Play It Andante, Play It Allegro, Just Play On

At the edge of the piano bench, my feet dangling, I watch your hands fly across an orderly length of black and white keys. A whole story in sounds rolls over and through my smallness. Light filters though the living room windows and upon our arms and legs and faces. Your features are composed of sweetness and subtle strength. Full of the music. I am at ease, round with love for you. Music is added magic, creates a conduit that feeds me good things.

I am five years old but you, Marinell, my oldest sister, are eighteen. Grown up already. Our baby grand piano is a meeting place for the entire family but sometimes I get to claim a space by you, alone. Often I lie under the piano on taupe carpeting and lay my hands on the dark wood underside and the vibration fills me with pleasure. I see your feet work the brass pedals and sometimes sneak a hand there, a game of not getting caught by your shoe. I later try to play as you do, notes of intention and affection. The music comes out rough, unadorned.

When you play your cello, though, it is different for me as listener. I hide behind the big chair by the heat register. I already know this is an instrument I want to play–two sisters do so I will make the third. But your way with it sweeps me up in a storm of emotion that fills my insides too full. I cannot get enough of it even with a house full of string players.

The piano allows me to be closer to you. Observe. Sing along with my light voicing of notes. You don’t shush me, smile a little. When the songs are popular, not classical, I know some words. Sometimes the whole family finds its way around the piano. We sing in four part harmony. I have never known singing without harmony and find my place with a submerged melodic line. (At church we sing this way in a pew close to the pulpit and everyone turns to look at us: the Guenther family, singing as if in performance. It cannot be helped, this is our way.) You sing, too, but barely above piano’s voice, my offerings.

Your hands are an extension of who you are, capable, graceful, assured or so it seems. I see them type words fast and rhythmically as if it is just another musical instrument–around 120 words a minute I learn years later when you work for lawyers. Long fingers such a blur of energy. I try this myself, typing up a strange mess but when I slow down, each round letter key pressed slowly, it works though the small words mean less than what I want. But I most gravitate often to the roll top desk in the basement with its cubicles and drawers, pencils and paper, a hand me down that now fits just me.

I cannot keep up with you. You flit here and there on narrow feet and sometimes I pad after. You are somewhere “out there”  so often. And you are already reaching some apex of typists and musicians without my knowing what this means. I hear it, see it, sense it. You even play softball well, running like a flash of wind. Then you are Homecoming Queen. What that means is that you are chosen as the special girl in your school. You doff a glittering crown and fancy dress and get to ride on a huge float around town, people waving and hollering. I am in awe of your beauty like the rest, how can one not be, a smile that dazzles, deep dimples, hazel eyes that hints at such depths and inner light?

You watch over me, youngest of your four siblings, like a parent ever aware of my presence, sometimes irritated with my frequent shadowing. I have come to expect you to be nearby even more than our mother despite your busy schedule. I wait near the doors of the house. Spy on you with boyfriends. Watch you get ready for school events or concerts. You work part time at a fine clothing store, manage to save money for several cashmere sweaters. I open your dresser drawer, smooth them carefully before I am caught and scolded.

When you leave for a faraway college on full music scholarship, I may not cry but it feels like weeping inside, as if you are pried from me. I have no way to follow. In two years when I spend time near you, it is utterly different. You marry unexpectedly, not to a good man. Are gone awhile, then back in town again for a couple of years. I still watch you, feel your glowing heart as your soft face is marred with worry. I try hard to avoid his reach, try to circle back to you. We are still sisters but apart; I miss you. Observe from afar, now wary, afraid. Then you pat my hand, put an arm around my shoulders, hug me briefly. You let me rummage through your velvet lined jewelry box, try on too-big rings with pretty stones and clip-on earrings that are like delicate flowers. I wait for the music to return. You are quieter than ever, surrounded by the family when you visit us. And then you move to Texas. Alone, for a new beginning, back to music, better work, better friends, our music professor uncle who helps you forge a different path.

Many years later after I’ve married too soon, perhaps as well, you generously open your door to me despite your busy life with family and everything else. Shelter is needed until my husband, children and I find a way to move out on our own. Two weeks becomes two months. You are rooted in Texas after marrying a musician/ computer guy, are raising two bright-eyed daughters who are as good and capable as you. You work in an office by day then play your cello for symphony, the opera, quartets and trios, and may be most at ease on stage. Your restless fingers have learned embroidery and crocheting for relaxation, the tidy beauty of it.

It is a hard time for me, not enough to stretch enough. A small, airless dwelling. A man who’s gone often, brings home too little money or patience. A man I yearn to be with but who has anger in his blood, words that hide or fall out in sudden fistfuls. Times of aching stitched together with dashes of wonder under a searing Texas sun. Rescuing my four year old daughter from fire ants and her own silence; terrified as when my toddler son jumps into the apartment pool, then dog paddling not drowning. I take a menial job scooping ice cream and at home I swim with the children through deep blue water, escaping heat of day and savoring cooling dark of evening. Our skin turns nearly brown as bark. I sing to them, tell stories, write terse surreal poetry that bruises me, wears out paper with dreams and secrets. You, sister, try to not weep, a finger pressed to your lips, when I at last tell you more of the truth. You bring food, alert the church during Christmas. It humiliates even as it nurtures. I long to deserve better.

By the summer, we say good bye. It feels again like a pulling apart from you. My family migrates back north to help with house building for my in-laws, one of whom is dying. And my husband and I try to fix fissures, span the canyons we cannot bound across, anymore. To rekindle passion, even tenderness that first brought my husband and me together. It is ice- and -storm-riven country, lonelier than ever despite other miracles of earth. We remain hungry for so much and it is not to be.

Time is bargained with, lived in and through. I embark on each day as if it is transport to purgatory or a glimpse of heaven. I write some and drink more; you send me cards with birds and flowers. I love my children more as they grow taller and I grow thinner. College calls me back to a way of thinking that can welcome opportunity.

The drumming of time moves us on and we jump to its demands.

You also make big changes, move to Seattle area while I marry again and live almost like a nomad with my second husband, going where each next promotion takes us. I find work a fine balm, writing a salvation, my children a beloved cause I would die for. For many years we were not often enough in touch–we let the space billow. I worked to survive; you lived a far better sort of life and that discrepancy was widening. But events conspire so that I at last move nearer to where you reside (as well as two other siblings). It is the place I have dreamed of since youth, having lived there for a time at nineteen: the great Pacific Northwest.

When I visit you and your new husband– your ever-quipping, old high school sweetheart, a pilot–in the redwood house on a slope of Cougar Mountain, I am struck by your laughter, its volume and frequency. You are different, softer but sunnier; I haven’t yet dissipated my somber ways, am still too thin. We wander from room to room. This house suits you despite shady, towering evergreens which make you sneeze. Contemporary, it sprawls with its many windows and a huge back yard that is half deck and pine needles, half pickle court (who has even heard of that?). Your bedroom has an attached spa room with sauna that I am invited to enjoy. The fire in the hearth warms us all.

The piano is in the formal living room  and I again watch your lithe hands play as I sing old standards, rusty and embarrassed, happy to be making music with you. I no longer sing for anyone else but you nod at me, smile. I can never tell you what this means to me, but you know. Eventually you play your cello; you remain a consummate professional, paid with money and admiration. I am still moved. My own cello waits in its sealed case at home; I vow to play it more. But what could be envy is this loosening inside, a deep relief that we live close to one another.

We sit on the expansive deck, gab as we eat breakfast or lunch, sip iced teas. We hew out a trail through our thorny pasts, find one another again. I find myself laughing with you as if human life is brimming with goodness and feel more convinced it is so. I breathe tangy breezes, we putter about; there is such gratitude that you reap joy here. That I can witness it, a beautiful thing. That we have time to know one another more again, to cover lost ground.

Over the next twenty-some years we grow closer than I imagined. This, even though we have divergent philosophies on a few big topics, inhabit different lifestyles. I visit you often as is possible on the mountain; sometimes you visit my city. We take good walks, shop like goofy girlfriends, go to a few concerts, catch up on our separate events. Toss about ideas, build more camaraderie with our husbands. You are like a bright bird who has traversed faraway lands. I have been a few interesting places you’d never have found even with compass in hand. We talk of men past and present, how being women is a burden and a gift. We share news of family, gossip some, swap favorite books and films and music, tell each other interesting stories. Look out at all that greenness and clear light. Laugh.

