Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: As I Say, Perhaps Not As It Was–A Grandmother’s Moments of Truth

We older mothers (born anywhere from 1950–or before!–through 1969, I think) like to trade anecdotes with a knowing look and a smidgen of soft laughter about “those days…” when we had the privilege, often surprise, and also “the female task” of bearing and raising wee ones. We don’t quite recall the sufferings of labor and childbirth, or how cranky/bleak-and-in pain-exhausted/ utterly confused/at times even disturbed by it all we were. The prolonged healing process (“a near-travesty of femaleness if you ask me but has to get done”) fades; a colicky infant’s travails (“he’d never give it up, kept at it day in, day out–bless him”) 3 a.m. to 3 a.m. fade; unquenchable thirst with expanding hunger (“couldn’t keep that baby filled up, yet now–what a strapping man/gal!”); and our desperation for sleep and an hour for privacy, fifteen minutes alone in peace…(“well, it got better and better, didn’t it?”)…it faded as time went by.

We–at age 50 and older–have been there, know it all after one, two, or more kids, now grown, right? And yet we forgot so much, replaced those times with other years’ memories. Why bring up all that hard stuff? It is as old as the hills: women experience this stuff all the time. We learned from our own mothers to not whine. We wanted to act stronger, brighter, braver. And we just did what every new parent does those first days and nights, weeks, months. With a knowing smile and nod at one another, and plenty of swallowed tears.

So honestly, why would our daughters– and sons, for that matter, and their partners– believe our self-pronounced “wise words” easily? We can be so blithe despite greater truth of things. The insecurities we thought we’d triumphed over after years of therapy. The rosy illusions that exit into a black pit of depression when we realized our bodies were no longer our own (especially nursing but bottle feeding is still on demand); and that any free time would came at a cost both emotionally, even literally. That constant worry the burp was too goopy and might even choke the trusting infant in your anxious arms. That soiled diaper held too little or much–and that creeping rash along a nearly-invisible neck. Is it as bad as it looks? And what and why? Why is that crying so black-out loud and indiscernible?

So often, who knew exactly what the mysterious realm of babies was all about? Ole Dr. Spock was dismissed; there were many after him that had a very small reign. No one said: “It is really very hard, but somehow you figure it aout..”

Nothing anyone could have told me would have prepared me well enough when my first child was born at age 23. She was two and a half months early (a time when medical advances were nowhere near the level they are now). Nor was I “ready” when each of the others arrived, a lot less early and stronger but nonetheless as baffling one way or another. My mother was not so nearby for me to often request her presence, my sisters lived across the country, my brothers were…brothers… and also gone. My mother-in-law was boldly opinionated in ways that were generally not too encouraging, and my husband was…a stoic husband of those times, gone so much, capable and caring but less attuned to baby’s and mother’s woes/wants than could be useful. Especially when I got more worried and far less rest. And wrestled with guilt for all I should/could/would have done. What business did I have, having children? But came they did.

I felt on my own most of the time, with a neighborly woman or a couple friends here or there to share experiences (though in college three young families lived near one another–such stories and helps we shared for a time), give a reassuring pat on the back that cooled as soon as they went back to their more accomplished, carefree lives (so I believed). And it was more uncertain, even frightful terrain to explore than I’d admit. I knew how to endure much, I thought, so prayed every other minute for strength, compassion–most of all, practical wisdom. A tall order. Tears came as I sang and hummed to my babies. Rocked and rocked until all was calmed, she/he finally sleepy, my own eyelids closing. And then rocked-or walked–them more.

I was an amateur the first time, only a tad smarter the others. I slowly experienced carefully nurtured devotion, a burgeoning love, and lived by a few instincts and intuitions. Time passed, there came a little bravado, more trial and error. I acted as if, is all; I was good at that sort of thing and determined to do well as a mom even as failure threatened at every other turn. But did not say so if I could help it. The big reveal was that I loved mothering, anyway, no matter what.

But as a grandmother, it becomes a different scenario. Doesn’t it? We feel a step removed at first, our strength arising from knowledge of how to navigate many rocky roads that diverged from any easy understanding, and our hearts got bigger with many joys and triumphs, too. We made it! They do settle down, become more interesting even than anticipated but the remarkable thing is they do grow up: if we can at last be adults with them, it is nothing to make light of–a victory for all… If love has been the stitchery mending rips, pleating new pieces, adding new dimensions for a workable whole, we feel at home. And glad of the piecemeal process.

These are not my first grandchildren, but the sixth and seventh. And yet, I can tell you it is more than a standard three act operetta since these twin grand babies arrived. If nothing else, it means double of every single thing and event…

My youngest daughter is 39 this year and she has just had the twins. She calls on me almost daily, and sometimes beyond. Since we moved out here in the quieter, woodsy suburbs to be close to her and our son-in-law and babies, we are here for her. Late call for more baby formula? Check. Early call for help with a feeding? Check. I/we don’t live with them right now only because there is not enough room to move in–but would, anyway.

It is a truth that even in common ways I wanted my own mother and father to be more present with me, but did not get to enjoy such generous engagement. So I want to do this (as does my husband whose first two babies were raised mostly alone the first 3 or 4 years). Even when I can feel this daughter’s hovering fears and aching and complex subterranean needs. Especially so. When I embrace those two tiny ones close and they grab my shirt, wail with mouths demanding more. It is the season of more and more, mesmerizing, lovely creatures–so designed for their survival–with big needs. When my daughter’s exhaustion clings to her like an unwieldy, thick cape in the sweet spring air. I cannot lift it enough from her; but I can fan a fresh breeze around her feet, her face, her spirit. I can sit with her and work by her side and her husband’s.

I really know so little despite knowing more than I thought I recalled. It is an in between place to be, this grandmother’s watch. I wait to see what’s needed before stepping in and determine when it is better to just step forward. A balance of things, of new ways and old. This is a daughter who has been bold no matter the sweat and strategy things take, and smart, so she makes it her business to learn all she can. She yearns to be present every moment although she and her husband need to sleep an hour, take a break for a few. I want to tell her to “just relax” but know full well how ignorant and unkind that would be… But I cannot take a lead when they are mine only by default, my being one of their grandmothers. But still, they are this much a part of me, of my husband. The generational wheel turns.

The babies count on all each moment since leaving their enclosure of safety. The human way, yes, and more growing happens, changing happens–a stronger sudden leg kick, a dimple showing, a startled stare at the light moving through a window. They are not the same in looks, size or temperament–and all the more intriguing.

I am in a good position to muse over the whole messy wonder, to watch people I care so much for scurry toward vague horizons, to ponder: what on earth? how did they become such ones! To pray: help us with these matters of concern…Because twin girls may have in common many attributes and issues with all other infants, but they are not single babies. They are not the same and yet they are connected as roots of trees are connected, i think–by nervous systems messages, by instinct and familiarity. They sleep nestled that close, two snuggled beings of a greater whole. They are silent when touching forehead to forehead: here I am.

They are , it is true, not my preemie baby girls (and boy). They are not mine, period, but only by that blood riverlet connection. Every day I feel it run deeper; I do not know start or finish of it, it runs and runs and within it we live day to day as a larger story emerges, and will be remade again.

I do not blithely offer my new neighbor, “Oh, it is all fantastic but just tiring, they eat every two hours, both of them, they sure can cry–you know, it is a challenge…but we made it, didn’t we?” It is more complicated; we all know it. I have not forgotten the hard days and nights of young motherhood. There is less laughter than nostalgia manufactures, more bleary-eyed with hapless awe mixed with mad worries than may be admitted. And then when it seems too much: more bloomings of love. And forbearance.

When my daughter said through dark, dull eyes one morning: “Nothing you can say can make me feel any different right now,” she was right. But oh… I so badly wished I could.

