This Blue Dress, Worn by Citrine

Another overnight rainstorm had pummeled the earth until leaves and flowers bent in surrender.  The air smelled faintly of mud and lilacs as Nora opened her balcony doors to survey a brightening sky above roof lines and treetops. Two stories below her, the neighbors’ long driveway was filling up with tables and a couple of old chairs. Marty and his wife, Hanna, were setting up for a yard sale despite the iffy forecast.

“Hey, Nora!” Marty called. “Anything you want to add to our mess?”

“No, thanks,” Nora answered, waving back. “I just donated a pile of things to the shelter.”

She thought about the boxes of shoes and purses she hadn’t unloaded yet. They gaped at her daily whenever she entered her bedroom; it was hard to let go of old, still-good leather products. She chided herself. They ought to be relieved of their uselessness and passed on. Nora set her teacup down on the tiny glass-topped table, dragged out two boxes, and started eliminating, haphazard pile growing. Then she consolidated the “toss” items and took them down to Hanna, who encouraged her to be generous with low pricing. She found the whole thing tedious and tiring, so retreated back to her balcony.

People started to show up at eight-forty-five and for good reason. Marty and Hanna had a wide array of cheap offerings and customers rooted through books and old LPs, DVDs, jewelry and clothing. They admired a buffet and brocaded wing-back chairs. Nora noted that two pair of her shoes were bought. The garage held enticing cast-offs, from exercise equipment to older bikes to a 50-piece rose-covered china set the couple had avoided using for twenty years. Nora watched as she finished her muffin, licked her fingers. What did people want with so many used things? It struck her that the more one got rid of, the more one felt compelled to replace.  She bet most of the shoppers had things falling out of closets at home. She picked up her cup and plate; she had work to do.

Nora was turning to step inside when a flash of azure blue caught her eye. She looked closely at the clothesline strung across the drive. A long, sleeveless cotton dress hung at the end of the line, swinging in a the fresh breeze.  An ivory lace scarf trailed from its scoop neck. A wave of shock raced through her. She ran downstairs, around the corner and up the driveway and when she reached for the dress, it was gone. Frantic, she searched the arms of several women in the cash-and-carry line. When it wasn’t to be found Nora walked to the garage and scanned the dim interior. And there it was: slung carelessly over the arm of a teen-aged girl in tight, raggedy blue jeans, flip flops and a loose, likely vintage black T-shirt with the band Guns and Roses on the back. She stood by a man who studied tools spread out on a piece of plywood settled betweentwo saw horses. Nora wanted to stop the young woman before she lost her chance but hesitated. It was only a used dress. She willed the girl to look at her but she continued to browse. When Hannah called out to Nora and asked if she might spell her at the check-out table, Nora reluctantly left the garage and took up her post.

She watched three of her purses and another pair of shoes leave the premises. She was glad they were gone. The metal money-box was filling up nicely as she waited for Hanna’s return.  The more Nora thought about the dress–its soft, graceful lines with the exquisite lace scarf–the more she needed it.

When she looked up again the teen-aged girl stood before her. She put her finds on the table: three leather purses, a crock pot, gold-trimmed glass coffee carafe, four woven place mats, a pearl-embellished sweater. And one long blue dress with scarf.

“Looks like you’ve done well today,” Nora said, breathing shallowly.

“Well, it’s the start of my shopping. I better find a lot more out there.”

Nora raised her left eyebrow involuntarily and gave a half-smile. “You’re a diehard yard-saler, then?”

The girl tucked her brown and bleach-streaked hair behind her ears.   “It’s how I make money. You know, I buy and sell. I take stuff to vintage shops, second-hand shops, that sort of thing. Have to get by somehow. I’m on my own out there.” She got out her cash and counted it slowly. “So–how much?”

Nora bit the side of her lip. “I’m not sure. The dress and scarf might not be for sale.”

“What? Sure it is. I got it over there.” She nodded at the clothesline. “It’s a great warm weather dress. It costs ten bucks but I can get twice that. The scarf goes with it, too, right?”

Nora placed her hands flat on the card table and leaned forward. “I mean, I might not agree to let you buy it. I’d like it for myself.”

The girl snorted. “Well, you know, first come, first serve! I get that you like it but my dibs. Now, what do I owe, lady?”

Nora looked at the rumpled wad of bills in the girl’s hand and then at the dress. Only ten dollars on the sticker. How could something like that be had for so little? She stood up.

“Look, here’s the thing. I really need this dress, too. It matters to me. I don’t know how it got there. It must have been left behind in the house and no one knew it was there or cared. But it belonged to someone, someone who used to live right here. An important person.”

“Come on, everything at a yard sale belonged to somebody…what are you saying?”

