I’ve been away. In my mind. Not physically. It happens suddenly, this spirit travel. And when it does, I collect, sift and sort, but rarely write.
It’s quite cyclical and yet I am always surprised when I realize I’ve been gone for weeks.
I’m back for a while now. Who can say for how long?
‘I could tell you my adventures – beginning from this morning,’ said Alice a little timidly: ‘but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Time is strange. I walk, trudge, even run a bit when the path is briefly level. Has it been hours or years since I was at Longleaf? Was I ever there at all? Will I ever return to Buck and Lou-Lou and all the sweet familiarity of home?
Mountains rise around me. The path grows rocky and narrow. The air is thin and I am grateful for the bottle of water in my pack. Fog rolls in and I remember a time lost in frightening sea fog in a small boat in the Gulf of Mexico. I think of Yann Martel’s book, Life of Pi and the tiny boat so filled with life — terrifying and wondrous.
But I am not in a boat and so far as I can tell, I am alone on this fog-shrouded, rocky path.
What’s that? It sounds like squeaky hinges, then a bang. Metal on metal. It grows louder. The path widens and the fog begins to dissipate. I see the source of the sound now. It is a huge solid wood gate swinging on iron hinges. I see a key still in the lock. It looks just like the one in my pocket. Someone else is here!
I turn back to look at the path. It has disappeared. Rather than being alarmed, I feel light, curious, and eager even though the old mansion beyond the gate looks as though it has been abandoned for decades. I see vines draped over the stacked round stones several stories high.
I step through the gate and laugh out loud. The mansion and grounds have transformed. Instead of old vines draped over broken walls, I smell dusky climbing roses and the heady sweet scent of gardenias. Italian cedars line a circular cobblestone drive, and in the middle of it a fountain splashes.
Over the huge open double ebony front doors are the letters: BANCROFT.
The light inside is filtered. I don’t see another person, but I hear low laughter and conversation. I start to move in that direction, but the fragrant, yeasty aroma of baking bread draws me toward what must be the kitchen. I am suddenly famished.
Following my nose, I start across a wide hallway, but am stopped in my tracks by the faint tinkling sound of a piano. Is it coming from outside? I follow my ears this time, out the tall French doors , past a lovely gazebo, the strangely familiar music growing louder with each step.
How curious! The source of the music is a small structure built to look like a Grandmother clock. It sits just at the edge of a small lake, barely more than a pond. The music stops. Is someone inside? I walk around the structure, but cannot find a door anywhere.
There is a discreet name plate beside the clock face: GRACE ANN RINGER. Grace! What is she doing here? Grace is the main character in the novel I have been writing and putting away, writing and putting away, for at least five years.
II knock timidly on the clock, but don’t hear a sound. That’s when I notice the small red box at my feet. I am startled. It looks just like my red box of dreams.
I kneel down and open the fragile hasp.
It’s an old clock key. I like puzzles, and this one is pretty cool indeed. Within minutes I find the small winding hole, insert the key and start turning it. A trapezoid-shaped door silently opened and I stepped inside.
And a piano that looks like one where I spent many happy hours years ago.
And a screened porch actually hovering over the little lake. How had I missed that when I was looking for the door? I see Grace’s bright green running shoes on the porch, but no sign of her.
Now, I’m really hungry and eager to meet the others who have found their way here. But first, I really must play the piano for a few minutes.
It’s been a long time since I took a trip anywhere. A long time even since I walked the Longleaf forest, except for daily treks from home to the gate a third of a mile down a canopied gravel drive.
The grainy video from 2013 reminds me how timid I have become.
Something draws my eye to the bookshelf where I have a small collection of stones, rocks, moss and other items that please me. What is that? A key? I have never seen it before.
I pick it up and see there is a tag attached. The letters are faded. Is that a “B”? B A ? C ? ? F T. I can’t quite make it out. Wonderful old key, though. I like the feel of it in my hand. Returning to my desk, I slip it into the pocket of the comfortable old olive green skirt I wear around the house.
It’s still early morning here. My dog, Lou-Lou Belle, pushes her nose insistently into my hand. “One more sentence, girl. Then we’ll go for our walk.” She sighs and lays down, face between her paws.
The words won’t come. Now I’m the one sighing. “Okay. ” Lou jumps up at my voice. “Let’s go.”
Something about the morning sun’s rays penetrating the dark woods makes me alert.
The surprising appearance of light snow is my first clue that this will be no ordinary walk in the woods. Lou whines and turns back toward the house.
“Okay, girl. Let’s get you back to the house. I’ll come back for you after I check out what’s going on.” I open the door and she runs straight back to the bedroom where Buck is still sleeping. I grab a thermos of coffee and my backpack and head out.
