It begins with a story I may or may not have told here before, but need to tell again.
I was home alone one day, doing something on my computer upstairs, when I heard the front door open. At first I thought perhaps it had blown open somehow, but then I heard tentative footsteps in the front hall. I knew I should probably hide or maybe call 911, but my curiosity overcame fear, and I began tiptoeing toward the stairs to see who was in my house. I had almost reached the stairs, heart pounding, when I heard a small voice: "I brought you a carrot!" And I realized it was Laura, the four-year-old from next door, come to see my new baby rabbit.
She had been invited several times before, but this day, she came all uninvited, and knowing she was always welcome, had just let herself in.
Miss Maybelline, the rabbit we so named because of the very narrow rings of black fur around the eyes, making them look enormous -- Miss Maybelline was why Laura first started visiting us. (We later had to re-name this rabbit Mr. Mascara, but the new name never stuck.)
Later, the visits grew longer because we added tea parties to them. For years, we'd have "tea", really hot chocolate at first, and cookies or finger sandwiches, and we'd practice good table manners and conversation and pouring and being careful with the antique china. It was a doll's set of very fine China. It had real gold rims, and in all the years we had tea parties together, Laura never damaged a single piece - and she always insisted upon carrying it all to the sink afterward.
Eventually, she began bringing her girlfriends around, and they'd be included in the tea parties, too.
Later still, we did other fun things together, like going to amusement parks and the children's museum and doing crafts at home.
Every time she would come over, the first thing I'd ask was, "Does your Mom know you're here?" because often, she didn't, so we'd have to rectify that immediately. I remember one time when I asked the question, Laura replied, "Well, she's up in her room with the door locked, which means one of two things. Either she has headache or else she has stress." So we didn't call her that day.
We learned to ride bikes together. I hadn't ridden one in 30 years, and it is NOT true you can just get back up on one and know how to do it. I was wobbly and uncertain. I once asked Laura, "Do you feel a little scared about going around corners? Because I do."
"Oh, no, not at all!" she said, "Because see my bike? It says, 'Hot Stuff' all over it."
On 9/11, I spent the day with her mother, Michaux, in their living room, because neither of us felt like being alone that day (nobody did). So I was there when Laura came home from school, and her mother sat down with her and tried to explain, briefly, what had happened. Laura only had two questions, both of which, like everything else about that day, are burned into my memory: "Are they going to attack Richmond?" and "Is New York far, far away?"
The summer Laura was 9 years old, she became my wildlife rehabbing assistant. She became an expert in feeding baby squirrels and songbirds and took excellent care of several mallard ducklings.
Laura's favorite female relative was her Aunt Beth. One day when we were walking her back home, she said to me, "I love coming to your house, because I always have fun and I always learn something! It's like I have another --"
Another aunt, surely?
"Another grandmother, except right next door!" I think that was the first time I ever felt old.
In 2004, Laura's family moved to another neighborhood, and we just never recovered from the loss. We have only kept in touch very sporadically but have missed them every day. When we got back from Greece this year there was a two-month-old note in our mailbox from Laura, saying she had found a kitten and could I help find it a home, and it was signed, "Your granddaughter, Laura." I tried a couple of times to get her by phone, but no luck, and then, well, life gets busy, and sometimes complicated.
Tonight we went to the Outback to satisfy Demetrios' craving for a good steak (while we still may!) and suddenly, beside our table, were two beautiful blondes, who said, "Do you know us?"
It took a long moment, during which my mind was racing; who could these be? And then I squealed, "LAURA!" and then, "Michaux!" I nearly cried. They had already finished their meal, but they did stay there at our table and talk for 20 minutes or so. Ben was there, too, one of Laura's two older brothers. He works there as a server. He's tall and handsome and attending a community college here.
Laura is 17 now, a senior in high school, has a boyfriend, looks very much the same as always except mature and even more lovely, has kept her faith, has remained as sweet and kind as ever, and still has that antique doll tea set, which I gave her the Christmas a year after she moved.
I told Demetrios, afterward, that it felt as if we'd been reunited with someone back from the dead. He said no, not quite like that. Okay, then, it's like winning the lottery or hitting the jackpot, only better!
When we got home, I rummaged around on my computer to find the note I wrote to go with the tea set, and here it is:
These are not just toys; they are real, bone china. They are very fine china, so fine that they are translucent. If you hold them up to the light, you can see the shadows of your fingers right through the dishes. You hardly ever find anything that delicate, even in the finest china shops.
They are probably antiques, as well. They were given to me by an old lady when I was your age. At any rate, it seemed to me she was old, but maybe she wasn’t; I’m not sure now. Anyway, she had had them since SHE was a little girl. So that makes them about ninety years old, at the very least, and maybe quite a bit older!
I don’t know why she chose me to give them to. But I do know why I’m choosing you. I was saving these, as special treasures, for my oldest granddaughter. But then when I began to think about it, she doesn’t have any memories of them; she hasn’t had the good times with them that you and I have. They wouldn’t mean anything to her. And besides, in a way you are my oldest granddaughter! I remember you saying it seemed to you as if I was another grandmother to you, who lived right next door, and it does feel like that to me, too. I also remember that you always handled them gently and took good care of them.
So I hope you’ll continue to take excellent care of them, so you can enjoy them all your life and still have them when you are an old lady. And when that time comes, I hope some wonderful little girl comes once in a while to have tea with you and add joy to your day, as you have added joy to so many of mine.
and heaps of love,