A lovely day for falling down

June 05, 1996|By Helen Chappell

WHEN YOU GET to a certain age, Miss Nettie Leery thinks, any day you can get out of a chair under your own steam is a good day. But a day when you find yourself lying flat on your back in the grass in the side yard is something else entirely.

She stares up at the sky, achingly blue, framed in the branches of the twisted willow. Somebody tried to tell her it is Harry Lauder's Walking Stick, but she has always known it is a twisted willow.

Since it is the corkscrew willow that has landed her in her present predicament, she should blame the shrub, she thinks. Right this minute, she should be attending a flower arranging class, so maybe she should blame all this on Helga Wallop, who is teaching the End of the Line Senior Center ladies a new way to stuff blooms into a block of Oasis.

It's something Helga picked up when she and Poot went on that cruise last winter. Miss Nettie privately thinks Helga gets silly with her artistic pretensions. But blaming Helga seems silly; she just asked Miss Nettie to bring corkscrew willow to the class today.

But when Miss Nettie went outside to cut some branches from the big bush in the side yard, her arthritis was already giving her trouble. Her knees would barely bend this morning and she had to pull herself out of bed. When she misstepped, lost her balance and fell over that cement chicken lawn ornament that has been in the same place for 30 years, she couldn't get up. Still can't get up. Silly, but true.

A welcome hiatus

But miraculously, the pain has abated.

Sooner or later, she knows she'll make a big effort and struggle to her feet, so she's not especially worried. In fact, she's enjoying this unexpected hiatus from her usual activity. If you're Miss Nettie, there aren't enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to be done.

The last time she laid down in this yard she was a young girl, watching the clouds form and dissolve overhead into fantasy shapes. Could that really have been 50 years ago? It only seems like a short time past.

Pearl, her next oldest sister who used to lie in the grass with her spotting cloud castles and cloud faces, has been dead for 17 years. She's buried out in Arizona, where she and her husband Walls moved after she had the first heart attack. This reminds Miss Nettie that she could call her other sister Florence, who lives in Wallopsville and sends her Social Security checks to Pat Robertson. Florence hasn't been right since Vietnam.

Miss Nettie has fallen, and she can't get up, just like that silly woman on the TV commercial. The thought makes her chuckle. Usually, her arthritic knees give her plenty of warning before they act up. You can predict the onset of damp weather by Miss Nettie's patellae. But what the old people used to say is true; in dry weather, all signs fail. And it certainly has been dry lately. Those puffy white clouds just drift on by, without a drop of rain failing. And now she's one of the old people.

It's true. In dry weather, all signs do fail. She's lived long enough to bear witness to that.

Not three feet away, the cat strolls past her with something in its mouth. The mockingbird who lives to torment the ancient tom shrieks angrily on a high branch from the holly tree. It couldn't be a more lovely day, she thinks, for falling and not being able to get up. A faint scent, carried on the breeze, stirs Miss Nettie's memory and she twitches her nose. Vanilla.

Vanilla memories

I've had the taste of vanilla on my mind for a while now, she thinks. It's like the ghost of a memory of a taste, a yearning for that round sweetness of vanilla. When we went down to the Outdoor Show at Golden Hill at the end of the winter, I bought some vanilla oil from one of the vendors, but it's not the same. You've got to have real vanilla to make a real pound cake. . .

A ladybug alights on Miss Nettie's arm and she studies it as it studies her. "Ladybug, ladybug," she recites solemnly, "Fly away home. Your house is on fire, your children will burn." The ladybug doesn't seem impressed; it dips its wings and investigates the tiny hairs on her wrist.

Miss Nettie barely notices. She's starting to think about pound cake. There's a half a loaf in the freezer, where she puts it after Easter dinner. And the blackberries are just beginning to come in, down at the edge of the yard where it meets the marsh.

Somewhere inside the house, the phone is ringing. It's her daughter, Miss Nettie thinks. She can almost recognize Jeanne's voice in that angry, insistent ring. Lately, Jeanne has taken it into her head that because her brother Buddy has HIV he should lie still and quiet in a darkened room, waiting for Death like a gentleman caller. He should wait with his hands folded on his chest and a saintly expression, a Victorian postcard.

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