This woman who was my child is a grown up finding her way. She has weekly support groups I never had. She has resources, information galore, enough to make my head spin. Plus a husband with time off work to wholeheartedly help carry the load. So we gingerly embrace this new arrangement, my daughter, her daughters (and their father), and me.

What I say is so much less valuable than what I do or do not do at this time. I take my steps and words slow. I find my place in the mix of it until called forward. I simply do not know it all.

Still, we take turns lifting the babies to the green light of May, encircle them in our arms as we feed them, side by side (or I feed two at once as the parents rest). And there is dancing time as I sway and tap one sleepy, fussy one while she burps and rocks another and sings in her warm, sweet voice. Unbearably tender, their fast beating hearts against ours. I will yet embrace my own dear one–with respect and a watchful eye–as she does her new dear ones. This is how families grow, each turn of a current revealing a blessing that carries us forward. I admit: there are things yet to learn as my daughter tackles her changed life, with two fine, lively spirits to adore.

Wednesday’s Fiction: Life, Amplified

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It was not that she was the most attentive housekeeper but, still, the accumulated dust clinging to spans of webs shocked her. Underneath the bed was not the first place Meredith attended during a once monthly dusting and vacuuming. If that. In fact, she couldn’t even recall when last she flogged the dust bunnies under her queen-sized bed. She shimmied on her belly, retreating from the noxious view, then looked again. There were things under there she couldn’t identify right offhand. It was a shadowy, narrow passage where things disappeared and possibly changed form without her barest knowledge. Truth was, she recoiled from this spot and what had possessed her was only a night-time ghost, a thing of no import, anymore.

She had been looking for a box of photos, pictures the sort examined every few years but not deemed ready for the garbage. They held pictures of a brief marital experience and before that, herself in youthful moments ranging from boring to absurd. And some from university, the fun,  the madness and hard labors.

It had been awhile since she allowed any reminiscence but the night before she had dreamed. Not the usual ones of dilapidated houses with secret rooms or journeys that led somewhere familiar and with a dead-end. She had dreamed of Trevor. And that was dangerous–and had led to pilfering dust heaps for a few old photos in a moment when she forgot herself.  Now she sat on the floor, back against bed frame, and blew her nose. Dust allergy was not a benign one to have in this case.

Trevor Frank was a cellist from university days. Trevor was in fact first chair cellist of their university symphony, and so attractive that Meredith had refused to look at him a second time from her concertmistress’ chair. She had no patience with faulty dalliances, and he had a plague of females trotting after him. Of course, he’d acted as if he couldn’t be bothered even as he appeared to woo half of them–from what she had heard. She was much too busy practicing her violin and studying music theory and composition, performing in a trio plus a chamber music group that required occasional travel.

And then there was music for fun and small profit. Traditional bluegrass, Old Thyme music at a couple of city bars once a week, or a farmers market or crafts fair. A few music festivals for enthusiastic crowds. This was when she woke up and just gave herself over. Not that she wasn’t a serious classical musician, she was just not a thoroughly sincere one when it came right down to it. She had admitted that to herself during second year and began to play bluegrass more. Everyone could see it, that she felt it to her core. Of course, she would. She was taught by experts, her father and aunt. She was not studying that music but classical and it was a hard thing to determine which mattered most. As if that was even possible; they mattered differently.

But all those thrills and conflict came well before the accident. Trevor and symphony and fiddling and degrees–another lifetime. Meredith pushed herself up from the floor and grabbed her cane from the bed and listed to one side, then righted herself and walked away from the dust and the past. She should never have looked underneath the bed, as now she wanted to pull things out. The pictures, the memories. And maybe, just maybe, even her fiddle. She realized again that they all lurked beneath her restless sleeping body, hidden and cocooned due to neglect and time.

Meredith had three violin students in the afternoon, then an errand or two, and after that she had her exercise with the stretchy bands and free weights as she watched the news. But a door had been opened in her consciousness, and it was would not close without a struggle–and then would stay shut with only a much heavier bolt and greater locks. As night spread its lustrous dark upon her townhouse, Meredith fell against her pillow and prayed for a dreamless sleep. But it was not to be.

The definitive night. Blackness and whiteness swirling and stupefying noises, crushing pain.

It wasn’t long after Meredith decided to get her Masters in Music Education while playing bluegrass more. Her band, River’s Gate, had gotten more gigs. The onslaught of snow thickened to a veil of white after they’d played in Cincinnati, Ohio, then set out in flurries for Ann Arbor. Roads were predictably slick, snowfall soon turned into a blizzard but they couldn’t easily stop or turn back. They inched their way home. A few vehicles had stopped along roadside, engines running to keep heat going as they waited. Tom had suggested the same but Jeremy, who was driving, had insisted they keep on as best they could. Char agreed; it would soon close in on midnight and they were all tired and she was hungry.

The awful accordioned sounds-even in a blanket of snow- and power of the multiple collisions were so sudden that they barely cried out in horror. A pile up of nine cars and they were in the middle. Tom and Jeremy and Helene: badly bruised and shaken to the core. Sitting in the passenger seat, Meredith’s ankle and femur were fractured and right shoulder was dislocated; the little finger on her left hand was broken. Her forehead sustained a three-inch gash from which blood flowed down into her eyes as she blacked out.

Trevor, the man she’d determined not to love but did, anyway, arrived the next morning to her hospital room, took one unnerved look and fainted. She saw him crumple through the gauzy blur of pain and drugs. In three more months while Meredith was working on healing and trying not to think about packing it all in and dying, he was on tour with the Divergent Quartet, and did not return to her.

Meredith sat bolt upright in bed and covered her ears as if the sirens were still wailing. Her chest vibrated painfully with the pounding of her heart, her forehead and neck were wreathed in sweat. When she lay down again she stared at her hands, held them up to her face, then threw back the curtain and searched the starless sky.

But what was that other sound? That half-mournful tune that betrayed a broader human happiness? Who was the someone playing out there, perhaps standing on a corner playing that violin, alone with the music in deep of night? She recognized it, that song, that fiddler from somewhere. The expansive night was alive with it, pulsed so sweetly with it. She collapsed on the bed, let her breathing slow, the music playing on. She nearly wanted to go out and find it.

It was as if her life had been turned back on and the volume was set to “loud” and she knew the entire song of it by heart. Every phrase and pause that counted. Every high and low note. And it was a redemption.

******

The respiration mask was in place over nose and mouth, and Meredith had taken her allergy medicine. The cleaning and sorting–it was something that finally had to be done, she’d concluded. When she’d called Helene and explained how she felt, there was no turning back. Helene had known her eight years. She was still her closet friend, despite going forward with her bluegrass career, travelling for weeks at a time. Despite a lingering guilt over not having been badly hurt like dear Meredith. Over still having what mattered most to her while Meredith did not.

“You know what you’ll find, don’t deny it. I think taking you to the symphony concert was a good idea last month. You have had no peace, which is ultimately a good thing. Music has visited you more; it’s calling to you.” Helene smiled and knew it was felt over the phone.

“Don’t be so emotional, it wasn’t that. I teach, I listen to my CDs often and radio, I go out to the brew pubs to hear live music, I attend concerts here and there. I play some by myself. It was just those dreams… Trevor. And then the other.”

“What was he doing in the dream, by the way? You never explained it.”

“I’ve been trying to forget it. Just playing. I couldn’t hear him, of course–but I could remember his gorgeous tone. A faint echo of sound… He  glanced at me, those eyes. Then got up and walked off stage, his cello in hand.”

“Maybe he was saying good-bye, vacating your life for good. You know you need to do it. And address the rest, right?”

Meredith sucked on the end of her mechanical pencil. She’d been making a list of pros and cons for dragging out any and all treasures and junk from under the bed. Trevor’s pictures were one part. Face it and forget. Isn’t that what people did with phobias they wanted to get over? So maybe her looking at their last beautiful, happy pictures–that brief year and a half together–and then, say, a ritual burning? But what of the rest that awaited?

