Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Am I My Mother’s Daughter, and How Much Does It Finally Matter?

I think of all we are experiencing now, then of my parents. Specifically, I have thought more of my mother. The charming Edna Kelly (later marrying Lawrence Guenther), likely 19 or so, is on the left. I am on the right. Do we even look related? I once more wondered about her life after my niece, Lila, posted her photo on social media. I thought of my own. I am now at the age she was when I was just 30. She was born in 1909 in Blackwater, Missouri, and died in Michigan, 2001–where I was raised. (Her heart and the rest gave out; a few months later I had a heart attack while hiking.)

At times when studying my mother’s more youthful photos, I often wished I looked like my oldest sister, as she looked much like our mother. I felt I had come into our family not quite akin to Mom, nor quite Dad. It may have been untrue, but it felt like that a long while. I don’t often look at old photos, though they are gone; the family is fixed vividly in my memory. Lila, the family historian since my mother and aforementioned sister passed, also has features more reflective of theirs.

The other day I once more considered how much of who we become is inherited–or not. And how much we can understand of our relatives and heritage, beyond bare facts.

Perhaps this is especially of interest since my daughter had twins last year. My mother had twin baby sisters who died in the flu pandemic; she would have been so pleased to welcome twins again into our family. They are not identical. One seems to take after her father; the other, her mother. And their personalities are already coming to the fore with strong intimations of their future selves. We will see who they become, week by month by year. It is exciting to be a part of it as their grandmother.

It’s a big question, of course, that folks have well debated: nature v. nurture, genetics v. external experience. I gather social scientists and other experts agree it is both. Each of us enters the world with complex brain chemistry and other physiological mapping regarding health tendencies, personality markers and potential, strengths and deficits, talents or lack thereof. And this reaches back into genetic banks of ancestry–most of whom we never knew or heard of. Yet they remain present within us in many subtle or exaggerated manifestations. A mind expanding thought–with so much conjecture.

There are definitely physical traits that came through my mother, though I more resemble my father’s side with large blue eyes (her’s: smaller, grey -toned– and often mischievous), a much less “patrician” nose and fuller lips. My mother, of hearty farm stock, had a perfect straight and near-pointy nose, thin (often smiling) lips and ivory skin. She was of Irish/English/Scottish decent. Thus, so am I. And German, via both of my father’s parents.

I inherited my mother’s shape of hands, even her fingers; her hair, as mine until a few years ago, was a plentiful auburn brown and it’s become more more wavy; and perhaps–if I might say this– her nice figure, though I am slimmer (like Dad) than she was most of her life (I like food less than she did). I think we share eyebrows and for certain our foot shape and size–she lent me beautiful high heels for years when I dressed up. That made those shoes doubly worth the money she spent, she once said. She enjoyed fine clothes (those she didn’t make herself, excellent creations) and good accessories for bargain prices– but wasn’t shy about paying whatever was necessary, if it came to that, either.

Edna Kelly was athletic, playing basketball in school and roaming the country roads, working on her parents’ farm. (She was kicked by a horse and ever after had chronic lower back pain–she saw no doctor back then.) Appreciative of the great world of nature (loved botany, geology, ornithology and etymology–and studied these some in college) she shared her knowledge, went camping many times with Dad and me. I also love sporty activities and have enjoyed figure skating, hiking, any water sports, volleyball and other ball games (baseball with our 5 kids- basketball, too). Just running about or bicycling kept me going for hours. Nowadays, give me a gym for pleasure and exercise, sure (I was a body builder for a couple years), but the outdoors calls to me far more. Mom used to say she was a bit of a “tomboy” and I loved that–she had excellent physical endurance and stamina, was known for her reservoirs of energy almost until the end.

I found her naturally beautiful–she rarely wore more than a dash of pale coral lipstick and only when going out. I was born (last of 5) when she was 40, so only had pictures of her younger self. No matter: with shorter graying hair and glasses she still radiated loveliness, a sparkling essence. And when she dressed in jewel-toned, long gowns for concerts my father conducted or played in (or other events), she seemed breathtakingly so, that wavy white hair a-shimmer as she aged. Her skin? Smooth and unblemished. Dad often hugged her, saying “she was quite the catch”– even though he was, as well.

Add to these external traits the fact that she was talented domestically and turned out handmade creations (with the discerning eye of an artist). And was also a fine elementary teacher. Little of which I can claim, though I adore art, have painted and sketched off and on. (And I suppose I did provide education when counselling my mental health/addiction treatment groups.) She had it all, I thought. And felt the lack.

In certain ways we are clearly mother and daughter, though our faces appear less alike. In others, our shared genes may appear unlikely. What of our personality traits and greater interests? Were those characteristics passed down or learned?

I felt from early on that my mother was near the pinnacle of success as a person and woman, and by the time I was 12 years old I saw I would never reach standards set by either parent. Yet I had their examples to aspire to, and I tried hard off and on all my life– until I hit my early forties. I knew who I was very well and that was that, with much room for improvements–and at heart I was not so different than I was at 12, I thought. Just older and surely some harder; hopefully kind, perhaps more insightful…

So if I had little skill regarding domestic chores, also far less interest than many. Food’s primary purpose, for me, was to provide fuel so never understood why it elicited such labor and excitement. Housekeeping was a simple necessity so dust didn’t fur surfaces of furniture and rooms with their various possessions were orderly enough, in a pleasing way. But it took too much time some days. (We had 7 people in the house, at least as many musical instruments, frequent visitors for everyone.) I didn’t sew well or happily, nor create my own dress patterns although there was much instruction from Mom as she stood at my shoulder. Still, despite my humiliation, I don’t think she worried about it much. Our parents insisted we all secure a fine education, go into the world armed with degrees, honed talents– plus kind hearts. No difference if male or female: achieve, that was the byword. She would shoo me from the kitchen with a command to study or practice my cello or sing or write (or maybe anything to get me out of her way). But I still felt the sting of having nothing decent to show for my (minimal) efforts, otherwise. I wanted to garner her approval in all things, have every good life skill. At least I managed to help entertain their guests–greeting and chatting with people, carrying out food, cleaning up at the end and chatting with Mom. I liked people, talking, listening–and gathering more info for writing.

In time, there were serious ways I would let my mother down. If I did have abilities that brought happy successes, there were also matters that took me farther from acceptance. I grew into a rebel without truly intending to be one. I had big ideas of my own; I also had a lot pain; and dreams that began to diverge from a family legacy of either useful teaching or work in mighty realms of music. (Though why I left music is a much harder story.)

In time, things came apart bit by bit. I maintained high grades and performed on stages and showed a face that was for awhile better than I felt: I stayed out too late; used illicit substances; wrote death-defying poetry of longing as I contemplated the specter of suicide; wrote folk songs that were often more bitter than hopeful; dated boys that lived on the thin edge while pining for the one I could likely not win because, as Mom told me: “You must be more the girl he wants.” Implying I needed to be…better. Different. Not like me. It cut deep. I was who I was but desired to be more– yet, not an idealized, proper, rule-abiding- at-all-costs girl. (Though, I have to say, that boy did not truly want that and we were in love–but his parents did. In the end, he went to a faraway college as I fell further from grace.)

Maybe that is the kind of thing what she believed when she and my father were growing up together, then attending college, then finally marrying. That is: be who a man needs you to be. Still, I find it hard to accept. My mother was deeply engaged with life, independent-minded and opinionated, given to bossiness, multi-talented and smart (I often felt she was under-utilizing her intelligence) as all get out. But for me, what she suggested wasn’t even possible. I was afire with passions of many sorts–not just sensual but creative, spiritual, intellectual. I was hungry for more, more. As a teen I was reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (lofty but a Catholic!–we were Methodists) Herman Hesse and Anais Nin (scandalous), Kahlil Gibran, poets Sylvia Plath, Muriel Rukeyser, e.e. cummings. I was listening to cool jazz, folk music and swing on the sly (we almost always heard only classical in our house). I longed to be a modern dancer despite sweating out ballet exercises in my room, and a jazz singer despite my proscribed art songs polished. My cello? Could I play it electrified? But I did not dare do that.

It was the 1960s, as well. The lure of loosening middle class mores shaped by heavy constrictions; protesting of social injustices and archaic ideas regarding women versus men–it was powerful stuff to this 15-19 year old, dreamy-eyed, wounded by years of non-familial, silenced child abuse. I wanted so much to rise right up even as I was falling down. Feminism was a bright flag waving high above a movement made of empowering women as never before. I thought: we can be real potent trail blazers. I, too, can make myself heard and make a good difference.

So it was: student-empowered politics mixed with substance abuse–and rebellions fomented by hope for a more inclusive, improved society. An odd combination at first glance but there it was. My deeper desire was to do more, become more, contribute in a creative and compassionate way. And that took action, not just talk. The fact was, I reminded my parents, I was raised to be a critical thinker–despite a sanctioned conformity that ultimately ruled at dinner tables, schools, churches. My voice had gone weary of being quieter, so civilized–which seemed then like being made blind, deaf and mute.

They did not accept my arguments. They had lived through wars and pandemics (flu, polio and more) and the Depression. Why couldn’t I– along with my friends–be satisfied with what was so much better than what had come before us? I needed to settle down, stop agitating or challenging life. Act more civilized

But I grew up faster than planned. In short order, survived more severe trials than I had expected. Finally had children, dropped out of college many times to raise them and so my spouse could get his Masters degree, then we later divorced, and, ultimately, I married three times–unheard of for a long while.

Was this any of what my mother hoped for? Did it reflect her sorts of choices? Did it reflect on my heritage? No, no, and often likely not. Except I was a creative person, had a capacity to care deeply and an abiding faith in God. These saved me from utter failure, and I believe kept her hope burning for me.

Still, I got stronger, learned to live better. I could look her in the eye more often. I built from nearly scratch a career in human services–it was God who guided me there, at start–and spent the rest of my life counseling folks who lived fast and hard and paid for it and needed a renovation; or wandered precariously near the edge of the world and needed acceptance and hope. They gained new coping skills as had I. And I cared deeply for every person who walked through my office doors. I had learned to do what mattered most, felt glad to join the ranks of countless others who do this work every day in the wide world: serve others.

