Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems. From where I stand.


2 Comments >

Hello there. I’m pausing for a moment in the flow of all the things I’m creating to note an anniversary of sorts.

On July 7, 2015, I launched this blog so I’d have a place to put my grief for my dying dog, Coyote, who quietly and patiently taught me more about grace than any human ever could. Nearly two and a half years later, I’m still (sporadically) writing about the things that are important to me, the things that amuse me, the things that catch my attention. And now, I’m also preparing to use it as a place to put my gratitude to and for another dog, with whom I embarked on one of the most exciting adventures of a brave new life we were creating together. That dog — my vibrant, goofy, enthusiastic, loving boy — my Bodhi — is also gone. But before he left me, he joyfully inspired me to start living the life I once only imagined.

So, the anniversary: This is my 100th post in a blog that’s as strange and unfocused as the mind that produced all that writing — more like a high school variety show than a serious literary undertaking.

And I’m not only okay with that strangeness, I celebrate it.

Because, dammit, I’m writing. And that’s what I was meant to do, in whatever form my Muse sees fit to forcibly drag out of me.

So raise your glass and toast along with me: To madness and musings and misadventures. To haiku and hilarity and horse-hockey. To love and laughter and loss. To all the things that make us know we’re alive.

To Small Conceits! Happy 100th, you reckless child of my heart.


5 Comments

A Practice for Healing Grief

 

“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul”

— John Muir

A Walk in the Woods

I am grieving.

I recently lost a Being so essential to my experience of joy that it’s left me reeling in a deep, spiritual darkness. My Golden Retriever, Bodhi, was diagnosed several weeks ago with an untreatable cancer that had begun bleeding into his abdomen. He was only 6 years old, the picture of health and vitality one day, and suddenly gone the next.

Upon hearing of Bodhi’s passing, some dear friends offered me the use of their cabin on 200 acres of forest land so I could start processing the trauma of my loss in much-needed solitude. Here, after my morning meditation and yoga, after my breakfast and doing the dishes, I lace boots onto my feet and walk out into the woods to try to ground myself.

The crude forest road is broad and rutted. Fallen leaves flatten themselves onto its uneven surface, creating a brilliant mosaic of fall color beneath my boots. They’re slippery from last night’s storms, so I pick my way cautiously down the hill and around the wide bend to the creek crossing.

I’ve always looked to nature for healing. When circumstances allow, I seek out remote spaces where I can peacefully and privately soak up the energy of my surroundings and invite in whatever wisdom or comfort the Earth has to offer. I open myself, often by small degrees as I’m able, to connecting with the world around me: I breathe the air deeply to take in its scent; I close my eyes and listen to the sounds of insects and animals and the wind; I handle plants and trees and rocks to connect with their texture; I focus my attention on colors and shapes and shadows and light; I sense the vibrations of of the space. Most importantly, I silence the stories in my head, as told by the inner critic who nags and frets and complains and finds fault with me.

More often than not, I seek out forests.

Forests continuously, visibly reflect the rhythm of the Universe, the cycle of life that moves from birth to growth to reproduction to death and back again to birth. While they lack the raw, stimulating power of the ocean, forests offer a deep, restorative wisdom, a literal and figurative rootedness I find lacking in the ocean tides. Trees have always held me. Even as a little girl, I climbed their branches to read and dream and cry away hurts, up and away from the world and its noise. Although I rarely climb them anymore, I still find solace leaning against their strong trunks or sitting among their roots. Native Americans call them The Standing People, and they pulse with the quiet patience that comes from slowly growing and stretching and finding the light. I walk among them with the intention of engaging in what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” I walk in the woods to immerse myself in living energy.

Barriers and Flow after the Storm

As I walk, I see that last night’s fierce storms have wakened the washes that now trickle and twinkle with tiny rivulets of run-off from the enfolding hills. I arrive at the creek bed — just yesterday dry and littered with naked stones — to see water splashing merrily over rocks and turning fallen branches into delicate fairy-falls. Here and there small pools quietly gather, slightly murky with autumnal tannins from the oaks that grow here. A sudden splash captures my attention as one of the pools pushes its way out between the roots of a tree to form a new streamlet. I crouch for a moment and close my eyes, listening to the gurgling of the water. When I open them again, I realize that today’s lesson would be about barriers and flow.

