When my mother died, you and a friend (a very good friend) loaded her furniture and books and clothes on a flatbed trailer and drove them to our new house, even though it wasn’t quite ready yet. You packed it all, even her unmentionables, and hauled it by hand, without complaint, in the dark. You carried the piano and her prized Queen Anne chest, the one she saved so carefully to buy. It’s one of my earliest memories, the dark antique shop where my mother made payment to the red-haired woman who wore big, square glasses. All hail the Queen! you said, with great flourish, as you brought it in.
You have always known how to make me laugh.
My mother’s life’s archive, her manuscripts and medical records and Maid of Cotton memorabilia, is now contained in two rooms, stacked floor to ceiling like a wall of mismatched Legos, there for anyone to see from the front door of our cavernous house, four times the size of our old home.
We are storing the things I’m not ready to deal with, filling the vast emptiness with cardboard crates secured by strapping tape, tarps covering artifacts and mementos and dusty velvet chairs. It is like boxes in a dog kennel, you say, when the dog is still a puppy and overwhelmed by too much space. You intend for this to sound kind and lighthearted.
By coincidence, the neighbors across the street are neighbors from our old street, neighbors who have a son exactly our son’s age, who was also baptized at the same church on exactly the same day (though a different service) as ours, and who is also in our son’s daycare.
Three doors down is another family whose daughter is exactly our daughter’s age, and this child, too, is at the same daycare.
All of this is a surprise to me, but not to you. You have lived here, alone, months longer than we, plastering and painting, nailing trim boards in the kitchen, preparing for us to move in, while the children and I lived with my dying mother. In a frantic push for the finish, you were joined by friends and neighbors and colleagues who brought 12-packs of cold beer and took turns painting trim, laying flooring, so we would have a place to go when the inevitable came.
One day I sat with my father’s cousin, perched on my mother’s bed, waiting for my sister to get to town. A month later I was perched on our bed (our mattress, at least), children lightly snoring, while you ferried our belongings up a long flight of stairs.
We hibernated until Easter, when we woke at dawn to hide plastic eggs in the monkey grass and azaleas, then guided pudgy fingers toward pink plastic and foil-wrapped chocolates.
You have scouted the street, become friendly with the natives in this new land. Not long from now, maybe a year or two ahead, the neighbors will joke that you are the mayor of our block, because you know the postman and the garbage men by name, know all of the neighbors’ comings and goings.
Now that the weather has warmed, our neighbors next door, an older couple, hire our son to bring the paper from the edge of the hill to their front door each morning. They think he is close to five because he is tall (like you), although he is only about to turn three. They give him a Dino piggy bank to keep his earnings. They know it is actually you, more often than not, who makes sure the paperboy duties are done.
They believe in us more than we do.
We set up the front porch, line it with plants that were gifts at my mother’s funeral, with rocks from her flower bed, and the statuary angel she bought me as a housewarming gift, when I bought the house we’ve just left behind. In the sea of mint, next to an ancient gardenia bush, you stake the copper marker from Silver Kitty’s grave, the marker you saved knowing the new owner would have thrown it away, you say, though I know there is more to it than that.
Whoa, an original Joe Ortega, you say, unpacking a box of my mother’s garden things.
A what? I ask.
Joe Ortega, from New Mexico, you say. You’ve seriously never heard of Joe Ortega? (I have not.)
You station the wooden figure at the corner of the porch, where he can see our comings and goings.
St. Francis of Assisi, you say (in your best New Mexico accent), patron saint of the a-n-i-m-a-l-s.