Saddle Sore: Oh, but you can go home again
She had some pictures, faded. A couple cracked, the few others rolled up on themselves, but one stood out above all the rest: A young girl, maybe 10 or 12, long-legged pants and a nondescript shirt, standing in front of a sidewalk flower garden, one foot up on a two-step porch. A wonderful, smiling laugh — the kind that reflects innocence and joy — was clearly the biggest draw of the photo.
Ah, what wonder lay ahead for the unknowing girl? Or, was the undulating road of life a tough one?
“My oldest is dead,” she said, “killed in Vietnam. You were his friend, weren’t you? And the younger one lives in Washington — hardly ever see him anymore. Maybe you could take me around one day?”
Hadn’t seen her since my high school years. Her face had long ago lost that innocent laugh, supplanted by drawn-in cheeks, gray face long under a worried brow but oddly absent of wrinkles. Instead, there were a couple of long furrows running down her cheeks on either side, the kind one gets from worry and hardship.
She smiled when she first saw me, kind of bashful-like, a chance meeting, hoping I’d recognize her after all those years, and you could tell there was still a spark inside.
Old roads go by fast when they’re paved, so I drove them slow in my pickup truck, trying to recreate the feel of long-ago country lanes, and we took our time. She knew the countryside and was busy looking rather than talking, and I offered to stop a couple of times, but no, let’s keep going. She hadn’t been this way in over 30 years.
“You walked all this way to school?” I asked. Her younger sister and some cousins from down the lane made the trek together; although, she allowed it could sometimes be a little brutal in the winter, what with the wind and all.
“If we stayed home, we got put to work, so we were willing walkers,” she said. “Sometimes, there were chores before or after school, but we didn’t know anything different.”
We rounded the corner, and there it was — all rundown, weeds tall and bushes untrimmed, but a miracle in the sense that it was still there: A ranch homestead ,from generations before, located in an area popular for its views and quiet but increasing subdivisions. She’d left there when she got married in the 1940s. The truck had barely stopped before she was opening the door to get out to savor the air where so many of her memories were stored.
The back door of the house, the one they always used, looked to have been kicked in. A couple of windows were broken, but it was relatively clean. I waited on an old chair in the kitchen while she slowly walked through the dilapidated house, reliving a life that would have been impossible to share with me or anyone else.
Obviously, the well pump hadn’t been used in years, there was no electricity to the place and the lava-stone pumphouse her dad had built eons ago was nothing more than a paean to a past that no longer existed, its perpetual dampness forever gone.
“Look, there’s the apple tree,” she exclaimed with a brightness she had not before exhibited. “Oh, my God, I don’t believe it’s still there. That was our favorite place, along the irrigation ditch, spreading blankets underneath and living in a land of make-believe.” Entertaining cousins and nearby friends, home-base for many games, she wanted to sit under the tree for a bit. The grass used to be green, not like the dust-up it was now. Let me help you.
It’s impossible to get inside the head of another when they’re traveling a road we not know of, and we can’t share the depth of meaning that reliving those old memories up close brings, but, certainly, her enthusiasm brought me into her world a tiny bit, looking in from the outside.
After that day, we didn’t see each other again, not that we’d ever talked much before, and thoughts of mine were elsewhere, working on this or that project. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise a couple of months later, as she was a generation older, but there it was in the obituaries.
Sadness overtook me, but happiness, as well. We connected on that one day, me helping her go back in time for a final visit, reliving long-ago memories before she left for good. She must have known.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.