Your hands shake as you hold your fingers out to gently touch my daughter’s cheek. They are milky white and blue veined, still graceful beneath the tremors. You welcome us to the neighborhood with a wave of your hand, then go back to digging in your garden.
From my bathroom window, I watch you: gloves on your knees, you sit on an overturned bucket after pulling weeds from among your flowers, your pudgy terrier lying at your feet. You remain motionless for hours, your eyes low, shoulders down. Once, alone in a deep postpartum haze, I cried uncontrollably at the sight of you sitting there, my chest so heavy that I thought my ribs would crack.
Your yard is ringed with flowers, flittering with birds. Enormous oyster shells hang from your alley fence, glinting silver rainbows around the garden. Your yellow house sits, faded, in the background, curtains always drawn: rows of blank muslin windows. I never see a shadow of movement or light within. It’s as if you enter and disappear, existing only in your garden.
We speak through the rusting diamonds of fence that separate our yards. My husband, easy with people in a way that I am not, befriends you soon after we move in, talking to you about the dahlias in the corner and the changes we’re making to the house. I avoid you subtly at first. I feel slow and distant, unable to muster the bright voice and forced vocabulary I usually employ with people of your generation. There is something else, too: a fear of judgment, maybe; of my summer tank tops lifted above my hugely pregnant belly; of my smudge-nosed toddler who gapes, wide-eyed and stubbornly silent, at your wrinkled face; and, later, of the baby who screams his rage at the world for three straight months, clawing at my neck, trying to climb back inside. I feel vague shame at my own avoidance. The person I thought I would be at this point in my life would have knocked on your door, fresh-baked scones and shiny babies in tow, telling you to call if there was ever anything we could do. Instead, months pass before you and I share more than a couple of words.
I see you almost every day, though: opening the door to let the dog out, watering the flowers, unpinning cotton nightgowns from the line. The rhythms of your contained life become almost as familiar as my own. Some days you are the only other adult I see.
Eventually, the first long winter of sleepless nights and tight-coiled panic eases into a gentle, melancholy spring. My husband and I build garden beds along the south wall between our houses. I water and weed, a baby on my back and a two-year-old scurrying along the path. You and I begin to speak. No grandchildren, you tell me, a hint of shame in your voice. Your daughter never married; your son’s wife isn’t the motherly kind. Your children both live in the next town, stop by every week: your son to mow the lawn, your daughter to take you shopping. I hear them sometimes, their voices impatient, their movements hurried as they toss their goodbyes over their shoulders and scurry back to their cars. They are never at your house at the same time.
You have lived on this street for 63 years: a number I cannot fathom. You’ve seen decades of owners and tenants come and go from our house: the old couple who died within days of each other when you were pregnant with your second baby; the childless husband and wife who lived beside you for 30 years until the woman died of lung cancer; the series of college students who rented from the man who installed our shoddy plumbing; the single mother with the autistic son who our title says purchased the house for ten dollars in settlement of a divorce. You have watched the neighborhood swell with growing families, release them and ebb back into itself: decaying slowly, sliding into disrepair. Now, flowing around the island of your house, the street is becoming new again. Strollers rest on refinished steps; young couples walk dogs.
Our conversations are brief, punctuated by urgent bursts of toddler information. There are still days when I wait until you are inside to lead my shrill charges out into the yard. The heavy quiet surrounding you and your bucket contrasts so sharply with our piercing noise that I am reluctant to butt the two against each other. I feel your presence even more acutely when I am avoiding you. On the days we don’t speak, I watch to make sure you appear in the garden. I see you in the morning as I brush my teeth: a moment of relief at the sight of you followed immediately by sadness. Squinting at my tired reflection, I can sometimes glimpse my own 86-year-old face. I picture myself living alone in this house, the three people who fill it with me gone, long past needing me. I catch my breath and turn quickly away from your stillness, back to the clutter and chaos within my own full walls.
One April evening with a baby in the bath, a naked toddler on the potty, and dinner in the oven, the phone rings and I am confused to hear you speaking shakily over the line. You stammer something unintelligible about a fire and I can hear the panic in your voice. I run to the back fence, my breath caught, the baby wrapped in a towel. Your finger is only slightly burned, but there is a tear in the crease below your eye. I run inside for ointment and a bandage, leaving the baby naked in his crib and my daughter calling from the bathroom. You hold your finger through the fence and I awkwardly wrap gauze around it, holding it in place with an Elmo band-aid. You look away during this strange intimacy but leave your hand resting on mine for a second longer than is necessary, before thanking me hoarsely and walking away. For the rest of the evening I feel light and fluid, buoyed by a small rush of self-satisfaction. The next day, like a slap, I find a brand new tube of Neosporin in my mailbox.