“It belonged to Citrine. Citrine Devlin. My best friend. ” Nora felt the tears hot at her eyelids and looked up at her balcony. “I live up there. And Citrine lived in the lower level of this house until last year.”

The teen-ager examined the scarf and whistled. “Wow. Citrine. A very sweet name. Different.” She smoothed the rich blue cotton of the dress.

“Yes. Unique, really. Like her.”  Nora saw Hanna come up to the table and hover. “She was the sort of friend you always look for but hardly ever find. You know what I mean? Just a really good woman.”

Hanna touched Nora on the back. “I’ll take my spot back. Thanks. Isn’t it great the sun came out! I guess you’re all set to buy?” she asked the girl.

“Not yet.” The teen moved aside and let the next person ahead. “So what happened? To this Citrine person?”

But Nora was walking down the driveway, trying to stand tall and not run, stifling the urge to scream at the ignorant girl, the careless neighbors who put out that dress, the wretched wet flowers. She had been blind-sided, that was all. She wasn’t expecting the dress to show up, to remind her.

“Wait!” The teen-ager caught up with her. “I don’t want to wreck your day.  It’s just a dress, but–”

Nora stopped but didn’t turn. “Drunk driver. An pretty night in June. On her way back the little art gallery she owned; there had been a show opening. It was eleven when she left; I left right before her by about ten minutes. The moon looked amazing as I left downtown, drove up into these hills. We were going to have coffee the next morning, talk about the opening, her own work. But she was gone before I even got home that night, you understand? Some kid, a guy who had been to a graduation party. Too many beers or mixed drinks or whatever his poison was.” Tears fell like shiney stars from her eyes, and plummeted down her cheeks. “Isn’t it a random, crazy world? We don’t know what’s coming most of the time.”

The girl suddenly spun her around; she held tight to Nora’s arm. Then she closed her dark eyes, and when she opened them they were wide and still, but smoky with her own thoughts. “I know how it is; I lost somebody. Heroin overdose. So: the blue dress and scarf should be yours. Have to be. There are things that need to be with a special person. And you’re the keeper of that treasure from then on. ”

She held Citrine’s dress out to Nora, then put down her bag of items and wrapped Nora in her thin arms. They stood that way as the lilac bushes whispered nothing of import and raindrops shook free from above and wet their hair,  with one blue dress and delicate scarf safe between them.

The Heart Chronicles #8: Holding to the Circle

I went on my annual trip with my sisters not long ago. We talked for hours, poked around various shops in the historic downtown of Port Townsend, toured a Commanding Officer’s Victorian home at an old fort, watched a regatta of two hundred boats glide into part of Puget Sound. We shared a few meals, talked late. I was not keen on the week-end ending so quickly.

Marinell, Allanya and myself: we are three sisters among five children (two brothers, also) but I once felt as though I was the fifth wheel, the “leftover”, the once who missed out.  My siblings were born close together, as though meant to be two pairs. But five years after the fourth child, I arrived. I studied them as though from a distance–they were titans of accomplishment, often seeming just out of reach. Plus, they enjoyed the possibilities of independence. As the baby of the family, I was busy deciphering new data and expectations, traversing territory they had left behind years ago. By the time I was twelve, all my siblings had gone off to college. In a home where privacy was a bonus experience and quietness was a stranger, it was now so empty I could hear my own daydreams and secrets in the echoing reaches.

Y0u might ask: what does this have to do with the human heart and its well-being? Bear with me: this is about matters of import, and how they help keep us alive. 

So. The years passed. I slipped away from my siblings and they, from me. We each sought our particular adventures, some fabulous, some doomed from the start.  I eventually had my own young family and there was little time and money for travelling to far-flung locales in our country and, sometimes, the world, to visit them. I found myself wishing there were five aunts and uncles around who could join my five children on outings to museums or the zoo, share barbeques and ball games, delight in each triumph with us. But it was not to be. We wrote letters; we called at times and talked as long as we could despite long distance being expensive. But actual distance between us was great. I felt my longing grow more profound.

At forty-two, at the urging of my sisters, I relocated from Michigan to the northwest. I was suddenly in an area where my older brother and two sisters resided. My other brother lived, and remains, back east. But this wealth of siblings within my reach was wondrous. My last child was twelve then, the age at which my siblings had left the family nest.  I rediscovered how vastly caring, inquisitive, stalwart and good-humored they were.

I’ve been able to hear my older brother, Gary, play jazz clarinet, saxophone and flute at clubs and borrow his classic movies; we’ve   shared our dinner tables.  I can call him with a wisp of a tune stuck in my brain and he can name it–and sing it fully–for me. I do wish my younger brother, Wayne, was not so far away so he could be counted among those at the long oak dining table in my home. Last year’s sisters’ trip was happily spent visiting him. Also a successful musician, he has music at the center of his life and his photographs are really stories reflecting myriad travels; they demonstrate a clarity of mind and heart. His warm laughter reaches out across any room.

