The Middle Distance 10.4.13: Freeze This Time

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Credit Sean Cayton

Walking the dog yesterday morning, I started calculating the For Sale signs in the neighborhood. They were not the fancy fixed-uppers with new granite counters placed on the market at the height of the season to snatch the highest prices. They were sturdy old survivors in this turn-of-the-last-century neighborhood, well kept and solemn in the flurry of this brilliant early autumn morning.

Here was one whose owners I vaguely knew: a couple about my age whose youngest son had recently graduated college. They’d painted the porch, tidied the garden, power-washed the wood siding and offered their home of the last 30 years to the world at large. I pictured them, one of those handsome couples that thrive on doing things together, liberated from those cavernous rooms and a lifetime’s accumulation of stuff to a condominium somewhere, sleek and sun-filled. Here would begin the next and probably final phase of their lives.

The dog lumbers down the buckling sidewalk, stopping to sniff at a tree then marking it with his own scent. Overhead, the ancient elms are turning, eager to drop their leaves and rest for the winter.

I moved to this neighborhood first when I was 38 years old and still, though just barely, married to the father of my four then-school-aged children. A day never passes that I don’t run into someone who remembers them or me or their father in those days. I think of who I was then and who I am now, 22 years later, and it is hard to believe that the same person lives in this skin. Then, our days revolved around the elementary school playground, the screech of chairs across the gym floor, the strict outline of seven-hour days, our adult lives sketched in around the bustle of our children. Feeding them, shuttling them, keeping them in tennis shoes and kneepads, inhaling their bristling energy and exhaling, finally, when they fell asleep. Now, our days are our own, shorter, quieter and edged with the same latent energy as the leaves on those elms.

We turn the corner and pass another For Sale sign on a well-used house. The front porch slopes, its roof slightly concave. In the overgrown side yard, a riot of small birds bicker in the bushes. The dogs ears prick. What lives have been lived inside those walls? What dreams fulfilled? Deferred? Forgotten? It will take an act of imagination to see the possibilities of this run-down cottage, a task for someone young and pliable and good with tools.

The dog and I often run into someone in the neighborhood who has recently retired, someone who recites her plans for the next few years — travel, hobbies, reunion with family and friends, volunteering. The dog gets impatient and wanders the periphery as I listen, hearing a scenario of a good life impossible for me to imagine.

It is odd to be in this familiar place where so many, out here in the middle distance, are moving toward new horizons, just as I finally feel that I’ve settled down.

What I really want is to freeze this time, to walk this dog every morning beneath these same elms past these same old fortresses, these houses that will be standing long after both he and I and most of the neighbors are gone. I want enough work to pay the bills and keep the heat on, to pay someone to clean the gutters. I want to use things until they wear out, until the handles fall off. I want chilly mornings spent in wool sweaters. I want everything, including me, in its place.

We return home and the dog slurps his water and I circle the back garden, lifting heavy pots of herbs — lavender, rosemary, oregano, thyme, basil and mint — that must be repotted and moved inside before the October cold front hits as the weather man has promised. They will not be as green or fragrant or hearty in their new environment, an east-facing window, but with enough water and attention and direct light, they might survive the winter.

It is a thrilling race against time and I will just make it before the night temperature drops to freezing, breaking down the cellulose that holds all those leaves together, dissolving their structure from the outside in. Tomorrow, the dog will romp in the morning cold and I will need a coat and good socks. Later, I’ll make a stew of whatever is in the pantry and from the pots in the east-facing window, I’ll pinch the flavors of summer, woody and green and everlasting.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.