You and I also share woundedness, scars that qualify us as at least minor warrior women, just two among so many warrior women. There is forgiveness of the past and easy retrieval of blessings. We offer hope when at times it seems stretched to its tearing point. We share similar health issues so call each other: “Hi Sis, one more crazy/tough/unexpected thing has happened. It’s always something, such is this life,” and can make light of such mortality as we commiserate.

We can request, “Pray for me (or this situation)” and know it will get done. We each recognize prayer as an indestructible raft that carries us through tamed and wild waters, that infuses us with peace and courage. We are as certain of God’s Presence in this life and our own selves as we are of love of our children or our healers, the arts and nature. We can find it in the resonance of colors like turquoise and iris, in a filigreed shadow cast across land, a common bird on the wing.

I can call you anytime and know you will answer that call; you know I will answer yours. This is how much I trust you and care, big sister. A lifetime of this. More than many get.

But now you are not here.

You called me nearly three years ago, right after Easter to tell me you were so happy to know that life–the soul’s life, our true life, as we said– is eternal. I heard the stark foretelling in your voice. You were going to leave. Two days later and you were in the hospital. A week later you were gone.

This is a very short history. I could add how you tended the flowers in the last house (one with few trees, more brilliant light): as if they were needing your protection and affection, as you offered all. How–though you spoke more frankly and emitted a heartier laugh as you got older–your voice was still shaped by that rich quietude that had drawn me even as a child. When you looked at me, you discerned much more. When you listened, you heard what was not spoken. When you reached out to me it was always just enough. I hope I was  enough, too, for you. No longer a kid or only a sister by blood but a loving friend by happy choice.

Your birth date is coming up, early March during more unveiling of springtime. I suspect you are happily ever after as you thought you’d finally be. I feel the radiance of your smile and I know it’s so, Marinell. Save me a place on a phantom bench. One day I’ll be finding you again.

Marinell life pics 001
Marinell as a young woman

 

Gifts of Visibility (and Saved by Quick Wits)

My Thanksgiving flowers and candle the day after

The view from where I sit–far east end of the oval oak, heavy claw-footed table–shakes up stereotypes of a “regular” American family. Seated there is an amalgamation of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual traits. It’s a table that’s big enough to hold thirteen if we squeeze in a couple more at each end. And at Thanksgiving it was jam packed with family and food. There was little that was “regular” about what I saw: the variety of lifestyles, skin tones, attitudes, gender preferences and belief systems make up this big, beloved crazy quilt.

It would not have looked and felt this way in my parent’s dining room. My life has morphed significantly since my siblings and I were raised in a small Michigan city. It was and likely is a place where most were Caucasian excepting a very small percentage of Chinese families, a few other Asian and Hispanic families. This was a place where a multinational group of scientists worked at Midland’s major employer, Dow Chemical/Dow Corning. Our hometown was the company’s world headquarters. Yet I grew up in a cultural bubble in very definite ways; racial diversity was not one of them. I didn’t think much of it until I was old enough to travel more, even with my parents, and see how others lived. And I was startled and excited by all that was going on outside my community.

I began to chafe at a few social constraints as I met people beyond our strictly defined realm, and discovered that ignorance was conquerable with education and experience. Eventually, I married “outside” conservative parental expectations (despite my father being a musician, my mother being more open-minded) more than once. As one might imagine, this challenged and enriched my understanding of life.

So, now in my home we verge on being a motley bunch in a variety of ways and I cannot say I am surprised. Our five adult children’s two fathers and I encouraged inquisitiveness, openness, thoughtful risk taking and tolerance. This is frankly reflected at my table during family gatherings. Though it goes way beyond skin deep, I’ll begin there.

To start with, there are some unknown origins represented. My husband’s white mother was adopted and detecting one’s roots was not encouraged in her era; his African American father’s relatives were much less accessible after an early divorce and his father, disastrously, was kept from him. Such was the place and time in which he grew up. So those at the table are clearly not all WASP-ish. I carry the most Scotch-Irish-English-German genes, a tad Scandinavian; I know a lot about my family background. But since my husband does not he has tried to track down more clues as a bi-racial man often thought to be Hispanic or Italian or “mixed something else”–and that can depend on what degree of suntan he has picked up. As he ages he burns more than do I, and that oddly can change perceptions again. But he sees in his daughter’s two children bi-racial coloring and hair; one of our daughters has twice married black men.

Similar questions have been asked of our three adult daughters with their fuller lips, high cheekbones and strong jaws, wavy to kinky hair, complexions that vary.  Then, the family marriages: one daughter is married to an Hispanic man; another, to a Kenyan. Two of my biological children’s father (deceased) was German/Polish/Swiss, so they’re fair skinned and light haired like I am and he was. But my son is partnered with a woman who if of Native American heritage. I haven’t met my oldest daughter’s new guy–may be a Caucasian, who cares either way?– and look forward to doing so at Christmas gathering.

Beyond ethnicity and race, there is much, much more that matters. Each person has a story, like all family members. They are not just my/our children; that was only a beginning. They are not just partners of my children or grandchildren; they bring their own diverse experiences. So there all sorts of histories of accomplishments and missteps, homes and journeying, medical crises and apparent miraculous recoveries (for three), beautiful loves and grievous losses for all. There are tales of migrations and trouble averted and families lost and found.

Our spiritual and political beliefs are not all in accord. These are interesting variances: Mother Earth/ Goddess beliefs, Christianity (some differing views), Divine Dust/Supreme Mind, God Within All, Creator-Spirit. Politics range from quite conservative to moderate liberal to a focus on “a greater universal reality” (including ideas like extraterrestrial beings/systems) to radical feminism to occasional conspiracy theorizing to “Too busy living to worry every minute about this POTUS foolishness; the planet is in giant flux, anyway.” Three adult children as well as my gay sister (also in attendance) have been/are politically engaged and active in some way. They want the world to be more egalitarian, ecologically more sound, safer and healthier, and inclusive of all in some meaningful, practical way.

I get it. As someone reminds me, there was a saying going around in the late sixties when I was out there agitating for better educational systems and equal opportunities: “The personal is political.” I have thought the solutions are sociopolitical while our individual life choices and actions can be a potent force for change for the better. Then I add that spiritual health is, for me, the foundation for all. Generally, the crowd murmurs assent.

But there you have it; we vocalize strong ideas here. We have opposing ideas at times or just have different interpretations of things and get into heated debates. But it’s safe, even when someone gets irked. Every time someone has brought home a new friend or love interest they have been prepared for the reality that we don’t do small talk so well or long at our table; we dive right in, for better or worse (hopefully, not the latter often).

And we don’t have to agree or even accept everything about each other. We just need to love each other. Nothing and no one decrees that family has to be on the same wavelength, with no conflicts or darkly confusing moments, no strained conversations. Those, after all, can be addressed or let go or pondered ad nauseum, your choice. And what sort of family is utterly homogeneous, blood-related or not? Robotic beings, not sweaty, emotive humans. And this is how we like it.

So I look about the table and note how everyone has a variety of talents, skills, passions, quirks and issues. This is true of any family. When we bring it all together, it’s fun and curious what we learn from one another. Three are rock hounds; a couple are amateur naturalists. Two or three are adventurers, ready for nearly anything or anywhere. One is a still pro skateboarder at age forty-four who creates, markets; he sells self-designed skateboards and equipment at various outlets. Another owns a farm in Africa and has developed other businesses. My husband, hard working QA guy/engineer, utilizes his mathematical mind for the heck of it  by solving tough puzzles, or poses odd hypothetical situations to figure out. Plus he has a thing for puns, to my dismay. We both adore words, however, so discuss meanings, usage, etymology–right at the dinner table with some yawning, others pitching in  comments.