What, if any of this, is like my mother’s life, her beliefs and actions? What did she teach me about being a person, a woman? She offered a lot, and I have, finally, carried a good portion of it with me.

Edna Kelly Guenther was a woman with backbone, one who did not give up when she believed in something or someone. She made her opinions known, at times in ways that seemed minor but were major with a raised eyebrow, a turn of the head, a gasp or quick laugh, a gentle touch on one’s arm, a forefinger tapping her lips. She was expressive with hands and voice, was a natural storyteller. She could share anything that happened in an ordinary day, elevating the moments in the very emotive telling. Entertainment was living life, sharing it a part of that. She appreciated all kinds of people even if she didn’t always understand or even approve; she found people enriching and puzzling and generally good. She had, as they say, heart.

In her mind, there was no problem that didn’t have a solution; it was often the simplest. There was no such thing as boredom, only a lack of intention and action. If you witnessed a dispute, don’t let anyone damage another–yet don’t keep anger too quiet if it needs to be the alarm. And one should mend what was broken, even if it hurts some in the process. Forgiveness, then, is paramount: compassion is the thread, the glue that binds together the pieces.

My mother wanted to be a writer, she said once, looking out the kitchen window with dish towel in her hands. She kept journals of her travels to foreign countries and whenever crisscrossing our country; she was a frequent letter writer. She watched me type away on the old Remington for years, knew I wrote by longhand deep into the night. She read what was offered to her; she approved, cared to note glitches, upheld my burning passion that still courses through my blood and fills my soul. And after she died and I despaired and longed to have her close, her spirit came to me with this: You must write. And my whole self trembled, then was profoundly calm.

She read a third draft of a long-developed novel a couple of years before she died. It doesn’t anymore matter that it has been pushed aside. It matters that she said it was “a page turner, I loved it.” So if I am like my mother in any way–and most of all this way, always telling stories–I am humbled, honored. But what I think is that I simply became somehow more the person, the woman, she knew I was so long working to reclaim and set free. Not that similar to her, perhaps. Nor quite like my sisters, beloved aunts, grandmothers. But we have shared a spark, a link, a look that says we live from the center of things, from the reaches of our souls, messy or not.

And we are one for the other, and all of one, in the end. And my toddler girls, the twin grandchildren, will carry on a legacy of vibrancy, inventiveness and perseverance underscored with hope if they can. And, too, our imperfections, our quirkiness, our weak points–and add to their repertoire their own uniqueness.

The biggest question for me remains: who actually was the person of Edna as a youngster, a college student, then wife with babies, a woman with a career, then a woman growing older? Who else might she have been, what more could she have explored? Was she as happy, ultimately, as she seemed, even amid weepiness that came and went with remnants of losses creeping in…? Her breath catching in her throat as she spoke of tender or difficult things? I saw and understood. As she gave of herself here and there all along the way, I watched and learned. But– I knew her so little.

After leaving home we were close only when we talked on the phone or wrote, or enjoyed quick visits at different meeting points in the country. Only a small part of what we shared was fully presented and treasured more than any gold; the rest was a delicate, tentative search for more. We know our mothers too little, even if we think we know more. We may be unwilling to blur boundaries in fear of…what? What shall be lost in knowing more fully the one who gave us birth? Can we not suspect it is less than enough that we share before the chances are over?

I wager Mom was feisty, diplomatic, dramatic, or deeply intuitive long before any of us took hold of her. There was more, I could feel it when we talked or didn’t talk, when she shared her vivid dream-infused nightly adventures and then listened to my own; showed me how to make good poached eggs and Waldorf salad; stood watching out the kitchen window as I ascended to the top of the maple tree to sing, to write, to cry, to plan. There was a pressure of diverse energy in her, even at rest; there was much left unsaid as she spoke voluminously. So most of her story remains a mystery.

As for me, I may once have thought I risked more, dared more, took my knocks and got back up but, honestly, I knew her life was harder than what she told. It was in the depths of her gaze, in the response to others: she knew about great love, about piercing sorrows; she knew about pain and healing and faith. About just going on. I suspect she even knew I would manage alright, too.

Her own complicated tales were carried home with her when passing into what and where she believed was a more liberating, illuminating experience than all she’d experienced on earth. And that is another thing we had in common. But when I consider all the aspects of our lives, I do realize that we each were on our own life journeys. I still am making my particular way through this grand and strange experience.

Mom and me after she was given my novel draft a couple of years before she died.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Her Oasis on a Tilt

It was very late afternoon, light sifting through treetops in a shower of gold, a slight pause before hearty or unusual fragrances of culinary works began sailing across one emerald, expansive yard to another. Songbirds, entertaining and costumed with fine feathers, rested. Heat had finally been turned up by the invisible hand of nature. The pool shimmered as if diamonds had been tossed across its surface, and for a moment Bella found herself blinded.

Her damp, straight hair hung about pale shoulders. She was a swimmer but not a sunbather and shade of the mountain ash, though patchy, soothed her drying skin. She didn’t want to move under great overhanging maples; her body was in repose. Nothing stirred her. Not even Remy, her golden doodle, snuffling about edges of things. Not even the phone ringing from the dining table where she had left it.

She was almost dreaming while awake. Images of her drawings bled through the pale orange to pink screen behind her eyelids and she saw their flaws and potential, meanings not noticed before. This was one reason she swam every day she could: mind released its contents as body unclenched its knotty parts. It was a feast of ideas, and Bella let them arrive and depart as if a click of old fashioned slides. Decades, now, of work. The actual, salable art was often removed from her faster than anticipated. Or desired. That was success, she mourned, and turned her face from the light that blared on all.

There was no reason to get up soon. No dinner to create. Antonio was gone, this time for perhaps a month. This was not unexpected; he was a corporate financial consultant and traveled widely. He conducted business she had only an inkling about and that suited her. If he was challenged enough… that was the tipping point– from bored to enthused, stressed to invigorated, irritable to expansive and more attentive when he returned. Otherwise, they could be more like two cautious partners fielding questions and flinging looks despite reaching for each other, and then suddenly there might come sparks that flared. But vanished, too soon. They both resisted an undertow of discontent for long. It damaged the landscape of their lives so had to be repaired. Bella learned to find her own way, to let Anthony realign himself. To nurture her own soul as needed.

It was mysteriousness, being married. Who was trained in the requisite skills? It was instinct and risk, or nothing. For them, a hoped for oneness was everything when together, even during trials. And the best way to survive in the wider world.

On the breeze came an almost acrid if rich odor that made her mouth water: choice beef on the grill. She turned over and glanced at the high fence, thought of Nance, wondered if she was home from work or, no, it was the chef they had in four evenings a week. Ridiculous. Nance, too, was one of just a couple over there–their son left for university, never quite returned. It was as if she and Rollie, her spouse, needed some sort of reward after their labors, their many sacrifices for success which Nance always referred to with a sigh, gaze lowering in a small show of self-pity.

What sacrifices, she wondered. What was lost or left behind, what had been given up or ripped away? Nance never said. There was something, maybe one day they would talk. Or not. Life was a private affair in that neighborhood.

Bella ran afoul of the norm lived around her: an art maker, not a professional woman in a business suit, not a mother hen gathering and exhibiting her chicks proudly. Married to a man she cared deeply about. She was not a scholar or any sort of teacher, nor a gallery director or curator. And never a commercial artist. Not close to becoming a mother, that was how it worked out for her body. Only an artist thinking, sketching, drawing, examining, transforming day after day. Her choice was made long ago to create. Antonio did not truly understand. But he loved her. It worked well enough.

He was in Spain again. Basking in the poetic sunlight, seeing family, working, working, an engine that never stopped until vague far off destination.

Her skin perspired under the last of the day’s deep rays. She lightly pressed her forehead with a palm so not to disturb the sun block, then tousled the dark drier strands that fell over her brow. She would work more after she ate, sit on the upper terrace with sketchbook. See if he called her.

Now, a cool shower. Candlelight with Remy at her side.

******

After she had showered off chlorine and sweat, dressed in a caftan and padded about the kitchen thinking of salad, Bella remembered the mail.

The small pile lay in a black lacquered tray; it was on a small entry table against the wall. The mail slot beside the massive door neatly released its contents into the tray. It was one of the things she loved about the house: it was efficient in design. Too showy for her but practical in its ways.

The mail was usually dull. Perhaps an invitation to a wedding now that it was summer–yes, there it was–advertising circulars (a waste that maddened her), thick or thin art magazines she wouldn’t give up as they felt so happy in her hands, a small order of something, oh, that lip gloss she found online (she’d use it only if they went out).

Then a plain white envelope. The white security kind you might have used to pay bills. Handwritten address, to Mr. Antonio Alvarado. The handwriting sloped downward a bit but was firm, even bold in a way that seemed studied: this address must look serious, confident. Unadorned, not quite printing, but close. She turned it over. Blank. Just a brownish smudge, as if dropped on the ground en route to a mailbox. Bella studied the front once more, frowning. Was that young or old handwriting? Male, female? Perhaps the second, something in an exaggerated curve or tail here and there. A personal letter, not business. No return address.

The postmark was San Francisco, CA. They were in New Mexico.

Eyebrows rose to high arches. Who might he know there? When had he been last? Two or more years, she thought. She stared hard at the front door as if Antonio was going to bound in so she might put an end to speculation.

She replaced it in the lacquered tray. Decided on salad with chopped smoky ham, the vegetables left she could scavenge. And iced black tea with a lemon slice. Her head was a tad swimmy until she sat and ate slowly, trying to not think of it further.

******

It didn’t make that much difference when her leg snapped as she hit the ground all those years ago. Though everyone cast pity her way, worried about her too long. She barely could keep her seat for longer than a half hour, they all knew that, but Antonio loved riding so she went along, and elegant beasts were wonderful. She had a dancer’s body, used it well but it was only another passion and though reined in, not quite dampened despite the leg. Of course, she didn’t publicly dance after that, not even for charity events or arts festivals or flamenco classes she’d attended. She was left with a limp, not so terrible that a stranger would gawk over two seconds. But everyone who knew her, saw her altered and looked away so they wouldn’t embarrass her. Or themselves.