“Anyway!” Helene cleared her throat loudly, “I think getting out the boxes of music and violins and dusting it all off  is the most crucial part. It’s the first time in all these years you’ve even mentioned this. Trevor is one thing–a man like that…it was hard to move on, but you did it. The dream was just that, don’t you imagine? A reminder perhaps, of many things past. And I still remember our terrible night, the accident, too, you know that. And the aftermath. But your losing so much music?…I mean, Meri.”

Meredith held her breath. Don’t say it, don’t say another word, she silently pleaded. “So, do you want to come over when I decide to get under there and finish things off? But I don’t need counseling every step of the way. Give me some strength, okay? And just hang out with me.”

“I’m all about change and progress, girl, just say when.” She was elated that it had finally come to pass. “Maybe afterwards we’ll go to Burt’s Brews and Beef to celebrate.”

But Meredith didn’t think she would be in any mood for that. She’d rather douse her feelings with a hot bath and murder mystery after Helene went on her way. Or a whole bottle of chardonnay.

Now they stood in the golden light of the room, windows flung open to encourage the fleeing dust to find its way out. Helene wielded a long vacuum attachment that would more easily suck up dirt, miscellaneous debris and potential spiders. They had pushed the mattress and bed springs off the frame to allow easy access. Meredith let her eyes roam over the lightly fuzzy-draped boxes of papers and books, the plastic containers of sweaters and some of the photographs. And at the head of the bed frame, right below the area her head rested on pillows night after night,  were the two violin cases covered in a film she could trace her name in.

Helen turned on the vacuum and maneuvered the attachment into the stronghold of her past, the mustiness that swallowed it up. Meredith started on the wiping down and sorting.

The boxes were much easier than she imagined. Some contents she kept intact after cleaning each storage container with cleaning rags. The few photos she’d printed of Trevor and her were tossed after only brief looks; it was far more painless than she’d thought possible. She felt a wisp of sadness –his beauty, such gifts–and then a sore acceptance. He had been her first true love, maybe her last but it was long ago. There was no more bleeding to staunch, she realized.

It was the violins.

She did not even wnt to touch them until Helene reached for one.

“I’ll get it– please!” Meredith said.

She pulled it out, unlatched the case clasps, biting her lips tightly closed, her chin trembling. As she opened the lid, there it was, the instrument that was to take her far into a classical music world, toward a career that might have sparked greater accolades and excellent remuneration. Like it did Trevor and others. It gleamed but dully in late afternoon sunlight as she held it up and they looked it over together. The strings were loosened; one was unwound entirely. She saw that the bridge was a bit askew and a small crack was evident at the neck. The bow was a mess, the horsehair broken and flapping as she held it aloft. No hands upon the fine wood, no bow on taut strings–it all led to disrepair. It tugged at her, made her sad, this instrument, but she put it back in place as she heard Helene exclaim it could be refurbished; it was in fairly decent shape. Then she got the other violin case and put it on her lap.

“Go on, Meri, open it up, it’s okay,” Helene said gently, a hand on her friend’s forearm. She turned off the vacuum, sat down beside her.

“I can’t.”

“You can. Good things are in there.”

“Terrible losses are in there. Family legacy. My failed love life. An absence of hope.”

“You’ve done more with music than some would expect. But you can likely have more.”

“More what? Self-loathing?”

Helene drew a little away from her. Waited. Maybe it had been wrong of her to come. She knew it would be rough but she wanted her friend to find a glimmer of happiness in there, too. And it was possible, the finding and doing something with it.

Meredith was taken aback, too, but who was this friend of hers to say anything–who thrived where she, Meredith, had nothing? Who had every single day what she had once loved so much she had had to let it go? To survive better. What might she have done instead with a damaged shoulder that never felt quite right and a weak, crooked finger? All that time away from her instrument. And a faulty leg that made her look like incapacitated at so young an age. She had tried to not bemoan her fate. There were worse things than the life she led now. Her deepest thoughts and feelings had been kept to herself most of the time. One did what one had to do.

Even Helene did not know the truth of it. How she ached some days when her students played, their skills increasing each week, their determination and talent emboldened by progress, their pride and  pleasure growing as they reached one more hurdle and cleared it. They had won awards often; she had won recognition, too. And yet as she had closed her front door or walked off stages after recitals and competitions for her students, there remained a nagging sense of defeat. Not triumph. For Meredith, the real music had long ago stopped. And her own (successful musician) aunt had said impatiently after some years passed, “Why not simply accept it? Get on with your life, do what good you can with the remainder and the music!”

Meredith clutched the third generation fiddle case to her lap. How sweet it had become from all that singing it had done, and now how silent. She had been surprised no one demanded it be given back.

“Please,” Helene said, an arm wrapping around her thin shoulders. Holding her in place.

So she just did it. Opened her  instrument’s case, blew off vagrant residue, held it up to golden light. It did not look too bad. In fact, it seemed okay except for needing new strings. And a re-haired bow. The mask was removed from her face and she stood up with Helene’s help, abandoning the cane.  She placed it under her chin, held it there with her strong left hand and felt it snug up right above her collarbone. Her faulty shoulder did not complain. She closed her eyes as Helene got the bow and put it in her right hand, her corked little finger clasping itself along with the rest to the bow’s end part, the frog. Broken horsehair strands dangled forlornly but she drew it across the limp strings anyway.

“How does it feel now?”

Meredith smiled and looked at her friend, clutching the violin to her chin. “Not too bad. familiar and almost comfy.”

“We’ll fix it all,” she said, beaming at her, “and then you can begin to play again.”  Helene was ready for resistance, tears, even wounding words exchanged but she was ready to hold fast.

“Alright, then. Let’s get it done. I’m ready to try to get it back.”

Helene clapped her hands and laughed.

Later, when she was ready to start, Meredith wondered about it all. After trying weeks and months of practice and discouragement and then more slivers of hope shining inside her, she mused over everything. Success required making  many adjustments, harder work. Swallowing pride. But she was not often daunted. Lingering fears seeped away, day by day. Hands, mind and soul managed to take over.

Still, even after her first tentative sharing with Helene and then others, playing those Appalachian and old Irish, Scottish and English tunes that sounded good or nearly good, after all– she still didn’t know quite what had turned the tide. Was it Trevor bidding her farewell in the dream? Was it her students’ joy even as she was missing her own? Was it nightmares of the accident again, how she saw she’d lost some but not all of what was needed to seek again her truest calling? Or maybe it was Helene who helped her face it and work to get it back.

Or it was an unknown fiddler offering fine music to the night’s deep attention, and to her, the only one able to hear its plaintive call.

This I Can Leave You

Yachats, MR 66, Days 3,4 252
Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

When Tessa thought back to the day she first saw Cliffside Court, she couldn’t for the life of her recall seeing that thing standing like a relic amid sea salt-licked, sun-burnt grass. She’d only been drawn to the bluff’s edge, and the ocean’s roaring like a wild thing it was yet which from up there sounded like a comfort born of the neutrality of indifference. Acceptance, that was what she felt as she peered at cottages and stepped across the dry lawn which offered a shared area. She observed the kids squinting at her then scattering, an old man hunched over his walking stuck with cap pulled to his eyes. If one was inclined to share an area, that is, which she felt was unlikely overall. It suited her. She was here to do nothing, for as long as it took to feel at ease with that. Doctor’s orders, finally.

“I’m not yet a basket case; you can’t just order me to some obscure asylum where I  must lunch on a manicured lawn with the crazy ladies,” she’d protested when forced to see Dr. Matthews. “I have scads of excellent miles left on this mind and body.”

This was the day after her meltdown during a useless, contentious staff meeting wherein she threw her favorite Waterford pen across the room. It then bounced off the window and hit Jarrod’s cheekbone, her comrade but also boss. Then worse yet she began to weep as she mumbled another something regrettable and fumed out.