I stand up, watching the deceptively placid surfaces of the miniature ponds reflect moss-encased tree trunks and the soft, mousy grey of the clouds, and I think about my habitual ways of dealing with difficult emotions: fear, self-doubt, anger, and, yes, grief. I usually distract myself from them or let them collect in some dark corner of my heart until I’ve convinced myself they’ve healed with the passage time — or, on occasion, that they never existed at all. But, like waters in rain-swelled pools, those difficult emotions eddy and swirl, becoming murky and dark until they can no longer be contained and leak into unexpected areas of my life, manifesting as illness, stress, insomnia, depression, anxiety.

There is wisdom in pools, and I value it. There are times in our lives when we need to let emotions collect for a while until we are ready or able to release them in healthy, intentional ways that support us. But we do need to release them. We eventually need to let them flow — sometimes in little trickles, sometimes in raging rivers — so they don’t fester behind the dams we construct thinking we’re keeping ourselves safe.

In receiving this gift of sanctuary from my friends, I’d committed to diving deep into the grief, rather than running away from it. It’s a painful practice. Uncomfortable. At times almost unbearable. I patiently locate the grief in its hiding places in my body and focus my yoga there. I resolutely sit with it daily in meditation, holding it, calmly accepting it without judgment, until — like everything else, including joy, tenderness, and peace — it slowly recedes and floats away. I pour it onto the pages of my journals, examining it, discerning for myself what truths it contains — and what lies I tell myself about it and about my relationship with Bodhi — until I find the glimmer of gratitude buried beneath my tears.

I take my grief for daily walks in the woods. And I listen.

Looking at the water skipping over and around the rocks and rotting branches criss-crossing its flow, I reaffirm that I would not carry this loss like a stone in my heart. I will not allow it to become so deep that I drown in it. I’ve done that before. It nearly ended me. I will honor the loss, care for the grief, and learn from it. Not all at once. Healing happens in its own time. But I am opening my heart and letting it flow out of me, in whatever dancing trickle or rushing flood it demands, until its course is run.

And then I will get on with living joyfully, as my Bodhi taught me.


6 Comments

The Quest for Home, Part 2: Usable Mountain Land

“This isn’t going to work. We’re outta here.”

We’d just crossed the sixth one-lane bridge between the property we were driving into the mountains to look at and anything remotely resembling a town.  Six opportunities to be stuck on one side of a washed-out bridge or the other — going in or, more worrisome to me, coming out. Visions of not being able to get to a hospital spun around in my head.

My brother, John, didn’t take his eyes from the hairpin turns of the road I was cautiously navigating. “I don’t know why you didn’t turn around at bridge #3 when you first started saying that.”

I shrugged without looking at him. “Have you seen anywhere to turn around?”

“Good point,” he replied as a car whizzed past, its driver seemingly unconcerned that the two-lane road in the direction he was heading folded in half at the edge of a drop-off, then plunged up a blind hill. Maybe he was out of milk and eggs and had thrown caution to the wind, I silently posited.

I found a nearly-vertical driveway with a wide enough un-gated mouth to turn the 4Runner around without falling off into a ravine. It had a pretty decent view of the road snaking past it. Down below us, across the road, a cabin nestled in a sunlit clearing, the postcard version of all the similarly-nestled cabins we’d passed along the way. The cabin’s idyllic surroundings raised at least three flags for mistakes people make when buying rural land that formed the basis for my aversion to bridges. I peered as far up either side of the road as a I could, took a deep breath, and stomped on the accelerator, just as another car shot through the curve. I wasn’t comfortable with the margin by which we missed colliding but was thankful for it, nonetheless.

I risked a quick glance at my iPhone, where Google Maps was now showing us backtracking our route. The app had long since given up any active navigation and had simply been painting a blue line across the screen in the direction of the route it had chosen for us. As we retraced the route, the blue line became grey, indicating we were on the right road, which was a good thing, as I’d been so busy negotiating the crazy curves and hills that I wasn’t sure I could reverse the turns I’d taken on the way in without help.

“Google was showing we only had 10 minutes to go,” I smirked. “The listing said the property is 30 minutes from Asheville. I wonder if they confused 30 minutes with 30 miles.”

“The way people are driving up here,” John replied, “30 minutes and 30 miles are probably the same thing.”