Another person is bringing arts and recreational events to a broader community but side passions are vintage clothing and records. Several make crafts or create contemporary art or compose/perform music and record it. A handful have traveled internationally and across the US. One is an amateur Biblical scholar, another a Chaplain for older people. I am an inveterate reader (I even read pharmaceutical inserts, ingredient lists, tags on bed sheets…) and a writer, a lapsed musician who loves world music as well as classical and jazz, and an outdoors nut. I collect visual art and any sort of pictures for collages. Grandkids like to solve brainteasers, draw/paint, play bass clarinet, horseback ride and snowboard, sing and dance and make videos, cook vegetarian meals, research astronomy, camp in the mountains. I knew little about many of those topics until they shared with me.

My gaze is caught by something on my son’s neck. There is a new tattoo on it, an eagle, “his” bird as he says. This is probably the fifteenth tattoo he has gotten, arms and hands (and now neck?) decorated with them, many of them wild creatures which he loves. This is the son who was bitten multiple times by a hermit spider which left oozing wounds that made him terribly ill–yet he has a prominent spider tattoo on his arm, feels no fear of them–rather, feels he was taught  things. I don’t entirely get all this but just accept it as his way–just as I accepted that a daughter dyed her hair green or violet, wore mixed pattern clothing as a teen. She still leans that way–funny how some of those choices became fashionable!– and may do so again. One never knows in this family what may come next.

I observe other daughter’s Kenyan husband as he eats our American food, food that cannot be easy for him to relish but he is trying and he smiles back at me, touches my arm. He talks in densely accented sentences of a rich music, and conveys feelings between words I don’t always understand–but I think I do the feeling. He speaks five languages. He thanks us voluminously for the feast, being included in the talk. I ask for him to bring some food at our next gathering.

A granddaughter is laughing at something her aunt is saying, eyes sparkling. She had a rough teenage year or two but now is rebounding. Her presence emanates her more natural calm and there is also quiet ebullience we long missed. She encourages her shyer but brilliant little brother, no longer chastises him when he gets things so fast and misses other things. They put their heads together to share a confidence–how gentle are their words as they sit with us. A lump forms in my throat.

My sister comes late with her granddaughter (who knows my granddaughter) and we hug long and well. She has had memory issues the past year and I worry.–she was once Executive Director, of several agencies. She is still a master conversationalist and knows how to reach out to others with curiosity and kindness; they respond easily. I am more than thankful for the one sister I have left.

But my eyes rest upon my youngest daughter again and again, the once-violet hair gal. A. and her spouse had arrived before the others to hang out and help. We were talking in the kitchen, eating a few before-dinner snacks. I was chatting away when a small piece of cracker caught in my throat. I coughed harder, coughed more and then could not stop coughing. The others paused to glance my way but continued to gab. My throat seemed to close, my mouth went dry. I was choking. No air in, no air out. I kept coughing, trying to pull in a tiny bit of oxygen, my eyes streaming, chest burning, throat constricting further. My chest did not move much, lungs got almost nothing.

Then my daughter really saw me. “Mom! Can’t you breathe? Should I call 911?”

My husband was frozen in place with our son-in-law. “Try a tiny sip of water?”

“Do you need the Heimlich, Mom?” A. yelled.

I could not answer, coughing, coughing and retching and then nothing and I tried to reach for her. Light seemed to be exiting the kitchen, I was loosening hold of body and mind as I doubled over the sink… then she put her arms around me and with her clasped hands pressed hard against my ribs and upward until something small but terrible seemed to be released. Not a pleasant sight, face flaming hot, eyes stinging. I still felt it there. A minuscule waft of air entered mouth and sore throat; body felt misaligned; head felt empty, eyes streamed. Her arms were still around my chest but gently.

“Mom? Better?”

“Can you breathe now, Cynthia?” my husband asked, stricken.

I nodded, barely, barely as the light came back on, as legs felt wobbly. I breathed in, out shallowly a little more. I could not quite stop coughing; no words. I took a sip of water to cool my throat and chest, finger held up as a signal that I was likely coming ’round.

Gradually I breathed without diaphragm spasms or sharp pains and stood up straighter. After a moment, I automatically started to do something in the kitchen, and smiled a little to reassure them. My husband put a hand on my arm; A. put both of hers on my shoulders.

“Please come with me and sit down. Rest awhile.”

I sat there and felt as if the world had dissolved and was coming together and into focus again. I could see them looking at me, concerned. I felt tired; my head began to ache badly. I closed my eyes, pulled sweet coolness of air in and out of me. Arms encircling me: my daughter hugging me.

“I love you, Mom!”

“Thank you so much…!” I whispered.

A. had recently trained for disaster preparedness for the city, with essential emergency medical triage skills. She behaved in a calm, clear-minded, fast manner. She said she had not yet learned the Heimlich maneuver. But whatever she did worked. Her presence of mind, a certainty that she must help me made the difference, along with the intervention tactic.

By the time the others had arrived, I felt more normal, had gotten busy though my head still hurt, requiring a pain reliever. I had nearly put aside the incident and didn’t care to mention it further nor did the others.

But when we all sat down to the big table and took each other’s hand as is our tradition, I was asked to say the prayer. This is what came out:

“Lord, I thank you for all who are with us and those who are not. Fill us with Your peace. Fill us with divine compassion.” I paused, out of words for once, only to rush on: “And thank You so much and the angels, too, for helping my daughter save me tonight!”

Of course, I began to cry a little and then had to explain. Everyone was duly impressed with her skills, relieved I was okay. I got more hugs all night.

“I did what seemed instinctive,” she murmured as if surprised, herself, by her actions.

I knew I was far gladder than they. Gratitude does not express enough what I felt. Just to breathe unobstructed was fantastic. To fill out the picture with the rest was nearly too much but in a positive way–delectable food, family together and the love therein. I began to think of how much each person means to me and was imbued with a moment of extraordinary joy and serenity. Those long gone felt near to me, as well.

I suddenly saw again that visibility is an invaluable thing–to truly know a person and to be known. To patiently learn more of another, to stay and abide with each other until the bigger picture is revealed here and there. I hope to never forget that to be seen and being willing to truly note others is of more than simple, average importance. I’m honored I get to know my family as I do, as well as those brought into our home. Human beings need to feel worthy in the sight of others, to be accepted for who they are beneath trappings and niceties. Cared about, regardless of differences or similarities or changing circumstances of life. It is a gift that never goes out of style or loses its value. To not be invisible, to not be overlooked or discounted is one genuine wonder.

Evan’s Ears and Halloweening

Old Mission Peninsula Country; Photograph by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The most ordinary sound could make Natalie fuss and fume. He didn’t understand it, to him the world of sound was an ocean of possibilities that tantalized. But, then, Evan had been deaf for three years as a little boy, the result of multiple and a few overlooked ear infections since birth. Surgical intervention put things back to normal, some said more than normal. So sound was a treasure he was happy to rediscover each day. Every sound was a gateway for some larger event he might observe, an experience to share with its source. Natalie thought this was idiocy; she preferred things quiet except for television and her specific pop music. In the country, luckily, it was more peaceful than the city; they both loved that.

Natalie was his sister who was really meant to be his cousin. Her mother, his aunt, had dropped her off six weeks after she was born and then gotten lost in the Hollywood jungle of false hopes. Evan’s mother said she became a “forever barmaid,” a kind of actress, they supposed, in the end. Natalie had been named for Natalie Wood, someone whose photo they had seen but whose movies didn’t interest them. The fact that she accidentally drowned did intrigue Evan, though Natalie said that was just fate, you couldn’t stop it, like look how her life had turned out after she was abandoned. Sometimes he wanted to sneer at her, “Someone who doesn’t like noises, a weirdo” but he only said it once and she socked him in the stomach, not hard, but it was a decent warning.

He sat in the branches of the red maple and watched her trudge up the driveway. She looked old for nearly ten, more like going on twenty with her rounded shoulders and big feet, brown hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. She glanced at him and half-heartedly waved, then disappeared, he knew, to the family room with a bag of chips and apple juice to watch TV.

