To the River
Photograph by Paula Schultz, www.paulasphotoart.com

 

I am sorting drawers. I had finished his long ago. Now I’m into my top dresser drawer, where I keep my lingerie. No one calls it that anymore. There’s so little fabric to undergarments these days; they should call them strings and straps.

 

I lay the items on the bed, the satiny half-slips with wide lace borders at the hem, the full-length cotton slips, and the strapless push-up bra I once wore for a wedding. When I was newly married, I’d wear the cotton slips on sticky summer afternoons with just a pair of underpants underneath. I’d lie on the couch under the ceiling fan and read, feeling a bit bold without a bra on. What a prude I seem now.

I run my hand over a half-slip. Who will go through my things? No daughter or daughter-in-law or granddaughter will sort them, perhaps making fun in a gentle way, but also admiring the creamy fabric, and subtle shades of ecru, ivory, and taupe. 

“A push-up bra?” they might say. “When did she ever wear that?” 

I sigh. No one I know will be going through these intimate things. It will at best be a stranger running an estate sale.
 

I always knew Peter would die first. While he was alive, I indulged in fantasies about my widowed life. It would include a set of mismatched dishes culled from our larger collection, all blue and white designs, a set of six at the most. I’d choose favorites from the Limoges china my mother left me, as well as pieces I’d picked up at estate sales. My home would be a small cottage in a charming village where I could walk everywhere. I’d keep a car for excursions to the countryside. I’d have a cat or two and a quiet routine, breakfasts in a sunny kitchen overlooking a small garden, a happy balance of solitude and social activity, and lots of books, music, art, and movies.

How little I knew about widowhood.

What I didn’t realize was that this imagined life contained the love and energy Peter brought to my world. I did not anticipate the hollowness of every moment, the feeling of complete pointlessness to every activity, including getting out of bed. I went through the motions – I’m a New Englander after all, all too familiar with the slippery slope of depression. A few months after Peter died, a routine vet visit revealed that our dog Blue was filled with cancer. I didn’t have the heart for the heroic measures the vet suggested. Blue was gone within weeks.

I kept expecting life to get easier with time, but that did not happen. I watched friends my age, also widows, bounce back, and thought I would do the same. But they had children and, more importantly, grandchildren. I never regretted my childless marriage, which was a choice we made together, yet I envied my friends now. We’d made a world together, the two of us, and that safe harbor I relied on more than I ever knew no longer existed. 

I sit down on the bed. The beauty of these fabrics would have once pleased me, but now they are just another chore. Halfway through emptying the drawer, I am suddenly drained. The room is unchanged, the dresser in the same place, same curtains, same bedspread. His singing, his laughter, his slippers scuffing down the hall – all gone, not even the echoes anymore. I miss the small daily tasks, even the annoying ones. The way he never hung up the damp bathmat. Going around the house turning off every light he’d leave on whenever he walked out of a room. 

I stand up and walk through the living room and kitchen, pick up a magazine from the dining room table where I threw the mail, then put it back down.

I leave the back door unlocked. Our road isn’t a busy one, and it will be at least a half hour before the afternoon school buses rumble by. I walk away from town, not realizing my goal is the river until I smell its dampness. 

I reach the water. This stretch isn’t in a pretty section of town. There are big black rocks along the shore for erosion control. The sand is dark brown, almost dirty-looking. The water is dull pewter. I sit and stare at it. My mind is empty. I’m alone, I think.

A plinking sound catches my attention. The Parker Street Bridge is about twenty yards up, and on it are two small forms, a boy and a girl. They pick up rocks and drop them into the water. They lean over the railing to watch. The boy spots me. He nudges the girl. She raises her hand and flutters her fingers. Reflexively, I do the same. They scramble down the embankment and make their way toward me.

They approach as if I am someone they know. The boy, in a striped T-shirt and corduroy pants, is about eight. The girl is his size, but appears to be a year younger, with long black braids and light eyes. She wears a plaid dress that looks like she’s outgrown it.

“Hello,” she says, stopping in front of me. 

I squint up at them. “Hello.” 

“Why are you alone?” asks the boy. 

Only a child would be so forthright. “I just am.” 

The girl peers at me, her blue eyes so pale they looked otherworldly. “What are you doing?” 

“I’m thinking. Resting.”

“We come here after school, to practice.” They take turns speaking.

“Practice what?”

The boy pulls a small, flat stone out of his pocket. “Watch,” he says. He flicks it toward the water. We follow its course. One, two, three skips.

“Not bad,” I say. 

“I’m better.” The girl finds a rock and, still bent over, tosses it with a gentle motion of her wrist. Five skips.

“You’re both good.”

The boy tries another. They take turns as if they have nothing else to do, nowhere else to be. The careless beauty of their gestures, the responsiveness of their bodies, their smooth skin, makes me want to touch them and soak up a bit of that ease.

The boy turns to me. “Now you.”  

I shake my head. “I was never good at that.”

“I’ll show you. It’s all in the wrist.” He stands next to me and demonstrates. I breathe in his closeness. “Hold it by the edges so it will spin.” I follow his instructions. My first stone doesn’t reach the water. The children laugh, but not unkindly. The boy stoops down and finds another flat stone. I try again. The second skips two times. 

“You did it,” he says, smiling.

“Thank you.” I blink back tears.

He shrugs. His eyes are dark. Maybe they aren’t brother and sister. They certainly don’t look alike. 

I stay and watch them a while longer, then stand and brush off my pants. “I’d better go.”

“See you,” they say in unison. A half a block away, I look back and see they are headed toward the bridge. In the dim light their bodies become formless shadows, then suddenly disappear behind the bridge abutment. I walk home slowly, noticing for the first time that the leaves are changing. 

Bio

Nancy McMillan of Bethlehem, CT is the award-winning author of March Farm: Season by Season on a Connecticut Family Farm. Her essay “For the Love of Linen” appeared in the 2020 Connecticut Literary Anthology and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her essays and articles have appeared in Connecticut newspapers and magazines, and online at Fiction Southeast and The Sunlight Press. She is the Director of the Writing and Literature Program at Arts Escape and is currently seeking representation for her novel. wwww.nancymcmillan.com

6 Comments on “To the River

  1. No one is prepared. I wasn’t at age 27. Yes to “I miss the small daily tasks, even the annoying ones.” After 50 years, I still miss knitting while he watched (Yuk.) football or playing the piano while he read. Memories can never be taken away. They’re painful yet comforting.
    As a former Hospice nurse, I repeat that no one is really prepared.
    However, we would not be who we are without the sharing of his/her life.
    You write about being childless. I raised a 2-year-old. My sadness is that he doesn’t remember his loving father.
    BTW I tried to have an article, Just Be There” published. The rejection letters were all the same: death and dying doesn’t sell magazines.” They were wrong, of course. Keep writing, it’s good for others and healing for you. Well done.

  2. Nancy – The part of this piece that I most relate to is being childless( by choice) and visualizing strangers going thru my things if my husband dies first. It’s a heartbreaking thought that haunts me in the night. Childless elders need a support group. Thanks for sharing your feelings. May you find comfort in your memories.

  3. Yes. We get it. No matter how prepared you are, you’re never ready. The chores are painful. The weight lessens, but it takes longer than you expect. There’s no timeline. There are no rules. We are all too numerous, but we’re with you, going forward one shaky foot in front of the other.

    1. I’m married 62 years. We’re both octogenarians. Mark is 88 and amazingly active but has some serious ailments. I can’t picture a life without him…. The story was so moving and enters the realm of the unprepared…

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