Refining My “Requirements”

Western North Carolina’s rural landscape steals my breath away. Mountain coves hold in their embrace a patchwork of beautiful, rolling farmland and dark, stately forests stitched together by hair-raising two-lane roads. I found myself smitten with the area the first time I drove through it.

Just over a year later, having come to the realization that I’d been delaying a long-held dream to live more simply, more in sync with nature, I decided to make it my home.

However, driving through a place is far different from taking up residence. I was just now getting a taste for the challenges of mountain living. Although I plan to live off-grid in a yurt, I do not plan to homestead or live as a hermit, so there are a few modern conveniences, such as grocery stores, that I’ll still need access to. Because my plan also includes rental yurts for “glamping” — a trend that combines aspects of a camping experience with the ease of a bed-and-breakfast — I want to be reasonably close to restaurants and other attractions, without my guests losing the feeling of staying in a mountain retreat. And, frankly, at nearly 54 years old, I have to consider how likely it is that I’ll be able to age in place. I don’t want to build my dream only to find myself too frail to maintain and enjoy it.

Yes, it’s a tall order. My requirements, in fact, completely blew my budget for the land purchase itself because finding such a property requires more acreage than I’d anticipated. Not only were covenants and restrictions a potential barrier to living the way I wanted to live, but so (apparently) was finding land that was both accessible and level enough to build on.

“Usable Mountain Land”

“This is a great piece of property,” Pat, my realtor breathed, turning to take in the cleared knoll at the top of what, for me, was a nearly vertical climb up a goat-path attempting to pass itself off as a road. “You could cut in another 15 feet or so, all the way around, and you’d have a nice homesite, with room for solar.”

On the climb up, necessitated by the fact that Pat didn’t think his minivan would make it up the unimproved road — which the boulder jutting out of the center of one of the steeper rises validated —  he’d pointed out patches of less-crazily tilting ground. To my eye, these were mere ledges jutting from a forest that vaulted skyward. He’d point at one ledge or another, telling me, “You could put a guest yurt there…and one there…” I tried to imagine my guests struggling up a rutted drive, parking their vehicles on a narrow switchback, and hauling their gear or suitcases across a walkway spanning a deep rift in the earth before arriving at a yurt perched on a deck that jutted over the sharp drop.

I pictured my elderly parents afraid to visit.

The knoll was lovely, and the perc testing conducted by its current owners indicated that at least four people could live up there full-time. A broad stream bubbled along the bottom of the parcel, by the road, so water was plentiful. I wondered what kind of power would be required to pump that water all the way up to where we were standing, and what it would take to get any kind of pressure.

“You rarely see mountain property with this much usable land,” Pat said after a moment, grinning enthusiastically. “This is really sweet.”

My heart sank. If this was what usable mountain land looked like, and it was beginning to look like it was, based on our explorations that day, I had no idea what I was doing.


Later, at dinner, I shared my fears with my brother and his wife, Kim, who had come up to join us from their home in South Carolina.

“Maybe I should give this up,” I lamented. “Maybe I’m not cut out for mountain life.”

In fact, maybe, I thought, I am completely off my rocker and should be staying put, safe in my sweet little house in the city.


7 Comments

The Quest for Home, Part 1: Covenants and Restrictions

“Can I help you?”

While the lovely North Carolina drawl riveted my attention, it wasn’t what first attracted it. That dubious honor went to the tall, slender form of its speaker — a silver-haired man clad in jeans and a button-down shirt, emerging with leisurely grace from a silver Mercedes — even before he spoke.

After a few fleeting seconds of entertaining, then rejecting, less appropriate responses, I managed to collect myself enough to say, “Perhaps, if you’re the property owner.”

“I am,” he said simply, extending his hand and introducing himself as Hugh.

My brother John and I were casually looking at a few properties before I was scheduled to meet with my realtor, Pat, later in the day. I hoped to get a preview of what was available now that I was ready to begin my search in earnest, and we’d been trying to locate the first property on my list, a partially-cleared 11-acre parcel. Confused by the addresses, I’d pulled my old 4Runner into a cutout in the road, parking it up against a farm gate where a rutted drive ran between a sizable pond on the one side and a sunken field on the other. As we gazed down at the field below us, I remarked to John that if that was the acreage, I’d have to pass. It didn’t look like it would take much for the pond on the other side to spill over the retaining wall and flood the field. We couldn’t be sure we were looking at the right parcel, however, because the realty sign was missing, and addresses for undeveloped land are approximate.