The brief Northwest summer finally arrives and the gray skies turn bright and honeyed. I have now met a small army of fellow mothers and can trek from park to play date with snatches of adult conversation squeezed between sunscreen applications and skinned knees. Blessedly, I begin to sleep more than three hours at a stretch. Although the desperation wanes, the logistics of having two children mount. The juggling of multiple naps, nursing strikes, monster evictions, and chokable object finger-swipings make accomplishing the most minute, non-child-focused task an achievement. By nine in the morning I am hungry for lunch: beads of sweat pricking my neck; the house already strewn with toys, crumbs, and clothing; my wrists aching under 20 pounds of squirming weight. Sometimes, through a corner of my kitchen window, I catch a glimpse of your bucket, resting solidly in the last place you sat upon it, and long to walk out of my house and into the quiet of your yard.
My days are a fragile balance, thrown horribly off course by any failure in the ecosystem of my home. A flooded toilet, a missing shoe, a critical load of laundry missed — these trigger cascading waves of off-timing, missed windows, and meltdowns. The cumulative effect of these thousand tiny crises is a constant ache of undefined longing. Although time by myself is precious and rare, more than anything, despite the play dates and parks, I am alone. No one sees the heroic moments when I pull off impossible feats of simultaneous nursing and soothing, while wiping spit-up off the floor with my toes. Likewise, no one hears the terrible pitch in my voice when I threaten the fifth time-out of a morning. No one claps along with me when the baby deliberately opens and closes his chubby hands, his own face amazed at his first wave. No one else sees the look in my daughter’s eyes as she gently guides a ladybug down her arm and onto an outstretched fingertip. In my very skin I understand that this is not only hard and lonely and difficult — it is unnatural. It is wrong, in some deep-rooted, adaptive, fundamental way. We would never have evolved as a species if primitive woman were left alone in the cave with her offspring, while every other member of her tribe hunted and gathered miles away.
The inanity of it overwhelms me at times. I am one adult too few to manage two children rationally. With the baby asleep, I discover I’m missing one ingredient from the dinner recipe. The store is three blocks away. But I have to wait, then dress, buckle, and strap, to buy a carton of eggs; dinner is late and desperate. A tumble down the back steps with bleeding elbows and frightened, saucer eyes, must be triaged against a baby screaming, abandoned, from his high chair. The last diaper, conflicting naps, a restless toddler on a rainy day — how I long in these moments for a mother, a sister, a grandmother. I have access to babysitters and childcare. With enough planning, I can eke out the odd hour to write, or have dinner with my husband. But most of the time, the closest adult is you.
I ponder this often, ranting to friends about the disconnection of American society: isolated, solitary parenting; discarded, lonely aging. It’s a refrain I have read a hundred times, but its academic relevance does little to soothe my frustration. I imagine that other person I was supposed to be: the one with scrupulously clean babies and the time to bake scones. She would no doubt have invited you for dinner by now, served home-cooked food fresh from the garden. Her rapt children would climb into your lap and listen to stories before bed. You, suddenly loved and needed, would naturally begin offering to keep an eye on things while she ran to the grocery store or pulled out her dusty yoga schedule. Soon, you would exist in perfect symbiosis: her family providing companionship and stimulation; you, the wisdom of your years and occasional childcare.
One warm, breezy afternoon about a month after your burnt finger, I am surging with restlessness. Both children napping simultaneously, I pace the house, picking up toys and throwing them into bins with unnecessary force. My body, unaccustomed to increasingly unbroken sleep, churns with coiled energy. I long to throw on my shoes and go for a run in the diluted sunshine. I toy with the idea for a second, as I always do when trapped by napping babies. What could really happen? My children sleep like the dead for at least the first hour. I’d lock the doors, check the oven, set the alarm. I never take these musings seriously, but their denial irritates me nonetheless. I burst out the back door and into the yard, although I don’t feel in the least like gardening. Then I see you, sitting on your bucket, quietly holding your gloves. It suddenly seems too obvious to do anything but ask. I walk to the back fence with the words on my lips.
