What I'll remember
The other morning during my walk, a lanky little girl paused while the terrier at the end of her leash sniffed some flowers. I would have stepped off the curb and walked around her, but she saw me coming and gave me space. Farther downhill, another little girl was racing up the sidewalk holding a blue grocery sack tightly and smiling like she had a story to tell. She slowed just enough to look both ways at the corner, then sped up, saw me … slowed down and veered to the right, out of sight behind the last house on the street. I was the only one of us wearing a mask.
I said hi to the first girl, and when I got to the corner, the other girl was there, standing at least 6 feet back, waiting for me to leave the space she wanted to pass through. “Hi,” I said, smiling with my whole face as much as I could. “Hi,” she said, looking at my eyes and doing a quick side wave with her free hand. I thought that was a brave touch. Once I stepped into the street, her sneaker-slaps resumed, and then she called out to her friend.
I wear a mask when I walk (or at least carry one and put it on when someone approaches) because I try to love my neighbor, and it is an easy way to do that. (I also don’t want to get sick.) But I hated it that a kid pulled up short and her face furrowed and darkened for a moment because of my approach, because maybe the mask had something to do with it. It’s some comfort that she probably has entirely forgotten that moment.
A friend and I walked last evening, along streets and up alleys that were mostly new to her, so I could show her some quirky landmarks I’ve discovered. A beautiful backyard chicken bungalow, with a cursive “Home Sweet Home” stenciled in blue on its aqua clapboard walls. A decommissioned church where one guy plants and tends the grand flower garden in front every year (and this year, a tomato trellis). A pristine Mary-in-a-grotto statue in a front yard, and along the house’s alley side, flowers alternating with gnomes, and an older Mary statue, paint chipped but still solemnly upright. Sidewalk-width brick paths up the middle of several alleys, asphalt on either side. A very old under-house garage that must have been a stable once upon a time. Backyard oases of flowers and sheep figurines and burbling water features. The house behind my building where, on they alley side of their fence, they’ve planted daylilies, peonies and lavender — plants they cannot possibly see from their back porch. And a nearby secret garden-cloister I sit in sometimes, which I didn’t discover until I’d been here for a few months and decided to see where a little pathway led.
What I didn’t expect was what she would see and point out along the way. Architectural details on so many old houses, a few still appropriately loved but many with, as they say, deferred maintenance. The yard where painted rocks form flowers, and what care the painter took to shade each rock-petal from dark to light. An ivy-covered house that reminded her of England. A placid bulldog looking out a window, right next to the “Beware of Dog” sign. Houses with turrets, and one that must’ve been a fancy house in the day, because it had a matching detached garage. When we passed a soot-streaked, boarded-up house with dead vines wrapping around two sides, I saw only creepiness; she saw past stories and future possibility.
When we stopped by the library’s koi pond, a place we both love, we looked at the fish for a while — where’s the fourth? Oh, there you are. She pulled out her phone, showed me pictures from the last time she took her kids there. Over two miles, we talked about all kinds of things, some related to the pandemic, but none of them heavy with desolation or fear. We stopped several times to marvel at the gorgeous sunset from new vantage points. When we wound up back at her car, I felt like my inner little girl had had a playdate.
Recently in a workshop focused on writing in a pandemic, we started with 10 minutes of writing to a prompt that began by asking, “What will you remember?” The prompt went on to ask other questions, all ways into the subject, and much more than anyone could even begin to answer in 10 minutes. As often happens with bewilderingly rich prompts, my mind pinballed through the possibilities. Part of me wanted to take on that first question with a list, while another part of me, swayed by events of the previous 24 hours, wanted to answer the question, “Whom have you trusted?” So I chose that, and took the last 90 seconds or so to throw some paint on the word-wall of “What will you remember?”
But that question deserves more than 90 seconds (though that’s what I’m about to give it here). It can function as a focus moment, a stop-and-think — what do you want to remember? Believing this will come to an end someday, and you’ll survive it, what do you not want to forget? Will imagining future memories change how you act or what you do now, or just what you write down?
I’ll remember the birdsong in March, how I cried the first time I heard it through an open window, how “Oh, it’s time for the songbirds again” turned in a nanosecond to “but don’t they know?” I’ll remember neighbors sharing food, students on screens, anxiety in elevators, baking every weekend, the source of every homemade mask. I’ll remember driving once a week just to keep the car in working order, and the time I took it out on the highway to get it up to speed, and the time I ended up wandering back in my aunt’s old neighborhood, just to keep moving. I’ll remember the day the oh-I’d-forgotten sound through the window was children, back at the reopened daycare, singing the Hokey Pokey.
Some of what I’ll remember will be because I wrote it down. But I expect I won’t have trouble remembering walks, and those I walked with, and how it felt simultaneously daring and normal. How with each companion (and there haven’t been that many), I got to see something familiar made new, refracted through their eyes.
Five years ago today, I published the first Note from an Urban Cabin. Didn’t know where it might go. Still don’t. But I’ll keep going. Thanks for reading. And if you like, tell me something you’ll remember, a glimpse of life this year from your own cabin.