Allanya showed me how to maximize the pleasure of living in this beautiful city, shared food and shelter at the start. We prowl estate sales and antique shops, enjoy leisurely walks in tree-canopied parks, and call each other whenever we like, the line buzzing with whatever is important or mundane, pleasing or difficult. She and I are like two birds of rumpled but bright feathers, drawn to the beauty of nature, the mysteries of life. Marinell, the oldest, lives a few hours away but I always look forward to our visits. Thirteen years older, she also has had heart malfunctions, so understands. I enjoy hearing her play her cello and grand piano. We might sit on her patio and sip hot or iced tea, pluck sumptuous strawberries from a bright bowl, and reminisce about our younger years or discuss our latest book favorites. And few have more fun shopping than we do, exclaiming over our finds.

My sisters and I sat in a motel room that last night together as the sun floated above then slipped beneath the misty, silvered horizon on Puget Sound. Somehow we got on the topic of life after death, angelic creatures, experiences we have had of the indefinable power of God. We each revealed an experience we had not shared before in our visits. Our voices fell; our family eyes, large and intense, filled with tears. There was a quietude in that room that overtook the ordinary time and place we inhabited. It resonated so deeply within me that when I looked at them closely I felt I saw their innermost beings. And they shone so, they shone brightly, like warm lanterns illuminating the cocoon of darkness that had spun itself about us. I looked again and saw their beauty, love, wisdom. Their tenderness.

Sometimes when my heart jolts me awake; when it  murmurs so slowly I wonder if it will keep me moving through day and night; when it feels stuffed to bursting or ragged with irritation–then I remind myself from where I came. I recall the honorable legacy my parents left us, and know well who has helped bring me this far, caring generously through the highs and lows. There have been, as there always are with health challenges, desperate moments when I wondered if I had too far to go and not enough courage. My husband, children and friends have been there, thankfully. But my family has been my anchor from the very beginning, and I am there for them as well.

My education on this earth has at least taught me how to hold on to what I experience as an endless circle of love. Therein we each can create and recreate our lives. It started for me long ago in my own quirky, compassionate family, and it continues to radiate from the center of the great wheel of life. Hold fast to love, dear reader, wherever discovered: it will walk/dance/lift/carry us through anything at all. And by an unexpected act of grace, it transforms the greater heart into a clear, deep well for others who also are in need. We can then guide each other through the harrowing places. We make peace with the nights until the incandescence of moon, stars or sun keeps us company again.


Front Row Seats


His body settled into the red Adirondack chair as though it was created just for him. J. spent an hour each morning with his coffee from Suze’s Soothers. It was a perfect spot, sheltered from the clutter of houses and shops along the shore and the people who clustered about them. Afterwards, it was a good walk back to his house. Then he got to work on his music at the old Steinway by the bay windows;  he could see Puget Sound as he composed.

He smoothed the dampish newspaper on his lap and gazed out over the water, family azure eyes squinting into the early morning light. The mist approached and captured the harbor like an elegant thief, just the way he liked it. Rich, sweet scents slipped in each breath. Waves rushed the rocks, then fell away in a soothing rhythm. J. came out of habit and because he could find music here. But when the sun took to the upper reaches of the sky and spread itself over the town in buttery tones, he retreated.  Everyone else discharged themselves from their habitats then, scurried into the streets, followed by tourists with their unbearably loud pleasure-seeking. For now, peace.  J. would wait for the first inkling of a melody to creep up, one that might be worth keeping. It had been a long, barren winter.

The other chair rested empty, its vivid redness an affront at first, then a comfort as always. It had taken some time to get used to it. For four years there had been Levi, and before that, Margot, his wife. Suze kept suggesting a dog, as though that would take care of everything. But what would a dog do with a chair like that? It wasn’t a sleeping chair. The thing would rustle around and whimper. It was better this way. No one dared sit in it. Six months ago J. had put a sign on the back when he came in the morning: “Occupied.” Never mind that it was not taken; the sign was official, no one was welcome. Sometimes customers complained but Suze diverted them to the back deck where they had the whole sweep of the town and water, the looming mountains. This was all J. wanted for a little while—the space between the coffee shop and Margot’s Miniatures (it retained her name though she was long gone, taken by cancer). Enough for two chairs and two people. Or one, as it turned out since Levi disappeared ten months ago after they’d had coffee at this very spot.

Suze told him: “Face it, he used you and left. He was your best friend, I know, but he stayed for free—years in your great hill house. Some people just take.”

