Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Twilight Years of Life (07/02/09)
TITLE: Miss Stuart
By Beth Muehlhausen
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Miss Stuart lived in a thatched-roof cottage with peeling green shutters that banged when the sea breezes blew. Her neighbors thought her either charmed or eccentric, or a little of both, especially since three fat pet calico cats guarded her with fierce, claw-sharpened loyalty that discouraged visitors.
She spent long hours in the sun dressed in loose, flowing dresses made of splashy-colored flowered gingham while tending her garden of ornamental grasses. Twenty-some varieties billowed like rolling waves of mint-and-avocado-and-hunter-green around a meandering slate pathway that circled the little house with no beginning or end. Miss Stuart’s piano students often sat on a stone bench in the midst of the wind-swept grasses while waiting their turn at the upright piano in the corner of her living room.
Arthritis invaded Miss Stuart’s joints when she was in her seventies. Her crippled hands could no longer fight the weeds invading the well-preserved lineage of grasses she’d tended for so long.
Still, some rituals didn’t change, even as her eightieth birthday loomed near. Each morning Miss Stuart awakened at dawn. She shuffled to the kitchen to steep two cups of spiced orange tea in a hand-painted teapot, and toast two slices of cinnamon-raisin bread. And of course she fed the cats. “Kitty-kitties, come kitty-kitties, if you want your milk.” Then she sat quietly for the next thirty minutes or so and enjoyed her breakfast while the cats lapped top cream contentedly from a saucer at her feet.
Father Anthony, the Catholic priest, visited Miss Stuart at least once a month, usually on Sunday afternoons. She looked forward to his calls much like a child might anticipate holidays. As soon as she heard his knock on the door she hurried (as much as her arthritic movements would allow) to lock the cats in the bedroom.
“Hello, Father Tony!”
“Good-day, Miss Stuart – is this a convenient time to stop by?”
“Of course it is. Now come in out of that wind, and I’ll make us some tea.””
They often sat together next to the kitchen table beside the big picture window that overlooked Miss Stuart’s grasses – he in the stiff, ladder-backed chair, she in the frayed, overstuffed blue armchair that bore the imprint of her body from so many hours of sitting. They chatted idly, or prayed the Rosary together, or sipped tea in silence while watching the grasses waving in the cross-breezes like mermaid hair swept by underwater currents.
Over the years, Miss Stuart and Father Tony pledged themselves to nothing less than pure, untainted authenticity. One day after sampling his tea, Father asked, “Miss Stuart – what’s it like to live in the autumn of life?” It was an honest question; he’d just turned fifty and was confronting senior citizenry himself.
The hunched little woman seemed swallowed up by the big chair where she sat still as a stone, favoring her aching back and hips. Her teacup rattled in its saucer - shaken by fingers too gnarled for piano playing - and she sighed out loud.
“I miss the piano – the euphoria of re-creating the music of the spheres.” She softly hummed the first few bars of a Mozart piece, and gestured wistfully as if to recreate harmonies hiding in her soul. “And I miss working in my garden: the smell of wet dirt and the feel of it in my hands.” With that, she stroked several gray hairs, chronically wispy escapees, as if she might finally train them to join the tight bun on the back of her head.
“How do you deal with those losses?” Father Tony persisted, while leaning his elbows on the table. “And the fact that there continue to be more and more, as you grow older?”
Her clear blue eyes promised to tell the truth. “It’s like this, Father.” She gently set her teacup on the table. “I’m not a victim, you see…I still decide how to respond to things. And I want to become great in God’s eyes – accept like a child; expect like a child.” She paused to give Father Tony a chance to think this through.
Then she continued. “I look for Him in every blade of grass out there.” Her twisted hands waved like partially unfurled flags beyond the window. “I hear His voice when the wind groans in the chimney. And I daydream about the mansion in heaven He’s promised me.” Her whole face lit up. “I’m guessing it looks a lot like this place – garden, cats, piano and all.”
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