My Aunt Annie. Not so sure about this selfie business. Heather, I don't know how to do this. Yes you do. You're doing it right now.
She was seventeen when I was born, and married at twenty; three and a half gap years between daughter and wife. No one likes to admit this, least of all, Annie, but that one giant step from Westwood to Keene was unprecedented. She looks back at her life, at least parts of it, in wonder. Who was this girl? Where did she come from and where did she go? She didn't go anywhere. Come, I'll show you.
She fell in love, she tells me. We all fall in love with the first baby of our siblings. I was hers, and she was mine. The wolf pack arrived; one lovely boy after another, including my brother. I suppose I was meant to have the Wendy face, but I did not. Girls born to women of Warrior Nation may reach for that mask, but drop it in haste, as it is too small to fit.
The first solid memory I have of my Aunt Annie is in Rochester, New Hampshire. I was a walking ear infection and my grandmother was frustrated; another trip to the ER and I was already resigned to harsh. Annie scooped me up, out of the storm cloud, and showed me the thing called gentle. Fifty years later, the relief of her is still palatable. Nobody calls her Annie anymore, except maybe me. She wonders where that girl went. She went nowhere.
When I look at her face, the face next to mine, outside in the sun and the wind, I see two women, one overlapping the other. It's the optical illusion that flips back and forth and we think this is a thing that needs to be nailed down. We do not accept the coexistence of two extremes; we are enraged when we cannot nail it to the floor.
I see a woman who has become too frail for her very brief seventy-three years. This should not have happened so quickly, but it did. She may not be circling the drain (she isn't), but she is falling backwards and it's scaring the hell out of her. It's scaring the hell out of all of us.
I see a woman who isn't going to put up with this shit anymore. She's fierce and stubborn and her intention is very clear. The raw intelligence in those eyes is unmistakable. That they are frightened in the same instance is how we humans often are. Perhaps, the way we're meant to be. Why should she be different?
My Aunt Annie spent her entire life hiding that woman. The Wendy mask never fit but she wore it like a rosary; one prayer after another. Please don't look, please don't look, please don't look, or we shall all turn to salt.
I notice that I have her eyes.
She tells me her stories. Over the years I've collected bits of Annie, very few of them in the public domain. Annie's Fierce freaks people out.
Here are two things that Annie does not believe even though they are carved into the Wendy mask:
- I am not smart, not like your father
- I am not brave
Wrong, on both counts.
Here is a thing.
This is not a challenging climb. When I was small, I would most likely have gone right up it. Not so much today. Today I like a solid rope, even though I was raised within the context of acceptable risk.
My aunt was raised in no such place but she told me a story about a childhood friend who took her climbing in New Paltz, probably in the mid sixties. If you are a climber, then New Paltz means The Gunks. If you are not a climber, maybe it means, Mohonk Mountain House. If you are a hiker, it could mean a great many things. It could also mean nothing at all.
Both my brother and I, separately, knew exactly what she did and where. Annie only knows she was with Eddie Cane in New Paltz, NY and if Eddie said, you can do this, then she did.
No ropes, no climbing shoes, just up. He said, put your hands and your feet where I put my hands and feet and up we'll go. And so she did. This is where the story stops being about Annie and starts being about Eddie. It should not. She's hiding her brave, she's dropping her power, that's what she was told she must do.
Annie went right up after Eddie and was just fine until she stopped to rest and then looked down. Happens to the best of us. We look down and our friend, Fear, abdicates to Terror. We freeze. Eddie came back down to get her. Of course he did. That's what you must do when you lead someone into the void. In her mind, the fact that she did not fall, that she continued the ascent when he came back, has very little meaning. In her mind, what happened is that Eddie saved her. He sits on the hero's throne, when, in fact, it is her chair to take. She did this thing.
I am bothered by this as she finishes the story until I look at her face. I see her and I see that she knows perfectly well what she did. She wasn't telling a story about Eddie, she was telling the story of Annie and I get it. She told me the story during the hike she suckered me into about a week ago. Just a short walk, she said. I have my, help I've fallen and I can't get up, button. It's so beautiful, Heather, you'll love it.
I watched her footwork. I watched how she used the stick. I watched how she watched, the trail as a whole and the rocks and roots beneath our feet. I watched her navigate an incline that went on long enough that I was thinking about a four second break. That woman never stopped. Steady pace, incredibly competent.
All the while she talked. She wove the story of Annie in and out of the stories of the men in her life and eventually she got tired of talking about them. Or she forgot. Or it just didn't matter. As we came out the end of the loop, she gave the ground a good hard, Thwack! with her stick, turned to me and said, it's a great loop, don't you think? I love an adventure.
When we reached the front door, probably another quarter mile from the end of the loop, she stopped, breathless and aware. My shoulders, they burn so badly. I thought she was frightened but she was only tired. She was tired in a way which is very different from the working and the caretaking, the struggle with daily life. Different from the tired of depression. Different from the tired of sad.
She was the tired of the righteous hiker, and she is the cradle of my heart.