It impacted her sense of self but Antonio was shaken–by the accident, her terrible broken bones, the difficult surgeries and rehabilitation. His guilt. If he hadn’t persuaded her to ride so often. Or at all. But she’d tried to reassure him.

“This doesn’t change so much–just my childish wish to perform. Well, it changes my gait, it might slow me down awhile. Does that disturb you?”

They suspected it would last indefinitely, the uneven walk, the chronic pain and nerve damage. And so he hesitated ever so little but it was there, a flicker of his eyes, and it was then she knew it did. Perhaps enough to change his view of her in an essential way.

“No. I love that you’re so positive about this, that you stand up to seeming defeat and take matters in hand. You can well temper you romantic side with your realistic attitude. You know how to make the best of things, can recreate the design of your living.”

“Really, what things do you mean? I can walk, I will one day hike again, I can swim–and there is making art, which if you recall requires little to no movement of my legs, right? I–“

He clasped her forearms, then slid fingertips over her face and smiled. She shivered, moved in closer, his warmth a magnet for her growing coolness. He kissed the tip of her nose, stepped away, looked at his phone as he replied.

“Bella, you inspire me…I’m proud of your hard work. A limp is nothing, we are grateful you can walk! But please excuse me, I have a call coming in.” He looked back as he left the living room. “Don’t forget I have to leave on Sunday for London. We’ll call that physical therapist- Stan? Steve?-back in–okay?” He held up a finger as he answered the clarion call to business and put ear to cell.

His back receded to a shadow beyond the doorway. She thought again that he admired too entirely her body, when she spent much of the time unaware of it. Creating, for her, took her out of flesh and bones in many ways. For Antonio, physicality brought him to a place where he felt most at home, felt elevated even by her presence, and there were times of jubilation. He was a person of action first and last. She admired and was pulled to this, too.

There was another hunger she sought to satisfy more: creating. And how graciously he deferred–usually. It was that or get less of her.

Still, it worried her a little as she struggled to heal. But nothing much did change. Oh, the nagging or lightning pains even after seventeen years. Bella had donated her collection of high heels. She gave up any desire for superficial perfection. She stopped dreaming of marathons. She worked on more secure, critical balance. Her endurance and strength improved as she swam, undertook vigorous exercise regimens, began short hikes with a custom made staff to keep her steadier and went with or without him–but always with Remy if possible. He was her look-out and her buddy.

The limp did not disappear. It was a part of her, like the brush of pale freckles across chest and cheeks. Irrelevant in the end.

Anyway, she still danced on their long, deep terraces at back of the house in dry weather. Nance, Rollie and few others about occasionally noticed her swaying, turning in less than perfect circles across space to soft music and murmuring to each other, what a shame, once such a graceful woman, an asset to Antonio –but a fine artist, thank god for that.

Now before she began brainstorming for the latest project she danced, no music, just movement like licks of wind, flicks of a paintbrush, a ringing of glass chimes a call for more beauty in the world as she turned, turned, reached and at last sat down with her tools for art.

Nance watched her from her patio and said to Rollie, “She’s become more of a ghost over the years, don’t you think? Secluded and pale, even with all the swimming. He’s gone so much and she draws, swims. Flutters about. In her own dream world.” She felt a proximity to envy, as if she wanted to join into those moments and see what it was she had. It was a moment gone as soon as it began.

Rollie laughed. “What do you expect? She’s an artiste, my dear. They don’t have an inclination for much else. Anthony could be a saint– or at least loyal as heck. Though she’s a fine person, but who could imagine that she would end up with him?”

“Come on, a saint– Antonio? You think so? She’s fascinating, but he’s as good looking and charming as they get after forty-five. And he’s all over the world, alone…Idle hands, they say. No saint, I wager.”

“Mmmm, yes.” He grimaced. “Well, now–a steak, dear? Thank you, Brett, you always do such a royal job on a rare chunk of meat!”

“Rollie, your manners. Just a smidgen, Brett, I’ve got to keep my health on the straight and narrow.”

Bella worked long after Nance and Rollie went indoors. The night air was light and cool, feathers drifting against arms and legs. And the quietness a balm, though their voices had been muted and even if she’d desired to, it wasn’t possible to eavesdrop readily. The residences were built to insure separateness.

She lit a lavender-scented pillar candle, sketched away. Antonio didn’t call–but he often did not for a week or so.

When she was done, she found trails of nonsensical writing across white pages, shapes at odds with each other, and objects from faraway places she had once visited floating across the expanse… yet at the edges were darkly shaded spaces with nothing to show. Like a graphite collage of random bits and worn out pieces of her past. Where was cohesiveness, a central idea? Why could she not get her brain and muse on the right track with this?

Not a good night, after all. Remy had nuzzled her leg more than once, then gave up and stretched out by her feet, soon snoring. The stars had come out. The yard was shaped by gradations of grey and black and treetops cut a fading filigreed silhouette again a lighter navy sky. All seemed calm in their home despite her angst.

Bella stood abruptly. It was that damned letter, it was just sitting there, waiting. Dizziness visited her, then she reoriented herself and went to bed.

******

In the morning after breakfast, Remy and Bella took a walk, then trotted inside, threw open the french doors and jumped into the pool’s silky, turquoise water. He liked to swim, too, if only a few minutes, while she swam easy laps for a half hour. She stopped when her left leg twinged. Some days it felt worse, some better. Sometimes she had to pull herself up by only the force of her arms; below her waist then it was as if much got heavier with a slow-aging lameness. Antonio hadn’t seen that yet.

As she dried off, she recalled a book on the kitchen island. Once inside, she dawdled, drinking remains of tepid coffee, then looked toward the foyer. Put the book down.

The letter was the only thing there. Should she take it to his study, lay it on his desk? Prop it up on his dresser? Casually leave it on the island or the dining table or…Why did it matter to her? It could sit there. It could wait for its recipient just as she could.

The book was more of a bore than she expected–an academic treatise from an old professor friend on how art creates smarter children and youth. Nothing new. But it had primarily made her feel different than her peers, as if she had x-ray vision while they were nearly blind. She still didn’t quite fit in many places. But it was no longer a problem she felt any desire to solve.

She swam more: backstroke, sidestroke, breaststroke, crawl. She dove deep and moved along the bottom like another creature, then shot back up for air.

It is only a letter, a letter, breathe, stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe.

After sun’s heat roasted her–she’d fallen into a light sleep–she startled at a sports car roaring by. Stretched. She gathered up Remy, pushed her face into luxuriant fur, inhaled his good doggy scent, gave him a rub and compliments. More tea, a snack for them both, then back to the drawings.

They were for a new exhibit in three short months. This time, pastels and colored pencils. And more clarity, letting the unexpected move to the fore, accept it for what it was, transition, a sorting out. Alterations. All afternoon she worked and considered, made small progress. An imagined travelogue of a woman moving between places, people, stages. A map– of the verdant oasis of body and soul within which she lived. Then, a lure of more exotic unknowns. And how to make peace or encourage change, how to shape it to her, her to it.

She was a woman of deepening ideas and impulses, and nearing middle age she’d again realized that so much more was unknown. Like an infinity before her. Antonio didn’t seem to feel nit as acutely. He mastered what he could, let the rest slough off.

She got out of the pool, shook out her bundled hair.

Inside it waited, nearly glowed–a warning or an illumination?– it was inert in the tray’s glazed darkness when she checked for mail later. Bella, of course, got letters from those who had bought her work, or from her niece in fourth grade and sometimes her brother, a journalist. Anyone, she supposed, might send a letter to Anthony, it was nothing of such interest. Only a small thing, then. So why did she return to it and feel unnerved?

******

The fourth day after the letter had arrived–ninth since he’d left– he called. It came after a late dinner of salmon with rice and green beans on the patio.

“Darling, you answered–a quick hello from Madrid–I thought you’d be in your studio at work, no phone on, but glad you did.”

“Hello, Anthony, no, I made good progress today so am slacking off tonight.” She glanced at the orange kitchen wall clock–five a.m tomorrow over there.

“As well you should. The exhibit is not yet tomorrow.”

“You’re up early, as usual. How is your work going? Are you enjoying being with your uncle?”

“He misses seeing you, sends love. Work is work, going well enough, making money for all. Anything thrilling there?”

She updated him on the water bill–skyrocketing with all those sprinklers–and the boulevard repaving work begun and walks Remy and she had been taking on a long path in the woods. For the salvation of coolness, she said, but also for the birds. “We heard the calls and saw two Cooper’s hawks today, Remy nearly took chase.”

Antonio laughed. “Good, all sounds right. It’s sweltering here, already my shirt feels damp, of course. Bella, the reason for the call is I’m coming home sooner than anticipated, early next week.’

“Glad to hear it! But all goes well, you said?”

“It has, but there are changes in plans, another meeting will be held after a quick trip to L.A. So I will be home for a week between. Arrival is sometime next” -he tapped on his computer- “next Tuesday afternoon. I’ll send details. Get my car, then home for a late meal. It’ll be restful to have a week off for once.”

“Sounds wonderful. Maybe go to the lake a few days?”

“We’ll see, darling, that might be just the thing.” He sighed: days of simpler pleasures. Bella held close to him. “I should get something to eat and prepare more for my meetings. I just wanted to check in with you, inform of my earlier return. Te amo, Bella.” He offered last intimately, a whisper.

“Love you, too… Antonio, wait…ah, I…”

“Yes? What is it?”

Impatience book-ended his words; he had made the loving but dutiful call, had business to address.

“Nothing, it will wait.”

“Until next Tuesday, then.”

******

The next days and nights were like mud and molasses, Bella slogging her way through them. Yet loose sketches still were executed rapidly, then a few good drawings. The engagement truly buoyed her–discerning shapes and movement and meanings in her work. Remy pestered her less, romped more on his own after daily swims but she always scooped him up after her work, loyal companions.

Only once did she look at the letter. It seemed to have cooled down, was less intriguing to her, as if it was in stasis after too long untouched and unregarded. It seemed almost a frivolous thing the more she burrowed into work, aware of less time left for herself. She had not expected his return so soon, and so sought the greater and better sum of her artistic efforts.

