By Karen Anderson
Death of a Neighbor
I am scanning the obituaries in the local paper when I see the name of a neighbor, someone who lived not far from me. I didn’t know she was ill, and I feel strangely empty and sad.
We weren’t friends, really, but I knew her name and a little about her work and family. This is a small town, and if you live here long enough, you run into a lot of people. She and I said hello occasionally at the grocery store or library.
But while I gaze at her picture and read her obituary, I recall that I didn’t like her. Which meant I would acknowledge her when we met but didn’t stop to talk. Didn’t make an effort to get better acquainted.
And when I try to remember why I didn’t like her, I cannot think of a single reason. Whatever triggered my irritation was so insignificant, it has vanished. While the irritation remained. Now my sorrow about her death expands to include my own smallness, my petty grievances. I am ashamed to admit how these unexamined opinions linger—and limit my life.
Sometimes it’s too late to make amends. I close the newspaper and sip my cold coffee. She was my neighbor and I never thought much about her until now. I can remember her jogging slowly down the street, her face flushed. A pretty woman.
Under a gray sky, we load the canoe onto the truck, choosing to believe the forecast: “becoming partly sunny.” But the gloomy weather suits my mood.
“You okay?” my husband asks.
“I feel sort of depressed,” I say.
The wind is sharp as we push off into the Manistee River and I wish I’d worn long underwear. On this late fall day, the water is low but the colors are high. Red and orange and yellow, the oaks and maples stand along the bluffs, shining with their own light.
“Let’s stop on that island for coffee,” Dick says, and we sit on a birch log to open the thermos. I hold the steaming cup close to my face and munch a piece of molasses cookie.
“No sun yet,” I say.
“I’m still glad we came,” he says.
Back in the canoe, I tie my bonnet under my chin. Around the next bend I see a brilliant red maple leaning far out over the river—the river that will eventually claim its life but now reflects its beauty. I want to have the courage to lean out over my death, I think. Over my life. To risk believing I am valuable and I belong. Right here, right now.
It’s mostly cloudy when we end our trip four hours later. As I look up, searching for blue, I feel a pleasant ache in my shoulders.
“How are you doing?” my husband asks.
“Gradual clearing,” I say.
Lilacs in Bloom
When I see lilacs in bloom, I have to stop. Sometimes it’s in the country where enormous old bushes grow beside abandoned barns. Sometimes it’s in my neighborhood alleys where they grow beside garages that used to be horse stables.
These orphan bushes that nobody waters or prunes are lavish with their gifts. And I stop what I’m doing to admire the rich colors—dark purple, pale violet, purest white. I lean into the moist clusters and inhale that honey lavender smell.
Now, it’s true you can buy lilac bushes at a nursery and plant them in your back yard. I have done this myself and confess the results are disappointing. The branches spindly, the blossoms spare.
Lilacs, it seems, resist cultivation and do better in forgotten places with full sun and freedom. I admire this. They speak to me of something in myself that yearns to grow wild at the edges, to flourish untended and pour out my glory for one brief moment. Maybe someone will stop, maybe not.
If you pick lilacs, they will wilt in an hour. Better to lean into the living blossoms and bury your face in fragrance.
My Grandparents’ House
When I can’t sleep, I go back to my grandparents’ house and open the front door. There was no vestibule so you walked right into the living room. The coat closet had a stained glass window in blue and gold and violet.
I know that place by heart and can still stand in each room and picture the furnishings: the Victorian couch, the console radio, the four-poster twin beds upstairs. As a child, I often stayed overnight and it was a refuge from the confusions of my own home—my mother’s sadness, my father’s rage. Before I went to sleep, Nanna sat on the edge of the bed in her long nightgown and we talked awhile. “Are you warm enough?” she’d ask.
Looking back, I realize my grandparents’ house was modest in size but it seemed huge to me. Huge and calm and welcoming. In the living room, I sat beside Grandpa and listened to him read Longfellow’s poem, The Song of Hiawatha. I liked the way the words made music.
In the dining room, our family gathered for special meals, using the good dishes from the big mahogany breakfront. Nanna always told the grandchildren, “Don’t eat any more than you want.” Which meant you could take an extra biscuit and not finish it.
It meant you had permission to be yourself, something I didn’t feel anywhere else. Permission to sit on the floor of the coat closet in the dark and feel safe—watching the light come through the colored glass.
When I left my first marriage, I moved into a small rental house with my ten-year-old daughter. The floors creaked and the windows leaked and the oven door wouldn’t close—but I loved the place. It felt cozy and funky and just the right size for my downsized life.
Then, after I’d lived there about six months, my landlord stopped by to tell me he had a buyer for the house. “But I like it here,” I said, “and I’m in the middle of a divorce.”
Dan and I sat on the grass in the back yard and talked awhile and finally he stood up. “I went through a divorce,” he said. “I won’t sell the house.”
I stayed for five years, and figured out how to keep the oven door closed with a hanger and a rubber band. Also how to be a single mom, a single woman. I grappled with guilt and grief and unintended consequences—losing extended family, people taking sides. A roller-coaster, a slog.
And if something went wrong with the house, I called my landlord. When he had to retrieve my pantyhose from the bathtub drain, Dan laughed and said, “Not hard enough.”
When the birds in the attic turned out to be a battery in the smoke detector, he said, “Not hard enough.”
When a stray cat came to our back porch and my daughter wanted to keep it, he changed the rule about “No Pets.”
After we moved out, Dan sold the house. I still drive by. There’s a stroller out front these days and a pot of red geraniums.
The way my husband fixes his breakfast toast has begun to annoy me. “You could save time if you toasted the second two pieces while you’re buttering the first two,” I tell him.
“I’m not trying to save time,” he says.
He also uses too much jam. Who needs so much jam? And who is this shrew inside my head? Hearing her familiar voice, I know it is definitely time. In fact, it is past time for my husband and me to enjoy a few days apart.
Marriage is the hardest relationship in the world, I think. Being a parent isn’t easy but the whole goal is to separate, for the child to grow up and leave.
The goal of a marriage is to grow up and stay. But sometimes the secret of staying is leaving for a little while. That’s why I’m alert to the toast factor. When I start feeling annoyed by the way my husband eats his breakfast—or breathes in and out—I know it’s time for some space.
Fortunately, he is planning a trip. And almost as soon as he is out of the driveway, I can feel myself falling in love again. A feeling I want to enjoy by myself for a few days.
Karen Anderson is a writer who lives in Traverse City, Michigan. Her 30-year writing career has included journalism and marketing. These essays, which she wrote and read on her weekly feature on Interlochen Public Radio, are published in her collection, Gradual Clearing: Weather Reports from the Heart, Arbutus Press, 2017.
Six Short Essays by Karen Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.