Evan had a good perch, a place far enough away from everyone though they knew he was often there. It overlooked a wild acre, a haven for feathery ones as well as four-leggeds. It had all been countryside once; he recalled that dimly though he was just eleven. Then developers arrived with heavy machinery, “the interlopers” his parents called them, and the digging and plowing began in earnest, fake farm houses selling as fast as they were built. Still, lots were big, so no one was right there in your business. Plus, his parents had had three extra ones–for goats and chickens, a thriving kitchen garden, and masses of flowers. The meadow bordered a marshland, a favorite area for him.

It was nature that Evan took in and catalogued in his brain, the myriad sounds of creatures at work and play, the weather doing what it had to do and the creek along a nearby property boundary gurgling along after a good rain or tinkling away when it was lower. Plants with all their properties both good and bad for people. He could see a fox tail wave, then dart above grasses in the distance and heard piercing calls of Cooper’s hawks. His ears always tingled  with fresh sounds, got warmer, felt bigger, as if great antennae tuning into a finer frequency than others found.

“His ears look normal but his hearing isn’t. From deaf to super hearing,” his mother had said a couple weeks ago though she said it so often it was like a worn refrain. “How else can he–mind you, from the living room–track a conversation upstairs when we’re practically whispering?”

“He’d make a good detective, he pays attention, has a knack for small details,” his father said. He worked as a county prosecutor, he knew potential when he saw it. “But we can’t forget to talk in the bedroom with the door closed tightly when there’s something private to say.”

Evan nodded from the top step of the stairs; it was as simple as knowing when to sequester sounds, that was the grown up word for it. But he, for one, found that much harder to do.

“You need to mind your own business, that’s all,” Natalie hissed. “No one has the right to hear all things.”

“I don’t try; sounds come right in, then I hear and have to listen.”

“Then try harder to ignore things!” Natalie’s eyes flashed. “I can’t imagine what it’ll be like when I have a boyfriend, you’ll be hanging about all the time, taking notes, I guess.” She stared at him. “What did they talk about that you overhead?”

“That does it, I can’t even want to think of you with some poor slob! I’m going outside.” He looked back as he got up. “They talk money and politics, the usual junk.”

“Well, then, go on to your little wild animals, have a fun chat with them…”

Her tone indicated she wanted to tag along but they both knew she’d get restless in ten minutes and want to chatter away, then the birds would say nothing to him. And if an eagle or osprey or hawk did call out, she’d shriek as if she was meant to be their next meal. Nothing scared her like birds of prey swooping and hovering. Nothing fascinated Evan more.

******

He’d had dinner at their massive round table, helped clean up, finished math homework and went back outdoors when Natalie crept up behind him as if meaning to startle him. Evan had heard her the minute she opened the back door, of course.

“Boo!” she shouted in his right ear.

“Boo right back,” he said calmly though he covered his ringing ear, then grabbed her wrist. “Come on, let’s take a walk around the meadows. The half moon is shiny bright, we can see stuff.”

She tugged at his grasp, then relaxed. “Just wondered what you were up to, bed time in less than an hour.” She scanned the sky for bats but luckily found none. “The moon looks better from the porch but, okay, lead the way.”

Evan was surprised she agreed and dropped her wrist. It wasn’t that she wasn’t tough enough, in general, she just didn’t like noises she couldn’t identify. Darkness covered up things pretty well out there. They walked slowly, listening to the crickets’ concert.

“We can see a lot better this time, but the full moon isn’t until November 3rd,” he said. “No rain tomorrow for Halloween, that’s good.” He stole a glance at her pale face. “I know Halloween isn’t your favorite but are you still going with us, Kelly and his sister? And what did you finally decide to be?”

“I’m going, yeah. Got my costume picked out. I’m a glamazon mermaid.”

“Glamazon–meaning glamorous? And how does that work for, well, fish? Mermaids can’t even walk, duh.”

“I will, though–it’s a green shiny dress, long, sort of flares out–got it at Goodwill. Never mind, how about you?”

“Oh, just a grandpa skater.”

Natalie laughed, more a snort. “You already are a skater but sure can act like an old man.”

He nudged her with his shoulder, but then stood stock still. “Shhh, Nat, shhh.”

They listened but he heard only what he’d heard at first. A soft swish through the weeds. Then nothing. Natalie grabbed his arm.

“I want to go back, we can’t see anything.”

“Might be coyote.” He whispered in a low voice and kneeled in unruly grass, so she followed suit. “They’ve hunted a bunch here. Or gray fox again…”

More quick rustling in the high grasses as if the coyotes or foxes were rushing through to get somewhere else. Evan thought it was coyotes, the movements and their sounds made by bigger bodies than fox, with three, four minutes of racing about, perhaps fifteen yards away. Such smart animals, he thought with a shiver–he always felt that way about them– while Natalie clung to his arm, breathing fast.

“It’s okay, only coyotes, but I’ll walk you back.”

“Come on then!” she hissed at him.

Then the howling began, short yips, yelps and barks, then longer howls. One call transformed into a sort of laughing shriek, and Natalie dug her nails into his skin right through his shirt. The coyotes ran about more when all howls quieted, then stopped and movement stopped.

Evan touched his lips with his index finger, then shook his head at her and pulled her with him to the ground. For what he now heard–what the coyotes heard so darted off– was not four paws but two feet. A larger body brushing through grasses, trampling about. He raised his head, saw something or someone illuminated by moon glow slinking through the silvery meadow. Toward them. Its flowing shape and undulating, rapid movements lent a strange hulking appearance. A ghostly one. Wait, Evan thought, what was this really? His breath caught at his chest and his heart hammered. Natalie pressed her face into his bony shoulder and tried not to lose it all and just shriek.

And then there was a lunge of bulk as they huddled on the ground and a raucous, nasty noise.

“Roarrrrr! Hahaha! Gotcha!!”

A hand swooped down, missed Evan, grabbed at Natalie. Evan reacted like lighting and snatched at the swaying sheet but it wouldn’t give. A rope belt was pulled tightly about the waist.

“Poor little kids, soon to be gone!” There was a growl and groan.

Natalie cried out but it came forth as a small whimper as she clamored behind Evan. But Evan was standing stock still as she ran on toward the house. She was getting their father, that was all she could think as she ran faster than ever.

That voice, Evan thought, I know the voice! Who is it with this weird voice that is trying to be threatening?

“Evan! Natalie, come in, it’s getting late and it’s cold!” His mother called into the night. He pictured her pausing a moment longer, unsure of what she thought she had heard, and then she re-entered their house, screen door banging behind her. And shortly after, Natalie streaked across the back yard, toward that door.

“You creep, I know you–Marty Barrett!”

Evan gave another yank. This time the sheet came loose from the rope belt so he yanked harder as Marty started to run off. Evan was dragged a couple feet and then they both fell over and tangled, Marty trying to get out of the sheet and away, Evan gripping the older boy’s shirt sleeves. After rolling about, a couple haphazard punches and more tugging, the sheet fell away from the big thirteen year old’s body.

They sat on damp matted grass and looked each other over, eyes blazing, then started to laugh, clutching at each other. When they sputtered and quieted, Evan spoke up.

“You almost fooled me, Marty, but I just knew that voice.”

“I did for a little while. You’ve got those magic ears, holy moly! I was having such a good ghost practice but you two were out and had to spoil it! Wait ’til I tell Jake and Willy about this!”

“That was a crazy good act and you also scared the heck out of Natalie–you better apologize.”

Marty scowled. “You going to tell her who did it? I was just playing around, come on.”

Evan considered his neighbor. They weren’t friends, exactly–Marty was a rougher boy, ran with even older guys. But they weren’t enemies and got along okay. They sometimes played ping pong at the youth center, swam in the summer and always greeted each other on the street. But Marty liked to hunt and Evan didn’t like to kill animals. Marty had a random impulse to bully his way through life while Evan preferred to think things out. They got along because they had lived long in these parts, were growing up together, if in parallel lives.

“Naw,” Evan said and stood up. “You better go, though, Dad will be out here soon.”

Marty high-fived him and took off, billowing white attire flying from waist and ankles.

When his dad got there, they talked it over and decided to just say some nutty kid was doing a walk- through for early Halloween. Natalie was another story as she had stumbled, crying, into the house and was now taking a hot bath, their mother calling out soothing support through the locked door. Natalie could be done with Halloween but for that fabulous costume. But Evan had had fun out there. Marty wasn’t really a bad guy, at least not yet.

