The road is shorter than I remember. The houses are closer together. Hell, they even look smaller. I drive slowly and a white-haired fellow half looks up from watering something with a hose and waves. He must think we’re neighbors. And we are in a way, just not for the last 35 years.
I turn the car around in a culdesac and notice the fellow’s mailbox has a familiar name on it. I wonder how they can still be alive and remember their kids were only a little older than my brother and I were then. Grown ups always seem older in memory, like how the camera adds ten pounds but in stooped shoulders and gray hair.
Maybe I should have stopped…said hello, I say to my oldest daughter as the car climbs back up the hill. She has taken earbuds out for this stretch. We’re taking the long way to see my grandmother, her great-grandmother.
My daughter says Go back. You know you want to. If you don’t, you might always regret it.
She has me at regret. I turn the car around and go back.
The white-haired fellow is still spraying something with a hose, a doormat I think. I turn the engine off and walk to where his driveway meets the road. He looks up, wary-curious, and then I ask if he’s Mr. so-and-so and he says yes, maybe makes a move for a pair of gardening shears.
I’m Kristen, I say. I used to live next door a long, long time ago.
His face loosens, he smiles and puts the hose down and walks over. He asks after my brother and I tell him he has two kids now, eager to prove who I am.
He says to me Wait right here. I have someone who has to meet you.
He disappears through the front door of his house. I wouldn’t recognize it. They’ve had so much work done. There’s an addition, a garage that wasn’t there before. The roof isn’t asphalt shingle anymore but corrugated red steel. The landscaping is exotic and lush and snakes around the yard.
The neighbor reappears with his wife. She’s holding a dish towel and looks concerned. I don’t think he’s told her who I am yet.
Of course she’s nothing like I remember at five. I remember a cross between Ginger and Maryann. Her hair isn’t fire-red anymore but frosted. She wears round glasses and I tell her who I am and her face kind of crumbles and she gives me a big hug. She’s so tiny I have to bend over to hug her.
She says to me I was real close with your mom. I never got over losing her.
She doesn’t mean when we moved away because my mom was already gone. We lived in that house a good four years after the day she died and my grandmother pulled up and found my dad sitting on the curb crying. He was 31. I was a little over a year old, my brother only 4.
The neighbor tells me my dad had to put a phone in my mother’s hospital room so they could talk every day. She says Let me tell you, Dolly and I could talk.
She tells me about the last time they talked. She says my mom asked her to come see her at the hospital. She was on a sterile unit so she wouldn’t catch anything and the neighbor was at home in her den with ten cub scouts. She said ‘oh I don’t think I should come today, Dolly’. And you know she died the next day.
It makes me think of an entry in my baby book about the last time I saw my mother. My dad’s perfect penmanship said that I shied away at first but then didn’t want to leave. He wrote Naturally the death means nothing to a 15 month old.
The neighbor’s husband pulls an ipod out of his pocket and scrolls through a series of old pictures of his children, his wife. There they are just as I remember, an assortment of heights and faded 70s plaid, plus the one boy with his dark, clunky glasses. They haven’t aged at all in his pocket.
I have him show my girls, who are sitting quietly in the car, taking it all in, so they can meet them too. The wife tells how my brother used to walk through their back door every day and announce I’m here and help himself to cookies in the pantry. He called her Mom, she says, and if he was over when the ice cream man came, she gave him money too.
She says that darned ice cream man starting coming a couple of times a day and my brother laid down on the floor and cried when she said but Jeff, you already had ice cream. He said My mom would let me have more.
She gave all the kids more money. The ice cream man probably shook his head but started coming three times a day.
She says to me Your mom wanted to have you so bad even though she knew it was risky. She told me she wanted to fill that house up with children.
I feel a familiar stab of guilt. I already know this from my grandmother and from a manila folder of medical records my dad gave me when I was in college. I know her cancer came back when she was pregnant with me and that she had to wait to start radiation. I know her pregnancy was plagued with night sweats, fatigue and weight loss, but still she gave birth to a perfectly healthy baby girl.
I ask after who lives in our old house and say how nice it looks. They too added a garage and pretty landscaping. The wife says they’re real nice people but she’d still rather have us next door.
We catch up on their kids (four!) and grandchildren (six!) and which of the original neighbors are still around. They tell me another died from the same kind of cancer my mom had. He hung in longer, they said. Here we stand, scrappy testaments to good health and luck.
Dusk is settling in and bugs are starting to bite at our legs. My youngest boldly announces from the backseat that her great-grandmother is probably wondering where we are.
I hug the wife again and shake the husband’s hand and they stand at the curb and wave like long-lost relatives as we drive off.
We wind through miles of horse farms and rolling, untouched landscape. I’d be hard pressed to point out anything that wasn’t there 35 years ago. Moon River comes on among hundreds of songs on a playlist and I tell my oldest daughter this used to be my mother’s favorite song. My grandmother told me this years ago when we were sifting through old records. We drive through the deep summer landscape to see her.