The Culvert

Frances McNair was not the problem.  Her reasons for speaking her mind were valid.  On the contrary, whatever it was that made me interpret her as being a complainer, meant only one thing…

The problem was in my head.

While I knew that what I did had hit a nerve in Frances, I had also convinced myself that it was not going to be easily rectified.  Funny how the mind can travel to such great lengths to put you in a state of avoiding someone.  For two years in my town’s Activity Center, I occasionally saw her, and each time my eyes drifted away.  While my degree of avoidance was neither created by hatred nor vile discontent, there was certainly the smell of something just not right with my thinking.

Then, one Saturday morning while running through a quiet neighborhood, I spotted her standing in a concrete culvert. For just the briefest moment, we caught sight of each other.  But it was merely fleeting as I continued down the street.  And as I ran, my pace quickened. What I saw—what I surmised was taking place in the culvert—had me unexpectedly smiling.   For it was then that I realized all of my suspicions were unfounded, and, without a doubt, that Frances McNair was a very admirable and giving person.  And, as I would later find out, highly approachable.  Funny—again—how you want to kick yourself for making a mountain out of mole hill.  But even funnier if you were to attempt that kick while running.  So, I didn’t.

*                    *                    *

My working life is comprised of writing, selling art, and personal training. Two years ago I was instructing a client during an early morning swimming workout at the Activity Center’s pool. Typically, she swam in the afternoons, but due to scheduling conflicts we agreed to train at 6:00AM, when the facility opened.

We were the newbies that morning amongst a crowded pool of regulars. So regular, it appeared the group understood which lane each person used, as if there was an established order. We managed to share half a lane with an older gentlemen who obligingly waved us in. After a few warm-up laps, I briefed my client about what her workout would entail. She went through a series of stretches, then began her first set of intervals.

And there I stood—my stop watch in hand, as I monitored her swimming mechanics. I made note of her split times and swung my arm in big circles when I needed her to push the pace.  I was a new sight to the regulars, and, to most, my coaching was inconsequential.

Frances McNair thought otherwise.

She had been sitting on a bench, waiting for a lane to become available.  Normally, it was no big deal, as there was nothing you can do when the lanes are full.  Just swallow a tablespoon of patience, then wait your turn.

But patience had been running thin that morning as Frances watched a swimmer and her coach occupy part of a lane. In Frances’ mind, my coaching was stepping across the boundaries of proper decorum, as I had chosen a time when the pool was busy.  The lifeguard was about to get an earful of how I was lacking tact—an earful that didn’t take long to get passed onto me.

“Way to go, Ros…way to go.” The lifeguard said as I was later leaving the pool. “McNair’s not happy with you.”

“McWho?”

“Frances McNair.”

“You mean, Tom’s wife?”

“Yep. You were coaching a swimmer in the pool.”

“That’s an issue?”

“Well,” she continued. “She says you were intruding on people’s swim time without paying for the lane.”

“But I’m a member.”

“Look, all I’m saying is McNair’s not happy.”

And though that was the extent of our conversation, I couldn’t keep it from looping in my head for weeks to come—a period of time where I never saw Frances. I had known her merely by association as being Tom’s wife. And I had known Tom only on a “Hi” and “Hello” basis from encounters at running club meetings from years past. It’s safe to say that I really never knew Frances, but rather, recognized her.

As often as I frequented the Activity Center, it was inevitable that our paths would cross.  And the morning that they did, was the morning we approached each other walking on opposite sides of the hallway.  The lifeguard’s words echoed in my head: McNair’s not happy, McNair’s not happy, McNair’s not happy…  A few strides before we passed, I glanced at her hoping that I might see some sort of truce—perhaps a smile to indicate that her unhappiness had been washed under the bridge. But there was no such luck.  Eyes forward, her tall, narrow frame moved on, leaving me wondering if this was just normal Frances, or if this was the Frances you saw when someone got under her skin?

As it turns out, Frances wasn’t avoiding me.  True, there had been one negative interaction between us, but her silence had nothing to do with it. Time had moved on.  There was no grudge.  In fact, there was no grudge to begin with. There was no animosity of any kind.   All that was happening was that she simply didn’t know me. She was nothing more than a woman walking down the hallway, minding her own business. The pool incident was of minor concern to her now.  I had blown it way out of proportion, by amplifying the duration of her frustration.

The problem was in my head.

The incident was nothing more than a blip on the radar of life’s bad experiences.  And if this were to be ranked as something bad, then I figured I needed to get my head together, change my perspective on what was really worth worrying about, and get over it.  I had taken Frances as being unwilling to forgive.  But who was I to talk?  After all, I had been doing the same to her. I needed to clear the air, and felt compelled to speak to her.

However, it wasn’t going to happen soon, as it would be months until I’d see her again. And when I finally did see her, I caught sight of a Frances McNair that I had no idea existed.