Later, Evan sat at his second story bedroom window and scanned the acreage, eyes resting here and there on darker or flitting shapes. He saw good-sized wings flash in moonlight so he pressed his face against the screen to better see. He wanted it to be the beautiful barn owl hunting over meadow and marsh so when its raspy screech sliced the cool fall breeze, he was flooded with a resonant satisfaction.

“What was that terrible sound?” Natalie had sneaked up and sat beside him. “Oh wait, isn’t that a barn owl, Ev?”

“You’re learning, Natalie. A cool kind of wild sound, isn’t it?” He looked her face over. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” She shivered, wet hair chill on her neck. “I guess it’s a lot better than a fake mean ghost. You were pretty brave out there…not me, so much.” She sighed, shook her head. “Halloween is just not my favorite.”

He put an arm about her shoulders and squeezed tight. “But you’ll make a pretty wicked mermaid. And maybe you should explore the outdoors more. But now get out of my room. See you tomorrow, Nat.”

He turned out the bedside lamp, ears tingling when the barn owl screeched again, and fell happily asleep.

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Whisked Away! (Despite Usual Protests)

NC day 1 009
An evening stroll near our hotel

Well, my apologies. The firm plan was to write a short piece on Sunday evening for the usual Monday posting. But each hour and minute faded away and before long it was bedtime and then the alarm went off. And then I found myself on a plane. Those who know me realize this is not a prime event for me, in itself.  I do love to watch the clouds and landscape– until I remember where I am.

Folks who enjoy my blog are well versed regarding my spouse, Marc, who travels for his work. He has always done so. The last few years more than usual. I have had opportunities to go with him on some business trips but frankly, sitting in a hotel room doesn’t seem too appealing. And if he must entertain customers and cohorts in some packed steak house with lots of alcohol involved (by others as we don’t imbibe spirits) at the end of the day, you can see where that might leave me. Dying to get outside for fresh air, quietness and then a good book while propped up in bed. I mean, I’d happily go to a concert or take evening stroll by a lake, garden or even a tinkling creek. Or a fun venue where we could dance–but this is work time for Marc, not time to hang out, have a blast with his wife. No, travelling with him is like being at home but in another place–he goes to work, returns  tired and full of work talk where I pretend to advise him, we eat meals, and so on. I pick up his socks, tidy up the bathroom after he shaves. It can actually be fun, anyway, once past the mundane.

But let’s face it, going to a certain area, say, in Mexico where one needs to be escorted by a Mexican citizen from airport to hotel to manufacturing sites and back again–well, this rules out leisurely meanders along fascinating streets. Not to mention the uncertain water issue, since I would not be ensconced in a luxurious tourist resort. Oh, I wish. (Trust me, in all likelihood I’d be stricken; I have an unpredictable stomach as it is.)

Marc used to go to Japan frequently. I have few excuses for not going although I was working full-time back then. And way before that I was tending to a slew of kids. His European trips elicited some envy from me (Italy, Scandinavia, Germany, England, etc.–how I longed to shrink and stow away in a pocket), but quite likely that company would’ve declined to send me along. This despite my most invaluable business sense, as well as always balancing a budget and schedules for a family of seven. Imagine! (Perhaps oddly, I do enjoy business talks with my spouse and do try to figure out a game plan figure out co-workers. It’s like making up a story plot wherein I get to save the company millions and insure fair employment practices and am finally the heroine.)

No, he travels alone or with coworkers, even in the USA. It is a lifestyle so many must undertake due to career requirements. I have my family and friends, my daily priorities (plus my own job until four years ago) in Oregon. I am comfortable with solitude as well since the last adult child left 15 years ago. But his side of the story is that he asks me to travel with him and I do not desire to go. For example, two or three weeks ago he asked me to fly to Ohio with him. The Midwest, just a state away from Michigan where we grew up. It was to be a short trip, about 5 days. I declined. I had things to do, I said. Maybe another place. Like Chicago or New York City or Miami or San Francisco, anywhere in Hawaii or Alaska (the last two states I have not been to yet). Not Chillicothe, Ohio, not that week, despite a couple of historical attractions. I’m sure it’s a pleasant town–he told me so.

Do I sound a tiny bit petulant or sadly, worse? But I am truly not ungrateful for his offers. I just have my own preferences. For the most part they do not include flying, then digging in for days of hotel living, even well decorated hotels.

And then a little over a week ago he asked me for the tenth time if I wanted to accompany him on a trip to North Carolina. I’d always had one reason or another to decide against it. The small town he visits holds little allure for me. And it has been starting to heat up out there, the sort of hotness imbued with moisture that builds all day until you move through a veil of heat. Even if it doesn’t rain, one’s skin and hair thinks it has. The very air can seem oppressive to this Northwesterner; walking fast and long is out of the question. Good reason why Southerners speak and move more slowly. We once lived in Tennessee so I offer that opinion from experience. It was inexorably, deeply relaxed.

But I said, “Okay!” A trip is worth taking to try something new, I reminded myself. And to see one’s spouse somewhat more. Marc was surprised and pleased. We found a good hotel in a more metropolitan and interesting area.

I then noted the weather: thunderstorms off and on most of the week.

I began to visualize the following: me sitting or pacing more likely in a dinky hotel room–okay, it’s a roomy and pleasantly appointed suite, but still–and watching television and reading and maybe writing if I got inspired despite jet lag, chronic thunder and lightning with drumming rain and a bed pillow entirely unlike my own. I contrasted that with my daily power walks, writing at my desk, talking to neighbors and friends, music I love on the stereo, eating what I like to eat, going where and when I like to go…That is what happens to people who are not natural travelers, I guess: we can easily imagine less than the most satisfying scenarios. We even might catastrophize. But I kept my misgivings to myself a few days.

On the day before we were to fly out, I told the truth.

“What?” Marc said. “We have everything arranged. But if you really don’t want to come, then don’t, of course. But think about it a little more.”

I wanted to forego any further discussion and back out, period. I then did think of my husband, how often he must be out there working, ever working even during meals, how he goes back to a lonely hotel room. Falls asleep with television on, then sleeps restlessly.

And I also talked to Naomi. I neglected to mention earlier that my oldest daughter, artist and assistant professor, lives in South Carolina, about two hours away from where we would be staying. That meant we could visit her at least for a day. But she sounded so busy–she is working on art for an exhibit, she is doing some summer work at her university, and preparing to sail soon to…Greenland. She travels.

We also have a daughter, a chaplain who lives in Virginia, but it seemed she could not get away at all. Scratch the ole meeting halfway idea.

I have to put the following in quotes to feel like it’s a real conversation.

“I don’t know, Na, I’m now thinking I won’t go this time.”

“Why not this time? You haven’t come out yet with him in five years.”

“I’ll get too antsy in a hotel. Nowhere to really go without a car. Way too hot to walk far.”

“Rent a second car and explore.”

“I’m not so great at driving all over a new city. And it’s added cost for us–the company won’t pay for that.”

“It’s not that much, make sure there’s a GPS for the car, then take him to work! It’s only 30-40 minutes to his job.”

I’m thinking: she always has a solution. This kid has always had answers right and left, and she loves to travel, anywhere at all. I start to feel a bit pressured. I resume my defense.

“It’s supposed to thunderstorm most days.”

“Yeah, it does that off and on out here–remember Tennessee?”

“Yes, I do…I’m a good bit phobic about such thunderstorms, remember that? And I’ll be stuck inside and will get bored out of my mind. Well, I can at least write…but I do that here.”

“I think I can meet you this week-end, we’ll figure it out if you come.”

“I don’t know, Na.” But she about got me on that last sentence.

Naomi sighs, I can hear it despite the texting.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Mom. Just go– just for somewhere new to check out!”

I consider this. I do like new places once I get my internal (and reliable) compass realigned and a little sleep. I think of seeing Naomi, too. It has been six months; it will be another six, likely.  She is sailing the sea to Greenland to see glaciers and unknown stuff!

I want to see her.

“I need to go with the flow, right, have a little adventure. I’ll let you know.”