“Ruth,” I start, and you turn your head, but something in that movement stops me. It seems to take you just a fraction too long, and I once again feel unsure and unscripted. It suddenly occurs to me that to reach where I stand, you would have to walk across your yard, through your house, out your front door, down the block, around the corner, up the street, and through my house, which sits perpendicular to yours. The distance seems unmanageable. I stammer something about the sunshine and we chat idly for a moment, although without the flutter of the children, I quickly run out of things to say. Murmuring something about needing to check on the baby, I walk slowly back into the house, my energy dissipated, tears pricking my eyelids. There are so many things I was going to do while I stayed home with my children. I’ve laughed most of them off my list: write a novel, learn a language, become a political activist, spend long afternoons cooking and baking. This suddenly feels like one more failure. Make friends with lonely elderly neighbor: still outstanding. Where is that person I was supposed to be, anyway? When will she make her debut?
We continue to have stilted conversations through the metal fence: me, shouting over the squeals of the children to make myself heard in your stubbornly unaided ears; you, nodding and smiling politely in slight mis-cadence to my sentences. There are days when I think I hear your screen door click just as I shepherd the toddling baby out onto the deck. More and more often, our communication is limited to little more than a wave. Without common daily experience, social contact, or generational reference, our conversation becomes limited to the garden and the most basic activities of my children. As the skies darken and the baby’s steps grow more far-reaching, I linger less in the narrow space beside the fence or at my window. Days pass without sight of you before I remember to wonder how you are.
In September, the newly divorced woman in the two-bedroom cottage across the street sells her house in an unheard-of 48 hours. Rumor has it she got more than she asked. Two weeks after the “Sold” banner is hung, a sign from the same realtor appears on your lawn. Several days pass before I catch you in the yard to mention it. You look exhausted, sad. Your son thinks the timing is perfect; he has found you a place in an adult center near your daughter’s home. “We’ll be so sad to see you go,” I say and am surprised by how much I mean it. I look around your cozy yard: the birdbath, your bucket, the carefully tended dahlias, the sparkly bush my daughter calls a money tree. I picture you sitting on a bench in a forcibly cheerful courtyard, surrounded by silk ferns and dusty rubber plants, or alone in a small pastel room. I cannot imagine anyone else in this yard, triangles of anyone else’s face through the fence.
Your son seems to have misread the market. The sign sits on your lawn for weeks that stretch into months. The eventuality of you leaving begins to seem vague and distant. I watch you throughout the fall, trimming dahlias, lovingly deadheading petunias, cutting back the rose bush. Even as the days grow damp and the air cold and heavy, you spend hours in your yard, a grey woolen hat pulled tight over your springy hair. I see you standing in every corner of the garden, working gently with every bush, every tree. I realize stupidly that you must have planted them all. Now you are saying goodbye. How many moments of your life do you hold as you tenderly pull each leaf?
You come to the fence less often, sit on your bucket hardly at all. Your movements, so halting over the past year, become taut and controlled. One pale orange October day, as I am pulling the last of the mildewed tomato plants out of our vegetable beds, I see you on your knees, digging slowly beneath a plum tree. A pile of bulbs lies in the grass beside you. You are planting flowers you will never see come up. I call to you from the fence, wanting to express something, to tell you that I will watch for them, that I will appreciate every single one. You don’t hear me and I do not try again.
We fly east for Thanksgiving, staying away for almost two weeks. I realize in the car on the way to the airport that I forgot to tell you we were leaving. In the madness of packing and planning I hadn’t seen you in over a week. Back home late on a Saturday evening, I open the blinds as I run the water to wash my face. Immediately it is clear. You are gone. The curtains in your windows are pulled open. A stack of flattened, soggy cardboard stands in your empty carport, your rakes and baskets gone. There is a perfect circle of dead ground beside the empty steps where the birdbath stood. Pushing past my confused husband, I run down the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the yard. The grass is icy wet under my naked feet, the November air densely cold on my bare shoulders. I run down the pebble path to the place where our gardens meet and stand clutching the frosty metal fence. The pruned stumps of your dahlias gleam alone in the harsh glare of the motion sensor lights your son installed last fall. A flowerpot from your back step has been knocked sideways, spilling its dirt over your lush winter grass. Your yard breathes your absence. I stand still until the light turns off, silently apologizing for all I did not do, for the distances I didn’t try to cross. My husband rounds the path behind me and the light flicks back on, illuminating your bucket resting neatly in the corner.
When I open the front door the next morning, something large and shiny catches my eye. It is one of your oyster shells, rubbed clean of years of accumulated grime. A small square of paper lies folded in the center: All the best to you and your family, Ruth. I realize in that moment that I don’t know your last name. I’m not sure you ever caught mine.