Recently, I asked my sister Mary how she knew her husband, David, was the right man for her. They've been married for more than thirty years now, and happily so, but when they met, they seemed to be very different people—not at all the couple I would have put together. Of course, I was only a kid at the time they met and married, so what did I know?
It was the 4th of July, and Mary and I were exploring the creek at my parents' old farm. The house was razed last fall, and the property cleared of privet and brambles in hopes of finding a buyer for the acreage. Divested of its old ramshackle barns, fences and blackberry bramble, the property exuded a park-like quality and hardly resembled the place where we all grew up. We hadn't been there together since before our father died, but it was the 4th of July and we had come to shoot off fireworks, just as we had when we were kids.
The landscape seemed to have shifted since we lived there decades ago. Mary and I tried to recall where the barns formerly stood, and wondered why the lofty, old pine tree by the bank, where we once caught catfish, looked so different. Instinctively, we began to hunt for colorful pieces of shale and crystals among the creek bed. I was six and she was fourteen, again.
As the sun went down, the night's first fireworks popped nearby. I heard Jack's cries of delight. Earlier in the day, his Uncle Mike took him to the fireworks stand where they purchased half an arsenal to light up the night. In the distance, I heard my son shout, "That was awesome! Do it again!"
Mary picked up an yellowish stone, like a tiny, cratered moon, and turned it over in her hand. "Here's a pretty one," she said.
I took the rock and examined the shimmering slivers of crystal imbedded within its surface, reflecting the dying light of day. I had hoped to find a crystal for Jack like the ones we sometimes found in the creek bed. This one wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but it was interesting and pretty and it would do. I slipped in into my pocket.
|Sisters playing in the creek, 1965. |
From left: Katrina (8), Brigid (2), Gretchen (12) and Mary (10).
Mary bent low to pick up another rock. After a moment she let it fall back onto the ground. She stood up and stretched her back. "Well," she said. "I'm not sure. But I think when it's right, nothing else will matter."
Another explosion erupted, and for a moment we looked up and watched the gray smoke drift slowly into the soft, pale light. Mary continued.
"I have a friend who had been dating this fellow for a while, and she seemed very happy with him. She had been married before and still lived in the house that she bought with her first husband, but her children were grown and she seemed ready to start a new life. One day, he asked her to marry him. At first she was thrilled, but then she started finding excuses not to marry this guy. She didn't want to start their new life in her old house. No, problem, says he, we'll buy a new house of our own. That seemed like a perfect solution, but she couldn't see it. And at every turn, this woman found reasons why she could not marry this man. Nothing against him specifically, just logistical hurdles she could not overcome. So it seemed to me that she just didn't want to marry the guy, but she swore up and down that she did."
Mary paused and picked up a small smooth stone and handed it to me. "This one is pretty," she said. "So you see, if it was really right, that old house wouldn't matter to her. So I guess he wasn't the right man for her after all but she didn't want to admit it."
I rubbed the remaining dirt from the small, smooth stone and felt its coolness between my fingers. Now clean, it appeared almost white and I could appreciate a translucent quality at one tip, as if it would soon crystalize.
"Why are you asking me this?" Mary asked, with an impish smile. I was fourteen and she, twenty-two, again. "Do you think you've met someone special?"
"Maybe, I'm not sure," I said. "I don't know. He seems like good guy, but he lives in Atlanta. I guess we'll just see where it goes. But it's awfully soon for me to be involved with anyone. I'm barely divorced."
"Yeah, well," Mary said. "I'm sure you'll figure it out. Like I said, if it's right, none of that will matter."
I picked up a smooth, flat piece of dark slate and ran my fingers around its sharp edges. From reflex memory of performing the task thousands of times before, I positioned the flat stone in the crook of my index finger and flung. It skimmed the top of the darkening creek, and skipped once...twice...three times, before it was swallowed, whole.
Near the pile of stones where our house used to stand, a battery of firecrackers exploded and male voices shouted what sounded like a battle cry. Above the din, I heard Jack's reedy excitement, "That was awesome!"
The hazy light of day retreated as the artillery fire sounded again. Mary and I tentatively made our way across the stream, stepping on protruding rocks, trying to keep our sneakers dry. After all, I am forty-eight, and she is fifty-six. I hopped across and then, extended my hand to help my sister to the other side.
I smiled. Why worry about the future? I was back in my beloved childhood haunt, by the creek where I spent so many happy hours, with my family whom I loved. And my son was now experiencing a piece of my childhood that he only heard tale of before. In that moment, nothing else mattered.
As I climbed the loamy creek bank to rejoin our 4th of July party, I felt the moon-shaped rock dig into my thigh. I stopped, retrieved it from my pocket and examined the stone one more time. Then I lobbed it into the darkest waters of the creek, and watched until the ripples met the shore. After all, it wasn't quite what I was looking for.