Saturday, November 5, 2011

Saturday Musings, 05 November 2011

Good morning,

From on an old rocker in my living room, as Friday drew to a close, I watched a neighbor and her husband walk by. Their stride has slowed in the last few years, and they took several minutes to pass my window. I stood and crossed the room to stand at the window for a better view. I noticed the wife's hair has grown to a lovely shade of silver, and the husband wears a cap similar to one my grandfather might have worn, decades ago. In years past, this couple zinged past my window on their bicycles, she ahead, he behind, and groceries bobbing in a basket perched in front -- sometimes on his bike, other times on hers.

Even more than the thickening of grey in my own hair, and the tightening of my own joints and muscles, the changes to this pair of devoted lovebirds mark the passage of time. For a few months, in 2008 or 9, the husband took his evening bike ride alone. I learned through the neighborhood grapevine that the wife suffered some undisclosed ailment. Since then, I have not seen them on bikes but they still take their evening constitutional, on foot now, faithfully.

I expect to see one of them alone some day, and I will know that their lives have come full circle.

The particular oddness of my watching these neighbors lies not in my voyeuristic monitoring of their lives' devolution, but in the fact that the woman of this couple went to my law school, graduating in the class behind mine. Yet I have never spoken to her in all the years that we have lived within blocks of one another. I know her name, and yet I do not call it. I made an effort to do so, once, about fifteen years ago. I greeted her as my son and I walked in front of her house with our Beagle in tow. Her eyes evaded mine. I do not know if she failed to recognize me, or knew me but did not wish to engage. I tell myself that I am respecting her preference for solitude.

Two blocks north of me, a house stands empty. Its occupant, a woman named Johanna, has moved to a retirement facility. The one-story bungalow had been her childhood home. She never married, never had children, never took a room mate or a boarder. She, too, walked every day, greeting my son and me, hailing the other walkers and the men who mowed their lawns. I often wondered what she thought of the changing block. I spoke to her only in superficial tones, about the weather, my son's growth, the relative state of her infirmity and mine. She walked on her own for years, and then with a wheeled walker and finally, with a minder. One day she did not appear; a few weeks later, I saw an ambulance at her house. Now the "For Sale" sign signals her first and last departure from the home she occupied for eight decades.

In Jasper, Arkansas, town of 562 (603 on the water line), I represented a friend's grandmother when she sold her house and moved into a nursing home one county north. Everyone on the block helped me pack her belongings. With my client ensconced in a wide rocker made by her deceased husband, the wives came one after another, with gift-wrapped trinkets which might never get used -- hand-embroidered handkerchiefs, small jars of home-made preserves, packets of pre-stamped note cards. She stretched a liver-spotted finger out and touched the care-worn hands of the farmers' spouses one after another, occasionally reaching to adjust her cardigan, to wrap it more closely around her frail shoulders. Her smile never faded. If there were two hundred families in town, at least half of them sent a representative to bid her farewell. I stood at her elbow, watching the church ladies pack her china and the local auctioneer appraise her furniture. They touched each item with reverence, as she had done.

That winter, we attended a pie supper for a family that had been burned out. Fire accounted for much loss in the country, since most people heated with wood and wood has a funny way of over-taking even the most diligent tending. I'm not much for baking but we brought an apple pie that my then-husband had made, It sold for three hundred dollars, the top take. The hippies of Murray Valley crowded in the community center shoulder to shoulder with the locals. Before the auction started, apron-clad wives ladled chili into Styrofoam bowls, with a hefty square of tender corn bread on the side. I hovered in the background, still a foreigner, in awe of the carefree disregard with which the women scrunched their faces in deep grins that furrowed the crow's feet beside their sparkling eyes. These women had earned their wrinkles, from fretting over crops, worrying about the building of barns, and wondering whether the old John Deere would last through harvest.

I shared breakfast this week with a friend, and something about the simple honesty of her countenance reminded me of one of the women of Murray Valley. All those years ago, when I sat at her kitchen table and complained about being an outsider, Jeanne turned her head to one side and gazed at me for several moments before replying. You've just got to step into the breach, she advised. And trust that someone will catch you, she did not add. I dismissed her advice and never felt at home. I left less than a year later.

Now I wonder if I've ever understood what she meant. I wonder, too, on which side of the breach I stand. I have lived in Brookside for eighteen years and have watched my former classmate age just yards from my porch, and have never made a legitimate effort to engage her in conversation. I don't know Johanna's surname, or the name of the retirement community to which she relocated. I can't tell you what ailment took Lise out of commission and forced her husband to walk alone for several months. I only know that her once-blond and plentiful hair is now silver and sparse. I know that she used to pedal a bicycle with vigor and now creeps forward in heavy, clunky shoes.

I can't help but think that something has gone amiss. I've watched the world spin, the world which now wonders if the approaching asteroid will drive a 1700-foot hole into its surface. If that rock hit my home, and I disappeared into the resulting crater, would anyone bother stepping into the breach to lend me a hand? I heard a speaker from Mexico talking about Dia de Los Muertos earlier this week. In some random context, he mentioned that his favorite Beatles lyric contained the best advice he'd ever heard: And in the end, the love you get is equal to the love you give.

As I watched last evening, my neighbor raise her hand and rested it on her husband's arm, I drew a long breath, and briefly closed my eyes. I marveled at the ease with which she reached across that small space between them. Just before they moved out of sight, she turned her head backward, just slightly, in my direction. She caught my gaze across the expanse of my yard, and then, with seeming deliberation, turned away, and the two of them disappeared into the gathering dusk.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.