Windless and Still

By Mark E. Smith

Life can be brutal – dehumanizing at its worst, where some of us lose so much at points, we feel that all we are is flesh and bones.

Yet, we push through it – most of us, anyway. Not all. We scrape the depths of our souls for whatever is left, and that marrow revitalizes us enough to start a comeback, following some path, yet to be totally revealed, that we hope will lead us out. It’s never linear, though, is it? We still find glimpses of hope veiled by dark patches. But, we reach and claw, and keep finding our way out.

How long does it take, we ask. Each of our journeys is different, in scale and in time. Months for some. Years for others. A lifetime for a few of us.

I think about this in bed on an August morning at the shore. My wife and youngest daughter are still asleep. I guess it’s around 7:30 am based on the last time I rolled over to check the alarm clock. No shower today. I have no desire for one.

Our daughter stirs, chirping, as we call it when she sings herself awake. I both revel in her adorable character and envy her. I often awake happy, with a tune in my head, but we adults are conditioned not to let it out. Kids are the fortunate ones – free of so many smothering social norms that would bring so much joy if we, too, could just let it out.

We all eventually get up and my wife asks me what shirt I want to wear? We banter about my insistence of a white, spread collar button down. She notes that it’s too wrinkled. I explain that it’s fine for my plans. I’m just going to park myself on the beach. Other events may transpire before or after, but I’m not concerned. A wrinkled, white button down will do. I slip it on, buttoned, over my head. As it slides down my torso, it feels crisp, cool, flowing, perfect.

I roll into the bathroom and turn on the sink’s faucet. I wet my hair with my hands, noting the grey. I run a brush through it several times and I’m good to go for the day.

A white shirt and combed hair were my only concerns, and they’re behind me. I roll over and look out our window to the beach, windless and still. And, I, too, am at total peace starting this day.

“Who’s ready for the beach?” I ask my wife and daughter.

The room is silent. We all know it’s a rhetorical question.

Investing in Memories

By Mark E. Smith

Everyone in our town knew John Sparacino. Even though Martinez was part of the sprawling San Francisco Bay Area, it was a world away from big-city life when I was growing up there. It was small-town America at its best, with John as mayor of Main Street – literally.

I first met John when I was eight, strolling Main Street in my power chair. I made my rounds among the Valco Drugstore, Al’s Paint & Hobby, and DiMaggio’s Restaurant, run by the family of the hometown hero baseball player. I often parked myself at the fountain in the middle of it all, and watched Main Street abuzz with pedestrians.

John wasn’t just Mayor, but Vice President of Eureka Federal Savings Bank on Main Street. He was a short Italian, with a thick mustache, hair that looked like a toupee but wasn’t, with glasses too big for his face. And, he was always in a suit – that’s how bankers of his era dressed regardless of the day or occasion. The San Francisco Chronicle once described him as a “small dapper man,” and that he was, less than five feet tall.

John often stopped and sat with me at the fountain. I’m sure he had more important business to tend. But, it was my luck because he introduced me to everyone in town and I went from the kid in the wheelchair to Mark E. Smith. John was adamant that there were lots of Mark Smiths in the world, but only one Mark E. Smith, and so that’s how he introduced me.

As I grew up, John remained a fixture, both in Martinez and in my life. My parents knew him and he always kept tabs on me, even once I was a teenager, too cool to hang with old men by the fountain.

Upon my 18th birthday, I went to see John at his bank, to get my first checking account. He sat with me at his desk in the lobby – that’s how they did it then – and he helped me fill out the paperwork.

“You know, Mr. Smith, I’m a banker,” he said. “I know a lot about money and investing. I’m going to tell you the best investment you can make during your lifetime with your money: memories. Materialistic things come and go, never lasting forever. But, nothing can take your memories away. If you want the most joyful life, use your money wisely to create memories.”
His words were so genuine and heartfelt, they sank into me, not lost on a know-it-all young man. And, off I went into life, checkbook and John’s advice in hand.

I lost touch with John in my early 20s, trading small-town Martinez for the draw of big-city San Francisco. However, John’s wisdom followed me wherever I went. In fact, in my formal training as a writer at San Francisco State University, the importance of creating and sharing memories was even deeper instilled within me. “Memories are the bones of our craft,” a writing professor once told me.

Of course, the birth of my first daughter cemented the power of creating memories as a centerpiece of life. With her now 21, I fondly base much of my life’s joys on experiences long ago shared with her: holding her at birth, her first steps to me, our first shared airplane ride, her dance recitals, vacations together, and on and on. The same with my wife and younger daughter – it’s the memories of amazing experiences that matter most to me, life’s moments shared. Often my wife and I talk about shared memories on long drives as we head toward creating new ones, and delight fills our hearts. Indeed, John was so very right – memories are the best investment we can make in life.

Still, I’ve always wondered about one aspect of John’s words. Is it true that nothing can take our memories away? After all, I’ve had those around me with Alzheimer’s and dementia, where memory loss is prevalent. However, I’ve learned that even then some memories are retained. While the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for day-to-day memory – is compromised, long-term memories often remain. In this way, for some of us, memories truly are all we’re left with.

I recently learned that John Sparacino died at age 92. The impact that he made on that one small town went on for generations and will continue – in the memories that he helped create for many of us.