Wednesday, February 15, 2012


We started walking across the marshy grass to the Retirement Center in fourth grade. Our tiny church was already bursting at the seams in the early seventies from the influx of families either heading toward the small colleges or away from the increasingly complicated cities. The smaller kids could stay in the church for Sunday school, and I envied them for being closer to our parents, the coffee urns, the plates of cookies, the piano and the red hymnals and everything else I loved about Bethel. The patch of undeveloped land between the buildings had a sidewalk part of the way, but then there was the small stretch where your new grown-up heels might sink into the soft earth, threatening to unbalance you, or where spring mud would cling to your pant leg on Easter Sunday, unavoidable muck on your way to the door.

We had our Sunday school classes in a big open area that smelled of food and medicine, at once antiseptic and sweet. Sometimes we sang and the residents gathered, tiny bundles between their wheelchairs and walkers. Some of them smiled as limp and welcoming as old blankets, some stared at invisible scenes, some were drawing near invisibility. At some point I wondered if that was the bargain, some interaction with us in exchange for use of the space. I loved Sunday school but that room bothered me, imagining as I did that there was any choice about it.

There it is in the online video, new tables and chairs and curtains but the same trim halfway up the wall, sidewalks long completed outside the familiar windows (how they let the winter cold in!). Relief floods the top level of my heart: Dad was successfully moved today, and now he will be safe. The last frightening fall in the apartment finally did it. Old soldier, old fool, he hung onto his own space for longer than was prudent, mistake, motivation. Gratitude takes root in the middle of my heart: to him, for finally saying yes, to my brother and sister for helping, to my mom who has done so much more than I realized.

But I haven't spoken with any of them yet, as they've been doing the real work, signing the papers and moving the furniture and letting him chat out his anxiety inside the new walls. I Skype instead with the man whom I still see as her new husband. Is it ten years already? And longer than that, his young family once also part of the little congregation, his son crossing the marshy grass with my sister and me. Something about this combination of things on my screen - the familiarity and strangeness of his face, of those rooms- gets to the bottom of my heart.

I see him through the window in the video, him with his vibrant wife before her long sickness changed and took her. There is my mother impossibly beautiful in her big glasses. Maybe it's spring, and they are out in front of the church after Adult Forum. The pastor with his green stole is there, and the choir director, my teachers, they are all in their leisure suits and macramé vests holding styrofoam cups of coffee and laughing, little kids around their knees like bees or electrons. I can see my father, even at this distance I can see his gestures and hear his voice full of opinion and drive. We middle kids are crossing the pathless field on our way back to them, and there they are, strong and vital, the parents who protect us and and the adults we long to become. The old people are behind me, there is mud on my shoes, and I am crossing back into their world, where everything is possible.