She started to swim at night again, something she had not done for months, but lazily. Remy drowsed on the first floor terrace. The air was redolent of a rosiness freshened yet dimming as nightfall came, and the moon sat in its throne to survey lawns and inhabitants.

And what in Madrid? Was he staying out late with his uncle? Was he looking upward for a propitious sign, even rain? He could be superstitious. Maybe he had made plans for their jaunt to the lake resort–he was good at that–or did he puzzle over what he would do with himself every day?

Everything around her offered the usual magic but her eyes closed, ears were underwater. She floated, floated, keeping the revelations due on Tuesday out of mind.

******

Nance on the other side of the fence leaned toward Rollie.

“Why didn’t we get a pool? I can hear her swimming at night sometimes. It sounds so relaxing. For years I’ve asked for a pool. I know you don’t swim much and it costs, but we’ll get a big raft for you to float about.”

“It might be nice. Remember, she’s still young, strong, she’s…well, she has a lot of time, don’t you think?”

She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes at him. “So do we, now that we’re retiring soon. Think of that.” She listened for Bella’s strokes, the water making a gentle shusssh when she resumed.

“Let’s go to Barbados, instead, before fall,” he said and lit his cigar. “Just wait until Tony gets back, they always have us over for a meal so you can have your swim then.”

“We can only hope. Or why not just put in a pool, Rollie, just do it.”

He studied the brilliant slip of moon and then the glow of the cigar’s end. Retirement might not be all he had hoped, or it might be more, time would tell.

******

She had made an effort to shine up the place, adding small bouquets here and there–they both liked that. He had long ago wanted her to get cleaning help, the house was so big, but she resisted. Instead, she spiffed it up well once a week and in between could care less. Neither did he–he barely noticed between trips. But this time it seemed important.

In the mirror’s reflection, she examined her face, found it acceptable. The fine lines about her eyes had deepened since working longer hours; she needed readers to better aid her focus. She had chosen flaxen-colored linen pants with a sleeveless white tunic, turquoise at ear lobes and neck. Unadorned, bare feet, the norm all summer. It was Antonio, not a guest, anyhow.

He arrived nearly on time for once, and when he unpacked and put on shorts and old polo shirt they chatted about this and that, then settled into the upper terrace chairs, cold drinks in hand–he, a beer, she, iced tea.

He looked good, burnished by the Spanish sunshine; he seemed pleased with the trip, seeing his uncle again. His kiss was long, almost spicy-fruity as if he’d consumed peaches with ginger. He always looked well even if crinkling about the edges, as if travel became him rather than wore him out, unlike herself. More importantly, his work was satisfactory; next steps were in place for clients. Bella liked how he’d mastered his career, knew his way in greater arenas and came right back to her, still. With the unseemly limp and all.

They were a pair, alright.

“Antonio, I held back something for you. It came in the mail last week.”

“Nothing of interest in the pile you handed me…something more?”

She pulled out the creased letter from her pants pocket, offered it to him. “It has felt a bit of a mystery…I will leave the room if you prefer.”

Antonio took the envelope, gazed at it, turned it over and back again as had she. “No return address? Ah, I see-California?”

“You don’t recognize the handwriting?”

“Not at all. Stay, Bella, it is only a letter!”

He tore it open without hesitation and read. He lay two pages on his thigh and then read it again, more slowly. His face betrayed puzzlement, then a dawning distress.

She leaned closer to him. “What is it? Who?”

He looked up at her, his mouth agape, eyes wide, and shook his head.

“Bella.” He wet his lips, took a frail breath. “I may have a daughter and she may have found me.”

******

“How old, Antonio, and who is she? When did this happen? Where? Answer me!”

She was standing above him, yelling as quietly as she could when her insides wanted to shriek. Her hand went to her mouth, before she did let out a harridan screech. He rose from his chair and his eyes swept over the vibrant garden and sparkling pool, then walked into their bedroom, letter in hand, and then he struck the door jamb with it three times.

She followed and they sat on the bed; her heart was running, running away from her. This was not what she expected, not what he ever imagined, she felt by his response. She’d long ago considered he might not be entirely faithful. She ignored the possibility, however. Her mother–so unbending yet certain of herself and well readied to corral the messiness of life– had taught her this was more or less the norm: how else could ambitious men manage for long periods out there? Bella’s own father may have strayed–“Too much, too much, stop!” she’d yelled at her mother when just a new wife–but one just gets on with it. It could be worse–gambling, drugs addiction abuse. She had to be at ease with men if they would be at ease with her.

She hated that advice. She’d struck out in her own direction, hadn’t she? Her needs mattered, too, it was an egalitarian marriage. Wasn’t it?

He folded the letter, slid it back into the envelope. Laid it on the dresser. She wanted to snatch it and read a loud.

“It was in Italy. That summer we were thinking of separating.” he rubbed his face with both hands. “So long ago, Bella! Such craziness then.”

“When were we thinking of that? You mean, during my long recovery?”

But she knew what he referred to, that she retreated, how long it was before she let him come closer, then even blamed him. Most days and nights she despaired in private, smiled in public. It was that it should not ever have happened, a ruined leg at age 28, a life unbalanced by pain.

“After the riding accident you became depressed about progress… and not being able to have kids, a last blow…we fought so much, remember?” He looked at her, brown eyes glassy, unfocused. “I was in Italy for two months, maybe more, working and staying with an old friend.”

“What friend? A woman friend?” Her words sliced the air. How could he simply roll out this story, hide his face?

“No, no, with Ian–who was with Trevor then. I told you where I stayed.”

“Apparently not all the time! And, who was the woman, Antonio? Who and why, dammit…”

“It doesn’t matter now. It was once, that is all…she was a friend of a business colleague. We all went out. I never dreamed it might happen, felt like hell about it, please Bella, believe me, it has haunted me ever since.”

She covered her face with her hands and lay back on the bed. “It has now come back in the shape of a daughter,” she mumbled. “How can you know for sure?”

He continued, voice quiet, trembling. “This…girl is seventeen. Adelina. The facts line up, she says she has a birth certificate copy with her. Here for college. Somehow she managed to get my name–and address. Through work contacts of her mother?” He made a sharp sound, bark of a laugh, once. “I don’t recall her name, her mother…”

Bella could not stop tears even if proffered a life of fame and a happily forever after. She would not believe him easily ever again–she also could not glibly accept this as truth.

“Bella, please forgive me, forgive me.” He lay down beside her. She didn’t move but wept soundlessly, then in gulps. Antonio’s eyes filled, too, as he stared at the shadowy ceiling, then let himself cry.

“What an idiot, what a fool and a failure I was that summer, Bella!”

She threw a hand out and smacked his chest once, twice. Then rolled halfway to him. Put an arm about him which he pressed close. They wept together, tried to speak but gave up and finally, silenced by hurts and regrets, they fell into a restless sleep.

Remy sat outside their door, whimpering, but no one came to him.

******

She swam three times the next day. Hid in her studio.

He moved to a guest room.

Remy looked from one to the other all day, and finally left for a breezy hallway, lay down, head on paws.

******

She swam and sat under the biggest maple with her sketchbooks and scanned each page, looking for direction, inspiration. Peace.

He swam. Drank chilled wine as he sat on the terrace. Nothing to do but wait. And think about Adelina more than he wanted.

Remy swam, too, caught the ball he threw him a few times.

******

Repeat.

In the middle of the night Antonio looked at their favorite lake spot, dreamed of a different reality.

Remy ate, chased his tail, ran in circles. Lay under the bushes until he joined first one, then the other.

******

She swam and he swam at the same time finally, though they didn’t come close or toss out words. A pantomime of a slow duel, a silent confab. Her eyes were clear beneath thick wet lashes. Her gaze held a simmering anger and it bored into him several times; even when he didn’t see her, he felt it. His own eyes, bloodshot in the high summer spotlight, did not look away.

That night they made a meal together, commenting on the tenderness of parsley and ripeness of the avocado, the smokiness of the turkey. They ate outdoors together by the pool. They sat at its edge, feet dangling in the water. Remy waited long enough, then bounded up to them.

“So. This girl. She wants to meet you, then.”

“Yes.”

“Her mother know?”

“No, she wrote. Her mother never spoke of me until Adelina pleaded with her a long time…her mother is long married, she likes her father. No one cares to talk about the unfortunate past…” He opened his hands up to the sky.

Bella kicked at the water, splashing him. She felt like she could dive in and maybe not resurface…or she could dive in and come back up and just try swimming with him. Her husband. The secret keeper, that fool. The man she loved, and deeply hurt long ago.

She had turned away from him. It wasn’t right, his impulsive diversion, no. But she’d left him with only his work, friends, no promise of better times ahead. She had forgotten those soul battered days and pain wracked nights. The well of loss. She had thought she’d been alright at first. She’d survived and overcome and kept on. A bit heroic perhaps–see how she learned to walk? To become a a more well known artist? See how she managed to beam at Antonio’s side, and that she was acceptable to him, still?

Until he left that summer. She no longer could face the scrutinizing realms within which they resided, any time in the world a reminder and her leg stealing her attention with roaring pain. Her awkwardness and weakness commandeering a life she had lived intensely, body, mind and soul. She had suffered, it was true. As had he, helpless. They made wrong choices–she with pain pills and isolation, he with a stranger. But they came round to one another again by that autumn, didn’t they. And that was a choice, too, but of a greater, not a lesser, love.

“She wrote that she is studying theater arts…costume design, maybe.”

Bella stared ahead. Then burst out laughing. “Her mother must have a few good genes.”

He inhaled a huge breath, let it slide out in a soft whistle so that Remy came running, barking, with tail a-wag.

“Oh, Antonio… what needs to be done, that’s the next question. Perhaps tell her to come–when you are ready,” Bella said as she slipped into the water. The half moon glowed, a pearl in night’s velvet hands. “I will help figure things out with you.”

he had hoped but was not expecting it. “Thank you.”

Antonio wiped his eyes. Never had he wept so much as the last three days.

“You see what kind of person she is, Remy? Do we deserve her? No. But she is still with us, she always perseveres, so we shall love her even better, and more.”