“The operant word there is ‘yet’, Tessa. You’ve given much and are paying for the 16 hour days and sleepless nights. You know I can more or less order you to take a leave since I work for this company–part of your perks, our wellness team. Your blood pressure is sky-high. You aren’t eating right. You have no one at home to corral you or advise you so I am sending you off. Six weeks, then do a check-in. Take the tranquilizer as needed, it can help. But go far away, and don’t answer emails or that phone.”

She hung her head like a chastised puppy and slunk out of the room, face burning with embarrassment and anger. No one dared look at her as she tidied her desk, watered her creamy white orchid with shaking hands, turned out the light in her office then walked very fast in her spike heels with head high to escape one more second of humiliation. No one was going to see her fall down, certainly not into any terrifying emotional rabbit hole. Jarrod observed Tessa with two fingers gingerly touching a tiny bruise on his cheek. He shook his head, turned away. He sure hoped she’d get a grip.

******

There certainly was no dependable internet connection at Cliffside Court or surrounds. Anyone would think this was not the place for her, such a step down in the world according to friends and family–why didn’t she take a month’s cruise to the south of France, for example? Find her way to a spa resort on St. Lucia? It was a getaway she needed, a break from a job that had begun to take her apart, her composure and authority disturbed like silky threads torn free of a fine embroidered work. She was VP of a well-tuned interior design business, after all; anyone would need a serious time out after ten years running. But at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot on the road?

Tessa wanted nothing of chic or exclusive or trendy. She wanted unreachable, ordinary, earthy and weathered Cliffside Court fit the bill. After only a week, she had begun to sleep again. She’d found a Saturday farmer’s market in the hamlet four miles away and had begun to eat more than once a day, like a surprisingly hungry person. Off coffee bit by bit, she drank soothing medicinal teas the local coffee shop kept in a green glass jars beside homemade lemon peel and poppy seed scones.

She’d taken to sitting n the deck, careful to step around split or missing boards, settling into her plastic chair with mug in hand. When a thought from the rat race world wriggled into her mind she banished it with a choppy wave of a hand. Tessa primarily focused on the horizon when she could see through fog; she loved how things disappeared and reappeared as a brew of  sweet-tangy mist burned off or fell upon all. She watched fishing boats make careful progress, and the rolling, cresting waves were a like spell for healing. When her aching back yelled at her, she walked down a treacherous stairway that led to the miles-long beach and spent an hour loping up and down a blinking sandy stretch. She walked until her leg muscles and brain felt liquid, just another part of the sea. Blessed sea. Sea that scared her in the right way, like God was talking to her. She soon listened to the wordless poetry of it all and breathed in thick or shimmering damp air.

On the week-ends, it got busy; she kept to herself, inside. Or perhaps chatted with the old man who repeated much of what she said to make sure he got it, and had lived there four years since his wife passed. She liked the mischievous sister, Mae and brother, Ty, who soon approached her, and Elle, their mother with a close cap of silvered hair–it could be dyed but Tessa thought no, it belonged on her, framing olive skin and moody eyes. She admired it and Elle’s patience with those entertaining but madcap kids. A family of five from Canada stayed for ten days, friendly from afar at best which was fine with her. A single man came and went after three days; an older woman stayed for two, on to California next, she said as if relieved. People came and went as she stayed on.

The couple who owned the place was always busy. Mo hummed as she worked, sometimes chatted awhile; you’d have thought it the radio as her songs were tuneful and her voice sonorous. Henry tended to silence in a satisfied way. They’d been married on the bluff long ago, bought the cottages six years after their first son was born. Tessa believed the place and lifestyle were their dream come true.

It made her wonder: was her life the one she chose or one that chose her? It seemed a trite thought and dissolved as she relaxed into the pace of coastal life. It made her nervous that she was adapting so quickly to doing so little. Where was the adrenaline rush she loved of the looming deadline? That memory fell over the bluff and headlong into the sea.

So mostly it was good, better than she had imagined. The summer breezes left a kiss of salt on her lips, her hair frizzed and billowed off her loosening shoulders, her bare feet carried sand and dirt inside the cottage and she left it all as it was as long as she wanted. No one cared; not even she cared.

By the end of the second week, however, Tessa found herself unable to see past that odd thing, the two sturdy grey poles with a lateral top pole, and it rose in the middle of her sight line. Useless old beams cutting up the grand view. It struck her as a sort of gallows. She played with tat thought and found it morbid  but fascinating. It was as if her vision sharpened, her mind refocused in a fresh way so landscape and surroundings were perceived as more dramatic than soothing. But she began to feel that someone or more than one had hung from or hung onto those frayed rope ends. It scared her. Re-positioning her chair didn’t help; the thing was just there, a reminder of something that made her squirm. It was worrisome, that structure. And her wondering about it, so she’d get get busy with something pleasant, like quickly sketching the morning glories or the ocean, kids at its edge. To draw like that seemed like freedom, like play.

Days passed uneventfully, just sunning and walking and reading two good books she had put off for too long. The nights sweetly whispered to her, the push, lift and fall of endless water shushing her mind, the deep darkness gentle about her body.

One afternoon Old Man–he didn’t offer a name, saying his real one was ridiculous, no one could pronounce it–sat on the bench longer than usual, face to the glinting expanse of water and sand below.

“May I join you?”

“Eh? Join me? So you are.”

They sat a moment quietly. He liked to chew on an unlit pipe as he stroked his white beard, now scraggly but reasonably short.

“I have a feeling your beard has longer than this,” she said, pointing with her chin, her hands grasping the bench. There was a strong, chilling wind this time.

“My beard? You’d be right. Down to middle of my chest a long while.”

“Why’d you cut it?”

“Cut it? Well, my wife didn’t like it that long. But I didn’t whack it down until she died.”

“You waited until then?”

“Ah, yes, I waited…and then it seemed the right thing to do. Respect for her memory. And I didn’t enjoy it long, anymore. She used to brush it out, oil it up for me.” He puffed on his smokeless pipe a bit. “That’s the sort she was.” He glanced at her, heavy-lidded eyes keen and clear. “You married?”

“Oh, no. I mean, once. Not anymore.”

“Once, eh? Enough for some, that’s it. You look like one of them fancy lawyers, too busy for such.”

Tessa laughed. “No, not one of those. I work at an interior design company.” She wondered what it was that made him think that.

Old man shrugged as if he heard her. “I guess it’s how you talk.”

She started again. “We create interiors of houses and commercial buildings, make things functional but attractive.”

“You create, huh? Make house stuff? Well, that’s fine. I loved woodworking, myself. Made some money in handmade furniture.” He then held up a hand and showed her a pale scar running along his gnarled thumb all the way to the tip. “About cut it in half, but they got ‘er fixed.”

She shook her head, pulled her jacket about her. “Well, good thing. Going to storm?”

“Naw, not tonight. Just bluster, a little wet. Might even get a good sunset.”

She glanced at the moldy looking clouds, unable to see how that could happen.

“Just wait,” Old man said, “that sky will likely shine.” He pushed his stick into the ground and helped himself up. “I saw you looking at the thing out there. We all have, too much.” He pointed at the poles behind them. “Don’t ask Mo and Henry. Not a good story.” He lumbered off, all six feet of him, a long crackling branch bent over by time and wind.

Tessa waited for the sun to set, arms crossed tightly, hood pulled up over her head. She heard the children run inside as Elle called twice and almost wished they’d come sit with her. Her cottage could feel too ancient and quiet. Empty of much, not such a bad thing but sometimes a tad lonely. As she stared out to leaping and cresting waves, a yellowish-coral light seeped through heavy banks of clouds and there was a small thin line that grew, a spot amid the dimming distance that shone, just like he said.

It was beginning to feel right, being there, and she still had three more weeks of wonders. And then she did not know what next. She did not miss the power of her title, the problem solving to create a heftier profit. She missed making art.

