Our conversations start simply enough, the weather, my week, her week, but somehow they inevitably follow the track of her mind as it wanders backwards through time. One thing reminds her of another and then we’re drifting from stories of her as a mother, dancing like a troll with her youngest daughter to In the Hall of the Mountain King, to stories of her as a child, reading novels in the yard with a pet hen. And she’ll tell me how her hen would coo and cluck beside her and eventually lull her to sleep under the shade of a tree. And how once her mother had cooked that hen for dinner without knowing how upset the children would be, and her brother had cried and kicked his mother in the shin.
Its unlike any other relationship in my life, the rest being so fully focused on the here-and-now and the unfolding future.
With Miss C., we time travel, and I see the world through the bright blue, British eyes of a young Quaker girl who studied at respectable universities (I swear, she looked just like Jenny Lee), learned languages, traveled, married a handsome American man and raised three children. It is a world before iPhones and Internet, rich with fondly remembers music and art, a life of busy hands and unclouded thought.
But the thing that gets to me — the feeling that follows me as I walk out of her quiet nursing home apartment and into my buzzing, busy little life — is that her life viewed backwards seems clearer than mine going forwards. It seems cleaner somehow, more real. Her memories are shockingly tangible, sometimes more so than even my own.
I’ve never sat so quietly with my chicken that I might one day remember the sounds she made and how they calmed me – or at least, I never had before I imagined a little Quaker girl doing it 80 years ago. But now I can testify to the strangely sedative nature of their low squawks and clucks, feet scratching at the grass as they walk with proudly bobbing heads.
She isn’t like a mentor. We’ve never talked about spiritual things and I rarely share much about my life, but she is something. She is like a muse.
She is a reminder that life is palpable — it is capable of being handled, touched, perceived, experienced deeply and burned into memory.
She is an inspiration for the daily things, the simple things, to be heavy on the senses. These God-given, over-looked and under-stimulated receptors of life that are waiting to be impressed upon.
She makes me want to weave more tangible, timeless things into my days, so quickly becoming memories, because … why not?
Why not let the background music of Annika’s childhood be something classic like Peter and the Wolf? And why not sit for an extra moment in the chicken coop, just to be there? Why not sip tea and look out the window instead of checking my notifications on Facebook — again? Why not light candles at night and watch them cast a glow on the wall, maybe make some shadow puppets?
Why not slow down, pay attention to the details, and basically just dig my feet in deeply to these days?
Times are changing and things are done more quickly now, more thoughtlessly, with less time to attach ourselves to the memory of actually doing them.
It all whizzes by in a blur and at the end of the day I find myself wondering why time flies.
Her eyes at 86 are still bright blue — though one is clouded with glaucoma — framed with a fringe of girlish, gray bangs. She smiles when we walk in the room and invites me to sit, which I do, and we start to chat about nothing in particular. And always, always she wanders back. I let her go, trying to follow and not to lead, to wait as she chooses where to go and how long to stay there.
And her stories follow me as I leave. I find that I carry them with me, sometimes like memories of my own.
At home, I pour sugar into muffin batter, remembering how one time sugar was rationed during the war and children longed for these kinds of sweets. So I call Annika over and tell her lick her finger and stick it in the jar … we smile as we suck the sweet crystals off our fingertips.
I’ve got a bluesy jazz singer on Pandora and I tell Annika that the voice is kind of like sugar, too.
And I know that we are young, both of us, and very much alive. We have the luxury of life, this palpable and beautiful life, being ours to live and feel and remember.
It unfolds out before us like a giant mystery, and we move forward in it.
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