The woods are familiar at first, but soon the terrain changes. The path narrows and the calves of my legs complain as flatland gives way to rolling country and then a steep incline. Clearly, I am not at Longleaf Preserve in the panhandle of northwest Florida anymore.
The flash of snow I saw earlier that told me this was no ordinary journey, returns, and with it a wind that gets up under my hair and whispers in my ear.
The last time I left on a long trip, a trip for nothing but play, a family member back at home died. My husband was with me. We screamed and cried in disbelief, then turned around in Atlanta and drove back home to an inescapable new reality. My 45-year-old stepson had a fatal heart attack. Our trip, of course, had nothing to do with it. And yet, for years we could not bring ourselves to buy airplane tickets or pack up the car for a road trip. And when we finally did travel out West to hike the magnificent parks of Utah, we looked over our shoulder for something following.
A few years later, my husband grew ill with a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, mantle cell. Treatment was difficult, but effective. Five years on, he remains in complete remission, fit and strong. But now 81, his age has become the “something following” and we spend nearly all our time together.
I think about all of this when I stop to stand on a large flat rock, drink the rest of my coffee, and wonder whether I should turn back. I think about the brief, sweet time I called myself “writer.” How barely a day went by that I didn’t submit a story or essay to some publication somewhere. How since my stepson’s death and my husband’s cancer, the sluice-way of creative juices has slowed to a trickle from a rusty, stubborn tap.
My right hand thoughtlessly goes into my skirt pocket, as it often does, a habit with no purpose. My fingers close around something strong, slender, metal — the key!
I leave my thermos on the rock, strap on the backpack and continue up the path, head down and into the wind.
Each morning I slip out of bed early. Lou-dog pads silently out of the room with me, leaving Buck to roll over in the warm space, hug my pillow, and dream a while longer.
The cedar and sage scent from a bar of soap greets me, a reliable standing stone symbol. Dried peonies hang over the framed photo I took years ago when, on a fire-line walk in our woods, I happened upon a field of blooming pitcher plants. The photo is a touchstone from a time that I was braver in my woods walking, less fearful of the coyotes and snakes who live here, too.
I was drawn to the small pine cone. It had fallen from a tree on the far side of our gate down by the main road. After several days of seeing it on a morning walk, I popped it into my jacket pocket, where it stayed another week, nestled into the soft, dark fabric. Now, I see it each morning and ponder while I brush my teeth: Why does seeing this little cone add to my feelings of comfort and joy?
The two weeks before Roy and Bette came to visit Buck and me was one of the more miserable chapters in our lives together, something unexpected and generally unimportant that made a hell of an impact: we both got the flu. No, we don’t take flu shots. Haven’t for more than 35 years. Haven’t had the flu, either, until this year.
So will we change course and start taking flu shots? You betcha. That all-nighter in our local emergency room (on my account) was the convincer. Yikes.
Roy and Bette were already scheduled to drive up from beautiful Naples on the southwest Florida coast and stay with us for a visit and to attend Roy and Buck’s 65th Pensacola High School reunion. Buck and I were growing concerned over whether we would be ready for prime time with visitors, even such good friends.
We needn’t have worried. We were much improved by the time they arrived, plus at our age, afternoon naps aren’t considered strange at all, so we had a couple of hours each afternoon to rest.
As always, they brought bottles of lovely wine and a case of fabulous sun-ripened tomatoes from Immokolee, near Naples. Roy shared his recipe for roasted tomato soup and the photo above shows them just out of the oven. The next step is to chunk them in a food processor, then freeze flat in a zip bag until the urge for roasted tomato soup hits.
We’ve enjoyed those tomatoes every which way. I’m even making a batch of taboulleh this afternoon and then baking another pan full for a future pot of creamy soup.
We send Roy and Bette a few pounds of stunningly delicious pecan halves from local grower Renfroe Pecans. The price has grown stunning over the years, too, but when Roy hands you a small pizza box that feels strangely heavy and you discover one of his luscious chocolate caramel pecan pies inside (made with pecans we sent at Christmas), you know that someday Renfroe will get those pecans up to the price they’re worth, but that day has not yet arrived.
Sweet, generous friends. Lou Lou Belle loves them, too.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I listened to Mr. Michaelides novel via an audio version. I wanted to like it more than I did. To me, the narrator, Theo, is unsympathetic from the jump. The idea that two psychotherapists with personal links to the “silent patient” are at the same facility strains credulity. We never learn enough about what makes Alicia Berenson tick to develop any real sympathy for her. Early on, it’s easy to see that Theo is an unreliable narrator so that when the “big reveal” comes, it’s flat.
View all my reviews