I came back from Hollins a week early. It was a hard decision. This was my favorite class, ever. I taught regional middle grade and young adult novels, with emphasis on place-based fiction and Deep Mapping, subjects dear to my heart. I had a great bunch of students and was sorry to leave them.
But things were unraveling back home so I crammed in my last classes, loaded the truck, and drove over the mountains. At home, I cleaned the kitchen and went to the farmer’s market. When times are hard, fancy food doesn’t cut it. People crave simple, fresh food. I piled my husband’s plate with corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes and sweet onions in oil and vinegar, green beans and new-dug potatoes, beets that tasted of the earth, grilled squash and zucchini.
Every morning at Hollins I started walking at 6:00 a.m. I walked up and down the steep hills, said hello to the horses being brought out to pasture while fog hung over Tinker Mountain. Three loops around the campus was more than five miles. Most mornings, I circled the campus four times, seven miles.
I often saw the muskrat foraging in the grass beside the pond. He zipped into the water like spilled mercury, dragging his long scaly tail. I heard the deep strum of bullfrogs. Great blue herons wading in the creek flapped away in annoyance. The smaller, more sensible yellow-crested night herons merely watched me pass. The groundhog that lived near the library popped his head out of his den. And a turkey vulture flew to the cross on the chapel’s steeple and sat, spreading his wings in full horaltic pose like a dark angel.
I walked and walked and walked. I couldn’t go around the pain, so I walked through it. I couldn’t write, but I could walk. I tended my blisters and taped my ankles. Walking, I became part of the campus scenery.
At home I traded walking for cooking. It’s too hot here in Fredericksburg, even at 6:00 a.m., to walk. I made a zucchini and tomato pie from a Better Homes and Gardens recipe. I made egg custard cups, that most comforting of comfort foods. I made green beans with marble-sized new potatoes and corn cut from the cob. I foraged for the smallest beets and cooked them fork-tender, seasoned with salt and butter.
I packed a hamper and drove to Richmond. When I came home a few weeks ago during the Fourth of July weekend, I believed it was my final visit. I baked my brother-in-law an egg custard pie and tried to say goodbye, but couldn’t. I said I’d see him when I got home from school.
Yes, he’s still with us. He lasted through spring and through June, when his doctor said he wouldn’t. He lasted through his grandson’s 18th birthday, and my sister’s birthday, and his grandson’s high school graduation. He is aiming to make it through July. I know he is trying. My sister’s and his 52nd wedding anniversary is August 1.
My brother-in-law hasn’t been eating much. But he ate the egg custard cup I brought him. And later a dish of green beans and new potatoes. I sat on the footstool by his chair and told him stories. He told me stories. Later that day I drove back up I-95, fixed supper, and went to straight to bed.
We are all tired. He takes our energy—my sister’s, his daughters, mine—because he needs it. And really, it’s all we have left to give. That and egg custard and green beans.
Our plates are full. We think our plates can’t hold one more thing or stuff will slide over the edges like the muskrat slipping into the pond. We think if those things drop, they will break. Even if they do, we can’t do anything about it.
We can only put one foot in front of the other and keep moving.