The train whistle slices through the edge of the night, a low rumble of metal on metal, weight on weight making its way across miles that are pulled tight against horizon and sky. I lay unmoving on my bed, slouched into pillows and quilts, playing the scenes of the day through my head, stirred by the sound. Suddenly I am back someplace I know but have never been: my mother told a story of being a child at the convent, swinging on a swing, hearing the sound of the train and trying to pump higher and higher so that she could see over the convent wall, all the while wondering where the train was going and wanting to go there too. Now I am in her story, a piece of history shared from when I was a little girl, a piece of story that I remember when the train goes by, pulling the twilight into dark.
Sometimes it seems so clear; where I am and who I am and what story is unfolding. I had grandparents that slept in separate bedrooms; that spat and grunted communications that were interlaced with whiskey bottles and wooden rosary beads. I vowed to never be like them. My husband and I dance a different dance. We will not, cannot sleep apart. I love this story. It is punctuated by small acts of tenderness that reach out like vines into shared cups of warm ginger tea, someone to fetch the mail; “oh, wait, I’ll get that for you…” check the oil in your car, drive with you to a doctor’s appointment so that you will not have to sit alone. This is my story of the ever after that happened after youth rode into the sunset.
Remember the Catholic schoolgirl who smoked pot behind the high school gym, who wanted to help the poor, but also enjoyed a good make-out session? Can’t you be it all? Can’t you do it all? That was me. I remember feeling forced to choose, and as a result began to see life in a small and shrinking way, squeezing myself into something I thought I was supposed to be, but never really could be. Then one day I woke up with a dry mouth, symptoms and sorrow for what might have been.
I wish I could gather all of my nieces and nephews into one place. I would bring us around a large fire, where we would sit late into the night. I would tell them stories among the crackle and hiss of leaping flames. Stories about Viet Nam and how Brent came back with only part of a hand and couldn’t sit with his back to any door, anywhere, ever again; stories of how I learned to grow impatience and ferns in a shaded flower bed and would sit there for hours reading; stories of walking in snow under a full moon. I would tell them stories, because it feels like that is what I am meant to do now. Instead, we text—we call—we make dinner plans in lives that are over scheduled and tired.
I reflect upon what has been as I lean forward into age, that for this time affords me strong legs and the desire to keep walking and filling my lungs with fresh air and my heart with the beauty of the natural world; learning that the stories themselves are like thick, wonderful murals, layered with paint that portrays the laughter and the wounds, the celebrations and grief. But the files in which I place those stories in my mind… the labels that I write onto each one, those are dangerous. Those make the story less important than how they are categorized. I am too organized for my own good sometimes.–alphabetizing spices and filing memories. You cannot continue to do that. It’s really just one big story and we are all connected by it. I should go mess up that spice drawer just to take in the aroma of each dish they have inspired in my kitchen. What was that wonderful quote I read somewhere, that now seems so appropriate? “Life is like licking honey off of a thorn.”