******

In the morning she was possessed of an immense desire to find out why the thing was left to rot over the years. Though it still stood tall and straight it was a blight. And clearly someone wanted it to remain. She had awakened knowing it was just meant to be long swings, two by the looks of the ratty rope ends flapping away. Even if Mo and Henry weren’t going to tell her, she could explore it more. Set a chair by it and step up higher to look it over. So she perpared to do that after pancakes for breakfast and strong black tea she gave into and bought at the coffee shop.

Mae’s small face greeted her, nose pressed flat against the screen of the door.

“Miss Tessa, what’ve you been cooking?”

“Pancakes, want some?”

“Blueberries or raspeberries or what?”

“Gluten-free flour, no berries, but walnuts.”

“No thanks.” She shrugged, picked up a ladybug.

They sat on the deck and surveyed the bright blue sky when Elle sauntered around the corner with mail in her hand.

“Look at that, something from a Mr. Lance Forman.” She smacked it twice on her palm.

“Oh…a nice surprise, huh?”

Elle looked down, smiled widely.

“It’s Daddy! Read to me!” She tackled her mother’s waist.

“I guess he’ll get around to coming back one of these days, the kids are powerful magnets. Maybe I still can persuade him, too. Well, well.” She smoothed back the long bangs from her daughter’s forehead. “Not now. Wait for Ty to get back with Henry. Then we’ll see what’s what.” She unlatched her child. “So how’s it going, Tessa? Pretty out here today.”

“Yes, all except this thing, the weird blight on the bluff,” she said, pointing at it. It’s all I can see, anymore, until I get to the beach. And then I still see it as I look up. What is it, Elle?”

She studied Mae’s surprised eyes, then sighed, opened her mouth to speak.

“Mama-you said not to talk about it.”

“Yeah. And Ty’ll be back soon. Why not go find Mo, see if you can help her.”

Mae jumped down from the deck and ran off.

Tessa thought better of her inquiry. “Maybe… just forget it?”

“It’s just, it was tragic, that’s all.”

“I see. I felt maybe that was it. An accident?”

Elle nodded, ruffled glimmering hair. “I guess I can tell you. Just say nothing to anyone else.” She glanced around her. “Their other son. He fell from the top piece, way the heck from up there. He climbed all the way up to show off to his little brother, I guess, who was swinging down below him. Those swings could really fly, I guess, fun if a little dangerous if you pumped too hard and flew up too high. But it was the climbing that got him, not the swinging.”

Tessa’s right hand pressed hard against her chest. “Oh, no. Then why keep it there? Why not take it down so it isn’t a reminder every single day?”

Elle narrowed her eyes at the sea. “A kind of memorial, I guess, to Wally. The little brother, Rusty, didn’t talk for months but he finally turned out okay, he has a welding business over the mountains. Doesn’t come by much. I’ve met him, he was nice-looking and polite but oh, those eyes.” She shivered. “Like two deep wells of sorrow, you just want to fill them with happy times until he can smile without hurt fighting its way out… After one visit Mo came over, explained to me. She wanted to finally cut it down but Henry said no, not yet.” She let out a long sigh again, then got up to start dinner. “Best to try to overlook it, go on and enjoy your stay here. You’re a good sort, Tessa, say a prayer for them, huh?”

Tessa held herself very still as she looked up at the weathered wood and tattered ropes. The ghosts of two perfect swings, made for children and grownups alike, and  the remnants aged in the salty wind, rains that swept in from foreign places, the swift sunlight that cut through all the fog and burnished sturdy grasses and morning glories that grew wild. The people who withstood such a place of mysteries, and miseries.  Like people everyhwere, she guessed. But Wally seemed only half-gone, lingering upon the vehicle of his ending. It suddenly angered her to think that they would always see him just lying broken on the ground, or falling and falling, or cheerily waving so high up before that fall…that this was the last they would recall of him.

Tessa got out her camera from its soft case in the bedroom. She held it in her hands and thought about what she was doing. She needed a picture of this ghost thing and then she needed to think a lot more.

Outside she quickly snapped a dozen pictures from all angles, hoping no one would see her and ask questions. She then looked more closely, zoomed in right on the cross board. And her breath rushed out of her, eyes stung.

She flew back inside, shut the door and leaned against it, felt the universe swell and open as Wally or something more than she understood held a hand out to her. She closed her eyes, willed her heart to stop its rampage at her ribs. Did Rusty really climb up there a furtive hour to carve those words for his brother, take the same risk that ended Wally’s life? No one but he, surely, needed so badly do it.

Old Man sat on his deck, puffing invisible tobacco, watching her figure things out and then hiding behind her door. A thing of the past, the smoking business although his pipe fit just right there and so it stayed. So much was a thing of the past. Like that Wally. A good boy. A kid who’d have grown up handsome and smart like his sweet little brother though a lonely man he now had become, bless him. A hard knowledge to carry. But some things are not to be, others are, and what lies waiting between one or the other you just never can guess.

He wondered a lot about Tessa. A woman who instinctively knew a way to better things but couldn’t quite grasp onto it. Maybe soon she would. He tapped his pipe lightly against the chair leg, went inside and turned on the radio to the oldies. He and his lady used to dance to these tunes. Sometimes he still did.

******

It was barely dawn but she had to get it done and then–vanish. Tessa propped the tall, rickety ladder (taken from the shed with Elle’s help after midnight) against one pole, climbed slowly. At the top, she steadied herself. In the soft bag at her shoulder she fumbled for fabric. She had brought it along for her “work time out”, a few pieces she was considering for a project that had everyone else stumped. It was odd lengths of fabric she, herself,  had hand dyed with muted, mostly primary colors. Something for an airy white gazebo that overlooked multiple fancy water features for one of their bigger design contracts. No one had deemed it appropriate, but she remained engaged by her larger plan and had begun to re-imagine it the past month. To present it again, brilliantly. Though it gave her less and less pleasure to picture her suited silhouette against a window which framed the city’s mad bustle.

The night before she had torn them into narrow strips, leaving the edges raw. She had seen just what she needed to do, how to embrace but change the abandoned swing set. She enlisted Elle, who now steadied the ladder below her.

“Hurry!” she hissed. “They all get up early!”

“Patience…hold on tight,” Tessa cautioned.

She had tied each varied length of fabric, some a foot long, others several inches, on a sturdy cord and now secured one end of the cord on one pole, then climbed back down to re-position the ladder. Then up she went to tie off the other end to the opposing pole.

“Is it straight enough? Look quite taut?”

Elle gave two thumbs up.

She climbed back down and studied what Elle was seeing.

A dozen strips of colorful fabric fluttered in a light wind, flapping, twisting, spinning–sunny yellow, rich turquoise, fern green, soft rose, tender lavender, the bonus of a wider mango-bright strip in the center. Flags of fancy, signals of life, in remembrance of all the lovely, lively children. A beacon for others, a sign of hope despite harm that can happen to all. A reminder of Mo’s and Henry’s devotion, a gentle greeting for Rusty should he dare look up again at his carved words of love.

It was what Tessa could leave as a portion of her gratitude. For kindnesses. For a taste of freedom. For a glimpse of better living.

She was enveloped in a brisk hug from Elle, then loaded up her suitcase and then, “Give Old Man a farewell for me, hug the kids. I hope Mo and Henry don’t get distressed by it…”

“It’ll be a good change, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone along.”

Waving, Tessa drove away. Elle patted the address and phone number Tessa had shared, safe in her jeans pocket. Such an odd thing, a city friend. The kids would miss her a little, too. She saw Mo come to the office door; Elle hurried away to Old Man. He sat on his deck gumming his pipe. He’d seen it all now. Elle nodded at his faint smile, his feathery eyebrows rising, falling, a clue to his feeling. Yet, too, he was steady as the tides. She leaned into his aged bony warmth.

