I circulated this among my writing circle some time back, but I came across it again as I was collating pieces for my upcoming book, and I wanted to share it here, as well. Enjoy. (The picture to the left is my rock wall, with my baby wild rose bush trying to get a foothold.)
“Here’s a rock for your house, Aunt Bodie,” said my nephew Aaron. “I picked it up today when I went with Grandpa to get rocks for the yard.”
My father was landscaping my sister’s yard that year. I was living with her, her husband, and their two sons while I finished graduate school. Aaron was five.
But I see I’ve started in the middle.
The story really starts with me sitting at a drafting board in my sister’s public relations office in Florida, working on an illustration. Aaron is about fifteen months old, carrying a bottle and attired in a sagging diaper. Florida is hot and muggy; anything more would have been child abuse.
He sees the pen in my hand, toddles over, and climbs up into my lap. I set aside the drawing I’m working on, pull another piece of paper toward us, and draw him a duck. As is my wont, as I draw, I talk. I tell him about the duck, and what it’s doing, and why it has webbed feet, and I don’t remember what all. He listens, and then pulls the bottle out of his mouth, says, “Duck,” and shoves the bottle back into his mouth in a businesslike way. I think it is his second word.
When the duck is finished he climbs down off my lap, takes the picture, and carries it away with him. My sister tapes it to his bedroom door. When I leave to go home he cries, my sister says, but he takes comfort in the duck.
And that is the beginning.
That winter my sister and I find ourselves living in the same town again; I am finishing college; she thinks her marriage is ending. Aaron and Paul, his older brother, come over to my house often. When my sister decides to give her marriage one more try and moves to California I feel like my heart has gone missing. We celebrate Aaron’s second birthday the day she drives away in the U-Haul. She leaves the last of the cake with my brother Matt and me.
When the truck is gone we clean the empty apartment, scrub the floors, then close and lock the door, taking the remains of the cake with us. Back in our own apartment the cake sits on our cupboard. Small sticky hand prints cover the television screen. I can’t throw the cake away, and I can’t clean the television. I walk through my days, but I feel like I am gone. The cake petrifies into a substance worthy of Miss Havisham’s wedding feast.
I know I should throw it away. I know I should clean the television. Every time I look at them my heart twists, but I can’t bear to remove the last things that speak to me of Paul and Aaron’s presence. In the end Matt does it for me, scrubbing the television and throwing the cake away while I am in a late-afternoon class. I am sad, but I am also relieved.
In the spring I am accepted to three graduate schools. I choose the one closest to Pam, and to Paul and Aaron. Moving to California is hard. The school isn’t all I had hoped it would be. But it’s okay, because each night when I get home there are the boys. And when I go to my room to study, it is not long before a pajama-clad Aaron appears, bottle and book in hand, to ask for a “‘tory.”
In the beginning I ask him to wait until I finish studying, but too often he falls asleep waiting, so I start telling him the stories I am reading, explaining Middle English poetry to a child of two, telling him about knights, ladies, hermits, and magical swords arising from lakes. He asks me to draw him a picture. I do, and then we read his story, and then I study some more while he falls asleep in the lamplight.
I take to loading the boys into my car, rolling the windows down, and playing Billy Joel loudly as we drive through the California streets. We all love it. I blow the speakers out of my car. Matt replaces them for me on a visit, and Paul, Aaron and I hit the road again, windows down, singing loudly, untunefully, and joyfully about “Upson Girls.”
My second year in graduate school Pam moves to a house with a swimming pool. Paul already knows how to swim. Aaron doesn’t. He is a small, thin child; I suspect he doesn’t have enough body fat to keep him afloat. I spend a lot of time with Aaron in the Jacuzzi, teaching him how it feels to move through the water. He never really gets the hang of floating, but he swims like an otter.
That summer we use inner tubes, the boys’ He-Man sword, and the swimming pool to re-enact The Lady in the Lake. I get very good at holding my breath, standing on the bottom in the deep end, and waiting for the boys to paddle out and take the sword from my hand. I am just tall enough that the it breaks the surface. I look up through the wavering water at round brown faces and plump children’s hands, at my own arm glittering with water drops like samite, and it is magic.
That is the year that Aaron brings me the rock. It starts on a trip to Camp Cedar Falls. I have a commission to draw the sign. Paul and Aaron go along for the ride from Los Angeles up into the mountains, and through the quiet forests. On the way we pass a small stone house.
“Someday I’d like to have a stone house,” I comment. We drive on. We reach the sign. I pull off on the shoulder of the road, make a few quick sketches, snap several pictures, stop at a mountain restaurant for hamburgers and pie, and head back down the mountain. The boys fall asleep. I forget I’ve mentioned wanting a stone house.
And then Aaron appears in my bedroom door one day, carrying last year’s Easter basket. In the bottom lies a fist-sized rock. “It’s for your house,” he tells me. And something in me wakes up, and says, “Keep this. This is important.”
I finish graduate school, and this time it is my turn to leave. It takes me just a few months to realize my mistake. Spring finds me back in California, looking for a job close enough so I can spend time with my sister, and with Paul and Aaron. The rock travels with me.
I find a job and an apartment an hour from my sister’s house. Paul and Aaron come visit often. We still love driving and singing, but now it’s Madonna, and Bart Simpson songs. We get a lot of strange looks from other drivers. I buy passes to Disneyland, and we go often enough that we come to understand that we don’t have to ride every ride, every time. We take the time to go to the shows, and to sit on the shady, cool decks overlooking the river, sipping soda and talking.
