Photo by Sebastian Coman Travel on Unsplash

After a restless night, Jackson Burke opened his eyes. The changing light in the room indicated that the sun was rising. He knew that he would not sleep anymore. He reached over and turned off the alarm, two hours before it was to ring. He rolled over and sat on the edge of his bed.

“Today I’m going to the office,” he told himself, just as he had for the last three days yet failed to do. “Jane wouldn’t like me feeling sorry for myself,” he thought. Thinking of Jane brought the wrenching pain to his chest he was so familiar with, his eyes watered, and his breath caught as he inhaled.

When his grief eased, he rose from his bed. He thought it was only a few minutes, but twenty minutes had just passed. “Get a hold of yourself, Jackson,” he told himself. “The funeral was two weeks ago. People have stopped dropping in with their casseroles and condolences. The world has moved on. Time for you to do the same.”

But work would have to wait. He just couldn’t focus and his mind jumped from idea to idea in no particular order.

“Start small,” he told himself and started to straighten up his living room. In a bookcase, he found a photo album. He spent the day sitting on the floor slowly turning pages, remembering his past with Jane. One picture was of them with Jane’s family. It was from a picnic she had organized to celebrate her parents’ twenty-fifth anniversary.

She had problems with her sister-in-law, Debbie, who thought a picnic was wrong for an anniversary party. “It should be grand and formal,” Deb said.

Jackson could hear Jane pleading. “My parents aren’t like that. We’ve had a lot of happy times as a family at picnics,” Jane would counter, trying to get her to understand. It put a wall between the two women that never went away, Jackson remembered sadly.

Turning the page he found Jennie, his niece on her fifth birthday blowing out the candles. Jane made that cake, he remembered. It was a princess cake with a tiara. Jennie wore it for two years.

A few pictures later was one with Jane in her cap and gown when she received her Master’s in speech pathology. How she loved working with the children at Johnson Elementary.

Each page brought back a new memory, new emotions, pride, love, desire. The last picture was of the two of them leaving the church at her brother’s wedding. “Boy what a great day that was,” he thought. “That was such a happy time in our life.”

For a few weeks, he tried to restart his life. He caught up on his emails and one Monday, he finally returned to the office. He had read all the company email. Last week, Ronald Pendelton II had announced his retirement. Ronald Pendelton Senior founded Pendelton Manufacturing in 1933 in Salem, Massachusetts. His mission was to provide meaningful work to the Salem community in their home town, struggling because of the Great Depression.

Pendelton Manufacturing’s initial products were paper bags, writing paper, and envelopes. As the economy changed, so did Pendelton’s products. By 1950, the company employed three thousand people and was sending their products around the world. Ronald Pendelton Senior retired and his son Ronald Pendelton Junior assumed leadership of the company in 1972. He became Ronald Pendelton II when he named his first son Ronald Pendelton III. Ron II led the company into the twenty-first century. Profits grew as he became a major distributor of computer paper and custom forms. Like his father, Ron II was very good to the employees, providing good-paying jobs, low-cost health care, and retirement packages.

Like all Pendelton employees, Jackson Burke was a loyal company man. It was time to get back into the action. He entered the office at 7:30, before most other employees, and started putting his desk in order. It was six weeks ago when he received the call that Jane’s cancer had advanced and her time was short. He immediately left to be at her side and lived the final stages of that nightmare.

His secretary Doris was next to arrive and greeted Jackson enthusiastically and gently.

“It is good to see you, Mr. Burke. We are all so sorry about Mrs. Burke’s passing, such a dear lady and so young.”

“Thank you, Doris. You are kind to say that. It is good to be back in the office. I’d like to meet with all the managers at 10:00 a.m. to hear what’s been going on in their departments. Pass the word that I’d like a report from each of them on what occurred in the past month by the end of the week.

Jackson was VP of Human Resources with six managers and staff of thirty-six. In addition to new hires, terminations, training, and benefits, his department also worked closely with operations and finance.

Jackson left work that day feeling connected with the company again, thinking of things other than Jane. Driving home he thought about all the things he’d tell her when he realized she was not at home waiting for him. He felt his sadness rise up but realized it was not as crippling as it was this morning and during the past weeks. It was a new feeling of regret, realizing she was moving a little further away.

The following Monday, he was called to an executive meeting with senior management. While still CEO, Ron II did not attend. Instead, Ron III ran the meeting. “My father’s last day will be the end of the month. We’ll have a company picnic on that day to say good-bye and thank you to my father. It‘ll be at the Salem Convention center. In the afternoon, there’ll be an assembly for all employees. Each of you, please have one or two employees you’d like to honor. We’ll have an awards ceremony. I want it to be a day that everyone will remember.

“Also, I have engaged Billington Associates to conduct a business review of all aspects of the company. They’ll start with you, Jackson. I’d like you to help them work with the other departments.”

Tom Silverman, VP of operations asked, “What is the purpose of their review, Ron?”

“I’m looking for fresh ideas from impartial professionals to move the company to the next level,” Ron III answered. When asked for clarification he only said, “Give these people your full cooperation. Their analysis should be complete in a month and we’ll meet to discuss their report then. Keep this as quiet as possible. This should have very little impact on the employees, but we don’t want to worry them unnecessarily.”

The company celebration was a huge success and many commented on their great fortune working for Pendelton Manufacturing.

The following day, three Billington associates, a man and two women, showed up at Jackson’s desk. “We’d like to see the files of all employees organized by department. Be sure to include salary history, education, benefits, and pension information, along with personal information, age, marital status, number of children, and length of service. Make this your priority. I’d like to see the HR department’s records by tomorrow morning,” said the lady who appeared to be in charge. “The HR conference room will be our office going forward. Please see us there with your reports or for any questions.” With that, she left, never introducing herself or waiting for Jackson to ask questions.