“Addresses out here aren’t as orderly as they are in the city,” Hugh commented in his soft, southern accent. “We make the numbers up as we need them.” He also explained the missing realty sign: The listing agent had gotten sideways with a local mining company by defending homeowners whose properties were damaged by illegal blasting activities. The company’s employees retaliated by making it difficult for her to do business — including stealing or destroying her signs any time they found one. My brother and I exchanged a glance.

“But this isn’t the parcel you’re looking for,” Hugh continued quietly, the loud, incessant barking of penned hounds across the road nearly drowning him out. He swept his arm up and away to a parcel adjacent to the land on which the dog run sat. “It’s that one.”

A sunny meadow nestled into the embrace of a woods, running more-or-less gently down to the road but vaulting sharply up into the trees at its opposite end. It was beautiful, but I wondered — neither for the first nor the last — what it would take to balance a structure on the slope. Hugh had bought the property, as well as the one on which we were standing, as a “buffer” for the rest of the neighborhood. Over a decade ago, a developer expressed interest in the land, planning to put a trailer park on it. Hugh, a retired Christmas tree grower, wouldn’t have it. He’d purchased some 25 acres to prevent the developer’s progress. I thought of the dilapidated trailers and shacks we’d passed on our way up to this idyllic meadow. Less than picturesque, to be sure. Which begged the question Hugh asked next.

“And what do you plan to build on the property you buy?”

I took a deep breath, inwardly steeling myself before levelly replying: “I plan to put a yurt on it.”

Blowing My Land Budget

When I’d started my search for land in western North Carolina, more than a year prior to meeting Hugh, I’d told my first realtor (Laura) I wanted a three-to-five-acre plot, partly wooded, with a mountain view. I wanted enough space for my own yurt as well as two or three guest yurts that would become a source of income, as well as guest quarters for visiting family and friends. Using my sister’s three-acre lot as a guide, I determined that a similarly-sized lot would afford me a little privacy without putting too much distance between myself and my guests.

Linda obliged me by sending links to listings within about a 25-mile radius of Asheville, which I hoped to make a kind of hub for shopping, eating out, and social activities. Being reasonably close to Asheville would be a bonus for yurt renters and guests, as well, since it’s a sought-out destination for everything from brew pubs to fall color tours to tours of the Biltmore Estate. But I also wanted to be far enough away from the city for my home to feel like a retreat into nature.

And, so I’d explored the area, mapping out routes to the listings Linda sent me, taking notes about the tiny towns and rolling countryside, getting a feeling for this place I was considering making my home. I thought a lot on those drives: about the kind of neighbors I hoped I’d have; about driveways and right-of-ways; about mountain views and valley vistas; about forests and meadows and streams. I dreamed. I planned. I learned.

Before I knew it, a year had passed, and I had a new realtor, Pat, whom I’d contacted and with whom shared my vision. I was still readying my house in Indianapolis for the market when he sent the first set of listings. I was over the moon when I sat down to open them. And then…

What the heck?! Ten acres? Eleven? THIRTY???!!!

I fired off a (slightly testy) email, reminding him what I’d asked him to find for me. He responded to my email with a phone call — as he (thankfully) so often does — and patiently explained.

Smaller plots, like the ones I sought, are generally situated in or near developments, where covenants and restrictions apply — and, while defaulted loans and estate sales happen, those plots are quickly snatched up. So Pat was sending me listings for at least 10 acres to help me realize my stated goals for the property. They were twice the acreage I’d planned for, more than twice what my projected budget would allow. But they were more likely to afford me the flexibility I wanted.

As long as what I wanted didn’t conflict too drastically with the aesthetic of where I planned to buy.

Covenants and Revisions

At the mention of a yurt, Hugh’s face stiffened, almost imperceptibly.

“I think you should drive on up the road there,” he suggested, tightly controlling his tone and indicating the ridge behind us with its big homes and beautiful approaches, “and see what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

“That’s a good idea,” I replied neutrally. “And I’ll definitely do that. But it seems you have…hesitations. Maybe you’d do me the favor of sharing them?”