Remy licked his face of sadness. Bella embraced them both.

******

Rollie stood by the fence and tried to jump up to peek over it, but he wasn’t that tall and he got nothing even bouncing up and down. His wife smirked as she weeded.

“Nance, it’s just that I know he’s home already, I saw his car. Kinda miss the guy when he’s been gone long. Want to hear about those trips, the deals. Shouldn’t we stop over, say hi?”

Nance stood and shook her head as he gave up and sauntered over, hands in pockets.

“If they want us about, we’ll hear, Rollie. They’re still young and lovely, and interesting people. Her art really is wonderful. And he’s got that spark that makes a man reach farther. They aren’t half-bored out of their minds like we get. I suspect they could use more time alone, with each other.”

“You often have a nose about people. But we could ask them over here soon, too. And I was thinking about that pool. It might be fun. Our son might visit more, too.”

“Now you’re talking. Our son might or might not come, but it’ll be great. Drinks on a floating swan, imagine it.”

******

Bella and Antonio spread three comforters on the upper terrace that night. They watched the sky offer minuscule blooms of light, talked about the lake. They slept well, and Remy, too.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Language for a Tangerine Life

He took his leave from his landscaping job (was it deemed a yard, garden or more generally, estate…so many acres for sweat to drip to dirt) noon on the dot and went to the Far Ridge, grass-swept where nothing but silken melodies of birds stroked his ears. The rough-shod language of the others, the smallness of their lives hemmed him in even as he chummed about, had made cohorts over time. That is, they worked alongside each other, shared their food if you ran short, and took turns with rumbling sighs.

But Lonny was a person made of a whole different cloth his mother said with quiet certainty, that was a lapse into generosity, her best part. What she meant was that Lonny was lucky to show such fine skills in manual labor, for he was even humbler, lost in another way. She had tried. But that was there was the consensus by so many when he was growing up: that he was stupid somehow, his tongue so tied that he didn’t speak most hours of any day. Few could interpret the jumble of consonants and vowels he let go if required. It was a birthing accident, a tongue so clumsy and slow, they surmised. So no one asked him much, he was Lonny, that said it all. A barest or rapid nod, eyebrow raised or lowered, mouth skewed, eyes shifting or smiling–these were his language if you cared to learn it. His hands filled in the blanks, part quasi-signing he’d picked up, more often a shorthand of miming. He could speak with the gravest strain but managed a short,gasping sentence at times. But, truly, he was not one to seek attention so he was more a benign shadow that fell across the path and unsettled one’s conversation here and there. For you never knew what he might hear or see, he might have super senses attuned, otherwise. They also noted he managed to do well in school, and yet how? His tongue had much less, it seemed, to do with a kind of sequestered intelligence as he grew older.

It was correct that he stayed well aware of many things, but Lonny had less care for their lies and truths and goings on than they imagined. He kept inward, tending thoughts which ran fathoms deeper than Lake Minatchee after a heavy spring rain. He was a reader, and liked everything from Aristotle to Lorca to Carver to the latest bestseller list. Mrs. Morton, the only full time librarian, saw that he got what he wanted, set aside topics or authors she liked for him. The past few years, though–such books on landscaping design, volumes on soil conservation, plant identification. He had been hired on at Morton Landworks at age 16, part time until he graduated–he had taken to the work as if it was his calling.

Lonny always had a book with him for lunch, and as he gnawed on a leftover chicken leg and baked beans or savored tart potato salad with cheese and apple on the side, he took in information at a rapid pace. He wasn’t a kid, no, but he wasn’t entirely an adult, so his mother saw to him despite his obscure intention to leave town and set up house on his own. But where would he do his work gardening if not in Marionville? His Achilles heel remained his blood deep, uncured state of silence.

There was almost no one who came by Far Ridge. It took fifteen to walk there and others felt it wasted time and effort at lunch hour. There was no longer a clear path weaving through swaths of tall bobbing grass–it had been swallowed up years ago, no one missed it. Other than wide views of the meadows spreading about like a wheat-colored skirt and Ferryman Woods, there was a firm breeze that swiped perspiration right off you in seconds. Or a hefty wind that about lifted you up as a storm brewed. The wind had its sundry ways and Lanny appreciated that in addition to the solitude that rested in open space. He looked about, closed his eyes for good measures of red-wing blackbirds’ songs. All in all, he was good with the world if he remembered to let demons of worry escape his grasp, that is, how could he better himself more, maybe rise in the company; who could love him and he, finally, her? That sort of thing. But he had few actual worthy complaints, twisted tongue be damned. There was much to like about his life.

And so that noon was like any early June lunch hour: full belly, smoothed mind, sun high yet not attacking him with heat, rest enough to sustain him another four or five hours on Westwind Estate. He stood and stretched.

It was a glimpse of orange that caught his eye, but then grasses hid it– until a gust pushed spindly stalks over. The vivid remnant suddenly ballooned up and out into full shape of color. He narrowed his eyes against white sunlight, resettled his cap. The orangeness flashed up and over the tops of wild grasses and two legs beneath it carried it up to the other side of the ridge by Ferryman Woods. The ancient trees’ shade thickened and darkened things, yet the legs and arm became more visible: they moved from and under the tangerine dress. The girl or woman inside it was leaping, spinning, bowing, turning along the earth as if an exotic, freed bird.

Lonny couldn’t further sharpen his vision but he knew one thing–he hadn’t seen her before. Nothing about her physical or any other aspect was familiar. He’d worked at the estate for years off and on, under direction of Morton Landworks, ever since he’d completed high school. The ridge, hills and meadows, the dense woods and the lake beyond–these were familiar as his own self and so, too, area farmers and stable owners, lake and country home residents. Yet here was an alien person. A wanderer into his paradise. He was struck that what he felt was not only mild shock but a pleasant sensation as he watched her. The swirling movement was softened and emboldened at once by the one who wore such clothing in midday summer heat.

Still–who was she and why was she doing all that dancing? Not even a stage around those parts, no tourist traps of theatrical offerings. She looked like some kind of dancer in the filmy summer dress as she stood a moment before that wooded hill, amid early June’s beauty. He’d never seen anything or one so light, fluid, as if water had been changed to a flame of orange light and decided to crest and spin, then ripen and bloom into something new.

Into her.

He watched her a few moments, a creature he was unable to describe much less understand but at the least she was entirely herself. That much was obvious–there was certainty in her every motion. Doing what she wanted, a-shimmer with enthusiasm. Celebrating, he guessed, no more than the rich tonic of the day. Her head bobbed, then she dove behind and into the woods.

Lonny took in a breath of sweet air and then he went down the ridge, back to labors. He had to, despite a hesitance to leave. Where was she going, where was she from? He might have imagined it, perhaps…a girl in a dress, dancing. Improbable. But he had witnessed it all while making quick work of lunch.

When he passed the others clustered at the back gardens, he said as usual nothing at all and what could he say even if he had the gift? That he had seen a tangerine goddess of a woman dancing by the woods? They’d immediately spoil it, heckling him. They’d run up the ridge, call and hoot for her to show herself. Unthinkable. He put himself hard into the pruning of bushes, then smiled to himself.

******

He never expected it but the next day and the next and then so many after, she was there. Of course, it was not the tangerine dress every time, but blue or black or red or yellow; sometimes, shorts with light summer tops. He had to keep a keen eye but soon she would flutter up or run into the light. Lonny could not imagine why she would choose this time and place to do what she did–part exercise, he thought, part dance, perhaps part mindless play. Perhaps she felt freer there than elsewhere, as did he, and she thought herself alone.

He had been near-tempted the fourth day to bring binoculars to identify her, maybe, to observe better but the thought felt tawdry–and it was unnecessary, as well. He could see her movements well enough as he ate his lunches and drank cold tea under the shade of a large white oak tree.

Sometimes she was there a short time, others for the whole hour, and not yet gone as he left. The dance was similar in grace but not always in steps and so often she displayed such strength when, with bare feet, she pushed off the ground, jumped high with legs out at angles or leapt or spun about with electric power. It was a free dance concert in the open air and he was mesmerized, he happily gave in to it. He admired her, that she was that expressive and unafraid, kicked up her heels, laughed for any reason, grabbed the world with her excitement. He, too, sensed how careful with it she could be with slower delicate motions. It was a spectacle that gave him uncommon shivers, yet there was a quality to her height–he’d decided she was nearly tall as he was, six feet– and her embracing reach and that loping gait that calmed him, too.

He had to shake his head after to clear it of her so he could once more focus on an everyday world. Lonny usually left before she did. Some days she melted back into Ferryman Woods or slipped down into golden meadow grasses and seemed an apparition, fast vanished. It occurred to Lonny that she stayed in a lake house on the other side of the woods. That she was summer folk. And that might have made him give up the watching altogether as a waste–summer people swanned in and out of town, leaving litter, making trouble as well as dropping cash– but instead it drew him in more. For she, then, was truly transitory, temporal, now here and gone again. She was at least an unknown, different from other women he knew… so he must not disturb her presence with any judgement, or any movements closer.

Five days a week Lonny watched from the tree and keep her secret and it was enough. He had the sixth and seventh day to contemplate the scenarios and found he did not want to find her there other days, only upon his arrival on Monday once more. But he did wonder, what of her life beyond that hill and those woods? And how long was she for Marionville…

His mother thought him more absent-minded than usual but she had enough on her hands with his younger sister disobeying rules and two part-time jobs, one at the dry cleaners, one at the marina. She knew that the fewer questions, the better; Lonny would then avoid her. Besides, at near twenty-two he knew how to make his way well enough despite a lack of asking and answering the usual way. He had been an awkward, timid but good kid, and now was more confident and capable than she’d hoped, a decent young man. Her guilt and sadness over his speech impediments were at times less than a growing pride in him. She kept him looking forward yet didn’t say much about things one way or another. To be sure, she was relieved he was yet home, for now.

******

By late June, Lonny thought he’d seen almost everything of which the woman was capable, at least on grassy earth in dimmed or searing sunlight. He also liked to picture her as a basketball or tennis player; she was surely an athlete as well as dancerly. He believed she must have a brilliant future, that she was on her way from summer’s ease to somewhere big and boisterous, New Chicago or Seattle, places he’d surely go if he had a way to get there. And then survive.