“Cold, all business,” thought Jackson. He called in Doris and they started to organize the records of his department.

It took thirteen days to gather all the data for the company and to review it. Usually, after a department’s records were reviewed, a second request for additional information and clarification followed on the next day. It wasn’t long before the employees heard about the Billington review and rumors of the sale of the company, layoffs, and off-shoring started circulating. Many of Jackson’s staff came to his office with questions and concerns. ‘What’s going on, Mr. Burke? Are we going to lose our jobs?”

“I don’t know any more than you do,” he said. “Try not to worry. Pendelton has always stood behind its employees. We’ll know soon enough.”

Three weeks later, Jackson received a summary of the Billington’s report and a list of their proposed changes. The three main recommendations were an increased focus on sales and expanding markets, automation, and off-shoring manufacturing to decrease production costs. As Jackson digested the report, he realized that Ron’s next level was about increased profits, and unlike his father and grandfather, he had little concern for the employees or the company’s responsibility to the Salem community.

He was called to another senior manager meeting. He prepared a series of presentations to counter the Billington report. But the meeting was not about evaluating the report, rather the steps and timelines to implement the recommended changes. They were planning on doubling the sales force and reducing overall employees to fifty percent of current levels, over eighteen hundred people terminated over the next year.

The company would offer a severance package, assistance in job search, and retraining, especially for any employee who was willing to relocate to a target market city and change their profession to sales representatives.

Human Resources was the first department affected. Most of his staff would be replaced by people skilled in HR Complete, a software package that performed all necessary HR functions with a section designed for downsizing.

Jackson was the first employee to be terminated. He was called into the HR conference room where Miss Brown, the lady he spoke with on their first day at Pendelton, was seated behind a table. She handed him a thick 9x12 manila envelope (it wasn’t even a Pendelton envelope, he noticed).

“I’m sorry Mr. Burke, but your services are no longer needed at Pendelton. This envelope contains all the necessary information. There is office space on Main Street with people who can answer any questions and guide you through the out-placement services that the company is providing to all terminated employees. We know this is hard and we assure you, it is purely a business decision and is not personal. Mr. Pendelton thanks you for your years of service.”

She stopped talking and after a few minutes of stunned silence, Jackson realized he had been dismissed. He left the conference room without saying one word, went to the elevator, and left the building. He returned in the afternoon. The parking lot was full of stunned workers, many were his friends. “I’m sorry,” he told them. “Things will work out,” he assured them. But his heart was not in it. He retrieved his belongings from his office and left, never to return to Pendelton Manufacturing.

He spent the next week alone in his home. Losing his jobs rekindled the pain he felt with Jane’s death. Days and sleepless nights followed one after another. As happened before, he awoke one day and said to himself, “ Jane wouldn’t let me waste away alone and uninvolved. Today I am going to start living again.” He started by organizing his house, stocking the refrigerator, and planning meals.

At first, his depression made these simple tasks take many hours a day, but he soon had plenty of free time and started reading the newspaper and browsing the internet. In Sunday’s paper, he read about a blueberry festival in Brackston, Maine the following weekend. “Jane and I use to go to festivals like this one when we had no money,” he remembered.

As the week passed, he grew more excited about a trip to Maine and decided to leave on Wednesday afternoon. He went as far as York Beach where he found a cottage overlooking the ocean. He bought a pizza and a six-pack of beer and watched the full moon rise over the ocean. Jackson felt like himself for the first time in many months. He thought of his life with Jane, starting with her getting cancer and dying. But also of all the good times they had together, even during her sickness. He imagined her sitting beside him, enjoying the view, and talking about how life changes.

He was up early and started heading north, following the ocean. It wasn’t the fastest route, but he was in no hurry. Traffic was light, and the sky was huge, with scattered billowing clouds over the ocean.

Brackston was a seaport town. Leaving the interstate at the Brackston exit, he found himself going up-hill. As he crested the rise, he saw Brackston below him, the wide ocean, and the surrounding countryside. He pulled to the side of the road and stopped, mesmerized by the scene below. Brackston sits in a valley between two ridges that led to the sea. The road he was on looked like the only way into or out of Brackston unless you considered the sea. There was a small sheltered harbor with many boats. A small freighter was at the end of the pier unloading cargo, but otherwise, Brackston seemed quiet.

Brackston was a one-road town with shops on each side. The road in the town center was closed to automobiles and ran toward the sea with a large park at the water’s edge. The road he was on went left and right. There were parking lots on either side. He parked his car, grabbed his small suitcase, and headed into town, walking down the gravel and grass-covered road that separated the shops.

The promenade had benches and round tables with chairs scattered about, encouraging people to slow down for conversation and community. One table had two women and six children laughing and eating ice cream in front of the Saw Tooth Apothecary. It was mid-afternoon, and people were entering and leaving the various shops. But most of the activity in town was centered at the end of the street. Tents were being set up in preparation for the blueberry festival.

Near the end of the road, he found Criton’s Inn with a sign that said, “Today we’re serving Kelly’s Lobster Stew and Blueberry Peach Honey Crumb Cobbler.”

Entering, he saw an attractive woman at the check-in desk. She was working on something in front of her, her head was down, but Jackson saw her short curly hair, tan skin, and lithe body.

He walked to the counter, and she looked up. “Hi, I’m Kelly Criton. Can I help you,” she asked?

Jackson was immediately lost in her deep dark eyes, and after a few seconds, or maybe an eternity, he managed to stammer out, “Jackson, Jackson Burke. Do you have a room? I’m here for the blueberry festival.”

Reader, writer, life-time learner, friend. Today’s ambition, increase kindness in the world.

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