“Going to be a good day,” he said, pointing past Elle’s boy Ty on the bench–or another Wally vision, he never knew which. Swaths of bright fog skimmed the horizon, glowing pink, the eye seeking the blues beyond, a bit of heaven.

 

 

 

Wednesday’s Words: On the Go Again

Sometimes we have to be flexible even if we don’t feel quite up to it. Our lives are altered despite out attempts to keep control, an elastic experience based on the one constancy of change. I didn’t expect to be flying out so soon again but events continue on a surprising trajectory. One adapts; humans excel at this, I remind myself.

In this case, we are soon to attend a memorial gathering for my recently deceased sister-in-law in Michigan. (My deceased musician brother has one, too, the end of July but that consists of driving to an area pub in Portland to enjoy great tunes and good words.) Of course, I had expected this MI. travel at some point, just not coupled with an immediate business trip that Marc deemed necessary. And it was cheapest for me to use reward miles to get anywhere and just go with him. So within a day we were booked on flights spanning the country’s width to North Carolina. By end of this week, we will be driving a very long day to be with family in MI., then back again for more days for his business agenda.

After sleeping maybe three hours the night before, we headed to the airport–wasn’t it still dark out?– for tedious hours in air and during a beastly layover in one airport. I shortly entered that state wherein the mind turns to grainy putty and the body moves into a mild but critical endurance mode. As I steadied myself during the 9 hour layover it came to me that this is why I don’t adore airplane travel. In fact, I am not very good at it which is surprising since as a youth and young woman I loved flying about. But that was a different time, a safer and simpler time. And I was an adventuress with a lingering naiveté about striding off toward a blurry but glorious horizon. And in search of my soul mate at every stop, on every plane. Ah, well.

In airports I bring forth adequate patience. I roam about, read; we converse, munch sandwiches and sweet or salty snacks and sip lukewarm coffee or water to slake our thirsts. Make up life stories about complete strangers slyly observed. I may talk to them sometimes; Marc hides in phone or computer. I felt for the guy who has moved from Newark, NJ to Jacksonville, FL (and was headed back there) because housing is no longer affordable in NJ but worse, government is, he says, crooked and who the heck even cares? Nobody, not even him, anymore. But he has hope for Florida, still. Or at least his neighborhood and new friends. He is impatient to get out of Newark again, yet he smiles back and offers me his chair. I decline. I preferred to stand and stretch after far too much sitting, something that makes me a little mad after an hour or so.

It’s the “puddle jumper” we next board that gives me the most pause. I watch many passengers duck their heads to get inside–it is that tight in there. Required for the hour ride to the final stop, we taxi down the runway. It creaks and sways from nose to wing tips to tail. It shimmies and cracks. I find myself quite unashamedly clutching Marc’s arm, trying to blot out sensory input as we lift into the air. All those squelched thoughts–just what holds us up? why do we pay to get on these? what about just hitch hiking next time?–assail me, then I give up and doze, exhaustion slackening my mouth. Until I begin to sneeze. That’s right, when the air cooling and circulating system is activated to loosen and offer its hidden dust, mildew and old air, I begin to sneeze and blow as if a gigantic cold has arrived. I can see people turning away from our seats, sinking into their books and computers. I always feel I should stand and shout, “Really, no virus here, it’s dust and mold allergies and you can’t catch those!” There are rarely enough tissues to get through these bouts. It’s embarrassing. It’s necessary to manage the situation but hold onto a shred of decorum so I try to blow discreetly, softly.

By the time we arrive I am too tired to appreciate the attractive rental car. I want to stay alert but it is after midnight. Even though our point of departure’s time zone is three hours earlier so my body theoretically should be okay, it feels as if I have migrated into a surreal time zone. Landscape is black-blue-yawning grey. My husband, even more sleep deprived, seems immune to this state, but I know better from trying experiences. I have to keep him between those faded white lines on the freeway for at least an hour. We make it safely and tumble into bed.

Well, “tumble” is far too generous a verb. This is the cranky nighttime part though I well know these are a fortunate person’s complaints. But there are temperature and fan settings to fuss with, a hard bed with a vast amount of pillows and I forgot to bring chamomile tea for pre-bedtime. Traffic noise. At 3 am I re-stuff the ear plugs and take a small amount of drugged-sleep-inducing  OTC sleep medicine. It takes a day or two for this body to re-calibrate. I also have some chronic health matters that require attention anywhere I am; decent rest is necessary.  Marc of course has to adjust but with less discomfort by far. He operates on fumes, almost believes sleep is optional–he maintains out of necessity and habit, of course, but I sometimes suspect he may be from another planet.  Then I think of pilots’ travel and regenerative habits. Not so reassuring as I try to relax. Finally consciousness gives over to sleep’s powerful pull.

The next day we move to a quieter room with a balcony. But we’ve had freeloaders there as the photos indicate.

It is a weird lifestyle, travel and living in a hotel, and I wonder over how Marc can cope with it since he loves familiarity and his set ways. He has always had to travel often for work. Since we arrived I have determined to make do: no car and no access to anything but a small fitness room and outdoor pool, my computer, a TV,  a hotel restaurant of sorts. I have not yet gone swimming. Each day I have slept in too late, eaten my bagel, drunk my Decaf Chai. When out on the balcony it feels as if I have stepped into a sauna. My hair droops even as it frizzes. But I can hear and see pretty rusty-orange-with-blue birds as they trill and flit about. And there are gently waltzing treetops. I have been watching wasps create a hive underneath the metal railing, and they are so meticulous and focused they have so far ignored my camera and me. Fascinating labor to see up rather close but I may not go out, anymore.  I have been bitten before; they’re not easy bites as they grab a small chunk of flesh. Best are the singing/buzzing katydids at night; they remind me of soft Missouri nights, where I was born and my family often visited.

After sweating in the exercise room, I visit with friendly staff with their lilting southern speech patterns and later report the wasp nest which will be dealt with tomorrow (which makes me a bit sad but I can’t imagine outmaneuvering wasps trapped in a hotel room). Now as I write I keep one eye on the weather report re: possible thunderstorms today, maybe tomorrow. Well, I have trusty Netflix. And my bright floral swimsuit is at the ready as soon as the sun shines hot and clear of dense clouds for at least an hour.

And in two days what will the trip to Michigan bring? Funerals and weddings and other such reunions are often fraught with complex emotional eruptions–like beautiful, well designed pinatas that are poked and prodded until surprise innards explode forth and, thus, provoked upwellings of excitement, appreciation and/or dismay. So I don’t know what is next. I am doing all this travel out of respect for Sherril’s memory and love for her bereft husband and his brother, Marc my husband. But I do know relationships and the known order of things change, like it or not, when someone passes on. A human life is that deeply meaningful–that when it is no more on earth its essence hangs here while the absence is yet keenly felt. Yet his or her disappearance creates a real vacuum, too, and we scramble to find our way about it, and not be tossed into the dark well of grief. To not flail about, at odds with the remnants of memory or this breathing, beating life for which we yet need to be present.

So I am travelling unexpectedly in many ways, as we all do. In fiction I can orchestrate things, flesh out skimpy parts and design a new scene and even as characters whisk me along it is an exhilarating thing, a finely tuned way of perceiving, envisioning and being. I know we–yes, the characters, the story and myself– are in concert on some level. In real life it is harder to track the slippery truths and the end is not always nearly heroic. It just comes, and I had better embrace it and live with it in all its mystery or revamp my attitude. As I noted, it may yet storm tonight but tomorrow my swimsuit will remain optional attire. And I feel excellent–strong, happy– as I splash and slice through cool, calm turquoise water, as I float with face to the sky. In fact, I feel pretty good now as sun dips below trees– so when all is said and done, I am thankful once more, God-Who-is-ever-with-us.

