The sunny yard, shaded by a single orange tree, is dotted with a path of triangular stepping stones. My open sandals slap a noisy approach to the front door. I hear Judy call, “It's open!,” and let myself into her house, just as I used to when we were kids and she lived around the corner on Deerfield Avenue.
It’s a comfort to be back. I’ve come away from my children and husband to this respectable suburban home to meet a friend from childhood. Our lives have taken different turns: mine into the adoption of two children; Judy’s into a domestic world centered around her two sons.
She meets me in the front room wearing a violet-colored dress, her short brown hair in familiar curls around her face. She has straight bangs, as always, creating a line above the parenthesis of curls. She looks like the ten-year-old I remember.
“So good to see you again, Elaine!” Judy says, her appraisal of me as thorough as mine of her. “You’ve got long hair now. You look really, uh – modern.” She makes no effort to embrace, and I feel I’m in the company of a matron.
“Modern? Not a bit,” I assure her. “Under this sundress beats the heart of a librarian . . .. “Oh, this is such a nice cozy room — reminds me of your folks’ house.”
The curtained living room feels out of another era, as if there might be a pump at the kitchen sink. I settle into a chair and look around at Judy’s efforts at country décor, a maple sideboard, three pieces of upholstered furniture and a pillow with a rooster design.
“Thanks!” Judy says. “I hear you’ve two children. Aren’t they fun?” Her words sing with a lilt we used in high school. Fun is not a word I’d choose, but I don’t interrupt her song. “I’m so glad we had this second one last year. Our first, Aaron, is growing up. Let’s have tea!”
Judy sounds like a happy housewife. So far my try at motherhood has left me feeling despair. I wish I was this happy mother, insulated from chaos by a respectable dress, quaint home, and sleeping child.
My hostess disappears into the kitchen while I move to the sofa. This scratchy couch feels like Grandma’s — made to last a thousand years.
After we’ve arranged the tea service, Judy looks across the table at me, her face motherly. “Tell me what adoption involves, Elaine. I really can’t imagine it. We had the children naturally, of course.”
“Oh. Well. I couldn’t get pregnant.” My voice is soft. “So, we’ve adopted hard-to-place babies, mixed race.” Why do I find those words difficult to summon? I’ve forgotten my story. I’ve no idea why I’m here. “That’s about it.” I move in my seat, pulling at my skirt. “Oh. Mixed race.”
What do I say to that? Sounds like we’ve adopted barbarians. Crossing my ankles, I look away from Judy, wishing I could pull back those heavy draperies and smell the yard and the orange tree.
I clear my throat. “Do you get lonely sometimes, being at home most days?” I try to raise my voice to sound normal. “Staying home now, I find it a bit hard to feel a part of things. There’s so much going on, so much change in the world. I wish I could –”
“Oh no!” Judy interrupts. “I try to stay away from the mess in the world. I don’t read the papers, global warming, campaigns, all that. Here’s where I want to be.” I notice her polished nails. How does she manage those nails? I’d been biting my nails for years.
I’m face-to-face with my opposite number. For every ambiguous confusion I feel, Judy has a blissful certainty. She chatters on, “My life is my children and my husband. I’ve found church and handwork help fill the time.” She raises her teacup and takes a sip.
I take a gulp of tea too, mirroring my counterpart. “Yes. Sounds nice,” I murmur, sensing my tiny voice. The bland cookie tastes like sawdust.
“George is thinking of getting a boat!” she bursts out, reaching for a cookie. “You seem so quiet today, Elaine. I can barely hear you.”
Judy laughs, for reasons I can’t comprehend, and stands. Then I watch my cheerful, violet-adorned hostess take a bottle from the sideboard and pour a dollop into her cup. “Do you want a touch of brandy in your tea, Elaine? Or bourbon? I sometimes like to indulge in the afternoons.”
Soon I retrace my steps on the lawn-stones and begin the long drive back to my home on a hot, bright day. Right now I’d prefer the wintry wind and rain of some offshore island in turbulent northwestern seas. This is a landscape for children.
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.