"A Literal Handful of Sheer Beauty"

I have a story to tell.  It’s just a simple story, nothing magical, but I keep thinking about it as the leaves pile up in the streets and the fog settles into the valley where I live.

The story begins with a phone call fifteen years ago from my great friend, Mel Schulstad.  At the time Mel was 83 years old.  One of the most soul-full people I know, he had just celebrated 35 years of recovery.  I think he may have been an angel, long before he died in his sleep at age 93; I have no doubt he is an angel now.

For all the time I knew him, Mel seemed ageless.  Even at 83 he had a full head of brown hair (no dye), his voice could carry a choir, and his eyes were all crinkled up at the corners from smiling all the time.

Laughter and love — that’s what Mel was all about. He was also one of the best joke-tellers I know and, like so many Midwesterners of Scandinavian descent, he was especially fond of the slightly (and sometimes outrageously) off-color Ole and Lena jokes.

In case you haven’t heard about these characters, here’s a joke Mel told me that can be printed in the newspaper.

Ole and Lena had Mr. and Mrs. Thorvald over for a holiday dinner of lutefisk.  Mr. Thorvald liked his lutefisk with lots of melted butter and black pepper, and Lena was glad to oblige.  But after the Thorvalds went home, Lena made a horrifying discovery.  She had served Mr. Thorvald gunpowder, which was stored in the pantry right next to the black pepper!

Well, it was too late to call, so Lena lay awake all night worrying.  Early the next morning she called Mr. Thorvald and admitted her mistake.

“I’ve done a terrible thing,” she said, almost in tears.  “Last night I sprinkled gunpowder on the lutefisk instead of black pepper.”

“Oh, thank God!” said Mr. Thorvald.  “That explains it all!”

“Explains what?” asked Lena, truly mystified.

“Well, when I got home, I bent over to untie my shoe, and I shot the cat!“

When Mel told me this joke, as we talked on the phone about this and that, I laughed until I cried, as I often did when I listened to Mel’s Norwegian tall tales.

“Well, my dear,” Mel said, “I have one eye on the clock, and I’m afraid I must go.  It’s Tuesday, you know.”

Every Tuesday Mel drove into downtown Seattle to spend time with the folks at the Matt Talbot Center, a recovery program for people struggling with addiction, mental illness, and homelessness.  At the center men and women of all ages, colors, religions and ethnic groups gather together to find the strength to make it through the day, one day at a time.

Mel talked to them about the Twelve Steps and “spiritual recovery,” which means he tells stories.

“But before I leave,” Mel said, “do you have time for a story?”

“Of course,” I said.  I always have time for Mel’s stories.

This was a different kind of story.  It took place on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon as Mel was walking to his car to drive to the Recovery Center.  He stopped for a moment to watch the leaves falling from the trees in his front yard.

One big leaf in particular caught his eye.  All tan, brown, yellow and green, it was as big as Mel’s large Norwegian hand, “a literal handful of sheer beauty,” as he put it.

Mel picked up the leaf and took it to the recovery center, where he passed it around for all to see.

When the leaf came back to him, he announced that it was, in fact, more than a leaf.  It was a letter.  He held up the letter and began to read, tracing the words along the leaf’s intricate veins.

“My dear children, I am sending you this letter to announce the beginning of a new season.  Fall is arriving, and it is time to let go of Summer.  Winter will come soon, and then it will be Spring.  For your joy and comfort, I bring you these seasons.  I offer you the Sun for daylight warmth, the Moon for nighttime comfort, and the Stars for pondering.

“I do this for you, your children, and your children’s children because I want you to enjoy the life I have put into you.  I hope you will have enough joy left over to give some away to your neighbors, whom I ask you to love as I love you.

“With peace and love, God.”

After Mel finished reading the letter, a young woman in the back of the room stood up and walked slowly toward him.  Hands shaking, voice trembling, she whispered, “May I please keep that letter?”

When Mel gave her the leaf, she held it tenderly, tears streaming down her face.

“I knew when I first saw that leaf,” Mel told me, finishing his story, “that it was a gift —the gift of another season.  I’m just grateful that I could pass it along.”

Me, too.




March 9, 1918 – January 6, 2012

World War II Air Force Hero, flew 44 B-17 combat missions over Europe

Founder of the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Counselors (NAADAC)

46 years sober at the time of his death