first thing into our new home.