Stafford: Finding common ground with a stranger brings some steadiness to life

Tom Stafford
Tom Stafford

I’m not sure when it will happen.

But sometime this summer, I’ll get to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

I’ll stay at the cabin-turned-house my dear sister-in-law and her family have on the west edge of Marquette and the south shore of Lake Superior.

And maybe this time, I’ll get online and search for an explanation as to how the wave patterns of the water create the regular wave-like patterns in the sand below.

Two things are more likely.

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One, I’ll make the family pilgrimage to the ore dock, see what ship is in, and complete a search that tells me the history of any Great Lakes freighter that visits.

Then I’ll tell my brother Bill, who is named for our dad, whether our dad might have sailed on it.

Two, at some point, when out in the lake with the current Bill Stafford, I’ll pay homage to the late one.

I’ll float on my back and try to keep my toes, whose boniness has always delighted my wife, above the water’s surface.

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And my brother and I will always wonder how he did it.

Clearly, this little ritual is a childhood thing, one that touches on something my 10-year-old self tried to achieve in that time of life when many boys want to be their dads.

At his memorial service, a few years back, I pulled out an obvious metaphor for what he meant for our family. He was, to the rest of us, the too-often taken-for-granted ballast that steadied the ship.

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The man who somehow could float with his toes out of the water was the one who seldom got “shook” – the one who would be the same steady person when we saw him after we’d gone off the rails as he had been before.

I think a sense of unsteadiness made me notice the large Back man I saw walk into Le Torte Dolce bakery on Fountain Avenue just moments ago.

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He wore a T-shirt, camo shorts and one of those tight-fitting black caps I’m too old and white to know the name of without calling my children – and too embarrassed to call my children about it for fear they’ll conclude I’m too old and white.

I let the Black man pass without approaching him on his first trip out of the bakery. But when he made a second trip, I was pretty sure I knew what was going on.

“You don’t want to be going in there too often,” I told him.

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And as he crossed the street, he smiled.

Then, he explained himself.

On his first stop, he picked up something for somebody else and ran it to them.

“But it looked too good,” he told me.

So, he came back for himself.

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Having just finished the almond-filled croissant I had rewarded myself for walking downtown for coffee, I commiserated. Because I suffer from the same weakness.

Which meant it didn’t require a warrant to see the contents of the second box he’d carried out of the place for himself and to share with others.

When the box lid swung open, my blood glucose level went up as fast as the smile spread across my face.

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And although they were the plainest things in the box, I pointed at the iced crullers, which he said he’d picked up just because they were gluten-free.

(My brother Bill does the gluten-free thing, too.)

I told him the crullers are my favorite, because of the texture, which, to me, is the equivalent of a day-spa treatment for the mouth. Truth be told, to me, Le Torte Dolce crullers are to other crullers what my mother-in-law’s canned peaches were to the rubberized grocery store peaches of my youth.

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After a few more pleasantries, the large Black man told the old white man to have a good day.

And he laughed when the white man said that, with that box in his hand, the large Black man was for sure going to have a good day.

I’m aware that in a time of big talk – important talk – this kind of exchange is small talk.

But, like the wave I gave to the guy in the police car I’d passed while walking on Fountain Avenue, it made me feel better from having made contact with someone else.

It felt like I’d taken on a little more ballast to steady the ship.

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