Her beautiful skin belies her age, but I can see that some of the light has gone out of her eyes. I smile quietly as she carefully locks and bolts the door behind me, a complicated process with many steps.
At her request, I’d crossed my yard and climbed her steep front stairway so she could bestow upon me a farewell gift. I now stood in her living room, my first invitation into her inner sanctum in the 13 years I’ve lived here. Thick drapes are drawn closed, protecting her furnishings from fading and rendering the crowded little room dim.
“I got these for you,” she said breathily with an excited little flutter of her hands. She produced a flowery gift bag from the sofa behind her, then unpacked it for me so she could bask a little in my appreciation. Her enthusiasm was beautifully childlike. I oohhhed and aahhhed over each gift, especially the last.
“I don’t think you’ll need sweaters in North Carolina,” she said, dipping her hand into the bag to pull out a pile of paisley material in lovely shades of blue and streaked with silver threads. “But I thought you’d like this shawl,” she finished and held it out to me to admire. The sweetness of her perfume wafted from the fabric, and I thanked her warmly. I loved her taste in scarves and shawls. I always wore the ones she gifted to me.
“Did Larry get a copy of that photo to you?” I asked, referring to a photo I’d taken of her and the man whose elderly mother lives across the street.
“He sure did!” she said, beaming and reaching for a frame perched on an end table. She turned it so I could see the photograph it held, and there they were: Queen Annette of the Ivy Castle and Lawrence, Duke of Graceland, standing as I’d captured them, arm in arm in their Sunday finery. As she turned the frame back again so she could see the photo, her smile softened and her voice lowered. “He sure did,” she repeated, this time with a deep fondness.
I paused for a moment, my own fondness melting into hers. “I’m going to miss Sundays here the most,” I said. “Do you know why?” She cocked her head a little, curiously, her dazzling smile lighting the dim room. “Because,” I explained, “I won’t get to see you drifting down those stairs anymore, wearing those gorgeous dresses with the matching high-heeled shoes and hats. You look like someone from a fairytale when you’re dressed for church.”
“Oh, you!” she giggled, waving me away but clearly enjoying the compliment. “I’m going to miss you, too,” she told me, growing more serious. “You’ve always been so kind. You take good care of me.” And she wrapped me in a perfumed hug, her thin body so much more frail than it looked. She was a sweet and dainty bird, perched in her high fortress on the hill.
It took a few moments for her to unlock all the bolts on the door to let me out again into the sunlight and heavy summer air. She hugged me again, and I turned to go.
“I love you, baby,” she said as she held the door for me. Her words stopped me in my tracks. “I love you, too, Mrs. Peterson,” I replied, turning for just a moment to look into her deep brown eyes before continuing on down the stairs, tears wetting my lashes.
She’s never said those words aloud to me before. But I’ve always, always felt them.