In private, he started to ask her things in the velvety interior of his mind. Did she go back to college in fall? Was she from a big or small family and did it include a father? Was she a bibliophile, nose stuck in printed pages every day even for awhile, as was his? Where had she traveled in the world or their continent? Did she like the night skies here? What was her favorite musical genre? Did she stretch her whole body before sleep as he did? What about moths that pulsed at the light bulbs on porches, did they scare or interest her? He put head in the cups of his hands and groaned. This was not a good thing, talking to her without a sound, that he had all these words that he could never speak aloud.

The eleventh work day, a Monday, Lonny found the indented spot under the overreaching tree and opened his rumpled brown bag to extricate lunch. He spread out a tea towel on bumpy grass where roots hunched up, then laid out a ham with lettuce and butter sandwich, a cup of corn chips and bottle of tea. He didn’t glance at the hilltop by the woods until he took a first bite. It was just trees and grasses green and golden with patches of tiny daisies opening before him. Sun’s rays targeted his outstretched legs, bees hovered about the tea bottle, bumped into his head. The green and brown earth smelled lake-damp and meadow warm and it felt like a secret island, with sky as a backdrop of blue so clear it was as if he could see into the far off universe.

He was glad to be sitting and eating in such a tree’s gift of shade. But she was not there. He finished eating, pulled out his book, in case he must read rather than watch her practice whatever was for today. It was an ancient book of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson with pages yellowing, binding cracked.

He was onto a second essay, head bent over, an eye on his pocket watch and one on the empty knoll when there was a flutter and flash at edge of his vision. Orange filament afloat in the burning air. He stood and spun to his right, book falling to ground as she appeared from behind the tree and stood opposite him, hands at hips.

“Well, here we are,” she said, her voice soft, hazy as smoke. “You have been watching me. And I have been watching you watch me.”

All those repetitious words felt like a squall of language but it was the sight of her that did him in. He stepped, no, stumbled back, hands finding armor of tree bark just in time. Her tanned fair face and deep blue eyes were not threatening, but neither were they brimming with delight. Rather, sharply questioning and appraising. Maybe open to further discussion. Of which he could offer none. He wished he might say: you are amazing, that’s why I watch you, why else?

“I-I-I…” he started and had to stop, not even the simplest thing would come out, of course, so he tapped his lips, then made a cross-cutting action with both hands before his waist to signal there was nothing he could say further.

“You’re done before we even begin? Well. You won’t advance like some jerk, after all?” She took a small step back, still. “I have to say, this is a surprise.”

He shook his head and made his face gentler as he saw she had a sizable rock grasped in a hand. They stared at each other in surprise and uncertainty when he found he had to sit down to avoid being made a fool by weakening knees that resulted in falling over. She dropped the rock and took a seat many feet across from him.

Lonny tried hard to think how to say his name without mangling it but gave up, his breathing too shallow, brain too numb. If there was anything that might still terrify him, it was the sudden need to speak, that expectation of another of his words, words, words.

“I wondered why you’re always here eating and watching me, that’s all. Two weeks now, at least.”

He looked at her still face then pointed to his lunch, half of which he had stepped on. He gestured back towards the estate, as well.

“Apparently a person of few words…? You work down there, eat lunch here… I see. I don’t really live here, so why should I think I own that spot?” She flapped her hand toward the wooded hill across the expanse of meadow. “I’m here for the summer so I dance for practice, partly, but also for fun. The rest of the year I study dance…and many other things.”

She smoothed down the hem of full skirted tangerine dress, then her light brown hair which was pulled back into a high ponytail. Looked out at Ferryman Woods. He let his eyes study her face closely then. Perspiration dotted her wide forehead and generous upper lip. Tiny waves were plastered to forehead, at her ears. Her nose was small. His own neck was prickly with heat and sweat so he scratched, looked away just as her eyes slid back to him. He glanced at his watch. It was high time to get back, and he gathered food detritus and stuffed it in the bag, then stood, gestured to the land below them.

She got up, then.”I’m Marni Bellingham,” she said. “You are?”

“L-l-l-lonnn,” Lonny spat out, then turned, ran down the hill while she observed the curious lumbering man grow smaller and smaller.

******

He avoided the ridge after that and ate with Giles, who had befriended him at the start; they both had initially been teased some, Giles for his Quebec accent and unusual thinness; Lonny for his speech problem, his enduring silence.

“All I can get is that you gave up your lunch spot because of some girl. But you are interested, I think? There must be a hundred different girls in summer months. I might let that one go, Lonny.”

Of course he had already determined that was the best course of action. Or inaction. If he did return to the ridge any time soon, he may or may not see her but even so, what was there to do or say? The fact was, he couldn’t tell her anything that might reassure or interest her.

“You’re a good looking guy, Lon, and a good man but honestly, why waste time? Marionville has plenty for you to consider–take Flora, for example, an industrious and attractive woman/ We went out with her and Evie twice but you gave up. I’m going to see Evie this week end, why not come and she’ll bring Flora along? “

Lonny hated these one-sided chats. They went nowhere. He had dated, since age 18, a tad more than he could count on one hand. Before then, none. No one wanted to be with a man who was considered if not actually stupid, then essentially a mute with only a small future. The fact that he made good money now at the landscaping company meant little to someone who, if honest, also needed to talk all day and night with her man. Well, if only.

Besides, there was Marni. She leapt through his mind any time he wasn’t considering something else, and then she might yet pop through as if crashing his brain from some other dimension, reminding him she was just off stage, but still there. Or was she?

******

In town on Saturday morning while downtown with his mother and sister Laura, he saw someone who might be her sitting with someone who might her father. He had to look twice, then indicated to his mother and sister he had another errand to get done. Laura frowned at him then followed their mother to the bakery for their scones.

Marni was sitting outdoors on the coffee shop terrace. The older man was reading a newspaper and she had her chin propped in her hand, the other hand around a coffee mug. Lonny was going to walk right past her and into the shop, just to see her that was all, then leave. He managed to get by and inside, then stood in line, heart tramping his chest.

“Hey there, Lonny.”

He turned to find Flora smiling at him with that bright pink lipstick but as he nodded at her, in swept Marni to stand behind her. Flora followed his changed gaze, scowled, then looked at the chalkboard menu above them.

“H-h-hi-uh…” Lon called out in Marni’s direction, then stepped out of line. Idiot, he thought, what are you up to?

“Lon!” She made room for him in front of her. “I wondered where you’d gone. Figured I’d scared you off. Sorry…If you’re getting a coffee, want to join Dad and me outside?”

Did he want to join her…yes! Did he want to join her father? No, and he would have to chat away. He moved ahead a notch; she moved with him.

“Listen,” she said in a near-whisper, “it’s okay if you’re quiet. Not every one is a talker. I can talk a lot or a little or none at all…”

He nodded his head at the barista who always knew Lonny’s order. Marni ordered her refill and they stepped away together.

“Marni girl?” The man who was decidedly Marni’s father in black polo shirt, khaki shorts and deck shoes had stuck his head in the half-open door and called out, “I’m off to the marina, meet in an hour?” He nodded at Lonny as if he was a nice guy he naturally trusted with his fabulous daughter and then left.

Flora departed, too, with a deeply heated backward glance at him as if he was a traitor.

The two of them sat at her table, cooled by shadows cast from as large blue and white striped sun umbrella. At first she said nothing but sipped her coffee, looking into the busy street. Her sleeveless white blouse with tiny green sailboats caught his eye, then her muscular arms, too, and her hand went to the vee of bare throat and chest. He felt the color rise in his face.

“Lonny, tell me if I am wrong. I get right to the crux of a matter… But you’re sorta mute, is that right? I suppose there is some fancy technical term, sorry.”

He lifted his chin a bit, held it there, his hands clasping the seat of the chair as he waited for the usual discomfort, tried to stave it off with perfect stillness. His eyes, he hoped, said little except he was glad to be there.

“I don’t care, that’s what I had to say. It’s different but means little to me.”

He shifted his eyes from her face to table top. Well, nothing to say to that even in his head–she might mean it or not, anyway. He wished it was not even a point to be made but there it was, and hopefully over with.

“Lonny, this is what you see about me but might not get: I’m a dancer. So I don’t love to indulge so much in regular language, not unless I can possibly help it. I’d rather dance, period.”

“Oh…” he uttered a well of a word, bottomless, and he fell into the moment.

Marni smiled, teeth flashing. “And I’d like to like you, maybe.” She put a index finger on his forearm, tapped it once, tentative yet telegraphing an affirmative.

He gulped his coffee, tried to not choke; that soft finger, her lilting voice. Some passageway inside him went from darker to lighter, and opened up enough that he felt his chest open, too, and his head expanded to accommodate her words: And I’d like to like you, I think.

He set the half-full mug down, rose up and offered the crook of his arm for a walk– along the lake, he gestured, in the sunny day. She held up another finger, then made her hands swoop and fly so that she took her body down the steps and dancing onto the sidewalk, not a care for what anyone thought. Lonny watched in amusement, then jogged after her. As he trotted he tried to say her name. The best he did was manage Ni. As she came to a measured stop, she was so brimming with laughter that he had to catch her hand in his and tug her along.

There were more than a few Marionville inhabitants who noticed all this that Saturday and were perplexed for days–but Lonny was still water running deep, you just never knew. That young woman, a summer girl, someone said a talented dancer? Well, she was a foolish or brave young woman to take that curious one on. But Giles, Lonny’s mother and sister Laura knew better. Marni was on the verge of discovering an astonishing man, someone about to come into his own– but they kept their thoughts to themselves, just as Lonny would hope. Just as Lonny almost always did.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: What I Love, i.e., How I Thrive

Astoria, OR. by the Columbia River

The deep center of this body–where we live in the many parts that make us and more– sometimes recoils and grabs hold of belly, ribs, heart and solar plexus at the same moment: speechless depths of misery and longing, at once. It pierces, reaches beyond the cellular to spirit. The universe seems to open and close, an accordion of sadness, and want. Stunned. I move around that current all day, navigating my way, but if at night I make my nest, rebuild a tent of pillow, sheet, bedspread and settle in. Then start over again. Silky or raw half-dreams, ponderings here to there. Eventually a facsimile of sleep. Then three or four hours later, repeat.

