I don’t remember when I first met Mrs. R, but I do remember when I met her daughters. It was soon after the family moved onto our suburban street, just two houses down. My mom baked a banana loaf. “A welcome to the neighbourhood,” she called it.
“Can’t you take it?” I asked, my shyness already forming a lump in my throat.
“Wouldn’t you want a friend if you were in a new place?” It wasn’t really a question. I had been shooed out the front door before I could protest any further.
On the walk across our neighbour’s lawn, the banana loaf cradled in my sweaty palms, I rehearsed my speech. Hi, I’m Amanda. Oh, nice to meet you. Where are you from? Maybe we can hang out sometime!
I took a deep breath and knocked. Two girls, one about my age, opened the door.
“Uh, hi,” I mumbled, looking down and thrusting the loaf in their general direction.
Silence filled the space between us for far too long. I considered whether it would be permanently-damaging-weird or just quirky-kid-weird to simply run away.
“Thanks,” said the tallest one, finally. She tilted her head and considered me, smiling kindly. “Hey, do you like Pogo? C’mon out back and try it.”
We made our way through the house to the patio, where we took turns bouncing around.
After that we were inseparable.
Mrs. R and my mother soon became the best of friends too. They would sit in the kitchen, chatting over tea while us kids whiled away our days playing on the lawn or in the park behind our homes. Some afternoons we’d all gather in the living room and watch a movie together, or make a craft. When I was sick and home from school, I’d sleep on Mrs. R’s basement couch, where she’d check on me more frequently than was necessary, gingerly touching my forehead and tucking my body in tightly with big, fluffy blankets before handing me a popsicle.
At night, once a week, Mrs. R would take us to the retirement home where she led our troop of young Girl Guides. There we’d spend time with the seniors and plan adventures that would help us earn our badges, Mrs. R ever the fearless captain.
Excursions with Mrs. R were the best. She’d pack her car with as many girls and snacks as she could safely buckle in and we’d head off into the unknown. We mucked around in ponds (Naturalist badge!), took to the hills with our skis (Skier badge!) went to the theatre (Creative Drama badge!), made bread on an outdoor fire (Outdoor Cook and Baker badges!) and camped in the summer (too many Camping badges to count!). Our trips were always new and expansive.
On one particular spring day, we were on our way to a provincial park a couple of hours away (Hiking badge!). Mrs. R had a van and eight of us girls talked loudly in the back, tossing jokes and delighting in the excitement of a day away from school, amongst friends.
Mrs. R kept her smiling eyes on the road and waited politely for the laughter to subside.
“What do you see girls?” she asked. We looked at each other quizzically.
“Grass?” said someone behind me.
“Yes, good,” said Mrs. R encouragingly. “And what else?”
We scanned the horizon, looking more closely, our eyes squinted in concentration and our faces close enough to the windows to leave tiny, disappearing clouds on the glass.
“Cows!” exclaimed one of us, pointing.
“I see three different types of trees,” said another.
“That old truck looks like a gorilla,” said the spaciest of our crew, and the rest of us stifled giggles.
“Great!” she said, looking back at us briefly. “Observation is so important. Without it, you miss beautiful things.”
We spent the afternoon scrambling up the hilly terrain of northern Ontario, stopping every now and then to use our new powers of observation, like the devoted followers we were. (Oh look, there’s some moss! Look, a bird, way up there! Do you see it?) Later we made our way downhill, wedging our way through rocky crevices to reach a big, still pond. It’s surface was so glossy and clear we could see every detail of its depth. Tree trunks lay across the bottom, looking ghostly. A beautiful turquoise green bounced back at the sun, which warmed us as we ate our packed lunch. The air was filled with the fresh growth of trees and soft earth. It was perfect.
I remember a whole new world opening up to me that day. I learned to see the little things, the things that often go unseen.
It’s been nearly twenty years, but I still think of Mrs. R every time I sew on a button, or watch Annie, or locate the Big Dipper. I see her in the rocky outcrops that pass us by on road trips, in embroidery and calligraphy and wildflowers. She’s alive in those little things, in me and in her daughters, just like she wanted. I think she’d be happy to know that.