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We’d gone to the farm to cut grass. The recent rains have  made our grass and pastures and flowers do that miraculous thing. You know the one where one day everything looks like its been cooked in an oven and then the next, new, green, shiny leaves adorn every stem, twig and branch.

I’d gone for an additional reason,  to feel the peace of the place.

If you know me, you know I can have a touch of the melancholy.

Getting out and doing something in the sunshine, while the birds in the trees sing and the smell of four o’clocks and cow poop fill my nose, taking time to see God in all of it, does it for me.

Mother had additional plans.

Laying on the couch in the new barn, she had just cut her portion of the grass. (She used to do it all, but when you are 83, your family cuts you a bit of slack.)

She said this to me:

“Janet, how many numbers are possible for UPC codes?”

Uh. What?

“I was just thinking of all the things that have UPC codes, how do they not get the same ones? And also, who is in charge of getting what number?” She looked expectantly at me with those blue green eyes.

And this is the woman that worries about forgetting a few things every once in a while.

So I did my standard stall, that actually works, because its for sure true. I had to have time to  think. Along with melancholy, I am the worrier who never wants to give incorrect information.

So I said…

“Wow. What a good question.”

UPC Numbers. Geez. One of the things that I am not very good at is appreciating humongous numbers. Well, actually anything humongous. Take for instance the Rocky Mountains. They look no more spectacular to me than the Ozarks, sometimes less so.

“Mother, how many numbers are in a UPC code?”

(I am not speaking with her conventionally, remember, she is near deaf. I am writing on the little white board, of which at least one is present everywhere she is.)

She sips on her water and because its just she and me and she isn’t feeling stressed, I can see her thinking and considering and adding.

“Maybe 9. Or 11.”

“How many numbers do you think you have if you have 9 numbers to use in combinations.”

“Milllions?”

I may have gotten my under appreciativeness of largeness from her.

I am trying to decide if I should say a trillion or something bigger, because I honestly do not know how many and so I say, “way more than that, Mother, way more,” while raising my eyes extremely wide and underlining about 5 times with 20 or so exclamation points.

(FACT: UPC codes have 12 numbers and there are about a trillion combinations.)

I do know one fact, so I try to share it.

“Mother, for every number you add to a string, the possible number of combinations goes up…

(how am I going to explain exponential to her!!!!!! egads)

“I see!! A whole lot!” she interrupts, the light in her eyes showing that she does indeed see.

“Think about the lottery. How many numbers do you have to pick for the lottery to win big?” I ask her.

She’s bought her share of lotto tickets.

“I don’t remember.”

I don’t remember either but I am trying to recall what the odds are that were printed on her tickets. She’s already tracking where I am going with this. This is always in very fine print because no one wants to know how unlikely their chances are.

“What are the odds someone is going to pick the same number for a UPC item.”

She looks troubled because she’s already figured out that “picking” random UPC numbers can’t be how its done. I have been trying to Google UPC codes for the last 20 minutes. The farm may be peaceful in part because there is almost no cell signals hovering over its pastures.

“There has to be more structure to the numbers in a UPC code,” I say, musing out loud. I say this because I am thinking about the 60 trillion feet (1o million miles) of DNA that is in our bodies (if you count that each cell has 6 feet of DNA molecules and there are about 10 trillion cells in our body). With a wonderfully small DNA alphabet of only four letters, you can get everything from earthworms to antibiotics, or in the case of humans, brain cells to blue eyes to everything in between, partly because of the ‘structure’ that’s built into DNA. It’s not just a string of random letters.

“There are probably groups of  numbers that mean something within the nine numbers,” she says. “You know like there are in a telephone number.”

She’s tracked the logic faster than me.

“You know Jan, when I was about ten, me and my girlfriends used to walk down to an unfinished viaduct near Roosevelt Road. There were all these small papers attached to piles of lumber. They had a series of numbers on them.”

She looked at me.

“We always thought they were spy codes. There were always new ones when we cut across the field to play there. You think that was some kind of UPC code?”

I knew they didn’t have UPC codes back then. These memories she was sharing were bound by the early 1940’s, before World War II ended and probably just a few years after the end of the Great Depression.  Freeways did not span our country and connect every state. But things were changing. The country was beginning to create forward looking federal infrastructure that included bridge inspections and motorists safety and movement of goods and people.

We spent the next three days trying to google everything we could on what those little papers with the numbers were. We discovered the viaduct was over a railroad, the now defunct Rock Island. We know that they never finished that viaduct and that her memory for the map she drew was spot on.

“You know Mother, it was just a few years later they would put all those underground missile silos all around Arkansas.”

She looked at me.

“And when you were ten or so, the Pine Bluff Arsenal was already built and producing secret chemical weapons. There was a railroad spur that served the plant.”

“Maybe,” I answered, considering the lure and romance of spies to a ten year old girl who was born at the end of WWII.

She smiled. “We had a lot of fun imagining. Spies.” And then she laughed.

I like to think of my Mother young and ten, a life of days ahead of her that she could never have imagined. And here we both sit when the calendar tells us it 2015, a number that seems strangely futuristic, in Hempstead Texas, talking spies and UPC numbers and things we can and can’t imagine.  We are both grateful for where our lives have taken us. We are glad we know where we are going in the end.

“Love you, Mother.”

“I love you too, Jan.”

Mother