Are we not all trying hard at times to even sleep, not only more but peacefully so to awake and fumble our way better into another day, perhaps even take charge of it? Are you, as I, struggling in this worldly morass much of the time lately? It is fatigue of relentless adaptation, that push for coping–but also a need of connection and peace. Or a moment of frivolity in the midst of multiple, severe realities. At least it is likely here, the land in which I reside.

How do we manage to live with all the changes and difficulty? The fury and the despair out there that comes to haunt us, too? But everyone needs better than managing it all.

I was going to write a lighter personal essay about something I love, about how some smaller thing is a good trick that keeps me even a bit better afloat. Say, thrift shop vases of fresh-cut flowers. Oregon State Park hikes. Bach cello concertos. Singing along with Eliane Elias, dancing. Yet none of this is quite the crux of my need to write today. I am writing about coping with the world’s increased demands, its violence and grief, its obfuscations, its lies–and that asks me to name what counts the most.

What is a major element that enables me to withstand testings, disappointments, worries, losses? The quickest answer is my faith in Divine Love, God within/around us. That is always foremost or I would not be here writing.

But then came this: imagination. And it’s cousin, curiosity.

One of the first times I realized imagination wasn’t only for creating a story or music and had practical uses was when I was a young girl playing baseball with neighborhood kids. I found myself trying to imagine what it looked like from different bases and the pitcher’s mound when looking back toward me, a batter. I tried to imagine what they were going to do. It was odd, perhaps, but I felt as batter and hopefully home runner that it might help. And it did the more I practiced this switching perspectives, even if it was imagined. I had more confidence and in time was better able to anticipate reactions, which aided my choices.

Imagination influences us daily, in everything we enact or think. It is pervasive even without our fully knowing it as we consider possibilities and try to find answers to a series of minuscule or mammoth problems in our personal and professional endeavors. It intervenes on our behalf as we dream, seek to understand another, set up goals, test theories, develop new inventions. I think of imagination as a partner, as well as an aspect of my personality that motivates me to seek authenticity and depth in what I learn. I can become a healthier person with such help and, naturally, create better. It expands who I am by virtue of its pervasive presence, and its interesting array of offerings–which can be accepted or rejected or used as springboards.

We use imagination not only to give life in our minds what we cannot directly experience with our senses. We imagine connections and study those ideas, synthesize them for insights and solutions. We construct a future goal and then utilize imagined steps along the way, developing a structure by which to tackle the chore. Failure of one option is a possibility that just isn’t usable; we move on, the imagination considering an alternative.

Empathy seems a result of this creative force, for if we allow ourselves to imagine how it must be to live as another person we start to understand the individual or the group. Then we can develop the ability to see the world differently with greater caring and sense of shared humanity.

We can entertain ourselves imaginatively, of course, by daydreaming,letting the mind roam wherever it will. Or casually participating in various activities for hours–movies or other arts, games, socializing with new friends. We try to interpret and engage with them in some way that answer questions and stokes the imagination further. Observations alone can be entertaining–we all speculate on who that platinum-haired person we see walking the Great Dane at 8 am, noon and 4 pm really is, or what that conversation about a judge, missing lawyer and a July deadline might lead to– we will imagine it if we like.

The plasticity of the mind is a grand thing. Born with a vast curiosity, we’ll use it constantly unless forbidden for some absurd or terrible reason. I suspect even then it will come to our defense, drive us toward more questions, potential answers. How fortunate we are to have that innate desire to explore and gather information seen and unseen; the capability to conceptualize, construct entire stratagems to gain greater ground. Intellectual curiosity coupled with imagination discover theories that can split open a universe within or without us.

I have felt my entire life that my imagination was a basic necessary tool to keep my self in decent working order. And to find fulfillment. Joy. It not only kept me alive in devastating circumstances–we have to be able to first imagine possible relief and the light returning to hope even a bit–it has led me into a life that has been richly interactive with many levels of experience most every single day, even in harsh times. (I had to think about that, but find it essentially true.)

Using imagination is a rescue tactic. I can step into a picture, a story, a poem of my own making, a view before me, a random conversation, a different perspective, a fledgling idea, a framework for tomorrow. Nearly all things can be tolerated for a time with constructive use of imagination. It can aid in keeping one on more even keel– thus, healthier and sane at the core despite pressures and pains. If in dire circumstances, what we can imagine, we can live for and aim to more fully realize in this three dimensional world. It also takes us beyond what seems mundane and useless.

Yes, it can also help devise an answer erroneously; make inferences regarding events that may have no grounds for truth; lead me down a primrose path that goes in circles. But I still have free will and choice and my human curiosity will seek another way out, a new conclusion, a deeper look. Besides which, imagination does not insist I keep only my own company. I can be alone with it and be entirely happy. But I can also find others’ knowledge and wisdom. I can call upon anyone that will allow me to ask for help. For another idea. A helping hand. A spiritual opportunity. An inspiring jog to my suddenly lethargic mind. Without imagination, I’d be far less likely to believe a viable option was to reach outward, as well. And it would be much harder to keep on keeping on.

What I love is the human capability to wildly or meticulously imagine anything desired, and talent for seeking the unique spark in all life. We can freely consider and embrace the intriguing or unexpected. And for me that means honing in on the good in all others, imagining the best rather than the worst. Though this has not come easily some years, it still comes to me as I pause and ask more questions. I keep eyes and spirit open as I need to live thoroughly, thoughtfully.

It is true imagination can snag, boomerang and sting; it can make me seriously reassess my intelligence and courage so that I must start again, take different chances. Yet I let my imagination consider the beauty of a panoply of possibilities to lead me forward. There is more to gain than lose, always. Otherwise, there are too many empty gaps. And that is akin to missing the boat while traveling this spectacular river of life.

I believe everyone wants to be in on such a journey. If I can think of it and pray for it, I can extend a hand or speak up, clarify imaginings as I help with a few more hopes and dreams. Perhaps they may even come to resemble a finer reality.

The Columbia River

Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: Waste Not Love,Want Not

Who saves us from ourselves as we work for and pray for the healing of bodies and minds across this country and the world? As we honor those leaving us and uplift those who need just one kindness shared? Let me tell you about two friends, without whom these days and nights would be more confounding, tiresome and menacing…who help make the long wait worth every small, good effort at making time more meaningful.

******

B. was smart, sarcastic and tough when we met in 1993 and worked with gang youth, but she had a heart and I right away saw it. She thought I was a sort of innocent, a fussy woman with good instincts who could handle her snappishness, anyway. She was right about “handling” her attitude. But she got a clearer picture of my own untidy past and counseling skills soon. We made a good team in our work and would at other agencies to come. Yet from outer appearances, who’d have predicted we both loved opera and blues?

Now, after decades of surviving crises at work and home, it feels like we are getting close to danger of wildfire, one we have tried to avoid facing as her health has declined.

“Well, you’ll never guess where I ended up last night.” She coughs hard, once, her words struggling to get into the air and to me.

We had just talked two days prior; I can guess. B. was very sick with pneumonia well over two months ago. She has lupus and weakened kidneys, a scarred liver, and degenerative arthritis despite being ten years younger than I am. So, it has been a halting recovery, at best; breathing and energy have remained unimpaired. She has tried to work remotely but is a counselor for an addictions and mental health treatment program in a women’s prison. Not very convenient to work from home. It seems unlikely she will return during the COVID-19 crisis. Maybe not after. We have talked often each week as I have waited for events to unfold. She has been taking her 91 year old mother to the store– until finally she agreed to not do so at my pleading. Now, deliveries are made. She helps care for a niece on week-ends, at times, still.

She could get sicker fast. With corona-virus. Anything. So I am prepared, maybe.

“You landed back in the hospital. Lungs?”

“Not that. I got shocked.”

I take that in. “Heart, you mean? They shocked your heart?”

“Yeah. Heart was at 180 bpm. A-fib.”

“Wait–your heart? You mean the suspected anxiety attacks were maybe A fib events?”

I know how that is, the alarm of it, a rapid up-sweep of heart rate, breathlessness, tightening chest. But never at 180; 130-140 is too high for me as a heart patient.

A sharp tingling covers me feet to head with the knowledge of B. in pain, heart a runaway creature she cannot control.

“Guess so. It hurt so went to ER.”

“Lungs?”

“The doc said good news is my lungs look healed.” She takes a shaky breath. “Always something for us, eh? My body is falling apart.”

I think how most people would have said that even 20 years ago as she racked up surgeries for various damaged joints from feet to hips to hands. But this is a new thing, as if finally giving up a charade of “doing okay” and coming to terms with it all. She does not complain, whine, groan. It has never occurred to her to nurture self-pity. But she is worn out by buckling organs.

“Yeah, we get through one thing…. but we played and lived hard, we pay the price. You get up, I get up.”

“Yeah, but I’m a mean ole possum so won’t stay down.”

I laugh with her softer chuckle but all of a sudden feel in my bones how ill she really is. She doesn’t even like possums. White pet rats, that was a thing once. A wild cat or two. A parrot. Mongrel dogs, for sure. Possums and raccoons, no.

“On medicine now for this thing. How are you?”

“I’m okay, hanging in there. Are you–“

“I’m out of it. Just wiped. Have to go. Talk later.”

She hangs up.

B. has talked more of surrender to God over the past year, this woman who fought with fists in her youth, spit in the face of a twisty fate, protested with loud voice against injustices, swaggered across streets with her cane and stopping traffic to meet me on the other side, picked up life’s shattered pieces countless times, reached her hand to others in need without any questions.

My best friend, B. who I’ve long teasingly nicknamed Brenda Starr, the ace reporter from the old comic strip who chased after adventure and hunted down evil ones and rooted out truth at great risk to herself, all the while her beauty unfazed by the grit and sweat. The last part B. would loudly hoot over. She is not the glamorous type. At least, not since she was in her 20s and dressed in a leopard print dress and spike heels…though her hair, light golden auburn, long and voluminous, still is fabulous. But she is brave.