 

(I will not be able to post this Friday. Next week, I plan to post after the US holiday of Fourth of July. Be well, wherever you roam or gather!)

Sorrow is an Arrow with No Place to Land

Photo, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The first sighting occurred on a late afternoon soon after Dae bounded out the door before her, barking furiously after a squirrel who’d just scampered off. The water before them was uncharacteristically still, mirror-smoothness reflecting only heavy clouds. Stillness, often a first sign of a thunderstorm, had settled deep in Sophie’s bones when she awakened and she’d felt a peace, despite knowing there might be a storm. She had worked hard at this, the coveted equilibrium required to live a life she valued.

She stood with flat of hand to brow as if that would help her better discern a cause of the flicker of light. Unease pricked her insides. A glimmering spot above a gun metal Ring Lake disturbed the day. No spare light filtered down as raindrops plopped onto the deck. As she stepped closer, the glinting glided away at a rapid pace. A green canoe was briefly outlined, a small body in it. The big dog had seen the person, too, as he or she rounded the narrow peninsula–Sophie’s land–then slipped away. His sharp barks were more greeting and farewell than warning; the canoe was gone.

Dae ran to her and licked her fingers; both hands hung at her sides limply, as if she was deflated. It was nothing to think twice about, the lake was open to all for boating and other pleasures as long as weather allowed. But not so often did she see people on the water when a storm was brewing. Sophie shivered in the cooling wind, her eyes unavoidably drawn to Stump Island. The community island. Thomas had nonetheless tried to commandeer it to work on limnology research notes.

That he’d tried to reach, perhaps, that summer night. But his boat faltered, his body sank, languished in muck on the lake bed.

She could not speak of it after nearly a year. In fact, could still not speak at all.

She signaled to Dae and they entered her remodeled and historical chapel-house. Once inside she paused. Distant thunder and lightning illuminated the expanse, now textured with waves. A curtain of rain fell and semi-darkness spilled over all. The husky-German Shepherd mix took his place on the rag rug before the fireplace, despite no fire. He panted lightly, blue eyes following his mistress. She closed the curtains on French doors to the deck as he lay his fine head on massive paws, eyes closing.

In the loft, Sophie removed the silk caftan that covered a leotard, then lit three pillar candles and danced, or rather acted as if she might still dig deep into that primal force and bring forth movement, coppery, white-streaked hair cast off her back as she floated, lips quivering. The elegant dog lifted its head. Listened.

******

The second sighting happened as Sophie was driving down 137 in her truck. She was off to Haston, not far from her village of Snake Creek. Dense white pine and hemlock, a grove of birch flew by as a mostly green blur as she barreled down the road. It was also that kind of day she thought of as cornflower blue and forsythia yellow, filled with a promise of more heat to come and a day of small pleasures. She would get errands done, then stop for a steaming chai and warm chocolate chip cookie at her favorite coffee house, then stroll along Lake Michigan. Clarissa–Rissa to closest friends–said she might meet them if she got done with her restaurant supply run in time and felt she could take a half hour to relax. Sophie turned up the music, a lively pop tune. Behind her Dae sat with twitching nose pressed into sweet air a half-opened window afforded.

They were perhaps fifteen minutes out, the road empty except for towering trees lining either side and a raptor circling above. Around a wide curve in the opposite direction roared a blue sports car, top down, and at the wheel was another bold shimmer as had been seen at the lake two days before. The two-seater began to slow, presumably to approach a private road to the new Nine Lives Spa and Resort. The woman’s long champagne blonde hair unfurled like a fancy scarf freed by spring wind. Soft sunlight bounced off it spinning golden filaments. Her skin appeared an ordinary, not tanned, tone. She wore something coral.

Sophie’s eyes shifted between blue car and winding road and resisted the impulse to slow down, as well. It was no doubt a woman from down state, likely Detroit, here for a pricey rejuvenation vacation. The patrons had begun to show up more in the village already. The place offered Tai Chi, Bikram yoga, a eucalyptus steam room, an indoor-outdoor Olympic sized pool with hot tub, fancy massages by the hour, earthy skin treatments and all the rest that no one she knew wanted to undergo, much less could afford. In truth, Sophie would like the steam room after a deep massage. She already practiced Tai Chi but swam in the lake as tolerable in summer like everyone else did. No one was happy about the resort other than Rissa’s husband, the developer who sold off the waterfront parcel; he was tight with the investors.

The blue car downshifted as it arrived at the turn off, then stopped just short of turning. Sat there idling. Sophie slowed enough to get a fast peek at the driver. The petite woman looked over a shoulder; huge sunglasses obscured most of her face. She caught her flying hair with a hand as she gazed at Sophie, then abruptly took off down the driveway, engine purring.

Dae had been keen to look as well but offered no response. Sophie pondered the coincidence. Was it the same person she had seen at the lake? And if so, who was she and why might she be interested in her? The driver looked too polished and self-impressed to be a regular Michigander. She didn’t even look like a usual buyer of northern summer cottages. More akin to Sophie, perhaps, an East coaster. Did Sophie know her from somewhere? Were she and Thomas acquaintances of Bostonian friends of hers; had they met at a dinner party or lecture?

Sophie gripped the steering wheel, sped along the curving road. Maybe the driver had another interest–if indeed, there was a true interest and not some prurient curiosity. Maybe Ms. Champagne Blonde was a reporter after the story of the suspicious death of Thomas Swanson, famous biologist. And his wife, Sophie Swanson, well-known dancer and choreographer. Once of the Bostonian bramin (which they were not unhappy to leave).

She hit the wheel with her palm; she wanted to be no one of any interest, to have less of Thomas in her life now. Dae’s head rose to rest at her shoulder and she patted his head. Her eyes burned; she blinked to refocus on the road. It wasn’t going to happen, a story. She didn’t want to be found, didn’t even respond to old friends’ cards and notes, nor to emails. That life was abandoned when Thomas retired. She had long ago agreed to come with him, leave her career behind at age 45. Despite any regrets, despite hellish losses–including that of Mia, her daughter, now living with an aunt–this was meant to be home. There was no turning back, anyway.

Grief had a way of weaving you into the landscape from which pain erupted. It was a sore comfort, a remembrance of hope and a scarring rawness even as the aching was, bit by bit, subdued. And she had to start over from here, nowhere else.

A fragrant, almost warm blast of air mellowed her thoughts as the window was rolled down. The day was still new, it would be salvaged. Sophie was a pro at such things.

She felt deep pressure under her ribs, an urge to scream but when her mouth opened only a rush of soft air mixed with the breeze. Dae, on the other hand, whined, eager to run.

******

And the third sighting was other than what Sophie might have imagined.

Rissa waved as she wound her way between tables then sat on the wooden chair with a thump, uniform askew, dark hair stuck to her forehead. She blew up at her bangs to cool off. It was busy at Bluestone Cafe, the thriving restaurant she owned and managed.

“What’s going on, lady? Sorry I couldn’t meet up but I was running late Thursday and the supply order wasn’t quite right and then I got into it with Stan about numbers tallied!” She flipped a hand in the air, dismissing the annoyance, and smiled. “I’m glad to sit a little. But you don’t usually come in during rush hours. Did an appointment bring you in?”

Sophie shook her head, pulled from her soft leather bag a medium-sized notebook and shoved it across the table top. This was the  means by which she talked to her few friends. She’d written about the two times in a few days she’d seen who might be the same woman. She hated to admit to such an odd and likely irrational worry but she was starting to think she was being followed by a stranger. She described her the best she could and asked if her friend had seen anyone like that.

Rissa frowned as she read. Sometimes Sophie had fears that couldn’t easily be tamped down, much less erased. But it was best to take what she intuited or felt seriously. She was not a crazy person despite what some suggested but a hurt human being who was still healing. That night of the drowning was a complicated story.