Hugh let out a big sigh, then expressed concerns about how yurts would look from the road and what they might lead others to believe they could bring into the area — implying that I’d be setting a bad example.

“You know, Hugh,” I said carefully, “I don’t have to plunk a yurt right in the middle of that meadow. In fact, they’re devilishly difficult to cool in the summer, and I like my privacy, so it would actually be better if I tucked it back in the trees, away from view.”

Hugh pursed his lips and squinted at the tree line. “So we’d really only see it in the winter…”

“Exactly,” I told him. “And, you know, I’m certainly not opposed to planting trees and shrubs to screen people’s view. I love beautiful landscaping. Living in a yurt won’t change that.” I spent a few minutes painting a picture of my vision, of the need for beauty and for living in closer harmony with whatever land I bought, about the value of leaving some spaces natural. When I paused for a moment, Hugh offered to drive me up the ridge to show me where I would cut my driveway in from the road. My brother and I jumped into the truck with Bodhi, who had been waiting patiently for us, and we followed Hugh’s silver Mercedes up the rise, away from the ear-splitting racket of the neighbors’ hounds.


Later, in Pat’s office, we reviewed the listings he’d sent me, eliminating some of them because they were too remote, too hard to access, had too many bridges to wash out between the grocery store and me. As he clicked through the links, he found a listing for 11 acres of partially-wooded land.

“Well, that one’s out,” Pat said with a little grimace. “There are covenants restricting what you can build there. It has to be at least 1600 square feet, and…”

“What’s the address?” I interrupted. He told me.

“Oh, Hugh’s place.”

Pat cocked an eyebrow at me, and my brother cut in. “Yeah, he’ll be fine. Denise had him changing the covenants for her by the time they were done talking. It took her 20 minutes.”

Pat raised both his eyebrows at that, then laughed. “Really?”

John shrugged with feigned casualness. “Yeah, she was a bit off her game today.”


4 Comments

A Serendipitous Beer — and the Perfect Realtor

“Do you mind if I sit there?”

The speaker, in his late 30s or early 40s, indicated a seat that would require climbing over my dog (lying quietly in the cramped corner I’d specifically selected to keep him out from under other patrons’ feet), then squeezing his hiking-pants-clad fanny through the ridiculously narrow aisle into a chair adjacent to mine. I squelched an introverted sigh, resisted the urge glance down the long, double row of empty tables lining the porch, and smiled as welcoming a “go ahead” as I could manage.

Once his wiry frame was comfortably sprawled in the chair — and having given Bodhi a friendly pat after nearly tragically jostling my beer — the man reached into his pocket to retrieve a ringing cell phone and cheerily greet the caller at the other end of the line. Great, I thought. There goes my peaceful brew break!

I’d spent the past several days working down a list of rural properties my realtor had made available to me via an online portal. She’d reasoned that, since my search was in its most nascent of phases — at least a year away — it would be a waste of both our time for her to escort me from listing to listing.

“Besides,” she’d told me during our single phone conversation, “this way you can learn your way around a little. People don’t pay as much attention to navigation from the passenger seat of a car.”

While her lack of enthusiasm left me underwhelmed, her assertions made good, logical sense. I’d gamely wandered the countryside alone, exploring small towns, farmland, and forested mountainsides, and creating a checklist for what I liked — and didn’t like — to guide my anticipated purchase. I still had purging to do, a house to sell, and a plan to develop for selecting and buying the yurt that would become my home. But I wanted to get a sense for what undeveloped land cost — and where I’d find it in this beautiful, mountainous side of western North Carolina. I’d encountered parcels with stunning views (and suspicious neighbors with big dogs); glorious pine forests (in humid lowlands); regal mountaintops (on roads that would be all but inaccessible after an ice storm); sweet meadows (that had obviously been used by their owners as dumps for discarded farm and construction machinery). I’d found tiny, rural towns with surprising businesses: chiropractors, acupuncturists, kundalini yoga classes, holistic veterinarians. I’d found gorgeous lots surrounded by shacks and trailers moldering away in abject poverty. One by one, I’d drawn a line through or annotated the listings for later reference. I was now sitting on a long porch in a small town, drinking a locally-brewed beer, and quietly processing all I’d seen and experienced on my drives.

