There was snow on the ground when I drove to his small house, struggling to find it at the end of a small side street. He stood in his yard and waved to me after I circled one too many times, I remember.
It was last January when I sat with him in a sunny studio, artwork covering every wall. I had meant to write about him ever since the previous spring, the hand-painted cards he sent to every church member hanging on my fridge for months as a reminder. It took him being hospitalized with pneumonia before I finally talked to my editors about him. He was 94 and I was afraid I’d already missed my chance.
That January morning he told me about painting, how he decided he liked art while serving in World War II, and how he started painting because he couldn’t afford the art he saw in stores.
He’d painted around 5,000 cards by then, affixing a red felt heart on the back of each one. And like he’d wanted when he first started painting, his walls were covered with his own artwork.
“I like to paint,” he said then. “And it gives God the glory. I’m painting things He has made.”
That quote ran at the top of the page, above his picture with the story on the front page.
I read yesterday that he’d died, the long struggle starting with a fall on the snow in that same yard two months ago.
And I wonder if he’s still painting in heaven? Only this time painting celestial scenes, not the earthly ones he’d painted before.
Snow was falling lightly and clinging to our coats but it wasn’t nearly as cold as it looked as we hurried down the brick sidewalk. We passed her at the library steps.
“I wasn’t sure it was you, are you still at the paper?” She was asking all at once but neither of us stopped, me carrying the baby and she shuffling through the snow with a full bag.
I told her no, I was home now, as we started up the wide steps.
“Your birthday’s next month – happy birthday!” she said as she rounded the corner and we headed inside.
She was our neighbor when we first moved here, living in the brick rental on the corner lot. She was our neighbor and took it on herself to know everything about us. She scolded siblings for dropping gravel in a storm grate (it would clog it) and worried about our laundry on the line and watched us from her windows and worried over the college boys behind us.
After we moved she found a letter addressed to me, blown away in the wind, and gave it to one of the owners of the paper to pass on to me.
It’s been a couple of years since we moved across town and months since I’ve seen here walking down Philadelphia Street.
But she remembers my birthday.
She is five years old, playing alone on the playground, dark hair and eyes and a bouncy smile. She doesn’t seem to know the word stranger.
She’s talking to me – about Charlotte, how old she is, how cute – when she sees the boy driving the blue toy Corvette down the sidewalk.
“I’ve seen him before,” she says, then skips to the big concrete pad where older kids are riding bikes.
The boy in the blue Corvette just barely slows as he makes the curve and she jumps in and they’re gone, circling the concrete pad too fast. She’s laughing and he has great control of his car.
At a picnic table a man is sitting alone and I think she came with him but he doesn’t pay her any attention. I don’t know if he’s seen her jump into the boy’s car. The boy’s father has seen, tells him to slow down when he circles too close to a toddler, but he’s following another wobbly boy on a bike with a dog tugging on a leash.
The two are circling still when I leave, her dark hair streaming behind her, laughing.
They’re not even in first grade, and the stories of their lives are playing out on the playground on a chilly January afternoon.
She was fighting a nap, again, and I was late so I ran out the door to her crying in my ears.
He’d insisted on meeting in person, though there was no reason a phone call could not have sufficed, and I was frustrated, squeezing a meeting in before piano lessons later that afternoon.
I knew he’d be late, too. In my hurrying I knew it was pointless.
But when I’d ordered my latte and hung my coat over the back of the chair and sat there in the window, I started to notice again. And I realized how long it had been.
Outside it was cold but the sun peeked out around clouds and people walked by on the brick sidewalks in ones and twos. A woman pushed a stroller by, a blanket hung over the hood, the way my toddler never allows.
Inside the art was new from the last time I was there, in the summer, but the barista was the same. He looks better in the winter, the knit hats and flannel fitting with his beard and mustache, and I wanted to ask him if he still bikes everywhere when the weather is bad.
Two artists were moving materials in the back and the barista’s girlfriend lingered at the counter and someone tried to sell webhosting to the curator who always wears the long dresses that I associate with the ’80s.
And I was sorry when he walked in the door, ordered an iced Americano (in January?!) and sat across from me.