I stare at the phone as I lean against the wall and try to pray but no words come out. My throat threatens to close over and my husband calls me to the table for reheated pasta.

******

This chilly afternoon, a fine steady rain splashing against the windows–it is back again after stunning brilliance of springtime–I know I am fortunate. My current greater solitude since the rabid, often deadly virus has left me musing even more. And lately I consider the friends I enjoy– despite not having dozens at this point in my life. Meaningful ones seem to have crystallized, become denser, sleeker, deeper. Crucial even more than before as so much else becomes irrelevant.

I feel gratitude well up, a happy balloon floating within my being. I have family who cares, yes. But my friends–they are the once-hidden treasures I never planned on caring for like this, day in, day out. No, when a young woman I believed I was more the person who was there today, gone tomorrow: “love the one you’re with.” And I certainly did. But that foolishness was revealed to be what it was, of course, when I met people to truly love for the sake of who they were/are–not for whatever could be useful, for a thrill in the moment, the sharing of a drug and a suffering poet dream.

First, risk; then attachment; then devotion and loyalty. It was rather hard back then. I had to learn better. But not now. It has come easy for along while; the rewards are great.

I have two non-blood very best friends and that is plenty. It is like amassing spiritual and emotional wealth to know them every single day.

******

E. and I check in at least once a week, often after midnight as we both have insomnia. She also has been ill with a less serious respiratory illness but since she has asthma she is high risk for the worst virus. Her doctor has determined she must remain at home from work now. Her work isn’t sure they will need her to go back. But whatever happens, there is too little protection being in an office setting. Or, for that matter, even going to the store for bread and milk.

She is packing her several rooms full of stuff, off and on; her plan was to retire and move to Arizona near her brother by summer’s end. She has lived alone since I met her 25 years ago, after her drawn out, life-shaking divorce.

“Now who knows? I might just stay inside until I kick the bucket. I’ll knit myself a huge cocoon and stay put, how’s that? Might retire at last, if I can stop buying yarn. And books…well, could build a house with those, too!”

E. is guffaw-prone–both B. and E. make fun of defects of character and life’s travails–so lets loose her light, rippling peels of laughter. We vow not to go down gnashing our teeth

“I imagine you have blankets, scarves and socks galore stacked up in there, maybe tilting pyramids. The books you can give to me if you want.”

Her knitted pieces are evenly made, colorful. She adores soft, bright skeins of beautiful yarn and they take up space on floor, couch, table and bed. I can see her hands fly, the thing she creates growing by the minute.

“Want some socks? Yeah, adding to the mess. Oh, well, I have more boxes. I’ll get by even if I stay here. I’d just like more sunshine, my family closer.” She wheezes a little but assures me she is okay. “How are you? I’m so sorry Marc lost his job.”

“Yes, well, it has happened to millions. We sure aren’t special in this time and place…I’m working on a new budget. Well, scrapping it and starting anew…”

“Tell me how it’s going, you know to call me any time. It stinks for things to not end up as we’d planned, who could have known? We had such confidence! Sort of.”

“Well, what else is new? Nothing is what we thought and we’ve lived interesting, curious lives.”

We talk a bit more about our oddly reduced circumstances. But I’d rather not. It is what it is. And we are there for each other. She is also in recovery so understands each day needs to be met with humility. Acceptance and strength. Faith not fear–our mantra. And I intend on utilizing my practical ability to problem solve, keep heart to endure, adapt. Keep my vision aimed upward and outward. We both are Taurus, for what little that’s worth–but we do tend to think more alike and that can be comforting.

“Miss going to the movies with you,” I say. She adores films and all the arts. We have enjoyed plays together, dance concerts. “We’ve seen so many good ones, and there are always more.”

“I know,” E. agrees, “then getting lunch or dinner out and catching up in person. We know how to have a good time.”

We talk about what we are watching on small screens. My home no longer has cable TV to save money–we do have streaming apps. But I don’t miss things that are not essential, not much. Maybe immediate access to lactose-free ice cream and tons of chocolate chips for cookies to bake, sure, but not pricey steak or 160 TV channels or new clothes for spring or even another shiny hardback book. I have more than enough stuff. I miss movies and dinner out with E., though.

“Let’s meet up for coffee at a drive-through place and sit in a parking lot, 6 feet apart, just gab a little,” I say. “I’ve done that with my kids a couple times. Hard to not hug, but just seeing each other…”

“I love it–tell me where and when. We could dress up, bring cake!”

We commiserate about the tarnish on our “golden years”, share a funny story or two and finally hang up. The residual richness of her voice works like healing balm. her longtime job has been in accounts receivable in a health care system, weirdly considering things as they are. But I realize she is so good at that because her voice emanates her real personhood– warm, honest, empathetic and deeply kind, with a gift for finding gentle humor in hard moments. And that touch of lingering New Jersey accent makes it even better. Much better. I can see her scurrying along a clamorous New York City street, headed to Broadway for a play’s opening. Something I had hoped we might yet share.

I don’t want her to move to Arizona, ever, but if she does I’ll be visiting as soon as I can. I already have my invite.

I text her at midnight. “We could have been Broadway stars, you know, just bad timing, sketchy men. Booze. Good night, Ginger.”

She sends me an emoji–herself dancing with that still- red shock of hair, her purple glasses, mouth wide, eyes gleeful as ever.

******

I just read an extraordinary book called Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. By the end of the novel you emerge slowly from the story with the main character as if coming into the sheerness of dawn. Edward is a youth who was the only survivor of a devastating plane crash that took his family and the others. He muses on how love must not be wasted, time must not be wasted.

I wept as I read the last lines of that story. I have felt a slow burning inside of these truths my whole life, like a brightly lit candle that has guided me every step, even as I have gotten lost. Time and love, not to be wasted: the only rules worth minding. We must inhabit these fully, use these well, give these to others freely.

I feel it more every day, the desire and need. To be that present. To better ensure that love is known when I speak and move in this world.

******

“Hello? Don’t text me. I can’t read without my glasses.” B. chides me.

Her voice is weaker than yesterday.

“Okay, got it. We’ll talk. How is it going now?”

“Feel worse, maybe. Thinking should finally retire… prison doesn’t need me.”

“Well, it does. But of course you should retire. You work too hard. Now you will be in the hospital several days, to get things in order, your heart rested and healed more. I know, my friend, that all of this is hard on you.”

“Tiring. So listen, I talked to my mom. I want you to know”– an eruption of a cough—“I want you to have Spook’s Pendleton blanket. It is clean, it’s folded on the end of my bed at home.”

For a second I thought she had said she saw Spook, an old friend, in her room and it scared me.

“Spook”, now long gone, was a Native American elder, a man she was bonded with for decades. B. is part Native American and the woven woolen blanket he gave her from Warm Springs Confederation of Tribes is unique, special. I knew and respected him. He always had a corny crack, a smile for me. We worked together awhile in the fight against addiction’s ravages on the Native community. He liked that I gave the Native women a chance to dance, to sing their languages, to tell their stories. And he may have known they touched me in my very bone and blood. He seemed to feel for a white woman I was okay. Because I was B.’s friend, no doubt.

But his blanket, to be given to me? I cannot imagine such an honor. I am deeply stilled. Everything holds collective breath– outside, inside, wherever Spook now resides, in the bed where B. struggles to live. From her place in the life constellation, mine and so many others’.

“Okay. You feel Spook will be okay with it. You see him there?”

She laughs a little, coughs. “Naw. It’s mine, anyway. Blanket. I mean it, may as well say these things. Nothing morbid about it. You’re my sister. And I love you.”

I cannot speak again. Why do es language, even easy syllables, keep falling away from me? But she has never said that aloud… “sister”… though such intimate words have not been needed. It all feels bigger than a sum of many parts. I know she has thought about leaving the earth for a long time. She has been that terribly ill, and too often. I close my eyes against the sunshine at my window, and there are flashes of orange behind my eyelids. A riot of pain and grief. And happiness for who she is.

I answer her. “I’m so very glad to be your sister. I needed another true one. We know what we’ve shared all these years.”

“And money, I have money to give you and Alexandra’s babies, not much, but something. And go to a Bonnie Raitt concert for me when you can. We have to hear Bonnie even if I’m not there in the flesh. Take her and Marc, too.” She half-gasps for breath. “They’re good nurses here, I tell them so.” She gives a kind of sputter. “Bonnie, our girl…”

I want to say something else but can only listen, try to take it in, her mind going here and there– so just talk like we always talk, as if this is a conversation we always have.

“Yes–a beautiful power she has. Lots more music, too. What does the doctor say?”

“Trying to get more damned water off my heart.”

A deep intake of breath a sigh from her. Does she know what this means? I know it is congestive heart failure; my sister died of it, my brother–I saw my own brother die. But she won’t say the diagnosis or prognosis out loud, that’s how she is. Or not today.

“So I told Mom these things–don’t forget.”

“You can pull through this. We’ll be meeting again, why not?”

“Yeah…just in case, had to tell you. People need to say things. I should find a priest.”

“You aren’t even Catholic. Talk right to God.”

“Can’t hurt.”

“I hear you, my old friend…sister.”

“Have to go, tired now.”

“Alright, I love you. Praying for healing.”

“Love you.”

******

I haven’t heard from B. today. I may call or I may not. Her breath is precious, she is weak. She will contact me sooner or later. Somehow. I don’t know for certain if she is leaving this world or not. I feel she expects she may. She is more and more enervated by this burdensome body. Her spirit is strong; it will always be. But I sense her drifting more with every moment, and feel the burden of her ill body in every unspoken thought as my own heart keeps beating hard and slow, a reminder that I am truly here, that I am so alive.

Why is mine beating so strong and well now? Why me? Brenda Starr, why?

******

What matters the very most as a life is lived? I will be 70 in a few days. I am not living as I thought I might, but more and less, different. One surprise after another. I am full amid sorrows and strife. As we all have to cope with daily. And we can determine to face it and hold on.

So, good fortune is mine–these friends, their love shared. And another day given me, sweet and tender, aching and resilient, persistently beautiful.

But I wait for B.’s voice once more.