–Bend, bend, but don’t break.–
I had rescued Austin from his fall just two years before. Now the barrel-chested man was gone. Mary, his widow, a diminutive black-haired woman in her nineties, lived alone. We tried to visit her one afternoon. We knocked and knocked, but no one answered the door. Later we learned that she slept during the day and lived her waking life at night. I now understood the dim yellow light that glowed late at night from her living room window.
With a plate of cookies and five children in tow, we tried again to visit, this time at about 9:00 p.m. We knocked and waited for a long time, with Mary’s numerous cats brushing against our legs and purring. A hand finally turned the dead bolt, and Mary opened the door. She invited us in with a pleasant but tired smile, seeming very small in the door frame. We sat and stood around her kitchen table, talking agreeably but with the natural awkwardness of new acquaintances. She chatted with the children, often asking them to repeat their shy responses due to her deafness. She quietly thanked us for the cookies we had brought, and said she would enjoy them. Then we left.
Mary’s world had shrunk to the size of her little brick house. I wondered about her being so isolated and enclosed. She existed within a small world of familiar floral wallpaper, dusty drapes, cracked and glued nick-knacks, and worn easy chairs. Misty memories hung heavy in the stale air. She no longer ventured into the light of day, staying indoors in the light of her dull lamp. Would anyone notice if she died?
I felt different after leaving her house. Something had changed in me. We had connected with a noble, ancient matriarch. I sensed the humble grandeur of her life and spirit. I knew that she had lived powerfully but quietly. She had made the type of maternal contribution to the world and its people that changes civilizations yet goes largely unnoticed. She had not needed notoriety or accolade, but was sustained instead by meeker motivations. She had improved others through calculated sacrifice. She had persevered through human adversities. She did not care that no one remembered. She knew, and that was enough. She had made a mark on the world, invisible to all but a few, that left the world better than she found it.
Mary died later that year. I learned about it when one of the family asked me to sit in the house during the funeral to protect it, as I had when Austin died, from heartless burglars who read obituaries and preyed on the deceased’s belongings even while the family prayed over the deceased’s grave. I sat in the worn arm chair surrounded by the faded olive wallpaper, the dusty drapes, and the china cups on saucers lining a shelf. Austin’s austere sepia portrait hung on the wall, next to Mary’s. The weight of their lives at once pressed me into the chair and inspired me to rise above my own fear and mediocrity.
Others have moved into Mary’s little brick house. I see the house as I walk back from Rabbit Lane, and I remember Austin and Mary. I wonder if the newcomers know.