I wished he’d been more than 5 minutes late.
Frost formed thick along the bottom of the inside window frames and clustered along the weatherstripping up the side of the door.
For two days the furnace barely stopped running. We hung blankets over the old windows in the baby’s room and rolled towels up on the windowsills and still the temperature in her room clung to 61, maybe 62 degrees. I buried her in blankets at night and tucked hot water bottles against her back and hoped she’d sleep still.
Outside temperatures dropped negative at night but the wind chill kept it there all day; negative 30s to negative 50s, they said. I didn’t so much as step out on the porch for the mail.
“How did the frost get there? I didn’t open my windows,” one of my young piano students asked me when we told our mutual frost stories. She hadn’t told her mother yet, and I imagine she expected to get in trouble for opening windows. On Tuesday the girls noticed the frost pattern on the big living room window and we all remembered how Laura in the Little House books would draw patterns on the windows with a thimble.
I never understood how that could work, frost on the inside.
I understand now.
The arctic wind stopped blowing after just two days and the temperatures are rising this weekend into the 40s or even 50s. And I’m glad to live in a place where days like that warrant news stories; and gladder still to live in a time where furnaces run nonstop and temperatures stay at least in the 60s inside, no matter how bitter the wind.
It was two days before Christmas and the rain would turn to snow by evening but this morning it was just chilly and we ran through the puddles to the Dollar Tree.
We reached the door at the same time as he did and he held it for us, protected from the drizzle by his umbrella. We were looking for trinkets for gift bags but I lingered over red Santa hats because she loves hats and she did look cute when I put it on her head and for just $1?
But dollars add up and it won’t last past this season so I left it.
We were in the toy aisle when he came up, umbrella folded under his arm. He pushed something into her hand and she stared first at him, then at the paper her fingers had folded around.
“Buy something nice for Christmas,” he told her. He never looked at me.
And then he was gone and she was unfolding a $20 bill in the Dollar Tree aisle.
We bought the Christmas hat, and I kept the extra gift for her I’d intended to return. And we left the store a little warmer than when we’d come in.
I’ve wondered about him since then, as the season came and went and our days slipped by filled with twinkling lights and gift wrap and gingerbread cookies and family gatherings and sleepy mornings. I wonder if he went to the store that morning intending to play Santa? Or if he saw us – me and a toddler in the rain – and thought we were struggling to get by this year and were making do with a dollar store Christmas? Or if her blond curls peeking under a Santa hat stirred some memory from long ago?
But I wish he knew that she didn’t let go of that bill until we reached the counter, and then reluctantly.
And that she’s loved that Christmas Santa hat more than the $1 it cost.
And that gift I would have returned? She plays with it over and over, stabbing big plastic blocks with the plastic needle and watching them run down the string to the floor.
And I wish he knew that we won’t forget our rainy morning run to the Dollar Tree.
All summer, the dog next door lives outside, tied on a long cable to the porch rail.
She’s only walked when Sally comes home, which isn’t often. He lets her in at night, but she’s too crazy, too big for his house and I know he doesn’t want her without the girl.
He came out yesterday while we walked our dog, stopped to say hello and ask if our lawn mower is working (it is; we’re just hoping the not-so-distant snowfall hides our long grass).
“Sally found Carly a new home,” he adds by way of conversation. The dog has gone to someone with a big yard, where a little girl welcomes the dog into her room at night.
“I realized I don’t have to vacuum every day anymore,” he said.
I think the dog is probably as glad as he is by the change in living conditions.
Every time we stop to see him he comments on the baby’s eyes, says she gets prettier every day. But this time he adds that Sally was about that age when she came to live with him; when he drove down off his mountain to pick her up, when they started every day together with little sausages for breakfast and when she would lay in front of the fire with her head on the collie, fingers twisting in the dog’s long hair.
They lived up there five years and she was such a good baby, never gave him problems, they never fought.
She’s not visiting this weekend. The collie’s long gone.
And I know that he’s wishing he never left his mountain home, that Sally were still there and that she still fell asleep with her head in a collie’s coat.