Martha held the telephone away from her ear and stared at the device, her brow furrowed and the corners of her mouth dipping into a frown. Her hearing was not as sharp as it had once been, but she had heard the man clearly. Ben Wilson had invited her to go sledding.
She’d only met Ben a few weeks before, so she could not say whether he possessed a peculiar sense of humor or suffered from dementia. He’d not impressed her as being odd or ill, but first impressions could deceive. Martha stood, staring at the telephone looking as perplexed as she might if Ben had asked her to join him in a bull roping contest or couple with him for a dance marathon, neither of which would be any more ridiculous than a grown—no, an old man asking an old woman to go sledding with him.
“Did I hear you say you want to go shedding?” She meant to say, sledding, but the word stuck on the way past her lips and came out wrong. She feared Ben would think she’d been drinking or worse, that her dentures were sloshing around inside her mouth, so she repeated the word, enunciating the letter ‘l’ with the exaggerated care of a drunkard wearing ill-fitting denture, “Sledding. Did you ask me to go sledding?”
“Would it be safe to assume it’s been a few years since you dragged a sled up a hill?” he asked.
She could hear him grinning and, for a moment, wondered if he was laughing at her. “It has been a while,” she said, sounding only a tiny bit defensive.
She met Ben at a potluck dinner she, and her friend Ruthie, attended at St. Matthews church. Martha didn’t care, much, for large gatherings, but Ruthie had an affinity for meatloaf, and she’d heard the St. Matt’s crowd made the best in town. Ben Wilson had been seated with half-dozen other strangers at the table Ruthie steered them toward as they shouldered their way through the crowd holding thin, meatloaf laden plates and paper cups of tepid tea. Ben saw them approaching, stood, took their plates, and offered them chairs while introducing himself and his table mates. She assumed the gregarious Ben Wilson was the pastor or a church elder, but he laughed when she asked how long he’d been with the church and said he was just a walk in, happy to donate to the cause.
Conversation, with Ben, had come naturally and flowed easily and, to her surprise she found herself relaxing in his company in a way she had not relaxed with any man in decades. As they said their good-byes, he passed her a napkin on which he’d printed his name and contact information. “I do hope you’ll call me,” he said. “I would be delighted if you would agree to an outing.”
She enjoyed the time they spent together, but Martha had no intention of calling him, or any other man, to arrange a date. She understood that social mores had changed in the years since her youth, but she had not changed. Though memories of his pleasant laugh and chivalrous behavior crept into her thoughts over the weeks following the potluck, Martha took no action.
When she bumped into him, at the local Stop N’ Shop, he looked delighted to see her. He walked beside her, chattering away, as they moved through the store and when they turned down the frozen food aisle, he asked for her number and permission to call.
When she said she didn’t have a pen, he produced one.
When she said she didn’t have a notepad, he held up his hand and gave her a sly wink.
She rattled off her number and then hurried to the check-out counter, her cheeks aflame. She spent the next few days on needles and pins, feeling like a teen aged girl waiting for her phone to ring. When he called, she expected him to ask her to dinner, or to a movie, or to another church supper. She did not expect him to ask her to go sledding!
“Where would we go?” she asked, stalling for time.
“There’s a nice hill in the park over on Richmond and Grove,” he said. “I see folks over there sledding all the time.”
“Children,” she said. “Children go sledding.”
“Kids, sure,” he said. “Adults sled too. People of all ages like to have fun.”
“Of course, they do,” she said, feeling a little defensive. “I don’t own a sled.”
“Do you prefer saucers or gliders?” he asked.
“Wooden slats, red runners, a nice sturdy rope to hang on to while you fly down the hill.” It sounded like he was smiling again.
“You have a sled?” she asked.
“More than one,” he said.
“Where do you keep them?” she realized, as the words left her, that the question was ridiculous. Where did she think he would keep them? In a barn? In a slip, as one stores a sailboat? In a sled shed?
“I didn’t realize I still had them,” he said. “I was poking around my attic when I came across a couple of saucers and a nice, sturdy glider. Finding them brought back some wonderful memories,” he paused, and a surprising sense of nostalgia swept through her.
“The feeling was nice, if a little sad,” Ben said. “It made me think how good it would be to create some new memories.”
A tear traced its way down Martha’s cheek. She brushed it away. She couldn’t say why his words touched her as they did, except to say that talking with him made her feel suddenly, and profoundly old. “You make risking a broken hip sound reasonable,” she said more briskly than she’d intended.
“No broken bones, I promise,” he said. “They have a bunny hill, more of a bump, really. We could start slow and decide whether to move on.”
“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” she said.
“The weatherman has promised 4-5 inches of new snow this week. I say we pull on our snowsuits and hit the slopes together. I will bring the sled and the hot chocolate and hope you will bring a smile. Will you be free on Thursday afternoon?” Ben asked.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve done more with snow than sweep it from my front walk,” she said.
“I wouldn’t ask you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable,” he said, his tone serious. “I would like to see you again. I thought sledding would be fun but if you would rather not, I would understand.”
Wonderful, she thought, annoyed with herself. Now Ben would think she was just an old fuddy-duddy, stick in the mud. “It just never occurred to me that you would suggest such an unusual activity,” Martha said.
“Would you agree to join me, for an afternoon of good, clean fun if I promised to do all the heavy lifting?” he asked, the good humor creeping back into his tone.
Martha smiled at that. She and her late husband reared three children in a home that was orderly and pleasant, but ‘lightening her load’ had not been one of Steven’s strong suites. Steven had loved her, in his way, and when cancer had robbed him of life, she had mourned the man with whom she had shared so much. But nothing about their years together had been adventurous, lighthearted, or particularly fun filled. Martha was a retired grandmother who expected to spend the rest of her life alone. She was not a woman who made plans to go sledding.”
“Life is short,” Ben said softly, making her feel as though he had read her mind. “I spent much of my life avoiding risk. I’ve recently realized that living cautiously is different from living well. When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait for a good snowfall so I could grab my sled and hit the hills left by the snowplows.”
“Dangerous,” Martha said.
Ben laughed. “It was,” he said, “but those were different times. All the kids in my neighborhood did it, and none of the adults thought they had to tell us to watch out for cars or stay out of the street. We didn’t and we wouldn’t have, but we survived with some excellent memories. I enjoyed meeting you and I believe I would enjoy creating some excellent memories with you. I thought we would start by doing something unexpectedly adventurous. Would you, Martha? Would you join me in a little escapade?”
Martha remembered the thrill of lying on her stomach on her own little wooden sled, hesitating for one breathless moment before pushing off, eyes squeezed shut, mouth gaping, the air around her filled with delighted shrieks. She closed her eyes and recalled feeling like she was flying as she hurled down the hill, wind whistling in her cold reddened ears and the snow pummeling her winter rosy nose and cheeks. The ride, like life, ended too soon. Ben was right, a life lived cautiously differed from a life well lived.
She felt she was standing on the precipice – a slippery slope? Possibly. But, at this stage in her life what did she have to lose? Meeting this man had awakened something within, a yearning for adventure she had kept sedated during the years of her marriage. If not now, when?
She took a deep breath. She was going to need a new pair of boots and she smiled at the sudden urge rush up to the attic to look for her winter hat, the red one topped with a bright white tassel, the one she always wore sledding.