And Monday I was on that plane to Marc’s delight. I also used to not like flying; now I’m better with it and that’s a good thing as it took us all day to set feet on ground in North Carolina.

About when we landed, Naomi texted me:

“What did you finally decide?”

I answered: “We have arrived!”

“Oh, good!”

I drag my huge suitcase (I do not pack like traveler, no) and we find a rental car. It is so humid my wavy hair starts to curl right up but much fuzzier, I can feel it.

What have I done since arrival? Not much so far. Walked for short periods in steamy weather that can take my breath away, though I feel oddly adapted after four days. Read and wrote a bit. Even found a leafy, delightful shopping district so naturally hot-footed it over there and had fun an h afternoon, even though my water bottle emptied too soon and it felt like I was crossing the desert but with a damp wind at my neck.

I also listened daily to bullfrogs or spring peepers and who knows what all that make a happy racket at a nearby pond. Are there cicadas somewhere in there? There must be; we are in the zone for those cool,  weird bugs. And I also wondered about snakes and bird songs. Mockingbirds, perhaps?

But I also packed my swimsuit and after a couple of decades of not once swimming, I eased in, felt that cool water gently cover me and was thus transported. I have worked on my side stroke and breast stroke and just floated about every single day. It has been heavenly to do that whenever I desire. (I need higher SPF protection, however…) We’ve had good meals, with more to come, and evening strolls. And tomorrow Naomi will drive up to meet us–I can’t wait! Then comes the week-end and Marc will be free a couple of days. We’ll explore the region, absorb experiences while catching up with our usual banter, debate and sharing. I will take my photographs, happy to let eyes roam over new landscapes and people.

The trip is not yet half over. Alright, I’m glad I came. There was a thunderstorm already. It was gusty and somewhat ornery and happily brief. There are more forecast near the end of each day, when it swelters. Can’t change that but my attitude is always another matter. So far, that outlook is open and good. In fact, I am appreciative that I get to do this. Marc was saying last night that he slept so much better with me around. And it’s good to hear that, to be here with him, see where he has been coming for so long. It’s pretty countryside with many deciduous trees for a change. And I have slept like a summer’s dream, too, waking up right and ready to check out more.

I’ll be back next week with a new post.  Time to head to that sparkling aquamarine pool!

Freedom Comes for a Visit

“Been there and so done that and it’ll be a ‘ditto’ if you keep asking me things! Ask me in a few years…”

She said that with mock affront then a jolly smile and she usually turned away from me. But that answer never stopped me from trying to find out more about her life. How could I help myself? She was a source of endless speculation in the family and in my imagination.

“Aunt Cecily stepped right out of an interesting, questionable story when she was born and makes up the mad mess as she goes,” her oldest sister (my mother) stated with a wry look. “Of course, we all make up our lives, to be fair.”

I tried to trick Mom into giving me more information, but it didn’t work; she was oddly protective. Aunt C. was legendary in our family. That could be better than the truth, I conceded, but I thought there was more to it than we’d ever know.

Aunt Cecily had a way of gliding through the rooms of our rambling and in-need-of-a-good-shine house as if it was a mini-palace. My cousin Trish–my other maternal aunt’s kid–suggested that she acted like it, too. She had a flair for making ordinary occurrences and places seem better, more vivid just by being in the scene. Aunt Cecily wasn’t loud, necessarily, though she could be; she was dramatic. How she moved and expressed ideas, shared her feelings. She had done some acting on the stage. Dad suggested one time that she should have actually been in movies but she liked living a bigger-than-life kind of life even better. Mom didn’t disagree.

Trish and I were lazing in her back yard,  more like a field with a humongous garden where near the edges her father was planting or weeding something. Their house–the grandparents’ old place–was three miles out-of-town but it seemed like a hundred. I pulled the brim of my baseball cap down to create more shadow.

“Maybe that’s how she ended up rich. She acts like she’s all this and that even though they all grew up on a farm. Because she is no way what I’d call beautiful,” Trish said, chewing on a string bean. “She is fun.”

“I don’t know that she’s even rich. The people she knows seem to be, but she usually has everything in three fat, beat up suitcases. She moves a lot, you know, and travels. Mom tries to keep up with it but her address book has hers penciled in for another erasing. But I still think she’s a true exotic. I learn from watching her. She talks to me. She’s like an orchid…and her eyes are amazing.”

” ‘Exotic’ is a word people just use when someone’s not pretty, maybe odd. Her nose is too long, her mouth is big, her eyes are almost slanted, unlike anyone else’s in the family. Mom says she tells lurid stories….I got the message even if I didn’t know that word.”

I put my hand up  in protest. “No doubt she’d say that! Don’t you wonder what they are really all about? I adore her! She’s my favorite. And you’re being superficial.” I steal a glance to see if she’s irked that I don’t say her kindly mother is my fave but she just snatches another bean to chomp. “I do admire her.”

“Have it your way, Eve. She’s an funny duck, a wild thing. I’m thirsty. Going in for a soda, want one?”

“Sure, I’m sweltering out here in this overrated wilderness.”

All that manual labor her father was sweating over for vegetables impressed me, though. I couldn’t do all that. I swatted away a bee and ran in. But I thought my cousin had too little imagination to understand our aunt. It was it kind of sad but I didn’t say so; she wouldn’t get it, then would be pissed.

Trish and I wouldn’t be even that close later in life, it was how it was. She was all about finishing school and getting married to the same guy she’d known since second grade–no one and nothing had interfered with her predictable attachments. I found it interesting my mother got her Masters’ degree and taught at the nursing school nearby, encouraged two daughters and a son to pursue our dreams. But Trish’s mother, Aunt Marilyn, stayed at home and loved living in the country, all the canning, baking, cooking being the main events on her daily agenda.

Then there was Aunt Cecily, world traveler, an artists’ model, an actress, a feminist poet and who knew what else.

How could the three sisters be so different as to seem unrelated? The one thing they had in common were highly arched, expressive brows and graceful hands with pretty fingernails. Aunt Cecily wore a black-red polish, sometimes purple or coral. My mother, nude or clear and chip resistant; Aunt Marilyn, a pearly white, refreshed each week after having her hands in food, dirt or hot water all the time. Those manicures about summed things up.

Aunt C. had called me “Kiddo” since I was a child but this visit would be different. We hadn’t seen her in over two years. I’d done a lot of growing up, had turned seventeen. For one thing, I had gotten taller, more muscular and slim. I played tennis daily and had gotten good. While Trish was going to arts and crafts classes to make things out of beads and flowers, I was smacking a tennis ball as hard and fast as possible, and slammed it regularly beyond opponents’ racket reach and that brought me victories. Trish didn’t share my general passion for sports–I also liked softball and swam. I was at a loss when she handed me embroidery thread, a needle and fabric. We each had grave deficiencies in each other’s estimation. But we were cousins; we both adored our families. I just loved Aunt Cecily more; she got my growing athleticism, would be proud to hear about my improvement.

I walked into the pale yellow guest room to check on things before she arrived. I had put fresh reddish Gerber daisies in a squat glass vase on the dresser. Narrow, with a too-tight closet and a good twin bed, the room was upstairs and across from mine. You got a broad view of downtown, and in the distance the span of masterful mountains, breathtaking in sunsets. I had lived in the “baby room” for years, but had finally graduated to the next room size after my older sibs, Vanessa and Guy, left for college. Aunt Cecily had told Mom on the phone the same room was fine, don’t go to any bother, she liked the view, watching the old hometown morning until night as it revealed “its funny little life.”

She wasn’t usually in it much, anyway. Our place was more her bed and breakfast stop, but no one complained. We looked forward to seeing what she brought along with her this time–a weird house gift, a story to top all others, a new pet (like the pretty but obnoxious parrot she took everywhere for a year). One visit when I was ten, she brought a beautifully three-piece suited–with perfectly trimmed goatee and mustache–older man with her. He just stayed for a long brunch and flew right back to Chicago after a second home brewed iced tea, the best he’d ever tasted he told my mother, then touched his lips to her hand. Aunt Cecily had introduced him as a successful playwright, one of her best friends. It took Mom days to stop revisiting that experience. Dad got sick and tired of it and spoke up for a change. He said he was just some “Midwest dandy and luckily not all men were required to be so extremely gallant.” The “dandy” and “gallant” I’d had to look up. They were so old fashioned.