And it all started during an early Saturday morning run.

*                    *                   *

The long straightaway down Dartmouth Street was part of a five-mile course I ran weekly.  One of the common sights were the stray cats.  I would spot them walking or crouching along the grassy shoulder.  As I neared, they would dart into a large drain pipe located in a concrete culvert to seek safety from whatever danger I might have posed.  There were several places around town where groups of strays had made their homes.  Often, culverts played an integral part in providing shelter for the cats.  Run after run, the cats were as much a part of the scenery as the houses along the street.

Then came the morning when I spotted Frances standing in the culvert. And as I neared her, I saw that familiar, expressionless glance shared between us.  But this time, things were different.  This time as I ran beyond her, I smiled.  Though I wasn’t certain, it appeared that she was feeding the cats. Frances McNair? You feed the cats??

 But there was no denying what was going on when, two weeks later, I saw Frances at the Activity Center, and my suspicions were confirmed.  She had been walking laps around the perimeter hallways.  For two years, I hadn’t uttered a single word to her.  I hadn’t made any effort to break the ice. However, on this day, there was an eagerness to not only say hello, but to learn about the commendable Frances.

“Excuse me, Mrs. McNair,” I said approaching her from behind. “Do you have a minute or two?”

Sometimes all it takes is just one smile to convince yourself of the size of a person’s heart. One smile can extinguish unsettled and harbored feelings that have incubated for far too long, and then bring to life the unexpected surprise of a warm welcome.

Frances McNair had that smile.

“Hey, Ros!” she said with effervescent delight. “What’s up?”

 “A couple of weeks ago I was running down Dartmouth Street.  That was you in the culvert, right?”

“Yes, I remember seeing you.”

“You were feeding those stray cats, right?”

“Every day, yes.”

I paused as we walked. “Every day? For how long?”

“Twenty-five years.”

Twenty-five years.  That rolls the calendars back to 1992.  It was a time when I was working for UPS, delivering the dusty backroads of the Texas Hill Country.  I was getting chased by Rottweilers in Wimberley, feeding giraffes on an exotic ranch in Dripping Springs, getting frisked by the Secret Service at LBJ’s ranch in Stonewall, talking to a TV actor-converted-monk in the hills of Blanco, and learning to hate Christmas during the 15-hour workdays during peak season.

And where was Frances McNair?  She was embarking on a decision to band with a small group of dedicated dog and cat enthusiasts who would specialize in making good out of the vulnerable and meager lives of stray cats.  The non-profit group would eventually call their organization Pet Prevent a Litter of Central Texas (known as PALS).  From the beginning, Frances helped create programs that allowed for the neutering of the strays, as well as the adoptions of kittens and tame cats.  To this day, feral strays are trapped, neutered, and then returned to their colonies.  Older cats like Mother, Stripes, Socks, and White Whiskers may live in a culvert, but do so with the caring heart of Frances looking over them.  Tending to five different locations around town, she’s named them all.

Our discussion lasted a few minutes more before Frances said she had to be getting home.  It was time for me to go as well.  Walking to our cars in the parking lot, I had one remaining question on my mind…

“Frances, do you remember the incident at the pool two years ago?”

She smiled. “Yes, I do.”

“I didn’t mean to take up the lane the way I did.”

“Oh, it wasn’t you I was upset at,” she said.  “The Center had allowed for a private club to practice without paying during a popular swim time, and I just saw it all happening again.”

“Well—now, hear me out, please—I took you as kind of a complainer.  Of course, we all complain, but I kind of pinned it on you. And I blew it out of proportion for a long time, and it’s something I regret.  Then came that morning I was running down Dartmouth, and I saw you in the culvert feeding the cats, and I was like…you have a side I had no idea even existed.  Frances McNair has a story.  And it’s a story I want to write.  You okay with that?”

“Write about me?”

“Yes.  I have a writing blog.  I especially like to write about people—everyday life stuff.”

“Well, as long as you don’t make me out to be the horrible, evil Frances McNair, sure.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I’m beyond that.”

*                    *                    *

And here I now find myself—with the problem out of my head—writing at the end of Frances’ story. It’s been a long journey since the time of the pool incident.  And, admittedly, it’s been a lesson learned about how easily we can mischaracterize someone.  Frances had no ill will toward me.  She merely had a concern.

The end of her story is now the beginning of mine—having a clear mind to understand a Frances McNair I’ve never known.

I’m curious about her personal experience in dealing with the strays.  I want to know about the days of inclement weather when, despite the driving rain, freezing temperatures, or searing heat, she still took care of the cats. I want to know about conversations with people in the neighborhoods who might disagree with what she does.  There’s plenty to ask, but most important, I want to know what drives Frances McNair to be as dedicated as she is.

And I know exactly where to start…1992.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

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