“A person who looks like that would stick out like a sore thumb. Summer people haven’t taken over yet…but the resort is up and running, yeah, so…Maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity if she thinks she knows you, that can happen. But, no, I haven’t seen any one just like that. Champagne blonde? We just have badly bleached straw blondes!” She chuckled. “I think you should keep an eye out, tell others if it keeps happening, anyway.” She narrowed her eyes and thought. “I wonder if that husband of mine has seen this person around. If anyone would recall a woman like that it’d be Sonny. I’ll ask.”

With a shrug, Sophie picked up her notebook and tucked it away. Rissa lay her hand on her friend’s.

“You do okay with the thunderstorm this week?’

Sophie smiled assent.

“That’s good. Not bad, no power losses. Gotta go, girlfriend, catch you soon.”

Sophie squeezed her hand and let go. After she finished off her iced tea and cinnamon scone she paid the bill and left.

Rissa watched her go, the tall, lithe form and legs and arms swinging, the gingery-white hair that fell nearly to her waist in a loose braid. She wished her a happy afternoon and no strange sightings.

The main thoroughfare of Snake Creek paralleled the eastern shore of Ring Lake. Right across from Bluestone Cafe was the old field stone library and behind that, an inviting grassy park. Beyond the library ran the waterfront with the public beach and boat rentals. Sophie ran across the street, toward the shoreline. She had brought a book to read on another unusually sunny day. Mainly she wanted to be among a few people though she was always somehow apart. At times her house felt so small, constraining, bound in echoing silence; it could barely contain her then and she either worked on the property or went into town.

In the morning Sophie had gotten up early, walked with Dae, made an apple pie for her older friends Will and Anna, who’d had a stroke. Then she’d sat on the deck listening to fado music, the most plaintive and bittersweet of all choices. She’d caught herself drifting into a dreaded state of longing and sorrow so put the pie in a bag and went for a short visit with her friends. Dae was left behind for once. She half-wished she’d brought him as he loved to race about park and shore. Everyone knew him, admired his friendliness, agility and handsomeness. He was her buffer, she knew that.

The waterfront was busier than usual but it was a Friday, almost May–more people were coming to visit. She sat on a bench under a newly leafed poplar. After reading a few pages she looked up and down the shore, watching people hunt for attractive rocks and toss a few, play ball.

And there sat Ms. Champagne at southern end of the rocky beach, knees drawn up to her chin, pale hair blowing about. Alone. Sophie started that direction, wishing she had a friend with her. What would she do when she got there? Ask who she was  and why she was always around when she was still so damned mute?

The woman turned and saw her before she got there, her legs flattening onto the rocks, hands grabbing the brilliant mass to tame it again in a ponytail. Then she got up, shifted her weight. Sophie stopped about ten feet before her. She dwarfed the stranger from her height of six feet; the other woman was nearly a foot shorter. And so much younger, perhaps 30, 35?

The woman offered a tentative smile that drew wider when Sophie did not respond in kind.

“Hello, I’m Signe Johansson. I know we’ve skirted each other a few days. I’m glad you came to greet me as I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach you.”

Sophie inclined her head at Signe and found her open-faced, eager to talk so offered her hand.  Signe knew who she was, so no speaking was necessary. Her notebook might yet be useful, she would wait.

“Can we find a bench so I can explain…?”

They walked with only the lulling noise of waves to the spot Sophie had been reading, sat, then half-turned to each other. Sophie stared at the woman’s sparkling white and red tennis shoes. She glanced up, had burning desire to ask her ten questions and bit her lip. Signe smoothed her black khakis and took a deep breath.

“You are the Sophia Swanson, I know that. And I knew your husband, your famous partner.”

Sophie’s lips formed his name as alarm spread over her gaunt features.

“Yes, Thomas…I worked in the same building at Boston University. The Earth Sciences department where he lectured many years in between research trips.”

Her dark blue eyes–too bright, marred with redness– locked with Sophie’s.

“I know you’re at a disadvantage as you don’t talk. That’s what I heard. We heard. After his death. That it was too much. I’m sorry. He was…amazing. We were…friends, good friends… ”

Sophie fought the urge to get up and leave. Who was this Signe to be following her, trespassing on her life, talking as if they were bound to make a friendly connection via her spouse? Speaking of her entirely dead husband–familiarly, casually?

“Wait, Sophie– I’m here.” Rissa’s gravelly voice penetrated her distress and then she came around to stand before them. “I’m Clarissa, Sophie’s closest friend and ally–and you are, exactly?”

“Oh, hi. I’m Signe, an old friend of Thomas’.” She smiled sweetly, too fast. “I’m glad you came. Now maybe she and I can talk with your help. I know an investment partner of Nine Lives Spa and Resort and I thought I’d come up  and visit the new place and also…” her voice petered out.

Rissa sat on the end of the bench by Sophie and leaned forward . “I see, very nice, we have a great area to enjoy. My husband is a developer. I appreciate your interest. But what does any of this have to do with Sophie Swanson? Did you come to give your condolences?”

“Yes, I did.  I guess I wanted to share memories with her. He was a brilliant man and a gentleman.”

Sophie drew out her notebook and scribbled a few lines. Rissa read them.

“How well did you know him and for how long? And what do you teach?”

“Hydrology, environmental interventions. I knew him for six years, he was a mentor,  co-worker, a friend.” She looked at Sophie and then at Rissa. “A truly good friend,” she emphasized.

Sophie scribbled another few questions. Rissa spoke once again.

“How come Sophie never heard of you? Did you two meet, even at a public function? And why would you find it necessary to come here and talk about this friendship with Thomas? It’s peculiar.” Rissa’s nose wrinkled.

The woman took a deep breath and turned toward Rissa sharply. “Look, why are you interrogating me? I came to pay my respects, to tell Sophie how much we appreciated his work and his kindness, that’s all.”

“Funny, it doesn’t seem like that. She doesn’t even know you and you’re avoiding the real answers. My gut tells me you knew him a bit too well–“she put her hand on Sophie’s shoulder as Sophie ‘s fingers clenched her sweater–” and you’d not planned on meeting her yet now you have and with an unsavory interest. Meeting his mourning widow now…I don’t like it any more than Sophie does.”

Signe sat up straight, shoulders back. “There was a lot she didn’t know about him, that she didn’t care to know more about–she was so busy with her career and he was alone a lot–who could he talk to about his research –and his dreams? Some of us were there, that’s all I want to say! I–I just wanted her to know how much I adored Thomas Swanson!” Her voice had risen like a frantic adolescent’s. Face flushed, her blue eyes darted about, filled with tears.

“Stop there, Siggie,” Rissa said. “You need to take this to your shrink. You’ve  no right to come here, say these things to her. You don’t know Sophie, not one bit.”

But Sophie got up and bent her graceful height over the sniveling Signe. Sophie tapped her lips so Signe would watch them. Carefully formed the silent words:

Thomas was never yours, he was mine–she touched her chest–our daughter’s. Now goodbye.

Rissa and Sophie left arm in arm. Sophie was not crying. She was not shaking, not wanting to run back and hurt that woman. She knew so many things Signe Johansson would never know. And she had long felt tired out by that knowledge and since his death, whittled down by grief of the darkest sorts. No, she felt sorry for this younger–and weaker– Signe, who must have been left alone. Far too lonely. And Sophie was not. She realized she finally missed her husband less than she ever had. Or, at least, the man she knew, his cynicism, his spurts of tenderness, his brilliance and dependence. And finally, the undoing of his life by a sly and ego-hungry madness in a boat on a thunderstruck night. Night of terrors, her life nearly lost, and Sophie had barely survived the man she had loved. She would keep searching for her own voice.

 

(Note: this is a story based on a novel of mine, Other Than Words, written many years ago. I keep revising/ coming back to it. Another post about Sophie can be found here: https://talesforlife.blog/2016/07/18/life-in-pieces/

If you are interested in reading more, let me know and I will post more links.)