Sunrise yesterday morning saved me from a headlong plunge into despair. A gift from the universe. My mood swung from disbelief to hope, but skittered off center at the drop of a hat. My husband’s cancer is on the move again. A misogynist will occupy the white house. I’m pushing the boulder of my life’s work uphill against a country’s general disinterest in our newest national epidemic – sexual abuse. And a prissy Victorian era woman wrote a lousy review that says my story is too graphic. Were she to write it, it would embody decorum. On top of that, my husband snapped at me this morning. I understand – we’re both processing next steps for him.
But, that sunrise. I snatched up the camera, walked out onto our freezing deck, and snapped away, mesmerized by beauty incapable of verbal description. I know there are those who could masterfully define that panorama, but it wasn’t in me yesterday. Yesterday I was gutted, unexpectedly teary. Then dawn afforded the sight of the sky and I was awe struck. Hopeful. And, surprisingly energized. It’s what you do when you’ve been knocked flat, yes? You’re stunned, you take stock, you stand, and shake yourself solid. Lift your head, open your heart, and take on the day.
Many years ago our next-door neighbor befriended my unhappy little ten-year-old self. Our families weren’t friends. In fact, I was expressly forbidden to talk to her. Still, she noticed when I got a pixie cut and told me she loved it. She told me how smart I was to use plywood to climb deeper into blackberry brambles for fruit. She suggested how to soften the earth when I needed to bury my kittens. Her kindness was a pearl I kept in my heart. Years later, when history reared its difficult head, I took myself on an odyssey for understanding. Frankly, I needed to know I wasn’t crazy. I needed to confirm or disavow memory, willing to take the risk that I might be wrong. I needed to gather history in as well rounded a manner as I could. Yes, I had diaries documenting life, but from my perspective. What of others?
I visited each of my sisters. I visited communities where we had lived, looked up classmates, teachers and elders in the church. “What did you see?” “What were your impressions?” “Had we children seemed okay?” “Who was my father to you?” His resume included elementary school principal, pastor, missionary, theology professor. Mom did Brownie Scouts, and later earned a PhD in psychology. What had we, this well educated, religious, incestuous family looked like to the outside world? And in Brownsville, where enough pressure was brought to bear that my parents chose to go to Africa to avoid prosecution, I looked up my neighbor lady.
I parked in front of their house, and walked the rose scented path. A dark haired, brown eyed woman my age answered when I knocked. I asked if Mr. and Mrs. Carlson still lived here. Mr. Carlson had passed, but Mrs. Carlson was in residence. I asked if she would see me, and gave the in-home caregiver my maiden name.
While I waited, I surveyed the scene. What had been our Victorian, the old walnut tree, the barn, her rose garden – all of it so much smaller than I’d remembered. I focused on Katie and my second story bedroom window, when I heard, “She’d love to see you.” My heart skipped a beat.
I asked if my children could picnic on the porch, got them settled, and went inside. Her smile was exactly as I remembered. She patted the hospital bed and when I sat, she took both my hands in her deeply veined ones. “Look at you,” she said, “all grown up.” I grinned.
She asked about my life – Africa, college, marriage and children, then about Michelle. “Was it your dad’s baby?” I nodded. She squeezed my hands, and closed her eyes for a moment. “We did what we could. We spoke to authorities, the church, the school…we knew things were really off.” I nodded.
I was at her home now because I knew she’d cared then. She’d shown me. This woman, who twenty years ago had invited me to smell her roses, who taught me their names, who made a point of saying hello whenever she saw me, who told me I had pretty eyes, and that I rode a horse like a dream, this woman had given me courage, and hope, and warmth. She had seen something and said something.
Yesterday I needed airspeed and altitude – a favorite metaphor of mine from my flying days. The morning sky inspired the thought, and the day’s happenings required it. Lift off and find perspective. See the bigger picture. Three decades ago a woman got to hear and see what kindness did for one small girl. Three decades from now, may the kindness we show today, and tomorrow, and the next day touch lives in the way Mrs. Carlson touched mine.