She sits, rocking, for hours on end, at the corner of her wraparound porch.
Sometimes when I pass her, always in the same place, staring blankly from behind the bushes (or sleeping with her head tilted back, mouth open), I wonder if time stands still for her, wonder if that's what happens when you get to be ninety and people begin to fall away around you, or whether time speeds up, and you wonder why you're the one standing still.
Sometimes I see a spark of recognition. Sometimes, not even that.
Her (possibly autistic) adult daughter who still lives at home attempted a yard sale a few weeks ago. We went over and browsed, making small talk, like good neighbors should, feeling awkward, not wanting to take things, and yet also not wanting her to know how valueless we thought her treasures: the boxes of Christmas figurines, stacks of china, empty bottles that once held Avon perfume. She tried to sell some chairs she'd found in the attic, marking the dusty broken wood with a sticker announcing "$2 each." They were her father's.
He was the glue, perhaps, even through his wandering around the back yard, and his long absences while he talked with his old farmer friend across the street. With him, their lives had purpose. Make dinner, call him in. His wife would shrill his name from the back door, again and again, until finally, his response from downhill, in the garden, or hiding in his basement, not a question but a retort: "What!"
Now, the daughter moves like a ghost, opening and closing the recycled bankers boxes stacked on the wraparound porch, avoiding her mother who admonishes her daughter from her post at the corner, both of them not daring to speak it, but anticipating the inevitable.
They will have to move.
They have family a few towns away, but the house is falling into disrepair, more than her well-intentioned local grandson can manage on his own. The grey clapboard needs a new coat of paint, some of the shutters are missing, the wooden porch is beginning to rot. They do what they can, sweeping and tidying, but the bushes continue to grow, and in the last big storm, a limb splintered from its trunk, making a U-shaped bend in the wires leading from the poles in the street. The living room and kitchen boast 1930s vintage wallpaper and 1970s appliances. There is the particular clutter of some older people, lace doilies and tables full of framed black and white pictures of handsome young men in uniform, sepia-toned women with perfectly curled hair.
We brought them food when the husband died, kept the refrigerator full for a while despite the guilt we felt when they wrote us thank you notes with every Tupperware return. We couldn't alter the future.
And perhaps that's for the best. We move on, we grow old, we die. We'll share that fate: they'd lived in our house once, and there's a culture of house-swapping on our street that gives us an unusual glimpse into the future.
It's the things they loved that give me pause, though; the things in the bankers boxes on the porch that will have to go somewhere else when they leave, the things that may never find another home. We say that the things don't matter, but they pack the boxes lovingly, nonetheless, pretending that they will open them somewhere else; we all know better. Perhaps it's easier when you don't pack your own boxes, don't have to bid farewell to the things you loved: when you leave the task of inventory to the people who come when others go, when you don't have to watch other people decide the value of your valuables.
Or perhaps it's easier to pack them after all, to lay your things down tenderly in bubble wrap, sending them gently on their last journey, as you hope someone will send you gently on your own.
photo courtesy of flickr user Jeannie Fletcher
under a Creative Commons license