Well, at least I had been.

Some part of the gregarious phone conversation next to me worked its way into my attention and piqued my interest. I couldn’t really help listening in, given our proximity, but I didn’t really apply myself either. Despite my desire for a little peaceful contemplation — and the rules of courtesy demanding that one never comment on an overheard conversation — I addressed him when he hung up.

“I couldn’t help hearing…” I started, indicating the inches separating us with a tilt of my head, “but did you say you were heading out to Stonehenge?”

The man smiled, a warm expression freely extending to his eyes, and introduced himself as Pat. He was a local and was not only able to suggest a delicious pizza to complement my beer but was also fascinating to talk to. We chatted amiably as we ate. He told me about his upcoming trip to the UK — the first trip he and his wife would take without their daughters — about his wife’s energy healing practice, about meditation and yoga and ancient ways of connecting with the earth, and, lastly, about his band (Americana folk with jazz leanings). As he spoke, my amusement grew. It was just like me to strike up a conversation with a random stranger, only to find he wasn’t as random as I’d believed him to be.

I finally paused in my own questions to allow him to ask a few about me. I told him about my recent decision to go out on my own as a freelancer, about adopting the dog panting happily at our feet, about my growing dissatisfaction with city life, and, finally, about the land I sought to buy and live on in a yurt.

“I’m a realtor,” Pat told me, offering his card over the pizza he’d ordered for himself ans was steadily munching his way through. “My office is right…there,” he continued, pointing at a sign about three buildings away from where we sat.

I responded I was already working with someone, but I accepted his card anyway, telling him that things could change over the course of the next year or so. I’d never met the efficient, professional woman sending me links to real estate listings, but something told me that, even if I had, I would still find Pat a better fit. His easygoing manner and flashes of humor made me comfortable. I got the sense, from his contributions to our conversation, that he understood my goals, my hopes, my concerns. In some important ways, me. And, dammit, I liked him.

Yes, things could change, I thought as I bid Pat farewell and guided Bodhi back to where my truck was parked.

And, almost exactly a year later, they did.


3 Comments

The Itch that Launched a New Life

I don’t know exactly where it started:

The itch that became a wondering.

The wondering that became a flickering idea.

The flickering idea that sputtered and sparked until it caught, blazing through my life like a wildfire of change.

I’d been scratching at that nagging itch for years, trying to satisfy it with flower beds and backpacking and kayaking and all manner of seeking connection with the natural world. But it seemed a moving target, always just out of reach. And then one day, standing in front of a wide bookcase, staring at a significant collection of books I’d accumulated about solar and wind power and collecting rainwater and foraging for wild food and organic gardening and building twig furniture and making dyes from plants and constructing decks and cabins and cob houses…and I asked myself:

Why am I just reading about all of this? Why aren’t I living it?

I took a long, deep breath. Why, I wondered, did I spend so much time dreaming about things and so little time actually doing them?

Oh, it’s not that I don’t do stuff. I’ve hiked and backpacked and camped — often solo — in the Badlands of South Dakota, the Canyonlands of Utah, through the sequoias of northern California, on the lakeshores and prairies of Minnesota, in the mountains of Colorado, and across the diverse ecosystems of Washington state. I bought my own house and lived alone in it for years. I jumped the corporate ship and landed safely — albeit somewhat shakily — on the deck of my very own freelancing business. Yes, I’ve taken myself on adventures, some of them scary, but I always seemed to return to my safe, convenient life in the city. And, try as I might, I could never quite put down roots.

My roots still felt like they were sunk deep in the soil of my rural childhood. I looked at that shelf of books and saw fallow dreams, forgotten values. I calculated my finances (woefully lacking), took stock of my health (fraying at the edges), and considered my career opportunities (fading with age), and decided the hell with it.

If I don’t do something now, I’ll never do it. I’d stalled long enough.

Without pausing to think, I started striding down the path to a new way of living. I knew it would test my mettle, my courage, and my determination. The books on the shelf were a mere outline, not a plan. I’d plan as I went, I decided. I’d remain open and flexible. I’d follow my intuition.

To where, I had no idea.

But suddenly I was purging possessions, selling my house, and searching for a slice of rural mountain property on which to put down my roots.

roots

 


2 Comments

A Farewell Gift from the Queen

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.