The room was perfect, down to new floral Laura Ashley pillow shams and the antique rocker in a corner. A sage green candle was next to the flowers. I’d also stacked a choice of books on the bedside table: one poetry, one mystery-thriller, one about outer space.

“Why outer space?” Mom had asked.

“She’ll like it. Aunt C.’s someone only interested in the future and is completely about travelling.”

Mom laughed, gave me a quick squeeze.

******

“I’m here, I’ve arrived, I can smell the potato salad and fresh rolls!”

Aunt C. swooped in after she set down her bags and threw her arms around Mom, then me, then Dad. I nearly got lost in the folds of her pink linen open cardigan, so voluminous and drapey. I admired her style: silver sandals, black linen pants, pink tank beneath the light cardigan. She vibrated with enthusiasm. And that fragrance, what is it? Light but warm. It’s her hair, I thought. Or her tawny skin–like sunlit wildflowers had hitched a ride with her.

“Well, look at you! I know, how uncouth of me to say it but you’ve sprouted like mad, Kiddo, and you look fabulous. And sister, your house, still a sight for sore eyes. I have barely slept the last three nights and all this–” she spun about, arms held out–“a sanctuary. I just know I’ll rest  here. And of course I’m starving, dear Amy and Trent–bring on the lunch.”

The sisters gabbed as Dad and I carried up the bags to her room.

“She knows her way around us, huh? Good to see her.” He grinned at me. “You wait for these visits with great anticipation, don’t you?”

“Of course. She’s like nobody else and she’s not ours that often.”

“She does add color, I agree! You mother is close to Cecily; I’m happy they get to catch up in person again.”

Dad was most happy when Mom’s happy, he is that sort of man, easy overall. A scientist, calm and quiet most of the time but when Aunt C. came he unwound more than he usually did, was more talkative and attentive, drank a couple of extra glasses of wine as the three of them–and sometimes Aunt Marilyn, Uncle Doug and maybe Trish–stayed up late. Sparring, swapping ideas and jokes in the back yard or living room until I wondered if they would ever pipe down and let Trish and me talk, too.

As we finished a meal of cold cuts and cheese, dill potato salad, tossed salad, sweet pickles and rolls, Aunt C. sat back and pulled her arms up behind her head. She stretched shoulders about and grabbed opposite wrists and tugged. She told me it helped with knotty kinks in the upper back. I adopted it and it helped, but restrained myself . I didn’t want it to seem I was mimicking her or took all her suggestions like a childish protégée.

“I won’t be here for as long as I’d planned, family. It’s off to Palm Springs, from whence I came this time. On the way I have a stop in San Francisco for a poetry reading–for my fifth chapbook, soon to part of a real collection. The venue is sold out. Life is about moving forward, right?”

“Fabulous,” Mom said. “Can’t wait to read the one you brought us.

“Can’t wait,” I echoed.

“Good for you,” Dad said.

She flashed one of her mega watt smiles. Shook back the mass of dark waves and studied our ancient chandelier as if suddenly loathe to look right at us. I gripped the edge of my chair as I studied her profile. How did she look enticing and fresh all the time? I pulled tighter my bedraggled ponytail, wondering what she was avoiding.

“Has that always been there? I like that fixture a lot. Which brings me to this: I’ve bought a house in Palm Springs! Really! I can’t even believe it.”

“A house, my gosh! Why now? What style, how big, how much?”  Mom clapped her hands like an excited child.

Dad murmured, “How wonderful for you, how did this come to fruition?”–as if he thought she was stretching the truth, at the least. He’d ask for proof later, no doubt.

I thought, That isn’t so far away from us, only a short plane ride, we’ll see her more often now. But I felt nervous about this new development. Aunt Cecily had lived out of hotels and even hostels; a condo one year; beach houses; villas and estates, friends’ or boyfriends’ houses and never once had a place of her own, or not for long. She’d said more than once that didn’t like the idea of “settling. Settle for what? Why? It’s only interesting when you know you’re moving on soon, finding a new geography, figuratively and literally, new people.”

“You’re the first to know in the family, of course. I didn’t want to create a terrible at the family barbecue, knock everyone over without some warning. Can you imagine what Marilyn will say? She’ll say I’ve had a transformation of epic impact and have given up my so-called hedonistic life and now am ready to succumb to stodginess. No offense to anyone. This will be a base camp, that’s all. I love the climate there, over three hundred days of sunshine, hot desert country and I got a good deal. It’s Spanish style and has four bedrooms…”

A sinking feeling spread out from my diaphragm. I heard her talking but I was already trying to imagine her living among leathery tan people who should just hole up indoors due to the ever-blazing sun. Most probably they did just that in summer. What sort of life was that for someone who enjoyed the outdoors, liked to freely roam? Was she going to join a golf club? An all female weekly book group? She might have picked a better spot, closer to us. And one thing we enjoyed together for years was swimming–she had a much more powerful side stroke than I. I’d have to visit her in winter to enjoy tamer temperatures, not easy with school. Or maybe she’d still come here. No, she had a real house now, she’d be tied down. My bohemian aunt! Why did things have to change?

“…I have a few friends in Southern California and those who’d like to visit already. What a lovely place to throw a party. I’ll still travel, just far less for now.” She leveled a piercing look at me. “What do you think, Kiddo? Aren’t you pleased for me?”

I was caught off guard so took a long sip of water.

“Well. I mean, an actual house! That’s a big thing to buy, right? It means something to do that. I’m glad you found a place you like and now will have one spot to call home, I think…I’d like to see it. And it’s not so far away which is great. ”

She appraised me with her slightly slanted, summer’s eve-lake-blue eyes, as if guessing my unease. “You’ll come visit me, won’t we have good times? You’re staying out west for college, too, right?”

“Sure, it’ll be good.” I spooned more potato salad on my plate. “Maybe UC Berkeley, or University of Washington or MIlls College–oh, I don’t really know yet where I should go. I eventually want a degree in anthropology or maybe linguistics.”

“Of course–perfect for you. But travel first, it will teach you more than you can fully absorb.”

The grownups went back to their chatter. I wanted to leave the table so finished the second helping and asked to be excused. Mom nodded, turned back to her sister. Things didn’t feel right but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I said I’d be back for dessert, I was going out back a bit. Dad nodded at me blankly as I left.

I settled in a chaise lounge and called Trish.

“She went and did what? That’s amazing! Mom and Dad will be so happy. Don’t you agree? You sound like irritated.”

I wound a few locks of hair around my fingers and tugged, stared into dense maple leaves a dazzling green against a cloud-streaked blue sky. Two squirrels were racing up and down the tree, frantic for no good reason. My mind felt just like that.

“No.  Not yet, probably not ever.”

“Why not? She’s getting a little old to be some rootless person. It’s a good sign.”

“Wait a minute, she’s only thirty-five!”

“Your mom is forty-two, mine is forty. Aunt Cecily is getting older, she’s slowing down.”

I felt like gagging. “My gosh, Trish! Old is more like sixty, seventy and up. Our mothers are seeming older because they live the lives they do, in my opinion.”

“Because they had families, work hard and keep house? They’re too settled down? You’re being dumb.”

“Well, maybe they didn’t have the free, brave spirit Aunt Cecily has. They had their own paths, I admit. But I could always count on Aunt C. to be the wayfarer, an adventurer, the footloose woman of our family! The one who was never been trapped by the trappings of all this… in our little hothouse of a town. Is she really giving up already, giving in?”

It made me more than a little anxious to envision her out of circulation, in an ordinary house. Why did she betray her principles? I was being dramatic but I felt all this to be true.

I heard Trish breathe more laboriously. That was not a good sign; it meant she was frustrated, had lost the thread of the conversation, was mad or all three. And she had asthma, too.

“You mean, you think she has surrendered to real life? Or she has somehow let you down by finding a home of her own?” Her voice quietly shrieked at me. She coughed.