Each time we visit Paul and Aaron pick out a Christmas tree ornament at the Castle Christmas Store. I pack them carefully in my Christmas boxes. At my house Paul draws, and Aaron paints. We swim in the pool. I take Aaron to Phantom of the Opera. The rock sits in its basket in the corner of my bedroom.
Pam and her husband decide to move to Hawaii. Pam wants me to move with them, but even though it kills me to see the boys leave I decide to stay. Something in me tells me that much as I love my sister and her children, I need to find a life for myself—and that moving to Hawaii is her dream, but it is not mine. And so she leaves. And the boys leave. But the rock stays.
I set about trying to find a life. I begin to date a man. I get a job I enjoy. I stop dating the man. I realize I am pregnant. And I realize that something has gone very wrong. This is not the life I hoped to build. I’m not building anything at all; I’m just holding on while things fall apart around me. I realize this is not my life, and I am not being a good mother.
I move to Oregon, where it is green and living is cheaper. Times are hard. Each Christmas, I start sending Paul and Aaron the ornaments that they chose in the castle at Disneyland. And slowly, slowly, I begin to build a life with my son. Through it all, the rock goes with me.
And then the life I have built with my son falls apart again. My apartment floods and the landlord does nothing—for a month. The health department says that visible mold or not, if the house is stinking I need to treat it like a mold site because of the microbes. The house is stinking. And so I do what I must. Everything soft, everything paper, everything that cannot be scrubbed with borax, must be thrown away.
I scrub the rock with borax, wipe down its basket, and pack it to go to my new house. And we start over again. Pam brings her boys over from Hawaii and they help me unpack. They are taller than I am, now. She buys me a couch, and a bed. My mother brings up my grandmother’s round oak table. “I wanted you to have it, anyway,” she says, “and this is a good time.”
My house feels clean, and new, and better than ever. And then a pipe breaks somewhere in the crawl space. The man who has been repainting the trim, getting the yard weeded, and stripping the floors says, “I won’t leave you in a mess.” And so, even though I can’t pay for it, he starts digging.
He digs out the whole foundation. He finds the broken pipe. He also finds rocks. Lots and lots of rocks. “What shall I do with them all?” he asks.
“I think I’d like to make a wall,” I say. He looks at me like I’m crazy, but it’s my house, and there really are a lot of rocks, and we have to do something with them. My son and I and the nice man pack all of the rocks off the grass and dump them in the flower beds in front of the house. The plumber comes and fixes the pipe.
The nice man keeps digging. Then he waterproofs the foundation, installs French drains, and backfills with gravel, sand, and dirt. Then he re-seeds everything. The next summer my son goes out and starts piling the rocks on the concrete curb that for some obscure reason separates my flower garden from the lawn. The pile looks good.
The painting-trim-and-digging-out-foundations man, who by now has become a fixture, suggests that I forget about concreting the wall in place, and just pile the rocks–make a drystone wall–instead. And so in just a few days, the piles of rocks have been transformed into a two-foot-high drystone wall. And it’s lovely.
I stand in the street one evening. I live on the kind of street where you can do this, as long as you watch out for bikes and skateboards and the Towel Lady. The Towel Lady is a woman we once saw zooming up the street with her hair wrapped in a towel. Calling her the Towel Lady is probably a little mean, since we only saw her do it once, but still, there it is. She will forever be the Towel Lady in our hearts, and she drives like a bat out of hell, so we have to be careful.
My house sits snug and a little crooked on its lot. The flowers are blooming. The grass is lush. The pussy willow tree has lost its catkins and is covered in leaves. My son plays in the driveway with some neighbor kids, safely out of the Towel Lady’s orbit.
I think of the stone house I had dreamed of. This is not that house, but it’s a good place, I’ve built a stone wall, and I realize it’s time. I go inside, take Aaron’s rock out of its basket, come back outside, and add it to the wall. And then I go sit in my Adirondack chair on the porch—the one that always makes me feel like I should be on a sea voyage—and I watch Patrick play.
A couple years later Aaron moves to California. He makes a trip to Canada, and on the way home he stops by. He is gigantic. He’s 6’4”. His shoulders look almost three feet wide. He has lots of blue ink on his arms, shoulders, and legs. He is pierced. Several times. “They kicked me out of Canada early,” he says, smiling. “They thought I was a drug runner.” And I look in his eyes and see the same boy who used to bring a bottle and book and fall asleep in the lamplight, waiting for a story, and wonder how the border guards can be so blind.
“I put your rock on my wall,” I tell him.
“That’s cool,” he says. He doesn’t have to ask which rock.
We go look at the rock, or what might be the rock; truth to tell, now that it’s on the wall I’m not sure I can identify it any more. We drive up the road to the town where I went to college, and where he lived with his mother and Paul the winter he was one.
“I didn’t know we lived up here,” he says. And so I tell him about the apartment, and we drive by and I point it out to him. And then I tell him about the cake hardening on my cupboard, and the small hand smudges on my television, and he smiles again.
Back at my house I feed him chili cooked in my grandmother’s big chili pot, and fresh bread. It is comfort food, and he is comforted, just as I was comforted when my grandmother used to cook chili in this pot for me when it still lived in her house, her kitchen. Aaron plays video games with Patrick. And then he drives away, back to his wife, his job, his life in California.
I sit on my porch, and look at my rock wall, and I think about the things that bind us—rocks, dreams, promises, smiles, Christmas ornaments, stories, lamplight, and most of all, the sort of love that supersedes time and distance, the kind of love that stretches to allow us to follow our hearts and find our dreams, and in the end, leads us home.