Each year, the optimistic, abundant personality of spring reminds me of a friend of mine who had those same traits.
Ernie shambled into my classroom — gleeful smile, low-flapping ears, bulgy nose and blue eyes bleached from years at sea — and handed me the construction paper I ordered from the supply room. “My, my, my, aren’t you the busy one,” he said.
Although his droll manner amused me, I refused to be diverted and managed to catch him this time as he slid a box of multi-sized, multi-hued rubber bands onto my desk with the paper.
“Ernie, that’s the third box of rubber bands you’ve brought me this month. I don’t need them. I never use them,” I said.
“Well then, Missy,” he said, grabbing the three packets of paper and clutching them to his chest. “You shan’t have these either!”
Many years before, the previous head custodian at Grace Bordewich School had purchased two cases of rubber bands, an item teachers rarely request. Boxes of the aging bands littered the storage room in untidy stacks, offending the sense of order Ernie had developed during his career in the navy. So he decided to share them.
No matter what a staff member ordered — penmanship paper, a box of staples or two black Magic Markers — Ernie punctually delivered the requested supplies along with a bonus box of assorted rubber bands.
His scheme was matched, however, by the school librarian, Mary, who baked a lavishly frosted chocolate cake for Ernie’s birthday and invited the staff to come to the library after school to share it with him.
Ernie praised the beauty of the cake, predicted its deliciousness, then seized the knife Mary offered, and cut — attempted to cut — the first piece. It was tough going, because with each swipe of the knife, the rubber bands Mary had stirred into the batter sproinged snapped and flew apart.
Whenever Ernie laughed, he did so with his entire body, a knee-slapping, unrestrained, booming cackle that invited others to join the party of life and laughter he hosted for everybody, every minute of every day. Bedlam broke out.
Eventually Ernie, still stifling guffaws, carried the cake away to show others.
The next morning, Mary found a note from Ernie on her desk, explaining that his mom had taught him to never return an empty dish. Her cake pan sat next to it, filled with rubber bands of various hues and sizes, many broken, all covered with crumbs.
A few years later, I went through a divorce and discovered another side of Ernie: I sat in my sunlit kitchen, tears dripping from my chin, telling him about my hurt, self-doubt, anger and fear as I faced life alone. He listened quietly, shook his head and made no attempt to reassure me or tell me what to do.
He didn’t talk about his divorce, didn’t offer to keep my car running and didn’t suggest I work my way into the singles scene or get a new hairdo. Instead, he looked at me with concern and affection and murmured, “Oh, Janet. Oh my. Oh, Janet.” He understood that I needed a listener, not an adviser.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had only a few years left to benefit from Ernie’s friendship. Too soon, I sat in a drab hospital room with Mary, now a nurse, and watched our friend drift in and out of sleep.
We talked quietly of his life, watched his gnarled hands crawl the bed covers and listened to the shudders of his breath. We knew the day was approaching when we would join his family to drop flowers into his beloved Yuba River, which flowed through the Sierra Nevadas as deeply and surely as Ernie’s friendship flowed through our lives.