Behind the house where my great aunt once lived is a hillside cut like an unfinished, ancient pyramid, with a zigzagging concrete path descending alongside concrete walls. At the bottom of the hill, beyond the slabs, steps and potted plants was an expanse of green with three tomato gardens and a shed. It looked like the monumental dream of a farmer who moves to the suburbs after a life-altering glimpse of Lombard Street, San Francisco.
I remember the house itself as a good place–albeit one bereft of toys and video games. My grandfather would visit there often, and sometimes I’d go. There, surrounding the coffee table piled with National Geographic magazines, the sextagenarians would chat while the poodles and I meandered about, equally oblivious to all but a few words (our names, and the names of our favorite snacks).
I thought enough of that place and those visits over the years that in 2005, shortly before I left Michigan for Columbus, I sought out Great Aunt Emily’s latest address and visited her again. She didn’t remember me, but trusted that I was her brother’s grandson and invited me in.
The place was very new. If there was a garden in back, I didn’t see it. Emily and I sat at the dining room table. Her husband Don, who had suffered a debilitating stroke not long prior, sat in the living room behind us.
Emily and I chatted awhile, as a visitor and host must. She talked a little about her daily routine and her help around the house. I must have told her a few things about my future plans or my past decade, but I don’t remember what. Don sipped on orange juice, chuckling at Andy Griffith reruns from the view of his wheelchair.
I was quite sure I’d never see them again, but sat a moment on the periphery of their lives before learning that we didn’t know each other well enough anymore for it to matter.