Ralph’s Bench

Three wooden slats make up the seat of the bench at Beaver Lake upon which I have been sitting, writing, thinking, dreaming and complaining for many years.

I chose the bench originally because of its position in relation to the lake and the trees. It faces more or less west, which means it gets the warm afternoon sun, and looks over a small patch of open water in which mallards and the odd pair of wood ducks dabble. A short distance from shore, a bank of reeds are used for nesting by red-winged blackbirds, who perch on the cattails and call to each other. From this spot, I can peer through my field glasses into the distant reaches of the lake when I see movement, or follow the path of an eagle gliding above.

This bench is the right-most of three benches that sit in a row, adjacent to each other, at the edge of a small section of forest between the lake and Pipeline Road. I actually prefer the view from the centre bench, but the seat is slightly too high to be comfortable. My bench is just the right height to sit comfortably with my legs crossed and notebook open on my lap without a limb falling asleep too quickly.

I say my bench, but it’s really Ralph’s Bench. That is, one of the many benches in Vancouver that the parks board has assigned to memorialise someone. In this case, a Dr. Ralph G. Miller.

Though I’m certain that I read the plate bearing Ralph’s name on my first visit, I’d probably used the bench on many occasions before I really became aware of Ralph’s presence. I sit on the bench lost in thought, contemplating some real life problem, or opportunity, until I return to my notebook to scribble down ideas – sometimes answers but more often, new questions. On one such occasion I looked down at the brass plate thoughtfully and said, aloud, “What do you think, Ralph?”

I wasn’t expecting an answer, nor did I get one, but I sat and stared at that brass plaque for a few moments, as though I were waiting for something, anything. And something did come, in the form of the simple comfort of having reached out to this stranger on whose bench I sat. I felt myself relax.

Before long, I was greeting Dr. Miller upon my arrival. “Morning, Ralph”, I would say ritualistically, nonchalantly. I was even conversing with Ralph. Asking for opinions. Relating anecdotes. Sharing discoveries. Frequently posing philosophical questions.

Though I only spoke to him aloud, I did not so address him if there were any other people passing, or sitting on the adjacent benches, for obvious reasons. Except occasionally, when someone particularly annoying was offending my sensibilities, such as allowing his dog to jump in the water to chase the ducks, I would whisper discreetly my disdainful thoughts about the offenders, certain that Ralph would share in my irritation.

Sometimes I would arrive to find someone else sitting on Ralph’s bench. Usually it was a group of tourists, so I would use the next bench over knowing that they’d soon be bored by the lack of beavers and move along.

Otherwise, I would go to my alternate bench on the other side of the lake, belonging to the memory of one Lisa van Reeuwyk. I don’t talk to Lisa the way I do Ralph, except to say hello. As with Ralph, I don’t know Lisa’s story. I do know, however, that she died at an unreasonably young age. I wonder, when I sit with her, if her life was difficult, what struggles she faced, whether
leaving was her own decision or one made for her. Perhaps, with Lisa, I remain silent, available to offer her the favour of an ear should she desire it.

Sitting with Lisa is a darker experience than sitting with Ralph, but that’s not a bad thing, just different. Though my understanding of both Ralph and Lisa are entirely my own projections and quite possibly wholly unrealistic, each nevertheless has something to offer me during my retreats, and I like to think that I have something to offer them, too, even if only the respect of my attention.

Last year, Ralph’s bench was hauled away and a new one has replaced it. Presumably, whoever funded the bench did not renew it. The new bench still has three wooden slats, but it’s not the same. The height of the seat is slightly different, and it has a new name : Mr. Page. I have no sense of Mr. Page. I can’t even remember his first name. Perhaps we’ll become friends. Perhaps
we won’t.

Originally published in Thursdays 3.0: These Words, at www.thursdayspoemsandprose.ca.

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