“Oh, I don’t know but calm down, I shouldn’t have called you. You don’t understand. And don’t tell your parents, either. Just sit on this, we’re getting together tomorrow, then she can share it with us all.”

She coughed again. “Yeah, we’ll be there. We can ask her about the details. I’ll bet she’s excited but you are thinking of yourself!” She took a hit off her inhaler. “I don’t get you sometimes, Eve. It’s like you have a phobia about others’ happiness. Or maybe like you think regular life an infectious disease and just try your hardest to avoid it. You should get over yourself and get with the program!”

“That is pretty creative thinking for you, cousin, I’ll just have to ponder all that in another lifetime!”

I hung up. But I had to laugh at the “infectious disease” comparison. Not quite true, but close. But “get with the program”? Ugh, never.

As Mom served strawberry pie, Dad winked at me–a cue when he wants me to lighten up. Mom slightly raised one arched eyebrow, gave me the look that goes with it. Aunt Cecily patted my hand then dug into her pie. I generally beamed at them like a good participant. She stopped to ask for “more whipped topping to celebrate.” I found it a little hard to swallow but managed to stay there another twenty minutes.

******

“Now that I have all of you here and we’ve stuffed ourselves with barbecued chicken and garden fresh veggies, shall we each have a glass of wine? Yes, even the girls, they’re not babes in arms, anymore!”

Dad poured for us all, then we took our webbed lawn chairs. Mom liked to put them into a loose circle. I wanted to only slip away. I had heard the news once; that was enough. It would take weeks, months, maybe years to figure out why my aunt was “settling down and settling.” We had chatted off and on about other things. She’d come to my tennis practice and applauded my progress. We’d talked about books and her poetry performances and perhaps swimming before she took off in one short day. Mostly she hung out with Mom since she had taken two days off. I hadn’t yet told my friends about Aunt Cecily’s purchase. I had to think it over, put my feelings aside until she left.

Aunt Cecily took her place in an opening of the circle. Her raven hair was softly pulled back at the sides. She wore a long sleeveless, low necked dress with full skirt. It was printed with slinky, almost neon vines on a sapphire background. It would have looked silly on most women but on her it was sexy-chic. She wore jangly bracelets on both arms and long chandelier earrings. Her feet were bare in the cool grass. It was like watching an outdoor stage set come to life.

“I’m going to jump right into it, family. I have gone and bought a house in Palm Springs. It’s a good-sized house and it has a wonderful pool and view. I got a good deal as the owner wants to soon exit the country for more tropical environs. I’ve long admired it there and visited a few times over the years. It will be my base of operations for several years. Then, who knows?” She looked at Marilyn and Doug, Mom and Dad. “So, what do you think about that?”

“Fabulous news! I am so relieved to hear this! I thought it might be bad news, the way you were acting as we circled up,” Marilyn said.

She jumped up, gave her little sister a gigantic hug, and Doug followed. My parents joined in the well-wishing as if they didn’t know already. Trish moved from the edge of things but didn’t look at me as I cheered from my spot on the grass by the azaleas. I thought: A few years, was that all? What was Aunt C. up to? The others bombarded her with questions until she asked them to back off a bit, more would be revealed in time but they should toast the good news with her. We all raised our glasses.

Dad spoke up. “Here’s to a whole new chapter in Cecily’s enchanting life, may she find her own hearth and home a happy adventure!”

And we gulped it down. It was red, delicious and I went for more. No one but Trish saw me, who sauntered over.

“So, you think there’s more to it, huh?”

“Of course. We know what she’s like and I have never even heard her say she loved the desert, by the way.”

“She loves the Mediterranean…”

“That’s entirely different, Trish. I think…” I took another deep drink. “You don’t think she’s getting married, do you? I mean, who are all those friends she has in Palm Springs, anyway? She’s usually in Europe or South America or somewhere else we lose track of her….anything might have happened. Is she pregnant?”

Trish laughed. “Seriously? No. And who doesn’t want a house of their own? Plus, she’s always been so independent and liked men too much to pick just one. But she’s smart. She’s making an investment?”

“That might be part of it. What do we know about her, really? And not everyone want roots. I figure there’s a bigger reason.” I drank the rest and poured a bit more.

“Eve, easy does it.”

“Sure.” I poured her some more. “The other thing is, maybe she’s–she’s—not well?”

Trish frowned at me. “Gosh, look at her!”

An ear ringing whistle reached our ears. “Hey, girls, back to the circle, I’m not done!”

Aunt C. waved us over, both arms wide open as if corralling us, bracelets jangling, a shepherdess calling her stray sheep. I scurried over, heart pounding, feet stumbling as Trish grabbed my arm. We were asked to sit again.

This time, Aunt Cecily did, too.

“Well, that was the best and easy part. Now comes the hard part. For me.”

She sat up, chin up, cascading hair all about her still-glowing face. Then her head tilted as she looked at us one by one. She spoke more at last.

“I met someone on my travels. His name is Stellan, Stellan Starngarten. He’s a wonderful artist, a sculptor, and has shown his work in Europe. I fell in love, is what happened. We have been seriously paired for a couple of years. We’ve traveled, of course; I’ve stayed at his place in Croatia at times. Recently, though, he decided to sell his home due to unforeseen circumstances–a need for more money for an upcoming event.”

As she hesitated, I could hear a few intakes of breath. I held my own. Here it was. Whatever it was.

“We’ve been thinking long term. Imagine, I’ve been free so long! Free enough to be able to look for and find a superior love, and also to be chosen. So we then made a plan of sorts. But life–it’s often unexpected in its ways. And that can be good even if it seems bad.”

“What is it, Cece?” Mom asked in a hushed voice.

What was my aunt saying? What was she doing? I could hardly bear it. I had an impulse to stand and yell at her: “Don’t leave, don’t hurt us, don’t change things!” But she just ran hands through all that hair, all those sparkly things she wore jingling and  glinting, and then pressed her palms against the back of her head and looked into the dusky sky, as if seeking the right words. Or an answer. I looked up, too, saw Venus and the North star, and wished more than anything her next sentence was a beautiful one. Concluding, redeeming words so we could all could go to bed relieved. My pulse raced a long.

“It turns out Stellan has a serious, inherited heart defect so he needs surgery, more than one procedure. Then long-term recovery time yet even so, we won’t know the end result for some time even if all goes well. So, I bought us a house. We will live in it while he gets the medical treatment he needs now that he has more money. I hope to God he stays with me a long while. But if not, we’ll have this time together. I’m the one who needed to be closer to my family. His is mostly dead and gone… He always wanted to live in the American West, the desert.” She closed her eyes a moment and they re-opened. “I’m afraid, family. But I’ll be with Stellan all the way in our house in the desert.”

She looked around our circle and her oddly restrained sadness and fears were just a pale sheen on her cheeks. Yet she was smiling. This was my aunt but she was not the same. Her face tender, words hesitant to leave her. She seemed still as a creature listening for the next snap of a branch beneath her. The fiery essence was there, just altered, revealed in new ways.

“Our house will be a house full of a–a most unreasonable, undaunted joy… as long as it can be,” she said and stood again.

She slunk away from us to get more wine and gather herself together as we absorbed this news.

Though we were silenced in the wake of it, I felt as if she had scooped me up in her arms the way she probably had Stellan. That vibrancy, strength, her belief in a good life ahead no matter what came: it filled our darkening summery yard with its own power. How could we feel sad for her? But we couldn’t ignore that she had found and perhaps would lose so much, so fast.

“Maybe it will end alright,” I whispered to Trish and she nodded solemnly.

After the food, after more talk and the wine got to me, when my other aunt and my uncle and Trish left, Aunt Cecily crossed the hallway and knocked on my bedroom door.

“You knew there was something more,” she whispered as she held me close. “Thank you for being my Eve. I know I’ll be able to count on you as the dragons are slayed and we carry on. You’re my rising star, Kiddo, I love you.”

And time was suspended and the sorrows and worries. My aunt was being my exotic, beloved aunt and she saw me as who I was and even hoped to be. I was already planning a visit as soon as she and Stellan could have me. He had to be amazing like her. And if not Croatia or Crete or Buenos Aires, then off to Aunt C.’s surprising Palm Springs I would gladly go.