Saturday, October 17, 2009

Holly Trees and Letting Go

Every summer when I was a kid, my family would take the long drive from my New York home to my Great Aunt Lil’s place on the Jersey shore. She lived with my other aunts and uncles in a cottage-style house filled with surprising rooms and quirky spaces. The major attractions were the built-in pool and the pool house where my aunt cooked up amazing summer treats. No one made buttered carrots like Aunt Lil.

In her basement there were shelves filled with books left over from her teaching days. I read them all. Ballet Shoes. The Bobbsey Twins. Anne of Green Gables. On those summer days, I wolfed down stories like I wolfed down her buttered carrots.

Not sure if it’s fate or coincidence, but I now live at the Jersey shore and happen to work about a mile from Aunt Lil’s former house. Sometimes on my lunch hour I drive by.

The land is divided up. The pool is filled in. There’s a garage where Uncle Vinnie’s garden used to be. The pool house is now a rundown all-season home. But the cottage is there. If you look close, there are hints of the old days. A few trees still stand, including the big holly tree that guarded the pool gate.

I’m driving by and I see the new homeowner. Despite my shy nature, I hop out of the car and introduce myself to the woman standing outside. I tell her all about Aunt Lil and the pool and the summers. I try to remember everything I can about the cottage. “They had plastic slipcovers. And the house was immaculate.”

“Well, the house is immaculate now too” she says. “My house is always clean”

“Oh, I’m sure it is. I didn’t mean to imply… I just meant…” After a few more attempts to fix things, I give up. There’s a long pause. Since I am one of those people who feels compelled to say things during moments of uncomfortable silence, I add, “I’m a librarian here in town.”

The woman pulls out her cell phone and dials a number. “My daughter is upstairs,” she tells me. Then she talks into the phone “Remember that overdue book that I told you to return? There’s someone from the library outside who wants to speak to you. You’d better get down here.”

As soon as I see a girl look out from the second story window, I’m flooded with memories. I wonder if she ever spent some quiet time in that tiny walkway on the top floor behind the stairs.

“Been telling her for days that should return the book,” says her mom.

The girl, about 15, comes bounding outside spilling out apologies. “It’s at school. But I’ll return it. I promise.”

I start to explain that I’m not here for that, but her mother cuts me off with one of those looks. So I’m quiet. And I retain my role as the book police. A new career low.

“Would it be okay if I walked over to your holly tree? It was here when there was a pool.”

The woman nods.

As I enter into the yard I hear them behind me.

“What is she looking at the tree for?” asks the girl

“I have no idea,” says her mom.

I block out their conversation and spend a moment with my tree. I touch a leaf, and I expect there to be magic. I thought it would whisper to me of summer days and moonlight swims and buttered carrots. Instead, it gives off the same what-are-you-doing-here feeling as the teen who now believes that librarians come to your door if you have an overdue book.

I have closure now. It’s not the same type of closure I expected when I hopped out of my car and said hello. But I can drive on that road and forget to look at the house. Sometimes you have to move on.


WordWrangler said...

What a sweet (and funny!) post! Book police. eeeek! I was always afraid they'd come looking for me. I'm still a little on edge...


nanmarino said...

Donna,Sometimes it's hard to bring them back. I find I have a hard time giving back books that I love. I go to the library five days a week, and I still manage to have overdue books.

MG Higgins said...

Great story. I had a similar experience driving by my old childhood home which I hadn't seen in over ten years. It looked the same yet it didn't. It was my house but it wasn't. The important thing was that the house was obviously loved--whoever lived there, it belonged to them now, as though the house had lost my family's scent. I was able to let it go without even stopping the car.

nanmarino said...

Mel, You're right. There is comfort in knowing the houses are loved. It makes things easier.

Anonymous said...

I have very different memories of the house on the Jersey Shore. I've had no desire to go back to the house and have closure - my closure was with the people that are no longer there.

One of my fondest memories of that house was how proud you were when you beat me in a swimming race in the pool in your picture. You worked hard to beat me, and you did good that day. You keep doing good now.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right, Nan. Of course, only you would have that "overdue book" experience. Thanks for the nostalgic moment and the touch of humor you always manage to bring to whatever you write.

0lenska said...

Ten dollars says the overdue book was YOUR book. :D

S A Putnam said...

The book police! Thanks for making me smile. Shannon and Mona are both right... I know that scene will show up in one of your stories.

I'm glad you stopped,Nan, even though it didn't go exactly as you'd planned. That's one of the reasons why I don't move back to Windsor. Things are totally different from when I lived there.

nanmarino said...

Anon, Sealy38 & S A, Looking back is not without its perils. That's for sure.
Olenska, Ten dollars says that I had at least one book at home that was also overdue.