Saturday, July 15, 2006

"Is your heart for sale?"

They came in looking for math textbooks, so the youngest son could keep up with his studies during the summer vacation. I directed them to the proper section--a tall curly haired guy of maybe 17 or 18, with a sweet grin, a little guy I guessed to be maybe 11 (later I would learn he had just turned twelve) who still had the slender flowerstem neck that little boys have, and shoulder blades like wings, visible through his white sleeveless t shirt. I had assumed the pretty slender woman was their mom, but she said no, the boys were her grandsons.

My dogs were delighted with the youngest boy, who returned their delight, patiently talking to them. The grandmother--a very stylish and young grandmother, with dark hair and a simple sheath dress, was amused by the cats.

The group browsed a long time, while other customers came and went. They found a stack of what looked to me to be boring textbooks, but were delighted; the grandmother taken aback at my prices--not, as I thought, because they were expensive, but because the whole armful of books came to under twenty dollars. Then the littlest boy asked about, maybe, fantasy. A pause while he browsed that section with keen interest, and his brother waited quietly, and his grandmother asked if there was anywhere close by where she could buy flowers. Sure, even the little market down the road has flowers, cut bouquets and little plants.

And her eye lit on the bowl of stones near the rose chair. The youngest child had of course already found it, early on, and we'd talked of where the stones had come from and what they were. One of the oddities of my shop is that, besides more critters than you'd ever expect, you will find strange and pretty things dotted about on the tables and shelves--plants, flowers, curios. And bowls of stones, or beach glass.

This bowl--well, really it is a cream colored rectangular dish of some sort, a nice piece I found years ago in a junk store--holds mostly smooth river stones of various shapes and colors. They are good to touch, pleasant to look at. There is also a chunk of amethyst, and a smooth piece of tiger's eye. And a heart.

The heart is made of soapstone; it was carved by a woman in Kenya, who dyed it deep pink and speckled it with little dots, and it rests beautifully in your hand if you pick it up. I like the look of it, sitting bold and pretty amongst the browns and greens and swirled rocks from the local riverbed.

She picked up the heart, and admired it. "Is your heart for sale?" she asked. I laughed. "Well, that was a funny thing to ask, I guess," she said. And I said, no, the pretty stone was simply there to be enjoyed.

She accepted it. As she paid for the new stack of books I asked the older boy where they were from. "I'm from here," he said, "but my grandmother and little brother live in San Francisco. I stay with my dad; he lives with her".

"My daughter was killed here 9 years ago today" said the elegant slim woman. "A drunk driver hit her car--just up the road a bit"

I asked the girl's name. Rachel. Oh yes, I remember Rachel--and yes, she had a little boy, he was now 12, and in front of me; the older one was her step son.

She's buried in the little cemetary where a number of my dear friends also rest.

"Well, nice talking with you--goodbye dogs!" she said, and turned to go.

I took the heart out of its bed of stones and gave it to her. "Please take it" "Are you sure?" "Of course"

No one can ever buy my heart--but I'm quite willing to give it away, over and over again. The pink stone heart should be resting on Rachel's grave tonight. I'm glad of it.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Miss Murphy's Roses

The last of the Rosa mundi roses has dropped its petals. The wiry, prickly stems look battered, the leaves are getting their usual mysterious and unlovely spots. The flowers were single, or barely doubled, striped pink and white. One of the group is reverting to the old pure deep pink Apothecary Rose, and looked jaunty some weeks ago, the standout amongst the frolic of stripes.

People passing the little strip where the roses grow thought they were poppies; there were poppies there as well--huge red ones, frilled pink ones, a scatter of silky white, but they too have died back, giving ground to the red and yellow four-o-clocks that scent the summer night air with their lemon and sugar perfume.

It's--oh, I don't know how many years, decades now, this exact day, since I came to this region. And I've been thinking of Jessie Zerisha Murphy, school teacher and spinster, gardener and painter. The rosa mundi roses are from her garden, which became my garden after she'd died, which then became bits and pieces scattered throughout our county a few years later, as my dear landlord, never a businessman, sold the property, and the new owner made plans that included bulldozers, and not roses.

He's been dead many years as well, that lean and hungry mega landowner who came to my house the week after he'd made the purchase. I had my two month old son in my arms. We sat together on the porch, under the greengage plum tree, beside the old white roses, and he said he wanted to help me out. Knowing I'd have no place to go (oh, had he forgotten to mention he was bulldozing the house?) he'd painted up a nice little shack. He gazed at my milk filled breasts and put an arm around my shoulders. I stood up and told him to leave, shaking with anger. My son was crying.

When he died, and his family--his sickly wife, his thuggish sons, the fat daughter who was older than me and always looked sad--buried him in the fancy family gravesite I went, after the funeral, and stood at his new grave.

I thought of the bulldozed house, the scattered gardens, and my life that had, after all, taken a turn for the better despite the fear and struggle. I thought of the kind lawyer who'd bought me enough time to find a place for my child, my dog, and my surviving cats. He'd advised me for free when I went to his office, weeping with rage. My conversations with the new landlord henceforth were confined to "talk with my lawyer".

"You know, I forgive you," I said that autumn afternoon."Perhaps you meant well." And I took two flowers from the grave. "We'll call it even" I said, and walked away.

He's buried not very far from Miss Murphy. She wrote out all the instructions for her funeral service in advance, and carried them with her in her purse, those years of her last decade. She was--well, I always think 90 something, but really I believe she had not quite made it that far. Tall, slim, she wore boots and strode with slashing steps everywhere through the town. For decades she taught the youngsters of the area, and painted, and planted flowers, especially roses, which she loved. I talked with her a few times before she died, before I rented her house in order to give those roses some care, sitting in the little house whose walls were covered with paintings. Vivid paintings of flowers, trees, landscapes. And turtles. And all over the house were turtles--she had hundreds of turtles. Glass ones, metal ones, little stone turtles and huge tin turtles.

Her funeral service, per her request, used the lines from the Bible about "lo, the winter is past--the voice of the turtle is heard in the land".

They are self contained, but full of passion, she said. I didn't want to disappoint her and tell her I believe the "turtles" in the Bible were really doves--let them be turtles, singing in the spring time, that's fine.

She had one tree she painted perhaps a dozen paintings of--a liquidamber, with its leaves like stars. It was too big, really, for the crowded little garden, but she loved it, and love makes room.
The paintings showed the tree bare, then with the first tiny curling leaves, like tiny fingertips, and then more bold, and then full green stars, and then the flames of autumn, and then bare.

In the parking lot garden I have one of these trees, and every time I pass it I stop and look at it, and touch the leaves, and think of Miss Murphy. Yesterday I stood there admiring it and a blackbird came and sat on my shoulder. The blackbirds love this tree, and the huge pomegranate next to it, where they hide their nests. My percher probably had meant to warn me off, and then got distracted. Or maybe I just seemed like a handy new place to rest from flying and singing.

At any rate, I smiled. I am always honored when I am still enough that a bird will perch on me, or a snake come and sun herself, or the bees pass on their way to the flowers quite undismayed. The quiet intersections are gifts.

And perhaps our human intersections are gifts as well--be they tumultuous as with my evictor, or briefly brilliant and nurturing as my moments with Miss Murphy. Her roses grow all over this county now, and in the next. I still have her garden fork.