J. could see her now through the window with her big hairdo—all those chestnut curls  piled up—and her mouth going a mile a minute, pen whipping back and forth between two fingers as she waited for the order. But she didn’t know Levi. It was like a bad accident, his leave taking. They had had words. J. said few of them but sometimes they came out fierce and stuck there, like an arrow on a bull’s eye. He had gotten surlier the last few years but doubted it was Levi’s fault. J. hadn’t sweetened up much since he’d left.

He shook his head. The coffee smelled good, Roman Gold, she called it, and it struck him that people had fancy names for things with humble beginnings.  Margot would have laughed at that. She had simple tastes, like him. And she loved his music no matter whether it was played in symphony halls or for the two of them.

“Margot,” he breathed, and the sound flooded him with bright sparks of pleasure just as they had all those years before. “Maybe I need a dog, after all,” J. muttered, “just to keep from talking to myself.”

“I’ve got one. A mutt. She’s fun even though she’s messy. ”

J. startled. A small girl of about six or seven was standing beside the empty chair, a rose-covered purse in one hand, green dress and matching sweater brightening her fair coloring. She smiled at him briefly, then plopped into the chair.

“That’s occupied. Taken.” J. sighed as his solitude vanished.

“I can read. It looks empty.” She pulled her sweater close in the chill. “It’s pretty here. My grandmother is getting tea for us.”

“Well, you’ll have to take the metal chairs behind me. Sorry, but I’m busy right now.”

She looked at him coolly, at the unopened paper, coffee mug in his large hands.  Her lips pulled to the side and her eyebrows shot up, a look of disbelief, then sat back. “I know. Everyone is busy. Except  grandmother. She says she has too much time now.”

J. followed the girl’s gaze; seagulls circled and sailed above them.  Moments passed in quiet, waves shushing, the mist rising in sunlight. The girl crossed her legs and emptied the purse contents on her lap. J. watched from the corner of his eye: a pack of gum, a bracelet with sparkly beads, five dollar bill, a wad of tissue, and a snapshot of someone with the mutt, he presumed. She suddenly kissed the photo and put everything back inside, snapping the purse latch as though she was locking it for good.

He cleared his throat. “I had a dog once. He was a looker, a Samoyed, do you know what that is? Admiral was fluffy-white but he was a very smart and strong dog. He knew what I needed without me saying it. We went everywhere, sailed with me, even.” He caught himself feeling nostalgic, which he disliked in himself. He glanced at the child to see if she’d been listening.

She gazed at him steadily, her large hazel eyes empty of sadness or worry, eyes that hadn’t been here long enough to see too much, he thought. But he suspected she missed nothing.

“Well?” she asked. “What happened to him?”

“He got old and died.”

She uncrossed her legs and stretched them out, sandals falling off. “Get another one.”

J. was shocked at the idea. “Another Admiral? Not possible.”

“No, a brand new one. A Sam—Sammy-ed? A sailing dog. You’d be happy.”

“Arianna? Arianna, where—oh there you are! You are not to take off like that.”

Arianna and J. turned around in their chairs.

“I’m fine, grandmother. We’re talking about dogs. He needs a new one.”

J. stood up, grabbed a metal chair and brought it in line with the Adirondacks. “Have a seat.” He nodded at her. “J. Arthur Capresa,” he added, holding out his hand.

“Mariette Faling.” She shook his hand and grinned.  “It looks like Arianna took the second seat despite the sign. Just makes herself at home wherever she is. I hope she isn’t interfering.” She put the cardboard tray with two hot teas at her feet and took the cups out, offering one to Arianna. As she eased her slight figure into the chair it seemed as though she had some pain but thought little of it. She sat erect, her head tilted at her granddaughter, silver hair in a loose chignon.

J. said nothing. He sipped his coffee as the other two chattered about Port Riser, the ribbons of light upon the calming waves, the hours ahead. He put the paper away and watched as the last gauzy fingers of fog were swept away by a fragrant breeze. When he glanced at the two, the sun gathered itself and fell upon Mariette and Arianna with their heads close together. They were splendid to behold.  A tune came to him that set his mind racing.  He followed it as it wound through him, heard the woodwinds pipe in, then the cellos and violins, a French horn bolstering the line, and then the percussion. He closed his eyes and listened, travelled far away.

“Don’t bother him, Arianna. I know his name; I think he’s a well-known composer. And he’s sleeping.”

Arianna tiptoed over to J. and whispered very distinctly in his ear. “Get. Your. Dog. Promise.”

J. kept his eyes shut; the violas were swooping in now. “Okay,” he whispered back and smiled, then into his mind swept Margot, calling him back to work at the grand piano. “I will.”