blackberries and a shrunken sweater — the things that stick

 
I was in Niagara recently, driving past the house where I grew up. An elderly woman was sweeping the front walk. I pulled over and watched, remembered how on that very bit of pavement, next to the stone planter, I wore a bathrobe with pink rosebuds and corduroy slippers and a bowl haircut and wrote my name in sparklers one firecracker night while my dad—in a Hawaiian shirt, cigarette tucked into a wide smile, face tanned and dark hair falling forward a bit, Clark Gable style—scrunched down, arms around me, for a photo.

He built that planter, two of them in fact, from stones I helped him collect at the beach. I see that someone has knocked one of them down and put nothing in its place.

On a whim I get out the car, pace in front of the house. The sweeping woman doesn’t seem to notice but it occurs to me the pacing might look odd so I decide to walk over, tell her I’m not staking the place out; I explain that I used to live here, that my parents lived here forty something years. She asks if I’d like to see around. I wasn’t expecting that, but yes. The woman’s name is Minerva. She’s from Nova Scotia and she says Come along then, my dear.

We start in the backyard. My dad’s gardens, rockeries [more stones from the beach] are wildly overgrown. Trees and shrubs haven’t been trimmed for years, a rose bush has become a tree. The vegetable garden is gone, but the conch shells my parents brought back from Bermuda thirty years ago are still there in a small triangle of white stones beside the patio.  I ask about the blackberries that grew on a trellis and she shows me through a forest of leaves that, yes, they’re still there. She says there’s not much fruit though. I don’t explain about pruning, how that increases yield. She’s smiling the whole time, proud, beaming, clearly in love with this mad wilderness.

We move inside where things are tidy with doilies on furniture, tea cups in a china cabinet. There are homemade quilts and afghans, newly stencilled walls. The bathroom is bright blue with a nautical theme, maybe for memories of Nova Scotia.  A mural of flowers and trees is painted on the inside of the front window. She takes time finding the switch to turn on fairy lights woven among some branches in a large floor vase, a gift from her son. She likes to knit. She shows me a yellow dress for her granddaughter.

The whole time, I’m kind of listening, mostly remembering. She’s made changes, yes, but not as many as I imagined. (She kept a wall-sized mural of a beloved Bermuda beach scene that my dad painted a million years ago.) It’s different, definitely, yet absolutely familiar. We are everywhere here—my mum, my dad, my sister. And we are nowhere. They’re gone, it’s just me.

And Minerva.

And her life in this house. Her son, her grandkids.

And it’s okay. It’s very good in fact. If anyone had to live here, I’m glad it’s her.

We’re oddly connected, all of us.

She tells me to come back anytime.
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I couldn’t find that firecracker night picture, but here’s another. Five hundred years ago, the blackberry trellis in the background. He, wearing a sweater I gave him that my mum accidentally shrunk and that he would not let her throw out.

a moment of sameness

I live within the sound of Highway 401’s constant hum, a stone’s throw (a long walk or a short drive) from the beach, near a park where rabbits don’t stop eating grass still wet with dew when I stroll past; only when I pause to consider taking a picture do they become concerned.

I put my camera away. They resume munching.

A woman walks ahead of me with a backpack. She’s small and wears sneakers and I think maybe it’s not a woman but a girl… but no, something about the precision of her steps tells me she’s walked a lot further than any girl and when a big yellow lab named Haley lumbers over to say hello, I catch up to her and we’re all smiling and talking to Haley and I see that indeed the woman is not a girl but someone my own age.

Haley and her person go off in one direction while the woman and I continue in the other. I walk ahead of her now at a slightly faster clip and at a turn in the path I look back and see her standing on a small footbridge, taking a moment to watch the creek that runs underneath it. A common enough thing to do—I’ve done it a thousand times myself—yet something about it strikes me as unusual. The backpack and the way she walks tell me she’s going somewhere, punctuality is required, she’s not just out for a morning stroll. And yet, this pause. I have the idea that it might be a ritual. She seems the disciplined type, the sort that would have rituals, routines. It occurs to me (and within seconds I’ve made it a fact, in my own mind at least) that she might pause here every morning on her way to wherever, that she calculates the time to include this thirty second break, that perhaps it’s a kind of meditation, a moment of sameness in her day that she can compare to yesterday’s moment and express gratitude for today’s.

This is how it feels, though why it should feel this way I haven’t a clue.

**

The birds are noisy this morning, not merely singing their usual songs but an over-the-top joyful cacophony that reminds me of sunrise in the Everglades and I wonder if it’s this sudden warmth that has shot them through with adrenaline in the way it has us non-feathery types. (How else to explain some very strange maneuvers on the roads?)

[A distant screech of tires right on cue.]

The bluebells are out and I follow them along a path to a part of the creek where the most prominent sound is water tumbling over rock.
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And there are trilliums. And bloodroot.
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And buds on a wild apple tree that every year I mean to pick from to make wild apple crumble, but forget.

Back on the main path I see the woman veer off across a field that leads to the street and the bus stop and I notice the wind must have shifted because the sound of the 401 has all but disappeared.

I walk back over the footbridge, pause a moment, then carry on.
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