once upon a time


In the early nineties, Robert Olen Butler wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning short story collection called A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. I read it for a Fiction Writing course I took while working on my MA in English. My favorite story was “Fairy Tale,” mostly because of the first paragraph:

I like the way fairy tales start in America. When I learn English for real, I buy books for children and I read, “Once upon a time.” I recognize this word “upon” from some GI who buys me Saigon teas and spends some time with me and he is a cowboy from the great state of Texas. He tells me he gets up on the back of a bull and he rides it. I tell him he is joking with Miss Noi (that’s my Vietnam name), but he says no, he really gets up on a bull. I make him explain that “up on” so I know I am hearing right. I want to know for true so I can tell this story to all my friends so that they understand, no lie, what this man who stays with me can do. After that, a few years later, I come to America and I read some fairy tales to help me learn more English and I see this world and I ask a man in the place I work on Bourbon Street in New Orleans if this the same. Up on and upon. He is a nice man who comes late in the evening to clean up after the men who see the show. He says this is a good question and he thinks about it and he says that yes, they are the same. I think this is very nice, how you get up on the back of time and ride and you don’t know where it will go or how it will try to throw you off.

Yesterday was the anniversary of when I climbed upon a time: Ginger and I had our first date on February 5, 1989. I was living in Fort Worth and she in Arlington. I had tickets to go see a new singer, Lyle Lovett, who was performing at Caravan of Dreams in downtown Fort Worth. I had planned to take my best friend, Billy, but after I met Ginger I called and told him I would get him something else – I had met a girl. In 1989, February 5 fell on a Sunday night as well. Since I was working in a church that had a Sunday night service, my original plan was to cut out during the last hymn, shoot over to Arlington and pick her up, and then come back for the show. An ice and snowstorm hit and church was called off, so I called her and made plans to pick her up for dinner. I slid across town in my front wheel drive Toyota Tercel and we ate at Good Eats, a kind of comfort food place, and then went on to see Lyle.

The show was amazing. He had a cello player with him and they moved from country to alternative to blues to improvisational jazz seamlessly. The room was intimate and charged. As we reflected on the evening later, we both had a sense of awe and mystery that night.

We climbed upon a time and have been riding ever since.

The next day I sent her a card, using Lyle’s words:

if ford is to chevrolet
what dodge is to chrysler
what corn flakes are to post toasties
what the clear blue sky is to the deep blue sea
what hank williams is to neil armstrong
can you doubt that we were made for each other?

I don’t think we ever have. In April we will have been married sixteen years. Together we have moved across country, made our home here in New England. She has stayed with me through my seemingly endless vocational crisis and the ride down the wormhole that is Living With Depression. I was there as she got her doctorate, among other things. The ride has had its moments when we felt as if we had been thrown. But the best parts have been the meals and the movies, the walks on the beach or around our old Charlestown neighborhood, the memories we keep packing into our hearts.

I searched hard to find a Good Eats Café of some sort in the Boston area, but all I found was a cheap college pizza joint, so I opted for familiar food. We went to Bob’s Southern Bistro, based on reviews I found, and stumbled into another memory together. They were having a Super Bowl party (that’s what Feb. 5 meant to everyone else). When we got there, they were handing out shots of Crown Royal; after dinner they gave us homemade carrot cake. In between, we chased down fried catfish and chicken, some meatloaf, and all kinds of good southern side dishes.

And we told anyone who would listen why we were celebrating.

One of the last lyrics I wrote when I was writing songs is one that never made it to any sort of recording, but remains one of my favorites. It’s called “Well Worn Love.” The image I had was of Ginger and I after forty or fifty years. I kept playing with the image of a love well-worn, like the library steps worn from good use.

he pours her coffee like every morning
she kisses his nose as she passes
his hair is much thinner than back when they started
and she did not always wear glasses

she smiles with her eyes as he butters his bread
they talk about what’s in the news
he heads for the garden she gathers the laundry
and life feels familiar and true

and this is the story of two common hearts
who started out young and grew old
they have practiced a lifetime the waltz of a well-worn love

he takes her hand coming out of the movie
they stop at a sidewalk café
he finds her a chair that is next to the window
‘cause he knows she likes it that way

she smiles with her eyes at the things he remembers
she touches the side of his face
the moments they share in the balance of time
are the heart of redemption and grace

and this is the story of two common hearts
who started out young and grew old
they have practiced a lifetime the waltz of a well-worn love

she wears the ring that he put on her hand
some forty five years ago
and time is defined by the lines of the love they know

winter comes early with how shadows and snowfall
who knows how long it will stay
so he pours her coffee like every morning
‘cause he knows she likes it that way

and this is the story of two common hearts
who started out young and grew old
they have practiced a lifetime the waltz of a well-worn love

Sometimes Ginger asks me where I think I would be if we had never met. My answer is always the same: “I don’t think I would be alive.” I am upon a time, rather than crushed below it, because Love found me when I looked in her eyes some seventeen years ago.

However bumpy the ride has been, Love has never let go.



  1. What a beautiful post! I check your blog every day, and look forward to your next post 🙂

    I hope you eventually find a “Good Eats” that you like. My husband and I frequent a place called “Blue Ribbon BBQ” in Arlington on Mass Ave. Not sure if its what you’re looking for, but the meat is tasty, the mashed potatoes are done just right, and the cornbread is sweet and crumbly.

  2. I love the imagery you use. The idea of being so comfortable in the familiar. The movies always highlight the sparks and the excitement of new love. While that time with my husband was so fun when we first met, I would never trade the feeling being deeply known by another human being and how it feels to fall into the steps of that lifetime waltz.

    I love the way you speak of your wife.

    I wish your lyrics had become a song, but thanks for sharing them in their poetic form.


  3. Thanks for stopping by Real Live Pirate. If nothing else it provided me with the link to your blog here. I liked this post about the anniversary of your first date. My wife and I have been married for 25 years (26 next month), but we’ve known each other closer to 40. I don’t know that I wouldn’t be alive had we not gotten together, but I don’t like to think that I might have missed the wonderful years we’ve had together.

  4. Milton – Hey! I stumbled across your blog through RLP and Tim Youmans. I am bombarded with memories of summer camps with you, Ginger, and Brashier that bring me happiness and joy. Give Ginger my love. Peace, juliana moore

  5. Wishing you the very best (belatedly) on your anniversary. Upon a time — beautifully put, sir.

    PS: “Please — if it’s not too late — make it a cheeseburger.”

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